Sunday, April 26, 2015

Collateral (2004)

Director: Michael Mann                                Writer: Stuart Beattie
Film Score: James Newton Howard             Cinematography: Deon Beeebe
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith and Mark Ruffalo

Michael Mann has had an interesting career in films, though probably more successful as a producer than a director. Still, he has done the occasional great film, and Collateral is definitely one of them. In fact, it’s arguably his best film. In a way, this can be seen as one of the strangest buddy pictures ever made. Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise work beautifully together and each seems to make the other better. Part of that is due to Mann’s meticulous preparation, in which every single thought and action by the characters are completely seen through a backstory that is never part of the actual text of the film. The entire film takes place over the course of one night, and the profound changes it makes for Foxx is wonderful to watch. Cruise’s machine-like character drags Foxx along whether he want’s to or not, and Foxx’s character finally has to make some decisions in his life rather than drifting along in complacency and fear. The project was kicking around Hollywood for quite a while and nothing ever came of it until Russell Crowe expressed interest in playing the hit man. That’s when Mann came onboard, but his thorough preparation caused delays that made Crowe bow out and immediately Mann went to Cruise. The original setting of the film was New York City, but Mann man wisely moved it to L.A., an area he is more adept at working in.

The film opens at LAX, with Tom Cruise walking through the airport and exchanging briefcases with Jason Statham in a bit part. From there the scene shifts to a cab company garage, with Jamie Foxx cleaning out his cab for the night ahead. He picks up Jada Pinkett Smith at the airport and takes her into downtown, to the federal court building. During their conversation the audience learns about his dream of owning a limousine company. She gives him her number and as he is thinking about her, Tom Cruise hops in and wants to hire him for the night. At his first stop, Foxx parks in the alley and pulls out a Subway sandwich to eat. Next thing he knows, a body falls on his windshield from the apartment above. But Cruise needs Foxx to take him around to his other hits, so he has him put the body in the trunk and forces him at gunpoint to finish the night. A few minutes later police detective Mark Ruffalo pays a call on the apartment, only to find out his snitch is missing, and that he is probably dead though there’s not body. The next hit is a lawyer in a high-rise apartment building, and when Foxx tries to get away Cruise has to kill a couple more people. At the same time, Ruffalo’s investigation leads to a drug case he’s working which puts him in conflict with a federal investigation run by Bruce McGill and Jessica Ferrarone and all of the threads eventually come together at the end for an incredibly exciting climax. But the film’s nowhere near being over. The final twenty-five minutes of the film is an absolutely riveting game of cat and mouse as Foxx and Cruise play to the death.

The plot, by veteran screenwriter Stuart Beattie is as good as it gets, with plenty of surprises and tons of tension. There are some absolutely brilliant scenes in the film as well. One of them is some nice misdirection in a jazz club with trumpeter Barry Shabaka Henley, who acquits himself well. But the best takes place after Foxx finally screws up his courage and destroys all of Cruise’s information, and the killer sends him in to get the information directly from the drug lord the feds are after, Javier Bardem. Foxx’s performance in the scene is nothing short of magnificent. It’s difficult to know whether Cruise’s name in the film, Vincent, is an in-joke about his character in The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese’s sequel to The Hustler, or just accidental. Cruise even has the same hairstyle, this time in gray. The film was nominated for two Oscars, one for editing and one for Jamie Foxx as supporting actor. Of course Cruise hasn’t been nominated since 1999, and he is probably never going to again despite some increasingly impressive screen performances. The supporting actor nod for Foxx seems designed to try to get him the statuette when one considers he was more of the lead in the film than Cruise. But all of the acting is uniformly excellent, as one has the impression that Michael Mann wouldn’t allow anything but excellent performances to make it to the screen.

Despite his limited success, there’s no denying Mann’s talent for visuals, which is on full display here. Mann’s LA is visually palpable, from the shimmering sunset to the grey twilight of night that is caused by the lights of the urban sprawl. The aerial shots are impressive, and he also has a very nice penchant for close ups that is typically only seen in independent films. Another fascinating aspect of the photography is Mann’s use of the widescreen when he is shooting the scene with Foxx and Bardem. Rather than keeping them together in a two shot, he cuts back and forth between them. What is so remarkable is that Bardem, facing right, is positioned all the way to the right of the screen, and Foxx, looking left, is positioned all the way to the left. It’s disorienting at first, but is utterly unique and ultimately impressive. Mann also has a penchant for the eighties style music that infused his earlier successes, namely Manhunter and the television series Miami Vice, and the great James Newton Howard delivered the same in his film score. Mann received the best director award from the National Board of Review, though he was snubbed by the Academy. But it doesn’t matter. The work stands for itself, and Collateral remains a powerful and important work by a gifted director.

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.