Monday, December 16, 2013

In Memoriam: Peter O'Toole

It's been a bad December for losing people who made the world brighter - Nelson Mandela first and foremost, of course, but also movie stars who helped stir our imagination: Paul Walker, Eleanor Parker, most recently Joan Fontaine, and, of course, the incomparable Peter O'Toole.

One of the greatest actors of his generation, if not of all time, O'Toole - like so many of his British and Irish peers - started off his career in the theater, where he would undoubtedly have made his mark even if he'd never done a film in his life. But besides being a first-rate thespian with the most exquisite diction this side of Richard Burton, he had an extraordinary magnetism, not to mention drop-dead gorgeous looks, that pretty much destined him for the big screen. If the movies hadn't existed, they would have had to be invented for him.

His first big break, "Lawrence of Arabia," was also his best work: if you haven't seen it, do so immediately - preferably on as large a screen as you can find. It's not often that you get such a perfect intersection of a truly great film and a truly great performance, where each mutually enhance and elevate the other. Actually, the film's stacked with excellent performances, but O'Toole's, necessarily, was its beating heart. It's now hard to imagine anyone but him so completely embodying the contradictory, enigmatic figure that was T.E. Lawrence - the intellectual idealist with a streak of savagery, the ambitious eccentric with an impossibly grand vision of his own destiny, the brilliant strategist and charismatic leader who was ultimately tricked by his own ego and naivete into serving as a pawn of the British Empire. O'Toole captured all these facets of the character with both flair and depth, and director David Lean gave him the ideal backdrop to shine: an epic landscape that somehow didn't diminish Lawrence's larger-than-life presence, and complex political undercurrents among both the British and Arab forces that only underlined the sense that he at once belonged and didn't belong in their midst.

(O'Toole received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for "Lawrence," but lost that year to Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird." I always thought it a pity they couldn't have tied and understand why the Academy gave it to Peck, but even as a Peck fan, I'd still give the clear edge to O'Toole.)

"Lawrence" was a once-in-a-lifetime-role that others might have found an impossible act to follow. Not O'Toole, who continued to deliver dynamite performances that earned him a record of 8 Oscar nominations and, sadly, zero wins, not counting the consolation-prize honorary Oscar the Academy finally handed to him in 2003. He didn't always make the best career choices, or life choices for that matter, and was almost as famous for being perpetually drunk (he was Irish, after all) and raising hell with fellow acting heavyweights Burton and Richard Harris (but what company to carouse with!) as he was for lighting up the screen. Nonetheless, light it up he did, most memorably as a succession of kings, madmen, and eccentrics; very seldom did he play an ordinary man. That didn't mean he couldn't. Two of my favorites among his performances were the dashing undercover cop who charms the pants off Audrey Hepburn in the underrated caper/art heist flick "How to Steal a Million" and, much later in life, the quietly sympathetic tutor to "The Last Emperor" of China.

I remember, at the time of the latter, my mother, who'd had a crush on O'Toole in her youth, bemoaning how old he'd gotten. I had the opposite reaction. Age, alcohol, and illness, including stomach cancer, had clearly taken their toll, yet I was struck by how much he still looked like the man I knew mainly as young "Orence": the same tall, spare figure, perhaps a little more stooped, a little more fragile, the same full mouth and hollow cheekbones, and, most of all, the same piercing blue eyes with the quietly meditative, contemplative look. Even more years later, I saw him again as Priam in the otherwise-laughable "Troy" (he and Eric Bana were the only good things about that movie) and that look was still there - the look of a poet, a dreamer, and a little bit of a madman. I'm confident that look was with him to the end.


I was also going to say a few words about Joan Fontaine (so memorable as the second Mrs. De Winter in my favorite Hitchcock film, "Rebecca"), but I'll leave that to the much more capable hands of the blogging queen of Old Hollywood, Self-Styled Siren.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Second "Hunger Games" keeps fire alive


Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone
Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games have returned, and this time they’re taking no prisoners. If there’s any safe bet for this winter holiday season, it’s the unlikely blockbuster franchise about a dystopian future society in which the Have-Nots are forced to send their children to fight to the death for the entertainment of the Haves. At the core of the “Games”’ appeal, of course, is the equally unlikely heroine who both dominates and defies them: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Girl on Fire, ace archer and family provider, reluctant warrior and even more reluctant celebrity following the last Hunger Games. (Spoiler for those who didn’t see the first movie, didn’t read the books, and have been living under a rock: she won.)

Faithfully adapted from the second book in the trilogy (apparently to become a tetralogy for movie purposes)*, “Catching Fire” hones in on Katniss’s new fame and the dangerous position in which it places her. For the Girl on Fire has unwittingly become not only a figure of public fascination but a symbol of hope to the oppressed—and thus a threat to the Capitol, embodied in the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The latter warns Katniss that her actions have stirred sparks of revolt in the districts, and that her only hope of saving herself and her family is to convince everyone that she’s no rebel but simply a girl so in love with her co-victor, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) she was willing to break the rules and die rather than kill him. The reality of Katniss’s feelings towards Peeta, however, is a good deal more complicated, and somewhat refreshingly, not the main focus of either the book or the movie.

(*The third book, Mockingjay, is going to be split into two movies. Allow me to rage a moment about this new moneymaking ploy of splitting books that are perfectly capable of being captured in one film into two or more. Oh well, at least it isn’t The Hobbit.)

When Katniss’s best efforts to act madly in love fail to subdue the growing uprising, Snow and his new Gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) devise a new strategy. It just so happens that every 25 years there’s a deluxe version of the Games called the Quarter Quell, and this year is the 75th anniversary of the Games, or the third Quarter Quell. And every Quarter Quell has a special twist. The twist this year? The contestants for each district will be selected from past victors—an All-Star Hunger Games, if you will. Since the rules still require one male and one female contestant from each district, and Katniss is the only living female winner from her district…well, you get the picture. She’s going back in, whether she likes it or not, and so is Peeta.

Like the first “Hunger Games,” the first half of “Catching Fire” takes its time laying the groundwork for the games, giving a fuller context for just what kind of society would sustain such a barbaric ritual. This worked so well in the first movie that the games themselves felt a bit anticlimactic. Here, however, the preparatory/prefatory phase drags a little, partly because the novelty has worn off, partly because Katniss remains mostly passive and reactive to the phenomenon she’s spawned, partly because the idea that her victory tour and public love story would have any hope of preventing a rebellion seems so…silly. And while the movie could have made more hay out of the ridiculous reality-TV, celebrity-wedding aspect of her manufactured love affair with Peeta, director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer), best known for the even more dystopian “I Am Legend,” sticks to an intensely serious tone that builds up the dramatic tension but largely sidelines the satire. That odd couple of counselors, permanent drunk Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and model-of-Capitol-mores Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), seem strangely, forlornly subdued, and even the TV ringmaster extraordinaire, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), gets a lot less screen time than he did in the first film.

The flip side is that the games themselves are a lot more engaging this time around, even if the mayhem continues to be constrained by the movie's PG-13 rating. It helps that the Quarter Quell features not only a more interesting set of physical obstacles but a much more intriguing cast of contestants, including a heartthrob (Sam Claflin), a hoyden (Jena Malone), a mad scientist (Jeffrey Wright, who’s starting to risk getting typecast as such), and a toothless, seemingly harmless crone (Lynn Cohen), any and all of whom might turn out to be allies, mortal enemies, or both, for Katniss and Peeta. The question of whom Katniss should throw her lot in with becomes a major theme of “Catching Fire,” ultimately implicating—and complicating—her relationships both with those she implicitly trusts and with those she instinctively distrusts. It’s a theme that will continue into the third and fourth installments, as set up by the wrenching cliffhanger of the final scene.

“Catching Fire” suffers some of the usual weaknesses of middle chapters and as such, probably won’t win any new fans - not that it needs any. The narrative in some ways feels like a retread of its predecessor, and in others like a transition to “Mockingjay.” And though the acting is solid across the board, the lack of access to the characters' internal lives can make them seem frustratingly opaque at times. Nevertheless, the film as a whole does a good job developing the central conflicts, fears, and attachments that hooked us in the first place, and in so doing keeps us in for the long haul.