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Wilmington on Movies: Genius

Friday, June 17th, 2016

GENIUS (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Michael Grandage, 2016

Thomas Wolfe was an American literary phenomenon: a North Carolina-born novelist and prodigy who hoped to write books of Shakespearean verbal grandeur, of Tolstoyan dramatic scope and Dickensian humanity, and to live a life to fit those vast ambitions. He’s also an artist who tends to be ignored or underrated these days. A pity, because whenever you read one of his huge novels (especially “Look Homeward Angel” and “Of Time and the River”), his talent and his mixed but munificent literary gifts flame right off the page at you.

Like Jack Kerouac, a similarly poetic, adventurous and self-destructive literary figure, Wolfe tended to project himself into his tales. He became the hero of his own epic life — and his blazing eloquence was both the raison d’être and engine of that life. Wolfe was a master of the long lyrical sentence and the unabashed confessional tone, and he could plunge us into his consciousness, and that of his literary alter-ego Eugene Gant, like some savagely brilliant literary mad man hurling himself form the cliffs of his imagination, to the whirling torrents and dangerous rocks below.

Genius — a movie that I liked and would like to defend — is the story of Wolfe’s life and literary rise and fall, and of his relationship with Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s celebrated editor at his first publisher, Scribners. Perkins is as much (or more) the hero, and the genius, of this tale, as Wolfe was — a consummate reader, analyzer, pruner and re-shaper of prose who was perhaps the most revered literary editor of the twentieth century, and, by all accounts, deserved to be.

Perkins was also the editor who discovered and nurtured both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway –two great literary lights of their era, and ours — as well as James Jones, of “From Here to Eternity,“ Erskine Caldwell (“Trouble in July“ and “God‘s Little Acre“) and Marguerite Young (“Miss MacIntosh, My Darling”). The film, which sticks closely to the facts, is set in the ‘30s and the height of the Depression. And when young Tom Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe, the witty social satirist and author of “The Bonfire of the Vanities“) bursts into Perkins’ office near the start of the story, he seems more than ready to face the rejection and harsh dismissal that have dogged his heels at every office of almost every other publishing house in New York.

Jude Law, who plays Wolfe, acts up a storm. When we watch his first invasion of the Scribners offices, seething with self-regard and borne aloft on a windstorm of egoism — we can tell we’re watching, unforgettably, a writer in love with his own legend and an editor who has all the tools, all the sensitivity. and the iron will to help him perfect both his work and his image.

But he doesn’t have to stand alone. Perkins — who wears a dark fedora hat almost everywhere, inside and out, and who wears it now while the hatless, tangle-haired Wolfe takes over his office and his life — has read Wolfe’s voluminous manuscript. (His novels sometimes came to Scribners’ in crates.) And the star editor has decided to recommend that the house publish it — just as it published, on Perkins’ call, “The Great Gatsby“ for Fitzgerald, and “The Sun Also Rises“ for Hemingway.

More importantly, Perkins, who is already a godlike figure in New York City publishing circles, intends to personally edit the overweening manuscript — of the novel then entitled “O Lost,” which eventually became the best-selling, ecstatically reviewed “Look Homeward Angel.” The master of trimming will pound it into publishable shape. Perkins is used to dealing with troublesome writers and huge literary egos, but he may sense that this is going to be the most grandiose and stormy of them all. He may guess that he is about to embark on a voyage into wrack and lightning and whirlpool — into a battering emotional/critical duel, with a writer who will make Perkins’ previous pet geniuses Fitzgerald and Hemingway look like gentleman scholars sipping tea.

The movie that follows is based on a prize-winning historical/biography of enormous detail and copious research: A. Scott Berg’s National Book Award-winning “Max Perkins, Editor of Genius,” a literary chronicle that unabashedly makes a hero out of Perkins and a tragic poet and twisted clown out of Wolfe. Genius the movie, backed up by Berg’s prodigious research, makes a hero of Perkins too — thanks in large part to the superbly contained and stunningly civilized characterization of Max in the film by that consummate British actor, Colin Firth. The screenplay of Genius, more literate and more impassioned and psychologically richer and deeper than most of what we see on screen these days, was sympathetically and admirably written by playwright/screenwriter John Logan (of Gladiator, Hugo, The Aviator and the James Bond film Spectre) and was filmed, in his cinema debut, by the much-praised, much-prized British stage director Michael Grandage — who followed Sam Mendes as artist director of England’s highly regarded Donmar Warehouse.

We probably remember Colin Firth best for the quiet dignity he brings to such roles as the sensitive aristocrat/hunk Darcy in the BBC film of Jane Austen‘s “Pride and Prejudice,” and for his Oscar turn as the vocally challenged King George in The King’s Speech (which won the Best Picture Oscar and a Best Actor award for Firth). He brings the same dignity, and sharp intelligence, decency and humanity into his and Berg’s and Logan’s portrait of Max Perkins.

Working with a very flashy fellow cast, which also includes Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s emotionally wounded lover Aline Bernstein, Firth quietly takes over every scene. He makes Max someone special, the crucial conduit between great but sometimes difficult (or even tragic) writers and the more intelligent reading public who needs those writers but sometimes ignores them. And who need him, the perfect editor, as well.

In the eyes of the moviemakers, Perkins was an unsung hero whose artistic contribution to the novels of his protégées (or clients) was immense. If those now legendary writers were, especially in the case of Wolfe, Perkins’ unruly prodigies, he was their largely unheralded teacher and paterfamilias. The writers needed his gifts of civility and bridge-building — and he needed the writers for their brilliance and passion for words, and for their great, influential work that would survive them all. Perkins, a frustrated writer, treasured his authors for the literary worlds they made and the characters into whom they breathed life, for the wondrous books they wrote that Perkins couldn’t write himself.

Jude Law plays Wolfe almost maddeningly as a great, wayward fictionist, but also as a self-indulgent child: battling Max, irritating Max’s playwright wife Louise (Laura Linney), and mistreating Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a noted New York costume designer and Wolfe’s lover and first big city patron. Bernstein’s hurt essence is movingly captured by Nicole Kidman, acting the part with a voice like acid and an expression full of love and bile.

Law plays Tom with gusto and relish and a cocky dreamy little smile. He’s likable and magnetic. But he’s also infuriating. (Hemingway is especially contemptuous toward him.) We can see Tom’s greatness as a writer, and we can also see — in the memorable scene where Max edits a love scene from O Lost down to almost nothing and makes Tom like it and accept it — how much savvier Max is about getting Wolfe’s work to the public. The movie appreciates them both, and lets us appreciate them both too.

You can read Berg’s title two ways — as referring to Max Perkins: the Editor who was a Genius, or as a phrase designating Max Perkins, the Editor who recruited and helped up to success and fame a whole string of Geniuses. (The title, not necessarily intentionally, refers to both of them.) And we see two of Max’s other novelists. Fitzgerald is very convincingly and touchingly played by Guy Pearce as a ravaged, fragilely handsome Scottie, begging money from Max. Hemingway, likeably and lustily played by Dominic West, comes off as a robust, good-humored, arrogant Hem, at one point smiling beneficently while posing on a pier with Max and a huge fish. Both these men come alive — so much so, one wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of them, just as I wouldn’t have minded a bit more of the four main characters in the story‘s fierce central romantic quadrangle. (Obviously, this richness is why you need editors with pencils like Max.)

Genius was a project that took two decades to come together, beginning when Logan read Berg‘s book and then sought him out and commenced his own research into the reader and his writers. To describe this film as a labor of love is an understatement. But Genius has also been damned as over-literary and ridiculed as “Oscar-bait” — an insulting cliche, suggesting dubiously that films which clearly seem to be labors of love (like this one), carefully and caringly produced pictures (like this one), which attract prestigious actors to work in them for a fraction of their usual price, written on meaty historical, dramatic and sometimes literary subjects (like this one), are not undertaken out of love or artistry, but as a form of Oscar-mongering and literary over-reaching, intended to bamboozle gullible critics, would-be aesthetes and the more pretentious Oscar voters.

As for me, I found it entertaining and even inspiring to spend a couple of hours in Genius with one of the great novelists, and maybe the greatest literary editor of 20th century America — even if those characters were the creations and interpretations, of other writers and filmmakers. I hope Genius spurs people into reading something written by Thomas Wolfe, or edited by Maxwell Perkins. I hope more people see Genius, which gets a little rushed toward the end, but was worth the trouble.

We sometimes forget that some of the greatest movies, and a number of the better ones, are often those very same shows that can be dismissed as “Oscar bait” — directed by writer-friendly moviemakers like Orson Welles, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Francois Truffaut, John Ford and Jean Renoir. These so-called “Oscar bait” projects were based, sometimes very faithfully (sometimes not), on major works of literature and first-rate popular fiction. They had good scripts, literate scripts, meaty subjects, roles great actors love to play, stories great directors love to tell. Like this one.


Wilmington on Movies: The Conjuring 2

Saturday, June 11th, 2016

THE CONJURING 2 (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: James Wan, 2016

“Discover the truth behind the event that shocked the world.”
~ New Line Cinema Press book for The Conjuring 2.

People who like scary ghost horror movies, from Frankenstein to The Haunting, probably are partial, at least a little, to that awesome, icky sensation of being plunged into sucking swamps of cinematic dread, then rescued (maybe spuriously, maybe not) at the very last possible millisecond—a sensation you may feel quite a few times in The Conjuring 2. Some of these shivering aficionados may also believe that the current flood of mass-market nightmares, however wildly improbable they seem, might actually happen in the real world, that demons and witches exist and could some day come after us.

In this case, the “real life” protagonists are the real-life Hodgson family of the borough of Enfield, in London, England in 1977: a bedeviled working class family headed by Frances O’Connor as single mother Peggy Hodgson, with little Madison Wolfe as her most supernatural-sensitive child Janet, and the rest of the Hodgson clan played by Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, Patrick McAuley and others. Ghost detectives Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were introduced to us in the first Conjuring movie (played here as there by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are two actual famed real-life paranormal investigators and ghost hunters whose adventures inspired the supposedly real life spook epic, The Amityville Horror (1979), as well as this sequel to director James Wan’s 2013 smash hit The Conjuring — another smash hit and also the latest example of a horror movie that tries to diddle with out sense of reality.

Did it really happen? The press book and the movie itself seem hell-bent on convincing us it did. The alleged real life ghosts allegedly unearthed by the real-life Lorraine and Ed in this “true” shocker include such horrifying and improbable showstoppers as Bill Wilkins the murderous septuagenarian (Bob Adrian), the incredible flying demon nun (Bonnie Aaron) and an evil-looking Crooked Man (Javier Botet) who hangs out in the kids’ zoetrope toy. Real or not, they’re likely to give you a few frissons, since they keep incessantly leaping out at the Hodgson kids, and Peggy, and Lorraine and Ed and assorted other eye-witnesses, from behind doors or around corners and to the accompaniment of the loud horrific clangs you often hear in horror and haunted house movies.

Pardon my irreverence. After all, these blood-drenched maniacs and demon nuns are only trying to make a living in a distressed economy (just as the Hodgsons were back in 1977). That’s why they’re all lucky — ghosts and ghostbusters alike — to have crossed paths with James Wan, The Wizard of Saws.

For the last decade or so, we’ve been bombarded with these allegedly part-true-life scary movies: film shockers that try to persuade us that they’re somebody‘s found footage from a garage or attic, or a cinema verite’ documentary or a security video camera record, or that they’re stories taken from or inspired by real life. Since the same sort of things usually happen in these movies — which tend to show us “normal” bourgeois families terrorized, or bevies of nubile teenagers making out and beset by the maniacs, the monsters or sometimes The Devil Himself — it tends to give you a stomach-turning view of contemporary society: its bad dreams, its bad trips and the reality that supposedly inspired them.

This movie is well-shot and fairly well-acted, but not particularly well-written. For me, the best horror movies or tales that actually are about contemporary reality — or try to make us think they are — include Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining — in the last case, both the original novel by Stephen King (as good a horror story, I think, as anyone can write), and, to a lesser extent, the movie Stanley Kubrick made from it. These are movies that really do freeze the blood and get under your skin, breeding nightmares. The new found footage shockers, though they work well with the right kind of audience, often suggest some kind of screaming, bloody academic conference of spookology: Horror movies as the cracked crazy-house mirrors of today‘s flawed reality. It’s not just “only a movie.“ (Supposedly.) It’s really happening, a documentary record of the dark, mad side of life and death. And if they aren’t really happening, they could be. Supposedly.

The Conjuring 2 is not a found footage movie — like the videotapes supposedly recovered from the from the first Conjuring and the woodsy massacre of The Blair Witch Project, or the surveillance cameras that keep just missing the action in Paranormal Activity, though there is some footage supposedly shot by a local TV news cameraman (Chris Royds). Instead the moviemakers, who had the whole project blessed by Father Steven Sanchez of the Roman Catholic Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico, inform us that these events really happened in 1977 in Enfield, London and that the people are real (played by actors using the actual names of the real people, shown side by side in the credits) and that everything we see actually, truly happened.

Since what we see includes the mad doings in an alleged haunted house — assaults by beings from beyond the gave, beds levitating and flying past each other, a painting of the demon nun careening around the house in pursuit of Lorraine Warren, and an evil maniac sneaking around, trying to do a raspy-voiced impersonation of the great Mercedes McCambridge (the voice of the Devil from The Exorcist) — the movie tends to suggest that we live in a world madder than the Mad Hatter in the “Alice“ books and movies, more blood thirsty than Dracula, and obsessed for some reason with destroying the Hodgson family and humiliating the Warrens.

We’re also asked to believe that the little dark crooked figure in that whirling zoetrope machine, can come alive and start chasing Hodgsons, that the ghost of a murderer can taunt his victims and pursuers from an easy chair, That Ed not only knows all the words to Elvis’ anthem “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” but can dangle out of a high window for what seems hours, while holding a screaming child and being harassed by one of the monsters. And just to show how silly we all are if we question any of this, at least while we’re watching the show, the cast includes two obnoxious iconoclasts — Franka Potente of Run Lola Run as a German parapsychologist and Cory English as a sneaky, sneery little pain in the ass (also both supposedly patterned after real people), and shows them behaving like smug know-it-alls, who don’t have the Hodgson family’s interest at heart. Unlike Ed and Lorraine of course — and perhaps also unlike the upcoming foursome in the new Ghostbusters.

Wan, whose movies are tremendous moneymakers — they also include the first Saw Movie, the other Conjuring picture, the seventh Fast and Furious and both Insidiouses — is now being hailed as a genius, or at the very least a master craftsman. (Or maybe just a guy whose movies make an awful lot of money.) He certainly knows how to create a sense of awful sticky unease, and to crank up the terror and make audiences jump. He and cinematographer Don Burgess also move the camera almost as well as that other horror specialist John Carpenter — if not as well as that genuine genius of cinema Stanley Kubrick. I wouldn’t describe Wan as a master in the way Hitchcock, Polanski and Kubrick were masters, but he knows what he‘s doing and he definitely understands what appeals to audiences these days. Maybe some day, he will make classics of horror, and it would be ironic if, when he does, the mass audience deserts him for some other whiz kid who knows all the formulas. And who knows how to bring on the Devil, cue the demon nun and make us jump.

Wilmington on Movies: Alice Through the Looking Glass

Friday, May 27th, 2016

U.S.: James Bobin, 2016

Saying that a movie is better than its reputation—especially when its reputation is lousy—may seem a point not worth arguing. But that’s what I felt about the new Tim Burton-co-produced Alice Through the Looking Glass, which has been trashed by critics and avoided by audiences, at least in comparison with Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, which was a worldwide hit, and (slightly) better liked by critics. I liked the first Alice and I kind of liked this movie too. At least, I enjoyed it more than I was supposed to, according to most of my fellow critics—who tended to treat the whole show as an over-CGIed desecration of a great piece of literature, overblown and fatuous and over-expensive.

Expensive-looking it certainly is. Over CGIed it is as well. A lavish and visually spectacular sequel to Burton’s 2010 revisionist/feminist Alice—which was adapted from Lewis Carroll’s follow-up to his classic children’s book—Looking Glass is, in many ways, a disappointment. But this movie’s flaws seem to me less ruinous, its strengths less negligible, and its effect more enjoyable than naysayers have allowed.

That doesn’t mean that you should rush out and see it, simply that the people involved did a better job than they have been credited. Film is, after all a visual art as well as a narrative one, and that certainly goes both for this huge overstuffed plum pudding of an “Alice” picture– made by a gifted crew that includes number of veterans of Alice, notably screenwriter Linda Woolverton (a collaborator on Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), led this time by director James Bobin (helmer on a recent Muppet movie).

The 2010 Alice was a girl-power reboot that gave a us a feisty grown up Alice, Mia Wasikowska, looking like the blonde, nubile, innocent-looking heroine of a Polanski movie and surrounded by all the dreams that money can buy. Here, as before, she encounters a bevy of Wonderlanders juiced up with more psychosexual tension that Lewis Carroll (or Walt Disney, in his ‘50s feature-length cartoon version) would have dared imagine. The Burton Alice was a sexy movie, and it was actually more suitable for adults than for children — or at least, for most children — and that may have been one reason it was a billion-dollar-grossing worldwide smash hit. It may also be part of the reason a lot of critics disliked the first movie, and even more disliked this one.

Bobin and Woolverton and the rest of the people who made this new movie may have been misguided. But they certainly weren’t hacks. When my lady friend and I walked out of Looking Glass, I may have been less transported than Transformered (to name another CGI-fest to which the Alices have been compared). But we’d had a fairly good time. I didn’t get the charge I got when, at the age of seven or so, I first read a paperback edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, while riding home to Hyde Park in Chicago with my mother on the Chicago El.

That was one of those magical experiences of my childhood, one of those revelations you can never quite repeat: the John Tenniel illustrations, the world underground, the dazzling wordplay and the lovable intricate nonsense. Burton’s Alices were both, by comparison, just okay shows, whose enjoy ability lies in their razzle-dazzle pictorialism. But, since they will probably drive a number of children, and even a few adults to read the books once or again, the movies may actually be better friends to that brilliant eccentric, the Rev. Charles  Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll), and his bewitching legacy, than the modern day commentators savaging the movie as butchery of the source.

Linda Woolverton continues here from where the first script left off. — with a mature Alice played by Mia Wasikowska with a blonde skinny sumptuousness that suggests a Roman Polanski heroine . Woolverton Alices are feminist rethinkings of the tales and the character. And while I prefer Carroll’s creatures, I can see why the first film grossed a billion or so. In that show, Alice escapes marriage to a chauvinist jerk — Leo Bill as the obnoxious creepy Hamish — by fleeing on the White Rabbit’s trail to Wonderland. There, Wasikowska’s Alice (last name: Kingsleigh) took the lessons she learned in the scrumptious visual fantasy of the first movie and the first Wonderland (or “Underland“ as it was redubbed) and gave him the boot — finding more amicable and fantastic company with the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and his gang.

Now she’s back after a stint at being a ship’s captain: surviving a spectacular storm and returning to England, where the perfidious Hamish is up to his nasty tricks again, trying to foreclose on her ship — and driving her to another escape into Wonderland –ah, Underland — where she finds her old pals, the Hatter and the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the Caterpillar turned Butterfly (the late Alan Rickman, to whom the movie is dedicated).

And plenty more, including Humpty Dumpty (Wally Wingert), Tweedledum and Tweedledee (both played by Matt Lucas , dubbed and doubled), Bayard the Bloodhound (Timothy Spall), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), The White Queen (Anne Hathaway), that old nemesis, the off-with-your-head harridan The Red Queen or Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter), and Alice’s main buddy, the Mad Hatter a.k.a. Tarrant Hightopp. (Johnny Depp), who is now plunged into an all-embracing melancholia that not even one of Fred Astaire‘s Top Hats could cure. All these and a role for Rhys Ifans (Zanik Hightopp, no less, paterfamilias of the Hightopp clan) and another snazzy new character, Time himself, played by a mustachioed swashbuckling Sacha Baron Cohen, with the zest of a Borat, the dash of a Keith Richards and the cracked malice of a Ladykiller. (One of Mackendrick‘s rather than Coens’).

There are worse ways to spend your film going time than with a company like that, set to dancing by Danny Elfman, in a production design by Dan Hennah and sets by Anna Lynch Robinson and Ra Vincent, lit and shot by Stuart Dryburgh. Certainly, a better movie would have restored Alice to her childhood, revived the nonsense of Carroll, and perhaps taken more visual cues from Tenniel. But compared to most of the multi-million dollar bloodbaths we’re offered, this movie has something worth watching — even if it’s only classy Brit actors on toney Brit sets, playing with the remnants of a great book.

The whole picture is often too much of a muchness, too curious a curiosity, too full a bottle, and Woolverton’s script has taken most of the abuse. But at least it’s not a comic book, not even a Classics Illustrated one. There are no car-chases and the world is not about to end, though the Underland might. I’ve seen worse. So have you.

Wilmington on Movies: Forbidden Games

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

FORBIDDEN GAMES (“Jeux Interdits“) (Four Stars)
France: Rene Clement, 1952

jeuxinterditForbidden Games (“Jeux Interdits”), adapted from the novel by co-screenwriter Francois Boyer, is director Rene Clement’s Oscar-winning, now somewhat unfairly neglected anti-war film classic. Set in the French countryside during World War II, it’s a once much-loved social drama about two sensitive children — an 11-year-old country boy and a 5-year-old Parisian girl (Georges Poujouly and Brigitte Fossey) — who create a private play graveyard and pet cemetery, for their own childlike games of death. Together, they fashion a delicate realm of dangerous dreams and games, a world far from the fighting but one that also respond s to some of the village cruelties around them, while allowing them to escape from the horrors or threat of the raging war in Europe.

Winner of the 1952 American Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture, and the top prize of the Venice Film festival (The Golden Lion), this great, now overlooked film is the finest work of director Clement — who was Jean Cocteau‘s technical advisor and camera director on the 1946 Beauty and the Beast, and who also won another, earlier Oscar (an honorary one) for his 1949 The Walls of Malapaga.

Clement’s better known Forbidden Games, like the neorealist masterpieces of directors Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves), and Robert Rossellini (Rome: Open City and Europa 51), is one of a remarkable and deeply moving series of post-war classic films from France and Italy, that center around children and the ways that World War II and its aftermath injured and brutalized them. Here, young Poujouly and the child Brigitte Fossey (who grew up into one of the most popular French star film actresses of the ’60s and ’70s) draw us into their private fantasy world of the dead, even as they become more and more alienated from the cruel and superficial world of the living around them.

Forbidden Games is one of the great black-and-white French films of the post-war, pre-New Wave cinema era. But it‘s also one of a group of initially admired French post-war films that were later radically underrated by the New Wave critic/directors, including Truffaut and Godard. (Truffaut was especially down on “Games‘” famed main screenwriting team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost.)

It’s a portrait of a very different French countryside than the bucolic, rustic, sun-drenched realm of humanistic wonders we see in the charming films of Marcel Pagnol (The Baker’s Wife) and Jean Renoir (A Day in the Country). Clement‘s world is considerably darker and more painful, more akin to the wickeder small town domain of Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Corbeau) — a place that fosters a society deeply injurious to the young and innocent children who are Clement’s wounded protagonists. With brilliant calm and stunning artistry, with lucid clarity and impeccable style, and with immense technical skill, director Clement flawlessly deploys the emotion and discretion of his young actors against a beautifully observed naturalistic background. He draws us inevitably into their tragic story, and, without sentimentality, still breaks our hearts.

Clement never directed a better or more moving movie, unless one suggests him as the “real” but uncredited co-director of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. And though he continued making sophisticated art house films through the ’50s — including Gervaise (from the Emile Zola novel) and This Angry Age a.k.a. The Sea Wall (from a book by Marguerite Duras) — he eventually settled into a steady, comfortable metier as one of the major French film noir cineastes — making the inarguable noir classics Purple Noon (adapted from a Patricia Highsmith thriller, and starring Alain Delon) and Rider on the Rain (with Charles Bronson).

The movie, and Clement, deserved better — just as the children of “Jeux Interdits,” Fossey and Poujouly, deserved better from the half-blind, sometimes sadistic rural community and the war-torn world that surrounded and alienated and drove them apart. (In French, with English subtitles.)

A restored version of Rene Clement’s classic Forbidden Games, with new subtitles, will play at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles (11272 Santa Monica Blvd.) from August 28-September 3, alternating with Frank Ribiere’s gastrodoc Steak ®Evolution. For times, 310-473-8530 or

Wilmington on Movies: Sinister 2; Sinister

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

SINISTER 2 (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Ciaran Foy, 2015

Sinister 2, one of the creepier horror movies I’ve seen recently, is an attempt to make an even more sinister sequel to the 2012 horror-sleeper Sinister. (See below.) That earlier Sinister was a found-footage horror show that scared some audiences and grossed some dough back in 2012, and also inspired a lukewarm, semi-horrified response from, as Orson Welles was wont to say, your obedient servant. (See below.) But this new Sinister is, like many mediocre and derivative gorefests so unengagingly gory and so unentertainingly sicko that it seems extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see a “Sinister 3.” For which we should all be grateful.

Returning from the earlier film is James Sansone as the unnamed small town deputy, referred to in the credits as Deputy So and So. So and So, in the last movie, discovered the source of all this sinister creepiness, lost his job and is now scouring the mean streets of small town Illinois as a private eye. He discovers that, as with most movie sequels, everything is happening all over again.

Horrors! Evil ghost children, under the influence of actor Nick King as the vile predatory monster Bughuul (an H. P. Lovecraft sort of name, if ever I‘ve heard one), are prowling from house to house, setting up film festivals for the living children there, showing fuzzy old snuff movies on an antique projector (16mm probably), in which they kill their parents in various awful ways. They are apparently trying to brainwash the living children into likewise becoming homicidal maniacs and amateur moviemakers. Hawke, as Ellison, battled these young fiends and their hideous mentor, to no avail.

Now, with Ethan Hawke out of the way, Deputy So and So has taken his place, trying to protect an abused wife and mother (Shanynn Sossamon as Courtney Collins), with vulnerable nine-year-old twins named Dylan (Michael Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), all of them pursued by her rich, vicious and abusive husband Chris (Lea Coco). They all prowl around and occasionally watch movies where the subjects are being horribly murdered. Eventually, people get killed or find another movie.

The photography is dingy. The script, which isn’t any good, was written by Sinister’s director-co-writer Scott Derrickson with co-writer C, Robert Cargill, and it was directed, dispiritedly, by Irishman Ciaran Foy (Citadel), who at least had the good taste not to recruit any bloodthirsty leprechauns to play maniacal ushers, brandishing bloody shillelaghs. I can’t honestly recommend the movie to anyone, except perhaps to maniacal fans of the first Sinister, or maybe a bloodthirsty, drunken leprechaun or two, or to various miscreants on the run from the law who want to hide out in the darkened theaters. There’s only one word for this movie, and that’s….So-and-so? Sinister? Don’t they wish.


SINISTER (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Scott Derrickson, 2012

By Michael Wilmington

Sometimes genuinely scary, sometimes genuinely silly, director-co-writer Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is one of the more genuinely frightening uses of horrific found footage they’ve sprung on us recently. How much you enjoy it depends on how much disbelief you can suspend — which may depend on how many contemporary horror movies, especially the Blair Witch and Paranormal knockoffs, are on your regular movie-going diet.

Derrickson tries to make the found footage — the supposedly amateur films the filmmakers show us — more effective this time, by mixing them up with supposedly “real life” stuff happening to the guy supposedly watching them. In what passes in Sinister for the real world, a struggling true-crime author named Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a house where another family not so long ago was massacred , without informing his own loved ones of their new home’s gruesome history or of the other murders (in other places) that preceded it.

Meanwhile, Ellison keeps his most horrific discovery to himself : In the attic he finds scruffy old boxes containing amateur movies of the actual murders, taken, it seems, by the actual killer or killers. They provide, by far, the movie’s most disturbing moments.

Eventually the rest of the family — Juliet Rylance as mom Tracy, and Claire Foley and Michael Hall Daddario as kids Ashley and Trevor — begin to show signs of paranormal wear and tear. The spooks, mostly dead and obnoxious children, play hide and seek and jump-behind-a-door with Ellison as he wanders around the place, and, as the dour local sheriff, played by Fred Dalton Thompson (perhaps contemplating another presidential bid), shows up and acts surly. Thompson’s deputy, played by James Sansone, is contrastingly helpful to Ellison, probably since he’s eager to get an acknowledgement in the eventual book Oswalt will write, if he survives.

These supposed home snuff movies, which the filmmakers have created for Sinister are ultra-creepy and ragged-looking. The real life scenes are creepy stylized horror stuff. And the professional reality makes the amateur “reality” movies look spookier. (Creepy kudos to cinematographer Chris Norr for the way he lights both of them.) Derrickson, who also directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the overblown 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, works with Norr to keep everything shadowy and grim and unsettling — never more so than when we see those home movie murders. Especially the one in the tree.

Despite an effective falling-apart acting job by Hawke, you have to swallow a little too much malarkey to completely enjoy this movie. At least I did. Sheriff Thompson, whom I much prefer on old “Law and Order” reruns, probably has the right idea. Get out of town — or stay out of the attic — or don’t climb trees — or leave that found footage in its box, dammit.


Wilmington on Movies: The Third Man

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

THE THIRD MAN (Four Stars)

U.K.; Carol Reed, 1949

In The Third Man—probably the greatest British movie thriller of the postwar era—director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene surround an intense fable of moral corruption with a cinematic world of near-Byzantine visual and psychological complexity: the streets and ruins of post-war Vienna. It is a Vienna that has been through Hell and remains in Purgatory, a city of darkness far removed from the rollicking erotics of Ernst Lubitsch’s film comedies or the wistful elegance and melancholy beauty of Max Ophüls‘ movie romances. Decadence and rot have seeped into the city’s very soul, poisoned it, left almost nothing unstained — least of all the movie‘s “heroes“ and protagonists. (This first major restoration of The Third Man is at Los Angeles’ Nuart, the Film Forum in Manhattan and will expand around the country.)

This Vienna is a movie milieu as densely evocative and as emotionally harrowing as Curtiz’s Casablanca or Sternberg’s Morocco. Yet, unlike those two studio classics, it is primarily the real Vienna that the filmmakers show us here: the real streets, the real war-torn buildings, the real rubble — shot by Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker in such a striking style (with almost constant off-angle compositions, deep, deep focus and wide-angle lens distortions), that it all takes on a patina of nightmare.

Through this macabre landscape—over which Anton Karas’ legendary zither score jangles with ironic jauntiness—Greene and Reed’s dark tale unwinds with a suave, sinister perfection. We watch, probably spellbound (I was, at any rate), as a naïve and foolishly romantic American hack novelist, Holly Martins (a specialist in formula genre westerns, who cites his major literary influence, without irony,  as Zane Grey), pursues the murderers of his lifelong best friend, Harry Lime. Holly, maddeningly and lovably inept at almost everything a movie hero should do or be, spars testily with the embittered, cynical British police major, Calloway; hunts for the mysterious “third man” who may have witnessed Harry’s death; and falls hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with Harry’s mistress, the beautiful, beleaguered Anna Sdhmidt, trapped by Calloway and the police bureaucracy. Finally, in two symbolic settings—the Ferris wheel towering above the city, and the shadowy chaos of the sewers beneath it—Holly comes face to face with the supreme evil and the supreme betrayal: both Harry’s and his own.

The Third Man is one of those rare film classics that captured its audience almost immediately and was regarded as a masrwepiwxw almost from its first release. The movie marks one of those unusual conjunctions of script, director, subject, cast and setting—and, of course, music—in which everything meshes, everything works.

Graham Greene’s script, which he first wrote as an unpublished short novel, is one of the all-time masterworks of original screenwriting — a brilliant psychological thriller and an unforgettable evocation of the post-war European battleground of urban international good and evil, with just the right proportions of drama, atmosphere, action, tension and rich character, all faultlessly constructed by the hand of a master. Or several masters.

This was the second of three film collaborations between Greene and Reed — Greene’s favorite movie director, and an artist he greatly preferred to his own personal bête noir, Alfred Hitchcock — and it’s the crowning ultimate work for both men. Their other two joint efforts, both good but both flawed to some degree, are 1948’s The Fallen Idol (from a short story) and 1959’s Our Man in Havana (from a novel). But there’s nothing much wrong with The Third Man, even if the world it describes is wrong to the core and bad to the bone. It is arguably the finest single work of any kind or genre Greene made, and the best of the more than 70 films in which he was involved in some capacity. Until somebody makes a more faithful film or TV adaptation of Greene’s great novel “A Gun for Sale” (a.k.a. “This Gun for Hire”), which has been botched or bungled or miscast several times, but is a film noir masterpiece waiting to happen, The Third Man will probably hold its position, as a sort of Citizen Kane of film noir. And Greene will retain his own place as (how he would have hated the title!) the Alfred Hitchcock of Beitish screenwriters and script sources.

The script is a matchless wonderful job, and all the other components of The Third Man  more than worthy of it. Krasker’s and Reed’s visuals are the absolute peak of black-and-white  film noir style; one watches them rapt, mo matter how many times you’ve seen the film. The acting ensemble is superb, with the mix of Americans and Europeans in the cast creating an ideal balance: Trevor Howard as the pragmatic, saddened, yet brutally unsparing Calloway; Bernard Lee (James Bond’s M himself)  as the gentle Sergeant Paine, who loves Holly’s books; Wilfred Hyde-White as Crabbin, the slightly addled literary entrepreneur; Ernst Deutsch as the sinister, ferrety “Baron” Kurtz; Alida Valli, exuding fatalistic romance as Anna; and those two refugees and best friends from Citizen Kane, Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, as the two old friends torn asunder, the dark side and the light, Harry and Holly—their names so similar Anna often confuses them.

Welles’ relatively brief performance as Harry Lime is perfection itself: the bemused, lightly condescending, affectionate look with which he greets Holly; the murderous fluency of his Machiavellian story of the Borgias and the cuckoo clock (a disparaging comparative analysis of the artistic benefits of tyranny and democracy, that Welles himself wrote); or his wild desperation as he flounders in the sewer, with Holly, Calloway and the police after him. This is magnificent, highly charged film acting, by a nonpareil actor, perfectly cast.

Because the two great set pieces in The Third Man—the Ferris wheel confrontation and the chase through the sewers—both are designed around Welles, and because they’re both shot with the kind of weirdly angled grandiloquence and impudent virtuosity for which he’s always been noted, there’s  a temptation to believe that Welles directed them, and maybe the rest of the film  as well.

But, essential and invaluable as Welles’ performance and contributions were, the main directorial triumph here is Reed’s. He is the hero, and the dominating influence—insisting to producer Alexander Korda that the picture be shot on location in Vienna; insisting that Welles play Harry Lime over David Selznick’s forceful nomination of Noel Coward for the part; resisting Selznick’s usual indefatigable memos and attempted “Americanization” of the script; discovering Anton Karas and his zither in a tiny beer and sausage restaurant (“The Third Man Theme” became a major hit record of its bygone day); and finally, rejecting even Graham Greene’s suggestion of a climatic rapprochement between Anna and Holly. Ironically, there is a famous moment in Welles’ performance that is Reed’s too: Harry Lime’s hands, reaching desperately through the sewer grating, fingers flailing in the windy night air, actually belong to a temporary stand-in—Carol Reed, the director.)

Yet, perhaps Carol Reed took too seriously the suggestion that Welles’ hand lay somewhere as much as his in The Third Man. He never again caught the peculiar and vibrant visual stylization, the special near-Wellesian “look” that helps makes this film and Reed‘s earlier Odd Man Out such stunning experiences. (Not everyone was stunned, of course. The more stable William Wyler, after watching The Third Man, presented Reed with a spirit level, to place on his camera next time, preventing  angle shots.)

This was the one time Reed, as a director, reached perfection; and he did it as much by assembling and marshaling a brilliantly talented company as by the power of his own vision. Together he and Greene—and Welles, Cotten, Howard, Valli, Karas, Krasker, Korda and all the others—created a portrait of postwar corruption and the death of idealism that has lodged ever since in our collective consciousness. Together, they made a rich, moody masterpiece of guilt, love, and ambivalent redemption — a wondrous fable-ballad-thriller of good and evil and the points between


Most of this article was originally written for The Criterion Collection’s box notes on their original video release of The Third Man.

Wilmington on Movies: Jurassic World

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

JURASSIC WORLD (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Colin Trevorrow, 2015


Ever since Jaws made his name and fortune in 1975 Steven Spielberg has been the king of the summer movie, and his production of this weekend’s nearly-record-breaking mega-hit Jurassic World simply continues that tradition. Where would we be if we didn’t have a shark, a dinosaur, a U.F.O., or an E. T. to run from or play with or queue up for?  Even when his movies aren’t released in summer, they can feel like summery treats.

Jurassic World, in which we see novelist Michael Crichton’s all-too-real dinosaur amusement park (of the 1993 massive Spielberg hit, Jurassic Park) opened again on Isla Luba island, packed with customers (but not enough for the greedy bean-counters), and once again stocked with re-created, hatched-again dinosaurs, who once again run amok and threaten our star players and identity figures, shows the Maestro of Middlebrow America once again returning in triumph to the movie genre and the movie season he ‘s made his own. And even though he’s “only” credited as an executive producer this time around, he still seems to be the auteur of much of what we see.

It’s not the credit that gives him primacy. The people who made this third (and best) sequel to his epic 1993 summer entertainment — director-co-writer Colin Trevorrow, producers and longtime Spielberg collaborator Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (of the new Planet of the Apes series), and director-writer Trevorrow an co-writer Derek Connelly (of Safety Not Guaranteed and a whole raft of top-notch technical people — plus some of ubiquitous Spielberg composer John Williams’ original themes, reworked and added to by Michael Giacchino — may not have all worked alongside the Jawsmeister. But it‘s safe to say that, as members of the post’70s, post-Jaws movie generations, they’ve all picked up or been saturated with his storytelling style, his rhythms, his tastes and distastes, and the whole Spielbergian gestalt, for probably all or most of their moviemaking lives. Much of the audience will be saturated with Spielbergiana too — which is probably why they’re flocking to it in near-record droves (the third best opening day in movie history).

I was pretty consistently entertained myself, even though I thought the show fell down a bit in the final big action scenes, which aren‘t quite as clean and engrossing as the rest. But overall, the picture works just fine. It’s a superior sequel and a better movie than either 1997’s not-so-good The Lost World: Jurassic Park (which Spielberg directed) or 2001‘s even-less-good Jurassic Park III (which he didn’t direct, but which he produced, as he does here). And it’s not as good as the original, which it copies sometimes slavishly — though it‘s closer in quality than we probably thought it would be. (For an unabashed tent pole movie, in which the franchise is the dinosaurs, it has a lot more heart and soul than we usually expect. One dying dinosaur, in fact, almost brings tears to your eyes.)

The latest Jurassic isn’t too original or innovative — though it’s nevertheless, again, better than some of us probably expected. But it does have the same kind of awesome special effects and believably created dinosaurs as the ‘93 movie, and, this time around they’re enhanced by IMAX and 3D and 22 years worth of improved technology. As for the script, it’s derivative, but well-constructed — and better than some reviewers give it credit for.

The movie also has a good cast, of actors and actresses who were selected for more than their looks and perceived star power, including a very attractive and engaging hero and heroine (Chris Pratt as gutsy velociraptor handler/whisperer Owen Grady and Bryce Dallas Howard as the initially somewhat nervous park manager Claire), plus a hissable villain (Vincent D’Onofrio, in full glower, as the nefarious military entrepreneur Hoskins), and a crackling supporting ensemble (Irfan Khan as nervous park owner Simon Masrani, Jake Johnson and Lauren Lupkus as chatty park techies Lowery and Vivian, dangerous inventor and vet of the original movie BD Wong as Dr. Henry Wu, and Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins as Claire‘s visiting and not-nervous-enough nephews Zach and Gray, who, of course, get lost in the park right when a rampaging Indominus Rex — a new improved, meaner and more dangerous creature that Hoskins covets for war duty — breaks free of her bonds and starts turning the whole park, with a little help from her friends, into bloody chaos.)

As for the action, the bloody chaos has gotten bloodier and more chaotic over the years — and it includes a gigantic, totally hideous sea monster who leaps out of a park tank, and, before a wildly cheering crowd, chomps and devours a hapless great white shark, which is probably around to remind us of the much-maligned Bruce the Shark in Jaws. And the same sort of things that happened in Jurassic Park — dinosaur assaults, mad chases and one terrifying encounter after another — happen once again, against a scenic backdrop of tropical vegetation, rolling hills, and incessant product placement (everything, it seems, from Starbuck’s to Verizon Wireless to Mercedes Benz). There are also numerous cross-references to the ‘93 film (but not the 1997 and 2001 sequels, whose stories have, perhaps understandably, erased from history — and one attack of swooping black-winged pterodactyls, which is an obvious homage to Hitchcock‘s The Birds. No Red Sea partings though, for the executive producer who, as a boy, called himself Steven B. DeSpielberg.

The filmmakers around him execute it all with gusto. There’s something both technologically cutting-edge and engagingly old school and nostalgic about the movie, and I don’t think very many people predisposed to enjoy it will actively dislike it. The actors connect with their material and have fun with it, and so do the technicians. The entire movie is a kind of self-referential and self-kidding action-and-horror-picture fiesta, and even though it keeps doing what we expect it to, there’s a lot of fun in watching the moviemakers pull their characters out of (or back into) the fixes they keep inventing for them. Jurassic World is about a huge expensive entertainment project that has a history and goes haywire because of greed and politics, and, to some extent, in setting it up this way, the moviemakers are making fun of themselves. And having fun doing it.

Colin Trevorrow, and his writing partner Derek Connelly, are young moviemakers, who made their mark with the Sundance hit time-travel comedy-drama Safety Not Guaranteed, and they were a good match for this movie. It’s hard to decipher what they may have added to the script written by Jaffa and Silver, but, for most of its length, up until the hectic last act, everything flows along smoothly and amusingly. The writers have fun with it. They don’t take the material over-seriously — but they take it seriously enough so that the audience doesn’t feel silly watching it, as some of us might while watching, say, San Andreas.

Speaking of politics, I think Bryce Dallas Howard’s much-dissed Claire is getting something of a bad rap by some for alleged political and fashion deficiencies. (In any case, they’re the character’s flaws and not the actress’s, who does a fine, tongue-in-cheek, yet emotional-when-it-had-to-be-job.) Claire has an antagonistic relationship (but they really like each other) with the raptor–loving Owen, who had a bad date with her once and keeps trying to put her in her place, while she frostily puts him down. She also runs around for much of the movie in high heels — an amazing achievement given the fact that‘s running from, and later battling with gigantic dinosaurs.

But she‘s no airhead. After all, she‘s managing the park — even though she takes a lot of time off to rescue her nephews. Her taste in footwear and other men may be questioned (there seems to be a class antagonism of sorts between her and Owen), as may, in the beginning, her suitability as a role model for young girls or for career women trying to cope with a sexist marketplace. But, after all, she is the park manager. And, by the end of the film, she’s practically a full-fledged action-heroine in the Ripley mode. (Or so it seems.)

I thought Claire was basically quite likeable, as was Owen, even at her most nervous and prickly, and even at his bossiest and least sensitive. And she was gorgeous. At the age of 12, which is probably the right age to see this movie, Bryce Dallas Howard in this film would have knocked me out — especially since I’ve always had a special place in my heart for redheads, especially Shirley MacLaine. Then again I‘m not saying that 12 year olds are the most politically sophisticated segment of the population. Or me either, for that matter. But I know what I like — and so does the massive audience for a Spielberg movie, even when the actors and the sharks are being eaten alive in 3D and IMAX.

Wilmington on Movies: San Andreas

Monday, June 8th, 2015

SAN ANDREAS (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Brad Peyton, 2015


“I never will forget…Jeanette MacDonald!

“Just to think of her gives my heart a pang!

“I’ll never forget that brave Jeanette,

“As she stood there in the ruins and sang…‘San Francisco! Open your Golden Gate….’”

From “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall”

Hang onto your hats, catastrophe lovers. and grab  your seismographs. The entertainingly ridiculous earthquake movie San Andreas — in which that famous Fault we Angelenos dread cracks apart and sends much of Los Angeles and San Francisco crashing down into the streets, the freeways, and the ocean — and tsunamis rise and skyscrapers topple, and we’re all invited to grab our theater seat armrests and shiver and shake and scream and go “Aaaaaw!“ and laugh our heads off, as maybe thousands (no, maybe millions) of our fellow citizens are imperiled, threatened and sometimes fricasseed before our eyes…Well, that shakin’ bakin’ show has moved into the multiplexes as of last weekend and is dragging thousands, no millions, more potential victims (excuse me, movie fans) in with it.

This big dumb but sometimes amusing disaster movie — directed by Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) and scripted by writer Carlton Cuse (“Lost“) — doesn’t miss an earthquake trick — except perhaps bringing back Sensurround, the theater-shaking device dreamed up by some William Castle wannabees for the 1974 big dumb disaster movie, Earthquake.

But who needs the theater to rock and roll? Instead, we get plenty of shots of the movie hero once known as The Rock (Dwayne Johnson to you), flexing his muscles and smiling his irresistible smile, and swooping to the rescue. As courageous and good-hearted helicopter search-and-rescue guy Ray Gaines, Johnson is constantly shown racing around  in his helicopter or every other vehicle he can grab or steal. to try to save his family — that would be Ray’s soon to be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and his doting daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), one of whom is in L. A. and one of whom is in Frisco — from the series of near ten-on-the-Richter-scale doozies triggered by that supposedly inevitable grand disaster we nervous Angelenos call The Big One.

What a guy! As the West Coast obligingly falls apart, Ever-Ready Ray outmuscles and outtsmarts and outshakes the earthquakes at every fresh disastrous moment, besides rescuing his womenfolk from the craven antics of Emma‘s odious new rich fiancé’ Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), a cowardly skyscraper-building cad who runs away and leaves Blake  in the lurch and deservedly has a building fall on him. And, as if all that weren’t enough, Ray also finds time to benignly further the romance between Blake and her cute new plucky Brit boyfriend Ben (Hugo Johnson Burt), who latches helpfully onto Blake when Bad Daniel lets her down, working heroically to rescue her from everything, along with his nerdy smart-alecky younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson).

Amazingly, during the entire movie, no matter where he is, Ray seems instantly able to find his wife and daughter wherever they are, and get to them, even when their Cell phones fail and the buildings crumble and collapse around them. That includes one nerve-blasting scene where Ray locates Blake, with seconds to spare. in Frisco, and he and Blake yell at each other underwater through a glass wall after the tsunami hits and the Golden Gate Bridge drops into the drink.

Meanwhile, seemingly the only seismic expert on duty during all this geological havoc, is the always reliable Paul Giamatti (an actor who never found a movie he couldn’t help), playing excitable Cal Tech earthquake-ologist Lawrence, who keeps trying to warn the West Coast (and for that matter the East Coast) about the approaching string of shakes and quakes, yelling or predicting his head off before TV cameras, and telling everyone within range to dive under tables when the quake hits — and diving under his own table (with his cute seismological colleagues), whenever a fresh tremor hits his  headquarters.

Need I tell you what happens to Century City? And Hollywood? And the freeways? And Hoover Dam?Did I say Hoover Dam? Yes, there’s a quake in Nevada too, in the movie’s first big disaster scene, and Lawrence is there when it hits, screaming his head off and warning everybody as they run past him and the dam shatters and the floodgates open. Ray is there too (in the prelude teaser disaster that suggests the movie’s inevitable  string of cliffhangers and catastrophes). Muscles flexing and smiling his irresistible smile (excuse me, I meant muscles flexing and furrowing his magnificent brow), Ray already, in that prelude, begins swooping down helpfully and heroically in his helicopter, off which he will soon be dangling to save another beautiful imperiled lady in another cliffhanger, with a car teetering over yet another catastrophe and what once again seems certain death.

Obviously our nomenclature is wrong. It is the Rock (a.k.a. Dwayne) himself who is the Big One. That certainly goes for his role in this movie, in which he does everything but put the quake in a hammerlock, crush it with body slams, and beat the living hell out of it –and in which the buildings keep falling and crumbling, and rocking and rolling, even as Ray keeps saving trapped and endangered ladies.


Ray’s day job, supposedly rescuing other imperiled folks during the disaster,  may  be temporarily somewhat neglected. But give the guy a break. After all, when the quakes and every last aftershock are over, and the last building has collapsed into rubble, Ray doesn’t just stand there in the ruins and sing. The first thing he says after rescuing everybody, while standing proud, and watching the sun shine gloriously over the decimated Frisco Bay area, is the inspring proclamation “Now we rebuild.” Now we rebuild? What a guy! What a helicopter! What a tsunami of spectacular CGI effects! What a city (cities)! What a dam! What a script! What an earthquake! Just to think of them gives my heart a pang.


Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but these filmmakers left their heads. San Andreas is full of faults and it’s as preposterous as Sensurround and Smellovision put together. But I can’t honestly say I didn’t enjoy some of it. The movie never stops racing and tumbling and dodging all those falling, crashing buildings — just as Paul Giamatti never stops diving under his table and yelling at everybody to duck. I’ve been though a dozen or so earthquakes myself (they usually last less than a minute) , including Northridge, which lasted longer and put my entire book, record and VHS collections on the floor– and I can say with some authority that even the not-so-big ones aren’t any fun. But the movie often is, even though it’s still a dubious expenditure of time and money and tables.

Then again, none of those lesser quakes I went through had an opponent like Dwayne, a.k.a. the Rock — a congenial chap and a truly likeable icon who is probably better for this kind of role than the old guard of Stallone and Schwarzenegger were. He‘s a guy who can flex a muscle and furrow a brow and smile irresistibly and (thanks to CGI) dangle off a helicopter with a city falling to pieces under him, like Judy Garland could sing “San Francisco.”

It’s an absurd movie of course. You were expecting maybe Titanic?




Wilmington on Movies: Entourage

Sunday, June 7th, 2015



U.S.: Doug Ellin, 2015


I never caught any of TV’s “Entourage” — the hit Hollywood-set comedy-satire about a movie star from Queens and the three hometown buddies who get dragged along (like Elvis’ Memphis Mafia) in the wake of his rise to fame and riches. But it always struck me, from its rep and reviews, as a show I might enjoy, just as the movie that‘s now been inspired by that TV series, struck me as something that might hand me a laugh or two (or even three). Which just goes to show how gullible I can be.

I can’t speak to the show, yet. But I thought the movie — which I understood going in would be politically and sexually “incorrect” — would at least also be sharp and irreverent and “inside” and funny and good-looking, and it turns out to be none or little of the above, and especially not (very) funny and not (especially) good-looking — despite having more breasts than a Perdue Chicken warehouse. And despite being shot (fuzzily) in yachts off Ibiza and all over a lot of storied Hollywood hot spots and landmarks (from Century City to Musso and Frank’s). The movie sometimes seems like a Hollywood tour bus, but without the gabby tour guide — some of whom have funnier jokes.

The original show was based on a real-life entourage: the buddies and bros of genuine movie star Mark Wahlberg. And that gang actually shows up here, along with Wahlberg, in a slightly longer star cameo than the dozens of others (Liam Neeson scowling in a car, Jon Favreau gabbing with pals, Pharrell Williams at a party, Warren Buffet being chauffeured in a studio cart, and Jessica Alba, Mike Tyson, Andrew Dice Clay, Mark Cuban and Kelsey Grammer), who pop up entertainingly, but not quite as gracefully or amusingly as the big star cameos in Robert Altman’s and Michael Tolkin’s genuinely sharp, funny and good-looking backstage Hollywood classic The Player. Wahlberg is one of the producers of both the show and the picture (which, like a smart businessman, he uses to plug Ted) and maybe if he and his crew had been on longer, or if director-writer Doug Ellin had figured a way to weave the two entourages together, the movie might have improved. But no such (fuckin’) luck.

As it is, Ellin — who also wrote the TV show and directed a half dozen or so episodes — has brought back the original entourage: Adrian Grenier as the horny young movie star Vincent Chase, Kevin Dillon as his hornier old brother and B-movie actor Johnny “Drama” Chase, Kevin Connelly as his even hornier best friend and manager Eric “E” Murphy, and Jerry Ferrara as his also pretty damned horny driver and go-fer and aide Salvatore “Turtle” Assante). Ellin has continued the twisted and lasciviously soap-operatic plotlines from where the show left off four years ago.

Also reappearing, from the show’s very dense dramatis personae, are some of the scads of women and sex partners the guys spend a lot of their time knowing or pursuing: including Emmanuelle Chriqui as Eric‘s now pregnant ex-girlfriend Sloan McQuewick, Constance Zimmer as Dana and Debi Mazar as Shauna. And, of course, the guy who reportedly wound up being the real star of the series: Chicago’s own Jeremy Piven as Vince‘s sleazy, smarmy but extremely well-dressed agent Ari Gold, who has now become a sleazy, smarmy but incredibly well-dressed studio CEO. (Perrey Reeves is also back as Mrs. Ari.) There are also some new characters, notably Billy Bob Thornton (best actor in the movie) as Texas gaziggazillionaire Carson McCredle, who is the main investor in Vince‘s latest movie, and Haley Joel Osment as Carson’s horny and also obnoxious son Travis, whom Carson sends to Hollywood to make sure his money is being spent wisely (which is like sending an accounting team of foxes to manage a henhouse). Emily Ratajkowksi plays herself, supposedly Vince‘s latest inamorata.

The new story into which all these characters, and more, and the dozens of cameos, have been shoe-horned, involves the movie in which McCredle has invested and in which Vince is starring and also, on his insistence, directing, and which Ari, despite understandable qualms, gets for him — and on which Vince has already run over budget. It’s a $100 million-and-counting contempo-action-disco-horror movie called “Hyde,” which seems like a sure-fire stinker, but which, bad as it sounds (and, in a few quick clips we see, bad as it seems to be), winds up being…


“awesome” according to studio head Ari, as well as a critical sensation and a mountainous box office hit.


Having the guys do a cruddy-sounding project like Hyde actually strikes me as a potentially funny idea, but only if Hyde actually were the cruddy-sounding and derivative mess it portends. Yet part of the problem with the movie, as many have noted, is that it’s as much a wish-fulfillment fantasy as it is a dark satire. The movie laughs at these guys, but it’s still always rooting for them to win, jerks as they may be, even at the expense of what might be some funny scenes and seriously funny jokes.

Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, even hampered by the Production Code, the best comedy writers were often more than ready to take potshots at their own studios. Writers like Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, or Ben Hecht could cheerfully bite off the hands that fed them, in classics of backstage satire and expose’ like Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Sturges’ Sullivan‘s Travels and Hecht’s hilarious, neglected Woman of Sin, the last episode of the 1952 Actors and Sin — in which the director-writer’s daughter Jenny played a 9-year-old who becomes a best-selling pirate romance novelist and the script-writing sensation of Hollywood.

That great comedian-scriptwriter W. C. Fields wielded a similar anti-studio scalpel in his late, acidulous classics The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and in more recent times we’ve had The Player, Steve Martin’s Bowfinger, Barry Levinson and David Mamet and Hilary Henkel’s Wag the Dog and the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, all of which scathingly and sometimes hilariously sent up new and old Hollywood. These very knowing writers knew when and where to cross the line and either stick in the knife or indulge the audience’s dreams (you might argue that Sturges was even adopting the studio‘s viewpoint in Sullivan‘s Travels) — just as Comden and Green and Kelly and Donen knew it and did it in that greatest of all Hollywood satires, and warmest of all Hollywood valentines, Singin’ in the Rain — which fulfilled as many wishes as it skewered phonies.

Entourage isn’t as sure of itself, and that’s part of why it isn’t as funny. The movie’s comedy would be a lot sharper, if more of it came at the expense of these guys, instead of at the expense of everybody else around them. (That’s less true of Ari and Johnny “Drama,” who are more comic characters than the others are.) It would be funnier if we could laugh more often at the guys‘ ineptitude and dubious moviemaking and their inability to keep their cool in a crisis, if we didn‘t have the feeling that they, and the writer behind them, were bragging about their zooming careers and sexual conquests.

Instead, they’re presented as all-around winners, who get in a lot of crazy, sexy scrapes. The movie becomes a kind of lewd Thank Your Lucky Stars or a sex-crazed It‘s a Great Feeling — and, in those two all-star Warner Bros. ‘40s shows, both Eddie Cantor and Jack Carson were far more willing to seemingly trash themselves and joke about their images for laughs. Entourage has its moments, but a lot of it feels like being swaggered and slobbered over by a boastful drunk whose stories aren’t a tenth as funny as he thinks. It’s as if the Entourage crew got to do a 100 million dollar remake of “Springtime for Hitler,” and this time, they got not only got the same implausible box office smash that original producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom managed back in 1968, but they also won the Pulitzer Prize, 17 Oscars (including sound editing), plus the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and then married (and cheated on) every hottie this side of the Hollywood sign. And topped it off with cocktails at Michael’s and a yacht race to Ibiza. I’m just kidding of course.


Wilmington on Movies: The Apu Trilogy

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)
Aparajito (Unvanquished)
The World of Apu

India: Satyajit Ray, 1955. 1956-57, 1959

Pather Panchali (1955 India) Directed by Satyajit Ray Shown: Subir Bannerjee

1. The Trilogy

Some great movies not only retain all their brilliance as you and they grow older, but actually improve—becoming even better, taking on added luster. One such classic, now nearing the end of its run at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, is the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece The Apu Trilogy, a matchlessly moving and beautiful  portrayal of an impoverished family’s struggles to survive in the country and city life of early twentieth century India, and of the later life and troubles of their young boy, Apu. Based on a pair of autobiographical novels by famed Bengali writer Bibhutibmushan Bandyopadhyay, the trilogy is one of cinema’s deepest and most poignant renderings of the lives of simple people living hard lives in harsh yet sometimes beautiful surroundings. It is a triumph of domestic drama and of poetic realism—an imperishable treasure.

The Apu Trilogy, both as a single work and in its three separate parts—Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956-57) and The World of Apu (1959)—is a profound cinematic portrait of the anguish and joys of ordinary lives, so convincing and so heartbreakingly sad, that, as very few movies can, it tends to change your view of the world as you see it. As you follow the film’s central character Apu in his path from childhood (Subir Bannerjee in Pather Panchali) to boyhood (Smaran Ghosal in Aparajito) to manhood (Soumitra Chatterjee in The World of Apu)—and as you watch the everyday routines and travails of his bookish and slightly foolish father Harithar Ray (Kanu Bannerjee), his overworked, dedicated and sometimes overly harsh mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee), his playful and adventurous older sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta), his  lovely and doomed young bride Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), and, above all, Apu’s elderly, frail, but ebullient old “Auntie” Indir Thakrun (played by that truly sublime actress Chunibala Devi) — these people, and many others in the Trilogy, may  become indelible faces in your own personal memory-gallery as well.

The film, as much as any that I’ve seen in decades of watching movies, becomes an overwhelming experience. It stays with you, always: a work of art in the same vein and genre and of the same high quality as John Ford’s Depression America masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath and Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist Italian classic Bicycle Thieves (both among Ray‘s inspirations for his own films). In some ways, it is superior to either of them. Now, playing on a limited run at Los Angeles’ preeminent arthouse, the Landmark Nuart Theater, the complete trilogy seems to me easily one of the supreme film achievements, and one of the great artistic achievements of any kind, made in the twentieth century. If that sounds like excessive praise (and to some people, it will be), all I can say is, put my love of these movies (and especially of Pather Panchali) to the test. See for yourself.

2. The Actress

The Apu Trilogy takes place in the Bengali countryside in the early twentieth century, and (the last two parts) in the cities — and it revolves around a family that, though unrelated to Ray, bears the director’s surname. These fictional Rays live in a small village, in a crumbling ancestral house with a sun-dappled courtyard, where the mother, Sarbojaya (wearing a near constant frown) toils endlessly to keep them fed and clothed and afloat, while the father Harithar (with his frequent silly smiles) writes plays and literary works in a pseudo-classical style while vainly dreaming of dramatic success with local troupes of traveling players. The Rays have two children: the mischievous Durga, who regularly loots a nearby orchard (once owned by her father and perhaps cheated away from him) for fresh fruit — and small, lively Apu, who, like his father, becomes enamored of the theatre and make-believe.

Then there is the Trilogy’s greatest character and performance, and one of the finest performances in the whole history of the cinema: Chunibala Devi as the Rays’ elderly Auntie, Indir Thakrun. Crotchety yet plucky, her face seamed with wrinkles (Chunibala was in her 80s when she made the movie), Indir spends much of her days in the courtyard, reminiscing, clutching her torn, threadbare shawl around her bony shoulders, smiling her radiant gap-toothed smile, trying to be useful, and thankfully gobbling down the fruit Durga steals for her. Occasionally, at night, we hear her reciting, with theatrical gusto, old Indian stories of demons and witches, or singing little songs, mournful yet jaunty (and perhaps the source of the film‘s title, which translates as “Song of the Little Road“), with plaintive verses about poverty and death.

The character of Auntie may sound like fodder for indulgent sentimentality. But one thing we should note about Auntie Indir is that dazzling if nearly toothless smile of hers, shining in the face of most difficulties, and also the ways that, despite her fragile body and advanced age, she regularly tries to help out and be useful: to try to mediate family or neighborhood disputes, to support the children, to sing and entertain. All the while, she also tries to ingratiate herself with her angry cousin Sarbojaya — who seems to dislike and resent the old lady, and to regard her as an albatross inflicted on them all by her husband‘s family.

But for me, Auntie Indir is more than a lonely, well-meaning, sometimes ill-treated old woman. She is, in a way, especially as Chunibala plays her, a symbol of the artist, or of the outsider who longs for a family. (The real-life Chunibala in her 70s and 80s, lived in one of Calcutta’s most notorious red light districts.) In one of her many unforgettable scenes, we hear Auntie performing after nightfall, reciting (with surprising strength and intensity), that little playlet about demons and singing her plaintive song of inevitable poverty and death.

Auntie’s song, for me at least, is a higher work of art than Harithar’s derivative plays, or the bombastic and florid performances of a hack melodrama by the hammy traveling troupe whom young Apu sees. To Sarbojaya, Auntie is simply a troublesome old woman, a drain on their meager finances. To the children, and maybe to us as well, she is a magical creature, a human symbol of the ephemeral beauties of life and love and the need for humanity and kindness set against a brutal world.

She is also a simple old woman, and a brave victim, facing death and the end, with moving equanimity. What finally happens to Auntie, in one of the most devastating scenes in all of the cinema, is so said, and so terrible, and hurts so much to watch, that when I saw the film again on DVD for this review, I had to turn it off and wait a while before playing that sequence and seeing again the last awful confrontation I knew was coming—and what leads up to it, and what follows it.

The episode starts simply: seemingly an unimportant family quarrel that will pass, like many we have already watched in the film. Auntie, who has been complaining about her torn and threadbare shawl for most of the movie, and has been promised a replacement by Harithar (who never brings her one), is given a brand new striped shawl by her other relatives, which she happily wears as she returns home — a gift that unfortunately angers Sarbojaya and leads to an argument in which the younger woman, sick of her own endless toil and perhaps a little jealous of Auntie‘s present, tells the old woman to leave and to stay from now on with her other relatives — something that the fiercely proud Indir has done before. So Auntie gathers up her meager bundle of belongings and goes — her long-sought gift having backfired on her so lamentably.

This time however, she comes back to the Rays’ home later, hobbling on her staff, her bright new shawl draped around her shoulders, looking fatigued and terribly old, and tells her longtime housemate Sarbojaya that she isn’t feeling well and would like to spend her last days in her ancestral home. Sarbojaya, who is sitting and working away alone in the yard — in a cruel gesture that will haunt the rest of the movie and indeed the whole trilogy — refuses and tells her to leave. Spent and quiet, Auntie Indir asks to sit for a while, and then, after only a few moments, asks for some water. Sarbojaya tells her to help herself. And, as she does, Auntie looks at her cousin’s wife, catches her eye and smiles tenderly, hoping perhaps that Sarbojaya will relent and let her stay. When she realizes that won’t happen, her smile—the last of her life—vanishes.

Auntie Indir takes her bowl, sips the water, and then, hunched over and trying to be helpful as always, pours what’s left onto a small plant in the yard. She rises, hobbles away toward the entrance, stops and takes a last look back. Sarbojaya avoids her eyes. Then Auntie departs. The next time we see her close up, she will be seated in the forest, against a tree, eyes closed, dying — while Durga and Apu, at play, discover her and, unaware of her sickness and exile, sneak up to her and try to play with her, reaching toward their beloved Auntie as she topples over.

For some viewers, definitely including me, it will be impossible to watch that devastating final leave-taking, one of the saddest scenes in all of the cinema, and not to weep, and to hope, against all sane and reasonable expectations, that this time, somehow, the film and this scene will end differently, that somehow this time Sarbojaya will relent, and let the old lady come home and rest a while and die in the only home she has known for most of her life, in the courtyard where she always sat, with the family she has tried, in her small yet loving way, to help and to entertain and to be a part of.

That scene, which all by itself makes the movie immortal, does not come from the original novel, where Auntie dies much earlier, in a crowd — but instead was created by Ray for his screenplay, or for the notes and storyboards he used in lieu of a script. Brilliant, unsparing, yet deeply compassionate, it changes the way we look at Apu’s mother, who might otherwise, in the next film, Aparajito, seem an overly sentimental figure, as she sacrifices herself repeatedly for her son Apu. And it demonstrates perfectly Ray’s genius as a film poet, and the humanist power of his storytelling, his brilliance as an artist of life at its hardest, bleakest and most heart-breaking. It shows also the incomparable acting genius of Chunibala Devi — who is so perfect in this role that many people who see the film may mistakenly believe she was not an actress at all, but just some picturesque old lady Ray found in the street, whom he let play herself. She was actually a veteran stage actress with many credits, who had made two other movies, in the ‘30s, and then retired from the screen, only to be coaxed back by Ray.

Chunibala was 80 when Ray began shooting Pather Panchali, on a miniscule budget with a cast composed of mostly amateurs and first-timers. It took Ray three years to make the picture, including one hiatus of more than a year to raise more money when the budget dried up. And the old lady and the other actors stayed with him and his dream project all that time. She died at 83, in 1955, the year the film was released in theatres. (Posthumously, she won a Best Actress award at the Manila Film Festival.)

Chunibala did however see her performance on screen. Ray brought a print of Pather Panchali to her house when it was cut and finished, and projected it for her. He has said that it was a miracle, and one that saved the film, that Devi was able to live all the way to the end of the three year shoot — and to complete her performance so flawlessly, so magnificently. To be a great actor is to be able to transmogrify yourself, on stage or screen, into another creature or human being — and Chunibala‘s performance as Auntie Indir is a work of actor’s art as beautiful and tragic as anything the cinema ever gave us.

3. The Filmmaker

Sadly, The Apu Trilogy is a masterpiece that the mass public in America (and even, to some extent. In India), has mostly ignored, and that many film specialists tend to skip or ignore as well. Everyone who knows movies well knows that they should see it—its reputation is towering—but many avoid it anyway. (To his rare discredit, that brilliant and usually reliable cineaste and cinephile Francois Truffaut is said to have skipped the film at its first Cannes Film Festival showing, reputedely saying that he didn’t want to watch a picture where people ate with their hands.) The Nuart’s run, which is the local premiere of the restored version of all three pictures — painstakingly reassembled decades after the original negative was destroyed by fire —  is a  film event that should not be missed by anyone who claims to be a cinephile. To love movies, yet to have missed The Apu Trilogy, is akin to saying that you  love theater but have never seen a play by Shakespeare, or that you love literature, but have never read a novel by Tolstoy or Dickens, or that you love great music yet have never listened to anything by Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. It is an imperishable treasure — and so is Chunibala Devi as Auntie Indir.

Satyajit Ray, who deserves to be ranked with the greats of his profession — Renoir, Ford, Welles, Kurosawa, Bergman, Ozu, Hitchcock, Fellini, Tarkovsky, Scorsese, Ophuls, Lang, Chaplin, Hawks and  other giants of world cinema — was a relatively young man, an artist and a professional book illustrator, when he first read the book “Pather Panchali.” He was assigned to do the illustrations for the Signet edition of the book, and after reading it, he pledged himself (though he had no film experience and was not in the industry), to try to make a movie of the novel. He was encouraged by the great French director Jean Renoir, whom Ray assisted on Renoir‘s now classic Indian-set film The River. And, watching De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves in London, Ray decided it would be possible to make the picture as De Sica made his — with real-life locations and a largely amateur cast. (Chunibala was one of the film’s few professionals). His collaborators included a young first time cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, a young production designer, Bansi Chandragupta (they both later became mainstays of the Indian film industry), and, for the film’s hauntingly beautiful score, the master Indian musician and sitarist Ravi Shankar, who went on to compose, for Ray, the scores of the last two films of The Apu Trilogy as well.

Ray‘s powerful visual gifts as an artist (he wrote and story-boarded the entire film) and his high literary taste and talent illuminate both Pather Panchali and the rest of The Trilogy. The three pictures are masterpieces of black-and-white filmmaking, as well as matchless classics of screen writing, screen acting and screen direction — an astonishing feat for a young man making his first movie. But there were far more than the usual difficulties on the shoot. Ray and his collaborators had to be on call constantly while he kept raising money for the production — with the meager budget constantly drying up. (At one point there was a year-long hiatus in the shooting.) But the film, on its release, became an international critical sensation, and it deserves to be.

At the time, India’s filmmaking industry — dominated by the kind of likably corny and absurd musical/romance/action movies we now call “Bollywood” — was an international critical joke. Ray’s Pather Panchali, which premiered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (which also provided some of the finishing funds) changed all that. Like Kurosawa‘s Rashomon for Japan, or Zhang Yimou‘s Red Sorghum for China, Pather Panchali put its country and its creator on the world critical map. And Ray –who went on to make more than 30 other features, and many prize-winners (including both of the Apu sequels) — remains, for me, India’s greatest film creator and its most important movie artist. For me also, Chunibala Devi remains India‘s greatest film actress and an eternal treasure of the cinema.

The rest of the Apu Trilogy — the later two films Aparajito and The World of Apu — follow Apu though adolescence and manhood, college, marriage, further tragedy and final redemption, with incidents as real and harrowing, if not quite as moving, as the ones in Pather Panchali. These pictures are full of sadness too, a lot of it revolving around what happens to Sarbojaya, Apu‘s mother. But the ending of the trilogy, the very last shot of Apu and his little boy, is not sad. It is instead, one of the most hopeful and exultant resolutions in all of the classic world cinema.

Apu is ultimately not a false movie hero, or a handsome matinee idol — though Soumitra Chatterjee, who played the adult Apu, became Ray’s regular star and one of the most famous and highly-regarded Indian movie actors. Chatterjee’s work in The Apu Trilogy as an artist and writer from a humble background, shines above everything else he’s done, and that includes a number of other Ray films that have also become inarguable classics — like Devi (which means “Goddess”) and Charulata and Days and Nights in the Forest.

Still, in a way, Ray never surpassed the Trilogy, or Pather Panchali — though to complain about  that ranking would be like lamenting the fact that Orson Welles never surpassed Citizen Kane. Ray’s movie, and the complete trilogy, were true labors of love, and they have remained true classics. Satyajit Ray, the young amateur cineaste who worked so hard and so well to achieve his dream, ultimately changed the face of Indian cinema by making the film of Pather Panchali as he wanted to, or as he was able to. To do that, he needed miracles. But life sometime gives us miracles — and life gave one of them to Satyajit Ray. It gave him the old lady in the shawl who smiles and then stops, and sips water from her bowl, and walks away from her home, forever — tired old Auntie Indir, played by the actress named Chunibala Devi.

Wilmington on Movies: Poltergeist / When Marnie Was There

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

POLTERGEIST (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Gil Kenan, 2015


One thing you can say in favor of the latest Poltergeist is that at least nobody in it gets tortured, hideously maimed, eviscerated, eaten, or chopped to screaming bits. Children may take their parents to this picture, without fear of nightmares.

Also, the details of the Poltergeist’s spooky story aren’t revealed to us on a cell-phone movie camera found flushed down a toilet or buried in the local cemetery. There is a cemetery, or half-a-cem etery, in the movie, and there’s also much of the original family plot—about a typical nice suburban family moving into an untypically haunted house and apparently triggering a battle among these beleaguered folks and the Ghostbusters they hire, and the rampaging poltergeists (“noisy ghosts” in German), who are prowling around the closets, the shadowy corridors, the TV sets, and anywhere else you can stick a Steadicam or a handheld camera.

This show borrows the old story and characters, but updates the plot from the early ‘80s, an era of relative prosperity, to right now—a time when jobs are few, money tight and horrors plentiful. One victim of this limping economy is the Bowen family. Papa Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell), who has lost his job (as a TV director?), is hunting new ones, and has, somewhat rashly, decided to buy a house while he does. Mama Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), also somewhat rashly, is trying to become a writer. The kids, uprooted and uneasy, save for sunny little Maddy (Kennedi Clements), find themselves bedeviled by a closet full of seemingly haunted and sinister toys (including a particularly evil-looking clown), by a mysterious, threatening, seemingly haunted tree, by haunted kitchen utensils, a haunted electric drill, and by a haunted TV set, which we’ll all probably recall from the 1982 movie. Soon all (haunted) hell breaks loose — and everybody is scurrying around, including the furniture.

The Poltergeist gang have, it seems, kidnapped Madison (aka Maddy), the adorable little girl of the family, and whisked her off to PoltergeistLand and hidden her in the TV set, probably somewhere between the shopping channels and the reruns of CHIPs. Can anyone rescue her? Have they paid their cable bill? And, just to cover all possibilities, why don’t the Bowens keep looking for her above ground or outside the TV at the same time? (One can almost hear Sam Rockwell, in an outtake, yelling: “No Goddammit! My daughter’s in that goddam TV set, and I damned well know it! Haven’t you seen all those ads, for crissake? Now leave me alone, you goddam morons.“)

Despite the updated backgrounds and modernized details, this is all pretty much like the original 1982 Poltergeist, which Steven Spielberg (as writer, producer and, many say, uncredited co-director) made just before he made E. T. (as director). It’s one of his most personal films, even though Tobe Hooper, director of the genuinely terrifying 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre, signed it alone.

E. T. and Poltergeist were released within a week of each other, in the summer of ‘82, and both were huge hits (E. T. holding for a while, the all-time box office record). Both have remained classics of mainline-movie fantasy from the ‘80s, that era of often dumb shows for serial moviegoers, but also of a few triumphs. And both are, in different ways, unrepeatable—though, while there will probably never be another E. T., or even an “E. T. II,” there were a couple of mediocre Poltergeist sequels flung at us in 1986 and 1988 by people who should have known better. In these days of endlessly recycled, rekindled, regurgitated and recopied movie horrors, a Poltergeist reboot may be foolhardy, but inevitable.

If you’ve seen it before, you’ll probably remember most of it. If you haven’t seen it, you‘ll probably remember it anyway, from all the movies that have copied it. If you don’t watch horror movies and you wandered into the theatre under the delusion that you were catching a horse movie called Coltergeist, or a movie about a lovable village dunce named Doltergeist, you may be in for a bad moment or two — especially when Maddy gets sucked into the TV set and the cameraman is attacked by the haunted drill and the clown starts prowling around, leering like Bozo on absinthe.

It’s not a total loss. There are even some pretty good things in it — including a shivery special effect or two and snappy, hip performances by the actors who play the suburban parents Eric (Rockwell) and Amy Bowen (DeWitt) and okay ones by the guys who play the poltergeist experts, de-haunting specialist Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) and TV reality show ghost-rouster Corrigan Burke (Jared Harris). The kid actors aren’t bad: 6-year-old Kennedi Clements (as Madison), as a cutie, and teenager Saxon Sharbino (as Kendra) as a phone-hogging teen-aged pain. The middle kid, Kyle Catlett as convincingly nervous Griffin, outperforms them, and occasionally the adults. The direction, by Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember) has some flair, and the tech stuff is, as usual, suitably spooky and ultra-techy. The screenplay was written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, and I think it’s safe to say he won’t get another Pulitzer Prize for this—though the film does have better dialogue than most current horror movies. Which, of course, isn’t hard.

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE (Three and a Half Stars)
Japan-U.S.: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2014

Beautiful beyond words, heartbreakingly sad, and as lushly romantic as a night in the magical forests of our childhood dreams, When Marnie Was There may be (we hope it isn’t) the swan song for one of the cinema’s great treasure troves: The superb Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. If it is, it’s a lovely coda and a fitting last chorus. But pray that it isn’t.

Run for decades by the sensei (master) himself, the recently retired Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli was responsible for some of the greatest hand-drawn animated features in cinema history (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl‘s Moving Castle) — most of them directed by Miyazaki, but a few (like Marnie and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) directed by his colleagues Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Isao Takahata. Yonebayashi is the maker of both Marnie and the equally lovely and moving The Secret World of Arrietty.

If you love old-fashioned animation, here is something you must see: perhaps a last example of one of the most beautifully imagined and meticulously fashioned feature cartoons of the old style. Based on a somewhat homoerotic girl’s novel by the British writer Joan Robinson, it‘s about the deathless friendship of two little 12-year-olds, brunette Anna and radiant blonde Marnie (voiced in the English language version by Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka), who meet and become best friends in an apparently haunted mansion on the marshlands of the countryside of Hokkaido, a northern island of Japan.

Anna is a young artist who is alienated from and bullied by her schoolmates in the city of Sapporo, and is sent to the countryside one summer to rest and recover. There. she discovers Marnie, peering down from a window in a seemingly deserted mansion that is only reachable with a rowboat or during low tide. And there, Anna bonds with a girl who may not exist, at least in the real world.

Yonebayashi and his colleagues—including co-writers Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando (also an animation director)—imbue Anna‘s and Marnie‘s milieu with both fairytale splendor and realistic grace. Their entrancing film follows Anna in her childhood past, picks her up again in the present (when she‘s grown up), switches back and forth, and endows her whole story with a spectral, supernatural, glistening beauty of the kind one imagines Alfred Hitchcock would have wanted for his own long-planned romantic ghost story: an adaptation of James M. Barrie‘s play “Mary Rose” that was his (unrealized) dream project for decades.

There are two versions of When Marnie Was There available from its US distributor GKIDS (one hopes they will both be on the eventual DVD release): the original Japanese language release and the English language version, released to theatres here with Steinfeld, Shipka and other Hollywood actors like Kathy Bates, John C. Reilly, Ellen Burstyn and Geena Davis. Some aficionados will want to watch both; some may content themselves with either the original or the Americanized second one. Either way, they will be seeing one of the most visually beautiful, mesmerizing and graphically stunning movies of the year: a hand-made masterpiece from one of Japan’s greatest (and hopefully not yet lost) film factories and traditions. (In Japanese with subtitles and in English, dubbed.)

Wilmington on Movies: Tomorrowland

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

birdlandTOMORROWLAND (Three Stars)

U. S.: Brad Bird, 2015

To Morrow (Fragment: A Railroad Lament).


I started on a journey, about a year ago,

To a little town called Morrow in the state of O-hio.

I’ve never been much of a traveler and I really didn’t know

That Morrow was the hardest place I’d ever tried to go.


So I went down to the station for my tickets and applied

For tips regarding Morrow, not expecting to be guyed.

Said I: “My friend, I’d like to go to Morrow, and return

“No later than tomorrow, for I haven’t time to burn.”


Says he to me. “Now let me see, if I have heard you right:

“You’d like to go to Morrow, and return tomorrow night.

“You should have gone to Morrow yesterday, and back today,

“For the train today to Morrow is a mile upon its way.”


Says I: “My friend, it seems to me you’re talking though your hat.

“There is a place called Morrow on the line, now tell me that.”

“There is,” said he, “But take from me a quiet little tip:

“The train today to Morrow is a fourteen hour trip…”


“The train today to Morrow leaves today at 8:35.

“At half-past-ten tomorrow is the time it should arrive

“So the train today to Morrow, if the schedule is right:

Today it goes to Morrow, and returns tomorrow night……”


Lew Sully, arranged (mostly) by Bob Gibson, courtesy of The Kingston Trio.


1. Yesterday

Watching Tomorrowland –a great big film hunk of love and optimism and confusion from the Walt Disney Studio — you sometimes get the idea that director-writer Brad Bird and company are trying not just to create a new movie but maybe to found a new movement; Dianetics for Disneyphiles, or Pessimists Anonymous or Worldmakers. (Just kidding.)

I liked the show, or at least parts of it. But there’s something undeniably preachy and predictable about Tomorrowland — even though it’s an incredibly well-made picture, bursting with the usual Disney high grade talent, loaded with laudable ambitions and extraordinary technique, and packed with correct politics, directorial flair and top-chop acting by some very engaging, very attractive players. (The movie’s ensemble is headed by George Clooney, the British comic Hugh Laurie and two terrific young actresses, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy, both of whom are younger than Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, at their snarkiest, would have wished on Clooney). It‘s also loaded with good intentions: those good intentions, as Robin Wood once cracked, with which we understand the road to hell to be paved. I was rooting for the movie from the early scenes on, which is, of course, a sure sign that it wasn’t quite working.

Tomorrowland doesn’t lead you to Hell — you‘ll find that elsewhere in the multiplex, especially in the theatres showing found footage horror movies, car-crash-a-thons and some of the more bourgeois romantic comedies. But it may be stuck in a kind of Purgatory of sermons and special effects. Bird’s story, which he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof of “Lost,“ is set first in the ‘60s, and then 45 years or so later (just about now). It revolves around those two girls, Casey and Athena, and a one-time prodigy kid inventor, Frank Walker, played by an actor, Thomas Robinson, who would have fit right in on the original TV “Leave it to Beaver,“ and who grows up to be an old grouchy recluse (Clooney, who is strenuously unsmiley in the last half of the movie).

2. Today

In our current decade, Frank is rousted out of his hermit’s lair — packed with inventions nobody ever bought and books nobody is reading any more — and persuaded (after some well-groomed but murderous robots disguised as cops burn his house down) to undertake a curious expedition: to find the storied Tomorrowland. His on-the-road companions: a bouncy, smart teenager named Casey Newton (Robertson) and a mysterious little girl with a beguiling British accent named Athena (Cassidy), who met Frank back in the 1964 World’s Fair, and hasn’t aged a minute since. Casey lives with her dad Eddie (Tim McGraw), a nice guy NASA employee who‘s been laid off. Athena hangs around, then and now, with people like Hugh Laurie as Governor Nix, which is either a nickname for Richard Nixon, or some apt moniker for the ultimate negativist.

We first meet Casey at her Spielbergishly suburban home. We first met Athena at the 1964 world’s fair, where Frank discovered Tomorrowland — introduced by the Sherman Brothers’ maddening little ditty “It’s a Small World.” Tomorrowland, of course is one of the four theme parks that were combined in the original Anaheim super-theme park Disneyland (it was also the name of a segment on the ‘50s TV show “Disneyland,” hosted by Walt). The others, in case you forgot, are Adventureland, Fantasyland and Frontierland — with a pristine early 1900s Main Street, complete with ice cream parlor and a silent movie house showing Charlie Chaplin movies (at least they did when I was there last), a street that was the all-American nostalgia entranceway into the four parks and the whole wonderful Magic Kingdom.

But isn’t a little strange to treat Tomorrowland as if it were El Dorado? These two Spielbergishly spunky kids, along with grumpy Frank/George, who needs a shave, have discovered a sort of alternate universe in the place, which boasts a spectacular variety of futuristic rides and hangouts and knockout visual effects, and which Casey can reach by pressing a little Tomorrow pin she‘s picked up — a talisman that then zips her in and out of the place and its world and the waving wheat-fields outside, without a ticket or a pass. (Let’s hope word on these pins doesn’t get around and bankrupt Disneyland.) The girls are eager to see more — just as we‘re relatively eager to see them see it.

So the three Amigos take off together, pursued by those evil robot kind-of-Matrix cops (so evil they actually kill real cops), bantering away (and nobody, of course, banters like Clooney), to ride, boldly ride, in search of Tomorrowland. They arrive just in time to save the world. (Did I forget the Spoiler Alert? Sorry.) As I said, I was rooting for them.

3. Tomorrow

Tomorrowland the movie is a technical marvel, full of moving sidewalks and futuristic cityscapes and electronic super-gizmos and almost everything else you’d want to see if you were a prodigy kid inventor in 1964 who stumbled into a time warp, and met the Big Crush of your life, or at lest of your boyhood. It’s also probably one of the most optimistic and fervently good-hearted movies around right now, saturated with a faith in the future and a liberal idealism that come just this side of clanging you over the head and handing you a petition. Remember those flashing “Author’s Message” signs that budding screenwriter Woody Allen inserted into 1965’s What’s New, Pussycat?? A few of them would fit right into Tomorrowland, especially in its climactic “Hey Kids, Let’s Put on the Future!“ scene with Frank, Casey and the youngsters gathered around them who’ll make the new world.

Unabashed liberal George Clooney has taken a little heat in some reviews for stuff like this: for what some pundits choose to see as his malign ultra-liberal influence on the movie — as if Clooney were some kind of Johnny Appleseed of the Hollywood Left, or as if Bird hadn’t put out messages pretty much like this into his other pictures as well. It didn’t bother me, because my politics are somewhat the same as Clooney’s, and here as elsewhere he’s one of those effortlessly ingratiating actors whom you mostly don’t mind getting proselytized to by. Anyway, I doubt that he rewrote Bird’s and Lindelof’s script to give himself a sermon or two, and President Obama and Michelle don’t show up here, as they just did (via archival trickery) in Pitch Perfect 2. But it is (perfectly) true that Tomorrowland could use a few less speeches and good intentions and a few more snazzy inventions and spectacular set-pieces and many more memorable characters.

What sense does it make to spend all that money and energy on the setting for a movie, and expend so much less on imagining the people who live or hang out there? In the middle of the show, Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn show up as Hugo and Ursula, the weirdo salesgeeks at an overflowing pop culture shop called Blast from the Past, and when the script almost immediately rubbed them out, and then 86’d some character actor cops as well, I felt cheated.

A lack of characters and unforgettable small roles is one of the movie’s big problems and one of the script‘s big holes. The writers seem to be spending all their energy on setting off the technological whizbangery of Tomorrowland, and relatively neglecting to imagine the fictional people who actually live there, or the people our three amigos will meet along the way — which is rather like basing a movie on the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower (which makes a guest appearance here) and neglecting to populate them, or skimping on writing some more dialogue for the actors to say against those spectacular backdrops. As it is, even though there are hundreds of people in the ultimate Tomorrowland cast and crew list (the end-credits offer another sea of names and participants: enough, it almost seems, to swing a small gubernatorial election), they‘re mostly nameless walk-ons, or too quickly killed off, like hapless Hugo and unlucky Ursula.

Brad Bird became a star animation director (for The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and The Incredibles), before becoming a star live action director (with Tom Cruise’s last Mission Impossible), and he was so successful (financially and artistically) with all those shows, that maybe everybody figured this one was an unblockable slam dunk. But, despite all those magnificent effects and those visuals, and the small city of people employed to put it all together — or the fact that the film becomes such a passionate advocate of education. youthful invention and innovation, and the unleashing of dreamers and their dreams everywhere — Tomorrowland drags more, and is more obvious, and less delightful and just plain less entertaining than Bird’s other major outings. Not, I hasten to add, because of any shortcomings in Clooney and his two very gifted and mucho charming girl chums in the bantering, wisecrack, speechifying, or chemistry departments. They’re all just fine — although Clooney could use a shave. (Doesn’t Brad Pitt complain?)

To me, it seemed largely the fault of that old culprit and usual suspect these days, the script, which seemed to be in better than good hands, with both Brad Bird and “Lost‘s“ Lindelof, and may be better than a lot of what rolls down the chute these days, but still seems deficient dramatically and comedically. Perhaps everybody was lulled by anticipating those dynamite effects and visuals, and by figuring that the wondrous technology could dig them out of any hole that opened up under them. AUTHOR’S MESSAGE! AUTHORS MESSAGE! But you need people to fill up a theme park, and also, most of the time, to tell a good story in the movies. And, as a great man, dream-weaver and inventor named Disney (or his songwriters) once said, “It’s a small, small world.” END OF MESSAGE. END OF MESSAGE.


Wilmington on Movies: Pitch Perfect 2 / Pitch Perfect

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

PITCH PERFECT 2 (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Elizabeth Banks, 2015

Any movie sequel that starts out by having its costar moon the President of the United States and the First Lady at Lincoln Center obviously doesn’t suffer from a lack of self-confidence. And I guess you could say that the massive box-office receipts for Pitch Perfect 2 last weekend — when this sequel to the hit 2012 a capella musical comedy out-grossed  Mad Max: Glory Road (in its first week) — prove that confidence was justified.

I didn’t like it as much as the first myself, but that’s mostly because it’s a typical sequel, and typical sequels almost always suffer from too much déjà vu and too little real spark and invention — which is what the first Pitch had even when it was drowning in clichés. A second go-round for Brilliant Beca (Anna Kendrick), bad mouth Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson the mooner), driven Chloe (Brittany Snow), feisty Cynthia (Ester Dean), Audrey (Anna Camp) and all the other sprightly members of the Barden University Bellas — with more songs, more groups, more gags and more girl power — Pitch 2 obviously didn’t disappoint either its faithful fans or hordes of newcomers. And I think we can safely anticipate an eventual Pitch Perfect Trilogy, in which the Barden Bellas may even get a few politicians and world leaders to moon them.

The aforementioned tush exposure scene occurs right when the Bellas — who’ve apparently been winning ICCA a capella contests ever since Beca’s stellar Freshman year and introduction to the group back in 2012, — seem to be secure in their maximum moment of triumph, performing before the Prez at Lincoln Center, when Fat Amy lets too much of it hang out. And her fat faux pas allows the tight-ass dean of Barden (Bryant Banks) to banish them from the next competition, right when things seemed rosy and a prospective new Bella — Hailee Steinfeld as the sparkly Emily — has arrived on campus.

Disgrace is nothing new to the Bellas, of course. They began the last movie trying to survive a projectile vomit incident, during performance, again by the irrepressible Fat Amy, who can probably be counted on for something even more embarrassing in the now inevitable Pitch Perfect 3. So, the Bellas hunker down, get some new songs and some new arrangements and (some of them) some new flames, and they hurl themselves into an international a capella competition which no Yanks have ever won and which is regularly taken by an obnoxious German team called Das Sound Machine, headed by the supremely arrogant and evil-looking diva, the Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sorenson) — who looks like the kind of singer/dancer/actress Ingmar Bergman might have hired for a Swedish stage version of “Cabaret.”

The other competing or at least present groups include that inevitable bad-boy band, the Treblemakers — the Bellas’ nemeses from the last movie — plus such red hot harmonic aggregations as The Cantasticos, The Singboks, the Pentatonix, the Filharmonics, and more, including, so help me, a rump group from The Green Bay Packers, moonlighting as song and dance footballers in the tradition of the 1985 Chicago Bears and their immortal showstopper “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”

So the Bellas plunge into melodic combat once again and once again they appear to be underdogs. But music hath charms, and so do Beca and Fat Amy. The play list for their grand tour and showdown (or, at least, for this movie) includes such evergreens as “Doo Wop,” “We Got the World,” “Poison,” “Cups,” “Insane in the Brain,” “Bootylicious,” “Lady Marmalade” (“Voulez-vous couchez avec Moi?”), “Wrecking Crew,” “Bang Bang,” “Any Way You Want It” and that immortal song, worthy of Schubert, “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty.” (Not since “Abbey Road” has there been a lineup like that. They wish.)

In the main subplot, which has Beca seeking a recording career with a Svengali-like music boss played by Keegan-Michael Key, Snoop Dogg shows up and fuzzies a peachy nostalgia duet with Beca on a “Play a Simple Melody”-style mashup of “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” (Snoop) and “Here Comes Santa Claus“ (Beca). Romance is supplied by the liked of former nemesis Bumper (Adam DeVine), The Breakfast Club fan Jesse (Skylar Austin), and, in a weird way, Birgitte’s Kommissar. Zillions gather to cheer on their faves. Lights wave. Hearts pound. Booties shake). In a stunning surprise, the competition is finally won by…..


The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing a medley of The Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and — you guessed it — “Shake (Shake, Shake, Shake) Your Booty!” (Just kidding.)


As the competition heats up, so does the movie. Among its many celebrity guests, cheering the Bellas on, are Jimmy Kimmel, and the hosts and judges of American Idol, The View, Morning Joe and The Today Show. All of this is brought to us with another snide and sneering running commentary supplied by that snide and sneering pair, John Michael Higgins and his equally snide and sneering cohort, Elizabeth Banks. Banks also (once again) co produced the show and this time, directed it as well. And she’s pretty good, especially when she’s helming herself and Higgins, snidely sneering. And snarky.

There was such a lot of fuss over Rebel Wilson and Fat Amy in the first movie, that maybe Anna Kendrick didn’t get as much credit as she deserved. But she richly deserves it. After all, she is the star and she is a super-talented pitch perfect top-notcher. So let’s give the gal her due. Yay! You go girl! (Again.) And give our regards to Snoop.

Anyway (you want it), I must admit I liked this (now) franchise series better when it wasn’t a franchise, and they didn’t have eighty zillion guest stars and when they actually were — like the original Beca-led Bellas — an underdog. You can be more forgiving when someone or some movie is coming from behind. But writer Kay Cannon, back again to provide snappier quips than movies like this can usually muster, makes sure the Bellas, and especially Fat Amy and Beca, have amusing stuff to say as well as hot songs to sing. After all, the musicals of the old classic Hollywood days (at least the ones that weren’t translated from Broadway) often spouted a lot of clichés and silly stuff too, and we often forgave them.

Now, even though there’s a lot of the above (c. and s.s.) here, I was glad that Pitch Perfect 2, like the big-grossing or well-regarded recent musicals Chicago, Frozen, Les Miserables, and Into the Woods, and others, have signaled a seeming change — and that the movie musical, which had seemed a largely moribund genre ever since the ‘70s, could come roaring back like this. Maybe, some day, some how, somewhere, we’ll see the day when we get a lot more musicals, and more masterpieces like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris and On the Town and Top Hat and Swing Time and The Band Wagon and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Red Shoes and High Society and Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Cabaret and The Wizard of Oz and Footlight Parade and West Side Story and A Hard Day‘s Night. For that, I’ll put up with a zillion other choruses of “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty.”

Well, maybe two. ________________________________________________________________________________



U.S.: Jason Moore, 2012

In the mood for an all-out, unflinching movie musical comedy about college boys and girl a cappella groups? Want to watch (and hear) a bunch of enthusiastic unaccompanied singers slugging it out in something called the ICCA (International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella), with unaccompanied (sort of) renditions of songs like Whip It, Turn the Beat Around, Like a Virgin, and We Came to Smash in a Black Tuxedo? Want to watch (and hear) a movie where star Anna Kendrick does a Psycho shower scene parody, while playing a tattooed, ear-pierced mash-up Freshman queen named Beca who joins a failing a cappella group called the Bellas and is pursued by a persistent Freshman boy singer called Jesse (Skylar Astin) — a sweetheart of a guy who thinks the world’s most moving movie (and one of the five best-scored) is The Breakfast Club? Have you been waiting around and hoping for something like this? I didn’t think so. Serious little devil, aren’t you?

Well, as Rebel Wilson’s character Fat Amy might say, never judge a book (or a song) by its cover, even if the book is a boxed encyclopedia (sort of like Amy). Defying all reasonable expectations, Pitch Perfect (whose title is one of the most overused descriptions in movie criticism) turns out to be a cute, smart, funny show, well-directed (by Jason Moore), well-acted (by Kendrick, Wilson and a cast of dozens), well-sung (there are lots of songs and they’re usually fun) and (this is a shock) well-written. Pitch Perfect is full of clichés of course. But it also has a lot of surprisingly sharp wisecracks and snappy dialogue — courtesy of 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon, and maybe of actresses like Wilson and Kendrick, riffing.

So unfortunately, if you skip Pitch Perfect — and it sometimes deserves to be skipped — you‘ll be missing all the bouncy a cappella scenes, which even survive a projectile vomit gag or two. And you’ll miss the girl group-boy group battle to Toni Basil‘s “Mickey” and Madonna‘s “Like a Virgin,” and all of Wilson’s one-liners, including the already immortal zinger where Fat Amy says she invented her nickname herself so “twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.” And you’ll miss Fat Amy too, one of the raunchiest, most amusing, let-it-all-hang-out characters in any recent movie.

You‘ll miss the smart-ass contest commentary delivered (to what and to whom?) by chatty announcers John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks (who also produced the movie). And you‘ll miss the scene — a heart render really — where Anna Kendrick’s character Beca watches (on the computer) Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club pumping his fist to the Simple Minds song “Don’t You Forget About Me,” and she can’t hold back the tears. Finally, you’ll miss all the aca-jokes, where Amy and others take the prefix “aca” (from a cappella) and stick it into every other word or phrase they can — like “aca-mazing” and “aca-stonishing” and “aca-demic“ and “aca-mon, give me a break.“

In short, you’ll miss the best Movie of its kind since, I don’t know, Bring It On. Or maybe The Breakfast Club. But that didn’t have any a cappella, did it?

The movie is based not on what you’d expect — a few nights’ worth of old DVDs — but on the non-fiction book “Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate a cappella Glory,” by Mickey Rapkin, which gives the actual lowdown on these kind of contests and probably should have been made into a concert documentary itself and maybe will be. So even though this show is corny and predictable, it speaks (and sings) with some authority, even when Higgins and Banks are doing the aca-commentary.

The story is simple and unoriginal and could have been really bad. Cool little Beca (played very coolly by Kendrick) wants to go away to college. But her professor dad, Dr. Mitchell (John Benjamin Hickey), wants her to go to his school, Barden, for at least a year and he wants her to participate in Barden school activities (ac-activities), which will eventually include the Bellas. Said Bellas, led by tight ac-assed boss Bella Aubrey (Anna Camp) and fervent Chloe (Brittany Snow) are trying to recover from a disgraceful aca-ICCA competition, which was climaxed by that projectile-vomiting, and they’re recruiting new talent, which includes both Beca and Fat Amy.

There’s also a nasty, over-competitive boys group called The Treblemakers, creating disharmony, led by the obnoxious Bumper (Adam Devine), but also including persistent nice guy and Breakfast Club lover Jesse. The girls sing and have spats. The boys sing and sneer. Somebody gets hired for an L. A recording session. The girls find themselves. The contest is on. In a stunning surprise, the ICCA competition is its won by…..


The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Pat Benatar‘s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” (No, just kidding.)


Well, we don’t go to these movies for the stories, do we? Anyway, Pitch Perfect made me laugh and I liked the music, and that, after all, has been the fundamental appeal of most teen-oriented movie musicals since Babes in Arms — except that nobody here is as good as Judy Garland or Mickey Rooney. (That‘s okay: Nobody in Babes in Arms, not even Rooney, is funnier than Rebel Wilson.)

Jason Moore, who directed Broadway’s “Avenue Q,” keeps things zipping along. Writer Cannon (or should we say writer Aca-nnon) keeps the badinage popping. The choreography, by Ac-Aakomon “A.J.“ Jones, is nifty, as is the music by Christophe Beck and Mark Kilian. The only objections I have to the singing or the song selection (which includes Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.“ and Ace of Base‘s “The Sign“) are that they used Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” and not Billy Joel’s — and also that they completely ignored that semi-a cappella masterpiece “Runaround Sue by” Dion. (“Hurt! Hurt!…Well, I shoulda known it from the very start! This girl will leave me with a broken heart! So if you don’t want to cry like I do, Keep away from Runaround Sue!” )

How can you pass up a chance like that? But maybe the song is too misogynistic, even though it‘s a doo-wop masterpiece. And Sue or no Sue, this show is entertaining. The cast is delightful, a lot of the time. Anna Kendrick, well, she’s a sugarplum, tattooed or not, in or out of the shower. You go, girl! Yay! As for Rebel Wilson, she‘s Bitch Perfect: a sugar-cantaloupe, an encyclopedia of wit and wildness and avoirdupois. This woman deserves an Aca-demy Award for sass. Take that, you twig bitches.


Wilmington on Movies: Mad Max: Fury Road

Monday, May 18th, 2015


U.S.-Australia: George Miller, 2015


1. Overdrive

Head-banging, car-crashing action movies with minimal dialogue and maximum carnage may make a lot of money, but they’ve also gotten (deservedly) a bad odor for some film-lovers, including, sometimes, me. George Miller’s sequel-and-a-half Mad Max: Fury Road though, demonstrates how to make those seeming clichés work, how to rev that engine up again. It shows us that almost any movie genre can sometimes produce a masterpiece — even if you have to create a whole world and then blast it apart to make it.

In Fury Road, the world, at least the one that most of us live in, has definitely been blown apart, or rotted away. But somehow, Miller, his astonishing crew and his highly gifted acting company make that wreckage seem marvelous, terrific, crazily beautiful. The fourth film in Miller’s “Mad Max” series — which began back in 1979, with a low-budget scruffily exciting Australian action movie starring the then-unknown Mel Gibson as Max — Fury Road is the most elaborate, the most expensive (more than 150 million dollars), the most thrill-packed and the most gloriously mad of all the Maxes: a non-stop hell-on-wheels super-thriller that virtually consists of one long, wild and violent chase through the Australian (actually Namibian) desert.

The film is not just another sequel, but a donnybrook on wheels in which a mob of grotesque, insanely vicious, post-Apocalyptic bad guys and fascist creeps pursues Max (now played by Britisher Tom Hardy of Bronson and Locke), along with five runaway brides and their kick-ass female general Furiosa (played in what will surely be one of her defining roles by Charlize Theron).

Furiosa, or the Imperator Furiosa as she‘s also known, is a lady Road Warrior who’s trying to rescue the five women, one of whom is pregnant, from their slaveringly evil buffoon Alpha captors and make it back to a matriarchal refuge run by an all-female society, the Vuvalini (Joy Smithers, Antoinette Kellerman, Melita Jurisic, Gillian Jones and others), located somewhere in the sunburnt wilderness that our water-starved and natural-resource-bereft world has become after the bomb or global warming or whatever the Hell happened.

Furiosa is the female counterpart of Mad Max, and, in those two intentionally iconic roles, Theron and Hardy generate the chemistry of a bottle of nitroglycerin, hurled and exploding. At first the two seem to hate each other, get under each other‘s skin. They’re one of the ultimate feuding motion picture couples, expressing themselves through fierce combat and slashing insult. But, like all great movie couples, or anti-couples, they grow on each other. And on us.

Both of them are refugees and outlaws, fleeing from a bloody awful tyrant warlord in a mask, and armor, riding the hood of a couple of Cadillacs lashed together. This is the hideously amused and amusing fiend, the Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keats-Byrne, who was the memorably grotesque Toecutter in the very first Mad Max). Joe is chasing the Imperator, Max and company, with a troupe of vicious Hitlerjugend-style War Boys and his two villainous sons: the iron-muscled man-mountain Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones) and the eerie childlike Corpus Colossus (Quentin Kenihan). Also backing the dictatorship: the People Eater (John Howard), boss of the area’s fuel-producing center Gas Town, and the local munitions manufacturer, The Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter);

The source of Immortan Joe’s power, and that of his oddball kill-crazy despot sons is a huge mountainous water reservoir called The Citadel, located in the scorching desert (The Wasteland), whose inhabitants they have turned into chattels and serfs, and whose women have become their unwilling sex slaves and breeders. As Max (at first Immortan‘s prisoner, then his nemesis), and Furiosa and her Furiosa Five (and also a war boy turned romantic sidekick named Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult), hurtle their way through the Wasteland, the Immortan‘s army is only part of the gauntlet of weird and wonderful menaces they have to outsmart and outrun: a high-speed rogue‘s gallery that includes the soaring Polecats, acrobatic warriors who swing from one racing vehicle to another on flexible poles (played by actor-gymnasts from Canada’s renowned Cirque de Soleil); the underground Buzzard Tribe who rise terrifyingly out of the depths of the desert, and the Rock Riders, who lurk and ambush from the canyon rims above.

All these colorful and stone-murderous foes show their scurvy faces or zoom along behind our anti-hero and heroines as they plunge through the Wasteland (a kind of comic book Monument Valley, shot in the Namib desert in West Africa), the gals on their mammoth War Rig (fashioned, or so the press notes explain, from a Czech Tatra, a Chev Fleetmaster, and a six-wheel-drive 18-wheel truck.) and Max occasionally on his Interceptor, the high speed vehicle (made from a 1974 black Ford Falcon coupe) he’s had (in various incarnations), since the beginning. What transpires, stretching over most of the two hours it takes Miller’s story (co-written with Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) to race by, is probably the single most amazing movie car-chase since the great old silent movie days when D. W. Griffith used to race the train in Intolerance.

Most of the great movies, including Intolerance, can be translated or translated back into novels, plays or other literary works — even if that wasn’t what they were to begin with. Not so Mad Max: Fury Road. In fact, if all this sounds a lot like a wildly magnified and over-elaborated comic book or video game — well, that’s obviously part of Miller’s intention, as well as part of the current Road Warrior saga’s post-movie agenda.

It’s also strangely enough, part of what makes it great. That someone can take what is essentially a comic book/video game scenario and cram it so full of color and detail and back-story and raise it to such operatic heights and such loony grandeur is impressive in itself — though that’s what been intended and sort of happening (not this well) in some other comic book super-hero or action movies.

None of them are as good, or as well-made, or as  mind-blowingly exciting, as Mad Max: Fury Road.

2. Dead Stop

Mad Max, of course, isn’t a super-hero. He’s a lot more like Clint Eastwood‘s bounty-hunting wanderer in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: a pulp or movie genre hero with a human, vulnerable dimension, carried to mesmerizing extremes. In playing him, Hardy doesn’t show too much of Mel Gibson’s matinee idol qualities in the role. He’s tougher, bluffer, maybe a bit more virile, and he doesn’t quite have the bedroom eyes that made Gibson (before his meltdown and PR problems), attractive to both male and female audiences. This Mad Max, like Daniel Craig’s James Bond, is less sexy than tough — though his toughness doesn‘t make him immune to the pain and torture the villains dish out. That hardcase demeanor and non-seductiveness might be the reason Fury Road seems to tip so much toward Theron’s Furiosa, whose shaven head and burning eyes make her, paradoxically, look like more of a classic action hero. Or a non-classic action heroine. And definitely a sexy one.


That sense of human vulnerability is heightened here by the way Fury Road was shot — mostly with actual vehicles and gadgets and people doing actual stunts, and with much less CGI or special effects work than we‘ve become accustomed to. As it is, the slam bang achievements of the movie’s second unit director and stunt co-ordinator Guy Norris, whose association with Miller began with stunt work in 1981’s The Road Warrior, is also one of Fury’s great plusses, as is the gorgeous sun-splashed cinematography of veteran cinematographer John Seale and the super-orchestral score by the movie’s rock ’n roll composer Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL — much better, more Bernard Herrmannish and more ambitious here than he was with the action score for Run All Night.


All of this is woven together expertly by George Miller, who has been working on this project for a couple of decades, starting back during a time when he could have cast Gibson, and whose persistence suggests one of those grand, obsessive projects that often don’t get made and sometimes make emotional wrecks out of their creators. Mad Max: Fury Road not only took twenty years to prepare and complete. (Miller wasn’t exclusively devoted to it during that time.) It was mapped out with over 3,500 storyboards (by Miller and others), thousands of workers and actors and collaborators, and no less than 150 drivable vehicles — resulting in 400 hours of footage, assembled and cut down expertly by Miller’s longtime editor (and wife), Margaret Sixel.

Considering all the problems and logistics, it’s a movie that shouldn’t work this well, but does, and a movie that takes what usually seems wrong and excessive in our pictures today — the excessive violence, the endless car-chases and crashes, the near absence of dialogue and the limitations on humanity, interaction, and psychological depth — and somehow makes it right. It gives us human depth where most shows of its type just give us another comic book or video game, inflated to preposterous proportions.

And after all that, Pitch Perfect 2 outgrossed it this weekend. As Furiosa might say: Never underestimate the power of a woman, or of women. Anyway, there will be another Mad Max, they say, and one hopes it won’t take twenty years and another 150 million to make (though in the latter case, it probably will), and that it cooks and blazes and roars along like this one. If the world is going to end, it might as well look this good when it does. It might as well be George Miller and Margaret Sixel and Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron that rev it up and show us the death throes. They grow on you.


Wilmington On Movies: Maggie

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Maggie (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Henry Hobson, 2015


Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t made many movies you could describe as art films, and that may be one of the reasons his new picture, Maggie, seems like such an anomaly. It’s at least half of an art film — an attempt at a sensitive genre piece that‘s also a horror show with brains. Written by a one-time NASA engineer named John Scott 3, it’s a dramatic portrait, with realistically drawn characters, of a heartland rural American family disintegrating into fear and grief in the wake of a zombie epidemic that has turned the country into a bleak hell of marauding monsters – one of which is Maggie Vogel (Abigail Breslin of Little Mary Sunshine). Maggie is one of the victims of the plague: a stricken, infected 16 year old, and the daughter of a solid citizen and good-hearted Joe named Mitch Vogel, the role played by Schwarzenegger.

His Mitch is not a bad performance, and it’s the kind of off-type casting that the former megastar should try more often. Schwarzenegger plays Mitch as a gentle farmer and family man with a soft beard — a quiet, anguished, heart-torn, ordinary man so pummeled by the horrors into which has world has descended that he seems drained and wounded, with all the visible tears and hysteria squeezed out of him. There’s none of the cocky ferocity that the old Schwarzenegger displayed in his ‘80s-’90s superstar heyday — though this is a world that could certainly use a Terminator.

His daughter Maggie is in the early stages of a “turn” — a transformation into a full-blown zombie — and its explained to us that it takes several months to complete the metamorphosis after the original infection. In the interim, the zombies-to-be like Maggie are rounded up, held in hospitals and detention camps, and finally executed before they can complete the change.

When we first see Mitch, he’s traveling to a detention center, to rescue Maggie and take her home, an exception for which he at first needs and gets a doctor‘s permission. Schwarzenegger is playing a self-described Everyman here, but there’s a bit of the old ‘80’s Ubermensch too. Mitch refuses to accept the inevitable. He clings to a hope that has no foundation, and that Maggie herself (played with scarred intensity by Breslin) has let slip away from her. For the rest of the movie, we see that inevitable coming closer and closer, with everyone around Mitch — his wife Caroline (Joely Richardson) , his neighbors, local lawmen and authorities — pulling him toward the dreadful decision he refuses to make. Tormented beyond reason, Mitch not only is forced to endure the death of a loved one by fatal disease, but has to personally prepare for her annihilation as well.

There is no humor in the movie Maggie, no lightness of touch or compensating irony. It’s not only a serious film, but a deadly serious film — deadly in several senses, not all of them admirable. Director Henry Hobson, making a creditable feature debut, has named his main cinematic and visual influence in the picture as Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life), one of the most serious, and poetic, of all American directors, and one of the last models you’d expect to see for a zombie movie. But you can see touches and flashes of Malick often in the scenes of waving grain fields, rustic family farm houses, a horizon that seems to be beckoning you on, and that huge vault-like over-arching sky.

The movie is one of the grayest and most cheerless I’ve seen recently, gray and cheerless and sunless in the way American movies often become when they’re envisioning the apocalypse and what follows it. And Schwarzenegger’s and Breslin‘s performances are gray and post-apocalyptic too. It’s almost as if Mitch were turning as well as Maggie, infected by the sense of blight and death and hopelessness that shrouds almost every scene, nudged along toward the inescapable dread that’s swallowing them all up. Richardson as Mitch’s wife and Maggie‘s stepmother Caroline, seems less infected. She‘s in some ways a typical American mother, typically protective. But she gives up on Maggie far sooner, fleeing to another farm with their other children. Father and daughter meanwhile, enact a kind of horrific love story, in which both of them watch their world die and both of them seem doomed to become (different kinds of) the walking dead.

I admired the film’s ambition more than I liked its result. Maggie comes from a script that’s been on the Hollywood Black List of the best unproduced screenplays around town. But it’s not the masterpiece or quasi-masterpiece that might imply, and the finished movie, unless it was severely altered or cut, doesn‘t seem to warrant that high praise. Certainly everyone involved — including cinematographer Lukas Ettlin and production designer Gabor Norman as well as Hobson and the actors — is giving their best, working hard to generate the horrendous darkness and the shiver of lost grace the movie needs. But their effort is a little too apparent, too obviously metaphoric. If you compare Maggie to most of the crud that comes out these days, including cruddy zombie movies, it seems somewhat better than the norm. But that “somewhat” is crucial. I kept expecting a killer scene between Mitch and Maggie, one that played devastatingly with their past happiness and present grief, and in which he reached out to the daughter of his memories and had to confront the daughter of today and dying flesh, but it never quite came. Or if it did, I didn’t recognize it.

There’s been so many movies in recent years that imagine the end of the world, or almost the end, that it seems we (audience and filmmakers) have become infected too, poisoned with overwhelming despair and pessimism about what lies ahead. It’s as if our popular storytellers, obsessed with superheroes, yearned for a real ubermenschen (the kind Schwarzenegger once played), to stave off the inevitable. Of all these movies, Maggie is one of the most despairing. But that genuine despair it reflects and the sensitivity with which a lot of it is made, doesn’t necessarily alleviate or redeem the dreariness into which it often descends.

The entire genre of zombie movies, which peaked early in 1969 with the first Night of the Living Dead, is like a horror-movie equivalent of the ‘60s Theatre of the Absurd, with Beckett’s tramps waiting for a Godot that might well be the gatekeeper of the end of the world, and Ionesco’s stampeding people turning into rhinoceri that might well be marching zombies. That’s why the attempt at a mixture of horror and realism in Maggie doesn’t quite work, The quasi-realism and cheesy throb of absurdity of George Romero’s part-comic zombie sagas plays better and, I would argue, even affects you more deeply.

I‘m not saying this movie doesn’t work or couldn’t; Scott’s script strikes me as a potentially very good one, that needed more development, more daring. And, in the end, whatever I think, everyone involved here deserves credit for trying something different, for approaching their work with a heartfelt sincerity and high aspiration horror movies usually eschew. But, just as a zombie needs people to munch on, this movie about love and terror needs even more heart to chew on. Its dead need to walk before they can run; its living need to connect with each other and with the dead souls around them. They need more humanity and more awfulness. And that includes Arnold the one-time ubermensch.


Wilmington on Movies: Hot Pursuit

Friday, May 8th, 2015


U.S.: Anne Fletcher, 2015


Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergera play two gals on the run in South Texas in the new movie Hot Pursuit: Reese is a diminutive fussbudget blonde by-the-book cop named Cooper and Sofia is a statuesque sexpot drug cartel wife named Daniella Riva. And they’re so much better than the movie itself that you wonder if the two costars might be deliberately outshining their own vehicle. Watching this nitwit show (as Todd McCarthy accurately described it), I wouldn’t put it past them.

The movie is just as lousy as almost everyone says it is, though remarkably enough it looks pretty good — thanks to its picturesque stars, to director Anne Fletcher and to what must have been a crack production team. Fletcher, an ex-choreographer who‘s also directed The Proposal and The Guilt Trip, knows how to move people around a set, and her energetic costars Reese and Sofia know how to let themselves be moved — and if you didn’t have to follow the plot or listen to the dialogue or try to make sense of the damned thing, Hot Pursuit might seem almost okay.

But unfortunately the show has a script (by David Feeney and John Quaintance) — a particularly senseless one that makes cliché-ridden hash out of some of the ideas in that classic road-buddy chase comedy Midnight Run (with its great buddy-buddy bickering chemistry by Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin). Lacking the kind of jokes and dialogue scriptwriter George Gallo supplied director Martin Brest for Midnight Run, Witherspoon and Vergera (and Fletcher) have to try to redeem the awful screenplay they’ve gotten. And, if sheer energy and chutzpah and willingness to make fun of yourself could do the trick, they might have made it.

But here, what we get is a ludicrous mish-mash and an amazingly silly, fiasco of a buddy-buddy comedy thriller. If the title Hot Pursuit sounds familiar, that’s because it was already used for a 1987 road comedy with the younger John Cusack and a pretty good cast (including Ben Stiller and his father Jerry) and another script that wasn’t very good or very original or worth doing. This show isn’t very good (or original) or worth doing either, and if it didn’t have Witherspoon and Vergara goosing it up at every possible turn of the road, it would probably be barely watchable.

As it is, Hot Pursuit begins with its only good comic idea: a montage of scenes in the back seat of Cooper’s dad’s car, a sequence in which she grows up as she talks to various perps, including a baritone transsexual hooker. We soon learn that Cooper’s dad was a San Antonio cop, loved by all, and that his daughter, who wants to live up to his tradition of police excellence, has joined the San Antonio PD and become its laughing stock.

This SAPD ignominy is thanks to one of the worst comedy ideas in the movie, far more typical of the stuff the show will be spewing at us for the next hour and a half or so. In it, nervous cop Cooper, confronting a bunch of unruly local kids, hears one of them gabbing about riding shot gun, mistakes this for a reference to an actual shotgun, mistakes her own fire-gun for a taser, hastily pulls it out, and sets the poor kid on fire. If you’re capable of laughing at that gag, or at least not groaning (or gagging) at it, you may have a good time at Hot Pursuit — which has plenty more where that came from. If not, you may have to resort to counting all the bad gags in the show to put yourself to sleep. I wouldn’t put it past you.

Soon the rest of the sorry plot kicks in, along with costar Vergera (the linguistically acrobatic Latina star of TV‘s Modern Family), babbling away like Ricky Ricardo. (Cooper may her Lucy.). Officer Cooper, trying to redeem herself, has been assigned, by the suspiciously tolerant Capt. Emmett (John Carrol Lynch) to accompany Daniella and fellow officer Jackson (Richard T. Jones) and Daniella’s mob accountant husband Felipe (Vincent Laresca) to the trial, in Dallas, of cocaine cartel boss Vicente Cortez (Joaquin Cosio), with Felipe as the star witness.

For no reason I could discern, the Riva Manions seems to be unguarded — or at least very lightly guarded — despite the fact that all previous star witnesses against Cortez have been pretty quickly whacked. Nor does Daniella, babbling away while packing a suitcase full of shoes, seem especially worried. But when Cooper and Jackson show up, they are immediately joined by two sets of gunmen, who kill most of the people around, including Felipe, Cooper’s partner and some of the gunmen themelves, and send Cooper and Daniella off on a mad ride in Daniella‘s red Cadillac to Dallas, pursued (hotly) by more gangsters, and by crooked (and straight) cops.

Along the way, they run into several Southern-fried comic imbeciles, a whole tour bus full of laughing screeching oldsters, the movie‘s love interest (which turns out to be Robert Kazinsky as a parolee with a pickup truck, an ankle bracelet monitor and a deer costume) and more bad jokes (by everybody) and frantic mile-a-minute cross-talk (by the costars) than you would have thought humanly possible. Was any of it improvised? I wouldn’t put it past them.

Reese Witherspoon has been excellent at comedy elsewhere, especially when she played, wonderfully, the ruthless school presidential candidate in that terrific Alexander Payne comedy Election. And she was so good in her last movie (Wild), and it was such a worthy project, that you may wonder what she’s doing in a picture like this, that requires her to jabber away constantly with costar Sofia (who can out-jabber her any day of the week), as well as get her fanny stuck in a bathroom window while trying to escape some of those crooked cops, to ingest what seems about a ton of cocaine after a truck-car crash, to submit to endless jokes about her height (while Vergara submits to endless jokes about her age), to run around in that deer costume (supposedly disguised), to be constantly upstaged by her co-star’s bosom, and to behave throughout like a cross between Betty Hutton, Don Knotts, and the entire cast of Hee Haw. One thing’s for sure: she has the guts of a bandit. (See below.)

Director Fletcher’s last road comedy, The Guilt Trip, which was just slightly better than this one, involved Barbra Streisand, Seth Rogen, more bad jokes and a lot of process shots. This one has lots of location and stunt work (and worse jokes), as well as an hommage to that amiable director, car-chase expert and stunt man supreme Hal Needham and his 1977 car and truck chase classic Smokey and the Bandit. (See above.) Just like Needham, Fletcher, or her producers (which include both Witherspoon and Vergara), runs outtakes of the cast’s bloopers over the end-credits. Since Smokey and the Bandit was director Needham’s only really good movie (at least of the ones I’ve seen), the outtakes and bloopers quickly became the best thing about his later pictures, and reviewers began singling them out for ironic praise.

It would be tempting to say that the outtakes and bloopers are the best things about Hot Pursuit too — but, in fact, they aren’t very good, or very funny, either. Maybe they were phony outtakes. Or maybe the whole damned movie was a blooper. I wouldn’t put it past them.

Wilmington on Movies: Welcome to Me

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

WELCOME TO ME (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Shira Piven, 2015


For any of you who may have caught the Kristin Wiig comedy, Welcome to Me—a generally well-reviewed, well-regarded satire-farce-dramedy-sendup in which Ms. Wiig plays a lottery winner who buys her own TV show—and found the picture puzzlingly laughless: Hey, I sympathize. I didn’t laugh much either, except at a couple of reaction shots from Joan Cusack—who’s funny as ever as an exasperated TV infomercial producer working for Wiig‘s oddball lottery winner Alice Klieg.

I say this though as someone who likes Kristen Wiig’s work very much, and has laughed mightily both at her own top film (as writer-star), Bridesmaids, and also laughed a lot at Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. the top comedy of two of the Welcome producers here, Will Ferrell and his off-screen buddy and collaborator Adam McKay—who is also the husband of Welcome to Me‘s director, stage and comedy vet Shira Piven.

Indeed, the fact that all these certifiable funny people—along with Ms. Cusack, James Marsden, Wes Bentley and other C. F. P.s—couldn’t get more than a wisp of a chuckle out of me this time began to bother me. Others are laughing. Whence? Wherefore? What was I missing?

The premise seemed promising. Writer Eliot Laurence has imagined a playfully nutty turnabout in which Wiig as Alice—a single, TV-loving ex-animal shelter worker, who’s on disability payments, and is being treated for borderline personality disorder by an unsmilingly bemused psychiatrist named Moffat (Robbins)—wins $86 million in a lottery and decides to move out of her scruffy apartment (into a Palm Desert casino hotel), stop taking her meds, and hook up with that aforementioned TV company which she hires (for a cool 15 million) to produce a show called “Welcome to Me“—in which Alice will direct and write and star as, well, Alice. (Or Alice’s idea of Alice.)

At each of Alice’s shows, in a dinky little studio, as Joan Cusack’s Deb grimaces away—along with other appalled but cooperative producers and crew people, including the estimable Jennifer Jason Leigh as unhappy producer Dawn—Alice will make a grand entrance. She will waft in, to the paltry studio audience‘s instantaneous applause, on a swan boat (just like Ludwig of Bavaria), whereupon she will proceed on the drab set to have discussions with guests on the problems of Alice, be advised by experts or pseudo-experts on how Alice can lead a better life, and prepare peculiar dishes from Alice‘s own Favorite Recipes.

Eventually, she will present a series of playlets and sketches, written and directed by Alice, in which a troupe of actors will play Alice and her various nemeses (such as all the little girls who were nasty to her in school), and enact all those painful and embarrassing moments that helped make Alice what she is today—someone who won a lottery and has $86 million to throw around, witlessly. We can only surmise that those nasty little nemeses who may tune into the show while wasting their days, are mighty damned sorry they weren’t nicer to Alice way back when. Money talks or, in this case, babbles.

The production company, run by the Ruskin Brothers, glib Rich (James Marsden) and susceptible Gabe—(Wes Bentley)—seems delighted to take on this magnum opus of Alice iconography, even though Alice is a hard taskmaster and her ideas, which she has somehow derived from the show of her idol, Oprah Winfrey, are unfailingly ridiculous (like the swan and the playlets), or stomach-turningly tasteless (like the onscreen pet-neutering she also recreates). Soon, defying all logic, she has surprisingly high ratings, pseudo-intellectual defenders (interviewers like Thomas Mann’s Rainer who write papers on how Alice plays with race and gender), and also Gabe in the sack. But unfortunately, life and TV and this movie move on. Even 86 million can’t last forever.

All that sounds funny enough, or potentially funny. But unfortunately, Welcome to Me seems to suffer from personality disorder too: an inability to tell all these potentially funny jokes with the joyous buffoonery that would make them ignite on screen—say, to explode with some of the wild devilish relish that an old-fashioned make-‘em-laugh comedian like Red Skelton put into his classic media satire: the ‘40s mock radio commercial for “Guzzler’s Gin.” (“Smooth! Smooth!”)

The sets, instead of being amusingly dull and drab, seemed to me just dull and drab. The skits, instead of being entertainingly ludicrous, seemed just ludicrous. The direction, instead of being wittily deadpan, seemed just deadpan. And Alice‘s adventures, instead of being hilariously painful, often seemed just painful.

I had a good friend and editor once who was fond of saying, about colleagues of ours who’d had what we both considered inexplicable and largely undeserved success, that they’d “won the lottery.“ At its least funny, Welcome to Me seemed to me like a movie that had won the lottery—or actually, a script that had won the lottery, and that had broken the artistic bank. Welcome to Me, as written, didn’t deserve this good a cast.

It’s a shame. Kristen Wiig is one movie actress who can make pain and angst both believable and funny, and she’s been more adventurous and off-center in choosing her roles and her movies than her fellow cast-mate Melissa McCarthy since their Bridesmaids breakthrough. Yet while most of McCarthy’s post-Bridesmaids roles have been predictably clichéd and excessive (Guzzler‘s Gin-style without the finesse or the writing), Wiig’s have been not-always-amusingly weird (Guzzler‘s Gin without the gin). Welcome to Me is the weirdest of them. I wish it were the funniest too. But I guess, for me, the lottery hasn’t paid off, the Swan Boat doesn’t stop here anymore, and we‘re all out of Gin. Smooth!



Wilmington on Movies: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Monday, May 4th, 2015

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Joss Whedon, 2015

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

A man named Corleone walks into an Italian tailor’s shop one sunny day on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, and lays some badly torn wedding pants on the counter. The tailor, whose name is Rossellini, looks at the pants, frowns and says “Euripides?” Mr. Corleone answers “Eumenides!“

The little boy sitting in the corner while this happened, reading the latest copy of Superman, was named Martin Scorsese. He grew up to be a movie-loving priest whose favorite movie was Kiss of Death and whose favorite actor was Richard Widmark. Years later, that same beloved priest was killed in the crossfire when they rubbed out Crazy Joey Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House. Father Marty’s last words were “Euripides? Eumenides!”

Nobody could understand what the hell he meant.

What should I say about Avengers: Age of Ultron? Is it too much of a good thing? Maybe. But consider the possibilities that stretched before it, as well as all the doors that were already closed when all the deals were struck.

It’s a big studio blockbuster sequel, but it’s not half-bad. It’s pretty damned good in fact. Movies, we know, can make use of almost all the other arts—cramming in so much that they can potentially become a kind of super-art, an amalgam of literature, drama, the visual arts, music, comics, rock ’n roll, the other popular or lively arts, the kitchen sink, Greek tragedy and more. They can also be one of the most wasteful of all forms—a media slumgullion that sometimes runs amok and goes over the edge, yet whose very prodigality can carry its own crazy exhilaration, nutty humor, sleazy grandeur and spectacular beauty. That, as somebody said (I think it was Aeschylus), is entertainment.

Take Avengers: Age of Ultron, the monolithic blockbuster du jour, the latest super-duper-hero movie leviathan from the world-makers at Marvel. I’m of two minds about it, both of them divided. Though it’s making a mint, there are probably, certainly, better ways, artistically speaking, to spend 250 million dollars than to have shot the whole wad on this show alone. We’re not talking business here, you understand. But I’m reasonably sure that you could have taken the same budget and fashioned at least 25 possibly better pictures (perhaps even the equivalents of Citizen Kane and The Godfather and La Dolce Vita and Seven Samurai and Fanny and Alexander and Vertigo and The Searchers and The Rules of the Game), using all that loot, and all those actors, and all that technology, employed by writer-directors as good as (or better than) the Avengers’ helmsman Joss Whedon—or preferably, some peers of Orson Welles and his ilk.

But that doesn’t mean the gargantuan entertainment given birth by the Avengers’ moolah and machinery, isn’t a relatively smashing success, on its own crash-bang-thank-you-clang terms—or that the vast not-just-fan-boy world-wide audience waiting to see it from here to Bangkok and Paris and Timbuktu, won’t be mightily pleased at the result. They will. They’re the target. Deal with it, cinephiles. This is what the system is geared up to produce right now, and that it will produce, and keep on producing, until Hell freezes over in glorious IMAX and super-3D. Or, preferably, until the system expands its boundaries and widens its agendas and gets as intellectually ambitious as it is now ambitious technically and financially, as adept at creating something artistically rich and beautiful that explores the human condition (pardon my pretensions), as it is right now in creating fantasy worlds with comic book characters and then blowing them apart.

If you love cinema in this age of big studio tent pole behemoths, and if you write about them, you simply have to try to help create a climate and open up arenas for the other kinds of movies, and that other kind of audience as well: an audience somewhat older, and brighter and better-read and more intellectually adventurous and more emotionally open—an audience that, in fact, Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon seems to be trying to reach here, at least some of the time. Especially when this (pop and classic) cultural magpie of a moviemaker—whose last feature was a low budget black-and-white version of Shakespeare’s wordy, witty masterpiece “Much Ado About Nothing”—makes quick allusions to or quotes from a whole crazy quilt multiplicity of sources that include Eugene O‘Neill and Nietzsche and Neville Chamberlain (“Peace in our time”) and Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (“I’ve got no strings”) and Jesus Christ (“Upon this rock…”).

The two Avengers are not the kind of shows I usually yearn to see. Instead, I’d like to see budgets and resources like that (or half that, or a twentieth that) put in the hands of moviemakers like Welles and Bergman and Coppola and Kurosawa. Because, as Lord Acton once said, big budgets tend to corrupt and absolutely big budgets corrupt absolutely.

That goes for the Marvel mythos too, of which the Avenger movies—2012’s The Avengers (also by Whedon) and the current Avengers: Age of Ultron—are currently the capstones. Money or love of money is not always the root of all evil, but it is the root of a lot of banality, and Ultron, good as a lot of it is, doesn’t entirely escape that banality, or that evil.

In the last installment of this jam-packed series, a culminating Marvelwork, the nefariously tricky Loki (Tom Hiddleston) battled his old nemesis, hammer-flinging, blonde-tressed Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in another of those endless attempts by various movie super-villains to destroy the world. And Thor foiled him, with the help of an all-star superhero lineup that included such costumed crime-busters as Iron Man/whose not so secret identity is Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.), the volatile mean green Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), that straightest arrow Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the sultry super-lady Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the impeccable War Machine/Iron Man crony James Rhodes (a whiff of Don Cheadle), speed demon Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), and the bunch’s mostly off-screen recruiter and coach, surly Nick Fury, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Samuel L. Jackson with some of his most formidable scowls).

Marvel brought them altogether in 2012 (after a series of teasers in their other movies) with the fervor and showmanship of rock promoters assembling a new Woodstock. And now everyone returns, except bad guy Loki. In his place, as the show’s head heavy, The Marvelites have hired a dandy new villain: an insolent black-metallic super-robot named, you guessed it, Ultron, and played with really villainous and malevolent relish and a demonic sense of fun by James Spader.

The movie alternates between those old formula elaborate action scenes, and a more than usual allotment of counter-balancing humor and drama. (For my money, they could use even more.) So we get, after the usual James Bondish opening action salvo—which has Captain America and his pals duking it out in some place called Sokovia with Nazi madman Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann, the good German of Polanski’s great The Pianist)—quieter scenes with Tony and Bruce trading quips, while Tony unwisely invents a peace-keeping device, which morphs into the even madder and more tyrannical and more super-villainous Ultron, who unfortunately works under the teasingly plausible assumption that if you eliminate humankind, you will also eliminate war. True, but…

There are various battles in the usual cities in chaos and aflame, and the usual street chase, and a rest stop for the crew at Hawkeye’s country retreat where everybody chops wood and has home-cooked meals, and Hawkeye’s stalwart spouse (Linda Cardellini) utters that deathless line (I’m sure you’ve already heard or read it), “You know I totally support your Avenging,“ (Couldn’t she also say “Darling, on your way back from this days’ Avenging, could you pick up an Apocalypse for the kids?”) And eventually, a chunk of Earth gets ripped from its Earthly moorings and flung into space, where there are more battles, and more sneering from Ultron, and the usual fight to save Earth from mass destruction (and, in this case, acid Ultronic zingers)—a fight-to-the-death whose outcome the Spoiler Alert Patrol dictates I must keep as secret as all the secret identities of the Avengers. Shhhhh. Let me offer one reveal though, as they say: You won’t be unpleasantly surprised. (Or necessarily pleasantly surprised either.)

So much for the plot. If it seems familiar, that’s definitely the intention. This is a familiar show, with some innovations. What’s good about the movie, or at least somewhat refreshingly different, is the higher ratio of halfway clever dramatic and comic scenes (like Thor’s barroom hammer game with his colleagues) to the fights and chases and potential destructions of man (and woman) kind. Whedon obviously knows what we all know, or think we know: that the constant pummeling into submission of audiences at the usual super-action movie, though it will satisfy the gazillions of people who love movies like this, can get repetitive and predictable and turn off some of the less comics-crazy moviegoers as well. Besides, why hire a cast as good as this, and not give them more interesting things to say and do? How can you be credibly human in the rest stops, if the story is too incredibly super-human when the rest is over and the world is being annihilated?

So Whedon has salted in more snappy lines and more love scenes (Hulk and Black Widow and Hawkeye and Mrs. Hawkeye) and added lots of badinage (and hopefully, goodinage too) (sorry), and given Downey and Ruffalo some snappy stuff to say. (They know what to do with it.) And he has arranged for Spader to walk off with a lot of the movie by having him play (via voice-over and action-capture) one of the snazziest bad guys in many a dark moon, Ultron the Ultra-Cad.

Spader was once one of the best nasty movie rich kids ever—he set the mold for youthful suburban arrogance in teen-shows like Pretty in Pink or L. A. expose’s like Less Than Zero. Now, in his 50s, he’s taken out a patent on older brands of villainy, and here on a different, more drastic and dangerous (and funnier) kind of villain. Instead of misadvising suburban schmos like Andrew McCarthy, he’s out to razz and scoff at our entire planet and misadvise and destroy us all. Spader, who deserves an encore of some kind for his work here, does all this heavy lifting with an effortless sneering panache worthy of a cross between James Earl Jones’s haughty voicing of Darth Vader, Brit badmouth Simon Cowell’s venting of his fancy dan smart-assery on the old “American Idol,” and the rambles and rumbles of Lucifer, Jr., the Voice of Doom on a Honeymoon from Hell. Bravo. It almost makes me wish I’d shown more prescience and given Spader and Downey more enthusiastic notices back in 1985, when I first reviewed them, I believe (for the L. A. Times) in Tuff Turf, and was nicer (I believe) to Jack Mack and The Heart Attack. Who knew?

All of the Avengers get their little moments here, and there are some fairly nifty movie newcomers like Marvelites Vision, a.k.a. Jarvis (the estimable Paul Bettany), and the Maximoff Twins, Pietro and Wanda, a.k.a. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen). They’ll be familiar, of course, to people with big comics collections, or with the right movie press books. There’s even a cameo by Marvel’s great begetter, and one of this movie’s executive producers, the magnificent speech balloon bard Stan Lee, from whence all this (or a lot of it) came, and his cameo is longer (and wordier) than any of Hitchcock’s.

Joss Whedon, the being behind (to borrow a super-noun) this movie behemoth, the inventive artist who gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and the black-and-white Much Ado About Nothing (whose title is not necessarily his comment on his current occupation), acquits himself admirably, along with his thousands of collaborators, and he leaves the series honorably, if in slightly better shape himself than his Ultron. As they say, you can only end the world so many times, before the real-life non-supermen take over and maybe really end it.

This is a movie whose main assets are its smarts and the genius of the system and lotsa, lotsa dough and talented people, and those are the main assets of a lot of Hollywood classics. As for the action scenes and special effects, all the raison d’etre and razzle-dazzle that obviously consumed a lot of time, money, blood, sweat and tears here, as well as inspiring a huge hulking hunk of the list on the movies typically endless end-titles, I‘m, uh, speechless. But, hell, you see one of these (the action scenes or the end-titles), you’ve seen them all. At least it seems that way.

Hey, as someone said (I think it was Ingmar Bergman), it’s only a movie. Meanwhile, congrats to Spader and Downey and all the tuff turfs they endured on the way to the top. Or, as Lord Action (no sic), I think it was, said: “Blockbusters corrupt, and absolute blockbusters corrupt absolutely.” Who needs another Citizen Kane anyway? Or another Dolce Vita? Or a filmmaking Euripides? (Eumenides!) As for another Godfather, well, they can do it on TV. And don’t think I’m being sarcastic.

You know guys, I totally support your Avenging.


Wlmington on Movies: Black Souls

Friday, April 24th, 2015

BLACK SOULS ( Four Stars)

Italy: Francesco Munzi, 2014


Dark, stark and bleak, and filled with a foreboding sense of impending disaster, Francesco Munzi’s Black Souls is an anti-romantic Italian mob drama — a great brooding powerhouse of a film that reminds you of violent mob classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas, and more recent Italian crime gems like Gomorrah, only to veer off into a shocking climax that’s more reminiscent in tone and impact of a Greek tragedy.

Adapted from the novel by Gioacchino Criaco, it’s a potent piece of crime-film-work. Munzi’s tale of three brothers, the Carbones of Calabria — whose family business and focus has evolved from goat farming in the mountain villages of Southern Italy, to membership in the local Calabrian mob, the ’ndrangheta, and into the more lucrative but dangerous profession of cocaine smuggling in Milan — has an almost mesmerizing force, a sinister visual poetry, the icy grip of a true thriller. There’s an almost swooning inevitability about the destruction that begins to overtake and swallow up these characters from the very first scenes, and one watches them struggle with a sense of unavoidable angst and heart-rending fitness.

Gradually, as Munzi shows the blood feuds that ultimately carry everyone away, we see the Carbone family fall apart: genial, glad-handing mob boss Luigi (Marco Leonardo), who wants everyone to love him (or, failing that, to respect him), Luigi‘s quieter, more sober mob-business-manager brother Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta), who wants the numbers to add up and any murderous business clashes to be avoided, and, most tragic of all, their non-criminal brother, goat farmer Luciana (Fabrizio Ferracane), who wants no part of his family’s illegal success —  and his hot-headed, hedonistic 20-year-old  son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), who does. As the story unfolds, Munzi (The Rest of the Night) and his co-writers Fabrizio Ruggirellio and Maurizio Braucci  immerse us in the long-held, meticulous traditions of their world (or of their separate worlds), and of their women, including Rocco‘s chic Northern Italian wife Valeria (Barbora Bobulova) and Luciano’s traditionalist country wife Antonia (Anna Ferruzzo). They then reveal how all that can  collapse as well.

Munzi tells their story not with the hot-blooded operatic fervor we expect elsewhere, but with  a mixture of quiet realism, dirge-like melancholy and low-key intensity — and with a simmering tension that always reminds you of the violence that lies just underneath the semblance of family bonds and feeling that supposedly unites all these Carbones. There’s scant romanticism here, and little wild humor — and no one will, like Leo, want to live this life after seeing what happens. That’s true of the Mafia masterpieces of Coppola and Scorsese as well. But it’s doubly true here — in this more classic, less sensational rendering of the wages of sin and death.

Munzi is not as brilliant a filmmaker as Coppola or Scorsese  — or, probably, as his Italian colleague Matteo Garrone of Gomorrah. But he’s damned good. He knows how to create characters and the world they live in. Leonardi’s glad-handing mob boss Luigi, Mazzotta’s professorial Rocco and Ferracane’s pent-up, furious village patriarch Luciano make almost as powerful, if not quite as memorable a brotherly trio as Michael, Sonny and Fredo in The Godfather.  But Munzi is building on past mob movie tropes and archetypes, not simply recapitulating them. The darkness of the Carbones’ world catches you almost as inexorably as its best predecessors. And, after hopping on the crazed rollercoasters of many modern crime and action shows, it’s refreshing to see a violent movie that makes sense, with characters that seem not just impossibly good or incredibly evil or wildly unlikely, but richly, fallibly, terrifyingly human. (In Italian, with subtitles.)

In Los Angeles, in Landmark’s Nuart Theatre. Also in Landmark Theatres across the country.

Wilmington on Movies: True Story

Monday, April 20th, 2015

TRUE STORY (Three Stars)
U.S.: Rupert Goold, 2015


Truth may not always be stranger than fiction, but it sometimes seems to sell better —  even though that “truth” may be ambivalent  and the reporting questionable. True Story, a true crime movie drama which has some very good scenes and performances, and also some that are disturbingly dubious, supplies a couple of juicy fact-based roles for real-life buddies Jonah Hill and James Franco — and both of them dive right in, taking over the screen joyously, both when they’re together and sometimes when they aren’t. That doesn’t mean that the movie is entirely or even largely satisfying. It’s not, though the two lead actors give it everything they can.

Hill, a born second banana with the face (sometimes) of a hooked fish, plays Michael Finkel (who also co-wrote True Story and wrote the book on which the movie is based). Finkel, a name you may know, was a New York Times free-lance journalist, who made up a character for one of his Times magazine stories, got fired and then tries to redeem himself with a  big story that drops into his lap back in his heartland home.

Opposite him, Franco, a born sexually ambiguous movie heartthrob who was once typecast as James Dean, here assumes the persona of  Christian Longo, a mysteriously grinning chap who’s on trial for murdering his wife and children, and who briefly assumed Finkel’s identity which fleeing from the law in Mexico. Longo calls Finkel his favorite writer and contacts him, while he’s in stir in his ugly orange jail uniform. The sharply acted encounters between the accused killer and the disgraced newsman take place in a chilly meeting room that looks like an ante-room to some drained white Purgatory.

Both these characters are real people, given their real names, and both of the actors (who last appeared together, hilariously playing “themselves,“ in Seth Rogen’s apocalyptic comedy a clef This is the End) are fine, especially Franco — who really should be forgiven by his Boo Squad for that subversively bad performance as a recent Oscar host. (Franco’s old Pineapple Express turn as a genial pothead alone should wipe it out.)

The movie begins with  a weirdly poetic view of a teddy bear and his little girl owner (one of the children that Longo has allegedly killed), dropping down into a suitcase that will then be abandoned underwater — then shifts to scenes of Finkel’s professional downfall in the great cold offices of the New York Times. It is after going home to Montana, and intellectual girlfriend Jill (Felicity Jones) that Finkel finds out about Longo, who declared himself  the writer‘s biggest fan, after which Michael visits him in prison — accepting Longo‘s offer of an exclusive story (which the accused killer claims will clear him), and commencing a bizarre friendship. In that friendship or collaboration or dark union, Longo is a smilingly charismatic anti-hero/maybe villain and Finkel is his chubby, wary, angst-ridden Boswell.

Both these characters are real people, given their real names, and both of the actors (who last appeared together, hilariously playing “themselves,“ in Seth Rogen’s apocalyptic comedy a clef This is the End) are fine, especially Franco — who really should be forgiven by his Boo Squad for that subversively bad performance as a recent Oscar host. (Franco’s old Pineapple Express turn as a genial pothead alone should wipe those bad memories out.)

True Story itself is directed and co-written with  an arty polish, gleam and intelligence, and occasionally with real impact, by Rupert Goold, an admired British stage and TV director, who’s done some well-regarded Shakespeare (a “Macbeth” and a “Richard II“), and here does very well by his audience (most of the time), and by his actors, if not their real-life counterparts, while telling a tale full of largely off-screen sound and fury, signifying…“something?”

Like last year‘s Foxcatcher, which was also a true crime drama about a buddy-buddy relationship and a shocking and sometimes mystifying crime, True Story keeps its story and often its characters somewhat opaque, even when one of them gives us all a big fat wink. Part of the reason for that reticence is the bloodiness and awfulness of the crime itself, as well as the not-sympathetic view of things generated by  the filmmakers and actors. Longo’s wife and little daughters were killed and then dumped, and other family members are convinced that he did it, while Finkel, who needs Longo for his redemption book, is, perhaps understandably, not so sure. Is it because he has a lucrative book project in the offing? Is it because he’d like to give a zinger to the Gray Lady? Or is it because the chillingly self-confident Longo, with his cold-blooded charm, all but seduces him in their meetings?

Hill makes Finkel someone believably guarded and anxious, as occasionally self-serving and self-destructive as he is self-aggrandizing, ambitious and gifted. Franco makes Longo both creepy and seductive, a possible monster pulling his possible pigeon (Finkel) down into a dark whirlpool of possible pathologies and lies. Two sometimes consummate actors, they both always seem real — though “seems” is relative and so is “real. And so is “True Story.”

There haven’t been very many really good films lately, ever since the Oscars were over — except for Olivier Assayas’ brilliant backstage drama Clouds of Sils Maria, with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, and also the powerful minimalist Israeli courtroom picture Gett — and so the good parts of  Goold’s show are welcome, even if the film as a whole is a bit unsatisfying. Maybe the fact that Finkel was so intimately involved in its creation was both a blessing and a curse; it’s hard not to see prongs of self-justification poking through the personal narratives of this story’s anxious exiled protagonist (Finkel) and cool imprisoned antagonist (Longo).


True or not, the good parts of this movie make up for it. Goold is a better than good director, though, as with Foxcatcher, one wants a little more resolution and explanation than this movie gives.  True Story though, is very often rescued by its intelligence and by its two lead actors, Hill and Franco, who always give us something interesting to watch. Hill, with his customary subtly goofy humanity, shows us the darker side of journalism. Franco, with an eerie smile, shows us the darker side of families, life and death.


And True Story itself shows us that truth, or what people call truth, is often ambiguous, sometimes mutable, occasionally dangerous and always subject to revision.