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

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

 

 

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

fortress

The great Akira Kurosawa action samurai epic, and one of Kurosawa’s most sheerly entertaining and thoroughly engaging films, this is the movie whose storm-the-fortress-and-save-the-princess plot helped inspire George Lucas’s smash hit space opera Star Wars —  and whose two wandering peasant clowns  (played by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) were Lucas’s inspiration for the bickering robots  C-3PO and R2-D2.

One of the supreme adventure movies, with the inevitable Toshiro Mifune as the gruff warrior-general Makabe (one of his  best roles),  Takashi Shimura (the leader of the Seven Samurai) as the old general and Misa Uehara as  Princess Yuki, the lady they’re all battling over. Like all the best Kurosawas — which encompasses most of his output — this is a beautifully crafted, tremendously exciting movie, and it features some of Kurosawa’s best action scenes, shot and cut in his characteristic vigorous three-camera set-ups. It’s better than Star Wars. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.) .

 

BLUE JASMINE (DVD; Blu-ray; Digital HD; UV) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Woody Allen, 2013 (Sony)

Blue Jasmine may not really be one of Woody Allen’s best films, as many are calling it. But it definitely contains one of the great actress performances in any of his picturess: Cate Blanchett’s heart-breaking portrayal of Jasmine French. Allen and Blanchett’s  Jasmine is  a razor-sharp look at a woman of style who seems solidly part of  the American rich  — but then loses everything. It’s one of the most memorable jobs ever by an Allen actress, on a level with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Manhattan, Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Broadway Danny Rose, Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway, Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives and Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Blanchett’s hungry eyes, and  exaggerated elegance stick in your mind, gain depth and feeling as you watch her. Besides winning the Best Actress Oscar, the performance has been nearly universally praised, and it deserves to be.

Perhaps that’s because Jasmine as acharacter is a kind of culmination of Allen’s attitudes toward the moneyed white culture Jasmine represents. Jasmine lives  what seems a charmed life as a member of the Manhattan financial social elite Allen loves to have fun with — but then finds herself hurled into the chaos of the 2008 financial collapse, and  turning into Woody’s version of Blanche DuBois, Tennessee Williams’ lady on the edge, wandering, desperate, talking to herself, at the end of the line.

Is this a comedy or a drama? Actually it’s both. Much of the film is clearly intended (and works) as high dramatics, but the  movie also draws from rich comedy wellsprings: swindles, self-deception and humbuggery. Here, these illusions destroy more than dignity, drive Allen’s characters into the stormy waters of  Bergmanesque emotional trauma (in Interiors, Another Woman, or Match Point). Jasmine, whom Blanchett plays with a radiant selfishness and fragility, loses it (money, position, comfort) all, or most of it. She discovers that her life is a lie, and that her smoothie financier husband Hal (Alec Baldwin, dead-on slickly manipulative) is a liar, cheat and thief (both financial and romantic). She finds that her world was whirling on a Bernie Madoff-style ponzi pyramid of lies,  and that she has few resources to cope with her present plunge to the Middle Depths.

When we first see Jasmine, she’s on a  plane headed for San Francisco and a temporary refuge with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, the breezy free spirit of  Mike Leigh’s 2008 Happy-Go-Lucky),  jabbering away about her life to her captive seatmate (Joy Carlin), who tells her husband later that Jasmine started off the conversation by talking to herself — which she does more and more these days. Soon, Jasmine has reached the Mission District where Ginger lives with her auto repair guy boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale) — which is where we get the first of many deliberate parallels to Williams’ great, sad, lyrical play A Streetcar Named Desire. Jasmine has arrived like Blanche DuBois at the New Orleans apartment of her sister Stella and of Blanche’s macho nemesis, Stella’s brutal hubby Stanley Kowalski — at a place which is her last stop, with a household where she’s partly welcome and partly  resented and desired, and where her only hope of escape is Stanley‘s mama‘s boy bowling buddy Mitch..

Ginger is the Stella character, and Chili is Stanley  — and so is Ginger’s ex-husband Augie (played surprisingly well by “hoodlum-of-humor” comedian Andrew Dice Clay). There are couple of possible Mitches,  the most plausible of which is Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight, a  State Department guy who sees Jasmine — or at least Jasmine in her dream world — as a fit wife for a man with political ambitions. Another more obnoxious maybe-Mitch is D. Fischler the horny dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man), who employs her as a very nervous receptionist.

Jasmine Blanchett 5

Jasmine is humiliated by Fischler’s attentions — and humiliated also by Ginger’s lower-class apartment and the crudity of  Chili and his sports fan buddies. She does have her own Belle Reve memories though –  and half the movie is taken up with flashbacks to Jasmine’s One Percenter life with Hal, and with the destruction of that dream, as she finally discovers everything he was — and everything his world was. At the end, Allen gives Blanchett the actress, a shattering moment — fittingly for an actress whose own stage performance of Blanche (under Liv Ullmann’s direction) was said to be phenomenal.

Allen is 77. This is his 44th movie. Why does the old stand-up guy turn his story into  a grim parody of one of America‘s greatest saddest plays? Can we expect “Death of a Comedian” or “Long Deli’s Journey Into Knockwurst” or “Who’s Afraid of Sholem Aleichem?” or “12 Angry Yentas” somewhere down the line? Well, in fact parody, and putting himself into different worlds, is the Sid Caesarian soul of much of Allen’s comedy. He can be as much a parodist as his old Sid Caesar writer-colleague  Mel Brooks — but where Brooks sends up Frankenstein and Star Wars, Allen has classier targets: Bergman, Fellini, film noir. Like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, he likes to flee into other worlds, other times.

Woody twists some of the scenes: Augie and Chili are not such bad guys; Jasmine is less sympathetic than Blanche, and her strangers less kind. The real villain in Blue Jasmine is the economy itself, and its agents like Hal.

Blanchett is an amazing actress . Like Katharine Hepburn (whom she impersonated in The Aviator) or Meryl Streep (with whom she shares a sisterly resemblance),  she is a player of tremendous vitality and depth, And brain power. Here, she often seems to be flirting with pathos, but she always slips the clinch  — and dances away many times from the edge of humor,  too. It’s a very intellectual performance, and the ending loops back to recall the beginning.  Everything Blanchett does is transparent; like Jasmine — and like Blanche, we can see right though her. The rest of the actors, taking on literate, challenging Allen-scripted parts for scale (and obviously having a ball doing it) are wonderful. So is the mellow cinematography of Javier Aguirresrobe and the posh or more ordinary settings by Santo Loquasto. The music is more of the period jazz, blues and pop he loves to play or us, and that we should love to hear. I know I do.

No Extras.

August: Osage County (DYV; Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: John Wells, 2013 (Anchor Bay)

A blisteringly good script by Tracy Letts — using the classic “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”/“Who’s Afraid if Virginia Woolf?”  theatrical form of a loud, partly drunken gathering where secrets are revealed and wounds torn open. And with a super cast: Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Margo Martindale and others.

The virtuoso center of the film however is (stop me if you’ve heard this one) Meryl Streep. In an uncharacteristically rowdy and foul-mouthed turn as Violet Weston, a nasty, drugged-out old pseudo-matriarch, celebrating her husband’s (Sam Shepard) passing by flaying alive her daughters and their men, Streep brings down the house, in more ways than one.  It’s a classic scene-stealing performance by  a lady who’s stolen many a scene before.

Saving Mr. Banks (Three Stars)

U.S.:  John Lee Hancock, 2013 (Walt Disney)

Who would have thought that, nearly 40 years after the release of Walt Disney’s favorite creation, the bouncy Disney mass audience movie musical of P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, they’d make a Hollywood art movie and biopic on the making of Poppins, and that it would be graced by performances as rich and good as Tom Hanks’ gentle mogul Disney, Emma Thompson’s tart Britisher Travers, and Paul Giamatti’s good-guy turn as her driver. A nice show — and I  mean that in a nice way.

Extras: Deleted scene.

Wilmington on Movies — Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (Three Stars)

U. S.: Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014

 

I. Man and Superman

In the mood for something super-duper, movie-wise? Something loud, fast, full of crash-bang and zip-zowie, and liable to make megazillions of dollars all around the world? Captain America: The Winter Soldier — which is the latest Marvel Comics super-hero spectacular — may be  just your super-ticket.

I’m being facetious, but maybe not super-facetious. The movie, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, has a lot going for it, though I think it’s being somewhat overrated. A super-hero picture with a great two-faced super-villain, a super-jittery action camera, super-CGI tricks, super-credit teasers, a shrewdly super-paranoid script, and a sort of a heart, Captain America: The Winter Soldier definitely belongs in the upper echelon of Marveldom, somewhere under Iron Man  and Spider-Man 2, and somewhere above The Hulk and X-Men. I wouldn’t call Winter Soldier a great show — it’s hard to call any of the modern super-hero movies great, including the best of them, The Dark Knight Trilogy — but it’s good of its kind.

It‘s better-written (by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus) and better-acted (by a cast headed by Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie and Robert Redford) than usual, and it has lots of stuff  aimed at (and best appreciated by) adults, along with the usual core teen audience. I had a good time watching it, except for the camera and cutting styles (more of that later), and I’m sure that the hordes of movie goers who’ll descend on it in millions will have a pretty good time at it too — though, if you’re a different kind of movie-lover,  and unconcerned with profit-loss, you might wish that the 170 million bucks spent on it, were invested in  17 better and more ambitious but less costly movies — or eight, or four. Or even one.

But why get muddled up in ambition or high finance? Captain America: The Winter Soldier — another  gaudy, expensive expansion of another super-tale from super-writer Stan Lee’s classic super-comic series of the ’60s and beyond — does what it’s damned well trying to do, with some style and panache. We should all  be so lucky.

Winter Soldier was directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo — whose last feature outing was the 2006 Matt Dillon-Kate Hudson-Owen Wilson comedy You, Me and Dupree (with Seth Rogen in a minor part) — and it basically follows the super-hero playbook, but with some pizzazz and left-wing politics. In the first Captain America movie (C. A.: The First Avenger), Cap (Evans) — the nicely naïve one-time 90 pound weakling who became a scientifically altered and super-sized Marvel battler for truth, justice and the American Way — was put in a deep freeze  after winning World War 2 and besting the evil Nazi masterminds of Hydra, only to be thawed out 70 years later just in time to hook up with much of the rest of the Marvel  gang in The Avengers.

Here, in his own new movie, he finds himself  bidding adieu to  his 90something now-invalid WW2 lady-love Peggy Carter (the touching  Hayley Atwell),  who aged while he was frozen, and then joining the often furious-looking Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) his boos in S.H.I.E.L.D. (the international law-enforcing, peace-keeping, super-force  — with both of them plummeting into a super-conspiracy thriller plot, borrowed from Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and other ’70s paranoid political thrillers. .

Joining him, on one side or another, are the drop-dead-gorgeous   S.H.I.E.L.D. lady and ex-Russian. agent Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Johansson), World Security Council head and old Fury crony Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, in his super-hero movie debut, playing a government dude so cool that he turned down the Nobel Peace Prize); The Falcon, a.k.a. Sam Wilson (Mackie), a super-sidekick with robot wings; assorted French pirates; SPOILER ALERT  and the seemingly unstoppable assassin, the  Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who was once a best buddy of Captain America’s, and (while in an amnesiac state since WW2) has been knocking off bigwigs for decades. END OF SPOILER.

Soon all of these characters and dozens more find themselves embroiled in heavy-duty super-hero-movie action — some of it aboard a hijacked French ship; some of it in another of those ubiquitous car-chase gun-battles that are constantly erupting in action movies and never seem to arouse much attention from nearby police or passersby;  some of it in a very crowded elevator; and some of it in  a dangerous new contraption called the helicarrier, a flying death ship that may well alter the face of world law enforcement and of  super-hero-dom — or at least become the flying arena for another slam-bang super-hero battle — in this movie‘s slam-bang super-climax.

II. The Children of  Stan Lee

Watching Captain America: the Winter Soldier — with its crashing cars, blazing guns, soaring helicarriers and vicious mano-a-mano fights galore — I was entertained and diverted. But I also began to wonder as I watched if our whole movie culture hasn’t gone a little nuts. Sooner than we like to think, certainly in another century, there may not be oil to make gas for these conspicuously wasteful  cars, these planes, these helicarriers. Sooner than we think, we may get involved in crazy new wars, which may decimate whole cities. Sooner than we think, there may be worse villains, a sturdier brand of fascism,  and no Captain America to clean their clocks.  I know. it sounds paranoid, but….

These nightmare fantasies of the teen-targeted super-hero action movies (or SHAMS) and young adult movies (or YAMs) — so wildly popular with younger audiences — are fashioned out of the Marvel comic books of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which is when Marvel Comics main-man writer-editor Stan Lee wrote a lot of his best stuff and when I read a lot of it), and this Captain America (created for the comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) is a left-wing movie that makes its villains part of the military-industrial complex: self-righteous militarists who want to take over the world, and programmed mercenaries like the Winter Soldier himself.

It was a moderate conservative U. S. President of the ‘50s, ex-WW2 commanding general Dwight Eisenhower, who  warned us about the military-industrial complex in his last speech as president in the ‘60s– and who would have known better?  The first Captain America was set back in World War II, the war Eisenhower and his armies won, the time of the now-storied Greatest Generation, and of an America struggling out of the Depression and then the war against Hitler and Nazism. And what happens in this movie is a collision of the spirit of that generation (as we remember it not only from comic books but from movies like The Story of G. I. Joe and The Best Years of Our Lives) and the conflicts and compromises of today — with Captain America, another World War 2 vet, reappearing from cold storage, all decked out in a fancy costume and fancy super-powers, ready to take on fascism again, wherever he finds it.

The movies (or the comics) are the place to go for fantasies like this — whether about the military-industrial complex, or just about flying over Metropolis with Lois Lane. But they should also be the place to go for great stories about living, breathing people and realistic events that touch us more deeply, that make use of the resources of the most inclusive art form ever invented, the one with the most resources, a form that can make use of theater, music, all the visual arts, all the aural arts and all the performance arts as well — plus all of history, all literature, and whatever’s going on right outside the multiplex..

 

Is it a bad joke that this truly super art form is now often most expensively used to make ultra-costly versions of old comic books (even good old comic books) and new young adult novels (even good ones), intended for  a world-wide audience  of teenagers, and people who seem to want to be teenagers? Are we so steeped in teen fantasies, with all these Shams and Yams, that the real world and all the magnificent stories you can cull from it are relegated mostly to the smaller budgets and cheaper seats? (Even though those movies are also the ones most of the movie-making professionals vote for come awards time?)

I’m not saying you need more money to tell ambitious, rich, human stories like, say, the ones that were nominated for the Oscars this year: 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall StreetGravity, Captain Phillips, The Great Gatsby, American Hustle, Dallas BuyersClub and the others –including my idea of a great contemporary action-adventure movie, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug? It amazes me to see the way literacy and realism and ideas are relegated to the lesser production and marketing budgets, and the way teen tastes, instead of being part of the whole movie market, tend to dominate it.

I suppose you could say that the current movies based on the Marvel or D. C. comics, besides being fantasy/science fiction, are part of the adventure or epic tradition that has been a movie mainstay since The Birth of a Nation, Cabiria and Intolerance. But they’re still formula movies, adhering to  a locked-in, if sometimes amusing, pattern: stories that are repeated over and over,  They’re comic book movies. In excelsis.

One of the things that made the Stan Lee-written Marvel comics so different was their brash, jokey, tongue in cheek sensibility, something shared by both the heroes and villains, and best displayed in in their wise-cracking duels and fights. (Other comic heroes used the same device, but Marvel did it better.) Another is the sense of a recognizable real world that existed outside and fed into the story  — a world of teen or personal angst, war, racism, politics, the daily news and pop culture (things that this movie taps too). Relevance was a Stan Lee hallmark, and Lee, now 91 (and one of this movie’s executive producers), does another of his Hitchcockian cameos in this show. He plays a museum guard who discovers that the Captain America costume has been stolen right off the dummy, and moans “I’m so fired!”

III. Condors and Candidates

General Lee aside, the presence of Robert Redford as would-be world order tyrant Alexander Pierce instantly summons up the politics of both the ’70s and right now. And the fact that Pierce is such an ambiguous character, both thickens the plot and heightens the paranoia. Redford, the good movie liberal, in his superstar heyday, used to specialize in ambiguous guys and flawed golden boys. When he wasn’t a good bad man, like The Sundance Kid, or a good guy trapped in a bad or equivocal world, as he was in Three Days of the Condor or All the President’s Men, he could be an American idol or winner who sold out or had hidden dark depths, like he is in The Candidate or Downhill Racer or Inside Daisy Clover.

But he’s rarely been as ambiguous, or deceptive, or as villainous, as Pierce.  Watching him play the part, you can sense his enjoyment: Redford brings back the breezy, smart charm he had in such abundance in movies like The Sting and Spy Games, and it’s a welcome return. But he’s also sending up his old golden boy image, and he’s added a hint of amorality or fascistic tendencies  that makes the character both double-edged and compelling, the way his buddy Paul Newman was in Hud.

The rest of the cast, (except for the equally spot-on Jackson as Nick Fury) are mostly younger guys (and gals), golden young winners of our age who could slide by on their looks and personality (as Redford once could have, but often chose not to). Next to Redford and Jackson, they seem lighter, less substantial and (face it) less charismatic. (Johansson may be the exception.) These relative youngsters (Evans, Mackie, Stan) are all good in the movie, but they  really need their super-powers to compete (Cap with his super-shield, Falcon with his super-wings, Black Widow with her super-karate, Winter with his super-arm), whereas Redford can command the screen and the battlefield, with just himself and his super-grin. He’s really the best thing in the movie,

The writers, McFeely and Markus, also wrote Pain and Gain. a vicious but funny movie about a particularly rotten modern reality, and the first Chris Evans Captain America, which was exciting and at times moving. So they’ve proven again they can write intelligent, amusing stuff, even in a heavily formatted, nearly straitjacketed narrative structure like this one. If you’re surprised by anything that happens here, even the movie’s big “reveal,” you either haven’t seen another Marvel super-hero movie, or , in that one “surprise” case, you don’t know the original comic book story. (I didn’t.) But you can guess it.

As for the directors, the Russos, who’ve done mostly darkish comedy in their previous feature outings (they also spent time with Arrested Development on TV), they’re good with the human, dramatic or humorous elements — though  I thought the two best scenes in the movie, visually, were the two credit-teasers, which turn out to have been done (or so I’ve read) by Joss Whedon. And I really didn’t like most of the Captain America: Winter Soldier action scenes (which of course may be done by many other people than just the directors.) The movie’s elaborate scenes of action and violence are shot in a hectic, bang-your-eyes and smack-you-silly style that includes a lot of herky-jerky hand-held camera — as well as extremely rapid-fire edits  that seem to average one cut or so per second. (To be fair, the cutting of the action scenes in a lot of contemporary thrill movies is just as fast, and just as irritating. )

The combination of  jittery camera and whip-fast cutting makes those scenes hard (for me at least) to enjoy — especially after seeing and enjoying the majestic, beautifully shot action and deluge scenes in last week’s Noah — or ruminating recently on the work (in Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo) of a real action  master, Akira Kurosawa: a Shakespeare of the action-adventure movie (as was his idol John Ford), and also one of the greatest film directors and editors who ever lived.

I wish the Russos and their editor, Jeffrey Ford (no relation, as far as I know), would take some time out to watch and study how the battle and swordfight scenes in those three great Japanese movies of the ‘50s are staged and cut — so furiously, so impeccably, with such savage grace and flawless style — before they shoot or cut another action scene themselves . I’d hate to see the Nervous Nellie shooting and editing style in this movie and others, become de rigueur for action pictures.

Of course, the Russos and Ford are following a dominant mode and style of today here. But it’s a frantic, overwrought style — even if they and others might feel that Seven Samurai, and the hundreds of pictures inspired and influenced by it,  are old-fashioned movies, which should be put in the deep freeze forn a while with Captain America. If they do, they’re wrong. Kurosawa was the sensei, the super-director.  Like Redford, a super-actor and a super-movie star, he was a monarch of the domain we’ve ceded, unwisely, to a world of adolescents.

Wilmington on Movies: Noah

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

 

NOAH (Three and a Half Stars)

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

 

noah

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign.

No more water, but the fire next time.”

Old spiritual (Ralph Stanley)

 

I. The Flood

Will Russell Crowe ever again get a part that so suits his special screen persona and gifts — that natural genius he seems to  have for projecting awesome tormented  heroics and mad obsessions — as the one he plays in his new film:  Noah, the lord’s visionary deadly servant  in Darren Aronofsky’s  sometimes crazy and often wonderful version of the biblical story of  The Great Flood? Or a film that so stupendously sets those gifts off ?

Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. Crowe, it seems to me, has long since ascended to Burt Lancaster’s old throne as the brainy movie swashbuckler and later leonine old man; the only major things he lacks for the job are Lancaster’s world-devouring grin and his acrobat’s physique. But Crowe has the same kind of looks and range and ambition  and the same virile appeal. Like Lancaster and George Clooney, he’s a thinking woman’s (and man’s) hunk with good taste in scripts, and, with this project, he’s lent his movie magnetism to the kind of rich, story, drenched in narrative grandeur, that might have made a great opera or epic poem and that, on the screen, tends to overwhelm us and overflow its boundaries.

Crowe, who has played warrior-rebel-heroes (in Gladiator, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar) and madmen, who talked to themselves and answered (in A Beautiful Mind) and bedeviled nerds who blew the whistle on their bosses (in The Insider) — here gets to be heroic and mad and the ultimate outsider (a man who really does have almost the entire world against him). His Noah  starts out as a decent family man, idealistic, religious, generous, a good person in every way, with a loving family whom he loves.

Then comes the message, the obsession, the instructions, he believes,  from God — a dream of drowning and of a big boat, a vision that he interprets as a Heavenly order to build the boat and rescue the animals of the world, and his family (at least temporarily) from the approaching Flood — and eventualy ,  to watch as the sinful world, condemned by God, is swallowed up in the mother of all tsunamis.

When the rains come down and the waters rise and rise, and the doomed masses  of humankind outside the ark crawl over each other in a writhing, toppling tower, consumed by their frenzy to escape the inevitable cataclysm, and when Crowe’s Noah — huddling with his family on the huge deck of the ark — stares at the burst, pouring skies with melancholy acceptance and sorrow, it’s the kind of scene that almost cries out for a Richard Wagner or a Verdi to compose for it, a Bosch or a Turner to envision and paint its magnificent tumult. The movie does have composer Clint Mansell (Aronofsky’s regular musical collaborator) and production designer Mark Friedberg — and real-life, bleakly overpowering  beginning-or-end-of-the-world scenery supplied, in Iceland, by The Creator. (For this movie, that may be enough.)

And it has Aronofsky, of course. And Russell Crowe. And a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Connelly as his warm but conflicted wife Naameh, and Ray Winstone as Noah’s brutal antagonist Tubal-Cain, and Anthony Hopkins as his sage, sly grandfather Methuselah and Emma Watson as the seemingly fragile, threatened Ila, one of his son‘s wives or wives to be. They’re all good, better than good. But the Flood blows them all, at least temporarily, off the screen. It’s the kind of super-theatrical disaster (masterminded here by special effects supervisor Burt Dalton), that movies were invented to give us (at least occasionally). That may disturb many Los Angeles residents or movie workers, awaiting and dreading the big quake — or other acts of God that may level the Earth and remind us how puny and tiny we really are.

The script, by Aronofsky and his collaborator on The Fountain, Ari Handel, is a dramatic elaboration and expansion of the tale from Genesis — following Noah from (briefly) his youth and the beginning of the great enmity between him and the man who killed his father, the evil and worldly Tubal-Cain (a weapon maker and descendant of Cain and a figure barely mentioned in the Bible), to the nightmare that Noah interprets as God’s message that he must build an ark (300 cubits long, 30 cubits high, and 50 cubits wide) to rescue the animals (two of each) and, at least temporarily his family — which also includes his youthful sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). (In those stranger days, “youthful” means 100-years-old or so; according to the Bible, Noah was pushing 600 and Methuselah had passed 900

Noah is aided in this mountainous, seemingly impossible task — building an ark that has three different levels for the various species (mammals, reptiles and birds, with the fish, I guess, left to the ocean) and, when finished, resembles a huge aircraft carrier — by monstrous but helpful beings called The Watchers, or Nephilim. Black and bricky, these giant fallen angels and one-time allies of humankind look like beings dreamed up for Transformers, The Lord of the Rings or The Fantastic Four, — thrown together with  charred-looking stony blocks, and lurching like flexible rocky Godzillas over the  terrain — they are probably among the only reasons Noah could build the damned thing in time for the Flood. That, and an obliging Creator who, when Noah needs wood for the boat, gives him a forest.

Wen that task is done, we get the spiritual and dramatic meat of the story: the Flood and its prologue and aftermath, with Noah apparently determined to complete what he regards as The Creator’s (the name God is never used) intended massacre of all his human creations, his own family included, and with Tubal-Cain (played by Winstone with the kind of effortless, raw unfiltered evil that suffuses his many great gangster portrayals) determined to become once again top dog. In the movie’s major flight of fantasy and fiction, Winstone as Cain‘s fierce descendant has sneaked aboard and stowed away on the ark, equally hellbent on killing Noah, stealing his family  and taking over what‘s left of the world.

II. The Fire

The story of Noah and the Flood is one of the most compelling and terrifying in all of the King James version of the Bible — one of the many prose-poems that make that Holy Book qualify as great English  literature as well as the word of God. And out of it, Aronofsky has fashioned something strange and marvelous and full of dramatic-musical-cinematic shock and awe. It’s not a great movie perhaps — I think it’s flawed, among other things, by the nearly exclusive use of digital and sculpted animals instead of at least a few living, breathing God’s creatures. But there’s greatness in it.

And controversy as well — as there was with Martin Scorsese’s furiously attacked 1988 film of Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ.“  I remember seeing one of the “Temptation” protestors — a young woman who had obviously neither seen the movie nor read much if anything about it — being engaged, in respectful debate, by some people in my party outside the movie in Century City, and the way she suddenly cried out, in what seemed like real anguish, “I don’t want to go to Hell! I don’t want to go to Hell!

Noah has apparently already offended some religiously over-protective countries. The governments of Indonesia, Qatar, The United Arab Republic and (perhaps appropriately) Bahrain, have all banned it. And a number  of fundamentalist or sometimes right-leaning organizations here at home have piled on too, some of whom demanded that Paramount put on the film a credits note stating that the movie‘s script was not factual or biblical — which Paramount seemingly, eventually did. Buried in the credits is the usual disclaimer, stating  that the characters in the film are fictional and not based on real-life — not based, in other words, on the real Noah, the real Naameh and the real Methuselah — which seems to me an odd not really happy compromise.

Aronofsky, who has made movies about secret mathematical messages and the mysterious presence of  God (Pi), the narcotic-induced nightmares of bedeviled outcasts (Requiem for a Dream), quests for life to the end of the universe (The Fountain), a battered, fallen hero on his last stand (The Wrestler), and  dances of good and evil set to Tchaikovsky (Black Swan), here gathers up all the dark, wild fragments of his own obsessions, and jams them together in a 139 million dollar aberrant Hollywood spectacular: a vast, deadly-serious, thunderously beautiful  biblical epic that plays  like a fever dream  of  humankind’s sunset (and sunrise). It’s  an operatic film poem about the edge of madness and the end (or almost end) of the world,  — an ode to the apocalypse, with a universe askew, a Creator enraged, and ex-rock ‘n roller Crowe’s Noah as a sad-eyed front man, building the ark that will be battered for forty days and forty nights, which may save or destroy them. But we know the story. SPOILER ALERT, It ends with sunlight and water. And land. And white doves. (I won’t say “and with a Crowe.”)

III. The Rainbow

Noah is one of  several movies  recently, including the comedies This is the End, and The World’s End, that have imagined or dealt with, the end of the world  (or, in this case, with the near end of humanity and what could have been the end of the world). Obviously part of this trend stems from widespread international worries about the threat of global warming and of the damaging of the ozone layer. Aronofsky’s Noah, as you might expect, is a very ecologically-minded movie; that’s another thing it’s been attacked for. But it seems to me that the story of Noah has always been a tale with a built-in warning: If this goes on…

I sometimes ruminate on the end of the world too. Noah, at its best, makes you see and experience it (or its cinematic counterfeit) — and see it through the eyes of the tortured man called upon to cope with the chaos and the dark. The power of the movie emanates from that warning, and from that vision, and from the drama of Noah’s great dilemma: Can he still love a God who has destroyed all living people and creatures, save the ones on his boat? And must Noah, the last remaining patriarch, destroy all that he most loves, to fulfill God’s wishes and pay penance for humanity‘s flaws and crimes? Like Abraham, with his blade poised above his son Isaac’s head, Noah is a man, a good man, rent in two by what seems the necessity of violating his heart’s dictate to fulfill the Creator’s plan. And Noah the movie, torn between Genesis and the rules of the movie box-office game and Aronofsky’s personal vision, is similarly transfixed and at times similarly tormented, somewhere hovering above the abyss, somewhere over the rainbow.

 

“And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?

“And what did you hear, my darling young one?

“I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warning.

“”I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.

“And it’s a hard…

“It‘s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

Bob Dylan.

Wilmington on DVDs: Nebraska; Foreign Correspondent; 2 Guns

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

NEBRASKA (DVD) (Four Stars)

U.S.: Alexander Payne, 2013 (Paramount)

Nebraska is a great funny-sad road movie full of all-American  offbeat lives, oddball comedy and bleak black-and-white landscape beauty. In Alexander Payne’s new show, Dave Grant, a hip, dutiful son (Will Forte) and Woody, a father who’s slipping away from reality (Bruce Dern, off-type but fantastic) drive from Lincoln, Nebraska to Billings, Montana to pick up the fortune that Woody believes he‘s won in a Publisher’s Clearing House-style sweepstakes give-away, and, on the way, take a side trip to their old home town and Woody’s gullible ex-neighbors and checkered past.

NEBRASKAPayne is usually great with actors, and he gets wonderful performances from everyone here, especially Bruce Dern.  No surprise. We’ve known Dern, or “Dernsie” (or some of us have), ever since he showed up in a Deep South gas station in Elia Kazan‘s neglected 1960 classic Wild River, or got his in Hitchcock’s 1964 Marnie and Corman’s 1966 The Wild Angels –  and his many wild-eyed American eccentrics or  bullies or villainous oddballs  have long since earned him a place in the pantheon of American movie character actors. He was Tom Buchanan in the 1974 Clayton-Coppola-Redford-Farrow Great Gatsby and  Jack Nicholson‘s blow-hard  come-on-strong big-deal  brother in  The King of Marvin Gardens, and he killed the Duke  (shot him in the back, in fact) in The Cowboys and he was a tragic Vietnam vet in Hal Ashby‘s Coming Home — all performances that might have plausibly earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Instead, he won the 2013 Cannes Film Festival acting prize and also had his best run ever at a Best Actor Academy Award for this movie — in which he plays the exact opposite of all those flamboyant misfit roles that made him a ’60s-’70s movie buff legend.

His Woody Grant in Nebraska is the kind of melancholy small town back row guy who maybe used to be as dynamic and outgoing and full of juice as one of the old Dernsies, but now is just a sad, quiet old dreamy remnant of what he used to be: someone who, as age crept on and plunked down into the driver’s seat, has given up on sensible dreams and plans and on life as it really is for the greater comfort of life as it can’t possibly be, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were: a sweepstakes entry number that will supposedly net him an uncool million.

In  his youthful prime, Dern tended to dominate any scene he was in, just by staring and gabbing and brazening it out with anyone in his way, including John Wayne. Here he plays someone so recessive, so swallowed back into the less visible parts of himself, that Woody sometimes seems to be not there at all. That doesn’t mean he’s vanished from the screen; he’s till there, but gently, more passively — or more seemingly passively. He once was one of the grand upstagers. (Dern’s old buddy and frequent co-player Nicholson called those sneaky actor’s tricks “Dernsies.”) Now he seems to let everyone upstage him, most frequently June Squibb as his uninhibited longtime wife.

Dern didn’t get the Oscar last March 2; Matthew McConaughey took it for one of those sure thing Oscar parts – a self-obsessed outlaw rodeo hedonist who contacts HIV, and becomes a smuggler of anti-Aids medicines to circumvent the law and save lives (the kind of role with which the young Dern might have done something memorable). But by playing Woody so selflessly, giving the kind of performance that Richard Farnsworth or the older Melvyn Douglas used to give, he proved that he can take the stage with understatement as well as he used to seize it with inspired over-playing. And he helps Payne and the others create a world, a road, a  family, and a sad quiet old man to whose woes and daydreams we can all connect.

Like the dark flipside of Payne’s wonderful California winery buddy-buddy road movie, the side-splitting Sideways, Nebraska  pulls us into an American landscape that’s both recognizable and likably absurd — and funny and sad and real.  Nebraska-born Payne understands and conveys the feel, culture and quirks of small and middle town heartland America like few other filmmakers of his generation. And this affectionate (but sometimes acid) comic odyssey has another grand ensemble  — including Stacy Keach as Woody’s smilingly rotten  bully of  an old business partner and June Squibb stealing scene after scene as Woody’s matronly but venom-tongued wife, a gal with a past and a delightfully bad mouth. This is a terrific movie: A salty look at good, salt-of-the earth (and some not so good) American characters pursuing American dreams through an American landscape and finding…themselves.

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (DVD/Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U. S.: Alfred Hitchcock, 1940 (Criterion Collection)

Alfred Hitchcock started his American filmmaking career with a bang, by directing a Best Picture Oscar winner and an inarguable classic: his 1940 David Selznick-produced film of Daphne  du Maurier’s immensely popular Gothic romantic novel Rebecca. Though it was his first Hollywood film, and though he was under the sometimes intrusive control of Selznick at his zenith (a year after Gone With the Wind), Hitch executed the assignment with near flawless professional skill  and panache — beautifully visualizing and dramatizing Du Maurier‘s tense tale of a nameless, frightened naïve young wife (Joan Fontaine) taken to an eerily perfect  mansion by her  wealthy new husband (Laurence Olivier) who may have murdered his haunting first wife, Rebecca.

But Rebecca wasn’t Hitch’s only 1940 film. Nor is it the one that many Hitchcock critics and scholars (and maybe Hitchcock himself) consider the inarguable classic. Shortly after completing Rebecca, and freeing himself from the fealty Selznick felt was due du Maurier’s novel, Hitchcock made an American movie that was basically a continuation of the style and technique of the internationally renowned and delightfully frightening suspense thrillers he‘d made in England in the ‘30s: notably The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Lady Vanishes — a transplantation of what had become the “typical Hitchcock thriller,“ this time with an American hero.

The movie was Foreign Correspondent, produced by Walter Wanger: a classic spy melodrama of international intrigue and typically nail-biting Hitchcock suspense  set in the early days of World War II, starring that sturdily all-American guy Joel McCrea (Hitch had wanted Gary Cooper) and love interest Laraine Day (Hitch had wanted Fontaine), in a movie that unabashedly called  for the U.S. to enter the war against Germany, on the side of Hitchcock’s beleaguered homeland Great Britain.

That’s the conclusion McCrea’s pugnacious but immensely likable Johnny Jones (pen name Huntley Haverstock), foreign correspondent of The New York Globe, reaches after witnessing Germany’s murderous espionage and sabotage first hand, as he chases down a Nazi spy ring in England and Holland — in company with the head of an ambiguous peace organization (Herbert Marshall), his beauteous daughter (Day), a suave and plucky British fellow reporter (George Sanders), a kidnapped Dutch diplomat (Albert Bassermann), and assorted spies, journalists, officials, killers and bystanders (Edmund Gwenn, Robert Benchley, Eduardo Ciannelli and others)  — racing from one hair-raising Hitchcockian set-piece to the next , and finally culminating in a scarily convincing plane crash in the ocean, with McCrea and others in the cockpit.

It’s the sort of  convulsively paced, purely entertaining and thoroughly engrossing  tale Hitchcock loved to make , done with a logic-to-the-winds flair and an audience pleasing imagination that would have been entirely out of place in a faithfully-rendered classic adaptation like Rebecca — but that was a clear precursor of Hitchcock’s and later career and also of the James Bond spy thrillers of the ‘60s and beyond, which were partly inspired by his work. (One of the uncredited writers on Foreign Correspondent was Richard Maibaum, who was later the main Bond series screenwriter for decades.)

Hitchcock was not allowed by Selznick to change any of Rebecca — except for his habitual joke cameo appearance –and while Selznick has been proven right in some ways by his film’s Oscars and continued classic status, Foreign Correspondent  (which was nominated for six Oscars itself), has also been validated as the more truly Hitchcockian movie — full of typical Hitchcock bits and ideas and virtuoso set-pieces, like the windmills that are turning against the wind, the climactic plane crash  and the famed umbrella-knocking assassination scene. These and other logic-defying but highly enjoyable moments were inserted in defiance of the critics and carpers of his films – all those fault-finders whom The Master of Suspense dismissively called “The Plausibles.”

Foreign Correspondent was scripted by Hitchcock’s regular collaborators Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, with dialogue by James Hilton (the novelist who wrote Goodbye Mr. Chips) and the Algonquin Round Table’s resident  wit Benchley (who also appears in the cast as a fellow reporter). The source was an actual foreign correspondent’s memoir, “Personal History” by Vincent Sheean, and besides Maibaum, the remarkable gallery of uncredited writers on the project included Ben Hecht, Harold Clurman, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahin and Budd Schulberg, or almost everyone in Hollywood, it seems, but William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And, of course, in both cases, there was also the script-shaping genius of Hitchcock himself (and of his wife Alma) — Hitchcock, who of all non-actor movie directors, is perhaps the most visibly present in his films. Here and elsewhere, we sense him in and behind nearly every shot.

But he’s more present in Foreign Correspondent than in Rebecca. Freed for the moment from Selznick and his memoirs (they would make two more pictures together), Hitch charts the major direction he would follow right up to the end of his career: the ingenious set-pieces, the games with the audience, the personal touches and brilliant identification devices. He also produced a piece of film proselytizing for America’s entrance into the war with the Allies and against the Nazi juggernaut that was admired by no less a propaganda expert than Joseph Goebbels himself. Incidentally, I love both films, but I prefer Rebecca.

Extras: Interviews with Alfred Hitchcock (from the Dick Cavett Show), Special Effects expert Craig Barron, and Mark Harris; “Have You Heard?” a 1942 Life Magazine photodrama by Hitchcock; 1946 radio adaptation with Joseph Cotten.

 

2 GUNS (Two and a Half) U.S.: Baltasar Kormákur, 2013 (Universal)

2-guns__03Fast and slick, violent and sarcastic, predictable but entertaining, 2 Guns is a smarter-than-usual big-budget crime thriller. But it melted away fairly soon after I saw it —more a problem with the writing than with the direction or acting. The source is a graphic novel by Steven Grant, adapted with some verve by TV writer Blake Masters (Law and Order L.A.), and the show has two of the best smart-ass leading men around, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg—bouncing zingers off each other as undercover agents pretending to be crooks (Washington is seasoned and sardonic D.E.A. guy Bobby Trench and Wahlberg is his junior partner, wisenheimer Stig Stigman of U.S. Naval Intelligence), and then bouncing more zingers off a supporting gallery that includes the perversely vicious drug czar Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos, looking like death warmed over), Bobbi’s stunner D. E. A. ex-girlfriend Deb (Paula Patton) and a tangy array of crooks, lawmen and not-so innocent bystanders (James Marsden, Fred Ward, Patrick Fischler, Azure Parsons, Robert John Burke and the incredible Bill Paxton) all under the snappy direction of Baltasar Kormákur whom I would call the Icelandic Don Siegel, except it doesn’t do him justice. (Or Siegel either.)

Northern whiz Kormákur has been prolific throughout the 2000s, splitting his time between theater and movies (that would make him the Icelandic Ingmar Bergman) and also hopping between Icelandic art films (101 Reykjavik and The Deep) and Hollywood popular genre thrillers (Contraband, also with Wahlberg). He does a creditable job — and 2 Guns is also  well shot (by Oliver Wood), well scored (by Clinton Shorter), well edited (by Michael Tronick), and never boring (though occasionally annoying). The script is better than average — though unfortunately, most of the big action movie screenplays these days are so lousy, calling them “better than average” is faint, damned praise. The dialogue is glib and cheerfully dirty—especially when the two stars are delivering it — but it’s also at the service of one of those stories that begins to crumble  when you start thinking about it.

Washington and Wahlberg start off like a typical rag-each-other bromance cop couple. The glib Bobby exudes quiet exasperation and the cheerfully annoying Stig is given to flirting with waitresses, winking lasciviously and flipping lit matches. And pretty soon they have both sides of the law chasing them: two undercover agents,  unaware of each other’s true identities and jobs (though they’ve been working together for a year or so),  who‘ve been assigned to rob a bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico—a bank that has a lot more money in its vault (a cool 40 million) than either of them imagines.

SPOILER ALERT, SORT OF (roll over)

Actually, they’re being set up by somebody —a fate that seems more perilous when we learn that the stolen dough is partly the property of the C. I. A., which represented here by the extremely malign but affable agent Earl (played by Paxton—usually typed as a nice guy, but here sensational as a bad one)—who shows up to track down the loot.

END OF ALERT

If this all seems highly unlikely and complex and a little batty, that’s the way it plays. The fact that Washington and Wahlberg and Paxton and the others, keep it entertaining and somewhat plausible in a movie-movie kind of way is a tribute to the movie actor’s art, or maybe to the power of movie stardom.

Really hip movie people will recognize the bank-with-too-much-money plot twist, as well as the fictional city of Tres Cruces, New Mexico, as both grabs from (or homages to) one of the great, but lesser-known movie crime thrillers of the 1970s: Charley Varrick, with Walter Matthau as a free-lance bank robber and “last of the independents“ Varrick and Joe Don Baker as the businesslike hit man chasing him: a movie directed by our man Don Siegel—and a show I like much more than this movie‘s other oft-cited influence, Lethal Weapon. In any case, 2 Guns tends to be at its best when it’s at its most unoriginal.

Extras: Commentary with Kormakur; Featurettes; Deleted and extended scenes.

Wilmington on Movies: Muppets Most Wanted

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

 

 

MUPPETS MOST WANTED (Three Stars)

U.S.: James Bobin, 2014 (Walt Disney Pictures)

 

There was never a TV puppet show quite like “The Muppet Show” — or a romantic couple of any kind quite like Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy the hamme fatale — or a supporting troupe like Fozzie the Bear, Gonzo, Animal, the Two Old Curmudgeons, and all their funny, fuzzy friends.  And I’m happy to say that the new Walt Disney movie Muppets Most Wanted continues that splendid renaissance of Muppetry we saw in the 2011 Disney picture The Muppets. It’s not necessarily as good, because it doesn’t have the built-in emotional charge of being a Muppet revival movie about the revival of the Muppets — a storyline which, for those of us who’ve been familiar for years with the handmade troupe of the great late muppeteer Jim Henson (and Frank Oz and the rest)  quickly became hilarious and touching and something to cheer for.

Muppets Most Wanted, the follow-up, is darker and more cynical, and far less sentimental. But it’s just as entertaining. It has the same director-writer, James Bobin, the same co-writer, Nicholas Stoller, the same composer (Christophe Beck) and songwriter (Bret McKenzie),  and some of the same technical people — and of course it has the same button-eyed, enthusiastic wild and woolly-faced  bunch of  Muppets.

Even if it doesn’t carry the same emotional charge, this movie still has similar amounts of sly wit. show biz pizzazz, lovable high jinks, colorful set design (by Eve Stewart of The King’s Speech and Les Miserables) and lots of all-star cameo guest appearances. (Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga pop up together in one of the first songs, “Were Doing a Sequel,” and Celine Dion  sings with Miss Piggy (voiced by Eric Jacobson) and Kermit (Steve Whitmire) on the big ballad “Something So Right.“ If you don’t blink too much, you’ll catch Tom Hidddleston, Christophe Waltz (waltzing), Usher (ushering),  Zach Galifianakis (galifianakissing), James McAvoy and Chloe Grace Moretz..

If Muppets Most Wanted is a step  down from The 2011 Muppets (and I don’t think it is), it’s  certainly not a very far step down, if it’s a step down at all. After all, The Muppets, thanks to Jason Segel, Amy Adams and the whole gang, was the best Muppet Show of any kind in decades.

There are problems with sequels however, and no one knows that better than the show biz-savvy Muppets,  who are by now almost as imperishable a part of the movie biz as the Oscar Show. This movie‘s two first musical numbers, in the zippy new score by McKenzie. are “They’ve Ordered a Sequel” (sung by superfan Walter, Statler and Waldorf, and the aforementioned “We’re Doing a Sequel,” sung by The Muppet Ensemble, plus Bennett and Gaga — an ideal Muppet all-star pairing and a snappy, slap-happy number that sets the tone for the wised-up story that follows.

This movie begins right after the last movie ended, with the triumphant comeback of the Muppet company. Then  it brings  on its ‘60s caper movie super thriller travelogue plot, introducing two super villains, the acerbic Golden Globes dismantler and Office guy Rickey Gervais as the  sneaky and nefarious Dominic Badguy, who wants to be their manager and take them on a world tour (of Berlin, Madrid, Dublin and London), and Badguy’s bad green boss, the slimy Russian amphibian Constantine (Matt Vogel), who looks just like Kermit with the addition of a black beauty  mark on his right cheek (which he covers up with green goo) and who talks like a bad dream of Akim Tamiroff doing a bad Vladimir Putin imitation.

These two Foulfellas have cooked up an evil, exploitative scheme in which Constantine — who has escaped from Siberia, and replaced himself with Kermit — will masquerade as Kermit and the two crooks (who bring down the house with their rousing razz-ma-tazzy number “I’m Number One (He’s Number Two.)”)  will book the Muppets into a series of theatrical show venues which not coincidentally are just next door to a variety of  well-heeled places to be looted and Rifified — culminating in a final daring heist of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London itself , while Constantine marries the bedazzled Miss Piggy. (What we see is the actual Tower of  London, made available to the production, because “the woman who runs it” likes The Muppets.)

Meanwhile Kermit languishes in the Siberian gulag vacated by the perfidious Constantine, with Kermit reliving his own version of “One Day (or several) in the Life of Kermit Kermitovich,” His gulag mates include Ray Liotta, Jeamine Clement and Danny Trejo, and his seemingly ferocious, hard-ass guard, Nadya, is played, and how, by  Tina Fey. Luckily for him, Nadya  happens to be a Broadway musical comedy fanatic and she signs on whole-heartedly to Kermit’s offer (which is part of his escape plan) to put on the most show-stopping, hubba-hubba, all-singing, all-dancing, imitation Broadway musical comedy prison show since Mel Brooks’ “Prisoners of Love” closed out The Producers.

The movie’s main joke involves the bad/good doubling of Kermit — as the gentle, whimsical, crinkle-faced frog-chappie we all know and love and the fiendish and almost incomprehensible master criminal Constantine — who teams up with Dominic Badguy to turn the entire troupe into stooges and unknowing accomplices to a crime wave..

But The Muppets, as much as Sid Caesar or Carol Burnett in their prime, thrive on movie parodies, and Muppets Most  Wanted is packed with them. The movie  manages to smoosh together the genres of musical comedy (always a natural for the stage-struck Muppets), detective and heist thriller (with Ty Burrell  of  “Modern Family” as Interpol agent Jean-Pierre Napoleon, the most inept French sleuth since Inspector Clouseau, assisted by the true-red-white-and-blue C. I. A muppet bird, Sam Eagle), a prison picture (with Fey at her faintly smiling, deadpan best), and a con-artists love story which actually seems (for as second or two) as if it may produce the long-deferred nuptials of the little green guy (or his double) and his big pink ladylove.

All these plot elements keep colliding merrily, until the usual big bang-up climax brings them all together for a grand finale or two. The movie, whose exteriors were mostly shot in England (by Robert Zemeckis’ cinematographer Don Burgess), looks as shiny and feel-good flashy as something snazzy from the ’60s, and the musical numbers have the right touch of  catchy lunacy. Gervais, Fey and Burrell are admirably Muppet-friendly (or, in Gervasi’s case, Muppet-conning) human costars, and the entire show has the zip and irreverence and playful satire (and at least some of the heart) that a Muppet-admiring audience would expect.

Muppets Most Wanted is, like its predecessor, better-written and better-directed and smarter than most of the current movies made for alleged adults. Of course, it could be argued that Jim Henson’s Muppets themselves, after they branched out from Sesame Street to their own TV show and movies, were an act as much or more for adults as for children, two groups who respond to different aspects of the Muppet Mythos.

A fine custodian for the mythos so far, is writer-director James Bobin who became a hot TV scripter-helmer thanks to sharp comedies like Flight of the Conchords and Da Ali G Show.  Right now, he seems a nearly ideal auteur for the Muppets of today, and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement and Get Him to the Greek) fits in smartly with him. Both of them have credits that are more adult, and off-color than you’d expect to find in the makers of puppet movies for families. But that‘s part of the secret of the troupe: kiddie toys  who, however childishly they act, have the minds of adults. Or part of the minds of adults.

A word or two about Kermit and Miss Piggy, a couple who dance like Fred and Ginger, sing like Frank and Ella, and play romantic comedy like Spence and Kate — or at least think they do (or at least Miss Piggy thinks they do). The words: Hurrah. Good show. May Muppet Time last forever  — or at least ‘til the next sequel rolls around.

.

Wilmington on Movies: Divergent

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

 

DIVERGENT (Two and a Half Stars)

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

1. Eruditely She Chooses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Dauntlessly She Jumps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 17th, 2014

CATHERINE DENEUVE

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

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

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

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

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

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (Four Stars)

France: Jacques Demy, 1964

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON MY WAY (Three Stars)

France: Emmanuelle Bercot, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: Need for Speed

Friday, March 14th, 2014

NEED FOR SPEED (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Scott Waugh, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Monday, March 10th, 2014

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Four Stars)

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

I. The Great Zubrowkan Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. The Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Comedy and Casablanca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

IV. The Audience Rises, The Cast Bows

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: 300: Rise of an Empire

Friday, March 7th, 2014

 

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

U.S.: Noam Murro, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 7th, 2014

 

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT

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

END OF SPOILER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Included : An excellent set of extras.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: Non-Stop

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

 

Non-Stop (Two and a Half Stars)

U,S,: Jaume Collet-Serra, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT

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

END OF SPOILER

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: The Wind Rises

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

 

 

THE WIND RISES (Four Stars)

Japan: Hayao Miyazaki (Disney)

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

                                 — Paul Valery

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wilmington on Movies: Winter’s Tale

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

 

WINTER”S TALE (Two Stars)

U.S.: Akiva Goldsman (2014)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: Endless Love

Friday, February 14th, 2014

 

ENDLESS LOVE (One and a Half Stars)

U.S. Shana Feste, 2013

Endlessly, undyingly…No, we’ve already done that one.

Still, if your appetite for  a Valentine’s Weekend of unfettered romance and unashamed date movies hasn‘t been satiated by Winter‘s Tale or About Last Night, you can always dive in to the endless malarkey of another Endless Love. Not the unabashed 1981 original about teenagers madly in love, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, with Brooke Shields — which is infamous for being a ludicrous misfire, a waste of a   good novel and  one of the worst movies of its era — but a brand new version by director/co-writer Shana Feste, which is even less faithful to Scott Spencer’s book, even more ludicrous and an even worse movie.

Will this become a trend: redoing old lousy movies and making them even lousier? The possibilities seem endless. And frightening. This time the undyingly-in-lovers are a pair of knockout Atlanta teens impersonated by British twenty-something ex-models and now actors Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde, who look as if their lives were  a perpetual Calvin Klein or Gap assignment. Movie-star-handsome David Elliot is played by Pettyfer, who was the star-is-born  stripper in Magic Mike, and Chanel model-beautiful Jade Butterfield is played by Wilde, who was Sue Snell in the new Carrie.

These are among the last two people in the world you’d expect to have any trouble getting a date. Pettyfer in particular looks almost ideal for sexy rogue movie roles, which is pretty much what he played in Magic Mike. But, in the movie, David  has apparently loved Jade from afar for most of their high school years, too shy to even strike up a conversation in the school hall or the library or by her locker — even, though he looks like a  model, and has, for this role a likable, almost self-effacing  personality. (He was a jerk in Magic Mike.) Jade, meanwhile has no boy or girlfriends and has foregone dating throughout her high school years, the better to mourn the untimely death of her brother and bury herself in books and  deal with a truly bizarre home situation with her father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), who is obsessed with getting her into medical school and becomes obsessed with keeping her away from David, who strikes him as too lower-class. (David’s father, played by Robert Patrick, runs a garage, which is not exactly near-poverty.)

But when the two lovers-to-be sight each other across a crowded lawn at the high school graduation reception, sparks fly. Love hits the angelic princess and the bashful hunk, like a ton of Nicholas Sparks DVDs. David can stand the separation no longer. He speaks to her. He gives her killer hunk looks, and she flashes her shy princess smile. They plan a party, at her house, to introduce her to all of the classmates she never talked to and is now leaving behind for medical school.

Dizzy with joy, they leap into a sunlit lake together. They kiss. They swoon with delight. They make love before a roaring fire blazing away in a huge, photogenic fireplace, so desperately in love, or so intent on the scene’s visual symbolism, that neither of them notices that it’s the middle of summer. David makes a hit with Jade’s mother Anne (Joely Richardson), who looks like she wants to gobble him up too. David, Jade and David’s friends — including his scamp of a best bud Mace (Dayo Okeniyi) — break into a zoo, play with the elephant and jump on a merry-go-round. David is arrested. Ah love, sweet love, endless love. Not even a Pepsi ad could have shown it better

But trouble strikes. In the original novel, David was so barmy with desire he burned down the Butterfield home and wound up in the mental hospital and the clink. Here, besides doing stupid things, like driving off in  car that he’s parking (to aggravate the snobbish driver) and breaking into the zoo, David is bedeviled by Jade’s wildly jealous father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), who wants his blonde bombshell of a daughter to forget about boys, especially David, and  nd concentrate on medical school — with Greenwood, usually a fine actor, ,giving one of the twitchiest performances this side of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Hugh is the one who’s really driven mad with love here, but the movie, which is essentially humorless, doesn’t push the point.

How many times can Spencer‘s love story keep  getting debauched?  This is the second botched version of Scott Spencer’s well-regarded 1979 novel of  endless, undying love –  — and by now the new film makes the first one seem like Splendor in the Grass and the novel seem like Anna Karenina. Since the original material is so archetypal, ersatz Romeo and Juliet, set in (or just after) high school, the potential for new travesties seems… endless.

 

The cinematography (by Andrew Dunn) and the production design (by Clay A. Griffith) are so gleamingly posh and stunningly conspicuous-consumptionish, you keep waiting for spme product placement of, at the very least, BMW. L’Oreal or Absolut Vodka. Director-co-writer Feste (who made the equally pretty but predictable Country Strong), never passes up an opportunity to showcase her stars, or Greenwood’s twitches or the script’s balderdash.  And though both Spencer’s book and Zeffirelli’s picture have unconventional endings, don’t expect this show to dodge any clichés. And also don’t expect to hear the nine-week Number One smash hit Diana Ross-Lionel Richie title song “Endless Love’ that enlivened the first movie and was it‘s single greatest success (other than introducing Tom Cruise and James Spader in the supporting cast) though this movie could have really used it, and them.

Wilmington on Movies: Like Father, Like Son

Monday, February 10th, 2014

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (Four Stars)

Japan: Hirokazu Kore-eda,  2013.

NOTE: All the proper names in the following review, whether of filmmakers or of fictional characters, are given in American style, with the first name first and the last name last (I.E.: Akira Kurosawa or Steven Spielberg), instead of Japanese style, which, in defiance of Western logic, puts the last (family) name first and the first (given) name last (I.e. Kurosawa Akira and Spielberg Steven).  I do this because the press notes for Like Father, Like Son  have all the names in the Japanese style, and some earlier reviews of  the film have accepted this switch, perhaps bringing confusion to some writers, readers, and proofreaders.

Just remember that, in Japanese nomenclature, last is first and first is last. But, in the case of this review, all lasts are last and all firsts are first — as far as I know, as long as my primary sources (the press notes and Wikipedia) were correct. One notable exception:  the actor  who plays the film’s second father, Yudai Saiki, which is a special case that we‘ll handle later.

Wilmington Mike

 

Here is a beautiful film., whichever way you look at it — despite its seemingly sentimental cliché-promising title, Like Father, Like Son. The writer-director, Hirokazu Kore-eda (who also made Nobody Knows and, Still Walking) specializes in family drama; this is one of his most moving works. And though the film initially may seem sentimental, gradually it evolves into something else — something coolly perceptive and warmly affectionate and absolutely lovely and loving.

Suppose you have two little boys, born at nearly the same time in the same Tokyo hospital. Somebody — never mind who or why for the moment — deliberately switches the babies in their cribs before the mothers have a chance to fully see their children, or to get acquainted and bond with them. The mothers are completely fooled, as are the hospital personnel, most of the doctors and nurses. Nobody discovers the change until six years later, during a DNA test, In the meantime the two boys, one named Keita , the other named Ryusei, grow up with their families, respectively the Nonomiyas and the Saikis. They love their parents. Their parents love them. But the two households are very different.

Mr. Nonomiya, or Ryota Nonomiya, is a very successful upper middle class architect (played by Japanese pop singer/superstar and star movie actor Masaharu Fukuyama). Mr. Fukuyama is somewhat cold, remote and punctilious, unlike his warmer wife Midorino (Machiko Ono) and his demanding manner somewhat intimidates his quiet little son Keita, whom he is trying to prod into being an over-achiever, with piano lessons and prestige schools.  (The character Keita  Nonomiya is played by an actor named Keita Nonomiya, a similarity that may further bewilder proofreaders.) Mr. Fukuyama rarely smiles, even though it would seem he and his family have a lot to smile about. But not always. Keita, practicing piano mechanically, plods through Beethoven, while later, on the soundtrack, we hear Glenn Gould‘s glorious rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Ah, perfection!

Mr. Saiki, or  Yudai Saiki, is an electronics and appliance store manager, who runs his shop and family in a quite unpunctilious way. Mr. Saiki is very likable and lazy, a warm, kite-flying fatherly buddy of a dad. He has two other children besides the switched boy Ryusei (Shogen Hwang) — and he likes to romp in the bathtub with them. The Saikis — along with the more assertive (than Midorino) mother of the house, Yukari (Yoko Maki) — are a loving, happy family, it seems. Mr.  Saiki looks and acts like  a grown up hippie who’s accepted life and responsibility, but still likes to rock.  He is played by a very good actor (also a  prize-winning writer) who is named either Lily Franky or Franky Lily or Riri Furanki or Masaya Nakagawa (his name at birth). Franky/Furanki/Masaya/whatever, like everyone else in the film, especially the children, plays has role wonderfully, immaculately. Perfectly.           ,

When the two sets of parents meet, Mr. Nonomiya is disturbed and concerned about appearances and the family situation and how to resolve it. He also feels that he should have guessed that Keita was not his son. Mr. Saiki is prepared to love either boy, though he wants to be father to the  one who is rightfully his, and also wants to sue the hospital and get some money out of it. After a talk, the two fathers  agree to let the two boys take each other’s place with the other boy’s longtime family (without at first telling them of the hospital’s mistake), and then eventually make the switch back to the “right“ families.

The boys accept the situation with obedience and wide-eyed curiosity. The mothers seem more sensible about it all than their husbands. Mr. Nonomiya, for example, would like to bring up both boys and feels that his money and social class and the “good life” he can offer makes that a desirable solution — an attitude that ticks off  the otherwise easier-going Saiki. Gradually, the situation evolves. The boys switch families for brief stays. The experiment yields interesting results, some involving kites. One of the boys is happy; one of them is not. Mr. Saiki is  not really mercenary, and Mr. Nonomiya is  not necessarily cold and remote –though his affluent father proves to be a classist snob who believes blood will tell. After all, look at Johann Sebastian Bach and his sons.

One thing at which the Japanese cinema has always  excelled is family drama, Maybe that feeling, that sympathetic concern, that stylization in their culture. is also part of the reason the Japanese  put family names first. The Japanese sensei or master Ozu Yasujiro  — or as we Westerners are wont to call him, Yasujiro Ozu –made the finest, most beautiful, most warmly human, the saddest (though sometimes very funny), and finally,  the most quietly heartbreaking family dramas the cinema has ever known (including I Was Born But…, The Only Son, There was a Father, Late Spring and the sublime Tokyo Story), and Kore-eda is possibly the best of all Ozu’s successors, the family poet of  our later generation.

Here, Mr. Kore-eda is examining a family dilemma and drama of great potential pain and finding in it something past pain, past happiness, past the sometime trauma and confusion and turmoil of family life, something close to the essence of familial love, which some of the characters don’t know as completely as they should, and that some of them learn — a portrait of parents and children, fathers and sons, mothers and children that opened my heart as I watched it.

It‘s the kind of film that one wishes were made more often in America, and made this well — and, in fact, Steven Spielberg , who was the President of the Cannes Film Festival jury that awarded Like Father, Like Son the Jury Prize (Spielberg called this his personal favorite film of the festival) has bought the rights to the American remake of Like Father, Like Son. I‘m not sure how I feel about that. How could the American remake possibly be better than the Japanese original? Or as good? Oh well…Thank you, Mr. Kore-eda Hirokazu. Thank you (I hope), Mr. Spielberg. Thank you.

Wilmington on Movies: The Monuments Men

Friday, February 7th, 2014

 

 

THE MONUMENTS MEN (Three Stars)

U.S.: George Clooney, 2014

War is hell and pain and darkness, But great art shines with an eternal light.  Or does it?

George Clooney’s new movie The  Monuments Men, which is pretty good, but not as good as it should have been, is based on a fascinating historical episode, unknown to me (and to many others, I’m sure), that makes for one of the most inspiring stories of World War II. It’s a drama of war (and the people who fight it) and art (and the people who make and love and preserve it), and, in the film, it’s rendered  as a kind of fact-and-fiction mix of The Guns of Navarone and Kenneth Clark‘s Civilisation, or a Dirty Dozen reshaped for art museum buffs..

The Monuments Men is about the truly heroic art conservation efforts of  the U. S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program: a group effort by  servicemen and civilians who were charged with saving the great art works of Europe from the ravages of war — either from inadvertent destruction by Allied air and bombing attacks, or by the malicious acts of Hitler himself.

Der Fuhrer, it turns out, was a threat to steal or destroy much of that treasure. He was himself a mad frustrated artist and art-fancier whose armies and puppet governments had stolen millions of art works throughout Europe, all to stock his personal  collection at the Fuhrermuseum in his home town of Linz. It was believed by some (they were interpreting a Hitler directive known as “The Nero Decree”) that Der Fuhrer intended the total demolition of all his stolen art as part of the scorched earth policy (Burn the bridges! Destroy the trains!) which he wanted to install as revenge for his inevitable final defeat. Against that possibility, Clooney plays his by-now standard role: the good decent liberal who stands up to evil or bullies. In this case he’s the fact-based art restorer and conservationist Frank Stokes, leader of a group of Monuments Men, who were following the Allied forces in Northern Europe, in search of beautiful things to save..

Clooney’s movie (which he directed, co-wrote, co-produced and costars in) has received mixed to negative reviews from most critics. And, despite its very engaging all-star cast, its noble intentions  and its extremely painstaking and beautiful production (designed by James Bissell, and art-directed by Helen Jarvis), it’s easy enough to say that it could have been better. (The problem, as usual, is the script.)  But so could many another movie, and many another art work   — except for some of the masterpieces shown or simulated here,  including Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, and  the Van Eycks‘ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (or Ghent Altarpiece), which are both among the priceless and exalting works Clooney’s “Stokes” and his team were trying to rescue.

The real-life story is a corker; in fact, I’m surprised that it’s never been the subject of  a film documentary feature  In 1943, with the Allied forces launching their assault on the German Armies throughout Europe,  President Franklin Roosevelt ceded to urgent requests from the American arts and curatorial communities, and formed the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic Historic Monuments in War Areas, later shortened to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archive program, or MFAA, or “Monuments Men.” This was a group of  servicemen and civilian art experts (most of whom received commissions when they joined the section), who were charged with making sure that historic churches, museums, galleries and other repositories of great European art were spared from Allied bombing attacks (like the one in August, 1943, that nearly destroyed  Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper). They were further assigned the task of locating the hiding places for all the art  the Nazis had stolen and secreted away.

 

Among the dozen or so Monuments Men who were on the spearhead of the Allies’ advance in Northern Europe were de facto leader and pioneering art conservationist George Stout, museum curator (and later head of the Metropolitan) James J. Lorimer, architect Robert Posey, sculptor Walker Hancock, dance and music specialist Lincoln Kerstein, and their German-speaking Jewish soldier/driver, Harry Ettlinger. In Clooney’s and Grant Heslov’s script, those six men have been fictionalized into the urbane, dedicated  Stokes (played by Clooney), linguistically maladroit  curator James Granger (Matt Damon), beefy artist Walter Garfield (John Goodman), tart dance expert Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and plucky  driver Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas). Two more seemingly fictional art-crusaders have also  been added to this group: alcoholic British fine arts man Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey“), who’s been disgraced and, like Lord Jim, wants another chance, and genial, suave French art dealer Jean-Claude Clermont (played by everyone’s current favorite Frenchman  Jean Dujardin of  The Artist).

 

There is one lady involved in the action, a very important one: the formidable real-life figure of Rose Valland, a great French national heroine of art (also unknown to me until now), who worked at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, a  headquarters for Nazi art pilferage. Rose kept  a secret running record of all the movements of the stolen paintings and drawings and sculptures, a priceless log with which the Monuments Men were able to track down the confiscated and hidden masterpieces. Here, this brave woman,  to whom the international art world  owes an incalculable debt, has been fictionalized and somewhat diminished into a starchy, love-starved heroine named Claire Simon, played by the formidable Cate Blanchett — who gives her a dignity that the script largely misses.

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Clooney’s picture, with its first-rate cast and top-notch technical contributions, oscillates somewhat uneasily between more serious Longest Day-style  historical recreation and prestige art history drama (or pseudo-drama), and  a more standard, if very lushly produced,  World War 2 adventure film mode, derived from movies like Guns of Navarone, The Great Escape, A Bridge Too Far or  (closer to home) John Frankenheimer’s The Train, a wildly exciting  1964 WW2 thriller  that covered similar story material from the point of view of the French Resistance.  Mostly the heroic characters, are split up or paired off — Damon with Blanchett, Goodman with Dujardin, and the raffish Murray forming an art-loving Odd Couple with the punctilious Balaban. Clooney’s Stokes meanwhile keeps steering the art hunt and arguing its importance with irascible Army officers, who can’t understand why they should risk lives to save paintings. (The movie could have used one long scene arguing the case by  Commanding General Dwight Eisenhower, one of the project’s strongest supporters, played here, wordlessly, by look-alike Werner Braunschadel, But the movie’s Ike remains silent.)

I liked The Monuments Men more than I disliked it. I appreciated the lavishness of the production and the effort that went into the simulated art works by Jarvis and her team — even though I thought there should have been more footage of the actual art works, as there is, for example, at the end of Vincente Minnelli‘s Van Gogh bio-film Lust for Life). I was glad to be introduced, even in a fictionalized and somewhat clichéd way, to this story and these people. I enjoyed the actors, even though I thought they’d been short-changed by the script, and even though the whole thing probably would have worked better as a TV miniseries than a two hour theatrical feature.

I also liked the sarcastic humanism of the scene where Clooney torments a German ex-prison camp commandant by telling the unrepentant Nazi that, after the war, he’ll be sitting in his favorite Jewish delicatessen in New York City, eating a bagel and reading about how the commandant was executed for crimes against humanity. And I appreciated the sheer love of art and painting and sculpture that the movie celebrates, even though it is somewhat self-important and even corny and it often feels like someone, or maybe history itself, was looking over its shoulder. Never cornier than when Campbell plays a recording of his  daughter (Nora  Sagal) and his granddaughters singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — the later ‘50s Frank Sinatra version of the song with the line “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,“ (which these people would never have heard), instead of that great sad line that Judy Garland sang so devastatingly to Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St Louis: “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.“

It’s clear that Clooney wants to appeal to a smart, knowledgeable audience: moviegoers who can appreciate Judy Garland (or Frank Sinatra) and who also appreciate, or at east respect, high museum art — who know who Michelangelo and  Rembrandt and Vermeer and maybe even Jan Van Eyck and Grunewald are (to name five painters whose works were saved by the MFAA). It’s also clear that he wants to please the war movie and buddy-movie fans who would enjoy The Guns of Navarone or The Bridge on the River Kwai. Yet Clooney and Heslov may be pushing a little too hard to get the movie in its action-adventure mode too. The Monuments Men is an adventure, and the fact that the Monuments guys are all fish out of water thrown into a wartime situation (where two of them, in real life, actually died) makes it even more of one..

The drama here comes from the fact that these men aren’t war heroes or mythic soldiers or the snazzy, wise-cracking ubermenschen guys whom action movies keep showing us. They’re people who love art (as the cast here does,  I imagine) and who were willing to risk their lives to keep that art for future generations. That’s adventure enough — and another reason to forgive the film its sins. One day, maybe we’ll live in a world where we don’t have to worry about mad men with guns and bombs  running amok, and wars that destroy millions of people and millions of beautiful things. Maybe. Until then, I guess, we’ll have to muddle though somehow.

 

Wilmington on Movies: Labor Day

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

LABOR DAY (Two and a Half Stars) U.S.: Jason Reitman, 2013

1. The Man with the Peaches
There’s a great peach-pie-making scene in Labor Day — and how many movies give you even that much? Utterly  sensuous, gorgeously composed and lit (by cinematographer Eric Steelberg) , accompanied by an elegant, simple solo guitar,  this almost absurdly lush sequence of three people (a man, a woman, a boy) baking a pie together is beyond question the Odessa Steps of all movie pie-making scenes. So rapturously done, you can almost smell the peaches and feel the crust, as the pie (if not the movie) comes together — with the three sensuous pie people piling  a whole bowl full of glistening sumptuously peachy peaches (sorry, there’s no other word for it),  mixing in butter and sugar and salt, and then patting and sculpting the doughy, rich-looking  pie-crust-to-be against the edges of  a very large pie pan and putting the whole delicious-looking creation in an oven to be warmed and browned and rendered into lusciousness…It actually made me hungry watching it. (If it makes you hungry reading about it, the Labor Day peach pie fixings/instructions, from a Joyce Maynard family recipe, courtesy of the Labor Day publicists, are reprinted below.)
That’s not all the scene is supposed to do, though. As derived from  Joyce Maynard’s 2009 romantic novel of the same title, and scripted and directed here by Jason Reitman (the director of Juno, Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air), it’s supposed to be a metaphorical love and family scene in which the three people making the pie — a single New England mother, her 13-year-old son, and the man on the run who’s wangled his way into their lives — join and meld as a new family unit by making and eventually eating that wonderful pie.
Yet there’s more (and less) to the movie’s meals and metaphors than that. The Mother, Adele Wheeler (played beautifully by Kate Winslet) has been emotionally shattered and lives mostly as a listless, near agoraphobic recluse in a shaggy-looking house in a small New England town (the fictitious Holton Mills, New Hampshire), since her husband Gerald (Clark Gregg) left her for a younger woman and a new family. Adele’s young teen son, Henry (sensitively played by Gattlin Griffith) loves his mother and wants desperately to bring her back as the buoyant happy woman she used to be — and the only way he knows how to do it is to try to be something like the reliable loving companion whom she lost or maybe never really had. (The adult Henry, read by Tobey Maguire, the Nick Caraway of the recent movie of The Great Gatsby, narrates the story, lovingly.)
Now we come to the head chef:, the guy with the recipe (for everything). He is Frank Chambers: the man on the run, bleeding from the gut and with a smashed leg, hurt when he jumped from a second-story hospital window. Frank is an almost ridiculously virile and unfailingly fatherly stud (roughly and sensitively played by Josh Brolin), who escaped from that  hospital,  where he was being operated on for appendicitis, while on temporary leave from prison — where he was serving time for murder. Tall, dark and murderously competent (in everything), Frank spots Adele and Henry at the local department store, where he promptly steers Henry along an aisle, strips off some of his own old clothes, pilfers and puts on some new ones off the rack, and hitches a ride with — or to be more precise, kidnaps — mother and son and takes them home and ties Adele up. (She submits, with the look of an amazed child.)  He does all this firmly but with  consideration, explaining that she has to be bound when or if the police come, to avoid a charge of aiding and abetting a fugitive, or harboring a hunk.
Seldom if ever has there been a  gentler or more gentlemanly home invader than Frank. In fact, his arrival seems less an invasion than a benediction, the arrival of God‘s own angelic handyman/surrogate hubby. Soon, over the course of a long Labor Day weekend at Adele’s, he will seem to be a dream come true: a  cook and housekeeper and lawn-cleaner and floor-waxer and roof-fixer and yarn-spinner and mechanic and baseball coach  (teaching the game to the unathletic Henry and to a wheelchair-bound  neighbor boy),  and, above all,  the maker of perfect, epochal, flaky-crusted, lip-smackingly scrumptious  peach pies. (Something actor Josh Brolin does in real life.) Ladies, form the line at the left.
But a persistent shivery little query buzzes like a fly in the otherwise peachy-keen kitchen. What is Frank? Really? Is he what he seems? Or is he a monster on the loose –a  very plausible, well-spoken monster who can talk his way into the mother and son’s confidence and into their home, for that Labor Day weekend, and convince them that he means no harm, just wants to patch his wounds, rest his bad leg, and be on his way.– while underneath, simmering, still lies darkness and potential murder? Or is he, defying all plausibility (and I mean really defying it) the ideal temporary (or maybe more permanent) husband and father for an emotionally shattered mother and a brainy outsider son  –  a paragon with a prison record, who can cook (terrific chili too), and change tires and run from the police and pretty damned near everything else, including make love like Casanova or Warren Beatty.
SPOILER ALERT
Which is he? Labor Day would be a much better movie, I think, if it kept us guessing longer, if Reitman and his actors kept twisting us uncertainly between those two possibilities, if we remained uneasy about Frank for a longer time, perhaps right up to the story’s climax. The movie, instead, settles the question fairly early on, when Frank gently explains that he‘ll have to tie them up if the police arrive — and we believe him. At least I did.
With his (almost preposterous) universal competence, and his expressions of gentlemanly concern, quiet pain and wistful melancholy, a jock with feelings, Josh Brolin’s Frank  (one of his best performances, even if the movie lets him down) does seem like a dream come true. And the idea that the dream might be a nightmare (which, much of the time, in real life, it probably would be), is discarded way too soon. Of course, that means the movie would have to be played a bit more as a thriller and even a potentially dark part-comedy, and a bit less as a warm and tender family drama. But I think the story would be more gripping, and the scene at the end, where the police come for Frank, spoiling his plans to take them all to Canada, and he finally ties up  the family he wanted so ardently and submits himself to his fate — would be much more moving if we’d wondered about him more, if the rest of the movie were more eerie nd uneasy and many-layered. (There’s another variation on the movie’s  potentially spooky theme  of middle-class divorce traumas in Henry’s sly girl pal with two sets of parents, Eleanor, played by saucy Brighid Fleming, who has the smarty-pants grin of the young Jodie Foster.)
2. Imitation of Life
Joyce Maynard  was inspired to write the novel “Labor Day” by an incident in her own life — when she started receiving scads of intense, highly empathetic-seeming  letters from a prison inmate who, it developed,  had been convicted of two murders. Apparently, they never met.  But, by creating Frank, whom the movie’s flashbacks tend to exonerate of murder (it looks more like manslaughter), is she perhaps improving on life, creating the dreamy pen pal she would have preferred? The novel and the movie, both “women’s stories,” are also both obviously wish-fulfillment fantasies — which is true, by the way, for most movies, men’s pictures as well.
Maynard is a writer best known for her ironic fact-based sex-and-murder novel “To Die For” (filmed by Gus Van Sant, with Nicole Kidman as the homicidal hot pants teacher), and for the personal memoir “At Home in the World,” in which Maynard candidly discussed her love affair, at 18, with another reclusive figure, author J. D. Salinger. It’s easy to look at the story of Labor Day, which makes some people cry (including, he says  Jason Reitman when he read the book), and see it as a potentially pathological romance like To Die For, twisted inside out and turned into something sentimental and sappy and somewhat ludicrous. But intense romances, or love stories with a pathological edge and with an unlikely perfect heroine or hero (like this one) are often a bit absurd, just as passions you don‘t share can seem silly — and, many times, are.
There’s a problem, for me, with the character of Adele  — even though Kate Winslet plays the part  with lots of  humanity and no vanity.. As the son of a single mother, I thought Winslet and Griffith, and Maynard and Reitman  got the dynamics and emotional pitch of that kind of  intence familial relationship down very well. But I found it hard to completely sympathize — feel sorry for yes, sympathize less — with Adele, a woman who seems to do little, go almost nowhere (of course, she’s emotionally shattered) and is financed (from afar) by her ex-husband, rat that he might have been. The character of Adele (not the fault of Winslet, who does everything she can to bring her to life) seems so enervated and hopeless that, when she falls in love with Frank, it’s almost as if she’s been bewitched by his sheer stalwart energy — or perhaps found the perfect all-purpose sex–and-gardening manservant of any Lady Chatterley‘s dreams. And a great pie man. too (There’s another twist to the pie story, but I’ll hold my tongue.)
The story here often suggests a love fantasy novel by that champ of easy-listening  romance Nicholas Sparks, and, in reviews, Labor Day has been endlessly compared to Sparks  and (unfavorably) to that master director of ‘50s movie soap opera Douglas Sirk. (The inside dope: Too much Sparks, not enough Sirk.) But, in fact, Sirk’s movies — and I think he’s a master too — are occasionally  fairly absurd as well. Written on the Wind may be a masterpiece — I certainly have always enjoyed it — but how can you keep a straight face during that amazing moment at the end when the sublime nymphomaniac played by Dorothy Malone, bursts into tears after forever losing Rock Hudson to Lauren Bacall, and clutches to her bosom, that grand phallic symbol of familial greed, the model oil derrick tower?
And what about Sirk’s 1954  Magnificent Obsession, from a probably flabbergasting Lloyd C. Douglas novel, with Rock Hudson as the irresponsible playboy who becomes a world-renowned expert eye surgeon to save the sight of the beautiful shattered woman (Jane Wyman)  whom he’s wronged and widowed and blinded. This is one of the classic funny “serious “ Hollywood movies of all time, with an emphasis on “classic” and it just gies to show that some of Sirk’s movies  are great as well as absurd. I don’t think that Magnificent Obsession’s  humor, or at least the irony, were “unintentional,” though I’m sure Sirk wasn’t playing for big laughs (nor, from his audience for this hit movie, did he get them), any more than Reitman, a gifted comedy director, is playing for them here.
But perhaps Reitman should have realized that there’s often an inherent comedy in stories like this, and it’s better to play to it, to crack an intentional joke or two, than to try to make the audience weep their way through it. What are life and love all about, after all? You laugh, you cry, you bake a pie. If you’re lucky, it doesn’t get burned.
Meanwhile, here’s that Joyce Maynard/Josh Brolin Magnificent Peach Pie recipe we promised. (I haven’t tried one yet myself, but it sure looked good on screen.)
Publicist’s Notes: Learn to make the pie that Josh Brolin made every day on the set of Labor Day for Kate Winslet and the cast, using author Joyce Maynard’s family recipe.
Ingredients: •3 pounds peaches •3/4 cup sugar •2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice •3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon •3 cups all-purpose flour •3/4 teaspoon salt •1/2 cup Crisco vegetable shortening •1 stick plus 1 tablespoon chilled butter, cut into pieces •1/3 to 1/2 cup ice water •2 tablespoons Minute tapioca (plus 2 additional tbsp to stir into peaches) •1 beaten egg •1 tablespoon sugar
Directions:
1.       In a large bowl, combine the peaches, sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon. Stir in 2 tbsp Minute Tapioca to help absorb juices.  Let stand, stirring occasionally.
2.       Preheat the oven to 400°. In a large bowl, mix the flour and salt. Using a pastry blender, work in the shortening and 1 stick of butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the ice water over the flour mixture, stirring gently with a fork. Continue adding the water just until the dough holds together. Shape the dough into a ball and divide it into two discs, one slightly larger than the other.
3.       Place the smaller disc on a sheet of waxed paper, and use a lightly floured rolling pin to roll the dough into a 12-inch circle. If the dough sticks to the rolling pin, dust it lightly with more flour. Lay a 9- to 10-inch pie pan face down on top of the circle; flip the pan over and remove the paper. For the crust, on a sheet of waxed paper, roll out the other disc to form a 14-inch circle.  Do not roll the dough more than necessary.
4.       Sprinkle the tapioca on the bottom crust. Add the filling, mounding it in the center, and dot with 1 tablespoon butter. Lift the waxed paper with the remaining crust and flip it over the filling. Peel back waxed paper. Trim the edges of the crusts and pinch together the top and bottom crusts. Optional: Roll out the trimmings and cut into decorative shapes. Brush the pie with the egg, and arrange the shapes on the crust. Sprinkle with sugar. Poke fork holes or cut vents in the top crust. Bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve warm. Put pie plate on cookie sheet to catch drips.  Bake in 350 degree oven for about one hour.  Cool before serving.

Wilmington on Movies: The Wolf of Wall Street

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

 

 

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Four Stars)

U.S.: Martin Scorsese, 2013

 

“An idea came to me. The thing to do was to skip the heroes and heroines, to write a movie containing only villains and bawds. I would not have to tell any lies then.”

Ben Hecht, describing the genesis of his classic 1927 gangster movie,  Underworld. in “A Child of the Century.”

Ben Hecht

 

I. Greed: The Director’s Cut 

 

The brouhaha over Martin Scorsese‘s new movie The Wolf of Wall Street — accused by its detractors not only of being a bad movie but, it seemed, of being politically  toxic and a damaging role model for the youth of America — strikes me as the usual Oscar season raging overkill. It’s exaggerated, of course, perhaps because Scorsese is so much admired by so many film writers, that a few of the commentators who dislike  Wolf on Wall Street (about a fourth of the major critics, it seems) feel they have to bash it twice as hard as usual,  as if they had to all but destroy the show, and bury it with contempt, to make their point  — all the better to open the way for some other worthier contender, like ay, one of the other Best Picture nominees: Gravity,  American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Nebraska,  Her, Philomena, or Dallas Buyer’s Club.  (All excellent films, by the way.)

But Scorsese apparently can take it. So, probably, can his movie.

Scorsese is 71 years old –  but you’d probably never guess it from watching the rousing, furious Wolf of Wall Street. By rights,  the one-time angry young  cineaste of 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1980’s Raging Bull should have graduated to a less contentious role as universally respected elder  movie statesman, or grand old man of the cinema. But maybe he’s just not ready. There‘s not a whole lot that’s conventionally grand-old-mannish  in Wolf of Wall Street. which stars Leonardo DiCaprio (superb in the role) as the notorious brokerage founder, investment counselor and ex-stock market slickster Jordan Belfort. Based on Belfort‘s tell-all memoirs about high times, crimes and high finance in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it’s packed with onscreen nudity and sex and drug use, four letter words and illegal or reprehensible behavior, and it keeps roaring along  on screen for almost three hours like an express train loaded with orgiastic clowns.

Watching Wolf, you get the feeling Scorsese hasn’t aged much or been tamed, that he’s gotten wiser, but  hasn’t  lost a  step since his 1973 breakthrough film Mean Streets — that  classic bad boys movie that began with the big-beat hammering  of The Ronettes’ ”Be My Baby” on the soundtrack and ended with gunshots and screams and chaos on the street in New York City’s Little Italy.

Mean Streets was a shocker, and so is The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s also  a brilliant, unsparing look at a deviant underworld: stripping bare not just part of the cast but also the corrupt stock deals and jaw-droppingly self-destructive life-styles that Belfort, and others in his company and elsewhere, were involved in: mass misbehavior that apparently ran  rampant  in those years (and may still) — and that also may have helped bring on the 2008 Bush era bank crash. Now, coming sixteen years after Wall Street, that blistering Oliver Stone expose’ in which Michael Douglas’s natty corporate raider Gordon Gekko coined the mantra, “Greed is good,”  and three years after Stone’s and Douglas’s somewhat disappointing 2010 sequel — and after a batch of corrupt-financial-world thrillers like The Boiler Room (also inspired by Belfort’s shenanigans) and Margin Call and Arbitrage  — The Wolf of Wall Street, like many another Scorsese movie, manages to top them all. It goes the furthest and it’s the most entertaining and damning.

It’s a movie that seemingly embraces the darkness, the better to expose and eviscerate the rot underneath it. Crammed with  character and incident, and boiling with life and energy, The Wolf of Wall Street is top-level Scorsese: a first-class modern neo-noir, a killer comedy, a terrific piece of social drama (and social criticism), and an actor’s dream with a dream of a cast.  It has its flaws — scenes that run on a bit too long, cynicism that’s sometimes overplayed.  But it’s a hell of a show, and, despite the thrashings it’s taken from some  smart critics and disgruntled audiences, it was,  I thought, the best picture of  a very good year — 2013.

 

II. An Unsentimental Education

Wolf of Wall Street’s knowing screenplay –which, at its best,  recalls the wit, style and ferocious candor of the Ben Hecht of “A Child of the Century” and “The Front Page”  — was written by  Terence Winter, whose  TV credentials include both “Boardwalk Empire“ and “The Sopranos.” Winter knows how to humanize criminals without glossing over their crimes, and that‘s what he does here. Changing names and fictionalizing some of the story from Belfort‘s two books, he  seamlessly weaves it all together –with DiCaprio-as-Belfort our super-inside narrator and expert guide into the financial underworld. (He functions here like Ray Liotta’s chatty mob witness Henry Hill in Goodfellas).

“Belfort” is a sham, a deceiver, a confidence man — but, in the movie, a lot of his story seems convincing because of the unfiltered-sounding way it pours out, because it’s so self-damning, and because we know that some of it is backed up by the real-life evidence. (Belfort, found guilty of securities fraud and money laundering, served 22 months in federal prison in Nevada– his cellmate was comedian Tommy Chong — and he still owes millions in victim reparations.)

Scorsese’s movie, which tells a crook’s story from a crook’s point of view (and a drug addict‘s story from a drug addict‘s), seems to me just this side of a masterpiece. It’s an almost defiantly provocative film, but not really a non-judgmental one — though it isn‘t obviously moralistic. Scorsese and Winter show these financial outlaws having a high old time and debauching to the max because that’s the story. And they tell us that Belfort got an over-light punishment in a country club prison, because that’s the story too. They stick to Belfort’s point of view, because he’s the primary witness, and  because they want us to be  trapped with him, in his life of addiction and swindling and greed and paranoia, surrounded by the forces that will bring him down.

In the movie, Belfort only seems to be “free“ during his stormy rise in the financial world — as, with obscene gusto and uncensored dirty-mouth profanity,  he and his buddies proceed to con their investors and the government and the regulators. Then they have huge parties, jam-packed with  hookers and strippers and sex and booze and a blizzard of drugs (cocaine, quaaludes, xanax, morphine, et. al.), and they crash their expensive cars, and trash their expensive rooms and fall out of their expensive helicopters and wreck their expensive yachts, and keep landing and laughing (for a while) on their expensive asses.

It’s funny, sometimes very funny. But it’s also sad and horrifying and sometimes  infuriating. There are scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street that are classics of comedy: I’d include Belfort’s zonked-out vintage quaalude attack at the country club, with blitzed crony/lieutenant Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, superb too) on the phone. And I‘d also include the bizarre lunch seminar by Jordan’s snaky L. F. Rothschild mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, also superb); and the split personality antics of Jordan’s volatile accountant dad “Mad Max” Belfort, played by Meathead-turned-auteur Rob Reiner (yeah, superb). There are other comic or partly comic scenes — like the wild parties, and Jordan’s morale-boosting super-sell speeches to his troops — that are so filled with smart writing, cinematic bravura  and wonderful acting that they stay with you long after the movie is over, though I can understand why some people don’t want them to. Still, if it happened — if  a tenth of it happened — and more than a tenth probably did — hell, a lot of it probably did –we’d be crazy to ignore it.

To put us though it: That’s the modus operandi of  Scorsese in his great crime movies Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed — and now, in The Wolf of Wall Street, which is a different kind of gangster movie, and a different (and in some ways more disturbing) kind of crime story.  DiCaprio-as-Belfort ushers us into this  hedonist’s  world, full of greed-crazed creeps, with a conman‘s  semi-automatic congeniality — welcoming, affable. We hear his thoughts and reminiscences throughout the movie and he often strides on camera in the midst of a cluster of  other actors, and starts talking to us, like the big star doing his big numbers in a Broadway stage musical (‘Oh, we got trouble…Right here in River City…”). Handsome and spiffy and appallingly self-confident, the onscreen Belfort is a glamorous movie sinner whose “Hollywood redemption”  never comes, but who knows a lot of great, dirty stories and tells them here.

Those stories come pouring out. This is a long movie, but not at all a slow or boring one. We see Jordan first getting a start-up job with the glossy investment house,  L. F. Rothschild — and getting his broker’s license right before Rothschild crashed on the infamous Black Monday, October 19, 1987 (in the same year that Stone’s Wall Street was released). And  we see Jordan later start his own company — after initially working for another of those bargain basement penny stock brokerages called a “boiler room.”

There’s a memorable star-is-born scene where Jordan, quite a talker, stuns his boiler room co-workers with his surefire on-the-phone salesmanship, the glib gab of a born con-man. Later, when Jordan opens his own office, he brands it with the conservative-sounding moniker “Stratton Oakmont” to fool the suckers, staffs it with guys (and a few gals)  on the make, including some of his old boiler room colleagues and contacts and some local pot dealers  and turns it  into an orgy-parlor  of excess and  con-manship — and a greed that definitely wasn’t good, and became all-embracing. The movie follows this slick little prick all the way from crash to smash — all the way up (or down) to international swindling and money-laundering, a billion in ill-gotten assets and heavy-duty FBI investigations, with a lot of cocaine-fueled sex romps and drug-bashes in between.

But The Wolf of Wall Street is no celebration of rampaging misbehavior, or of Belfort, as some reviewers seem to think. Instead, it’s a critical (but not messagey) mix of dark comedy and bare-knuckle drama about the crazy excesses, the insider finagling and rock-star life-styles, of these young Wall Street wolves. And it pretty well skewers them and skewers the deeply flawed, “liberated”  system in which they thrived:  the smart-ass kids and hustlers like Belfort who fast-talk their way into becoming millionaires (and more), while still in their 20s.  It’s a cautionary tale about how money corrupts and absolutely outrageous money corrupts absolutely — and  outrageously.

Over and over, Scorsese and his actors and collaborators show us the vile behavior and comically insane consequences of untrammeled greed and money-madness. Detractors will say that’s what’s wrong with the movie; that it keeps repeating itself, that it‘s obsessed itself with money and hedonism. But Wolf of Wall Street, like Goodfellas or the Godfather movies,  is also an operatic film (as Todd McCarthy pointed out in his top-notch Hollywood Reporter review), and, in this case, the operatic wickedness and self-destructiveness of some of the characters, and the operatic rendition and repetition of themes and motifs is part of its power.

Scorsese shows us Jordan — at first a seemingly likable smart kid with a Leo smile that’s just a little too easy — and how his morals dissolve and his addictions grow thanks to a system that was rotten when he got there. That off-the-edge attitude is exemplified by the  aforementioned Mark Hanna and his  bleary-eyed lunch lecture on the work benefits of jerking off at least twice a work-day and snorting lots of cocaine to keep an edge. McConaughey, whom  you could call the movie’s  “ingestment counselor” (sorry) is sharp and funny and smooth and he makes hard drug addiction and constant orgiastic behavior, for a moment, seem like sound and solid business strategies — and maybe for him, they are.

Jordan puts all these lessons to bad use, when, post-Rothschild,  he invents the phony-baloney-but-oh-so-toney Stratton Oakmont brand (their TV ad emblem is a lion wandering purposefully through some staid offices, filled with busy-looking actor/brokers). He also recruits his band of  party-hearty hucksters  — headed by the idolatrous, toothy Donnie Azoff (maybe the ultimate Jonah Hill role). Donnie is the supreme  sidekick and supplier — both of them eventually juggling millions and ingesting so many illegal drugs  that one almost wonders why, by the end of the movie,  Jordan and Donnie aren’t crawling across the floor, drooling and babbling, minds totally blown. (Actually, of course, I’m kidding. They do crawl, hilariously, in  that now-famous fall-down-laughing country club-Lamborghini-quaaludes  sequence.)

We ‘re also privy to  the bad marriages of Jordan and his two very pretty, very cheated-on, “foxy” wives — the first,  the more likable and sympathetic (and dumped-on) Teresa Petrillo (Cristin Milioti, excellent), and then  his second, more-cold-blooded Naomi LaPaglia (played stunningly by Australian actress Margot Robbie). Are they treated fairly? The movie has been called  misogynistic by some,  and it’s true that this portrait of a rogue male‘s world could use more and better female characters. (So could lots of other movies.) But it’s also true that Wolf of Wall Street is portraying a largely misogynist world, and the onscreen piggish behavior here strikes me as not spectator sport or a sex fantasy, but savvy reportage about the behavior of assholes (male assholes) — and in any case, not something necessarily being endorsed or enjoyed by the movie.

If we cringe when one lady Stratton Oakmont employee gets her hair shaved at a wild office party, in return for enough money to get breast implants, well, we damn well should cringe. Actually, given the  astonishing selfishness, brutishness, boorishness  and mendacity of the Stratton Oakmont guys, I thought the women in this story came off better, if not always necessarily well. Teresa is one of the more sympathetic characters in the movie, and though Naomi may be cold and manipulative (like the men), by the end, she’s no doormat. She chops up Belfort pretty well in their last scene together. One of the distaff roles –Sandra Nelson in the admittedly brief part of  Forbes Magazine reporter “Aliya Farren”  — is also one of the few civilians in this movie who has Jordan‘s number.

III. New York, New York

The Wolf of Wall Street is another of Scorsese’s great, incendiary portraits of New York City (here, largely Long Island) at its worst and wildest, a city and region he de-romanticizes and de-fantasizes (but that he loves anyway), and that he recreates here with incandescent cine-realism and ravishing high style — thanks in good part to his ace collaborators Rodrigo Prieto (cinematographer), Bob Shaw (production designer), Sandy Powell (costume design), the magnificent Thelma Schoonmaker (editor) and a lot of others.

The movie is a visual-cinematic feast. It’s also a feast of the naturalistic, street-savvy New York-style acting we associate with directors like Kazan and Lumet, and with Method or Group actors like Brando and  Pacino and Lee J. Cobb and Eli Wallach, and independent actor-directors like John Cassavetes  and his company (Gena Rowlands, Gazzara, Falk, Cassel). The acting in Wolf  is mostly brilliant — and that brilliance comes not just from DiCaprio (who dominates the movie), but from the entire cast: the  many memorable speaking parts and the many pungent bits (like the seeming hundreds of Stratton Oakmont  employees, roaring and high-fiving in the movie’s boisterous crowd scenes) and the great  longer  central parts from Hill, McConaughey, Reiner, Robbie, Milioti, Jean Dujardin (as a smiling shark of  a Swiss banker), Joanna Lumley (as Jordan‘s cash-courier Aunt Emma, who wonders if he’s hitting on her), and — playing one of the few genuine good guys in this amoral world — Kyle Chandler (othe bad fathero f f The Spectacular Now) as the smart, incorruptible and underpaid FBI agent Patrick Denham. (You guessed it, superb. All of them.)

Most of these characters  are based on real people, and sometimes they even have real names — like Jordan Belfort and Mark Hanna and shoe designer Steve Madden. (The real Belfort pops up onscreen at the end as an Auckland Straight Line  seminar host.) But real or not, they’re all blazingly alive. That vitality and unbuttoned irreverence and wild humor is probably what draws Scorsese to these and the other bent or reprehensible characters in his movies (like the Mean Streets gang and the mob guys in Goodfellas) — not their overheated sex lives,  greed, brutality and  propensity for crime, but their furious energy and lack of inhibition and the gutter eloquence that makes them great characters, capable of inspiring great performances from these marvelous actors.

We can enjoy watching these crooks and opportunists  (some of us, at least ) not because we’re seduced by the deranged highs and corrosive excess of their ridiculously indulgent life-styles, or because we think “Damn! I want to get in on that action!“ but because the actors and actresses who play them are so much fun to watch — because of the soaring energy levels and heights of imagination  and invention these players hit: their fierce spontaneity, the way they tear into their roles, and all the wounding drama and outrageous humor they dig out of Belfort’s mad story and Winter’s explosive script. It’s also fun, of course, to see Belfort and the Stratton-Oakmont guys, after all their arrogant antics, get caught with their pants down..

IV. Wise Guys

After doing a splendid  job earlier this year  playing F. Scott Fitzgerald ‘s over-reaching Jazz Age romantic Jay Gatsby  in Baz Luhrmann’s sumptuously romantic  and controversial film of  Fitzgerald‘s “The Great Gatsby,“ Leonardo DiCaprio  plays his second top-notch self-made Long Island movie millionaire of 2013 in The Wolf of Wall Street — which is also brilliant, also sumptuous, also controversial, but not really romantic, even though it has DiCaprio, who can be a very romantic actor, as its star. (Titanic, anyone?),

Like De Niro, Keitel, Pesci, Ellen Burstyn, Jodie Foster and Daniel Day-Lewis in earlier days, DiCaprio has become a great acting vessel for Scorsese — as Brando and Cobb and James Dean and Jo Van Fleet were for Kazan, as Pacino and John Cazale were for Coppola and Lumet, as Rowlands and Falk and Gazzara were for Cassavetes. DiCaprio is more delicately handsome, more boyish than the other male stars on that Scorsese list. (Even though he’s near 40, you can call him “kid.”) But, like De Niro with “You talking to me?” in Taxi Driver or Pesci with “You think I’m funny? Do I amuse you?” in Goodfellas (both of which came out of rehearsal improvisations with the actors), DiCaprio can nail those big memorable eccentric scenes at which Scorsese excels. And he can nail them even when, thanks to Donnie Azoff’s quaaludes, some of Belfort’s best speeches are  incomprehensible gibberish.

Even granting the obvious similarities between the worlds of big moviemaking and of  big stock-trading, it’s not hard to figure out where Scorsese stands on these guys and on this life. He’s amused and entertained by them, stimulated by their energy and rebelliousness, and he may even like them in some divided way. (Certainly he likes them as movie characters.) But he knows that they’re mostly jerks on a road to nowhere, and that their lifestyles are madly destructive and that they’re dragging us and lots of other people and part of the economy down with them. (Other, less entertaining scoundrels are as well.) Scorsese makes that pretty obvious — especially near the end, when Belfort and his world start falling apart, just as Henry Hill‘s did in Goodfellas.

The sheer comic dynamism of the movie is a big part of  what makes a lot of it great. (For a very good analysis of The Wolf of Wall Street’s aesthetics, read Richard Brody’s review in The New Yorker.) The movie, in any case, is another of Scorsese’s  explorations, and one of the best, of machismo-drenched  American subcultures (The Mob, The Law, Boxing, Show Business). And  it’s another movie filled with the kind of outrageous and sometimes hilarious four-letter-word-laced  movie dialogue that gives a psychic hernia to prudes, and rubs others the wrong way.

That usual Scorsese fusillade of  swear-words, which reaches an all-time high here (Wolf contains 506 uses of the word “fuck,“ an all-time movie record), is part of  the lexicon of Belfort’s Long Island mob: those rising young money guys who want to look and dress like movie stars, and sound (among themselves) like thugs, crooks, shysters or made guys. To that end, some of them use the foul language and fake the mean swagger and sadism  they’ve seen and heard in pictures about gangsters, often by movie-makers like Coppola and Scorsese. The proliferation of  profanity and scatology, much of it achingly funny, is a tip-off that these characters, though they’re really just glib salespeople talking tough, want to come across as wise guys who know no limits, respect no rules.

Also, pardon my language, but Scorsese’s reliance on classic Anglo-Saxon swear-words like “fuck” and “shit,“ is justifiable not  only because that’s  how these guys talk (among themselves), but also because these “bad” words , while supposedly verboten in polite society, can be two of the funniest words in the English language, on stage or on screen.  Actors, who know the electric effect of these “forbidden” words, may use them a lot (maybe too much) in improvs in rehearsals, and  Scorsese, who often puts dialogue from those improvs in his scripts, may over-use them a little too. But he salts in those cusswords so liberally not only because they’re appropriate to the characters, but also because, used judiciously, or even injudiciously, they help sting a movie to life. Drop an F-bomb into almost any sentence — any ordinary, everyday, inoffensive sentence (or even any already offensive one) — and the speech, if said in character, often becomes a potential laugh line. Screenwriters, especially on macho action or crime pictures, use them  all the fuckin’ time. (Sorry.) I’m serious. I mean, I’m (bleepin’) serious. (See?)

Here are some examples of the transformative power of George Carlin-level swear words, none drawn from The Wolf of Wall Street: “Hello; how the (bleep) are you?” “Have a nice (bleeping) day, you (bleep).“ Get the (bleep) out of here, Tommy!“ “Pass the (bleeping) clam sauce.” “A spoonful of (bleepin‘) sugar makes the (bleepin‘) medicine go down.”  Or, to abandon niceness and raise the intensity level a little: “Listen, you (bleeping) son of a (bleepin’) (bleep).. (Bleep) you!  And  (bleep) your grandmother. You can take your (bleep) and shove it up your (bleeping) (bleep),  until it comes out of your (bleeping) ears. You (bleeper-bleeper), you…”  And, to inject a little class: “To be or (bleeping) not to be, That is the question…“

See what I mean? Of course, sadistic, offensive speeches will probably still be sadistic and offensive, bleep or no bleep. And you can sure as (bleep), mess up a (bleep), even a well-planned one. But it’s not (bleepin’) easy. Remember: These Wolf half-wise guys are (bleeping) clowns as well as (bleepin’) con artists, and the fact that they can (bleepin’) make us laugh is probably one of the few (bleeping) positive things about them. .

As much as Little Italy guy Scorsese understands how these guys (bleepin’) talk — excuse me, how these guys talk — he also understands Belfort and his lifestyle, especially the drugs. As we watch, the movie  rips the “kid’s” masks off. The exposure is unsettling. You can’t deny the guy’s charm — or the charm of the actor, Leo, who‘s playing him — and DiCaprio puts on a tremendously entertaining show. But I think you’d have to be a little high yourself (maybe on outrage) to deduce that Scorsese and his actor and moviemakers here admire Belfort, or are trying to “glorify” him or his buddies. (The only time I admired Jordan, fleetingly, was when he saved Donnie’s life by artificial resuscitation and pumping his chest. And Scorsese plays that for laughs.)

If the filmmakers do dig Belfort, in some weird cranny of their noggins, they’ve certainly painted an awful portrait of him anyway. Thief, liar, con artist, swindler, self-deluded exploiter, bad husband and father, drug and sex addict, and sometimes bumbling babbling clown, he’s the guy who — however much he may make you laugh, or however many stocks or pens he sells, or however many times he saves Donnie,  or however much moola he has stashed in his Swiss bank account  (temporarily) — is the guy you don’t want to be, if you have a brain in your head and a beat in your heart. Unless, like Belfort at his nadir (he thinks it‘s a zenith, of course), you‘re so obsessed with money and power and the pursuit of pleasure, you can‘t see straight anymore.

Saying that The Wolf of Wall Street glorifies Jordan Belfort is like saying that “A Streetcar Named Desire” glorifies Stanley Kowalski or that Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” glorifies Don Giovanni. (I’m talking about the characters seen from a moral perspective, not about glorious acting or glorious singing.) The movie’s Belfort is nobody’s behavioral model. Short of having DiCaprio walk around the picture wearing a sandwich board that reads “I am a bad guy. Do not copy my bad behavior,” I don’t know how the moviemakers could make that any clearer.

V. The Last Bleep

Here’s the trickier question: Do movies like The Wolf of Wall Street  that try to expose corruption, or deal with awful situations frankly — movies that try to show us the criminal world or  some of what’s wrong with politics, business, Wall Street or other flawed power centers –  actually encourage that corruption? Are the moviemakers, intentionally or not, brilliantly or not, seducing credulous younger (or older) viewers, by casting in those movies, in  the criminal roles,  attractive or lovable or funny actors and actresses who are liked or even adored by the public and are expected to draw huge movie audiences and make the studios lots of money?

That’s been the rap on gangster movies ever since Hecht’s and von Sternberg’s  1927 Underworld: that they glamorize criminals. But, in this case, I don’t think so.  Audiences are amused and entertained by many of Alfred Hitchcock‘s villains too, but that doesn’t mean they want to go out and emulate Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train or Anthony Perkins in Psycho. I don’t think Oliver Stone’s intentions in Wall Street were invalidated because some idiots took him the wrong way and wanted to become little Gordon Gekkos. And I don’t think that Wolf of Wall Street is on the side of the devils either — just because it’s a movie that  knows that the devils can make us laugh. For the record, neither is Underworld — nor Ben Hecht’s other gangster masterpiece, the 1932 Howard Hawks Scarface.

(Spoiler Alert, but you probably know it already)

Scorsese has been attacked as well for “trivializing” or even excusing Belfort’s crimes by not showing his victims. But do we really have to see the victims of Belfort’s chicanery to realize that what he was doing was destructive and corrupt and wrong and probably ruined some lives? Are audiences that obtuse? We do see shots of “ordinary people” at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street, on the subway car with FBI agent Peckham, and those few shots of simple, weary-looking everyday citizens returning joylessly home from work — after all the crazy hedonism and epic waste and hard-core lunacy we’ve seen — are devastating.

(End of Alert)

We’re in the middle right now of a great or near-great run of  American crime movies,  though I hesitate to call it an era,  and Scorsese is the undeniable leader. (I wish Coppola were back back in the thick of things too.) Just this year, in addition to The Wolf of Wall Street,  we’ve had American Hustle,  The Great Gatsby, The Iceman, Captain Phillips, Spring Breakers, Kill Your Darlings, Mud, Oldboy, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Out of the Furnace, Dallas Buyer’s Club  and 12 Years a Slave (which is about a massive, institutional crime and a whole outlaw society, the slave-trading Old South). Like most of  these films at their best, Wolf of Wall Street creates (or recreates) a teeming, dangerous, richly populated  world around the  outlawry. Like most of them, it’s an essentially moral work.

Scorsese didn’t make The Wolf of Wall Street because he loves Jordan Belfort and wants us to drool over his money and drugs and women. He made it because he loves making movies, and Belfort’s story  is great movie material. At its best, which is often, Wolf of Wall Street  reminds you not just of the glories of movies, and the sometimes false splendor and inner tawdriness of life itself , but the glories of other arts as well. I’m hyperbolizing, I guess. But for me the  best of Wolf of Wall Street is not some glossy men’s magazine orgy but an attempt (mostly successful, I think) at a  true work of art — a work visually dense and full of  life, like a painting by a Brueghel or a Bosch, rocking and propulsive like  a big beat classic by the Rolling Stones (or the Ronettes), crammed with humanity like a novel by Balzac or Dickens, literate and street-smart like a play or a screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur, tough and snazzy and  stylish as a classic gangster movie or film noir by Hawks, Curtiz or Walsh. It killed me.

We see (or I see) in Scorsese’s movie, at its best and even at its worst, a great chronicle of darkness and madness, of (big) crime and (little) punishment, of evil and not-quite-as-evil and sort-of-good  — a movie pungently real and stylishly exaggerated, raw and unsparing, feverishly emotional, loaded with theatricality and artifice and also burningly alive. And though the Wolf of Wall Street’s  detractors may claim that the life it shows is spurious or tasteless or too dark and brutal, or that they just don’t want to see it or be battered by it, the sheer uninhibited nerviness and brilliance of what Scorsese puts on screen, overpowers, I think, many of those objections. Marty’s movie is so uncompromisingly, ferociously  candid  and so artistically powerful that, after you’ve seen it,  it’s hard to process or shake all the wild threatening images and ideas and emotions from your head. And maybe you shouldn’t even want to or try to. Isn’t knowing what’s wrong the first step to maybe making it right? Fuck if I know.

I want to point out to you that in a novel  a hero can lay ten girls and marry a virgin for  a finish. In a movie this is not allowed. The hero, as well as the heroine, has to be a virgin. The villain can lay anyone he wants, have as much fun as he wants cheating and stealing, getting rich and whipping the servants. But you have to shoot him in the end.”

Herman Mankiewicz, describing the Rules of Hollywood‘s Golden Age Games to his friend, Ben Hecht.  Quoted in “A Child of the Century.”

Wilmington on Movies: Ride Along

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

 

 

RIDE ALONG (Two Stars)

U.S.: Tim Story (2014)

Ride Along, which grossed over 40 million dollars in its opening  week,  is  a big, glossy, ultra-predictable  buddy cop movie in which costars Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood) and Kevin Hart (Think Like a Man) and director Tim Story (Barbershop) pull a comedy variation, or try to, on the 2001 Denzel Washington-Ethan Hawke cop thriller Training Day. One of those movies that a big part of the public apparently likes and that most critics (understandably) don’t, Ride Along is better acted and shot than it is written or directed.  The  jokes aren‘t very funny; the cast is mostly wasted.

That cast though, is a pretty damned good one.  The costars and the rest  of them (Cube, Hart, Tika Sumpter, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, and Laurence Fishburne) are amiable company, and they could all be funnier, of course, if only somebody gave them  a script, or let them improvise an entirely new one — or maybe brought in Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke to act as advisors and buddy cops emeritus. (To be fair to the writers, a lot of the movie does have a semi-improvised feel.)

Anyway, in this shameless cliché’-fest, Ice Cube plays James Payton, a surly but super-competent veteran Atlanta cop,  and Kevin Hart is Ben Barber, a motormouth prospective rookie who’s given a ride-along (a day in a cop car, with a cop) conducted by James. Ben is  also, not coincidentally,  the boyfriend and prospective husband of James’ glamorous sister Angela (Tika Sumpter, of “Gossip Girl” ). When Ben –  a 5’ 2” high school security guard who spends much of his days playing video war and shoot-out games –  is chosen as a cop trainee-candidate, he falls into the clutches of James, who doesn’t want him for a brother-in-law, and means him no good, and picked for  the day-long ride-along in which Ben is supposed to prove himself as would-be cop and brother-in-law — and ultimately as ride-along buddy. Ben  is deliriously confident that he’ll make it. James, whose scowl is his umbrella, is pragmatically confident that he won‘t.

Anyway, on this particular ride-along,  you can be fairly sure — make that damn sure — that…

Spoiler Alert

1: …James will do everything possible to mess Ben up, including sending the poor gabby little schmo up against  a posse of sullen Hell‘s-Angels-looking bikers, a chopper-gang so tough that one of their mamas  has a goatee.

2. Ben will repeatedly make a complete fool of himself , but later redeem himself in some stellar way.

3. The higher ups in the Atlanta police department, notably Bruce McGill (Animal House)  as unhappy Lt. Brooks, will become increasingly perturbed at the comical mayhem following  in the wake of the ride-along duo, though James and Ben’s misadventures will bring grins to the faces of their fellow cops — especially James’s jocular partners Santiago (Leguizamo of Romeo and Juliet) and Miggs (Bryan Callen  of The Hangover).

4.. , While Ben flounders ever more haplessly, James will pull ever more fiendish jests, such as brining in a nude, berserk  cop-in-disguise to run amok in a grocery market.

5.  Armed criminals will somehow threaten or discombobulate Angela,  to their eventual regret.

6. James and Ben will become involved in some high-profile police case that will give them both opportunities to brilliantly distinguish themselves or foul up atrociously. In this case, that case of cases is  an investigation into the doings of  a band of Serbian gun-runners and local Atlanta outlaws, led by the mysterious Omar — a nefarious Atlanta czar of crime whom James has been pursuing for years, and who has apparently never been seen by anybody, possibly since his birth.  The mysterious Omar is played, mysteriously, by that excellent actor Laurence Fishburne (of Apocalypse Now). Ah, Apocalypse Now, now there was a movie… Not that anyone involved here, including director Story  and four writers, working in three shifts  (Greg Coolidge, Jason Mantzoukas,  Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi), were trying to match Francis Coppola’s great Vietnam War Epic, or, for that matter, Training Day. Or for that matter, Barbershop.

7. In  the grand finale of all grand finales, Jonah Hill, as General George Sherman, marches through Atlanta, and burns it to the ground, using incendiaries purchased from The Mysterious Omar by Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson and James Franco: Kevin Hart’s cast-mates  in This is the End, all of whom arrive by flying saucer and flee with Angela to the still ongoing wrap party for Spring Breakers.

Well, that last one is a joke (sorry). But none of the others are. Or should I say they try to be jokes, but something keeps getting in the way, perhaps the script. If there was a script.

End of Spoiler

Let me explain. Kevin Hart (Scary Movie 4) seems to have been in about seventy or eighty movies recently, and  though this one may be among the most lucrative, it’s not the best. He’s a comedian of formidable energy and fiery wit, but his character doesn‘t make much sense. What about Ben, we wonder, beyond his allegedly spectacular natural endowments, attracts  Angela to this video game junkie and high school security guard? Wouldn’t it have been better to make him, instead of a nerdy pipsqueak, someone more obviously brainy with an equally good reason for getting a ride-along:  a teacher or a crime reporter or even a stand-up comedian who wants to be a cop? Of course, Ben  winds up as the hero of the movie, or co-hero, but nobody knew that unless they read the screenplay.

As for Ice –  whom many critics seem to like to call Cube (although I prefer Ice or even, as the New York Times might have it,  Mr. Cube) — the one-time gangsta rapper, even though he has a more plausible character as a tough street cop, too often gets shoved to the side. Not that movies like this should be models of real life and verisimilitude, but they ought to at least make some sense within their own sensibility.  Meanwhile, the plans are already in motion for Ride Along 2, in which one hopes that we see more of The Mysterious Omar . Who says that crime doesn’t’ pay?