Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Remembering Sydney Pollack

Of course I'm not the first person to point this out, but with most movies these days being either high-budget blockbusters or low-budget indies, films of mid-range budget have been squeezed out. These are films that, to their supporters, tackle serious issues, are well-crafted, and contain terrific acting, while to their detractors, fudge those very issues they bring up, use craft to cloud any real passion, and contain Oscar bait acting. Whatever your view, and there's merit from either point of view, there's no denying Sydney Pollack, who died yesterday at 73, was one of the directors most associated with so-called middlebrow films.
Born in Indiana, Pollack moved to New York in his teens. Like Sydney Lumet, another "middlebrow" filmmaker who started in television, Pollack originally started out as an actor, and even studied under famed Method teacher Sanford Meisner. Though he appeared on stage in such plays as "A Stone for Danny Fisher" (with Zero Mostel) and "The Dark is Light Enough" (with Katherine Cornell), and later also acted in TV on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he later decided he'd rather teach acting than do it, and indeed taught at Meisner's workshop (he even married one of his former students, Claire Griswold, in 1958, and they remained married until his death). While in television, he became an assistant director for John Frankenheimer, and Frankenheimer hired him to be a dialogue coach for his film directing debut, The Young Savages. Burt Lancaster, the star of that film, suggested Pollack should direct (recommending him to agent Lew Wasserman), and after directing some TV, Pollack directed his first feature in 1965, called The Slender Thread. A film about a man (Sidney Poitier) trying to talk a woman (Ann Bancroft) out of committing suicide, it was poorly received, and Pollack later dismissed it, but it was the first time he teamed up with writer David Rayfiel (they had already worked together on television) in movies, and Rayfiel went on to be his go-to writer on 10 other movies. His other major professional relationship began in his following movie, This Property is Condemned, when he directed Robert Redford for the first time (Pollack had acted with him earlier in War Hunt). Together, Pollack and Redford went on to make six more movies together.
It wasn't until his fifth movie, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, that Pollack finally broke through. Based on the acclaimed Depression-era novel by Horace McCoy, it tells the tale of several people who, to earn money, enter a marathon dance contest. Darker than Pollack's films were later known for, it was a claustrophobic experience (Pollack and writers James Poe and Robert E. Thompson changed the novel so that the contestants weren't allowed to leave the dance area except for breaks), and except for one role (lead Michael Sarazin was rather colorless), showed Pollack's greatest gift as director - his work with actors. Both Jane Fonda and Gig Young were known up to that point for fluffier fare, but each broke out of typecasting with this film. Fonda earned her first Oscar nomination, while Young won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Although Pollack worked as a mainstream filmmaker for the rest of his career, he couldn’t be pigeonholed that easily. He moved through thrillers (Three Days of the Condor, The Firm), literary dramas (Out of Africa), topical dramas (Absence of Malice), romantic dramas (The Way we Were), existential dramas (The Yakuza), Westerns (Jeremiah Johnson), war movies (Castle Keep), and comedies (Tootsie). Although he modestly claimed he wasn’t a visual stylist, most of his films were shot in widescreen, which he felt allowed him to tell the story better (ironically, the first of his films that wasn’t was the pictorial Out of Africa). And even his weakest films (everything after The Firm, except for his documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry) contained well-crafted moments (even the muddled The Interpreter had the tense sequence on the bus and Catherine Keener’s reaction to a bomb being planted on a ceiling; “Well, that’s just rude”), and acting moments that made you take notice. Gene Hackman, who gave one of his best performances ever in The Firm, credited Pollack for knowing not just how to talk to him, but how to leave him alone, and every film shows his care with other actors (unless I disliked the actor anyway, like Sally Field in Absence of Malice). I’m thinking particularly of Robert Redford listening to his own essay being read aloud in The Way we Were, or Paul Newman attacking Field when her article causes tragedy to happen in Malice, or Hackman telling Jeanne Tripplehorn “Whatever they do, they did to me a long time ago” in The Firm. His two best films, The Yakuza and Tootsie, of course, are full of such moments. The former seems an unlikely choice to be directing Paul Schrader’s study in masculinity (with help from his brother Leonard, and a rewrite by Robert Towne), but he keeps things on an even keel, and draws one of Robert Mitchum’s best performances. The latter remains one of the funniest movies ever made, and although Pollack and star Dustin Hoffman clashed repeatedly throughout filming (on, among other things, tone; Hoffman wanted it more comic, Pollack more dramatic), it doesn’t show. Hoffman’s revealing his true identity near the end remains one of the comic high points of the last 25 years.
Redford, Pollack’s frequent star, was often said as an actor to care too much about his image to stray from playing it safe. Pollack seemed to like making movies with stars too much to stray from playing it safe, and even after he won Best Picture and Directing Oscars for Out of Africa, he seemed more stuck then ever (except for The Firm, which I still find entertaining). He seemed to save his risk-taking for producing and acting. For the former, he may have produced mainstream films similar to his own, like Presumed Innocent, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Quiet American, but he also helped young filmmakers like Steven Kloves (Flesh and Bone), Tom Tykwer (Heaven), and Kenneth Lonergan (the upcoming Margaret) to make the type of chance-taking films he normally didn’t make. For the latter, he was cajoled into appearing in Tootsie as Hoffman’s agent, he mostly played “suits,” and claimed he took acting jobs mainly so he could watch other directors he admired, like Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives) and Robert Altman (The Player) work. Still, he always seemed relaxed and confident, and was almost always compelling on screen, particularly in one of his last performances as the oily law firm head in Michael Clayton. He could also be funny, as he demonstrated in his turns on Will & Grace as Will’s father. Pollack lived a quiet life when not making movies, raising his children, and staying out of trouble (he rarely drank and hadn’t smoked in over two decades). But while he may have lost his passion along the way for trying to make movies (he was distressed not only by the reaction to his later, lesser films, but also the fights he had with studios in trying to make them), he never lost his love for movies themselves (in 2001, he hosted “The Essentials” on TCM, where he showcased what he though were the essential American movies). And while he may not have been an “auteur,” and may not have been as script-conscious as he was given credit for (based on a conversation they had about adapting one of his novels, William Goldman once categorized Pollack as a “writer killer”), he nevertheless did leave his own stamp on American movies. He will be missed.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Prince Caspian doesn't have the right Narnia magic

Although the famous works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien seem at first very different, the two authors, who were friends most of their lives (albeit with some tension), actually had a lot in common. Both of their famous works - the Narnia books for Lewis, the Lord of the Rings books for Tolkien - came from stories the authors originally wrote for their children. Both authors, while they wrote in other genres, are most famous for their fantasy works. Both authors have used not only religious imagery in their works, but also Greek mythology and legends as an influence. Both of them have been accused of racism and sexism in their works. One signifigant difference is their view of movie adaptations of their works. While Tolkien, in principle, was open to a movie version of his novels (as long as Walt Disney had nothing to do with it), Lewis at the time thought no live-action movie could made from his novels and be good. Tolkien fanatics, on the whole, were satisfied with the movie versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as a Narnia fanatic, I was quite pleased with the recent movie version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the first movie of the series. The second movie of the Narnia books, Prince Caspian, is another matter, unfortunately.
As you may know from the trailer, it's been a year in Earth time since the Pevensie children - Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) - have been to Narnia, and they miss it. On their way to a train back to school, however, they immediately get sucked back into Narnia - specifically, the ruins of Cair Paravel, the castle where they once ruled as Kings and Queens. The castle is now in ruins because in Narnia time, it's been over a thousand years since they left, and Narnia has since been conquered by Telmarines, under the rule of Miraz (Sergio Castellito), a tyrant. Miraz has a nephew, Caspian (Ben Barnes), who has longed for the days of the old Narnians, thanks to the stories his professor, Doctor Cornelius (Vincent Grass), a half-man, half-dwarf, told him. When Miraz's wife gives birth to a son, Caspian is no longer considered an heir to the throne, and Miraz tries to have him killed, but Doctor Cornelius gets wind of the plot and arranges for Caspian to escape (this part actually opens the movie). Caspian escapes, and soon finds himself among a group calling themselves the old Narnians, among them Nikabrik (Warwick Davis), a Black Dwarf, Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage), a Red Dwarf, Trufflehunter (voiced by Ken Stott), a badger, and Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard), leader of a squadron of mice (the mice who chewed the ropes that bound Aslan in the previous movie, which led them to be talking mice). Together with the four children, they try to figure out a way to take back Narnia for the Narnians.
That's the general outline of the book as well, but there are some major revisions here from book to screen. Some of it is minor (Caspian and Susan are somewhat attracted to each other), but most of it is major and unfortunate. The biggest change is we don't get a flashback to see how Caspian learns about Narnia, first from his nurse (a character dropped for the movie) and then from Doctor Cornelius. Admittedly, this is probably done for reasons of time (the movie clocks in at 2:25, around the same time as the first book), but the problem is we don't get the sense of how Caspian feels towards the Narnians. It also takes away the mythic structure so essential to Lewis' work. More importantly, however, we also don't get a sense of the Narnians themselves in this movie. We certainly get a sense of how Miraz is a tyrant (Castellito, best known here as the chef in Mostly Martha, is properly evil in the role), but the Narnians are mostly dour. Nikabrik was like that in the book, but Trumpkin was a more boisterous soul, and while director/co-writer (with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who also co-wrote the first movie) Andrew Adamson probably wanted to avoid the easy caricature Trumpkin could have become, did he have to drain most of the humor out of the role? Surely Dinklage, who showed great comic timing in Find Me Guilty and Death at a Funeral, not to mention The Station Agent, could have played it that way. And in the title role, Barnes may look the part, and like everyone else who fights, holds his own on the battlefield, but is rather bland otherwise. The only Narnian who makes an impression is Reepicheep, thanks mostly to Izzard's stellar work (when Lucy remakrs how cute he looks, Reepicheep angrily looks for a fight, then when he sees who said it, apologizes profusely).
One could argue, of course, Adamson et al are trying to illustrate the characters through their actions, as opposed to Lewis, who illustrated them through dialogue, and the former is more cinematic. The problem is Adamson seems to think the only action in the movie should be Action with a capital A - battle scenes. Look, I loved the Lord of the Rings movies (each of them are on my respective top 10 lists for the years they were released), but every fantasy movie to come out since has treated them as the end-all and be-all of the genre, and that's not always appropriate. The long battle scene that closed the first movie also seemed like a younger version of the LOTR movies, but that was only part of the movie. This movie seems like one long battle or chase movie, and while it's well done in that respect, I found myself grateful for the few moments of not only humor, but of genuine movie magic. Lucy trying to wake the trees up is one of the few times the movie stops to breathe, and the sequence where Nikabrik, tired of promises Caspian has been unable to keep, tries to revive the White Witch (Tilda Swinton makes a splendid cameo), also has that magic. But most of the time, the movie's tone matches the gray look Adamson and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub (Black Book) give it, and that shouldn't necessarily be so.
As with the first one, the religious element of the film has been called into question. There's nothing specifically Christian here - although Lucy sees Aslan (voiced again by Liam Neeson) where no one else does, and thinks it's because she believes more, that's an element of most religions, not just Christianity. But again, the muted way the Narnians, and the humans, come off suggests something more Calvinistic than Catholic, which was Lewis' side. In the later book The Horse and his Boy, which takes place between the events of the first and second movies, one of the characters, who's never been to Narnia, witnesses the Narnians in a procession, and far from being stiffbacked and proper, they give off the air of someone who enjoys all aspects of life. The only aspect of life these characters seem to enjoy is the battle. The four returning characters come off better than everyone else, because of the goodwill they've built up from the first one, and they each have their moments - Moseley shows strength and vulnerability as the leader, Popplewell gets to be more of a warrior, Keynes gets to show off a bit of arguing skill, and Henley once again drinks in everything more deeply than the others. Another charge against the Narnia books is how they seem to want to preserve the innocence of childhood above all things. I don't think that's true - the characters are encouraged to never lose their childlike sense of wonder and imagination, but all of them have to go through a process of maturity, without losing that imagination (in the books, Susan is the only one who completely gives up her childlike ways). The movie of Prince Caspian certainly shows the characters struggling to mature, but it could have used a lot more of the imagination and wonder parts.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

New DVD releases March 4

Ever since Sean Penn burst onto the scene in 1982 with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he’s cast himself as the outsider, not just as far as Hollywood is concerned, but in society as well. Certainly, that’s led him to interesting and powerful performances over the course of his career, while causing other critics – Tom Carson of GQ in particular – to say he’s lost his sense of joy and humor. I would dispute that, but I have to admit there’s a self-serving nature to not only his rebellious streak, but also the idea only males railing against society, or suffering a life crisis, are ideas good enough to tell stories about. What makes Into the Wild, his fourth outing as writer/director (not counting the short film he did for the September 11 anthology), his strongest film in those capacities is for the first time since his writing/directing debut, The Indian Runner, he’s combining that rebellious streak with a more nuanced version of the rest of the world.
In this film, the story is a true one. Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) seemed to have it all – born to well-off parents Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden), he became a top student and athlete (running cross-country), but also started to question and reject the middle-class values he was brought up with. After graduation, he gave away most of his money to Oxfam, and started on a journey around the country, with the idea that he’d wind up in Alaska and live off the land (he also started calling himself Alexander Supertramp). As documented in the book by Jon Krakauer, who was in full sympathy with McCandless’ spiritual and physical journey, McCandless may have intended to live a Thoreau-like life of solitude, but he also interacted with a great many people who enjoyed his company, such as Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker), a hippie couple living in a trailer park, Ron (Hal Holbrook), a retiree who came to think of McCandless as an adopted grandson, and Wayne (Vince Vaughn), a farmer he once worked with (the film is narrated half the time by McCandless through his letters to Wayne – that he never sends – and half by his sister Carine (Jenna Malone). All of that ended when McCandless died in Alaska, and his body was found months later. Both Krakauer and Penn believe McCandless merely ate some poisoned berries and lacked the knowledge to counteract that, while others felt he died of the hubris of anyone who tries to be “one with nature.”
This, of course, begs the question – is it possible to like the film even if you think McCandless is full of shit? I myself was skeptical about McCandless, until I remembered how my brother sort of felt like he did, as did one of my former co-workers, about living life solely as you might have read about not only in books of naturalists like Thoreau and Jack London, but also of the great authors like Tolstoy. And I believe everyone except the most hard-bitten urbanites have fantasized about heading off by yourself into the great unknown – whether this is merely typical adolescent behavior or the uniquely American questing spirit is open to debate, but it’s there, I believe. Still, while Penn is definitely in sympathy with McCandless, he is mature enough to realize McCandless had set himself up with quite an existence even before he headed to Alaska. Every character McCandless encounters is treated sympathetically (even a ranger who forbids him to paddle down the river in a canoe is merely seen as doing his job), and the ones he becomes closest to – Jan, Rainey, Tracy (Kristen Stewart), the teen who lived near Jan and Rainey and who developed a crush on McCandless, Wayne, and especially Ron – all would have been happy if he had stayed in their lives. Even Walt and Billie are given more nuance as the film progresses – they start out being one-dimensional materialists, and we see their marriage is not the most ideal in the world, but as they search for their son, we see their genuine grief over his loss.
All of this wouldn’t matter without such a strong performance by Hirsch in the main role. There are always a number of lead male performances who are left empty-handed when Oscar nominations are announced simply because there is so much good work being done right now, and Hirsch, who had impressed me in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys but had done little impressive since, burrows himself completely into the character. It’s easy to see why people responded to McCandless because of the force of personality Hirsch brings to him; even if you don’t agree with his outlook, he’s warm and engaging, and responds well to the people who take him in. Everyone else in the cast is terrific as well, especially Keener and Holbrook, who brings his usual irascibility to make his role of the wise old man move past cliché. Also, Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries) capture the spirit of the outdoors that McCandless and like-minded people find so appealing (augmented by Eddie Vedder’s song score, which was unjustly ignored at Oscar time). You may not want to take the journey McCandless took, especially because of how it ended, but Into the Wild does make you reflect on the road not taken in your own life.
Is Marla Olmstead, the four-year-old painter whose work sold for several thousand dollars, a genuine child prodigy or a hoax, helped by her father? Should parents of a child prodigy push the child, or hold them back? Is so-called “modern” art real art, or is it just hypocrisy on parade? Can a documentary filmmaker, no matter how objective they claim to be, ever really capture the “truth”? Those are just a few of the questions posed by the fascinating documentary My Kid Could Paint That, and things become even more confusing when you find out the director, Amir Bar-Lev, felt he was getting too close to his subjects to find the real truth (in a sense, Olmstead’s parents Mark and Laura kept him around to give the world their side of the story).
It all started when young Marla picked up a paintbrush and followed the footsteps of her dad, Mark, an amateur painter with a soon-to-be-discovered talent for promotion and being a stage parent. So the story goes, Mark loaned the paintings to a coffeehouse run by a friend of his, and when customers liked them enough to want to buy them, Elizabeth Cohen, a local journalist, wrote a piece on her, Anthony Brunelli, a local gallery owner (the Olmsteads lived in Binghamton) did a show of her work, and a celebrity was born. Then 60 Minutes II did a segment on her, featuring Charlie Rose interviewing a child psychologist insisting Marla could not have painted those works by herself – and a hidden camera seemed to prove her point. Things weren’t helped when the Olmsteads decided to put out a DVD several months later, along with another exhibition of Marla’s work, that purported to prove once and for all Marla really was the genuine author of her works, and not her father. Nor was it helped by Brunelli, who at first seemed to be an enthusiastic booster of Marla, now acting as if he was in on the so-called scam all along just to pull the lid off the “scam” of modern art (an idea New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, who, along with Cohen, is the most fascinating interview in the film, discusses at length).Bar-Lev is too self-aware not to be troubled by the implications of his involvement in all this – he not only includes Kimmelman and Cohen warning him about being able to find the “truth” in all of this, but also a telling scene where Laura, who has always had qualms about Marla’s celebrity, breaks down and then mutters, “Documentary gold”. Still, I think sometimes Bar-Lev could have gone deeper into his subjects, especially into the idea of whether modern art itself is a scam (it’s not quite analogous, but avant-garde musicians and filmmakers also run into this kind of skepticism). In this sense, My Kid Could Paint That could serve as kind of a companion piece to the earlier documentary Who the F*#% is Jackson Pollock? – both films not only question the idea of modern art, but also who is qualified to judge them. Bar-Lev’s film is strongest when dealing with the family dynamics, and the way we treat children with “special talent.” As Cohen astutely points out (and as Laura despairs), no matter what happened, Marla would never really be an ordinary child again, and that’s something to mourn.
Sometimes in movies, there’s a scene crystallizing everything that makes the movie so good (or conversely, so bad). In Susanne Bier’s Things We Lost in the Fire, that scene comes about 2/3 of the way into the film. The story by Alan Loeb concerns two lost souls: Audrey (Halle Berry), a recent widow when her husband Brian (David Duchovny) is killed while he tries to break up a fight, and Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), Brian’s former friend, a drug addict struggling to stay clean. Against her better instincts (she never understood why Brian continued to help Jerry), she invites Jerry to stay with her and her children Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and Dory (Micah Berry, who is no relation to Halle), partly because it’ll give Jerry a chance to get back on his feet, and partly because she needs help with Harper and Dory since she can hardly help herself. Jerry does take the children under his wing, and even helps Dory, who is afraid of swimming, because he doesn’t want to put his head under water. It’s after this moment, when Jerry helps Dory conquer his fear, that the scene between Audrey and Jerry occurs that made me take notice of the movie. Instead of being grateful, she lashes out at him – that should have been Brian teaching Dory to put his head underwater, and not Jerry, and he had no right to do that. And yes, Jerry’s struggling with his own demons, but he isn’t Dory’s father.
It’s scenes like that one that lift Things We Lost in the Fire above the soap opera that many critics accused it of being. Bier and Loeb may be treading familiar ground here, but they hit almost all the right notes in doing so. Jerry and Audrey don’t fall in love, and while they ultimately do find healing, the film is smart in how they get there. Admittedly, Brian’s character is too good to be true, and Duchovny doesn’t do much with his role to make him more interesting. But every other character is invested with reality, including Audrey’s neighbor Howard (John Carroll Lynch, far removed from his creepy suspect in Zodiac), trapped in an unhappy marriage and eager to help Jerry out, to Kelly (Alison Lohman), an addict who has feelings for Jerry. And Bier and cinematographer Tom Stern (Letters From Iwo Jima) don’t shoot this like a TV movie, but with a lyrical style that doesn’t impose feelings on the characters, but allows them to come to the surface on their own. As for the performances, it’s expected that Del Toro shines in playing another flawed character who nevertheless is a good person. Berry is the surprise here; she admittedly has made bad choices after winning her Oscar (Perfect Stranger), but she also falls under the trap of “if she’s that good-looking, she can’t act,” and I think she gets past that here. There are few obvious scenes of her dealing with her grief until the end, and those are earned. Mostly, she plays Aubrey as hesitant and lost, and does so in a quite subtle manner. As I mentioned before, Things We Lost in the Fire was unfairly dumped by critics and ignored by moviegoers who thought it would be too much of a downer. I hope it gets a better chance on DVD.
I don’t know why Sidney Lumet’s debut feature film, 12 Angry Men, is being released in a 50th anniversary edition, when the logical thing would have been to do so last year (that same problem was also illustrated with the anniversary editions of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Tootsie). Nevertheless, it’s always good to have this on DVD. Yes, it’s schematic, and yes, as Alan Dershowitz pointed out in an American Film article about 20 years ago, there’s no way a juror would have been able to bring a knife into the jury room. Still, this drama of one lone juror (Henry Fonda) trying to convince his fellow jurors to actually debate the evidence before they vote guilty against a defendant remains powerful, with great acting by Fonda, Lee J. Cobb (as Fonda’s most outspoken opponent), E.G. Marshall (as his most rational one), and the rest of the cast. Certainly better to do this one than the other major re-release this week, Mrs. Doubtfire. Chris Columbus’ movie may not have been the movie that started Robin Williams on the road to only doing shtick in his comedies (after all, Toys had been released the year before), but it certainly didn’t help the cause. And while the shtick is funny here, as when Williams pretends to be various people calling to interview for the nanny his ex-wife (Sally Field) wants to hire, the sentiment of the movie is pretty hard to take.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

New DVD releases February 26, and a final word on the Oscars

What with the Oscars (more on that later), I haven’t had time to see much of this week’s releases. I did see The Darjeeling Limited already, but the only other two I’ve seen are a British comedy directed by an American, and a British miniseries that’s being remade as a Hollywood movie.
There are a couple of reasons why a straight-out farce (as opposed to farcical comedy, which can be different) seems so old-fashioned right now. For one thing, it depends mostly on plot, where many of the most popular comedies these days depend on getting their laughs first, and can often have indifferent plots. Just as important, however, is while today’s comedies seemed determined to push the envelope and be proud of it, farces are still dependant on their being a vein of normalcy over the proceedings that characters at least pretend to take seriously. Finally, even when a farce works, today it doesn’t seem to resonate like it used to. Still, they can be agreeable if you’re in the right mood, and Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral falls into this category.
Of course, a funeral is an ideal place to set a farce, since everyone is trying to keep up the decorum even more so than usual. Add the fact this takes place in Britain, where the stereotype of a stiff upper lip is a special requirement, and you’re in even more fertile territory. Oz and writer Dean Craig aren’t out to reinvent the wheel here, so this tale of struggling writer Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen) trying to keep the dignity of his father’s funeral intact despite some drug related shenanigans and family secrets that come out hits predictable, if amusing, notes. Some are not so amusing – as a lout trying to woo a woman he had a one-night stand with, Ewan Bremmer is one-note, as is Peter Vaughan as an old coot. And while the conflict between Daniel and his much more successful brother Robert (Rupert Graves) is well developed, the rest of the family dynamics aren’t drawn out so deftly. Still, MacFadyen plays it straight well, and Oz lets two performers shine without overwhelming the proceedings. Alan Tudyk, best known to many as Wash from Firefly and Serenity, plays the fiancée of Daniel’s sister, and his reaction to taking the wrong drug provides some of the best gags of the movie. And casting Peter Dinklage as the unknown gay lover of Daniel’s father may seem like a bit of stunt casting, but Dinklage makes it work. At the very least, Death at a Funeral marks a return to form for Oz after the misfire of his Stepford Wives remake.
Sometime next year, we’ll get to see a Hollywood version of the British miniseries State of Play, and judging by the original, that film’s got a lot to live up to. Written by Paul Abbott (Touching Evil), the six-part series follows an investigation into two deaths that seem unrelated at first – Sonia Baker, a research assistant for MP Stephen Collins (David Morrissey) who fell under a subway train, and Kelvin Stagg, a teen who was killed in what seems at first to be a drug-related hit. Pursuing the story is Cal McCaffrey (John Simm), a reporter for The Herald who used to be Collins’ campaign manager. McCaffrey of course is biased towards wanting to help Collins, but things start happening with the story, such as Collins having an affair with Baker, Baker’s death not being a suicide but a professional hit done by the same person who killed Stagg, and all of this possibly relating to Collins’ position in government. Abbott and director David Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) keep the six hours moving quickly, yet allow time for character development and humor, particularly with Dominic (Marc Warren), whose relationship with Sonia hides a deeper secret, and Cal’s editor Cameron (Bill Nighy), who’s a British version of Ben Bradlee, or at least as portrayed in All the President’s Men (one could argue the series is in fact a British version of that movie). Nighy in particular is the best thing about the series. He underplays smoothly, and gives the impression of someone who supports his staff, gently but firmly pushes them to do good work (this isn’t a Fleet Street paper), and isn’t above using humor to make his point (when Cal approaches him for money for what turns out to be getting evidence tying Baker and Stagg together, Cameron grants it with the caveat, “If it’s for a prostitute, it’s coming out of your wages”).
Given that it’s a police investigation as well, I wish we had seen more of them, but all of the characters are drawn well, so that there’s no good or bad in any of them – even a government official who pressures Collins has his human side, as does an oil executive, while Cal ends up getting involved with Collins’ wife Anna (Polly Walker). I was hesitant about that storyline, even if I do like watching Polly Walker naked, because at first it seemed like a love story thrown in just to have a love story, but it ends up being just as complicated as everything else in the story, and ends in a satisfying way, just like everything else here. And while Nighy and Walker may be the big names here (along with Kelly Macdonald and James McAvoy as fellow reporters), Morrissey (best known here for his turn on PBS’ Bleak House) and Simm (Life on Mars) are both terrific as well. Make sure you set aside six hours to watch this.
Given the fact Sunday's Oscar show was the lowest-rated ever, there's more Monday-morning quarterbacking than ever before as to how to overhaul the show. Given the fact none of these tentpole shows do as well as they used to, except for a shrinking niche audience, I don't what major overhaul can be done to turn things around, but I do agree with Jeffrey Wells when he says Gil Cates needs to go, and the quicker the better. Whatever you think of the movies that came out last year, his sensibility is of a bygone time, and his middle-of-the-road presentations seem more creaky than ever. The writer's strike can be blamed for the writing of the show, but the over-reliance on montages and the bland presentation of almost everything else can be squarely laid at Cates' door. Let him have an Honorary Oscar, retire him to pasture, and bring someone else in.
I am also tired of hearing of everyone making a big deal of how all four acting winners this year were non-Americans as if it was a big deal. What is this, the 1940's? We should be celebrating the fact such diverse performers won (even if I wasn't rooting for Marion Cotillard), rather than acting as if their being foreign is a sign of "otherness." This isn't a sign of American actors not being good enough - the standard of acting is and has been at a premium everywhere - but simply of the Academy voters choosing others. Also, one of the reasons given for the broadcast's low ratings is how the movies being recognized aren't the popular ones. Might it have to do with fact that, Bourne Ultimatum and Knocked Up aside (maybe a few others), most of the tentpole movies of the last few years have not tried to break any artistic ground, but have simply been made for the money. Oscars aren't supposed to be about that.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

There Will Be Oscars

This is my 18th year in a row covering the Oscar ceremony in one venue or another, and no matter what you think of the fact of the show, or the shows themselves, there's always something to comment on, and this year was no different. Once again, however, I present the following caveat; anyone looking for talk about the fashions should go to ohnotheydidn't or someplace like that, not here. Anyway:


The length of the show: For the first time in recent memory, the show was less than three and a half hours. Were it not for the montages (more on those later) and the commercial breaks, it might have even been shorter. I'm sure it had to do with the writer's strike as well, but it's nice to be done with the show before midnight EST.

Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway: I may be in the minority here, but I actually liked their presenter banter. Aside from Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill (who took one joke and drove it to the ground), they were the only ones who tried to be funny, and they were.

Tilda Swinton: I knew I had lost my brother's Oscar pool when Swinton won, but I was otherwise thrilled. As I said in my earlier column here, she was the only performer who reinvented her part with this performance, never falling back on the stereotypical corporate villain. And her speech was cool too, especially for ribbing George Clooney about Batman.

"Raise it Up": I haven't seen August Rush, nor had I heard this song before tonight, but this was the only nominated song that was allowed to be performed the way it was performed in the movie; no gimmicks, no smothering by the orchestra, just the singers doing what they do. And anyone watching can tell young Jamia Simon Nash has the talent to go far.

"Falling Slowly": Even with the orchestra trying to smother Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, and even with the song being cutoff, the magic still shone through. And along with Tilda Swinton, this was the nominee I was most rooting for, so I was thrilled beyond belief. Even better that Jon Stewart brought out Irglova (reported at the urging of Colin Farrell - yay for him if it's true) so she could give her half of the acceptance speech.

Robert Boyle: While this Honorary Oscar winner has had a checkered career to say the least, anyone who worked on North by Northwest, In Cold Blood and Winter Kills in any capacity deserves to be up here.

Taxi to the Dark Side: While I was disappointed No End in Sight didn't win, I'm glad director Alex Gibney not only brought the funny (his wife wanting him to direct a romantic comedy instead), but also was able to be political without grandstanding.


Jon Stewart: Last time he hosted, I thought he was very funny. This time, not so much. Admittedly, part of that may have had to do with the writer's strike not allowing as much preparation, but while he got off some good zingers in the opening monologue ("Welcome to the make-up sex!", along with his joke about Atonement capturing the passion and raw sexuality of Yom Kippur), but his pregnant gags got old quick, and his presenter intros were lame. And while bringing Irglova back to read her speech was classy, making a gay joke afterwards wasn't.

Montages: It was understandable they'd want to celebrate 80 years of Oscars, but there were too many of them. 80 years of Best Pictures was okay (even though it was a reminder of how few of them actually deserved the honor - The Greatest Show on Earth, anyone?), but we didn't need all those clips commemorating 79 years of acting winners, for example. And yes, she's singing an Oscar-winning song, but WHY HAVE CELINE DION ACCOMPANY A FUCKING MONTAGE?!?

Presenters: Again, maybe because of the writer's strike, they didn't have much to work with, but except for the ones I mentioned above, most of the presenters were bland, or in the case of Jennifer Hudson, not good at all. Admittedly, they were stuck with bland patter (or, in the case of Hilary Swank's intro to the "In Memoriam" segment, bad patter), but it still grated. Oh, and so did Jerry Seinfeld doing his Bee Movie schtick.

Enchanted: Admittedly, I'm told by those who saw the movie "Happy Working Song" works in context of the movie, and Amy Adams had it tough singing it alone without anything to react to, as she apparently did in the movie. But the other songs, and the production for them, were awful. Once again, the Music Branch needs an overhaul. Speaking of which...

Atonement: The only nominee I was actively rooting against was this film's nomination for Best Score (I knew it didn't have a shot at winning Best Picture, nor did Saoirse Ronan, who did a fine job, have a shot at winning Best Supporting Actress), because it was part of the reason I disliked the movie in the first place. Admittedly, this wasn't a great category to begin with, thanks to them disqualifying both Jonny Greenwood and Eddie Vedder, but all the nominees were better here than Atonement.


Documentary short: Having a platoon in Iraq present an award seemed like a good idea in theory. In practice, it felt very disconnected from the rest of the evening.

As for the awards themselves, except for Atonement winning (and Marion Cotillard; I thought she was okay, but Laura Linney and Julie Christie were both better), I didn't mind any of the other wins. I was happy to see The Bourne Ultimatum sweep the categories it was nominated for, and I'm happy for the Coen brothers (though I am a little disappointed "Roderick James," their editor pseudonym, didn't win Best Editing).

See you next year!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New DVD releases February 19

Once again, here’s a week in DVD releases where there’s an abundance of movies to choose from. I already praised Michael Clayton when it came out in theaters. The rest of this week’s offerings don’t quite measure up, unfortunately, except for a new documentary about one of the creepiest subjects you’re ever to meet in a movie.
Before Ridley Scott’s American Gangster was set to be released, the drums were beating this would be the next great gangster film. It certainly boasted a handsome pedigree – directed by an Oscar nominee (Scott), written by an Oscar winner (Steven Zaillian), and starring two Oscar winners (Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe). And it tells a somewhat epic story – the rise of Frank Lucas (Washington), a former driver for gangster Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) who, after Johnson’s death, rose to become the leading drug dealer in Harlem and the rest of New York City, until he was brought down by Richie Roberts (Crowe), a cop who worked with an FBI task force. But nearly two hours and 40 minutes later (the new DVD is longer by 20 minutes), I found myself wondering, “What was the point of all this?” There’s nothing really wrong with the movie – Zaillian does capture the intricacies of how Lucas’s rise and fall - except most of the time, it lacks a pulse. Scott may be aspiring to the level of The Godfather or Goodfellas, except Coppola and Scorsese were interested enough in their characters to explore what made them tic. Scott is a whiz at the technical aspects of the story – he gets the look of the 60’s and 70’s down without resorting to kitsch – but he hasn’t really cared about character development since maybe G.I. Jane. Lucas may have played it close to the vest to keep attention off himself, but while Washington certainly has the presence of a gangster, he doesn’t let us inside Lucas to find out what made him tic. Roberts’ character, meanwhile, doesn’t seem like anything more than Serpico lite, and Crowe likewise, while he looks the part of a cop, seems to be on autopilot (even the rage that drove him in, say, L.A. Confidential would be welcome here). The only people who make any impression here are those in small parts, like Williams, Ruby Dee as Lucas’ mother, particularly when she finally reveals she’s known how her son has made his money, and Josh Brolin as a corrupt cop who butts heads with both Lucas and Roberts. And the one scene Washington and Crowe get at the end shows what American Gangster might have been had Scott just been willing to dig deeper.
If you were a cynic, the fall of 2007 was when Hollywood discovered the Iraq War. Not being that flip, I tell people who feel that way it’s proves enough people in Hollywood were sick of not only the administration lying to get us into a false war, but the failure of the media to call them on it. And so, on the theory that doing something was better than nothing, the studios decided to make films that at least touched on the mess we’re in. The problem is, while the intentions were good, the end result is none of them, or at least the three movies up for discussion this week – Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah, Brian DePalma’s Redacted, and Gavin Hood’s Rendition – really succeed either as drama or at illustrating what’s wrong with the war.
Haggis’ film is the only one claiming not to take an outward stance on the war, even though you certainly know how it stands when it ends. It also puts it in the context of a mystery, specifically a missing persons case. The missing person here is Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) the son of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired military man. Mike went off the fight in Iraq, but has been AWOL ever since, so Hank heads to New Mexico, where Mike’s army base here. Armed with little more than unclear footage Mike e-mailed him, Hank butts heads with the Army, led by Lieutenant Kirklander (Jason Patric), and the local police, led by Chief Buchwald (Josh Brolin), both of whom want him to stay out of it. Only Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), herself an outsider on the force because she’s a woman, agrees to help Hank find out what happened to his son, especially when it turns out he’s been murdered. And as Hank digs deeper into the mystery of what happened to his son when he got home, he gets a glimpse into what may have happened to him – and the rest of our soldiers – in Iraq.
That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, however, Haggis does the same thing that he did in Crash, which is to provide pat answers to complex questions. The scenes with the police, for example, feel less like how they would talk, and more like Haggis imposing a civics lesson, and Sanders feels more like a feminist mouthpiece rather than a real character. And while it’s understandable that the military would want to keep quiet how soldiers might be reacting after they returned from war, it doesn’t seem believable the police would go along with this. Finally, while it’s admirable Haggis would want Hank to have some less than admirable characteristics, they seemed shoehorned in (particularly his racist side, which is spoken out loud, when it would have been more believable if it was more subtle).
Some critics have praised Haggis’ movie for raising the question of what the war is doing to our soldiers there and when they come home. While this certainly his true, the movie doesn’t really go far enough in that, like mentioning how the same soldiers are being forced to fight again and again, and are mostly poor and minority kids being exploited. The one thing Haggis does cover is how the children of military people feel the need to live up to their fathers, which we get in one scene where Hank’s wife (Susan Sarandon) angrily tells him over the phone Mike would never had gone to Iraq in the first place if he didn’t feel the need to live up to his father. But that isn’t enough.
Despite all of these flaws, however, there is one reason to see Elah, and that’s Jones. During that scene with Sarandon, he says so much with his face, particularly the anguish of a man who is finally beginning to doubt not only what he is, but also what he stands for. His character is mostly painted in broad strokes (he has a routine he sticks to, no matter where he is), but he articulates through his face and manner better than through the dialogue what his character is feeling. He even sells the metaphor of the title, which comes from the David and Goliath story (he tells the story to Sanders’ son, who complains her son now wants a slingshot. It’s Theron’s only believable moment). It was because of him, and some powerful scenes here and there, that I was ready to recommend the film despite its flaws. Then came the final scene, with an Annie Lennox song playing over a scene that would have been powerful without it. Once again, Haggis doesn’t trust us to come to our own conclusions, and that’s what makes Elah, for all of its honorable intentions, fall short.
Redacted is nominally about a group of U.S. soldiers in Iraq who, when one of their buddies is killed, takes revenge by kidnapping an Iraqi girl, raping her, and then killing her, while a horrified soldier is unable to stop it. Even though it’s inspired by a true story, this will sound familiar to anyone who saw Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War, which had a similar storyline. Redacted also shares many of Casualties’ flaws, namely, overwrought dialogue and one-note acting (though in this case, the actors are all unknowns, so it’s a little more forgivable than having gifted thespians like John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo be one-note), though unlike Casualties, it at least doesn’t have an egregiously bad ending. What makes Redacted worth watching, however, is DePalma using the storyline as an excuse to explore how the war is covered. This isn’t shot in a “traditional” way – the only time DePalma and cinematographer Jonathan Cliff make this look like a traditional movie is with scenes that are shot by a documentary crew covering the platoon. The rest of it is handheld camera shot by the soldiers themselves, security cameras, or postings on the Internet. DePalma has criticized how the media is covering the Iraq war, or rather, how the media is not allowed to cover the war because their reporting, both visually and verbally, is being censored (DePalma also criticized Magnolia Pictures, the company releasing the movie, for censoring his film), and his film certainly addresses that. In his Godard-like way, DePalma is also exploring if it’s even possible to cover a war in a realistic way. And unlike the other two films under discussion here, which take incendiary subjects (how the war has affected our soldiers, how our government is sanctioning torture) only to back away from them, you can feel the full thrust of DePalma’s anger here, which is good. I just wish he had let someone else write the script so he could be showing how flesh-and-blood humans were acting in the midst of this chaos, instead of just stick figures. DePalma’s film is an interesting one, to be sure, and better than the traditional DePalma naysayers make it out to be (I am neither a naysayers nor an apologist when it comes to DePalma; I’m in the middle), but it’s still a frustrating film.
Rendition is another Iraq film set in the context of genre, in this case a thriller. Certainly the opening scene, where a suicide bomber blows up a marketplace in an unnamed city in North Africa, is as unsettling as any scene in an action/thriller this year. Director Gavin Hood doesn’t use music to set up foreboding, and characters seem to just be going about their business when the violence happens. Unfortunately, that’s the last bit of subtlety of the movie before it resorts to anvil dropping. It seems Anwar (Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer, is suspected of being in cahoots with the terrorists who planned the bombing, and while on his way home, he’s whisked out of the airport, and taken first to a U.S. holding area, and then flown to that same unnamed African country where he can be tortured until he gives up the information needed. While Anwar’s pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) tries in vain to get her husband back, by using her ex-boyfriend Alan (Peter Sarsgaard), aide to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin), to make inquiries, a CIA analyst named Douglas (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is observing Anwar’s interrogation, becomes disgusted by what he sees.
Of course, the U.S. allowing, performing, and outsourcing torture is a real life issue that shames us all, and I have no problem with a movie wanting to draw attention to it. The problem is the movie hedges its bets. All of the characters are one-note, and that’s especially irritating in the case of Douglas, who seems impossibly naïve for a CIA agent, even an analyst. And while it makes sense that the government figures who are outsourcing the torture, represented here by Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), the government official overseeing the policy, would want to make the appearance of having their hands clean, but the actual interrogators are one-note thugs, as if to say, “See, the U.S. isn’t the problem, it’s Arabs torturing Arabs!” Worse, there’s a Romeo-and-Juliet storyline that not only distracts from the story, but also pays off by making you rethink the value of that opening scene. There are three Oscar winners (Arkin, Streep, Witherspoon) and one nominee (Gyllenhaal) in the cast, but they all have nothing to do except glower (Arkin and Streep) or pout (Witherspoon, Gyllenhaal). The only one who makes any mark on the movie is Sarsgaard, who at least looks like he knows how his character is supposed to be, not just a symbol but also a person. Would that the rest of Rendition had followed his lead.
Ang Lee followed up his transcendent 2005 film Brokeback Mountain with Lust, Caution, another period piece dealing with a forbidden love affair. This time, the love story is told against the backdrop of a WWII spy drama. Chi Chia Wong (Wei Tang) is a student at university in China during the Japanese occupation. While there, she gets recruited by Min Yu Kuang (Leehorn Wang) into a theater group that is also planning tactics against the Japanese. Specifically, they decide to target Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a Chinese government official who’s collaborating with the Japanese. So Wong poses as the wife of an industrialist who is no longer in the country, befriends Yee’s wife (Joan Chen), and waits for Yee to seduce her so she can set him up to be killed.
That’s a pretty potent setup for a movie, even if it is familiar. The problem is, the film starts in 1942, when Wong has already situated herself into Mrs. Yee’s inner circle (she and her friends go shopping and play mah-jongg together), and the middle of the film is a flashback to how she got there, which includes one mistake where she had to flee, until she could situate herself there again. All of that is gorgeously shot by Lee and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who also shot Brokeback Mountain), but it goes on for far too long. Lee is known for inserting you inside the details of every world he explores, be it the 1970’s middle class (The Ice Storm) or ancient Chinese warriors (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but in this case, he needed someone to tell him not to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
Lust, Caution was rated NC-17, and released as such, for the sex scenes between Leung and Tang. According to Anthony Lane (who did not like the film), they take place ninety-five minutes into this two hour and forty minutes film, and they certainly justify the rating – this feels like two people clawing at each other as much for lust as for love. And while it's easy to expect a good performance from Leung, the surprise here is Tang, an untested actress who not only holds her own against Leung, but also is able convincingly portray the untested young woman as well as the spy who keeps everything close to the vest. I just wish Lee had done a better job balancing the sex scenes with everything else going on. It's easy to say this, but Lee is too cautious in this tale for his own good.
Noah Baumbach has become one of the better writer-directors to feature hyper-articulate characters who nevertheless can’t connect well with others. Although he started out with what seemed to be just another generational chronicle of slackers – Kicking & Screaming – he moved beyond that into more personal fare. In The Squid and the Whale, he told the tale of how a teenage boy (and his younger brother) was affected by the split of his parents, and especially how he sees them. Much was made of how the parents in that movie were inspired by Baumbach’s real-life parents, but the real kick was seeing Baumbach having the maturity to see both the point of view of his stand-in and his parents. Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach’s latest, continues in his more personal vein (it’s also the first film he’s done with his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh). Margot (Nicole Kidman), a writer, has come to visit her estranged sister Pauline (Leigh) in time for Pauline’s wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black), an unemployed musician. Margot, who’s there with her son Claude (Zane Pais), is the type of person who sees the bad in every person around, especially if they’re family (she’s also estranged from her husband (John Turturro)), and she’s got a field to choose from here: Malcolm (“He’s like the guys we rejected when we were 16,” she says about him to Pauline), Pauline, and even Claude, who’s making his small steps towards adulthood. And while Malcolm and Pauline are trying to keep things on an even keel (when Malcolm gets mad about something, he exclaims, “In proportion to what’s going on, this is right!”), there are buried secrets that will eventually bring everything to a head.
Except the problem is, in The Squid and the Whale, the story was building to something; the oldest son realizing his father wasn’t the heroic character he thought he was, and there’s no such build to the story here. Baumbach’s role models here are Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer (it’s no accident Leigh’s character is named Pauline), and he shares their propensity, as I said before, to write about hyper-articulate characters that can’t quite connect to each other. What he seems to forget here is they also had a tendency to get self-indulgent with their characters and writing, and he falls into that trap here. There are scenes that play well in of themselves (as when Margot tries to climb a tree she used to climb as a child), but many scenes end up going nowhere. Also, I could predict some of the plot turns, which might not have mattered if the movie was building to anything. It’s too bad, because for the most part, the performances are all spot on. Kidman has made, to be sure, some questionable choices this decade (The Stepford Wives, Bewitched), but she’s also taken some interesting chances, and Margot certainly represents that. If we never really understand her bitterness, it’s not her fault. Leigh, who would normally play the Margot character, as Pauline gives her warmest performance since maybe the hooker character she played in Miami Blues. And Pais isn’t a movie teen, but a very realistic teen. Black is the one bum note here; he’s not terrible, and is perfectly willing to tamp down his mannerisms, but he also seems somewhat lost at times. And that goes for the movie: “It’s meant to be funny,” Malcolm says at one point, but it isn’t enough to make this story ultimately work.
In Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune, Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), who helped Klaus Von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) successfully overturn his murder conviction, discusses Bulow’s initial phone call to him with his son, telling him it reminds him of his dream where Hitler calls asking Dershowitz to be his lawyer. Dershowitz claims instead of just killing him outright, he would take Hitler’s case, and then kill him. I thought of that scene when I watched Schroeder’s latest film, Terror’s Advocate, a documentary about Jacques Verges, a lawyer who seems like just the type who would have directed Hitler.
Verges cut a contradictory figure. The son of a Vietnamese mother and a French father, he saw himself in life as an oppressed figure, and therefore put his lot with those who he thought were oppressed. This meant identifying himself with many revolutionaries, including those from Algeria and Palestine, and identifying with their causes, which ranged from left wing to communist. Yet he wasn’t someone to live the proletarian life, since he had a taste for the finer things in life. Although he fiercely defended his positions, and admitted using plenty of lawyer’s tricks in defending his clients (he boasts not one of his clients was ever executed), he was able to negotiate with his adversaries without antagonizing them (apparently, since no one who hates Verges is really interviewed here). His attraction to two of his clients – Djamila Bourhired, one of the leaders for Algerian independence, and Magdalena Kopp, a German terrorist and wife to notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal – was apparently as much romantic as it was political, as he married Bourhired and pursued Kopp (which eventually fractured his relationship with Carlos).While Schroeder includes Verges’ somewhat disingenuous defense of Pol Pot, the eventual dictator of Cambodia and a client, as a way of showing Verges’ darker side (Verges downplayed the genocide that occurred under Pot’s regime), he basically takes no outward position on Verges, preferring to let us make up our mind about him. So we get to see, for example Verges’ justification for defending former Nazi Klaus Barbie (he decided to put what he saw as France’s totalitarian methods on trial), without exploring what may have been his anti-Semitism. And most of the figures interviewed are sympathetic to Verges’ point of view, and Schroeder might have included one or two more who might not have liked him (though we get the feeling Carlos, who is interviewed by phone, no longer has much use for Verges). Still, Schroeder confronts us with the justification for terrorist acts throughout history, and it’s not an easy movie to shake off.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My Oscar picks

With the Oscars a week away, I will attempt to make a prediction in the major categories, even though I’m pretty lousy at it. I’ll also tell you whom I’d vote for if I were a member of the Academy (aside, of course, from No End in Sight winning Best Documentary and “Falling Slowly” winning best original song).

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Atonement (Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan), Away From Her (Sarah Polley, based on the story “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Ronald Harwood, based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby), No Country for Old Men (Ethan and Joel Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy), There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair)
Who will win: Ethan and Joel Coen. For Polley, the nomination is the award, Harwood won here recently, and some thought Hampton’s screenplay missed the essence of the book. Anderson might win here if the Academy wants to throw him a bone, but Daniel Day-Lewis will probably cover the film. Besides, the Coens won the WGA award.
Who should win: Paul Thomas Anderson. I’m one of those people who thought Hampton took a complex book and made it too simplistic, and Harwood’s screenplay was also the weakest part of his film. Polley and the Coen brothers both did outstanding work, but neither of them constructed their work as well as Anderson.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Juno (Diablo Cody), Lars and the Real Girl (Nancy Oliver), Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy), Ratatouille (Brad Bird, Jim Capobianco, Jan Pinkava), The Savages (Tamara Jenkins)
Who will win: Diablo Cody. Oliver probably wrote the most despised nominee on this list, an animated film has never won this category, and for Jenkins, the nomination is the award. Gilroy has a good chance, being a respected veteran who wrote a respected screenplay, but Cody is the darling of the moment, and she won the WGA award.
Who should win: Tony Gilroy. I haven’t seen Lars and the Real Girl yet, but while all the other screenplays were very good, especially Jenkins’, Gilroy wrote the most entertaining and artful of them.

BEST DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood, Ethan and Joel Coen, No Country for Old Men, Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton, Jason Reitman, Juno, Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Who will win: Ethan and Joel Coen. For Gilroy and Reitman, the screenplays of their respective films overshadowed their directing work, and while Schnabel dazzled many with his direction, his film didn’t get a Best Picture nod, and he’s not particularly well liked. Anderson has a lot of passionate fans, but having won the DGA, this is the Coens to lose.
Who should win: Paul Thomas Anderson. There’s not a bum nominee on this list, but Anderson’s film showed the most ambition and talent on display.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There, Ruby Dee, American Gangster, Saoirse Ronan, Atonement, Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone, Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Who will win: Ruby Dee. This is the toughest category to pick, because there’s no clear favorite – only Ronan will have to be satisfied with the nomination. Blanchett received the acclaim, but she’s won here recently. Ryan won most of the awards, and she’s well liked, but not enough people saw the movie. Swinton is well liked, and she may win the movie’s only prize, but she doesn’t seem to have any push behind her. My guess is, despite the smallness of her role, the Academy will find the sentiment too much to ignore, follow the lead of the SAG Awards, and reward Dee.
Who should win: Tilda Swinton. Dee is a treasure, but she was barely in her movie, and while Ronan was good, she struggled with a weak script. Blanchett and Ryan were both terrific, but neither reinvented their parts like Swinton did hers.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War, Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild, Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton
Who will win: Javier Bardem. For Affleck, the nomination is the reward, Hoffman won too recently, and like Swinton, Wilkinson is respected but has no push behind him. Holbrook could win the sentimental vote, but Bardem seems too formidable a foe.
Who should win: Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’m in the minority, but I didn’t like Affleck’s performance – it seemed too mannered. The other three performances were terrific, but Hoffman was most indispensable to his movie. Admittedly, he also had an MVP year, but he really was that good in this film.

BEST ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Julie Christie, Away from Her, Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose, Laura Linney, The Savages, Ellen Page, Juno
Who will win: Julie Christie. For Page, the nomination is the reward at this point, not enough people saw Linney’s film, and everyone agrees Blanchett’s nod here is for the lesser of her two performances. Cotillard’s got a lot of passionate fans, but Christie is well liked by everyone.
Who should win: Laura Linney. Blanchett deserved her supporting nod, but has no business in this category, and Cotillard tried, but was defeated by the screenplay. Christie and Page were terrific, but Linney did best in playing an inherently sympathetic character in an unsympathetic way while still retaining our sympathy.

BEST ACTOR: George Clooney, Michael Clayton, Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood, Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd, Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah, Viggo Mortenson, Eastern Promises
Who will win: Daniel Day Lewis. Basically, this is Lewis’ to lose, especially since Clooney won too soon, Depp is playing a competing crazy, not enough people saw Jones’ film, and for Mortenson, the nomination is the reward.
Who should win: Tommy Lee Jones. Depp was good at being angry, but not great at anything else, and Mortenson was defeated by a plot turn near the end, damaging otherwise fine work. Clooney was terrific, and Day-Lewis was magnificent, but Jones went further in letting an inherently likable character be unlikable.

BEST PICTURE: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood
Who will win
: No Country for Old Men. Atonement lost the buzz it had back in September, plus it’s the only picture without a Best Director nomination, and while Michael Clayton is well liked, it doesn’t have the passion behind it. Juno has an outside chance if people want a feel-good movie, and there’s a loud fanbase behind There Will Be Blood, but this seems like the Coens’ year.
Who should win: There Will Be Blood. No other film this year had as much ambition, or the talent that matched that ambition. No other film explored as much what this country was, and is, about. Also, Atonement was very disappointing, and while the other three are very good, particularly Michael Clayton, none of them aimed as high.

See you on the 24th!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

New DVD releases February 12

It’s been popular to say about Ben Affleck that he reached his peak with his Oscar win for co-writing and co-starring in Good Will Hunting, and while his co-writer and co-star Matt Damon went on to an interesting career combining good commercial films (the Bourne trilogy) and interesting left turns (The Good Shepard), Affleck stranded himself among brain dead blockbusters. I can hardly count myself as an Affleck fan, and even I would say that view is quite reductive. True, Affleck hardly distinguished himself in movies like Armageddon, Daredevil, and Gigli, and letting his off-screen antics overwhelm his on-screen performances was never going to help his career. But he was a good collaborator with Kevin Smith (Mallrats and Jersey Girl notwithstanding), playing a more than credible romantic lead in Chasing Amy, a more than credible villain in Dogma, and had a lot of fun in Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back. He was good in supporting roles in Shakespeare in Love and Boiler Room, and while he struggled with his parts in Bounce, Changing Lanes, and Paycheck, at least the movies themselves showed good taste in projects. And he came back in with his surprisingly affecting performance in Hollywoodland. Now, with Gone Baby Gone, he makes his directorial debut, and while he’s still got a ways to go, he may have a future behind the camera yet.
Affleck also co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Stockard, adapting the Dennis Lehane novel, the fourth of his series of novels about detectives Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), who at this point are partners personally as well as professionally. When a little girl named Amanda goes missing, and her aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) appeals to them to join the police in helping find her, Kenzie and Gennaro are both reluctant to take the job, because they guess it would only end in heartbreak. And the police, headed by Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), who runs a unit devoted to finding missing children, and detectives Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), don’t want Kenzie’s help either. Finally, Kenzie is not encouraged by Amanda’s mother Helene (Amy Ryan), an alcoholic and crack addict who has a chip on her shoulder against the world. But Kenzie and Gennaro do end up taking the case, only to find as bad as they thought things would get, it actually is much worse.
Just as Good Will Hunting benefited from Affleck (and Damon) knowing the neighborhood of Boston so well, so does Gone Baby Gone. Affleck has cast many of the smaller parts with Boston natives, and he films the city well while avoiding the obvious landmarks (Fenway Park). However, he does lack a certain cinematic sense as a director, and as a writer (this may have been apparent in Good Will Hunting, but Gus Van Sant knew how to make that picture move). A good example comes early on in the movie, when Kenzie and Gennaro go to a bar Helene used to hang out in – if it wasn’t for the acting, you’d never know the scene was supposed to be tense (the patrons and bartender are decidedly hostile towards the detectives), because Affleck shoots it in such a plodding manner. The scenes between Kenzie and Gennaro also suffer here – Affleck spends too much time on their personal relationship, and not enough on their professional one, whereas Lehane gave equal time to both. I always thought Monaghan was a bit too wan for the role, but she might have been able to bring a grittiness to the role had Affleck allowed her to. Finally, I’m admittedly a big fan of the novel, but the movie often just seemed like a greatest hits version of the novel, with no flow to it. It doesn’t help Affleck and Stockard try to make the motive for what really happened to Amanda more of a mystery than it was in the novel; it cheapens it somehow.
Still, once the movie hits the halfway point, it does settle down into what made the novel so riveting. And except for Monaghan, Affleck gets great work from his cast. Harris, Freeman, Ashton, and Madigan are all playing parts they’ve played in the past, but they’re able to do their thing again in style. And as a fan of TV’s The Wire, I was thrilled to see Michael K. Williams in the small role of a cop who’s friendly with Kenzie (his role is bigger in the novel), even though I only saw it as Omar playing a cop. But the real surprises here are Ryan and Affleck’s brother Casey. I also mostly know Ryan from The Wire, as Beadie Russell, the dock officer who helps investigate the major case in Season 2. On the show, she was friendly with the dockworkers but quiet and unassuming with her colleagues, which cloaked her intelligence. As written, Helene could have been a one-dimensional white trash addict, but Ryan invests her with an anger against the world and a surprising vulnerability – when she finally realizes the enormity of her part in Amanda’s disappearance, and begs Kenzie to find her, you understand what makes Kenzie defend Helene’s fitness as a parent later to Gennaro. As for Casey Affleck, I wasn’t a fan of his in the Jesse James movie, and wasn’t looking forward to him here. He seemed a little young for the part as well. But he turns that into his advantage here, showing an inner toughness and a desire not to be pushed around or taken for granted. And, of course, he shows off Kenzie’s vulnerability as well. As the movie shows Ben’s possible future as a director, it also shows off Casey’s possible future as a leading man.
If they’re enjoyable enough, sometimes movies that don’t quite hang together can still be a better time than movies that are well crafted but empty. Such is the case with John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes, which finally came out in theaters last September after being on the shelf for two years due to studio trouble. Although Turturro has made a big leap from his first directing effort, the earnest but plodding Mac (I never saw his next effort, the theatrical movie Illuminata), he still has problems here; the movie takes a tragic turn in the last third that it doesn’t quite earn. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that next to Once, this was the best musical I saw at the movies last year. The story, like in most musicals, is pretty simple; Nick Murder (James Gandolfini), a construction worker, is married to Kitty (Susan Sarandon), a dressmaker, but is also involved with the sexy Tula (Kate Winslet), and when Kitty finds out and throws him out, Nick tries to win her back. What distinguishes the movie is the characters will often break into song – not into originals, but singing along to established songs. So Gandolfini belts out Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Man Without Love” (along with singing garbagemen), Sarandon (though her voice is dubbed) and a gospel choir rip through “Piece of my Heart,” Winslet sexes up Connie Francis’ “Do You Love Me Like You Kiss Me,” and even Christopher Walken, as Kitty’s cousin Bo, gets into the act by crooning “Delilah” (as well as dancing, of course). This isn’t the only craziness Turturro throws in – Mary-Louise Parker and Aida Turturro both play Nick’s daughters (Mandy Moore, who belts out “I Want Candy,” is the third daughter), even though they’re only a few years younger than Gandolfini in real life – but trust me, it all fits. I think it was Turturro who called this a working-class Dennis Potter musical, and the label fits because like Potter, Turturro knows how to use music to express his character’s feelings. And it’s definitely working class – the characters are unapologetically profane (the movie earns its R rating), but none of them are cartoonish (Tula actually loves Nick), and none of the performers condescend to their characters. True, there may be a touch of Ralph Kramden in Gandolfini’s performance, but that’s inevitable, and Gandolfini even sings well. And Sarandon and Winslet are as alluring as they’ve ever been. Along with Once, this was the only other musical I saw last year that never sacrifices feeling for form. Do yourself a favor and check this one out.
The problem with James Gray’s We Own the Night is not the fact the story is familiar – hell, There Will Be Blood, my favorite movie of last year, tells a very familiar story. The problem is Gray, who also wrote the film, tries to act like you’ve never seen this movie before. Once again, Gray turns to the twin poles of family conflict and crime. This time, the family members in conflict are Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), a nightclub owner in 1980’s Brighton Beach, and his brother Joe Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), who, like their father Bert (Robert Duvall), is a cop. Bobby’s nightclub is owned by Russians who, as it turns out, do business with the Russian mob, which involves drug dealing. Bobby at first turns a blind eye to all of this, particularly because he and Joe don’t get along, but when mobsters try to kill Joe, Bobby agrees to work for the cops. Gray has certainly advanced stylistically – there’s a car chase in the rain that’s up there with the great ones, and the first look at the nightclub (to the tune of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”) is a tracking shot that doesn’t make you think of Scorsese. And there’s no fault with any of the performers; Phoenix, Wahlberg and Duvall may be tracking in familiar territory, but they go through their paces, and Eva Mendes is also good as Bobby’s girlfriend. But Gray is more concerned with punching up the portentous tone of the movie than bringing anything new to the table or at least finding a way to make the familiar more interesting.
For all of you who only know George of the Jungle from either the catchy theme song (“Watch out for that tree!”), or the energetic but ultimately bland Disney live-action movie version in 1997, you should check out the complete TV series, which is being released on DVD this week. As Jay Ward’s previous, and best-known, series Rocky & Bullwinkle spoofed serials and spy movies, George parodies Tarzan. And unlike the movie, which relied too much on physical humor, George at its best crackles with the verbal wit that characterizes Ward at his best – for example, George tells Ursula (his girlfriend) he knows a white hunter named Weevil has gone because “See no Weevil, hear no Weevil, speak no Weevil.” The DVD set also includes the two lesser-known and less funny segments that also aired on the show, Tom Slick, the race car driver, and the superhero Super Chicken, but it’s worth it just to watch George, Ursula (or is it Fella?), Shep the elephant dog, and the ape named Ape. Just watch out for that tree.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An Evening with Sidney Lumet, and RIP Roy Scheider

Although film repertory houses having been dying out all over the country for decades now, a few are still going strong, and one of the better ones is Film Forum in New York City. It’s there that a co-worker and I went to see one of the true survivors of the movie business, Sidney Lumet. It’s true when people hear the phrase “New York filmmaker,” most of them think of Martin Scorsese, or maybe Woody Allen, or Spike Lee, but Lumet also belongs in that category, even though that label is also somewhat reductive towards his rich and varied career. It’s true he’s made his share of stinkers (I have no desire to sit through Deathtrap or The Wiz again), but when he’s good, he’s very good, as films like Prince of the City, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, and his new one, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead demonstrate. So I was very glad when the host and interviewer, Foster Hirsch, left my co-worker and tickets to tonight’s show (Hirsch is a customer at the video store I work at, and my co-worker and I are friendly with him).
As you might figure, the theater (which, alas, is pretty tiny; Film Forum gets great movies, but as befitting a theater depending on memberships, has lousy seating. As glad I am that Martin Scorsese spends a good amount of his money on film preservation, I wish he or someone would throw some of that money towards making sure the theaters showing those restored movies were nicer. But I digress) was packed, and as entertainment, we were shown the original theatrical trailers for both 12 Angry Men and Murder on the Orient Express, neither of which resembled the finished movie (we can debate till the cows come home on how today’s movies compare to past movies, but the trailers today are undeniably better than the ones even 30 years ago). Then we saw a rare clip of Lumet acting, as a Dead End kid in One Third of a Nation, opposite Sylvia Sidney. Finally, Lumet and Hirsch came out, to great applause.
Although Lumet did talk briefly about his showbiz origins (his parents were in the Yiddish theater, and he is one showbiz veteran who actually encourages children to go into the business), and how he lived through his early years (he grew up during the Depression, “which most of you may come to know” he joked), mostly, Hirsch talked about Lumet’s 50 years in films. Of course, they talked about how fast Lumet usually works (after working with him on The Verdict, Paul Newman called him “the only man I know who would double-park outside a whorehouse”), which Lumet calls not a product of working in television (which is where he got his start), but just his natural tempo. First, they showed a clip of 12 Angry Men, and Lumet mentioned how little film he shot compare to most films (60,000 feet of film, whereas most films shoot over a million feet). Hirsch also praised the opening scene, where you see the defendant’s face, and immediately, you think of him as a person rather than an abstract thing the jury will later deliberate over. Following that, we saw a clip of The Fugitive Kind, and Hirsch mentioned, for the only time that evening, how he thought it didn’t quite work. Lumet refused to tell tales out of school, but he did mention how star Anna Magnani had a difficult time on the set, because she wasn’t fluent in English, and was recovering from a romantic breakup. He also told a tale illustrating his approach to actors; Marlon Brando had a big speech to deliver in the movie, and every take, at the same exact point, he blew the take. Lumet felt it had something to do with something personal Brando had told him that was interfering with his ability to deliver the speech, but he felt mentioning that personal thing to Brando would have violated his trust. After about 30 takes, Brando finally got the speech right. Afterwards, Brando asked Lumet why he didn’t say anything, and when Lumet said it wasn’t his place, Brando kissed him on the cheek, and they never had a problem again.
One of the knocks against Lumet is that he has no visual style. His counter to that is he has one, it’s just always subordinate to the story and the characters. An illustration of this came with the next clip shown, from Long Day’s Journey Into Night, based on the Eugene O’Neill play, and one of Lumet’s best. It’s when Katharine Hepburn delivers a long speech on the unsuitability of a doctor treating her husband (Ralph Richardson), and the camera holds on a medium shot of her, her husband, and their sons (Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell) at the dinner table, instead of cutting away. He also pointes out that each of the characters were shot differently and lighted differently, and mentioned any critic worth their salt should recognize something like that. After that came a clip from The Pawnbroker, where a ride in a subway car reminds Rod Steiger of his time in a concentration camp. Since the film, to Lumet, was about memory (in his book Making Movies, Lumet distinguishes what the story of the movie is about, and what the movie itself is about), he edited the scene so the regular subway and the prisoner trains were done in precise increments, to illustrate Steiger’s state of mind. While Hirsch brought up how hammy Steiger’s performances can be, Lumet said he’d rather work with someone who gave too much than too little (which, to be fair, is another knock against him). That same year, Lumet made Fail Safe, which had the unfortunate luck to come out after Dr. Strangelove, which had a similar story (albeit a wildly different approach). They were made at the same time and released by the same studio, and Lumet wanted his film released first (he thought it would even help Strangelove), but to no avail. Next up was The Hill, Lumet’s first collaboration with Sean Connery (they made four movies together), and Lumet agreed with Hirsch that he tended to work with actors he liked many times (he claimed to avoid the lunatics when he could).
One of his most famous partnerships, of course, was with Al Pacino. They only made two movies together, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, but both of them are among both Lumet and Pacino’s seminal works. Lumet mentioned how with Pacino, as with other acting greats he worked with, he merely got out of his way and let him act. He also mentioned again how the theme of Dog Day Afternoon – in Lumet’s words, that freaks aren’t as freaky as you might think – dictated the look of the film, which strove for realism. Totally opposed to that is Network, which was highly stylized, and they showed the famous “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” scene. Lumet also illustrated how modest he is about credit when he mentioned how the film is really Paddy Chayefsky’s and not his, crediting Chayefsky with wrapping the message inside of humor to make it work better (Hirsch also brought up the hard part about watching it today; namely, everything the film predicted would happen has come true, except no one has killed anyone on the air for ratings – yet. So except for Faye Dunaway, it’s not as funny as it may have been 30 years ago). After that, Hirsch returned to Lumet’s New York oeuvre with Prince of the City, my personal favorite of his films, and Lumet mentioned how he took a writing credit on the movie only because Jay Presson Allen asked him to work out the structure for her, since she was busy writing a couple of other movies. He also mentioned how he felt his ambiguous feelings towards the Treat Williams character – was he a hero or a rat? – helped the film. Another one of Lumet’s common genres is the crime film, and while The Verdict is more a legal drama, it does deal with a crime. Lumet denied any life experience influencing his choice of movies, but did admit he finds cops, lawyers, and their stories fascinating. Finally, we ended with a clip from his most recent movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a melodrama, and while Lumet has directed all kinds of movies, he is still fond of melodrama as a genre (his next film, Getting Out, is also a melodrama).
I do wish the audience had been allowed to ask Lumet questions (I would have asked if any more of his films, including The Offence, one of his best and most unsung movies, was coming out on DVD in the near future). I also would have chosen some slightly different clips - from Prince of the City, for example, I would have chosen when Treat Williams runs into one of his former partners near the elevator and begs forgiveness, rather than when Williams is chasing a junkie in a parking lot in the rain (although Lumet said he was proud of that moment because Kurosawa praised it). Finally, while Hirsch made it more a conversation than an interview, which meant it was that much more entertaining and insightful, I do wish he had challenged Lumet a little more. Still, I definitely got my money’s worth out of the night. Lumet knows his stuff, and he knows how to please the crowd.
And now, a few words on the passing of Roy Scheider. I know there are people who gnash their teeth at yet another piece extolling how great the movies of the 1970’s were, but one thing you can undeniably say is male actors who weren’t necessarily traditional leading men were allowed to flourish as they hadn’t since the 30’s and early 40’s, and haven’t since. Scheider was one of those. Although he doesn’t have a lot of screen time in Klute, where he played Jane Fonda’s pimp, and he was second banana to Gene Hackman in The French Connection (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but unlike Hackman, he lost), he lends both movies an air of authenticity, which he carried to the enjoyable knock off of the latter, The Seven-Ups. Still, he had more range than just a hard-nosed tough guy, as he showed in perhaps his two most celebrated roles – Chief Brody in Jaws, and Joe Gideon in All That Jazz, which garnered him his second nomination. In the former, he played a man not in control, with appealing vulnerability and confusion (as when a grieving mother slaps him in the face) that serves as almost a riposte to Robert Shaw’s masculine caricature Quint, and in the latter, Bob Fosse’s 8 ½ (for all intents and purposes), he not only showed he could sing and dance, but he also played the character with the least amount of self-indulgence that I’ve seen in any movie remake/homage of Fellini’s film. And while neither Marathon Man, where he played a supporting role as a spy who happens to be Dustin Hoffman’s brother, nor Last Embrace, where he plays a widower spy who thinks someone is trying to kill him, were completely successful as pictures, each featured Scheider to great effect; watch his confrontation with Olivier in the former, or when he finds out the identity of the killer in the latter.
While on stage, he started the 1980’s off in triumph with his turn in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (he started out in Shakespeare plays, and he explained his love for them when he said that whatever the royalty may be saying or doing, it’s the gravedigger who explains what’s really going on), Scheider’s career hit a rough patch starting that decade and never really stopped. As critic Ryan Gibley pointed out in It Don’t Worry Me, his excellent critical study of 1970’s cinema, Scheider would come more and more to seem like a man out of his time when every leading man all of a sudden needed to look like Tom Cruise In fact, when Scheider got his own TV series in the 1990’s, SeaQuest, he later complained he was being phased out in favor of younger co-star Jonathan Brandis. Still, Scheider was appealing even in substandard fare like Still of the Night, Blue Thunder, and 52 Pickup, as well as better, if not great, fare like 2010 and The Myth of Fingerprints. And he shone in the highly underrated The Russia House as a spy who believes in glasnost, but maybe not Sean Connery (his interrogation of Connery is a highlight), he chewed up the scenery with style in Naked Lunch while giving new meaning to the term “mad doctor,” and was menacing as a gangster in the very offbeat Romeo is Bleeding (although, like everyone else, he’s overshadowed by Lena Olin as a hitwoman). He will be missed.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

New DVD releases February 5

According to the song by Rodgers and Hammerstein in Carousel, June is busting out all over, but this month seems to be the one busting out all over with big movies. Seven big named movies are being released this week, and the only one I haven’t seen is The Jane Austen Book Club. So let’s get right to it.
When he gave Backbeat a positive review, the late Gene Siskel mentioned he had given a positive review to every movie about the Beatles. I thought of him when I was watching Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, her attempt to tell a tale of the 60’s through use of 33 of the Beatles songs, ranging from “It Won’t Be Long” to “Let it Be.” I also thought of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the first attempt at doing something like this, which turned out to be akin to watching a train wreck, and American Dreams, the TV show about a family going through the turmoil of the 60’s. Taymor’s movie is better than the former (which is damning it with faint praise, of course), but reminded me too much of the latter to be entirely successful. For all of Taymor’s visual audacity, and some inventive reworking of the classic Beatles oeuvre (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand” reinterpreted as a song of longing), the film never really transcends the clichéd storytelling.
In a nutshell, the plot revolves around Jude (Jim Sturgess), a dockworker from Liverpool who comes to America to look for his father (Robert Clohessy), a janitor at Princeton. While there, he’s befriended by Max (Joe Anderson), a rebellious student, and his sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), who at first seems like the all-American girl. Max eventually drops out of Princeton and moves to New York City with Jude, and Lucy joins them when her boyfriend Daniel is killed in Vietnam. While there, they and a host of people, including Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a flower child singer, and JoJo (Martin Luther), a psychedelic guitarist, become swept up in the revolution sweeping the country. Also, Jude, a cartoonist, falls in love with Lucy, but becomes alienated from her as she becomes obsessed with the antiwar movement. Again, this sounds awfully familiar, and the stilted dialogue (“I’m sorry if I’m not the man with the megaphone, but this is what I do” Jude retorts to Lucy at one point). It could also be that Sturgess irritated me most of the time he was on screen, especially when he was singing. As for that singing, I alluded to how Taymor and her companion, composer Elliot Goldenthal, have some interesting interpretations of some of the Beatle classics, like Max singing “Happiness is a Warm Gun” at a VA hospital while a nurse (Salma Hayek) administers a morphine shot to him. But just as often, the songs are done too literally, as when Jude and the others living at the apartment try to get Prudence (T.V. Carpio) to come out of the room she’s locked herself into by singing “Dear Prudence.” Wood manages to transcend the clichéd material most of the time, and Hayek, Bono (as Dr. Robert, singing “I Am the Walrus”), and Eddie Izzard (as Mr. Kite) deliver sharp cameos. But the definitive movie using Beatles music as a backdrop (as opposed to being about the Beatles themselves) has yet to be made.
After sitting on the shelf for almost two years, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford inspired either love-it-or-hate-it reactions upon its release. I’m afraid I’m closer to the latter camp. It’s not like there’s nothing to recommend about this film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives this picture a dreamlike quality, and Brad Pitt is both charismatic and dangerous as the legendary outlaw Jesse James (although the film does shy away from some of his more unlikable qualities, like being a Confederate rebel). There’s also good supporting work from Sam Shepard as Jesse’s brother Frank (even though he’s only in the first half hour of the movie), and Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford. But the narration by Hugh Ross drowns the film in self-importance. Worse, while I normally like Casey Affleck (he’s much better in next week’s release Gone Baby Gone), he comes off mannered and forced here as Robert Ford, the aspiring gunslinger who wanted to be Jesse James but later agreed to kill him. And Dominik, who also wrote the film (adapting the novel by Robert Hansen), is highly uneven in the telling, as the narrative moves in fits and starts. When a co-worker asked my review of the film, I mentioned it was what would happen if Terrence Malick didn’t have the talent to match his ambition. It’s a smart-ass answer, but it unfortunately happens to be true here.
You have to say this for Neil Jordan – when he goes mad, he goes mad all the way. In 1999, he attempted to marry the serial killer genre with the fairy tale genre with In Dreams, and failed spectacularly. Now in his latest movie, The Brave One, he again tries to make a modern day fairy tale, this time within the vigilante drama. This time, I was going back and forth on the entire picture; every time I was about to dismiss it outright, something would come back to keep me interested. Usually, this was not the main storyline of Erica (Jodie Foster), the radio show talk host who, after surviving a vicious attack by thugs who killed her doctor fiancée (Naveen Andrews); while Foster internalizes everything to good effect, and is credible as a fighter, her story still falls back on some hoary clichés (like why would any sane person be in Central Park in that area that time of night?). No, the story that intrigued me was of Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard), who, while trying to track a killer of his own, gets involved with the murders Erica commits, and even becomes friends with her. Howard isn’t exactly playing a new character here – like Morgan Freeman in Seven, he’s someone who’s seen too much but is trying to make sense of it anyway. Howard speaks in his slow drawl, when trying to draw out a witness, asking a favor from his ex-wife (Zoe Kravitz), or talking with Erica, as if he’s thinking about what he really wants to say, and doesn’t trust himself otherwise. He provides a moral center to this film. And whatever you might think of Jordan’s view of the city, he and cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot do evoke both Erica and Mercer’s states of mind quite well. But the movie lost me in the last act with a climatic scene that totally goes off the rails. This being Neil Jordan, who rarely does anything half-ass, it’s not surprising that he’d aim high and miss, but without giving anything away, I find myself saying something unusual about a vigilante movie; I didn’t get pissed over moral failure, but plot failure.
Speaking of which, another honest to goodness failure, and a spectacular one at that, is Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shekhar Kapur’s follow-up to his 1998 film Elizabeth. I generally don’t like sequels anyway, but rarely has a director fallen so far from his original movie to the sequel made from it. Kapur’s original followed Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) before she became “The Virgin Queen”, and the palace intrigue that threatened to remove her from the throne almost immediately after she took it. There, Kapur and writer Hossein Amini took what should have been just another costume drama and made a spy thriller out of it. This time, Kapur and writers Michael Hirst and William Nicholson try to keep the spy thriller part – outside forces, mostly Spain, are still trying to unseat the Protestant Elizabeth from the throne and put her sister Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton) on it – while also adding costume soap opera, in the form of Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who comes to England from the colonies, and finds himself attracted to not only Elizabeth, but also her lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish). What could have been either a cogent drama or a fun romp becomes a ridiculous and incoherent mess. Kapur and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin abandon the dark look of the first film for the look of a typical colorful costume drama, and the result just makes everything look like a soap opera, and not a very entertaining one at that. Worse, the actors are forced to spew some particularly ripe dialogue (as when the Spanish king exclaims “England is ensnared in the devil!”), and good actors such as Blanchett, Owen, and Geoffrey Rush (reprising his turn as advisor Francis Walsingham) are left stranded. The only ones who make an impression are the ones who get to use silence, like Morton, who manages to be regal and fanatical, and Cornish, who made an impression on me for the first time, and manages to rise above the decidedly purple prose here. Shoot ‘Em Up was the worst movie I saw last year, but I walked out of that one; unfortunately, I stuck with this one all the way through, thinking it could only get better. It didn’t.
Sometimes, the most frustrating careers in Hollywood aren’t the hacks who are inexplicably allowed to keep directing, but the middling directors who hit excellence every once in a while and are fair to middling, or less than that, the rest of the time. Robert Benton falls into this latter category. The Late Show remains one of the better reworkings of the detective genre in the 1970’s, standing alongside such classics as Chinatown and Night Moves, and Nobody’s Fool is an incisive and richly detailed study of a small upstate New York town, and an overgrown boy of 60 who finally learns to take some responsibility. The rest of Benton’s career, at least as far as a director, is categorized by some okay films (Nadine, The Human Stain) and near misses (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart), with the occasional dud (Still of the Night). It’s hard to make even a bad film in Hollywood, let alone a good one, but you wonder what allowed Benton to strike lightning twice, and only twice. His latest middling effort is Feast of Love, taken from Charles Baxter’s novel. As with the novel, it’s meant to be somewhat of a romantic fantasia about several relationships at various ages (though presumably because romantic fantasy wouldn’t work as well in cold weather, the movie moves the novel’s Michigan setting to Portland, Oregon). The unluckiest in relationships by far is Bradley (Greg Kinnear), a coffee shop owner who is dumped by his first wife Kathryn (Selma Blair) for another woman, and then his second wife Diana (Radha Mitchell) for David (Billy Burke), the married man she’d been seeing. Somewhat luckier are Oscar (Toby Hemingway), who works at Bradley’s coffee shop, and Chloe (Alexa Davalos), with whom he meets cute at the shop (it’s the type of movie where she gets hired to work there right on the spot), but even they fall on tough times. Standing in observance of all of these couplings is Harry (Morgan Freeman), a retired college professor who lives with his wife Esther (Jane Alexander), and is lonely ever since the death of his son.
What made the novel work was Baxter’s nicely detailed portraits of each character, and his ability to ground his fantasia in reality. Benton, unfortunately, is a literalist, and he and writer Allison Burnett keep the skeleton of the plot without having any heft to it. Worse, the dialogue they come up with sounds stilted on screen. Benton is to be applauded for how matter of fact he is about the nudity (only Freeman and Alexander remain fully clothed of the main characters), but it’s the only magical element of the movie. Hemingway and Davalos may be pleasing to the eye, but their characters and performances have little depth. Likewise, Freeman and Alexander are always enjoyable to watch, but they are basically playing the same roles they always play, and it’s getting a bit tiresome. And while Kinnear and Blair are talents, they have nothing to work with here. Only Mitchell manages to triumph over the material. She always retains an air of mystery about her, and you always want to know what she’s thinking or feeling. That’s a quality Feast of Love could have used a lot more of.
The best new release coming out on DVD this week is Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris. Delpy wrote, directed and co-stars in the movie, and also cast her former boyfriend Adam Goldberg as her screen boyfriend, and her real life parents as her on-screen parents. And the film is very Woody Allen-esque – Marion (Delpy), a photographer, and Jack (Goldberg), an interior designer, are spending two days in Paris with Marion’s parents before they go back to New York, and while there, they keep running into all of Marion’s ex-boyfriends, most of whom remain on good terms with her – too good, according to Jack. As a director and writer, Delpy does have a tendency to let things run on too long – the scene where she berates the one ex she hates is a good example – but mostly, she runs things on an even keel, and never lets the jokes overplay the characters. It also helps that, unlike Allen nowadays, she knows how to make these characters talk believably. She’s also generous with her co-stars, and Goldberg, who can get stuck in shtick, responds well; though he’s basically “the ugly American,” he actually underplays here, and his double takes are as funny as his one-liners. And the abrasive nature of the film may be off-putting to some, but to me, it kept things from getting dull and staid. Most romantic comedies deal with the beginning of a relationship; rarely do we get one that starts at a comfortable (or complacent) middle. That alone lifts Delpy’s movie, despite the somewhat pat ending, above most of what passes for comedy these days.The two best re-releases this week both work the comedy/drama side of the street. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment may not be his best film – I reserve that honor for Some Like it Hot – but it’s his best melding of cynicism and sweetness. Wilder and collaborator I.A.L. Diamond deftly combine the twin tales of insurance agent C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), who lends his apartment out to co-workers for their sexual trysts, and his crush on elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Lemmon, of course, is an old pro at combining comedy/drama. The real stars here are MacLaine, who gives an edge to her lovable pixie that she normally didn’t, and Fred McMurray as C.C.’s boss and Fran’s married boyfriend, who once again plays against type for Wilder as a snake in the grass. Also, the final line stands up with Wilder’s own “Well, nobody’s perfect” as the best ending line in movie history. Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie owes a big debt to Wilder not only in, like Some Like it Hot, in being a cross-dressing comedy – although here, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) dresses up as a woman (Dorothy Michaels) not to save his life, but because he’s been out of work as an actor and needs a job desperately – but also in blending comedy and drama. Some carped then, and today, how Hoffman getting in touch with his inner woman grates today (Dennis Lim did just that in a recent article in the L.A. Times), but the film’s message, for the most part, is subservient to the comedy, and the comedy today remains as funny as ever. Pollack doesn’t miss the farcical elements of the picture – the scene where Michael finally reveals to everybody who Dorothy is remains one of the funniest scenes ever – but grounds them in reality, making them all the more funny. Having Hoffman, a troublemaking Method actor, playing a troublemaking Method actor doesn’t hurt either, but there’s also great support from Pollack himself (as Michael’s exasperated agent), Bill Murray (as his roommate), Teri Garr (as his girlfriend), and Jessica Lange (as Dorothy’s co-star).