MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

MW on Movies: Avatar, Modern Times, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now Redux

 

 PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

Avatar (Three Disc Extended Edition Blu-ray Digital DVD Combo) (Four Stars)
U. S.; James Cameron, 2009 (Fox)

Avatar, James Cameron’s` planet-shaking, moon-rocking, eco-worshipping, dragon-riding new science fiction fantasy epic-and-a-half, may not be a perfect movie. But it’s sure as hell an incredible experience. It‘s a genre-movie knockout, a cinematic mind-blast and a technological marvel whose feats of 3D motion-capture and CGI pyrotechnics, and the spectacular and endlessly imaginative alternate world it creates — set on a distant Alpha Centauri moon called Pandora, where the natives are blue and the zeitgeist is green — all keep blowing you away.

That gargantuan dream-world inside Avatar is so marvelous, so beautiful, so popping with delights ranging all the way from gut wrenching to lyrical, and from exalting to borderline campy, that your senses and susceptibilities will probably get bombarded and seduced, even as your more literary sensibilities may flinch at the usual Cameron script shortcomings: the sometimes flat, mostly humorless dialogue, the familiar plotlines, and the standard-pulp characterizations.

Here, those “flaws” seem merely serviceable, while the stunning visual imagery and exploding action around them — those blue-skinned, golden-eyed, Na’vi extraterrestrials and the human-controlled Avatars or Na’vi counterfeits astride swooping semi-pterodactyls soaring above super-rain forest landscapes, in deep focus shots of astounding detail and overwhelming richness and color — are almost always transporting.

God, you think as you watch this movie‘s bounteous gallery of visual wonders — its vast luminous greenery, willow God-icons, huge stomping robo-thugs and wave upon wave of deep-focus wonders — if this man could only tell a joke, he really would be king of the world! (Yes, I have seen True Lies.)

The well-worn, well-worked, relatively humor free, but still engrossing story of Avatar hovers on what used to be deprecatingly called, in literary science fiction circles, “space opera” — a standard Western movie or pulp plot transplanted to other places, other worlds. And the plot isn’t just pulpy. It also recalls more adult ’50s-‘60s ecological sc-fi, like Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters, Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse and Frank Herbert’s Dune.

In this case, Cameron has taken the old theme of the soldier going native, the Dances with Wolves plot of the cavalryman who mingles with the Indian tribes and goes Native American, and transplanted it to his Pandora, where the aliens are tall (twice as big as an NBA shortie guard of the ‘60s) and the trees are taller. There, an expedition from ecologically ravished earth, has shown up to disguise themselves as the natives or Na’vi, talk out of their most valuable resource (something called, in a moment of rare Cameronian whimsy, the old joke term “unobtainium”), and, if that fails, blow them off their world.

He’s added a species crossing romance between the movie‘s avatar hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington of Terminator Salvation) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the sexiest, toughest, 12-foot tall blue gal you could ever hope to rub tendrils with, and brought in a supporting gallery of all-worlds-tolerant Stanford scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, a Cameron veteran), corporate douche bag Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi, oozing sleaze) and the macho-beyond-macho, mean-multiplied-by-mean Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). (As we will later learn about his expedition/war/exploitation, the cause is carnage, the goal is theft, the motive is money, and Miles is a Terminator plus testosterone.)

The technology is fantastic. And no, I don’t think Cameron‘s obvious political sentiments — against corporate mendacity and exploitation, the Iraq War, ecological damage and class and racial bigotry — are too bald or too heart-and-art-on-sleeve. They’re a large part of what makes this movie special, and even admirable.

Still, as I watched Avatar, I felt a little sad, because, much as I was entertained by Cameron’s phantasmagorical knockout of a show, I’d still like to see virtuosity like this more often deployed at the service of an adult story. Something richer, denser, more real and more human. Something like, more recently, The Aviator. Or like the Citizens Kanes, Godfathers,” and Casablancas that still top moviemakers’ and experts’ “all time greatest” lists.

That’s not a knock on Avatar, but simply on the movie culture that tends to spend almost all its money and invest its most massive cinematic resources on the kind of pop dream-weaving that most twelve year olds (the prime age for catching the s.f. virus) or teenagers cherish, and not on what we need and should crave as adults. But hey, I was twelve once myself. It was a very good year.

Extras: Featurettes.

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CO-PICKA OD THE WEEK: CLASSICS
Modern Times (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U. S.; Charles Chaplin, 1936 (Criterion Collection)

Last week, to my total delight, I saw and then reviewed all of Charlie Chaplin’s extant Keystone short comedies, including his first appearances as The Tramp, or Little Fellow, in the 1914 films Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. and Mabel’s Strange Predicament.

This week, with more delight, and a little sadness, I got to see (again) and review Modern Times, the last 1936 appearance of The Tramp. (Some would argue 1931’s great City Lights as the last bow, since his character in Times is called “A Factory Worker,” though he wears the Tramp’s mismatched derby and black jacket outfit as his civvies.

But do I really have to review and recommend this marvelous tale of the little fellow caught in the machinery of the Great Depression? Of an impish cog in a Metropolis factory, dancing on the assembly line, lost in the huge gears or trapped in an out-of-control feeding machine? Of the beautiful gamin (sic), played by Charlie’s then-lover Paulette Goddard, dancing in the street, and waiting, wreathed with smiles, for him to emerge from jail, where he was falsely convicted as a radical activist and accidentally dosed with cocaine?

Or of Chaplin’s buoyant score, orchestrated by the young David Raksin, featuring Chaplin’s signature song/melody “Smile?“ Of the incredible department store cliffhanger roller-skating scene, where virtuoso skater Charlie, blind-folded, keeps swooping to the edge of a one-story drop-down, whirling at the last second and skating back? (Confession: It’s done with mirrors.) Of the wonderful nonsense song with nonsense “Frenchy” lyrics, with which Charlie brings down the house at the end? Of that last beautiful, beautiful shot, where the Tramp and the Gamin, almost busted again, are again on the run, and (for Charlie, the last of many times on screen) they walk down the road together?

In college in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Modern Times was a sacred text, one of those movies that could unite every movie buff, of whatever persuasion. But in 1936, Chaplin alienated extreme right-wingers with Modern Times. They saw it as Communist propaganda, which is rather like seeing It‘s a Wonderful Life as a Marxist fable of heartland economic exploitation. Chief among those humorless loonies was that deranged bully and prominent FBI boss transvestite, J. Edgar “Tootsie” Hoover, who became even more enraged by The Great Dictator — perhaps taking offense at the movie’s insults to Hitler — and spent years hounding Charlie, before Chaplin was booted out of the country by the A.G. in 1952. That’ll teach him to make the world laugh!

Goodbye, Charlie. Farewell, Tramp. Adieu, Charlot. Adios, Carlitos. If any of you out there have never seen Modern Times, I envy you this chance. The rest of us will just have to watch it again, for the umpty-umph time.

Extras: Classic 1916 Chaplin short comedy, The Rink (Three and a Half Stars); The recently rediscovered, wonderfully off-the-cuff 1933 home movie All at Sea, mostly directed by Chaplin with the young camera bug (and later Omnibus and Masterpiece Theatre host) Alistair Cooke, starring Chaplin, Cooke and Paulette Goddard, with a new Donald Sosin score; Interview with Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge; 1967 documentary For the First Time; Chaplin Today: Modern Times, a program on Modern Times, with the Belgian filmmaking Dardenne Brothers.

Also: An excellent commentary by eminent Chaplin biographer David Robinson; Visual essays and featurettes; Interview with composer (and great guy) David Raksin; Outtakes; Trailers. Such a deal!

The Bridge on the River Kwai (Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.S./U.K.: David Lean, 1957 (Columbia/Sony)

Moviemaker David Lean was a master of the epic (Lawrence of Arabia) and a master of the intimate (Brief Encounter, Summertime), and his greatest films tend to straddle some strange, near-sublime borderland straddling the two. We are privy to both T. E. Lawrence’s (Peter O’Toole’s) grand battles and the buried emotions and torments that feed his psyche in Lawrence; and, in Brief Encounter and Summertime, the buried feelings of the train station lovers (Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson) and of Venice-vacationing spinster Kate Hepburn, become a battleground.

The Bridge on the River Kwai, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle, and an Oscar winner that’s also a masterpiece, fuses perfectly those two sides of Lean. Set in the jungles of Burma in World War II, it’s the story of a group of British prisoners of war, imprisoned in a Japanese P. O. W. camp, who are compelled by the harsh prison commandant, Colonel Saito (played by one time silent movie matinee idol Sessue Hayakawa) to build a bridge connecting two parts of the jungle, crossing over the River Kwai.

Saito is proud, tyrannical, and sometimes brutal, and he’s infuriated by delays. But he meets his match in Col. Nicholson, cool and punctilious, a gent not to be bullied, a soldier not to be pushed, a man not to be bent or (maybe) broken.

Nicholson was played, superbly, by Alec Guinness, one of Kwai’s many Oscar-winners — as was Lean, producer Sam Spiegel, cinematographer Jack Hildyard, composer Malcolm Arnold, and also, to his embarrassment, novelist Boulle, who was acting as a front for the actual scriptwriters, black list victims Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman. (Boulle, who couldn’t write or speak English, had to accept the Oscar in person before millions of TV watchers). In the film, Nicholson is a supreme, stalwart but self-deluding product of the British class system, and he clashes with Saito over the treatment of his officers, over the progress of the bridge, over the rules of the game.

With his nasal whine of a clipped British voice slipping softly and implacably past the stiffest of stiff upper lips, Nicholson bends the hot-tempered brute/jailer to his will, then becomes fascinated by the building of the bridge, and just as determined as Saito to see it completed — to see a job well done. (In real life, the treatment of British P.O.W.’s in Burma was so murderous that some British veterans objected to what they considered Lean’s “rosy” picture.)

Meanwhile, another prisoner at the River Kwai camp, Nicholson’s absolute opposite number, the happy-go-lucky American con-man, seducer and fraud Sears (William Holden) — who escaped after Nicholson and his men arrived — is returning to the camp, against his will, in a commando team led by the almost boyishly adventurous, yet sturdily competent and deadly determined Warden (Jack Hawkins). Their mission: Blow up the bridge on the River Kwai.

God, did I love this movie when I saw it, at eleven years old! I bought the book, and began looking for Lean’s name — and Guinness’ and Holden‘s and Hawkins’ — on other movies on TV. It was the very first picture I ever thought of as my favorite film of all time, and even though it was replaced in that slot the very next year by Citizen Kane (which I saw on TV) and also by Vertigo (which I saw in the same theater, in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, where I had seen Kwai), Kwai remained something special and exciting to me, and does to this day. (Kane and Vertigo, by the way, are still atop my list, which may mean that I never grew up — or that I was lucky to see them all when I was young.)

What hooked me? I loved the mixture of beautifully written and acted drama and explosive, relentless action (in color and wide screen), of gorgeous settings and high emotion, of hot savage jungle and cold irony…

SPOILER ALERT

I loved the grim coda: circling buzzards and doctor James Donald‘s scream, “Madness! Madness!” I loved the performances, the way Holden smirked, and Hawkins made calm genial threats, and the way Guinness’ Nicholson muttered “What have I done?” before he staggered in a crazy loop and fell on the plunger. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” made me feel that movies could do much more than I imagined — just as the next year, Citizen Kane made me feel they could do anything.

END OF SPOILER

Of course, I also loved the opening of River Kwai: the titles over the views of the beaten-down P.O.W.s around the train tracks in the steaming heat, while, unforgettably, Col. Nicholson’s troops, in rigid discipline, marched through the jungle to the camp, whistling the jaunty war tune, the Colonel Bogey March. Mitch Miller and the Gang, Miller’s choral group, had a hit record out of that tune, and they did it in the era of Elvis and Little Richard. But they never sang any lyrics and, years later I learned why.

There were lyrics to Col. Bogey‘s March, but they were so obscene, and so well-known to most World War 2 veterans, that they couldn’t be sung on screen or on a record in the Eisenhower era — though they would still leave a distinctly ribald echo for every soldier who had sung them or heard them. (I bet Ike knew them too.)

Here they are (at least the WW2 version of them):

“Hitler…has only Got! One! Ball!
“Goering…has two, But They! Are! Small!
“Himmler…has Something Similar,
“But poor old Goebbels! Has No Balls! At all!”

Of course Goebbels doesn’t really rhyme with “No Balls” (though it looks like it does, and everybody tends to call him Gobels anyway). But “Fur Balls” doesn’t make as punchy a last line. I’m glad I didn’t learn those lyrics when I was twelve, because I probably would have kept singing them at school, and gotten expelled.

As for The Bridge on the River Kwai, I still think it’s great. No arguments please. Remember: Madness! Madness! And Hitler has only got one ball.

Extras: Booklet, with essay from original 1957 souvenir book; Featurettes; Holden and Guinness on The Steve Allen Show; 12 Lobby Cards.

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CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: BLU-RAY

Spider-Man” (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Sam Raimi, 2002 (Sony,

Spider-Man 2 (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Sam Raimi, 2004. (Sony)

The first two episodes of what many aficionados tend to regard as the best of all superhero comic movie series: Sony and Marvel’s smashingly exciting, surprisingly emotional adaptation of Stan Lee’s comic book masterpiece.

Here, sumptuously produced, is the continued tale of angst-ridden teen turned journalist Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his alter-ego, the web-slinging, skyscraper-scaling, supervillain-bashing, super-costumed Spidey and his friends and enemies, played by a stellar gallery that includes Kirsten Dunst (M.J.), Rosemary Harris (May), JK Simmons (JJJ), Alfred Molina (Doc Ock), and Willem Dafoe (Goblin).

The first two Spider-Man movies were such smash critical hits (Spider-Man 2, co-scripted by Alvin Sargent, has been hailed as the acme of the whole genre), that an inevitable backlash plagued the vulnerable and tearful Spider-Man 3. (Seen by itself, most critics would have probably liked it fine – just as the public liked all three). But some smasheroos deserve their popularity and this is one (excuse me, these are two) of them. (Also available: Spider-Man 3 and the Trilogy in HD.)

Extras: A Mother lode.

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CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: BOX SETS

Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now Redux (Three Disc Full Disclosure Edition) (Four Stars)

U.S.: Francis Coppola, 1979-2001 (Lionsgate).
Once Apocalypse Now Redux was Apocalypse Now — Francis Coppola’s and writer John Milius’s grand, mad 1979 Vietnam War epic, inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with Marlon Brando as genius-renegade Colonel Kurtz, who comes face to face with “The Horror! The Horror!” It was the troubled widescreen tale — shot magnificently by Vittorio Storaro — of how Kurtz is hunted, slated to be “terminated with extreme prejudice” by Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) and a boatload of Viet-era Fordian searchers that included Albert Hall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, and young Larry Fishburne.

Aiding them along the way, and at its end, were spaced-out war photographer Dennis Hopper and surfer-general Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a crazy golden warrior who “loves the smell of napalm in the morning.” Released in 1979, toward the end of one of the great, experimental eras of American big studio moviemaking, it was the most ambitious, reckless, wildly creative production of that entire daring era. It’s on a Citizen Kane level of ambition and –almost — achievement. That “almost” was yet to come.

Coppola, whose shooting of the movie became an epic in itself (recounted in this set, by the splendid 1991 “making of” documentary

Heart of Darkness, by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper), had more footage, more scenes, lots of stuff that he didn’t use in his 1979 release. And it wasn‘t because Coppola thought that footage didn’t belong. He was afraid, he says, to put in too much stuff (like Heaven’s Gate a few years later), and also determined to emphasize the action adventure elements he sensed would save the day and make the publicity-damaged Apocalypse a big hit. He was right.

So it was not hubris or self-justification, but a real sense of artistic mission, of a job left undone, that drove Coppola to return to his jungle. With the 2001 Redux — expanding the first release in 1979 from 153 minutes to 197, restoring numerous small scenes and moments, and returning a whole long French plantation sequence with Christian Marquand and Aurore Clement as temporary hosts to Willard and his crew — Coppola has made something grander, madder, more incredible. I’m not so sure the reconstructed Apocalypse Now Redux doesn’t surpass The Godfather Trilogy (yes, I said Trilogy, not just Parts One and Two) as Coppola’s highest movie achievement. At any rate, it’s the Apocalypse he prefers. Me too.

No film library should be without these films — or without this set.

Includes: Apocalypse Now (U.S.: Francis Coppola, 1979) Four Stars. Heart of Darkness (U.S.: Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, 1991) Four Stars. Apocalypse Now Redux (U.S.: Francis Coppola, 1979) Four Stars.

Extras: Commentaries by Coppola; Featurettes; Lost or deleted scenes; Brando’s complete reading of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”

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OTHER CURRENT OR RECENT DVD RELEASES

The Kids Are All Right” (Three Stars)
U.S.; Lisa Cholodenko, 2010 (Focus)

Fine, but a bit over-rated. The actors, a first-rate ensemble — especially Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo — have a ball, and director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko (scripting this one with Stuart Blumberg) fills scene after scene with Cassavetsian realism/spontaneity and Hal Ashby-style L. A. humor and sparkle.

This is the kind of top-quality medium-budget movie they should definitely make more often in Hollywood: a smart, realistic, humane script with lots of savvy contemporary observations, and good parts for excellent actors. Most civilians I know like it a lot too.

The story, as most movie buffs know by now, centers on a long-time lesbian couple — workaholic doctor Nic (Bening) and easier-going part-time landscaper Jules (Julianne Moore) — who have had a son and daughter, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska, Tim Burton’s Alice), by the same anonymous sperm donor.
Curious about his father, Laser persuades Joni to join in seeking his identity — and they soon discover that the distant dad is a happy-go-lucky, motorcycle-riding organic gardener-restaurateur named Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who proves open to establishing ties with his children, and even to starting up a friendship with their mothers.

He’s a charming guy with a what-the-hell swinger’s attitude and a real nonstop Mark Ruffalo smile, and Jules, Joni and Laser all like him. But Nic, the control freak of the family, thinks he’s trouble and suspects he might want to take over her family. She’s right — as he soon proves it by starting a clandestine affair with Jules, whom he first hires for a landscape job. Troubles follow, portrayed sometimes wittily, sometimes with dramatic intensity. (The funny scenes are usually better.)

Ruffalo gives a brilliant performance as Paul, except for one scene, described below, where the deck is stacked against him. He‘s got the character’s laid-back hedonism and seductive hang-loose patter down pat. And Moore and Bening, who has as much of a killer smile as Ruffalo’s, have their characters nailed just as strongly. They also capture the ”moms’” sometimes troubled rapport.

Bening, who’s been giving really wonderful performances in recent years (in Mothers and Sons, for example), is wonderful here too. She stops just sort of making Nic an obnoxious control freak, and she has that great nervous, anxious grin. But she also shows clearly why the household and family need her, as even more than a breadwinner. And Moore, whom I’ve never seen play a false moment, conveys Jules’ sweetness and languor with great delicacy and spice. I’m not as high on the kids as other critics have been. But they’re all right.

Cholodenko’s movie has terrific verbal interaction, nifty byplay. The late dinner table scene where Paul and Nic talk about Joni Mitchell and then sing a song from “Blue” together is tremendous; it reminded me happily of the huge crush I had on Joni in college, one shared by many of my friends, who all loved her writing like I did. (That belies Nic’s joke here about Mitchell’s supposed non-appeal to straight men, something which Paul also cheerfully contradicts).

The movie, befitting its title, which cribs from the 1979 Who documentary

The Kids are Alright,” (unless it’s from the badly-received 2008 TV game show, which was also spelled “All Right”), presents its unusual family unit as normal and loving. Joni is a science academic star and Laser a natural athlete. They’re both straight, a key to the movie‘s “message.” (So is the fact that neither is portrayed as very artistic, something which bothered me.) Nic and Jules are a loving couple with only a few problems. (They might be the mentor-student-like women pair-ups of Chodolenko‘s previous films High Art and Laurel Canyon, grown older.) “The Kids are All Right“ means just that. It says “Don’t worry about these kids. They’re okay.” And they are.

So, am I being grouchy in calling Kids overrated? Well, we’re talking about a movie that’s gotten some pretty intense mash notes, with some reviewers declaring themselves thoroughly smitten and “best of the year” plaudits tossed about. There’s a lot of room for gradations of admiration. We’re also talking about a show that obviously benefits from being seen as an effective teaching tool for people and society — especially in the current sometimes hostile atmosphere against laws or legal decisions favoring gay marriages, like Nic‘s and Jules’.

I’m not sure though, that Kids are All Right is that effective a teaching tool (fitting word for Ruffalo?) for people beyond L.A., New York and Chicago-style big city culture, especially for people who grew up in the kind of conservative small-town, church-going atmosphere I did.

In fact, many of my more devout old neighbors, the truly hard-core anti-gay voters in this debate, would have been incensed, and I’m sure still would be, over Nic and Jules’ predilection for watching hard-core male gay pornography before making love — and many middle-of-the-roaders wouldn’t have liked it much either. (The ones who publicly liked it least, of course, were sometimes hypocrites. But hypocrites vote too.) We won‘t mention Paul‘s two lusty, ram-it-in sex scenes with Jules and his girlfriend Tanya, (Yaya DaCosta), in which the actors seems to be having the kind of great nasty time my old Evangelical pastors used to warn us kids against.

But Kids are All Right doesn’t have to be educational. Preaching to the converted can still make for a good movie, as it has here.

SPOILER ALERT

What I disliked about Kids was a certain preachiness, and particularly the climactic payoff scene after Paul, who — having been unmasked as Jules’ lover and cast out of the little family, after Nic discover Jules’ hair in his bathroom and bed — comes back and tries to worm his way back in. We see him pleading with Joni on the porch to let him stay in her life, while Nic, Jules and Laser dine inside, then see the disgusted reactions of the others, before now-creepy Paul wanders off alone, to his motorcycle.

That struck me as all wrong, forced in tone, a bit vindictive, and a little overwrought in execution. (Cholodenko, a lesbian mom herself, rarely suggests someone working out a personal fantasy, but she does there.) We’re robbed of what should have been the most powerful scene in the film, Paul‘s confrontation with the entire family together, preferably in their house, his attempt to apologize or justify himself to everybody, and their final solidarity against him — all of which is conveyed here somewhat, but less effectively, in pieces.

That grand final family confab could have been a knockout scene, a great moment, a heart-twister. (And it might also have worked well if Paul almost got his way, almost broke them up, but was finally foiled, by the kids’ love.) Instead, Paul’s cry-baby antics here seem too easy a comeuppance. The moviemakers seem too eager to make sure we know that he’s a jerk, and pathetic in the bargain — and not as sexy as he thinks he is, the smiling schmuck.

END OF SPOILER

Guys like Paul though, are almost always light on their mental feet, always slipping punches. (In the rest of the movie, Ruffalo plays this perfectly.) And if they start crying (like that phony, Glenn Beck), or throwing tantrums, it’s usually a last resort. For the record, I also thought it highly unlikely that Laser, a supposed three-sport star (soccer, basketball, and baseball) who would have been constantly in practice and palling with his teammates, would also have been hanging around in the free time he doesn’t have with a skateboarding bully and loser like his best friend here, Clay (Eddie Hassell), unless Clay was a jock too. Maybe I’m wrong and times have changed. Maybe not.

But I don’t want to keep carping, perhaps just because almost everybody else seems to want to love Kids without reservation. You’ll like it too, I’m pretty sure. It’s all right.

Extras: Commentary; Featurettes.

A Christmas Carol (Three Stars)
U.S.; Robert Zemeckis, 2009

Disney’s A Christmas Carol, as directed (and damned near shot into space) by Robert Zemeckis, is easily the most visually spectacular, thrill packed movie adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immortal Yuletide classic made to date. That doesn’t mean it’s the best, of course. The witty, stylish 1951 British version (see below), with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, still is. But I‘ve seen Carol after Carol in my life, as well as many variations, from It’s a Wonderful Life to the recent fiasco Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and this is the only one that both somewhat faithfully recalls much of Dickens’ story and also manages to rival movies like The Dark Knight as an all out sensory action-nightmare assault.

As we watch, sometimes stunned, writer-director Robert Zemeckis and his 3D/motion capture/CGI wizards keep performing prodigies of action-movie, super-fantasy technique, whizzing us over the London rooftops, dropping us into graveyards and rat-ridden streets, staging wild horse-and-buggy chases and flying to the moon and back. All the while, they reset the table and retell that grand old Christmas feast of a tale: showing us the relentlessly mean old London miser Scrooge (Jim Carrey), as he abuses his one employee, Bob Cratchit, castigates charity petitioners, refuses his generous nephew Fred’s invitation to a Yule party and keeps damning Christmas as a waste of a good businessman’s time and money. (It’s a good thing those charity people weren’t out campaigning for universal health care.)

Say what you will about Zemeckis’ approach, he obviously has great affection for this story. Once again, Marley’s ghost appears, warning Scrooge of the three visitors about to pay him a nocturnal Christmas Eve call, transporting Ebenezer and us into his nightmare journey through the domains of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, there to discover the errors of his selfish ways and to become happily saturated with the spirit of Christmas. So what if the movie might have been called “Die Harder, Scrooge!” Dickens‘ special band of literary Christmas goose and plum pudding makes a table full of lip-smackers no matter how many rooftops you have to fly over.

The movie is certainly a visual stunner. And, despite the bizarre excesses of the action sequences, it’s also a fairly faithful and even loving adaptation, mostly well written and very well acted. Does that endorsement include Jim Carrey as Scrooge (and also all three Christmas Ghosts)? Yes it does. And it also embraces Gary Oldman as Scrooge‘s beleaguered employee Bob Cratchit, as well as the spirit of his old partner Jacob Marley, and Bob’s sick cherub of a son, Tiny Tim, Robin Wright Penn as beauties Fan and Belle, and Bob Hoskins (best in the cast) as the young Scrooge’s merry old boss Fezziwig and Old Joe.

You might have thought that Scrooge’s genial nephew Fred was Carrey’s ideal part. (Here, Fred is played well by Pride and Prejudice‘s perfect Darcy, Colin Firth.) And that the Christmas plum part of Scrooge would better have gone to a classy British knight like Ben Kingsley or Anthony Hopkins. And you’d be nearly right. But Carrey, the big star budget-winner, dives into the role and keeps things on track. He gives Scrooge a reedy, snappish voice and nasty-geezer manner that fits the motion-capture image of a bent, wizened, attenuated, mean old top-hatted British miser.

So far, so good. But is a visually spectacular, thrill-packed Christmas Carol really what we want to see? How about a slam-bang, blast-you-out-of-your-seat Nicholas Nickleby? A rock-‘em-sock‘-em Martin Chuzzlewit? A chiller-killer-diller Little Dorrit? A slam-bang, thrill-a-minute Dombey and Son? David Copperfield running amok? A “Pickwick!” (I’m remembering Oliver! of course.)

Well, Dickens’ classic is so oft-filmed precisely because it’s so universal and easily translatable, because it gives us a message we want to believe, and tells a story we want to hear: one that enthralls and amuses us and creates characters that stay indelibly in our minds and hearts. The best-regarded (and best) movie adaptation — that 1951 British version directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst, written by Noel (“The Wizard of Oz”) Langley and starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge — is a gem of juicy Dickensian character play and snowy, wintry deep focus atmospherics. (It’s almost a Christmas noir). The Sim/Desmond-Hurst/Langley Carol still looks fine and scary and marvelous today, and it well merits its perennial classic status.

Zemeckis is after something different here, as well as a different kind of audience. But he probably gives us too much — however much he loves and tries to honor the story. To have Scrooge blasted all over London tends to damage our sense of the old man’s vulnerability, and the dreamlike “Once Upon a Time” feel that the story needs to work on our imaginations, hearts and souls. I enjoyed myself at Zemeckis‘ Carol, but it didn’t give me the pleasure it could have or stay with me very long afterwards. It‘s a prodigy of action technique and visual imagination, but not of emotion or character.

It might have been, should have been. I love Dickens and I consider him a stronger writer than his alleged British 19th century novelist betters: Henry James, George Eliot, and even Jane Austen (all great, but not as great, or as much a natural, as he.) One of the shining moments of my Williams Bay, Wisconsin childhood, was the day when I was finally able to buy (with my mother’s help, of course) a beautiful complete illustrated deluxe 19th century edition of Dickens, from the Lake Geneva YMCA thrift store for the then princely sum of $25 (cut down by the saleslady , especially for me, from $50 because I‘d mooned over it so much, for so many weeks). And no single pleasure-purchase since gave me so much joy over so many years.

How I loved those great, lusciously imagined and brilliantly embellished novels and stories! The laughing black-and-white illustrations by Phiz, Cruikshank and the others. The very feel of the rich binding and decorated covers and the still-white paper. And inside, the sumptuous wit, emotion and grandeur of Dickens‘ effortless prose style: those long, rolling, image-packed sentences. There‘s a lavishness, humor and poignancy in the original story that Zemeckis’ whirligig action and all the CGI in the world can’t convey.

Something else limits the movie. The very motion capture technology intended to more evocatively catch the physical look and movements of the actors, somehow also tends to rob them of some humanity, by leaving their eyes and expressions so strangely stiff and dead, like animated waxworks flown on wires. There must be some way to fill this lack; almost every other animated process can make eyes come alive — whether old-fashioned drawings and cels, or computer imagery or the primitive Jiri Trnka-like puppetry of Fantastic Mr. Fox. But Carol’s motion-capture techniques tend to lose that crucial human element — one of the very qualities you’d think they would be ideally suited to bring.

Still, Zemeckis’ Christmas Carol, like most of his other movies, is a good show. It’s gloriously, as he says, full of his specialty, “full of stuff.“ The film seems to me, whatever its flaws or overreaches, another more-than-decent pop Dickens movie — adapted from the supreme popular novelist who may not always please all the literary snobs, but delights most everyone else.

Dickens! Always excepting Shakespeare (in each and every case, of course), who else creates characters so vibrantly alive? Who else can move us so much, can touch so deeply even the most selfish and closed-off hearts? Who else creates and crafts such wondrous worlds of fantasy-tinged reality, of reality-tinged fantasy? And who else loves Dickens more than did twelve-year-old Michael, clutching in his hand the $25 his mother gave him to buy that complete set of his favorite author, long ago at the Lake Geneva YMCA thrift store?

As Gary Oldman would say, “God bless us, every one!”

The Last Airbender (Three Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (One Star)
U.S.: M. Night Shyamalan, 2010

Based on the highly-praised anime TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender — but sadly unable to use Avatar in the title — this is M. Night Shyamalan’s futuristic saga of a post-Apocalypse world devoted to incessant tribute band concerts of Earth, Wind and Fire.

No, sorry, my mind is wandering. It’s about a world divided into the warring kingdoms of Earth, Air, Wind and Fire, with the kingdom of Fire, run by Cliff Curtis’s evil Lord Ozai, bullying everybody –including the young Avatar, Aang, who is played by Noah Ringer — and forcing them all to live in a horrible universe dominated by bad 3D effects and by Aang’s evil stepsisters, Aargh and Aawgh. By the way, to make up for the fact that the word “Avatar” couldn‘t be used in the title, it’s used at least ten thousand times in the dialogue.

Is there any truth to the rumor that M. Night Shyamalan has been kidnapped and that this movie, originally called “The Last Fenderbender,” was directed by an impostor named M. Night Schlemiel? I’m afraid not, though the gifted Shyamalan may need a Seventh Sense to recover.

But it is true that the only good reason to see this show, the movie formerly known as “Avatar,” is if you’re a fugitive from the police hiding out in the theatre. Even then, you may want your money back. That goes double for the DVD.

Clash of the Titans (Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Combo) (Three Stars)
U.S.; Louis Leterrier, 2010 (Warner)

The Kraken, the Medusa, the Pegasus and the lobster monsters are smashing successes in director Louis Leterrier’s lavish remake of “Clash of the Titans“ — the 1981 Ray Harryhausen mythological epic. But the people and the Gods could use a little more work. That’s a typical story for a big-studio fantasy blockbuster. Great CGI, obvious characters spouting, in this case, predictable mytho-gibberish.

But this genuinely spectacular movie, which plunges us into the adventures of the demigod wanderer Perseus, impersonated by Avatar’s” Sam Worthington (with a Russell Crowe glower and some Don Johnson stubble), does have something to knock your eyes out in almost every scene.

We follow Perseus‘s incredibly action-packed agenda, from the moment he’s plucked out of a coffin floating in the ocean, and from his mother‘s arms, by good fisherman Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), to his Spartacus-like capture at Argos, to his recruitment into the war of the humans against the Gods (and Devils), to his last bloody battle with the rampaging Kraken and the madly pretentious Hades. And, as we do, the movie visualizes, stunningly, one mythological adventure and Greek-god coup de theatre after another (often reprised from the 1981 Clash).

Leterrier (who also directed The Incredible Hulk), keeps hurling all this spectacle and mythomania into our faces, cutting as frenetically as if he wanted a Michael Bay award — from bloody warfare and tumbling statues on the ocean-whipped crags and cliffs of Argos, to writhing snake-women slithering up from the lava pits of the fiery underworld ruled by whispery Hades (Ralph Fiennes), to the soaring flight of the black-winged fling-horse Pegasus swooping over Ancient Greece like Marcello Mastroianni‘s helicopter in La Dolce Vita, to the Lawrence of Arabia like desert trek of Perseus, Draco (Mads Mikkelsen) and some monstrous-looking pseudo-Arab sheiks mounted on the suddenly tamed scorpions, to the climactic furious moment when the Kraken explodes up from the ocean like the Alien ripping loose form John Hurt’s chest, and makes all hell break loose for the last act.

The original Clash, with its last hurrah for Harryhausen’s creature mastery, was, like this one, a little skimpy on true drama — despite the presence of a late-career but still godlike Laurence Olivier as Zeus, Limelight’s Claire Bloom as Hera and the magnificent Maggie Smith as Thetis. (Hunky Harry Hamlin was Perseus and Judi Bowker was Andromeda).

Here, in the 2010 version, actors like Neeson, Fiennes, Danny Huston (as Poseidon) and the other Gods carry a similar dramatic heft. But Mount Olympus, unfortunately is the one set where production designer Martin Laing and supervising art director Troy Sizemore and company were a bit asleep at the myth-switch. Up on that showy mountain resort of the gods, is a skimpy-looking heaven, or God hangout, where the deities stand around uncomfortably on little circles, amid a puffy-white cloudscape that reminded me of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, in scenes that had all the ambiance and power of an Allstate commercial. (“If you‘re not immortal yourself, take a tip from the Gods. Put yourself in good hands.“)

Leterrier, a French director (Transporters) born in Paris, and son of another cineaste, Francois Leterrier, seems to be having fun with the material — and there’s even a nice little joke about Bubo, the robot owl, from the 1981 Clash. Leterrier is another of the current crop of French action and horror movie slam-bangers like Pierre Morel (Taken), Gerard Krawczyk and Alexandre Aja (High Tension). He and they try to beat movie Yanks at our own violent games, and some of the time, they succeed.

Still, how many times do you get to ride on a Pegasus? I first was handed a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, by my mother, on the El in Chicago, when I was seven. As I remember, it had a picture of Perseus and Medusa, the shield mirror, and the snaky hair. They were entrancing, transfixing, transporting. So they are again, sometimes, even cut like a French whirlwind, in Clash of the Titans.

Extras: Featurettes.

Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Brad Payton, 2010 (Warner)

I wouldn‘t wish this movie — a kid’s parody of James Bond thrillers starring animatronics or digitally-enlivened cats and dogs in comedy super spy roles — on my worst enemy. In fact, after the opening credits, a parody of Maurice Binder‘s floating Bond Girl credits with floating Bond Kitties, and right after the opening scene, where a cute little puppy starts photographing secret documents — I desperately wanted to leave.

No such luck. Soon the movie was happily introducing me to its photogenic, barking hero, Diggs, a well-meaning but over-enthusiastic police German Shepherd (voiced by James Marsden), whose cop-buddy Shane (Chris O‘Donnell) can’t save him for the over-punctilious force. Diggs though is rather oddly being recruited by the Central Intelligence Arf, or whatever it was, to fight the insidious Kitty Galore (Bette Midler). And Diggs is paired with ace spy, feline beauty and exemplar of dog and cat détente Catherine (voiced by Christina Applegate).

The writers’ chutzpah, or their catzpah, knows no bounds. They’ve written a scene for villainous cat Mr. Tinkles, in which he’s strapped up in a cell like Hannibal Lecter, and they have a doggie role for ex-Bondsman Roger Moore, as tuxedo cat Tad Lazenby (last name in honor of the star of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). I’m glad Daniel Craig and Timothy Dalton resisted any possible Bond-blandishments. But what about a cameo for Sean Connery as a Scottie?

Still I stayed, despite scenes that certainly amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment. At one point, a cat-loving little old lady was nearly buried in her own kitty litter. (Old people falling, by the way, is not a joke.) And Kitty Galore has been made hairless, so you actually sympathize with her. One question is never answered: How are all these chatty critters able to carry on long conversations without ever being spotted by humans? And, since Q isn’t around, who built all their gadgets? (Cats and dogs, remember, have no opposable thumbs.)

But let’s not be literal. No idiots, I trust, were harmed during the making of Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. Worse movies have been made. But words cannot really describe what I felt watching it. (70 minutes shot to hell and the possibility of recurring kitty litter nightmares to boot.) I defy any reasonably hip five-year old to disagree with me. Perhaps though, this movie will be the springboard of what now seems a badly needed adjunct of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Audiences by Animal Movies.

Lottery Ticket (Two Stars)
U. S.; Erik White, 2010 (Warner)

One of my best newspaper buddies used to say about colleagues we knew who’d gotten great jobs or notable career advancement without really deserving them; “They won the lottery!“

Yeah. Yeah. I always knew what he meant. Winning the lottery is a surefire way of getting ahead in the world without displaying a lick of talent or hard work. That‘s why, on one level, it’s a favorite fantasy of lots of the citizenry — and also why its hard to sympathize too much with ex-kid rapper Bow Wow as Kevin Carson, the protagonist of the new comedy Lottery Ticket. Kevin is a likeable guy from the Atlanta projects who suddenly wins 370 million dollars in the “Mondo Millions” super-sweepstakes — though he doesn’t believe in lotteries and thinks they’re a sham rigged to dupe poor people — because he bought a ticket with numbers he got off a fortune cookie. And because the numbers hit.

One hitch. It’s Saturday of a fourth of July Weekend that will stretch through Monday, so Kevin can’t cash the ticket until Tuesday the Fifth. He tries to keep it a secret, but unfortunately, the other person who knows is his terminally talkative Grandma (Loretta Devine).

Soon, Kevin’s life has taken a marked turn for the worse, or at least the more dangerous. All of a sudden, he has all kinds of “friends” he doesn’t want — and his real longtime friends (including Brandon T. Jackson as best bud Benny, and Naturi Naughton as true blue gal pal Stacie) are feeling neglected. Terairra Mari as foxy Nikki, who wouldn’t give him a tumble, appoints Kevin her newest cutie. Projects smart-aleck David (Charlie Murphy) keeps pulling out his pistol to support him, a rod that looks suspiciously like a squirt-gun.

The local pastor, slick Rev. Taylor, preaches a sermon about a new multi-million dollar church building project and it’s aimed straight at Kevin‘s pew. The local Godfather and loan shark, Sweet Tee (the always first-rate Keith David), is happy to float Kevin a $100, 000 loan and leave him with a torpedo named Jimmy the Driver (Terry Crews), packing real heat, to look after his interests.

And the most dangerous man in the projects — psycho ex-con Lorenzo (Gbenga Akinnagbe) — wants the ticket, the 370 million, and maybe Kevin’s bootie, and doesn’t care whom he has to bash to get it.

Oh, we forgot one guy: Mr. Washington (Ice Cube), an agoraphobic ex-boxer who hasn’t left his apartment in decades, who’s befriended Kevin (from whom he gets his groceries and necessities), and who doesn’t seem to want anything from him. But Mr. W., who sparred with Ali and Ken Norton, is sure to figure prominently in whatever happens — and only partially because Cube is also one of the producers of Lottery Ticket.

Lottery Ticket has a terrific ensemble cast, and first time feature director Erik White (who worked on the script with scenarist Abdul Williams) keeps them all in high gear. The performances are lively, snappy, and sometimes as rich as Kevin will be, if he survives to Tuesday.

The script, unfortunately, falls apart by Sunday.

Why does Lorenzo, who’s out of jail on probation, shake down Kevin at his shoe store in front of his boss, and steal the ticket in front of dozens of witnesses? Why does foxy Nikki give up on her rich hubby campaign so fast? Why does Kevin just wander around everywhere with the still unsigned ticket in his pocket? By the way, aren’t there any cops in these projects? (We’ll concede law-enforcement problems may be worse than we know.) Why is Kevin so dense about Stacie? Why does David actually fire off his squirt gun?

Lottery Ticket is fun at times, and the cast is good, especially David, Murphy, and Faheem Najm as the convenience store guy who sells Kevin the ticket. And Williams and White do figure out a way to keep their Lottery Ticket from being, in the end, a paean to dumb luck and greed.

But the movie doesn’t hold up too well next to, say, that beguiling 1994 Nicolas Cage-Bridget Fonda Andrew Bergman-directed lottery ticket show, It Could Happen to You. And neither of them can match, or come close to, Christmas in July, Preston Sturges’ wonderful 1940 comedy where Dick Powell supposedly wins a big radio coffee jingle contest with the slogan “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk.”

Remember, if you can write great, you don’t need to win the lottery. Or so we like to think.

The Extra Man (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman, 2010 (Magnolia)

Very funny performance by Kevin Kline as a threadbare, acid-tongued Manhattan Noel Coward type who survives by escorting old ladies to posh parties, and who takes on a naïve young arrival (Paul Dano) and shows him the ropes. Dano, Katie Holmes (the girl in the story) and John C. Reilly are not as good. (This is one of Reilly’s weirder performances, and voices, as an eccentric, shaggy artist). But they don’t have to be; it’s Kline’s show, and he gives it the right edge-of-the-ledge, phony-suave sparkle.

Written and directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, who portrayed an American oddball aesthete with similar wit and sympathy in American Splendor. Extras: Commentaries with Kline, novelist Jonathan Ames and the directors; Featurettes; Deleted scenes.

Falling Down (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Joel Schumacher, 1993 (Warner)

The ultimate road rage movie. Michael Douglas plays a white collar Angeleno who reaches his boiling point and starts a deadly march through the town; Robert Duvall is the cool vet cop trying to find him. With Barbara Hershey and Tuesday Weld.

A note: Like many of us, I’ve been very sad to keep glimpsing, as I check out food at the grocery store, those shrieky tabloids and to see them display the progress of Michael Douglas’ cancer — especially in what was, with the release of both A Solitary Man and Wall Street 2, one of the best years of his career. I only hope he wins his (deserved) Oscar nomination for Solitary Man. And, although I’m fairly sure he won’t read this, I’d like to say this to him: Thank you. Be proud of your movies, of your work, of your life. Be happy you’re with people who love you. That’s what counts.    

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“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho

“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