MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: The City of Your Final Destination, Black Orpheus, Hamlet, The Last Song, and more …

PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

The City of Your Final Destination (Three and a Half Stars)
U.K.-U.S.; James Ivory, 2009 (Screen Media)

In The City of Your Final Destination — maybe the last of the lovably old-fashioned, classically constructed, deeply literate and beautifully wrought Merchant Ivory films, in the string that began back in 1963 with The Householder — we are in Uruguay, in a very-lived-in and sunnily attractive hacienda, a place called Ocho Rios.

It is inhabited by the heirs of deceased novelist Jules Gund, whose family were refugees from Hitler‘s Europe, and who became the author of a single critically lauded novel called “The Gondola” — and then committed suicide while working on the second. Gund‘s survivors include his tart-tongued wife Caroline (Laura Linney), his gentle mistress Arden Langdon (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her little daughter Alma (Ambar Mallman), his urbane, aging gay brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins) and Adam’s much younger Japanese-born lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada).

Invading the premises is a desperate young Iranian-born academic from the University of Colorado, Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), who has to secure permission for a Gund biography from the reluctant family. Also arriving later, to help him, is Omar‘s domineering girlfriend Dierdre (Alexandra Maria Lara).

To keep his career afloat, Omar must change the minds of Caroline, Arden and Adam — must, in a way, seduce them all. The basically shy Omar has dropped into the hacienda unannounced, and because they’re very civilized and seldom visited people, he intrigues them and they allow him to intrude further and deeper into their little hothouse world of threadbare privilege and shadowy secrets. One doesn’t have to be shy about calling that world “Chekhovian,” for that is obviously what the original novel’s author, Peter Cameron, wanted. Adam himself keeps making jokes about wanting to leave and go to Moscow, like Chekhov’s melancholy Three Sisters.

What happens is perhaps a little pat at times, but always redeemed by the way these actors and these filmmakers make their story live and pulse and breathe.

I felt sad though, watching The City of Your Final Destination, which may be the swan song of the Merchant Ivory style, the last of those lusciously old-fashioned novelistic Merchant Ivory films. (Director James Ivory has one last joint project in production, a farewell concert film in honor of his late producing partner Ismail Merchant.) But I’m not sad because I thought “City” was a failure, or because I didn’t think it was a lovely film or a success on its own terms. To the contrary, it’s a fine work and a very entertaining one, despite the mixed reception it received from critics in 2009.

It’s a movie as chockfull of lush, enticing, literate delights as most of the best of their previous work, and I feel it’s been unfairly treated by the majority of the reviewers who had a chance to review it in 2009, many of whom dismissed it as a languid, over talky bore, or damned it as not up to its model, Chekhov.

Let’s get serious. Except for the films of the late Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, how many films are up to Chekhov, including most of the movies adapted from him? The City of Your Final Destination, based on a novel written in 2002 by a contemporary writer, deserved to be measured by its own intentions and achievements, and gauged against the contemporary movies also out on the cinema marketplace in 2009 — few of which were anywhere near as literate, as intelligent, as lovingly crafted, as exquisitely designed, as brilliantly acted, as just plain good on every measurable level, as this one.

There is a tendency of some observers to underrate or jive serious films work adapted from ambitious novels, or sometimes to judge them on impossibly high standards, simply because they are serious, and because the reviewers want to prove themselves impervious to pretensions or possible Oscar-mongering. True, Merchant and Ivory may have been a bit pretentious, at times. I’m not fond of either Jefferson in Paris or Surviving Picasso, both of which I now think were preachy blunders. And, after all, they spent their careers adapting (mostly very well) somewhat pretentious if clearly great writers like E. M. Forster and Henry James, and working always from highly literate scripts by that truly estimable novelist/scenarist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who performs that role here, superbly, for one more time.

But should that be held against them? Shouldn‘t we rather honor this pair’s ambition and frequent high achievement? Shouldn’t we respect the fact that Merchant and Ivory strove so hard and so often to give us the kind of painstakingly realistic, psychologically deep, lushly visual dramatic experiences most other filmmaking teams didn’t or wouldn’t? Shouldn’t we acknowledge that Merchant Ivory’s long and productive joint careers (along with Jhabvala and the others in their elegant little company) were something of a miracle? Shouldn’t we have cut Ivory some slack here, and respected him for trying to keep the spirit of his late partner alive — and, in my opinion at least, succeeding so well?

Finally, weren’t at least some of the attacks on or dismissals of the current work of the 79-year-old Ivory and the 80-year-old Jhabvala (in 2006-7, when the film was made) prompted at least partly by that most sadly, and frequently indulged of bigotries, that unpardonably brutal aesthetic prejudice, ageism?

Merchant Ivory always needed sympathetic critics more than most. Do their well-meaning detractors now feel good about perhaps helping deprive us all of another Merchant Ivory film or two? I guess they do — or don’t care.

The movie has its flaws. Metwally is a bit too bland. But I mostly loved The City of Your Final Destination, a film about the importance of art, of family, of literature, of love, and of the sometimes dubious refuge from a hostile or indifferent world that these solaces provide. It is bewitchingly well photographed, by Javier Aguirresarobe, lit and shot as if through veils of sunlit haze. And I think Hopkins, playing the devious and charming Adam, and Linney, as the spiky and needling Caroline, gave two of the finest performances of 2009, consummately crafted and unjustly ignored.

I also think we critics should always remember that if we don’t stand up for the film artists who need us most, when they need us most, then some day most of them may be gone.

Extras: “Making of” documentary; Ivory’s Comments.

PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS

Black Orpheus (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
France: Marcel Camus, 1959 (Criterion Collection)

This update of the hellbound-lovers legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, was one of the biggest Arthouse hits of the ‘50s, winner of both the foreign language film Oscar and the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or. It remains, I think, one of the great, entrancing foreign language musical films, even if Pauline Kael did memorably ridicule its pop classicism. (“I‘m Orpheus.” “I‘m Eurydice.” “Then we must be in love.”)

That classic status holds not so much because of the crowd-pleasing charm of the dazzlingly attractive leads — the bossa nova strumming Breno Mello as streetcar conductor/Casanova Orfeu, and the heartbreakingly lovely Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice, but from the constant surging samba beat and the wildly infectious melodies that inspire the entire cast to strut and wiggle and hip-shake from the first beat to the last cry.

Rio de Janiero has rarely looked as inviting, as beguilingly low-down or sweetly romantic, as full of nonstop high spirits and delight. The engaging, high-spirited cast includes Lourdes de Oliveira as the vixen and love-rival Mira, Lea Garcia as Eurydice’s bubbly friend and matchmaker Serafina and the skeletal, masked, black-clad and sinister Adhemar Ferreira da Silva as Death. (He’s the scariest Arthouse Death since Bengt Ekerot in The Seventh Seal.) Jacques Viot‘s script is constructed with lyrical inevitability, like a song you hear once and can’t forget. Marcel Camus (who never topped this high point, didn‘t stay a front-rank filmmaker, but directs this film with an energy and romanticism that never flag).

There are two other members of the “Orfeu Negro” company who are probably auteurs as much as Camus or Viot. One cannot imagine Black Orpheus without them: the movie‘s incredible Brazilian composers Luis Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim, two giants just being introduced to a rapturous world.

Extras: Interviews with Camus, Dawn, scholars Robert Stam, jazz critic Gary Giddins and author Ruy Castro; documentary Looking for ‘Black Orpheus‘; Trailer; Booklet with Michael Atkinson essay.

PICK OF THE WEEK: Blu-ray

Hamlet (Book Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U.K.-U.S.: Kenneth Branagh, 1996 (Warner)

Kenneth Branagh may have been too obsessed with trumping the great Shakespearean movie man Laurence Olivier, when — as director-star-scenarist — he made this version of Hamlet in 1996 after his lauded film of Henry V in 1989. (Olivier, of course, had done the same thing as star/director of his classic film versions of Henry V and Hamlet in 1945 and 1948.

But it’s still an exhilarating attempt, and I’m glad we have it. Here Branagh not only takes on the double challenge of matching or surpassing Oliver‘s triumphs, but tries to give us a Hamlet of unprecedented faithfulness and rare scope. He sets it in a Scandinavian castle, with Bergmanesque atmosphere. He plays the gloomy Dane himself and turns Hamlet into a hugely ambitious production, a rare movie performance of the complete four hour-plus play — which is almost always trimmed on stage or in the movies.

The cast, both splendid and wildly idiosyncratic, includes Kate Winslet as Hamlet’s fair nymph Ophelia, Derek Jacobi as his stepfather, the murderous usurper King Claudius, Julie Christie as Hamlet’s too-susceptible mother Gertrude, Brian Blessed as his father the Ghost, Michael Maloney as hothead Laertes and Richard Briers as a shaggy Polonius. Backing them up is a remarkable all-star Hollywood cameo cast including Charlton Heston as the magisterial Player King, Rosemary Harris, Judi Dench and John Gielgud in his company, Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger, Robin Williams as the foppish Osric, and Timothy Spall and Reece Dinsdale as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Crazy as some of this seems, this is still a magnificent cast, and its still an often brilliant film of one of the world‘s greatest plays.

Branagh’s Hamlet has only one big flaw, and it may have been avoidable: It’s Branagh as Hamlet. Branagh breathes heroism and exudes brash confidence and self-certainty, even when he‘s trying his best to be, as Olivier put it, “a man who cold not make up his mind.” He looks like somewhat who could have wiped out Claudius on first sight.

Of course, there’s probably no way Branagh wouldn’t have cast himself in the role. But maybe he needed a co-director to give him another pair of eyes on the part. And, if he could have borne the loss of theater’s greatest role, maybe he should have cast himself in one of his more natural parts — as either Claudius or Laertes — and given the prize part of Hamlet instead to Daniel Day-Lewis.

Still and all, I’m very sorry this Hamlet wasn‘t a hit and that Branagh, suffering some of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, went to more modest productions. I would have liked to see another big Shakespearean film from Branagh every five years or so. Shakespeare, as we tend to recognize, was the greatest screenwriter who ever lived, even if he never saw a movie.

And Branagh is right for Macbeth, right for “honest, honest” Iago (which he did later play, opposite Laurence Fishburne), right for Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida; right for many other great Shakespearean parts, and maybe now, age aside, more right for haunted, beleaguered, uncertain Hamlet. Branagh obviously loves Shakespeare and knows how to bring him alive on screen. That’s a gift to treasure, to make too, too solid flesh melt…

PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SETS

Mexican Melodrama (Two Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
Mexico; Various Directors, 1933-1950 (Cinematica/Facets)

The two incredible melodramas in this set are landmarks of ‘30s and ‘50s Mexican film history that most of us Luis Bunuel-centric Anglos have probably missed. Both beautifully shot in highly evocative, noir-tinged black and white by the great ex-Hollywood cinematographer Alex Phillips (Gabriel Figueroa‘s only rival in the Mexican industry and the father of the Alex Phillips Jr., who shot Yanco), both co-starring the Garboesque Mexican film siren Andrea Palma (a friend of Garbo’s, by the way) and both going way past the usual bounds of melodrama to achieve orgasmic gangster musical delight (“Aventurera”) and a downbeat lyrical naturalism that recalls not just film noir but French poetic realism (“Woman of the Port“), these are wildly entertaining or wildly sad movies that will amaze and tantalize any buff.

Includes: The Woman of the Port (Mexico; Arcady Boytler, 1933) Four Stars. The mood mixes Josef Von Sternberg and Julien Duvivier. A pure-hearted young girl, Rosario (Palma) loses her virginity (in images that suggest the Russian genius Dovzhenko’s pastoral lyricism), her good name and her father‘s life to her faithless, lying cad of a boyfriend. Drifting to prostitution on the docks, Rosario plummets toward a genuinely shocking resolution. Voted one of the ten best Mexican films of all time; you‘ll know why after you’ve seen it.

Aventurera (Mexico; Alberto Gout, 1950). Cross Carmen Miranda with Charo and Betty Hutton in your mind, and you may get some idea of the sheer musical/sexual voltage of star Ninon Sevilla, a snapping-eyed, hip-shaking, seductively wiggling musical temptress, who, as adventuress Elena, falls from middle class respectability to show business and becomes the pawn of a queen of the cabaret underworld played by Andrea Palma (see above.) This movie has everything, including a heist, a shoot out, drunken antics at a society party, secret family scandals erupting everywhere, head-bashing night club brawls and an honest-to-goodness Chiquita Banana number, with Elena barely covered by the bananas. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)

The music (by Alberto Dominguez, Antonio Diaz Condi and Agustin Lara) is fantastic. The wickedly entertaining script (by Alvaro Custodia and Carlos Sampelayo) is a knockout, packed with jaw-droppers and show-stoppers. Alberto Gout directs it all with panache and unbuttoned verve, as if he were doing the Busby Berkeley versions of Gilda and Love Me or Leave Me. You may think you’ve seen something like Aventurera, but you’re wrong. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.) .

OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVD RELEASES

The Last Song (Two Stars)
U.S.; Julie Anne Robinson, 2010 –

The latest movie from a Nicholas Sparks novel (after Dear John, Message in a Bottle, and The Notebook), which ahs been co-scripted by Sparks himself, offers another weepy, lush mix of romance, beaches, horrible misunderstandings, passion, true love

SPOILER ALERT

and death.

END OF SPOILER

This time, it’s Miley Cyrus and Greg Kinnear who do the suffering under the sun. She‘s a petulant, rebellious daughter, Ronnie Miller, sent by her separated mom Kim (Kelly Preston), to spend the summer with Kinnear as her fragile-looking composer dad Steve Miller. (Fly like an eagle!) Also around for the summer: Bobby Coleman as precocious little brother Jonah.

What a drag! Ronnie, scowling as if she wanted us all to forget Hannah Montana forever, is fed up with life, her family and music. (Though a piano prodigy herself, she‘s refusing to go to Juilliard.) And soon, she’s prowling around the local beach like an angry, scornful she-wolf looking for someone to bite. Amazingly, the hunkiest guy on the sand, blonde volleyball champ and nice-guy/rich-boy Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth) bumps into Ronnie, pursues her, and just won’t take no for an answer, a conversation-closer, or even a cue.

Soon we learn of a mysterious church-burning which implicated poor Steve, wounded by the charred episode and now tinkling away on his piano trying to write his last song. (Shall we lay bets on who eventually comes to his musical rescue?) Along with her persistent Will, Ronnie is dogged by psychopath Marcus (Nick Lashaway), runaway Blaze (Carly Chaikin) and Will’s volleyball buddy Scott (Hallock Beals), who’s hiding something. Then there’s the problem of Will’s snobbish parents, Susan and Tom, violently offended when the happy couple show up at the mansion covered with mud after a playful dirt-romp. A wedding approaches. A confession. A hospital. Can the piano stay in tune until the last scene?

I’m sure you’re all completely befuddled about what could possibly happen next in this perplexing love affair, so I won’t add to your confusion with any more synopsis. No-siree, figure it all out for yourselves. (I’m not being a snob here; I actually liked the movie of Sparks‘ The Notebook, if not any of the others.)

What of the cast? Miley Cyrus, going for a real change of pace, is not too happy a choice for a sorrow-plagued heroine, I’m afraid — though she does sing the hell out of the credits song. But Miley has some problems here with looking romantic and vulnerable, rather than just sexy, mad or smiley — and that prevents her and Hemsworth from winning the Amanda Seyfried-Channing Tatum Dear John beautiful-star-crossed-couple sweepstakes.

SPOILER ALERT

Everyone else seems to waiting for the casting call to an updated remake of The Summer Place — except for Kinnear, who, amazingly, manages to really look as if he actually were dying. But maybe he just figured that was the easiest way out.

END OF SPOILER.

The Last Song deserves some praise. A smidgen. After complaining last week because the filmmakers on Diary of a Wimpy Kid designed the writer-wimpy-kid‘s room with almost no books visible, at least till near the end, I’ve got to applaud Last Song‘s company for filling Steve’s shelves with books, as well as having a heroine and hero, Ronnie and Will, who have not only both read, or are reading, Leo Tolstoy‘s great romantic novel Anna Karenina, but can actually quote that novel’s celebrated first line about happy families being alike and unhappy families being different.

Huzzah! In appreciation, I offer this possible plot-sample for the next Nicholas Sparks, or Sparksian, or Sparks-style, novel.

Somewhere in North America, beautiful waves crash on a moonlit shoreline. A beautiful young couple, who’ve just met that day, are walking along the beach at nightfall. They have fallen madly in love. Idly, the boy picks up a conch shell, and they begin having a foolish argument about whether people should keep the shells they find along life‘s pathway, or leave them on the beach, where the shells truly belong. Still arguing, they fall in the water and drown.

Another couple, sitting nearby, see the whole thing, but are too late to rescue the lovers. So they decide to write a book about the incident, inspired by Tolstoy, and called “Night of the Conch” or “The Beauty Whisperer.“ It becomes a huge New York Times best-seller. The second couple are sent a big royalty check, but they argue about who should cash it. They end up stuffing it in a bottle and throwing it out to sea. On the way back, the boy trips on another conch shell, which he throws angrily into the ocean. The couple split up. The next day, the stock market crashes.

I don’t know. It makes me cry.

3 Responses to “Wilmington on DVDs: The City of Your Final Destination, Black Orpheus, Hamlet, The Last Song, and more …”

Wilmington

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“The word I have fallen in love with lately is ‘Hellenic.’ Greek in its mythology. So while everyone is skewing towards the YouTube generation, here we are making two-and-a-half-hour movies and trying to buck the system. It’s become clear to me that we are never going to be a perfect fit with Hollywood; we will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot. Really it’s not provocation for the sake of being provocative, but trying to make something that people fall in love with and has staying power. I think people are going to remember Dragged Across Concrete and these other movies decades from now. I do not believe that they will remember some of the stuff that big Hollywood has put out in the last couple of years. You’ve got to look at the independent space to find the movies that have been really special recently. Even though I don’t share the same world-view as some of my colleagues, I certainly respect the hell out of their movies which are way more fascinating than the stuff coming out of the studio system.”
~ Dallas Sonnier

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