Manoel de Oliveira's Belle Toujours is back on the charts this week, playing on one lone screen, in Denver, according to my information. Among its other qualities and achievements, it marks the fourth collaboration of director Oliveira and actor Michel Piccoli (a fifth, a short segment in an anthology film, appeared earlier this year). At 81, Piccoli is practically a living legend, having worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Louis Malle, Mario Bava, and many other greats. He also appears in Jean-Pierre Melville's 1962 Le Doulos, currently re-released on 2 screens. It's a delicate relationship between director and actor; Piccoli and Oliveira seem to be developing a comfortable working relationship in which each brings out the best in the other. This has happened relatively few times over the past century. When it happens, it can be very exciting, but when a director and an actor don't click, everything can fall to pieces.
Milos Forman has coaxed and guided some great performances over the years, notably Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus and Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon. But he has rarely been praised for directing women, as evidenced by his awkward handling of Natalie Portman in the awful Goya's Ghosts (37 screens). The movie earned advance attention for its nude/sex scene, but will probably be remembered for fitting Portman with a set of humorously bad fake teeth and for her self-consciously dazed walk, newly released from prison, through a chaotic town square. Forman may be to blame, but Portman is out there, on the screen, all alone and in front of everyone.
Portman has always had trouble finding a director that clicks with her and her potent brand of warm, playful beauty. Certainly George Lucas provided her most wooden moments in the Star Wars films, but so did Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain) and Mike Nichols (Closer). Her best performances have been on the more physical side, more warmly cuddly rather than pristine posturing (The Professional, Beautiful Girls, Garden State), but perhaps the director that has understood her best so far has been Israel's Amos Gitai with Free Zone. In that, she plays a broken-hearted American in Israel who receives her new surroundings with an open heart. The film starts with a touching, tour de force as Portman purges her lost love with a several minute-long crying jag. Free Zone performed badly here and the reviews were tepid, so it remains to be seen if Portman and Gitai will re-unite at any point. But we can cross our fingers that Portman will click with either Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) or Wong Kar-wai (My Blueberry Nights), both slated to open later this year.
These days a director re-teams with an actor more often for sequels than for any kind of chemistry. Gore Verbinski steered Johnny Depp to a great performance in the original Pirates of the Caribbean, and also tapped into Keira Knightley's particular brand of luminescence. But for the sequel and the new Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (280 screens), nobody seems inspired anymore, and even Knightley looks plain. Depp has been lucky enough to find a kindred spirit in Tim Burton. They've made five films together, plus a sixth, Sweeny Todd, coming this fall. (Ed Wood in particular is one of my all-time favorites.) Burton indulges Depp's need for complete immersion, adorned by as many props and bangles as possible, and Depp makes a perfect, almost comically stoic, straight man for Burton's dark, gothic, imaginary universes.
Danny Boyle has re-teamed with actor Cillian Murphy for the second time in Sunshine (33 screens), though it strikes me that both Boyle and Murphy are in need of strong direction. Boyle began his career with a pair of energetic romps, one a Hitchcockian thriller and the other a dangerously exciting, psychedelic drug trip. From there, he floundered, changing visual styles and signatures as often as he changed genres, and each time losing momentum by the third act. Murphy starred in Boyle's grungy, derivative -- but highly popular -- 28 Days Later, and now in Sunshine, a far quieter, more refined piece with some attempts at Tarkovsky-esque visuals. But Murphy is an intensely focused actor in desperate need of guidance, and Boyle doesn't seem to be able to give that to him. Murphy was far more effective working with Wes Craven in Red Eye; there he was seductive, charming, slippery, treacherous and brutally alive. Could he be the next Freddy Krueger?Finally, the prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Johnny To, perhaps one of the best, unsung action directors on the planet, continues to work with the same stable of stars over and over again. In his latest release, Exiled (7 screens), he has re-teamed with Simon Yam, Suet Lam, Anthony Wong and many others, each of whom he has worked with at least a half a dozen times. (He has also worked many times with superstar Andy Lau, of Infernal Affairs fame.) This shows an extraordinary commitment to actors and a skill for making them comfortable and -- even harder -- pleasing them with the results. If this were more common, the movies, in general, would be a lot better.