Three and a Half Stars
U.S.: Bennett Miller, 2014
When a movie comedian goes dramatic, the results can be devastating—as Steve Carell proves again in Foxcatcher.
Remember Alec Guinness as stiff-upper-lipped Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai? Or the late, great Robin Williams as the unorthodox teacher in The Dead Poets Society? That special gift that a top comic actor usually possesses in abundance — knowing how to hit the audience’s funny bone, how to make sport of all the flaws, foibles and vulnerable humanity of their roles – can be invaluable when or if a movie starts turning those laughs inside out. An expert movie comedy actor — a Chaplin, a Peter Sellers, a Takeshi Kitano, a Woody Allen, a Bill Murray, or the Steve Carell of The 40-Year Old Virgin and of TV’s “The Office” — can convey the dark side as well as the lighter ones, play successfully for trauma and tears as well as for laughter.
That’s what happens in director Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, a dark, mostly unfunny film in which Carell plays John du Pont of the Pennsylvania du Ponts. It’s a plum role. John was an obsessed wrestling hobbyist and Olympic sports fan, and the somewhat demented scion of the fabulously wealthy du Pont family (of Du Pont chemical industries) — a man who became intensely and dangerously entangled with two highly gifted wrestler-brothers and Olympic athletes from the Midwest, Dave and Mark Schultz (played memorably by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum).
The Schultzes were crack athletes and top-of-the-list wrestlers, and both of them were Olympic gold medal winners in 1984. Du Pont was not an athlete at all, though he was obviously infatuated with wrestlers and wrestling — especially the Schultz Brothers. But John fancied himself a “coach,” and he used his bountiful money to become a benefactor of the Olympics and the Schultzes, and to lure Mark (and eventually Dave) to his posh Pennsylvania farm, called Foxcatcher. There, in his private state-of-the-art wrestling compound and gymnasium, he flattered the Schultz boys, wrestled with them, bossed them around, and (first Mark, then both of them) got them to move in to Foxcatcher with him — to spearhead a wrestling team and train and work out for the upcoming 1988 Seoul, South Korea Olympics, supposedly under his “tutelage.”
That’s the role that erstwhile funny man Carell is playing, and playing very well — as are Ruffalo and Tatum with their parts. Foxcatcher, one of the most fascinating and unsettling of all sports movies, probes the psychology of these three as deftly and effectively as it reproduces the routines and regimen of wrestling itself. Miller and his actors — and his script writers (E. Max Frye and Daniel Futterman, who wrote Miller’s Capote) — get under the skins of these real-life characters, and under our skins as well.
In Moneyball, Bennett Miller showed how effectively he could make a realistic, psychologically and socially rich sports picture, and he showed in Capote — which won an Oscar for the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman — how good he is at charting obsessions and revealing eccentric protagonists, or in providing the right kind of arena for smart actors like Tatum, Ruffalo and Carell. All three of them, to cop a cliché, nail their parts, but du Pont is the plum role — a man so self-deceiving, so obviously in love with Mark, and so obviously shattered by his inability to control the younger, more attractive guy (or to be the father figure Mark’s older brother Dave is), that we can see his psyche crumbling before our eyes.
John tries. And he gets part of what he wants, almost. He flatters Mark, plays at being a coach, delivers clichéd “inspirational” speeches that seem to have been cribbed from Reader‘s Digest, and even slaps Mark around like an angry papa. By indulging in his Olympic fantasies, he’d like to break free of the domination (and the bad opinion) of his formidable, wheelchair-bound mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave, superb as usual), who detests wrestling and lavishes her own affection on the thoroughbred horses in her stables. And he does, almost. He’d also like the Schultz brothers to be his “sons,“ to be under his thumb — something that John almost accomplishes at first with Mark (who is dazzled at his first sight of Foxcatcher, and the world of wealth and privilege to which he‘s brought from scrappy, small town Wisconsin), but that he never can manage with the savvier, more self-confident Dave. Watching all this are du Pont’s loyal employees Jack (Anthony Michael Hall) and Henry Beck (Guy Boyd), and later, Dave‘s wife Nancy (Sienna Miller). All of them we suspect, can guess what’s going on, but are powerless to try to stop the approaching emotional train wreck.
Nobody (at least nobody that we see) interferes with du Pont, or tries to counsel him on the foolishness, derangement and the destructiveness of his behavior (which includes a cocaine habit) — probably because du Pont, the princeling of the long-lived chemical and gunpowder company, has too much money and power to mess with. He’s almost impregnable. Carell, with great subtlety, paints the kinks of this spoiled rich kid and athletic wannabe, lost in his homoerotic fantasy of comrades-in-sport (and so socially awkward that his mother had to pay for his boyhood playmate), and shows how and why he can’t get what he wants — and why, when he can‘t, he cracks.
Steve Carell is a master of playing uptight, or sexually repressed, or self-deceiving characters. Here he plays a man so uptight and so repressed, and so filled with inchoate longing and twisted, tormenting sexuality that, bad as his behavior is, you almost can’t help feeling a little sorry for him. Almost. Carell plays du Pont also as a creepy rich bully, an awkward man faking athleticism, a strangely distant faker, masquerading as a fairy godfather – with a dry gray face and a dry gray voice and a wary, infatuated stare that envelops his victims in a dry, gray, phony-fatherly embrace. As he peers up through the swamp of his self-delusion, John’s eyes have a deadpan humorless intensity that almost makes your spine prickle. So besotted is Carell’s du Pont with his sense of entitlement and with the spurious role of sports daddy that he‘s assigned himself (unforgettably, in a slanted sports documentary, starring himself and Mark, that he commissions and watches at a crucial point), that, toward the climax of the movie and of the end of du Pont’s peculiar road, he seems to be disintegrating, crumbling into dry gray ash.
The film Foxcatcher sometimes has a dry, gray, sunless look about it too — even though cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designed Jess Gonchor deliberately bring in richer colors and a more sensuous palette when Mark flies from Wisconsin to Foxcatcher. But it’s packed with thoughtful writing and good acting. Carell is excellent, and if he gets the Oscar Best Actor nomination some pundits are predicting for him, he’ll have richly deserved it. Tatum and Ruffalo are excellent too. They’ve obviously worked hard to master the wrestling moves and routines that the parts require and the air of expertise that both the Schultzes had. (The real-life Dave was inducted later in the wrestling hall of fame). They’ve also mastered their human qualities and the special relationship between them — and between both of them and their would-be mentor/tormentor.
Carell’s du Pont may be lost in his own little world, his painstakingly constructed fantasy role of the benevolent fatherly coach of Foxcatcher, but Tatum‘s Mark, with his hunky shambling gait and James Dean-ish mixed-up-kid stares, is lost in another world too — in the fantasies of acceptance and validation that du Pont and Foxcatcher seem to be offering him. And Dave, the most level-headed and straight-thinking and sensible of the trio somehow can’t elude du Pont either — and the edge that du Pont’s riches and social position confer, and the catastrophe awaiting them. As all three of them grapple and hug and play and fight and wrestle with each other, in Foxcatcher’s plush environs, you can almost start to sink into those multiple fantasies too. Almost.
NIGHTCRAWLER (Three Stars)
U.S.: Dan Gilroy, 2014
I. Moonrise on Sunset (and Elsewhere)
Nightcrawler is a movie mostly about Los Angeles at night, mostly about the times when a lot of the city closes down and the streets go black, and freelance newshounds and videographers come crawling out of the dark corners and racing through the dark streets to take pictures of disaster and bloodshed and mayhem — which they peddle to the noisier TV channels and news programs: all those second or third tier (or less) stations whose (not always) unspoken motto is “If it bleeds, it leads.” It’s a good movie: tough, eloquent, very well-shot (by Robert Elswit)—a rousing little show that tries to tap the same sort of sleaze-scraping, unsparing vein as Ace in the Hole (about newspapers and sensationalistic journalism), Sweet Smell of Success (about newspaper gossip columnists) and A Face in the Crowd (about populist right-wing TV). A lot of the time, it succeeds. Sometimes sweetly, and sometimes with a spray of acid.
I wouldn’t say that Nightcrawler — which sounds like a horror movie title and, in a way, is one — is better that any of its models or even in their class. (It isn’t.) But it’s certainly better — better shot, better acted and definitely better-written — than most of the movies that purport to show us crime, action and modern life in a half way real, pseudo-contemporary urban milieu, The director/writer, Dan Gilroy, comes from a family of writers. He’s the son of Frank (“The Subject was Roses“) and the brother of Tony (Michael Clayton and the Bourne movies and one of this show’s producers). And he’s right in their family tradition. His movie is well-plotted and tightly structured and tensely done (thanks probably to another Gilroy, Dan’s twin brother and editor John). The dialogue is way better than average: smooth and confident and upfront and sometimes really nasty. It sounds like the racy, snappy, viper-tongued lingo of pros who know they’re stepping over the boundaries, and transgressing humanistic values and guess what, don’t care. This is what the public wants, they seem to be shrugging and saying, and damn it all, what you want you get — and what you get, you pay for.
The movie focuses on one character who‘s probably the nastiest of them all, a glib, tireless, super-nosy amateur video guy (though not amateur for long), who stumbles on this hard-boiled little world and metier of free-lance video-peddling, and starts parleying his chutzpah and recklessness and almost shocking lack of scruples to crawl, maul and claw his way to the top. His name is Louis Bloom, and he‘s played, with sass and bite and a sick little half-grin, by Jake Gyllenhaal. Is it just an accident that Lou’s character name is so reminiscent of Leopold Bloom, James Joyce‘s Dublin witness character in his great-day-in-the life novel “Ulysses“? (Modern movie kids will probably instead recall Gene Wilder’s Leo Bloom in The Producers.)
Gyllenhaal — whose best credits include Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain and Prisoners — plays his Bloom with so little seductive actor’s vanity and such shamelessness and venom, that you almost want to applaud the actor for taking us on such an anti-ego trip. His Leo is a night creeper with a pallid unhealthy persona, wide boyish glittering eyes, and a dead, creepy smile that makes him look a bit like a snake who came in from the cold. He speaks in what is almost pop-media code: lacing his come-ons and put-downs and hard-sells with a fast ooze of rapid deadpan patter and a twisted lexicon of snappy pop aphorisms that he’s scraped off of TV and the internet.
Lou has an almost religious lack of morals. When we first meet him, he‘s stealing scrap metal, assaulting a guard and then peddling his loot to a contemptuous scrap-dealer who brushes off Lou’s pitch for a steady job by asking why in Hell he should employ a thief. The movie asks — or has Lou ask for it — “Why the hell not?” In this world of sometimes heartless voyeurism and all-embracing greed, who the hell cares?
When Lou stumbles later on that little company of camera bugs scuttling around a bloody car-wreck, and talks to cynical, lore-dispensing old pro Joe Loder (Bill Paxton, spot on) he immediately decides to go out and grab a camera, and troll for some salable mayhem himself. Soon, he finds a buyer: a hard-bitten, sexily dressed TV news producer with a stripper’s name, Nina Romina, who has the hard-shell, glamorous veneer of a top-rate Madame just opening up a new bordello. Nina (played tangily by Rene Russo, Dan‘s wife) right away spots Bloom‘s energy and determination and perhaps his lack of scruples. They become a team. Not necessarily a sexual team — though Lou pitches for that piece of pie as well. But definitely the balls-out team that can push Nina‘s floundering station out of Ratings Hell and into minor league Fox News territory.
Lou has his own team too — consisting of himself at the wheel and his underpaid assistant and heavily exploited ex-homeless wingman, Rick (Riz Ahmed, very good) barking out the directions to the disaster. Soon enough they stumble on what every movie like this lusts for: The Big Story. Here, it’s a mass murder in a posh Beverly Hills-style house — which Lou gets about as up close and personal as you can possibly get without actually committing the murders yourself, copping footage that’s a tabloid-level news whore’s wet, wet dream.
III. Couldn’t Possibly Happen
That’s where Nightcrawler’s story speeds up and heads for pay-dirt, but also where it begins to get a little ridiculous — and, like Lou, goes too far. At the crime scene, Lou takes shots he shouldn’t be taking and withholds evidence and lies to the cops and slants the story in ways that would get him fired if he wasn’t working with people who have as much (or less) scruples than he does — and should get him fired or investigated anyway, but doesn’t. I’m not saying TV news is a kosher operation, But the movie doesn’t do a good job of explaining why Lou gets away with this, or why he thinks he can. After going along on the show’s program for quite a while, I have to say I didn’t much believe much of what happens in Nightcrawler from the debut of the Big Story on. But I forgave it, at least part of the way, because the show was so entertaining and the actors were so good. God knows most of the movies we see, especially the contemporary action/crime shows, don’t make much sense either. As for Lou: him you can forgive for being a pungently realized movie character taking us on a wild ride.
Modern TV news — and I’ve watched more of it than I should — certainly has its sleazy side, and Nightcrawler gets points for trying to uncover some of it. But Gilroy Dan seems to want to be Reginald Rose or Paddy Chayefsky or maybe (as many critics have opined), the Scorsese of Taxi Driver, and he’s not quite there. (For one thing, his script could use more characters and background.) Nightcrawler has stuff to commend. It looks good (Elswit deserves another kudo), sounds good (ditto Gilroy), plays good (ditto the actors, especially Gyllenhaal and Ahmed) and takes us somewhere interesting, even if some of us have been there before, or think we have.
It also demonstrates something that you wouldn’t think needed much proving, but apparently does, again: In creating a milieu like this — sharp and brutal and poisonous and, at least part of the way, true to life — you’re better off using good dialogue read by good actors than staging two or three pretty good, very expensive car-chases or gun battles, and hoping that enough critics, or enough of the audience, have crushes on the leads. (By the way, the big car-chase here, staged by stunt coordinator/second unit director Mike Smith, isn’t bad.)
Overall, Nightcrawler is good in the same way The Drop was good or that The Wolf of Wall Street was a good deal better than good. It makes us feel, at least part of the time, that we’re in a real place, with at least half-way real people doing at least half-way real things. And the fact that those half-way real things are so destructive and hard-hearted and brutal and insanely off the charts — and that they’re somewhat plausibly connected to at least some of the TV news trash some of us see every night — is what gives you the neo-noir shivers. Much more, at least, than the usual contemporary action movie whose ploy is having some high priced movie star (Liam or Keanu or Denzel or what have you ) walk down a street or into a room or onto a train or a warehouse with ten to twenty gunmen blazing away or flexing their muscles and attitude, and killing them all.
The conventional crime/action movie of today, like, say, John Wick, shows us something that couldn’t possibly happen, written by someone who has probably been nowhere near anything remotely similar, and whose imagination has probably been debauched by too many other movies that couldn’t possibly happen either. (I’m not saying, mind you, that there aren’t a lot of good or better than good movies that couldn’t happen or don‘t make sense.) Nightcrawler shows us something that probably couldn’t possibly happen either, but that maybe almost could. That “maybe almost could” is the big catch. What earned Nightcrawler all those good reviews, mine now included, is the unsettling fact that there’s a lot of people who may recognize themselves, or at least part of themselves, in Lou Bloom and his dirty odyssey and his brutality and his lack of scruple: as a modern guy just trying to get along in this rotten modern world — a viper with a camera who wants to come in from the cold, and who would sell his rattle and his poisonous front teeth for a key. It’s a world for snakes and whores and all kind of things that couldn‘t possibly happen (we think) . And I don’t exempt myself.
GONE GIRL (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: David Fincher, 2014
Murder and murder mysteries are sometimes a game. A game for two.
Nick and Amy Dunne, the unhappily married couple trapped at the dark heart of the classy new movie thriller Gone Girl, are a pretty/witty movie pair who lost their jobs in the New York City magazine world thanks to the recession and the Internet — and then lost New York City when Nick’s mother was stricken with cancer, and the couple wound up in Flyover country (Nick’s old home town of North Carthage, Missouri). There, things begin to disintegrate. Nick cares for his mom, and opens a bar with Amy’s trust fund money, and the two of them, despite all good intentions (including the ones that pave the road to Hell), have been sliding ever since inexorably into a no-exit swamp of small town alienation, funk, and disaffection.
Now — courtesy of the bone-chilling narrative skills of novelist-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (who wrote the original novel of “Gone Girl”) and filmmaker David Fincher (who directed the movie from Flynn’s script) — the Dunnes are about to make a double entry into a Hell marked “His” and “Hers” Amy disappears. And Nick will soon be the prime suspect in what may have been her murder.
Even if you’ve never read the book or seen the movie (which may well be the case), you probably think you sort of know what’s going to happen next. But you probably don’t. Gone Girl, which Flynn has cunningly imagined and craftily, stunningly wrote, and which Fincher has visualized with all the eerie expertise which usually marks his high-style crime movies (including Fight Club, Se7en, The Game, Zodiac, Panic Room, and even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), is, like many another thriller of its type, dependent on how far we’re willing to suspend disbelief. But, in the realms of bestseller-turned-moviedom, Gone Girl is a cut or two above and definitely better than most — full of not always guessable tricks and twists, told in a tense, taut, racy, mostly engrossing style and boasting a lot of tangy, sharply drawn characters, very well played by a very good cast.
True, the central plot — much more complex than most books of this type — falls apart when you examine it afterwards. But then so, in a way, do most of mystery queen Agatha Christie’s triple-reverse doozies, like “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd“ or “Crooked House” or “And Then There Were None,“ at least if you try to reconcile them with something like the real world. While we’re reading Flynn’s book, or Christie’s, or some other murder mystery puzzle-plotmeister‘s, we tend to accept all these whoppers and implausibilities (exactly what writers like Chandler and Hammett tried to rescue crime and mystery writing from) because we want to immerse ourselves, temporarily at least, in the self-contained mystery-story puzzle-plot worlds the author creates. We want to play with her/him the narrative games and follow the rules she or he sets up — which is pretty much what happens here. Flynn’s impressively convoluted plot, may not be too believable, but it doesn’t really have to be.
So, we start the ride on the morning of Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary, which they always celebrate with games and a treasure hunt, and Amy (played prettily and enigmatically by Rosamund Pike) is suddenly gone. And Nick (played with ambivalence and sharp skill by Ben Affleck) ruminates oddly about opening up his wife’s skull, and then reacts oddly to her disappearance, as if all the scenes he finds of a struggle, violence and possible abduction in their home were not the troubling tell-tales they seem to us. Eventually, he calls his best friend and twin sister Margo a.k.a. “Go” (played about as well as she could possibly be played by Carrie Coon), and he welcomes the police, represented by a keen-eyed, unbullable lady cop, Detective Rhonda Boney (played terrifically well by Kim Dickens) and her skeptical fellow officer Jim Gilpin (played discreetly by Patrick Fugit of the Cameron Crowe rock nostalgia classic Almost Famous).
Investigating the disappearance, these latter two keep unearthing clue after clue, most of which — almost all of which — point straight at Nick. The unemotional hubby, we soon see, is in big trouble. There are some messy complications and motive-suppliers, including part-time teacher Nick’s secret affair with his student-turned-mistress, the aptly-named small town doll Andie Hardy (Emily Ratajkowski); a self-confident sexpot with whom he has been sleeping for over a year. And there’s a big fat valuable life insurance policy payable on Amy’s death, or proof of death.
We get all this predominantly from Nick’s viewpoint, as his world crumbles around him. But, from the very beginning, the story is proceeding on two tracks: Hers — or what we learn from a diary that Amy wrote, dating back to their original courtship and describing how they met, wooed, and how the marriage fell apart. And His: telling the story from the present, beginning with Amy’s disappearance, and describing how Nick quickly becomes Suspect Number One and the tabloid demon hubby of the entertainment-crazed news media. Finally, the two tracks merge, and this tale of a messed-up marriage and a maybe murder races to its shocking climax.
And its even more shocking middle. Gone Girl’s now famous mid-novel switcheroo plunges us, at least for the rest of this review, into the limbo-land of Spoiler Alert. It doesn’t necessarily hurt to know what’s going to happen (as many of you now undoubtedly do). But for those who like to be tricked and teased and kerplopped into Shocksville as you watch a thriller, here‘s where you bail out. Happy landings.
II. Til’ Death Do Us Part, Dude
Now, as for me, I read the book before I saw the movie, so I knew all the film’s surprises before they happened. Yet I enjoyed the show anyway That’s largely due to all those sharply drawn characters and all those highly talented actors — and all the ways they become enmeshed in Flynn’s implausible but engrossing plot-web and Fincher‘s eye-catching cinematic horror-maze. It’s also due to the fact that this is, thanks to Fate and Flynn and David Fincher, a movie about and intended for adults, and not primarily targeted at wish-fulfilling teens and the big, largely Asian foreign audience. The fact that the movie comes from a successful, well-written novel (and one that’s been adapted by the novelist herself) helps the story keep its tight structure, as does the fact that Fincher respects his writer, Flynn, and doesn’t fool around over-much with her plot.
Anyway… That seeming dream couple Nick and Amy, as we learn from the two sides of the story, in truth have a horrible marriage and a horrific conjugation — yet why and what makes it a horror story aren’t all that obvious at first. As Nick’s nightmare grows, and as we keep getting Amy’s increasingly disturbing side of the story, we‘re torn giddily between the two. It’s hard not to feel sympathy of a sort for both of them at times, hard also not to be repelled by what has happened to them — the destruction of that champagne-fizzy rom-commy wooing and joking and coupling we see in Amy’s New York City diary scenes, and what happened, according to Amy (and what Nick confesses to), before the beginning of her vanishing, and Nick‘s nightmare.
Flynn juggles the dual perspective and the fractured chronology deftly, and Fincher keeps it all cold and focused and as sharp and smooth as ice on Scotch. One of the book‘s attractions — it’s also a kind of red herring — is the author’s amusingly cynical, inside look at the media world to which she used to belong. (Flynn was once an Entertainment Weekly critic/writer, until, like Amy and Nick — or, for that matter, me — she was found expendable.) Because she knows what’s going on in that world, and because she apparently doesn’t owe too many favors, the writer is able to spin a nasty, funny web to entrap Nick and then torment him — leaving him up shit creek with the lame-sounding explanation that Amy may have been kidnapped and/or killed by some old, vengeful boyfriend and that someone is framing him.
Soon, in Nick’s side of the story, Amy’s parents show up — Rand and MaryBeth Elliot (David Clennon and Lisa Banes), psychologist authors who used their daughter as the model for their amazingly popular “Amazing Amy” series of inspirational story-books for young girls and later, young adults. Also, helping or messing around in various ways, are nosy neighbor and Amy’s “best friend” Noelle (Casey Wilson), various media attackers or observers (Missi Pyle as TV’s Ellen Abbott, whom a lot of reviewers have compared to abrasive TV legal pundit Nancy Grace) or media pontificators (Sela Ward as the more Barbara Walters-ish Sharon Scheiber), and Taylor Bolt, a notorious defense lawyer, legendary for winning unwinnable cases (a part played brilliantly by, I swear to God, Tyler Perry.)
The smooth, cooler than cool, relentlessly savvy defense attorney Bolt, along with Margo, is probably the best-written role in both the book and the movie. And best played too. Perry, who often gets knocked by movie critics for the many showcase movies he writes, directs and stars in, is so good as this slick, knowing legal-gunslinger-for-hire — a part he plays to perfection — that this movie may have single-handedly rehabilitated his rep, at least among his usual non-constituency. Perry’s is not the only excellent performance in Gone Girl — Coon’s Margo and Dickens’ Detective Rhonda are almost as good and Affleck and Pike almost as good as them, and so is Lola Kirke as a raunchy motel pool gal and Scoot McNairy as a broken man from Amy‘s past. But Perry’s slick, shrewdly played turn is perhaps the most surprising and gratifying thing in the movie, especially if you only know him from a Madea dragfest or two.
The only major performance here that I couldn’t buy, in fact, was from the usually right-on Neil Patrick Harris, in the role of Amy‘s rich, mother-dominated, sexually fixated childhood beau, Desi Collings, a very unsympathetic if badly treated character (in the book), whom Harris, for some reason, has chosen to play at least partly (if not mostly) sympathetically. But it doesn’t work — at least for me. (He‘s culled some raves from other critics.) Desi, a creep and an obsessive chaser with a family bankroll behind him, is not the kind of guy movie audiences take a shine to, unless he’s played humorously, like Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train — an approach among several that the sometimes acidly funny Harris could certainly have used, and probably done very well.
Coon, as the good twin, and Dickens as the good cop, are probably the two most likable characters in the film, and both actresses are so good in these parts, that I think they together shoot down the suggestion from nay-sayers that both the movie and book are somehow anti-woman. Actually, Flynn has supplied her story with something in which most movies and most best-sellers are sadly deficient these days: a lot of well-written, well-played female characters, some sympathetic, some not, but most realized with psychological depth, smarts and sometimes salty wit.
The spur for those charges of misogyny — and the reason for that seemingly premature reader’s warning up above… (And are all you Spoiler Alert people, properly gone and honorably not reading this, or are a few of you still sneaking around, trying to pick up premature clues? For shame! Scoot!)…
SPOILER ALERT REPRISED (Again!!! We mean it.)
III. Vanishing Act
– as I was saying, the reasons for those misogyny indictments Fincher and Flynn have received, and the Spoiler Alert flag earlier on, is the fact, which we discover midway through, that Amy has not been killed by Nick, that she hasn’t in fact been killed at all, but that she’s staged everything, planted every anti-Nick clue including a phony pregnancy, faked the murder, composed a spurious diary, and that she’s now on the road, incognito and planning the ultimate coup de grace: a suicide that she will carefully disguise as a murder by Nick. All this is revealed about halfway through the story, when Amy’s Point-of-View segments stop being the faked diary and turn into a subjective narrative of what’s really happening to her. And maybe you needn’t worry overmuch if you ignored (twice!) those clearly marked Spoiler Alert signs I left up above, which you probably did. The industriously plotty Ms. Flynn has plenty more surprises left to spring after that, including an ending that may make susceptible males in her audience sort of queasy. (That’s probably part of why Flynn gives her book a fulsome, loving dedication to her husband.)
That double switcheroo at midpoint makes the roles of Nick and Amy, and the performances by Affleck and Pike, more complicated, and more admirably multi-layered, than they may first appear. They’re actually double roles, in which we see Amy as she is and as she’d like the world to perceive her, and Nick, who’s leading a double life of his own, as he is both really and not, and both of them as they are behind their masks or without them.
Affleck, a very solid actor, is very good here. He’s always been a classic likable leading man type, with a bracing touch of ego, and an actor who isn’t afraid — as Paul Newman wasn’t — to sacrifice some of that likeability and play part-bad or fallible characters. So we keep following Nick and not totally condemning him, somewhat, even when it appears, as it does for much of the first part of the story, that he’s both a cheater and a wife-killer, and when we know that he’s been lying to Amy, and the world, and Margo, and the police, and everybody.
Affleck very carefully doesn’t use his leading man boyishly bemused killer smile overmuch in Gone Girl. In fact, up until the scene where he’s hornswoggled into posing with a pushy, flirty media-troller (Kathleen Rose Perkins) for a “selfie” that will wind up in the tabloids, I can barely recall him smiling at all, even when he‘s courting Amy. (Of course, the New York Nick isn‘t Nick at all, but the “Nick“ Amy has created to lynch him.) Rather strangely, Nick isn’t shown, at least enough for me to remember, with any or many close male friends (though this may have been just the time for his old buddy Matt Damon to show up for a little cameo, perhaps as a sharp-talking bartender.) Instead, Taylor Bolt becomes something like Nick’s best buddy for the movie, or something close to it. Affleck makes that believable too, or somewhat believable:
What Nick is ultimately, is a smart, macho-looking guy, surrounded by women who are sometimes smarter or more macho than him — a somewhat talented but largely mediocre dude who has gotten by on his above-average brains and looks and isn’t really in his brainy wife’s league, except perhaps as a better, less maniacal person.
What Amy is is a monster. All those years of being the human model for a beloved storybook character, her parents’ “Amazing Amy,” mixed with her disappointment with Nick and her rage at his infidelity, have seemingly stripped the real live Amy (she thinks) of any obligation to be real, or humane, or truthful, or good, or to consider any of the people around her as anything but gulls or suckers or schnooks. She accepted Nick as the charming, smart, good-looking guy that he, not completely accurately, purported to be. Then — when she was betrayed by Nick (who latched on to another, younger version of the “cool girl” Amy pretended to be to hook him), and by her parents (who got into s financial fix, reneged and took back her trust fund), and by the bigwigs who screwed up the economy, killed their jobs, and sent them back to North Carthage — she fought back. Viciously. Horrendously.
Pike, a Britisher with an interesting resume ( The World’s End, An Education, the James Bond movie Die Another Day, and Jane in the more recent film of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), plays this scary, double-edged role with a gleaming, quiet, girlishness and opacity that keeps what she thinks mostly hidden. Pike’s Amy is like Tom Ripley in the films made from Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by directors Rene Clement and Anthony Minghella: a psychopath with many masks playing such a complex deadly game that no one (or actually, almost no one) can keep up with her. (Minghella’s Ripley, by the way, was played by Matt Damon.) Pike gives the movie everything that the role needs, and I hope she and her admirers won’t take it amiss if I say that, good as she was, I would have liked to see Amy Adams in the part. Actually, I’d like to see Amy Adams in almost any part, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
IV. I Love you, I Hate You, Get Out of My Life
David Fincher makes tense, often ingenious, finely crafted, extremely good-looking movies that are full of psychological kinks and quirks, and that unroll with the dark inevitability of a death sentence into the well-organized nightmares that often entrap his characters. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a highly personal director or an auteur (in the French sense), except that there are certain kinds of stories he likes to tell and he has some unmistakable stylistic signatures, such as his cool palette, his classical editing, his brilliant shock tactics and his propensity for tales of people on the edge, serial killers and media types.
He’s a director with highly-honed skills and real cinematic bravura and bravado, as he demonstrates best in his masterpiece Fight Club. But he can also tell someone else’s story in a workmanlike, highly professional, almost self-effacing way, as he does here. Gone Girl is not really among his best. (That would be Fight Club or Zodiac or The Social Network), or his worst (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I suppose, though I rather liked it — even though I read Steig Larsson’s book first, and then saw the Swedish movie, and so it too didn’t have one damned surprise left for me, except the fact that they cast Rooney Mara in the title role instead of Noomi Rapace.)
Anyway, he did a good, sometimes great job again, here. Movies are sometimes at their best, when they aren’t necessarily personal (for the director) but when they bring together a highly gifted ensemble under the hand of a highly talented filmmaker, and when everyone gives their best to a good, or better than good, piece of material, as John Huston or Sidney Lumet almost always did. Gone Girl is no masterpiece. But it’s a good movie, well done on almost every level, a good story well-told (even if it‘s implausible), a good damned nightmare enveloping you in fear and loathing and shredded nerves and chaos and the dark. It squeezes every drop of juice, or every drop of poison, out of its plot. It rocks, at least part of the time. It also has a message. Don’t be fooled by appearances — or disappearances. And remember your wife’s anniversary.
END OF SPOILER
THE SKELETON TWINS (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Craig Johnson, 2013
Many American plays and movies about families are horror stories of a sort. That’s true of some of the masters of the form, like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill—and it also goes somewhat for Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, in which Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, two brilliant comic actors taking a whirl at drama, play a pair of New York-born suburban twins, Milo and Maggie, who’ve been alienated for a decade (since their mid-‘20s) and are now drawn together by what was very nearly a double tragedy: near-simultaneous near-suicides of both because of unhappy love lives.
These two haven’t talked for ten years, and they live on opposite coasts — Milo is an actor (or would-be actor) in L. A., and Maggie is a dental assistant back in New York. But Milo’s near death (he slits his wrists, while the more skittish Maggie merely contemplates some sleeping pills), convinces his sister that they should try to rekindle what was once apparently a warm and loving and mutually supportive relationship. So Maggie and her amazingly tolerant and almost outrageously understanding husband Lance (Luke Wilson) bring the recuperating Milo back to his old home town, where, back in his teens, he triggered a local scandal, and caused the schism with his sister, by having a gay affair with his English teacher, Rich (Ty Burrell, of Modern Family).
You’d expect Milo to be grateful, or at least appreciative, for this gesture by Maggie and Lance of familial love and solidarity, But writer-director Johnson and his co-writer Mark Heyman have written Milo as partly a show-stopping comic part: a cute, bitchy, smarty-pants wise-cracker, whose first big routine involves making fun of the dead doggie in “Marley and Me.” Milo is also somewhat reckless sexually. When he comes home, the prodigal tries to hook up again with his old mentor-lover Rich the Teach (a fatherly type who gets thrown into a tizzy by the attempted reconnection). Milo also cheerfully acts to undermine and sabotage what seems to be the fairly simpatico relationship between his sis and her kind, good-natured hubby. Maggie has been cheating on the estimable but seemingly clueless Lance for years, and she’s currently, and guiltily, sneaking off with her studly scuba diving instructor, Billy (Boyd Holbrook), an aggressive Aussie who could be honestly described as a randy asshole.
The movie, which was a hit at Sundance, and has been a critical hit here, is about how, in the face of all these dramas and traumas and conflicts, Milo and Maggie realize how much they need each other — because they understand each other, because the read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences, because they have the same kind of sense and humor and the same danger-laden sexual venturesomeness — and, most importantly, because they can karaoke the living daylights out of (Jefferson) Starship’s 80’s anthem of fortitude and perspicacity, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” (If there’s any pressing need to see The Skeleton Twins, it’s to watch what Hader and Wiig do with this rousing number, the movie’s inarguable high point.)
Anyway, The Skeleton Twins, whatever its flaws, is a real actors’ show and it’s a pleasure to see actors as good as Wiig and Hader and Wilson and Burrell and the others enjoying themselves and their parts so much. But I’ve got to say that I think the movie, which has been pretty generally hailed as a ground-breaking drama-comedic triumph for Saturday Night Live vets and old pals Hader and Wiig, a triumph for Johnson, and one of the year’s best movies so far, is being overrated. The show’s script, which won Johnson and Heyman a Sundance Waldo Salt screenwriting award, is crisp and snappy and fairly humane. But it’s almost totally unsurprising — and occasionally over-preachy in a reverse-logic kind of way. If you can’t pretty much guess everything that’s going to happen in the first ten minutes of The Skeleton Twins,, then you’ve probably been reading too many books like “Marley and Me.”
This movie is a “you-and-me-against-the world-babe” sort of story, of the kind that began to be popular back in the early ‘60s — except that here the funny, alienated couple are brother and sister, and the brother is gay. And even though it’s not necessarily bad to give an audience what they expect and want, The Skeleton Twins is sometimes, like Milo, a little too smart-ass. In the beginning, Milo at times doesn’t act much, I thought, like someone who just tried to shuffle off a mortal coil or two. He acts like a cute, bitchy, smarty pants show-stopper — someone who’s far more clued in and in-the-groove than his laughably good-natured brother in law, his laughably new-agey mom (Joanna Gleason), his laughably promiscuous and secretive sister — and even such laughably so-called great American novelists as Herman Melville, who gets a wise-cracky going-over from Milo, when Milo’s laughably hero-worshipping ex-lover Rich, praises the author of “Moby Dick” to the skies (deservedly, I thought), while Milo (presumably with the screenwriters’ approval), blasts this great dark epic book and its wondrously gifted, gutsy author, for all its unnecessary whaling lore and technical data (exactly, by the way, what a cliché-friendly Hollywood executive would dislike) and bitch-slaps Herman Melville’s writing (in which some scholars have detected homoerotic elements) as “pretentious.”
Milo lost me at that point — and the movie lost me later on, when it matched its thoroughly implausible opening (the twin near-suicides), with an even more implausible climax: Maggie tries to kill herself, again, by hurling herself, with weights, into a seemingly deserted gym pool, only to be rescued, in the last second, by Milo, who comes racing in like Rin Tin Tin. Or maybe Marley.
END OF ALERT
Both Hader and Wiig have been hailed for displaying their usual high-level comedic specialties, but also for hitting the film’s darker, more dramatic elements. And, in many ways, they deserve the praise. But I would have been happier if Wiig had been given even more acting room by that script. I also would have been happier if The Skeleton Twins had been a fraction kinder to Joanna Gleason’s cliché-spouting mother Judy, or if Judy had been funnier, or if Lance hadn’t been dumped from the movie right after he learns the truth about Maggie. (Would this seemingly fairly smart guy really have been that incognizant all these years of her affairs?) And I would have been happier without that slam at Melville and “Moby Dick.” The movie is very compassionate toward the twins, but not always toward the people and world around them.
I’m being nasty, I guess. (But then why not? It pays.) The Skeleton Twins is no classic family dramady (though it would like to be one). But it’s better than more than a few of the movies we see these days, a fairly sparkly show with a very good cast and with big, warm, crowd-pleasing performances. As for Herman Melville, maybe I’m being too protective. After all, almost none of the audience who hears Milo trash one of the greatest American novelists – a major artist who spent most of his life as an outsider and an underpaid public servant, and deserves better than he gets from these (I suppose) high-living Hollywood cut-ups — will have read the book anyway. More of them will probably have read “Marley and Me.” And they certainly won’t be eager to pick up “Moby Dick” after hearing Milo’s tart dismissal.
Now, if Melville were a writer worthy of a Waldo Salt award, maybe he would have found a 19th century Gracie Slick and livened up Moby Dick by churning out something like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” — which might be a perfect number for Captain Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg and Starbuck, as they all chase the great white whale and karaoke down to Davy Jones‘ Locker. By the way, that’s Starbuck, Ahab’s second-in-command, not Starbuck the coffee-shop.
HONEYMOON (Two Stars)
U.S.: Leigh Janiak, 2013
Suppose you drove off for a romantic rendezvous in your parent’s isolated cabin in the woods, and the honeymoon quickly degenerated from an idyll into something…else. Suppose you went off together to be alone and wild and erotically indulgent and your lover began behaving like someone or something….else.
Suppose romance just started…dribbling away. Suppose the girl, Bea (Rose Leslie) began forgetting details of your lives and of the English vocabulary. Suppose mysterious bite marks turned up on her thighs, mysterious lights began flashing in the woods at night, mysterious notations popped up in her notebook and she developed a mysterious aversion to the lovemaking with Paul (Harry Treadaway) of which she earlier couldn’t get enough. Suppose bad-tempered acquaintances showed up in the woods, behaving like menacing mysterious weirdoes, while mysterious secretions and eruptions and objects began appearing on Bea’s thighs and orifices.
…And suppose you had the distinct impression that somehow you had stumbled into a cheapo, micro-budget version of the 1958 I Married a Monster from Outer Space., or of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with cut-rate pods and zombies. caught by a nervous camera, occasionally operated by the troubled lovers themselves…
END OF ALERT
Honeymoon, the first feature by promising director-writer Leigh Janiak milks more chills out of that nutty situation than you might have imagined. A devotee of highly atmospheric horror masters Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick, Ms. Janiak (and her co-writer, Phil Graziadei) try to combine the usual genre shocks and shivers, with a psychologically astute examination of the problems and perils of a young couple — two intelligent but perhaps too complacent people who may not know each other quite as well as they think.
The movie begins well, with fairly good dialogue and decent acting from its minuscule cast (four people, not counting lurkers in the woods). Costars Leslie (“Game of Thrones“) and Treadaway (“Penny Dreadful“) both have the usual sharp British acting technique, and they play their parts with more style than you expect and give us more depth than genre characters like this usually plumb. Janiak and her cinematographer (Kyle Klutz) don’t display anything like the visual panache of a Kubrick or a Polanski, but at least she’s chosen the right models. It’s not really a good movie, but it’s…promising. Hard-core horror aficionados will probably appreciate it more then I did.
Still, the movie has its moments: times when it almost feels as if the show is about to break the chains of horror movie cheapiedom and become…something else. Mysteriously, these moments usually…dribble away.
In any case, the first movie was better. Or it played better. Based on Miller’s “Sin City” graphic novels–which took the tricks and tropes of film noir (both the literary and cinematic varieties) to a point of stylistic near-meltdown — the movie was a shadowy, violent, blisteringly cynical comic book rock ‘n roll parody/melodrama hoot: an orgy of movie lust and celluloid violence and pulpy eloquence that was all about the crooks, thugs, lonely men, strippers, whores, men with guns or hotly pursued dames and femme fatales who hung out at Miller’s evil Neverland.
Miller and co-director (and cinematographer and editor) Robert Rodriguez interwove several two-fisted, hot pants, blood-drenched, cigarette-sucking, breast-ogling stories about Basin City, green-screened up a black and white city of night and a Chandler-Hammett-Spillane arena of massacres, and populated it with an all-star, all-noir cast that included Bruce Willis (the moody loner), Jessica Alba (the angel of the night), Clive Owen (the private dick), Rosario Dawson (an amazon whore), Powers Boothe (a corrupt politico), Elijah Wood (his freaky-deaky son), Michael Clarke Duncan (the black behemoth), and, most memorable of all, Mickey Rourke, as the tormented bone crusher and man of few words and many wounds Marv), and stirred it all into a rhapsody in paperback red. I liked it, some of it, and so did enough noir and pseudo-noir fans to make it a worldwide hit. There was supposed to be another one, fairly soon afterwards. But, you know, things happened. Things do.
Now, it’s finally here, minus Owen (replaced by Josh Brolin), minus Duncan (replaced by Dennis Haysbert), plus (definitely) Eva Green (as the often naked, mostly scintillating femme fatale of the piece), joined by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the reckless, self-destructive gambler) — plus or minus a number of others (Ray Liotta, Stacy Keach. Juno Temple, Lady Gaga, and Christophers Meloni and Lloyd). Perhaps the most damaging absence is that of “special guest director” Quentin Tarantino. Not that his sections were that much superior, but his presence often seems to validate the pulpiest pulp and the most hard-boiled trash.
The new movie is shot in the same feverishly artificial style (the monochrome noir-et-blanc imagery, erupting with pops of gold, red and blue), with images out of Kiss Me Deadly, crossed with The Wild Bunch, M, Point Blank, The Asphalt Jungle and Gun Crazy. But this time, it all seems less emotionally moving, somewhat more overwrought. Been there. Killed that.
The directors here, maybe knowingly, have opened themselves up to charges of misogyny, which many critics were happy to file. (I thought it was more a matter of misanthropy — with both sexes taking it in the groin). There really isn’t more than a few sane or half-decent characters in the movie, of whatever sex — maybe Willis as Hartigan is the exception, though he‘s already dead — and the stories (despite trying to repeat the first film’s mix of sadism and sentimentality), didn‘t zing the strings of my heart. Still, I’d rather watch this high style, hard-boiled, gutter-operatic new Sin City installment, than most of what passes for action cinema these days. (Miller is a better writer than most of his competitors, and he and Rodriguez are better visualists than most of theirs.)
They’ve whipped up several stories, unwinding together. Johnny (Gordon-Levitt) unwisely beats Senator Roark (Booth) at cards. Ava (Green) makes saps of a bunch of guys, including shamus Dwight (Brolin). Gail (Dawson) and the gals run wild. Life is cheap in Sin City, but the special effects cost millions — or at least an arm and a leg.
The movie, while entertaining, isn’t in the same category as genuine noir, or neo-noir — like, to rustle up a pantheon, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Detour, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past and The Killers — but it‘s made by people who know those movies and know why they‘re better than most of what we see in their place today.
Then again, maybe that’s not fair — though who said life, however black-and-white, was fair. Certainly not film noir. Certainly not Frank Miller. The problem with most big-budget movies these days — and that definitely includes most big-budget action movies (‘The Expendables’ series for starters) — is that, though they’re sometimes well-shot, they’re mostly not well-written or well-characterized or populated with anything much beyond walking clichés. (A recent good exception: Michael R. Roskam’s and Dennis Lehane’s Brooklyn nocturne, The Drop.)
These pictures rely mostly on the instant personality and the good looks of big stars to try to pull us into their clichéd plotlines. Miller is a better writer than most and Sin City 2 is better- written than most action or crime scripts. But it isn’t done with the voluptuous joy and craziness of the first Sin City. Instead, it drowns and pinwheels and explodes in excess, while trying to pass off all its clichés as archetypes. Miller and Rodriguez rely on a few showstopper performances — Eva Green all the time and Mickey Rourke part of it — to try to seduce us or bowl us over. But A Dame to Kill For wastes Gordon-Levitt and Dawson and some others, and it’s reduced to bringing Bruce Willis back from the dead. It’s difficult to remember most of it afterwards or, even worse, to want to remember it. By the way, “A Dame to Kill For” is a lousy title. “ Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is worse. The movie, which has its moments, deserves better.
Why? What went wrong? Was it because Quentin Tarantino (Q. T.) was A. W. O. L. — maybe planning a new New Beverly repertory schedule? Because the ultra-noir monochrome of the visuals was more startling and exciting back in 2005? Because a movie released in the George Bush era gets to be meaner and more out-of-bounds than one released in Barack Obama’s? Because Eva Green can’t flaunt every fantasy and save it all?
Whatever the reason…
You know, the thing about noir is that it started out cheap and easy: magazines (Black Mask) and paperback novels (“I Wake Up Screaming“) where dames were to kill for, and chumps were to kill and private eyes were there to sweep up the bones and ashes and the stuff that dreams are made of. Gradually, thanks to writers like Hammett and Chandler, McCoy and Himes, Thompson and Goodis, and filmmakers like Lang and Hawks, Walsh, Siodmak, Polanski and Huston – it all evolved into something richer and more complex and more unforgettably bleak and transfixing. Eventually, the best of the writers won themselves some slots in The Library of America, which they deserved, even as earlier a lot of them were smoking and drinking themselves into an early grave. Then came the movies and, eventually, Sin City..
This second Sin City isn’t as bad as some critics say, and it isn’t as good as some others may insist. They tried. It’s an expensive movie that probably would have been better if it were a little cheaper. And if Miller wrote as well as A. I. Bezzerides or Daniel Mainwaring. But life is cheap. Life is deadly. Life is something else. You reach out and feel its crisp black and white images crinkle and crumple and rip themselves to shreds in your hands. Listen. Death is a fucking joke in this movie. But it’s no joke in life (or so we think) — which leaves us with that crumpled page and that big movie screen and those exquisitely aligned shots of guns and breasts and that blood-red bang and pop-pop-pop.
Whatever the reason. Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is no movie to kill for. Or to die for,. Or whatever. But, face it, none of them are. Or very few. Not even if they have Eva Green on a green screen, making us all chumps. Not even if…
U.S./France, Lasse Hallstrom, 2014
Helen Mirren, of Great Britain is a great movie actress and Om Puri, of India, is a superb actor—and together, as they share the stage and the kitchens for their new film The Hundred-Foot Journey, they whip up quite a tasty dish: a lip-smacking love story and a culinary comedy treat. Mirren and Puri aren’t the sort of actors you’d immediately pick as the stars of a swooningly gorgeous movie love story — she‘s 69 and (here at least) somewhat maternal and haughty , he’s 63 and somewhat pock-faced, gray-haired and grandfatherly. And, in The Hundred-Foot Journey, they’re supposedly playing second fiddle, romance-wise, to a younger couple — Charlotte Le Bon and Manish Dayal — who are the show‘s “real” lovers. But Mirren and Puri are both peerless film players, with extraordinary resumes, and they both hold the screen here with that effortless grace, talent and expertise that signals the presence of true artists.
That expertise becomes the crucial ingredient in the recipe of Hundred-Foot Journey, which is a movie about artistry and cultural collision and how the former can overcome the latter. It’s a film that’s so lustrously visualized and shot (by director Lasse Hallstrom and cinematographer Linus Sandgren) that it looks almost dizzy with joy about the haute-bourgeois pleasures of fine cooking and dining. At its best, and prettiest, it’s infatuated with gastronomy and with the fine points of running a first-class, be-Michelined restaurant, while also turning out a pleasantly old-fashioned Hollywood fable about how a star chef can be born. I liked it, but I can understand the bile of the sometimes bad-tempered detractors who find this film superficial. It is superficial, but so are many other movies we enjoy.
Meanwhile, to be presented with this lusciously photographed celebration of the pleasures of the plate, with the five star actors Mirren and Puri (and with two attractive younger lovers, Dayal and Le Bon) is a dish we shouldn’t have to feel guilty about. I didn’t.
The picture is based on a novel by Richard C. Morais, with a script by the British thriller specialist Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, Locke). And the director, Hallstrom, is perhaps the right sort of guy to serve as the mediator here. Hallstrom is a Swede and a cineaste , but not of the Ingmar Bergman variety. He’s not a brooding, dark deep genius ready to take us on a journey into the long dark night of the soul. Nor is he a humanitarian adventurer like that other great Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell. Instead, he’s a filmmaker who likes to show us beautiful pictures (pretty but not dirty) of recognizable people enjoying themselves and working and playing their way though life. That’s been his specialty since his breakthrough Swedish language film, the wonderful My Life as a Dog (1985) – which still remains, I think, along with the American-made What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules, one of his three best works.
Instead of his fellow Swedes, Bergman and Troell, Hallstrom (an American émigré for decades), reminds me more of two warm-hearted big studio stylists: Hollywood’s Clarence Brown (The Yearling, Ah, Wilderness!, National Velvet, Intruder in the Dust and many Garbo films), or Britain’s Anthony Asquith (The Browning Version, The Winslow Boy, The Doctor‘s Dilemma). Like both of them, he’s a first-rate visual stylist and a dramatic humanist who tends to be ignored or under-appreciated. He makes pretty pictures, always well-cast and acted, and he makes mostly (though not always) feel-good films. But why should that be held against him? Pleasing movie audiences is not an ignoble profession, and nor should Hallstrom’s somewhat Brigadoonish Chocolat be judged some kind of mortal sin, just because bourgeois audiences enjoyed it.
The Hundred-Foot Journey, similarly. is an enjoyable show, even if at times, it seems a bit shallow, and over-sold. It begins in India, during scenes of social unrest (not very well explained), which drive out the Kadam family, including Puri’s Papa (a paterfamilias) and Dayal’s Hassan (clearly a prodigy), and the clan, rejecting Britain (and its banal vegetables), wind up settling in France, in the stunning midi-Pyrenees French village Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where Papa opens up an Indian-style restaurant, Maison Mumbai, just across the street (100 feet away), from the posh Michelin one-star restaurant Le Saule Pleureur, which is the brainchild of the punctilious grand gourmand Mme. Mallory (Mirren). Mme. Mallory finds Maison Mumbai too loud, too crude and too near– and some of her more bigoted employees find it too Indian.
Things change, though. Caught up in the battle of gastronomic philosophies and cookery between the two majestic restaurateurs, is Papa’s gifted son, Hassan (Dayal), who will turn out perhaps to be the next great French Chef, and Mme. Mallory‘s sous-chef, the deliriously lovely Marguerite (Le Bon). When the latter two pick mushrooms together, we know it’s love — or at least another star. (Or some toothsome mushrooms.)
The first part of the film is taken up with the cultural/culinary battle between Papa and Madame Mallory. In the second part, Hassan rises to glory, and the cultures and cuisines merge happily (or maybe don’t). (I’ll never tell.) All of it is fun to watch — beautifully designed (by David Gropman), beautifully photographed (by Sandgren), and directed with his usual liveliness and panache, by Hallstrom. There are numerous loving shots of the splendiferous dishes created and served up in both restaurants –and in the Parisian molecular eatery where Hassan makes his name. These scenes are designed to elicit the word “scrumptious” from helpless blurbmeisters, and a lot of them do. The movie is also, as much as, say, Babette’s Feast or Big Night, calculated to make audiences long for a good post-movie dinner reservation at some superior (or economical and fine) temple of food.
This film is not perfect — though Mirren and Puri nearly are. Both of them quietly dominate every scene they’re in. Both of them tend to outshine the presence of the younger lovers — which would happen more often, if our movies and our younger audiences were less ageist. Why should we be deprived of the kind of acting artistry actors like Mirren and Puri give us, simply because some nerd of an executive is obsessed with titillating teenagers?
The Hundred-Foot Journey was produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, and they clearly intended to give us a rare little treat. In many ways, in a movie lineup that right now is far too dominated by super-heroes and super-horror, they have. In some other ways, they’ve been a little too foody. No matter. Not every restaurant has two stars and not every movie has four. And not every pleasure has to be justified. For those who want it, Bon appetit. And Bravo Mirren, Bravo Puri. Bring on the dessert.
A MOST WANTED MAN (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.-United Kingdom-Germany, 2014
It’s nice to see a big-budget A movie that exercises your intellect as well as your tolerance for violence. In A Most Wanted Man—a smart, sophisticated new spy thriller based on the 2008 novel by John le Carre (“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,“ “Tinker, Tailor. Soldier, Spy“)—the late, uncommonly brilliant actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays an uncommonly well-observed character: a German anti-terrorist agent named Gunther Bachmann. Bachmann is a cynic, a spoiled idealist, an addict who chain smokes cigarettes, downs whiskey after whiskey and speaks in a rumbling monotone glib growl laced with world-weary innuendo. For his sins, he’s been assigned to the anti-terrorist office in Hamburg, a snake pit of spying and double-dealing in which murder runs rampant and catastrophes like the 9/11 World Trade Center attack are planned.
You could not possibly see this part performed better than Hoffman does here. With that uncanny expertise he had for believing his roles, and thoroughly conveying that belief, this genius of a stage and film player convinces us that he’s German, that he’s a anti-terrorist agent, and that he’s a good man trapped in a bad job. It’s a role (and an accent) that suggests a mix of great popular literary and cinematic traditions: with hints of Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and James Mason (at his seediest) and shots of other le Carre movie anti-anti-heroes, played by actors like Richard Burton, Mason and Alec Guinness.
Thanks to Hoffman — and to le Carre, director Anton Corbijn, scenarist Andrew Bovell, and a really fine crew and supporting cast — the movie sweeps us almost effortlessly into that gray sinister British,/European/Russian world of international espionage in which le Carre (the nom de plume of ex British intelligence operative David Cornwell) has specialized since the ‘60s. This is the dark fictive domain not only of le Carre but of earlier master book or movie spy-tale-spinners like Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. And, as you watch the lead actor peel aside all the layers of this sad but relentless man he‘s playing –an often disgusted professional who has seen the worst and expects no better than some kind of merciless compromise — he manages to tilt the entire world of le Carre’s Hamburg in his darkish direction, to immerse us in its deadly, ruthless complexities. He makes the man Bachmann and the fictional world around him, come burningly, woundingly, terrifyingly alive
Thanks to le Carre a.k.a. Cornwell (who is also this movie’s executive producer and whose sons Simon and Stephen Cornwell are two of its producers), Hoffman brings to life this unfazed anti-terrorist agent, bedeviled by more brutal and less humane colleagues. He‘s a wily operative who’ trying to set a trap for a well-respected Muslim philanthropist (Homayoun Ershati as Dr. Abdullah) whom Bachmann suspects is secretly funneling cash, hidden among his charitable gifts, to terrorist groups, and who is about to get a huge donation from a half-Russian, half Chechin refugee in Hamburg (Grigoriy Dobrygyn as Issa Karpov). Karpov is a wounded innocent on the run — a devout Muslim escapee from Russian prison and torture, who wants to make up for the evil his military father committed by giving all his inheritance to good people and organizations for good works.
Trying to help Issa — who is the Most Wanted Man of the title — is a dedicated knockout leftist Hamburg lawyer named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). Holding the estate, warily, is sage, tightly buttoned Hamburg banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). And working with, or against, or at cross-purposes with Bachmann — helping or hindering him, or maybe both (or maybe neither) — are a friendly, almost maternal looking CIA agent named Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) and a vicious little spy twerp named Dieter Mohr, whom Rainer Beck turns into the very personification of the kind of self-righteous, nasty, officious little prick who blights most governments, most corporations and not a few smart movies.. Bachmann’s allies and co-workers are his plucky associates Maximilian (Daniel Bruhl) and Irna Frey (Nina Foss), who may also be his lover, or his squeeze, or whatever they call it in Hamburg.
Now, Hamburg ….As much a character here as any of the actors, as much (almost) as Hoffman’ Bachmann, it’s a city that sets up echoes and shadows and reverberations in our gut and heads, like the twisted, shadow-drenched Vienna of Greene‘s and Carol Reed’s The Third Man, the rotting, furtive Berlin of Fritz Lang’s M, and the drizzly Paris of Jules Dassin’s Rififi — a labyrinth of betrayals, with skies that seem always overcast and people who seem always glum or tense or, deadly serious — just like the skies, the office buildings, the streets ready to close in on you, the footsteps echoing behind you, the watchful eyes picking you out of a crowed, the operatives pulling a black hood over your head. It’s al beautifully realized and visualized and dramatized, not just by the Cornwells, but by director Anton Corbijn (a real visual stylist who made Control, and The American with George Clooney), and by cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, and production designer Sebastian Krawinkel.
Like Humphrey Bogart, Jason Robards, Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman (or, in a way, Meryl Streep), Hoffman is a character actor who became a star lead, yet remained equally adept at either level. His German inflections roll with an acid melancholy around his throat, often seeming more real than the genuine article, and his eyes keep shifting over that cute, crooked half-smile of his, as if to follow a vanishing prey that he won’t let elude him.
He’s great, of course. Hoffman was always great, and here he’s once again so good that all the rest of the cast – including Dafoe, McAdams, Wright, Ershati, Foss and Dobrygyn — seems to be riding along with him, scaling the heights that he’s opened up.
Sad to say, it’s one of his last performances. Hoffman died of a heroin overdose at 46 last February 2, and though he was an extremely prolific actor, there are only a few projects left in the can, only a few more chances to see and celebrate the sad, happy, glorious genius of an actor we’ve grown use to, depended on — one of the best of his profession, one of the best there ever was, then, always.
This may be the best of those performances — I doubt that the rest of his Plutarch in Hunger Games, will match it — but then everything he did was worth watching. There should be more movies like A Most Wanted Man. There should be more actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman. But let’s thank Heaven or whoever or whatever parcels out the dramatis personae on destiny’s playlist, that we got the several dozen or so he gave us. It’s all still there, on celluloid, shining: that crooked little half-smile that suggested a guy about to snatch some candy, or take advantage on an opponent, that mellifluous voice that could be Irish music or East Coast hip or Boston jive or whatever he wanted it to be — and here so completely convinces us, that we’ll probably always feel that the residents of Hamburg speak like this, or should speak like this, if they don‘t.
It was a sad day for the movies — and for theatre — when Phillip Seymour Hoffman died.
But it’s a happy day or shining hour that he left something behind. A Most Wanted Man is the sort of highly, realistic, thickly populated, well-thought-out film drama that we look for in the movies and mostly don’t get. Maybe it would have been better as a TV miniseries, with more time to flesh it out. But its easy to see that this is a film made by people who respect the material, respect the audience, and want to do well by both.
Now, I could fudge the matter, and say that here is a movie that “ordinary” audiences may not get, that maybe it’s too complex and twisty for them to handle. (I liked it better when I saw it a second time myself.) But what’ wrong with making movies for extraordinary audiences? For smart audiences? For audiences that know history and literature and the world, and can’t be easily fooled or quickly satisfied? Movies that can’t be outguessed and predicted, and that can offer up new surprises and revelations the more we see them — extraordinary movies, geared for adults and intended and built to yield up all their treasures, slowly, not all a once. A movie made for adults, with adults, by adults. What’s wrong with that?
That’s why Hoffman was such a reliable guy. He picked good projects and helped realize them as well as they could be. He could take a little, tiny scene — for example, the way, as the beaming rich kid snob Freddie, that he grins and grins and torments Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley (“Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!”) trying to get him to unmask himself in The Talented Mr. Ripley — and make it so memorable yet so endlessly renewable that you never tired of it, never get tired of him. Now there’s Bachmann, this plump, dour, chain-smoking man who tries to live and thrive in a world of Byzantine betrayal, and finds that…that…Well, you’ll see. And if you’re an adult, you won’t demand more car chases, riots, gun battles, more on-screen torture. The movie, and Hoffman, and artists like Hoffman, have something more to give: a voice, a face, a grin. The little things, the words, the phrases, that make up all our lives. Tommy. Tommy. Tommy.
JERSEY BOYS (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Clint Eastwood, 2014
I. The High Notes
Frankie Valli of Belleville, New Jersey had a voice that could melt a klieg light, hypnotize a hummingbird in full flight or just send shivers down your spine. You heard it — that inimitable nasal fire-alarm falsetto with its Jersey tinges and its wailing shrieks of passion and pseudo-teen horniness — and your own throat almost started aching in sympathy. “Big!” “Girls!” “Don’t!” “Cry!” Frankie screamed — as he and the other three Seasons (who made up the four Jersey Boys of the hit Broadway show now turned Hollywood musical) waved and doo-wopped and whirligigged and sang and danced like mad on stage and the audiences screamed back at them, and it all fused into a kind of mass pop hysteria built around stage performances of their early ‘60s mega-hits “Sherry,” “Rag Doll,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Dawn.”
Who were the The Four Seasons, anyway? If you’re a baby boomer, you probably remember. If you’re not, you’ve got the Broadway show and this new movie to tell you all about them — four Italian-American guys who could blast the hell out of a chorus, and go “Ooo-ooo-ooo” ‘til the speakers tipped over. They were pop music ‘s biggest group hit makers in the early ‘60s, until The Beatles came along with their “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah” and blew everyone else off the stage for the rest of the decade. They’re also the subjects of the smash stage hit “Jersey Boys,” which opened on Broadway in 2005 – and has never closed (so far) –and of the new movie version of that show, directed by Clint Eastwood with a simpatico that may surprise you.
Eastwood and The Four Seasons? Mr. Cool Jazz Solo Piano and the doo-wop boys? Well, stranger things have happened. (How about John Huston and “Annie?”) The movie of “Jersey Boys” takes the guys though four decades (the ‘50 s though the ‘90s), and, if it starts out like Mean Streets, it winds up almost like Dreamgirls or The Jolson Story. This big rock star bio-expose — part of a musical sub-genre that includes Ray (Ray Charles) or Walk the Line (Johnny Cash) – showcases sublime front man Frankie and his high-stepping backups (guitarist Tommy DeVito, bass player Nick Massi and keyboardist/songwriter Bob Gaudio) as they sing on stage or in the studio or just hang out in the street.
Deftly mixing the songs with the back-story, Jersey Boys gives us the rock saga of the Seasons and their mob-tainted youth and their Top 40 rise and spectacular fall, split-up and reconnection — all in typical Hollywood rise-and-crash show biz terms, but with the blend of sentiment and savvy you’d expect from Eastwood. We see and hear the songs, either in the original versions or expertly copied by a cast that includes John Lloyd Young, Michael Lomenda and Erich Bergen (all of whom have played in the show on stage) and Vincent Piazza (who hasn‘t). And we also see and hear the backstage fireworks and the hedonistic high jinks, plunging toward an inevitable breakup and an equally inevitable teary reunion. It’s what you expect, but it’s also somewhat what happened, and it‘s definitely what most of us want to see.
The story is told in four parts, each by a different Season — and all four of the Jersey Boys look at the camera and talk to us, like Leonardo DiCaprio did as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. Tommy DeVito, the rascal of the group (rousingly and acidly played by Piazza) tells us how he and Frankie (sweetly and sympathetically played by original Broadway Frankie and Tony-winner Young) and Nick (lovably, goofballishly played by Lomenda) all got together, and how Tommy he and Nick did a stretch in stir, and how they formed a gang not quite as inept as the Roman nincompoops of Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street. Tommy, a full-of-himself braggart and low-level Outfit hanger-on, also tells us how they started singing in bars for top Mafiosi like the elegant, weirdly sentimental Gyp DeCarlo (beautifully, eerily played by Christopher Walken), and how one day (Eureka!), they got tossed out of a bowling alley where they were supposed to gig, and the name of the bowling alley was The Four Seasons, and yeah, that’s where they got the name. (And I bet you thought one of these guys was a Vivaldi nut.)
Bob Gaudio by now takes the story, then Frankie, then Nick. (Somebody in the original play was probably thinking of Rashomon‘s four-part flashback structure, even though that Japanese classic has four totally different versions of the same story — but then again we all know how much Clint loves Akira Kurosawa.). Anyway, thanks to Tommy’s pal Joey Pesci (Yeah, that Joe Pesci) (See below), Frankie, Tommy and Nick hook up with Gaudio, the teen genius who gave the world (at age 15) the Royal Teens’ maddeningly banal and catchy juke box hit “Short Shorts” (one of those songs that sticks in your head even though you damn well don’t want it to) and he heard Frankie‘s high notes, and decided that was the voice he wanted to sing his songs. So, now they’re a band, and we rise with them, fall with them, endure conflict and bad marriages (Frankie’s wife Mary is superbly, if too briefly, played by Renee Marino) and tragedy, and we get redeemed with them, and if you can’t figure out what’s going to happen when they’re all inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame together, you‘re losing it, my friend. All this may make the movie sound a little silly and corny, but sometimes life is silly and corny. At any rate, the movie works, even if the stage show may have worked better.
II. The Bridge
Now, let me confess something. I never liked the Four Seasons much back in their day, and I didn’t expect to like this movie. I don’t like most falsetto (or castrati) singing, even with a phenomenal set of pipes like Valli’s, and that means I didn’t, at the time, much like “Sherry“ and all the others. There was an East Coast Italian-American early ‘60s doowop group that I did enjoy a lot, and that was Dion and the Belmonts, later just Dion (Di Mucci), the high tenor virtuoso of the mournful “Teenager in Love” and “Born to Cry” and “Lovers Who Wander” and “The Wanderer” and Dion’s masterpiece, the savage, heart-sick, scream-the-house-down lament “Run-Around Sue” (“Hurt! Hurt! Bom-de-hurty-hurty…Hurt! Hurt!“). But I liked Eastwood’s movie, and I also liked the show itself — the book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (who both also wrote the screenplay) and the songs mostly by Gaudio and Bob Crewe (their swishily energetic producer, played here con brio by Mike Doyle). And that must mean that, on some unpredictable (for me at least ) level, I finally like The Four Seasons. Believe me, I never thought I’d see the day.
Let me confess something else. I’ve never seen one of the Des McAnuff stage versions of “Jersey Boys” that packed them in all over the world, but I’m perfectly willing to believe that it was better in many ways than the movie. And yet I still like the picture, even though some (not all) of my colleagues apparently think Eastwood’s direction here is more like an empty chair on a Republican stage than anything you‘d get from Bob Fosse or Richard Lester in their prime. McAnuff is said to have given the play a pace and a drive like Hell in third gear, and I’m sure that his attack was more exciting than the calm, deliberate, measured way Eastwood (as usual) chooses to tell the story (or stories) here. But there’s a justification for Clint’s approach, and for the way he tries to keep everything rolling along in life’s rhythms. We watch the picture and we don’t feel we’re being oversold. We’re eased into this world of pop, and even though it’s familiar, it means something to us.
We mentioned Eastwood‘s fealty to his scripts — he’s known as a director who shoots what the writer wrote and doesn’t try to goose things up — and “Jersey Boys” has a good one. The movie is well-written, well-acted, well-directed, a solid job all around. In this case, Eastwood went back to Brickman and Elice’s first script (choosing it over some rewrites written since), and shot it straight up. Brickman, of course, was Woody Allen’s writing partner on Sleeper, Annie Hall and Manhattan — and this rock n’ roll epic is probably his best work since then. So Clint preserved that first script’s special qualities, its canny blend of show biz cynicism and deeper humanity, and he filmed it simply and with admirable clarity — using his usual production team (cinematographer Tom Stern, production designer James J. Murakami and editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach) and getting that moody, half-sad, jazzy, sinewy look and feel he likes so much. Like a lot of other critics, I wondered what attracted him to this material, but his attraction to it makes more sense after you see the film. This story may mean a lot more to him than we realize.
III. The Horns Come in
The real-life Four Seasons, like the young Eastwood as Rowdy Yates on “Rawhide” (a character whom he puckishly shows on a TV) — were young men in a highly competitive, sometimes damaging industry who suddenly got very popular and very rich after years of not-quite success, and had to cope with all the hassles of world fame. (I know, I know: if they gave you the fame, you‘ll be happy to cope. Yeah. All of us.) But show biz has eaten alive a lot of players and singers and dancers and cowboys, and it still does and still will, and Jersey Boys — which starts in the key of Scorsese, shows us a little Billy Wilder (another TV with Kirk Douglas dissing Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole, which supposedly inspired “Big Girls Don‘t Cry“), and then slides into Michael Curtiz for the finish — gives us the lowdown: the stage magic that goes sour, the women and friends that are abused, the money that vanishes. Anyway, just because some of it seems like a cliché, doesn’t mean a lot of it doesn’t ring true.
Many movie musicals, including some of the great ones, make the songs and the big numbers the raison d’etre of the whole show. There are some cinematic coups here — most obviously, the quick moving shot up the outside wall of the legendary Brill Building, with song-peddlers peddling behind the windows on every floor. But Eastwood seems to be just as much or more interested in the dramatic scenes, and he doesn’t try to jazz up the songs the way a Fosse or a Rob Marshall might. He just plays the Four Seasons numbers (and some others) as another part of life, of the story, of how it happened — until the movie climaxes and the credits roll, and Eastwood and his very gifted company finally give us a big super-choreographed number, staged to the later Four Seasons hit, “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” — and this one is a killer. Under the end-titles, the picture brings back the whole ensemble and turns them loose and lets it rip. It’s a terrific sequence, even if they don’t give the great Chris Walken enough (or really any) dancing room. (Walken, a fantastic hoofer, still scores with a few seconds of preoccupied-looking, desultory dips.)
IV. The Chorus
One of the best things about Eastwood’s Jersey Boys is the showcase it gives the four young actors who play the Four Seasons: Lloyd, Piazza, Bergen and Lomenda. Each of them nails his part, totally, from the songs to the back-story and back again. But they also complement each other beautifully — Piazza with his dark, funny portrait of the brash but beguilingly edgy Tommy DeVito; Young as Frankie, with his likable naiveté and that sweet, pure voice; Bergen with his silky arrogance, his taste for T.S. Eliot, and his (somewhat justifiable) conceit; and Lomenda, another scene-stealer with great whirling-doofus stage moves – a magnetic performer even if, as Nick says, it’s a four man group, and he’s Ringo. (Tommy DeVito, by the way, which is the name of the sociopathic killer Joe Pesci played in Goodfellas, is also the name of the guitarist for the Seasons — and, ironically, the real-life Joey Pesci, played by the uncanny Pesci look-and-act-alike Joseph Russo, is also part of Jersey Boys. He introduces them to Gaudio, manages a little, and is eventually Tommy’s post-Seasons employer. And oh yeah, later on he met Scorsese and won an Oscar, right around the year the Four Seasons were named to the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame. So I‘ve got just one thing to say about life and art and movies and all that jazz: “You think I‘m funny?”)
The picture’s four leads, or at least three of them, probably know the show better than their director by now, and Eastwood gives them plenty of room to shine. He obviously likes the story, likes its slant on the bumps and jags of the entertainment industry (rock n’ roll as well as movies), and he helps tell that story with a depth and an empathy that belie his 84 years and his sometimes conservative politics, and the automatic stature that his Oscars have rightly conferred on him. This is a movie that, like Eastwood’s Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man and Bird, shows the darker or crazier side of show biz and music, makes us feel the way it feels for the performers and musicians, puts us on stage and upfront. If nothing else, it’s fun to see a Clint Eastwood movie where somebody uses the term “objective-correlative.” And where somebody else sings falsetto without a gun pointed at them.
So I was wrong. The Four Seasons really could sing up a storm. Capeesh? I still prefer “Run Around Sue,” or even “Donna the Prima Donna.“ Jersey Boys could have been better, but you can say that about almost any movie — except Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, The Rules of the Game, Persona, Lawrence of Arabia, Stagecoach, Vertigo, Goodfellas, Singin’ in the Rain, and oh, maybe two dozen or so others. Meanwhile, if Jersey Boys is not a great movie — and it’s not — it’s sure as hell a good one.
Anyway, there’s a good reason why there are so many movies about top-notch, well loved show biz icons who lead messed up or nearly ruined lives and then, by God, come back. Except in certain extreme cases, most of us will always want to see that last big redemptive number. Most of us will want to hear one more chorus, applaud one more time, get one more glimpse of that stairway to so-called heaven. Most of us will always be rooting for them. And let me confess something: I am too.
As they used to say in revolutionary France, or even in National Lampoon’s revolting Delta House, “Liberte, egalite, fraternite!“
In the new frat comedy Neighbors, the sometimes criminally good-looking teen-idol actor Zac Efron plays Teddy Sanders, a frat boy president who moves his band of bros (Delta Psi, to be specific) next door to an affable but uptight yuppie couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as Mac and Kelly Radner). The thirtysomething Radners, who were young once themselves , just want him to co-exist and keep the noise down. But things take a nasty turn and Teddy winds up triggering seemingly endless hostilities between his Greeks and the next door Geeks.
Teddy, played by the teen stud star of High School Musical, is described, by Mac, as resembling something created by a gay laboratory scientist. (Like Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, maybe?) In a way, that’s the way Efron plays the role — the way all the actors play their roles: like tongue-in-cheek laboratory creations, manufactured from punch lines and cribs from one or two hit frat boy bromances. There isn’t a scene or a speech in the movie that isn’t top-heavy with artifice and formula, or that wasn’t designed, deliberately and almost laboriously, to crack us up, barreling at the audience like a comic Mack Truck. It’s the exact opposite of the way a Judd Apatow-style comedy usually works — less organic, less natural, less human. Here, it’s: Are we having a good time yet? No? Wait: there’s a scene with dueling dildos and flying auto air bags and a Robert De Niro look-alike contest with Teddy as a Mohawked Travis Bickle. Hey, it’ll kill you.
Neighbors is a comedy in the Animal House vein and the Old School tradition about what becomes an all-out war between the well-intentioned Radners, who just want to be nice but hip we-were-kids-once-too neighbors, and the party-crazed Delta Psi fraternity guys who move in to the Radners’ sort-of-affluent chunk of suburbia, and proceed to party all day, party all night, party-party-party till you just can’t party no more.
So, why didn’t I laugh harder at Neighbors, as everybody else seems to be doing? It wasn’t because I didn’t want to. And it wasn’t because the movie didn’t have a funny cast and a funny director: Neighbors actually seems to have everything going for it (except a part for Jonah Hill), beginning with its cast, which also includes Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jerrod Carmichael (put those two on a marquee) as supporting fratboys, plus Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo (as pot-smoking thirty-whatever cronies of Mac and Kelly), and ( a really inspired touch) the delectably doofus Lisa Kudrow (of TV’s “Friends“) as the mean Dean Wormer equivalent, who almost has Delta Psi on probation.
And there’s also the director, Nicholas Stoller, whose expertise at staging or writing comedy — and putting on parties — has ranged across buddy-buddy bromantic comedies like Get Him to the Greek, to nice young couple rom-coms like The Five Year Engagement to sophisticated kiddie extravaganzas like the last two Muppets movies,
I certainly thought I was going to laugh — as I usually do at Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen movies. Scenes that I now vaguely remember — like the De Niro look-alike bash or the air-bag flying whoopee cushion slapstick, or the dueling plaster casters — should have probably raised a chuckle or two. And Rose Byrne, one of the wonderfully bad-mouth Bridesmaids ensemble, is very, very amusing for a good part of the movie, in what might have been a thankless wifey role. All that seems like such surefire yock material that I’m beginning to believe I actually did laugh at the movie, and somehow forgot the whole thing, after going blotto until the morning after. Maybe…
You get the feeling throughout Neighbors that you should have been hoisting a brew to the memory of the gone but not forgotten Bluto played by Animal House’s zit-popping pirate king John Belushi, and laughing your generational ass off. Instead –and this bewildered me — I mostly felt a step or two ahead of a snore,
Maybe that’s because the movie doesn’t really have a Belushi equivalent but instead gives us ab-flexing lookers and teen icons like Zac Efron (and Dave Franco, of the Brothers Franco, as his wingman), rather than slob hedonists like Delta House’s Belushi (or Bruce McGill or Tom Hulce) and hard-partying clowns like Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson of Old School. These frat hedonists or reliving-it-up guys are the hairy heroes of Animal House and Old School (or at least the hairy anti-heroes). Here, they seem to be wet dreams for the Radners, or for those homoerotic scientists that supposedly threw Efron together.
The not-so-hot script for Neighbors, by Apatow producers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, is more a collection of frat jokes than a well-constructed comedy machine (which Animal House was) — and even though it feels like this story should be springing from character (or from characters), much of it just seems to swoop in from Gagland.
It didn’t make sense to me that almost none of the Radners’ neighbors got pulled into the big fray, that the entire rest of the neighborhood seemingly took a pass on the Delta Psi feud, even when Teddy and his boys started going wild, trying to establish new wastrel records and surpass the all time toga-party beer-pong mess-around records of their horny, smashed, stoned predecessors, with the same ill-tempered cop (Hannibal Buress as Officer Watkins) getting called to shut the party down over and over by the Radners.
Why didn’t the Radners solicit more help from the other “grownups” in the neighborhood? Why is the initial détente between them and the Delta Psi guys transgressed so relatively easily? The Radners try to make peace with Delta Psi and promise to contact Teddy before calling the police on them ( a crucial agreement since both the college kid and oldster groups smoke cannabis) — and then (at least in the eyes of Delta Psi) Mac and Kelly break their word and call too soon. (The movie tries to explain this by having the Delta Psi Guys seemingly ignore the Radners’ complaints at a wild party. But why is that happening?)
Of course, you can plausibly answer that the movie isn’t supposed to make sense, or that it does make sense of a sort, and who are you to complain about senselessness anyway? (Especially if you laughed at Animal House.) Neighbors is less about the frat partiers than about how the Radners, the somewhat older generation try to reawaken or hold onto their own vanishing youthful propensity for high jinks – and how they react to the sex-crazed, self-indulgent kids next door. (The movie begins with a scene where the Radners’ mid-day love-making is interrupted by their infant son in a cute bassinet — though why they’re in a room with him in the first place, isn’t explained.)
Mac and Kelly ultimately have their revenge on the frat boy sex, drugs and rock ’n roll revelers, but it isn’t a very satisfying turnabout, and I thought the last sidewalk encounter between Teddy and Mac — where Efron does a Taylor Lautner chest-pop and Rogen gives us a peek at his hyper-active tummy — didn’t work at all, unless you’re an abs or tummy aficionado.
Seth Roger is a funny comedian — a “shaggy man type” Pauline Kael would have called him — and his characters have more humanity than some of the other big movie comedian-stars of today, like Adam Sandler or Kevin James. (James gets a comic nudge here from both Rogen and Byrne). But Neighbors, popular as it may be, isn’t one of his best shows, and Mac is one of the least recognizably real of his movie characters.
SPOILER ALERT (roll over to view)
Perhaps that’s because on some level, Rogen seems a bit envious here of good-looking, charismatic babe-magnets like Efron — though great looks aren’t always what appeals most to the opposite sex — and he may want to show that he can party hard too, when he wants to. (I thought he already showed that in This is the End.) In either Animal House or Old School — or in most of the movies that copy them — Mac would have been a secondary villain, a quick joke, someone to get upchucked on, or doused with a brewski or two. The fact that here, Mac and Kelly win their battle with the Greeks, may be seen as a sign of maturity, evidence that the Apatow bunch is growing up. But is it? Is it just a one-up on the Zac Efrons of the world? Who knows?
END OF SPOILER
I was young once myself. And anyway, I just figured out why I didn’t like this movie much.
In the 1960s, while I was a student at the University of Wisconsin, I lived for several years in private housing on Langdon Street, which was the UW’s Fraternity Row. I had some friends in the frats. But I also had some bad neighbors — including one inebriated gentleman in snazzy shorts who ran his convertible into me one sunny football afternoon, while I was crossing the street near Langdon (with the right of way), and started yelling angrily at me for God knows what (maybe for scuffing the fender on his car when he hit me), and trying to start some kind of half-assed brawl — backed up by the three other drunks riding with him. They calmed him down, probably by opening another brew. Now, I can’t swear that this bozo and his chums were frat boys, and that his lamentable driving etiquette might have prejudiced me all these years later, against seeing Zac’s Teddy as some kind of a cutie-pie. But who else would be driving a convertible, drunk, on a Saturday afternoon, on Fraternity Row? One thing’s for sure: He wasn’t an anti-war protestor or a Bob Dylan fan. Or a John Belushi.
In 1981, Belushi (with his comedy-bro Dan Aykroyd) made a movie of his own called Neighbors, based on a Thomas Berger (“Little Big Man”) novel about dueling next door guys (Belushi had the Rogen role), and that one didn’t make me laugh much either (or much of anybody else). Lots of people are chuckling at Neighbors though. So, what can I say? Party hearty, dudes. And when your neighbors call the cops, make sure you flush all that weed down the toilet. As we used to say back on Langdon Street, maturity is overrated.
BEARS (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey, 2014
Sky, Scout and Amber
Three bears huddled on the snowy lopes of a vast white mountain as a raging avalanche crashes down alongside them. Fish fighting their way upstream in a glistening river, with one spunky salmon rising up from the spume and spray to nearly swat a waiting bear. A mama bear bravely standing between her two threatened cubs and a renegade clanless bear who circles and circles and wants to make a meal of them.
Bears, the latest DisneyNature story-documentary contains some of the most absolutely astonishing sights any recent film has given us — no matter how elaborate that other movie’s CGI and production design, and no matter how photogenic its stars. Here, the production design and effects, peerless, are the world around us, and the stars, nonpareil too, are the bears and animals themselves. At their best, these images have a power and a beauty, that most of today’s sci-fi spectaculars and action extravaganzas can’t match.
The story — and Bears does tell a story, with characters, and drama and suspense, just like the ’50s Disney nature documentaries The Living Desert, The Vanishing Prairie and White Wilderness — follows a mama bear (a formidable lady named “Sky” by the filmmakers) and her two cubs (the rambunctious boy Scout, and the more demure girl Amber) through an action-packed year of their lives. We watch them, from the moment they awaken, curled up together, in the slumbers of hibernation, to their emergence form their winter refuge, to their quest for survival from mountain to seashore — in a saga filled with many encounters with other animals, some rewarding, some dangerous, all extremely picturesque and engrossing.
Bears are among the most simpatico of all wild (and sometimes dangerous) animals — largely because they are the inspirations for the world’s most well-loved cuddling toys. These movie star bears, except for Scout and Amber, don’t look necessarily cuddly. But most children, and their adult companions, should enjoy watching them all lumber across Alaska, facing wolves, oceans and possible starvation with equal aplomb. It’s an important, vital record of life on earth that’s also an amusing, absorbing, sometimes tense and thrilling entertainment.
That’s partly because Bears was directed and co-written by a genuine auteur of nature documentaries: the tireless Britisher Alastair Fothergill, who was the genius anthropologist/writer/filmmaker David Attenborough‘s estimable collaborator on TV documentary mini-series masterpieces like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. It was co-directed (and co-produced) by Fothergill’s new DisneyNature partner Keith Scholey, and co-written (and co-produced) by Adam Chapman. It’s a good show.
The Attenborough-Fothergill films (along with some of the other Attenborough-scripted and hosted series like Life of Birds), are, I think, the greatest nature documentaries yet made. If you haven’t seen them, you’ve missed one of the cinema’s true treasures — and their wonderful box sets and series belong in any well-stocked DVD library.
Bears, like its DisneyNature predecessors Chimpanzee and African Cats, is a sight to behold itself. In a way, it’s a recognizable ancestor of the Disney nature documentaries of the ‘50s, like The Vanishing Prairie, The Living Desert and White Wilderness. Those movies, like this one, spied on wild animals and built stories around them. But, good as they were, those pictures weren’t blessed with the superb technological resources and brilliant technology, and decades of wild-life camera savvy that are common today. And that Bears has.
Thanks to that technology and that new expertise, Bears does terrifically well what the movies do better than any other art form. It takes us right into another world, and into domains of Earth hidden from most of us for most of time, but here presented with a technological mastery which renders that less-seen world as clear as crystal and as plain as day. That‘s the territory of the bears of course — the brown bears of the Alaskan peninsula, as represented by Sky, Scout and Amber, all of whom become as familiar to us, and as lovable and beguiling, as any other movie star, recorded by eight excellent cinematographers (including Sophie Darlington, John Shier, Gavin Thurston, Mark Yates, Warwick Gloss, Matthew Aeberhard, John Aitchison and Mark Smith) and helmed by a great (well, sometimes great) director.
As before, Fothergill deploys his resources with massive skill, and his camera aces and his recorders capture sights and sounds that we simply (or probably) haven’t seen before. He was at his best in Planet Earth, which I think is one of the greatest films ever made. But though Fothergill plus Attenborough makes for one of the movies’ best collaborations, Fothergill plus Scholey is more of a good team, who craft movies that are fun to watch and entertaining, but that don’t make you gasp with wonderment, as you often do in the Attenborough films.
The Bears narration, here delivered with crusty-voiced good humor by comedian/actor John C. Reilly, is okay, funny, sometimes a little corny, while Attenborough’s narration is brilliant and exciting, and delivered with enormous enthusiasm and involvement. (Attenborough was the BBC executive who was responsible for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, before becoming a mini-series on-camera TV star himself. And he has a breadth of vision and an engagement with life and art and history and science, that these new films mostly lack. When they hired Fothergill, I wish Disney had hired Attenborough as well, and that the two of them had gone on to make more films like Planet Earth and Blue Planet for the rest of all our lives. Bears, while no masterpiece, is a movie to see and revel in, but not necessarily to be inspired by. Or to cuddle, for that matter.
The engagement at Disney’s El Capital in Hollywood, which I caught, includes an onstage wild animal show, plus Wurlitzer organ pyrotechnics by Disney’s star theater organist and American Theater Organ Society “Organist of the Year” Rob Richards.
CITY OF LIGHTS, CITY OF ANGELS
Here’s the bill of fare. The COLCOA Film Festival, a fixture in Los Angeles for 18 years, shows new and classic French films in two American movie theaters at the Directors’ Guild complex: plush theaters named for legendary French filmmakers, François Truffaut and Jean Renoir. They mean a lot to me — the filmmakers, the films, and especially those two directors (or cineastes), Renoir and Truffaut.
Here’s the backstory. The City of Light, City of Angels Film Festival — or COLCOA for short — was born 18 years ago: progeny of a cinematic marriage between Paris (The City of Lights) and Los Angeles (The City of Angels), and of orgnizations like the DGA, The Writers‘ Guild West, The MPAA, the French Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers, Unifrance and the French Embassy of Los Angeles. The idea: To show new (and classic old) French films, in a city and venue (The Directors’ Guild of American complex on 7920 Sunset Blvd.), more often devoted to the prime fruits of Hollywood and American cinema. The two DGA theaters in which the movies are shown — the Truffaut and the Renoir — are symbols of that marriage, that cross-pollination, And this year’s COLCOA Fest offers another prime schedule of French motion pictures
Now: une memoire.
For me, one of the great dates in my movie going life came in 1956 in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when I saw, for the first time, a French movie in an American movie house. It was the masterly heist thriller and film noir Rififi, starring the gloomy-mugged Jean Servais, and directed by the blacklisted American expatriate Jules Dassin, with the tale of robbery, betrayal and murder transpiring in a Paris that was gray and drizzly and seething with menace, full of Frenchmen with somber faces dressed in raincoats and fedoras, with guns in their pockets.
But perhaps I shouldn’t count that picture. It was dubbed. My first French film with French-speaking actors was — what was it? — Breathless, I believe (or, to be French about it, A Bout de Souffle). I saw it in my first semester of college (The University of Wisconsin), a time when I also saw Grand Illusion and Judex and Jules and Jim. And they affected me strongly, because I had grown up in a little Wisconsin village, Williams Bay, where they didn’t show French films with film actors, where I could only read about them from afar, in magazines like Esquire or Time, a village where, the only theater was an outdoor drive-in in a huge field on the outskirts of town, that occasionally showed the kind of movies (by Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford and Wilder) that, I later discovered, were beloved by some of the more notable French cineastes of the ‘50s — such as Jean-Luc Godard, who wrote and directed Breathless, and Francois Truffaut, who wrote and directed Jules and Jim.
It was paradise to me to see those movies in the UW Memorial Union Play Circle (now the Fredric March Play Circle, renamed after a notable UW cinematic alum. And it would have been better than paradise to see something like the COLCOA festival, which, over the past two decades, has shown, in los Angeles, 298 French-speaking features, 179 French-speaking shorts, and served lots of champagne and chardonnay and French finger food (or hors d’ourves, to be French about it), and brought plenty of French-speaking film-makers and critics and historians to talk about them — in English.
This year’s COLCOA festival opens on Monday, April 21, with We Love You, You Bastard, (Or Salaud, on t’aime, to be French about it) the latest film by Claude Lelouch, a French write-director (or auteur) who was active in the ‘60s along with Truffaut and Godard and their New Wave friends — when Lelouch won the Palme d’Or of the Cannes Film Festival with his 1966 A Man and a Woman (or Une Homme et un Femme: to be…), and conquered the movie art-houses of America and London and Berlin and elsewhere, and has been active ever since. This new Lelouch movie stars two venerable Frnehc rock stars Johnny Hallyday and Eddy Mitchell, in a story about sowing wild oats and dealing with the results — four daughters from four different mothers and a girlfriend, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, Irene Jacob and others.
What else is showing at the Renoir and the Truffaut? Well, 1960s’ Purple Noon, one of the great film noirs, starring Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet, directed by Rene Clement, based on a novel by the American expatriate genius crime writer Patricia Highsmith, and dazzlingly shot in Italian pleasure ports by Henri Decae – will screen at 1: 45 p.m., on Tuesday, April 22. Later that day, Daniel Auteuil, who owes his early (French) acting stardom to his role in producer-director Claude Berri’s hugely popular films of the great French auteur Marcel Pagnol’s novels Jean de Florette and Manon of the Sources, and who later wrote, directed and starred in a new film of Pagnol’s The Well-Digger’s Daughter, is here with more of Pagnol: two thirds of Auteuil’s remake of the “Marcel Pagnol Trilogy” of the ’30s, Marius and Fanny (Cesar is the third) — with Auteuil playing Cesar, the role originated (wonderfully) by Raimu.
On Wednesday, April 23, you can watch a restored print of the 1984 Cannes Festival hit, The Favorites of the Moon, by the Georgian émigré cineaste Otar Iosseliani, starring the very young Mathieu Amalric in a sprightly little jeu d’esprit (to be French about it) about treasures passing from hand to hand. It may remind you a bit of the current Wes Anderson indie hit The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Thursday brings two films by Cedric Klapisch, who, back in 2002, for his film L’Auberge Espagnol, assembled a very talented, very sexy young French cast, including Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou and Cecile de France, for a sexy and very amusing comedy about a young student (Duris) living it up in Spain, having sex and (to be French about it), laughing about it as well. L’auberge screens at 1:30 p.m. Two years later, Klapisch reunited Duris and the others for a sequel, Russian Dolls, which is not showing at COLCOA this year. But the latest episode of the threesome, Chinese Puzzle will screen at 8:30 p.m., and Klapisch will talk with us at 4 p.m.
Friday, the brilliant, massively influential but too mortal (and gone too soon) French auteur Truffaut (see above) will be remembered at a 1:30 p.m. screening of his very personal 1977 tale of a femme-chaser The Man Who Loved Women, starring Charles Denner as the Man, and Brigitte Fossey, Nathalie Baye and the supremely piquant Leslie Caron as some of the Women, followed by a talk on Truffaut.
At 8:30 p.m., that brilliant but elusive Polish-American -French cineaste on the lam, Roman Polanski, an artist well-loved by the French (and others), will be represented by his latest film Venus in Fur, based on the masochistic novel by Leopold Sacher-Masoch and David Ives’ play from it, and starring Polanski‘s muse-mate Emmanuelle Seigner, as an extroverted actress who shows up after hours to read for a part in the play “Venus in Fur.” Two brand new film noirs, Eric Barbier’s heist thriller The Last Diamond, and the Larriere Brothers (Arnaud’s and Jean Marie‘s ) crime drama Perfect Crime, costarring Mathieu Amalric, will screen at 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
Now comes Saturday, and, at 11 a.m., the one French film of this year‘s glittering COLCOA menu that you absolutely don’t want to miss: that 1946 treasure of a Jean Cocteau-written and directed fairytale (from Mme. la Prince) Beauty and the Beast, starring Josette Day as Belle and Jean Marais as Bete, photographed (lustrously) by Henri Alekan, scored (hauntingly) by Georges Auric) and technically advised by no less splendid a collaborator than Purple Noon’s director Rene Clement, whom we suspect, had more to do with the film‘s impeccable, fantastic technique than just advice. Beauty and the Beast is a true French film classic, a major addition to French culture by a major (and confoundingly versatile) French artiste, writer-painter-poet-playwright-director Cocteau, and if you refuse to see it, in this newly restored print, you’re being, well, you’re being too American about it. (The Disney feature cartoon Beauty and the Beast, by the way, was obviously inspired by Cocteau’s film.)
If fairytales aren’t your tray of gateaux and mousse, however, there’s always, at 7:45 p.m., a brutally real alternative: Abuse of Weakness, a fierce semiautobiographical drama by auteur Catherine Breillat, who spins us une histoire inspired by her own life (with the Breillat surrogate played by the nonpareil Isabelle Huppert) and her own fleecing by a famous conman, Christophe Rocancourt (Kool Shen) with merciless candor. We Love You, You Bastard, also reappears at 1:15 p.m.
Sunday brings us the closing session of the competition (at 4:45 p.m.), Quantum Love, written and directed by Lisa Azuelos, and starring Sophie Marceau and the inevitable Mathieu Amalric in a romance with stingers. But there are two more major French classics on Monday, April 28. At 2 p.m., you can see the finest work of the great director of stage, screen and opera (and other dark places) Patrice Chereau: his sumptuous Claude Berri-produced adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ breathless historical novel, Queen Margot (or, to be French about it, La Reine Margot), starring Isabelle Adjani and notre vieux ami Daniel Auteuil, And there’s another film noir, a black-and-white ‘40s classic this time, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s dark, dark The Murderer Lives at No. 21, starring that supreme French screen actor Pierre Fresnay (of Grand Illusion) as the relentless detective Wens and Suzy Delair as his aspiring actress sidekick Mila — in both a true noir and a un vrai film maudit. (To be…)
Well, more is gone than Truffaut. We can’t repeat the joys and joyous discoveries of our youth. Sadly, I’ll probably never again experience the pure cool piercing thrill of that first screening of Breathless — or of The Rules of the Game (La Regle du Jeu), The Earrings of Madame de…, Pickpocket, Claire‘s Knee, La Salaire de Peur, Mon Oncle, Lola Montes, Lola, or all the rest. But we can, at this marvelous festival, renew the treasures of the past, and pass on the delights of film history, and maybe experience some new ones, and sip a little vin blanc, munch a little fromage and remember Jean-Luc, Francois, Claude, Eric, Jacques and Andre, and how much we all loved, and love, the cinema — to be French about it.
The COLCOA screenings are at The Directors’ Guild theater Complex at 7920 Sunset Blvd. For further information on the COLCOA Festival, and a complete schedule. link to www.COLCOA.org
Wilmington on Movies and DVDs: The TCM 2014 Classic Film Festival: How Green Was My Valley; Meet Me in St. Louis; Make Way for TomorrowSaturday, April 19th, 2014
THE TCM 2014 CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL
I. I will hold your coat
Families, at their best, give us solace and they give us joy. At their worst, they tear us apart. Both extremes were visible on screen at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival: often the best (How Green Was My Valley) and sometimes the worst (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), but always the crucial parts of a film to remember.
The 2014 TCM Festival — the fifth annual edition of one of the world’s great (and certainly one of its most lovable) film fests — was devoted this year to the theme: “Family in the Movies: The Ties That Bind.” And during its four day run, hosted by TCM’s affable and knowledgeable on-air movie guides Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz, with many special guests and some first-rate venues (the TLC Chinese Theatres, Grauman‘s Egyptian Theatre, Disney’s flagship El Capitan, plus poolside outdoor movies at the Roosevelt Hotel), this bounteous cinematic fest became a celebration of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons and other blood ties. They presented over seventy movies and some real film masterpieces on the main subject.
We had a great time, though we only caught a fraction of the bill of fare.
Is there any more powerful or moving portrait, for example, of a loving family facing the vicissitudes of life and surviving the relentless march of change than director John Ford and screenwriter Phillip Dunne’s magnificent saga of the Morgan clan of turn-of-the-century Wales, as immortalized in Richard Llewellyn’s memoir-novel “How Green Was My Valley?” There it was, in the TCM fest’s gala showing at the Disney flagship theatre the El Capitan, a “Valley” never lovelier or more heart-breaking – with Sara Allgood as one of the screen’s all-time great mothers, Beth Morgan (“A tub full of holes!”), Donald Crisp as one of the all-time great fathers, Gwylym Morgan, and their memorable children, including Roddy McDowall as little Huw and Maureen O’Hara, as Angharad. Ms. O‘Hara. at 95, and despite a wheelchair, was there on the El Capitan stage, still full of Irish sass and fire.
I’ve seen Valley many times, since I first began to write about Ford back in the ’60s, and it always makes me laugh and cheer and cry. Always. But I’ve never felt the force and grace of that harrowing portrayal of childhood, and of the ties that forever bind, more deeply than I did sitting in the El Capitan balcony, watching the gorgeous blacks and whites of the new digitally restored print, and seeing Miss O’Hara, feisty and beautiful as ever, as our living link to the beauties and treasures of the far movie past.
The Morgan family saga, as recalled by the older Huw Morgan (Irving Pichel, a marvelous narrator), while we watch the younger Huw (McDowall) interact with the loved and loving phantoms of his memory, touched me as it always does. And I felt it most intensely, as I always do, in the movie’s heart-stirring last scene. There, Donald Crisp as Huw’s Dada Morgan is trapped in the collapsed mine, and there, the departing, progressive preacher Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) summons a rescue party to go down in the coal mines one last time, calling “Who is for Gwylyn Morgan and the others?” And there, the blind old boxer Dai Bando (Rhys Williams, in the role that will keep him always in movie-lover‘s minds), fervently cries “I for one. He is the blood of my heart!” And Dai Bando turns to his wizened little sidekick Cyfartha (Barry Fitzgerald) and beckons “Come, Cyfartha.“ And Cyfartha softly replies to the man whose side he rarely leaves, in one of the finest and most beautifully delivered lines in the history of movies: “No, Dai Bando, ‘tis a coward I am. But I will hold your coat.”
That great exchange only heightens the terror and grief and common nobility to follow when the mine elevator, dripping water and creaking and cracking, rises from the darkness and the depths of the smashed black tunnels, with the little boy Huw holding his dead father in a Pieta embrace, and we hear the voice-over of the older Huw with his family elegy “Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then!”
Oh God! Beautifully written and acted and shot — and beautifully directed by the master, John Ford — it’s a scene that only a great movie could bring us and imprint in our souls so indelibly. But the marvelous images and acting start with the marvelous words (from the heart). We should remember and pay tribute to those words, to the centrality to Ford’s film of the original novel (only about half of it, in fact, is used here ), just as Huw remembers and says the speeches that summon up his father Gwylym and his mother Beth and his brothers and sister Angharad (O‘Hara), and Mr. Gruffydd and Bronwen (Anna Lee) and Dai Bando, Cyfartha and the rest.
It struck me a little sad that the audience at the El Capitan, so alive to the film and to its every nuance, so appreciative, applauding for so many of the beloved names in the cast list, remained silent for the credits for screenwriter Philip Dunne and the original novelist Richard Llewellyn — and that I myself contributed to that silence though my hands were poised only inches from each other, waiting for another clap to join. I can understand that this may have been a comment on Philip Dunne‘s indifferent performance in the ‘50s as a writer-director, or an auteur. But sure, if they wouldn‘t clap for Dunne, couldn‘t they have granted Mr. Llewellyn (without whom there would be no Huw, no Valley, no Angharad, no Dada) the honor of the applause that he and his book so richly deserved? How often do we hear writing like that in our films today?
How green were our valleys then…
(Available in DVD and Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox.)
II. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow….
“Clang! Clang! Clang! Went the trolley! Ring! Ring! Ring! Went the bell!” And sure, is there any family or house or city street more electric and more imbued with charm and beauty and Americana and musical delights (”The Trolley Song,“ “The Boy Next Door,‘ “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louie”) than the Smiths and their St. Louis domicile in the year before the turn-of-the-century 1904 St. Louis World Fair? (Half a world away from Wales and the darkening mines.)
That home (full of bannistered staircases, chandeliers and lamp-snuffers, huge heaping dining room tables and a capacious front porch on which to sit and dream) of Judy Garland as the vibrant girl-next-door Esther, of Leon Ames and Mary Astor as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, of Lucille Bremer as sister Rose, of Harry Davenport as Grandfather Smith (who proudly takes the dateless Esther to the dance), of Marjorie Main as the rough-hewn housekeeper-cook Katie, and of the little seven-year-old girl, “Tootie” Smith, for whom the words “darling” and “mischievous” might have been invented — played by Margaret O’Brien, who was present at TCM like O’Hara in the flesh for her prime performance and movie (and also later to bid a fond goodbye to her old MGM studio-mate Mickey Rooney — who had just died.)
Tootie and Esther together, of course, are responsible, along with songwriters Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, for one of the truly magical scenes in any musical, any movie — when little Margaret, screaming, destroys the snowman family in the Smith yard, and Judy takes her in her arms at the bedroom window and holds her, and sings (with hair-raising feeling and brilliance), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” with Judy and director Vincente Minnelli including the poignant lines of the song that these days are now often replaced, “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now…” (You think I forgot the film’s screen writers, but I didn’t. Here they are: Sally Benson wrote the original stories, and Irving Brecher and Fred J. Finkelhoffe did the script. And Minnelli and the actors brought them warmly and hilariously and movingly to life. Applause for them all.)
The result of this classic MGM teamwork: A delicious superb confection of a film, a great warm Sunday Dinner of a movie, brimming full of American family life as we want to imagine it, all of it immersed in a gaily colored, immaculately designed Minnelli dream, inspired by Currier and Ives for the Freed Unit, another great (if less serious and heartbreaking) family film, lovingly presented at the festival. (Available in DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Bros.)
III. No Place Like Home
And the others — other classics, with families at their best and worst, all shown in pristine and sometimes newly restored prints, family masterworks from the Golden Age and past it (and before it), like Gone with the Wind (“Frankly my dear, I don‘t give a damn“), The Best Years of Our Lives, East of Eden (“You‘re a likable kid”), Father of the Bride, The Godfather Part II (“You‘re my brother, Fredo“), Double Indemnity (“You bet I’ll get out of here. Get out of here but quick”), Hannah and Her Sisters, The Quiet Man (“Impetuous! Homeric!”), City Lights, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (“You mean all these years, we could have been friends?”), Written on the Wind and The Wizard of Oz? (“Oh Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!”)
And sure, is there any film about elderly parents abandoned by their grown-up children as lovely and heart-breaking as Yasujiro Ozu’s great 1953 Japanese classic Tokyo Story (also at TCM this year) — that incredibly touching film with its serenely Buddhist perspective on the sadness of old age, the tragedy of the passing of time? (“Isn’t life disappointing?”)
Well, as a matter of fact, there is. It‘s a picture that you‘ve probably never seen, never even heard of: a movie that won no Oscars and was forgotten for decades, except for a tiny few who were moved by it and remembered it. That was the Hollywood Golden Age movie that inspired Ozu (and screenwriter Koga Noda) to make Tokyo Story — and that also breaks your heart, and that was also part of the TCM Fest bill o fare: Leo McCarey‘s heartfelt and sublimely moving family drama Make Way for Tomorrow, which is also about old parents and their thoughtless children.
At the end of the festival, at the closing night party, I argued, in a friendly way, with another buff who (though he loved McCarey’s other pictures) had never seen this one, didn’t watch it at the festival this year, and didn’t intend to watch it, ever, because too many people had told him that it was “depressing” — no, even more: that it was “the most depressing movie they’d ever seen.” It was not, I argued — just as How Green was My Valley is not depressing, but exalting. I argued that he should see it, and so should all of you.
So here’s what I wrote a few years ago on the release of the Criterion edition of McCarey’s masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow — of that great film about fathers and mother and sons and daughters, about families, and what can happen to them and in them, and to us. Unless we remember.
MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (Four Stars)
U.S.; Leo McCarey, 1937
“Make Way for Tomorrow would make a stone cry.”
– Orson Welles
I. Make ‘Em Laugh
Throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, director Leo McCarey spent almost all of his film career in movie comedy, as an expert maker of funny movies — working with great film comedians like Laurel and Hardy in many of their best silent shorts (including Two Tars and Big Business), George Burns & Gracie Allen and W. C. Fields in Six of a Kind, Harold Lloyd in The Milky Way, and The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup. But in 1937, he decided to direct something entirely different. McCarey set his heart on making what he hoped would be a classic tear-jerker, an uncompromising film based on “The Years are So Long,” Josephine Lawrence‘s novel about elderly parents and their neglectful children.
McCarey threw himself heart and soul into the project, casting some superb veteran character actors in the leads: Beulah Bondi as the memorably selfless mother Lucy Cooper, comedian Victor Moore as the good-humored but somewhat lazy father Barkley or “Bark,” and Thomas Mitchell and Fay Bainter as their outspoken son George and social-climbing daughter-in-law Anita. McCarey scripted the film with Vina Delmar, directed it with great care, obvious love, and with plenty of enlivening humor to balance the tears. Yet, despite McCarey‘s painstaking devotion to the material, it was a financial flop. Audiences, what there were of them, found it depressing. Make Way for Tomorrow got McCarey fired from Paramount, ironically by the elderly but still hale 64-year-old studio head Adolph Zukor, who had demanded, but failed to get, a happy ending for the movie.
McCarey rebounded that same year, directing (from another Delmar script) the romantic comedy masterpiece The Awful Truth, with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne trading urbane, innuendo-laden quips as an unhappily divorced couple, with McCarey winning the 1937 “best director“ Oscar for it. But, when the irrepressible, curly-headed, Irish-American jokester/director accepted his Awful Truth Oscar on stage, he told the Academy audience that he had been recognized for the wrong film, that he should have gotten the Oscar for Make Way for Tomorrow. And, to the end of his life, this master comedy director always named Make Way for Tomorrow as his personal favorite among all his movies — a list that included such classics as Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary‘s, Ruggles of Red Gap and An Affair to Remember.
McCarey was right. It has taken me most of my own life to finally see this great movie — which has a huge reputation among French and American “auteur” critics, but has been rarely revived or shown in America, until the Criterion DVD release, and that was also a stellar highlight of the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. But I agree with the man who made it. This is his best film, and one of the best films anyone ever made, anywhere, about families, children, fathers and mothers. At the end of the movie, I did what almost everyone else reportedly does when they see Make Way for Tomorrow. I wept.
II. The Awful Truth
The movie, scripted by Delmar (subject to McCarey’s personal specialty, improvisations he developed with the cast on shooting days in rehearsal) is about an elderly small town couple, Lucy and George (unimprovably played by Bondi and Moore) who, like many another Depression family, have lost their home to the bank. Trying to spare their children, they’ve kept these problems a secret.
Now, when Bark reveals the crisis at a last minute gathering of the clan, with foreclosure only a few days away, they are temporarily relieved when George, the most level-headed of the family, insists that it will all work out — even though it’s too late, for the moment, to get his parents their own new little lodgings. Instead, the elder Coopers will stay with their children. Finances demand however that they first be separated, Bark sent to live with his daughter Cora (Elizabeth Risdon) and her husband Bill (Ralph Remley), and Lucy to New York City with George and Anita, and their teenage daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read). Later, daughter Nellie (Minna Gombell) and husband Harvey (Porter Hall), the most well-fixed of the family, will make room for both parents.
Lucy and Bark are grateful, eager to fit in. But they have their own personal crochets, their foibles and quirks, and the new arrangement proves a disaster, with most of their children (and especially their grandchild Rhoda) demonstrating a selfishness and shallowness that both infuriates you and breaks your heart as you watch it.
Hostess Cora is shamefully mean to the fragile, cough-and-cold-prone Bark, and even worse to his one good friend, the local little Jewish merchant Max Rubens (Maurice Moscovitch). Nellie and her nasty husband Harvey (Porter Hall at his summit of Porter-Hallian snobbiness) renege on their promise and make plans to run off on a vacation. Another daughter in California will only take one of the parents, and not both together. And George and Anita, seemingly the most sensible and humane of the second generation, allow themselves to be bossed around by their outrageously self-centered high school playgirl daughter Rhoda — who says she can’t bring her friends home because she‘s ashamed of her grandmother, and instead runs around making whoopee with thirty-something rakes. In one instance, she demands that Lucy lie for her, then berates her.
Finally, when Bark becomes ill, and must go to California (it seems), George and Anita contrive to separate their parents (maybe forever) by sending their mother to the local old folks home. Lucy, helping her children to the end, accepts the inevitable by making the decision for them.
The Cooper family, now in fragments, all meet in Manhattan for a last family party before Bark’s California train leaves, a shindig which the two old parents – in what may be their last hours together — decide impulsively to skip in order to go to the hotel site of their honeymoon, and remember life as it used to be, when they were young. And their children then miss the final leave-taking at the train station when George, ashamed of them all, decides to let his parents have their last fling, deliberately not telling his brothers and sisters about the fleeting time left — the hours that are almost all used up.
That last sequence is one of the greatest and most moving in any American film, richly imbued with a wisdom, sadness, giddy humor and deep humanity few movies ever attain.
END OF SPOILER.
III. Make Way for Tomorrow
The most disturbing thing about Make Way for Tomorrow (the title is an ironic dig at the ageism and obsession with youth that still poison American culture today) is how plausible it all is. Yes, we think, as we watch Lucy and the rest of the Cooper family, this is very well what could have happened to these people in this time. (Many families, in fact, had it much worse.) And, as in all great drama (and great comedy), we watch the inevitable while staying powerless to stop it.
The usual Hollywood domestic drama, of course, would end happily with Lucy and Bark united in the last minute and the children, or at least some of them, repentant, having learned their lesson. And that might have guaranteed the box office hit that Zukor wanted, and that McCarey seemed to be deliberately throwing away.
But how many of us, in fact, really learn our lessons? Make Way for Tomorrow — the title is a savagely ironic riff on the popular culture nostrum that the old must make way for the young — ends instead on an annihilating diminuendo, as Lucy walks along with the departing train for her last wave goodbye to her beloved, if sometimes foolish husband Bark, and then turns, and with an achingly well-judged expression of resignation, walks away from the train and from him, probably forever. If you do not cry, at least a little, at that scene, at that moment, then maybe your heart is made of stone. Or, at very least, made of plastic.
END OF SPOILER
Part of the reason for the incredible poignancy of that last scene, on which almost everyone who writes about the film comments, is the way McCarey and his cast make the performances so real — at first amusingly, later shatteringly. Victor Moore, a longtime stage and screen comedian, who specialized in kindly, but confused and flustered sidekicks (to Fred Astaire in Swing Time, among others), is perfect as the flustered and somewhat incapable Bark. Mitchell and Bainter make convincing both their characters’ intelligence and empathy and the awful truth of the mistake they make anyway, and won’t unmake, in separating their parents.
All the other children, including madcap son Robert (Ray Mayer), who starts the movie with a stiff drink and a jaunty rendition of “M-O-T-H-E-R“ — as well as Moscovitch as Max the mensch, Read as man-grabbing granddaughter Rhoda and Louise Beavers as no-nonsense maid Mamie — are ideal casting too.
But the most perfect performance of all is by Beulah Bondi, who just tears your heart in two as the soon-to-be-abandoned old mother, Lucy Cooper.
You may not recognize Bondi’s name. She was a Chicago native, and only 48 when she played 70-year old Lucy — but you’ve probably seen her a number of times in classic Golden Age movies. She usually played older women, mothers and grandmothers and aunts, and she played them for decades, from her thirties on, after her movie debut at 39 as a haggish old city woman in King Vidor’s 1931 Street Scene. She was, in many ways, the female film equivalent of Walter Brennan, another specialist in motion picture old age, and I mean that as high praise.
You‘ve probably seen her at least once, and you‘ll remember her face, even if you’ve forgotten her name. Bondi was Jimmy Stewart’s mother, Ma Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life. She was Stewart’s mother again in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (and on two other movie occasions, as well as once on TV), and she was Robert Mitchum‘s Ma in Track of the Cat. She assayed yet another classic small town mom, Mrs. Webb, in the 1940 movie of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. She was unforgettably the cantankerous, tantrum-throwing old Granny in Jean Renoir’s great 1945 movie about poor Texas tenant farmers, The Southerner.
Bondi was nominated twice for an Oscar (and lost twice), in 1936 for The Gorgeous Hussy and in 1938 for Of Human Hearts. She also missed the sure-fire Oscar she almost certainly would have won, after John Ford personally chose her to play Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. (Delighted with the role, Bondi began personally researching it by living in an Okie camp.)
But the studio demanded that Ford save money by using Fox contract player Jane Darwell. Darwell was excellent as Ma Joad; it was her most memorable movie performance. And she actually did win the supporting actress Oscar that year, though Bondi — and I believe this very strongly after watching her play Lucy in Make Way for Tomorrow — would probably have been at least twice as good, twice as powerful, as Jane Darwell or anyone else. Bondi would have played that last leave-taking scene with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, as no one else possibly could have, with a delicacy, a discretion, a deep heartfelt emotion and an absolute lack of melodrama or sentimentality, that would have been as poignant and true as her last scene in Make Way for Tomorrow. Beulah Bondi was a great one, the champion of all Golden Age Hollywood movie mothers, even though, in real life, she never married or had children.
She later said that losing the part of Ma Joad was the greatest disappointment of her career.
Finally though, Bondi did win a major American acting award, an Emmy, in 1977, at the age of 85, in another role some of you may have seen her play: as Aunt Martha Corinne Walton in “The Waltons.” She died four years later, in 1981. The Academy should have given her a career Oscar when she was alive, but they didn’t, maybe because she was a character lady — and movie character ladies are often ignored..
All these years, you probably never knew that Aunt Martha in “The Waltons” was played by one of the greatest actresses in the history of the Hollywood cinema. But you may not argue that point if you see Make Way for Tomorrow. And you should see it. You’ll be convinced, I hope, after you experience the perfection and humanity of that performance. Bondi, an acting genius, adroitly captures both the mildly abrasive qualities that alienate Rhoda and her teenage playmates, and that also irritate George and Anita (the way Lucy talks way too loud on the phone, whines a little or fusses with her rocking chair). And she catches also the pure, and utterly believable goodness and unselfishness, that make Lucy seem so heroic at the end.
Don’t be dissuaded by anyone who tells you not to see McCarey’s favorite movie, because it’s “depressing.” They’re doing you no favors.
Among the many film lovers and experts around the world who were deeply moved by Bondi’s performance, and by all of Make Way for Tomorrow, were the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu and his scriptwriter Koga Noda, who were inspired by their love of McCarey’s film to make their own movie masterpiece about elderly parents and neglectful children, the 1953 Tokyo Story — long regarded by the most demanding critics as one of the finest films ever made. The surprise here is that Make Way for Tomorrow is every bit as good as Tokyo Story, as Ozu probably would have been the first to say himself.
You may have guessed by now that one of the reasons I love Bondi‘s performance so much — and love the film itself — is that Lucy reminds me of my own mother Edna Wilmington, who died in 2009 at the age of 94, and whom, at her urgent request, I refused to take to a nursing home, despite pressure from her doctors. There are many scenes in the film, in fact, where the resemblances between Lucy and Edna are uncanny, especially in that piercing, intense look both have in their eyes, the punctilious care they take in their work, the sometimes childlike delight they derive from ordinary things (and that painter/sculptor Edna took in her art), and the way they would both reach out, smiling, to take your hand.
Beulah Bondi‘s Lucy Cooper — or at least some of her qualities — and Victor Moore’s Bark, may probably remind many of you of your own parents. And, remembering them, you may be more inclined to accept with a sense of pride, and of loving obligation, that commandment, sometimes dismissed as a sentimental cliché, but with which McCarey begins his movie, and that serves as its moral: “Honor thy father and thy mother.“
Sadly, like the Cooper children, we often don’t. But it’s the key to the greatness of Leo McCarey, of Vina Delmar, of Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore, and of their unjustly neglected masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow. They remind us, inescapably, that we should.
Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, with these extras: Video interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and Gary Giddins; accompanying booklet with excellent essays by Tag Gallagher, Robin Wood and Bertrand Tavernier.
THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (Blu-ray) (Four Stars) Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1958 (Criterion)
The great Akira Kurosawa action samurai epic, and one of Kurosawa’s most sheerly entertaining and thoroughly engaging films, this is the movie whose storm-the-fortress-and-save-the-princess plot helped inspire George Lucas’s smash hit space opera Star Wars — and whose two wandering peasant clowns (played by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) were Lucas’s inspiration for the bickering robots C-3PO and R2-D2.
One of the supreme adventure movies, with the inevitable Toshiro Mifune as the gruff warrior-general Makabe (one of his best roles), Takashi Shimura (the leader of the Seven Samurai) as the old general and Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki, the lady they’re all battling over. Like all the best Kurosawas — which encompasses most of his output — this is a beautifully crafted, tremendously exciting movie, and it features some of Kurosawa’s best action scenes, shot and cut in his characteristic vigorous three-camera set-ups. It’s better than Star Wars. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.) .
BLUE JASMINE (DVD; Blu-ray; Digital HD; UV) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Woody Allen, 2013 (Sony)
Blue Jasmine may not really be one of Woody Allen’s best films, as many are calling it. But it definitely contains one of the great actress performances in any of his picturess: Cate Blanchett’s heart-breaking portrayal of Jasmine French. Allen and Blanchett’s Jasmine is a razor-sharp look at a woman of style who seems solidly part of the American rich — but then loses everything. It’s one of the most memorable jobs ever by an Allen actress, on a level with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Manhattan, Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Broadway Danny Rose, Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway, Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives and Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Blanchett’s hungry eyes, and exaggerated elegance stick in your mind, gain depth and feeling as you watch her. Besides winning the Best Actress Oscar, the performance has been nearly universally praised, and it deserves to be.
Perhaps that’s because Jasmine as acharacter is a kind of culmination of Allen’s attitudes toward the moneyed white culture Jasmine represents. Jasmine lives what seems a charmed life as a member of the Manhattan financial social elite Allen loves to have fun with — but then finds herself hurled into the chaos of the 2008 financial collapse, and turning into Woody’s version of Blanche DuBois, Tennessee Williams’ lady on the edge, wandering, desperate, talking to herself, at the end of the line.
Is this a comedy or a drama? Actually it’s both. Much of the film is clearly intended (and works) as high dramatics, but the movie also draws from rich comedy wellsprings: swindles, self-deception and humbuggery. Here, these illusions destroy more than dignity, drive Allen’s characters into the stormy waters of Bergmanesque emotional trauma (in Interiors, Another Woman, or Match Point). Jasmine, whom Blanchett plays with a radiant selfishness and fragility, loses it (money, position, comfort) all, or most of it. She discovers that her life is a lie, and that her smoothie financier husband Hal (Alec Baldwin, dead-on slickly manipulative) is a liar, cheat and thief (both financial and romantic). She finds that her world was whirling on a Bernie Madoff-style ponzi pyramid of lies, and that she has few resources to cope with her present plunge to the Middle Depths.
When we first see Jasmine, she’s on a plane headed for San Francisco and a temporary refuge with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, the breezy free spirit of Mike Leigh’s 2008 Happy-Go-Lucky), jabbering away about her life to her captive seatmate (Joy Carlin), who tells her husband later that Jasmine started off the conversation by talking to herself — which she does more and more these days. Soon, Jasmine has reached the Mission District where Ginger lives with her auto repair guy boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale) — which is where we get the first of many deliberate parallels to Williams’ great, sad, lyrical play A Streetcar Named Desire. Jasmine has arrived like Blanche DuBois at the New Orleans apartment of her sister Stella and of Blanche’s macho nemesis, Stella’s brutal hubby Stanley Kowalski — at a place which is her last stop, with a household where she’s partly welcome and partly resented and desired, and where her only hope of escape is Stanley‘s mama‘s boy bowling buddy Mitch..
Ginger is the Stella character, and Chili is Stanley — and so is Ginger’s ex-husband Augie (played surprisingly well by “hoodlum-of-humor” comedian Andrew Dice Clay). There are couple of possible Mitches, the most plausible of which is Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight, a State Department guy who sees Jasmine — or at least Jasmine in her dream world — as a fit wife for a man with political ambitions. Another more obnoxious maybe-Mitch is D. Fischler the horny dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man), who employs her as a very nervous receptionist.
Jasmine is humiliated by Fischler’s attentions — and humiliated also by Ginger’s lower-class apartment and the crudity of Chili and his sports fan buddies. She does have her own Belle Reve memories though – and half the movie is taken up with flashbacks to Jasmine’s One Percenter life with Hal, and with the destruction of that dream, as she finally discovers everything he was — and everything his world was. At the end, Allen gives Blanchett the actress, a shattering moment — fittingly for an actress whose own stage performance of Blanche (under Liv Ullmann’s direction) was said to be phenomenal.
Allen is 77. This is his 44th movie. Why does the old stand-up guy turn his story into a grim parody of one of America‘s greatest saddest plays? Can we expect “Death of a Comedian” or “Long Deli’s Journey Into Knockwurst” or “Who’s Afraid of Sholem Aleichem?” or “12 Angry Yentas” somewhere down the line? Well, in fact parody, and putting himself into different worlds, is the Sid Caesarian soul of much of Allen’s comedy. He can be as much a parodist as his old Sid Caesar writer-colleague Mel Brooks — but where Brooks sends up Frankenstein and Star Wars, Allen has classier targets: Bergman, Fellini, film noir. Like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, he likes to flee into other worlds, other times.
Woody twists some of the scenes: Augie and Chili are not such bad guys; Jasmine is less sympathetic than Blanche, and her strangers less kind. The real villain in Blue Jasmine is the economy itself, and its agents like Hal.
Blanchett is an amazing actress . Like Katharine Hepburn (whom she impersonated in The Aviator) or Meryl Streep (with whom she shares a sisterly resemblance), she is a player of tremendous vitality and depth, And brain power. Here, she often seems to be flirting with pathos, but she always slips the clinch — and dances away many times from the edge of humor, too. It’s a very intellectual performance, and the ending loops back to recall the beginning. Everything Blanchett does is transparent; like Jasmine — and like Blanche, we can see right though her. The rest of the actors, taking on literate, challenging Allen-scripted parts for scale (and obviously having a ball doing it) are wonderful. So is the mellow cinematography of Javier Aguirresrobe and the posh or more ordinary settings by Santo Loquasto. The music is more of the period jazz, blues and pop he loves to play or us, and that we should love to hear. I know I do.
August: Osage County (DYV; Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.: John Wells, 2013 (Anchor Bay)
A blisteringly good script by Tracy Letts — using the classic “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”/“Who’s Afraid if Virginia Woolf?” theatrical form of a loud, partly drunken gathering where secrets are revealed and wounds torn open. And with a super cast: Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Margo Martindale and others.
The virtuoso center of the film however is (stop me if you’ve heard this one) Meryl Streep. In an uncharacteristically rowdy and foul-mouthed turn as Violet Weston, a nasty, drugged-out old pseudo-matriarch, celebrating her husband’s (Sam Shepard) passing by flaying alive her daughters and their men, Streep brings down the house, in more ways than one. It’s a classic scene-stealing performance by a lady who’s stolen many a scene before.
Saving Mr. Banks (Three Stars)
U.S.: John Lee Hancock, 2013 (Walt Disney)
Who would have thought that, nearly 40 years after the release of Walt Disney’s favorite creation, the bouncy Disney mass audience movie musical of P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, they’d make a Hollywood art movie and biopic on the making of Poppins, and that it would be graced by performances as rich and good as Tom Hanks’ gentle mogul Disney, Emma Thompson’s tart Britisher Travers, and Paul Giamatti’s good-guy turn as her driver. A nice show — and I mean that in a nice way.
Extras: Deleted scene.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (Three Stars)
U. S.: Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014
I. Man and Superman
In the mood for something super-duper, movie-wise? Something loud, fast, full of crash-bang and zip-zowie, and liable to make megazillions of dollars all around the world? Captain America: The Winter Soldier — which is the latest Marvel Comics super-hero spectacular — may be just your super-ticket.
I’m being facetious, but maybe not super-facetious. The movie, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, has a lot going for it, though I think it’s being somewhat overrated. A super-hero picture with a great two-faced super-villain, a super-jittery action camera, super-CGI tricks, super-credit teasers, a shrewdly super-paranoid script, and a sort of a heart, Captain America: The Winter Soldier definitely belongs in the upper echelon of Marveldom, somewhere under Iron Man and Spider-Man 2, and somewhere above The Hulk and X-Men. I wouldn’t call Winter Soldier a great show — it’s hard to call any of the modern super-hero movies great, including the best of them, The Dark Knight Trilogy — but it’s good of its kind.
It‘s better-written (by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus) and better-acted (by a cast headed by Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie and Robert Redford) than usual, and it has lots of stuff aimed at (and best appreciated by) adults, along with the usual core teen audience. I had a good time watching it, except for the camera and cutting styles (more of that later), and I’m sure that the hordes of movie goers who’ll descend on it in millions will have a pretty good time at it too — though, if you’re a different kind of movie-lover, and unconcerned with profit-loss, you might wish that the 170 million bucks spent on it, were invested in 17 better and more ambitious but less costly movies — or eight, or four. Or even one.
But why get muddled up in ambition or high finance? Captain America: The Winter Soldier — another gaudy, expensive expansion of another super-tale from super-writer Stan Lee’s classic super-comic series of the ’60s and beyond — does what it’s damned well trying to do, with some style and panache. We should all be so lucky.
Winter Soldier was directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo — whose last feature outing was the 2006 Matt Dillon-Kate Hudson-Owen Wilson comedy You, Me and Dupree (with Seth Rogen in a minor part) — and it basically follows the super-hero playbook, but with some pizzazz and left-wing politics. In the first Captain America movie (C. A.: The First Avenger), Cap (Evans) — the nicely naïve one-time 90 pound weakling who became a scientifically altered and super-sized Marvel battler for truth, justice and the American Way — was put in a deep freeze after winning World War 2 and besting the evil Nazi masterminds of Hydra, only to be thawed out 70 years later just in time to hook up with much of the rest of the Marvel gang in The Avengers.
Here, in his own new movie, he finds himself bidding adieu to his 90something now-invalid WW2 lady-love Peggy Carter (the touching Hayley Atwell), who aged while he was frozen, and then joining the often furious-looking Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) his boos in S.H.I.E.L.D. (the international law-enforcing, peace-keeping, super-force — with both of them plummeting into a super-conspiracy thriller plot, borrowed from Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and other ’70s paranoid political thrillers. .
Joining him, on one side or another, are the drop-dead-gorgeous S.H.I.E.L.D. lady and ex-Russian. agent Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Johansson), World Security Council head and old Fury crony Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, in his super-hero movie debut, playing a government dude so cool that he turned down the Nobel Peace Prize); The Falcon, a.k.a. Sam Wilson (Mackie), a super-sidekick with robot wings; assorted French pirates; SPOILER ALERT and the seemingly unstoppable assassin, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who was once a best buddy of Captain America’s, and (while in an amnesiac state since WW2) has been knocking off bigwigs for decades. END OF SPOILER.
Soon all of these characters and dozens more find themselves embroiled in heavy-duty super-hero-movie action — some of it aboard a hijacked French ship; some of it in another of those ubiquitous car-chase gun-battles that are constantly erupting in action movies and never seem to arouse much attention from nearby police or passersby; some of it in a very crowded elevator; and some of it in a dangerous new contraption called the helicarrier, a flying death ship that may well alter the face of world law enforcement and of super-hero-dom — or at least become the flying arena for another slam-bang super-hero battle — in this movie‘s slam-bang super-climax.
II. The Children of Stan Lee
Watching Captain America: the Winter Soldier — with its crashing cars, blazing guns, soaring helicarriers and vicious mano-a-mano fights galore — I was entertained and diverted. But I also began to wonder as I watched if our whole movie culture hasn’t gone a little nuts. Sooner than we like to think, certainly in another century, there may not be oil to make gas for these conspicuously wasteful cars, these planes, these helicarriers. Sooner than we think, we may get involved in crazy new wars, which may decimate whole cities. Sooner than we think, there may be worse villains, a sturdier brand of fascism, and no Captain America to clean their clocks. I know. it sounds paranoid, but….
These nightmare fantasies of the teen-targeted super-hero action movies (or SHAMS) and young adult movies (or YAMs) — so wildly popular with younger audiences — are fashioned out of the Marvel comic books of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which is when Marvel Comics main-man writer-editor Stan Lee wrote a lot of his best stuff and when I read a lot of it), and this Captain America (created for the comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) is a left-wing movie that makes its villains part of the military-industrial complex: self-righteous militarists who want to take over the world, and programmed mercenaries like the Winter Soldier himself.
It was a moderate conservative U. S. President of the ‘50s, ex-WW2 commanding general Dwight Eisenhower, who warned us about the military-industrial complex in his last speech as president in the ‘60s– and who would have known better? The first Captain America was set back in World War II, the war Eisenhower and his armies won, the time of the now-storied Greatest Generation, and of an America struggling out of the Depression and then the war against Hitler and Nazism. And what happens in this movie is a collision of the spirit of that generation (as we remember it not only from comic books but from movies like The Story of G. I. Joe and The Best Years of Our Lives) and the conflicts and compromises of today — with Captain America, another World War 2 vet, reappearing from cold storage, all decked out in a fancy costume and fancy super-powers, ready to take on fascism again, wherever he finds it.
The movies (or the comics) are the place to go for fantasies like this — whether about the military-industrial complex, or just about flying over Metropolis with Lois Lane. But they should also be the place to go for great stories about living, breathing people and realistic events that touch us more deeply, that make use of the resources of the most inclusive art form ever invented, the one with the most resources, a form that can make use of theater, music, all the visual arts, all the aural arts and all the performance arts as well — plus all of history, all literature, and whatever’s going on right outside the multiplex..
Is it a bad joke that this truly super art form is now often most expensively used to make ultra-costly versions of old comic books (even good old comic books) and new young adult novels (even good ones), intended for a world-wide audience of teenagers, and people who seem to want to be teenagers? Are we so steeped in teen fantasies, with all these Shams and Yams, that the real world and all the magnificent stories you can cull from it are relegated mostly to the smaller budgets and cheaper seats? (Even though those movies are also the ones most of the movie-making professionals vote for come awards time?)
I’m not saying you need more money to tell ambitious, rich, human stories like, say, the ones that were nominated for the Oscars this year: 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, Gravity, Captain Phillips, The Great Gatsby, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers’ Club and the others –including my idea of a great contemporary action-adventure movie, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug? It amazes me to see the way literacy and realism and ideas are relegated to the lesser production and marketing budgets, and the way teen tastes, instead of being part of the whole movie market, tend to dominate it.
I suppose you could say that the current movies based on the Marvel or D. C. comics, besides being fantasy/science fiction, are part of the adventure or epic tradition that has been a movie mainstay since The Birth of a Nation, Cabiria and Intolerance. But they’re still formula movies, adhering to a locked-in, if sometimes amusing, pattern: stories that are repeated over and over, They’re comic book movies. In excelsis.
One of the things that made the Stan Lee-written Marvel comics so different was their brash, jokey, tongue in cheek sensibility, something shared by both the heroes and villains, and best displayed in in their wise-cracking duels and fights. (Other comic heroes used the same device, but Marvel did it better.) Another is the sense of a recognizable real world that existed outside and fed into the story — a world of teen or personal angst, war, racism, politics, the daily news and pop culture (things that this movie taps too). Relevance was a Stan Lee hallmark, and Lee, now 91 (and one of this movie’s executive producers), does another of his Hitchcockian cameos in this show. He plays a museum guard who discovers that the Captain America costume has been stolen right off the dummy, and moans “I’m so fired!”
III. Condors and Candidates
General Lee aside, the presence of Robert Redford as would-be world order tyrant Alexander Pierce instantly summons up the politics of both the ’70s and right now. And the fact that Pierce is such an ambiguous character, both thickens the plot and heightens the paranoia. Redford, the good movie liberal, in his superstar heyday, used to specialize in ambiguous guys and flawed golden boys. When he wasn’t a good bad man, like The Sundance Kid, or a good guy trapped in a bad or equivocal world, as he was in Three Days of the Condor or All the President’s Men, he could be an American idol or winner who sold out or had hidden dark depths, like he is in The Candidate or Downhill Racer or Inside Daisy Clover.
But he’s rarely been as ambiguous, or deceptive, or as villainous, as Pierce. Watching him play the part, you can sense his enjoyment: Redford brings back the breezy, smart charm he had in such abundance in movies like The Sting and Spy Games, and it’s a welcome return. But he’s also sending up his old golden boy image, and he’s added a hint of amorality or fascistic tendencies that makes the character both double-edged and compelling, the way his buddy Paul Newman was in Hud.
The rest of the cast, (except for the equally spot-on Jackson as Nick Fury) are mostly younger guys (and gals), golden young winners of our age who could slide by on their looks and personality (as Redford once could have, but often chose not to). Next to Redford and Jackson, they seem lighter, less substantial and (face it) less charismatic. (Johansson may be the exception.) These relative youngsters (Evans, Mackie, Stan) are all good in the movie, but they really need their super-powers to compete (Cap with his super-shield, Falcon with his super-wings, Black Widow with her super-karate, Winter with his super-arm), whereas Redford can command the screen and the battlefield, with just himself and his super-grin. He’s really the best thing in the movie,
The writers, McFeely and Markus, also wrote Pain and Gain. a vicious but funny movie about a particularly rotten modern reality, and the first Chris Evans Captain America, which was exciting and at times moving. So they’ve proven again they can write intelligent, amusing stuff, even in a heavily formatted, nearly straitjacketed narrative structure like this one. If you’re surprised by anything that happens here, even the movie’s big “reveal,” you either haven’t seen another Marvel super-hero movie, or , in that one “surprise” case, you don’t know the original comic book story. (I didn’t.) But you can guess it.
As for the directors, the Russos, who’ve done mostly darkish comedy in their previous feature outings (they also spent time with Arrested Development on TV), they’re good with the human, dramatic or humorous elements — though I thought the two best scenes in the movie, visually, were the two credit-teasers, which turn out to have been done (or so I’ve read) by Joss Whedon. And I really didn’t like most of the Captain America: Winter Soldier action scenes (which of course may be done by many other people than just the directors.) The movie’s elaborate scenes of action and violence are shot in a hectic, bang-your-eyes and smack-you-silly style that includes a lot of herky-jerky hand-held camera — as well as extremely rapid-fire edits that seem to average one cut or so per second. (To be fair, the cutting of the action scenes in a lot of contemporary thrill movies is just as fast, and just as irritating. )
The combination of jittery camera and whip-fast cutting makes those scenes hard (for me at least) to enjoy — especially after seeing and enjoying the majestic, beautifully shot action and deluge scenes in last week’s Noah — or ruminating recently on the work (in Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo) of a real action master, Akira Kurosawa: a Shakespeare of the action-adventure movie (as was his idol John Ford), and also one of the greatest film directors and editors who ever lived.
I wish the Russos and their editor, Jeffrey Ford (no relation, as far as I know), would take some time out to watch and study how the battle and swordfight scenes in those three great Japanese movies of the ‘50s are staged and cut — so furiously, so impeccably, with such savage grace and flawless style — before they shoot or cut another action scene themselves . I’d hate to see the Nervous Nellie shooting and editing style in this movie and others, become de rigueur for action pictures.
Of course, the Russos and Ford are following a dominant mode and style of today here. But it’s a frantic, overwrought style — even if they and others might feel that Seven Samurai, and the hundreds of pictures inspired and influenced by it, are old-fashioned movies, which should be put in the deep freeze forn a while with Captain America. If they do, they’re wrong. Kurosawa was the sensei, the super-director. Like Redford, he was a monarch of the domain we’ve ceded, unwisely, to a world of adolescents.
NOAH (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Darren Aronofsky, 2012 (Paramount)
“God gave Noah the rainbow sign.
No more water, but the fire next time.”
Old spiritual (Ralph Stanley)
I. The Flood
Will Russell Crowe ever again get a part that so suits his special screen persona and gifts — that natural genius he seems to have for projecting awesome tormented heroics and mad obsessions — as the one he plays in his new film: Noah, the lord’s visionary deadly servant in Darren Aronofsky’s sometimes crazy and often wonderful version of the biblical story of The Great Flood? Or a film that so stupendously sets those gifts off ?
Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. Crowe, it seems to me, has long since ascended to Burt Lancaster’s old throne as the brainy movie swashbuckler and later leonine old man; the only major things he lacks for the job are Lancaster’s world-devouring grin and his acrobat’s physique. But Crowe has the same kind of looks and range and ambition and the same virile appeal. Like Lancaster and George Clooney, he’s a thinking woman’s (and man’s) hunk with good taste in scripts, and, with this project, he’s lent his movie magnetism to the kind of rich, story, drenched in narrative grandeur, that might have made a great opera or epic poem and that, on the screen, tends to overwhelm us and overflow its boundaries.
Crowe, who has played warrior-rebel-heroes (in Gladiator, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar) and madmen, who talked to themselves and answered (in A Beautiful Mind) and bedeviled nerds who blew the whistle on their bosses (in The Insider) — here gets to be heroic and mad and the ultimate outsider (a man who really does have almost the entire world against him). His Noah starts out as a decent family man, idealistic, religious, generous, a good person in every way, with a loving family whom he loves.
Then comes the message, the obsession, the instructions, he believes, from God — a dream of drowning and of a big boat, a vision that he interprets as a Heavenly order to build the boat and rescue the animals of the world, and his family (at least temporarily) from the approaching Flood — and eventualy , to watch as the sinful world, condemned by God, is swallowed up in the mother of all tsunamis.
When the rains come down and the waters rise and rise, and the doomed masses of humankind outside the ark crawl over each other in a writhing, toppling tower, consumed by their frenzy to escape the inevitable cataclysm, and when Crowe’s Noah — huddling with his family on the huge deck of the ark — stares at the burst, pouring skies with melancholy acceptance and sorrow, it’s the kind of scene that almost cries out for a Richard Wagner or a Verdi to compose for it, a Bosch or a Turner to envision and paint its magnificent tumult. The movie does have composer Clint Mansell (Aronofsky’s regular musical collaborator) and production designer Mark Friedberg — and real-life, bleakly overpowering beginning-or-end-of-the-world scenery supplied, in Iceland, by The Creator. (For this movie, that may be enough.)
And it has Aronofsky, of course. And Russell Crowe. And a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Connelly as his warm but conflicted wife Naameh, and Ray Winstone as Noah’s brutal antagonist Tubal-Cain, and Anthony Hopkins as his sage, sly grandfather Methuselah and Emma Watson as the seemingly fragile, threatened Ila, one of his son‘s wives or wives to be. They’re all good, better than good. But the Flood blows them all, at least temporarily, off the screen. It’s the kind of super-theatrical disaster (masterminded here by special effects supervisor Burt Dalton), that movies were invented to give us (at least occasionally). That may disturb many Los Angeles residents or movie workers, awaiting and dreading the big quake — or other acts of God that may level the Earth and remind us how puny and tiny we really are.
The script, by Aronofsky and his collaborator on The Fountain, Ari Handel, is a dramatic elaboration and expansion of the tale from Genesis — following Noah from (briefly) his youth and the beginning of the great enmity between him and the man who killed his father, the evil and worldly Tubal-Cain (a weapon maker and descendant of Cain and a figure barely mentioned in the Bible), to the nightmare that Noah interprets as God’s message that he must build an ark (300 cubits long, 30 cubits high, and 50 cubits wide) to rescue the animals (two of each) and, at least temporarily his family — which also includes his youthful sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). (In those stranger days, “youthful” means 100-years-old or so; according to the Bible, Noah was pushing 600 and Methuselah had passed 900
Noah is aided in this mountainous, seemingly impossible task — building an ark that has three different levels for the various species (mammals, reptiles and birds, with the fish, I guess, left to the ocean) and, when finished, resembles a huge aircraft carrier — by monstrous but helpful beings called The Watchers, or Nephilim. Black and bricky, these giant fallen angels and one-time allies of humankind look like beings dreamed up for Transformers, The Lord of the Rings or The Fantastic Four, — thrown together with charred-looking stony blocks, and lurching like flexible rocky Godzillas over the terrain — they are probably among the only reasons Noah could build the damned thing in time for the Flood. That, and an obliging Creator who, when Noah needs wood for the boat, gives him a forest.
Wen that task is done, we get the spiritual and dramatic meat of the story: the Flood and its prologue and aftermath, with Noah apparently determined to complete what he regards as The Creator’s (the name God is never used) intended massacre of all his human creations, his own family included, and with Tubal-Cain (played by Winstone with the kind of effortless, raw unfiltered evil that suffuses his many great gangster portrayals) determined to become once again top dog. In the movie’s major flight of fantasy and fiction, Winstone as Cain‘s fierce descendant has sneaked aboard and stowed away on the ark, equally hellbent on killing Noah, stealing his family and taking over what‘s left of the world.
II. The Fire
The story of Noah and the Flood is one of the most compelling and terrifying in all of the King James version of the Bible — one of the many prose-poems that make that Holy Book qualify as great English literature as well as the word of God. And out of it, Aronofsky has fashioned something strange and marvelous and full of dramatic-musical-cinematic shock and awe. It’s not a great movie perhaps — I think it’s flawed, among other things, by the nearly exclusive use of digital and sculpted animals instead of at least a few living, breathing God’s creatures. But there’s greatness in it.
And controversy as well — as there was with Martin Scorsese’s furiously attacked 1988 film of Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ.“ I remember seeing one of the “Temptation” protestors — a young woman who had obviously neither seen the movie nor read much if anything about it — being engaged, in respectful debate, by some people in my party outside the movie in Century City, and the way she suddenly cried out, in what seemed like real anguish, “I don’t want to go to Hell! I don’t want to go to Hell!”
Noah has apparently already offended some religiously over-protective countries. The governments of Indonesia, Qatar, The United Arab Republic and (perhaps appropriately) Bahrain, have all banned it. And a number of fundamentalist or sometimes right-leaning organizations here at home have piled on too, some of whom demanded that Paramount put on the film a credits note stating that the movie‘s script was not factual or biblical — which Paramount seemingly, eventually did. Buried in the credits is the usual disclaimer, stating that the characters in the film are fictional and not based on real-life — not based, in other words, on the real Noah, the real Naameh and the real Methuselah — which seems to me an odd not really happy compromise.
Aronofsky, who has made movies about secret mathematical messages and the mysterious presence of God (Pi), the narcotic-induced nightmares of bedeviled outcasts (Requiem for a Dream), quests for life to the end of the universe (The Fountain), a battered, fallen hero on his last stand (The Wrestler), and dances of good and evil set to Tchaikovsky (Black Swan), here gathers up all the dark, wild fragments of his own obsessions, and jams them together in a 139 million dollar aberrant Hollywood spectacular: a vast, deadly-serious, thunderously beautiful biblical epic that plays like a fever dream of humankind’s sunset (and sunrise). It’s an operatic film poem about the edge of madness and the end (or almost end) of the world, — an ode to the apocalypse, with a universe askew, a Creator enraged, and ex-rock ‘n roller Crowe’s Noah as a sad-eyed front man, building the ark that will be battered for forty days and forty nights, which may save or destroy them. But we know the story. SPOILER ALERT, It ends with sunlight and water. And land. And white doves. (I won’t say “and with a Crowe.”)
III. The Rainbow
Noah is one of several movies recently, including the comedies This is the End, and The World’s End, that have imagined or dealt with, the end of the world (or, in this case, with the near end of humanity and what could have been the end of the world). Obviously part of this trend stems from widespread international worries about the threat of global warming and of the damaging of the ozone layer. Aronofsky’s Noah, as you might expect, is a very ecologically-minded movie; that’s another thing it’s been attacked for. But it seems to me that the story of Noah has always been a tale with a built-in warning: If this goes on…
I sometimes ruminate on the end of the world too. Noah, at its best, makes you see and experience it (or its cinematic counterfeit) — and see it through the eyes of the tortured man called upon to cope with the chaos and the dark. The power of the movie emanates from that warning, and from that vision, and from the drama of Noah’s great dilemma: Can he still love a God who has destroyed all living people and creatures, save the ones on his boat? And must Noah, the last remaining patriarch, destroy all that he most loves, to fulfill God’s wishes and pay penance for humanity‘s flaws and crimes? Like Abraham, with his blade poised above his son Isaac’s head, Noah is a man, a good man, rent in two by what seems the necessity of violating his heart’s dictate to fulfill the Creator’s plan. And Noah the movie, torn between Genesis and the rules of the movie box-office game and Aronofsky’s personal vision, is similarly transfixed and at times similarly tormented, somewhere hovering above the abyss, somewhere over the rainbow.
“And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
“And what did you hear, my darling young one?
“I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warning.
“”I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.
“And it’s a hard…
“It‘s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
– Bob Dylan.
NEBRASKA (DVD) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Alexander Payne, 2013 (Paramount)
Nebraska is a great funny-sad road movie full of all-American offbeat lives, oddball comedy and bleak black-and-white landscape beauty. In Alexander Payne’s new show, Dave Grant, a hip, dutiful son (Will Forte) and Woody, a father who’s slipping away from reality (Bruce Dern, off-type but fantastic) drive from Lincoln, Nebraska to Billings, Montana to pick up the fortune that Woody believes he‘s won in a Publisher’s Clearing House-style sweepstakes give-away, and, on the way, take a side trip to their old home town and Woody’s gullible ex-neighbors and checkered past.
Payne is usually great with actors, and he gets wonderful performances from everyone here, especially Bruce Dern. No surprise. We’ve known Dern, or “Dernsie” (or some of us have), ever since he showed up in a Deep South gas station in Elia Kazan‘s neglected 1960 classic Wild River, or got his in Hitchcock’s 1964 Marnie and Corman’s 1966 The Wild Angels – and his many wild-eyed American eccentrics or bullies or villainous oddballs have long since earned him a place in the pantheon of American movie character actors. He was Tom Buchanan in the 1974 Clayton-Coppola-Redford-Farrow Great Gatsby and Jack Nicholson‘s blow-hard come-on-strong big-deal brother in The King of Marvin Gardens, and he killed the Duke (shot him in the back, in fact) in The Cowboys and he was a tragic Vietnam vet in Hal Ashby‘s Coming Home — all performances that might have plausibly earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Instead, he won the 2013 Cannes Film Festival acting prize and also had his best run ever at a Best Actor Academy Award for this movie — in which he plays the exact opposite of all those flamboyant misfit roles that made him a ’60s-’70s movie buff legend.
His Woody Grant in Nebraska is the kind of melancholy small town back row guy who maybe used to be as dynamic and outgoing and full of juice as one of the old Dernsies, but now is just a sad, quiet old dreamy remnant of what he used to be: someone who, as age crept on and plunked down into the driver’s seat, has given up on sensible dreams and plans and on life as it really is for the greater comfort of life as it can’t possibly be, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were: a sweepstakes entry number that will supposedly net him an uncool million.
In his youthful prime, Dern tended to dominate any scene he was in, just by staring and gabbing and brazening it out with anyone in his way, including John Wayne. Here he plays someone so recessive, so swallowed back into the less visible parts of himself, that Woody sometimes seems to be not there at all. That doesn’t mean he’s vanished from the screen; he’s till there, but gently, more passively — or more seemingly passively. He once was one of the grand upstagers. (Dern’s old buddy and frequent co-player Nicholson called those sneaky actor’s tricks “Dernsies.”) Now he seems to let everyone upstage him, most frequently June Squibb as his uninhibited longtime wife.
Dern didn’t get the Oscar last March 2; Matthew McConaughey took it for one of those sure thing Oscar parts – a self-obsessed outlaw rodeo hedonist who contacts HIV, and becomes a smuggler of anti-Aids medicines to circumvent the law and save lives (the kind of role with which the young Dern might have done something memorable). But by playing Woody so selflessly, giving the kind of performance that Richard Farnsworth or the older Melvyn Douglas used to give, he proved that he can take the stage with understatement as well as he used to seize it with inspired over-playing. And he helps Payne and the others create a world, a road, a family, and a sad quiet old man to whose woes and daydreams we can all connect.
Like the dark flipside of Payne’s wonderful California winery buddy-buddy road movie, the side-splitting Sideways, Nebraska pulls us into an American landscape that’s both recognizable and likably absurd — and funny and sad and real. Nebraska-born Payne understands and conveys the feel, culture and quirks of small and middle town heartland America like few other filmmakers of his generation. And this affectionate (but sometimes acid) comic odyssey has another grand ensemble — including Stacy Keach as Woody’s smilingly rotten bully of an old business partner and June Squibb stealing scene after scene as Woody’s matronly but venom-tongued wife, a gal with a past and a delightfully bad mouth. This is a terrific movie: A salty look at good, salt-of-the earth (and some not so good) American characters pursuing American dreams through an American landscape and finding…themselves.
FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (DVD/Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U. S.: Alfred Hitchcock, 1940 (Criterion Collection)
Alfred Hitchcock started his American filmmaking career with a bang, by directing a Best Picture Oscar winner and an inarguable classic: his 1940 David Selznick-produced film of Daphne du Maurier’s immensely popular Gothic romantic novel Rebecca. Though it was his first Hollywood film, and though he was under the sometimes intrusive control of Selznick at his zenith (a year after Gone With the Wind), Hitch executed the assignment with near flawless professional skill and panache — beautifully visualizing and dramatizing Du Maurier‘s tense tale of a nameless, frightened naïve young wife (Joan Fontaine) taken to an eerily perfect mansion by her wealthy new husband (Laurence Olivier) who may have murdered his haunting first wife, Rebecca.
But Rebecca wasn’t Hitch’s only 1940 film. Nor is it the one that many Hitchcock critics and scholars (and maybe Hitchcock himself) consider the inarguable classic. Shortly after completing Rebecca, and freeing himself from the fealty Selznick felt was due du Maurier’s novel, Hitchcock made an American movie that was basically a continuation of the style and technique of the internationally renowned and delightfully frightening suspense thrillers he‘d made in England in the ‘30s: notably The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Lady Vanishes — a transplantation of what had become the “typical Hitchcock thriller,“ this time with an American hero.
The movie was Foreign Correspondent, produced by Walter Wanger: a classic spy melodrama of international intrigue and typically nail-biting Hitchcock suspense set in the early days of World War II, starring that sturdily all-American guy Joel McCrea (Hitch had wanted Gary Cooper) and love interest Laraine Day (Hitch had wanted Fontaine), in a movie that unabashedly called for the U.S. to enter the war against Germany, on the side of Hitchcock’s beleaguered homeland Great Britain.
That’s the conclusion McCrea’s pugnacious but immensely likable Johnny Jones (pen name Huntley Haverstock), foreign correspondent of The New York Globe, reaches after witnessing Germany’s murderous espionage and sabotage first hand, as he chases down a Nazi spy ring in England and Holland — in company with the head of an ambiguous peace organization (Herbert Marshall), his beauteous daughter (Day), a suave and plucky British fellow reporter (George Sanders), a kidnapped Dutch diplomat (Albert Bassermann), and assorted spies, journalists, officials, killers and bystanders (Edmund Gwenn, Robert Benchley, Eduardo Ciannelli and others) — racing from one hair-raising Hitchcockian set-piece to the next , and finally culminating in a scarily convincing plane crash in the ocean, with McCrea and others in the cockpit.
It’s the sort of convulsively paced, purely entertaining and thoroughly engrossing tale Hitchcock loved to make , done with a logic-to-the-winds flair and an audience pleasing imagination that would have been entirely out of place in a faithfully-rendered classic adaptation like Rebecca — but that was a clear precursor of Hitchcock’s and later career and also of the James Bond spy thrillers of the ‘60s and beyond, which were partly inspired by his work. (One of the uncredited writers on Foreign Correspondent was Richard Maibaum, who was later the main Bond series screenwriter for decades.)
Hitchcock was not allowed by Selznick to change any of Rebecca — except for his habitual joke cameo appearance –and while Selznick has been proven right in some ways by his film’s Oscars and continued classic status, Foreign Correspondent (which was nominated for six Oscars itself), has also been validated as the more truly Hitchcockian movie — full of typical Hitchcock bits and ideas and virtuoso set-pieces, like the windmills that are turning against the wind, the climactic plane crash and the famed umbrella-knocking assassination scene. These and other logic-defying but highly enjoyable moments were inserted in defiance of the critics and carpers of his films – all those fault-finders whom The Master of Suspense dismissively called “The Plausibles.”
Foreign Correspondent was scripted by Hitchcock’s regular collaborators Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, with dialogue by James Hilton (the novelist who wrote Goodbye Mr. Chips) and the Algonquin Round Table’s resident wit Benchley (who also appears in the cast as a fellow reporter). The source was an actual foreign correspondent’s memoir, “Personal History” by Vincent Sheean, and besides Maibaum, the remarkable gallery of uncredited writers on the project included Ben Hecht, Harold Clurman, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahin and Budd Schulberg, or almost everyone in Hollywood, it seems, but William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And, of course, in both cases, there was also the script-shaping genius of Hitchcock himself (and of his wife Alma) — Hitchcock, who of all non-actor movie directors, is perhaps the most visibly present in his films. Here and elsewhere, we sense him in and behind nearly every shot.
But he’s more present in Foreign Correspondent than in Rebecca. Freed for the moment from Selznick and his memoirs (they would make two more pictures together), Hitch charts the major direction he would follow right up to the end of his career: the ingenious set-pieces, the games with the audience, the personal touches and brilliant identification devices. He also produced a piece of film proselytizing for America’s entrance into the war with the Allies and against the Nazi juggernaut that was admired by no less a propaganda expert than Joseph Goebbels himself. Incidentally, I love both films, but I prefer Rebecca.
Extras: Interviews with Alfred Hitchcock (from the Dick Cavett Show), Special Effects expert Craig Barron, and Mark Harris; “Have You Heard?” a 1942 Life Magazine photodrama by Hitchcock; 1946 radio adaptation with Joseph Cotten.
2 GUNS (Two and a Half) U.S.: Baltasar Kormákur, 2013 (Universal)
Fast and slick, violent and sarcastic, predictable but entertaining, 2 Guns is a smarter-than-usual big-budget crime thriller. But it melted away fairly soon after I saw it —more a problem with the writing than with the direction or acting. The source is a graphic novel by Steven Grant, adapted with some verve by TV writer Blake Masters (Law and Order L.A.), and the show has two of the best smart-ass leading men around, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg—bouncing zingers off each other as undercover agents pretending to be crooks (Washington is seasoned and sardonic D.E.A. guy Bobby Trench and Wahlberg is his junior partner, wisenheimer Stig Stigman of U.S. Naval Intelligence), and then bouncing more zingers off a supporting gallery that includes the perversely vicious drug czar Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos, looking like death warmed over), Bobbi’s stunner D. E. A. ex-girlfriend Deb (Paula Patton) and a tangy array of crooks, lawmen and not-so innocent bystanders (James Marsden, Fred Ward, Patrick Fischler, Azure Parsons, Robert John Burke and the incredible Bill Paxton) all under the snappy direction of Baltasar Kormákur whom I would call the Icelandic Don Siegel, except it doesn’t do him justice. (Or Siegel either.)
Northern whiz Kormákur has been prolific throughout the 2000s, splitting his time between theater and movies (that would make him the Icelandic Ingmar Bergman) and also hopping between Icelandic art films (101 Reykjavik and The Deep) and Hollywood popular genre thrillers (Contraband, also with Wahlberg). He does a creditable job — and 2 Guns is also well shot (by Oliver Wood), well scored (by Clinton Shorter), well edited (by Michael Tronick), and never boring (though occasionally annoying). The script is better than average — though unfortunately, most of the big action movie screenplays these days are so lousy, calling them “better than average” is faint, damned praise. The dialogue is glib and cheerfully dirty—especially when the two stars are delivering it — but it’s also at the service of one of those stories that begins to crumble when you start thinking about it.
Washington and Wahlberg start off like a typical rag-each-other bromance cop couple. The glib Bobby exudes quiet exasperation and the cheerfully annoying Stig is given to flirting with waitresses, winking lasciviously and flipping lit matches. And pretty soon they have both sides of the law chasing them: two undercover agents, unaware of each other’s true identities and jobs (though they’ve been working together for a year or so), who‘ve been assigned to rob a bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico—a bank that has a lot more money in its vault (a cool 40 million) than either of them imagines.
SPOILER ALERT, SORT OF (roll over)
Actually, they’re being set up by somebody —a fate that seems more perilous when we learn that the stolen dough is partly the property of the C. I. A., which represented here by the extremely malign but affable agent Earl (played by Paxton—usually typed as a nice guy, but here sensational as a bad one)—who shows up to track down the loot.
END OF ALERT
If this all seems highly unlikely and complex and a little batty, that’s the way it plays. The fact that Washington and Wahlberg and Paxton and the others, keep it entertaining and somewhat plausible in a movie-movie kind of way is a tribute to the movie actor’s art, or maybe to the power of movie stardom.
Really hip movie people will recognize the bank-with-too-much-money plot twist, as well as the fictional city of Tres Cruces, New Mexico, as both grabs from (or homages to) one of the great, but lesser-known movie crime thrillers of the 1970s: Charley Varrick, with Walter Matthau as a free-lance bank robber and “last of the independents“ Varrick and Joe Don Baker as the businesslike hit man chasing him: a movie directed by our man Don Siegel—and a show I like much more than this movie‘s other oft-cited influence, Lethal Weapon. In any case, 2 Guns tends to be at its best when it’s at its most unoriginal.
Extras: Commentary with Kormakur; Featurettes; Deleted and extended scenes.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED (Three Stars)
U.S.: James Bobin, 2014 (Walt Disney Pictures)
There was never a TV puppet show quite like “The Muppet Show” — or a romantic couple of any kind quite like Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy the hamme fatale — or a supporting troupe like Fozzie the Bear, Gonzo, Animal, the Two Old Curmudgeons, and all their funny, fuzzy friends. And I’m happy to say that the new Walt Disney movie Muppets Most Wanted continues that splendid renaissance of Muppetry we saw in the 2011 Disney picture The Muppets. It’s not necessarily as good, because it doesn’t have the built-in emotional charge of being a Muppet revival movie about the revival of the Muppets — a storyline which, for those of us who’ve been familiar for years with the handmade troupe of the great late muppeteer Jim Henson (and Frank Oz and the rest) quickly became hilarious and touching and something to cheer for.
Muppets Most Wanted, the follow-up, is darker and more cynical, and far less sentimental. But it’s just as entertaining. It has the same director-writer, James Bobin, the same co-writer, Nicholas Stoller, the same composer (Christophe Beck) and songwriter (Bret McKenzie), and some of the same technical people — and of course it has the same button-eyed, enthusiastic wild and woolly-faced bunch of Muppets.
Even if it doesn’t carry the same emotional charge, this movie still has similar amounts of sly wit. show biz pizzazz, lovable high jinks, colorful set design (by Eve Stewart of The King’s Speech and Les Miserables) and lots of all-star cameo guest appearances. (Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga pop up together in one of the first songs, “Were Doing a Sequel,” and Celine Dion sings with Miss Piggy (voiced by Eric Jacobson) and Kermit (Steve Whitmire) on the big ballad “Something So Right.“ If you don’t blink too much, you’ll catch Tom Hidddleston, Christophe Waltz (waltzing), Usher (ushering), Zach Galifianakis (galifianakissing), James McAvoy and Chloe Grace Moretz..
If Muppets Most Wanted is a step down from The 2011 Muppets (and I don’t think it is), it’s certainly not a very far step down, if it’s a step down at all. After all, The Muppets, thanks to Jason Segel, Amy Adams and the whole gang, was the best Muppet Show of any kind in decades.
There are problems with sequels however, and no one knows that better than the show biz-savvy Muppets, who are by now almost as imperishable a part of the movie biz as the Oscar Show. This movie‘s two first musical numbers, in the zippy new score by McKenzie. are “They’ve Ordered a Sequel” (sung by superfan Walter, Statler and Waldorf, and the aforementioned “We’re Doing a Sequel,” sung by The Muppet Ensemble, plus Bennett and Gaga — an ideal Muppet all-star pairing and a snappy, slap-happy number that sets the tone for the wised-up story that follows.
This movie begins right after the last movie ended, with the triumphant comeback of the Muppet company. Then it brings on its ‘60s caper movie super thriller travelogue plot, introducing two super villains, the acerbic Golden Globes dismantler and Office guy Rickey Gervais as the sneaky and nefarious Dominic Badguy, who wants to be their manager and take them on a world tour (of Berlin, Madrid, Dublin and London), and Badguy’s bad green boss, the slimy Russian amphibian Constantine (Matt Vogel), who looks just like Kermit with the addition of a black beauty mark on his right cheek (which he covers up with green goo) and who talks like a bad dream of Akim Tamiroff doing a bad Vladimir Putin imitation.
These two Foulfellas have cooked up an evil, exploitative scheme in which Constantine — who has escaped from Siberia, and replaced himself with Kermit — will masquerade as Kermit and the two crooks (who bring down the house with their rousing razz-ma-tazzy number “I’m Number One (He’s Number Two.)”) will book the Muppets into a series of theatrical show venues which not coincidentally are just next door to a variety of well-heeled places to be looted and Rifified — culminating in a final daring heist of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London itself , while Constantine marries the bedazzled Miss Piggy. (What we see is the actual Tower of London, made available to the production, because “the woman who runs it” likes The Muppets.)
Meanwhile Kermit languishes in the Siberian gulag vacated by the perfidious Constantine, with Kermit reliving his own version of “One Day (or several) in the Life of Kermit Kermitovich,” His gulag mates include Ray Liotta, Jeamine Clement and Danny Trejo, and his seemingly ferocious, hard-ass guard, Nadya, is played, and how, by Tina Fey. Luckily for him, Nadya happens to be a Broadway musical comedy fanatic and she signs on whole-heartedly to Kermit’s offer (which is part of his escape plan) to put on the most show-stopping, hubba-hubba, all-singing, all-dancing, imitation Broadway musical comedy prison show since Mel Brooks’ “Prisoners of Love” closed out The Producers.
The movie’s main joke involves the bad/good doubling of Kermit — as the gentle, whimsical, crinkle-faced frog-chappie we all know and love and the fiendish and almost incomprehensible master criminal Constantine — who teams up with Dominic Badguy to turn the entire troupe into stooges and unknowing accomplices to a crime wave..
But The Muppets, as much as Sid Caesar or Carol Burnett in their prime, thrive on movie parodies, and Muppets Most Wanted is packed with them. The movie manages to smoosh together the genres of musical comedy (always a natural for the stage-struck Muppets), detective and heist thriller (with Ty Burrell of “Modern Family” as Interpol agent Jean-Pierre Napoleon, the most inept French sleuth since Inspector Clouseau, assisted by the true-red-white-and-blue C. I. A muppet bird, Sam Eagle), a prison picture (with Fey at her faintly smiling, deadpan best), and a con-artists love story which actually seems (for as second or two) as if it may produce the long-deferred nuptials of the little green guy (or his double) and his big pink ladylove.
All these plot elements keep colliding merrily, until the usual big bang-up climax brings them all together for a grand finale or two. The movie, whose exteriors were mostly shot in England (by Robert Zemeckis’ cinematographer Don Burgess), looks as shiny and feel-good flashy as something snazzy from the ’60s, and the musical numbers have the right touch of catchy lunacy. Gervais, Fey and Burrell are admirably Muppet-friendly (or, in Gervasi’s case, Muppet-conning) human costars, and the entire show has the zip and irreverence and playful satire (and at least some of the heart) that a Muppet-admiring audience would expect.
Muppets Most Wanted is, like its predecessor, better-written and better-directed and smarter than most of the current movies made for alleged adults. Of course, it could be argued that Jim Henson’s Muppets themselves, after they branched out from Sesame Street to their own TV show and movies, were an act as much or more for adults as for children, two groups who respond to different aspects of the Muppet Mythos.
A fine custodian for the mythos so far, is writer-director James Bobin who became a hot TV scripter-helmer thanks to sharp comedies like Flight of the Conchords and Da Ali G Show. Right now, he seems a nearly ideal auteur for the Muppets of today, and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement and Get Him to the Greek) fits in smartly with him. Both of them have credits that are more adult, and off-color than you’d expect to find in the makers of puppet movies for families. But that‘s part of the secret of the troupe: kiddie toys who, however childishly they act, have the minds of adults. Or part of the minds of adults.
A word or two about Kermit and Miss Piggy, a couple who dance like Fred and Ginger, sing like Frank and Ella, and play romantic comedy like Spence and Kate — or at least think they do (or at least Miss Piggy thinks they do). The words: Hurrah. Good show. May Muppet Time last forever — or at least ‘til the next sequel rolls around.