MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Fast and Furious, Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, Repulsion, and more…

Fast and Furious (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Justin Lin, 2009 (Universal)

Fast and Furious — fourth in the mega-muscle-car-chase, car-crash series that began with The Fast and the Furious back in 2001 — is a show for anyone who likes to waste a lot of time, or who could get sexually excited at the thought of Vin Diesel in a 1970 Dodge Charger smacking into Paul Walker in an F-Bomb Camaro (or maybe it was the 1972 Gran Torino), while a gang of fiendish Mexican drug dealers snarl and swagger, hide out in churches and smuggle heroin though the border in racetrack cave tunnels, and every girl is either rubbing fenders in bikini tops, spouting soap operatic twaddle or hopping from diesel fuel trucks as they careen around mountain roads during daring gas heist robberies.

Meanwhile, reggae ton hits flood the soundtrack, the L.A FBI agents in charge of the heroin case scream and sucker punch each other, our pal Vin dangles suspects out of windows and the whole gang parties and rocks on occasionally in the Dominican Republic.

Should I go on? You don’t have to be a mindless cretin or a car obsessed auto-junkie to be entertained by this movie, but it sure helps. It also helps to have seen the original Fast and the Furious since this picture, unlike the second and third installments, is more of a genuine sequel, picking up the original characters where they actually left off.

Unfortunately, back in 2001, I walked out of The Fast and the Furious (a rare early escape for me) because I wasn’t reviewing it and it looked incredibly stupid — and I‘ve regretted that ever since, because now, unless I decide to catch it on DVD, I’ll never really know why people keep going to these damned things. I then skipped the solo Paul Walker narco-thriller 2 Fast, 2 Furious — the title alone made me cringe, though I‘m sure some marketing expert thought it was the cutest sequel handle since the nickname Die Harder — but I had to sit through The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, on the job. It was torture.

Now comes Fast and Furious without any impeding articles, and with the actual joint return of the team of Vin‘s surly Dom Toretto and Walker‘s California cutie Brian O’Conner (sic, maybe?)– two bros under the skin on opposite sides of the law. Along for the rides: their girlfriends, truck hopping Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Brian’s ex-squeeze and Dom‘ sexy sis Mia (Jordana Brewster), all racing around in a very messy plot involving Mexican narco-sharks Campos, played by John Ortiz and Fenix (sic, maybe?), played by Laz Alonso, plus those bad-tempered FBI agents — all done in a style that I guess is intended to evoke Sam Peckinpah on cocaine, or Sergio Leone without spaghetti, but instead suggests a Michael Bay clone on crystal meth.

I’m sure that director Justin Lin (whose Better Luck Tomorrow now looks even more overrated) and writer Chris Morgan, don’t care about reactions like this and are laughing all their way to the bank — much like that previous car-chase expert Hal Needham, who directed his buddy Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit (and some of its inglorious progeny) and once affirmed that his favorite kind of movie criticism was a whole wheelbarrow full of money.

Anyway, Dom and Letty are south of the border, Brian and Mia (unattached to each other) are in L. A., Campos and Fenix are racing around in between with their heroin, and the audience watching them, at least according to the marketing plan, is supposedly eventually in a reggaeton-drenched trance, blissed out on speed, Chevy Chevelles and bikini tops. But, despite good Amir Mokri cinematography, the only time this bloated buzz-bomb of a movie entertained me was in that first gas truck heist, though after a while that just reminded me how much I’d rather be watching a movie like Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s nitro-on the-trucks thriller The Wages of Fear, or even William Friedkin‘s failed Fear remake Sorcerer — or hell, even Smokey and the Bandit — than this turbo-charged turkey.

I’d like to say that Vin Diesel — the surly young Telly Savalas type who became a star because of the first Fast — transcended his vehicle, because I enjoyed his work in Saving Private Ryan and Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty. (Diesel would have been good in the Jack Warden part in Lumet‘s 12 Angry Men, which is a big compliment.) But the fact is that nobody transcends their vehicle in this movie. These vehicles are untranscendable. This script is undrivable. These speeches are unspeakable. The best performance in Fast and Furious is given by the Dodge Charger, or maybe the 1972 Ford Gran Torino or the F-Bomb Camaro or the 1987 Buick Grand National. The cars have the most charisma, and the keenest psychology. They also have the best lines. I hope they get their own movie soon, maybe one as well-written as Pixar’s Cars.

So what‘s next for the fast and furious franchise? Well, how about wrapping up the whole gas-guzzling magilla with the grand summation 2 Fast 2B Furious or maybe 2 Furious 2B Fast — in which bros-under-the-hood Dom and Walker give it all up, join a monastery in Bavaria and are forced to compete in a high stakes snowmobile and pogo stick race through the mountains, masterminded by evil mogul Adolph Shickulgruber (sic, maybe?). One of our heroines (spoiler alert) could come back as an angel and the other could model Bavarian bikini tops. Of course if you look on the bad side, that movie could be a surprise hit and we might then be flooded with monks-on-pogo-sticks movies with Gregorian reggaeton soundtracks. (“12 Angry Monks?“) Too bleepin’ bad. ‘Cause then Vin will never get to re-team with Lumet and make a real “12 Angry Men and Women,“ with Johnny Depp or Meryl Streep as Juror No. 8.

Extras: Commentary by Lin. digital copy of film, featurettes, gag reel, short film Los Bandeleros.

PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (Four Stars)
U.S.; Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden (Red Distribution)

Anita O’Day was a white girl jazz singer whom almost all the experts rank with the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn. She was also a plucky, often unlucky adventuress who led a real jazz life — a biography, improvised and dangerous, that included hard times and years as a heroin addict, thanks to her “bad influence” junkie drummer-consort.

This superb documentary, successful on every level, brings us both the music and the woman, the song and the singer, from her early big band days with Gene Krupa (“Drum Boogie”) and Stan Kenton (“And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”), to her still active octogenarian years — with plenty of classic O’Day performances and glowing testimonials from a gallery of experts.

There’s an unforgettable high point: Anita at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival (in the performance immortalized on Bert Stern‘s Jazz on a Summer‘s Day), resplendent and ultra-cool in her summery straw hat and Vogue charmer outfit, delivering her legendary knockout, playfully dissonant, completely untraditional rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” You listen. You watch. All you can say is “Wow!”

Extras: Booklet, bonus O’Day performances.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS

Repulsion (Four Stars)
U. K.; Roman Polanski, 1965 (Criterion Collection)

In Roman Polanski’s shiveringly erotic horror film Repulsion the 22-year-old Catherine Deneuve plays Carol: a blonde French beauty, with a disarmingly lost-looking and childlike face and a disturbingly sexy, nubile body (often exposed here) — a girl who begins to go frighteningly mad when her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) leaves her alone a week or so, for a trip back to Paris.

Soon, the beautiful, naïve and very sexually skittish young Carol, the object of mostly unwanted desire from nearly every man in the neighborhood, loses her job as a manicurist at the local beauty shop and — increasingly prey to threatening nightmares and macabre sex fantasies — holes up in her sister‘s messy apartment, and keeps sinking into alienation and insanity as the dirt and squalor piles up, the shadows deepen and the food sprouts and rots. When the outside world begin to intrude — in the persons of Colin, a likeably lovelorn young would-be beau (John Fraser), and a lecherous landlord (Patrick Wymark) — Carol strikes back savagely, repulsed, with a bloody knife.

Repulsion, Polanski‘s first English language movie, and also the first of his many collaborations with the reclusive, brilliant French screenwriter Gerard Brach (Cul-de-Sac, Dance of the Vampires, Tess, Bitter Moon), is one of the scariest films ever and also one of the great ’60s black-and-white film noirs. Polanski, his ingenious art director Seamus Flannery; and the remarkable British cinematographer Gilbert Taylor — who was coming off two other black-and-white British classics, 1964‘s A Hard Day’s Night and Dr. Strangelove — plunge us into a world of escalating horror and oozy, trembling, tactile fright — where the sight of a skinned, decaying rabbit carcass, or the sound of a dripping faucet become as terrifying as the slashed corpses and Carol’s horrific Cocteau-ish dreams of groping hands emerging from the walls around her.

The most disturbing image in the entire film, for me, is the recurring sight of three stooped, threadbare little buskers, two hunched over and one walking backwards, as they play their odd haunting music, on the sidewalks below the mounting terror in the apartment. Who are those buskers? What is their world? What do they signify? Why do they seem so ominous, so alien, such harbingers of doom?

Polanski would later trap himself in a deadly apartment in the Brach-scripted The Tenant and, very memorably, he would imprison Adrien Brody, like Anne Frank, in a holocaust hideaway, as Warsaw Ghetto fugitive and classical musician Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist. But Carol‘s entrapment here, both physical and emotional, is the most eerie. Polanski uses Deneuve’s stunning beauty, the gorgeous face and figure that had already conquered the international art film world in Jacques Demy’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, to hook and plunge us into his whirlpool of strangeness and horror.

It’s a weird reversal. Carol is both the object of intense voyeurism (reminiscent of shower-bound Janet Leigh in Psycho) and a voyeur herself, both the inspiration and the dispenser of violence. It’s easy to psychoanalyze the holocaust fugitive and sometime sexual outlaw Polanski, the agoraphobic Brach, and Repulsion — a last shot of a family photo in Helen’s apartment, suggests that Carol was always a loner and maybe the victim of sexual molesting. But nothing can prepare you for the sheer tactile and visual intensity and shock of this nightmare: the way Polanski and his incredible company, on a minimal budget, immerse us in inexorably mounting madness and relentless mental and physical deterioration.

That’s why, ultimately, Repulsion scares such hell out of us. Because Polanski’s movie makes Carol‘s nightmare so indelibly, entrappingly, inescapably our own.

Extras: Commentary by Polanski and Deneuve, two documentaries including interviews with Polanski and Taylor; trailers; booklet with essay by Bill Horrigan.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: Blu-ray

Twelve Monkeys (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Terry Gilliam, 1995

Terry Gilliam’s wild, oddball sci-fi epic, inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 ode to time remembered and worlds lost La Jetee, puts Bruce Willis through the time-space wringer as a tireless time traveler, seeking the source of a killing worldwide plague that ravaged Earth in the ’90s. Like Brazil, Twelve Monkeys is another darkly comic Gilliam extravaganza, with a terrific cast that includes Christopher Plummer, Madeleine Stowe, Frank Gorshin and, in one of his very best performances, as a memorable nutcase, Brad Pitt.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SETS

Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler (Three Stars)
U. S.; Various Directors, 1933-36 (Warner Archive)

Those ‘30s super-camp musical stars and frequent movie singing boy and girlfriends — dimpled Dick Powell and dazed darling Ruby Keeler — are best known for their jaw-dropping Busby Berkeley choreographed outings in 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and Dames. This more obscure budget bundle from the admirably inclusive Warner Archive Collection, offers Powell and Keeler’s three other joint film appearances, including the two directed by the great Hollywood romantic Frank Borzage) plus one apiece with Dick and Ruby changing partners.

The more famous of the Borzages, 1934‘s Flirtation Walk — which sets Dick and Ruby’s lovebird antics in West Point — was a big hit and a best picture Oscar nominee. The other movies are mostly neglected or forgotten and sometimes terminally cute, like the costars at their wooziest and whimsiest.

But how can your heart not be warmed and tickled a bit, by Dick’s ingratiatingly boyish smile and flirty boy-tenor warbling and by Ruby’s somnolent singing and strangely heavy-footed, floppy-armed toe-tapping? These movies are all pretty entertaining. Even the weakest of them, the cloying Ready, Willing and Able (that’s what you think) may make you smile.

And the two Borzages — by-gosh-and-golly celebrations of the mythos of Army (Flirtation Walk) and Navy (the forgotten and underrated Shipmates Forever), by one of the screen’s great makers of pacifist love stories or fables (Seventh Heaven and No Greater Glory) — are both bizarrely heartwarming and oddly spirit-rousing. So are Dick and Ruby. All movies are U.S. releases.

Includes: Flirtation Walk (Frank Borzage, 1934). Three Stars. With Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Pat O’Brien and (in a bit) Tyrone Power. The Warners lovebirds bill and coo at West Point, under sturdy O’Brien’s watchful Irish eye.

Happiness Ahead (Mervyn LeRoy, 1934). Three stars. With Powell, Josephine Hutchinson, and Frank McHugh. Dick is a love-struck skyscraper window washer smitten with a rich girl playing poor. The love interest, then-lithe and sexy Josephine Hutchinson, was a ‘30s romantic mainstay; 25 years later, flashing the same beneficent smile she was even more memorable as the phony U.N. diplomat’s wife in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

Shipmates Forever (Borzage, 1935) Three Stars. With Powell, Keeler, and Lewis Stone. Obviously an attempt to reinvent the hit “Flirtation Walk” in a navy setting, this one puts brash crooner Dick (like The Doors’ Jim Morrison, an admiral’s son) and naval-gazing charmer Ruby at Annapolis. I actually like Shipmates a little better, because it’s a little nuttier.

Colleen (Alfred E. Green, 1936) Three Stars. With Powell, Keeler, Joan Blondell, Jack Oakie, and Hugh Herbert. The funniest of this quintet, this tale of a batty, horny millionaire (Hugh Herbert, “woo-wooing” away), his singin‘ son, and the melodious or fast-talking trio behind a dubious but fancy-schmancy dress shop (Keeler, Blondell and Oakie) also boasts imitation Fred-and-Ginger numbers by Paul Draper and Keeler. The script was co-written by F. Hugh (The Moon is Blue) Herbert, and no, he’s no (“Woo-woo!“) relation.

Ready, Willing and Able (Ray Enright, 1937) Two Stars. With Keeler, Lee Dixon and Allen Jenkins. Keeler is a phony musical star (interesting casting) but removing Dick does this series no good. This one does, however, boast the screen debut of the Johnny Mercer song classic “Too Marvelous for Words,” in a marvy, just too-too and just too very-very giant-typewriter production number.

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OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVD RELEASES

Woody Woodpecker Favorites (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Walter Lantz (prod.), 1940-55 (Universal)

How much wood would a woodpecker peck, if a woodpecker would peckerwood? You may never discover the answer to that mind-teasing, head-busting, Lantz-wielding query. But everything you always wanted to know to about Woody Woodpecker, but were afraid to ask (such as what in the world Mel Blanc had to do with his voice), can probably be found in this marvelously compact and entertaining little Junior Woodpecker Guide book. (Hi-hi-ha-ho! Hi-hi-ha-ho! Hi-hi-hi-hi-hi-hi-hi-hi-hi! Hi!).

Fifteen classics from the Woodster’s ’40s heyday. Five bonus cartoons featuring Woody‘s friends. (Friends?) Two episodes, with eight more cartoons, from the less inspiring, slower, tamer TV series. Woody‘s very first appearance (1941’s Knock Knock) annoying the bejeezus out of some bear. His highbrow classical music classics The Barber of Seville (Chuck Jones isn‘t the only cartooneer who can loot Puccini) and Musical Moments from Chopin where pianist Woody literally burns down the house.

Woody W. was one of a number of Golden Age cartoon scamps — mad magpies, screwy squirrels and the like — who adopted the loony, goony, bent-beak, over-the-top craziness of Warners’ resident wild bird, Daffy Duck, though, in his prime, Woodbird probably could have driven Daffy nuts too. If you wuv and want Woody, you won’t be disappointed here. And if you don’t want him, that bird doesn’t give a wood-wood-woody di-di-di-damn. Hi-hi-ha-ho!

Includes Knock Knock, Pantry Panic, The Barber of Seville, Ski for Two, Chew-Chew Baby, The Dippy Diplomat, The Loose Nut, Who’s Cooking Who?, Bathing Buddies, Fair Weather Fiends, Musical Moments from Chopin, Banquet Busters, Wet Blanket Policy, Sleep Happy, The Redwood Sap (all starring the Woodbird). Plus Woody‘s pals in Fish Fry, The Legend of Rockabye Point, Sh-h-h-h-h-h, Crazy Mixed Up Pup and Pied Piper of Basin Street.

Extras: Two episodes (# 53 and #56) from The Woody Woodpecker Show. With appearances by Lantz and eight cartoons, including The Bird Who Came to Dinner and Billion Dollar Boner.

The Fallen Sparrow (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Richard Wallace, 1943 (Warner Archive)

Somewhat sluggish but ultimately stimulating leftwing noir, featuring John Garfield as a mind mangled vet of the Spanish Civil War (or is he?), Maureen O’Hara as a femme fatale (or is she?) and Walter Slezak as the wheelchair-bound (or is he?) boss of a cabal of slick fascists. Based on a novel by Dorothy Hughes, but not as good as either of those other Hughes-mined classic noirs, Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse or Nick Ray’s Bogey masterpiece In a Lonely Place. Still, Garfield, one of the black list’s great victims, and the man who didn’t play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, sparks up almost any movie.

Billy the Kid (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; David Miller, 1941 (Warner Archive)

Robert Taylor is a little mature to play Billy “The Kid“ Bonney, but he seems happy to be on a horse in this early adult western. Brian Donlevy basically plays Pat Garrett, though he has a different name, and the supporting cast includes evil Gene Lockhart, stalwart Ian Hunter, thuggish Lon Chaney, Jr. and Mexican serenader/Billy’s pal Frank Puglia. David Miller directed one (I insist) great western in the Trumbo-scripted Lonely are the Brave. Here, he makes an okay one — though it’s a long ride from the best Billys: Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun and Peckinpah‘s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

– Michael Wilmington
July 28, 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