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Wilmington on Movies: Jersey Boys

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

JERSEY BOYS (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Clint Eastwood, 2014

JERSEY BOYS

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, PersonaLawrence of Arabia, Stagecoach, Vertigo, GoodfellasSingin’ 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.

Wilmington on Movies: A Million Ways to Die in the West

Friday, May 30th, 2014

million waysA MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST (Two and a Half Stars) U. S.: Seth MacFarlane, 2014

Hate to admit it, but I laughed fairly hard at parts of Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in The West, a sexed-up comedy Western with a foul-mouthed script and few inhibitions. Forgive me, John Ford. Forgive me, Howard Hawks. Forgive me, Sergio Leone. For that matter, forgive me, Mel Brooks.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t laugh a whole lot. But  I chuckled enough to briefly rescue this tawdry but  good-tempered big-studio send-up of ‘60s-‘70s-era movie Westerns from the dung heap of  off-color humor, Wild West satire, genital jokes  and smirkingly fatuous toilet-gags  in which it seemed to be plunging (or flushing itself) beginning with the   first scenes — which include a TV ad-style  montage of Monument Valley shots (that’s Ford country, of course) and a semi-High Noon-style gunfight interrupted by a fellatio joke.
It’s another Seth MacFarlane show — a Wild West Fart Farce. But though it’s just as juvenile and just as boy’s-night-out machismo-gaggy as writer-director MacFarlane’s smasheroo comedy hit Ted — it‘s the kind of movie that might have been scripted into a Dictaphone by three drunken or stoned friends watching Rio Bravo or Once Upon a Time in the West together on a Friday night with beer and nachos — it doesn’t work as well as Ted did, perhaps because MacFarlane, who dubbed the teddy bear in Ted, this time out, has cast himself in the onscreen lead role of  Albert Stark a smart-ass sheepherder with a tacky just-folks wardrobe and a lazy stand-up delivery that suggests Johnny Carson awakening from a long snooze. Not that McFarlane can’t really play a romantic lead (any more than he can’t really host an Oscar show). It’s just that he needs direction — or more direction. Anyway, Adam Sandler could have done it better.
MacFarlane’s Albert is, in some ways, a distant relative of the Glenn Ford character in The Sheepman and (more closely) of the Bob Hope characters in The Paleface and Alias Jesse James. He is an outsider (like Ford) and  a wisecracking coward (like Hope) stuck in a dusty, dangerous, disease-ridden 1882 Western town called Old Stump, Arizona. There, he  experiences all kinds of humiliations and assaults on his manhood by the mostly mean-spirited and addle-brained Old Stumpers, including Neil Patrick Harris as the fancy-dan lady-killing mustachery entrepreneur Foy; Amanda Seyfried as Albert’s faithless and sullenly cutie-pie schoolmarm ex-girlfriend Louise, who left him for Foy and his mustaches;  Albert’s nasty daddy George (Christopher Hagen), in a sort of Walter Brennanish mean coot part; and, worst of all,  the ultra-macho Liam Neeson –wandering around murderously as the sadistic Eastwoodian Fordian Irish outlaw boss Clinch Leatherwood.
Albert has some allies. He’s given (not exactly) moral support by his best friends Ruth (Sarah Silverman), the town whore, and Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), her fiancée, the town cuckold (with whom she refuses to have sex before marriage, even after a hard day at the whorehouse). And Albert finally finds a kindred spirit, rescuing him from further ignominy and comparisons to Bob Hope, in the movie’s heroine: blonde gun slinging bombshell Anna Leatherwood, Clinch’s discontented, good-hearted and wildly sexy wife, played by the wildly sexy and apparently good-hearted Charlize Theron who steals the movie and mails it out on the 3:10 to Yuma.
Anna, while on furlough from Clinch, teaches or inspires Albert to fight, shoot, squint, stride manfully into a saloon full of gun-toting sociopaths, make love (probably) , dodge sheep-piss and survive sheep stampedes, and otherwise behave like a late-night talk-show host plopped into Old Stump, Arizona, circa 1892 and handed a six-shooter whose trigger he can barely pull, and a weenie that is (temporarily) the laughing stock of Old Stump. To cover the political bases, there are also some good Indians, with peyote, led by Wes Studi (Geronimo) as Cochise, and a Tarantinoesque cameo by Jamie Foxx, who shows up at the end to wipe out the memory of a racist shooting gallery gag. That fit’s the movie’s main source of humor of semi-humor: which is the proposition that the Old West was actually a pretty unbearable place, unless you had Charlize Theron around  to teach you how to shoot. (That’s not too far from where Sam Peckinpah took the Western in The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.)
The movie is basically a parody of Mel Brooks’ infinitely funnier 1974 Blazing Saddles, which of course, is itself a parody, and pretty heavy  on  toilet gags and fart-foolery and potty-mouth humor and genital jokes (As Cleavon Little might say: “Pardon me while I whip this out!”).  A parody of a parody? The anti-racist Blazing Saddles, which is Brooks’ choice as his funniest movie (I’d pick The Producers) is done with the same kind of unbuttoned irreverence, but with more affection than you’d expect (MacFarlane‘s picture has some too). And it had a fitfully hilarious cast, including Gene Wilder as a whimsical gunslinger, Little as a sharp-tongued black sheriff (a part intended for and partly written by Richard Pryor) and assorted other Western simpletons including a Gabby Hayes imitator, Madeline Kahn as a Marlene Dietrich-ish bar lady and Brooks himself as Mayor Fartmaster. (Look it up.). Without Blazing Saddles (and Ford and Leone and Peckinpah or Eastwood) , there might be no Million Ways to Die in the West — which some would applaud.
A Million Ways to Die — which gets its title both from an old spaghetti western (I think) and from the 1986 Hal Ashby-Lawrence Block-Jeff Bridges crime thriller 8 Million Ways to Die –  has a pretty funny cast too, though they’re not necessarily funny here, at least not all (or most) of the time. But MacFarlane knows his westerns, and he has some affection for them too. He not only starts the movie off in Monument Valley, but he has a Frankie Laine-ish title song, sung and co-written by  Alan Jackson  (Blazing Saddles actually had Laine), but he has a very good ersatz Elmer Bernstein score by Joel McNeely. And he brings on Western vet Matt Clark as a grizzled old prospector for Clinch to torment and shoot, and there are not one but three High Noon spoof showdowns,  There’s also a hoedown emceed by Bill Maher, set to  an old Stephen Foster song called “If You’ve Only Got a Mustache, with interpolated lyrics by MacFarlane and his buddies, that squeezes out a few more chuckles too. (So does the peyote dream sheep can-can number.)
MacFarlane has his part verbally, but not physically. He can’t do (or doesn’t) the Western moves of even an inept Western movie hero — or given it the reverse pizzazz spin that, say, Jim Carrey or Ricky Gervais or Ben Stiller might have mustered in the part. MacFarlane is sort of funny, but he doesn’t really generate empathy, even when the sheep urinate on him. A Million Ways to Die reminded me, mood-wise,  of a bawdily comic ‘60s-‘70s Burt Kennedy Western (like Support Your Local Sheriff) than anything by Ford or Leone. Not that the movie is really trying for Ford or Leone.
What bothers me, in the end about Ways to Die — which is at least funnier than Blended – is that it marks another opportunity to revive the big-budget Western that misfires — like The Lone Ranger, Cowboys & Aliens, or the remake of 3:10 to Yuma before it. And I’d like to see more Westerns, even more spoof Westerns.
Last week, I watched Hawks’ Red River again, with John Wayne and Brennan and Montgomery Clift,  and I was caught up once again in that great  movie’s effortless flow and tension and psychology and visual beauty, which you would think would be possible to replicate. (Maybe Spielberg should try.) In recent years, the most artistically successful Western was  probably Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff — a low-budget revisionist Western that few people saw. That film had poetry, and I think you need some of the pop poetry of the great old westerns even when you’re sending them up and showing how bad everything was. But A Million Ways to Die doesn’t even have the effortless flow and visual beauty of Blazing Saddles. Though it does have the farts and a little fellatio.

 

 

Wilmington on Movies: Neighbors

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

neighborsNEIGHBORS (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Nicholas Stoller, 2014

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.

Wilmington on Movies: Bears

Friday, April 25th, 2014

 

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.  

Wilmington on Movies: 2014 COLCOA Film Festival — Truffaut, Lelouch

Monday, April 21st, 2014

 

CITY OF LIGHTS, CITY OF ANGELS

TheTruffaut

Francois Truffaut

 

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…PickpocketClaire‘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.

Claude Lelouch

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 Tomorrow

Saturday, 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.

SPOILER ALERT

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.

SPOILER ALERT

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.

IV. Beulah

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.

Wilmington on DVDs: The Hidden Fortress; Blue Jasmine; August: Osage County; Saving Mr. Banks

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

 

 

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (Blu-ray) (Four Stars) Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1958 (Criterion)

fortress

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 Blanchett 5

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.

No Extras.

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.

Wilmington on Movies — Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

 

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 StreetGravity, Captain Phillips, The Great Gatsby, American Hustle, Dallas BuyersClub 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.

Wilmington on Movies: Noah

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

 

NOAH (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Darren Aronofsky, 2012 (Paramount)

 

noah

“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.

Wilmington on DVDs: Nebraska; Foreign Correspondent; 2 Guns

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

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.

NEBRASKAPayne 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)

2-guns__03Fast 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.

Wilmington on Movies: Muppets Most Wanted

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

 

 

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.

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Wilmington on Movies: Divergent

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

 

DIVERGENT (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Neil Burger, 2014 (Lionsgate)

1. Eruditely She Chooses

Divergent, last weekend’s big box-office hit, tries to take us into the mind of an adolescent girl of the future, confronted with perilous choices in  a scary dystopian  (or anti-utopian) world. It’s based on an extremely popular Young Adult Novel by a writer barely out of her teens, Veronica Roth of Chicago — but, for me, it diverges from Roth’s book too much, and doesn’t diverge  enough from the usual dystopian teen movie routines.

Dystopian stories — whether they’re Nineteen Eighty Four or Blade Runner or The Hunger Games — play on our fears of the present by imagining something based on what we know or what we see in real life already, evolved into something much worse. That’s what Roth did in her novel: she concocted a story that was a nightmarish inflation of a teen-age girl‘s fears — of the future, of college and the outside world, of the deteriorating city (Chicago, in this case), of family problems, of street violence, and of (to stretch a point) government or corporate over-control. The novel is narrated, by its young adult heroine, Beatrice Prior (played in the film by Shailene Woodley of The Descendants), and the movie — should we call it a Young Adult Movie (or Y. A. M.?) — jettisons most of her narration, which means it loses most of its special voice and perspective, and much of what makes it so readable for adolescent readers. What’s left is sometimes pretty dull and predictable and often pure formula — a Hunger Games-style story that leaves you hungry and feeling a bit gamed.

Poet Robert Frost writes of  being confronted with two paths that diverged in a wood (and taking the road less taken). Beatrice, at the story’s opening, has five possible paths  from which to pick the role she will assume and the road she will take for the rest of  her life — forced to choose one of them by the dystopian State. Beatrice, and every other 16-year-old, has to take an elaborate S. A. T.-style entrance exam, and  a battery of psychological tests, which is then, for some reason,  ignored. (The exam tells you what you should be. But you can choose to ignore it and pick some other group, though you then have to stay with that group for life. )

The world she lives in — the place that used to be Chicago — is grim and cloudy and surrounded by a barren-looking desert,  and though her family is  part of the ruling class (her father Andrew is one of the ruling elite), Beatrice herself  is a kind of secret rebel. She’s quiet on the surface, but she  doesn’t necessarily fit in to this strait-jacketed, overly patterned society. Roth imagines a world around her where the city (with the remnants of the old Chicago peeking through, like the El and Michigan Avenue and the river bridges and the Sears Tower), is still somewhat damaged  after an apocalyptic war 100 years ago that boiled away Lake Michigan, made a ruin of part of the city (which was protected by walls during the war), and scorched a lot of Illinois. Here,  everyone is divided into five main groups or “factions”  (and a sixth group of total outsiders, or “Factionless“ untouchables).

Those five factions, named for what are regarded as desirable qualities to avoid another war,  are  Erudite (whose members are very  smart and maybe very snobbish), Candor (which means you always tell the truth), Amity (which means you are a cheerful vegetable picker and peaceful farmer), Abnegation (which means you are self-sacrificing and abhor fancy clothes and needless show), and finally, Dauntless — which means you get to kick ass and run around this messed-up Chicago enforcing the law, diving off buildings, jumping off moving trains, fighting in martial arts tournaments, undergoing endless military training and (your main job), keeping the peace, and stopping undesirables from scaling the walls and invading State Street or Streeterville..

I give you one guess which one of these five roads our gal Beatrice even though her parents — Ashley Judd as Natalie Prior and Tony Goldwyn as Andrew — are big deals  in the Abnegation faction, and even though Beatrice also tests high in three different categories, Erudite, Abnegation and Dauntless. That  triple whammy makes her a Divergent, which is apparently as dangerous and “outside” a science-fictional thing to be as one of A. E. Van Vogt’s Slans, or Philip K. Dick’s replicants — making you a target of this over-structured, all-controlling state.

What’s that you think she chose? Dauntless? By God, you’re a sharpie! (One might even call you Erudite.) Me, I would have guessed Amity, but that would have given us a movie where people pick vegetables and get together for Kumbaya karaokes for two and a half  hours. (Just kidding.)

So it’s dauntless forever for our gal Beatrice (now renamed “Tris“). And before you can day “Katniss Everdeen,” she’s left her heartbroken parents and her smart  brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), who picked Erudite, and she’s racing around what used to be Michigan Avenue with her fellow Dauntless debutantes  (Miles Teller as smart-ass Peter and Zoe Kravitz as anxious Christina and all the rowdy  rest), jumping off trains and buildings and taking lessons from macho fear-mastering teachers Jai Courtney as the implacable, sadistic-seeming   Eric and Theo James as the stud of studs, the mysteriously named Four.

Since this is a young adult female fantasy, Four takes a shine to Tris (Three?) at almost first sight, and keeps helping her or bolstering her morale in the training contests, which seems to give her an unfair edge in the competition. The contests, which nobody apparently told the kids about before they joined up, are games to accumulate enough points to remain Dauntless and not be kicked out into the streets as a Factionless:   homeless outcasts whom not even those do-gooders in Amity and Abnegation can’t help. (At least, not in this installment.)

Before long, Tris and Four start making moony eyes at each other, trying to spark up a little Twilight-Hunger Games magic. And lest we forget, there’s an adult meanie: Kate Winslet as Jeanine,  the slick-talking, disturbing, phonily empathetic Queen of the Erudite. The Erudite want to depose the Abnegations , replace them with themselves, possibly with the help of the Dauntlesses, so they can lord it over the Amities, the Candors and the Abnegations, and do whatever unpleasant things their erudite noggins can cook up. Did Kate Winslet have to take a test to be slotted in  this part? Or did she choose it?

2. Dauntlessly She Jumps

But I don’t want to brand myself as akin to those nasty Erudites, whom we pretty much know while wind up getting their asses kicked. I eventually read the first six chapters of Veronica Roth’s original novel, which the good publicists if Summit thoughtfully supplied with their press materials, and I thought it was not bad, or at least something that should have made a better movie than this one. Not so well written, unfortunately, is the movie’s script by Vanessa Taylor,  and by Evan  Daugherty, who concocted the scenario  for that loony, over-produced fairy tale Snow White and the Huntsman — a script that had previously won an award as one of the best Hollywood unreduced screenplays. (I thought it should have remained a great Hollywood unproduced screenplay. And so should this one.)

Despite the best efforts of director Neil Burger and of his cast and crew, this is an often dull cliche-fest with unoriginal scenes and terse, unexciting dialogue, embedded in huge gray spaces of predictable plotting and flat dramaturgy. The book, by contrast, is smooth, fast, crisply written and emotional — and it benefits greatly from the fact that it’s dominated by Tris‘s voice as the narrator. The story isn’t very original, of course, and it’s basically the same in both book and movie (it may even be the same dialogue). But, in the picture, the moviemakers  try to convey Tris’ inner life by focusing on close shots of Shailene Woodley’s face, as she tries to adjust to Dauntlessness, or gets a crush on Four, or jumps off or climbs up another building or reacts to all the dystopian stereotypes. I don’t think it worked — for the often minimally emoting Ms. Woodley or for the movie, which could really use a lot more voice-over.

Too much of Tris’s narration is cut out, an excision that also jettisons a lot of the story’s emotion and flavor. It’s become a cliche of scriptwriting and script classes to say that narration should always be minimized or cut, that movies should show and not tell, which I think is malarkey. Some great movies, like Orson WellesThe Magnificent Ambersons or Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (which hs both spoken and written narration) or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, have copious spoken narration, and they’re greatly improved by it.. Does anyone believe The Shawshank Redemption would be better without Morgan Freeman?

The three Summit PowerGirl series — Twilight, Hunger Games and this — all reverse the usual teen-action clichés by having a strong girl protagonist, with pretty, sexy males chasing after her. So far, in these films, it’s worked, and it kind of works here too — though a cliché is still a cliché, even if it’s reversed. But Shailene Woodley doesn’t really look comfortable or even comfortably anxious, with the action scenes here — and it’s hard to blame her, because the action is often so flat and unthrilling. Neil Burger, the director of Divergent (but not the writer, unless he‘s an uncredited one), was a very good writer-director on The Illusionist, which was both intellectually sharp and engrossing (and very well-acted by Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton), and maybe he should have written the script here too (or written more of it). But he doesn’t seem comfortable either (maybe he‘s too much of an Erudite).

The other actors may not be in their comfort zone either, and that includes the highly touted leading man and Downton Abbey veteran Theo James, a dark slender Brit with penetrating eyes whose hunk-of-the-century treatment by the press may be prejudicing me against him. James has presence, but his role isn’t that interesting, and the movie’s love scenes (which are more simmeringly unspoken than incendiary) don’t really have much zing.

When we speak of  chemistry in a screen couple, we’re often speaking of the script (and maybe the script improvisations), as much as we are of the actors, and that may be the problem here, at least for me. .

One of the other things that bothered me about the movie: those five categories. Erudite, Abnegation, Amity, Candor and Dauntless. What kind of government would rifle a thesaurus for names like that? And why just those five? They’ve supposedly been picked because they’re the counter-qualities for what was regarded as the five worst threats to the peace and public safety: Ignorance, Selfishness, Violence, Lies and Cowardice. But why stop there, with some people tilling the earth, some walking around telling the truth  and some guarding the walls?

Why not Technician, Fashionista, Comedian, Sportsplayery, Healer, Rock Star,  Philosopher, Well-groomed, Entertainer, Diplomat, Dog-lover, Dopey, Grumpy, Sneezey and Happy? And Moviemaker? Ah well; to each his/her own dystopia. But I hope they let Tris narrate a little more next time. Trust me; it’ll work.

Wilmington on Movies: Catherine Deneuve — The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; On My Way

Monday, March 17th, 2014

CATHERINE DENEUVE

She was the most beautiful woman I‘d ever seen. For three and a half of my college years at the University of Wisconsin, her picture was on my wall,  a wall she shared with Humphrey Bogart, Ray Charles, James Dean, Pieter Bruegel‘s painting “The Harvesters” and El Greco‘s “View of  Toledo.” She was Catherine Deneuve, the quintessential French movie  star/actress of the last half of the twentieth century, and in the picture she was peeking back over one nude shoulder, pale gold blonde hair a-tumble and softly framing that almost intimidatingly gorgeous face — a face lovely and  girlish and a little expectant and, in this black-and-white poster picture, notably unsmiling.

It was an image from Luis Bunuel’s 1967 movie classic Belle de Jour, in which Deneuve played a  bourgeois wife, in a happy but dull marriage, who decides to spend her days incognito, as a whore in an elegant Parisian bordello. The movie was a Bunuelian masterpiece about the dark side of romance, full of  menace, mystery, perversity and dark secrets — and Deneuve, in the middle of it all, seemed a creature of light floating through darkness, especially at the end, when she finally, enigmatically, smiled.

Deneuve then was quite frequently called the screen’s most beautiful actress, especially  after Belle de Jour became an international hit — a success that followed on the heels of her unforgettable appearances in Roman Polanski’s moody British shocker Repulsion and Jacques Demy’s romantic musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (one of the two Deneuve films being released or re-released now). Still in her early 20s — after having commenced her film career as a teenager, discovered by director Roger Vadim (the ex-husband of Brigitte Bardot, and  Deneuve’s lover as well) — Deneuve had one of the most strikingly sexy faces of a sexually unbuttoned era.

But she proved a striking actress as well, and her longevity is extraordinary. (Lillian Gish, the champion, acted  in movies in eight different decades; Deneuve has worked in seven.) Today,  at 70, she is still a star actress, still beautiful. I saw her at a press conference in the journalist’s room at the Cannes Film Festival, when she was 60, and I remember how she entered the room  and suddenly seemed to tilt the entire space toward her, pulling in everyone’s rapt attention — the most beautiful woman, I thought then, that I had ever seen, or ever will see.

Why was she on my wall so long? Why is her presence so remarkably enduring? Like other great screen beauties of that era whom I had special crushes on — Liv Ullmann, Leslie Caron, Bibi Andersson, Shirley MacLaine, and Catherine’s elder sister Francoise Dorleac — she had not just stunning looks, but a vibrant personality that was deeply appealing as well. Deneuve has said she knows she owes her  career to that youthful slightly icy beauty that Roger Vadim saw and recognized. But she is also one of the great people of the screen because of the deep humanity we now sense beneath the image, because we loved to look at her then, when she was 20, but still love to look at her now, when she is 70 — and because she still creates or reproduces characters on screen that we feel compelled to watch and to think about. I met her finally at that same Cannes fest, as part of a roundtable discussion interview, and I sat next to her, and, for an hour, she beggared the college fantasies instilled by that face in my poster. At the end, I talked to her for a few more moments, and she smiled her  smile, the one I never saw on my wall, and I left, happy for that brief moment. God, what a lovely smile!

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (Four Stars)

France: Jacques Demy, 1964

CherbourgDeneuve was 20 when she played Genevieve Emery in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and became a golden classic of the French New Wave, and one of the great romantic musicals of, it seems, all time. The movie was written (both libretto and song lyrics) by director Demy,  and it has one of the great,  marvelous original music and song scores — sometimes ‘50s-’60s jazzy and sometimes showstopper big-balladish –  by the French New Wave’s ‘60s composer of choice, the fantastic Michel Legrand. Legrand, with formidable skill, composed a wall-to-wall score in a movie where there is not one line of spoken dialogue, in which every speech, like every aria, is sung, and in which one song in particular, the haunting, yearning, heart-breaking ballad “Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi“ or “I Will Wait for You” became a touchstone of the era, covered by Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Louie Armstrong and many others — and probably broke as many  hearts as anything by the Beatles, including “Yesterday.”

Demy’s story is in three acts, with a coda. Act One: Deneuve’s Genevieve is a young girl who works in 1957 in Cherbourg in her mother’s (Anne Vernon’s) umbrella shop. Genevieve has just met a young auto garage mechanic  named Guy Fouche (Nino Castelnuovo), with whom she has fallen in love — and whom she wishes to marry, right away. She is sure, and so is Guy. But Mme. Emery, whose umbrellas boutique is in trouble,  is almost automatically opposed.  A practical businesswoman, she is much happier when Genevieve meets a rich young Parisian jeweler  named Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), who can solve their financial difficulties, and who falls as instantaneously in love with Genevieve, as Genevieve did with Guy.

Also working against the lovers are the times. Guy is suddenly drafted by the French Army, then embroiled in Algeria — a conscription that will pull Guy away from Cherbourg and Genevieve and also from his elderly, sick, loving aunt Elise (Mireille Perrey) and Tante Elise‘s other helper, the self-sacrificing Madeleine (Ellen Farmer), who is obviously, but quietly, in love with Guy.

The lovers are dismayed. But determined. The bouncy, jazzy, cool-and-hot rhythms of the opening scenes in Guy‘s garage with his buddies and co-workers (the Legrand music redolent of breezy jazz masters like Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson and Errol Garner and the sublime virtuoso  Art Tatum) give way to soaring, lush melodies by Legrand that suggest Bill Evans or Lester Young or Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges doing Gershwin or Porter. (“If it takes forever, I will wait for you. For a thousand summers, I will wait for you…”)

The lovers  meet, embrace, weep, sing their hearts out. (So does everyone else.) They will wait forever. But forever is a long time. And things change. (Ah, how they change.) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, while it was made by artists (Demy and Legrand) who love the classic Hollywood musicals of Minnelli and Donen, which usually ended happily, are also cognizant of the sexual realism, darkness and irreverence that came in with the sixties, especially with West Side Story. (Guy’s war in Algeria was obviously intended to recall the 1964 War in Vietnam.) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which begins in the rain (with multiple umbrellas popping up like little colored balls in an  overhead shot), ends in the snow, in another garage (an Esso), where the lovers re-meet, unhappily. It is one of the saddest, most bittersweet endings of any movie musical.  Ever.

Michel Legrand, like Herrmann or Elmer Bernstein,  is one of the great film composers, so prolific, so technically brilliant and so cinematically attuned that later, in a rare move for a movie composer,  he wrote and directed a semi-autobiographical film of his own, called Five Days in June. (It stars Sabine Azema, it’s quite good and it deserves a reissue.) His partner here. Jacques Demy, was one of the prime  romantics of the French New Wave of the ’60s, as romantic as Truffaut, but, in the end, more fragile. (Demy  died of AIDS at 59.). Demy’s and Legrand’s special touch and special gifts are evident throughout this glowing musical –  sad, heartfelt, in love with youth and passion and beauty, despite knowing they will not last, they cannot last, Oh God, why can’t they last?

Demy is sometimes underrated by more cynical, political-minded film intellectuals who prefer Legrand’s acid scores for Godard (Breathless, Bande a Part) to his dreamy scores for Demy (Lola, The Bay of Angels, The Young Girls of Rochefort). And, despite his frequent brilliance, he was not always as great a filmmaker as, say, his genius director-wife Agnes Varda.  But, with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, he reached his lyrical peak.

The film has a sometimes over-languorous feel that at times dampens both its joy and its heartache, and it‘s sometimes too obvious that Deneuve, Castelnuovo, Vernon and the others are being dubbed. But it is a gem of its era. It compels and seduces us and leaves us with tears of memory — because of Legrand’s now sprightly, now sad music, because of Demy and cinematographer Jean Rabier’s  sparkling, confectionary images, and because of the face of the young Deneuve: quiet, adoring. vulnerable, shining with hope, numb with heartache. The beautiful Catherine doesn’t sing a single note of Legrand’s beautiful songs. (Danielle Licari does.) But when she’s on screen, in the center of all Demy’s lyricized street and shop scenes, she makes a whole city, a whole world, sing around her.  Would we wait for her? Forever? Well, as it turned out, we almost have. (French, with English subtitles.)

ON MY WAY (Three Stars)

France: Emmanuelle Bercot, 2012

BOB4Deneuve is now 70; and she is still a movie star, still confoundingly beautiful. In On My Way — a moving  buoyant, very intelligent road movie by the very talented director-writer-actress Emmanuelle Bercot (Polisse) — Deneuve plays Bettie, a provincial single mother and restaurant owner-manager, who lives with her elderly, bossy  mother, and has just been jilted by her longtime adulterous lover. She is shocked, miserable that this jerk dumped her for a girl in her 20s.  (We hate this guy, immediately. What an ass!) In the midst of the restaurant bustle, Bettie suddenly, beginning in a long tracking camera shot that follows her through her workplace,  takes off and drives away in her car, without telling a soul where she’s going or why — mostly because she doesn’t really know herself .

At first on a search, dying for a cigarette, she ends up on the weathered old farm of a weathered old farmer who rolls one for her, with arthritic fingers, while recounting the sad story of an old lost love. (An incredible scene, though anti-smokers may justly  disapprove of Deneuve, a lifelong heavy smoker, for playing this sequence and Bercot for writing it. )  Then she keeps driving, meets other people –  bar crowd lady regulars at a boisterous saloon, an egotistical young pickup artist named Marco (Paul Hamy). a kind security guard at a furniture store.

Finally, after problems with both her credit card and her Cell phone,, she is reached by her worried employees (who are facing a business crisis), her mother, and  her volatile, resentful daughter Muriel (French pop star Camille). The latter, off on as job interview, recruits Bettie to take care of Bettie‘s young grandson Charly (p1ayed jauntily by Bercot’s son Nemo Schiffmann) and drives off with him to a family gathering. On the way Bettie stops, perhaps a little too coincidentally, at a reunion of old beauty queen winners, to which, as the 1969 Miss Brittany, she was earlier invited.

The film has its flaws and minor lapses — Bercot says there were budgetary problems which prevented her from doing all the location work she wanted — but it’s full of life and heart and personality. The actors, many of whom are non-professionals in their first film appearances, are wonderful — and they’re anchored by the very professional, and very inspired Mlle. Deneuve. It’s a fine film. And though some may dismiss On My Way as a “mere” star vehicle or an imitation ‘70s-style road movie, we should remember that many of the best movies of film history, French or American or otherwise,  have been star vehicles. This is a particularly good one, and a particularly good and very affectionately made road movie, by a writer-director, Bercot, who loves her star, loves her largely non-professional cast, and loves the road. So do we.

Catherine Deneuve… I’ve known her, we’ve known her (or known what she shows us on screen) most of our lives. She was once a beautiful young girl and teenaged ingénue, and now she’s a beautiful old woman.  Once a universally desirable young actress, she’s now a nearly universally admired star character lady, one of the great ladies of the screen. When she was young, the camera loved her, and it still does. Her early radiance has become the light she shines on the humanity of the very human characters she so movingly plays and so wondrously reveals. It’s as if Brigitte Bardot had grown up to become Meryl Streep. God, how lovely Catherine is. God, how wonderful she is. One smile, one look, and we still will wait for her. Forever.   (French, with English subtitles.)

Wilmington on Movies: Need for Speed

Friday, March 14th, 2014

NEED FOR SPEED (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Scott Waugh, 2013

Need for Speed — a movie based on a popular video game about outlaw street and highway racing  — is a big, bad, flashy, terminally dopey muscle car of a movie which tries to be a Fast and Furious-style actioner and ends up being Rushed and Ridiculous instead. Not that I’m filing any briefs for the Fast and the Furious movie franchise, an overwrought high-octane saga in which scowling, fiercely intent super-drivers — including Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker (who died last year in a real-life  auto accident) — whiz and careen and roar past each other in unlikely and dangerous racing locales and outrageous CGI-enhanced stunts. Smash hit as it may be, that is a movie series which has given me no pleasure at all despite its vast expenditures of cash, blistering road action, and apparently well-satisfied audiences.

Actually, Need for Speed has better action scenes than the Fast and Furious movies. It’s done with real cars, real stunts and real drivers, instead of the digital make-believe of much of the older series — and the director-co-editor-executive producer is Scott Waugh (also the director of the war movie Act of Valor), an ex-stunt man with a flair for this crash-bang stuff.

But the story is something else again. It’s so wildly illogical (even on its own terms) and packed with so many ludicrous clichés that you can barely watch the damned thing without feeling like a sucker. Or without wanting to see some maniac, maybe Johnny Knoxville as the Bad Grandpa, ram another muscle car though the screen.

Need for Speed stars Aaron Paul (of TVs Breaking Bad) as the one-time pride of Mt. Kisco, New York, an auto mechanic, frequent smirker and ace racer named Tobey Marshall, who gets framed for manslaughter (of his best friend) while driving. Tobey comes out of prison, and gets pulled back to his old buddies at his bankrupt dad’s shop, Marshall Motors –s eager for revenge against the real killer, Dominic Cooper as fellow Mt. Kisco native and evil NASCAR driver Dino Brewster. Dino not only challenged Tobey in drag races, but he stole Tobey’s girlfriend Anita (Dakota Jackson), killed his best friend, Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), and tried to swindle Tobey out of the same muscle car supreme , the classic Ford Mustang, that he’d first hired Tobey to renovate, back near the beginning of the movie.

When we first see these two — plus Anita and Tobey’s garage gang buds Little Pete, Finn (Rami Malek), Joe (Ramon Rodriguez) and Benny (Scott Mescudi), they’re hanging around the local drive-in theatre, having coincidentally strolled in just as the projectionist started showing the car-chase scene from Peter YatesSteve McQueen cop thriller, Bullitt. (No Jackie Bisset?)

Soon they’re all involved in a Rebel Without a Cause drag race, and eventually Tobey is hires by Dino and introduced to the car-crazy beauty Julia Madden (Imogen Poots, who has a radiant ‘60s fab-bird grin to match Tobey’s smirk) and then gets framed for  the fatal end-over-end crash that killed Little Pete, and that Dino really caused. Two years later, when Tobey gets out of prison — after numerous witnesses are apparently unable to remember what happened — he hooks up with Benny and the others, and then becomes embroiled in an outlaw car race, the DeLeon, run by the frantic padrone, The Monarch (Michael Keaton), who not only broadcasts the race, but narrates the cross-country chase from New York to San Francisco, by way of Detroit, that Tobey undertakes (accompanied by Julia, at the insistence of her father), to get there.

As all this high-speed drivel continues, strange and senseless things keep happening. Dino hires hit men to kill Tobey, but they mess up. Cops fail to catch them. Benny keeps stealing helicopters to guide Tobey’s journey, and, at one point, helps him elude several cop cars by dangling the mustang above a canyon. The Monarch blathers away like a shock-jock deejay on a tear. And Finn, the mechanic who also works in an Office-like office, when summoned by Tobey, walks out of work with a silly grin, while taking off all his clothes, for no reason I could see, unless he was trying to audition for some other movie.

But enough of trying (or not trying) to make sense out of Need for Speed, which is like trying to make apple pie out of sawdust.  Despite the script, there are  two engaging performances in the movie: Keaton’s as the motormouth Monarch, and Poots as the radiant Julia. The car race scenes, though pretty good  would be better with a better story. Otherwise, the movie zips along,  almost defiantly absurd, dragging us from one inanity to another..

Need for Speed suggests that speed is an addiction — and maybe movies about high-speed car races and chases are an addiction too. But I’d hate to overdose on something as loud and pointless as this. Just because a movie’s target audience favors action over character and speed over sense, and just because the source of the plot was a video game, doesn’t mean the story has to be as dopey as the one in Need for Speed.  But then, if you keep making dopey movies — even if you make them well — eventually, part of the audience may forget what good ones are like. By the way, it was nice to see an actual functioning drive-in theatre again — especially when it was showing a movie, Bullitt, that, however “old-fashioned” its car chases may have been,  was about five times better than Need for Speed.

Wilmington on Movies: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Monday, March 10th, 2014

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Four Stars)

U.S.-British-German: Wes Anderson, 2014  (Fox Searchlight)

I. The Great Zubrowkan Novel

Wes Anderson’s new movie The Grand Budapest Hotel is — What’s the word  I’m looking for? Fantastic?  Piquant? Nabokovian?  Wes-Andersonish? Scrumptious? Playful?

Yes that’s it: Playful. Not the sexiest adjective, I realize. Ah, well… But that’s what the picture is: It’s playful to a fault — and Nabokovian and scrumptious and all the rest too. Done in Anderson’s unmistakable style, full of toy-like miniatures, painted-looking backdrops, sprightly camera moves, quick zooms, and high-style writing and acting, it’s a deliciously wayward  and intricately amusing show — a delightful example of what can happen when a gifted movie artist isn’t afraid to try something eccentric or out of the way. Working  within a rigorously stylized format,  but with plenty of oddball kinks, twists and gags, Anderson and his fellow moviemakers and actors seem to be having a ball. They toss around ideas and visions and crazy little diversions that they‘re drawing from all kinds of  classic books and movies and paintings and musical pieces — and when the film is really working, which is most of the time, their art and artistry seems to fully connect with their imaginations and with us, and with the images and thoughts tumbling around in their heads.

budapest1The show, set in a fictitious world drawn from our own, is about theatricality — about play. And it’s full — to the brim — with visions of those odd little wonderlands we can create for ourselves, when life begins to seem too dark and borderline awful to bear without them. So, we can invent a whole fantastical other-world — especially if we’re someone like Wes Anderson, the maker of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom, some of which are films people like a lot, and some of which irritate the bejeezus out of them (including, at times, me), but none of which are any less than personal statements by a real filmmaker — dreams in full flight. (Notice I didn‘t call them “quirky.”).

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the name of the movie, of course. But it’s also the title of a fictitious book we see being opened, in the present,  in this film‘s opening sequence. A classic of the literature of an obscure (and fictitious)  Eastern European country Zubrowka, it was written by a celebrated (but nameless)  fictitious author, played by Tom Wilkinson, who lives there — in a place that seems to be part Czech, part Hungarian, and part Ruritania before the revolution. In 1985, this great author, in his study, tells us the incredible story that became his novel: told to him on a memorable night long ago (when he was  Jude Law) in 1968 at Zubrowka’s storied but now deteriorating and nearly empty Grand Budapest Hotel — where the writer met the hotel’s mysterious owner Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).

Mr. Moustafa, a man of elegant demeanor, rare charm  and impeccable manners, introduced himself to the author (as a literary fan) in the hotel baths, invited him to dinner, and then, over fine drinks and pretty little pink-and-green pastries, in the vast, nearly empty Grand Budapest dining room, he tells the writer and us the incredible, unbelievable, but (he insists) true story of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Budapest in its prime, and his own elegant, impeccable mentor. All this took place  back in 1932, when Moustafa was a teenager named Zero and the world was a much different, though not necessarily better place.

Mr. Moustafa narrates – F.  Murray Abraham, like Morgan Freeman, is a wonderful narrator — the story of how he came to the Grand Budapest in its heyday, and how he was chosen by M. Gustave to be his lobby boy, a position Gustave once held himself with great distinction.  M. Gustave knows everything about the hotel, upstairs and down. He’s a stern, meticulous but tender-hearted taskmaster who lives in a Spartan little servant’s room in the back of the hotel. His instructions and eloquent speeches are spiced with poetry, laced with irony, and spiked with a “fuck” or two, or more. In the course of his seemingly endless duties,  he has seduced and become the lover of a whole company of elderly, blonde, very rich women guests of the hotel, including the fabulously wealthy Madame De (Tilda Swinton, a fine job), who regularly comes to the Grand Budapest to dally with M. Gustave, but now has premonitions of disaster. M. Gustave pooh-poohs her, but she’s right.

Gystave’s new lobby boy, the young “Zero” Moustafa  (Tony Revolori), is a refugee from a fictitious war-ravaged middle eastern country, where his family was slaughtered. He was hired by the hotel on a trial basis, though he has seemingly zero experience and zero qualifications, beyond his appealing looks, his lively intelligence  and his equable disposition — and he soon also becomes M. Gustave‘s right hand boy, his pupil and  his fellow adventurer. And  M. Gustave, who is played with near flawless comic technique and brilliance by the not-usually-funny Fiennes, shows him the ropes, teaches him how to multi-task Grand Budapest-style, how to anticipate a guest’s wishes before he or she wishes them.  (Revolori plays the teen-aged Zero very well, with nice boyish appeal and  presence.)

Their bond is not sexual, or at least not overtly sexual — Zero also has a fine, resourceful pastry-cook girlfriend named Agatha (Saoirse Roman, very good and moving), whom he still remembers and adores years later. But the bond between boss and student sometimes seems  a touch homo-erotic, just as Anderson’s movies often seem to be elegant bromances, this one included.

The rite of passage soon becomes a murder mystery.  Madame De dies, and M. Gustave and Zero travel by train to her mansion — a journey interrupted when  they are nearly arrested by thuggish police, but saved by the gentlemanly Officer Henckels (Edward Norton, a really fine job), whose parents stayed sometimes at the Grand Budapest, and who was befriended by M. Gustave when he was a “lonely little boy.”

We can sense something dark right around the corner, in a story that seemed on its way to being a pure  Lubitschian comedy of sexual manners. Murder is afoot. The seeds of totalitarianism, and World War II, are in the soil. And the old world is falling. At the De mansion, the family’s suave attorney Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum, fine also), reads the will, which leaves everything to Madame De’s immediate family and a horde of distant relations — but mainly to Madame De’s vicious son, Dmitri Desgoffe und Taxis (Adrien Brody, terrific).

But then Deputy Kovacs  opens a second will, delivered to him only that day, which is to replace the earlier one if Madame De’s  death is ruled a murder (which seems likely, since she died of strychnine poisoning).

That will leaves most of the money to the family, but also leaves one “priceless” painting, called Boy With Apple, to M. Gustave. And that  bequest throws Dmitri — who can, without fear of argument, be called insanely and murderously selfish  — into a towering rage and a tantrum, in which he accuses M. Gustave of seducing his mother and others (which is true) of being bisexual (which may be true), of seducing  multitudes, including perhaps the Boy with Apple, and orders him arrested, thrown from the house, or destroyed, whichever is easiest. That will be the assignment of Dmitri’s  truly scary odd-job man and hired killer, the skull-faced Jopling (Willem Dafoe, a perfect heavy), who begins his workmanlike string of violence and crimes in this movie by socking Zero (who socked Dmitri who socked Gustave) and hurling Deputy Kovacs‘ defenseless cat out the window.

Soon M. Gustave is unjustly in prison, arrested by the gentlemanly Henckels, with Zero and Agatha as part of Gustave’s assembly of outside helpers — which also includes a secret organization of eminent European concierges, called The Society of Crossed Keys. (Bill Murray runs it, ably.) A miniature hacksaw will be smuggled into him in one of those luscious-looking pink and green pastries, part of an escape plan by bare-chested, tattooed jailmate Ludwig (Harvey Keitel, an eerie turn) — while Dmitri gradually graduates from appalling sadism to unspeakable evil, to hot but madly inaccurate triggerman in the God-damnedest gunfight I have ever seen. Meanwhile, Jopling, who has a face like the icy mask of death, and rows of rings on eight fingers that suggest Robert Mitchum’s love-hate display in The Night of the Hunter, lurks around everywhere, mercilessly enforcing Dmitri’s rub-out list.

II. The Hotel

As you can see, The Grand Budapest in its heyday was not only one marvelous hotel,  but the movie about it has one hell of a synopsis, and we’re barely halfway through. It’s a formidably intricate and delightfully gamesome tale, packed with grand allusions and lost illusions and fancy little thingumabobs of plot twists. But it’s also sad, melancholy underneath and more and more sad as the story goes on..

The Grand Budapest Hotel, the movie, has many antecedents. On one level, Anderson’s show  tells the kind of “rising young man” story we see in cynical-romantic European tales of  rites of passage like Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” or Thomas Mann‘s “The Confessions of Felix Krull,” or that splendid underseen Czech film about a rising young waiter, Jiri Menzel‘s I Served the King of England. On another, it’s a Hitchcockian chase-suspense thriller, with two homages to Vertigo and one to The Secret Agent, and another one, God help us, to Topaz. On yet another, it’s an elegantly witty cynical-romantic boudoir comedy of the Lubitsch and Billy Wilder variety — with Wilder’s noir edge sharpening the jokes. On still another, it’s  a Woody Allen comedy pastiche period bauble and a Kubrickian high-style chiller with spooky corridors and snowy runways that recall The Shining.

Then  there’s the Vladimir Nabokov element: the tricky book-within-a-book structure  that suggests the dazzling complexities of  Nabokov’astonishingly annotated “Pale Fire” — and a map of  Zembla, Nabokov’s annotator‘s “distant northern land.” And there’s Stefan Zweig, the masterly, tragic Viennese Jewish writer whom Anderson says (in the credits), inspired the whole movie. Zweig is best known among cinephiles for writing the novel on which Max Ophuls based that great 1948 tragic Hollywood romance Letter from an Unknown Woman. (Ophuls also directed another classic movie romance, called, suggestively, The Earrings of Madame de…). Zweig, an anti-Fascist literary star of the early twentieth century, with literary friends all over Europe,  fled the old world as  WW2 spread, and  committed suicide in 1942, rather than face a possible post-Hitler hell-world. So Zweig, this movie’s godhead, was no comedian. His stories sometimes suggest almost bottomless sorrow, and his character is replicated here in both the old and young author of  The Grand Budapest Hotel, and in M. Gustave.

Intricacies and grand allusions are also embedded in Anderson’s playful visual and dramatic style — which achieves maximum density in dialogue, in characterization (there seem to be hundreds of people in the movie, and many of them seem to have back stories), in music (Alexandre Desplat, abetted by buoyant folk music and a lute with plucked strings piece by violin virtuoso Vivaldi), density in plot and, most of all, in imagery. You can hardly ever absorb everything in an Anderson film frame, even if your eyes are oonstantly wandering — and it you do, Anderson and cimematographer Robert Yeoman are liable to start wandering laterally down some Zubrowkan street or hill themselves, or turning your head with one of there swooping pans, those escalator down-and-up shots or those tight showy zooms

Everyone talks about Anderson’s daffy visuals, of course, mostly because they’re so damned crazy-looking and we’re probably amazed  (and appreciative) that he can keep getting away with this stuff. But it’s the writing and acting that make this Anderson’s best film, and probably his most appealing to audiences — the wonderful sript and the razor-sharp performances by Fiennes and all the others.  This is truly classic American movie writing and acting — in the tradition of To Be or Not To Be and Ninotchka and Unfaithfully Yours and His Girl Friday — and it‘s a kick to see someone even trying to make a movie like this, with this much fizz and sizzle and comic and tragic vocabulary, much less succeeding so well at it.

. In a film by Lubitsch or Wilder or Preston Sturges, it’s the dialogue and how it’s spoken — the zingy rhythms, voluptuous sarcasm, sexy double entendres and deadly irony — that creates most of  what we call their style. Lubitsch’s and Wilder’s films look pretty good, mostly because of people like Wilder’s production designer Alexandre Trauner, but I’ve never detected any unusual or remarkable visual style in Preston Sturges’ work, nor does it really need any.

Anderson, who follows in the footsteps of the three men above — they, as well as Zweig, are his teachers — may purposely use his anachronistic technique because that’s how he can best make movies with these sophisticated, ultra-eccentric, razzle-dazle  scripts,. The people who don’t like his work find his visual style precious and pretentious, and it sometimes  seems precious and pretentious to me too. I could get along without a few of those lateral tracks or sidewise puppet-show compositions. But some of them are beautiful, some are witty, and, at his best — which definitely includes The Grand Budapest Hotel — that seeming artistic eccentricity becomes artistically expressive and entrancingly funny.

III. Comedy and Casablanca

One of the reasons they don’t make romantic comedies, or just plain comedies, like they usd to, is that these days they’re making an entirely different kind of funny movie — one that. many audiences, I suspect, don‘t enjoy as much. . I’m not just talking about the greater sexual frankness today, which actually works very well in the hands of the Judd Apatow group, or Woody Allen, but about the kind of stories mostly being made.  In the old days, say in 1932, when The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place, most  comedies could be about  sex and whoopee sometimes, but they were also often about social collisions, and a lot of them revolved around swindles or con-games or deceptions of some sort.

That’s true of Sturges’ films (especially Hail the Conquering Hero). And Lubitsch’s (especially Trouble in Paradise) and Wilder’s (especially those two late masterpieces, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment). And it’s true of a broad selection of great American movie comedies: from City Lights to Safety Last to The General to Sons of the Desert to A Night at the Opera to Bringing Up Baby to The Bank Dick to The Philadelphia Story to Singin’ in the Rain to Hollywood or Bust to Dr. Strangelove to The Producers to Broadway Danny Rose to even  those paragons of movie virtue  It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bells of St. Mary’s , where Ingrid Bergman‘s nuns and the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) and Heaven itself pull some fast ones, and switcheroos. The Marx Brothers were a bunch of chiselers and double-shufflers, and so were Hope and Crosby — and as for W.C. Fields, he was probably the greatest bunco artist and flim-flam man the screen has ever seen, or ever will see.

The biggest double shuffle of all involved the ways some of these characters and couples disguised the fact that they were were having sex lives, when, to anyone with  brain and a healthy contempt for the Production Code, they so obviously were. There are all kinds of  deceptions in Grand Budapest, and it made me nostalgic to see them. I suspect the movie, which was a roaring success last weekend at the multiplexes of Los Angeles where I saw it (twice),  would be even more popular if it had the sexy-temptress female character Anderson didn’t include, maybe a high-priced Dietrichesque hooker who works the hotel, with a cut for M. Gustave. But, as it is, the main romance is between M. Gustave and Zero

It’s a romance of words, and M. Gustave is a Paganini of wordplay. The best speakers of dialogue in the Grand Budapest Hotel — the two actors who connect most exhilaratingly with Anderson’s beautifully shaped dialogues and monologue — are Fiennes as M. Gustave and Abraham as the older Moustafa. It’s an unalloyed pleasure to listen to them, to hear what these two great actors can do with their lines, the way they savor both the inner meaning and the sly poetry of  the sentences, the way they roll those golden words off their golden theatre-trained tongues — like two great musicians, flawlessly hitting very note and line, yet doing it so casually, so naturally  that they all but envelop you in the verbal beauty and high playfulness of the speeches. The crisp verbosity and velocity of the middle-aged M. Gustave in 1932, and the mellow eloquence of the older Mr.Moustafa in 1968 are perfect correlatives for the way each of them faces the world, conquers high society, makes their fortune and outwits their tormentors.

But the other actors are admirable as well. It may sound excessive , as if I‘d been suckered by the movie‘s con-games myself, but, along with the top two actors,  I liked every single performance in Grand Budapest and I thought three of them — the villains played by Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, and the oddly sensitive policeman played by Edward Norton, were almost as good, in their way, as Fiennes and Abraham. It really doesn’t make sense to me to look at this movie, and complain, as several smart critics have,  that Anderson cast too many stars and too many actors he’s used before — as if it were wrong somehow to bring in Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum and Lea Seydoux and Mathieu Amalric and Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson and all the rest, sometimes only for a minute or two — any more than it was wrong for John Ford to assemble that very familiar, very Fordian cast for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Wayne, Stewart,Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien (for Tommy Mitchell), Andy Devine, John Qualen, Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin and all the others), or for Frank Capra to get together that quintessentially Capraesque bunch for It’s a Wonderful Life, or for Warner Brothers to get a similarly spectacular dramatis personae for Casablanca — three movies that, in many ways, owe a big part of their classic status to their great “loaded“ acting ensembles .

Casablanca is a good cross-reference for The Grand Budapest Hotel, which like Michael Curtiz‘s and Howard Koch’s and the Epstein Brothers’ 1942 masterpiece, tells a sometimes deeply sorrowful and painful story of  international conflict and personal turbulence, but puts it under the brisk, crackling  veneer of an international thriller, with comedy and romance and music and lots of jokes. But imagine Casablanca if Rick were killed, and Ilse too, and if Renault and Sam came back to the rubble of Rick’s place…

There’s no doubt at all in my mind that Brody’s Dmitri is a  fascist-to-be, maybe even a fascist already — nor that Norton’s Henckel was dumped. killed or jailed by fascist leaders who finally purged the gentlemanly policeman. Nor that M. Gustave might have been a Jew, as Deputy Kovacs was, and as Stefan Zweig was, and if they hadn’t been killed by Dmitri’s thug and the Nazi-minded police, or escaped to America,  they would have died in the camps, like some of my relatives. That’s the darkness swirling beneath the  bright, crazy, madcap –  playful – surface  of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie which is about far more than just zany little characters caught in melodrama and toy-like sets and lateral tracking shots.

 

IV. The Audience Rises, The Cast Bows

The Grand Budapest Hotel is about trying to be  a human being in a world that turns people into puppets and prisoners and corpses. It’s about trying to survive in a world teetering on oblivion and the brink of apocalypse. It’s about how all we admire most can be destroyed or lost, and how we survive despite it all.  And it’s about little pink and green pastries with saws inside, and how to keep the customers happy and how to remember your friends. It’s about how books and movies can preserve what we love. (And that bastard Jopling will pay, dammit, for killing Kovacs’ cat!) It’s about the barley field where the train stops and the police come aboard. It’s about Stefan Zweig and why he killed himself. It’s about The Earrings of Madame de..and God  bless Max Ophuls , who made us cry,  and Ernst Lubitsch who made us laugh.  It’s about life, turned into a show and it’s about people, turned into players. Wonderful actors with a wonderful narrator, on a wondrous stage in a wondrous hotel.

But it’s over now. Lights up. M. Gustave, take a bow. Mr. Moustafa, embrace your friend.  Dmitri, smile as they boo you. The entire ensemble bow and smile — and wave to the cheap seats. They‘re the ones, remember, who mostly can’t escape their fates.  Applause. Whistles. Bravos. Cue the balalaika. Curtain.

Wilmington on Movies: 300: Rise of an Empire

Friday, March 7th, 2014

 

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Noam Murro, 2014

Greek history doesn’t get much livelier — or bloodier, gorier, more absurd  and more wildly over the top  — than it does in 300: Rise of an Empire,  producer-writer Zack Snyder’s 3D version of the three-cornered war back in 480 B.C. or so between the Greek and Spartan armies and the invading Persians. A follow-up to Snyder’s surprise smash historo-hit 300 (made back in 2007) — which re-imagined  the battle at Thermopylae between Xerxes’ Persian hordes and the outnumbered but ferocious Spartans of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), as it might have been experienced in a cocaine-fueled nightmare — this show, like its predecessor, often resembles  a gigantic immersive video game designed and executed with unlimited computer resources. It may be preposterous — hell, it is preposterous — but it’s never boring.

The movie is taken from graphic novel guy Frank Miller’s book Xerxes — just as 300 was based by writer-director Snyder on Miller’s 300 — and it’s been produced and directed to within an inch of its life by Snyder (and Mark Canton, Gianni Nunnari and Bernie Goldman) and Israeli director Noam Murro (Smart People) — a  sort of sideways sequel (the stories take place simultaneously) to the hugely successful 300.

This picture is almost  as crazy and spectacular, but not really as good — despite the best efforts of all the production people and of the movie’s unquestioned star: ex-Bond Girl Supreme and sexy villainess specialist Eva Green, who steals, and all but eviscerates, the entire movie. Her role: Artemisia, the dark-eyed, fierce  commander of the Persian fleet,  a warrior queen who can quite literally screw you to death.

300 II (which we’ll call it for convenience’s sake), also somewhat resembles a ‘60s Italian-shot Roman he-man  epic (in the heyday of Steve Reeves, Pietro Francisci and Vittorio Cottafavi) gone berserk. Like those sword and sandal shows, it’s a beefcake promenade, full of dour-faced, bare-chested muscle-men with names like Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton as the Greek naval commander), lusty Scyllias (Callan Mulvey) and his faithful son Calisto (Jack O’Connell). Here, caught by a constantly prowling camera, they and the rest of the body-building Greek navy, wander around flexing pectorals, grandly orating and  discussing  battle plans with deadly sobriety, crying out “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees!” (which is sort of the movie‘s motto) or running around half-naked, wielding and waving mighty swords and lopping off bloody arms and heads — all in often gruesomely protracted  slow-motion photography that makes Sam Peckinpah’s balletic gunfights in The Wild Bunch look almost Bressonian.

Incidentally, you may well wonder why these Greek fighting men (and many others before in beefcake history movies) keep running into battle with bare chests and gigantic swords, eschewing armor — which seems like a recipe for mass suicide. But, in fact, baring your chest in battle, whether historically accurate or not, seems to be a requirement of the Greek and Persian navies here, as it is in many sword-and-sandals specials. And that undress code is observed by almost everyone but the otherwise brazen Artemisia, who keeps her epic chest covered until she gets Themistokles alone in her cabin for what she whimsically calls a summit meeting.

The movie is grim, and gruesomely spectacular. It is narrated, with poetic solemnity (which I rather liked), by Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) of Sparta. Themistokles never cracks a smile (nor do any of them, as I remember, except for Artemisia, who has a wicked half-grin she keeps flashing). And he remains a sourpuss even when Artemisia, at the summit meeting, gives him a meaningful glare from her heavily shadowed eyes, and  then rips off his clothes, and hers, and he rips as well, and they both rip. and she fastens on him like a mad vampire and rams him all around the cabin just like a bare-chested Greek gladiator sex toy — ignoring the poor guy’s explanation  that marital relations are not his specialty, and that he is, as he puts it, “married to the fleet.” The movie’s inarguable highlight, and apparently done without CGI,  this doozy is only one of 300 II’s bizarre and violent love scenes, dwarfed in ferocity by the one where Artemisia, still smiling, decapitates another defiant Greek, kisses the lips of his corpse and tosses the head away like a peanut shell.

Most of the movie’s imaginatively staged sea battles take place under roiling turbulent dark-as-death skies, apparently a  ruse of the Greeks to discombobulate the Persians, and when the ships crash and warriors are tossed or jump into a sea full of writhing serpents, while flaming arrows hit their targets from what looks like  a mile away, one can only stare in astonishment. They don’t make wars like they used to! And all this takes place while the Persian general Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), a warlike fancy dan, tall as an NBA center and  covered head to toe in golden paint, is busy bashing the heroic Spartans, who would rather live on their feet than die on their knees.

Will there be another 300? Why not? There still are yet more foes to bash and torsos to cleave, and grosses to win! (“I would rather live in my bank, than die in the charts.“) And  there is yet more Greek history to ravish and ravage — though not sadly, with Eva’s Artemisia, unless  she comes back as a sorceress or a vision or a Persian sex toy.

I can’t say this  second 300 isn’t entertaining — if nothing else, the cinematography (by Simon Duggan of The Great Gatsby), and the socko-comics design (Patrick Tatopoulos) and the visual effects (Richard Hollander and John Desjardin) knock your eyes out, as does Eva Green, who keeps you compulsively watching, wondering constantly what the hell she’ll do next. But the movie tends to wear you out, and Sullivan Stapleton (of Animal Kingdom) is no Gerard Butler (a sobering comparison). 300 II presupposes an audience  whose imagination is the equivalent of a cast-iron stomach, capable of ingesting absurdities galore and oceans of blood, plus battles fought as if by lurching slow-mo zombies.

Maybe the days of  spectacular but intelligent historical epics like Spartacus and El Cid and even Gladiator are over. (Miller’s inspiration for 300 is said to be the 1962 Rudolph Mate-Richard Egan version of the battle at Thermopylae, The 300 Spartans, which was no Spartacus.) But, as  for me, I swear by the bare witchy bones of Artemisia, and by the bare-chested fleet of Themistokles and by this bloody head that I here wave and hurl into the flaming sea full of writhing serpents and dead extras — that they, all of them, Persia, whoever, shall not pass! Not while a single Greek warrior of us still stands, strong  enough to bare his chest and wave a bloody sword. As for me, I would rather live in my seat that die on my knees!

Wilmington on DVDs: Breathless; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Friday, March 7th, 2014

 

Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) (Also Blu-ray) Four Stars. France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1959 (Criterion Collection) 

Godard. A Bout de Souffle. Out of breath. Breathless.

A guy named Michel Poiccard steals a car, drives from Marseilles to Paris, ecstatically sings of a girl named Patricia (“Pa-Pa-Pa-Patricia!“), finds a gun, shoots and kills a cop on the road, tries to cash an uncashable check, stares at and mimics a Bogart still in front of a cinema, finds Patricia hawking New York Herald Tribunes on the street, goes to her room, bandies with her about love, art, philosophy and William Faulkner (“Between grief and nothing I will choose  grief“)…

SPOILER ALERT

…He smokes endless cigarettes, gets betrayed, runs, gets shot, dies. “Deguelasse,” Michel mutters with his last breath, after staring and making faces at Patricia. “I don’t know what it means,’ says Patricia. She turns away from the camera. Finis.

END OF SPOILER

That’s Breathless, the 1959 black-and-white Jean-Luc Godard French film classic that, like Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane — another masterpiece by a revolutionary cineaste still in his 20s — forever changed the ways we look at film, the way moviemakers shot movies and critics wrote about it, and perhaps changed the ways we look at life too.

There’s a key difference though. Welles made us believe that, if you could get all the tools of the movie industry at your disposal, you could tell stories so magical and deep, dense and rich and multi-leveled, that they’d open up a whole new world. Godard made us believe that, if you’d seen enough movies and were passionate about what you liked, you could grab a camera, find some friends, walk out on the street, and just start shooting. You could ignore much of the old studio apparatus and routine — and make a movie not according to the industry rules and protocols, but right out of your own life and thoughts, tastes and feelings.

Welles was a greater artist than Godard, and Kane the greater movie, still the best of all time in my opinion. But Godard’s feat was probably the more revolutionary: the more empowering, liberating experience. Citizen Kane, as Godard’s friend (later sometime target) François Truffaut once said, probably started more (studio) movie directors on their vocation than any other. But Breathless probably made more people everywhere actually believe they could make movies, whether they worked in a studio or not. There were decades of independent and experimental films before Breathless. But this was the one that, like Kane for the studio movie, made it all look so easy, so effortless. Just walk down a street with a camera. With a gun. With a girl. Just shoot.

Of course it’s not true. Breathless is a very artful piece, and a recognizable product of the French film industry. It was made by a director deeply schooled in film history and tradition and technique, even if its celebrated “jump cuts” –jagged editing leaps within a continuous scene, a technique which prompted the Time reviewer to call Breathless a “cubistic thriller” — made Godard’s movie look deliberately ragged and choppy. Actually, the jump cuts were accidental, providential, and not something Godard used all that much in his later films. Here, there was a reason. Godard had shot Breathless too long, needed to cut half an hour or more, and allegedly took his mentor/Breathless cast member Jean-Pierre Melville‘s advice not to cut whole scenes to shave off the extra time, but to cut within scenes. Hence: the jumps.

Godard’s youthful stars Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg (Michel and Patricia) were not nonentities. Belmondo had made ten films before Breathless, including A Double Tour for Godard‘s buddy (and a Breathless technical advisor) Claude Chabrol. He‘d even starred as D‘Artagnan on a TV version of The Three Musketeers. Jean Seberg, while still in her teens, fresh out of Marshalltown Iowa, had made two big Hollywood movies for one of Godard’s favorite directors, Otto (Where the Sidewalk Ends) Preminger, starring in Preminger‘s versions of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan and Francois Sagan‘s novel “Bonjour Tristesse.” Even if they were both flops back then (and they look much better today) they were world famous flops.

So Godard wasn’t just walking out on the street with his Cahier du Cinema pals when he made Breathless. Still, there are as lot of his buddies and “Cahier-ites” involved in it — including not just Truffaut,Chabrol and Melville, and the brilliant young cinematographer Raoul Coutard, but future directors like Philippe De Broca, Jean-Louis Richard, Jean Douchet, Richard Balducci and Daniel Boulanger, who co-wrote De Broca’s King of Hearts and plays the dour cop chasing Michel, Inspector Vital.

Still, on screen Michel and Patricia do look like two good-looking kids who just wandered off the street into the movie. They’re perfect post-war movie lovers, blasé on the surface, dark or heart-broken underneath. They don’t talk the old familiar movie talk. They talk about life and art and politics. They josh and joust with each other. Coutard’s camera drifts around them. They smoke. We never see them screw, but we know they have.

One of the most often-cited, often discussed scenes in Breathless simply shows them lazing around Patricia’s room, staring or jabbering away, under prints of Renoir and Picasso. They don’t seem like a crook/killer and his trollop. They seem like a couple of intellectuals or semi-intellectuals, or a small-time hustler and a rich girl slumming. They’re involved in a thriller plot, taken by Truffaut from a real-life crime story. But it’s as if they just wandered into the thriller, just as they wandered into Patricia’s apartment.

Existentialism and Monogram Pictures (the low-budget studio to which Godard dedicated his film) embrace in Breathless. It’s a movie fed by many other movies, even if it suggests something off the cuff, unwinding before us, trapped in the machinery of chance. The presence of a gun in the glove compartment of the car Michel steals is utterly fortuitous, the murder (for all we can tell) almost an accident, something that just happened between two kids. Part of the love affair of a Bogie Fan and a Fallen Angel out Where the Sidewalk Ends.

That’s the key to most of Godard’s films of the 60s, which is still regarded (rightly) as his greatest period. It’s a movie-lover’s anti-movie, or counter-movie, a defiant act of rebellion by a director who knows the score and deliberately breaks the rules. Breathless came out shortly after Truffaut had revolutionized French film with his own great feature debut, The 400 Blows, the semi-autobiographical tale of a runaway movie-loving delinquent, named Antoine Doinel. And in a way, Breathless, made from the story Truffaut found, is Godard’s 400 Blows, his semi-autobiographical fantasy about a runaway movie-loving delinquent named Michel.

It was also a huge hit, the biggest critical and commercial success of Godard’s career. He never had another smash like Breathless, though, by now, he‘s made almost a hundred films, including, among them, a dozen or so inarguable classics, films like Vivre sa Vie, Pierrot le Fou and Contempt.

He became a Marxist for a while, and a lot of academics in the ‘70s argued that his (then) politics were a major part of what made him great — though Godard’s most blatantly political films, his essays and documentaries from the ’70s, are among his least effective, least memorable works. Later, he got drier, more rigorous. Breathless is easily the most powerful political (and antipolitical) movie he ever made, the most breathless  thriller, the most provocative essay, the most heart-wrenching romance. It’s had thousands of children. It still looks as fresh as it did in 1959, though other new black-and-white film is almost gone. We look at it today and we think: Anybody can do this. I can do this. Just find some friends. Find a camera. Find your heart. Just shoot. (In French and English, with subtitles.)

Included : An excellent set of extras.

 

 

 

THE HUNGER GAMES —  CATCHING FIRE (Three  Stars) U.S.: Francis Lawrence, 2013

Books were my first love, movies my second — so  some day, I may get around to reading Suzanne Collins’ mega-selling, widely read  young adult novel “Catching Fire.” But for the moment the big-money  blockbuster movie adapted from it — called The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — will have to suffice.

God knows they’ve spent enough moolah and expended enough time  and effort to get it to us.  The first Hunger Games movie was released in 2012, directed by Gary Ross (replaced here by Francis Lawrence of I Am Legend) and co-produced by Collins and others with much of the same cast and crew, notably co-stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson as young game-players Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark and supporting players Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland and Stanley Tucci as some of the various adults, meanies and hungry gamesters  swirling around them. Like that movie, this one is built around an action-adventure show that’s also a political allegory and a coming-of-age fable, in which the so-called “Hunger Game” (a mass media event which combines the knock-‘em-off plot of “And Then There were None” with the trappings of The Super Bowl), functions as  a social pressure valve to pacify the masses in an Orwellian dictatorship of the future. And,  and in this “Nineteen Eighty-Four” variation, the downtrodden masses are kept in their social slots by a set of media games and deadly sports, in which chosen members of the underclass (including Katniss, our heroine)  battle it out to the last man or woman standing, providing bloody TV diversion and satisfying the rest of the underclass.

In the last movie, Katniss, the representative of impoverished District 12,  in the 74th annual games, won the final battle and then spared the other last survivor Peeta, because they were supposedly in love — to the discomfiture of Kat’s longtime friend Dale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).  Now she‘s back and so is Peeta, and so are a flock of other past champions, all of whom have been recruited for the 75th games, rejiggered by President Snow (Donald Sutherland at his most unctuous and nastily narcissistic and Sutherlandian) and gamesman/planner Plutarch Heavensbee (the sadly late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to become an all-star champions-of-champions combat. The obvious intention is to prevent Kat or her fellow champs from lending any popularity or credence to the brewing revolution, just about to break.

Catching Fire is a long movie with dozens of characters, and it takes its own sweet time getting to the 75th Games. But when it does, it roars and explodes and erupts in what seems to be a CGI-laden science fiction jungle-forest, in a manner that suggests the Cooper-Schoedsack ”Most Dangerous Game” filtered through half a century of science fiction epics and video games. There’s not that much suspense, of course, where Kat is concerned. We know (or some of us know) that there are two more sequels coming, both of whom need their heroine. But we can muster some concern about the others contestants.

The cast is headed by newly anointed Oscar winner Lawrence (that’s Jennifer, not Francis, nor Lawrence of Arabia, R.I. P. the Great Peter O’Toole, for that matter), and it’s top-notch. She’s  abetted or thwarted by a classy ensemble that includes her kind of boyfriends Peeta (Hutcherson) and Dale ( Hemsworth), along with Kat’s shaggy mentor-at-arms Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson, giving it the Full Woody), her hyper fashion maven Effie Trinket (Banks)  plus a roster of fellow game-players that includes non-mad scientist Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and his companion Wiress (Amanda Plummer), angry punk siren Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and dashing Finnick O’Dair (Sam Claflin), from whom we will obviously hear more later.

There’s also a fine set of villains or maybe-villains headed by the evil, half-lisping President Snow (Sutherland), and including the smirking games planner Heavensbee (Hoffman, than whom no one smirked better), and a sadistic bastard named Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit). And we haven’t gotten to the wickedest and most supportive of supporting players, not-really-a-villain-or-contestant, but one hell of an emcee, the incandescent rouser and ultra-flam showman Caesar Flickerman, as played by Stanley Tucci with no inhibitions and a smile that could devour Liberace.Every beautiful and gifted young actress should have a few years like Jennifer Lawrence just did: and  I’m not trying to rain on any of this parade when I suggest that the big-budget movie of The Hunger Games; Catching Fire  is being a little over-rated, and that the last five or ten minutes are a little abrupt and confusing.

Who could ask for more? Watching Catching Fire,  I wondered all over again why so much effort and care and money is spent on movies primarily geared for children or teenagers compared with the shorter shrift often given so-called adult movies. As long as the Y.A. shows are   as good as this one, and as long as the Adult movies, including this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees, get the money they need , Ii guess it doesn’t matter.   After all, you can always go out in the lobby and read a book.

Wilmington on Movies: Non-Stop

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

 

Non-Stop (Two and a Half Stars)

U,S,: Jaume Collet-Serra, 2014

If you’d like to fly but you’re  not in the mood for the aeronautical poetry of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, if that’s just too arty and ambitious for you, there’s another airplane movie around now that, compared to Miyazaki‘s, is so non-artsy, so  action-packed, so super-clichéd and so mind bogglingly illogical,  that it‘s almost entertaining..

That’s the nonsensical Non-Stop, directed by Spanish moviemaker Jaume Collet-Serra and written by Robert W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Lyle Engle. It’s a pretty exciting  but  also absurd air-disaster thriller, with star Liam Neeson archetyping it up as a sodden, angst-ridden  but super-tough Federal air marshal named Bill Marks, who is battling a maniacal, mysterious hijacker, aboard a transatlantic flight full of the usual suspects — and it’s about as preposterous as a movie like this can get without dragging in Godzilla as one of the hijackers and having it do a hula on the right wing.  Almost nothing in the movie is halfway plausible, except for a few early getting-to-know-you conversations between Neeson‘s Marks, and Julianne Moore as a knowingly flirtatious gal passenger. (They were the only scenes I liked).

Yet, for me at least, Non-Stop was never so exhilaratingly awful that it moved into so-bad-it’s-good territory. It‘s done fairly well, in fact, and it has an unusually good cast, whose time, like ours, is being criminally wasted. But does it matter? Non-Stop is obviously one of those movies where the moviemakers were far more interested in making money than in making sense. (And they will, they will.)

Neeson — who once upon a time made movies like Schindler‘s List and Michael Collins, and I hope will again some day — has a massive screen presence. He looks like he could deck a charging buffalo if the buffalo got him mad. And  he follows in his own recent Taken-Unknown footsteps here as Marks, the troubled hot-trigger hunk with a gun, whom we first see swilling some booze to get his heart started, and who then scruffily mounts the plane whose passengers he’s supposed  to guard, looking mournful and Irish and alcoholic and what-the hell.

Since Taken, Liam’s specialty has been beating the crap out of a lot of people, who keep coming at him in waves  — while still seeming to be a sensitive guy with a big heart, who‘s nice to women. But in this case, he’s picking on not a bunch of international gangsters, but  on the mostly helpless, innocent  passengers, while trying to uncover the identity of the mysterious maniacal hijacker among them who keeps texting him on his cell phone, threatening to kill a passenger every twenty  minutes and apparently doing it, with Marks’ unintentional help. The bad guy will only stop this serial carnage if the airline (Aquafresh, or sorry, Aqua British, it’s called — which sounds like  the last plane someone like Marks would be riding) transfers $150 million to an offshore account, which mysteriously happens to be in Marks’ name.

Words fail me here. Can you swallow this? A plane hijacking plot that has a mysterious maniac killing off the passengers (or maneuvering them into being killed by Marks) one by one,  communicating threats by cell phone (without apparently being seen), by texting (which, as Todd McCarthy pointed out,  probably wouldn’t be operating over the Atlantic anyway), while taunting a boozing hot-tempered Federal Air Marshall, our man Marks, who desperately keeps terrorizing his own passengers, and occasionally knocking one of them off? And did we mention the  bomb on the plane, ticking away, like the climax of a cut-rate James Bond movie? The bigger question: Will Marks and the maniac succeed in depopulating the movie enough and killing the passengers before the plane gets blown up, or gets shot down by the other airline enforcers, or we find out who the maniac really is?

Who indeed? In the movie, Moore plays Jen Summers, Marks‘ saucy seatmate, whom he enlists for a while as a killer-spotter. Lady Michelle Dockery (of “Downton Abbey“) plays a worried-looking stewardess (or flight attendant or steward-person). Nate Parker plays a touchy computer guy. Scoot McNairy plays a buttinsky who keeps engaging Marks. Corey Stoll is a tough New York Cop, Kyle Rice is a pilot. Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o tunes up by playing the role we’ll always remember, another fight attendant, named Gwen — a part with barely five lines or so, none of which are “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” Omar Netwally plays a sort of token Muslim doctor. And Quinn McColgan plays the obligatory adorable little girl — the most suspicious character in the movie, I thought.

Now, you would think that even an idiot could find somebody who keeps texting messages and killing people (or having them killed) on a sold-out plane in flight. And it also seems peculiar that a hijacker trying to extort $150 million would threaten to blow up the plane on which he or she is actually riding. But that’s  only another example of the script‘s screwball logic — which also has  Marks’ superior (Shea  Wigham) warning him  that if  the pilot tries to land the plane, he’ll order it shot down, with all the passengers  — which sounds like enough to end the Federal Marshal program and to send Aqua British into multiple bankruptcy and international disgrace .

But nothing in the story beats the eventual other motive revealed for all this fuss and chaos, which….

SPOILER ALERT

….which, believe it or not, is to promote airline safety.

END OF SPOILER

Incredibly, little or none of this is played for laughs; nor does it get any. Collet-Serra’s direction (he made the nightmarish Unknown with Neeson), has punch and pace and some verve, and he never tends to linger on anything, which seems like exactly the right strategy for material like this. Neeson, with his anxious eyes and Viking frame,  gives his part what the movie needs to keep it from collapsing into total inanity: truculent charm, a mournful countenance,  and a penchant for beating the crap out of everybody. As for the rest of the cast  — and Neeson too –  we should consider it a major acting triumph on everybody’s part that they played all these scenes  without cracking up.

Non-Stop eventually, blessedly, does. I can’t say I wasn’t occasionally amused –or that you might not be — but why encourage it? Some of the reviewers who enjoyed (with reservations) this aeronautical dimwittery argued that it’s wrong to expect logic out of movies like this, that they’re just “popcorn movies,” just dumb fun,  just “B movies,”  and that it’s stupid to expect anything but stupidity from them, which is  what audiences want. anyway.

But do they? Or is that just what audiences are used to getting? Why can’t our action movies or thrillers have more plots that make sense, good characters, good dialogue, a moratorium on clichés, and maybe even a few interesting  ideas about life? They used to. Some of them still do.  But that certainly isn’t what we get out of recent thrillers or shockers like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit or 3 Days to Kill, or the new Robocop or I, Frankenstein or Non-Stop. And it seems as much a misnomer to call this multi-multi-million-dollar show with its mega star lead and near-all-star cast and knockout production values a “B movie” as to call its script a script. Shouldn’t critics try to encourage good writing in movies, and discourage logic-challenged, opportunistic hackwork?

Oh, and did I mention that after Marks kills one guy and leaves the body in the airplane john, after one of the most claustrophobic fights ever,  nobody apparently finds the corpse for several hours? Huh? Maybe though, that one does make sense. Maybe the passengers and flight crew all had the piss and shit scared out of them by Liam Neeson.

Wilmington on Movies: The Wind Rises

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

 

 

THE WIND RISES (Four Stars)

Japan: Hayao Miyazaki (Disney)

“The wind rises; we must try to sing.”

                                 — Paul Valery

Miyazaki‘s The Wind Rises. A lovely name. A lovely film.  A poem to flight, as soaring and lyrical as  those of the sometimes heart-piercing French writer/artist/pilot Antoine de St. Exupery.

In Wind, we’re in a long-vanished Japan, in a world made of drawings, and the artist is a sort of god — a boyish god named Jiro, who wears glasses and adores biplanes and dirigibles and lovely old flying machines. Jiro’s  line, the pen in his hand, brings machines alive. And the hand of Miyazaki, his pen and line, brings a whole lost world and its lost people to life.

World War I has ended. The earth quakes. Jiro dreams of flight, but he is too near-sighted to fly. An Italian airplane designer named Caproni inspires him. His friend Honjo walks with him, joking. There is a girl who paints, named Nahoko. She bends from a balcony in the sunlight and laughs. There’s an angry goblin of  a boss named Kurokawa. There are Germans,  Nazis, obsessed with war, with mastery, with the best way to kill many people. Bad men  and bullies, says a man named Castorp — with smiling eyes and a huge hook nose.

The hills are green. The sky is blue. The clouds billow like white sails full of wind. Down below, Jiro walks in the tall grass, in the sunlight, with Nahoko. And Jiro and Honjo design planes. Jiro draws so beautifully…

The drawings come alive. The pilots fly and soar.  War breaks out. The Bombs drop. There is a drop of blood on the pillow. Love and war.  Flight. The pictures move. The wind rises. WWII.  Storms of fire lie beyond the clouds. Riders soaring in the beautiful, damned sky. The boy in the glasses become the man who draws planes, on the ground below.

All of it is Jiro’s dream, Miyazaki’s drawing: clouds piled high in the sky, masses of white, like heaps of ice cream, the planes scooping through them. The Earth far below. The ruins piled up. Death falling. A dream…of Jiro, of Caproni, of Nahoko, of the sky, of the planes and, behind that rim of clouds, of what will be Pearl Harbor, with Jiro’s Zero fighters flying far above. The Zero fighters, the A6M, designed by Jiro. The planes. The glasses.  The waves of grass. The wreckage. The clouds. The drop of blood. The Sky.

 

“I just wanted to make something beautiful,” said the real-life  Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical expert who designed some of those planes, the best of them maybe, so they could fly perfectly on their missions of death.  That strange and disturbing remark  of Horikoshi‘s was the thing, said Miyazaki, that made him want to make this movie — supposedly the last feature film by one of the world’s great masters of the animated film. So he wrote and drew a manga, a Japanese comic book, about Jiro — not the true story of what really happened between the two World Wars, but a poem, a romance.  And then he turned this manga, this poem, into this movie. His last movie he says and his last poem: the last animated feature of Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote, drew and brought to life Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Most of those films were stories about people and children who flew, or who explored, or who entered a dream world — adventurous little girls or boys (more often girls), or spirits or a mustachioed pig of an Italian star pilot named Porco Rosso. They were drawn and animated largely in the old-fashioned way, with lines that emphasize the paradoxical flatness and depth of Miyazaki’s tableaux and compositions, lines that make each character, however small, look like a work of art, or part of a great, beautiful drawing  — those memorable movable lines that define Miyazaki’s style, which almost eschews the rounded contours, three-dimensional depth or the quick pace and cutting that define the dominant feature cartoon style today.

Miyazaki’s cartoons are resolutely old-fashioned, unabashedly artistic, defiantly slow, often dazzlingly pictorial, heart-breaking, exciting  and whimsical. They are pictures that move, full of drawings that live. I would rather watch one of them than 90% of the cartoons, or movies, being made today. So would many other people and children, I suspect, which is probably why John Lasseter, the generous, brilliant, warm-spirited head of Pixar and Disney, is trying so determinedly to give us all the chance.   `

Lasseter has packaged The Wind Rises lovingly and given it a wonderful English-speaking cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eternally boyish Jiro, Emily Blunt as the tragic Nahoko, John Krasinski as  the lively, witty Honjo, master musical player  Mandy Patinkin as Hattori, Martin Short as the bumptious little Kurokawa (a fuming little mad elf of a guy, so he couldn’t possibly be inspired by the six-foot-plus-tall and very anti-war Akira Kurosawa), German cineaste/wanderer  Werner Herzog as  Castorp and Stanley Tucci as the real-life designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, Jiro’s youthful idol. (I wasn’t able to see the subtitled Japanese-language version with Japanese actors, and I hope Disney includes it with their English language version in the DVD.) Miyazaki’s script, a fine sturdy one, was inspired by Horikoshi’s life (which it considerably alters) and also by the novel “The Wind Rises” by Tatsui Hori, who took his title from the French writer Paul Valery’s line quoted above and who, like the fictional Nahoko, had tuberculosis. The music, as so often for a Miyazaki film, is a poppish lyrical score by Joe Hisaishi, whose sprightly melodies  and dancing rhythms fit Miyazaki as well as Nino Rota’s fit Fellini.

.The movie’s politics have been questioned, wrongly, I believe — but understandably, considering the sympathy that Miyazaki shows to  his Japanese WWII era countrymen  who were also America‘s old WWII Japanese combatants, and especially to the man who designed the planes that struck without warning and rained down death on our boys at Pearl Harbor.  I think it’s clear that The Wind Rises is a movie made by an artist opposed to war. But just as the anti-war, anti-militarist, anti-nuclear bomb Kurosawa could find wild, brawling, breath-taking  beauty in the extraordinary battle scenes he created for war movies like Seven Samurai and  The Hidden Fortress, so Miyazaki finds disturbing  beauty and artfulness in the creation of the Zero fighter planes, the carriers of death that Jiro draws and makes possible — and he finds beauty as well in the wind that rises, in the earth that shakes, and in the people who persevere as their world falls apart. But not in the bombs that fall and kill, or the monsters who unleash them.

I hope that Miyazaki’s “retirement,“ like his retirements before, and many of Ingmar Bergman’s, proves  prematurely announced. Three of his last movies — Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises — have been very ambitious, staggering really, especially since he plans the films, writes the scripts, and does much of the drawing himself. But not every work of art has to be an epic. Miyazaki could make a little film, like his little heroines, made with large talent and a large heart, which he has shown repeatedly. We would welcome it, I think. Anyway…All our praise to Miyazaki for a film, and a life, well made. That war, thank God, is over. That drawing is done.

 

Wilmington on Movies: Winter’s Tale

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

 

WINTER”S TALE (Two Stars)

U.S.: Akiva Goldsman (2014)

 

Any time you see a movie based on a hugely popular, critically hosannaed, densely populated epic romance  novel  like Mark Helprin‘s Winter‘s Tale — a prestige movie about endless, undying love boasting such first-class actors as Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, William Hurt and Eva Marie Saint — and the picture gets stolen  by a flying horse, you know the show is in some kind of trouble.

That splendid horse-thievery is executed upon writer-director Akiva Goldsman’s very ambitious film of  Helprin’s cult classic by  a CGI-enhanced animal actor playing an equine character named Athansor. Athansor is played by a real looker named Listo — and  Listo has the best part and maybe even the best lines. Actually, the horse  has no lines, not even a neigh, but that  gives him the advantage on, say, co-star Russell Crowe, who, as the fiendish Irish-American New York gang boss Pearly Soames, only seems to have no lines, because a lot of them are nearly incomprehensible. (Or were to me.)

Anyway, not to make any more wisecracks about a film project toward which I feel some sympathy (I like the idea of movies based on hugely popular, critically hosannaed novels, the more epic and romantic the better),  Athansor had this show pretty much handed to him. The magnificent white steed is a very attractive key member of the very attractive cast, in a picture, gorgeously shot by  horse-photography expert Caleb Deschanel, who lit, ravishingly, The Black Stallion ), and in which most of the actors and actresses are beautiful or incomprehensible, as is much of the movie, and much of the plot flies off in all directions and looks if it needs some oats. (Sorry.)

Winter’s Tale — based on Helprin’s 700-page-plus science fiction/fantasy epic romance by that  very prolific and prized screenwriter Goldsman (an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind) — treats the story (or what’s left of it),  with a straight-faced reverence that has “labor of love” and “would-be classic” stamped all over it — and you can only wish that it were either, instead of another critical joke-mill.

The movie is set in a century‘s worth of New York City, seen in the years 1895, 1916 and in the present day, 2014 — and it revolves around Farrell’s character, a feisty, pretty boy burglar named Peter Lake, who, as an infant in 1895  is tossed and set adrift  in a little floating crib dropped from an ocean liner in the waters near Ellis Island, after his sick parents are refused entry by the Ellis Island doctors, and lose admittance to America and its dreams. Somehow the child survives this dubious treatment — tossed like some little pseudo-Moses to the waves on a little boat emblazoned “City of Justice” — and he’s rescued by bog-men on the shore, including the colorful bog-philosopher Humpstone John, played by that fine Native American actor Graham Greene (not the writer) in what has seemingly become a bog-cameo.

Some 21 years later,  Peter, a good-looking boy-o with  a mournful Irish eloquent sweet-thuggish air about him,  has become a notorious burglar, and has also messed up and incurred the wrath of the fiendish derby-hatted Pearly and his gang of similarly derby-hatted nasties. Peter is living in the rafters of Grand Central Station, and when Pearly, with his miscreants, catches up with him in the street, and starts making incomprehensible threats, Athansor the heroic horse appears out of nowhere, tosses his magnificent mane, and kneels with horsy grandeur before Peter.

Peter hops aboard, and Athansor  leaps over two extremely high iron gates, and over Pearly and all his surly, menacing crew, as if they were a mere steeplechase barrier. Oddly, Pearly and his boys, instead of saying something like “Holy shit! That horse just jumped over an extremely high iron fence and all of us menacing thugs,” simply gaze after the fleeing horse and rider, petulantly. There will be an explanation of sorts for this later on, but none for why Peter, throughout the entire movie,  persists in calling Athansor  (his name in the book) “Horse.” (Couldn’t he at least have called him “Horsie?”)

This is only the first of Athansor’s amazing rides — usually undertaken while rescuing Peter and some beautiful woman from the enraged Pearly. Later on the Horse leaps off a wintry cliff to an icy shore far below with Peter and his great consumptive dying love and rich man’s daughter Beverly Penn (Brown-Findlay of Downton Abbey), aboard. Then they ride, boldly ride, to her father’s magical rich man’s lakefront house, where magic and tragedy await. Still later, in 2014 or maybe 2013, or in any case, the present era,  the dauntless animal leaps off a Manhattan skyscraper with Peter, and a fetchingly pretty New York journalist named Virginia Gamely (fetchingly played by Jennifer Connelly).

Both young women accept these flights with remarkable equanimity, as if they were  doing nothing more dangerous than stepping aboard a slightly sped-up merry-go-round –which either means that these ladies are made of sterner stuff than Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane,  or that, in this particular alternate universe, there are a lot of winged white horses jumping off  buildings, sprouting transparent CGI wings and flying off with lovable burglars and lovely ladies and adorable children into the great hither and yon. Or more likely, that you just can’t faze a New Yorker.

That includes, I guess, the notion of we the audience (New Yorkers or not) not being fazed when the terminally ill (apparently) and fetchingly beautifully  Beverly responds to Peter’s break-in and prospective burgle of her and her rich newspaper magnate dad Isaac Penn’s (William Hurt) lavish digs in the West ‘80s — by falling undyingly, endlessly in love, and he (endlessly, undyingly) in love with her. The blissful two are locked together in the endless undeath of their great winter’s tale of eternal infatuation, after only one brief but spectacularly photographed roll in the hay to whet their endless love and heartbreak and renewal and redemption for a century hence, when the now amnesiac but still young-looking  Peter, after  bashing into a cloud bank, pops up in 2014 (or whatever), where cute little McKayla Twiggs as young Willa, darling tot of the Penn household,  has grown up into still-beautiful Eva Marie Saint as the adult Willa , the apparently 100-year old editor of the New York Sun, Isaac‘s still-thriving old rag. Should this adult  Willa be introduced to the similarly incredible Manoel de Oliveira, the 104-year-old but still active Portuguese writer-director  of the classic film romances The Satin Slipper and  Ill-Fated Love? And should Oliveira be offered Winter‘s Tale II, with Pearly now babbling incomprehensibly in Portuguese?

There’s a Horatio Alger nuttiness so far to the story, which seems to be partly about the romance of capitalism. (Helprin is a young conservative grown old.) So now, with an explanation worthy of only a SPOILEER ALERT — in shaggy-haired hippie artist garb (the book was published in 1983, which explains a lot) — Peter will proceed to his endless, undying destiny, endlessly pursued still by the incomprehensible rage of Pearly Soames, and the evil, beautiful perfect diction of Pearly’s suave satanic boss, (Here Comes) The Judge (Will Smith) — with endless love in Peter’s undying heart, with endless hate in Pearly’s, with Beverly unendingly on Peter’s mind , endlessly secure in the knowledge that no one will ever dare compare Mark Helprin to Nicholas Sparks, and that, no matter what fresh violent improbability ensues, Athansor the winged white horse will be there to get Peter’s back, fly down and whisk him and some beautiful lady away into the great hither and yon — endlessly, undyingly.

“Winter’s Tale” is a book I’ve always intended to read. Now I wonder if I’ll ever get to it– though to be fair some admirers  of the novel have testified that it’s been compromised and debauched and that the book isn’t like this. It seems like a movie where the makers were trying to be faithful to something , not out of purely (or impurely) mercenary motives, but out of , let’s face it, love and admiration. So Winter’s Tale is blessed with every good element and every good intention, and with all the high romantic aspirations of bringing quality and romance and literacy and poetry and endless, undying love to the screen — and instead, it’s been turned into a one trick pony and a weird if occasionally beautiful slumgullion of a would-be epic surreal  love story, with occasional howlers.

Has this movie made it less likely that anyone will now bring a new version of long literary classics like Don Quixote or Finnegan’s Wake to the screen? Probably not. But instead, are we condemned to a cinema whose primary products are  multi-gazillion dollar versions — possibly perfectly decent ones  — of comic books or young adult novels or old TV shows? Endlessly? Undyingly? Incomprehensibly?

Akiva Goldsman has written some good movies (I Am Legend and A Beautiful Mind, which won Oscars for both Goldsman and Connelly, as well as the film itself) and some bad ones (Batman & Robin, which won George Clooney a lot of Batpans). But it’s safe to say he’ll never make another picture quite like Winter’s Tale, not even if Winter’s Tale II suddenly gets a big boost on Kickstarter. Or will he? Sometimes you can love a movie to death, and that’s probably what’s happened here. It’s  why a picture based on  a book many consider a modern classic, lovingly written and produced by Goldsman, gorgeously designed and shot, cast with wonderful actors, and made with such obvious devotion, seems like such a dud.

It’s possible that two hours is simply too short a span to tell a story like this.  Possibly Winter’s Tale, with those 700 pages of densely-constructed story material,  should have been a TV miniseries, or two movies. Or none. One thing is sure: It shouldn’t have been this movie. There’s only so much one poor horse can do.