Sunday, April 26, 2015

Last September (2008)

Director: Chapin Hemmingway                              Writer: Tyson Balcomb & Chapin Hemmingway
Film Score: Jim Walker & Tim Ellis                        Cinematography: Sean Rawls
Starring: Jeremy Fiske, Andrew Fletcher, Emily Michele and Laurie Balcomb

While Portland director Chapin Hemmingway’s first film, Last September, initially feels like a practice run for his more assured work in The Gray Area, this is still a film that stands on its own and delivers some strong work from both the principal cast and the director. The lead in the film is the director’s college roommate at Emerson University, Jeremy Fiske. The two roomed together in Boston before moving to the school’s Los Angeles campus, and while Hemmingway worked on the screenplay Fiske served as a sounding board during the writing. After a successful premiere in Portland, the film went on to appear at a number of small festivals including the Tacoma Film Festival and the Indiefest U.S.A. festival in California, in which the film was given an award for best visual effects. Like most first films, however, it suffers from choices that Hemmingway would make differently in his later film, as well as some technical issues that were unable to be ironed out in post-production. While the extremely low-budget and independent quality has to be taken into consideration--along with this being the director’s first attempt at filming his own screenplay--the end result shows a lot of promise.

The film begins at the house of college student Jeremy Fiske. It’s the day of the funeral after his mother has died and when his childhood friend, Andrew Fletcher, comes over all he wants to do is get out. The two aren’t exactly estranged, but they haven’t seen each other for a while and there’s a definite tension between them. Very quickly the film becomes one of contrasts in character. While his mother’s death has forced Fiske to grow up quickly, Fletcher still seems stuck in the adolescent world of his high school years. He doesn’t want to go to college and still fights with his mother, Laurie Balcomb. At the same time Fiske decides to break up with his girlfriend, Emily Michele, who the audience later learns also dated Fletcher at one time. When Fletcher invites Fiske to go up to the San Juan Islands in Washington for the weekend, Fiske readily agrees in order to get away from things for a few days. The first stop, however, is at the apartment of a girl Fletcher knows, Allea Martin, in the hopes that she can get Fiske hooked up with her friend, Ashley LeBel. But Fiske simply winds up drunk and crying in the bathroom.

The next day the trip continues on an idyllic note, with a ferry ride to the islands, followed by a hike in which the two begin talking about the real conflict in their relationship: the feelings they both share for Michele and the tension that they’ve felt ever since. It’s not until the trip takes an unexpected turn that they develop a new understanding for each other. Though Jeremy Fiske may not be a household name, he has gone on to do some interesting work after this film, authoring another independent film he starred in that was shot in Boston, but primarily as a production assistant on such big-budget films as Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Moneyball with Brad Pitt. He does a good job in this film, only his second feature, though the technical issues with the sound tend to hamper his quiet delivery. He has a look similar to Ron Eldard, but his acting style is closer to Giovanni Ribisi. Andrew Fletcher is taller and more angular, and presents a nice contrast to Fiske both physically as well as in character.

In terms of the acting itself, the men do a decent job but the women in the film don’t fare so well. Emily Michele is painfully awkward on the screen in the couple of scenes she has, first with Fiske when he breaks up with her, and then with the two of them before they leave on the trip. Laurie Balcomb also seems a little unequipped for her dramatic scene as Fletcher’s mother. To be fair, the early scenes with the men are rough as well, but since they have the entire film to develop some chemistry it doesn’t make as much of an impact. Hemmingway and producer Tyson Balcom’s screenplay emphasizes realism, which is interesting to a point but wears thin after a while. The goal with dialogue shouldn’t be realism, but instead a natural feel while moving the narrative along, something the team vastly improved upon in their next feature. And that is the real takeway from the film. On its own it’s a moderately successful independent first feature, but when viewed as a stepping stone to the much more successful follow-up, the difference shows a filmmaker who can learn from mistakes and who has exhibited a tremendous amount of growth in a short time. In that context, Last September is a bittersweet experience in that this growth hasn’t been able to continue in a series of later projects.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Sound of Music (1965)

Director: Robert Wise                                 Writer: Ernest Lehman
Film Score: Irwin Kostal                              Cinematography: Ted D. McCord
Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker and Richard Hayden

The musical is definitely not one of my favorite cinematic forms, which probably accounts for the fact that this is the first time I’ve ever seen this film, on anniversary of it’s fiftieth year since production. The Sound of Music went on to win not only best picture that year at the Oscars, but also awards for its director, Robert Wise, as well as the uncredited film score by Irwin Kostal utilizing the music of Rogers and Hammerstein. There’s no denying its appeal to audiences at the time and over the last half century. The story was first written as an autobiography of Maria von Trapp, a former nun who married a retired naval officer in Austria just prior to the outbreak of World War Two. The officer, Georg von Trapp, was a widower with seven children and they, under the tutelage of Maria, formed a singing group that would go on to worldwide acclaim. The story was made into a documentary in Germany and seen by producers who commissioned at first a straight dramatic play, which would feature songs from the group’s repertoire, but quickly realized the value of converting the story to a full musical. After it became a hit on Broadway Richard Zanuck then purchased the rights from Paramount and the film became a 20th Century Fox production.

The film begins with a lengthy sequence filmed in the Bavarian Alps near Saltzburg, Austria. Julie Andrews is then seen running up a hill singing the title song. From there the story moves to a convent where Andrews is being discussed as a problem novitiate. The reverend mother, Peggy Wood, then decides that Andrews should get out of the convent for a while and assigns her to be the governess for Christopher Plummer’s seven children. Apprehensive at first, she immediately takes to the children and butts heads with Plummer over his desire to instill strict discipline. While he is away in Vienna romancing a rich baroness, Eleanor Parker, Andrews teaches the children to sing and upon Plummer’s return he is enchanted that the house is filled with music again, something that he had stopped after the death of his wife. With him, however, is the scheming Parker and her friend, entertainment entrepreneur Richard Hayden. At the same time, officials loyal to the Nazis are looking forward to the Anschluss when Germany will take control over Austria. But Plummer’s allegiance to Austria is obvious and it presages a coming conflict with the Nazi leadership. But that’s nothing compared to the conflict that Parker stirs up. Seeing how Plummer feels about Andrews she engineers her return to the convent so that nothing will stand in the way of their marriage.

The film is actually very well done. Though the story is simplistic, and the acting very stylized, it looks terrific on the big screen. I was able to see the film through the Turner Classic Movies presentation at my local theater. The restored print was beautiful and the sound was terrific. Robert Wise was the natural choice for the project as he had already won the Oscar for directing the screen version of West Side Story. Julie Andrews was nominated for an Oscar as well, but she had already won the year before for Disney’s Mary Poppins, which it must be admitted was a much better role dramatically. Andrews had always been the first choice for Wise, and even more so when he saw her in rushes of the Disney film which was still in production at the time. Christopher Plummer was a more difficult acquisition as he didn’t like the character in the stage play, but when Wise guaranteed they could work together to improve the character he signed on. Since Andrews and Plummer were relative newcomers to film, Wise went with an established star in Eleanor Parker for the role of the baroness. The casting of the children, on the other hand, involved hundreds of auditions to make the right selections. Other Oscar nominations went to Peggy Wood as the reverend mother, and cinematographer Ted McCord, while awards were also earned for sound and film editing. The Sound of Music is one of the last of the big-budget musicals to be produced in the sixties and remains a classic of the genre.

Miami Vice (2006)

Director: Michael Mann                              Writer: Michael Mann
Film Score: John Murphy                           Cinematography: Dion Beebe
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell, Li Gong and Barry Shabaka Henley

This film is yet another example of the utter lack of originality in the product coming out of the major Hollywood studios. It seems the only creativity in film to be found these days is from independent production companies and independent filmmakers, both of whom are willing to take chances and risks to give audiences compelling stories and characters. The major studios are so timid that the only thing they seem willing to green-light are superheroes and TV show retreads. Miami Vice is one of the later. The only thing that keeps this film from being a failure, though, is the presence of Michael Mann as the writer and director. Mann was the visionary for the original Miami Vice TV show as the executive producer during its entire six-year run. The series featured Don Johnson at the peak of his lengthy career as a television actor--some would say actor, period--and Philip Michael Thomas, who has done very little since, as police detectives in the pastel-washed city of Miami in the late nineteen-eighties. The show’s success rested on its distinctive vision at a time when popular fashion was adrift in phoniness and pretension--though many would argue that the series was a prime example of the very same phenomenon.

The film begins with the two vice detectives, Colin Farrell as James “Sonny” Crockett and Jamie Foxx as Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs, in a nightclub setting up a sting on some criminals running a high-end prostitution ring for big spenders, personally bringing the girls in for their clients to purchase. But the club is packed and they can’t get to the subjects in time to make the arrest. Meanwhile Farrell gets a panicked call from John Hawkes, a paid informant, saying that a drug cartel has kidnapped his family and that he doesn’t expect to live because he gave up everyone except the two of them. The FBI’s men were killed because of the information, and agent Ciarán Hinds comes to the Miami Police for assistance. The cartel is supposedly run by Jon Ortiz out of Columbia, and Farrell and Foxx jump at the chance to go undercover to avenge Hawkes’ death. They begin by destroying the jet boats used by Ortiz’s contract transporters and offering themselves as replacements. After meeting Ortiz, however, it soon it becomes clear that he’s not the boss, as he seems to be taking orders from Li Gong, who in turn takes them to meet the actual boss, Luis Tozar. From there, it’s just a matter of maintain their cover long enough to make the sting on Ortiz and, if possible, Tozar.

In terms of plot, this is just an extra-long episode of the television show, which doesn’t make for good cinema. The casting is unfortunate as well. Jamie Foxx is clearly the best actor on the screen, and yet he is relegated to the sidekick role. Colin Farrell brings none of the humor or the craziness associated with Don Johnson’s character, leaving his portrayal flat and unconvincing--an unfortunate feature of most of his film performances. The other problem with the cast is the reliance on Barry Shabaka Henley as the lieutenant to reprise the iconic and enigmatic performance of Edward James Olmos. Henley does as well as he can, but it’s miles from the intensity of Olmos. The female detectives are better in some ways here, more capable and confident than in the series, but the other two male detectives in the film recede into anonymity in a way that John Diehl and Michael Talbott from the show would not allow. As stated earlier, the plot is a non-entity and entirely predictable: you can walk away for minutes at a time and come back not missing a thing. What makes the film interesting, again, is Michael Mann’s original vision updated for the new millennium. It’s not enough for a lot of fans, and that’s understandable, but Miami Vice is worth checking out--on cable. It’s definitely not worth shelling out money for.

Psycho (1998)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock & Gus Van Sant                 Writer: Joseph Stephano
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann & Danny Elfman        Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Viggo Mortensen and Julianne Moore

This film was never going to be well received, and though it seemed as if it had the potential to be fascinating, poor execution doomed it to failure. Alfred Hitchcock, despite being snubbed by the Academy, was for twenty years was one of the most distinctive and popular directors in Hollywood. So much so that modern directors have been copying him for years. Brian de Palma is the most overt plagiarist, but there are many other more subtle copyists. Gus Van Sant simply took the phenomenon to its logical conclusion. Hitchcock’s Psycho was made on the cheap, as an independent production by the director who was trying to finish his contract at Paramount so he could move over to Universal. But it was not cheaply made. The master’s touch is everywhere in the film and some would argue that it’s his last truly great film. Van Sant’s remake of Psycho could have been, in more assured hands, a captivating clinic on how to update a classic film by remaking it shot-for-shot rather than reimagining it as remakes are primarily done. But Van Sant made missteps all along the way, resulting in a film that wasn’t just poorly done but one that audiences actually hated.

Joseph Stephano’s screenplay for the Hitchcock film is used once again. Viggo Mortensen and Anne Heche are seen at a hotel in downtown Phoenix getting dressed after a lunchtime rendezvous. Heche is a secretary at a realtor’s office in town while Mortensen runs a hardware store in California. Money, or rather the lack of it, is what keeps them apart. When Heche has the opportunity to steal four-hundred thousand dollars, she jumps at the chance and heads to California and Mortensen so they can be together. But she stops along the way at a motel run by Vince Vaughn and when his psychotic mother thinks she’s seducing her son she kills Heche in the hotel room shower. Vaughn cleans up in a panic and disposes of the body, but when Heche never turns up in California her sister, Julianne Moore heads there to see if she’s with Mortensen. Private detective William H. Macy shows up at the same time, hired by realtor Rance Howard to hunt her down and get the money back. When Macy’s investigation leads him to the hotel he suffers the same fate as Heche and his disappearance causes Moore and Mortensen to try and find out what is really going on at the Bates Motel.

While Stefano’s story is the same the execution by Van Sant is not, and the flaws are legion. The primary problem with the film, though, is the acting, an ironic circumstance considering the talent involved. It’s as if Van Sant told them all to do whatever they wanted with the characters and pay no attention to the original. The result, in almost every case, is that the comparisons with the original suffer tremendously. Heche is nowhere near as commanding, or frightened, on the screen as Janet Leigh, and John Gavin’s pillar of strength is replace with Mortensen’s faux-Elvis character, something that brings to mind Gil Bellows’ similarly corny performance in The Shawshank Redemption. And while Moore’s updating of Vera Miles’ character to petulant teenager is head scratching, Rita Wilson’s performance, which Pat Hitchcock made iconic in the original, is simply wrong, embarrassingly wrong. Vince Vaughn is the only one who seems to have studied his counterpart’s performance and makes the attempt to replicate Anthony Perkins’ mannerisms. But even with that the lack of direction shows. In the office scene with Heche he plays the scene too angry, and when he’s looking at her through the peephole the decision to have him masturbate changes the entire complexion of the original character, who would have been far too ashamed to give in to that temptation. William H. Macy, as the detective played by Martin Balsam is the only one who comes close to the original in terms of the ultimate effect.

Beyond the acting, however, there are lots of other issues. Color is one of them. Many fans of the original believe that the only reason for making the film was to pander to young audiences who don’t like black and white films. Fair enough, but the color palette Van Sant uses is horrible. Garish colors in both the wardrobe and the set dressing are a completely unnecessary distraction throughout the film. The film also doesn’t seem to know when it’s set. There are references to the fifties is Mortensen’s makeup, the sixties in Heche’s wardrobe, and the eighties in terms of car design and lack of electronics. Van Sant also takes liberties behind the camera, extending scenes and inserting shots of his own not in the film in a failed attempt to add “originality” to the production. Even with all of that, however, I can’t say it’s a bad film. There is something absolutely captivating in watching Van Sant emulate Hitchcock’s camera angles and movement. Another positive is that most of Bernard Herrmann’s score was kept intact, augmented and extended in creative ways by Danny Elfman. My only regret about the poor results in Psycho is that it has obviously prevented other directors from making similar attempts. I have to say that re-shoots of Casablanca or Citizen Kane, while an anathema to many, still seems and intriguing idea to me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mississippi Burning (1988)

Director: Alan Parker                                  Writer: Chris Gerolmo
Film Score: Trevor Jones                           Cinematography: Peter Biziou
Starring: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand & Brad Dourif

Mississippi Burning can be a difficult film to judge, as there are a couple of distinct ways of looking at it. On the one hand it is a powerful historical drama in which the national legal establishment finally takes matters into their own hands to aid in the process of changing the segregated South by resorting to the very measures employed by the Klan and other hate groups. The result is a revenge film in which racist whites get what’s coming to them and go to jail. But my favorite film analyst, Frederick Barton, takes a very different view of the film. To him the film is a travesty that besmirches the memory of the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi at the hands of local law enforcement. By resorting to the same fear tactics as the Klan, the FBI agents lower themselves and eliminate the moral authority they had going in. Furthermore, he believes that by making the audience unwitting accomplices in the lust for revenge, it brings out and celebrates our baser natures at the expense of our American virtues. Finally, the pathetic jail sentences--mostly under ten years for murder--were not worth the degradation the protagonists voluntarily assumed and is a further slap in the face to the entire civil rights movement. The review is contained in his novel With Extreme Prejudice, and is well worth seeking out.

The film begins with stark images of racial segregation, separate water fountains and a burning church. Three civil rights workers, two white and one black, are stopped while driving down the road in Mississippi in 1964. Then they are taken into the woods and shot. A few days later Northern FBI agent Willem Dafoe, and his good ole boy partner Gene Hackman who is from Mississippi, look into the disappearance of the men and are met with nothing but denials and resistance from the townspeople and the police, beginning with sheriff Gailard Sartain and his deputy Brad Dourif. While Dafoe charges headlong into the investigation Hackman urges caution, and his warning is not unwarranted. When Dafoe begins questioning blacks their churches are burned, and when he continues their houses are burned. Redneck Michael Rooker is the worst of the bunch, but the town leaders like mayor R. Lee Emery and head Klansman Stephen Tobolowsky are able to use him and his friends to do their dirty work. While Dafoe refuses to see his responsibility for the scorched earth behind him, Hackman sees another way in.

Dourif is married to Frances McDormand and she clearly doesn’t like her husband very much. Hackman uses his Southern charm and appeals not only to her vanity but to her sense of right and wrong and eventually gets vital information that they need to not only find the murdered men, but to identify the whites responsible for the murders. As Barton points out, the opening section with Dafoe and Hackman begins with a joke, and the four eyes that can’t see in Mississippi are really those of glasses-wearing Dafoe whose investigational techniques are a disaster in a part of the country he knows nothing about. Hackman’s guidance, at first from afar, distancing himself from Dafoe, eventually becomes necessary in the same way that Sean Connery mentors Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. And when Dafoe finally relents, in a sense telling Hackman to do it his way, for Barton the film loses all credibility. Sure, it feels good to see the rednecks get some of their own medicine, but the system is rigged in their favor so that even after a trial their punishment comes nowhere close to justice for the despicable acts they perpetrated on the helpless victims of their systematic disenfranchisement.

Nevertheless, the film remains a powerful one, and the visceral nature of the retribution remains no less desirable for our guilt at desiring it. For me, however, the true nature of the film falls somewhere in between the two extremes. The meager prison sentences that the killers are given is indicative of the tremendous journey still left to travel, even today, in dealing with this dark legacy. Gene Hackman gives one of his finest performances as an FBI agent who at first seems sympathetic with his Southern past, but is eventually revealed to be more disgusted with his heritage than those from the North who have vowed to fight it. Willem Dafoe is great in support, but Barton’s thesis really hits home when he’s able to overcome his own revulsion at Hackman’s tactics and starts digging the results. Frances McDormand gives a terrific performance in an early role, and one of her non-Coen Brothers films. Brad Dourif, on the other hand, shows yet again why it was such a tragedy that his career never lived up to its early promise of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards that year but only won for best cinematography, as Rain Man came away the big winner. While Mississippi Burning is a moderately controversial film it is still a popular one with viewers, but will depend on the individual viewer as to how they take it.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Outcast (1937)

Director: Robert Florey                              Writers: Doris Malloy & Dore Schary
Film Score: Ernst Toch                              Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Starring: Warren William, Karen Morley, Lewis Stone and John Wray

This potboiler from independent Major Pictures was one of several released through Paramount in the mid-thirties. Warren William, who had been a huge star during the pre-code era, was still a major star but that star was on the wane and this was his first appearance in an independent film. While past his prime, he still manages to look dignified among a decidedly second-rate cast and puts in a solid performance as a wrongly-accused man. Outcast was the fourth film starring William that was helmed by Robert Florey, a confident director with an interesting visual style who worked in a number of genres during the golden age and had a lengthy career in television afterward. Most notable for being the man who almost directed Frankenstein, his most well-known film is probably the quirky but effective Murders in the Rue Morgue for Universal, Bela Lugosi’s follow up of Dracula the year before. The screenplay, co-written by future MGM head Dore Schary, was based on the novel Happiness Preferred by Frank R. Adams, but fails to rise above its low-budget beginnings. And aside from an opening and closing theme by Ernst Toch, there is very little film score to speak of.

The film begins as a tale of revenge. Warren William, on trial for murder, is acquitted because the jury decided that the poisoning was an accidental overdose of medication that William had prescribed, not premeditated poisoning by the accused. But the wealthy Murray Kinnell, the husband who had his wife stolen away from him by William before her death, has decided to make it his life’s work to punish William by destroying his life and making him an outcast. He begins by having him blackballed in every hospital in the country and in desperation William pawns his medical bag and heads West until the money runs out. In a small town called Orchard Fork, he meets retired lawyer Lewis Stone who guesses he’s a doctor when he splints Christian Rubb’s broken arm. He recognizes William’s name from the papers, and since the town has no doctor he decides to take a chance on him and hires him to stay and practice medicine. But when Kinnell becomes gravely ill and can’t be disturbed, his sister Karen Morley decides to take up his cause and heads to Orchard Fork in order to expose to the town who William is and what he was accused of.

The film is based on an interesting enough idea, but the execution is poor. The script has absolutely no suspense, and doesn’t really have a conflict of any kind. While Karen Morley comes to town hopping mad, it’s just as clear that after she gets to know the good doctor that all her animosity will melt away and she’ll just as easily melt into his arms. Meanwhile the supporting cast is a little to overly cute and predictable themselves, the movie version of a Norman Rockwell painting but far more pedestrian than the cast of Our Town would be a few years later. Esther Dale is so over the top in her meanness toward everybody that she almost gets what she deserves when tragedy ensues toward the end of the film. Lewis Stone is solid as ever but, like everyone in the cast, is hampered by the weak script. Karen Morley does well in her scenes, but this is obviously a B production. Still, the ending is interesting, if derivative of any number of similar films, most notably Fritz Lang’s Fury from the previous year. Outcast is certainly recommended for fans of Warren William, if you can find it, but will no doubt fail to engage most classic movie lovers.

The Interpreter (2005)

Director: Sidney Pollack                               Writers: Charles Randolph & Scott Frank
Film Score: James Newton Howard             Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Katherine Keener and Clyde Kusatsu

The Interpreter is a decidedly interesting, if less than gripping, thriller from Sidney Pollack. This was the director’s last film as a director--though he did appear later as an actor in George Clooney’s Michael Clayton--and it’s a solid finish for him. He has some terrific actors at his disposal and a timely political story to tell. Nevertheless, reviews were mixed and the film was not a hit. The problem is probably due to the expectation of viewers and reviewers. Though it is a political thriller, there’s not a whole lot of action in the film. It’s more of a meditation on death and revenge, with both Kidman and Penn’s characters suffering loss that keeps them sympathetic toward each other even as Penn’s investigation threatens to completely alienate them. The screenplay is based on an original story by Martin Stellman and Brian Ward, and a good part of it is set in the United Nations building itself. Though Pollack was initially denied access to the U.N. building, he eventually made a personal appeal to then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who recognized the significance of the story and allowed his production team access to the general assembly hall as well as other portions of the building in which to shoot.

The film begins in Africa with three unknown men going to a secret meeting. The driver is Curtiss Cook, a rebel leader in the African country of Matobo. He is on his way to look at the bodies of executed rebels ordered killed by the country’s leader, Earl Cameron. Along with him are Afrikaner and fellow rebel Hugo Speer and French photographer Yvan Attal. They are there to gather evidence against Cameron in order to oust him as president and stop the mass murders he has perpetrated. Cook and Speer go into the derelict soccer stadium and three young boys lead them to the bodies. But when they come out the two are executed by the boys. Attal, still out in the Jeep, manages to escape. Meanwhile, United Nations interpreter Nicole Kidman has her day interrupted when it is learned that one of the metal detectors has been malfunctioning and the building must be swept by hand. At the end of the day she goes back to her sound booth to collect her personal effects when she overhears whispering on the assembly floor and believes it to be a death threat. But it’s not until the next day, when representatives of Cameron come to the U.N. and she is called on to interpret for them, that she believes the threat is against Cameron himself.

Sean Penn and his partner, Katherine Keener, are secret service agents called in to provide protection. During Penn’s interview with Kidman he rubs her the wrong way and she doubts his ability to protect her. Only then does he reveal that he isn’t there to protect her, but Earl Cameron when he comes to give a speech at the U.N. in order to avoid prosecution for war crimes. In fact, Penn actually believes she might be making the whole thing up. Though she isn’t, there are definitely things that she’s not telling Penn, which makes him suspicious. And the more he uncovers about her past, the more he suspects that she might not be the perpetrator of a hoax but part of an organized effort to kill Cameron when he comes to New York. In the course of the investigation it is not only revealed that Penn’s character has lost his wife in a car accident, but that Kidman has lost her entire family to Cameron’s death squads. Pollack plays the head of the Secret Service and Penn’s boss, who also must coordinate his agent’s activities with the chief of the New York police department, the great Clyde Kusatsu in a long overdue serious role. Other notable faces are secret service agents Robert Clohessy and David Fonteno, and Adrian Martinez as the sound engineer at the U.N.

Nicole Kidman does a terrific job not only with the part itself and playing the woman in peril, but also seems very convincing with the South African dialect. While Sean Penn can be an inconsistent commodity in terms of his performances on film, he is suitably subdued as the agent in mourning who prefers work to sitting around thinking about his late wife. Katherine Keener is terrific as Penn’s no-nonsense partner, but her part is too small to really become invested in. And George Harris has a nice turn as a rebel leader in exile, living in New York City and ready to take over should Cameron be convicted by an international court for crimes against humanity. The political hook at the time was the parallel between the fictional country of Matobo and the real country of Zimbabwe, as well as the similarity between the movie’s Earl Cameron and the real African dictator Robert Mugabe who had been criticized for ethnic cleansing in his country and reprisals against white Afrikaners still living there. The film does boast some very nice plot twists and a couple of real surprises that hold interest. The manufactured sexual tension between Kidman and Penn is far less believable or interesting. Still, The Interpreter is a credible thriller and a well-directed film by the late Sidney Pollack.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Bible: In the Beginning (1966)

Director: John Huston                                   Writers: Christopher Fry & Orson Welles
Film Score: Toshirô Mayuzumi                     Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Ava Gardner and John Huston

As Biblical epics go, this is not one of the more exciting. John Huston’s take on early stories from the book of Genesis suffers from the attempt at literal translation rather than a more creative approach to the tales. At the same time, the familiar fifties style production quality is abandoned in favor of a mid-sixties approach that now seems hopelessly dated. Still, there is a likable quality to the film that manages to maintain minimal interest throughout. The Bible: In the Beginning was an American and Italian co-production headed by Dino De Laurentiis, and was intended by the producer to be the first in a series of films that would work their way through the Bible, but clearly the vision that Houston offered was not one that audiences were keen to return to. The film boasted a number of firsts, however. It featured one of the largest interior sets of the time, the inside of Noah’s ark, which was a hundred and fifty feet long and over fifty feet high, with three decks and pens for the animals. The exteriors were filmed in Rome, Sicily, Sardinia and Northern Egypt. It was also the first studio feature film to contain full-frontal nudity, though these scenes with Adam and Eve were obscured enough that it’s difficult to make the case for that today.

The film begins with Huston as the voice of God, reading the first chapter of the book of Genesis. The visuals are a bit murky at first, but when sky and water and earth are created there is some terrific nature photography--for the time--that goes along with the narration. Adam and Eve are portrayed by Michael Parks and Ulla Bergryd, as stereotypical blond, Arian progenitors of all life on Earth. The Garden of Eden is not quite as lush as one would imagine, and the tree of knowledge is also underwhelming, but the actors do what they can. They eat from the tree and are cast out of Eden, producing Cain and Abel. Richard Harris plays Cain, who killed his brother, and goes through some rather bizarre choreography before being branded by God and cast out himself to roam the earth as the first homeless person. How Adam and Eve people the earth with their own children is glossed over to get to the story of Noah and the Ark. Adam’s race has become vicious, human sacrifice is common place, and in an amusing scene John Huston as God tells himself, John Huston as Noah, to build the ark. What’s fascinating is that the sequence about Noah is performed tongue in cheek by Huston and as a result it’s the most charming part of the entire film.

After the intermission Nimrod, played by Stephen Boyd, builds the Tower of Babel and as a result of God’s anger he gives different languages to the people of Earth so that they cannot understand each other. From there the story moves on to Abraham, played by George C. Scott, and his wife Sarah, played by Ava Gardner. Though the land of Cannan is promised by God to Abraham’s descendants, Abraham is mystified as he and his wife have no children. But God gives a command to Abraham to sacrifice and though he impregnated Hagar, played by Zoe Sallis, she was sent away by Sarah though she bears him a son named Ishmael. As time goes on, however, Peter O’Toole comes in the form of three separate angels all bearing his likeness and when he blesses Sarah she becomes pregnant in her old age and Isaac is born. Though it’s incongruous to see George C. Scott as a Biblical hero, he gives a credible portrayal of the Jewish patriarch, especially in his later years. Ava Gardner gives a subdued performance as Sarah, and Peter O’Toole is equally stoic. It’s interesting to see these performers taking their roles so seriously that they almost constrict themselves in their desire to be reverential, but one wishes that they could have taken the more whimsical approach that the director allowed himself.

The climax of the piece is when George C. Scott is called on by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, played by Alberto Lucantoni. Scott is able to generate some real anger toward the incomprehensible divine being, as only Scott can. But it’s really too little, too late. Just when the picture is actually picking up some steam, it ends. By far the biggest flaw in the film is the approach to the screenplay by Christopher Fry, with some uncredited help by Orson Welles. The only dialogue that Houston allows is that contained in the Bible itself, which is very minimal. Other than that, the performers are limited to actions alone, which doesn’t make for great cinema. Houston’s original plan called for the great Igor Stravinsky to compose the film score, but that never came to fruition. Nevertheless, what today seems a merely serviceable score by Japanese composer Toshirô Mayuzumi was the only Academy Award nomination the film received. In the end, one thing is clear, unlike most directors who would have balked at taking on the Bible, on can see Houston almost relishing the task. But despite an entertaining section containing the director himself, The Bible: In the Beginning is little more than a bloated, uninspiring version of an overly familiar tale in desperate need of inspiration rather than reverence.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Selfless (2008)

Director: Jacob Pander                                  Writers: Jacob & Arnold Pander
Film Score: Auditory Sculpture                      Cinematography: Kevin Fletcher
Starring: Josh Rengert, Mo Gallini, October Moore and Jennifer Hong

The Pander Brother’s film Selfless has taken a real beating online, receiving a meager four out of ten on IMDb, and a dismal zero percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But that’s a shame. Despite this being a first feature--with all the attendant problems that usually incurs--it is undeniably a visually stunning film. This should not be a surprise, however. The brothers hail from Portland and have been graphic artists involved in creating cutting-edge comic books since they were in their teens. They are among a number of young filmmakers plying their trade in the Rose City, creating music videos for the thriving music community as well as collaborating with Portland luminary Gus Van Sant. The film deals with the recent phenomenon of identity theft and takes that idea to the extreme. Josh Rengert is an architect who has it all, a great girlfriend, a model apartment, and a job working for a firm that’s about to close a major deal designing a new skyscraper in Seattle. The film opens in in the airport in Portland, with the credits rolling over people going through security and having to reassemble themselves, belts, shoes, and suitcases, before heading to the gates across the iconic PDX carpet.

As Rengert is waiting for his flight to Seattle, he pulls out his sketchpad and begins drawing stewardess Jennifer Hong. A few minutes later Mo Gallini sets down next to him, irate over being fired while on his cell phone, and Rengert wastes no time in moving to another set of seats. When Hong strikes up a conversation with him and sees his drawing of her, she asks him to sketch someone else. The angry Gallini is still on the phone fuming, and so Rengert begins a quick caricature of him but is caught in the act. Gallini abuses him verbally, and there is a definitely the threat of physical violence before everyone goes their separate ways. What Rengert doesn’t see, however, is Gallini picking up his architectural magazine and getting his name and address off the subscription label. A few days later back at home, Rengert’s girlfriend October Moore has purchased a couch and Rengert’s controlling personality comes out as he wants her to take it back. It turns out he’s the same way with his partners. While the investors want him to make some modifications to the building design, Rengert absolutely refuses. But because of all this Rengert loses sight of the campaign being waged against him. Not only has he been tricked into giving up his social security number to a phony bank alert, but he suddenly discovers that Jennifer Hong is his downstairs neighbor.

As with so many first features, the Pander’s screenplay is easily the weakest part of the film. As supremely confident as the brothers are with their visuals style, their ability to render believable characters is very much the opposite. Even so, the acting in the film is solid despite the script. Josh Rengert does a good job in the lead role. One particularly nice moment is when he has lost everything and freaks out in his car. Pander pulls back his camera and the audience can literally see the car shaking. October Moore as the girlfriend is feeling the need to start a family, which Rengert balks at, being too wrapped up in his work. This drives a wedge between the couple that keeps her from supporting him later in the film. The real star of the film, however, is Jennifer Hong in a double role as the stewardess and her twin sister who has been smuggled into the country, forcing the stewardess to act as a drug mule to pay off her debt in return. She is an enigmatic figure in the film, and one isn’t sure whether she’s working for Gallini or not. As for Mo Gallini himself, he’s a credible villain, who would have been helped a lot if he’d been given an equally credible motive.

It’s not difficult to see why ratings for the film are so low. There’s a great deal of incoherency in the plot. Aside from the lack of motive for Gallini, there is the problem of Rengert’s inability to comprehend an obvious attack on his computer. And when the viewer wants things to be ratcheted up on the identity theft, personal credit cards, utilities shut down, nothing happens until later, allowing the tension-building opportunity to slip away. The visuals, on the other hand, are stunning. Pander bathes the screen in the white glare of overcast Northwest weather, while the locations have been meticulously selected for their clean lines and uncluttered look. In one impressive sequence near the end of the film, the brothers use their graphic arts skills in a lengthy animated sequence where Rengert imagines himself walking through the building he has designed. The close ups and camera angles, as well as interesting montages, also suggest a graphic novel approach to the shooting of the film. Overall, it’s a very compelling film and, taking into account the missteps of first-time feature filmmakers, Selfless ends up being an impressive piece of work that makes one hope the Pander Brothers will be able to make more features and develop their not inconsiderable skills even further.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rear Window (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                             Writer: John Michael Hayes
Film Score: Franz Waxman                          Cinematography: Robert Burks
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelley, Wendell Corey and Thelma Ritter

As much as I love North by Northwest, if pressed, I would have to say that my favorite Hitchcock film of all time is Rear Window. Peter Bogdanovich called it the finest expression of Hitchcock’s art and I would agree. It is as close to being a perfect film as there is. The voyeuristic aspect of the story complements the director’s unique vision and the actors are as good as it gets. Both Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes were nominated for Academy Awards, but with On the Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny being nominated that year, there was no way a mere suspense film could have won. Still, it was a pretty blatant snub that the film wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and that the Thalberg award in 1968 was the closest the master of suspense ever came to winning a statuette. The film was based on the story by Cornell Woolrich called “It Had to be Murder” which had only three real characters, Jeff, confined to a wheelchair, his detective friend, and a black manservant. Hitchcock gave the story to John Michael Hayes to adapt and added the entirety of the love interest and the nurse, as well as most of the dialogue at Hitch’s suggestion.

The story begins with photographer Jimmy Stewart laid up in a wheelchair after breaking his leg while shooting a crash at an auto race. He is visited daily by insurance nurse Thelma Ritter, and his girlfriend Grace Kelley. New York City is in the middle of a heat wave and so Stewart not only can see all of his neighbors through their open windows, but can hear much of their conversations as well. Among the cast of neighbors is a bickering couple across the way, Raymond Burr and Irene Winston. Winston is bed-ridden while Burr takes care of her. One night Stewart hears an errant scream, and the next morning Winston is gone. When Stewart sees Burr taking several trips out of the apartment on a rainy night with his sample case, he gets suspicious. Meanwhile Stewart is getting pressure from Kelley to give up his nomadic lifestyle and settle down, preferably with her. But while their arguments get them nowhere, he does manage to convince her that Burr has murdered his wife, especially after Stewart is able to enlist the help of a detective friend, Wendell Corey. Though Corey initially dismisses the idea, this only inspires the couple to ever more daring attempts to prove Burr’s guilt.

One of the most impressive features of the production is the set, which required that the floor be cut out of one of Paramount’s sound stages in order to accommodate the four-story apartment buildings that faced the interior courtyard that Stewart’s rear apartment looked out on. As with earlier films like Lifeboat and his previous production, Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock thrived on the claustrophobic set, which enabled him to control every aspect of the production from the comfort of his chair on the set. The limitations that would have frustrated other directors, Hitchcock used to perfection. The Greenwich Village apartment is the lens through which the entire story is told. Stewart alternately uses binoculars and a telephoto camera lens to get a better view of the other characters and, with very few exceptions, the audience only views them from afar, from Stewart’s point of view. But Hitchcock also provides suspense by showing details to the viewer while Stewart is asleep, as well as sprinkling the film with some great comedic dialogue. One of the other interesting aspects of the film is that the soundtrack uses exclusively diegetic music, that is, only music that is created by the characters within the film, either on the piano, from the radio, or by whistling. Nevertheless, the great Franz Waxman’s opening title music scored for a jazz combo is one of his most distinctive compositions.

Jimmy Stewart is wonderful as Hitchcock’s favorite Everyman. Like the director himself, he engineers the investigation from his chair, delighted when things work out and horrified when they don’t. Grace Kelley, coming off a strong performance in Hitchcock’s previous film, has arguably her finest role here. She plays a high-fashion New York socialite who dreams of turning Stewart into a fashion and portrait photographer, but is willing to risk her life to show that she has everything it takes to exist in his world as well. Thelma Ritter and Wendell Corey perfectly complement the principals as the wise-cracking nurse and the unimaginative police detective. Though I’ve seen the film dozens of times, I was pleased to be able to attend a theatrical screening of the film as part of Turner Classic Movies’ presentation through Fathom Events. It made me realize just how much is lost by watching the film on television. The buildings loomed up from the screen and the interiors made me feel as if I was in the room with the actors. Though it’s a cliché by now, this truly is the way films were meant to be seen. Rear Window has never lost its power to both thrill and entertain, and as such it remains a testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s genius as a filmmaker.

Show People (1928)

Director: King Vidor                                      Writers: Agnes Johnston & Laurence Stallings
Film Score: William Axt                                Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Marion Davies, William Haines, Dell Henderson and Harry Gribbon

Hollywood was going through a rough transition in 1928. With the success of The Jazz Singer over at Warner Brothers solidifying the legitimacy of sound, the other studios suddenly found themselves behind the technological curve with hundreds of silent films still in the production pipeline. Nevertheless, that was also the first year of the Academy Awards and with films like William Wellman’s Wings and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise as examples of the very pinnacle of silent film art, there was still a lot to admire. Show People, by King Vidor, was one of the first of it’s kind, a film about the movie making industry, and it would be a formula that the studios would return to countless times during the golden age as homages to silent pictures of the past gained traction with moviegoers. The film is a light comedy starring Marion Davies, who had been mired in large, extravagant productions due to husband William Randolph Hearst’s influence. But she did poorly in those pictures, prompting the less than flattering portrayal of her in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Had she been in more films like this, however, her reputation might have been more positive.

In many ways the film is merely an excuse to parade some of MGM’s biggest stars across the screen. The plot is corny and unbelievable and unfortunately set the stage for all kinds of similarly stilted attempts at celebrating the silent era from Hollywood Cavalcade to Chaplin. Marion Davies plays a Southern belle who comes to California with her father, Dell Henderson, a Southern colonel convinced that her daughter’s parochial acting success will earn her an automatic entre into the film business. But she is herded into the line of extras along with hundreds of others, oblivious to the fact that she has no talent at all. In the commissary comedic actor William Haines takes a liking to her and gets her a spot in one of the comedies he’s filming. The director, Harry Gribbon, sets up her scene for her and Davis, convinced she is about to walk into a dramatic masterpiece, is hit with a pie in the face. Her outrage, however, is perfect for the scene and after a bout of tears learning what her fate is to be, quickly climbs the ladder of success, moving beyond the comedies Haines is stuck in and becoming a big star. When this happens she loses the charm she once had and, believing her own press, shuns the lowly comedians, including the heartbroken Haines, who gave her her start in the business. But Haines isn’t about to give up on the girl he loves.

Marion Davies is not a great actress, but she does have a certain amount of charm that is effective in a role like this. William Haines, on the other hand, tends to wear thin after a while, but that may have been due to the part he plays rather than his acting ability. The great Dell Henderson tends to steal the show when he’s onscreen. Taken as the frothy comedy it is, it’s not an unentertaining film overall. John Gilbert makes a couple of appearances as himself, as does director King Vidor. But there is also a great scene involving Charlie Chaplin. Seeing Davies in her first comedy, he goes over to get her autograph but she is so busy talking to Haines that she ignores Chaplin, only learning afterwards who he really was. The Washington Center for the Performing Arts has, for years now, presented a silent film series each spring. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the opportunity to attend. But a few weeks ago I was able to see their presentation of the MGM film Show People with an original score performed on the Wurlitzer organ by Dennis James. Of course “The Mighty Wurlitzer” has been denigrated over the years as being hopelessly old-fashioned and out of date, as passé as silent films themselves. But this was an absolutely delightful afternoon. The instrument was impressive and added another dimension to an average film and made it a truly memorable experience.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Academy Awards 2015

One of the unfortunate occurrences when a non-comedian hosts the Oscars is that they usually resort to a production number to open the show rather than a comedy routine. Still, host Neil Patrick Harris did a good job, and there were some very interesting special effects that accompanied his performance. He was also joined by Anna Kendrick onstage and in a nice cameo by Jack Black coming out of the front row to take part in the song that trashed the trend of unoriginal films that have flooded movie screens for the past decade. To be fair, Harris was able to interject a lot of humor into the proceedings, which included a life internet feed of his own Oscar predictions kept in a glass case onstage during the show. Throughout the show, various screen personalities introduced the best picture nominees, while the best song nominees were also performed at various intervals, the most moving of which was the Glenn Campbell song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which he recorded for his wife and daughter before the onset of Alzheimer’s claimed his performing abilities.

The first award is always for best supporting actor. It was a strange set of nominees this year from an odd assortment of films, but the Oscar went to J.K. Simmons for his role in Whiplash, a category he also won at this year’s Golden Globes. For costume design, an award usually going to the work on some kind of historical film, it went to the great Milena Canonero who took home her fourth Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel. The next award, for makeup artist, also went to The Grand Budapest Hotel for the team of Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier, who took home his second award. The category for best foreign language film had some very interesting Eastern European films nominated this year and, not surprisingly, the winner was the Polish film Ida. Best live action short film went to The Phone Call, a British film about a crisis center operator. And in a similar vein, the documentary short subject was won by Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. Viola Davis introduced the Governor’s Award winners, which went to, among others, Maureen O’Hara and Harry Belafonte. The award for sound mixing was given to Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley, the second win for the film Whiplash, while sound editing went to Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman, the first win for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. The best supporting actress category was particularly strong this year and the well-deserved award went to Patricia Arquette, from what I assumed wrongly would be just the opening salvo by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

For visual effects, usually a sci-fi category, this year was no exception as the award went to the Interstellar team of Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher. Next, in the animated short category, the winner was Feast, about a dog with a ravenous appetite, and for the best animated feature Big Hero 6 took home the Oscar. Far be it from me to suggest undue influence, but it’s no surprise that both these films were produced by John Lasseter at Disney. Like costumes, the award for production design almost always goes to a historical film and this year it went to The Grand Budapest Hotel again for the work of Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock. And best cinematography went to Emmanuel Lubezki for his innovative work on Birdman, the first award of the night for that film. Eventually it was time for the list of those who have been lost in the last year, which included Mickey Rooney, James Garner, Elizabeth Peña, Edward Herrmann, James Rebhorn, Louis Jourdan, Richard Attenborough, Ruby Dee, Robin Williams, Rod Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Eli Wallach, Bob Hoskins and Mike Nichols. The next award was for best film editing and went to Tom Cross, the third award of the night for Whiplash, while the best documentary feature went to Citizenfour, the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden. The best song came from the film Selma, and the song “Glory” received a standing ovation when it was performed at the ceremonies. One of my favorite categories, best film score, was won by Alexandre Desplat who was nominated for two films, winning for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

After that, all that remained were the awards for the big six. The first of these was for best original screenplay. The award went to writer-director Alejandro Iñárritu and his writing partners Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo for Birdman. For adapted screenplay the winner was Graham Moore, the first Oscar of the night for The Imitation Game. For best directing the Oscar also went to Alejandro Iñárritu for Birdman, but with the unique style of the film it was fitting. And he also made a terrific speech. The best actor category, with one glaring exception, was also a close race with Eddie Redmayn--who gave a once-in-a-lifetime performance as the world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking--taking the Oscar for The Theory of Everything. The nominees for best actress were very diverse and really could have gone to any one of them, but this was the biggest disappointment of the evening for me when Julianne Moore won for Still Alice. Finally, it was the moment we’d all been waiting for, best picture. And the winner is . . . Birdman. It was stunner for me, but even though the film didn’t win the most awards, it was certainly the big winner of the evening.