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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

MW on Movies: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Paranormal Activity 2, and CIFF Wrap-Up

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Three Stars)

Sweden; Daniel Alfredson, 2009

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third of the Steig Larsson “Girl” movie adaptations — about a leftist Swedish investigative reporter named Mikael Blomkvist, a dragon-tattooed Lesbian computer hacker/investigator named Lisbeth Salander, and the rat’s nest of government corruption, private depravity and cold-blooded murder they uncover — is not quite as good as the first “Girl” movie (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), but about as good or a little better than the second (The Girl Who Played with Fire), and overall, a sometimes too-predictable but pretty entertaining show.

The Swedes have been unusually good at literary thrillers, just as they’re also unusually good at rock ‘n roll, and tennis, and lingonberry jam, and movies. Ingmar Bergman is still their best movie-maker ever, and one of the world’s best as well: one film writer-director who probably should have gotten the Nobel Prize for literature. (I‘m serious.) The Larsson books are, of course, what Graham Greene, another famous Nobel non-recipient, called “entertainments,“ crowd-pleasers mostly ignored by upper-echelon critics and prize-givers. But, sales-wise, they were world-wide phenomenons, and the writer’s own story is a fascinating one.

Like his hero (or maybe sidekick) Mikael, Steig was a leftist Swedish investigative reporter himself, engaging in obvious literary wish-fulfillment. He wrote the three novels (and maybe more), but died before any of them could be published. Put out posthumously, the Larsson trilogy have all become spectacular international best-sellers, and opened up a real life mystery drama as well an inheritance battle between his long-time girlfriend and his family.

Then came the movies and they’ve all been crowd-pleasers too, if not quite on the lofty financial level of the books. Here, the main actors are back — Michael Nyqvist as the angst-ridden, determined Mikael and Noomi Rapace as the bewitchingly sullen and silent half-pint dynamo Lisbeth. So are most of the supporting cast, including brilliant, warm Lena Endre (of Bergman and Ullmann‘s great Faithless), in the less flashy part of Mikael’s expose’ magazine colleague Erika; Georgi Staykov as Lisbeth’s brutal Russian defector father Alexander Zalachenko, Anders Ahlbom as her scum-sucking pedophiliac pig of a psychiatrist Dr. Peter Teleborian , and the best of all the movie’s many malevolent male villains, Micke Spreitz as the huge, blonde assassin Ronald Neiderman, a behemoth who feels no pain and looks as if he could take on three Robert Shaws from From Russia with Love” and send them all back to Moscow, mangled.

Back too are director Daniel Alfredson and scenarists Jonas Frykberg, who also collaborated on Played with Fire, but not, suggestively, on Dragon Tattoo, which was directed by Niels Arden Oplev and written by Nikolai Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. This suggests that Oplev is a better, slicker director than Alfredson, but it also may be a script problem. Each of the unusually big Larsson books is arranged as a stand-alone murder mystery by itself, but they’re also part of a continuous saga, and by the end, there are so many strands to untie, that the last movie seems too rushed, even though it’s nearly two and a half hours long.

If you compare the movie “Girls” to the recent British crime trilogy Red Riding, though — which is also based on a novel trilogy about social corruption and dark secrets, written by novelist David Peace, and adapted and scripted by Tony Grisoni for three different directors — it holds up well. And the movie Red Riding is a modern masterpiece, on the “Godfather“ level of artistry.

Dragon Tattoo didn’t have to wrap everything up and audiences were probably so startled and/or delighted by their first look at Rapace’s hard-boiled anti-heroine Lisbeth that they didn’t care. There’s another problem with the last “Girl” story: Lisbeth is a damsel in distress and in jail or the hospital for much of its running time, and she’s more fun when she’s roaming free and kicking ass.

The best parts of Hornet‘s Nest are Lisbeth’s last battle with Neiderman and her courtroom scenes: She shows up as a defendant in a mohawk and leather, and she shoots laser stares through her prosecutor and chief opposing witness. Those scenes, and many others, connect like electric shocks and it‘s worth remembering that Daniel Alfredson has had a strong directorial career already. Interestingly, his older brother Thomas made one of the best-reviewed Swedish movies of the past decade, the recently remade (in America) vampire romance , Let the Right One In. Their father, the famous Swedish actor-director-writer, Hans Alfredson, appears in Hornet’s Nest as an elderly hit man.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest also mixes up thriller and romance movie genres, though in this case, the romance seems to be doomed: Mikael‘s apparently unrequited crush on Lisbeth, scourge of an astonishing gallery of vile male rapists, pedophiles, fascists and murderers. Mikael, the relentless reporter, has the same soft eyes as Erika, but Lisbeth’s glare pierces like a knife, and what they share is almost like Brief Encounter, crossed with a James Bond movie and All the President‘s Men.

I’m not going to start stumbling into Spoiler Alert hell, by describing more of the Hornet’s Nest story here. Even though it can be enjoyed separately, you really should see the first two movies before watching this one. You should also try the books later, though I’ve yet to finish them myself. As for the upcoming American remake, to be directed by David Fincher, with Daniel Craig as The Reporter and Rooney Mara as The Girl, well, you owe it to yourself to see Noomi and her tattoo and mohawk first. If Ingmar Bergman deserved a Nobel Prize for Literature, Noomi Rapace deserves a Palme d’Or for Punk and Perversity.

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Paranormal Activity 2 (One and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Tod Williams, 2010

There’s an ugly rumor going around that Paranormal Activity 2 is a really scary movie, that it‘ll scare you silly. Well, not the one I saw ( a week late, unfortunately). You’d be silly to be scared. That Paranormal Activity — a sort of sequel, sort of prequel to last year’s ultra-low-budget ultra-smash hit about a squabbling couple and their fight with demonic possession, as recorded on home movies and video surveillance — is about as frightening as staring at your own left big toe, or gazing from a fixed position into a microwave oven at a slowly cooking bowl of Orville Redenbacher gourmet popcorn. I’m serious.

If you think you might jump with fright when that corn actually starts popping (POP!! POP!!!! POP!!!!!!), then you might be similarly terrified at the slamming doors and sudden loud clangs, the invisible spooks and fast-forwards or skips in the tape that are some of this new movie‘s main bag of tricks — not to mention all the mysterious, horrendous stuff going on off screen that the “Paranormal 2’” characters, especially a barking dog and a crying infant in a playpen, are staring at, but that you can’t quite see.

Me, I was mainly disturbed by the empty performances, the third-rate script, the pointless yammering pseudo-real dialogue, the low-tech, imitation surveillance tape camerawork, and all the unimaginative grabs and knockoffs from the first movie. And at the fact that I had to pay six dollars for a civilian’s ticket to see the damned thing. Sheeesh! I would have been better off buying the popcorn, better off ogling my toe. Seriously. Sort of.

I’m not trying to be Mr. Unspookable “You-can’t-scare-me” here. I‘m fully aware that 40 million dollars worth of supposedly terrified moviegoers lined up to climb into the theatre seats and then jump out of them, at innumerable showings of Paranormal Activity 2 last week. And that lots of smart critics seem to like it.

I’m also sadly conscious that it’s a better-than-even bet that millions more may line up at the polls next Tuesday and cast their votes for those mostly preposterous Republican Tea Party schnooks, phonies, millionaires and lunatics, and to rubber-stamp their idiotic plans to dismantle the government, tear up the social safety nets, rework the Constitution, make Twenty new Commandments, try to hire God as a financial advisor, and give windfalls to the same undeserving rich crooks and party-hearty incompetents and imbeciles who nearly destroyed the economy in the Bush era — all the while, watching their moolah-worshipping politico heroes stuff their greedy little hands and already-full pocketbooks with piles of corporate dough, and then line up to high-five and be “interviewed” by Roger` Ailles’ Fox News mob of mostly shameless shills, blow-dry creeps, and McCarthyite bozos and blowhards. You talk about scary? That’s scary!

But I realize you’re not here for some gonzo rant or Keith Olbermann tirade about the election. Sorry. Paranormal Activity 2. Gotcha! Focus. (Something the P.A. 2 cameras do, just barely.)

You see, it’s hard as hell for me to figure the appeal of something like Paranormal 2 — another sequel that tries to do everything the first movie did, and somehow justify copying it. I know that teen couples like to scream and grab each other in the dark. And the first Paranormal worked. It had a very clever low-budget, low-tech idea, somewhat like the first Blair Witch Project.

In nervous camerawork trained on mockumentary scenes and performances, that Paranormal showed us troubled Katie and compulsive filmmaker Micah, a combustible couple played by actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, try to get Katie over her fears of being a poltergeist-target or demon magnet, while using Micah’s home movie camera, and a surveillance camera in their bedroom, to try to spot and catch things going bump in the night. All the movie’s camerawork was amateur hand-held or fixed-position stuff, sometimes with an eerie blinking time code in the frame. And, to nobody‘s surprise the things bumping in the night, caught on candid camera, were something really bad that we couldn’t quite see.

The first Paranormal Activity cost (initially) about $11,000, and made a mint. This one cost 3 million or so, not really enough for most tea party “grass roots” political campaigns — and the law of diminishing returns, and diminishing movies, applies.

Paranormal 2 is supposedly set two months before the other one. As we watch, supposedly transfixed, Katie‘s spookable sister Kristi Rey, (Sprague Grayden), her phlegmatic husband Daniel (Brian Boland), her venturesome stepdaughter Ali (Molly Ephraim), her inquisitive new infant son Hunter, the family’s ghost-savvy housekeeper and that vigilant, barking dog (the only character in the movie whom I thought had any sense) settle into a new house. And that house is burgled, trashed (but not robbed), causing them to put up six surveillance cameras — over the bedroom, living room, kitchen, foyer, entrance and swimming pool — thereby making sure they and we can get a movie out of this.

Micah appears before-hand,with his camera, and oddly, we sometimes get little titles, informing us that it’s six months (maybe) before his death, or days before his death — which made little sense to me, but which I guess was there to stop any wise-acres in the theatre from shouting “Hey, wasn‘t that the dude that got offed in Paranormal Activity!? (“Shhhhh!”) This Paranormal also begins with another title, I think, thanking the police and citizens of Carlsbad, California. So I guess this was supposed to be a documentary assembled from those six surveillance tapes, cut into poor Micah’s peek-a-boo home movie stuff perhaps nixed from the “Deleted scenes” extras section on the Paranormal 1 DVD.

Those six high-angle cameras — fuzzy during the day, greenish during the night — gradually reveal a tale of terror. Something is sneaking around the house. But we can’t quite see it, unlike the more perceptive crying infant and the more prescient barking dog.

SPOILER ALERT, I guess, but who really gives a crap?

Every once in a while, a door slams! Or a spoon falls! Or the wall slams! Or the furniture moves! Or the pool cleaner does some weird thing! Or a door swings shut when Ali goes outside! Or some unseen something or other messes with the dog or infant Hunter! The scares just keep on coming. Finally something truly terrible happens, but we can’t quite see it. In between, we get dialogue and performances of afternoon soap opera quality, with the actors portraying a bunch of characters who don’t seem to have their heads screwed on straight. (Don’t any of them ever watch these tapes?). And, of course, we get another reminder that there are only a few more weeks or days or minutes until Micah gets killed. (“Hey, wasn’t that the dude…?” “SHHHHH!”)

END OF SPOILER

Oren Peli was the writer-director who ingeniously pulled off the first Paranormal, but here he’s upgraded himself to producer, no less, engaged by now in Paramount Activity . (Maybe, by the time of the next sequel-prequel, he’ll be a mogul.) The new director is Tod Williams, who, back in 2004, made that pretty good, touching Jeff Bridges-Kim Basinger domestic drama The Door in the Floor” (Perhaps someday there will be college courses on “The Significance of ‘The Door’ in the Cinema of Tod Williams.”) I thought the screenwriters gave all the good lines to the dog, but the dog was a pro. He was totally convincing, always hit his marks, and he never upstaged anybody, not even the ghost-savvy housekeeper. (Good boy. What’s his name anyway? I couldn’t find it on IMDB.)

As for cinematographer Michael Simmonds, he may have stumbled onto the cushiest camera gig around. Did he just set up the surveillance cameras here, hand a video recorder to Micah (who has only ten more minutes to live) and head out for Santa Monica and the beach? (“Hey dude! Aren’t you the guy from Paranormal Activity?) I guarantee you, we probably couldn’t tell the difference if he did.

One thing bothers me a little. Why has this nothing of a movie, this unimaginative uninteresting knockoff sequel, attracted such massive (and apparently appreciative) audiences and gotten such widely laudatory reviews and indulgent praise from so many critics? Are audiences lost in fond memories of the first show? Have they really been scared witless?

Are the critics good-heartedly applauding the low-gore quotient and the so-called ingenuity with which the filmmakers shoehorned an easy way to repeat stuff and ideas from the first movie into this one? Are we supposed to be happy that the filmmakers, with admirable restraint, aren’t showing us the things we don’t want to see anyway? Are we critics trying to prove we’re populists, plugged into the crowd? Or have we discovered in the Paranormal Activity surveillance camera a rigorous classical minimalism worthy of Romanian cinema? (“Micah has 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to live.”)

Well, you get the idea. I didn’t like it. Lots of others did. Take your pick. We report; you decide. Or so we say. One man’s pinhead is another man’s patriot. Ya dig? But what if they start making more and more movies with surveillance cameras?

If they do, I‘ve got, I think, a real money idea. A movie called “Dumpster” (or maybe “The Last Dumpster), shot from one fixed position surveillance camera trained on a dumpster behind a huge grocery store. Dig it: We watch for half an hour or so while nothing happens except an occasional trash bag being thrown in the dumpster, a homeless bum wandering by and scavenging, and some pointless conversations between two store employees smoking a joint. They leave. A bunch of homeless bums show up. They pick among the trash, wolf down some old bananas and TV dinners. A dog show up, barks, and leaves. A nasty manager appears, swears and chases away the bums. They return, devour the contents of a bag with a mysterious green glow. Then, they drag one weaker bum off and do something awful off screen that we can’t see.

Nothing happens for the next ten minutes, except for the dog barking off screen and a title telling us that Micah will be dead by the end of the movie. The tension builds. Fast forward to early evening. The nasty manager walks by, and the bums appear, surround and jump him, drag him off and do something awful offscreen. Fast forward to day. Cops wander by, share a smoke and a doughnut, discuss the mystifying new crime wave, and then question the two employees who were smoking the joint. Something awful happens to them all offscreen. Fast forward to night. More bums appear, some speaking Romanian (with English subtitles), some smoking glowing green joints. One of them finds a broken pool cleaner in the dumpster. More awful things that we can’t see keep happening somewhere offscreen.

Finally, Micah and another girlfriend, named Kooky, show up with a camcorder, shoot dumpster footage and then get surrounded and seized by an even larger mob of ravenous bums, howling and cursing and chomping away, while the dog barks wildly, offscreen. In a truly terrifying moment, the camera suddenly pans right, and we realize, to our horror, that it was not a surveillance camera at all but a cheap camcorder operated by some insane, creepy voyeur — probably the maniac who poisoned the now near-zombie bums with green gook in the first place. Slowly, the camera swivels and points at the voyeur, at us. Cut to black.

Like it? Have you already seen it? Street Trash, you say? Body in a Dumpster?” I’ll be damned. Well, anyway, there’s sure to be a Paranormal Activity 3” any day now (probably shot with seventeen surveillance cameras, five camcorders, and three dogs), plus the inevitable Romanian remake, or the French version by Gaspar Noe. And even if you can’t sell “Dumpster” as a movie, you can make a fortune by renting the footage to Republicans and Karl Rove disciples for use in TV political ads about the undeserving poor. (The script: “What will really happen if Barack Obama is re-elected President? What are the shocking consequences of his secret plan to ‘share’ the wealth? What is the awful truth about the Democratic Party’s vision of America? And of the so-called ‘Green‘ Party?”)

Well, maybe not. But, just remember, 40 million dollars can’t be wrong. (As the Supreme Court recently decided for us: Money talks and bull—- walks.) That‘s maybe even enough to buy — excuse me, elect — a senator, a governor. Meanwhile, it’s all cool, dude, all cool. Micah and that “Paranormal” camera guy are down at the beach. So is the dog. So are the bums. Surf’s up! (“Hey, aren’t you the dudes…?”)
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46th CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

I haven’t been going to film festivals much in the past three years. So, as October rolled around, it was a pleasure this year, to walk down Columbus Drive to the AMC River East 21 multiplex, and catch up every day on the 46th Chicago International Film Festival, all under one roof at the AMC River East 21 multiplex. Of course it wasn‘t Cannes — whose happy, Palais du Cinema Lumiere Theatre I commemorated each day by carrying a little black Cannes tote bag with me — but it was within walking distance of my apartment in Streeterville. Can’t beat that location.

Can’t beat some of the movies either. Even though the CIFF, still under the aegis of the apparently eternal Mike Kutza, has had to resort to some belt-tightening measures — an occupational hazard of arts groups these days as most of the public suffers through another of those periodic Republican Party-trashed economies (with the promise of worse to come if they swindle and buy control again with another “Hey, suckers!” campaign retread of their favorite battle cry “We‘ll cut taxes! And they’re Commies!”) — the fest, under head programmer Mimi Plauche‘ and managing director Vivian Teng, still managed to bring another 150 films or so, from 50 countries. I saw 40 or so.

Included this year were new features or appearances by Bertrand Tavernier, Abbas Kiarostami, Stephen Frears, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (the most recent Cannes Palme d‘Or winner), Julie Taymor, Guillermo Del Toro and other star world cineastes, including ex-Cannes jury president and festival favorite Clint Eastwood, whose Hereafter was one of the fest’s special events.

Other fest specials, already reviewed here last week, included John Curran‘s highly verbal crime romance Stone, with Robert De Niro and Ed Norton, Tony Goldwyn’s real-life drama of courtroom injustice and family ties Conviction, with Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, and Robert Schewentke’s anti-ageist goof thriller Red, with Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren. And, so far unreviewed, Danny Boyle‘s 127 Hours, which we‘ll get to later.

Pretty good bunch. I didn‘t like all of them, but I liked more than a few. You can read about the CIFF awards right over here.

Meanwhile, until the 47th CIFF rolls inevitably around, may the spirits of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger look down from Clint’s Hereafter and their own Stairway to Heaven, and bless Kutza and his crew, and all the filmmakers (including this year‘s CIFF Career Achievement winner Ron Howard), and longtime Chicago Festival “Great Voice” Ken Nordine, and poster king Victor Skrebneski, and all their co-conspirators, for never giving up.

CIFF REVIEWS

Beautiful Darling (Three Stars)

U.S.: James Rasin, 2010

The short meteoric life and unhappy death of Candy Darling (a.k.a. Jimmy Slattery), the ‘70s Andy Warhol movie actress/hustler/superstar immortalized, along with galpals Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis in Warhol and Paul Morrisey‘s 1972 Women in Revolt, and also in Lou Reed’s scandalous pop hit “Walk on the Wild Side” (“Everybody’s Darling…But she never lost her head, even when she was giving head…“).

Darling, whose idol was the sultry, platinum blonde Columbia superstar Kim Novak of The Jeanne Eagels Story, was the most eerily beautiful of all the Warhol drag queens, and a favorite of both Reed and of Tennessee Williams, who wrote his play Small Craft Warnings for her.

She was also the lifelong idol/great love of Jeremiah Newton, then her slender, Kink-haired best friend, now a sad-eyed, plump old Noo Yawk fella, who has a treasure of old interviews and candid shots of Candy to share with director James Rasin and us. An often shocking, often melancholy look at the dreams, and rude awakenings, of stardom. Winner: CIFF Docufest Gold Hugo.

Of the ‘70s
Big Tits Zombie (One and a Half Stars)

Japan: Takao Nakano, 2010

Yikes! Mind-boggling would-be Midnight Movie stuff, Big Tits Zombie makes Faster Pussycat! Kill Kill! look like a Robert Bresson movie. Bosomy Japanese strippers ( including Risa Kasumi and Sala Aoi) (Oy!) uncover the so-called Book of the Dead at a sleazy provincial strip palace, run by their bad bosses, an evil dwarf gangster and his horny sadistic minions, and proceed to unleash bloody, chainsaw-wielding, periodically 3D chaos.

The energetic girls, constantly waving chainsaws, screaming and baring their titular boobs, end up battling mobs of reeking, kill-crazy zombies from hell, along with a renegade striptease queen who wants to rule the world. (She can have this one.) The 3D, the old-fashioned kind with those little red and blue-lensed glasses that look like breakfast cereal favors, comes on every once in a while, signaled by a William Castle-style 3D flasher alert.

Writer-director Takao Nakano, whose 1992 Spiral Zone won the Grand Prize of the Lite Trash Film Festival (no kidding), seems to be enjoying himself. Maybe you will too, especially if you haven‘t been weaned. (In Japanese, with English subtitles and 3D flasher alerts.)

Brother & Sister (Three and a Half Stars)

Argentina: Daniel Burman, 2010

Good direction and writing, by director-writer Daniel Burman (Lost Embrace) and co-writer Sergio Dubvovsky, and brilliant acting, by stars Antonio Gasalla (the brother) and Graciela Borges (the sister), and much of the cast behind them, make this funny-sad, very convincing tale of squabbling, tormented siblings thrown together after the death of their elderly mother, really click and resonate.

Gasella is Marcos, a kind, outwardly meek goldsmith, and Borges is Susana, a bossy, selfish, manipulative realtor, who cons her generous brother into buying a Uruguayan property on which she‘s about to take a bath, commutes interferingly back and forth between Buenos Aires and Uruguay, and then throws fits when Marcos develops a late-life fondness for acting in local theater — in Oedipus Rex, no less. Winner: CIFF Silver Hugo for ensemble acting (and it deserved it).

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff ) (Three Stars)

U. K.: Craig McCall, 2010

A tribute to one of world cinema’s greatest cinematographers, Britain’s Jack Cardiff, who started his official career with three masterpieces — Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s staggering Stairway to Heaven, beautiful Black Narcissus”and ravishing The Red Shoes — and kept on for more than half a century, distinguishing himself as cinematographer (The African Queen), director (Sons and Lovers) and, above all, as a master of color and Technicolor (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, Vidor’s War and Peace), ultimately making stuff like Rambo and Conan the Destroyer (in his 70s) look better than they deserved, winning the only career Oscar for camerawork, and shooting almost right up to the end.

(Cardiff was 21 when he shot, uncredited, a bit of Schoedsack-Cooper’s 1935 The Last Days of Pompeii, and his last IMDB credit is the 2007 miniseries The Other Side of the Screen, released when he was 93. Lots of good archive and interview footage here and very eloquent recollections from Cardiff himself. My one complaint: however they were reproduced, many of the clips of Cardiff’s work here don’t look as rich and lustrous as they should be. Nobody, of course, not even Vittorio Storaro, shot color better.

The Defiled (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Julian Grant, 2010

The world of Night of the Living Dead, engrossingly told from the living dead creatures’ point of view: We follow a human woman (Kathleen Lawlor), a “living dead“ baby, and their strange, paternal “living dead” guardian (Brian Shaw), through a desolate world of abandoned houses, marauding monsters and armed humans. An interesting idea, well-executed and very well-shot (in classic low-budget ‘60s style black and white images) by writer-director-producer-cinematographer Julian Grant. One complaint: The device of never using spoken dialogue becomes strained after a while. It might have been better if Lawlor had tried to talk to her corpse-like protector, even if he never answered. Pretty good cultish stuff all the same.

Faith (Shahada) (Three Stars)

Germany: Burhan Qurbani, 2010

First time feature director- writer Burhan Qurbani, who shot Shahada as his final student film project at the Filmakademie Baden-Wurttemberg, weaves together three stories of modern Muslim youth in Germany: A young married policeman who falls in love with an illegal immigrant, a closeted gay Islamic student who falls in love with a fellow co-worker, and the daughter of the liberal Islamic teacher, who descends into fundamentalist fanaticism after a secret abortion. Well-acted, well-written and shot, and especially well-edited. For a student project, this is extraordinary. Winner CIFF New Directors Gold Hugo. (In German, Turkish and English, with English subtitles.

The Happy Housewife (Two and a Half Stars)

Netherlands: Antoinette Beumer, 2010.

An absorbing drama about content, upper-middle class wife, and flight attendant Lea (Clarice van Houten), who’s married to devoted husband and real estate developer Harry (Waldemar Torenstra), but who undergoes a difficult pregnancy and painful delivery, and then falls into a postpartum depression that sends her to a mental institution. Not bad.

TV director Beumer (Famke Janssen’s older sister) shows talent and confidence and Van Houten (of Paul Verhoeven’s The Black Book) gives a powerful performance in the kind of probing, realistic study of marital and psychological problems theatrical movies often avoid. In Dutch, with English subtitles.

Heartbeats (Two and a Half Stars)

Canada: Xavier Dolan, 2010

Canadian prodigy Xavier Dolan, Heartbeats multi-talented 22-year-old writer-director-producer-star, gives us a fairly unusual romantic triangle drama, one that‘s both realistic and ultra-romantic, in a Godardian sort of way. Acerbic Quebecois Francis (Dolan) falls for angel-faced blonde Nordic hunk Nicolas (Niels Schneider), and so does Francis’ equally hip and tart best friend Marie (Monica Chokri).

Hunk conquers hip, but can hip win the heart of hunk? Heartbeats is very well done and it’s strong both visually and dramatically. But it’s the kind of smart, yet cry-baby youth romance that meant something to me in my 20s, and now seems self-indulgent. That said, Dolan, who won multiple prizes at Cannes for his first film, I Killed My Mother, is obviously someone to watch — and it’s better to have a smart cry-baby youth movie than a dopey schlocky one. (In French, with subtitles.)

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel (Three Stars)

U.S.; Brigitte Berman, 2010

This bio-documentary on the man behind Playboy — founder, publisher, top creative guy and still, for most of us, Playboy-in-chief Hugh Hefner — is not what you think. Frank and candid, it’s no “Hef stripped bare” expose’.

Director Brigitte Berman is an Oscar-winning documentarian — and also, of course, a woman — and she approaches Hefner, a.k.a. “Hef,” seriously, without either sniggering or bible-thumping outrage. For the most part, she tackles the subject — one of the great publishing phenomenons and sexy stories of the Twentieth Century — as “60 Minutes” might, but without a Mike Wallace to do any grilling.

Hefner-bashers like Susan Brownmiller (the feminist author of Against Our Will and the movie‘s Wallace-in-absentia) are given their say. So are his colleagues and admirers, including daughter and later Playboy Empire head Christie Hefner.

In case you’ve forgotten, or never knew, we get much of the justifications for the film’s title — Hefner’s longtime crusades in his magazine for civil liberties, liberal ideals, First Amendment rights and social and political justice, as exemplified in his “serious stuff” column “The Playboy Philosophy“ — and his targeting for destruction by the Nixon administration and its corrupt minions and thugs (some of them would-be or failed playboys, I‘ll bet, and many of them, I’ll bet too, card-carrying hypocrites, ugly bullies and vicious jerk-offs).

Berman takes us all the way from Playboy‘s and Hefner’s origins, his as a repressed workaholic Chicago family guy who wanted to outdo reigning American men‘s magazine Esquire, where he once worked (and struck it rich when he parleyed Marilyn Monroe and her nude calendar shoot into the first Playmate of the Month); through their glory years (from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, including movie lover Hef‘s sadly too-brief career as big-time mogul, backing Roman Polanski’s Macbeth); to his elder-statesman-of- wet-dreams status on The Girls Next Door (the cable TV “reality” show about his former playmate threesome, and a show women probably enjoyed as much as men).

Some nostalgia here. Playboy was one of my favorite magazines as a teen or young man and I’ll ‘fess up: My favorite part of it was the centerfold. I didn’t read too much of the Philosophy, but I opened up every gatefold I could find. I still remember the first Playmate of the Month I ever saw, to my utter (no puns, please) teen-age awe: a very charming and temporarily pants-less young long-haired “Girl next door”-style brunette named Joyce Nizzari, who had a lovely derriere (as any fool could see) and a smile that could warm up a whole city block.

But of course, I would never have bought Playboy, later in college, even as the centerfold derrieres and bosoms gradually were joined by the mons veneris, if it hadn’t been for the editorial content — especially the classy fiction (by the likes of Vladimir Nabokov or Ray Bradbury) and top-notch articles (Norman Mailer or Gay Talese). And for its liberal attitude as well. Esquire had classy content too — maybe a bit classier (certainly while Harold Hayes was editing it and Bonnie and Clyde’s Robert Benton and David Newman were on the staff). But they didn’t have Joyce Nizzari.

Susan Brownmiller to the contrary, I don‘t think Playboy was ever for men who hated or had contempt for women, though many of the readers may have been real-life shy. I think Hefner always liked women, and wanted them to be happy (and smile like Joyce) and succeed in life — though it’s true he seems to keep going back again and again (like the centerfold and the young guys perusing it) to young women. The Classic Playboy was fun and sexy, stylish and smart, and it made a difference. (The new one may be too, but I don’t ogle newsstands any more.) And the movie, as you’d suspect, suggests Hefner was all those adjectives too. At the very least, he’s still having fun.

By the way, I think Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel is a lousy title, even if it’s a true sentiment. Too long and too slightly pretentious. Definitely not date bait for a Saturday on the town. A better title? Hef, maybe. (I can’t find it on imdb.) Or my own favorite possibility, Citizen Hef. Now, maybe that was floated and they thought it was pretentious, though I think it’s more playful. Not meant ironically, as it was in Citizen Kane, but partly because that’s what Ms. Berman’s movie is really about. Hef (the playboy) as Citizen. (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago)

The Man I Love (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Raoul Walsh, 1947

“Raoul Walsh’s idea of a tender love scene is to burn down a whorehouse,” was Jack Warner‘s famous sentiment. But Jack be damned. Here’s a top grade ‘40s romance from the action-master Walsh, about a hard-boiled but heroic jazz chanteuse (Ida Lupino), her lecherous dude of a boss (Robert Alda) and her troubled family.

Shot in Walsh’s best ‘40s noir style, during the period when he was one of the favorite filmmakers of the young up-and-coming Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, it suffers from a rushed last act and a needless death. But it has great songs (Kern-Hammerstein and the Gershwins, including the supremely heart-tearing title number) and one of the smartest, toughest, gutsiest, fastest-talking film noir gals ever, in Ida Lupino.

Lupino isn’t usually ranked with the Bette Davises, Joan Crawfords and Barbara Stanwycks (to name some other tough Warners gals). But she should be. She’s every bit as good an actress, sometimes better, as well as a dynamite “B” director (The Hitchhiker). Here Lupino proves she can really wear a low-cut sheath tight gown. And when Walsh lets her wise-crack, push and slap around some of her male colleagues, with impunity, some of the distaff audience may be cheering. “Here‘s looking at you…” is this movie‘s borrowed last line. They should have given it to Ida. (Shown in 35 mm at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago)

The Bowery (Three Stars)

U.S.: Raoul Walsh, 1933

Wallace Beery and George Raft play brawling Bowery buccaneers Chuck Connors and Steve Brodie, fighting over the doll they both love (Fay Wray), the kid they both mentor (Jackie Cooper) and a roost they both want to rule.

This is a quintessential Walsh movie. He revisits and recreates the Bowery during the turn of the early 20th century, and it was a place and a “Strawberry Blonde” era he knew well. (Warning: Political incorrectness and ethnic slurs abound — not necessarily endorsed, because these guys are be-derbied, boozing boobs.)

Like The Man I Love, this is rarely shown in 35mm, as they both are here at the Gene Siskel Center. Try not to miss them.

8 Responses to “MW on Movies: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Paranormal Activity 2, and CIFF Wrap-Up”

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