MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Monsoon Wedding, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Easy Rider and more…

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
(Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Michael Bay, 2009

This might better be called Transformers: Revenge of the Hasbro Action Toys. Because that’s who the real stars are: those indefatigable ultra-complicated toy robots, the good autobots and the bad decepticons, who bash and smash and mash and thrash each other for two and a half hours, against spectacular U. S.; French, Jordanian and Egyptian locales, while the poor humans involved — including anxious Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), foxy Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), snarling agent-turned-deli-guy Simmons (John Turturro) and obnoxious college kid hedonist Leo (Ramon Rodriguez) — run around with scared or pugnacious expressions, getting the same ultimately short shrift Raymond Burr and Takashi Shimura got as they mulled things over while ’50s Tokyo was menaced in the English language cut by Godzilla, King of the Monsters. (For my money, ‘Zilla would have eaten these decepticons alive. And he acts better too.)

Oh, well… Despite undeniable technical virtuosity of the most extreme sort, from director Michael Bay and his crew, this robot toy sequel has been bashed, mashed, thrashed and trashed by the critics as well, few of whom have been showing much respect for the skill it takes to making toys come alive, even as the humans around them keep behaving like frantic toys. The chorus of nix-sayers has a point. Why should you care more whether a ‘bot gets squashed by a Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) and whether Sam makes it with the local sex-bot, than whether Simmons makes a good pastrami on rye and whether Sam and Leo make it in one piece from the local fraternity bash to the depths of the Sphinx?

Bay is a director whose name instantly summons up a whole contemporary movie style or trend: his thrillers are mechanically expert and emotionally somewhat vacant, extremely violent yet cartoonish and cliché-riddled. I think he’s talented — and his readiness to collaborate on Criterion editions of his movies shows he’s a bit of a buff. But I wish he’d stop making so many movies like this one, and try more films without a single physical fight and nary an explosion.

The cast is mired in the robo-fights: helpless onlookers transfixed by children’s games amok. And writers Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman seem to have exhausted themselves dreaming up wisecracks for the robots, few of which are worth the effort to hear above the mass carnage and nonstop din of the action scenes. As for the rest of the cast, Kevin Dunn and Julie White (as the Witwickys) take obnoxious, addled parenthood to new lows, and the various military guys act like Be All You Can Be TV ad clones looking for a better gig. The whole movie, for all its undeniable technical skill, has the humanity and humor of an Erector Set and Tinker Toys gone mad. But it is probably the only time you’ll get to see a movie villain tear up a pyramid peak, or watch the hero having coitus interruptus with a tentacled robot.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

Monsoon Wedding (Two discs) (Four Stars)
India; Mira Nair, 2002 (Criterion Collection)

Mira Nair’s joyous movie about a wedding in Dehli — constantly disrupted by family squabbles, sudden crises, covert romantic interludes, cultural clashes among the guests, dark buried secrets erupting to the surface and finally, a full-blown monsoon rainfall, not to mention a musical climax that outdoes Bollywood — is both her most popular film and her best. It’s her Rules of the Game, an ensemble masterpiece by a filmmaker whose work is often the epitome of cinema multiculturalism. In many ways, she seems to have been pointing toward this grand amalgam of comedy and tragedy in all her work, both fiction and documentary.

Nair, working with a script by her young Columbia film student, Sabrina Dhawan, wittily and lovingly penetrates the colorful, dense surface of a landmark two-family event. In an upper middle class household, a bride and groom, who have other loves and interests, are about to join together two families, one Bengali, one (like Nair herself) Punjabi, with long histories, seen and unseen. And, as they do, all jolly hell (and heaven) is about to break loose. The intoxicating result, Monsoon Wedding, is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s too-neglected classic A Wedding, of course, though it’s a happier, more buoyant film, and it also suggests — as Pico Iyer’s excellent essay in the Criterion booklet explicates — Shakespearean comedy at its most Midsummer Night’s Dreamy.

Nair’s superb cast includes Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Tillotamma Shone, Vasundhara Das and, as the irritating event planner, Vijay Raaz. The gorgeous, sparkling production design and cinematography are by Stephanie Carroll and Declan Quinn. The lilting, infectious music is by Mychael Danna. And probably only one filmmaker in the world could have drawn it all together, or so seamlessly managed this magnificent multicultural Indian jamboree: Mira Nair, whose work ranges from urban neorealist tragedy (Salaam Bombay) to poignant family drama (The Namesake) to romantic fantasy (Kama Sutra). All those threads merge here, in her greatest work. (in English and Bengali, with English subtitles.)

Also included in the package are three short documentaries by Nair — So Far from India (1982), India Cabaret (1985), and The Laughing Club of India (2000) –and four Nair fiction shorts: The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat (1993), 11’09”01 – September 11 (Segment: India) (2002), Migration 2001), and How Can It Be? (2008). All seven films have introductions by Nair.

Extras: Commentary by Nair; interviews with Shah, Quinn and Carroll; trailer; booklet with essay by Pico Iyer.
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PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.; John Hughes, 1987 (Paramount)

John Hughes’ funniest comedy — except for maybe Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — pairs off a middle class introverted fussbudget business guy (Steve Martin, at his most laughably neurotic), who’s trying to get home for Thanksgiving, with a genial slob of an accidental traveling companion (John Candy at his most hilariously obtuse) on adjoining airline seats. Immediately, they don’t hit it off, which means, of course, that they’ll be stuck with each other for the entire movie, yoked together when the plane trip goes awry, in a mad impromptu journey homeward by train, auto or any means possible.

I once complained to John Candy at a Hollywood premiere party that Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which I enjoyed, lacked a crucial scene: the one where the obnoxious Candy character and the aggravated Martin guy have their first alienating conversations on the plane. And Candy insisted that that very scene had actually been shot and later cut out, along with about an hour or so of extra material, deleted from the film, which he said was very funny, and wished had been kept. That opening scene is supposedly back here as an extra, and I hope the rest of the excised Planes, Trains and Automobiles, if it exists, is somehow returned too. After all, that’s what DVDs were made for.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: BLU-RAY

Easy Rider (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Dennis Hopper, 1969

In 1969, Easy Rider — a low-budget revolution in which writer-producer Peter Fonda and writer-director Dennis Hopper play Wyatt and Billy, two shaggy, pot-blowing bikers, riding cross country to New Orleans, the Mardi Gras and an evil destiny, after a big cocaine score – exploded onto America’s movie scene and culture like few low budget movies ever have, winning the Camera d’Or (for best first film) at Cannes, and becoming a landmark film in the ’60s-’70s U. S. New Wave.

It still plays like a guitar jam house afire, with blazing Laszlo Kovacs cinematography, a trend-setting rock soundtrack (keyed by Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild) that fundamentally changed the way movies have been scored ever since, and an iconic cast headed by Fonda, Hopper, and the nonpareil Jack Nicholson as happily drunken lawyer George Hanson (in the performance some friends say that, booze aside, is closest to Nicholson’s real personality). The cocaine buyer in the opening scene, by the way, is Phil Spector. And, continuing the theme of the last review, Dennis Hopper once told me that there are longer cuts of Easy Rider which he prefers, one of four and one of about eight hours — which, he claimed, really gave you the feeling of riding cross-country. We’ll probably never get the original Greed. But why not the original Easy Rider?

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PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SETS

Dusan Makavejev, Free Radical (Three and a Half Stars)
Yugoslavia; Dusan Makavejev, 1965-68 (Criterion)

Dusan Makavejev’s early Yugoslavian fiction features, three of which are collected here, were among the happiest, funniest yet most disturbing to emerge from eastern Europe in the ’60s. Makavejev, who later went even further with the Reichian orgies of his censored classic W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, begins to open up here. He blends the forms of sexual comedy and crime story in his first two fiction features, which are both about love, jealousy and death: Man is not a Bird (1965), set in an isolated mountain copper-mining city on the Bulgarian border, and Love Affair (1967), which, aided by a real-life sexologist and criminologist, follows the ill-fated Belgrade affair of a sexy telephone operator (Eva Ras) and a morose sanitation expert/exterminator (Slobodan Aligrudic.)

The third time out here, Makavejev fused his already well-developed documentary style with a delightfully campy and enjoyably silly Serbian film curio. In Innocence Unprotected, (1942) he took the first Serbian sound movie — a happily cliché-packed romance/thriller/melodrama written, directed by and starring famous Yugoslavian strong man and escape artist Dragoljub Aleksic — and surrounded it with interviews with Aleksic, and others from the cast and crew, shot in the present day (1968), plus scenes of postwar destruction and rebuilding, propaganda snippets and other social flotsam.

The results, in all three cases, are sometimes jubilant, sometimes melancholy dark comedies that cheekily penetrate the socio-political and psycho-sexual vagaries of the Soviet bloc countries in the Cold War era as have few films before or since. All films in Serbian, with English subtitles.

Includes: Man is not a Bird (Yugoslavia; Dusan Makavejev, 1965). Three and a Half Stars. With Milena Dravic and Janez Vrhovic. Love Affair: or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia; Dusan Makavejev, 1967). Four Stars. With Eva Ras and Slobodan Aligrudic. Innocence Unprotected (Yugoslavia; Dusan Makavejev/Dragoljub Aleksic, 1968). Three and a Half Stars. With Aleksic and Ana Milosavijevic.
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OTHER CURRENT OR RECENT DVD RELEASES

Cheri (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.-U.K.; Stephen Frears, 2009

I like Stephen Frears, sometimes very much (The Grifters, Bloody Kids, The Hit). But one movie of his that I’ve always found a bit overrated was his 1988 Dangerous Liaisons, scripted by Christopher Hampton from his play of the Choldlerlos de Laclos French epistolary novel about upper class sexual games.

Here, Friars and writer Hampton once again tackle a French erotic classic, Colette’s romantic roman Cheri — and I liked it even less. The main reason: Rupert Friend as Cheri, the young lover of Michelle Pfeiffer’s fetching lady of love and leisure, and the son of Kathy Bates’ maddening, is the most charmless, least compelling romantic hero I’ve seen in quite a while. A literary-based romance, especially one with currents as dark as this, ought at least to convince you of the couple’s passion. In this case, I could barely stand to see the two of them together on screen. What did this languid clown do to deserve Pfeiffer?

The film, as if in compensation for this emotional thinness (others may disagree) is quite beautiful to look at. But it lacks emotional resonance or conviction. And what’s worse is that it makes love into what Colette’s Gaston thought it, in the Minnelli movie of Gigi: a bore. If you want a real period French romance, check out The Earrings of Madame de…

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The Stepfather (Three Stars)
U.S.; Joseph Ruben, 1987 (Shout! Factory)

Terry O’Quinn plays the seemingly perfect second husband looking for the perfect family in a halcyon, near-perfect little suburb — except that this sterling stepfather is really a crazed killer, and if his new family doesn’t measure up to his high standards, they’re going to suffer, suffer. A brilliant screenplay by Donald Westlake, from a story by Westlake, Brian Garfield and Carolyn Lefcourt, keys this famous, tense little sleeper, one of the best of the family psychological thrillers — which just goes to show how important good screenplays, and occasionally bad fathers, are in movies. With Jill Schoelen and Shelley Hack.

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Marlene (Three and a Half Stars)
Germany; Maximilian Schell, 1984 (Kino)

Max Schell’s powerful portrait of one of the cinema’s great romantic icons, Marlene Dietrich, survives the seemingly crippling drawback of Dietrich’s refusal to be photographed for Schell’s documentary. (She does consent to an audio interview.) But few movie stars have left more haunting visions behind, and Schell cannily uses both the star’s voice of the film’s present time and the lustrous movie images of her past to create an indelible portrait of timeless beauty and movie fantasy. (In English and German, with English subtitles.)

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Happy Birthday to Me (Two Stars)
U. S.; J. Lee Thompson, 1980 (Anchor Bay)

Someone is killing off the privileged, spoiled, sexed-up rich-kid members of the local high school’s toniest clique, a band of insiders that includes Melissa Sue Anderson, slumming it after The Little House on the Prairie, as disturbed young Ginny. One by one, they go down hard, murdered by barbells or impaled on a shish-ke-bob stick or shoved into the cake at a grisly birthday party, in this gruesome little trifle.

One of the few late’70s-early ’80s teen slasher horror movies, by a famous old-line director — J. Lee Thompson of Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone — and it shows that Thompson can keep his flair for nasty, sadistic suspense even under the most ridiculous circumstances. With Glenn Ford in the unrewarding role of an intense therapist, trying to straighten out Ginny and figure it all out before someone maybe kills him. (Perhaps he’s dreaming of Gilda and The Blackboard Jungle.)

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Walt Disney Animation Collection: Classic Short Films (Disney)

These happy, family-friendly and occasionally sublime compendiums of Disney short and medium cartoons, mostly from Walt’s Golden Age, have been out for a while. But I kept setting them aside for other reviews. I prefer the older packaging for the Disney shorts, now discontinued, which, in their less attractive metal slipcases, offered more movies. But there’s no denying that Disney was a pop genius, and that many of these cartoons from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s (and sometime later) remain among the studio’s best. They also let you hear Walt as the voice of Mickey, which he used to supply himself, from the early days though Mickey and the Beanstalk. (In Beanstalk, Clarence “Ducky” Nash, of course, did Donald Duck and Pinto Colvig did Goofy.) (* marks cartoons of special quality or interest.)

Three Little Pigs (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Various directors, 1933-1952 (Disney)

One of Disney’s biggest short cartoon hits, The Three Little Pigs — which was sometimes billed above the main feature on movie marquees — is thought by many socio-chronologist to embody the fighting spirit of America under the Depression (aka The Big Bad Wolf). And the cartoon’s song hit Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? later supplied the title of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer prize play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ though, at the time, the Disney studio wouldn’t let the tune be used in the frank, four letter word spiked drama.

Walt himself, as he did with Mickey Mouse, supplied the sage, wise voice of practical pig — who built his house of bricks while his improvident fellow swine used sticks or straw.

Includes: Three Little Pigs* (1933); The Big Bad Wolf* (1934), Three Little Wolves (1936), Lambert the Sheepish Lion (1952), Chicken Little* (’43), Three Blind
Mouseketeers (1936), Elmer Elephant* (1936)

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The Tortoise and the Hare (Three Stars)
U.S.; Various directors, 1935-1961 (Disney)

The title short was another big cartoon hit; indeed, the films brash and cocky rabbit, Max Hare, is sometimes thought to be an ancestor of Bugs Bunny himself.

Includes: The Tortoise and the Hare* (1936), Babes in the Woods (1932), The Saga of Windwagon Smith (1961), The Goddess of Spring* (1934), Toby Tortoise Returns* (1936), Paul Bunyan (1958)

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The Reluctant Dragon (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Various directors, 1938-1960 (Disney)

Part of a special live action-cartoon package that showed how the Disney Studio created its animated films, Reluctant Dragon is also another of the studio’s pacifist fables about cute monsters. So is the well-known Munro Leaf tale of the flower-power-loving Ferdinand the Bull.

Includes: The Reluctant Dragon* (1941), Goliath II (1960), Ferdinand the Bull* (1938), Johnny Appleseed (1948).

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Wind in the Willows (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Various directors, 1934-1949 (Disney)

Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel of the four great chums, Toad, Badger, Mole, Rat and of the nefarious swindles and glorious revolt at Toad Hall, has been often filmed, but never better illustrated than it was by E. H. Shepard in the original book. Disney’s version though, is pretty nifty; it also boasts narration by Basil Rathbone. The Ugly Duckling is an inspirational-story charmer.

Includes: Wind in the Willows* (1949), The Ugly Duckling* (1939), The Robber Kitten (1935) The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934), The Wise Little Hen (1936), The Golden Touch (1935).

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Mickey and the Beanstalk (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Various directors, 1934-1947 (Disney)

Mickey and the Beanstalk, I think, is one of the great classic Disneys, also one of the best joint outings of Mickey, Donald Duck and Goofy. This is the TV version, with interpolations by that know-it-all scientist Ludwig von Drake. Thru the Mirror, like the Dumbo drunk scene and most of Fantasia, is the peak of surreal Golden Age Walt.

Includes: Mickey and the Beanstalk* (1947), The Brave Little Tailor (1938), Gulliver Mickey* (1934), Thru the Mirror* (1936), Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip (1940).

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The Prince and the Pauper (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Various directors, 1933-1990 (Disney)

A late, post-Walt cartoon, Prince and the Pauper reunites the Mickey-Goofy-Donald team in the kind of nostalgic outing I wish the studio would do more often today.

Includes: The Prince and the Pauper* (1990), The Pied Piper (1933 ), Old King Cole (1933), A Knight for a Day* (1946), Ye Olden Days (1933).

– Michael Wilmington
October 20, 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