MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Coraline, Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Watchmen, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and more…

PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

Coraline (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Henry Selick, 2009 (Universal)

Other big budget studio movie genres may often seem overblown and underthought, but feature animation still seems to be in a kind of modern Golden Age.

That certainly goes for Henry Selick’s Coraline: a delightful, sharp, whimsical, wittily imagined and wondrously executed feature cartoon for adults and the smarter or more sophisticated kids — adapted from Neil Gaiman‘s novel about a discontented little girl in a big, somewhat creepy Edward Gorey-ish looking old house, a pungent lassie who’s not satisfied with her parents. (Coraline, natch, voiced by Dakota Fanning and memorably animated as a kind of sullen, blue-haired little pre-Goth girl.)

Coraline is a rebel. She has a nice but boringly preoccupied mom and pop (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), who are immersed in work on catalogues, distant and not very indulgent. Dissatisfied, this touchy little girl longs for new surroundings. And, after hearing odd noises, seeing eerie sights, crawling through a painted-over door and falling into a kind of dark, three-dimension vortex-tunnel, that’s what she gets: a new pair of parents (also voiced by Hatcher and Hodgman) who keep indulging her, smiling and feeding her yummy meals.

They’re the “Other Parents” and what they want from little Coraline in return for all this swell parenting is submission to their button cult — not inspired by Benjamin or Brad Pitt — but whatever cult or ritual demands that they sew black buttons over their eyes. These eerie objects are what they fervently desire to be sewn on Coraline’s as well.

Coraline is a sort of malcontent Alice and the “Other House“ a kind of macabre wonderland. It’s also a trap, a snare, and, as Selick graphically demonstrates in one scene, a spider web. Populating this otherworld, beyond the door, are such cutups as ex-sexy vaudevillians Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (voiced by the “Absolutely Fabulous” Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) and the bouncy Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), who runs a rodent circus. Then there’s a plucky cat (Keith David, in a stretch) and Caroline‘s confidante, hump-backed victim Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr.), as in Wyborn. (Wyliving?)

You can see right away that Coraline isn’t intended for the usual family audience –the target crowd for movies like Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa or Kung Fu Panda. This is not a super-cute animated movie, but instead a smart and very eye-catching, engaging one. Selick, as in his equally fun and spooky The Nightmare Before Christmas, and also in James and the Giant Peach, works in a form capable of great artistry and sophistication: stop-motion puppetry, the form which also produced such gems as the films of Wadyslaw Starewicz (the endlessly delightful The Cameraman’s Revenge and The Mascot), George Pal, Jiri Trnka (that splendid Stagecoach pastiche Song of the Prairie and the Kafkaesque classic The Hand), and celebrated modern practitioners, like Jan Svankmajer and The Brothers Quay.

Here, Selick has the advantage of sometimes spectacular and often mesmerizing 3D effects as well. But Coraline, which would be a superior movie even if it were released flat, shows how the form and its visual depth can enhance a story — can play up creepy, macabre atmosphere of something like Coraline — as when Coraline wanders into the “Other Garden” and falls into a nightmarish alternative universe. It’s a pip of a story, and Selick clearly relishes telling it — as his actors relish voicing it. The magic that proves dangerous for a Coraline, or a Dorothy in Oz, is delightful for us. And if you enjoy Selick’s puppet imagery, you should give Starewicz, Trnka and Svankmajer a try too.

Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Kevin Rafferty, 2009

This is one of the best sports documentaries in living memory. Keen and sharp-eyed leftie documentarian Kevin Rafferty (The Atomic Café) gathers together the old teams from a legendary 1968 game, cuts together the old TV tapes, and assembles the results into a witty, reflective and moving replay of what was obviously one of the great events of his young manhood: the 1968 Harvard-Yale grudge match between two then undefeated Ivy League teams.

It’s one of the most dramatic, colorful and blow-you-out-of-your-seat exciting football games, you’ll ever see, and it doesn’t matter if the title almost (but not quite) gives the game away. Rafferty’s movie, and especially the replay and commentary on its last 42 seconds, generate jaw-dropping twists, wild exhilaration and nail-biting suspense you won’t see in any sports contest this side of the immortal Game Five of the Boston-Phoenix 1976 NBA championship series.

The people and times back then in 1968 were exciting too. It was the anti-war, anti-Vietnam, student power era and the teams included Vietnam vets, antiwar demonstrators and ROTC students. Yale was one of the top-rated teams in the country that year, and it had a sterling star backfield pair in quarterback Brian Dowling and the eventual star pro halfback Calvin Hill — unfortunately, one of the few stars not interviewed here. (Dowling, whose nickname was “God,” had never lost or tied a game in his entire football career.)

Harvard had an amazing second string quarterback named Frank Champi, who came into the game with Harvard on the ropes and rose to the occasion as few players ever do. And the team had a stellar supporting crew, including a deadly serious, hard-hitting all-Ivy League offensive tackle and brilliant cum laude English student from the San Saba Texas oilfields, whose motto was “Play it cool and smooth.“ His name: Tommy Lee Jones. (Yeah, that T.L.J.)

Even the football fans and student bodies that day were a fascinating bunch. Tommy Lee’s roommate was the very funny (as Jones insists, and the film proves) Al Gore. George W. Bush was a bouncing, beaming Yale cheerleader; earlier that season, he’d been picked up by the cops for helping tear down the goal posts at the Princeton game. The Yale college newspaper cartoonist — who drew parodies of the Yale players in his strip, with Dowling as the idolized ”B.D.” — was Garry “Doonesbury” Trudeau. The star Yale fullback, Bob Levin, had a pretty interesting girlfriend: a blonde, rebellious student actress from Vassar with whom he went on anti-Vietnam-war poster runs. Did I say “actress?” That’s an understatement. She was Meryl Streep.

Most of all, Rafferty’s movie demonstrates the great, binding camaraderie that sports can create, especially in high school and college — and especially during a time of trouble like 1968. There were all kinds and types of people at Harvard and Yale during the spectacular game, all caught on camera here. They were also of all political persuasions, but they set aside their tiffs and their politics, and followed the words of John Lennon and (later) Bob Dylan. They came together. Forever young. Hooray for Harvard. Yay for Yale. Peace and love, Meryl. Keep it clean, Al and Dubya. Play it cool and smooth, Tommy Lee.

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CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (Four Stars)
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1967 (Criterion

Made in U.S. A. (Three Stars)
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1967 (Criterion

In the summer of 1966, Jean-Luc Godard was on the verge of a major defection, when he made 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Made in U.S.A. almost simultaneously, moving from one film to the next, and improvising heavily on both. In two years, the cranky and ingenious French cineaste, ex-critic and longtime movie lover would start to abandon narrative studio cinema for the increasingly Marxist dogmatism and indie video documentary-making which would dominate his output in the ‘70s. I think he made a poor choice, even if he produced one of his masterpieces in 1968, the incendiary traffic jam fable, Weekend.

After Weekend, emulating in a way that film‘s heartless young hippie guerillas, who dourly eat the rich at the end, he scorched the earth and flesh of his cinephile past, became a fervent foe of the Hollywood studio cinema style he had so eccentrically and brilliantly celebrated as a ‘Cahiers du Cinema” critic and began producing a decade’s worth of works movies (Including Wind from the East, Numero Deux and Le Gai Savoir, that few movie lovers wanted to see and few distributors were willing to handle.

Unfortunately, relatively few political film enthusiasts wanted to watch them either (though I’ve seen and liked some of them myself), and Godard‘s career and filmmaking genius didn’t really rebound in the international arena, until he went triumphantly back to narrative cinema in 1980, with Sauve qui Peut (Every Man for Himself). After returning to more classical (yet still, in their way, revolutionary) styles and themes, Godard commented, on his political period, that, after trying to escape from movies to real life, he had finally discovered that his Marxist politics of the ‘70s were “another movie, made in Russia.” If only that movie disguised as life has been one made by Andrei Tarkovsky, Mikhail Kalatozov, or even Dziga-Vertov, and not one made by Leonid Brezhnev.

Meanwhile, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her — a great, beautifully colored and shot pseudo-documentary, about consumerism, American influence and prostitution in a middle class Parisian high rise, starring Marina Vlady (L’Ape Regina, Chimes at Midnight) as Juliette Janson as a middle class housewife who’s a secret hooker on the side — has deservedly become one of his most highly regarded movies, while Made in the U. S. A., a brightly colored neo-neo-noir, starring Godard’s muse/ex-wife Anna Karina, as Paula Nelson, a hybrid of Humphrey Bogart and Alice in Wonderland, wandering through a noir world haunted by the Ben Barka affair and populated by a host of allusions to Otto Preminger, Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, Edward (“The Gun Hawk”) Ludwig, Kenji Mizoguchi, and others, played by Godard actor-cronies like intense-eyed Jean-Pierre Leaud and scowling Laszlo Szabo, is more rarely shown and more neglected. And that’s despite a cameo by Marianne Faithfull, singing, a cappella, the Stones’ big 1965 hit “As Tears Go By.“

But both films are still very much alive on screen, as these excellent Criterion packages, full of valuable extras, amply show. Together these lucid/obscure, crystalline/murky, pop/classical/revolutionary gems — which Godard once considered joining together, and alternating, as Godard favorite William Faulkner had juxtaposed the two stories of Wild Palms — offer more than 2 or 3 reasons why we should still love Godard. (Both in English and French, with English subtitles/)

Extras: Commentary; new or vintage interviews with Godard, Karina, Vlady, others; video concordances of the cinematic, literary and historical allusions in both films; video essay, Trailers, booklets with essays by J. Hoberman and Amy Taubin.

The Diary of Anne Frank (Four Stars)
U. S.; George Stevens, 1959 (20th Century Fox)

Anne Frank, the little 13-year old Jewish Dutch girl who began a personal diary after she, her father, her mother, her sister and some neighbors were hidden away in the attic above a Dutch spice factory in 1943, died later in the concentration camps of the Nazis.

But Anne’s little diary, which she continued in her imprisonment until she was 16, eventually was published all over the world, becoming a classic literary statement of the free spirit’s resistance to evil and tyranny. And though it’s been filmed and dramatized many times, the one most of us remember is this movie, starring Millie Perkins as Anne, with Joseph Schildkraut, Shelley Winters, and Ed Wynn, written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and directed by that great American film romantic George Stevens.

Stevens’ Anne Frank, despite some location shooting in the actual Amsterdam site of the Frank family’s self-imprisonment, is almost an ultimate claustrophobic adapted stage play. The Franks and the Van Dams — Millie as Anne, Schildkraut as her father Otto, Gusti Huber as her mother and Diane Baker as her sister Margit, Winters and Lou Jacobi as mother and father Van Dam, and Richard Beymer as Van Dam son (and love interest) Peter, along with Ed Wynn as a fussy dentist who joins the group later — hardly ever move from their attic hiding place. They try never to speak or make sounds during working hours at the spice factory, not even — in the movie’s great suspense sequence — when a burglar breaks into the factory and they must try to keep everyone hushed and silent, including Peter’s mischievous cat.

Yet the claustrophobia is a crucial part of the story, just as it is in Roman Polanski’s great film of Wladyslaw Szpilman and the Warsaw ghetto, The Pianist. The Jews who hadn’t fled in time, now facing arrest and unimaginable horror and slaughter, had to vanish from ordinary life if they were to survive in the occupied countries. And in the attic hideaway, the rituals of ordinary life — sleeping, eating, breakfast, drinking tea, listening to the radio — become infinitely precious and sometimes spine-chillingly dangerous.

In the midst of it all is Anne, our lively, sharp-eyed, inquisitive witness, who often acts as if it were all a great adventure — which in some ways, it is. Millie Perkins was not the ideal Anne. (Susan Strasberg had played the part on stage.) Perkins lacks the elfin smile of the surviving Frank photos, and the radiant tone of the diaries; she looks a little big-eyed and modelish. But she’s good and some of the cast — like Winters, Schildkraut, Jacobi and Wynn (also an Oscar nominee), are great. And all your carps pale against the film’s continuing value as social-historical document. Stevens, who had shot color footage of the camps and their victims in the war’s aftermath, had been horrified by what he saw and recorded there. He wanted to convey a bit of that horror as it was visited on ordinary people, forced to become exceptional by a murderous time. He does.

Stevens” Diary of Anne Frank is probably a quintessential “Oscar“ movie: a 3 hour Hollywood art film/social message drama, shot in black and white, with a heavy political subject, based on a famous play (by screenwriters Goodrich and Hackett, who also co-wrote It’s a Wonderful Life, the original Father of the Bride and much of the Thin Manseries.) But though the film did win three 1959 Oscars, including a supporting actress trophy for Winters, as the shrill, vain but good-hearted Mrs. Van Dam — it was beaten out for top honors that year by another long movie about an imprisoned Jew, Ben-Hur by Stevens’ good friend, William Wyler. It doesn’t matter. We’ll never forget little Anne and her diary. And well probably never forget Stevens’ powerful, idealistic, deeply compassionate movie either.

Extras: Documentaries and featurettes; commentary by Millie Perkins and George Stevens, Jr.; photo galleries.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: Blu-ray

Gran Torino (Four Stars)
U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 2008 (Warner)

Clint Eastwood plays a Dirty Harry grown old in his latest movie Gran Torino. And he makes us feel lucky…. to be watching him simmer and explode on screen again.

It’s been several years since Eastwood last played before the camera, as the gruff fight trainer/manager in his heart-breaking Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby. And though he’s greatly enhanced his directorial credentials then — with a run of gems like Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima — it’s refreshing to see him trotting out his scowl, his squint and his not-really-nasty disposition. The real Clint is a gentler, more thoughtful character than Harry or Philo or The Man With No Name or any of his other noir or western creations. But on screen he still seems to relish playing his counterpart, a male fantasy figure, by his own description. That’s what Gran Torino‘s Walt Kowalski is — though with a difference.

Walt, a Korean War veteran and Ford assembly plant retiree, is a seventy-something Detroit suburbanite, who has few friends, only the obnoxious family members left, and the same foul-mouthed and slow-fuse but deadly temper that old ‘70s antihero detective Harry Callahan had. Walt, who views the world though a grimace, is playing out his last chapter after his retirement from Ford (after a half century). And though he‘s the neighborhood grouch in an increasingly Asian community, he becomes involved, at first almost against his will, in the problems of the immigrant Asian (Hmong, or Laos or Thailand mountain people) family next door. They include an irascible granny, some worried parents, and the Lor family teenagers: troubled Thao (Bee Vang) and lively Sue (Ahney Her), two kids who are both being harassed and/or courted by the local Hmong gangbangers — and who cross paths sharply with Walt when those local thugs try to bully Thoa into trying to steal Walt’s precious, beautifully preserved 1972 Gran Torino.

By the time of the movie’s sad, furious climax (which is the only moment here I‘d question), Walt has faced a last battle and director-star Eastwood has notched another late-career revisionist triumph in his six-shooter canon.

Extras: Featurettes.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SETS

Poirot: The Movie Collection, Set 4 (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.K.; Various Directors, 2008-2009 (Acorn Media)

For most admirers of mystery writer supreme Agatha Christie, the best-selling popular novelist in literary history, and, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, my favorite author as an avid elementary school reader, and also for most devotees of Christie’s maddening yet immortal creation, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the best film Poirot is the B. B. C.’s David Suchet, who has been playing the part on air for two decades.

Suchet has the vanity, the punctiliousness, the constant curiosity, even the egg-shaped head and the “little gray cells“ that Poirot constantly activates in pursuit of murder and murderers. Though he had earlier struck out playing Poirot’s foil, Inspector Japp, to Peter Ustinov’s Poirot in Thirteen for Dinner, Suchet now seems the definitive actor for this job. However much we may enjoy the Poirots of Ustinov or Albert Finney (in Murder on the Orient Express), Suchet’s 63 outings in the part have put permanent flesh on one of the world‘s most well-loved literary creations.

This fourth collection of Poirot movies from the long-running series offers Suchet and company in plush productions of two Christie classics — lovingly adapted tales unsurpassed for their author’s ingenious plotting, compelling storytelling and devious characterization. You still may want to read the books, and be teased and tricked in Christie‘s hands, before watching these movies. (I’d read “McGinty,” but not “Pigeons.”) But, even if you’re clued in to the surprise endings, you’ll have fun with the shows. And you’ll marvel all over again at the labors of Hercule, and the ways Suchet’s Poirot juggles his little gray cells.

Included: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (U.K.; Ashley Pearce, 2008) Three-and-a-Half Stars. Murders in a small town, lay bare the secret guilts and scandals of some of its residents, with Poirot on the trail of the guiltiest parties. A clever juggling of past and present crime, with especially tart and stinging portrayals by Paul Rhys, Amanda Root, Sian Phillips, and Zoe Wannamaker (as Christie-like mystery writer and Poirot crony Ariadne Oliver. Cat Among the Pigeons (U. K.; James Kent, 2008) Three-and-a-Half Stars. Murder at England’s most prestigious girls; boarding school, with an undercurrent of Middle eastern intrigue and another skillfully engineered surprise. With Harriet Walter, Natasha Little, Claire Skinner and Anton Lesser.

Extras: Documentary on the Poirot series, biographies and filmographies.

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OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVD RELEASES

Watchmen (Three Stars)
U.S.; Zack Snyder, 2009

Watchmen, the celebrated 12-part super-hero comic by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, is widely regarded as the crème du crime of all graphic novels, a gloomily eloquent illustrated tale of aging or marginalized super-heroes battling mysterious foes in a crime-ridden world swooning on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. And — after following it all the way from Gibbons‘ first extreme close-up of a blood-spattered yellow smiley button to the last frame of another smiley insignia on somebody‘s sweatshirt — I thought the book’s extreme praise seemed earned.

The movie is another story. Despite the absence of Moore‘s name in the credits (at Moore’s request), it’s incredibly faithful to the original. But it doesn’t give you the same kind of buzz or charge the comic book did.

It’s exactly what you wouldn’t have expected from director Zack Snyder, after his digital effects-crazy historical battle movie 300 and his over-jazzy remake of George Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead. It‘s a good, solid, reverent literary adaptation. Snyder, his producers (Lawrence Gordon, Larry Levin and Deborah Snyder) and the writers (David Hayter and Alex Tse), obviously think Moore’s and Gibbons’ book is a masterpiece, and they don’t want to be accused of mucking it up. The plot and characters are followed almost to the letter; the production design reproduces the original comic book panels. Snyder shows us that smiley button pattern at (almost) the beginning and the end, and he fills the movie with reverse tracking shots that duplicate Watchmen’s strangely austere visual effects.

That isn’t a ruinous strategy. Making Watchmen into a big, meticulously fashioned movie, with the producers trying to be the David O. Selznicks of comic book movie adaptors, isn‘t such a bad ambition.

The characters, a bunch of masked vigilante-heroes, who’ve been exploited or shoved to the edges of society, throb with some intelligence and irony. The story follows two organizations of super-heroes and caped crime busters, one from the ‘40s and their successors in the ’80s, who begin reconnecting each other after some of them suffer bizarre attacks and murders in a ghastly alternate universe where Watergate never happened, where Richard Nixon has been elected President five times, where nuclear tensions are being monitored by something called the Doomsday Clock (which is ticking close to midnight) and where the bomb could drop anytime.

The old wild bunch of ‘40s superheroes and secret identities, or Minutemen, include the Batman-ish Nite Owl/Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie) the blowzy supergal Silk Spectre/Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), the cigar-chomping boor and Joker-ish Comedian/Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and other caped cut-ups, or “masks,” like Silhouette, Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis.

The next generation includes Sally’s daughter, the new Silk Spectre/secret identity Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), a new Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), the embittered loner Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the blue irradiated superbeing Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, digitized), the super-mogul Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), and the older, but not much wiser Comedian (Morgan), whose bloody murder kicks off the tale. This is real noir paranoia. But the fun of Moore’s whole concept lies in the ways he keeps weaving back and forth through his dense cast and mixing up old comic and movie styles and allusions with fairly realistic nightmare exaggerations of the past and present, tying them all together with an intricate web of flashbacks.

Visually, the movie is spectacular but dingy; the design, as mentioned, comes right out of the books and Larry Fong, who also shot “300,” has lit as if in a world of descending shadows and temporary daylight. I liked the cast, especially Haley and Crudup. This is good stuff, and perhaps we shouldn’t fault it for not being great stuff. But I wish Terry Gilliam, a Watchmen fan who tried to get the rights, had made this movie. He could have given the picture craziness and explosiveness which it lacks now and needs; he might have been faithful, but in his fashion, and nervier. And he would have understood this old wild bunch of superheroes, and what makes the Doomsday Clock tick.

Confessions of a Shopaholic (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; P.J. Hogan, 2009 (Touchstone)

Confessions of a Shopaholic is all about a shop-crazy young writer-on-the-make named Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher), and it struck me as on the level of the more famous recent Manhattan chicks-on-the-loose romantic comedy, the movie Sex and the City. The reasons: director P. J. Hogan can make fantasy scenes like Isla’s beckoning mannikins work. The writers (Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth, and Kayla Albert, adapting Sophie Kinsella) have zingy senses of humor. The whole thing, thanks probably to producer Jerry “Boom Boom” Bruckheimer, is really — here’s that word again — slick. And fast. And sometimes gorgeous.

Most of all, Isla Fisher is some kind of screwball comedy heroine. Hubba-hubba-hubba. A sexy redhead with one of those warm, inviting smiles that tear you up (or tore me up) in the seventh grade, she’s also really funny. She can be as loonily abandoned as Carole Lombard or Lucille Ball, and here she makes even the stupid gags work.

Fisher’s Rebecca, courtesy of Kinsella‘s book (which was set in England), is a shopping addict who’s also obsessed with getting a gig on Vogue-ish fashion magazine Alette, named for Queen of Chic Alette Naylor (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, sporting the French accent you usually only hear from her in Cannes, or in French films). Settling for a job on the money-strategy magazine “Successful Saving,” edited by obvious leading man Luke Brandon (who has played both David Copperfield and Daniel Deronda on Brit TV), Becky becomes famous as the savings-savvy columnist The Girl in the Green Scarf, though she is being pursued for credit card debt by the relentless nerd Derek Smeath (Robert Stanton).

There‘s a wedding, and maid-of-honor crisis, that‘s much funnier and mercifully shorter than those ditzy Plaza nuptials in Bride Wars. A funny set of Shopaholics Anonymous meetings includes that personable Chicago Bull, John Salley. And there are roles for John Goodman and Joan Cusack as Becky’s parents, and John Lithgow as the magazine emperor, that should all be longer.

The whole movie goes by a little too fast. While you can’t imagine a slow Jerry Bruckheimer film, a great (or very good) comedy luxuriates in its scenes more than this one does. But Isla Fisher has the right tone and look and buzz all the way through. She slays you.

Twilight (Two Disc Special Edition) (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Catherine Hardwicke, 2008 (Summit Entertainment)

I haven’t read 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.

Despite warnings from everybody, including Edward, Bella falls in love. And the trouble begins — not from Edward’s friendly vampire family (dad Peter Facinelli and his teenage kids), but from a trio of renegade bloodsuckers that shows up. 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 Twilight actress Nikki Reed (along with Evan Rachel Wood and Holly Hunter) made Thirteen, they hooked us by their honesty; the movie depicted teenagers with a fierce candor, and when it 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 it doesn’t work. The story is a romanticized teen masturbation fantasy, better written and acted than usual, but not particularly compelling or surprising. In the end, blood will tell.

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 Great Buck Howard (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Sean McGinly, 2008 (Magnolia Home Entertainment)

Sometimes a performance is so damned good it all but overwhelms the movie it’s in. The Great Buck Howard — not a very impressive movie otherwise — is fortunate indeed to have John Malkovich to do the overwhelming act here, as the Great Buck: an irascible, supersensitive, comically haughty professional magician/mentalist/night club entertainer, in one of the last legs of his career. Howard, whom the credits admit was inspired by the real-life prestidigitator The Amazing Kreskin (still going strong in his 70s), was, like Kreskin, a fixture on the Johnny Carson Show (61 appearances, he keeps bragging). And the touchy performer specializes in the usual slight of hand and some Liberace-ish piano playing, plus a genuinely bewildering mind reading act, in which, almost infallibly, he picks out an audience member hiding some cash.

Buck’s is a good show much of the time — and the smaller and less sophisticated the city (like the ones populated here by Debra Monk and Steve Zahn), the more they love him. But Buck‘s Carson years are over. He’s become a tantrum-throwing drama queen, ridiculed in Rolling Stone, and its clear that his Vegas shots are drying up and that he’ll rarely anymore get far beyond the Holiday Inn small city circuit, on which he’s become a fixture.

Malkovich plays Buck to a Carnack fare-thee-well, nailing every ultra-sarcastic inflection, every campy tic and trick in his repertoire. Unfortunately the film, written and directed by ex-Kreskin assistant Sean McGinly, is as much about Buck‘s rising young roadie and law school refugee, Troy Gable (played by Colin Hanks, whose dad Tom helped produce the picture and does a cameo as Troy‘s pop) and Troy’s affair with hot publicist Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt) as it is about the fading magic man. Big mistake. Troy, who narrates the picture, is someone we’ve met before, too many timers: a plucky young duderino in the young Matthew Broderick-Jon Cryer mold, who loves Buck despite his bad behavior, and also has enough pizzazz the snare the ingénue (Blunt). Hanks is a good actor, but his part needs a little madness of its own to spice it up — and to compete honestly with Malkovich’s compelling, hypnotic, screw-loose bravura as Buck.

The Education of Charlie Banks (Two Stars)
U.S.; Fred Durst, 2008 (Anchor Bay)

One of those stud-nerd male bonding stories, fairly intelligent but not too convincing, about introvert Charlie (Jesse Eisenberg) and the invasion of his elite college milieu by sometimes brutal street kid extrovert Mick (Jason Ritter). Wrier Peter Elkoff based it on a real incident and some real characters, but they don’t seem real. They seem like male bonding and dream girl fantasy figures, with “Great Gatsby” pretensions, and the ending just clangs.

Extras: Commentary with Durst and Ritter.

The Unknown Woman (Three stars)
Italy; Giuseppe Tornatore, 2006 (Image)

Another exotic thriller, a baroque and bloody modern noir about a woman with a past (played by the remarkable Kseniya Rappoport), made in an extremely flashy style — with a fantastic Ennio Morricone score throbbing behind it — by the writer-director of Cinema Paradiso, here making a successful foray into Mario Bava-Dario Argento territory.

The movie is about an ex-Ukrainian whore who winds up in Rome after bashing and knifing her brutal pimp and stealing his money. Fleeing to Italy, she seeks refuge with a bourgeois family (for reasons we don’t entirely guess), bonds with the young daughter and then has to face the sudden violent appearance of the pimp‘s torpedoes.

This is really baroque neo-noir crime-horror stuff and Rappoport gives an incredible performance. She rivets our attention despite the fact that she often keeps her emotions masked behind a tense, terrified surface, and she maintains sympathy despite some astonishingly vicious and amoral behavior herself. The movie takes the old film noir style to extremes and Morricone works and frays your nerves the way Bernard Herrmann always could. (It’s a shame Hitchcock, working unwisely without Herrmann, didn’t find Morricone for his last few thrillers, especially Frenzy.) And though “over the top” certainly also describes much of what we see in The Unknown Woman, we should probably forgive Tornatore — just as many of us forgive Bava and Argento. After all, it’s only a movie.

Soldier in the Rain (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Ralph Nelson, 1963 (Warner Archive)

Based on William Goldman‘s funny, touching novel about male bonding and the sneakier operations of the peacetime Army, with Jackie Gleason, Steve McQueen and Tuesday Weld in three paradigmatic roles: as wily Master Sgt. Maxwell Slaughter, his worshipful acolyte Supply Sergeant Eustis Clay, and Maxwell’s improbable honeybunch of a teen queen girlfriend. It starts as broad comedy, then veers into sentimental drama, well-done in both cases by one of my favorite utterly neglected directors, Ralph Nelson (Requiem for a Heavyweight, Lilies of the Field).

The ritual Slaughter-Clay goodbye by McQueen and Gleason (“See you later, Maxwell.” “Until that time, Eustis, until that time.”) becomes quite affecting, and this is maybe the best and richest movie performance Gleason ever gave. The scenarists, Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin, were just on the verge of the Peter Sellers-Inspector Clouseau series when they adapted Goldman here, and in a way, this is a more serious companion to scripter Edwards’ earlier Jack Lemmon-Mickey Rooney-Ernie Kovacs screwball service comedy, Operation Mad Ball. But that one didn’t make you tear up a little, as this one does. With Tony Bill and Tom Poston.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Arthur Lubin, 1944 (Universal)

As campy as they come: The Jon Hall-Maria Montez exotic team, this time without Sabu (quite a loss), return for another Arabian Nights romantic farrago. (I prefer Popeye, saying “Open, sez me.“) Andy Devine, in a rare off -type bullyboy mode, plays the fierce outlaw and ferocious swordsman Abdullah, and Turhan Bey is also around. If this movie were a genie, you’d want to shove it back in the bottle. But it has its (few) moments.

Johnny Eager (Three Stars)
U. S.; Mervyn LeRoy, 1941 (Warner Archive)

Either late gangster or early noir, this wildly improbable but engaging crime romance has Robert Taylor as a sexy gang boss playing nice for the parole people, Lana Turner as the prosecutor’s susceptible blonde bombshell daughter who falls for Taylor, Edward Arnold as the prosecutor who hates him, Barry Nelson and Paul Stewart as assorted scum who double-cross him, and, in his Oscar winning supporting performance, Van Heflin as Taylor’s drunken poetry-quoting sidekick, who probably loves him more than Lana. For an American Golden Age studio crime movie, scripted by John Lee Mahin (writing with the erratic James Edward Grant), it doesn’t make much sense. But it’s fun to watch.

Four Daughters (Three Stars)
U. S.; Michael Curtiz, 1938 (Warner Archive)

The Lane Sisters, Priscilla, Rosemary and Lola, play three of the four daughters of fatherly classical musician/teacher Claude Rains. (Gale Page plays the fourth.) Their enthusiastic beaux include grinning Jeffrey Lynn, sturdy Dick Foran, affable Frank McHugh, and, in the role of misanthrope composer Mickey Borden that made him a star, John Garfield — whose acidic presence here is like a tarantula crawling across a Norman Rockwell cover. Based on a Fannie Hurst story and directed by Curtiz with such zip, energy and pace that you tend to buy everything. This was a big hit, and the Lane Sisters in their late ’30s-early ’40s heyday, especially the second string Ginger Rogers-ish Priscilla, were quite an act.

– Michael Wilmington
July 21, 2009

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One of the great movies. Charles Bronson, great, Charles Bronson. Great movies. Today you can’t make that movie because it’s not politically correct, right? It’s not politically correct. But could you imagine with Trump? Somebody says, oh, all these big monsters aren’t around he’s easy pickings and then shoot.”
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