MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Revolutionary Road, Tender Mercies, Man Hunt, and more…

PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

Revolutionary Road (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Sam Mendes, 2008 (Paramount)

Revolutionary Road is one of these novels I‘ve always meant to crack — like Remembrance of Things Past, or Middlemarch or At Swim Two Birds, but a somewhat easier read. So I was happy to see it on screen, since this Sam Mendes version of Richard Yates’ highly regarded 1961 novel — a book which got great reviews and maintained its reputation –gave me a chance to buy and read Yates’ book, in a nice cheap movie tie-in paperback with Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet on the cover, nuzzling noses and swaddled in white.

The book deserves its reputation. The movie, which I’ve seen twice (for Oscar reasons), is a sometimes too distant, but often cuttingly ironic and despairing look at people trapped in the immaculately humdrum life of middle class suburbia in the ‘50s. Main couple Frank and April Wheeler (DiCaprio and Winslet), who married young and hot, have seen their dreams dissipate in a world where the only escape seems to be infidelity or madness. They are facing a terrible crossroads — something that only April and a local lunatic sense ahead. The book traps you, sings to you, stings you, and so does the movie.

Yates, like John Cheever, writes in that dry, chiseled, ironic, luminous American prose that both castigates American middle class culture and, in an odd way, celebrates it — or at least celebrates the artists ensnared in it. His book is about how marriages collapse and how artists and would be artists or outsiders suffered in the materialist realms of Eisenhower America. That‘s a worthy subject — however much we‘d appreciate that Eisenhower “boredom“ today, in the throes of an even worse post-Bush-and-Cheney malaise.

Revolutionary Road is a good adaptation. Director Mendes and writer Justin Haythe preserve much of the story and dialogue and they strive to capture and maintain the angry, wistful tone. They get Yates’ postwar blues, and try to keep everything moving at a high class level. They mostly do. There are three (maybe four) indisputably top-notch performances in the film: by DiCaprio and Winslet, and by Michael Shannon as John Givings, the electroshock-shattered son of their gabby realtor Helen (Kathy Bates, who probably belongs with this threesome too.)

The movie begins with Frank and April’s incandescent meeting at a New York City party, flirting and then grabbing each other — lascivious and unfettered — and then it segues to the book’s opening scene: Frank and April years later at their Laurel Players Community Theater play The Petrified Forest, a disastrous failure that starts their little private war and (fleeting) peace.

April is the romantic, Frank the cynic, and the play starts their crackup, interrupted by April‘s heart-shattering would-be gift to him, of a start over in his “favorite” city, Paris, with April earning the bread while Frank finds himself. To a writer like Yates, that may make April an angel; in the movie, when she becomes pregnant, and Frank is offered a promotion and “gets sensible,” you can feel her heart breaking. (“You’re just a boy who made me laugh at a party,“ she says to him, a devastating line.) Frank doesn’t feel it yet. That‘s his curse; he dismisses her grief as maladjustment. And all around them are those trim lawns and austere interiors: bookless, artless, somewhat like a ‘50s Universal movie soap opera set ready, for Jane Wyman.

The movie skids toward tragedy, interrupted by great argument scenes, brilliantly executed by Leo and Kate. (Did you see that slightly clenched, careful look in his eyes at the Golden Globes, when the double-winning Winslet said that she loved him?) Yet, though Revolutionary Road may be a great book, at least for its time, it’s not a great movie. It’s a little too self-regarding, too not-so-secretly pretentious.

But it has those mind-bending performances. The best scenes in the film are the sullen, nervous clashes with Michael Shannon as crazy John Givings, who has had his gift, mathematics, driven out of his brain by electroshock, who tells the truths the others conceal or ignore, who is at first amusedly tolerated then angrily attacked by Frank and whose mother, Helen (at whom he once threw a table) keeps standing in front of him, saying “He‘s not well! He’s not well!” Shannon is amazing; he galvanizes the other actors.

And you can only be happy for all that cast and ensemble — Leo, Kate, Michael, Kathy, Dylan Baker (acrid Jack Ordway) and the others — when they get to play parts like these.

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CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS

Tender Mercies (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Bruce Beresford, 1983 (Lionsgate)

Robert Duvall’s Oscar-winning performance as a washed-up alcoholic country and western music star, anchors this beautifully written (by Horton Foote) and acted domestic drama, filmed with the unforced realism and bitter romanticism that was a mainstay of many of the better American movies in the late ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, and (except for lower-budget indies) has been largely neglected since. With Tess Harper as Duvall’s redemptive lover, and Ellen Barkin as his daughter. The movie, one of Beresford’s best, really catches the exterior and interior landscapes of America, its falls, its Fitzgeraldian second acts, and its broken-hearted but resilient losers and callous winners.

Man Hunt (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Fritz Lang, 1941 (20th Century Fox)

The great Fritz Lang takes on Der Fuehrer in 1941‘s Man Hunt, a neglected 1941 gem of film noir and ballsy left-wing thriller, scripted by John Ford‘s liberal conscience, Dudley Nichols. Lang’s source novel is Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, a furiously topical pre-WW2 bestseller about a British big game hunter (played by Walter Pidgeon), who goes after Adolf Hitler (played by the actual Schickelgruber in documentary footage) , and then finds himself the target of Nazis, killers and fifth columnists in a very foggy London of shadowy houses and rain-slickened streets, where chills, betrayal and murder are always in the air.

Together with cinematographer Arthur Miller, Lang — whose 1931 M is the first great international noir, and whose later ‘40s films Hangmen Also Die, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street are all classics of the genre — gives the film a potent visual style. As much as those two other 1941 masterpieces, The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane, that style lays down the look of noir for the whole decade. In fact, Man Hunt, with its glistening dark streets and crisply shadowy interiors, shows the way Lang’s later cheaper-looking adaptation of Graham Greene‘s The Ministry of Fear (a better novel, but an inferior film) should have looked.

Pidgeon, as staunch and sonorous-voiced a Golden Age hero as they come, plays the Hitler-hunter, Alan Thorndike, with Pidgeon’s How Green Was My Valley co-star that year, Roddy McDowell, popping up here as a resourceful cabin boy. George Sanders, in his cruelest, coolest vein, plays the British-speaking Gestapo Major Quive-Smith, John Carradine is another German agent and killer who masquerades (successfully) as Thorndike, and Joan Bennett — whom Lang later immortalized as a quintessential noir slut in Scarlet Street (also scripted by Nichols) — plays it tough and sweet here as a Vivien Leigh sort of saucy street minx who helps Thorndike elude his own hunters, falls in love and then makes a moving sacrifice. Lang and Nichols pick and draw their hero, heroine and villains well. The movie is greatly aided by its uncompromising antifascism, as well as its brilliant visuals and overall mood of nervous, romantic paranoia.

Extras: an excellent commentary by ace Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, documentary, trailer.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SET

Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Set Four (Two Discs) (Three Stars)
U. K.; Jim Goddard/Bruce MacDonald, 1995-1998 (Acorn)

More evidence that contemporary British TV is still a treasure trove for literate, classically handled murder mysteries and crime dramas. Again, the source is top-notch: Rendell, the psychologically acute and tight-plotting British mystery writer who has only one rival (P.D. James) for the title of Agatha Christie‘s logical successor as England’s, and the world’s, queen of literary crime.

Rendell specializes in the morbid obsession, sexual perversity, social conflict and latent murder that lies below the seemingly mundane surface of the everyday — and her work has been adapted by, among others, France’s prime film Hitchcockian Claude Chabrol (for his 1995 masterpiece La Ceremonie). Here Rendell is in the hands of fellow Brits — Goddard and MacDonald are able helmsmen, if far less inspired than Chabrol — and the results are good, gripping, well-acted and very crisply shot adaptations of two mysteries from Rendell’s prime long-running series, the Inspector Wexford novels.

Wexford, of course, is a provincial detective inspector with a sturdy exterior, a deceptively workaday small town air and a genius for ferreting out the dark undertows and secret criminal psychology and quirks of his murderers. The actor who played him for the entire series run was George Baker; I think they retired him too early. Baker here delivers two examples of his definitive interpretation, in two TV displays of Rendell mastery. Also costarring Christopher Ravenscroft as Baker’s less imaginative sidekick, Burden.

Includes: Simisola (U. K.; Jim Goddard, 1995) Three Stars. The search for a local Nigerian-born doctor’s missing daughter is complicated by murder. Knotty, engrossing. Road Rage (U. K.; Bruce McDonald) Three Stars. Highway protests and the slaying of a German tourist tangle up Wexford’s and Burden‘s work schedule and lives.

Extras: Documentary Super Sleuths: Inspector Wexford, with Baker and others.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: Blu-ray

To Live and Die in L.A. (Blu-ray) (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; William Friedkin, 1983 (MGM)

Friedkin, in his gritty, stylish “French Connection” cop thriller mode, this time anatomizes L. A. real-life drug crimes. Co-starring William Petersen as the cop and Willem Dafoe and John Turturro as the crooks, none quite what they first seem. There’s another spectacular car chase, edited by Bud Smith: this time it takes place, terrifyingly, going wrong-way on an L. A. freeway. It was Dafoe’s quietly intense performance here, oddly enough, that sold Scorsese on casting him as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ.

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OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVDs

Defiance (Three Stars)
U.S.; Ed Zwick, 2008 (Paramount)

Ed Zwick‘s Defiance, based on a true-life story about Jewish partisans — who carve out a community-in-hiding in a Belorussian forest during World War 2 — is fairly unique among World War 2 movies, in presenting Holocaust-era Jews not as tragic victims and survivors, but as heroes and heroines who fight back and persevere against Nazis and anti-Semites.

It’s well-made, in much the same vein as Zwick‘s Civil War epic Glory (out this week on Blu-Ray) and I enjoyed it.

SPOILER ALERT

I especially enjoyed seeing Liev Schreiber, in his intensely macho performance as brother Zus Bielski, roar to the rescue, at one point, of leader/brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig). Schreiber and Craig, both excellent here, are playing the kind of full-bore movie hero parts that, in a different kind of movie decades ago, might have gone to Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper — and I don’t mean that in a mocking way. (Nor am I talking about Vera Cruz.)

SPOILER ALERT

Believable heroism and self-sacrifice — even believable stubbornness, in Tuvia’s case — can be thrilling things in a movie like this, and Defiance gives both stars good roles and a strong arena, as it also does for Jamie Bell, playing Asael, the youngest brother. Defiance has received mixed reviews. But it’s a good, and unusual, World War 2 movie, and it deserves its audience.

He’s Just Not That Into You (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Ken Kwapis, 2008 (New Line)

Can we have a moratorium on movies based on both video games and self-help books? This is a lousy strategy for artistic success. Nor does Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo’s relationship tome He’s Just Not That Into You provide fertile soil, or jokes, for the attractive young cast assembled here, hired to impersonate a bunch of Baltimore yuppies, attractive but enmired in sexual dilemmas of sometimes maddening triviality.

Here’s the lineup, dramatizing erotic complications that might be better titled “No Sex in the City.” (or “Not Much Sex in the City.”) Pushing-too-hard Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) wonders why self-absorbed Conor (Kevin Connolly) won’t call her back; meanwhile Smartass Alex (Justin Long) advises her over the cell phone. Beth (Jennifer Aniston) has an ideal relationship with attentive permanent-bachelor Neil (Ben Affleck), whose only flaw is his aversion to marriage. Mary (Drew Barrymore, also the executive producer) can’t get a hookup going, despite the constant inspiration and advice of a gay Greek chorus at her magazine. (“Queer Pals for the Straight Gal?”) Anti-smoking fanatic Janine (Jennifer Connelly) is so obsessed with ridding Baltimore of nicotine, that she remains blissfully unaware that hubby Ben (Bradley Copper) has his eye on picky Anna (Scarlett Johansson), who is in turn admired by chum Conor.

And to think that, with a similar ensemble structure, heavier on the roundelay and boldly adding venereal disease, Max Ophuls, inspired by Stefan Zweig, made the great La Ronde. This is a Woody Allen-style movie without Woody (just like his own these days), but also without Woody’s wit or smarts. In movies and in life, looks aren’t everything — no matter what the executives think.

Despite the talent and good looks of He’s Just Not’s cast, I just didn’t care whether any of these characters got laid. Instead, I wanted all of them to be funnier, or more moving, or sexier, or something, to justify their screen time. And I thought the advice being dispensed by original authors Behrendt and Tuccillo and screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein was mostly hogwash, unless you happen to be a self-absorbed Baltimore yuppie with a lot of cash, or a character in a movie like this. If you aspire to be either, maybe you’ll get off on He’s Just Not That Into You. But I’m just not that into them.

Taken (Two Stars)
U.S.; Pierre Morel, 2008

Divorced hubby ex-commando intelligence agent Liam Neeson braves his wife’s insults, and then loses his wayward daughter and her bad-influence gal pal to a part-Albanian kidnap-prostitution ring on a Parisian vacation. So he goes after the gang that abducted them both, single-handed and outside the law. Neeson is an excellent action hero, but this movie, which has him torturing and killing dozens (maybe hundreds) of bad guys, while manhandling the French police and shooting their wives, racing through and wrecking much of Paris and barely pausing for a breath, quickly becomes ridiculous.

There’s plenty of carnage and mayhem, but after the first bloody one-against-a-bunch battle or two (at which time I confess, the movie still had me hooked), there‘s little real suspense — since we know Neeson can’t lose, no matter how numerous and heavily armed his opponents, and since the movie has to keep coming up with new villains to replace every fresh batch that gets massacred by Neeson.

A huge hit from producer-writer Luc Besson and director Morel, who also teamed up on the French nonstop crime thriller, Banlieue 13. If you had qualms about the sheer absurdity of that movie’s over-the-top go-go-go action, they’re realized here — though Taken could have been very good with one fifth the violence and much more character and humor. Costarring Maggie Grace and Famke Janssen. In English and French, with English subtitles.

Extras: Both theatrical and extended cuts, featurette.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Peter Yates, 1973 (Criterion Collection)

This model neo-noir, a minor classic shot in a flat-colored, understated, matter-of-fact style that replicates some of the mundanity of true crime, takes a harshly realistic look at the Boston underworld, thanks to lawyer/author George V. Higgins’s much-praised novel. Higgins, scripter-adapter Paul Monash and director Peter Yates — train a laser eye on an amoral bunch of bad-bad, good-bad and bad-good guys, including the great cool guy Robert Mitchum as hapless weary gun-buyer Eddie, Steven Keats as a nervous crook, Alex Rocco as a cocky robber, Peter Boyle as a brutal snitch, and Richard Jordan as a devious cop.

Yates counts this as one of his three personal favorites among his movies, along with Breaking Away and The Dresser (many of us would add Bullitt), and it’s so realistic and well-heard and observed, that it makes the world of crime seem almost routine. In this milieu, it is. As Eddie, Mitchum, way off-type, achieves something close to a blend of everyday evil and crumbling grandeur. The movie is low-key but unforgettable.

Extras: Commentary by Yates, booklet with Kent Jones essay, and Grover Lewis’ spicy, almost too-revealing on-location Rolling Stone article.

North West Frontier (Flame Over India) (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.-U.K.; J. Lee Thompson, 1959 (MGM)

A stiff upper-lip British Army captain (Kenneth More), transports an endangered and very young British Indian prince, on a truncated passenger coach train though hundreds of pulse-pounding miles, in the middle of a revolution. This one is a real sleeper: a little known, but extremely exciting and picturesque adventure epic from Thompson, as triumphant with the colonial Stagecoach-like ensemble heroics here, as he was with the blazing WW2 commando-raid action of The Guns of Navarone and the flesh-crawling suspense thrills of Cape Fear. (Maybe he’s been underrated.)

With Lauren Bacall as a plucky governess, Herbert Lom (superb) as an acerbic anti-British Dutch-Indian journalist, Wilfrid Hyde-White as a dithering good guy, and A. S. Johar as the gutsy train-driver. Trust me; if you like Gunga Din-style movie adventure, you’ll like this one. More is not bad, but if the young Sean Connery or Michael Caine had been the star, this movie would be regarded as a classic.

The King and Four Queens (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Raoul Walsh, 1956 (MGM)

One of Walsh’s weirder westerns, with Clark Gable as a cynical adventurer who tries to seduce and swindle any of the four wives (worldly-wise Eleanor Parker, stacked brassy blonde Barbara Nichols, foxy Jean Willes, and sweet young thing Sara Shane) of a missing or dead outlaw gang, while nosing out the location of the holdup loot hidden by the gang’s hard-case, unconnable mom (Jo Van Fleet).

Despite Gable’s famous charm, plus the pungent acting by Van Fleet (whose characterization here prefigures her later masterpiece for Elia Kazan, as stubborn matriarch Ella Garth in Wild River) and luminous cinematography by the great Lucien Ballard (the man who lit and shot for Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah), this one drags a little. Unlike Taken, it needs more action.

Three Comrades (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Frank Borzage, 1938 (Warner Archive)

Three fast friends with various and volatile natures — romantic musician Erich (Robert Taylor), idealistic, anti-Fascist Gottfried, and streetwise Otto (Franchot Tone) love each other and Erich’s fragile lover Patricia in the turbulent years between World Wars 1 and 2, as the Nazi party rises and Germany struggles through economic collapse and social unrest. Based on what may be a roman a clef by another Erich — novelist Erich Maria Remarque of All Quiet on the Western Front — this movie, boasting a script co-written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is another full-hearted Borzage romance, glossy and exaggerated yet also lyrical, heartfelt and affecting.

– Michael Wilmington
June 2, 2009

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Wilmington

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