MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Wendy and Lucy, Science is Fiction and more…

CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: NEW

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.; David Fincher, 2008 (Criterion)

David Fincher, seemingly working at full intensity, gives us the epic adaptation of an obscure (and much-changed) F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who lives his life backwards. Born as an old, wizened man, he progresses through maturity then back to boyhood and infancy — leaving his lifelong sweetheart Daisy (Cate Blanchett), trapped in real time.

Meanwhile, as elderly, sick Daisy tells the story in a New Orleans hospital, Hurricane Katrina rages, reminding us what an unholy mess George W. and Dickie C. made of nearly everything. A virtuoso studio movie, Benjamin Button pleased and touched me. It has a humanistic/historical sweep reminiscent of Forrest Gump (Eric Roth wrote both movies) and near-instant likeability, thanks to Pitt and Blanchett (the two big commercial elements). The HD cinematography (by Claudio Miranda) has a ghostly sensitivity; the production design by Donald Graham Burt effortlessly sweeps us back and forth. And the cast, especially the two leads, plus Tilda Swinton and Taraji P. Henson, successfully push any buttons they want.

There is a narrative flaw. In all Benjamin’s many decades of life, starting on Armistice Day, 1918 and progressing to nearly now, nobody seems to want to capitalize on this oddity by peddling the tale to the news media. Say what? Does that really make sense? (Why not add a character who wants to spill the beans, but decides not to or is stopped?) In any case though, this is the kind of wistful metaphor-laden fantasy that relies on our good will and our willingness not to ask too many questions. A good-hearted, well-crafted, daring picture is always welcome.

Extras: Commentary by Fincher, documentary.

Wendy and Lucy (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Kelly Reichardt, 2008 (Oscilloscope)

American movies these days mostly ignore life at the lower levels of society, except to portray it as a joke or a menace, or in semi-condescending social worker casebook style. Here, writer-director Kelly Reichardt and star Michelle Williams, with deep but understated sympathy, and without obvious commentary or attitude, take us right into the small, precarious, heartbreaking world of a young woman, Wendy (Williams), living out of her car with her beloved pet dog Lucy (played by Lucy). While traveling west for a job and running out of funds in a small town on the way, Wendy shoplifts some dog food for Lucy. She is then separated from her beloved pet when the clerk insists on filing charges and she has to leave the dog, leash tied in front of the store.

Wendy‘s subsequent desperate search for Lucy makes up the bulk of the film, and we see everything that happens — experience the kindness, indifference or cruelty of the people around her — through Wendy‘s eyes. Few films since Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves or Umberto D. — the latter also about an impoverished owner and a dog — have seen so clearly and sympathetically into the world of want and poverty. Few have better portrayed the kind of conditions that drive people on the fringes to misery, or that spur reformers to the kind of social changes that the meaner, greedier breeds of political conservatives these days tend to mock, revile, or dismiss as “European socialism.” But compassion is a noble emotion. See and feel it here.

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CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS

Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve (3 discs) (Four Stars)
France; Jean Painleve, 1925-1982 (Criterion)

Jean Painleve (1902-1989) was a French scientist and film enthusiast, who became a pioneer in the field of scientific or nature films, making over 200 of them, many with his collaborator/life-partner Genevieve (“Ginette”) Hamon, from 1925 to (at least) 1982. This superb Criterion collection assembles 22 of them (along with Bluebeard, one delightful foray into musical/animated puppetry), together with an excellent eight-part TV documentary-interview of Painleve by Denis Darrien, made in 1988, the year before Painleve’s death.

The movies, which focus mostly on ocean life, were shot either in Painleve‘s studio aquariums, or underwater off the coast — and they’re marvelous: science fashioned into poetry. Painleve usually made three versions of his movies: one for scientists, one for students and one for the general public. The latter is mostly what we see here — edited more poetically, fancifully and whimsically, and fitted with scores by composers from Chopin to Duke Ellington, or with original music by Maurice Jaubert, Pierre Jansen and others (including a modern rock rescoring by Yo La Tengo). There are though, examples of Painleve’s scientific “documents”, including his first film, the 1925 The Stickleback’s Egg.

The films, whatever their age, have retained all their original freshness, surprise and lyricism, from 1927’s The Octopus (a favorite subject of Painleve’s, to which he returns in 1967‘s The Love Life of an Octopus) to 1982’s Pigeons in the Square.

The Sea Horse (1933), one of his few big audience hits, shows us these wondrous fairyland creatures in lovingly intimate detail. The Vampire (1945), shot during the Nazi occupation of France, reflects Painleve‘s life long radical politics by using footage of vampire bats and clips from Nosferatu to create an anti-fascist allegory, with the bats stiff, snappy wing-stretches becoming perfect parodies of the Nazi “Seig Heil!” salute. ACERA, or the Witch‘s Dance (1972) is a piquant mating dance of the sea. Liquid Crystals (1978) gives us more compelling abstract images than many a famed abstract painter/poseur‘s work. How Some Jellyfish are Born (1960) is an astonishing celebration of viscuous renewal.

Critics tend to ignore or severely neglect nature documentaries, and this set shows how wrong we are. (So does the current Disney feature Earth.) These films are truly works of art. The best way to experience this treasure trove may be to watch the documentary first and then the films. (Most of Derrien’s clips are from films also in the set.) But anyway you encounter Jean Painleve, it’s a fine, wonderful, highly engrossing and enlightening rendezvous de la mer. (In French or silent, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Booklet with Scott MacDonald essay.

Poil de Carotte (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
France; Julien Duvivier, 1925 (Arte/Facets)

Wonderfully restored new print of Duvivier‘s famous but now little seen silent picture (he later remade it as an even more famous early talkie) about a mistreated young boy in a French bourgeois provincial family, a warm-hearted lad whose mother and sibling persecute or ridicule him. While his father ignores the abuse, the boy slides steadily toward despair and perhaps, suicide.

This sad and sometimes overly melodramatic story is told in an almost incongruously sunny and high-spirited style by Duvivier, amid gorgeous mountain backgrounds, and with a very lively performance by young Andre Heuze, as the abused boy, nicknamed “Poil de Carotte” or “Carrot Top“ for his flaming red hair. But it gets to you all the same. Henry Krauss is the father, the part played by Harry Baur in Duvivier‘s 1932 remake. French silent, with English subtitles and original Gabriel Thibaudeau score.

Extras: Introduction by Serge Bromberg, clip from Jacques Feyder‘s similarly-themed silent Visages d‘Enfants.
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CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: BOX SET

Czech Chillers (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
Czechoslovakia; Otakar Vavra, Jaromil Jires, 1969-70 (Facets)

Here’s an odd, memorable treat for connoisseurs: two fine, rare-ish Czech films from the end of that country‘s great New Wave. (In fact, both were released after the invasion by Russia, when the cinematic creative ferment of the ‘60s was about to be staunched.) Both are gems: unusual, provocative, full of horrors and beauties, excitingly well-crafted. The sweeter and more surreal of the two, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, about a little girl‘s sometimes horrific coming of age, was written and directed by New Wave mainstay Jaromil Jires (1935-2001). Director of the neglected classics The Cry and The Joke, and a classmate of later Hollywood expatriates Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, Jires was one of the directors censored and hurt by Dubcek‘s fall – though he did recover and kept writing and directing until 1999.

Otakar Vavra, his elder, was one of the movies’ great survivors — born in 1911 and still living today at 98, with a filmography that stretches, with few interruptions, from 1931 (when he made the short, Svetla Pronika Tmou or The Light Penetrates the Dark) all the way to his last film (to date) in 2003, My Prague. Vavra was also famed as a great teacher, one of the founders of Czechoslovakia’s FAMU film school in Prague, where many of the eventual “New Wave” directors were his students and ardent proponents.

You’ve probably never heard of Vavra, much less seen his work, so it’s a pleasure to report that the Vavra movie in this set was his own personal favorite, the remarkable witch hunt tale, based on Czech history, Witches’ Hammer. A genuine masterpiece, it’s a fit testament for the old Czechoslovakia’s little known but ageless master. Both films are in Czech, with English subtitles.

Included: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jires, 1970) Three Stars. Surreal, sexy and bewitchingly colorful, this is about a little girl‘s sometimes terrifying ascent to womanhood in a strange, entrancing landscape full of dreams, fairies and vampires. Like many of the avante-garde ‘60s Eastern European films, it’s pretty wild and abandoned sexually, an orgy with monstrous undertones, yet also overflowing with sweet, childlike melody and charm. With Jaroslava Schallerova.

Witches‘ Hammer (Otakar Vavra, 1969) Four Stars. In 17th century Czechoslovakia, a poor, superstitious old woman tries to spirit away her Holy Communion wafer from church to cure an ailing cow. Caught, she is branded a witch and forced (i. e. tortured) to accuse others of witchcraft as well. Fear spreads like plague after the parish’s wealthy leaders hire a renowned but unscrupulous and brutal witch hunter, who begins using more extreme torture to extract false confessions and accusations, condemn innocent citizens and confiscate their property.

In a crescendo of terrors, witch after witch is burned at the stake, and when the admired local priest objects, he too is accused and put on the rack. Based on Vaclav Kaplicky‘s novel, and on the actual transcripts of the real-life Czech witch trials (which Vavra faithfully recreates on screen), this stark black-and white classic is reminiscent of Arthur Miller‘s play The Crucible — a powerful drama and, given the times, an uncommonly brave political statement. With Elo Romancik and Vladimir Smeral.

Extras: booklets with articles on Jires and Vavra.

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collections

These new TCM/Warners anthology reissues of well-loved, well-celebrated or sometimes underrated American movie classics offer now familiar but mostly essential titles in bright new packages. For those who haven’t purchased them before, either individually or in other sets, they’re all highly recommended.

TCM Greatest Classics Films Collection: Best Picture Winners (Four Stars)
U. S.; Various directors, 1942-58 (TCM/Warners)

Included: Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942) Three-and-a-Half Stars. With Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon and Teresa Wright. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) Four Stars. With Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, Marcel Dalio and one of the greatest Hollywood studio casts ever assembled. An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) Four Stars. With Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant and that ‘swonderful Gershwin score. Gigi (Vincente Minnelli, 1958) Four Stars. Based on Colette, the Lerner and Leowe musical with Caron, Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan.

TCM Greatest Classics Films Collection: American Musicals (Four Stars)
U. S.; Various directors, 1944-53 (TCM/Warners)

Included: Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944) Four Stars. With Judy Garland (at her best), Mary Astor, and the incredible Margaret O‘Brien. Easter Parade (Charles Walters, 1948) Three-and-a-Half Stars. With Fred Astaire, Garland and Ann Miller. Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen, 1952) Four Stars. The top. With Kelly, Donald O‘Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Jean Hagen. The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953). Four Stars. With Astaire, Charisse, Jack Buchanan and Levant.

TCM Greatest Classics Films Collection: John Wayne Westerns (Four Stars)
U. S.; Various directors, 1948-1972 (TCM/Warners)

Included: Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948) Three-and-a-Half Stars. With John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple and Victor McLaglen. The Searchers (Ford, 1956) Four Stars. With Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood and Ward Bond. Rio Bravo (Ford, 1959) Four Stars. With Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan, Angie Dickinson and Ward Bond. The Cowboys (Mark Rydell, 1972) Three Stars. With Wayne, Bruce Dern, Colleen Dewhurst and Roscoe Lee Browne.

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OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVDS

Last Chance Harvey (Three Stars)
U.S.; Joel Hopkins, 2008 (Anchor Bay)

London-born writer-director Joel Hopkins’ shows us, with wit and feeling, romance igniting between a beleaguered American (Dustin Hoffman) foundering at his daughter’s snobby London marriage ceremony, and the sharp London lady who rescues him (Emma Thompson). In this well-written, directed and acted film, we get to watch an expertly handled late-life love story, as interpreted by the masterly Hoffman and the marvelous and somewhat taller (at least in heels) Emma Thompson, both at the top of their games. It’s not a great movie, or completely original, but a good one, a nice one — and it boasts what I would call a great movie kiss. (Thank you, Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Thompson. I hope it was as much fun as it looked.)

Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a divorced, morose L. A. TV jingle writer, whose life and career seem to be falling apart, event as he takes off to attend his daughter’s wedding in London. Thompson is Kate Walker, a good-natured single airport survey worker, with a terrific smile, who lives with her very nervous mother (Eileen Atkins) — who believes she’s reliving Rear Window.

The first part of the movie shows the excruciating wedding prelims, Harvey and Kate‘s first unpromising meeting and their repeated near miss almost-encounters later on. The rest of Harvey consists of a Before Sunrise-style walk around the city that works wonderfully — because Hoffman and Thompson are so good together — and finally the scene we really want to see, Harvey’s triumphant return to the wedding party with Kate. The movie teases us throughout. But it never lets us down. And if it has a major flaw, I’d say it’s that we don’t know enough about Kate, whose revelatory speech near the end should be longer.

Hopkins’ movie, probably intentionally, has several links to The Graduate, where Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock disrupted another wedding. Harvey might well be a Benjamin in winter, and that’s one reason he connects with us. This is the Hoffman we like to see and the Emma Thompson we like to see as well: witty, humane, smart charmers, who may be out of step, but are still a step or two ahead of the rest.

Twilight (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Catherine Hardwicke, 2009 (Amazon Exclusive)

I haven’t read any of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling teen vampire novels, but this would-be ultra-romantic movie — made by Catherine Hardwicke, a director I’ve admired in the past — didn’t get my veins pumping or awaken any insatiable hungers.

The movie is about an ordinary high school girl from a broken home, Bella (Kristen Stewart) who enters a new school in her police chief dad‘s (Billy Burke) Northwest small town and finds herself befriended by local cuties and also the impassioned desire-object of the disturbingly handsome Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who looks like a Ralph Lauren ad and acts like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The story is a romanticized teen masturbation fantasy, better written and acted than usual, but not particularly compelling or surprising. It takes about half the movie for it to really get going — and then the thrills are fairly typical big-studio heartstoppers: aerial love scenes, Hong Kong style flying fights and a super-baseball game, interspersed with family arguments and high school antics intended to ground the fancifully grisly stuff in some kind of shopping mall reality.

When Hardwicke and teen actress-writer Nikki Reed (also in the cast here) made Thirteen, they hooked us by their honesty; when that movie delved into the wild side, it didn’t sensationalize. Hardwicke tries to bring that kind of veracity to Twilight to counterbalance the vampire stuff. But, box-office or not, it’s a lesser, if bloodier, movie. Blu-ray Extras: Commentary by Hardwicke, Stewart and Pattinson, deleted and extended scenes, documentary, featurette, music videos, trailer.

K*ke Like Me (Two Stars)
U. K.; Jamie Kastner, 2007 (Kimstim/Kino)

The title comes from John Howard Griffin‘s Black Like Me, the once-famous reportage of a white journalist masquerading as a black, made into a 1964 movie with James Whitmore. Here, Jamie Kastner pretends to be Jewish (we guess, though he plays coy all the way through) to expose anti-Semitism and confront Jewish culture throughout Europe. There are some funny jokes, nice Jewish scenes, edgy moments of anger and very good extras here. But, I thought this was more an overly self-convinced masquerade of a movie. I also had a low opinion of Kastner’s handling of the German woman running a Jewish restaurant, from whom the director demands back money he gave her, after she says she’s not Jewish. No matter what her origin, why humiliate an old woman on camera?

Extras: Interviews with Christopher Hitchens and others, tour of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, trailer.

My Father, My Lord (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
Israel; David Volach, 2007 (Kino)

This one has been out a while, but I had to catch it up. Beautifully filmed, directed and acted, it’s a family drama, set in the Israeli Hasidic community, that casts a spell and builds to a very moving climax. A strict rabbi and father (Assi Dayan) is almost bullyingly firm with his inquisitive young son (Ilan Grif), disturbing the more sensitive wife and mother (Sharon Hacohen Bar). But their lives all take a wrenching turn when the little boy, momentarily under his father‘s care while the mother runs an errand, disappears on a beach. An extraordinary writer-director feature debut for David Volach, who comes from a fundamentalist background and recreates it with both love and sorrow. In Hebrew, with English subtitles.

Extra: Trailer.

- Michael Wilmington
May 5, 2009

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“I wondered how different it would be to write a novel and it’s totally different. It’s very internal. The weird thing about it is that I found that novel-writing was much more like directing than it is like screenwriting. You’re casting it, you’re lighting it, you’re doing the costumes, you’re doing the locations, you’re doing it all yourself as a director would. In screenwriting, you don’t do that stuff. You don’t describe the face of the actor or the character when you’re writing a screenplay because Tom Cruise is going to do it and he doesn’t look like that, whereas in the novel to describe what he is is what he is. The actual act of writing, just like shooting on a set, is a slow slog. It’s going to work every day.”
~ David Cronenberg On Screenplay vs. Novel

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