PICK OF THE WEEK: BLU-RAY
Army of Shadows (Four Stars)
France; Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969 (Criterion)
Melville’s finest, most real and most personal film was not one of his nonpareil gangster movies, though, as you watch it, it often feels like film noir swallowing up the world. It’s this great grim tale of the WW2 Resistance based on Joseph Kessel’s novel, starring Lino Ventura as the stoic Resistance leader “Gu“ Gerbier, and Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassell and Serge Reggiani among his comrades and combatants.
Melville adapted the novel, drawing on his own years with the Resistance. The superb cinematography is by Pierre Lhomme. The movie is full of jailbreaks and gun battles and hairsbreadth action scenes, but it’s not done in a typical, sensational, melodramatic manner.
It doesn’t get your motor racing in the usual way. Army of Shadows transpires in a gray world, bleak, chilling, full of the shadows of the title, where night is often falling, or has already fallen. And it’s done in a manner that suggests men (and a woman) who know they will die, who are dead already, but still stubbornly refuse to submit.
Most movie horror is false, however entertaining. Here is true fear, inexorable, deadly, as tight and unsmiling as the face of Gu, sizing up his chances of living another ten minutes. (In French, with English subtitles.)
Extras: Commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendreau; Interviews with Lhomme and editor Françoise Bonnot; Archival footage and interviews with Melville, Kessel, cast members and real Resistance veterans; the short “Jean-Pierre Melville and ‘Army of Shadows‘” (2005); documentary short “Le Journal de la Resistance” (1944); Booklet with two fine essays by Amy Taubin and Robert O. Paxton, and excerpts from Rui Nogueira’s book-length interview “Melville on Melville.”
PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW & BLU-RAY/h3>
The Social Network (Four Stars)
U.S.; David Fincher, 2010
The Social Network — David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin‘s high-style, computer-wise tale of flashy programs and dirty deeds behind the 500 million-user Internet hookup phenomenon Facebook (or at least their version of it) — has definitely become this year’s top thing in award-caliber, critic-certified, “must-see” movies, winning end-of-year film prizes like mad, one after the other: from New York, Chicago, L. A., and Boston to, last weekend, the National Society of Film Critics. And it’s the primo generator right now, of Oscar buzz, and all kinds of comparisons to classics from Shakespeare to Citizen Kane. Another Shakespeare? Another Kane? Actually, it’s not.
But all that buzz is fine with me. This is the kind of movie they actually should be spending those ultra-million dollars or so to make in Hollywood. It’s a brainy, jazzy, cool, impudent, contemporary-hip, ultra-savvy, wired-in, high velocity show that races you through the beginnings of Facebook (hatched in a Harvard dorm by an angry sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg), through its mushroom-like growth on the web and resulting big-bucks corporatization, through all the human eggs you had to break to make this computer-hit omelet, and finally (via actual court transcripts), into the flurry of law suits, Rashomon-ish multiple viewpoints and bitter recriminations that almost inevitably exploded when its net worth hit the billions, and there was loot to be grabbed, and lawyers to pay.
The Social Network is almost wickedly entertaining, and it does something most movies don‘t these days. It celebrates smartness. It gives us protagonists who are phenoms and prodigies of brain power rather than of sexiness, guts or toughness. (That’s part of why so many critics like it so much.)
The Mark Zuckerberg of the movie — whose real-life model apparently, and understandably, doesn’t like what he saw here — is a perpetually frowning, utterly irreverent, empathy-challenged, hoodie-clad techno-geek of nearly non-existent social skills and a nearly bankrupt couth account — a low-conscience, seemingly unrepentantly mean number-cruncher and people-user who arrogantly believes he’s smarter than almost everyone else around him, and whose only saving grace may be that he’s actually, maybe, sort-of right.
Then again, what’s “smart?“ Brains, intellect, or genius, maybe should be defined as a bit more than hatching a lucrative concept, writing a great computer program, and putting a billion in your bank account. (The source for Sorkin’s screenplay is a Ben Mezrich book, written almost concurrently, called The Accidental Billionaires. ) Genius may actually be involved with something more scientific, artistic, mystical: with perceiving the ultimate, penetrating the great mysteries of life, reaching the multitudes, touching the soul of the happy few, or even improving the lot of humankind. Shakespeare. Citizen Kane.
But, in the top fillip of The Social Network’s many, many ironies, we see that maybe Mark and his fellow web movers and shakers — and the whole new social-communal wrinkle that they‘ve been chosen to dramatically represent — don’t really “need” things like empathy, sympathy, what we’d call humanity. This guy’s got something more tangible: a dynamite idea, a way to hook up 500 million Facebook “friends,” and get advertisers to cough up truckloads of cash. Ironically (of course), all this is accomplished by a super-dweeb who alienates everybody in person, including his date and the guy who used to be his best friend.
Social Network starts with its very best scene: a fictional encounter in a Cambridge bar between glaring, fast-talking, self-aggrandizing Mark (played to perfection by modern movie geek-in-excelsis Jesse Eisenberg) and an ironic (naturally), knowing brain-babe named (fictitiously but appropriately) Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). Mark is trying to impress Erica, his current serial-date, with his I. Q., his talk-back panache, and his possible impending campus social triumphs, maybe election to the “final club.” He wants to wow her with sheer words-a-minute. In the dim, chatty little bar where it looks like so many quick hot fucks have been hatched, he keeps trying to drown her in verbiage, lashing back at her parries, pulling out his stud credentials and his coitus curriculum vita.
Her scathing response is to tell him that he may think she’s breaking up with him now because he’s a geek, but it’s actually because he‘s an asshole.
Incensed, he stalks out of the bar, and back to his dorm room — and hurls himself into a classic miffed geek’s techno-revenge. Mark disses Erica on-line, hacks into the Harvard dorm files, appropriates the girl student photos and sets up a nasty little website called FaceMash, in which horny losers or sex bullies, or just plain lonely guys, like himself, get to ogle the photos and rate who’s hot and who’s not. This site proves so popular, it crashes the university’s computer system. Hot stuff? Actually, it’s not.
The exploit also draws flack from the university, as well as the attention of two well-connected Harvard student society, twins, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss — played by the very well-connected 6’5” actor Armie Hammer, with the help of Fincher’s digital aces and actor/body double Josh Pence. The Winklevosses, and their business guy Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) want Mark to create a Harvard variant on other popular student computer social networks of the day at other colleges. He agrees, then joins with his best (maybe only) friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), to start planning and programming what eventually became, without the Winklevosses, Facebook.
Not so fast. The Winklevosses sued. Others sued. Eventually, even best buddy Eduardo sued — after he got slicked out of his top CEO slot upon the arrival of just the kind of snazzy techno-stud who’d appeal to a jilted geek like Mark: Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Parker, the guy behind Napster, nudges out Eduardo after offering a priceless suggestion (changing the name “The Facebook” to simply “Facebook”) and bringing a promise of dough, babes, lines of coke, incredible success and magnums of champagne (not necessarily in that order), luring Mark to Palo Alto. The real Sean Parker apparently doesn’t like his film portrayal here either. A shame. After this movie, for a while, he seemed to me like a mix of the best of Mother Theresa, Elvis, Warren Buffet and Spider-Man. (Just kidding. Actually, he’s not.)
All that suggests the litigious format in which we get most of the rest of the story: flashback-laced dramatizations of the college and court hearings spouting up around the various suits, charges and counter-charges ignited by all that rancor and all that moola. Who’s lying? Who’s right? Who knows? Who cares? As with the current movie Howl, which mined high drama and bawdy comedy out of the Allen Ginsberg “Howl” obscenity trial transcripts, The Social Network often uses actual court transcripts as its dialogue source, which means we may be hearing actual lies — or actual truth. The important thing though, is that it’s all actually entertaining.
With Sorkin’s dialogue and transcripts crackling like “His Girl Friday” on fire, and the revelations (true or made-up) popping like a private eye’s unvarnished notes, and with every scene steeped in director Fincher‘s trademark fancy menacing noir moodiness, the rest of “Social Network” proves definitively that you don’t have to pull a gun to thrill an audience.
It’s never quite as entertaining though, as that first, terrific, entirely fictional kiss-off scene in the bar. Watching The Social Network and reading the sometimes extravagant comparisons it’s generated to Citizen Kane and Shakespeare, not to mention Paddy Chayefsky, Twelve Angry Geeks, and John Hughes, I began to wonder if the current movie strategy of presenting every fact-derived movie drama, fictionalized or not, with the real names of real people — like Shakespeare’s Holinshed-fed historical plays, but not like Kane, which turned William Randolph Hearst into Charles Foster Kane, Marion Davies into Susan Alexander, and mixed Hearst’s history promiscuously with Welles’ own — isn‘t actually more trouble than it‘s worth.
We know, by now, that most docu-dramas mix fact with fiction, memoir with fantasy, and we’re aware that a movie like “The Social Network” is not the evening news — though actually, it’s probably more accurate, clear-eyed and less biased than Fox. So why not adopt Kane’s tactics?
I guess it’s because Zuckerberg is a star, and Facebook is a big brand name, and that’s part of how you sell movies. But I actually expected something more Kane-ian than what I got — expected to see Sorkin and Fincher mix more of the speed, snap and fact-drenched format of the Internet with their classic rapid-fire Hollywood social-dramatic story-telling. Maybe a quick bio of every character, a brisk low-down on every new situation, lots of background, lots of updates, lots of zipping back and forth. Whiz. Bang. But though “The Social Network” does some of that, it’s pleasantly old-fashioned in some ways. Happiest of all is its dependence on Sorkin’s dialogue, and on the high quality acting of its absolutely zero-cool cast.
Eisenberg makes Zuckerberg both pathetic and a little scary, never more so than in the show’s first scene and last shots — and he also makes the guy believably brilliant, a convincing innovator. Mara comes up with one of the ten greatest squelch scenes in movie history. (Unhappily she sort of vanishes from the movie afterwards, and so does Zuckerberg’s sex life, a mistake.)
Garfield makes you feel for a CEO, quite an achievement these days. I nominate Timberlake for “Bad Influence of the Year“ honors. Hammer pulls off a tour de force of digital twinnery; maybe he should now play Indiana‘s 6’5” Van Arsdales, Tom and Dick, in the ultimate inspirational tall twin sports bio. (Just kidding; he did a super job.) Doug Urbanski is believably mean and revoltingly snobbish, as then-Harvard president, Larry Summers. As Eduardo’s girlfriend Christy, Brenda Song is a song, and so is Dakota Johnson as Amelia.
Network director David Fincher seemed to give vent to almost every surrealist, artsy, fantastic impulse he had, when he put Brad Pitt, in Benjamin Button in reverse-rewind — and he’s been plunging us into psychological dread and horror ever since 1992‘s Alien3. Fincher is a real movie stylist, and Fight Club and Benjamin Button are both about as well-visualized as a modern movie can be. But here, Fincher takes a step back, lets Sorkin and the script and actors take over more. It shows how much easier it makes a director’s job when he has good material.
Something bothers me about Social Network though, and I’m not just trying to be perverse, and pick on a favorite. Social Network deserves its plaudits, deserves all these prose-poems of aesthetic orgasm it’s been getting. It’s a hell of a show. But Mark needs more of a back-story, especially a family back-story. Family and class count heavy in many success stories, as Armie Hammer would be the first to tell you. I think it’s wrong to put Mark on his own. Also, the payoff doesn’t seem as exciting to me as the buildup, the climax less of a knockout than I wanted, especially from any movie described by some as the new Kane. Citizen Kane could eat this movie for lunch. That’s okay. Kane cuts most other movies down to size as well, even great ones.
The Internet has changed us though, and one of the major alterations of consciousness is that these screens and their communications make us feel we’re not alone, when we are — and then realize that actually, we’re never alone. Ideas and words keep us going; all the ideas, and all the people out there are a great pool in which we can all swim.
The Social Network, almost a great movie, tells us that people and society have been changed by the computer age, in those ways and others — and also that, in some destructive ways, they’re still the same. It tells us implicitly that empathy matters more than millions of friends. But though that conclusion edifies and entertains, it doesn’t really dazzle us, or blind us with the light.
And I can’t help feeling that a lot of the audience may still misinterpret Mark the way an older audience misread and made a hero of “Wall Street‘s” “Greed is Good” huckster prince Gordon Gekko — that they’ll make more of a hero than an anti-hero of “Mark,“ because he’s smart, because he’s rich. Sorkin actually was offered and turned down the “Wall Street Money Never Sleeps” assignment, and maybe he was worried by that possibility of Gekko taking over again. In a society that worships moola as much as ours, it’s an occupational hazard.
This movie doesn’t entirely escape the pitfalls of success, and the perception of success, though it certainly tries to. For some, Social Network will be a cool show about a kid who made a billion. Actually, it’s not.
Extras: Commentary by Fincher; Commentary by Sorkin and the cast.
PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC/h3>
Hotel Terminus (Four Stars)
France: Marcel Ophuls, 1988 (Icarus)
Hotel Terminus gives us a look at a human monster — at his inescapable cruelty and undeniable monstrousness, and at his sometimes troubling humanity.
In the course of Marcel Ophuls’ classic four and a half hour documentary, Ophuls casts a cool, wide-open eye on the notorious WWII Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie — the bad cop who ruled Lyon, his slice of Vichy, with an iron fist, sent many Jews and Resistance fighters to their deaths, and, after the war, was a wanted fugitive for decades. Then, in the ‘80s, Barbie was extradited from his long time hiding place in Bolivia and brought back to France for trial.
Ophuls, a calm and suave, occasionally impatient, but relentless interrogator, never confronts Barbie directly; a prisoner now himself, and out of reach. But Ophuls interviews numerous people who knew and know Barbie (or “Sonny,“ as his boyhood friends called him) during his years of infamy: victims, witnesses, officials petty and large, lawyers, spies, French, Americans, Germans, ex-Resistance fighters, possible collaborators, rationalizers who want us to forget the past and fierce critics and enemies who will obviously never forget it.
The movie is shot as a series of conversations, abetted by archive material: a mystery story with Ophuls as the detective and the audience as his Watsons. And it unfolds so steadily, so quietly, with such endlessly inquisitive assurance, that its many moments of truth become all the more wrenching.
One of the most interesting of the Hotel Terminus interviewees is with Jacques Verges, Barbie’s unflappable, calm Euro-Asian defense lawyer — and an ex-leftist and supporter of the Algerian revolution. Another is Rene Hardy, the French Resistance leader and possible turncoat, suspected by his old colleagues or delivering his legendary Resistance comrade Jean Moulin to Barbie — and a man whom we see now near the end of his life, defending himself, recalling a deadly past that once gave meaning to that life, and now perhaps condemns it.
Hardy was the author who wrote the WWII novel Bitter Victory, about a cowardly officer who takes credit wrongfully for an act of heroism — and he also co-wrote the screenplay of Nicholas Ray’s movie adaptation, which starred Richard Burton and, as the duplicitous officer, Curt Jurgens. (Bitter Victory is the film that inspired the young French critic Jean-Luc Godard to say “Truth is blinding…and the cinema is Nicholas Ray.“)
The movie grips you throughout, for all 267 minutes. Barbie himself becomes, in the course of the film’s many revelations, a perfect example of the bourgeois beast and assassin, the “good family man” and cold-blooded functionary who tortures and murders for a living — and who is good at his job.
Unhappily, there are men, and women, like this, around us still, and only the fact that the fascists and killers aren’t in charge prevents them from plying their trade. It’s not a job perhaps that some of them would have chosen, or that they like. But, like Klaus Barbie, they do it. They do it. (This film has been available from Icarus for a while; it‘s an essential artifact of the last century‘s horrors.) (In French, with English subtitles.)
PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SET/h3>
The Films of Rita Hayworth
U.S.: Various Directors, 1944-53 (Columbia)
She was so beautiful she made your hair stand on end, made your heart race, made your dreams blaze up.
One of the two great pin-up girls of World War II, in the famous shot that shows her kneeling in lingerie on a bed, she adorned the bunks and planes and knapsacks of many a soldier, sailor or flier, and even the A-bomb dropped on Bikini. (The other supreme pin-up, of course, was Betty Grable in a swim suit, bottom jutting, smiling over one shoulder.) Rita was the Goddess of Columbia in the ‘40s: a tall, leggy, auburn-haired musical deity who didn‘t sing, but danced up a storm, and who cared anyway?
She was born Margaret Cameron (“Rita”) Cansino in Brooklyn. But she became Rita Hayworth of Hollywood. You Were Never Lovelier was the title of one of her Columbia hits, and it fit her. She married a businessman named Edward Judson, who helped make her famous. Then she married Orson Welles (who put her, blonde, in the film noir flop-turned-classic The Lady from Shanghai) and Aly Khan, the millionaire Muslim playboy, who made her a world-wide tabloid sensation, and then a producer named James Hill, who put her in Separate Tables.
She grew old — all Goddesses grow old, if they‘re lucky — but she was still beautiful.
The movies grew less frequent. She began to forget her lines. She had Alzheimer’s. She died, at 68. Rita…
But all Hollywood Goddesses can come back, can live again. On screens. In our dreams. On TV. And so does Rita in at least two films in this box set, both directed by Charles Vidor: in Gilda, which was another great noir and her all-time greatest role, and in Cover Girl where she and Gene Kelly whirl and embrace, immortal in dancing shoes.
So don’t cry for Rita. Don’t feel bad. Wherever she is, she’ll always be smiling at us, kneeling on that bed, looking brazenly and sweetly from the wall of that bunk of that proud WWII sailor — who knows he‘s got the prettiest girl in the world, staring down at him.
Included: Cover Girl (U.S.; Charles Vidor, 1944) Three and a Half Stars. The movie that made Rita Rita. She’s a gorgeous show dancer, partner of Gene Kelly and Phil Silvers, who’s picked as a star cover girl (the movie is also full of real ones) and beckoned by bright lights and rich suitors (Lee Bowman, Otto Kruger) and wise-cracking dames (Eve Arden, natch.)
Kelly and his young choreographer-partner Stanley Donen did the dances, which includes one number in the street that strongly suggests the later Singing in the Rain (cop and all) and another that’s an all-time Kelly classic: the great, hair-raising, double-exposed “Alter Ego Ballet,“ where Gene dances with himself. (He never had a better partner, not even Rita or Fred.)
Tonight and Every Night (U.S.; Victor Saville, 1945) Two and a Half Stars. Based on the real-life story of the Windmill, the famous London music hall theatre that never closed during the Blitz, this considerably altered version has plenty of dancing space for Rita. With Janet Blair, Bowman, and Florence Bates.
Gilda (U.S.; Vidor, 1945) Three and a Half Stars. Rita’s all-time peak came when she strutted on stage in a Buenos Aires casino/night club in a black clinging gown and told the crowd — including bitter, love struck casino manager Glenn Ford, and suave, evil casino owner (and her husband) George Macready — to “Put the Blame on Mame.” Wow! Rita at her sultriest and most goddess-y, Ford at his most neurotically masculine, Macready in what may (as much as Paths of Glory) be the ultimate George Macready performance.
This is the greatest Rita Hayworth movie. And, like Rita’s Welles outing in Lady from Shanghai, it might be one of the greatest noirs, if it didn’t have that weird ending where Macready goes away for a while and the plot stalls. In the end, who cares? And who cares if she’s dubbed? She’s a knockout. This is Rita, sex, noir, the movies. And Mame, of course…
Miss Sadie Thompson (U.S.: Curtis Bernhardt, 1953) Three Stars. Of the three famous movie versions of W. Somerset Maugham’s classic South Seas Island immorality play Rain — Raoul Walsh’s 1928 silent Sadie Thompson with Gloria Swanson, Lionel Barrymore and Walsh himself, as lusty hooker Sadie, the obsessed preacher and Sadie’s sailor-lover, Lewis Milestone’s 1932 Rain, with Joan Crawford, Walter Huston and William Gargan, and this one, with Rita, Jose Ferrer and Aldo Ray — this may be the least, although it’s robust, racy and entertaining. But the story always seems to play well, and it does once again.
Salome (U.S.: William Dieterle, 1952) Two Stars. Put the blame on Salome. As played by Rita, she’s a hip-swinging doll. Stewart Granger’s soldier is noble and Roman. Charles Laughton‘s Herod is horny and hammy old king. Judith Anderson as his wife, is a pit of evil. And Alan Badel as John the Baptist has a head for framing. You‘ll be surprised here at who finally demands that Herod give them the head of John the Baptist, or give head to John the Baptist or Salome, or whatever.
Somebody thought The Dance of the Seven Veils would be good Hayworth material (you won’t believe that when you see it, either), and the result was this biblical clunker. Don’t let the cast and director fool you. It’s truly bad.
Extras: Hayworth talks by Marty Scorsese (on Gilda), Baz Luhrmann (on Cover Girl and Gilda), and Patricia Clarkson (on Miss Sadie Thompson and Tonight and Every Night. All good. Nobody had guts enough to speak up for Salome, but I hear if you play it backwards, you’ll hear Charles Laughton saying “John the Baptist is dead.” .
OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVD RELEASES/h3>
LENNONYC (Three Stars)
U.S.: Michael Epstein, 2010 (American Masters/New Video)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York City in the ’70s, and their fight to stay here, in the U. S., despite a government (the Nixon Administration and their heirs) that seemed hell-bent on booting them out. Very pro-John of course, but what‘s wrong with that? A sad story, well-told, from the breakup of the Beatles (a tragedy too, as far as I’m concerned) to the swan song of “Double Fantasy.”
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story (Three Stars)
U.S.: Jeffrey C. Sherman, Gregory V. Sherman, 2010 (Walt Disney)
The strange family saga of Robert and Richard Sherman, two brothers who supplied words (Bob) and music (Dick) to some of the most joyous and well-liked family pop tunes ever, including the ebullient score (“Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Feed the Birds” and the Oscar-winning Chim-Chim-Cheree“) to Disney’s “Mary Poppins” — who were beloved pets of walt himself, but who throughout their lives, didn’t jell emotionally and often couldn’t get along — and were eased out by the Disney brass that immediately followed Walt’s death. Directed by two more Sherman boys, Jeff and Greg, it’s an oddly moving show, full of beguiling pop history.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Three Stars)
U.S.: Byron Haskin, 1964 (Criterion).
The special effects are pretty cheesy — lovably so — but this engrossing, sometimes touching red planet translation of Daniel Defoe’s castaway classic, by director Byron (The War of the Worlds) Haskin and writer Ib (The Angry Red Planet) Melchoir, is one of the more science-savvy and smart of the pre-2001 science fiction epics.
Paul Mantee stalwartly plays Commander Kit Draper, who crash-lands on mars with Mona the monkey and faces worse problems than Crusoe, including the seeming lack of oxygen and water and the presence of marauding space ships. Adam (Batman) West has a scary scene as Kit’s co-pilot, Dan McReady, and Vic Lundin is this movie’s Friday, a space man slave who looks like an Inca warrior from the TV Star Trek. Shot in Death Valley and on soundstages, it nevertheless looks great — except for those damn attacking space ships.
Extras: Commentary by screenwriter Ib Melchoir, Mantee and others; audio interview with Haskin; featurettes, screenplay excerpts, music video, trailer.