PICK OF THE WEEK: BLU-RAY
Restrepo (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington, 2010 (Virgil)
Restrepo is a documentary about the war in Afghanistan that’s beautifully shot and terrifyingly convincing. The color photography is crisp and clear. The subjects, a platoon of American soldiers in the mountains, are amazingly candid. The directors — journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and combat photographer Tim Hetherington — try to capture the images and the words of their subject, the men of the Second Platoon, 183rd Airborne Brigade, and not obviously intrude on them. They succeed, admirably.
So we see the Second Platoon’s daily routine, watch them as they horse around, listen as they’re being interviewed by the filmmakers, watch an occasional battle from ground zero (usually signaled by bursts of gunfire and the camera image jerking around as the photographer tries to get his bearings). At the end, we see some of them leave. After fifteen months and over 50 casualties in the region, they will all leave, as the Americans abandon the Taliban-infested area, the Korangal Valley, regarded as one of the world‘s most dangerous hot spots.
The title Restrepo refers to a 20 year-old medic named Juan Restropo, who was the platoon‘s first casualty. Restrepo, whom we see very briefly, was a happy, generous guy who played the guitar and was very much liked by his buddies. They named their digs after him: Outpost Restropo.
The movie is all about war, danger and friendship — and judging by what we see here, the Afghanistan War is a pretty awful one to have to fight. There’s nothing obviously political in Restropo either way: no flag-waving, no military bashing. Junger and Hetherington‘s movie focuses instead on the men who have to fight the war the politicians whip up: the kind of war that most of those politicians — including bellicose chicken hawks like Dick Cheney — never fought and never will. That’s the true politics of it, I guess. As Sam Fuller once explained , if you make a war movie and do it honestly, it always becomes anti-war. And — think of those two vets who didn’t even know me but chased my attacker and got him — maybe it always becomes pro-soldier as well.
PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW
Inception (Four Stars)
U.S.; Christopher Nolan, 2010 (Warner Brothers)
It begins with a man washed up on the beach, awaking as if from a dream, waves crashing around him.
What happens next? Worlds of wonders. Dreamland cubed.
Christopher Nolan‘s Inception — with Leonardo DiCaprio as a tortured guy who shoves dreams into your head — is obviously some kind of masterpiece. It’s a truly — CLICHÉ ALERT — mind-bending science fiction movie about the power of dreams, the persistence of memory, the anguish of lost love, the chains of conscience and maybe as much as anything else, the sheer lunatic joy of making a big, crazy action movie spectacular with no rational limits on either your budget or your imagination.
That blurb cliché “Mind-Bending” is actually the right word (le mot juste) here. Nolan uses the magic of movies and moviemaking to try to bend our minds and play with our heads, to put our imaginations into overdrive and to expand the boundaries and possibilities of big-budget studio movie-making. (And he does it, in this age of Pixar, for adults.) Dom/DiCaprio’s job, manufacturing dreams, is the perfect movie profession and Nolan plays it, and him, to the hilt.
At one point, Nolan folds a whole packed Parisian street in on itself. Later, he turns a plush hotel corridor into a zero gravity battlefield, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Di Caprio‘s right hand man) swimming through the air or dancing from wall to ceiling to wall like Fred Astaire hoofing his way ‘round the revolving room of Royal Wedding. Elsewhere, Nolan and his company drive an express train through a Los Angeles street in the middle of a car-chase shootout, or have two characters walk up (and simultaneously down) a set of steps modeled after M. C. Escher’s famous Moebius Strip endless staircase — until the movie’s effects wizards break the steps loose and set the walkers free.
Nolan, like the young Orson Welles, is blessed (and cursed) with the moviemaking tools that Welles compared to the world‘s biggest electric toy train set, and he summons up one surreal image or ferocious action blowout after another. Brilliantly, swiftly, he (and editor Lee Smith) cut from year to year, character to character (DiCaprio‘s Dom Cobb, his team, his employer, his target and the tormentors in his memory), from country to country, city to city (Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Tangiers and the soundstages of Cardington, England), with a mix of stylistic chutzpah and loony abandon that perhaps only a moviemaker with a budget in the two hundred million dollar range, and a writer-director (Nolan) married to his producer (Emma Thomas), could muster.
The result has already been subject to all the obvious movie comparisons: from the Matrix and James Bond shows, to Dreamscape, and to Nolan‘s previous chronology-fracturing or reality-twisting thrillers Memento, Following, Insomnia and The Prestige; from DiCaprio’s previous 2010 nightmare excursion Shutter Island, and to Minority Report, Total Recall, Impostor and other Phillip K. Dick-derived nightmare movie fables.
But Inception, a movie drunk on the magic of movies, goes further. It summons up hints and echoes of everything from La Jetee, Hiroshima mon Amour and The Italian Job, to Vertigo, and Citizen Kane. The film is full of grand illusions, grand flourishes. In the smash-up cross-cutting finale, it recalls the roaring, fugal, four-part climaxes of D. W. Griffith‘s great mad silent epic Intolerance.
Hans Zimmer wrote the non-stop, bombastic but emotion-drenched score, which suggests Wagner at the Apollo; Edith Piaf, no less, sings, under the credits, her heart-twisting memoir/anthem of defiance Non, Je ne Regrette rien (No Regrets), which also threads though the entire movie.
It’s excessive. It’s overblown. But above all, it’s a movie by a filmmaker who loves movies, and wants to explore their possibilities in an arena as endless and bewitching as that Escherian staircase (which seems to be going nowhere, then springs suddenly free). Inception is like a heist thriller fashioned by Lewis Carroll, reincarnated, and based on some three-dimensional chess game –or like a whole roller-coaster ride designed by Escher, a wild plunge that keeps dropping though one Phillip K. Dickian alternative reality-world after another, until finally it almost leaves us where we began (delirious, washed ashore on a beach, below towering crumbling cliffs) — and then takes one more step.
It’s hard to synopsize any of this, because the whole movie is literally (and subliminally) one surprise and shocker
END OF SPOILER
Besides, the inevitable, maybe planned effect of seeing Inception and maybe getting a little bewildered, is to want to see it again, to clear up the confusion or re-experience its delights, or possibly to gather evidence for a nasty debunking Kaelesque review. (Not once, but again, is the test of greatness. And maybe of a marketing strategy too.)
Still, it won’t hurt you to know that DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb is an American exile in Europe, and that he’s a highly paid, inwardly tormented specialist in the art and science of extraction. “Extraction” involves invading a human subject’s subconscious dream state to extract information — a process prized by corporations who want to steal ideas from each other.
Inception damners and debunkers need go no further than that: Why in the world would anyone spend so much money and go to such perilous extremes (a process that may involve kidnapping, deception, jail time and possible dream-state death) to steal an idea, when you might get the same results using the old fashioned methods of bribing an employee, hacking a computer, or hiring and wiring a hooker?
The answer is the same one you’d give to anyone who complained that John Ford‘s marauding Stagecoach Apaches didn’t win the battle by shooting the fleeing stagecoach’s horses. Why ruin a good story with too much damage from the over-analysts Alfred Hitchcock scornfully called “The Plausibles?”
Besides, why don’t those plausibles try riding after a stage and shooting a rifle at the same time? Plausibility be damned. With Inception, we’re talking about a movie where people steal each other‘s dreams and go in and out of each other‘s heads, for God‘s sake.
Anyway, Dom is hired, in our future and in the movie’s past, by the suave Japanese magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe of Tampopo) for a complex extraction job on a corporate rival. But Dom is asked this time to reverse his usual modus operandi: To implant an idea (or use inception) in the mind of a young corporate nabob-to-be, Robert (Bobby?) Fischer (Cillian Murphy), whose father, corporate head Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite) is dying, before the eyes of Bobby, and of Tom Berenger as the troubled legal counsel, Browning.
To help, Dom assembles a team of old reliables (dead-serious right hand man Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and genial chemist-anesthesiologist, Yussef, played by Dileep Rao), old rivals (brash “forger” or impersonator Eames, played by Tom Hardy), and fresh faces (brainy architect Ariadne, played by that freshest of faces Ellen Page.)
Ariadne‘s name, of course, is the same as that of the lady who helped the Theseus of Greek mythology thread his way in and out of the Labyrinth, and she helps introduce the other key plot element, besides being an invaluable angel of exposition. (Since she‘s new to the game, Dom has to give her a crash course in everything you wanted to know about extraction and inception but were afraid to ask). Her key plot function? Love and plot. Ariadne, it seems, is also the protege of brilliant, compassionate professor Miles (played by Michael Caine, who maybe should be incepted into every noirish movie), and Miles is also the father of Dom’s tragic dead wife, Mal (played by Marion Cotillard, who also played Piaf).
SPOILER ALERT (SORT OF)
The tragedy of Mal’s death (she left their two children behind) is what has caused Dom‘s exile, and her persistence (and the children‘s) in his memory and dreams is what makes him a walking or dreaming time bomb.
END OF SPOILER
That‘s the premise of the story, and you‘ll understand why too much further synopization may be unwise or unwieldy. Perhaps we should remember, as Nolan and Caine once explained to us (in the deadly magician thriller The Prestige), that the three acts of a great magic trick are, in fact, the Pledge (where something ordinary is introduced), the Turning (where it turns into something extraordinary) and the Prestige (where whatever disappeared in the earlier acts reappears).
It’s hard to describe anything in Inception as the Pledge, because almost nothing is ordinary, which may be another forgivable flaw. And the whole last part of the movie is steeped in that incandescent succession of dreamlike exploding action scenes that finally pour into the three-strand inter-twisting climax, where whatever disappears can’t always be trusted to reappear — but where it’s so damned entertaining, I never once thought of complaining. After all, Prestige isn’t everything.
Nolan seems fascinated by the idea of anti-chronological plots. (His Memento — a story told in reverse order, following a protagonist with short term amnesia — is a neo-noir of genius). He‘s also soft on reconfigured genre tropes and standbys, with talismen (the spinning little top that here keeps reappearing), with sexy killers and villains, and, most disturbingly perhaps, with husbands who have destroyed, intentionally or not, their wives. (Perhaps Emma Thomas should remember this the next time they put a budget together.)
In Inception, he revisits many old pets and odd obsessions and complicates them all. It’s not hard to see why this is a script that took him ten years or so to write, ever since Memento. (2001, wasn’t it?)
It’s rare to see a big Hollywood super-production for adults that‘s this complex, this ambitious, this amusingly tricky and this this woundingly personal — or that has so much psychological layering and emotional resonance. (Why, it’s almost like a kid’s movie from Pixar!) I went to see Incepetion twice, both to clear up confusion and to re-experience its delights. And though the confusion may be dismissed as another marketing strategy, (see above) — if you can’t figure it out the first time, buy another ticket and go again — the fact is, I did enjoy it more. (Not twice, but again, is the test of greatness,)
One of the movie’s great pluses is that cast, especially DiCaprio. As he did in Scorsese‘s Shutter Island, one of Inception‘s only artistic rivals among the big Hollywood movies this year (well, of course, there’s also Toy Story 3), DiCaprio supplies this show with a solid emotional center, anchoring a story that often seems in danger of flying off into zero-gravity FX limbo or devolving into some ersatz Phildickian dreamworld. Those tormented eyes, that quizzical half-grin, that deceptively boyish, slighty pinched matter-of-fact delivery of DiCaprio’s grounds the movie. Cottilard and Page help humanize Inception as well, and so of course, does Caine. And, in fact, so do all the others, in dreams or out.
They make the movie’s FX prestidigitation connect with us more. So does the interesting fact that Nolan uses mostly in-camera effects, except in stuff like the Escherite or trompe d’oeil fantasias where he needs CGI. (After all, the “socialist” French government won’t allow visiting Yank film companies to really fold Paris streets in on themselves.) CGI, when used to create something in a supposedly real world, can be annoying. Here, with real-life objects and in-camera effeets used to create dreams and make them solid, the more occasional CGI arabesques flow in seamlessly.
That‘s also why Inception deserves the high praise its gotten from most critics. I don’t mean to imply that this is some immaculate Inception, or to infer too much of a comparison between Nolan’s film and a godhead movie like Citizen Kane (though Inception is obviously, the work of a Kane-savyy diretcor, as well as a Blade Runner-savvy one). But like Citizen Kane, (whose design and effects team came partly from the dreamy ’30s Astaire-Rogers movies), Nolan’s new show is a movie that makes imaginative use of the zeitgeist and many of the technical magic tricks, devices and styles of its day (from Spielberg’s to Michael Bay‘s) — but bends them in trickier, deeper, more magical directions. It isn’t a movie that audiences love mostly for its characters and social ideas, like The Kids are All Right — even though the characters aren’t just along for the ride. Here, it’s the overall frame, design and style that are the main stunners.
In a way, the philosophical engineer of this train is the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whom we’ve mentioned before, and who saturates this movie like real maple syrup on a hot pancake. Dick’s commercial heyday, ironically, came with Blade Runner (based on his fantastic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) a movie released after Dick‘s death. These days — though in life, Dick was an often impoverished pulp creator, dismissed as a hack by Establishment lit-types — producers seem ready to buy and film anything of Dick’s, even a cheapo novella like Minority Report that he wrote for the lower-echelon sci-fi mag Fantastic Universe — maybe. even his shopping lists or death certificate.
Dick was the master of alternative world stories (like The Man in the High Castle, still unfilmed) — though one of the best Dick-style novels may be The Lathe of Heaven, a Phildickian pastiche done by his friend Ursula K. LeGuin. He also did stories about dreams within dreams and competing dreamers, including a terrific pulpy ‘50s Ace paperback novel called Eye in the Sky. And he portrayed the horror and aranois of the drug-ridden California world around him, in A Scanner Darkly. What makes Dick a great writer, and a great read, is the effortless, almost offhand way he creates those dream alternative worlds: step by step, brick by brick, talking about them as if they were already right here, all around us. That’s the approach Nolan often takes here, very pungently and successfully.
There’s another level to Inception. In some ways, and maybe not even intentionally (or inceptionally) this is a movie about making movies — about conceiving them, painstakingly getting them put together (with help from corporate types), and then watching almost helplessly, as they finally unfold. Gordon-Levitt describes his character Arthur, the calm, clear-headed facilitator, as like a “producer” and DiCaprio‘s mercurial Dom as like a writer-director. That they are.
And Dom’s crew is like the movie’s company-crew. Nolan’s crucial collaborators — production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, special effects supervisor Cris Corbould, Zimmer, cinematographer Wally Pfister, editor Smith, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland — are they the dream invader’s henchmen? Of course. The film is a bit like an action movie blockbuster crossed with Fellini‘s 8 ½, a movie about a movie that actually was made, despite everything.
When we watch films that plunge us into dreams or nightmares, or pull us into something like the dream state — movies like Kane, Vertigo or Singin’ in the Rain, Blade Runner, Beauty and the Beast, Sherlock, Jr. or Intolerance — we’re getting the pleasures of the movies in a pure way, caught up in the flow, lost in the reverie, singing in the storm. Inception is in that category, maybe not as good, but often as compelling and hypnotic, and nearly as … memorable.
It’s also a movie that made me sad for a different reason. Almost forty years ago, in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Union, in the heyday of the anti-Vietnam war era, a bad-tempered right wing fellow student from a well-heeled family, who got into a fight with one of my friends (I pulled the assailant off and Union security intervened) went looking for us the next morning, with a crescent wrench and an ice pick in his bag. He found me in the Union Rathskellar, rushed up and sent the wrench crashing down on the back of my head, fracturing my skull and coming within an eighth of an inch (according to my doctor) of killing or paralyzing me.
As I lay there in a genuine pool of blood, two other fellow students — both Vietnam vets as I remember — chased the wrench-wielder for several blocks, and, after he pulled his ice pick on them, they disarmed him and held him for the police. (God bless and keep you, guys, wherever you are.) I was carried to the UW hospital where the operation to clear out the loose bone chips was done quickly without anesthesia, and , that first night, when I was finally unconscious — dreaming maybe –my 56-year-old mother sat out in front of my hospital room all night, guarding it.
My attacker was later found guilty of conduct regardless of life. But, after insisting he was defending himself from me (by hitting me in the back of the head?), he was released without jail time by the judge, a notorious Madison drunk, who may have been sympathetic to the defendant‘s higher social class.
I survived. But, over the decades, ever since then, I began losing the hearing in my left ear, and, even worse, I began losing my ability to remember my dreams. I still remember in detail, many that I had before the attack and some that I had afterward, but almost none that I have these days, right now.
I know I still have dreams, because, very occasionally, I‘m startled awake in the middle of one and I remember what seems a minute or two of the pure fantasy that happened just before the wake-up. Once I was jumping up in a theater audience after suddenly remembering I was supposed to be in the very play I was watching. Once I slid down an icy crevasse, some place, somewhere. Once I did something or other with Julia Roberts. (A pretty good minute, that.). But most of the rest is gone.
I miss my dreams. Maybe my mother is in some of them. So I’m actually very happy to see all the grand, complex, extravagant and thrilling fanastias, pretend-dreams and mementos that Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and the others have put on the screen here, to shove or seduce mad visions into our heads.
The M. C. Esher staircase. The Paris street that folds over on itself. The zero gravity hotel corridor. The James Bondian snow battle. The express-train that comes suddenly out of nowhere. The lady Marion whom Leonard DiCaprio loves, standing on the ledge, about to jump. Edith Piaf. No regrets. The two little children, looking away. A Moebius Strip of the mind. A Phil Dick cocktail. Men in high castles. Scanners darkly. The van full of dreamers that keeps falling, falling, over a bridge and down toward the water below. The delirious survivor washed up on the beach, the waves crashing around him…
Inception forever, I say. Dreamers arise. For the most part, I’ll give Nolan a temporary pass from Hitchcock‘s Plausibles. After all, Nolan and all his crew give us plenty to dream on here. And dreams are precious, never more so than when you’ve lost them.
Extras: Featurettes; Conceptual and promotional art; Hans Zimmer score selections; trailers.
PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS
The Grapes of Wrath (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U. S.: John Ford, 1940 (20th Century Fox)
The best movies, like the best novels, affect you powerfully, but sometimes differently, throughout your life. They can move you, chill you, devastate you, teach you, maybe even change you.
Here is a great movie adapted from a great novel: John Ford‘s savagely beautiful, deeply emotional film of John Steinbeck‘s poignant, epic masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. The new DVD release has been out a while, but that hardly matters. You must own it, keep it in your hearts if not on your shelves.
It’s a book and a movie, of course, about the Okies: wandering poor American families, struck down hard by the Depression, forced from the land where they’d lived and farmed for generations, forced onto the roads, in rattletrap vehicles, with scant resources, then viciously exploited by the California corporate growers who battened off their misfortune and the cheap migrant labor it helped supply. It’s the saga, rustic and tragic, of the Joad family, farmers on the Oklahoma plains, driven off their farm by the wind that blew away the soul, the harsh climate that impoverishes and destroys the land, the harsh, foreclosing banking policies that impoverish or destroy the people.
We see the whole world of the Dust Bowl and the Depression through the experiences of the Joads: Ma and Pa, Grandpa and Grandma, Uncle John, the kids, Rose of Sharon, and, most unforgettably Tom Joad — the rebel with, finally, a cause, the fictional character to alive that Woody Guthrie wrote a song about him, and whose last words, to his Ma, before their last leave-taking, no one who sees this movie ever forgets.
In my youth, I loved both Steinbeck and Ford, prodigally. Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men is the first book that ever made me cry — when I read about George and Lenny and the rabbits at 11, off my grandparents’ bookshelves in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. In my college days, I was an English major (Henry James was preferred to Steibeck, or even Faulkner) and I may have let the literary-academic-political trend against Steinbeck sway me or silence me for a while. Fordians back then — and I was one, passionately — tended unfortunately to be sometimes anti-Steinbeck too, and to elevate Ford’s great, but somewhat ignored later movies, often with the conservative John Wayne (The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) at the expense of his great middle period pictures, often with the liberal Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln). It is one area where Andy Sarris steered us a little wrong.
Now that I’m older, I know better. I know that the anguish the movie and book record are if anything, underplayed; that the movie’s “sentimentality” is closer to reality than many other message movies that critics call “realistic” — and that the economic and social horrors that writer Steinbeck and director Ford evoke, are closer than we imagine, and would be much closer if it weren‘t for the political reforms that came out of the Depression, from FDR and the New Deal, reforms that people like Steinbeck and Ford fought for — and that the bank-worshipping, money-adoring G. O. P. now despises and wants to repeal.
I feel ashamed at even slight scraps of a callow “go along” reaction toward these two great artists and their American masterpiece — though, truth to tell, I always did love the book. But I now think the movie of The Grapes of Wrath is one of Ford’s four or five greatest films, worthy to be ranked right alongside The Searchers and Stagecoach, both of which in many ways, it resembles.
Like them, and many other Ford movies, it’s a quest film — and even a bit of a revenge movie too. It begins like The Searchers, with a solitary man appearing from the landscape, heading toward home: Tom Joad (Fonda), an ex-con with gentle eyes and a fierce temper, who killed a man and now returns home, on a darkening plain under a harsh sky, deserted. He remeets two old acquaintances, now wanderers too: Casey a preacher (John Carradine, in his finest movie performance), and Muley (John Qualen in his), a scavenger hiding like a “graveyard ghost” in the land he once farmed and owned. They talk: Steinbeck’s characteristic biblical, tough jawboning (sympathetically scripted by Nunnally Johnson), the talk of common folk, sometimes profane or earthy, sometimes elevated to simple grandeur.
Then: Tom’s family. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), the fleshy matriarch in a broad hat, who has to assume control. Pa Joad (Russell Simpson) the gaunt old patriarch, who cedes it. Wily, foxy, nervously cackling old Grampa (Charley Grapewin, in one of the greatest small parts in movie history), grinning Grandma (Zeffie Tilbury), the younger folk, the kids, all set to leave the land they grew up on — now stolen from them by the banks and the greed-crazed creeps, the money-grubbing politicians and callous fancy dans who run them, (and whose spiritual descendants fill the banks and the halls of congress today) — piling into a ramshackle truck, held together with spit and rope, that can barely hold them, on their way to the fruit-rich, grape-and-orange heavy farms of California, the promised land.
What they find are farms owned by corporations and policed by thugs, offering bare subsistence pay (not enough to feed a family), and, if you object, a bum’s rush, a blacklist and a killing club to the head.
It was Steinbeck’s most powerful, most controversial story, damned and banned and burned by the corporate growers and politicians, loved by readers. And it’s one of Ford’s great quests, like the ones in Stagecoach, in The Long Voyage Home, in Wagonmaster, in The Quiet Man, in The Searchers, in Cheyenne Autumn.
In images lovingly crafted by Ford and his matchless cinematographer, Gregg Toland, we see the truck farms and the cheap, ramshackle worker camps, run by local bullies and enforcers. We see the nascent labor movement, which preacher Casey embraces, and, because of which, he’s struck down by the thugs. We see the land and the people, magnificently shot by Toland in a style that suggest Walker Evans, in the year before Toland shot the equally brilliant — but much different — Citizen Kane.
Some of John Ford’s searches end happily; some don’t. The Grapes of Wrath takes us, and the Joads, on a shattering journey into the despoiling of the American dream. There’s hope in the movie, but it’s largely for the future — exemplified by the final somewhat forced “We’re the people” speech by Ma Joad, a scene that producer Darryl Zanuck (a Republican with principles and guts) wanted, and that Ford didn’t. (Ford refused to shoot it, and told Zanuck to do it himself, which the producer did.)
Ford wanted instead to end the film with the shot of solitary Tom, walking in silhouette on the hill, against the morning sky, alone, perhaps forever severed from his family, moving toward the certain future — perhaps to join a labor fight, perhaps to wander forever between the winds. Ford was right; Zanuck was wrong. And if The Grapes of Wrath had ended with that eloquent silhouette-on-the-hill shot (which Ingmar Bergman took and elaborated for The Seventh Seal), then its kinship to The Searchers (as well as Grapes’ more obvious Western movie descendant, Cheyenne Autumn) would be more often noticed. Tom Joad and Ethan Edwards walk or ride toward us out of the landscape, and then, at the end, they return to it.
Henry Fonda was a great actor, never better than as Tom Joad, but his later iconic position as the American cinema’s quintessential liberal sometimes blinds us to how good, how scarily, touchingly, wonderfully good, he can be. (And is, especially in The Grapes of Wrath). Fonda’s Tom Joad is a miracle of compact, truthful, deeply honest, deeply archetypal American movie acting. No one on God’s green earth could have done it better. We know Tom is kind, loving. We know he can be dangerous, a killer. We know he loves his family, his mother. (There is no other love interest, for Tom or anybody, except Rose of Sharon’s failed engagement.) We know he hates injustice. Watching him, watching that lean lanky torso, that grave face and those dark child’s eyes, and hearing that tough, simmering Midwestern drawl, we hate injustice too.
John Ford won the Oscar for The Grapes of Wrath. He deserved it. Jane Darwell won for Ma. She deserved it too. Henry Fonda was nominated and lost to his best friend, Jimmy Stewart. I’m sure even Jimmy would have said his old roommate deserved it more (just as Jimmy deserved it the year before, in 1939 for Mr. Swmith goes to Washington.)
But another actress — who never even got the chance, who wasn’t nominated, who didn’t even get the part — may have deserved it more too, was that one person on God‘s green earth who could do it better. Book or movie, “The Grapes of Wrath” is a masterpiece, and I‘m as moved by Darwell‘s Ma as everyone else. But let us now praise famous women: I believe “The Grapes of Wrath” would have been an even greater film, if Ford had been allowed the casting he wanted, the choice he personally made for Ma Joad, but that was nixed by the cost-conscious studio. Fox wanted a contract player. But Ford wanted Beulah Bondi to play Tom Joad‘s ma, as she had played Tommy Mitchell’s ma in Make Way for Tomorrow, and as she later played Jimmy Stewarts’s in It’s a Wonderful Life, and crochety old Granny in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner and many, many others.
Ford wanted Bondi and he cast her. He was right there too. A methodical teacher-turned actress, Bondi went to the Okie camps to live with and study those women. And then Fox took the part from her, the role that would have won her the Oscar — and would, I think, have been one of the greatest performances in all film history. (Watch Make Way for Tomorrow, and try to tell me I‘m wrong, and that John Ford was wrong.)
Jane Darwell threw her heart into the role and she deserved her season of glory. But so did Beulah Bondi, who never even got an Emmy until the end of her life (for The Waltons). And when I think of Bondi playing that last scene with Fonda, dancing with him to Red River Valley, then bidding him goodbye in the darkness, the strains of the folk ballad echoing over the fertile, scarred land, the two (in my imagination) playing the scene that was never shot, yet as beautiful and as real and moving to me as so many scenes in Grapes of Wrath that were, it makes me do once again what I did those many years ago — when I set down my grandparents’ copy of Of Mice and Men, on a summer afternoon, after I had just learned what words could do, what fictional characters could do, what literature could do, what an American story, deeply felt and beautifully told (by a Steinbeck, by a Ford), could do. It makes me weep.
Extras: An excellent double commentary by Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw and by Ford scholar (and my old writer/partner) Joe McBride; A&E documentary on Zanuck; Depression era Movietone News drought reports; Outtakes; Still Gallery; Featurettes.
PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SET
The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries: Volume Two (Three Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.K.; Hugh David & Ronald Wilson, 1973 (Acorn Media)
Dorothy Sayers was a classic British murder mystery novelist whom tonier critics of the day preferred to Agatha Christie. Sayers’ writing style was more obviously literate (she later translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into English), her stories were more novelistic, her characters a bit deeper, her paragraphs longer, and in The Nine Tailors, she wrote a detective novel that, like E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case ) if not quite on the level of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone or Charles Dickens’ Bleak House), seemed a respectably serious novel as well as an engrossing murder mystery, and one that seemed to elevate the whole genre from melodrama to real drama. (I always preferred Christie, though.)
Sayers also invented a detective, Lord Peter Wimsey (marvelously played on British TV by Ian Carmichael, the naïve protagonist who clashed with Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas and Richard Attenborough in I‘m All Right, Jack). Wimsey was a fittingly named, classy comic character: an acid-tongued but compassionate detector with a taste for high literature, a gift for baroque piano playing, a genius for sleuthing, and the services of Bunter, the best butler this side of Jeeves. (Wimsey was a bit of a playful snob, and his leftist acquaintances were mostly comic relief.)
This set is the better of the two Acorn Wimsey sets now available — and not just because it contains a fine version of The Nine Tailors. These three adaptations, like the two in Volume One, are stylistically ordinary (like the original Upstairs, Downstairs, they look like TV shows more than movies), but they are all faithfully taken from Sayers’ novels, well and wittily written and consummately acted by Carmichael and the supporting casts. They’re real treats for anyone who remembers Sayers, Wimsey and the classic days of the British detective novel. And there are more of them than in Volume One!
Includes: Murder Must Advertise (U. K.; Rodney Bennett, 1973). Three Stars. Murder and Wimsey erupt in the sometimes tawdry worlds of British public relations and journalism. Five Red Herrings (U. K.; Robert Tronson, 1974). Three Stars. Sayers liked to satirize the Bohemian world of British artists; here she surrounds an arist‘s corpse with six suspects — five of them red herrings.
The Nine Tailors (U.K.; Raymond Menmuir, 1975). Three and a Half Stars. The world of British country church bell-ringing (source of the title), exhaustively researched and lovingly portrayed, provides part of the rich backdrop for this famous classic mystery about old crimes and stolen emeralds.
Extras: interview with Carmichael; Sayers and Carmichael biographies; Production notes.
OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVD RELEASES
Shrek Forever After (Also two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo) (Three Stars)
U.S.; Mike Mitchell, 2010 (Paramount)
Shrek Forever After is supposedly “The Final Chapter.” But that title may be partly true, partly false. Can anything really (or fantastically) be both final and forever after?
The mega-grossing DreamWorks feature cartoon series, which began with a bang in 2001 — a Cannes Film Festival Official Selection, and a best animated feature Oscar — has had is ups and downs in the two sequels since (2004‘s business-as-usual Shrek 2 and 2007‘s so-so Shrek the Third). But this Chapter Four in the hip fairytale of the enchanted Princess and her surly green Ogre love, won’t spell bankruptcy in anybody’s books.
It’s a funny movie, well-executed and well-acted, and it’s also , as the first Shrek was, and the next two often weren‘t, a pretty good story.
That can’t have been easy. The problem with making a follow-up to the 2001 Shrek is that, in narrative terms, it was perfect in itself. After Shrek the Ogre (Mike Myers), completed his quest with his ever-rapping Donkey pal (Eddie Murphy), and kissed the beautiful, but fitfully monstrous Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and she became not all-Princess but all-Ogre, and the two went off to live happily ever after in a world that didn’t have the Looks-Uber-Alles hiring policies of the average American TV show, the story really had nowhere else to go.
But like all automatic sequels to big hits, it went there anyway. Fast. Luckily, in those next two Shreks, Shrek and Donkey picked up some interesting travel companions — most notably the swashbuckling little pussycat Puss in Boots, voiced to a fine turn by Pedro Almodovar’s old pal Antonio Banderas. And the movies were entertaining enough, if not exactly the sassy, dreamy, wise-acre, Cannes-smashing triumph the first one was.
Shrek Forever After though (Did anyone try to make it Shrek 4Ever After?) has a nifty premise, thanks, one supposes to writers Josh Clausner and Darren Lemke. (Clausner wrote the Steve Carell-Tina Fey fish-out-of water mom-pop rom-com Date Night.) There’s a new villain in the kingdom of Far Far Away — well-actually an old villain, recycled from the Grimm Brothers: a smarmy, duplicitous, wicked little bad-chappie named Rumpelstiltskin, drawn as if he were a midget Jim Carrey or ‘50s comic Orson Bean, played like Billy Crystal as the devil, and voiced very amusingly not by a star actor but by a cartoon factory working stiff: DreamWorks’ head of story Walt Dohrn.
Rumpel, you’ll remember from Grimm, was always hoaxing and misleading people and robbing them blind on contracts, which suggests he had a future not in fairyland but on Wall Street. Now, the nasty little cartoon bastard is back, with his big strange Mother of a Goose and lots of awful schemes. He hates Shrek, hates Fiona, hates little birds and bunnies, hates everything good and decent, hates all of us. And he’s as sneaky and devious and destructive as a political campaign manager with a huge TV budget. Capitalizing on Shrek’s middle age malaise, a discontent that hits him at his Shrek triplets‘ hectic birthday party — and cognizant of the Green Guy’s yearning for the old days when he could just roar and everyone would run away — Rumpel offers him a contact. Shrek will get one day as the old horrific monster of the first Shrek. And all he has to give up is one insignificant 24 hours from sometime in his childhood.
Such a deal! And such a soundtrack! (Everything from “I’m a Believer” to the Carpenters’ “Top of the World.“) Unfortunately, Rump‘s contract has a Catch-22, an “It‘s a Wonderful Life” clause that wrecks Shrek‘s world and turns Far Far Away into someplace from which any Ogre would stay far, far away if we could: the shadowy, dark side Rump of Fairyland. The insignificant day Rumpelstiltskin chooses for foreclosure is the day Shrek was born, meaning that — in the new alternative-world Phil-dickian Far Far Away, run by Rump, the Goose, the Pied Piper, and lots of “Wizard of Oz-y” witches looking for Shreks to shred and Totos to stomp — Shrek, like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, was never born and never existed.
What a mess! People may be scared of him, but nobody knows Shrek. Donkey, now a beast of burden for the local witch brigade, doesn’t know him. Puss, now a lazy fat cat who can barely buckle his swash, doesn’t know him. The Gingerbread Man doesn’t know him. Fiona, now the leader of the local Ogre rebellion against the tyranny of Rumpelstiltskin, doesn’t know him, and won’t kiss him. And a true-love kiss is the only thing that will wipe out the bad contract, foil Rumpel’s plot and restore the Shrekian order. Shrek has only one day and night to get that smacker from the new two-fisted Fiona, while eluding the wicked witches, enduring 1001 wisecracks from Donkey and trying to keep Puss off the Fancyfeast.
I know you’ve heard it all before, especially “Top of the World.“ But I’ll bet you still want to see what happens next (even though you pretty much know). That’s the innovation of the fourth Shrek. It has funny, well-articulated characters — they all do — but it also has an engaging story.
The movie’s new director Mike Mitchell, doesn’t exactly have the most intimidating credentials. Both Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo and that sequel of sequels, Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo are on his resume. (Shame!) But he does a good job here, not only getting snappy performances from everybody (probably not that big a trick, considering this cast, which also boasts Larry King and Regis Philbin as Doris and Mabel), but deftly modulating the pace and mood from frenetic to somber, and the dramatic-comic hues from bouncy-light to horrific-dark.
Director Mitchell also plays four parts in the movie well, notably his show-stopping gig as Butter Pants, the little boy whose father (Ryan Seacrest) prods Shrek, at the birthday party, to deliver a good old-fashioned Shrekian roar. It’s a great bit: This squashed, dour-looking little toddler, repeatedly insists, in a phlegmatic, deep bass Foghorn Winslow sort of voice, “Do the roar” — the biggest laugh line in the entire movie. (In fact, Mitchell’s Butter Pants may get more laughs with fewer words than any character in movie history.) Overall, the character animation in Shrek 4 is terrific, especially for Puss in Boots (great cat moves) and Shrek (what a kisser). But actors like Dohrn, Banderas and Myers (the guy who puts the Shrek in “Shrek“) — not to mention Murphy and Diaz — are a large part of what makes the movie tick, and click.
For his amazing ability to act the ass, Murphy deserves a standing donkey ovation. For her Joan of Arc-ish inspiration — with her evergreen beauty, and a heart, as the DreamWorks advertising department might say, Somewhere Ogre the Rainbow — Diaz deserves a Princessy salute. And for his incredible penetration, as Puss, into the heart of feline cunning and cat bravado, Banderas deserves all the fancy-feasting, all the executive purring (and the promised spin-off movie) DreamWorks can provide. What an Ass! What an Ogress! What a Puss!
As for Myers, what can we say? What a Shrek! Do the roar, dude.
There is life after The Love Guru.
Monsters vs. Aliens (Three Stars)
U.S.; Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon, 2009
Monsters vs. Aliens seemed a little better to me while I was watching it than it does in retrospect. But it’s still a pretty nifty show: a fast-paced parody horror sci-fi comedy extravaganza with an all-star cast and lots of gaudy 3D effects. If you see it in 3D (and you should), it looks great — the kind of movie where the ingenious technology takes on an added measure of delight because its handled so skillfully and playfully.
Monsters is also a love letter to some of the most entertainingly cheesy horror movies of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, with specific references to The Attacking 50-Foot Woman (who becomes voice actress Reese Witherspoon’s Ginormica/Susan Murphy), The Fly (who becomes Hugh Laurie‘s fiendishly laughing Dr. Cockroach), The Blob (who becomes Seth Rogen in the role he was born to play, laid-back, Jell-O-bodied, ultra-blobby B. O. B.), Mothra/Godzilla (who becomes Insectosaurus, a behemoth who never speaks, but whose silence, according to a hot Hollywood rumor, was dubbed by either Joaquin Phoenix, or by Ben Stiller imitating Joaquin Phoenix, or by the late Marcel Marceau) and, I guess, The Gill Man/Creature from the Black Lagoon or maybe Eeegah! (who become Will Arnett as The Missing Link).
A formidable lineup indeed — though sadly, there was apparently nothing here for Phil Tucker‘s immortal crybaby Robot Monster, which, considering the modest expenditure on R. M.’s costume (a gorilla suit and a fish bowl, as I remember), seems a shame on all concerned. How soon we forget! But there are good enough jokes about s.f. icons Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters With an E. T.), George Lucas (it takes place in Modesto) and Stanley Kubrick (Kiefer Sutherland as Gen. W. R. Monger apes George C. Scott’s sublime Gen. Buck Turgidson, and there’s a Strangelovian war room for President Stephen Colbert).
The plot is wickedly ingenious and ingeniously…wicked. Susan, a Modesto TV gal about to be married to her preposterously vain news anchor fiance Derek (Paul Rudd) — who owes his career to the new masturbation fantasy strategy of selecting TV news anchors (and movie critics) — is plunged into a meteorite shower, swollen to near 50 foot proportions, dumped by disgraceful Derek, and then hurled by Gen Monger into the secret subterranean whoozits which is home to the rest of the Monster Mob,
The fearsome fivesome’s life-or-death mission: to battle and destroy the unstoppable extraterrestrial invasion of a gigantic robot and his maniacal employer, four-eyed Gallaxhar (played to nasty perfection by Rainn Wilson). Gallaxhar, like Chuck Jones’ Marvin the Martian in the Duck Dodgers cartoons, is loaded with gadgets and doesn’t go down easy. The robot utterly ignores Pres. Colbert’s touching grand gesture of intergalactic peace and love, a spirited rendition of the Close Encounters theme, segueing right into the equally throbbing theme from Beverly Hills Cop. Perhaps the next number in this thrilling Colbertian medley was “Can’t Stop the Music.” But we’ll never know; the robot rudely marched off to tear down the Golden Gate Bridge, without even a nod to Ray Harryhausen.
If you have blood in your veins and popcorn in your mitts, how could you not enjoy something like that? Especially when the filmmakers — directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and writers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky — immediately flex their 3D muscles by hurling meteors at us and bopping a paddleball, House of Wax-style right in our faces? How could you not be utterly entranced by a 50-foot-tall cartoon Reese Witherspoon, in 3D yet? And how refreshing it is to see a current movie where Paul Rudd doesn’t get the girl — or the guy.
The technical ingenuity of the better contemporary cartoon features is now such a constant that its easy to ignore it and complain about something else, like the script or the 3D glasses. But Monsters vs. Aliens keeps projecting right off the screen, in ways you can’t ignore, especially when Ginormica is around.
Kids be damned. I had a good time at M.v.A. and sometimes you’re lucky to get even that. Meanwhile, we can confidently await the inevitable sequel, this time in 4D, “Destroy all Monsters! Destroy all Aliens!“ — where Colbert and fish bowl-headed Robot Monster (Seth Rogen in the role he was born to play) sing “Sometimes When We Touch (The Honesty’s Too Much)” to a rampaging octopoid-android and The House Republican Glee Club does a frenzied can can cameo to “No, No, Nanette,” Anne Coulter does a Gypsy Rose Lee strip to her original song, “Destroy All Liberals,” while the MSNBC Hardball-ettes answer smartly with “Barack Around the Clock.“
I don’t see how it can miss — especially if they have a paddleball scene.
Mademoiselle Chambon (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
France; Stephane Brize, 2009 (Lorber/Kino)
“Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.“ So says the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. So perhaps, for much of Mademoiselle Chambon, says Stephane Brize, the director/co-writer of this Brief Encounter-ish tale of a somewhat happily married house builder, Jean (Vincent Lindon) who falls in love with his little boy‘s schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain).
Thanks to Lindon, Jean goes very believably heartsick when Mlle. Chambon plays the classical violin (especially Edward Elgar), and then also must deal with her approaching departure, his own strongly moral nature and the fact that his wife, Anne-Marie (Aurore Atika) is both blameless (even if she is ignorant about direct objects in French grammar) and pregnant.
Lindon and Kiberlain, both exemplary actors, are an interesting couple — she’s brainy, wispy and interested, he‘s brawny, good with his hands and shy. And this adaptation by Brize and co-writer Florence Vignon of Eric Holder‘s novel, wrings as many drops of erotic tension, as many moony stares and averted eyes, pregnant silences and yearning almost-touches, as it can. Most of the passion is sub-surface, as it was in David Lean and Noel Coward’s postwar classic of Rachmaninoff-drenched repression. (See above). The visual style is chaste too. When young, smart-ass media neo-conservatives bitch about French movies, this may be part of what bothers them. Sex mixed with principles isn‘t their cuppa, and neither are movies that take romance seriously.
But in many great love stories, it’s the difficulties that make the drama, the frustrations that feed the passion. And that‘s the case here, too. Thanks to Lindon and Kiberlain, we feel again what it means to suffer, silently. Chambon is not great, or near-great, but its certainly good. Wispy, but good. (French, with English subtitles.)
Extras: Interview with Brize; Deleted scenes; Stills gallery; Trailers