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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest: Captain America: The First Avenger, Dziga and His Brothers, The Killer is Loose, The Song of Songs,This is the Night

“Captain America: The First Avenger” (Two Stars)

U.S.: Joe Johnston, 2011

I don’t mean to be a grouch, but Captain America — stalwart crime and monster-buster of  the  new Marvel epic Captain America: The First Avenger — struck me as one of the duller superheroes I’ve seen recently. That’s despite one of the more amazing special effects onscreen transformations in quite a while — from 90 pound weakling Army rejectee Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) to ultra-muscular Nazi-battling titan Captain America (Evans also). And it’s also despite one of the niftier production design jobs to surround that superhero: a dazzlingly nostalgic recreation of the latter World War II era, on the home front and overseas, as you might experience it if you were living in a 3D comic book with an Art Deco artist delineating, TMC on the TV channel and Swing Era LPs playing in the background.

Why is Cap dull? (To me, at least.) Well, Evans, I think, plays him too straight, in the second part. The first is a little better. As the 90 (or 98) pound weakling, the perfect candidate for one of those old Charles Atlas “before and after” muscle-building comic book ads, Evans is more appealing — a persistent but consistent 4F flunker who can’t get the Amy to sign him up to fight Hitler and fascism, which he desperately wants.

That Steve is concocted partly from technological magic: Evans’ talking head has been CGIed onto a tinier actor’s body, and when Steve is scientifically morphed into the torso of Captain America, thanks to the scientific experiments of refugee scientist Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), we’re actually seeing Evans’ real head on Evans’ real body (which looks a little fake, maybe thanks to over-buffing for the role).

But, where the movie’s skinny Steve is sympathetic because he yearns to be a hero (and has the right stuff inside), the movie’s muscled-up Steve is a disappointment. He looks like an old Arrow Shirt ad, and he acts like one too. As David Edelstein notes, there’s no sense of the inner delight that Steve might feel upon inhabiting this new body he always wanted and experiencing the heroism he always dreamed about. Instead, he acts as if he’s always super-heroed it up like this. 

I guess you could argue that it’s a case of the body finally matching the man inside, but it seems weird that he’s so blasé about it all. The second Steve has little sass or offbeat notes or depth, which allows the movie to be consistently stolen by the lovable scientist Abe (Tucci), the Nazier-than-Nazi villain Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), Red Skull’s assistant Peter Lorre-ish maniac Dr. Zola (Toby Jones) and Captain A’s droll, sour, constantly exasperated commanding officer, Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, who keeps throwing Don Rickles bombs at the hero and maybe at the movie). Or the splendiferous Hayley Atwell as romantic interest Peggy Carter, a hubba-hubba-hubba cutie who roots for either Steve and looks as if she’d just stepped out of a Milton Caniff comic panel. (Hugo Weaving, by the way, after he rips off his Johann Schmidt face and reveals the Red Skull face beneath, looks a bit like some weird cross between political guru James Carville and a steamed lobster.)

As for Captain American in his full costume, which dates apparently from his first 1941 Marvel appearance courtesy of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, well, he’s your standard red-white and blue masked commando, with the usual Vibranium shield which seems as versatile a tool as a Swiss Army knife. (“A simpleton with a shield” and “an arrogant American” is Red Skull‘s contemptuous dismissal of his gaudily dressed foe.) And though Captain America doesn’t look like an Arrow Shirt ad, or anything from Abercrombie and Fitch, he‘s a little dull too, even when he’s jumping over fiery abysses, destroying secret underground war lairs, hopping on the roofs of speeding mountain trains, or battling and heaving out heavies while climbing aboard a super plane in mid air. (Captain America’s or Steve’s most exciting action scene is a chase through good old Brooklyn.)

The movie is set in 1945, in the last gasps of World War II, and briefly in the present, for a prelude and coda. Thanks (or no thanks) to screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia movies and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers), and along with director Joe Johnston (the visual whiz of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, October Sky, and, more relevant to this assignment, the 1991 nostalgia-fest The Rocketeer), we follow Steve from his earlier attempts to join the Army; to his successful Captain Americanization; to his disappointing interlude as a star bond drive attraction (surrounded by high-kicking red white and blue chorus girls, who look as if they were waiting for Betty Grable or Alice Faye); to the European War Theatre and his ultimate destiny as a costumed superhero with a band of brothers wreaking havoc on Schmidt’s maniacs, the Hydra. (Since Red Skull thinks Hitler is too soft, the Hydra legions salute each other with “Hail Hydra” instead of “Heil Hitler” — though it sounded to me like Hail Hite-ler. Or maybe Heil Hynkel.)

Finally Captain America gets the ultimate superhero gig: He shows up in another of those teaser ads for the upcoming superhero supergroup convention The Avengers, after what seems an endless — and I do mean endless — credit crawl. (Don’t walk out during that endlessness, or you’ll miss the Avengers teaser.)

Captain America has been treated kindly by most critics — very kindly I thought — so you may conclude that I‘m just being an elitist snob carper nitpicker. After all, how can a movie be “dull” when, for our entertainment, people spend upwards of 140 million dollars to bring back World War II, find a new head villain, and nearly destroy the East Coast of America. What the hell do they have to do: bring on a Black Hole and destroy the universe? (Please. Don’t encourage them.)

How can it be dull when they hire so many good expensive actors and put them on so many good expensive sets? Or when they allow director Johnston and cinematographer Shelly Johnson and production designer Rick Heinrichs to work ru wild on the visuals? How can it be dull when the moviemakers let Tommy Lee Jones insult their own superhero and everything else for two hours? (Jones is a magna cum laude Yale English graduate and former all-conference football player on one of Yale‘s all time best teams, so he’s probably earned the right to grouse.)

I watched this movie twice, once in 3D and once in 2D. (I liked the 2D version better.) So I think I gave it a fair shot. Maybe I just watch too many of these things. (Or maybe there are too many of these things.) Maybe I‘m getting Marveled out. It’s a possibility.

I also realize that Captain America: The First Avenger is the kind of movie that’s often described in reviews, a little defensively, as a “popcorn movie.” But I‘m not sure exactly what that means. Does watching Captain America bring on an irresistible urge to eat popcorn and sip Diet Cokes? Does popcorn, buttered or un, suddenly taste better when munched lustily while watching the likes of Captain America?

Actually, I’ve eaten more popcorn than I’d like to confess to, though I usually prefer hot dogs or M&M peanut candy. And I prefer the first Iron Man and The Dark Knight or any Spiderman to this. But I wouldn’t call Captain America: the First Avenger a hot dog movie — even if I were trying to be Tommy Lee Jones. Extras: featurettes.

Mikhail Kaufman photographs himself in his brother Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera

Dziga and His Brothers (Two and a Half Stars)

Russia: Yevgeni Tsymbal, 2002 (The Milestone Cinematheque)

The Kaufman Brothers: Denis, Mikhail and Boris. They were born in Bialystock, Poland, “the most Jewish town in Poland” said some. They moved to Russia or France. Their mother died in the Holocaust. They each led a remarkable life.

 They were also the most brilliant of cinematic brother acts, “perhaps the most talented brothers in the history of cinema,” says director Yevgeni Tsymbal at the end of his documentary about the Kaufman Brothers. And, after you watch this short but highly informative documentary, you will find it hard to argue.

Older brother Denis (or David), moved from Poland to Russia, changed his name to Dziga Vertov (or “Spinning Top” Vertov), and became one of the most influential radical no- fiction filmmakers of the 20th Century, revered by subsequent generations for his vibrant experimentation and revolutionary art in classics like The Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Kino Eye  (1924) and Three Songs about Lenin (1934).

Mikhail (or Moisey) was his brother Dziga’s main collaborator, both his star and his cameraman on The Man with a Movie Camera. Later, after the brothers had a falling out, Mikhail on his own became an even more prolific, and more lyrical filmmaker — before succumbing, like Vertov, to the strictures, dictates  and harsh political censorship of the Stalinist era.  Mikhail’s films include the poetic In Springtime.   

Boris left Russia for Fance, where he met an extraordinary young French filmmaker named Jean Vigo, and shot three of Vigos films, all now classics, all visual masterpieces: A propos de Nice (1930), Zero de Conduite (1931) and L’Atalante (1934). (See the review on Criterion’s “The Complete Jean Vigo.”) After Vigo’s premature death at 29, Kaufman worked more in France, then fled the Nazis and eventually ended up in Hollywood, where he became an Oscar-winner for the lyrical realism of his black and white cinematography in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, and went on to photograph many more films for Kazan, for Sidney Lumet and for others (including 12 Angry Men, Baby Doll, Samuel Beckett’s Film, The Pawnbroker,  and Long Day’s Journey Into Night).

 He was one of the leading cinematographers in both Hollywood and independent American film in the ’50s and ’60s, but his career was hindered by the belief among some executives that he wasnt as good with color as he was with monochrome. (I have one answer for that: Boris Kaufman is  the man who shot Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass.)

Their gifts were magnificent, their achievements incredible; yet their lives were full of sadness and reversal. Dziga died a recluse and a pariah. Mikhail was a broken man. Boris lost his pre-eminence in an industry that should have felt honored to have him. They survive because of their films, their images, their mastery of cinema. This film, Dziga and his Brothers, devoted to them, could have been better, longer. But it’s full of love for a subject that well deserves it. (Dziga and his Brothers is made on demand by Milestone. Browse www.milestonefilms.com.

 

The Killer is Loose (Three Stars)

U.S.: Budd Boetticher, 1956 (MGM Limited Edition Collection)

      Budd Boetticher, who didn’t direct nearly as many films as he should have, made a lot of them in the ’50s. And in 1956, he directed  both a classic Western (Seven Men from Now, the best of all his Randolph Scott movies) and this neglected semi-classic low budget noir, The Killer is Loose, in which Joseph Cotten plays a dedicated if disgruntled L. A. cop, Rhonda Fleming is his unwisely fesirty wife, Alan Hale and John Larch are fellow fuzz, and, very memorably,  Wendell Corey is the escaped bank robber who blames Cotten (correctly) for the death of his wife during his arrest, and wants revenge.

Corey, who has another great noir role as John Hodiak’s right hand crook in the 1947 Desert Fury, was always a dependable if often unexciting sidekick and secondary guy in the ’40s and ’50s. But he gives an astonishing performance here as the psychotic vengeance -seeker — playing the character not as the usual cold-blooded, relentless Lee Marvin or Jack Palance type, but as someone you’d probably trust: a polite, preoccupied, considerate, somewhat clumsy, nice-enough-acting doofus of a guy, not at all maniacal or dangerous-appearing — but seemingly unstoppable, as he breaks jail and keeps moving inexorably in a variety of personae, toward Cotten and Fleming and their home in the suburbs, killing everyone in his way. Corey’s loose killer and his last disguise, which, in some ways, anticipates Norman Bates in Psycho, are both absurd and scary as hell.

 The movie, like a lot of  Boetticher, is immaculately well exsecuted, and lustily entertaining,  the work of an extraordinary, under-appreciated genre-bending talent. By the way, Lee Marvin had one of his all-time best heavy roles in Boetticher’s above-mentioned gem Seven Men from Now — though in that movie it was hero Scott who was the relentless  pursuer, out to avenge his wife. The cinematographer in The Killer is Loose, an ace at both Westerns and noirs, was Boetticher’s good friend and great collaborator Lucien Ballard — who shot this movie the same year he lit Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. No extras. This movie made on demand by MGM.

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 Pre-Code Double Feature: The Song of Songs and This is the Night (Two Discs) (Three Stars)

U.S.: Rouben Mamoulian/Frank Tuttle, 1933/1932 (TCM Vault Collection/Universal)

Two movies from the heyday of Paramount, made before the Production Code got teeth.  To the pre-Code crusaders, they looked dirty and corrupt; to us, they simply seem more adult about sex and more sophisticated about romance. More fun, too.

Includes: The Songs of Songs (U.S.: Rouben Mamoulian, 1933) Three Stars.  Marlene Dietrich, at Paramount’s behest, broke away from her visually brilliant mentor Josef Von Sterbnberg in 1933, and she missed him. But she was lucky in her (temporary) replacement director , the visually flashy and urbanely theatrical Rouben Mamoulian, the maker of Applause, City Streets  and the Fredric March Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and then almost as prestigious a helmer as von Sternberg.

In 1932, Mamoulian  had directed a brilliant imitation Ernst Lubitsch pastiche, Love Me Tonight, and he did almost as well patiching Sternberg in Song of Songs, which was adapted, by writers Leo Birinski and Samuel Hoffenstein  from a novel by Hermann Sudermann. It’s suave but melodramatic stuff. Dietrich is the ravishing Lily, seduced by an amorous artist (Brian Aherne), who sculpts her and leaves her — driving her into the eager arms of the local sophisticated and randy baron (Lionel Atwill, of course), who offers her money and marriage for love and fails with all of them.

The movie has that Paramount-Pre-Code sheen and perverse psychology that reached genius in Sternberg’s hands  and poked at it in here, in Mamoulian’s, but Dietrich is stunningly beautiful even without her mentor. (“Where’s Jo?” she’s said to have called out, on the Sternbergless Song of Songs set.)  And the movie is pretty unfettered. Not only does Lily pose in the nude (for Aherne), and have sex (with multiple partners, in and out of wedlock), but she says rude things about morality and religion.

 I find the ending of Song of Songs as silly as anything in the post-Code era, but the movie and Dietrich, are lookers. Mamoulian made this the same year he immortalized that other great ’30s Hollywood European beauty and superstar, Greta Garbo in Queen Christina. And Dietrich found Jo again, in The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil is a Woman (1935) no less.

 

 Also: This is the Night (U.S.: Frank Tuttle, 1932). Two and a Half Stars. Imitation Lubitsch, this time not by Mamoulian but by musical and crime specialist (and McCarthy era name-namer) Frank Tuttle (Doctor Rhythm, This Gun for Hire). Fairly entertaining, but hard to swallow, it’s a comedy about infidelity in which Groucho Marx’s wayward blonde darling Thelma Todd  cheats on her husband Cary Grant with that dashing rake Roland Young, better known as the Uriah Heep of the Selznick David Copperfield. (I told you it was hard to buy.) Young, with the aid of his fellow womanizing friend Charlie Ruggles (a Lubitsch stalwart),  then tries to befuddle Grant further, by engaging a phony charmer (Lili Damita) to masquerade as Young’s wife on an excursion to Venice, where everybody (except Thelma, and sadly, Groucho) acts very urbane and silly and chases Lili.

This is the Night notches a major Hollywood landmark: the first screen appearance of Cary Grant. But how long would Cary’s career have lasted if he had continued being cast as a foolish husband being cuckolded by Roland Young? Grant and Young did join forces soon again (along with Constance Bennett), as ghostly George (and Marian) Kirby and flustered Cosmo Topper in the 1937 Paramount  minor comedy classic Topper.

But, in any case, it gives you pause to think of director Tuttle engaging in Communist subversion while making this movie, which feels, and looks, more like capitalist subversion, or at least Venetian subversion — and could use a little (Groucho) Marxian subversion to goose it up.  As for the engaging and sexy Lili Damita, she put her career into second gear when she married, a few years later,  a Hollywood star who was no stranger to pre-Code violations — Errol Flynn.

Extras: Ben Mankiewicz introductions to both movies; Stills, lobby card and poster galleries; Historical article.

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Wilmington

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“The important thing is: what makes the audience interested in it? Of course, I don’t take on any roles that don’t interest me, or where I can’t find anything for myself in it. But I don’t like talking about that. If you go into a restaurant and you have been served an exquisite meal, you don’t need to know how the chef felt, or when he chose the vegetables on the market. I always feel a little like I would pull the rug out from under myself if I were to I speak about the background of my work. My explanations would come into conflict with the reason a movie is made in the first place — for the experience of the audience — and that, I would not want.
~  Christoph Waltz

This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.