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Wilmington On Movies: DOCTOR STRANGE

Monday, November 7th, 2016

Doctor Strange (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Scott Derrickson, 2016

Okay. Take a charismatic comic book character from the Golden Age of Marvel Superheroes and Supervillains — a caped, wise-cracking, ultra-brainy, two-fisted surgeon/sorcerer called Doctor Strange, a Superguy dreamed up by Spider-Man creators Steve Ditko (drawing) and Stan the Man Lee (script), and filter him though millions of dollars worth of top-grade, Dream-it-and-do-it CGI, and a century’s worth of science fiction clichés a.k.a.  archetypes, along with the spectacularly designed so-called “multiverse” (a universe multiplied) which is maybe a big scary infinite magical place that puts this movie in the mode of  all those Wachowski Matrixes, plus Blade Runner. Kubrick and Miyazaki (according to producer Kevin Feige), and a lot of Marvel movie variations since  the Sam Raimi Spider-Mans.

Then, add a classy multicultural, very expensive and very prestigious cast headed by the thinking person’s Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch (Mr. Cheekbones) as Doctor Stephen Strange: egomaniac superstar neurosurgeon turned caped multiversal crime buster, and match him with the scene-swiping Chiwetel Ejiofor as bemused co-hero Mordo, Mads Mikkelsen as villain-of-villains (and then some) Kaecilius, Rachel McAdams as Strange’s beauteous medical partner and nifty co-neurosurgeon Dr. Christine Palmer, Benedict Wong as Wong the dour librarian of the library of non-Harry Potter sorcery, and, most memorably, Tilda Swinton as the bald, pale Celtic sorceress known hereabouts as The Ancient One. (Don‘t ask her age.)

When all these players are in place, zip around the world from Manhattan to London to Nepal, in vast loony cityscapes that fold and unfold on themselves like pop-up cards gone berserk, with the Strange cinema crew (including production designer Charles Wood and cinematographer Ben Davis) obviously trying to go one better on all those twisting, bending cityscapes in Chris Nolan‘s Inception — and you’ve got — well, you’ve got yet another marvelous SuperMovie from the SuperMoviemakers at SuperMarvel, a well-heeled band  whose imaginations know no bounds and who always hit their marks — i.e.: Follow the parameters of the original comics, hue to the plot schedule of an imminent (maybe) final showdown or end of the world and bring on the big brouhaha right before the closing credits. Then cue the teasers for the next movie. (There are two. Don’t walk out too soon.)

I might prefer something adapted not from a classic comic but, say, a great novel, or a profound drama or a truly witty comedy, but we don’t call the shots. Anyway, I’d be lying if I said Doctor Strange didn’t entertain me, or probably won’t entertain many of you, besides returning its investment (and then some) and conquering the marketplace from here to Hong Kong, while opening up new career vistas for Tilda the Ancient One and Wong the Librarian and young Doctor Cumberbatch.

In many respects, this Doctor Strange is a standard super-hero origin story with mind-boggling production values and a surprising cast good enough to do Chekhov or Shakespeare. Here’s the pitch: We first meet Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange, superstar medico, in a busy, bustling metropolitan hospital, where he works alongside McAdams’ Dr. Christine, and is almost offensively self -adoring.  All this comes crashing to a halt, when his Lamborghini sports car takes a tumble one dark night, and his surgeon’s hands are crushed and ruined (a bit like the pianist Orlac’s in Mad Love). Strange’s ego is ruined too, but it receives the right kind of a massage when he discovers Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a very satisfied customer of The Ancient One. Pangborn, it seems, was once a paralyzed wreck, but now looks fit enough for another season of “Law and Order.”

Off goes Strange to Kathmandu. (If they were going to revive Chuck Mangione, why didn’t they also revive Bob Seger?) And he finds the kind of mystic Eastern mountain paradise that might have once inspired James Hilton and Frank Capra’s Shangri La. Soon Strange has crossed paths with Mordo, Wong, Kaecilius, the Ancient One and other partakers of the astral portals and the dark dimension, of the wisdom of the Temple of Kamar-Taj, and the Library of Wong, and he has donned the Cloak of Levitation (one snazzy glad rag that — and if you order one in 18 minutes, we‘ll send you another one free). Self-confidence and torso restored, Our Man Strange learns to make mind and magic triumph over matter and muscle, to climb every mountain, search high and low, follow every rainbow…

It’s not Cumberbatch’s masterpiece, or Ejiofor’s or Swinton’s, but it doesn’t have to be. These actors fill their bill and earn their credits by just showing up. And, in the first few scenes, when Cumberbatch races through his speeches, speedily and snottily, we’re reminded of how much fun a certain kind of tongue-in-cheek over-acting, or self-satire, can be. I don’t think Doctor Strange is necessarily all that much better than the much, much less well-received Doctor Strange (which had prettier if less wacky backdrops). But the actors do seem to be having more fun.

The director and co-writer of all this is Scott Derrickson, the ambitious horror-meister who previously gave us The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, two Sinisters, and The Day The Earth Stood Still (the second non-Robert Wise version), which should not necessarily make us all that grateful, but some of which is really grabby and grippy and tri… (Sorry! Cliché alert.)

Derrickson is one of those modern moviemakers who shows up at the table with every techno-toy and archetype (a.k.a. cliché) he can find, and then hurls you onto a rollercoaster, chains you to the door, lets ’er rip, trying to extract maximum scream value from each scene. He‘s the kind of well-fixed cinemanufacturer who maybe views Michael Bay as a Grand Old Man of the Cinema — just as he maybe views Chuck Mangione  (in his ‘70’s heyday) as a Grand Old Man of Jazz. (Mangione’s catchy, often-used little number “Feels So Good“ gets an ample airing and tribute here). Blah, blah, blaaah…di blah di blah….(I admit it: I’ve hummed the damn thing myself.)

This show is undoubtedly Derrickson’s masterpiece, but that doesn’t mean we should be breathlessly awaiting the Criterion edition of Doctor Strange, with a commentary by Bay and an improvised trumpet commentary track by Mangione, or a Mangione imitator. Derrickson shows here that he can throw away money and blow up sets with the best (or worst) of them, and he also shows that he can cast a classy international ensemble of actors and drench us with pop spirituality of the old TV “Kung Fu” variety. (Life is a forest, a forest is life. Life is a machine, a machine is life. Life is magic, magic is life, Life is a comic book, a comic book…)

I didn‘t read any Doctor Strange adventures in his relatively brief heyday — my loyalty to Marvel comics stopped with Spider-Man — but, as long as there’s a Cumberbatch or two to play him, and as long as Cumberbatch (who definitely has a name made for a Hammer Studio opening credit line) doesn‘t actually become the next Vincent Price, we shouldn’t feel too overwhelmed or ungrateful. After all, it’s only a movie, even if it did cost several hundred million dollars.

Meanwhile, we’re left to ruminate on why those hundreds of million dollars are spent and acres of high-priced talent are deployed, here and elsewhere, to repeatedly bring us mind-boggling adaptations of mammoth clichéd (a.k.a. archetypal) best-sellers or beloved old comics whose basic plot line is that the world is racing toward apocalypse and only finding the right superhero will save us all.  Is it a solace that we usually know who will win the last battle or make it to the teasers? Or that, thanks to the House of Marvel, this production is one eye-boggling, pulse-pummeling, spectacular and really trippy… (Sorry. Cliché alert.)

Wilmington On Movies: Inferno, The Girl On The Train

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

Inferno (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Ron Howard, 2016.

Inferno, the third in Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ series of Dan Brown-derived high-end action movies, aspires to classy trash. At least it tries — mashing references to the works of the great classical Italian poet Dante Alighieri (“The Divine Comedy”) with the not-so-great works of the financially astute airport bestsellermeister Brown (The Da Vinci Code), amid imagery that suggests a nightmare attraction on the National Geographic Channel.

Despite generally unfavorable reviews, it’s an often good-looking picture (shot by cinematographer Salvatore Totino in the streets and museums of Venice, Florence, Budapest and Istanbul), and it has an admirable cast — topped by Hanks at his more good-guyish and vulnerable, backed by such ace international actors as fetching Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), intense Ben Foster (Hell Or High Water), immensely likable Omar Sy (The Intouchables), savvy Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Borgen”) and suave Irrfan Khan (Life Of Pi).

The problem is… the script.
The movie is not badly done, though it’s faster and camera-bobblier than necessary. It’s as frenetically paced and in-your-face handheld visually as the likable director Howard might get without drinking himself into a stupor. Indeed, as Hanks and Jones zip through all those spectacular cityscapes, often on foot, their director often seems to be mimicking Paul Greengrass (of the Bourne franchise) at his most frenetic and hardly handheld.

Once the movie kicks off — with Foster as mad bio-engineer Bertrand Zobrist plunging to his death from a church tower, and Hanks as the renowned symbotologist and puzzle-solver Robert Langdon waking up an amnesiac in a Florence hospital bed, with the felicitous Doctor Sienna Brooks (Jones) at his side — it hits a Ninth Circle-of-hell-for-leather pace that rarely lets up.

With awe-inspiring architecture looming all around them, and the carabinieri of several continents hot on their heels, Hanks’ Langdon and Jones’s Dr. Brooks are off to the races, pursued at first by the trigger-happy Vayentha (Ana Ularu), who shoots up their hospital, and later, by several posses representing various world health organizations and international cops, That includes Sy as Christoph Bouchard, Knudsen as Elizabeth Sinskey and Khan as Harry Sims, all a step or nine behind our hero and heroine (maybe), while they try to crack clues embedded in Dante’s original “Inferno” and in hellish or bleak paintings by Botticelli and Vasari.

Why?  I don’t want to suggest too much, or rile the feathers of Spoiler Alert, but apparently the world is once again in danger of ending, or at least of partially ending. It seems that before he took to his Vertigo-ish flight, and fell to his death, the mad Zobrist planted a bomb somewhere, one that somehow will kill several billion or so of the world population, which is Zobrist’s drastic solution to world over-crowding.  But as long as Langdon and Brooks (or somebody) keep running, and solving puzzles, and traveling from Florence to Venice, to Istanbul, we’ve got a fighting chance. At least, so it seems,

Movies about the approaching apocalypse, or the end of the world, or the slaughter of billions (which is the threat here) have become so common these days, it sometimes feels as if the entire cinema world, or much of it, is overly obsessed with mass annihilation. But, as here, and as also in the Bourne and Neeson shows, personal destruction or salvation is also on the agenda, oozing fears that not even a certified mensch like Hanks can allay.

After playing staunch common-man heroes in Captain Phillips and Sully” Hanks plays an egghead in the throes of angst and madness, and, because we like him, we’re probably willing to cut him some slack. Hanks is as anguished as he’s been since Philadelphia — and his tormented mug radiates near psychotic fear so gushingly it becomes almost painful to watch, Likewise, Ms. Jones, who looks a little like the young Jane Fonda in a cutie-pie mode, seems, as she races along with the frantic cryptologist, almost provocatively cool.

Irrfan Khan, however, legitimately steals the movie (hotly pursued by Knudsen and Sy). The Indian superstar plays head-of-World-Health Harry with a tongue-in-cheek urbanity that softens the plot’s pretensions. At his best, Khan suggests the kind of smoothie skill Cary Grant could call to arms in a sprightly comic thriller like North By Northwest or Charade.

Ron Howard has taken heat for this movie, not entirely deserved. (Not entirely not-deserved, either.) It’s not such a hot movie, maybe, and critics and reviewers have been mostly, understandably, unimpressed.  But the problem with the film is the script: what Dan Brown gave them to start out with and what screenwriter David Koepp (veteran of the Spider-Man and Mission : Impossible series) was able to add to it. The movie should have been an entertaining puzzle; instead it’s more of an exploding art lecture, with Hanks and Company as speed demon lecturers.
But at least Inferno assumes, and tries to play to, a somewhat literate audience, while employing some top-notch technicians and writers, including Hanks and Howard. It might even send a few potential readers to the great original work (Dante’s, not Brown’s)  — which is more than you can say of, say, some Liam Neeson scenic action show slambangers, like the Taken trilogy. Meanwhile, if you want to see a really good movie with “inferno” in its title,  try Werner Herzog’s Into The Inferno. That’s hot stuff.

The Girl On The Train (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S., Tate Taylor, 2016
The Girl On The Train is a chic romantic crime thriller in Gone Girl mode — but not as engrossing or gripping, nor as packed with interesting characters and wicked plot twists. Mainstream audiences should like it, but most of them probably won’t love it (as they did with the book) or become obsessed with it, the way they might with, say, Hitchcock‘s rail-riding masterpiece, The Girl On The Train. Unlike the Gilliam Flynn-penned bestseller The Girl On The Train tends to resemble, or the David Fincher-directed suspenser that was fashioned from Flynn’s massively popular book, this outing tends to be more ordinary, less involving, less icily compelling.

Writer Paula Hawkins’ almost equally massive bestseller is about a woman whose life falls apart, then becomes a hard-drinking, train-riding voyeur, spying on what she imagines to be the perfect lives lived by the two couples she regularly watches from her commuter train windows. That main character, Rachel Watson (played by the eye-catchingly beautiful Britisher Emily Blunt), has lost her husband Tom (played by the disturbing Justin Theroux) to a pretty little blonde, Anna (played by Swedish stunner Rebecca Ferguson), and Rachel spies on this new couple with self-flagellating gloomy obsessives.

And Rachel, besides drinking herself silly, also spies on another couple, just a few houses down from Tom and Anna, two others whom she also imagines leading the lives of golden joy: macho-man Scott Hipwell (Welshman Luke Evans) and another pretty little blonde, Megan (Haley Bennett). Also involved in this peeping tom’s delight of a tale is Megan’s sexy shrink, Dr. Kamal Abdic (played by Venezuelan Édgar Ramírez) — and Rachel’s perhaps too-tolerant friend Kathy (Laura Prepon), who’s putting her pal up and forgives all her rotten behavior. Soon Rachel has plunged into what might be a nightmare of infidelity and possible murder.

Gone Girl was an incredibly clever thriller with an incredibly tricky plot. The Girl On The Train is not too clever, not too tricky.  Director Tate Taylor (who made the humanistic Southern family drama The Help) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) have changed the background from London (in the book), to New York and the Westchester suburbs, and maybe they’ve lost something in the switch.

Emily Blunt is a camera-stealer, but her character has been written (at first) as such a pain-in-the-ass, that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her.  The surprise ending isn’t very surprising.  Only Danny Elfman’s Bernard Herrmanneque score (justly praised by the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy), achieves excellence in the style department. And only Allison Janney, in a fine sardonic “Law and Order-ish” turn  (she’d be a good lady sidekick for the late Jerry Orbach’s Lenny Brisco) has crafted much of an engaging character.

The screenplay is just about what you’d expect and Taylor’s direction doesn’t rise above the ordinary either. The Girl On The Train may have been a great read on the airplane (or on the train), but the movie made me want to watch something else, out the window. Unfortunately, I was in a theater at the time.

 

 

Wilmington on DVD: Everybody Wants Some!!

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Richard Linklater, 2016

Youth is wasted on the young. Maybe. But it definitely wasn‘t squandered on Richard Linklater, that wondrously humane American filmmaker (Austin, Texas-raised auteur of the “Before” Trilogy and Boyhood), who, in his best work, uses his own youth to potently amuse us and brilliantly illuminate the worlds we share. In 1993, Linklater made one of the all-time killer high school comedies with the sublimely goofball Dazed and Confused, and now, in his latest movie, he cooks up an absolutely terrific college sex comedy – with a damned near perfect cast and dialogue to die for. The title, Everybody Wants Some!!, is a little dopey and clunky-sounding (blame Van Halen, who recorded the song that the title comes from). But the picture itself is so gracefully and hilariously executed, exclamation points shouldn’t keep you away.

Does the entire idea of an “absolutely terrific college sex comedy,” also strike you as unlikely and unappealing — especially if the cast is mostly male and mostly jock (with the actors playing the so-called varsity baseball team of fictitious South Texas State University) and if the scenes, in broad outline, are mostly what we tend to see in nearly very other gamey, sex-crazed college high jinx farce from Animal House on. But Linklater has defied expectations and twisted up genres before , and probably will again, and this movie is one that he obviously had a lot of fun making, that I had a lot of fun watching, and that — unless you refuse to give it a chance — you may, despite your better judgment, like too.

The movie takes place in the autumn of 1980 during the three days before classes start at South Texas State. It focuses on the South Texas baseball team in ensemble: a rowdy and fun-loving bunch in 80s duds and hair, and more especially on the newly recruited, somewhat more intellectual freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner), whom we tend to see as the story‘s Linklater surrogate. Jake, like most of his new teammates was a high school star and is now fighting for a spot with other stars — and he arrives on campus with a box full of vinyl records, meets his roommate (a rascal in cowboy boots and underwear) and his other teammates and housemates, and then joins them for half a week of unsupervised revelry.

The fall term is about to start. And after being warned by their unsmiling, killjoy Coach Gordan (Jonathan Breck) not to imbibe anything remotely alcoholic, and not to take young lady guests up to the second floor, for a little S.T.S. R. & R. where the bedrooms are — and therefore not to do the things we absolutely know they will do — the dozen or so players are left coachless and unmonitored to play and misbehave what e’er they will.

For three days, these guys roam and drive around the campus, while Linklater and company spin a tasty play list of prime ‘80‘s rockers (starting off with The Knack’s “My Sharona,” which was also a kick-off fave in Ben Stiller’s youth comedy Reality Bites). They play games, including occasionally, baseball. They imbibe libations with plenty of alcohol content. They escort young lady guests up to the dreaded second floor. While trying a lot of boorish pickup lines (some of which work), and while bar-hopping and crashing various parties on campus, they manage to break every admonition of their tight-ass coach, and a few more besides, including taking a puff or two of the wicked weed.

SPOILER ALERT (roll over to read)

Eventually, one of them finds a neat girl (Zooey Deutch, as a brainy knockout) from the drama department. Eventually, they get around to a little baseball. Eventually, classes start. Eventually, you will not be surprised to learn (spoiler alert or no), that South Texas State is unlikely to win the college world series, or any series of any kind, and that the team roster will probably produce no pros — not even their big battling star McReynolds (Tyler Houchlin), who looks like a cross between a younger Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck, can split a thrown baseball with an axe, and is the house‘s Alpha Dog of Dogs.

END OF SPOILER

Well, it’s not exactly “The Brothers Karamazov.” It’s not even exactly Animal House (though Linklater himself describes his creation as the “chill Animal House”). But it made me laugh and feel good, as Link‘s shows usually do. Listen, there’s a reason that so many sub-Animal House comedies have been made, even though a lot of them are so demonstrably lousy — a reason why this particular male wish-fulfillment fantasy (which I’ll grant is bro-heavy and in some ways, irresponsibly testosterone-drenched and a little jerky), keeps popping up again and again, providing employment and diversion for all the Will Ferrells and wannabe Will Ferrells of the world.

The basic daydream plot — all about guys and sometimes girls (as in Neighbors 2) running wild on campus — is more appealing than movie people like to admit, unless it’s its dressed up as farce, The reason is that there’s sometimes a grain of truth in these daffy, goofy, sex-crazed college kid movies. And, in the case of Everybody Wants Some!!, there’s more than a grain. Or a tic. Or a toke.

This is the movie all those other half-funny but smash hit groaners, from Revenge of the Nerds to Old School to the recent Seth-Rogen/Zac Ephron Neighbors semi-trilogy, could have been but weren’t. This one is genuinely funny, and unsappy, and human, even occasionally heartfelt, and it’s full of engaging characters and real emotion. And, to repeat the main point, it’s funny! Laughs! Love! The Great American Pastime! The Wicked Weed! Ball Four! Do the Hanky-Panky on the Second Floor! Everybody Wants Some! Excuse me, I meant to say “Some!!”

Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: James DeMonaco, 2016

Bad movies sometimes tell us as much, or more, about the world and society around us as the good ones. The Purge: Election Year — a sordid, ultra-violent clichéd howitzer of an action picture which has a few good scenes and has attracted a huge audience, is the third bloody chunk of an crime-horror-political-satire trilogy (the first two were 2013’s The Purge and 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy) about a murderous future U.S.A. where once a year, all the laws are repealed for twelve hours, all the police and judges and hospitals are sent home or closed down, and the entire population of the United States is left at the mercy of the gangs and mobs and psychos and killers who rove the streets unchecked.

Sound like fun? For a lot of people, apparently, it is. The Purge movies, like many contemporary action thrillers, including the most popular, doesn’t make much damned sense — but I suppose you could argue that, if they did make more sense, audiences wouldn‘t like them as much. They might get bored. The very absurdity of this movie, the way it hops and blasts from one clichéd bloodbath to another, may be what makes it entertaining for some, or a lot, of the audience. For some people, a lot of people apparently, it works. But the movie kept slipping off my radar, even as writer-director James DeMonaco worked to liven things up with quirky characterization and foul-mouthed street humor, and by cranking up the suspense and trying to plug in more satire. I appreciated the effort, but I wasn’t able to join the laughter and occasional cheers the press audience supplied.

The Purge: Election Year begins with some flashbacks that set the scene and some of the characters for us — and that show both the Good Guys and The Bad Guys, and all the victims in between, getting ready for the Big Night. The rationale for the purge is that if the populace is allowed to run amok, and if they can look forward to these orgies of violence every year, they won’t behave badly and kill people and rob and steal and vandalize and beat the hell out of innocent bystanders the rest of the year. Really? Maybe more people would develop a taste for violence, just as more people exposed to films like The Purge, may develop a taste for more violent movies.

But, as before, DeMonaco doesn’t waste time trying to justify it. The Purge Nights have been dreamed up by the one-percenters and oligarchs and rich people — the ones with enough loot to afford guards and elaborate protections and defense — and they’re the forces behind the political establishment that runs the show, a far right wing organization called The New Founding fathers, or the NFFA. (The similarity in sound to the N. R. A. seems intentional.)

In the first Purge picture, the protagonist was Ethan Hawke, as a middle class father trying to protect his family, which was protected instead by the black loner who shows up, on the run from the nasty rich kids who harass Hawke’s household. In the second picture, which had a bigger budget, the main characters are out in the streets, which are strangely deserted but still dangerous. In this third film, there are more roaming protagonists, including a woman candidate for President in the next election, Senator Charlene “Charlie” Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who’s running on an anti-Purge platform. Charlie plans to purge the Purge because, 18 years earlier on another Purge Night, she lost her entire family to a gang of rock ‘n roll killers who broke into their house and blasted T. Rex and George Clinton while massacring everybody but Charlie.

For some curious reason, Sen. Roan, who is supposed to be running for President of the U. S. but lacks the usual retinue and entourage and political aides and press and (for the most part) police protectors that you’d expect even an Independent presidential candidate on the Green or Legalize Marijuana ticket to have. Charlie, who in no way resembles Hilary Clinton (except for her glasses), ends up with one functioning guard — Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who also lost part of his family and was a character in The Purge: Anarchy. You also would have thought a Presidential candidate would have been better able to stay indoors, along with most of the population. around, and that there would be more explanation of why she ends up with one bodyguard out on the streets. But soon Leo and Charlie are running around town with a colorful little crew they bump into: a wisecracking deli owner named Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his badmouth girl buddy Laney Tucker (Betty Gabriel) and others.

SPOILER ALERT

There are a lot of bloody scuffles and bad language, and we suspect that eventually Charlie and Leo and Company will end up clashing with The New Founding Fathers of America, a congregation of well-dressed elite who are gathering in a local cathedral to fill the pews with blather and propaganda (delivered by Kyle Secor as Rev. Edwidge Owens, who looks like a TV preacher and clothes horse), and to throw holy water on their guns. We’re not far wrong.)

END OF SPOILER

Back in the 1970s, when the paradigms for shows like this were being set down — by Roger Corman and other ballsy independent producers — this kind of picture would have been a low budget job, and it probably would have been better for it. If they were going to spend more money on The Purge: Election Year, they might at least have played around more with the idea of an entire nation plunged into chaos.

One of the strange things about the Purge series is that most of the criminal activity seems to be coming from street kids and delinquents, when you’d think some actual mobsters might take advantage of the absence of the police try to break into major banks or the mint. You’d also think there might be riots and maybe even a little terrorism. But each of the Purge movies has focused on a small group of people in a sometime half-deserted or not too populous area. Rev. Owens’ well-dressed congregation is about the biggest crowd we see. Partly that’s because DeMonaco wants to make villains of the well-fixed establishment and draw his heroes and heroines from the common people — which should be all right for me, but, in this case seems to be more a result of the scale of the production than of plausible extrapolation.

Writer-director DeMonaco has written fairly bloody, fairly effective thrillers like The Negotiator and the remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (also with Hawke) and he’s definitely hit the jackpot with the Purge series. He’s also left an opening for a sequel at the end of this movie. One of his producers here, by the way, is the often-maligned action picture specialist Michael Bay — who’s made better movies himself.

But, as with the Liam Neeson C. I. A. thrillers, which don’t make much sense either, DeMonaco has thrown logic to the winds — or maybe just purged it. Even so, the acting is pretty good — but mostly unremarkable, except for Williams, who supplies almost all the humor and hijacks every scene. Purge: Election Year has somewhat scruffy-looking backgrounds and deliberately garish cinematography (by Frenchman Jacques Jouffret) and zingy editing by Todd E. Miller. But there’s nothing really special about it technically or visually. Most of the time. just the central idea seems to be propelling it along: What would the world be like if the guardians and police all took a holiday? And what would the action movies be like, I wonder, if all the producers took a holiday? They probably should.

 

Wilmington on Film: Our Kind of Traitor

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor (Two and a Half Stars)
U.K.: Susanna White, 2016

Our Kind Of Traitor should be our kind of spy-suspense movie — a gourmet treat based on a John le Carré novel. But sadly, it almost isn’t. Though certainly a good film — or good enough — it’s a disappointment, despite a pedigree that seems impeccable: a classy adaptation from another of the author’s descents into the often deadly twilight world of spies and counterspies, traitors,, politicians, killers, and double and triple-dealers. There’s also a good director (British TV’s Susanna White), classy technicians and an excellent international cast headed by Ewan McGregor and the great sad-eyed Swede, Stellan Skarsgård — a Scandinavian thespian who can portray disgust and resignation better than almost any other living actor, and here has plenty to be disgusted about.

Skarsgård plays Dima, a money-launderer for the Russian Mafia, who is trying to defect with his family to The West. Since this is a le Carre story though, danger and duplicity lie everywhere. The seemingly genial Dima runs into heavy weather mostly because he has proof, on a USB drive, of crooked dealings with the Mafia by some elite British politicians and businessmen. Le Carre is, as always, a master of offbeat characterization and the rest of the memorable cast around Dima includes McGregor as Perry Makepeace, a British professor of poetry on holiday with his wife in Marrakesh, Damian Lewis as Hector, a savvy M16 agent trying to facilitate the switch, Grigory Dobrynion as the brutal Mafia boss The Price, Jeremy Northam as a possible second traitor, and Naomie Harris as Perry’s beautiful but troubled wife Gail.

Perry and Gail are in Marrakesh, trying to patch up their marriage when they meet Dima, who, with that terrific ragged Skarsgård smile, seduces Perry into attending a hedonistic Russian party, then into a vigorous tennis game. Soon Perry is hopelessly entangled with the fate of the strange, pushy man who has become his friend, along with Dima’s endangered family, and the politicos, agents and international criminals swirling around them.

The Makepeaces are an old-fashioned thriller couple. In the ‘30s, before Bondmaster Ian Fleming set his stylized, vicious spy stories among the professionals, the great spy thrillers of writers like Graham Greene and Eric Ambler (or for that matter Alfred Hitchcock) usually used protagonists who were amateurs and who somehow stumbled into the spy games of the professionals. That’s what happens here: Perry, despite the chilly wy McGregor plays him, is the amateur whose emotions and amateurishness may trip him up. Dima is the professional who knows the odds are against him, and, in Skarsgård’s hands, he becomes the pounding heart of this movie.

Susanna White and Hossein Animi, who, respectively, directed and wrote Our Kind of Traitor, are both specialists in high literary adaptations. (If Ambler was still around, they might be adapting him, and they may well get around to Greene some day.) She’s made British TV films based on three great novels: Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House,” Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End,” and a feature film based on suspense master Patricia Highsmith’s “The Two Faces of January.” Animi, besides scripting Nicholas Winding Refn’s icy suspense-action movie “Drive,” has written film adaptations of Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove” and Thomas Hardy’s “Jude (the Obscure).“

Obviously, they both have superb literary taste, at least in their choice of projects. But Traitor isn’t the kind of success that seems within reach, that might have been. Some of the actors (like the otherwise admirable Lewis) seem younger than they should be. The hooks don’t grip us, and the ending doesn’t wipe you out the way it should. But you can’t have everything, as Perry Makepeace learns. Our Kind of Traitor is at least the kind of intelligent adult and engagingly literary film that we just don’t see enough in our theat34s. And, in Stellan Skarsgård, it has one of those actors who can, all by himself, make our kind of movie.

Wilmington on Movies: The BFG

Friday, July 1st, 2016

THE BFG (Four Stars)
U.S.: Steven Spielberg, 2016

I. Big, Friendly

The BFG, which stands for ”Big, Friendly Giant,” is a beautifully-made and beguilingly creepy children’s movie, adapted by Steven Spielberg and company from the well-loved children’s book by Roald Dahl. Dahl himself was a peculiar chap, a 6-foot-six Norwegian-English ex-R. A. F. flying ace who flew against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Athens, and who wrote peculiar but wildly popular children’s books (many of which have been filmed) , as well as nasty little horror tales for adults (some of which were made into films and television shows). The movie of The BFG is meant for both ages and constituencies, and one of the reasons it succeeds with both, I think, is Mark Rylance.

Rylance, who plays The BFG (which stands for “Big, Friendly Giant”) won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar last year for Spielberg‘s Bridge Of Spies, a World War II story not intended for children. A multiple Tony and Olivier Award winner, Rylance also has one of the nicest, most likable, most humane faces in movies, even when it’s buried under latex and makeup and computer imaging. And in The BFG, he works magic with that countenance once again. It is a face bathed in beneficence and good will and such warmth that you feel he could melt an igloo by just stepping inside it.

In Bridge of Spies, Rylance played Col. Rudolf Abel, head of a Cold War-era Russian spy ring. Yet Rylance’s Abel didn’t look as if he could hurt a fly, or wish one hurt. In the dark, duplicitous world of international intrigue that the movie describes, which suggests a Frank Capra spin on John le Carré, Abel seemed more a fatherly paragon than a Cold Warrior. It was a tour de force performance. When you remembered Rylance’s Abel afterwards, it wasn’t so much for what he said as what you could sense him thinking as he sized up the other people in the picture. If you could have lived in the movie, you might have wanted Abel’s approval, even though he was a spy for The Enemy. No wonder he got an Oscar.

Spielberg casts him again, in an even more offbeat and lovable persona, as the title role, The BFG, in this spectacular adaptation of Dahl’s much-loved children’s book. Playing a 24-foot-high giant, who collects dreams and dispenses them to sleeping children in Victorian-era London, Rylance looks like Santa Claus’ better angel clumping though the shadowy streets, lugging dreams and gently kidnapping the movie’s child heroine, little Sophie (Ruby Barnhill). If anything, he looks even kindlier and more likable than he did in Bridge of Spies — something like that intensely lovable WW II-era Jewish character actor Felix Bressart, whose birdlike face and benevolent eyes were major assets in classic Hollywood movie comedies like Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner. But this was a bigger and more powerful Felix, someone who moves though nocturnal London and then his Giant homeland, in a manner both terrible and playful, like King Kong’s kindly keeper.

Dahl conceived the BFG — and his adventurous little friend Sophie — for one of the bedtime stories he regularly told his children; Sophie is named after one of his daughters. It’s a simple little story, which Dahl is said to have considered his favorite, about the friendship that strikes up between BFG and Sophie when he abducts her and takes her to GiantLand one night while on a dream distribution round. Giant Land is located somewhere past the clouds, in what looks like an ultimate stretch of English countryside, and BFG’s house is an ingeniously furnished cave-like hideaway, with, among other delights, a bathtub for BFG’s drinking cup and an airplame propeller for his hammock. Outside, are BFG’s evil relatives, all of whom dwarf him, a mere 24 feet. His wicked kin call him “runt” and make fun of him: they’re a horrid crew that includes the boss bully, Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), backed by the brains of the group, Bloodbottler (Bill Hader ), the somewhat fey Maidmasher (played by Icelandic actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), and other monsters with odious table manners and names like Childchewer, Bonecrusher and Gizzardgulper.

All of them, according to BFG are “Cannybullies” (or cannibals in BFG’s special language, Gobblefunk) and when these smelly brutes go on expeditions to Victorian London, it isn’t to hand out reveries to the little ‘human beans’ (human beings in Gobblefunk), but to kidnap and eat them. The BFG himself, fitting his radiant Bressartian countenance, is a vegeatarian who subsists on something cucumberish called a ’snozzcumber,” and a wonderful bubbly soft drink called frobscottle, whose green bubbles go down instead of up and make you indulge in great explosive farts.

The BFG feels he can’t leave Sophie in London, at her orphanage, because she might tell tales and create rancor between human beanery and the already rancorous giants. So he ensconces her in his eccentric Giant-size digs, where she can kick back with a frobscottle or two, and try to escape while avoiding the other giants. A judicious plan: when Bloodbottler sees her he immediately pops her in his Giant mouth, from which BFG must dauntlessly rescue her.

II. Gobblefunk

That’s the first part of the story, which is dominated by BFG‘s weird jabbering and semi-monologues, all in Gobblefunk, delivered in soft mutterings and putterings. In the second part, Sophie and BFG travel back to London, to Buckingham Palace and the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), to recruit the British Empire and the Buckingham guards into a War against the canny bullies, in a campaign (perhaps modeled on Dahl’s own RAF exploits) to forever end their murderful raids on other chidlers (or children). This is where most of the story’s comedy comes in, not that these fictitious royals could outdo the current Windsors for sheer sillybillyness.

No need for a Spoiler Moiler Alert, I hope? Anyway, like most of the great British children‘s stories, The BFG is both sweet and slightly poisonous, childlike and full of dark cundersurrents of violence and chaos. It presupposes a world where children, especially daring, adorable little girls like Sophie, battle monsters and explore strange lands full of strange people, and spread mayhem and rummytot (nonsense) and rumpledumpus (rumpus). And drink plenty of frobscottle. And……Pop!

I never read BFG as a child, but according to all the people I know who did, they all loved it and they are prepared to something horrible to me, something right out of a Dahl horror story in “Kiss Kiss,” if I don’t treat it with the disrespect and joyous irreverence it deserves. Well, I refuse to be intimmer-blimmerdated, even by filmofiles. But that’s why BFG seems a fit project for Spielberg and his a-team — Janusz Kaminski on the camera, Johnny Williams on music, Michael Kahn on editing, and Rick Carter on production design, plus a lot of assorted masters on various cinemagical CGI, performance capture and other technological feats. All these movie aces have given this show the kind of extraordinary technical wizardry that we human beans have almost begun to take for granted in many studio children‘s films, but against which most other movie fantasies are just so much snozzcumber.

Art the center of all this is that wondrous kindly beguiling mug of Mark Rylance, and the glumptious and, delumptious lingo of Gobble funk — a rib tickling language in which to swizzfiggle is to deceive, a giggler is a little girl, a giraffe is a jiggygaffe, a TV is a telly telly bunkum box, a trogglehumper is a nightmare and a movie or book reviewer is a swigger scribbler — while humple hammers mean “big,” a frumpkin fry is pumpkin pie and delicious is scrumdiddlyumptious. As for The Sherman Brothers‘ Mary Poppinsish tongue-twister “supercallifragilisticexpialidocious,” the Disney Company’s challenge to “antidisestablishmentarianism,” well, eat your heart out linguists and other snarks. Dahl is said to have been a great admirer of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray and Rudyard Kipling (In The BFG, there is a copy of Nicholas Nickleby by “Dahl‘s Chickens”) and, at his best, he can transport us back to the kind of worlds of words those wondrous writers opened up so well in the nineteenth century. When he starts slinging phrases and inventing wordy birds, it’s a game fit for Anthonius Besmirchus or Vladimiss KnockBlockoff.

III. A Pound of Flesh, Night and Fog

The BFG was adapted by Spielberg’s E. T. scripter, the late Melissa Mathison, and it has the entrancing pop poetic feel of an E. T. — not a great film, maybe, but often a wonderful one. If you’ve ever wanted to stand up to a mean giant and have another one (who looks like Felix Bressart) as your best friend, this movie will take you to Oz and back. Scrumdiddlyumptious!

But…There’s a problem I told you there were dark currents, and I wasn‘t kidding, You see, Roald Dahl, one of the most popular, best-selling and beloved of twentieth century storytellers, and deservedly so, lived two literary lives and maybe two political ones as well. While the tall Norwegian-Welshman was turning out well-loved children‘s tale after well-loved children‘s tale, he was also writing short stories of such grisly tension and horror, that they could make your flesh crawl. (Two of them, “Man from the South“ and “Lamb to the Slaughter” became two of the all-time classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV shows”; “Lamb,” which starred Barbara Bel Geddes as a murderess who gets away with it, was directed by Hitch.”) Though he spent more time on his children‘s books, Dahl was admired (and awarded) also for his tales of terror. I prefer them.

But when we talk about dark depths to a Roald Dahl bedtime story, we mean dark, For years, the flip side of his renown was a secret reputation as a bigot, a notoriety fueled by Dahl himself, who told an “Independent” interviewer. “I am certainly anti-Israel and I have become anti-semitic.” It is a prejudice shared by many of the British elite, among whom Dahl hobble-nobbled.

So I deliberately mentioned Felix Bressart’s benevolent Jewishness, because of the persistent rumors, spread by many (including Dahl himself) that the writer was anti-semitic. (It is said that his editors removed any tinge of anti-Jewish sentiment from his manuscripts, and he obviously went along with it.) This might seem to make him an odd choice for the source material of a movie from the director of Schindler’s List. But I told you that Dahl was peculiar, and perhaps Spielberg’s willingness to take some of the poisonous with the sweet, should be counted with the great Jewish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer’s defense of another brilliant but anti-semitic writer, Knut Hamsun.

But, as they say, trust the tale and not the teller. Or trust the tittletattler. Maybe that’s why Spielberg and his collaborators gave his BFG the face of a Jewish angel, and cast Mark Rylance to play him. Delumptiously.

Wilmington on Movies: The Shallows

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

THE SHALLOWS (Three Stars)

U.S.; Jaime Collet-Serra, 2016

The Shallows is a genuinely scary movie thriller that spooks you because, in a way, it seems so real — this tense, taut movie manages to get by without ghosts, monsters, supernatural maniacs or The Devil, indeed without almost anything that absolutely couldn’t happen (maybe) in the real world. Like Jaws, it’s the white-knuckle, full-throttle story of a battle between human vs. shark: a visually voluptuous thriller, set in a mostly deserted stretch of Australian coast, about a great white shark that traps a young surfer and medical student on an ocean-bound rock and buoy only about 200 yards from shore — a deserted beach near an ocean that is mostly empty except for that trapped girl and that toothy shark and one other creature we‘ll introduce later. (You’ll like him.)

The sheer closeness of the beach to the rock in the ocean, shot on Lord Howe Island in the Australian coastal wilderness 600 nautical miles from Sydney, and the fact that a Great White Shark relentlessly prowls the waters between that are the swimmer’s only escape route, becomes almost maddening. Maybe this couldn’t happen, maybe no Great White Shark would act like this. But while you’re watching the movie (written by Anthony Jaswinski), it seems plausible enough to keep you wondering how to outguess or outswim the damned thing.

The young woman, Nancy Adams (played by Blake Lively of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and “Gossip Girl”) is an almost foolishly brave and self-confident student and surfer who’s gone to the Australian outlands because she’s mourning the recent death of her mother. Nancy, who probably got her spirit of adventure from her mom, doesn’t bother telling anybody exactly where she‘s going (except the curly-heeded local guide who brought her there , played by Oscar Jaenada). And she ignores the warning of the proximity of the sharks nearby feeding ground, a great floating whale corpse with juicy slabs of meat hanging out of his side. Instead, Nancy the prospective medico (her medical acumen will come in handy later) immerses herself in the almost ethereally beautiful landscape (shot by Flavio Labiano), the crashing waves, the hot sun, the high sky.

When the shark appears and starts attacking her, leaving one of her legs a bloody mess, the other surfers have gone away, and as the tide rises, her situation becomes more and more dangerous. She talks to herself, screams with rage and pain, occasionally dives into the perilous waters, desperately searches for an escape or the sight of another human. Then she swims back to her shaky, fragile refuge on the rock. The tide keeps rising; death swims only yards away. She has one friend, one creature sharing her nightmare: a small wounded seagull played by six different gulls, but mostly by a splendid little bird actor named Sully,

The Shallows, directed by the Spanish-both suspense specialist Jaime Collet-Serra is, I think, a more heart-pounding thriller than Collet-Serra‘s three huge Liam Neeson suspense hits, Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night (all shot by his fellow countryman Labiano), because it doesn’t push too hard or stretch credulity too far. The music, by Marco Beltrami (Wes Craven’s Bernard Herrmann), pumps everything up. Blake Lively and Sully are a extremely engaging protagonists, and their shark nemesis, primarily a CGI creation, is a shivery antagonist. Because this movie is not a spook fantasy, or a sadistic romp, it becomes scarier than all those cinematic sons and daughters of The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre smashed together.

.Nancy and Sully are quite a pair — or perhaps we should say Nancy, Sully and the shark are quite a threesome. If Oscars were handed out to animals or birds, Sully, who is both photogenic and lovable, would be a shoo-in. And Lively makes us believe that she ‘s got the brains of a medical student, the endurance of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and the pluck to keep fighting back. As for the shark, we can believe he’s hungry. And persistent. And someone, something, you don’t want to meet in the water at Lord Howe Island or anywhere else. Unless you’ve got a pal like little Sully to share the nightmare.

Wilmington on Movies: Central Intelligence

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE (Two and a Half Stars)U.S.: 2016, Rawson Marshall Thurber

Central Intelligence surprises you — or surprised me, at any rate.

At first it seems like just another bang-bang buddy-buddy  action movie, tailor-made this time for Mutt & Jeff stars Kevin Hart and Dwayne “The Rock“ Johnson. The characters are familiar and so are the jokes, the homoeroticism, the irreverence toward authority. But then this explosive pairing of diminutive dynamo Hart (Ride Along) and Hunk of hunks Johnson (the Fast & Furious films), begins to hit some weird curves and swerves. The two leads play two ex-high school classmates at the fictitious middle American Central High — an ex-Big Man On Campus (Hart), and a one-time outcast, geek and bully victim — whose lives have gone in unpredictable directions, and who re-meet at a class reunion, and then run afoul of a bunch of crooks and spooks and CIA guys. It’s still pretty familiar, but it’s the funniest I’ve seen either actor. And both of them, working together with unusual generosity and live-wire pizzazz, have chemistry to spare.

The movie was directed and co-written by Rawson Marshall Thurber — who wrote and directed the clever adaptation of novelist Michael Chabon’s“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” and churned out the crude family comedy send-up We’re the Millers. Thurber gives the show pace and energy and (aided by what may be a lot of improvisatory inspiration from his co-stars) lots of snappy dialogue. I wouldn’t say that Central Intelligence is a funny dialogue comedy in the great tradition of His Girl Friday, Hail the Conquering Hero, The Philadelphia Story, The Miracle of Morgan‘s Creek, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment and Woody Allen‘s best. But it does have more crisp, funny badinage than we usually get these days — except sometimes by Allen, the Coen brothers, the Apatow gang and their league.

It should make you laugh. Hart and Johnson are likable and funny together — and this time out, each of them is playing interestingly against their seeming comic specialties. In this particular match up, you’d expect Johnson to be the straight man and smoothie (the Dean Martin or Bud Abbott role) and Hart to be the screwball (the Jerry Lewis or Lou Costello). But instead, Hart starts off as a straight man and Johnson plays a screwball and, in the course of the movie, they even switch off.

The idea, or concept, or whatever, is that Hart’s Calvin Joyner, nicknamed The Golden Jet, was Mr. All-Everything in high school, an academic and sports superstar and everybody’s role model, while Johnson’s Robbie Weirdicht was the overweight nerd and outcast whom the bullies picked on. (The two were both involved in a legendary piece of high school sadism when a bunch of bad guys, led by snide bastard Trevor (plsyed in maturity by Jason Bateman, tosses Robbie, in the nude, out onto the gym floor during an awards celebration — and Calvin tries to come to Robbie‘s aid, earning his undying gratitude.)

But there’s another layer. Over the years, Calvin has become a discontent accountant, and now he’s the one who gets picked on. Though Calvin started out as the super jock and Robbie played the fat, bullied victim, somewhere in their lives they switched roles. Calvin is now a discontent accountant, with a once-ideal marriage (to Danielle Nicolet’s foxy Maggie) that’s gone flat, and an obnoxious office clown (Ryan Hansen as Steve) who’s always on his back at work. Robbie, who has been working out six hours a day from twenty years, has body-built himself into a muscular Adonis, renamed himself Bob Stone, and ultimately become Liam-Neeson with punch-lines: a high-level C. I. A killer — with a lot of other CIA types (including Amy Ryan as the icy boss lady Pamela Harrison and Tim Griffin and Timothy John Smith as sullen, silent agents Mitchell and Cooper) who think Bob has gone rogue.

In high school, Robbie idolized Calvin, whom he regarded as his only friend. (Calvin, of course, barely knew him.) Now, decades have passed and the two have seen their roles reversed. Now Bob is the coolest of the cool, and Calvin is a somewhat neurotic, flustered suburbanite. They meet, or re-meet on the night before a huge class reunion, and from then on, it’s a long chase, interspersed with gunfights, interspersed with more chases, laced with buddy-buddy gags and spiced with badinage and folderol. Somehow, it all works.

There have been so many buddy-buddy action comedies over the past few decades , that you might have thought the genre wouldn’t have anything new to offer. What’s next? A monk and a fugitive Mafioso? A pair of hired killers who’ve been contracted to kill each other, and who meet under aliases? An opera singer, and a rapper hunting a maniac musical crime czar? I’m not sure I haven’t seen some of these movies, or all of them, already. In any case, Central Intelligence shows — as does the somewhat less successful The Nice Guys — how a familiar script with somewhat predictable ideas, can keep you laughing, almost despite yourself.

One of the reasons the stars jell here — better I think than the similar match-ups of Seth Rogen and Zac Efron in the Neighbors movies and Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as the cops in 21 Jump Street — or, for that matter as Hart and Ice Cube do in Ride Along — is that Thurber and his fellow writers have given them both more to work with than usual. Hart turns out to be just as funny as a reactor to other actors, as when he’s acting silly or behaving like a nut job. Johnson, meanwhile, is one of those performers who is so willing to kid and make fun of himself, that he can get away with anything, from popping his pectorals to putting Hart on pedestals. And the action scenes, while not necessarily Grade-A, don’t dominate the movie as much as the character comedy, which is the right kind of balance.

I wouldn’t call Central Intelligence a great comedy, or even always an unusually good one. But it’s good enough. These two guys know how to sell themselves and make us laugh. Well, that’s what they’re paid for…

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Wilmington on Movies: Genius

Friday, June 17th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wilmington on Movies: The Conjuring 2

Saturday, June 11th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: Alice Through the Looking Glass

Friday, May 27th, 2016

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (Three Stars)
U.S.: James Bobin, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: Forbidden Games

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: Sinister 2; Sinister

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________

SINISTER (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Scott Derrickson, 2012

By Michael Wilmington

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wilmington on Movies: The Third Man

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

THE THIRD MAN (Four Stars)

U.K.; Carol Reed, 1949

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

Wilmington on Movies: Jurassic World

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

JURASSIC WORLD (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Colin Trevorrow, 2015

jurassic-world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: San Andreas

Monday, June 8th, 2015

SAN ANDREAS (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Brad Peyton, 2015

sanandreas

“I never will forget…Jeanette MacDonald!

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

“I’ll never forget that brave Jeanette,

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

From “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT

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

END OF ALERT

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

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

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

 

 

 

Wilmington on Movies: Entourage

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

 

ENTOURAGE (Two Stars)

U.S.: Doug Ellin, 2015

Entourage-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT

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

END OF SPOILER

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wilmington on Movies: The Apu Trilogy

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

THE APU TRILOGY (Four Stars)
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road)
Aparajito (Unvanquished)
The World of Apu

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

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

1. The Trilogy

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

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

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

2. The Actress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Filmmaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: Poltergeist / When Marnie Was There

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

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

poltergeist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: Tomorrowland

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

birdlandTOMORROWLAND (Three Stars)

U. S.: Brad Bird, 2015

To Morrow (Fragment: A Railroad Lament).

 

I started on a journey, about a year ago,

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

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

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

 

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

For tips regarding Morrow, not expecting to be guyed.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

1. Yesterday

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

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

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

2. Today

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

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

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

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

3. Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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