Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet and the Art of Being Relevant

Sidney Lumet, a director of stage, tv, and especially film, died recently at the age of 86. He never made a TRANSFORMERS movie or dealt with terminators, aliens, or hobbits. Instead he explored life in cities, especially New York, life that invigorates, pushes, demoralizes, and kills. But Lumet infused his work with realism and occasionally sharp satire. He was especially interested in police corruption as seen in two of his best films: SERPICO(1973) with Al Pacino and PRINCE OF THE CITY(1981). Although he never won an Oscar as Best Director, he drew bravura performances from individual actors and group ensembles as well. Lumet could plumb the depths of Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT(1962) with its harrowing portrait of the ultimate dysfunctional family as seen in the ravaged faces of Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards, Jr. and Ralph Richardson. Or he could foresee the effects of the coming women's movements in his version of THE GROUP(1996), an entertaining take on Mary McCarthy's acid-laced satire.

On individual terms, Lumet's most memorable films concentrated on society's losers or victims, which he showed with compassion and unaffected irony. His first film, TWELVE ANGRY MEN(1957), skewers in-bred prejudices, as Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb brilliantly battle over the fate of a falsely accused Hispanic. A personal favorite is the electric drama DOG DAY AFTERNOON(1975), in which Al Pacino gives his finest performance as a married bi-sexual caught in a botched bank job. His character wants to pay for a sex-change operation for his boy friend. A series of tragi-comical events makes the robbery a media circus. Lumet handles all of this chaos with a caring and judicious hand, balancing comedy with pathos. His next film would be his most controversial and also one of his best: NETWORK. Perhaps the sharpest satirical comedy since DR. STRANGELOVE, this scathing comic drama seems even more prescient today than when it came out. Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar as the demented news anchor Howard Beale whose rant became part of the national discourse: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" He was matched with equally voracious and gutsy performances from Faye Dunaway (Oscar) as a career obsessed producer and William Holden (Oscar nominee) as her lover and victim. The film touches on racial unrest, world corporation control, and the decline of the media as a purveyor of facts, not propaganda. Nominated for Best Film of 1975, NETWORK lost to ROCKY, a bit of sentimental populist pap. But as the years advance, Lumet's reputation only grows in stature, and the directors of many "Best Films" are forgotten.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Matthew and Jake Are Back on Track

CONFESSION: I cannot stand Matthew McConaughey. He began well as a lawyer in A TIME TO KILL, based on John Grisham's novel, giving an intense performance that lacked the vanity of his later efforts. But the rest of his career has been spent playing shirtless slackers opposite the likes of Kate Hudson. With that said, I still enjoyed the courtroom mystery of THE LINCOLN LAWYER, in which he plays (surprise) a somewhat sleazy LA lawyer whose office is a creaky, chauffer-driven Lincoln town car. Sometimes he's smart, but sometimes he's not, putting his desires ahead of his needs. He takes on the case of a rich playboy, played with steely cold by Ryan Phillippe, who's accused of rape and battery. But as a famed Dane once said, something is rotten in this case, which takes McConaughey into the darker regions of LA low life. Marisa Tomeii plays his ex-wife, who can't quite cut the strings. The film has the noir feeling of Raymond Chandler and does not disappoint.

FINALLY BACK TO FORM: When Jake Gyllenhaal popped on the scene in films like the inspiring OCTOBER SKY (1999) and the truly strange and creepily appealing DONNIE DARKO (2001), he began a promising career that led to strong performances in ZODIAC and especially the ground-breaking BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005) opposite the late Heath Ledger. But his last two films have been major duds in which he was miscast as a medival hunk saving the day in PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME, an effects-laden swashbuckler in which he was all but lost. The other was even worse: the deplorable LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS in which he played a swinging Viagra salesman who falls for a feisty Parkinsons patient, embodied by an annoyingly perky Anne Hathaway. Naked or not, this unfortunate combo was in the poorest taste that tried to combine frat boy humor (Jake's slovenly gross brother--why is there always one of these slobs in movies today?), a serious disease, and even an orgy.

SO it is a pleasure that Gyllenhaal has bounced back in the new sci-fi thriller SOURCE CODE, in which he gets to bounce forward eight minutes in time in order to find a bomber hell-bent on blowing up Chicago. The film is smart, fast, and fun, even though it has some serious questions about terrorism and mind control. And Gyllenhaal delivers a nuanced performance that expresses charm, fear, and control.

It may be too late for McCounaghey, but Gyllenhaal has a chance of being a major leading man, depending on his film choices and the fickle taste of his public.