MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Two Mules for Sister Sara; Of Human Bondage; Jack the Giant Slayer

Two Mules for Sister Sara (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Don Siegel, 1970 (Ais)

Clint Eastwood as a gunslinger and arms guy in revolutionary Mexico gives a ride to Shirley MacLaine, who’s playing a whore disguised as a nun—which he doesn’t realize until later on. Ace action director Don Siegel and two of my favorite movie  actors have a lot of fun with this oddball light-hearted, well-done show that suggests the John Huston-Deborah Kerr-Robert Mitchum nun-soldier adventure-romance Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison somehow plopped into Leone Land. The scriptwriters include another Western-action ace, Budd Boetticher and Hollywood Ten blacklist victim Albert Maltz. The hot, gorgeous cinematography is by the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa—Luis Buñuel’s longtime collaborator.

Speaking of hot and gorgeous, that’s an apt description of MacLaine, even in her habit. And the movie hs a classic comedy-love-near death scene: Clint, drunk, getting a bullet in his body explosively extracted by Shirley.

Extras; None.

OF HUMAN BONDAGE (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: John Cromwell, 1934 (Kino)

RKO’s 1934 Of Human Bondage is an important part of film history  for several reasons. It’s director John Cromwell’s faithful, intelligent (if severely shortened) adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s best-selling and much-admired semi-autobiographical novel about the sad early life of  a sensitive and idealistic London medical student named Philip Carey, who falls ruinously in love with a pretty, yet selfish and sadistic waitress named Mildred. The movie is a classic — not just because it’s a fine version of a powerful novel with a very moving lead performance by Leslie Howard in the Maugham-ish role of Philip– but because it’s the movie that made a star of the acrtess who played Mildred, 26-year-old Bette Davis.

Bette  — then just a young feisty Warner Brothers contract player — arrived, after this movie, as a first-rank Hollywood leading lady and stayed to become an inarguable Hollywood immortal. She was a superstar and a top-level actress with a potent personality and great range, one of the few who could evolve in a very long career through so many changes — from bad girl to glamour queen to Oscar goddess to character queen to thriller-movie gargoyle to revered elderly legend — and yet never become boring, or sacrifice her audience’s sympathy. Not even when she reared back in the 1949  Beyond the Forest, assumed a saucy, frosty stance, swept the house with a contemptuous gaze and snorted “What a Dump!“ — which became also  the famous opening line in  Edward Albee‘s great scorching play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“What a dump.” At times that seems Bette’s indictment of the whole overblown, trash-happy Hollywood system that she battled for decades (especially when she was the discontent, dissident queen of the Warners lot), fought to get better roles, a better shake, better movies. She had to fight. She did fight. Always. After a flotilla of early ‘30s potboilers, in which she and other gifted but ill-used Warners contract players like Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson (if she was lucky) would bat and fast-talk each other around, she became an acting star in another studio‘s movie: This movie, as sullen, slutty  Mildred in  Maugham’s  unsparing portrait of his most unhappy love affair. (In real life, reportedly, “Mildred” was a sullen, slutty boy.)

Opposite the incredible Ms. Davis, Howard plays Philip with that mix of impeccable good breeding and humanity that made him a favorite of the ladies onscreen and off. And Bette plays Mildred as a conniving bitch who puts him, and herself, through pungently emotional hell. She plays the part with a fearlessness and  a lack of vanity, an absolute sense of herself, and Mildred, and of the kind of dark unprivileged urban milieu  Mildred exemplifies. It’s an unforgettable performance, and so is Howard’s and the movie is unforgettable and deeply affecting largely because of them. The rest of Human Bondage’s unusually  fine cast –guided by Cromwell, a real actors director — includes Frances Dee, Reginald Denny, Kay Johnson, Alan Hale aand Regimald Owen.

Mildred was also the role for which Bette was denied a well-deserved Oscar. But it was also probably responsible for the undeserved Oscar she got next year in 1935 for the bad girl potboiler Dangerous. Bondage was remade  and Mildred was played twice more in Hollywood features: by Eleanor Parker in 1946, and by Kim Novak in 1964. Neither perfromance is much remembered today, except as more proof that Mildred was a part that Bette Davis owned, in the movie that began and also confirmed her legend.

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ACK THE GIANT SLAYER  (Also Blu-ray/DVD/UV Digital Copy Combo Pack) (Also 3D) (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Bryan Singer, 2013 (New Line Home Video)

T

Zillions of dollars  have been spent on Jack the Giant Slayer — a new Bryan Singer-directed version of the oft-told fairy-tale about a boy and his beanstalk — in order to make it the most fantastically spectacular and expensively outlandish version of Jack and the Beanstalk you could possibly imagine: a Jack and the Beanstalk with all the scope and none of the sense of  a classic war epic like “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” (“For Whom the Beans Sprout?”)

That money has bought a lot of towering castles, awesome mountain scenery, jaw-dropping effects, star character actors keeping a straight face (the best of them are Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy and Ian McShane), and lots of maniacally elaborate special effects — of which the most maniacal are the movie’s CGI-engendered giants (CGIants, we should maybe call them). It’s all designed as a kind of a fairytale Die Hard, and in a way it is.

. But, in the end,  the whole thing often doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. (Sorry.) Jack and the Giant Slayer has some entertaining stuff — stunning scenery, action, costumes and castles — and occasionally even some good writing or acting. But what all that money ( reportedly somewhere around $190 million),  hasn’t bought is an idea worth having or a  script worth filming. The story is shallow and predictable  — even though four writers, including  Christopher McQuarrie of The Usual Suspects, and  David Dobkin of Wedding Crashers — labored over it.

The story, which you’ve heard before, is treated with an odd respect, as if it were “Beowulf “ or “Le Morte d‘Arthur.” It begins with Jack catching sight of  a beautiful princess and defending her from boors, then trading his white horse for some beans, which are dropped to the ground, sprout and send up that humungous beanstalk, whooshing up to the sky and, past the clouds, to  Giant Land (or Gantua), a vast mountainous landscape filled with great stone heads spitting out waterfalls, and huge, slovenly, heavy-muscled, tooth-challenged giants.

Since the stalk took the princess up to Gantua, her disturbed father, King Brahmwell (McShane) sends some knights — and Jack — on an expedition to bring her back: and the troupe includes the good knight Elmont (McGregor), the bad smarmy knight  Roderick (Tucci), our boy Jack and some hapless carriers. Soon good guys are battling bad guys, expendable cast members are hurtling to their deaths, a magical crown is passing from hand to hand, the Giants are getting set to wage war and gobble the losers, and the beanstalk may come crashing down any moment on the Castle of Cloister.

 

The movie’s budget does give us a hellishly exciting movie spectacle. But it doesn’t give us a hero and heroine  who are interesting, at least here, for any other reasons than their extraordinary good looks, and the fact that they were hired as the leads for a movie that cost $190 million. The two leads are plucky farmhand and bean-counter Jack, as played by Nicholas Hoult and adventurous Princess Isabelle,  as played by Eleanor Tomlinson. They  look good. But their emotions are minimal, even when the whole kingdom is crashing down around them or when the scary giant team of Gen. Fallon and Gen. Fallon’s Small Head (voiced by Bill Nighy, with the extra head supplied by John Kissir), show up to look ugly and bite off human body parts like bon bons, or when more beanstalks start shooting up to the clouds.

In the midst of all this fabulously expensive brouhaha, one watches these two perfectly nice youngsters making moony eyes at each other and the camera, and gamely clambering up the enormous, twisty-stalked, green beanstalk, and one feels sorry for them. What a drag it must be to have movie star looks, but not to have dialogue worthy of a star to say. The beanstalk has better lines than these two.

There’s more to this movie than my smart-assery suggests. It is physically beautiful, thanks to Singer, as well as cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and production designer Gavin Boquet, and thanks also, I guess, to that 190 million dollars. Every once in a while McGregor or Tucci or McShane remind you how good they can be. But it’s difficult to watch Jack, the Giant Slayer without noting the absurdity of making a 190 million dollar show based on Jack and the Beanstalk. Of course this show could use more humor — but in a way the movie is a joke itself: a Shaggy Giant Joke.

Extras: Featurettes; Gag reel; Deleted scene. 

 

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