..Gary Dretzka
..Noah Forrest
..Leonard Klady
..David Poland
..Douglas Pratt
..Ray Pride
..Kim Voynar
..Michael Wilmington

August 29, 2008
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July 25, 2008
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I Served the King of England
plus reviews of Bangkok Dangerous, Transsiberian
and The Unknown Woman

Plus Quick Hits On This Week's DVDs

..MCN Critics Roundup
..MCN Review Vault

I Served the King of England 4 Stars
Czech Republic, Jiri Menzel, 2006

Jiri Menzel, the nonpareil Czech director-writer-actor who won the foreign language film Oscar for his first feature, 1966's Closely Watched Trains, is, like the Orson Welles of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, a filmmaker who began his career with great good fortune and extraordinary achievement only to experience later hardship and opposition. Menzel's hassles with the Czech Communist government were not as severe as Welles' hamstring by the Hollywood establishment, but, after the U.S.S.R. invasion of Prague in 1968, they have often hampered and blighted at least part of his 43-year career.

Yet with his new film, the brilliant and deliciously witty I Served the King of England, Menzel has returned once more to the high terrain of his youth and his triumphs during the legendary Czech New Wave -- and to the work of the late, great collaborator, novelist Bohumil Hrabal, who also gave him the wondrous gift of the whimsical and compassionate novel he fashioned into the film of Closely Watched Trains

I Served the King of England, based on another later Hrabal novel is a colorful, scrumptious feast of a movie -- hilarious and sad by turns -- which shows both Menzel and his major literary inspirer in top form. It's about the irresistible rise of a plucky but somewhat amoral young provincial waiter named Jan Dite to the top of the hotel and restaurant business in Czechoslovakia before and during World War 2 -- followed by his calamitous fall after the postwar Communist takeover.

This movie -- funny/sad, blithe and tragic -- is a masterpiece of shifting moods, transporting us exhilaratingly through its dizzying backdrop of elegant Art Nouveau hotels, busy brothels and threadbare pubs. Along the way, aided by a superb cast and excellent technical comrades, Menzel takes King of England all the way from the giddy effervescent comedy of a Charlie Chaplin or an Ernst Lubitsch, to the darker vision of an Ingmar Bergman and the radiant humanism of a Jean Renoir. It's a nearly perfect film, I think, and one that deserves even higher praise than the fulsome applause critics have been heaping on it.

Menzel, now 70 (68 when he made King of England) has a great light comic touch and a flawless eye also for the pain that can lie beneath life's joys and humors. In Jan, he -- along with Hrabal and the actors -- has created a genuinely Chaplinesque figure, a capering opportunist endowed with light-footed grace and nimble deviltry. Jan is played as a young man by the boyish blond Ivan Barnev and in old age by the quieter, wearier, gray-haired Oldrich Kaiser. And his story is told in flashback as the older Jan, released near the end of a 15-year postwar prison sentence is relocated to an abandoned pub in the Sudetenland, where he meets a beguiling young woman, Marcela working nearby with a professor (Milan Lasica). This roguish-eyed looker helps trigger his memories and we begin to follow his earlier career as a natural genius at both service and seduction -- a sprightly dancer of a waiter, who, in his cherub-faced youth, can whirl his way though any dining room, pirouetting deftly with trays of treats and gleaming wine glasses.

Also a master at oral sex and subtle brown-nosing, Jan ingratiates himself with almost everybody (or at least the right bodies), winning woman after woman, becoming protégé to the affluent and powerful, and eventually making it as the star pupil of the tall, elegant, matchless maitre de, Skrivanek (deftly and profoundly played by Martin Huba), a monarch among waiters who proudly boasts I served the King of England!

Jan serves other lords as well. Through most of the later stages of his improbable ascent, he avoids problems with the then-burgeoning Nazi threat and the final German invasion through his own naively apolitical nature and with the help of his staunchly Nazi Sudetenland German wife Liza (Julia Jentsch) -- a devoted helpmate so entranced with the Fuehrer, that she stares longingly at a painting of Adolf even while making love with Jan.

Politics though, can't be avoided forever -- which is also the theme, of course, of Trains. When Jan achieves his dream of becoming a millionaire hotel owner, the Communist takeover and his life's latter, darker chapters, are just around the corner.

Barnev has the perfect face and form -- and talent -- for Jan. He's a tiny man with glowing features that shine with both wariness and amusement and with Jan's most valuable attribute; a gift for pleasing. The older Jan, Kaiser has some of that glow as well, but we can tell that he's been chastened, burnt-out, aged, and we know that the final meaning of his recollections -- which include bombings, deaths, tragic falls and a stint as nurse in a Nazi breeding factory, his old Nouveau Art ex-hotel now brimming with nude women and sporting soldiers -- has not been lost on him.

Like Chaplin with The Great Dictator and Lubitsch with To Be or Not to Be, Menzel, in his wonderful King of England makes a powerfully humanist, anti-fascist (and anti-Communist) statement without ever losing any of his film's silky grace or buoyant humor. The movie, reminiscent also of Menzel's other early comedies, Capricious Summer and the long banned Larks on a String (also from a Hrabal novel) -- is absolutely gorgeous as well, as ripe-looking as fresh fruit on a silver tray, in a world happily aflame with color.

Watching this ephemeral domain of pleasure and its dancing elfin little waiter who becomes entangled in the chains of history and politics, you can't help but think a bit of the elfin young Menzel (who starred in Trains) as well: of his sudden world wide success with the now-legendary Czech New Wave along with compatriots Milos Forman, Ivan Passer and Vera Chytilova, of his decision to stay in Czechoslovakia after the Russian invasion and resulting artistic clamp-down, and of the ups and downs of his career since then.

I Served the King of England, which Menzel prepared for more than ten years, is definitely a high point-- perhaps his highest to date -- and also one of the year's best movies. It's a luscious banquet of life, love and tragicomedy, served with impish grace, a soupcon of sadness and a dash of Chaplinesque delight.


Bangkok Dangerous Two stars
U.S.; Danny and Oxide Pang

The Pang brothers’ Hollywood remake of their 2001 Thai hit man hit thriller -- also called Bangkok Dangerous -- is a gaudy, grim, ultra-violent neo-noir that’s pretty hard to watch or enjoy, despite the presence of Nic Cage as American assassin Joe. In the movie, Joe is a taciturn, hardcase killer, given to fits of morose narration, who comes to Bangkok to fulfill four contracts for a pudgy local crime boss (Nirattisai Kaljarjek), but shows his soft spots by falling in love with a sweet, deaf pharmacist named Fon (Charlie Young) while starting to act as a mentor to his hip Thai assistant Kong (Shahkrit Yarmnarm, who’s very good). That's a real switch: Kong is a patsy who would normally be scheduled for a rubout when the job is over.

The original Bangkok Dangerous had a real feeling of danger, mixed with its schmaltzy romance, but the remake feels mostly dour and dispirited; it misses the mark with schmaltz and carnage alike. It’s a remarkably uncoupling, gloomy-looking show. Cage has been ridiculed for his messy hairdo here in some reviews, but the problem isn’t hairdressing, but the scenario (by the Pangs, with Jason Richman of Swing Vote).

There’s little sense to much of what Joe does here, after he falls for both Fon and Kong, and scant explanation of why he’s become so emotionally vulnerable and rash. Why would a killer as hitherto cautious as Joe get himself into gun chases in the canal before hundreds of witnesses, unless he was determined to outdo Popeye Doyle in The French Connection? Why would he do almost anything we see here, unless he was determined to turn his life into an action movie and a Hong Kong bloodbath? Technically, the Pangs are slicksters, but they’ve wasted Cage, and they need much better scripts.

Talking about better scripts, Bangkok Dangerous, in a negative way, reminded me of my favorite hit man novel, and the book that lies behind this movie and many another existential hit man thriller, from Blast of Silence to Le Samourai and The Killer: Graham Greene’s great This Gun for Hire.

Source of the 1942 Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake-Frank Tuttle movie, and a book that for many decades has been crying out for a remake itself, This Gun for Hire is the annihilating story of Raven, the killer with the twisted lip (a perfect Tim Roth role), who falls in love with “the Yard man’s girl” and goes after his ex-employers when they double-deal him. The ‘42 version, which did boast Laird Cregar in his best part, is otherwise way over-rated. This Gun for Hire (a better title than Greene’s English A Gun for Sale) has never been filmed properly -- though James Cagney, as director, took a whack at it in 1957 as Short Cut to Hell -- and it’s obviously a masterpiece waiting to happen. (Possibly too many movie people, told of the property, screen the ’42 movie instead of reading Greene, which is a big mistake.)

Any smart ambitious producers out there? Read this book, get the rights if they‘re available, hire a top screenwriter and director (this next is important) who love the material, cast Roth as Raven and maybe Kate Beckinsale as the girl, back them up with actors, known or not, of the Ben Kingsley-Michael Caine-Bob Hoskins caliber, and you‘ll have a classic. I promise.

Maybe then, when filmmakers like the Pangs knock this material off, they’ll at least be copying better literary sources.

Transsiberian Three and a half stars
U.S.; Brad Anderson

It starts like a modern, hip version of The Lady Vanishes and then turns into a grim, violent contemporary psychological thriller about innocent Americana (laid-back Woody Harrelson and nervous Emily Mortimer) trapped in Siberia, caught between drug runners on the run (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara) and vicious Russian cops on their trail (including Ben Kingsley in another of his terrific modern noir roles). I liked this. Though the ending goes a bit over the top, Transsiberian mostly stays gripping and exciting throughout -- besides giving you an exotic ride through the wintry landscapes of a northern realm that can turn into a hell on earth.

Perhaps that's because Brad Anderson, like Hitchcock before him, is adept at romantic comedy as well as icy-fingered suspense. And he has a top-notch cast. Noriega is a splendidly ambivalent and charming villain as Carlos, the fugitive crook hiding a satchel of loot who ingratiates himself with the generous-hearted Roy (Harrelson) as well as the more suspicious Jessie (Mortimer). Mara is fine as Abby, his hard-to-read girlfriend and Kingsley and Kretschmann are even scarier heavies as Grinko and Kolzak, the ruthless cops a train stop or two behind them all.

Anderson nicely exploits all the sexual/social tensions among the youthful quartet, who meet on the Transsiberian Express, before springing his story's traps and bringing on the fierce Kretschmann (the good German of Polanski's The Pianist) and the seemingly less brutal, more thoughtful Grinko

Evocatively shot by Xavi Gimenez, this movie feels cold and dangerous as you watch it, and it also has finely characterized heroes, villains and victims, as well as some genuine surprises. It's a thriller with brains and a heart and I don't think you'll forget soon Noriega's mock-playful seductions, or the expression on Mortimer's face when she realizes what he's up to -- or on Kingsley's, when he makes his final, fateful choice.

The Unknown Woman Three stars
Italy; Giuseppe Tornatore

Another exotic thriller, a baroque and bloody modern noir about a woman with a past (played by the remarkable Kseniya Rappoport), made in an extremely flashy style -- with a fantastic Ennio Morricone score throbbing behind it -- by the writer-director of Cinema Paradiso, here making a successful foray into Mario Bava-Dario Argento territory. The movie is about an ex-Ukrainian whore who winds up in Rome after bashing and knifing her brutal pimp and stealing his money. Fleeing to Italy, she seeks refuge with a bourgeois family (for reasons we don't entirely guess), bonds with the young daughter and then has to face the sudden violent appearance of the pimp's torpedoes.

This is really baroque neo-noir crime-horror stuff and Rappoport gives an incredible performance. She rivets our attention despite the fact that she often keeps her emotions masked behind a tense, terrified surface, and she maintains sympathy despite some astonishingly vicious and amoral behavior herself. The movie takes the old film noir style to extremes and Morricone works and frays your nerves the way Bernard Herrmann always could. (It's a shame Hitchcock didn't find him for his last few non-Herrmann thrillers, especially Frenzy. And though over the top certainly also describes much of what we see in The Unknown Woman, we should probably forgive Tornatore -- just as many of us do Bava and Argento. After all, it's only a movie.

Picks of the Week


Transformers Three stars
U.S.; Michael Bay, 2007 (DreamWorks Home Entertainment)

The Autobots vs. The Deceptions! The Hoover Dam mystery revealed! The famous Hasbro toys, inspirer of Transformers: the Movie, with Orson Welles, here are turned by CGI magic into extraterrestrial robot monsters and saviors battling it out before a frenzied group of U.S. officials and cops (Jon Voight, John Turturro) and frenetic teens (Shia LaBeouf and the aptly named Megan Fox) whose Chevy Camaro has suddenly come alive. Even if you don't like this kind of movie -- teen boy high-tech adventures wired to the max -- I think you'll have to agree that Michael Bay makes them about as well as anyone but Spielberg (an executive producer here). There's also a tongue-in-cheek jollity to the movie that makes the digitized action scenes crazy fun. And La Beouf is a perfect actor-reactor for all this nonsense; I wish I'd seen him here before that dopey Rear Window knockoff Disturbia. He makes this insane story come alive about as well as a teen star possibly could. Extras: Commentary by Bay, featurettes.


Chris Marker: The Last Bolshevik/
Alexander Medvedkin: Happiness
Four stars
France; Chris Marker, 1993/Russia; Alexander Medvedkin, 1934 (Icarus/Arte)

One of the most important and thoroughly enjoyable DVD releases of the year: a double disc of Medvedkin's great silent comedy "Happiness," which makes merry among the Russian peasantry as farms are collectivized, and Marker's great documentary on Medvedkin, which exposes the reality of the farms and the Stalin era, a period to which Medvedkin, sadly, resigned himself. Here is an unforgettable portrait of a true film artist in the throes of bureaucracy, two films which are genuine revelations and superb works of art. Bravo! "Happiness" is silent, with English intertitles and a music score, and "The Last Bolshevik" is in Russian, French and English, with English subtitles. Extras: Reconstructions of Medvedkin's early silent shorts, an interview and monologue with Medvedkin, and a deleted segment on Medvedkin and Dziga-Vertov
War Requiem Four stars
U.K.; Derek Jarman, 1992 (Kino)

A treasure for both film buffs and classical music lovers: Britten's 1961 anti-war musical masterpiece, inspired by the works of WWI poet (and casualty) Wilfred Owen, with Britten conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, and peerless singers Peter Pears (Britten's longtime musical companion) and Dietrich Fischer-Deskau, accompanied by Ken Russell-ish dramatic cinema imagery from Jarman, played by a superlative cast that includes Jarman regular Tilda Swinton, Sean Bean, Nathaniel Parker (as Owen) and, in his final film appearance, as the Old Soldier, Laurence Olivier.

It's as devastating a performance of the Britten Requiem as you an imagine. Jarman, a gutsy aesthete-rebel, was never` afraid to bring full-blown art to the screen and though it's not necessarily typical of him, this is my favorite of all his films. Bravo! Extras: Trailer, still gallery.


Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection Three and a half stars
U.S.; Various directors, 1953-68 (Warner)

The best era of the movie western to date (I never give up on it) was in the '50s and '60s -- when John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Raoul Walsh were still very active and Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood were on the rise.

While these six color oaters, all "super-westerns" in aficionado Andre Bazin's definition, aren't masterpieces, I enjoyed them all mightily. They show exactly why westerns were such a bread-and-butter genre for so long -- and why they should come back more often to us. Mann may be the only great director here, and his Cimarron, sadly, may be an epic that falls apart in the last half -- but John Sturges proves again that he's been underrated by auteurists (for both his westerns and noirs), Robert Mulligan shows his usual feeling and lyricism in the Alvin Sargent-scripted suspense western The Stalking Moon and Roy Rowland (The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) and ex-Ford assistant Parrish (working with a Rod Serling script and a young John Cassavetes as villain) make decent forays into the form.
Robert Taylor, the star of three of these movies, establishes himself as a good sub-Cooper hero and it's also fun to watch William Holden, Glenn Ford and Gregory Peck, heroines Eleanor Parker (twice). Julie London and Eva Marie Saint and prime heavies Richard Widmark, Cassavetes, and Charles McGraw. This is a highly entertaining set.

Included: Escape from Fort Bravo (John Sturges, 1953) Three and a half stars. With William Holden, Eleanor Parker, John Forsythe and William Demarest. Many Rivers to Cross (Roy Rowland, 1955) Three stars. With Robert Taylor, Parker and Victor McLaglen. The Law and Jake Wade (John Sturges, 1958) Three stars. With Taylor, Widmark and Henry Silva. Saddle the Wind (Robert Parrish, 1958) Three stars. With Taylor, Cassavetes, London and Donald Crisp. Cimarron (Anthony Mann, 1960) Three stars. With Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Russ Tamblyn, Arthur O'Connell. The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan, 1968) Three and a half stars. With Peck, Saint and Robert Forster. 

- Michael Wilmington
September 4, 2008

August 15: Tropic Thunder, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Henry Poole is Here, and Lola Montes
August 8: Pineapple Express, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Hell Ride, and Brideshead Revisited
August 1: The Mummy 3, Swing Vote, Step Brothers, and X-Files
July 25: A Superhero Summer, American Teen and CSNY Deja Vu

July 17: The Dark Knight, Space Chimps, Mamma Mia!, Encounters At The End Of The World
July 10: Hellboy II: The Goilden Army ,Journey to the Center of the Earth, Kit Kittredge, Wanted, The Wackness, The Heartbeat Indicator, Monsieur Verdoux
July 3: Hancock, The Mother of Tears

June 26:
June 19:
Get Smart, The Love Guru, The Duchess of Langeais, Glass: A Portrait of Phillip in Twelve Parts, Up The Yangtze, The Passion of The Mao
June 12 : The Incredible Hulk,War Inc., Shotgun Stories, It Always Rains on Sundays
June 5 : Kung Fu Panda, You Don't Mess With The Zohan, Mongol, 'Tis Autumn, At The Death House Door
May 29: Sex & The City, The Strangers, Irina Palm, The Fall
May 22: Indiana Jones 4, Postal, Contempt
May 15: Prince Caspian, How The Garcia Girls Spent Their Vacation, DVD: Indiana Jones Collection
May 8: Speed Racer , Redbelt, What Happens In Vegas
May 1:
Iron Man, Son Of Rambow, Flight of The Red Balloon
April 24:
Tuya's Marriage, Chapter 27
April 17:
My Blueberry Nights
April 10: Shine A Light, Plus Young @ Heart, Smart People, and The Forbidden Kingdom


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