MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The Rest. Arthur, The Lincoln Lawyer, Promised Lands, Vera Cruz.

Arthur (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Jason Winer, 2011

Rarely has the time seemed less right for a movie than it does for the Russell Brand remake of Arthur — that 1981 comedy semi-classic starring Dudley Moore in his career peak, as the drunken Manhattan heir to millions.  The Moore Arthur was a fancy swiller of whiskey, and a boozy wooer of waitresses (Liza Minnelli), a likable souse who defied his family’s mercenary badness and dullness by making a life out of drunken revels, playing a zany P. G. Wodehouse-ian Bertie Wooster to John Gielgud’s Jeeves-ish tart butler, Hobson, while trying to avoid a forced marriage to a family of rich boring snobs.

Coming at the start of the 1980s, when money ruled and Greed was “Good,” the Moore Arthur seemed to have hitched a ride on the zeitgeist to come. But, do we want movie now where the romantic hero is a billionaire‘s son who’s never worked and doesn’t want to: a rich, slaphappy, childish drunk who throws away money on mad whims — like renting Grand Central Station, emptying it for a dinner date with a new heartthrob, and hiring an acrobatic troupe to provide entertainment? (Of course, love changes him. Doesn’t it always?)

But the silliness just keeps coming. The Brand Arthur is a film that one seriously suspects of sneaking out to the lobby and getting smashed on Marker’s Mark, when it isn’t staggering back up on the screen and making an utter ass of itself.

By comparison, the Moore Arthur — written and directed by Steve Gordon, who also wrote the well-regarded ‘70s TV series, “The Practice,” for Danny Thomas, and the movie The One and Only for Henry Winkler — was a nice, witty attempt, mostly successful, to revive the bittersweet hilarious fizz and sparkle of the best 1930s-’40s screwball comedies. Those were movies often very familiar with alcohol, like My Man Godfrey (where William Powell was both the rich romantic hero and the butler), and the George Cukor-directed classics Holiday and The Philadelphia Story (both of which swam in playwright and drinker Philip Barry’s rich boozer jokes), or other screwball masterpiece like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve and Midnight.

The original Arthur was funny. Tipsy-funny. For Moore, coming after his star-maker movie Blake Edwards’ Ten, where he played a part that George Segal had passed on, it was as good as it would get.

In the later 80s, Dudley the 5’2’ Beyond the Fringe quartet composer/member, and Peter Cook’s teammate in the intoxicating Stanley Donen Faustian comedy Bedazzled (my favorite of all his pictures), carved out a movie niche as an elfin pre-Woody Allen romantic comedy lead, in other less successful “Cuddly Dudley” screwball wannabes like Unfaithfully Yours and Lovesick. Both those roles were inherited from Peter Sellers after he died: the same Sellers who played one of the great comic drunk scenes of all time, woozily facing James Mason at the ping pong table, in the opening minutes of Lolita. )

But Arthur was Moore’s film peak. (Gordon’s too. He died the next year, at 42, never getting the chance to confirm or deny the promise of his first feature.) Moore played Arthur with a winning, offhand mix of weirdly childlike innocence and deliciously sly, self-kidding charm. In the new movie, it’s hard to accept the Brand Arthur as a hero of anything except kink. It’s even hard to find him a likable (or funny) funnyman, as he‘s been often before. He plays the role with an obnoxious nasal squeak of a voice that I got tired of almost as soon as I heard it.

Brand isn’t the only culprit. Lay a place in flubbo hell for DGA award-winning director Jason Winer and writer Peter Baynham (Borat and the famous Pot Noodle TV commercials), who, one hopes, didn‘t completely lead Brand astray. (Maybe he led them astray.) The whole movie is misguided: a reeling, staggering, massively unamusing botch of a remake, made by a lot of obviously talented people who were obviously dragged into the wrong bar.

The Brand Arthur manages to squeeze out an indifferent performance even from Helen Mirren as the new Hobson, now a nanny, not a butler, replacing Gielgud but without the lines that could have revived Gielgud’s acid Oscar-winning flair. It has an emptily zany turn from Greta Gerwig (Greenburg) as the whimsy-laden romantic lead Naomi (the Liza role), now a self-employed tour guide conducting rogue tours. It has empty villainy from Jennifer Garner as Susan, the rich and nasty bride picked by Arthur’s mom Vivienne (Geraldine James) to marry and give him cover. And it has empty rancor from Nick Nolte as Susan’s scowling, ill-tempered Dad. (Who can blame him?)

Meanwhile, Luis Guzman kills time as Arthur’s manservant Bitterman (surely a role inspired by John Hillerman), a morose majordomo who plays the entire film as if he had stomach trouble. Who can blame him?

After the sheer lousiness or mediocrity of so many Hollywood romantic comedies, it’s depressing to see the memory of a good old one go blotto, in the hands of a lot of talented people. Why did this happen? Where is there a romantic comedy touch today anything like Lubitsch’s? Or Wilder’s? Woody Allen some time again, maybe? Jason Reitman? Judd Apatow? Alexander Payne? (My own nominee, but why can’t he work more?)

Winer’s TV series Modern Family, won him his DGA directing award. Did he enjoy himself following the Brand Arthur into its sea of boozy miscalculation, would-be witticisms and horny excess? Couldn’t he at least gotten Brand not to squeak? Some of the crucial attributes of good, or great comedy, include mastery of tone, and the ability to second-guess the audience, to keep surprising and delighting them. The new Arthur has none of that, though the old one certainly did.

Late in the film, the Brand Arthur even decides to hedge its bets and give us a temperance lecture, to add a scene where Arthur disrupts an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and to play it not as something comic or dramatic, but as a demonstration, I guess, of what not to do at A.A. meetings. The preachments pall. The Brand Arthur’s politics often seem that somewhat dull movie variant: the correctly incorrect. The Moore Arthur, at least had the dignity of its own debauchery. In the end, I do think the new Arthur could have worked, whether the time was right or not. It‘s not bad timing. It’s just a bad film.

The Lincoln Lawyer (Three Stars)
U.S.: Brad Furman, 2011

Los Angeles as the city on wheels — as a supreme car community, with a highly mobile and highly motorized citizenry — gets the lawyer that it probably deserves in Matthew McConaughey’s Mick Haller, star mouthpiece of director Brad Furman‘s classy, okay neo-noir The Lincoln Lawyer. Haller, the best part McConaughey has had in quite a while, and in the best movie he’s had recently as well, is a cynical, smartly dressed defense attorney with a fashion-model profile and a gift of gab, whose only office is a swanky chauffeur-driven black Lincoln Continental, with a roomy back seat where he prepares cases, as his streetwise driver Earl (Laurence Mason), rushes him from one courtroom to another.

Most of his clients are probably guilty, something that doesn’t bother Haller overly much — perhaps since his ex-wife Maggie McPherson (Marisa Tomei) is a sharp prosecuting attorney, who evens up the odds. And none seem guiltier than Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a narcissistic, bad-tempered Beverly Hills playboy, with a very tolerant socialite mother (Frances Fisher). Roulet is a spoiled psycho who’s been accused of assault and attempted rape, by a victim whom he may well have terrorized and battered.

But there’s another of Louis’ possible victims capable of throwing even more of a worry or a scruple into the tough-hided Haller, and that’s the dead woman for whose murder another Haller client (Michael Pena) now rots in jail. Meanwhile, as Mick‘s shaggy best buddy, p. i. Frank (William H. Macy), tries to dig up the facts, and Earl tries to keep his boss/rider on schedule, Haller spars with bail bondsman Val Valenzuela (John Leguizamo) and prosecutor Ted Minton (Josh Lucas) and a bevy of tough-talking cops.

That’s the kicker — the moral quandary, and what it does to you to keep defending the probably guilty and maybe the truly heinous (and perhaps even putting them on the street to commit heinous atrocities again) — that animates novelist (and ex-L. A. Times crime reporter) Michael Connelly’s story. It‘s been sharply adapted by John Romano, and very sharply and atmospherically directed by Furman (The Take), and it keeps posing the kind of moral questions that were common in the classic noirs of Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Thompson or Higgins, but aren’t always as satisfactorily handled in today’s movies and TV shows, just as moral questions can be pretty well ignored in real life today by psychopaths, their lawyers, and, of course, by politicians.

It’s a tough story, hard-nosed and audience-savvy: a neo-noir in settings both glamorous and salty, and a movie that gives you a tingling shot of L. A. style, plus a very good cast having a lot of fun playing deeper-than-usual roles that suggest real, or at least interesting, people. Especially McConaughey. He’s been good at courtroom thrillers before, especially in the Grisham-based 1995 A Time to Kill, but Mick Haller, based on a real-life lawyer Connelly met at a Dodgers game, is a character you could stand seeing a few more times, in a few more neo-noirs.

Promised Lands (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S./France: Susan Sontag, 1974 (Kimstim/Zeitgeist)

Novelist, critic and occasional filmmaker Susan Sontag’s documentary about philosphical and cultural tensions and conflicts in Israel, was shot there at the end and aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. The film, banned in Israel, is intellectual, provocative, Godardian and very ’70s. Much of Promised Lands consists of views of the land and people, without narration, along with long interviews with two controversial Israeli figures, writer Yorum Kaniuk and physicist Yuval Ne-eman, speaking for the  Palestinians (Kaniuk) and against Arab anti-Semitism (Ne-eman).

Though more common in Europe (where Andre Malraux, Curzio Malaparte, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras all wrote and directed films), it’s not often that a respected American writer/intellectual like Sontag got behind the camera on a feature movie. (Norman Mailer was one of the few other U. S. exceptions.) The results are intriguing and still relevant;  Stanley Kauffman called Promised Lands “Hegelian,” and Sontag said it was her most personal film. (In English, Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Booklet with Susan Sontag’s Vogue essay on Promised Lands, and a note by Ed Halter; Poster art. 

Vera Cruz (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Robert Aldrich, 1954  (MGM/ 20th Century Fox)

This Gary CooperBurt Lancaster Western by Robert Aldrich looks a lot like Leone, whose classic Spaghetti Westerns, especially The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, may have been strongly infuenced by it. The setting is a scorching pre-Peckinpah Mexico (“Bloody Sam” may have taken Vera Cruz as a model too, especially for parts of The Wild Bunch.)   Cooper is Southern Civil War veteran Ben Trane, a mercenary with principles, and Lancaster is Joe Erin, a black-clad mercenary without any — but with the widest, most sharkish, most voracious grin this side of Alfonso Bedoya.  The two stars join forces to transport gold and a beautiful countess (Denise Darcel) to Maximilian; the Juaristas are around to tug at Coop’s conscience. Also around dispensing villainy or love interest: Ernest Borgnine, Cesar Romero, George Macready, Charles Bronson and Sarita Montiel.

It’s another Borden Chase-style good-and-bad-buddy/antagonist quest Western, like Bend of the River — though Chase only wrote the story here. (James Webb and Roland Kibbee collaborated on the script.) Vera Cruz, a big 1954 hit was directed with lots of patented Aldrich punch. It helped establish Aldrich’s big-time Hollywood career, and it also helped establish him strongly with the auteurist critics in France, along with 1954’s Apache (also with Lancaster), 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly (see recent review) and The Big Knife, and 1956’s Attack! and Autumn Leaves. Arguably, Aldrich was never better than he was during that great three-year-run — except of course for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Dirty Dozen. (I’d add Ulzana’s Raid too.)

Vera Cruz, like Apache, was a Hecht-Lancaster production, made by Lancaster’s film company. James Hill, the duo’s later third partner, is the pr0ducer here — and the next year they all teamed up with Paddy Chayefsky and Vera Cruz villain Borgnine to make the 1955 best picture Oscar-winner Marty.

Lancaster makes a great villain himself, as he also would as J. J. Hunsecker in the quintessential Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production, Sweet Smell of Success. But it’s most fascinating to see Cooper, four years after his quintessential good-lonely-marshal  “Coop” role in High Noon, inhabiting this morally dangerous Aldrichesque, Leone-esque world, rubbing noses with this particularly wild bunch, and even displaying some seemingly Un-Cooperesque traits of cynicism and lust. And you’ll never, never forget that last Cooper-Lancaster showdown and Burt’s final gun-twirl and grin.

By the way, almost a decade later, in 1963, Aldrich and Leone teamed up for the biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah, where Leone was Aldrich’s assistant director. I wonder if the director spun any Vera Cruz yarns between takes.

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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

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