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.