MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: 12, For All Mankind, This is Spinal Tap, The Haunting in Connecticut, and more…


12 (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
Russia; Nikita Mikhalkov, 2008

12 is a modern Russian version of one of the great virtuoso American melodramas: writer Reginald Rose’s teleplay-turned-movie-turned-stage play 12 Angry Men. Rose‘s original is the pressure cooker tale, told mostly in “real time,” of 11 jurors who are gradually swung around, one by one, during arguments, by Juror No. 8 — played by Robert Cummings in the 1954 Franklin Schaffner-directed Studio One TV show, Henry Fonda in the 1957 Sidney Lumet movie, Jack Lemmon in William Friedkin’s 1997 TV remake and by nervous, increasingly defiant Sergei Makovetsky here.

Juror No. 8, the one clear, calm voice, starts out as the one man in the group who believes a young minority defendant (originally Puerto Rican), accused of murdering his father is innocent. Here, for Mikhalkov, there are some cultural shifts: The defendant is from Chechnya, his stepfather victim is Russian, and the social issues have been enlarged to include the new Russia’s problems with corruption, rebellion and the Chechen war.

Mikhalkov himself — an actor so good his brother Andrei Konchalovsky insists he’s “the Russian Jack Nicholson“ — plays the even-tempered jury foreman, the role done in Lumet‘s movie by Martin Balsam. And Mikhalkov and Makovetsky are part of a tremendous, full-bodied, hold-nothing-back ensemble who almost match Lumet’s stellar group for passion, pro fervor and precision. Especially good in the Russian troupe are Sergey Garmash, as a grinning cabbie/bigot who combines the old Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley main antagonist roles of embittered father and genial bigot, Yuriy Stoyanov as a waffling TV producer (Robert Webber’s waffling ad man?) and Valentine Gaft as a Jewish survivor (George Voskovec, I suppose).

I’m very partial to Rose‘s script, based on his own actual jury service, and I also love Lumet‘s movie, which has risen in critical estimation over the years. I‘m even a fan of the Schaffner original (which you can see on Koch Vision’s Studio One Anthology) and the Friedkin remake. But, for the first hour or so, I was a little down on Mikhalkov’s and screenwriter Vladimir (The Return) Moiseyenko’s Russky update. It seemed to me too operatic, too inflated and theatrical-gimmicky, too blustery, too loud. I missed Rose’s and Lumet’s seamless stagecraft, their neat structure and subtly changing atmospherics — the ways they make that jury room keep closing in on those twelve men.

Relocating the jury from a claustrophobic jury room (which Lumet actually kept making smaller as his jury arguments progressed and exploded) to a huge, dank-looking school gymnasium (with a freedom-yearning little sparrow flying around trapped, inside) seemed too heavy/symbolic. So did all the therapy sessions of the jury members, windy psychodramas much expanded from their U. S. equivalent scenes. (Sometimes Mikhalkov’s jury seems to be discussing everything but the murder; Rose’s and Lumet’s angry men stay on point — keeping the movie solidly in the classic ‘50s leftist-drama track with On the Waterfront, High Noon, Rebel Without a Cause, and A Place in the Sun.)

But I was with 12 by the end — by which time that specifically Russian sonorous theatricality, and the sudden strange shifts in the jury debate, no longer bothered me. In the last section, when Mikhalkov springs his surprise twist, it’s obvious he’s not trying to duplicate or simply update the Lumet film with a new background. He‘s making an intense dramatic comparison between the social visions of both versions, and their effects on the jurors — between the varying political and court systems out of which the American classic and its new Russian translation/transformation operate. 12 and its cast finally impressed me greatly, and the film only takes on enhanced meaning and emotion if you’re familiar with Lumet‘s 12 Angry Men — which, of course, most of us are.

Now, Lumet’s movie is the best. No Juror No. 8, however committed, will ever argue me out of that verdict. But Mikhalkov’s 12 is a stirring variation. It’s also a fitting tribute to the whole international leftist tradition of morally charged political theatre and movies — and to our universal ideals of justice, in America, Russia, or anywhere.



For All Mankind (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Al Reinert, 1989 (Criterion)

Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary on the men in the moon — a mass portrait of the 24 astronauts who participated in mankind’s only trips to the moon, the manned Apollo moon flights between 1968 and 1972 — plays like one of the great science fiction epics, even though what we see is indisputably science fact. Culled from the mountains of footage recorded by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration during the period, including a multitude of stuff actually shot on the space ships and on the moon itself, augmented with audio interviews with thirteen astronauts, it is an extraordinary, document of an amazing set of voyages. And it’s also an unforgettable mass portrait of the 24 men who underwent this incredible experience: a series of trips to the moon and back that was undertaken — as John F. Kennedy (almost) says in the film’s prologue, and as the NASA space cowboys left behind in a plaque on the moon — “for all mankind.“

Reinert gives us something comparable in its extraterrestrial lyricism, strangeness and galactic rapture to Kubrick’s “2001.” But oddly reassuring as well. Reinert’s movie is often as homey and “ordinary” as the ubiquitous crew cuts and often-Southern drawls of the Houston ground team, as familiar as the taped music that went into space — including country ballads by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and, most fittingly, Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon” — and as poetically otherworldly as 2001 itself or as Tarkovsky‘s Solaris. It’s a visionary film made out of what are almost home or industrial movies — the most expensive and mind-boggling ever taken — of one of the most astonishing human adventures. Thirteen of the astronauts, notably including Alan Bean, Jim Lovell, T. Kenneth Mattingly and Gene Cernan — speak on the sound track, and though none of them were initially identified in the film’s original release and showings, here on the DVD, you can opt to include their I.D.s on screen — a better way of watching this film, I think.

As the movie shows us spectacular shots of the men on huge metal missiles launching into space in cascades of fire, drifting though a vast black empty infinity in the weightless cabins of the Apollo ships, or romping on the moon with a mix of awe and boyish playfulness (“I was strolling on the moon one day, in the merry merry month of May (December)“ — you truly witness sights that are both extraordinary and all but unrepeatable. Accompanied and enhanced by an appriately lunar and mystical score by Brian Eno and others, For All Mankind stones you with its grandeur, becalms you with its humanity.

Extras: Commentary with Reinert and astronaut Eugene A. Cernan; documentary; interviews with 15 astronauts; video program on Alan Bean’s artwork; booklet with essays by Terrence Rafferty and Reinert.

Bardelys the Magnificent, plus Monte Cristo: The Lost Films of John Gilbert (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Various Directors, 1922-26 (Flicker Alley)

John Gilbert is most famous as the silent matinee idol who became one of the great casualties of the sound film era: his voice supposedly too high and “unmasculine” to suit his highly virile “Great Lover” image for translation to the talkies.

That’s wrong, of course, as the 1933 Greta Garbo-Gilbert sound classic Queen Christina has long amply demonstrated. But this release of two rediscovered “lost films” starring Gilbert, including the King Vidor-directed Bardelys the Magnificent, reaffirms, like Gilbert’s 1925 Vidor classic The Big Parade, (the biggest movie box-office hit of the ‘20s) –what great and mesmerizing silent movie actor he was, a master of both brooding Valentino-ish romantic intensity and playful Fairbanksian high spirits.

Bardelys, the jubilant and impudent tale of a storied French Casanova who finally falls in love, with a virginal belle played by Vidor‘s then-wife Eleanor Boardman, and nearly loses both his love and his life to vicious court intrigues, is based on a novel by that supreme swashbuckler author Rafael Sabatini, the original writer of Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and one of my boyhood favorites Scaramouche. (with its smashing opening line, “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”) It‘s a gleaming restoration of a beautifully photographed film, thought lost for years, but now missing only a short silent reel. (The still-lost footage is recreated, A Star is Born-style, with stills.)

Gilbert here breaks hearts, crosses swords and leaps and vaults from high walls to rooftops with lusty abandon. His flashing dark eyes make him an ideal movie romantic hero. But he also projects real emotion, real sadness. Bardelys is thrilling, poignant and full of high spirited hilarity by turns, and its comic scenes, especially the wild climax with its breathtaking shots of Doug Fairbanks-style athletics as Gilbert’s Bardelys escapes form the gallows, is a real laugh-and-cheer showstopper.

Monte Cristo, directed by the now forgotten Emmett J. Flynn (who‘s not bad), was a very popular early movie of the Alexander Dumas classic, one of the most oft-filmed of all famous novels. This rediscovery is much less pristine and glorious than Bardelys. It’s a more used, scrappy-looking and faded print recovered from Czech archives. But the always-compelling story, and Gilbert’s intense performance, make it eminently watchable anyway.

For silent film lovers especially, this little anthology is a great treat. It’s both revelatory showcase for Gilbert’s underrated gifts, and, in the case of Bardelys the Magnificent, lots of rousing fun. Both films are silent, with titles and music tracks.

Extras: Commentary on Bardelys by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta; documentary Rediscovering John Gilbert; art and photo galleries; booklet with essays by Vance and Maietta.

Includes: Bardelys the Magnificent (U. S.; King Vidor, 1926) Three-and-a-Half Stars. With John Gilbert, Eleanor Boardman and Arthur Lubin (the future Abbott and Costello director, playing a pomped-up Louis XIII). Monte Cristo (U. S.; Emmett J. Flynn, 1922) Three Stars. With Estelle Taylor and George Seigmann.

Extras: Commentary on Bardelys by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta; documentary Rediscovering John Gilbert; art and photo galleries; booklet with essays by Vance and Maietta.



This is Spinal Tap (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Rob Reiner, 1984 (MGM)

The greatest, heaviest, metallest, tongue-in-cheek rock mockumentary of all time, starring sublime rock stooges Michael McKean, Chris Guest and Harry Shearer as three legendary heavy metal louts (plus drummers) on a totally dysfunctional comeback trail. Rock on, dudes. (They do.)

Extras: Commentary (in character) by McKean, Guest and Shearer; deleted scenes, Spinal Tap music videos and TV ads; trailers.



The Haunting in Connecticut (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Peter Cornwell, 2009

The Haunting in Connecticut is a haunted house horror movie, supposedly based on fact, dismayingly full of shadowy rooms, dingy décor, rotting corpses, a bedeviled family, screaming kids and a loud, clanging clamorous soundtrack to cue the scares. There’s even an exorcist of sorts, played by the always intense Elias Koteas — who manages the movie‘s best performance, despite the absurd scene where he suddenly realizes he may have screwed up.

Haunting seems about as real as a three-dollar cadaver, but there’s no accounting for taste. Grisly, cliché-packed, unimaginative horror movies desperately trying to repeat the horrific successes, and excesses, of the past have popped up regularly recently. And Connecticut, which might have been called The Amityville Snorer, is no worse than some. Then, again, watching it is about as much fun as waking up with a corpse in your bed — which in this movie would have been followed by a shock cut, a scream and a loud clang.

The hell-hounded family of The Haunting in Connecticut are the Campbells — including cancer-stricken son Matt (Kyle Gallner), courageous mom Sara (Virginia Madsen), excitable kids Peter and Mary (Ty Wood and Sophi Knight), lively cousin Wendy (Amanda Crew), and troubled dad Peter (played by Hal Hartley stalwart Martin Donovan). Peter, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, has a drinking problem, but, unlike Jack, he doesn’t have any great tantrum scenes. (“Heeeere‘s Johnny!”) He does however have a bland drunken snit fit about the family leaving too many lights on. (Isn’t that the cinematographer’s job?)

Ah, the poor Campbells. Ignoring the danger signs, including a friendly warning from the landlord, and funeral documents and equipment that don’t seem to have been removed since the 1920s, they move into the house — hoping, despite its bad reputation, that living there will help Matt’s treatment and recovery. Had they but known! Fairly soon, all hell starts breaking loose, highlighted by the continuous appearances of those rotting corpses, who keep popping up like skeletons on a carnival scare ride, along with another group of pale, dead but very active, “Hellraiser”-looking dudes who have strange, incomprehensible inscriptions written all over their bodies — perhaps this movie’s screenplay.

Director Peter Cornwell, in his feature debut, shows smidgens of talent for gruesome atmosphere, and editor/songwriter Tom Elkins works overtime trying to crank up the fear level. But the script never jells, most of the live actors seem dispirited, and the movie, overall, seems less scary than Dick Cheney. Or, for that matter, Blimp Rushbomb. Devotees of rotting corpses, however, will get more than their fill, as will lovers of shock cuts, dingy decor and loud clangs. Devotees of haunted house movies are advised to stay home and rent The Shining.

Eldorado (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
Belgium; Bouli Lanners, 2008 (Film Movement)

A Belgian importer/dealer (Lanners) interrupts a junkie-thief (Fabrice Adde) in mid-burglary at his home. Then, he is so taken with the hapless addict’s personality and vulnerability that he both forgives him and embarks with him on a cracked Chevrolet odyssey of familial homecoming and weird rediscovery. Austere-looking and raffishly funny, a Cannes Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight pick, this is one of the best of recent road movies, and a very impressive triple outing as director-writer-costar for the chunky, thoughtful-looking Lanners. (He comes across as a sort of art house Seth Rogen.) In French, with English subtitles.

Menage (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
France; Bertrand Blier, 1986 (Koch Lorber)

Michel Blanc and Miou-Miou are a destitute couple arguing furiously (Miou-Miou) or meekly (Blanc) in public. They are suddenly interrupted by Gerard Depardieu, who takes over their lives, seduces them both over and over, and turns them into what he is: an outlaw/ prostitute on the dark side of life. Depardieu‘s brash Bob the Burglar is one of the great movie psychopath roles, an unstoppably seductive force of nature who sweeps through Blier’s movie and the lives of his victims like a gale of sin. (It was the sad-eyed comic actor Blanc however, who won best actor honors at Cannes for Menage.)

I was caught up for most of this movie. But I found the puckish ending, with Blanc in drag looking oddly like Holly Hunter, too cute by half. Still, this is another wickedly, guiltily engrossing Blier (Going Places) sex comedy, with fantastic actors. And it’s one olf his movies where the homoerotic undertones are right on top. In French, with English subtitles.

Bye-Bye Monkey (Three Stars)
U.S./France/Italy; Marco Ferreri, 1978 (Koch Lorber)

Marcello Mastroianni and Gerard Depardieu are artist-bums in a rat-infested Manhattan in this tribute to King Kong, that’s also an attempt by Ferreri to let the women have their say. (Among other oddities, Depardieu is raped.) It doesn’t really work, and the English language dialogue is awkward, but it has some mad, terrific scenes. In English.

Don’t Touch the White Woman (Four Stars)
France/Italy; Marco Ferreri, 1974 (Koch Lorber)

One of the most amazing Westerns ever, made by a man who obviously finds a lot of them ridiculous, and proves it by staging a travesty of a John Ford cavalry picture in the barren hole left by the destruction of the market area of Les Halles in Paris. Mastroianni plays General Custer, Piccoli is Buffalo Bill, Noiret is another general, and Tognazzi is a crazy Indian (along with Catherine Deneuve as the white woman you can’t touch), in this cheerfully lunatic satire. In French, with English subtitles.

Freebie and the Bean (Three Stars)
U. S.; Richard Rush, 1974 (Warner Archive)

This big ‘70s audience hit, with James Caan and Arkin as feuding cop-buddies on a smash-up chase-packed Frisco case — which Rush made right before his long contentious tour on the behind-the-movie-scenes masterpiece The Stunt Man — is an ultimate buddy-buddy cop movie. I‘ve seen it repeated dozens of times since, usually not as well. Freebie though has a bad reputation thanks to a little homophobia and Freebie‘s (Caan‘s) bad mouth bigotry. He and Arkin, however, come across like a Laurel and hardy dropped into The French Connection: It’s more entertaining, and obviously more influential than its rep.

Beau Geste (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; William Wellman, 1939 (Universal)

Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston play the Geste brothers, who leave aristocratic England country manor home — after seemingly stealing the family sapphire, the Blue Water — for a hellish tour with the French Foreign Legion, ruled over by the evil, brutish, tyrannical Sgt. Markoff (Brian Donlevy) and ending in a mysterious siege that leaves in its wake a fortress guarded by dead riflemen and a Viking funeral. One of the classic movie adventures and one of Coop‘s noblest hours (as Beau Geste), ably abetted by his Paramount backup leading men Milland and Preston (as John and Digby). With Susan Hayward, J. Carroll Naish and Donald O’Connor (as young Beau).

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Henry Hathaway, 1936 (Universal)

Beautifully shot in Technicolor, based on the John Fox bestseller, this is a hokey but very satisfying, richly romantic tale of feuding mountain families (including Henry Fonda, Sylvia Sidney and Beulah Bondi (on one side) and city fella/railroad man Fred MacMurray, who changes all their lives, on the other). Under the strong hand of western/film noir specialist Hathaway, it looks great and has a surprisingly bittersweet ending.

Intelligence (Season 2) (4 discs) (Three stars)
Canada; Various directors, 2005-2006 (Acorn Media)

From Mr. Vancouver Noir, TV creator-producer-writer Chris Haddock (Da Vinci’s Inquest): the second season of one of the best cop series ever. A maze of police informers and gang treachery that sharply mines the twin themes of Scorsese‘s The Departed. Includes: 12 Episodes.

– Michael Wilmington
July 14, 2009

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“But okay, I promise you now that if I ever retire again, I’m going to ensure that I can’t walk it back. I’ll post a series of the most disgusting, offensive, outrageous statements you can ever imagine. That way it will be impossible for me to ever be employed again. No one is going to take my calls. No one is going to want to be seen with me. Oh, it will be scorched earth. I will have torched everything. I’m going to flame out in the most legendary fashion.”
~ Steven Soderbergh

I feel strongly connected to young cinephile culture. The thing about filmmaking—and cinephilia—is that you can’t keep hanging out with your own age group as you get older. They drop off, move somewhere. You can’t put together a crew of sixty-somethings. It’s the same for cinephilia: my original set of cinephile friends are watching DVDs at home or delving into 1958 episodes of ‘Gunsmoke,’ something like that. The people who are out there tend to be young, and I happen to be doing the same thing still, so it’s natural that I move in their circles.

In terms of the filmmaking, there was a gear shift: my first movies focused on people around my age, and I followed them for three films. Until The Unspeakable Act, I was using the same actors, not because of an affinity for people at a specific age, but because of my affinity for the actors. I like to work with actors a second time, especially if I don’t feel confident casting a new film. But The Unspeakable Act was a different script, and I had to cast all new people. Even for the older roles, I couldn’t get the people I’d worked with before. But when it was over, the same thing happened: I wanted to work with Tallie again in the worst way, and I started the process all over again.

I think Rohmer did something similar around the time of Perceval and Catherine de HeilbronnHe developed new groups of people that he liked to work with. These gear shifts are natural. Even if you want to follow certain actors to the end of their life (which I kind of do) the variety of ideas that you generate makes it necessary to change. And once you’ve made the change, you’ve got all these new people around.”
~ Dan Sallitt