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Wilmington on Movies: The To Do List

Friday, July 26th, 2013

THE TO DO LIST (Two Stars)
U.S.: Maggie Carey, 2013

adfasdfasdfHow much you enjoy The To Do List—a saucy teenage sex comedy about a just-graduated brainiac high school valedictorian trying to lose her virginity in her last summer before college—may depend on how much you buy into the raunch, or into the notion, that this movie represents some kind of socio-political-cultural breakthrough. Socio-political? Cultural? Breakthrough? Why? Because it’s about a teenaged girl doing the kind of things that teenaged guys do it in gross-out sex comedies like American PieSuperbadRoad TripPorky’s and every other dirty-mouthed coming of age comedy (of which there have been dozens, hundreds, if not zillions)? With the vast majority being about guys, with guys, and directed and written by guys.

Still, if Kristen Wiig deserved a medal or maybe a twenty-tampon salute for throwing a gender bender into the ubiquitous male bromance buddy-buddy comedy genre—by writing and starring in the extremely funny Bridesmaids—we should applaud To-Do for its cheek, and the humorous ways it deviates from the norm. So let’s give a four-letter cheer of varying enthusiasm to its gifted writer-director, who not only wrote and directed The To Do List, but had the chutzpah to say that the movie was loosely based on her own experiences.

Hmm. At its best, this movie does feel like an experience—though it’s been filtered through at least some of the guy-oriented sex comedies we mentioned. Carey wafts us back to 1993 and shows us a heroine, Aubrey Plaza as Brandy Klark, who’s been a goody-goody studious student too long and is eager to get into the sexual swim. Why? Straight A-scoring, straight arrow, Type A Brandy, who graduated from her Boise, Idaho high school with the highest Grade Point Average in the school’s history, and also as a virgin, is ridiculed by her classmates as she tries to give a commencement speech.

Churls! Miffed, and further miffed when the town blonde hunk starts to make out with her at a party (thinking she’s his date) and then quits when he discovers his mistake—Brandy decides that she doesn’t want to start freshman college year still a virgin. She embarks on a summer-long quest to lose her cherry and everything else: to experience everything her classmates have been doing—thereby screwing up their GPAs. (By the way, how do you get a higher GPA than a four-point, which we assume Brandy got, as have many before her, in or out of Boise? I ask; I do not know.).

That’s the joke. Brandy gets a little journal (one of the few visible books in her unstudious-looking room, and writes up her to-do list, a catalogue of dozens (maybe hundreds, zillions) of sexual activities she wants to get out of the way before matriculation, or maybe masturbation. (That’s on the list.) In this crusade, she has the moral support of her two best gal pals and fans of the movie Beaches (Alia Shawkat as Fiona and Sarah Steele as Wendy. And she has the mostly immoral support of several local guys: Scott Porter as that town blonde hunk Rusty Waters, Bill Hader as local dissipated pool manager Willie, Donald Glover as pool guy Derrick, and Johnny Simmons as Brandy’s science partner and lovelorn longtime pal Cameron. Most of these fellows work at the pool and so does Brandy—all the better to put everybody in swimming suits and stage a gag which might be an homage to the Farrelly Brothers: Carey floats a turd in the pool, and then has Brandy, mistaking it for a Baby Ruth bar, try to eat it.

Also in the mix, if not in the pool, is Brandy‘s family: Brady’s lusty, slutty sister Amber (Rachel Bilson), who‘s done it all, and could probably add a few more pages to Brandy’s list; her straight-talking mom (Connie Britton, a good job) and her right wing judge of a pa (Clark Gregg). The movie, which is structured like a 1960s porno, gets into a groove. Brandy shows up for work at the pool, flirts with the guys, and gets a few of them to help her with the to-do list, which gets more and more little checks. It looks like the honor of Boise is in good hands—or hand jobs, which is also on the list. Whatever.

I didn’t find To Do all that funny. And, actually, I don’t find too many of the male versions of the “losing it” genre all that funny either—except Superbad. The To Do List does catch the place and the milieu—the Midwest in the early 1990s—fairly well. (The period songs on the soundtrack include “Me So Horny” by 2 Live Crew, and “Lets Talk About Sex” by Salt-n-Pepa.) It does a lot on a small budget and it’s better written than a lot of other sleazy teen sex comedies. It even manages to drudge up a little nostalgia for the dear old innocent days of “Me So Horny.” But, from a socio-political cultural viewpoint…

Hey, what can I say? This is a movie where the most memorable moment—other than the three girlfriends singing “The Wind Beneath My Wing,” which I liked—is when the leading lady tries to eat a turd. To pull off a gag like that, I think, you need exquisite timing and nerves of steel and a stomach of granite. And a good salary. Better yet, you need to forget the joke entirely and think of another one.

The movie is cute and so is Aubrey Plaza—though, with her pouty, sexy, full-lipped looks, I don’t know if she ‘s the right actress to play an all-time valedictorian, or a virgin. (An Ellen Page type might have been better.) On the other hand, if Plaza had played the bad sister Amber, she probably would have stolen the movie, as Bilson almost does. As it is, the best performance in To Do comes from Bill Hader, who looks and acts a little like an elongated young Jack Nicholson and gives the movie the same kind of lift that Sam Rockwell gave The Way Way Back, another summer pool coming-of-age movie.

Well, all I can say…Who ever dreamed that one day the American movie industry would become preoccupied with movies about the end of the world, wild parties, supernatural beings and teenagers losing their virginity? Dozens of them, it seems, hundreds, zillions. Speaking from a sociopolitical cultural viewpoint… oh, the hell with it.

Wilmington on DVDs: The File on Thelma Jordon; Adua and her Friends; Bullet to the Head

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

 

 

THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (DVD) (Three Stars)
U. S. Robert Siodmak, 1950 (Olive)

1948 Wendell Corey & Stanwyck Sorry Wrong Number

Barbara Stanwyck, one of the smartest and toughest of all the classic Hollywood femme fatales, was terrific at playing earthy babes who knew their way around a bedroom—and sometimes a courtroom or an insurance claims office as well. She made a schnook out of policy-seller Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, put Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas through the wringer in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers—and here, as the hard-boiled man-killer Thelma Jordon she gives the business to the seemingly solid and non-malleable Wendell Corey, who, as an assistant District Attorney with a real case on Thelma (two real cases in fact), draws the touchy assignment (depending on your viewpoint), of prosecuting her for the murder of an elderly, very wealthy aunt.. Paul Kelly plays his suspicious buddy, Joan Tetzel his not-suspicious-enough wife. And Barbara, of course is the gal who arouses those suspicions, as well as a lot of good old-fashioned Golden Age Hollywood desire.

Corey, who is often cast as a steadfast bourgeois, sidekick or family guy, doesn’t usually get parts like this ladies’ man and court smart assistant D. A.—though he was a marvelous escaped con psycho in Budd Boetticher’s 1956 budget noir thriller The Killer is Loose. In File, he’s surprisingly effective as a straight arrow guy, who’s tough and savvy but whom Thelma bends and chomps on like a Charleston Chew.

Stanwyck of course eats parts like this (and guys like this) for lunch. She was one Hollywood femme star who was never bashful about playing bad girls, or loose women, or even murderesses, and she knew just the right touch of acid to drop into her milk and honey and whiskey come-ons. Thelma Jordon doesn‘t sport a nasty-girl blonde wig like Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, but she’s adept at skirting the law, and lawyers. First a seeming scheming opportunist who keeps very bad company, then an adulteress, and finally a woman accused of an awful murder, she’s a real dark side knockout.

The movie’s director is one of the authentic masters of film noir: the great German émigré and expressionist puppetmaster of twisted people and sinister streets, Robert Siodmak (The KillersCriss CrossPhantom Lady). Siodmak is visually right in his element here. Working with classy cinematographer George Barnes (Spellbound), he pulls us into an inky cinematic pool of psychological havoc and guilt.

The writer of The File on Thelma Jordon, Ketti Frings, was no stranger to noir either. She wrote it black in 1940s-1950s thrillers like Guest in the HouseThe Accused and Dark City—and eventually she won a Pulitzer Prize for her stage version of Thomas Wolfe’s novel “Look Homeward Angel.” Here, she shows Thelma spinning her webs, and Corey flying into them, and everything getting darker and deadlier—and damned if Frings and Siodmak and Stanwyck don’t even get some sympathy for Thelma as well. (Maybe she deserves it: I won’t give away the file.)

This is Stanwyck at near her bad-best, Siodmak at his darkest and most Teutonically stylish. No, I don’t know why they spell Jordan (as in Michael) with two “o’s.” But, like Wendell Corey, I won’t argue with the lady, especially when the lights go down.

ADUA AND HER FRIENDS  (Adua e le Compagne) (DVD) (Three and a Half Stars)
Italy: Antonio Pietrangeli, 1960 (Raro Video)

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Adua and her Friends is a treat I didn’t expect, a pleasure that almost seemed to come out of nowhere. It’s a prize-winning 1960 Italian film drama (with a touch of comedy) about a group of Roman prostitutes who are dispossessed by the new anti-brothel Merlin Laws, and who try to relocate to the country, using their savings to open a restaurant. Instead, they are frustrated and undermined by the hypocritical mores and secret corruption of their new customers and patrons—and they wind up being forced to open another bordello by the lawyer who is their secret backer. The film has a superb cast headed by the great earthy French actress Simone Signoret as Adua, the group‘s leader, and Marcello Mastroianni as Pier a local dealer-hustler who woos her, plus Sandra Milo (of 8 ½), Gina Rovere and Emmanuelle Riva (of Hiroshima mon Amour as Lolita, Milly and Marilina, the other three Roman girls, and Claudio Gora as Ercoli, the villainous entrepreneur who begins exploiting them and driving them into prostitution all over again.

The movie was directed by the highly admired Italian cineaste, Antonio Pietrangeli, and written by a crack team that included Pietrangeli, Ettore Scola, Tullio Pinelli and Ruggero Maccari. All the technical credits are first rate, and the film, shot by Armando Nannuzzi, has that special look—glossy-dreamy or rawly realistic—of the black-and-white Italian classics of the late 1950s and early 1960s, films like La Dolce Vita and Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers. Adua is both serious and entertaining and it works on almost every level. It looks like a classic, feels like a classic, resonates like a classic. So why is it relatively unknown in the U.S.? You got me.

We think we know the cream of the foreign-language films of the twentieth century, but in reality only a handful of films mostly by the best-known directors, like Bergman, Truffaut and Kurosawa reached American theaters. There is a particular wealth if Italian films in the 1960s—both the serious and ambitious artistic works of Fellini, Antonioni and Pasolini, but the genre classics of a Sergio Leone or a Mario Bava that seem even more impressive today. Adua and Her Friends is a film most of you almost certainly have missed, by an excellent director you may never have heard of, despite his high reputation in Europe, and his stature as an important neo-realist and later specialist in left-wing social themes.

Pietrangeli died too soon (1919-1968), and we know too little of his work. This film though should be better known. It features two great European film actors, Signoret and Mastroianni, at the peak of their stardom and talent, with a wonderful ensemble behind them. And it shows us that, in the Italian cinema, and in other foreign language cinema, there is still a lot more for us to find and enjoy. Adua and Her Friends glides deftly between neo-realism and romance, politics and comedy, laughter and sadness. It’s an unknown gem—at least here in America—and a discovery well worth making.

Extras: Introduction by film historian Maurizio Poro; Pietrangeli’s episode from the film Amori di Mezzio Secolo (titled Girandoli 1910); Pietrangeli’s biography and filmography; Booklet with critiques of Adua and her Friends.

BULLET TO THE HEAD (Two and a Half  Stars)

U. S. : Walter Hill, 2013 (Warner Brothers)

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Sly Stallone is 66, and he has neck and ribcage injuries sustained while working, slugging it out with Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren on 2010’s The Expendables—and he probably shouldn’t be swinging an axe in a movie axe-fight with another axe-wielding actor (Jason “Conan” Momoa) about half his age, in the new Walter Hill-directed movie Bullet to the Head. But Stallone veered his career away from Oscar-winning sentiment (the first Rocky) to pec-flexing action (the later Rockys and Rambos) decades ago, and he knows, by now, that what he’s doing in movies like this is a little silly. So he also knows how to stand outside the action and make fun of it.

He can use the half-absurd scenes from Matz and Colin Wilson’s graphic novel “Du Plomb dans la tete,” about so-called New Orleans crime—with Stallone as sardonic hit man James “Jimmy Bobo” Bonomo, and Fast and Furious co-star Sung Kang as full-of-himself Korean cop Taylor Kwan —as a springboard for a string of zingers and wisecracks. It’s a mild surprise, though it shouldn‘t be, that Stallone is  funny in this movie, which he doesn’t take too seriously. His relaxed self-kidding way with his lines may be the result of coming off some slightly absurd projects: such as surrounding himself with that neck-breaking all-star old-guys crew in the Expendables movies.

Walter Hill and Stallone never made a movie together in the 1980s—and maybe they were right to wait. Bullet to the Head is one of the most entertaining things either of them has done in years. Hill is 71 himself, and he gets into the old guys vs. younger guys mood right away, staging a hit undertaken by Jimmy and his ex-cop partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) of a particularly obnoxious business guy (who has a hooker in his hotel shower).  Jimmy and Louis are two been-there guys who whack that sadistic business dude in the middle of his liaison with the whore, a witness whom Jimmy imprudently leaves alive. Pretty soon the hard-boiled killer Keegan (Momoa) has shown up in a hot bar to whack Louie, and to start the bloody ball rolling.

No point in describing any more, because you’ve seen it all before—and what makes a movie like this work is not originality (unless you think axe-fights are a wildly imaginative innovation), but energy and personality and the right kind of smart-assery. Stallone, using his huge bass voice and his big dark, somewhat McCartneyeque eyes, supplies all the personality the movie needs. (Kang though, doesn’t.)

The movie also boasts some evil suits (Christian Slater and Adewale Akinnuote-Agbaje), a lady tattoo artist (Jimmy’s daughter Lisa, played by Sarah Shahi), exploding hideouts and a massacre or two. And guns, of course. And gun killings.  It’s the kind of disreputable show that some audiences like precisely because it’s disreputable, and because it’s amusing sometimes to see a little swagger in your movie heroes or anti-heroes.

I’ve always preferred 1970s action and crime movies (in the heyday of Clint EastwoodBurt Reynolds and Charley Bronson), to the 1980s ones (the heyday of Eastwood, Stallone and Schwarzenegger), because, by comparison, the 1980s actioners (except some of Clint’s and the first Terminator) were so fantasized and empty of real personality, compared to the best 1970s stuff—which would include Hill’s 1975 Hard Times, with Bronson and James Coburn. But at least screenwriter Alessandro Camon (who wrote the excellent military drama The Messenger, in collaboration with writer-director Oren Moverman) gave Stallone some good lines. That’s often all some modern action movies need, and don’t have. Stallone could use a few more scripts with funny dialogue, and fewer opportunities for guys like Stone Cold Steve Austin to give him a hairline fracture or for critics to give him a compressed ego. After all, it’s Sly’s neck.

Extras: None

Wilmington on DVDs: Band of Outsiders (Bande à part)

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

 

BAND OF OUTSIDERS (Bande a Part) (Blu-ray and DVD) (Four Stars)
France: Jean-Luc Godard, 1964 (Criterion Collection)

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BAND OF OUTSIDERS (Bande a Part) (Blu-ray and DVD) (Four Stars)
France: Jean-Luc Godard, 1964 (Criterion Collection)

BANDE A PART

Par Jean-Luc

Godard.

Bande a Part

(Band of Outsiders.)

 

Avec

Anna Karina

As Odile Monod

 

Avec

Claude Brasseur

As Arthur Rimbaud.

Avec

Sami Frey

As Franz Kafka.

Avec

Daniele Girard

As The English Teacher.

 

Based on Dolores Hitchens’ “Fool’s Fold.”

 

Un Film de

Nouvelle Vague

New Wave

Monogram

Gaumont

 

Avec

Pulp.

Poetry.

Politics (Peut-etre).

Two Guys, A Girl and a Gun.

Robbery

Murder

Abduction.

Betrayal

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Playing at Being Outlaws and Artists

The Gray Suburbs

A House by the River

A Car with the Top Down

An English Lesson

Love and Death and Coffee and Cigarettes

The Race through the Louvre

Locked in the Closet

The Big Heist

Showdown

Escape

 

Inspiree par:

Design for Living.

They Live By Night.

The Naked Kiss.

The Big Sleep.

Strangers on a Train

Detour.

Shadows.

Give a Girl a Break

I Soliti Ignoti

Voyage en Italie.

A Bout de Souffle

Bob le Flambeur

Du Rififi Chez les Hommes

 

Et Avec

J. L. Godard

As The Narrator

As Nicholas Ray

As John Cassavetes.

As Donald Siegel.

As Samuel Fuller

As Raoul Walsh

As Jerry Lewis

As Jean-Pierre Melville

 

Band of Outsiders:

David Goodis.

Jim Thompson.

Horace McCoy.

Dashiell Hammett

William Faulkner

Raymond Queneau

Paul Eluard

Andre Breton

Karl Marx

 

Original Music by

Michel Legrand

Of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

With a Special Performance of The Madison by Brasseur, Karina and Frey

 

Choreographed by Bob Fosse

Photographed

In Glorious

Black and White

By Raoul Coutard

And with the special appearances of

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance

The Immigrants

 

Cinephiles of the world, arise.

You have nothing to lose but your chains..

Henri Langlois and S. M. Eisenstein

Bande a Part was directed, written and produced by Jean-Luc Godard, the auteur of Breathless, Une Femme est une Femme, Le Nouveau Monde, Laziness, Vivre sa vie, Les Carabiniers, Contempt, Le Petit Soldat, Le Grand Escroc and Une Femme marié.

This film is dedicated to Mon Bon Petit Frere, François Truffaut

And to Tirez sur le Pianiste.

And to Les Cahiers du Cinema,

And to Claude, Jacques and Eric

The Hitchcocko-Hawksians.

And to Papa Andre Bazin

Tirez sur le Cineaste!

Avec Gratitude to the Louvre Museum and Andre Malraux

And to Anna.

(In French, with English subtitles.)

 

Extras: Visual Glossary or references and quotations in the film — Interviews with Raoul Coutard and Anna Karina — Excerpts from documentary Le Nouvelle Vague par Elle-meme, with Godard — Short film Les Fiancés du Pont MacDonald (France: Agnes Varda, 1961) (Three Stars) With Godard and Karina — Trailers — Booklet with essay by Joshua Clover, Press book character descriptions by Godard, and a 1964 Interview with Godard.

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Wilmington on DVDs: Gate of Hell

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

 

PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC
GATE OF HELL (Blu-ray or DVD) (Four Stars)
Japan: Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953 (Criterion Collection)

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There were two great gateways to the international movie houses of the post-war world for 1950s Japanese cinema. The first was Rashomon. The second was Gate of Hell. Most of us remember the former—Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 period masterpiece about four conflicting views of a rape and murder in the woods—and we can recall it easily, intensely, rightfully. The latter, by the much lesser known writer-director Teinosuke Kinugasa, is another period film, gorgeous almost beyond belief, and once widely hailed as the most beautiful color film of all time. Gate of Hell is a film masterpiece too, if not quite on Rashomon’s level, but one that far too many movie lovers have forgotten or neglected.

Rashomon—which won both the 1951 foreign language picture Oscar and the Venice Festival Grand Prize—stunned movie audiences everywhere with its searing black and white visions of Japan in the 11th century, its whiplash camera movements through the dense forest, its shocking violence, its extraordinary cast (topped by the feral, glowering young Toshiro Mifune as the bandit killer Tajomaru, with sexy, delicate Machiko Kyo as his victim, and the aristocratic and somber Masayuki Mori as her husband), and. most of all, with its radical “modernist” narrative construction: a four part story, recalled in flashbacks that shows the bandit’s crimes from four different, widely diverging perspectives (from the three principals above, and from an “objective” witness, Takashi Shimura, a woodcutter/ who watches them, unseen). Rashomon was watched and debated by art film enthusiasts everywhere.

But, it was another Japanese film, neglected for over half a century, which confirmed the triumph of Rashomon—and of Japanese cinema in general. That film was director-writer Kinugasa’s 1953 Gate of Hell, or Jigokumon. Like Rashomon, Gate of Hell won two enormously prestigious foreign awards—another foreign language picture Oscar, and the Grand Prize (then the top award) of the Cannes Film Festival. But where Rashomon thrilled audiences with its exciting action and stunning black and white photograph, Gate of Hell entranced them with the beauty and lushness of its production and costume design and of its then-astonishing color cinematography (by Kohei Sugiyama). Indeed, Kinugasa’s film was often cited throughout the 1950s as the most beautiful color film ever made.

Like Rashomon, Gate of Hell was set in the distant past—in this case, in the even more contentious 12th century, in the time of the Heiji Rebellion. Like Rashomon, it’s a story of love and death and crime and the truth—and how that truth can be perceived or misperceived. Like Rashomon (a title which refers to the gate of Kyoto), it ends with an image of a great city gate. And like Rashomon, Gate of Hell costars the lovely Machiko Kyo, a Japanese star of doll-like beauty, sumptuous physique and catlike eyes—and once again, the target of a predatory killer. This time, Machiko’s nemesis is not a horny bandit, but a courageous warrior of the besieged Taira Clan, Morito Endo, played by the long-time Japanese superstar (and long-time collaborator of Kinugasa, Kazuo Hasegawa. Hasegawa, whose career dated back to the 1920s, as did Kinugasa’s, was a striking-looking man, whose grave, stern, sculpted features and soldierly stature made him an ideal player of brave swordsmen and heroes.

As with many of the great Japanese period pictures—Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, and Mizoguchi’s UgetsuOharu, and Sansho the Bailiff—sometimes highly negative view of Japan’s past, as a time and place that breeds injustice, violence and tragedy. And also villains and anti-heroes. Mifune’s Tajomiru is a ravenous beast of a man, who kills wantonly or, in one view, idiotically. Hasegawa’s Morito is, in contrast, a good soldier. A man of honor and extreme courage, loyal to his emperors (there are two of them), and in love with Lady Kesa, whom he wants to marry (even when he learns of her husband)—so in love that he becomes unhinged with desire for her, a lust/love that consumes him, turns him into a monster.

Machiko Kyo’s Lady Kesa, by contrast, is a women of extreme loyalty and honor, who has to make a drastic choice to try to defend that honor. Her husband Wataru Watanabe (Isao Yamagata) is a man of loyalty and devotion to duty as well, but far more passive than the fiercely determined Morito: so dutiful, in fact, that he is unable to perceive or face Morito for the malignant threat that he is—both to his wife and to him. Instead he tries to be reasonable—when reason is the first casualty of Morito’s private war and rebellion.

The young Kinugasa made two of the great Japanese experimental films of the silent era, A Page of Madness and Crossroads, both in 1928. By 1953, he was a longtime cinematic veteran who had survived World War II and was now considered a traditionalist. But he was a traditionalist whose sense of beauty was honed by the near-expressionism of his younger work.

Gate of Hell begins with a traveling shot of the famous scroll book of the Heiji Rebellion— which then dissolves into real people, war, flight and chaos. Morito and Lady Kesa meet, when she volunteers to impersonate the Taira Clan Empress—of whose court Kesa is a lady in waiting—to fool the rebels. Morito is the soldier who remains loyal to the empire (even when his own brother turns traitor), drives her carriage and then quietly falls madly in love with her. There’s both romance and a shiver when he stares at her and we can feel the ecstatic charge that will consume him. Kinugasa was a Romantic—he began his career as a star movie actress and female impersonator (reportedly one of the best at this delicate art), and he’s able to shift easily between the viewpoint of woman and man, the desired and the desirer. The film’s sheer beauty helps convey its main themes—makes you feel the ravishment that triggers the conflicts.

There are several important differences between Rashomon and Gate of Hell. Rashomon was a radical artistic departure. Gate of Hell was a traditionalist work—by a filmmaker who, in his youth made one of the most radical departures in the whole history of Japanese cinema. Both films are concerned with morality, but Gate of Hell works in a more conventional tragic mode. Rashomon is a postwar work that reflects a vision of a world gone mad. In Gate of Hell, one man goes mad and drags part of the world down with him. Most strikingly, Rashomon is in black and white and Gate of Hell is in color, a gloriously designed and shot color whose sensuous imagery—the streaming banners, the forests, the meeting halls, the men on horseback, Morito manically creping though the darkness, Lady Kesa in her flowing white kimonos seduces us, as Morito is (unintentionally) seduced, and then exiles from Heaven and abandoned in Hell.

 

Why was Gate of Hell forgotten? Why is Kinugasa so underappreciated? Well, the original Gate of Hell was shot in Eastmancolor, which, unlike Technicolor, as we now know well, deteriorates and bleeds away its colors, into one vast red sea. This film has not been seen properly for decades. Criterion‘s new release is a color restoration and an extremely beautiful one. As for Kinugasa, he was not a favorite of Japanese critics (no Kinema Junpo awards, as I remember), much less the kind of American critics who think it’s a sensible pursuit to try to argue the inferiority of Kurosawa to Mizoguchi or Ozu. (We are blessed to have had all three.)

Most of Kinugasa’s films remain unseen in America. But the poetry of his work, the lyrically crazy experimentalism of Page of Madness, and the shimmering colors and tragic fire of Gate of Hell, make him, I think, a director worthy of further exploration. A candidate for one of Criterion’s Eclipse box sets? Maybe. But at least we can finally see Gate of Hell, a forgotten (no more) legend of the 1950s, and see it for the masterpiece it is, in its true colors. Easily, intensely, rightfully. Beautifully.

Wilmington on Movies: The Conjuring

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

THE CONJURING (Three Stars)
U. S.: James Wan, 2013

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Horror movies are often judged or graded by how much they get under our skins: how much sheer psychic and emotional unease and discomfort they generate. By that measure, and several others, the admittedly well-done James Wan scary show The Conjuring, failed to get to me. I can’t help it. It just didn’t scare me. I liked it for other reasons, but…

Mind you, I don’t think I’m the ideal audience for this kind of picture. I’m talking about a movie, of course, that seems to have scared everybody, or at least (almost) everybody capable of buying a ticket or writing a review: a movie going about its spook-the-hell-out-of-you artistic duties with admirable aplomb and consistent effectiveness.

The Conjuring, very prototypically and very predictably scripted by Chad and Carey Hayes,  is supposedly based on the true story of a haunted house, possessed by demons or otherworldly spirits, as investigated by honest-to God “paranormal researchers”: the real-life combo of Lorraine and Ed Warren, played in the movie by the brilliantly sensitive Vera Farmiga and the convincingly hearty and obsessed Patrick Wilson. This, we are told, was the Warrens’ most challenging case. Of course it was. And so the show goes: attacking audiences and reviewers susceptible to its familiar but effective old haunted house story and the style and technique used by director James Wan (Saw) and company to bring it to the screen.

The Conjuring whisks audiences and critics back to 1971, where its supposedly true story supposedly took place in a clamorous, dark, shadowy old house in Harrisville, Rhode Island, and where a nice working class family named the Perrons—Mama Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and Papa Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters—discover that their house is possessed by the spirits of The Exorcist (1973) and The Amityville Horror (1979), and various other scary movies about poltergeists and evil spirits. The Perrons haven’t just gotten a bad real estate deal here; they are under assault by demonic beasties who kill pets, keep mysteriously bruising Carolyn, and keep subjecting the kids—who, at one point, are puckishly compared to the Brady Bunch—to all sorts of loud noises, ghostly reflections, invisible assaults, slammed doors, and other reminders of the house‘s previous existence as the site of witchcraft and death.

Soon the house and the family were being investigated by no less a pair of spook busters than the well-known real-life pair of Ed and Lorraine, who are just recovering from another case involving a demonic doll with a Chucky expression. Ed and Lorraine were also the real-life spiritual investigators who put the real-life Amityville on the map. Now, thanks to this new case, they turn their psychic prowess on the demonically infested Perron residence, on the Perron family and their old creaky house with its weird attic and spooky basement full of weird, spooky, dimly perceptible stuff, and its mysterious population of terrifying thingies running around, behaving devilishly—as recorded, in the fictional real-life story, by Ed and local Harrisville people and some cameras, and in actual real life, by director Wan and his gifted cinematographer, John Leonetti—who start off the movie with some virtuoso moving camera ensemble shot, and keep piling on the snazzy visuals from then on.

The movie has its points. It’s well acted (especially by Taylor and Farmiga), and well filmed, especially by Wan and Leonetti (the younger brother of Walter Hill‘s frequent collaborator Matthew Leonetti). Wan is best known as the director of the first of the Saw movies, but, after another haunted house movie, Insidious, he has decided in this case to definitively give us a horror movie without the old Saw mainstays of insane torture, revolting carnage and stomach-turning bloodshed that made him famous. And indeed he does. He also, thanks to the Hayes brothers,  helps conclusively prove that horror can be more effective if it starts off with character, and then doesn’t start spraying the scene with gore too soon and too constantly.

Vera Farmiga, who plays most of the film like a figure in a Bronte Sisters novel, is one of the best American movie actresses around right now (so is Lili Taylor), and both of them give the movie soul and mind and a beating heart—a heart that doesn’t threaten to be cut out and stomped on, as in Saw and its gruesome ilk. Wilson and Livingston (of Office Space) play more everyday roles, but they’re good foils for the ladies, Farmiga and Taylor, two of the most reliable actresses around. They’re the reason, along with the movie’s classy dread-soaked visual style, that The Conjuring probably seems so effective—along with the acting, which includes good performances by the actresses playing Perron daughters Christine (Joey King) and Cindy (Mackenzie Foy). The script, by Chad and Carey Hayes (The Reaping and the 2005 House of Wax) is mediocre, predictable and illogical. And despite constant suggestions that what we’re watching is real (assurances that have become a paranormal cliché) the whole thing seems about as real as a mating of Ghostbusters and The Exorcist, if not as potentially funny.

A lot of people won’t mind that, I guess, if the movie gives them some shocks and jolts and chills. But, no doubt due to my constitutional inability to believe in demons or the Devil—whom I always see in images from my childhood of a smiling mustachioed horned guy in red long johns, carrying a pitchfork, brandishing an odd pointed tail and grinning fiendishly while trying to tempt people into misdeeds or sign away their souls with some phony contract—the movie didn’t put me through it.

I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the high-grade terrors I was assured were on the way—seemingly guaranteed by everything: the jangly, bang-bang music by Joseph Bishara, the first class prowl-around-the-house-and-the-cold-windy-outdoors camerawork by Leonetti, the rotting-old-real-estate production design by Julie Berghoff, the ads, the reviews, the trailer, and especially the genuinely frightened or frightening expressions on the faces of Ms. Farmiga and Ms. Taylor—contrasted with the furrowed brows and frowns of Wilson and Livingston. What can I say? I wanted to have a horrible time, but all I got was another okay, well-done, clichéd movie, with another predictable, illogical script. Maybe that’s horror enough.

Wilmington on DVDs: Our Man in Havana; Evil Dead (2013); The Evil Dead

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

OUR MAN IN HAVANA (Three Stars)
U.K.-U.S.: Carol Reed, 1959 (Columbia/Sony)

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Our Man in Havana, a dark 1959 comedy starring Alec Guinness, about spying and murder and vacuum cleaners in pre-revolutionary Cuba, was the first film that the great British thriller writer Graham Greene and his favorite director Carol Reed made together after their 1949 masterpiece The Third Man. And one thing that has to be said about it is that it’s no Third Man. As a spy thriller, it’s not as suspenseful, and even as a comedy, it’s not all that funny.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, or even a mediocre one. It’s just not as good as we want it to be, not as good as The Third Man—which is a film deliciously tense and highly dramatic and sometimes scathingly witty, and beautifully sad as well—and which has a really wonderful cast (Cotten, Welles, Trevor Howard and Valli), and gorgeously dark and angled cinematography by Robert Krasker, and that hauntingly twangy zither music by Anton Karas. At least one group of British critics selected The Third Man as the finest British picture of all time. (They may be right, though I‘d also put in a word for Lawrence of Arabia and The Red Shoes and The 39 Steps and Kes and A Hard Day‘s Night.)

But perhaps we’re too aware of The Third Man as an antecedent to Our Man in Havana. We expect too much and miss what’s there—which is a good amount of intelligence, wit, suspense, romance, political savvy (Greene himself was a British secret agent, like Alec Guinness’s James Wormold here), elegant black and white Havana location photography by Oswald Morris and a pretty wonderful, if more uneven, cast of its own: Guinness as Wormold the vacuum cleaner salesman turned reluctant spy, Maureen O’Hara as his affair-minded assistant spy, Ralph Richardson and Noel Coward as the maladroit spymasters who hire and employ him, Burl Ives as Wormold‘s best friend, Dr. Hasselbacher, Paul Rogers as a friendly assassin and Ernie Kovacs as the urbane, sadistic Cuban head cop, Captain Segura, who’s in love with Wormold’s free-spending daughter Milly (Jo Morrow).

There are two bits of miscasting. Burl Ives, who was great as Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy, doesn’t have the entire accent for Hasselbacher and he plays his one mournful note too dolorously. And Jo Morrow can’t make you think she’s a British teenager (even when Wormold “explains” that she picked up her accent in America) or forget that she wound up in movies like For Those Who Think Young. Most of this unusually talented cast though seem to be having fun, especially Guinness, Coward and Richardson—and, more surprisingly, Ernie Kovacs, who’s so good he makes you forget he isn’t Cuban, isn’t cop, and doesn’t seem at first to belong in a Graham Greene movie.

The time of Our Man in Havana is the 1950s, under the Batista regime. The main character, Wormold, is a typical “split,“ guilt-ridden Greene character, played by Guinness with some of the introverted whimsy he put into the role of the fussy inventor in the beautiful little Ealing Studio comedy The Man in the White Suit. Because Milly spends too much money, Wormold, a man of little political intensity (it doesn‘t bother him that Hasselbacher is a World War I German Army veteran), allows himself to be recruited by a local MI6 agent, Hawthorne (Coward) a nimble agent who seems to do most of his recruiting in bars and men‘s rooms.

Hawthorne hires Wormold, though Wormold has no experience and no contacts—possibly because he seem the right sort of chap—and assigns him to put together a spy team for MI6, which is run back in England by the dithering “C” (Richardson). Wormold, unable to recruit or spy on anybody, hits on the temporarily successful stratagem of simply making up an agent list, or putting on it people with whom he has no connection—who hits on the stratagem of simply making all his spy team up, putting people on it he doesn’t know or who don’t exist and writing up incidents that never happened in his phony reports—along with the plans for what looks like fictional weaponry but is actually one of his vacuum cleaners.

So convincing are all Wormold’s fantasies and absurd inventions that MI6 wants more and sends him a helper (O‘Hara), to gather more of his non-intelligence. But there is a real world of spies and killers operating in Batista’s Cuba, and soon some of them are after Wormold, with real murder on their minds. Like The Third Man, the plot plunges a naïve but imaginative amateur (Cotten or Guinness) into a political game that turns deadly serious in a city that is dark and corrupt and filled with criminals and deceptions.

The movie was shot on location in Havana, in Castro’s post-revolutionary Cuba although the novel, published in 1958, was set in Batista’s Cuba—and that may have created a problem. Greene’s and Reed’s Havana never seems as real or as sinister as their Vienna in The Third Man. One has the sense that the two are pulling their punches, perhaps to mollify Castro (who didn‘t like Greene’s script). Our Man in Havana was essentially a comedy and Greene tries to emphasize the humor, even as the story darkens, even as, like The Third Man, a measure of melancholy and even despair infiltrating the action.

Graham Greene is one of my favorite writers—and one of my favorite screenwriters too. (He was also a film critic for a while, with a terrible blind spot on his competitor Hitchcock.) So what can you say about Our Man in Havana? That it isn’t a masterpiece? Well, most films aren‘t, and most British films aren‘t The Third Man. As a matter of fact, most of them aren’t as good as Our Man in Havana. The biggest joke of Greene and Reed’s last film though, is that the plot is based on real life—on a story known to Greene the WW2 spy, about a Spanish spy for the Nazis named Garbo who did exactly what Wormold did: invented a whole fictional spy team and submitted fictitious reports to his gullible employers. That tale has to have appealed to Greene, master of thrillers and deception—a good Catholic, albeit with sins on his conscience.

Extra: Trailer; Martini Minutes.

EVIL DEAD (Two Stars)
U.S.; Fede Alvarez, 2013

Jane LevyGore-happy, drenchingly bloody horror movies like the new Evil Dead, movies so soaked with phony blood that everybody begins to look like a Jackson Pollock splatter painting (heavy on the red), can sometimes be fun if they’re cheap and irreverent and inexpensively creative, looking as if their blood comes out of a syrup bottle, their special effects come out of somebody’s basement, and their actors are mostly desperate young unknowns trying to shriek their way to stardom. In other words, if they’re something like the original 1981 The Evil Dead (see below), the wildly excessive and effective cheapo-terror show that jump-started the career of its nervy young director Sam Raimi and its wildly hammy young star Bruce Campbell.

But when the shockers cost millions of dollars and have an expensive production, like the new Dead remake by now-producers Campbell and Raimi, it helps if they have some acting, some ideas, a script—and a good one, not just another of those anything-for-a-shock outlines that know no limits and make no sense.

This remake, which is directed and co-written by Fede Alvarez, takes place in one of those sinister cabins in the murky woods, where horrible things will happen to the five good-looking kids who have unwisely cut themselves off from society, gone to the depths of the dark forest and will soon discover, in their cabin in the woods, body-hopping demons and all kinds of frightening new uses for common household utensils, like kitchen knives and nail guns.

In the original, the quintet was just there for whoopee. Here, they’re on a mission of mercy. Four of them are there accompanying their dope-addicted pal, Mia (Jane Levy), to help get her though an unusually terrifying cold turkey session. These four guardians include Mia‘s not-too-swift brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his know-it-all pal Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and sexy friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). These five find what initially seems a bare, deserted cabin (a family hideaway), but quickly becomes full of stuff, almost all of it dangerous. And things begin to go really wrong when Eric finds and reads the Necromicron, or Book of the Dead, which is bound in human skin—and then get even worse when he unwisely says a supernatural password.

What follows is an all out attack by the badly behaved dead, which eventually go completely bloody bonkers. If you’ve seen the original, you can guess a lot of what happens. In fact, even if you haven’t seen the original, you can probably guess, since it’s been repeated endlessly in what became the subgenre of the cabin in the woods horror film, the best of which was last year’s ingeniously twisted and twisty Cabin in the Woods. That movie revamped and revitalized the whole sub-genre. The new Evil Dead, often both predictable and illogical, has no real purpose other than to scare us silly—or scare us sillier.

Director Alvarez (from Montevideo, Uruguay) and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues have some good ideas here, mostly visual, but some bad ones too, mostly dramatic. Despite a script polish by Diablo Cody, the characters ring false. So does everything else, beginning with the acoustics of the cabin, in which sheer bloody screaming murder can be going on in one room, but apparently completely unheard by the people in the next room or outside.

In what I guess you can safely call the now legendary original The Evil Dead, there was a furious, part-satiric energy that hurtled you along and repeatedly zinged up the movie. In this Evil Dead, the script is terrible, the acting negligible and the visuals grueling. The problem with a lot of today’s horror movies, and particularly the ones adapted from 1960s-1970s low-budget classics, is that their enlarged scale makes them seem ridiculous and inhuman. I didn’t find this Evil Dead scary, but maybe that’s because I tend to think that life can be scarier.

The Evil Dead Limited Edition (Three Stars)
U.S.; Sam Raimi, 1983 (Anchor Bay/Starz) 

adfasdfasdfThe Evil Dead, shot by Michigan State guy Sam Raimi and other students, became the scariest movie of 1983, by following the low-budget, high-dread course laid down by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead and followed or elaborated by many others, including David Cronenberg in Shivers, and Peter Jackson in Dead Alive. Some kids are trapped in close quarters. Some unstoppable undead zombies want to kill them. They keep coming and coming. Yaaaagh! Here, a too-confident quintet face a series of shocks, beginning with the nastiest plant attack ever. Warning: This one is really bloody, really gruesome and doesn’t let up on tension or horror  for a second. Extras: Commentaries by Raimi and others, documentaries and featurettes, reunion panel, trailer.

Wilmington on DVDs: 42

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

42 (Also Blu-ray/DVD/Ultra Violet Digital Combo Pack) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Brian Helgeland, 2013 (Warner Bros.)

42D-07012r“42” was the number that Jackie Robinson wore when he played with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the number on his uniform when he broke professional baseball’s unwritten ban against blacks playing on the previously all-white teams. That number, and Jackie, are parts of not just sports history but of American social, cultural and political history as well.

The movie 42 is the story of how Robinson (played by d Chadwick Boseman) crossed that barrier, of what Jackie and his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) went through in the years covered (from 1945 to 1947), of how he stood up against taunts, jeers and verbal and physical abuse both on and off the playing field, and how he (and the people who chose him, supported him and played with him), finally ended the shameful history of racial prejudice in baseball—opening the door that thousands of  baseball players of color have gone through ever since.

It’s also the chronicle, filmed by writer-director Brian Helgeland, of a lesser-known hero named Branch Rickey. Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) was general manager of the Dodgers in 1945 and he was the executive who conceived and masterminded Robinson’s entry into the major leagues, handpicking him as the player to take on the job of cracking the racial barrier.

Rickey was 65 when he chose Robinson and Robinson was 26 when he signed the contract. But the movie makes them a well-matched, intuitively connected team. Rickey, whom Ford plays as a tough old man with a gravelly voice and a dry, candid wit, comes across as a guy with lots of baseball savvy, but also with a burning sense of fair play and righteous indignation. Boseman plays Jackie as a tough, ambitious young kid with a similar send of justice, who seizes the chance Rickey gives him.

The movie covers 1945 to 1947, which begin with Robinson still playing for the Negro leagues in Kansas City, and Rickey—far away in Brooklyn—cooking up his plan to integrate baseball. (Among Rickey’s other candidates were catcher Roy Campanella and the ageless master pitcher Satchel Paige, both of whom eventually made it to the “bigs” as well).

Then we watch as Robinson, under Rickey’s protection, goes from the Kansas City Monarchs to the Montreal Royals (a Dodger farm team) and finally to the Ebbets Field stomping grounds of “Dem Bums” (the Dodgers)—all the while having to cope with the hostility of other teams, segregation, isolation in the South, physical threats, and the hostility of some of his teammates as well. The most memorable of the scenes of racial tension is the heckling session—a grinning torrent of six-letter words (all the same word, beginning with “n”) poured on Jackie by Phillies manager Ben Chapman (played with utterly believable malice and ease by actor Alan Tudyk).

Jackie Robinson played himself in the 1950 bio-movie The Jackie Robinson Story, with mixed results. (The Hollywood Reporter though, predicted a possible movie career for him—which is something that actually happened for the young actress who played Rachel Robinson, Ruby Dee.) Boseman endows Jackie with an inner turbulence tightly contained. We can accept Boseman’s Jackie as a great athlete, and also as a charismatic and determined figure—matched, every step of he way, by Beharie as wife Rachel.

42D-05348rAs Ford plays him—in one of his best recent performances—Rickey is clearly acting out of conviction. Rickey, who had seen racism in action his entire career, simply felt that black players were getting a raw deal. He wanted to right some of those wrongs. But he was also acting out of enlightened self-interest, Rickey knew, as a canny baseball man, that a lot of first-rate talent was being ignored and wasted. He wanted both to improve his team and to improve America—and he ultimately did both.

The Dodgers, after all were no desperate, floundering team looking for a gimmick to create controversy and draw crowds. They had finished second in the National League pennant race the year before (to St. Louis) and they had star players—including shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), pitcher Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater), Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) and second baseman Eddie Stanky (Jessie Luken)—as well as the most colorful manager then in (or out of) the sport, Hollywood ladies‘ man (he was married to actress Laraine Day), Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni). Durocher was the dugout philosopher who coined the phrase “Nice guys finish last.”

These Dodgers were among the elite units in baseball, but they were also cursed with their own share of prejudice (Walker was among the players who circulated a petition against Jackie), yet also blessed with tolerance and anti-bigotry as well. Branca, Stanky, Durocher (who had to miss the season, after pressure group objections to his private life) and Reese were among Jackie’s allies. And Reese, in real life, was responsible for a gesture that makes for the movie’s single most moving moment. When a crowd jeers Robinson (as was usual in his early major league days)’ Pee Wee (who hailed from Kentucky) walks over to his teammate, puts his arm around Jackie’s shoulders, and looks out quietly t the abusive fans.

I liked 42. I liked the performances, including fine turns by John McGinley as the elegant sports announcer Red Barber and Andre Holland as another reporter and Jackie‘s guide, Wendell Smith. Moments like the scene with Robinson and Reese—which you just don’t see in most new movies (at least done that convincingly)—are a big part of what makes 42 good.

Writer-director Helgeland is no softie. As either writer or as writer-director, he’s been a specialist in tough, knowing neo-noirs—ranging from L. A. Confidential (which won him a best screenplay Oscar) to putridly violent and brutal Point Blank remake (with Mel Gibson) Payback. 42, in his hands, is not overly sentimental. But he’s no automatic hard-edged cynic either. 42 is emotional and, at times, inspiring. Helgeland tells it well, with feeling for the characters, especially Jackie and Rickey: for what they meant to their time and ours, to baseball and to all of us. Sometimes, it’s good to have a hero. Or two.

Extras: None. (A badly missed opportunity.)

Wilmington on Movies: Pacific Rim

Saturday, July 13th, 2013

PACIFIC RIM (Three Stars)
U.S.: Guillermo del Toro, 2013

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Pacific Rim, the latest horror-fantasy-science-fiction-adventure  slambanger from  that sometimes-outrageously imaginative filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, is a nother technological marvel of a movie. It plays the big-show movie monster games with enough playfulness and imagination to score a number of ways  (action, comedy, melodrama) and to keep the inevitable scoffers against this kind of picture at bay. (At Michael Bay, that is.)

A wild mix of Godzilla (and his buddies), plus War of the Worlds, Starship Troopers, Avatar and Transformers, and many others, Pacific Rim doesn’t at first seem to aspire to being much more than spectacular summer fun for mass audiences. But, because del Toro is an artist as well as (when he wants to be) a big-movie technician, this show sucks you in emotionally as well as arousing you viscerally. The movie is  jam-packed with amusing nonsense and knock-your-eyes-out visuals, but it also actually has dollops of  heart, humanity and humor, that stuff most movies like this don’t have and could really use.

The script by del Toro and Travis Beacham (the young scribe of the 2010 Clash of the Titans) posits that gigantic alien monsters called  Kaiju, rising from beneath the sea, have been rampaging up and down the Pacific coastlines like sentient tsunamis, destroying our cities, destroying our armies, and terrorizing a little girl (Mana Ashida) who will grow up into a heroine named Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi of Babel, that more serious film by del Toro‘s countryman Alejandro González Iñárritu. Instead of simply blowing the monsters up with nuclear weapons, Earth’s mightiest minds and scientists (perhaps in consultation with Hasbro and other experts), have devised and built humungously gigantic robots called Jaegers (hunters), who are so damned big that it takes two pilots, with their minds melded together, to operate them.

SSD-19060.DNGPart of just such a heroic anti-Kaiju pilot team was our hero, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) who was melded with his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff). When things went wrong, Yancy was killed and Raleigh washed up on the shore, soul shattered, to  retire from jaeger-driving. But another hero, and the most heroic of them all—Idris Elba as the stoic and charismatic war-master Stacker Pentecost—is battling budget-cutters (read latterday congresspeople), who want to ditch the whole program and try to build a big wall along the coast—something the Kaiju are already ramming through, and that also seems to have the chance of  a pile of several hundred snowballs in hell. Stacker knows Raleigh was the best, and he recruits him back for a last robot stand, with the martially-skilled Mako as a prime candidate for his new mindmeld Jaeger partner.

The movie has more. There’s a pugnacious Australian macho pilot (Robert Kazinski) who keeps picking fights, and there are two wacky scientist-strategists—Charlie Day as frantic Dr. Newt Geiszler and Burn Gorman as his only slightly more rational-acting colleague Gottlieb. And, in addition to the seeming hundreds of people milling around the huge sets of military headquarters and  Hong Kong streets, there is my favorite actor and character in the movie, Del Toro mainstay Ron Perlman as a cynical crook and Kaiju body parts-trafficker named Hannibal Chau.

That’s a lot more story, and  several more recognizable characters than we usually get in movies like this—which usually take a limited cast of stereotypes and then just hop from one destruction derby to the next. While the Beacham-del Toro script is no gem, it’s at least a script, and the characters, even if we’ve seen their like before, make good human bridges between the battles. I would have liked even more characters, henchmen and rivals for Hannibal maybe, and some dolphins and a whale or two—but you can‘t have everything.

Visually, Pacific Rim is a wow. Actually, I wasn’t always that taken with the robots, but the Kaiju (which reportedly means “strange creatures—like Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan—in Japanese), are really something. So are the stormy seas and the Blade Runner-ish city — and everything else shot by del Toro’s brilliant cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and his crew on the eye-popping production designed by Carol Speier and  Andrew Eskoromny. The acting is better than usual, the heroes are likable and good looking. Idris Elba’s glowering war master, Charlie Day’s hysterical scientist and Ron Perlman’s cynical heavy are all you could want from them.

Del Toro, in addition to his other big-time horror-fantasy-adventure shows—like the Hellboy movies, with Perlman—has directed two contemporary classics of more thoughtful and psychological horror: the anti-fascist parable Pan’s Labyrinth and the schoolboy nightmare The Devil’s Backbone. And while I’d rather see del Toro making movies like that, I’d rather see him making movies like Pacific Rim than no movies at all—or see another big-budget extravaganza by the kind of filmmakers John Milius used to call “mercs.”

At the end of Pacific Rim, I was touched—and you may be, too—by the movie’s final dedication to those maestros of  movie monstery, special effects and model-maker Ray Harryhausen and Godzilla director Ishiro Honda. Those two artists weren’t working with the best scripts either, but they still managed to unleash their monsters, their Kaiju, with style and pizzazz. When the world really does end, I hope there’s a Honda, a Harryhausen, or a Guillermo del Toro around to light the fuse and cue the monsters.

Wilmington on Movies: Grown Ups 2

Friday, July 12th, 2013

GROWN UPS 2 (Two  Stars)
U. S. Dennis Dugan, 2013

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Some movie guys never grow up. But then, why should they, if the audience won’t grow up either? Adam Sandler—the Harold Lloyd of toilet gags, the Buster Keaton of dick jokes—strikes again in Grown Ups 2, a been-there-crapped-that sequel to the astonishingly successful 2010 buddies-gone-wild comedy Grown Ups. In that world wide smash hit, you’ll remember, Sandler played Hollywood superagent Lenny Feder who returned to his New England home  town to hook up again with his best buddies and fellow middle school basketball teammates—smarty-pants Kurt McKenzie (Chris Rock), affable Eric Lamonsoff (Kevin James), sneaky Marcus Higgins (David Spade) and  elusive Rob Hillard (Rob Schneider)  to say goodbye, at a put-the-“fun”-in-funeral service to their beloved recently deceased old coach, and later restage their championship hour of triumph by replaying the team they beat. (Sandler, as I recall, took all the shots.)

Accompanying the guys, occasionally, were their wives—Lenny’s feisty Roxanne (Salma Hayek), Kurt’s talky Deanna (Maya Rudolph), Eric’s tolerant Sally (Maria Bello) and Rob‘s Golden Girl Gloria (Joyce van Patten). Marcus was a bachelor—though sometimes, we learn here, a backsliding one. There were also  numerous children, in-laws, townspeople and other colorful characters, plus a zillion or so jokes, good and bad, from writers Sandler and Fred Wolf and Happy Madison house director Dennis Dugan.

Sandler’s humor is often rough, if a little Jerry Lewis-ishly sentimental by the end, but Grown Ups, which was about infantile guys reliving the past but also growing up a little, was both congenial and even a little sweet—and it mopped up at the box-office, while displeasing many critics (who don’t pay for their tickets anyway), me included. Now comes the sequel—minus Rob Schneider. (I‘m not saying this is a loss comparable to the disappearances of  Richard Castellano and Robert Duvall in the sequels to The Godfather, but Schneider should have done the movie.)

Anyway, they can’t play the big game again, so writers Sandler and Wolf and Tim Herlihy have subbed a battle of the generations between Lenny’s gang and  a bunch of bullying cutie frat boys led by Taylor Lautner in full smirk, plus a big ‘80s nostalgia party, along with comical chases monitored by huge local cop, Officer Fluzoo, played by real-life basketball great Shaquille O’Neal. (The part was written with all the flair with which Shaq once shot free throws.) At the ’80s bash, Lenny dresses up as Bruce Springsteen—and Lautner’s  ab-happy frat pack show up, along with Stone Cold Steve Austin. An unseemly brawl ensues.

In other words, it’s just another silly Sandler movie, with a lot of silly gags about unmentionable body parts and secretions and what Chuck Berry once called “My ding-a-ling”—followed by a nice little bit extolling the virtues of  family life and friendship — when, the way the movie was going, you might have expected a nice little bit extolling the virtues of poo-poo, diddly-dwot and Number Two.

Grown Ups 2 is a movie, after all, that begins with a scene in which Lenny awakens in his halcyon mansion of  a home to the sight of  an elk prowling around his bedroom and eventually whizzing in his face and then running off to wreak more elk havoc. It’s a movie whose the most memorable (unfortunately) gag (and I do mean gag), involves a frozen yogurt guy fixing the chocolate spigot on his machine, but shot at such a suggestive angle that the brown  syrupy substance dribbling past his legs seems to be not chocolate but something else—something that rhymes with pap and Hialeah. This is a movie that actually coins a new word for bodily functions, and a new kind of bodily function: to “burpsnart”—or to burp, sneeze and fart all at the same time. This is a movie where one (secondary) character picks and eats his own belly-button lint. This is a movie where no bodily fluid is sacred, no joke too crass and no breast too big.

Adam Sandler has made his share of bad movies (this one among them). But he’s a funny guy (and so are his friends), with an ingratiating doofus smile that takes the sting our of some of his more sadistic and malodorous gags. I‘m not ashamed to admit that Sandler has occasionally made me laugh and probably will again, even at his bad movies, which are most of them. He’s a rare combination of leading man and doofus, stud and stooge, as if Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had been cloned or mind-melded together. And his movies tend to be sports, show biz, buddy and/or sex fantasies with good cinematography (Theo van de Sande here), which is why audiences, especially male audiences, respond to them. But his shows too often soar off into silliness, and they also tend to wear on you. (Exceptions: Punch Drunk Love, The Wedding Singer, Funny People.)

Recently he’s become one of the more reliable bêtes noire for movie reviewers—attacked for his infantile jokes and general tastelessness. It’s almost become a cliché, but  if he really wanted to seal the deal for the bad review crown, he ought to team up with Michael Bay. Think of it: They could contrive a horror movie, where Sandler and his buddies ran around pursuing women with big mammaries while huge monstrous erector set robot toys, who are mysteriously capable of massive burpsnarting and sharfpiddling and boogerbucking, march into some poor city, probably New York again, and proceed to barf and crap and pick their noses over everybody and everything, while telling awful jokes and eating belly-button lint. Now there’s a movie that would really generate active hostility in the audience—and maybe inspire a lot of reviews full of really bad jokes.

Meanwhile we can only wait and anticipate the inevitable “Grown Ups 3: The Beginning,” in which a band of insane movie moguls invade Lenny’s town, kidnap him and his friends and forcibly chain them into huge cribs and huge malfunctioning diapers—while outside Rob Schneider rises from the dead, zombified and runs amok, demanding his part back. I don’t actually believe anyone would make a picture like that, but these days, you never know. This is the End? Anyway, who cares? It’s all just a lot of  bullsharfart. Or elk doody.

Other ratings:

PACIFIC RIM (Three Stars)
U. S.: Guillermo del Toro, 2013

THE HUNT (Four Stars)
Sweden/Denmark: Thomas Vinterberg, 2013

Wilmington on DVDs: Spartacus; Backdraft; Spring Breakers

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

SPARTACUS  (DVD) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Stanley Kubrick & Anthony Mann (uncredited), 1960 (Universal)

Spartacus—star-producer Kirk Douglas’ mammoth adaptation of Howard Fast’s novel of the Roman slave rebellion, with Douglas at his fieriest and most heroic as gladiator turned rebel-leader Spartacus—was one of two great, controversial leftist movie epics scripted in 1960 by long-time blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. The other was Otto Preminger’s excellent film of Leon Uris’ birth-of-Israel saga, Exodus.

Spartacus is the one probably most remembered today though, for its sweep, its spectacle, its passionate Alex North score, its stunning Russell Metty cinematography, for Trumbo’s deliciously partisan portrayal of the battle between the heroic slaves and their degenerate aristocratic Roman masters (obviously partly an analogue for Hollywood‘s blacklisted leftists and the studio establishment) and for the all star cast backing up Douglas—including Laurence Olivier as Spartacus’ foe, the ruthless bisexual General Crassus, Charles Laughton as wily old Gracchus, Tony Curtis as Spartacus‘ devoted lieutenant Antonius, Jean Simmons as his slave-wife Varinia, John Gavin as young Julius Caesar, Woody Strode as Draba, the black gladiator whose death triggers the revolt, and Oscar-winner (for this part) Peter Ustinov as Lentulus Baiatus, the smarmy, wheedling, ass-kissing head of the gladiator school.

And then, of course, there’s the director, the young Stanley Kubrick, who had already worked with Douglas in the 1957 anti-war World War I classic, Paths of Glory, and who replaced the original director Anthony Mann when Mann and executive producer Douglas butted heads.  (Before he left, Western expert Mann shot much of Spartacus’ memorable gladiator school sequence.)

Dismissed by some critics as director Kubrick’s least personal project, Spartacus has  in fact become one of Kubrick‘s best loved movies: a progressive historical-war saga par excellence, and the grandest of all Hollywood homoerotic sword-and-sandals epics—made even more homoerotic by the addition in recent years of the initially deleted Olivier-Curtis hot bath sequence. It’s also a movie that fits in solidly with Kubrick‘s anti-establishment Hollywood filmography, and his frequent portrayals of perverse establishments and of doom-ridden protagonists battling destiny as they try to escape fate’s inescapable traps.

2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon may be more typically Kubrickian epics, but neither one has a moment that emotionally charges you up like the famous scene here where the vanquished slave army general Spartacus is asked by his Roman captors to reveal himself, and he’s beaten to the punch by his soldiers, who rise to their feet, one by one, then more and more,  and defiantly yell: “I am Spartacus.” “I am Spartacus!” “I am Spartacus!” It’s a moment of anti-informant revolutionary  passion that HUAC target and old leftie Trumbo had to cherish.

Spartacus was certainly the high point of Kirk Douglas’s movie career, if not Kubrick’s. But many (including Douglas himself) would argue that its was the actor’s  next collaboration with screenwriter Trumbo, that resulted in the best performance of  his entire filmography—as the untamable fugitive cowboy in director David Miller‘s memorable black-and white western Lonely are the Brave (1962). However you feel about either film, Spartacus, controversial in its day, has earned a place in Hollywood cinematic and political history—as a yell of defiance from the Hollywood left and a supreme collaboration between Stanley Kubrick the director (“I am Spartacus!”), Dalton Trumbo the writer (“I am Spartacus!”), and Kirk Douglas, the actor-producer-gladiator (“I am Spartacus!”)

The rest of the movie’s stellar cast includes Nina Foch, Herbert Lom, John Ireland, John Dall, Charles McGraw and Harold J. Stone. Mann was uncredited for his directorial contributions, and two uncredited writers on Spartacus were actor Ustinov and Paths of Glory’s Calder Willingham.

This new release of “Spartacus” is a budget edition, with the deleted Olivier-Curtis scenes restored. But  most aficionados will still prefer the two-disc Criterion edition, which has commentary by Douglas, Ustinov,original novelist Howard Fast and others; as well as a Dalton Trumbo scene-by-scene analysis; documentaries and interviews (Ustinov and Simmons)—or the 50th anniversary Universal package.

BACKDRAFT (DVD) (Three Stars)
U. S.; Ron Howard, 1991 ( Universal )

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A well-made mix of action melodrama and family drama, set in Chicago and the combustible world of big-city professional firefighting, Backdraft is smoothly and empathetically directed  by Ron Howard. The movie also has truly spectacular fires, a fine cast and a nicely familiar plot involving feuding brother firefighters (Kurt Russell and William Baldwin). They  keep this Chicago fire blazing. With Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Donald Sutherland. Rebecca De Mornay and the much-missed J. T. Walsh.

SPRING BREAKERS (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Harmony Korine, 2013 (Lionsgate)iPhone_12-03-15_IMG_1651.JPG

 

 

 

Who needs school?  Who needs work?

Harmony Korine’s movies—up to and including his latest, Spring Breakers—are mostly outlaw pictures and weirdo comedies about people who don’t want to grow up: kids, crooks, artists. Spring Breakers is about four college girls who take off for the collegiate bikini-flipping revels at Tampa, Florida, and descend into Hell. It may be the culmination of all the Korines: a picture that starts off like an arty “Girls Gone Wild” video, inflated to Hieronymus Boschian or Pieter Brughelian Beach Party proportions, and ends up doing a riff on the Al Pacino-Brian De Palma 1983 Scarface, mashed up into Charlie‘s Angels gone homicidal.

It’s a sometimes fascinatingly dumb movie, about fascinatingly dumb people doing fascinatingly dumb things. Some  of it is fun to watch, and some of it is irritating as Hell. The story makes no sense, and gets more senseless the more you think about it. But at the same time, the movie—part of which was shot cinema vérité-style during spring break in Florida—has some authentic peeks at youth semi-life and style. It’s shot (and in one case, acted) like an art film or a neo-noir, and it looks good, even if  its psychological substance is almost nil. But then, who needs reality?

Some of it is great—namely the shimmering, sunstruck, stunning cinematography by Belgian-French maestro Benoît Debie (who photographed Irreversible and Enter the Void for Gaspar Noé), and (especially) the amazingly entertaining gangsta-pranksta performance by James Franco as the brain-fried hip-hop-druggie Britney Spears fan Alien. Franco‘s portrayal of Alien, a guy who calls his bed an art piece and plays piano and assault rifles, is so good and such a triumph of  charismatic dopiness and rebel posturing—that it singlehandedly hauls the movie up a star or two. But who needs stars? Who needs critics?

The movies’ femme leads are an odd assortment of Disney Channel or family-oriented  teen queen junior superstars: Selena Gomez (as Faith), Vanessa Hudgens (as Candy) and Ashley Benson (as Brit)—plus, as Cotty, Rachel Korine (who is Mrs. Harmony). They all tend to look almost interchangeable, and three tend to act interchangeable too. Brit, Candy and Cotty are outlaws behaving as if they‘re “in a video game… or a movie.” Candy, Brit and Cotty pull a Bonnie and Clyde at a fast food chicken eatery, while Faith is a good Christian who hangs around with the others because they’ve known each other like, forever—or at lest since grade school. Maybe they should be cramming for exams instead of pulling stick-up jobs and snorting cocaine in Tampa. But who needs exams?

When the gals hit Tampa—just like Dolores Hart, Yvette Mimieux, Paula Prentiss and Connie Francis hit Ft. Lauderdale in 1960’s Where the Boys Are—they immediately fall into what seems to be a nonstop, bouncing day-and-night orgy, which gets them arrested and puts them in the eager hands of Alien, who pays their bail, and invites them over to his big expensive crib with all his big expensive toys. (“Look at all my shit!“)  Alien is also involved in a street war with an old dealing friend (Gucci Mane), and pretty soon, the movie goes bloody and haywire and murderously illogical. But who needs logic?

A lot of Spring Breakers is shot and shaped like old-style softcore porn show. It’s blended with a teen-slanted ‘83 Scarface pastiche. But, as long as Franco is on screen, it’s a good movie, and there’s also something crazily compelling about the scenes of the huge outdoor dance-a-thon. The ending is beyond ridiculous, and not funny enough to save things. And the four femme stars could have used better parts and better lines, but what the hell. The movie‘s credibility vanishes after the restaurant robbery scene anyway. But as the man says, who needs credibility? Who needs Bonnie and Clyde?  Who needs… Just pretend… Ah, what the hell…

Wilmington on DVDs: Safety Last!

Monday, July 8th, 2013

DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

SAFETY LAST! (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Fred Newmeyer, Sam Taylor, 1923 (Criterion Collection)

HLSL

The sight of  Jazz Age comedy icon Harold Lloyd, in  Safety Last!, desperately clinging to the hands of a clock  as they bend and dangle him above the street, has to be one of the imperishable images in all American movie comedy. It’s an image that keeps coming back to us generation after generation, at once hilarious and terrifying, a nightmare and an exhilarating high: with bespectacled, indefatigable Harold playing a hapless department store clerk, forced by bizarre happenstance to try to become a “human fly” (a daredevil building climber), now trapped on that clock in  the upper stories of the “Bolton Building.” Wow! Scary as it seems on screen,  it’s scarier still when you learn more of the story behind the movie and behind Lloyd‘s incredible stunts, some of which involved real danger, honest-to-goodness peril.  Harold Lloyd: Whatta guy!

Today, in most movies, the stunts are usually CGI-manufactured: computerized visuals and technical sleight-of-hand. Lloyd’s stunts were mostly real. He really climbed a building, or at least part of it, and though he‘s mostly working on facsimiles of a building erected on the roofs of three other real ones, it’s often almost as dangerous as it looks. He really slipped and stumbled—on purpose of course—and danced on the ledges. The buildings behind him, as he clings to the wall, are not rear projection or process shots, but the real buildings of a real Los Angeles that you can see right over his shoulder. If he’d fallen, he might have been severely injured. And, in many cases, the only thing between Lloyd and a plunge to the street below was a platform  with mattresses positioned beneath him—a “safety” device that ultimately proved not so safe and not so reliable.

So it was in the Golden Age of silent movie comedy—especially for great filmmakers like Buster Keaton, like Charlie Chaplin—and for Harold Lloyd, the master of the thrill comedy.

With his ever-present spectacles, everyday suit, jaunty straw hat and his harried expression, which often broke into a dazzling smile, Lloyd, or “Harold” (or “The Boy”), as he was variously known in his films, was the most normal-looking, the least “outside,” of the three prime movie clowns of the ‘20s. Charlie was a gentleman tramp, Buster was either a shy small town lad or a foppish rich guy. But Harold was the all-American boy whom you might bump into on the street—the go-getter, always trying to get ahead, get the job, get the touchdown, get the girl. He was Mr. Average Joe and Mr. U.S.A.: The Climber.

In Safety Last!, his most brilliant and flabbergasting cinematic feat, Harold is a small town boy (called, simply, “The Boy”), who,  migrating and working in the big city, and wanting to impress his girl (called “The Girl”) back home (played by Mildred Davis, Lloyd‘s wife), begins to fib a little. Harold is merely a put-upon clerk at the DeVore Department Store, the target of a sadistic floorwalker  named Stubbs (Westcott P. Clarke), but in his letters, he‘s been sending Mildred glowing (and false) reports of his steady climb to the top, and his (fictitious) recent promotions.

safetyreviewsThis first part of Safety Last!, the set-up, is good enough to be a little classic all by itself—a wonderful satire of the classic American success story. Lloyd paints The Boy‘s predicament, the tower of lies and exaggerations he erects. Then he shows how—when Mildred comes to the city and pays him a visit at the store—Harold, who is afraid of ’fessing up,  tries to continue the deception by posing as his own boss and  breathlessly racing himself and Mildred in and out of the manager’s office. Later, trying to get in good with his perplexed superiors, he comes up with a promotional scheme he thinks will make a hit:  an exhibition in which his pal “Limpy” Bill, a local “human fly” (played by real-life climber Bill Strother) will scale, by hand, all 12 floors of the (fictitious) Bolton Building which houses the DeVore Store.

Unfortunately, Harold and Bill have angered a local cop (Noah Young) the day before, and the cop is on the prowl. To protect Bill,  Harold agrees to start the climb himself, and then, surreptitiously, let Bill take his place on an upper floor, to complete the ascent. This cop, though, keeps pursuing Bill from floor to floor, always arriving at the moment when the boys are about to make the switch, and thus sending Bill racing off  (assuring Harold he‘ll “ditch the cop,”) and Harold climbing to another floor.

Up and up poor, inexperienced Harold climbs. Further and further below lies the street. The cop refuses to get ditched. Each floor brings a new complication or danger, including a phony gun, a mouse up Harold’s pants leg, interfering pigeons and that unforgettable collapsing clock. Soon, it looks as if Harold may have to climb up the side of the entire building, while below, the awestruck crowd oooooohs and aaaaaahs and yells and cheers, and beyond them, the movie audience, which never fails to be mesmerized by Safety Last! and Harold‘s climb, is doing the same.

Harold Lloyd was F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s favorite movie comedian, and it‘s easy to see why. Lloyd had a trajectory not unlike the “Harold” of his movies, or like Jay Gatsby’s. He was a small town boy from Nebraska and Colorado, who came to L. A. and hooked up with acting pal and eventual studio head Hal Roach to rise and climb and become  a Hollywood box-office king, and one of the richest men in town. Harold Lloyd: Whatta guy!

safetydatesLloyd called his special brand of cliffhanger comedies—in which an ordinary guy  somehow winds up walking the girders of a skyscraper under construction, or stumbling into a revolution, or dancing on a building ledge or dangling from a broken clock—“thrill comedies.” He invented the form and nobody did it better—not even, decades later, Lloyd’s great admirer,  the fabulous Hong Kong acrobat-stuntman-actor Jackie Chan. Safety Last! perfected the form—which Lloyd had also used in High and Dizzy and Never Weaken and Look Out Below, and would use again in Feet First—and set the template. Audiences loved it, and still do.

These thrill comedies, of course, can be viewed symbolically. Harold the rising young man in his pictures, is the young ambitious American go-getter trying to get ahead. And, to climb his way to the top of the world of business or  life, he has to brave (albeit sometimes unwittingly), the perils of  business and life. The perfect symbol of that rise is Harold gamely climbing up the Bolton Building, daring the heights, meeting insane new obstacles on every floor. That’s life. That’s showbiz. Sometimes you make it all the way up (like Lloyd or Chaplin). Sometimes you get there and fall (like Keaton). But the danger, the thrill, is always there.

Four years before he made Safety Last!, for example, in Lloyd’s comedy short Haunted Spooks, a bomb gag with a supposedly dummy bomb went awry and the live explosive blew off Lloyd’s thumb, his forefinger, and left his right hand partly paralyzed—for which he compensated with prosthetics and a special glove. When Harold performed all the amazing stunts in Safety Last! and other pictures, some of the most amazing comic stunts in cinema history,  he was a man with only one good hand—or, to be more accurate, a man (and an artist) with two great hands, one of which just happened to be missing a finger and a thumb.

Lloyd never took directorial credit on his movies. That usually went to people like Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor here. (The writing team on Safety Last! included Roach, Taylor, Tim Whelan and Lloyd.) But if ever an actor was the auteur of his movies, it was Harold Lloyd. He planned and executed the stunts; he structured the stories, he created the character, He was the go-getter, the boy, the guy with the glasses, the man who stopped time and dangled from its hands. He was a genius and an athlete, and he excelled at playing ordinary Joes in extraordinary pickles. He was one actor who didn’t leave all the risky stuff to the stunt men.

We mentioned that on the Safety Last! climb, there was no safety net, but only that mattress platform for protection.  Protection? During the shoot, somebody dropped a dummy on the mattresses and the dummy bounced off  and fell to the street or roof below. Now Harold Lloyd was no fool. He must have been pretty damned sure he wasn‘t going to slip on any of his epic stunts. And he didn’t. Harold Lloyd: Whatta guy!

Extras: An unusually excellent package, including two musical scores for Safety Last!, one with orchestra by Carl Davis and one by organist Gaylord Carter; Commentary by Leonard Maltin and Richard Correll; Introduction by Suzanne Lloyd, Harold’s granddaughter and the president of Harold Lloyd Entertainment; Documentary Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius (1989) (three stars), narrated by Lindsay Anderson;  Three newly restored Harold Lloyd short comedies by Hal Roach (all three stars), Take a Chance (1918), Young Mr. Jazz (1919), and His Royal Slyness (1920), with commentary by Correll and John Bengston; Documentary Locations and Effects, with Bengston and Craig Barron; Interview with Carl Davis; Booklet with a keen-o essay by Ed Park.

Wilmington on Movies: The Lone Ranger

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

THE LONE RANGER (Three Stars)
U.S.: Gore Verbinski, 2013

I. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…

Who was that masked man — the one riding through the multiplexes on a white horse named Silver with Rossini‘s “William Tell Overture“ crashing behind him? Part of a classic TV tribute? A campy send-up? A revisionist history lesson? A genre-bending Western?  A slapstick action movie? A formula  would-be blockbuster? Or a bit of all of them: a Lone Ranger in search of its identity, trying to yell out  a hearty “Hi Yo-Silver!“ but hidden behind a mask of  conventional big-budget movie-making?

There are about  one or two good pictures buried inside Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, which stars Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger, and is actually long enough (149 minutes) to have several extracted from it.  The movie, some of which I liked, could definitely use a trim, and this time, I wish they‘d done it. I also wish that the producer (Jerry Bruckheimer), producer-director (Verbinski) and writers (Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio), hadn’t tried to go  revisionist at times.

I don’t have any problems with Depp and the writers trying to interpret Tonto in a way that tries to be fairer to Native Americans, who, after all,  had a country stolen from them. But perhaps the movie should have celebrated (in a hip way of course) more of the original radio/TV hero’s “naïve“ virtues — such as social conscience and the passion for justice that The Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion Tonto displayed for 21 years (1933-54) in their radio incarnation, a few more on TV (1949-57) and that Depp and Hammer at first seem perfectly capable of supplying here.

Instead , the new movie goes riding off in all directions. Sometimes it’s darkly funny, sometimes it’s would-be poignant and elegiac, sometimes it’s traditionalist and legend-happy, sometimes (as in the runaway train climax) it’s a  hellacious slambanger of mostly non-CGI-generated action scenes. And though mixing moods and genres and styles can be provocative and fun, this movie and its makers never seem sure enough of its tone and its targets to navigate smoothly from one to another. There are good things in this Lone Ranger, but it tends to lose your attention — or overwhelm it — in the last hour or so.

WA070_020664-651x272The movie begins with a bang — lots of them, in fact. It’s a roaring recreation and an  origin tale, some of  which it will be familiar to anyone with a wee bit of Lone Ranger-lore tucked inside their noggin. The Ranger, whom we first meet under his real name of John Reid, is a non-gun-packing lawman and John Locke admirer, speeding West on a  train carrying two chained prisoners in a box-car: the fiendish Butch Cavendish (played with blood-chilling hard-core villainy by  William Fichtner) and the taciturn, ever-watchful Tonto (played with playfulness and  style by Depp). But the train shoots past its stop, and Butch’s gang explodes down, guns blazing, to set their boss free, leaving John and Tonto shackled together briefly — until Tonto escapes and John and his brother, the more practical, gun-packing lawman Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), take off after the Gang in a posse.

What follows is the famous ambush by the Cavendish Gang of the eight man Texas Ranger posse pursuing them, leaving six dead, one dying (Dan, whose heart will be ripped from his chest and eaten by the maniacal Butch) — and John himself lying there to be rescued by murder witness Tonto, who is rightly impressed by his new friend’s mojo with the spirit world.

Quick as you can say “Mmmm Kemo Sabe,“ a legend is born. John is eventually given a mask, dubbed The Lone Ranger and sets off with Faithful Companion Tonto to capture and punish the heartless Butch. There are other problems to solve as well: the bereavement and grief of Dan’s widow  Rebecca (played by Olivier Prize-winning British stage actress Ruth Wilson) and pugnacious son,  There’s the overconfident  and sneaky-looking tycoon Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who is after Rebecca and is also preparing to complete his Railroad and take over everything. There’s the local Madame, lusty Red Harrington (Helena Bonham Carter) who has the salty temperament, if not the hot temper,  of Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, and also the damnedest, most memorable wooden leg, this side of Buñuel’s Tristana.

Finally, there’s Tonto’s Comanche tribe (who remind Faithful Tonto of a terrible secret), led by Chief Big Bear (played by the estimable Saginaw Grant), mistreated by law and outlaw alike.  All of this, which supposedly took place in 1869, is told to a small boy wearing  a Lone Ranger mask (Mason Cook), in San Francisco in 1933 (the first year on radio for the Ranger), by an old Indian who walks out of one of the Old West museum exhibits and tells the whole story — right up to the wild and pulse-pummeling climax, which plays like a madly inflated expansion of Buster Keaton’s classic train chase in The General, and is scored (at last!) to the Ranger’s famous theme song, the propulsive and exciting “William Tell Overture” of Gioachino Rossini –  all of which is calculated to   tear up the screen..

THE LONE RANGERThat it does. And perhaps even more impressively, it does it without the aid, or over-aid, of CGI, with real trains really racing along and some of the actors doing their own stunt work. Whatever you can complain about in The Lone Ranger — and you can complain about quite a lot — it’s definitely a terrific-looking movie. Not counting Verbinski’s animated Sergio Leone parody Rango, it’s probably the best-looking big studio  Western since the heyday  of Peckinpah, Penn and Leone. Those Wild West artists  are all influences on the film’s often amazing images — along with the unexpendable head movie Western master of them all, John Ford. There is, of course, a scene or two (or more) shot in Ford‘s legendary Utah location Monument Valley (which he used regularly and unforgettably from 1939’s Stagecoach to 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn). The old valley still looks as monumental as  ever — and  Ford’s favorite hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River?” also present, sounds just as good.

II. Scorpions

Of course none of those Western pros would have gone anywhere near a Lone Ranger movie in their day — even though the major influences here include their work: Ford’s The Searchers, Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West, Penn’s Little Big Man, and Peckinpah in general. Each of those directors was, in his way, a realist trying to make Westerns more adult, just as Clint Eastwood was, and all of them would have probably scoffed at the idea of a  $250 million Lone Ranger movie – based on a radio show largely aimed toward children.

It is an absurd project. But Depp and the others sometimes give it surprising, uh, depth. Depp’s Tonto, who has a crow on his head, paint on his face and a burr monotone in his voice, is a hero both amusing and charismatic.. It’s an interestingly low-key  performance, not whimsical in Depp’s usual key: and it’s also a portrait of one of those movie Westerners, like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, doomed to “wander forever between the winds” — until he meets his faithful white man companion. It’s probably Depp’s most macho role, a strange description to apply to this often fey-acting actor, but one which he seems here to embrace. He’s not the best actor in the movie — Fichtner is, as the crazy Butch Cavendish — but he shows that he has more strings to his bow, and more arrows in his quiver, than we might have guessed.

The movie itself is grandiose and silly, but it’s done with a lot of affection for its subject. The new Lone Ranger may be miscalculated, too jam-packed and too damned much, but it’s not a cynical, totally mercenary project. There’s genuine feeling and even a political agenda:  to make Tonto the real hero, and to make John Reid/The Lone Ranger a doofus in search of his heroism. So Tonto is completely at home in his frontier desert environment, while John is a lone idealist (somewhat reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart’s Ranse Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), a fish out of water who’s naïve about the West and about evil, and has to be taught almost everything.

The approach almost works — except for the fact that, in this case,  Hammer and Verbinski make the Ranger a little too much of  a doofus, make it hard  to believe he’ll ever be any good at his job. Then again, there are scenes where, mystifyingly, he’s suddenly a meanie. It’s a huge mistake, I thought, to have John seem to walk away from Tonto, when his Indian sometime pal is buried up to his neck in a patch of ground covered with scorpions. Like the little kid I once was would have said emphatically: He wouldn’t have done that! Not my masked man!

. III. Westerns

I love Westerns, and  there are few movie trends I would like more than to see the genre revived and renewed. But the claim that the Western is a dead genre sometimes seems a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The pastoral lyricism and moral drama that were at the heart of the classic Westerns — John Ford’s movies and Anthony Mann’s and Peckinpah’s and Shane and High Noon – seems to run counter to what moviemakers want to show us these days. The old Western plots keep getting recycled, but they’re transplanted  onto other planets or into modern or futuristic cities. They become “street westerns,” or “sci-fi Westerns” — and the loss of the lyricism, the “great scenery” that every Western fan once cited, can sometimes be disastrous.

I dislike a lot of the movies that have replaced Westerns, which include violent messes like A Good Day to Die Hard (which takes its title from a Western), just as I often yearn for the Westerns they’ve replaced. Isn’t it possible anymore for someone to make an inexpensive, beautiful little movie like Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now, or Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage or Peckinpah‘s Ride the High Country? Do we always have to start with a hundred million (or more) budget and a body count that recalls Gettysburg?

Every once in a while in the last few years, a good Western, period or modern, pops up: Verbinski’s Rango, for example, or Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or Kelly  Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff or Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada , or the Coen brothers’ True Grit and their superb modern western (via Cormac McCarthy) No Country for Old Men. And it can remind us of how vital and alive and unfailingly popular the genre once was, how many movie classics it generated from the silent era on.

But those more recent pictures were mostly deliberately intended as art films for discerning audiences, made by filmmakers very aware of the Western as an American art form, and very aware (as Verbinski is) that Monument Valley is cinematic holy ground.  The Lone Ranger, in contrast, is intended as a big-crowd pleasing sequel-spawning franchise picture– like Verbinski, Bruckheimer and Depp‘s Disney swashbuckler series Pirates of the Caribbean — and it‘ll probably blamed if the genre stays “dead.” (To be fair,  we haven’t seen an avalanche of pirate movies recently either.) It’s somewhat embarrassing that the biggest-grossing Western of recent years is that addled science fiction hybrid, Cowboys and Aliens — a ridiculous movie whose script Ford or Peckinpah or Raoul Walsh probably would  have used to start a campfire.

In the end though, it’s hard to make a realistic western that will draw big audiences or rally the critics in the post-Vietnam era, because the whole legend of American manifest destiny and the myth of the frontier, has been affected by the historical revisionism that took hold, understandably,  afterwards. Yet there has always been strong sympathy in at least some of our movies directed toward Native Americans — dating back to early shorts like D. W. Griffith’s Ramona (1910), or silent features like George Seitz’s 1925 The Vanishing American — which was shot in Monument Valley,  as was John Ford’s own revisionist Western, Cheyenne Autumn, the last movie he made there.

IV. Viva Rossini!

When the big train scene starts and the “William Tell Overture” came on — one of the most exciting  and irresistibly propulsive pieces of music ever, and one irrevocably associated with the Lone Ranger and Tonto  — I was almost ready to forgive the movie everything, as long as the music kept playing a while, and then played again over the credits.

But the orchestrators  scrambled up Rossini with some Hans Zimmer interpolations (I guess), messing up that marvelous chain of exploding climaxes at the end.  and then, when the credits started off with a snatch of the overture again, they quickly stopped it and went over to original music again. To top it all off, I couldn’t even find Rossini’s name  in the credits list. How could the moviemakers be handed a magnificent gift like “The William Tell Overture” and break it off and mess it up?

The Lone Ranger isn’t quite as bad as most of the critics have cracked it up to be, though it’s overblown and wasteful in the modern bloated-epic tradition–overlong and  miscalculated and over-reliant on its often brilliant and very expensive technique. Technique can carry you only so far, which is also true of money. But sometimes it’s better to have nostalgia and the great tradition of the movie western and a faithful companion. And “The William Tell Overture,” uncut.

Wilmington on Movies: Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

KEVIN HART: LET ME EXPLAIN (Two Stars)
U.S.: Leslie Small, Tim Story, 2013

Standup comedians are, in some ways,  the decathlon athletes of show business. They have to do it all, do it fast, do it strong. The best of them — Robin Williams, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin, for example —  can or could be dazzling. But a good stand-up pro is always impressive, and Kevin Hart, at the center of the concert movie Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, and one of the most popular in the world right now,  is a pretty impressive performer, even if I suspect this wasn’t his best stuff — or the best stuff he‘ll do.

Except for Hart’s bit as a party guest in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This Is the End, Let Me Explain was my introduction to the comic: a diminutive spritzer of formidable energy and bizarre imagination. And though he’s obviously a funny guy, it wasn’t the  most attractive intro. Shot at a sold-out concert or two at Madison Square Garden in a  stadium full of laughing, howling fans, it‘s a movie that shows off Hart’s impressive gifts as a live performer — lungs of steel, unflagging energy, brilliant mimetic and physical gifts, a wild imagination and a seeming willingness to use his entire life as comic material.

The movie is short (79 minutes) and so is Hart (5’2”). He’s also tireless and dynamic. But it could have been better, wilder, funnier. The jokes rely too heavily on domestic stuff like his marital problems (for which he blames both himself and his “jealous” wife) and his partly exaggerated selfishness and eccentricity — and not enough on his better joke anecdotes, like the tale of his troubles riding  a horse with too-long stirrups. Or weirdo flights of fancy like the deerbra — half deer, half zebra — which is his ridiculous improvised excuse for being late.

The film begins with an obviously staged scene which purports to be Kevin’s party, full of  “plastic cup guys” and “dark-skinned and light-skinned sisters.” (That’s their designation in the credits.) It’s also full of booze and profanity. In the midst of the merriment, a seemingly foul-mouthed, egotistical Hart (obviously role-playing), spews obscenities, tiffs with irreverent and critical guests, tosses down cups, and decides he’ll show everybody, by just zipping over to Madison Square Garden and putting  on  a show.

Bushwa, of course. The concert is already set up, before Hart makes an offstage prayer, walks on stage and cues some fire effects in imitation of  shows by Jay-Z and Kanye West. (Also, before taking stage, Kevin gives us a quick zip through his recent world tour, of 10 countries and 80 cities, including Copenhagen and London, all full of adoring fans. Talk about self-advertisement!)

Hart starts up his act to more fans, wild applause and howls of laughter, and he does his thing. The audience would have liked more and so would I. I could also have done without the phony party scene, specially since Hart drops his “obnoxious” character when he takes stage. He’s actually touching when he goes bitch on us (his slang) and tears up at the end. No gold medals here, but there are laughs. And deerbras. (Deerbras? Give me a break.)

Wilmington on Movies: Despicable Me 2

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

DESPICABLE ME 2 (Three Stars)

U.S.: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, 2013

Zippily done, but somehow less emotional and more forgettable this time around, Despicable Me 2 is our second antic cartoon look at the despicable, if lovable bad guy Gru (a bald, fat, knife-nosed super-villain voiced  by the ubiquitous Steve Carell) and his despicable, if lovable Minions (pop-eyed little ambulatory yellow balls voiced by the movie’s super-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud). Together, they made a wry, horrific ensemble and they‘re joined (or rejoined) this time by Kristen Wiig, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt and other skillful, funny actors playing bizarre, if sometimes lovable, people and creatures.

But while it‘s a nice, often enjoyable movie with clever jokes and nifty scenes (like some of the Minions getting down to  the Village People’s bouncy double entendre-laden  disco hit “Y.M.C.A.”  for example ) Despicable 2  didn’t strike me as the equal or superior of the first movie , however many zillions it pulls in at the box-office.

It’s not that Coffin and Renaud — and their returning writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul — have lost their stuff. But I’m not as happy with Gru as a weird-looking super-hero, as I was with the guy as a super-villain, having the gru-someness charmed off him by those three adorable little orphans from the first movie, Marge, Agnes and Edith (Miranda Cosgrove, Elsie Fisher and Dana Gaier). Gru, is cuter as a villain,  just as Arnold Schwarzenegger was more powerful as a bad Terminator than as a good one).

At any rate, the problems involved in turning Gru from a sneering super-villain into a nice guy super-hero, surrounded by little minions, haven’t been solved — though I’ve got to admit that Coffin, Renaud,  and their gang have come up with a terrific replacement villain: Benjamin Bratt as the  boisterous and elegantly murderous  Eduardo a.k.a. El Macho, a heavy who can survive dynamite, volcanoes and minions alike.

Bratt, in many ways, steals the movie. But though I don’t like the script. Carell — who seems to be in so many movies and/or cartoons these days, that it’s a wonder we don’t get tired of him — holds his own, With his stage Russian accent, he reminds you at times of Akim Tamiroff, squeezed into a Loony Tune or an Edward Gorey drawing. Wiig meanwhile — who made her breakthrough as a comedy movie creator in Bridesmaids with superpal Melissa McCarthy — devises dozens of sparkling line readings to match up with the sparkly  drawing and animation on her character Lucy Wilde, supervillain-investigator.

Most of the best animation these days is the computerized stuff, and the rounded contours, warmth, depth  and rich detail sometimes suggest super-variants on stop-motion puppetry. The two Despicable Mes, by contrast, suggest the “modernistic” post-war flat, stylized line drawings of U.P.A. or Chuck Jones — even though they’re here often rendered n 3D. (You don’t want to miss the Minions in 3D doing their thing under the end-titles.) . Coffin and Renaud and their crew have mastered this style, and they have a lot of fun with it. And Carell, Wiig , Bratt and the other voice actors have fun as well. t’s just not as cool as Despicable 1.

Despicable 2 though has that casual expertise, color, energy  and witty emphasis on character, that most of the better cartoon features exhibit these days, and just because I found the script and the ideas a notch or two down from the first, doesn’t mean you will — or won’t. As I think I heard a Minion once say: A good Gru may be less fun than a bad Gru, but it’s better than no Gru at all.

Wilmington on Movies: The Heat

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

THE HEAT (Three Stars)
U.S.: Paul Feig, 2013

DF-05582_R2_rgbThe Heat is  a crude, violent, often tasteless, clichéd  and outrageously foul-mouthed buddy-buddy cop comedy that also happens to be funny — sometimes screamingly funny.  Perhaps that’s because the two star buddy-buddy cops this time, are  female versions  of a classic comedy team pair, a couple of  wildly mismatched, hilariously maladjusted but in the end,  solidly simpatico partners: a neurotic. skinny N. Y. FBI agent with scant social skills named Sarah Ashburn  (played by Sandra Bullock), and a badmouth bullying heavyweight Boston cop-babe named Shannon Mullins (played, and how,  By Melissa McCarthy). When the two meet, after Sarah travels to Boston on a drug case, which turns out to be the same one that Shannon iis already sniffing around, it’s hate at first sight, followed by inevitable “odd couple” buddyhood. (Ashburn is Felix; Mullins is Oscar.)

Perhaps it’s also because the director — Paul Feig, who guided McCarthy in Kristen Wiig’s hit gal-buddy messed-up-wedding  comedy Bridesmaids — seems to be terrific with comic actresses, bawdy dialogue and goofy timing. Perhaps it’s because screenwriter, Katie Dippold (Parks and Recreation) and most of the cast (Sarah is the skittish one)  seem  to have no, or few, inhibitions about language, particular the kind with four or ten or twelve letters that George Carlin couldn‘t say on TV.  You’ll have to forgive the show a few crimes and misdemeanors — such as  the constant stream of scatological gags and the disregard of proper police procedure. Some of the humor is bad or raunchy or both, And the jokes that misfire — like the emergency tracheotomy scene conducted (ineptly) by Sarah in a Boston eatery — are the kind you want to forget, but usually can’t.

But it was fun, foul-mouthed slapstick fun –rowdy and fast and packed with zingers. And, in any case, if The Heat doesn‘t make you laugh, a little, it should at least give you a case of contact jollies from all the people around you who will be laughing. At McCarthy of course, but also at the rest of a prime comic cast, including Tony Hale as the comic John manhandled by Mullins when she busts him with a hooker, Dan Bakkedal as the comic albino DEA .agent,  Michael McDonald as Julian, the comic thug who drives a knife into the thigh of the tied-up Ashburn, and Spoken Reasons (that’s the name) as the comic drug dealer Rojas, who is comically dangled over the street to scare hell and info out of him,

Then, there’s Shannon’s comically dysfunctional Boston family, which includes Michael Rapaport as Jason, the ex-con drug dealer, and Jane Curtin as the clan‘s foul-mouthed matriarch. Thank God there were no comical serial killers in The Heat, but I’m not so sure Feig and his cast couldn’t  have pulled that one off too. A lot of  the more spontaneous-looking-and-sounding stuff the cast does, especially McCarthy, smells like improvisation and , in any case, feels like it.  Comedy is often a matter of observation and timing, and Sarah and Shannon are both pretty well-observed (if wildly exaggerated) characters as well as being classic comic “types:” the hysteric and the wise guy — a mixture of Cagney and Lacey and Abbott and Costello, or The Bridesmaids and Lemmon & Matthau., or maybe The Dixie Chicks and The Three Stooges.

The Oscar-winning Bullock, playing way off-type in the beginning,  put me off at first. (Maybe  her impersonation of a prig and a pill was a little too sharp) But, when she loosens up, the interpretation grows on you and works just fine –  and McCarthy, as usual these days, nails every laugh in sight. I never saw her on TV, in Mike & Molly, but she‘s obviously one of the best star movie comedienne around right now (in sheer volume of laughs delivered). And though it’s overdoing things to proclaim this picture as some kind of feminist breakthrough, it is encouraging to see a big-audience movie whose two stars are women, both over 40, and both letting it all hang out.

t’s loud, it’s obnoxious, it’s sometimes nasty, but when it’s cooking, it’s a gut-buster. One thing I didn’t like about it though is the title, The Heat — which I guess refers to the “heat” these ladies are bringing down on the drug gang. But…The Heat? Nah. Sounds too much like that great 1995 De Niro-Pacino crime thriller, or maybe like some horror movie about fire-creatures chasing screaming people through a graveyard. Maybe they should have called it Ashburn and Mullins. Too obscure? Anyway, the point, as they say, is moot, because there’s already a The Heat 2 in the works. No more tracheotomy jokes though, I hope.

Wilmington on Movies: White House Down

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

WHITE HOUSE DOWN (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Roland Emmerich, 2013

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I hate to admit this, but I sort of enjoyed White House Down. This doesn‘t mean that I‘m ready to forgive producer director Roland Emmerich and his latest landmark-basher  all their cinematic sins (among them Emmerich’s  last movie raid on Washibgton D. C., and the White House, Independence Day) , or that I think that moviemakers with outlandishly big budgets at their disposal should keep attacking and blowing up the White House on screen until they get it right—which may never happen until they hire Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and James Franco for the job—or that I‘m getting soft in my old age. It’s just that White House Down, defying all my expectations, made me laugh a little.  Intentionally. Well, maybe more than a little. It’s a ridiculous movie—just like a lot of the contemporary smack-you-upside-the-head, shoot-’em-all-up action extravaganzas. But it’s knowingly ridiculous. You can tend to forgive it, if you want.

Emmerich’s movie amused me despite the fact that it proves that, in some cases, bad ideas die hard. White House Down, for the second time this year (after the supremely dopey Olympus Has Fallen)  tries to whip up an explosion-happy, Die Hard-ish destructo-thriller out of  a totally ridiculous premise—the invasion and takeover of the White House by a small band  of terrorists—and the subsequent battle between those bad guys and one lone cop or secret service agent (Gerard Butler in Olympus, Channing Tatum here), battling in the Oval Office and beyond for control of the world—and also for the rescue of both the U.S. President (Aaron Eckhart; Jamie Foxx) and an adorable child. (Finley Jacobson as the prez’s son; Joey King as Tatum‘s daughter Emily here).

The fact that a storyline like that was used to make even one movie, is flabbergasting, But Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt (who wrote  Zodiac), seem to have decided to acknowledge their movie’s basic absurdity (as Olympus didn’t) and have as much fun as possible with it. They don’t lack for opportunities; there’s plenty of ludicrous stuff to play around with here.

For one thing, these terrorists (North Koreans in Olympus, but American dissidents here) manage to sneak in and take over one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the world by simply slipping past the defenses thanks to a little inside help, disguised as surly home entertainment repairmen, and the rest of the movie is given over to John Cale’s (Tatum‘s) one-man war against them, while the rest of the world—the loyal Secret Service, the Army, the Air Force, the police—stand helplessly by, either bickering pointlessly or blowing up things and suffering more casualties, demonstrating over and over again the seeming inability of the rest of the world to deal with these preposterous invasions.

There are also a lot of  jokes and riffs in Jamie Foxx‘s performance as a hip black president named James Sawyer, who reminds us irresistibly of Barack Obama,  along with the slightly Joe Biden-ish Vice President Hammond (played by Michael Murphy, of Manhattan). And for good measure, there’s combative Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), who reminds us not as irresistibly of a smarter John Boehner. The other White House or government personnel include James Woods doing his best fire-breathing job as retiring security boss Walker, and Nicholas Wright, who’s funny as Donnie the White House tour guide. On the bad guy side, there’s Jason Clarke (of Zero Dark Thirty, in a ferocious performance as Stenz, the mean bully.

Our hero for the evening is Channing Tatum as cop turned secret service agent John Cale (he helps protects Speaker Raphelson). Cale—no elation, we hope to Lou Reed’s old compatriot in the Velvet Underground—wants to switch jobs and protect President Sawyer, a cooler guy than the Speaker and also the idol of his 11-year-old daughter Emily. But he gets his application refused after an interview conducted by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Special Agent Carol Finnerty, who refuses his transfer request, maybe  because, as it urns out, they once had a bad date in college.

Obviously Cale has to do something special to impress Emily, like save America from a coup d’etat—while, to impress the audience, actor Tatum will strip down to a tank-top. Then he gets down to the serious business of saving the White House, the President and America, in  a show that will include Black Hawk helicopter landings on the White House roof, a presidential limousine pursuit on the White House lawn, assorted sadism by Stenz and his angry dissidents, and  one hair-raising moment involving the President’s watch, an heirloom from Abraham Lincoln. (The president or the Vampire Hunter?) If you can’t get a laugh or two out of all that, you should probably throw in the towel and hire Melissa McCarthy to play the Secretary of State, and Ken Jeong to play the dictator of North Korea.

Channing Tatum’s studliness and Jamie Foxx’s  wit and dash make for a pretty good hero combo, and Foxx’s president character’s resemblance to Obama gave me some enjoyment—though I can imagine some red states where it might not play well. American electoral politics has been such a vicious contact sport for so long, especially presidential politics, that it’s somewhat salutary to see Obama, or an Obama-inspired movie part, coming of like a movie hero, even if that heroism basically amounts to scurrying around the smoking hulk of the White House, following the tank-topped Tatum and picking up an attack rifle.

It’s pretty close to impossible to suspend your disbelief for either of these “Die Hard in the White House movies,” because it’s impossible to really accept the idea of a relatively small band of terrorists taking over like this (even if the model for these nightmares is probably 9/11). But Olympus Has Fallen, a terrible movie that made no sense, still managed to scrape together a fairly big domestic gross. White House Down, a somewhat better, or at least more entertaining. movie that also makes no sense, and had the same dumb main plot, is already a certified box office disappointment, getting outgrossed on the first few days of release not only by its main new release competition, the often hilarious Sandra Bullock-McCarthy show The Heat, but also by last week‘s top movie, Monsters University.

I don’t believe the quality of a movie can be measured by its box-office returns, but White House Down’s chances were probably severely damaged by the recent release of Olympus—not only because they’re ridiculously similar, but, more importantly, because they’re similarly ridiculous. Restaging Die Hard in the President’s House may  have worked—commercially—once, but by now the word has gotten around.. As George W. Bush once told us (sort of ): “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, won’t get fooled again.” Wanna bet?

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Wilmington on DVDs: The Ballad of Narayama (1958 and 1983)

Friday, June 28th, 2013

 

PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

The Ballad of Narayama (Also Blu-ray) (Four  Stars)

Japan: Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958 (Criterion Collection)

The 1958 film version of  The Ballad of Narayama is one of  the masterpieces of Keisuke Kinoshita, a great Japanese writer-director — peer and friend of  Kurosawa and Ichikawa –  who, these days, sometimes seems  as unfairly marginalized as his main character in Narayama: Orin, the elderly woman who will be left alone on the mountain Narayama by her children.

. Kinoshita’s film is a masterly blend of Japanese cinematic art and the stylization of kabuki theater, both put to the service of a devastatingly sad tale. Based on a novel by Shichiro Fukazawa, the movie is about a village of primitive mountain people cut off from the world, who live a harsh isolated life and have created a terrible ritual to deal with their omnipresent problems of hunger and poverty, Each year when a villager turns 70, he or she is taken up the slopes of the mountain, and left there alone to die of starvation and exposure or to be killed and devoured by predators. Perhaps to “validate” the societal legitimacy of what seems  a hideously cruel act, these discarded old people are taken to their deaths by their own children — close relatives who know that some day the same awful fate will befall them.

The Ballad of Narayama is obviously symbolic. It is a story about how people everywhere mistreat, neglect or abandon their elderly parents, and it comes only five years after Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 classic on the same general theme, Tokyo Story.  Only here the situation is far more extreme, the consequences more terrible, the presentation more mythic and theatrical. The story indeed, is introduced, kabuki-style, by a black-clad jojuri or kabuki theater narrator, who tells us that this will be a tale of obasute (or “the abandonment of old people”). We will see that word again later in the film.

The main character of the film, the soon-to-be-septuagenarian Orin, whose children will be forced to abandon her,  is played by one of the finest Japanese movie actresses of the twentieth century — Kinuyo Tanaka, the star of Kenji Mizoguchi‘s masterpieces, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff and Life of Oharu and Japan‘s first woman director (the 1953 Love Letter). Tanaka gave many remarkable performances, but few more memorable than this one. Tanaka plays Orin not as someone who rages rages against the dying of the light, as we might expect, but as a mother and grandmother who succumbs to this sanctioned atrocity uncomplainingly, unhesitatingly, and almost impatiently with her more skittish children. Her calm, pacific, radiant face — so effective a vision in Tanaka’s portrayals of long-suffering, exploited women like the tragic prostitute Oharu — here becomes shining, radiant, weathered but lovely, yet also the mask of an eventually terrifying stubbornness.

Orin, a perfect citizen of Narayama, still hale and hearty at nearly 70 (Tanaka was 50 when she played the part), stuns us with her selflessness even as some of her grandchildren infuriate us with their callousness: her grinning jesting grand son  Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) and his indolent girlfriend Matsu (Keiko Ogasawara), who ridicule Orin for her healthy appetite and good teeth (“demon teeth” Kesakichi calls them) which deprive them, they say, of food. As the film progresses to its climax, Orin’s acquiescence to this kind of casual, cruelty becomes  both moving and maddening.

No one is more  wounded by Orin’s self-sacrifice than her grim-faced son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), who has the terrible task of escorting his mother up the mountain to her death — during the same year when he also brings to their home  his new wife Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), a kind, quiet girl who becomes Orin’s best friend and her pupil in household duties. Tatsuhei, we know, is racked by guilt for what he feels (and what his mother feels) he has to do. The scene where he carries Orin to her last resting place is both melancholy and horrifying — just as what happens to them is both “logical” and surprising. Along with Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Leo McCarey’s 1938 Hollywood-made Make Way For Tomorrow, Ballad of Narayama is one of the screen’s most powerful indictments of the mistreatment and/or neglect of elderly parents.

The stylization and classical artifice with which Kinoshita films Ballad of Narayama — the storyteller/jojuri, the mournful plucked-string kabuki music, the fiery colorful stage sets and painted backdrops of the dark mountains, the green trees and the vast sometimes red sky — tend to distance us from the story and its terror. But they also paradoxically make the characters come more alive. If the film were shot more realistically, more like Shohei Imamura‘s later 1983 version (see below), these people — the elderly, strangely heroic Orin , her haunted son and his placid, daughterly wife — might not move us as much.

SPOILER ALERT

Nor might the film’s incredible last sequence affect us as it does: a realistic back-and-white view (in an otherwise color film), filmed on a modern location, of  a train station with a sign that reads “Obasute” — the word that means “abandonment of old people.“ (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)

END OF SPOILER

Extras: Trailer; teaser; Booklet With Philip Kemp essay.

The Ballad of Narayama (Four stars)

Japan; Shohei Imamura, 1983 (Animeigo)

Shohei  Imamura‘s great remake of another classic, Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 Ballad of Narayama, about the isolated mountain town that harshly leaves its elderly to die in the snow, because it can’t feed them. With Ken Ogata as Tatsuhei and Sumiko Sakamoto as Orin. An annihilating picture, this was the 1983 winner of the Japanese Academy Awards for Best Film and Actor; it also won the 1983 Palme d’Or of the Cannes Film Festival. More realistic and more savage than Kinoshita‘s Narayama, it’s a darker, more eerily troubling work, but, in its way, just as beautifully stylized and theatrical.  It affects you just as deeply.. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)

Wilmington on DVDs: Gladiator; Hell’s Half Acre; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

Gladiator (Also Blu-ray) (Three Discs)  (Three and a Half  Stars)

U.S.: Ridley Scott, 2000. (Warner Bros.)

The Roman Empire falls for Russell Crowe. And Hollywood on Oscar night fell for his movie.

Was Gladiator‘s Best Picture Oscar  deserved? Well, to be finicky about it,  probably not. Still, in many respects,  Crowe’s coliseum show is  as sweeping and entertaining a   historical adventure epic as you‘ll usually find on a DVD or Blu-ray player  –   and classier in the visual department than, say, Braveheart. (Of course it is; Ridley Scott was the  director.)

The story is essentially the same one (or very similar to the one) that director Anthony Mann and screenwriters Ben Barzman and Philip Yordan (a longtime black list victim and his longtime front) told in their 1964 Samuel Bronston-produced epic, The Fall of the Roman Empire (the movie that might have led to the fall of the Bronston Empire), but with more changes and more fictionalization.

Crowe is the warrior/gladiator/hero Maximus, stripped of rank and honor, and made to follow in the sfoosteps of Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. (The equivalent character in Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire, played by Stephen Boyd, is general/hero Livius.) But Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen and Richard Harris play the same roles (loony emperor Commodus, statuesque heroine Lucilla and the meditative Marcus Aurelius) that Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loren and Alec Guinness did for Fall. The rest of the cast is stellar, noble and Roman (well, more stellar, noble and British, actually) as well: including Derek Jacobi, David Hemmings, Oliver Reed (who died in mid-film) and Djimon Hounsou.

Crowe’s Maximus broods and fights and rights wrongs. But — and no amount of spoiler alerts will obscure it —  Rome will finally bite the dust — only to rise and fall again, centuries hence, for Fellini and Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita (a better movie).

The Fall of the Roman Empire was underrated and Gladiator a little overrated, but both of them are  entertaining ways to catch some well-dressed imperial  history, especially if you don’t have the time to read Gibbon‘s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (and you probably don’t). Hail Crowe. Hail Phoesnix. And Rest in Peace, if possible, Oliver Reed.

Extras: Extended footage; Commentary with Scott and Crowe.

Hell’s Half Acre  (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S., John H. Auer, 1954 (Olive).

 

From Rio Cheapo Studio Republic — the movie home on the range for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and, for many years, John Wayne — comes a complex, pleasing little noir with a neat cast, set in Hawaii, written by veteran noir novelist Steve Fisher and helmed by Republic’s Hungarian émigré crime thriller specialist, John H. Auer (City that Never Sleeps).

It’s not bad. Fisher’s dense plot centers on popular Honolulu bar owner-with-a-dark-past Chet Chester (Wendell Corey in an atypical lead role). Pitted against Chet are partners in crime Roger Kong and Slim (Philip Ahn, Robert Costa), and they unlock a chain of violence when Chet’s girlfriend (Nancy Gates) shoots one of his nemeses, and is later herself killed. Complicating things further: the sudden re-appearance of Donna (Evelyn Keyes), who claims to be Chet’s WW2-era wife, and the mother of his son — and who long believed him a casualty in the Pearl Harbor attack, under another name. Both honor and moolah are at stake here, and Corey’s Chet is a bit like one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s characters — a gangster with class. Chet also has an interesting somewhat Melvillean friendship with the charming local cop, Police Chief Dan (Keye Luke).

Steve Fisher wrote the Hollywood noir novel “I Wake Up Screaming” and his script is smarter than the B-thriller norm, full of twists and offbeat characters, including Elsa Lanchester as Lida, a gabby lady cab driver, Marie Windsor as Rose, another sultry Windsor dame, Jesse White as a hood appropriately named Tubby, and , playing a sleazy informer, Leonard Strong. Hell’s Half-Acre — which boasts noiresque visuals, terse dialogue and crisp action — is no classic. But it’s a nifty Republic time-killer.

 

 

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (Two Stars)

U. S.: Don Scardino, 2013 (New Line Home Video)

 

They may call Steve Carell ” The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” the title character in his new movie, but he‘s really part of a team. Carell and Steve Buscemi play, not very comfortably a pair of fancy pants superstar Las Vegas magicians in this mostly misfiring comedy—roles that should have been slices of cake for both of them, but wind up looking and playing like Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis leftovers.

Garbed  in Liberace-style glad rags and weirdo cascading hairdos, Carell and Buscemi prance and kvetch and diss each other, but obviously, unfunnily. Carell’s Burt is the egomaniac/jerk of the two; Buscemi’s Anton Marveltone is the nice guy who vanishes last.  In the movie — crudely directed and callously written, these two ace comedians  are impersonating a kind of Siegfried and Roy team without the wild animals — and Siegfried and Roy (whose highly lucrative act was cut short by a tiger accident), were probably funnier. The movie tries, even goes a little Freudian. Partners since  suburban school days, when they were the geeks who got picked on, the ex-buddies are now two post-David Copperfield professional illusionists  who boast of their “Magical Friendship,“ and use it as an ad slogan — but, really, after decades together, hate each other‘s guts.

Las Vegas show biz is a big fat juicy target and the costars  do their best with the material — and so does Jim Carrey as guerilla and indie TV street illusionist amd self-proclaimed “brain rapist” named Steve Gray. As much as these players (Carell, Buscemi and Carrey) have made me laugh in the past, it wasn’t too long before I wanted them to make the movie disappear.

 

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is as much of a dud as its own title , which suggests  a bad imitation radio serial. “Incredible” isn’t the word — and even though the overheated adjective is meant to suggest Wonderstone’s overheated ego, it’s too much of a bad thing. Which is exactly what the movie is — with its deliberately sadistic gags about sweatboxes,  violence, self-mutilation and cute-little-puppy-abuse. The school kid prologue starts out with Burt being bullied. Naturally Burt and Anton, the two misfits, bond, and their destiny is locked when Burt receives two birthday gifts from his absent mom: a box of cake mix, and a  larger box containing Rance Holloway’s Magic Kit. The kit is a spell-it-yourself prestidigitation package, with video, fronted  by Burt’s idol, Rance (played, in the show’s best performance, by Alan Arkin).

Soon the two buddies are two little Houdinis. In ten  years or so, they’re successful blonde, long-haired illusionists in Vegas, and in a few more years, they have their own showcase, sponsored by Vegas godfather Doug Munny (James Gandolfini). But their magical friendship begins to fray. A new  crazy young rival appears: Jim Carrey as Steve Gray, another blondie whose tricks are unwholesome and whose style is heavy metal, seasoned with masochism. So the two magical chums split up, and their brilliant and beautiful young assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) has also had  enough of self-styled stud Burt and finally leaves, and the theatre flops and Incredible Burt, who’s been an incredible asshole, is eventually reduced to doing magic acts at the local retirement home, where he runs into…. (I give you three guesses, No, make that one guess.)

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone  has a snappy good premise. But it’s  unimaginative  execution, and its queasy-making  jokes sometimes make you feel  like as if you were trapped in a hat stuffed with rabbits, squealing and suffocating, or  maybe demanding their money back. It’s an ugly show with ugly jokes, a sadistic comedy that tries to juggle surprisingly mean-spirited and unsurprisingly raunchy humor with sentimental slop. But sometimes you feel bad about laughing at those jokes — like Steve Gray’s crushed puppy gag or the one where he drills a hole in his head. (Scenes like these make the Three Stooges look like crushed puppies.)

You have to have style, real  wicked style,  to bring off jokes like that, and the funny (or unfunny) thing about Incredible Burt is that the actors have the style, but the movie doesn’t. The director (Don Scardino of  “30 Rock”) and the writers (Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Dale of Horrible Bosses), seemed to me to be deeply disconnected from the great hot or cool center of what‘s funny. Also, the photography is too smudgy, the sets blah. The movie which should look garish at the beginning, and a little seedy  afterward, instead looks pretty seedy all the way though.

The trouble with getting hot, as an actor, is that you may get overused — and that‘s the sense you get in a lot of Steve Carell‘s performance. Buscemi plays in his humbler, less assertive  mode, and stays out of trouble. But Carrey, given some of the most nauseating and painful-looking gags imaginable — as if The Farrelly Brothers had been hired for a Saw movie — faces them head on, showing raw guts, if nothing else. Olivia Wilde plays a pretty cliché. Gandolfini (wasted in one of his last roles) does his evil grin bit. And we already gave Arkin his kudo. Thank God he didn’t have to drill a hole in his head to get it.

 

Wilmington on Movies: World War Z

Monday, June 24th, 2013

WORLD WAR Z (Three Stars)
U. S.: Marc Forster, 2013

WORLD WAR ZSay what you will about World War Z, it’s a damned  fast movie—and it‘s got the biggest collection of ravenous zombies ever appearing together anywhere, anyhow. Assembled with panache by producer-star Brad Pitt, by director Marc Forster, and by  writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof,  this wildly expensive and sometimes insanely exciting horror thriller is about a worldwide epidemic of the living dead, and the one man on Earth who can apparently maybe stop it  (ex-U.N. troubleshooter Gerry Lane, played by Pitt). It’s something to see, if not something to think (much) about, or to see again.

This movie moves like one of the dozens, no, hundreds, no, millions of rampaging ghouls who have suddenly declared war on humanity (or, as they like to call us, Lunch). Both the zombies and the movie come at us with the unstoppable push and fury of undead gangbangers or accountants These zombies move  in a series of crazy skittering, lurching leaps that seem to cover miles of ground and plot in minutes, no seconds, no microseconds—taking over airplanes, hospitals, cities, countries, banging their heads on our car windows, threatening our adorable families, or Gerry’s adorable family (sweet mom Karen played by Mireille Enos, and sweet-pea daughters Sterling Jenns and Abigail Hargrove)—and killing or infecting or eating people with undead gusto and hideous relish and zip.

Zip! We’re in Philadelphia, having an adorable family breakfast. Then zip! suddenly (almost everything in this movie seems sudden) we’re in a City of Unbrotherly Hunger besieged by walking corpses running amok! Zap! We’re bound by helicopter off a roof to a ship in the mid-Atlantic, where Gerry is separated from his family and given the hefty assignment of figuring out what’s going on, and figuring out how to stop it. Zip! We’re in South Korea, dodging corpses. Zippo! We’re in Israel for the big showpiece scene, watching a huge heap of inhuman life (or death) crawling over each other to form a massive, rising wall; Then Zappa! We’re on a plane filled with maddened monsters and shrieking humans and Gerry and an Israeili soldier survivor of the last big scene: Zegen (Daniela Kertesz).  And zappa-zippy-zombie! We’re in Wales, in a zombified medical center, just in time  for the film’s terror-fix-finale.

World War Z  is based on a novel by Max Brooks, the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, and the book — reportedly arranged it as an oral history of the zombie attack—sounds more original than most of the movie. That’s a movie I’d like to see one day, and it also sounds like a film that Marc Forster (the one who made Monster’s Ball and The Kite Runner) might like to make.

WORLD WAR ZNot that I didn’t enjoy at least some of this one. It’s mostly well-written, well cast, well-directed, and genuinely scary at times—though not especially inspiring or ingenious.

But the producer was there when they needed him. A lot of the film’s quality, or at least its sometimes entertaining excess, is probably due to producer-star Brad Pitt, for whom this disaster epic was obviously a labor of zombie-love, as much as of zombie-commerce. Pitt is one actor whose good looks you tend not to hold against him. He’s a guy who, like Paul Newman and Robert Redford (two fathers of some of his performances) kids himself enough to remove what might be a taint of narcissism.  Pitt doesn’t usually take the Tom Cruise stud-hero route; he’s done a lot of interesting projects. And though he’s wearing a strange hairdo for this type of role, he makes for a likable hero, if not a  plausibly written one.

WORLD WAR ZWhy is Gerry Lane undertaking this vast mission mostly by himself? (The movie is a classic star vehicle but maybe it would  have been better to have two heroes: one official, and one, the Pitt part, more of  a freelancer.) Why is Gerry able to survive one horrendous action scene after another? Why do riots and screamfests break out wherever he goes—besides the fact that he’s a movie star, something producer Pitt exploits continuously. Why don’t  the Israeli defenders notice that writhing heap of zombies scaling their wall, or react to it until it’s too late?

Most of all, why did they spend so much money on this? I saw a big chunk of the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead  on TV a short while  before catching World War Z—and I was amazed again at how much George Romero accomplished with such scant-seeming resources. World War Z, by contrast, is almost top-heavy with spectacle and action, almost gorged with blood and guts. Occasionally that pays off, as in the Tower of Zombies scene in Jerusalem. But like most big movies, especially big horror movies, it could use more character, more dialogue, more ideas, more personality. And maybe one or two, or three hundred, or three thousand, less zombies.

Wilmington on Movies: Monsters University

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (Three Stars)
U.S.: Don Scanlon, 2013

muMonsters University is not the worst Pixar feature cartoon I’ve seen, and it’s definitely not the best, But it is a Pixar, which weighs considerably in its favor.

That’s no joke. (Or is it?) Sometimes, your most relentless competition can be  your own past achievements  or non-achievements—which is a life-lesson that can apply both to this movie and its co-star college kid team of one-eyed green ball-being Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and purple-pink-blue scary bear James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman)—and also to Pixar itself.

The movie is a prequel to one of the jewels in Pixar’s cartoon crown: director Pete Docter’s 2001 hit Monsters  Inc, (2001). In that generally well-loved movie. Crystal and Goodman played a grown-up Mike and Sulley, past their college years, now working together at the aforementioned company Monsters Inc.—and, in it,  the two frightmeisters went on an adventure with a three year old charmer, Boo (Mary Gibbs) in their unusual workplace. a factory where children’s nightmares are assembled.

In Monsters University, we see those monstrous but lovable guys ten years or so  earlier, in their teens, as college kids who meet at Monster U.’s school of scares. They’re a typical college movie comedy pair: Mike is a workaholic brainiac nerd, who‘s; unfortunately too little to seem scary. (Really? Imagine waking up and seeing one of those things bouncing up and down on your bed.) Sulley is a fun-loving jock from a really well-off, scary family, a golden boy (or a pink and blue boy) who , unfortunately is always getting into trouble.

The two underclassmen are paired together, as outcasts, by the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), who has wings and bug-legs and an attitude and who sends them both, to the dopiest weirdo outcast fraternity around: Oozma Oozma Kappa, where the misfits  population already makes Animal House’s Delta guys, look like a collection of sports stars and mensas. The Oozes include Art the arc creature (Charlie Day), Don Carton, an oldish, baldish Donny-Come-Lately (Joel Murray), Terri/Terry the argumentative tw0-headed guy (Sean Hayes &, Dave Foley) and Squishy Squiggles (Peter Sohn), the multi-eyed mama’s boy, whose mom (Julia Sweeney) is Oozma Kappa‘s overbearing house mother.

Yoked to these obvious if likable losers—in a plot twist that reminded me uncomfortably, of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson‘s big Google ad, The Internship—Mike and Sulley direct their brain and jock talents to winning the all-Greek Fraternity-Sorority yearly contest, The Scare Games—in which the scariest House wins. Yon can write most of the rest yourself, especially if you’ve just seen The Internship.

That’s the problem: You can write most of  it yourself, whereas you’d be hard-pressed to come up with half the humor and emotion, the twists and turns of Pixar’s Toy Story Trilogy, Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Up, and this movie‘s dazzling post-prequel Monsters Inc.

Is that fair though? Sitting in the screening room afterwards, in a fairly pleasant if not overwhelmed mood, I was surprised at the dissatisfaction erupting from some of my comrades—several of whom were arguing learnedly about whether Monsters University was or wasn’t the worst Pixar film ever. Other reviewers have suggested the same. Is it? Maybe. You could say. But, even if that ranking were true, it isn’t particularly shameful, not when you consider how good those other pictures were—how much pleasure Pixar‘s company, in its  delightful animated history, has given us.

Ranking Monsters U. at the bottom of the Pixar list—and I‘m not sure that’s where I’d put it—seems a bit like picking Beethoven’s worst symphony (The First), or Shakespeare’s worst play (“Titus Andronicus”). Even if  the former works are lesser items than, say, the Sixth or Seventh Symphony and “Othello” or “Hamlet,” so what? Monsters U. may be second (or even third) tier Pixar. But it has wondrous visuals, funny actors, and a brassy, sassy marvelously collegiate-sounding Randy Newman score. The should be enough for most audiences, young or old.

Besides, even though John Lasseter, along with Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, fill this movie’s stellar roster of executive producers, it’s really a film by a new generation: director-writer Don Scanlon and fellow writers Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird. And though Gerson was a writer on the original Monsters Inc., and Baird contributed material to it, they could hardly be called old guard.

What’s wrong with Monsters University? Well, for one thing, I think Manohla Dargis was right when she argued that this movie needs more female characters. It needs some college girl crushes for Mike and Sulley say, or more funny sororities, or maybe even a scary teacher or two. And it needs them not in order to try to right the wrongs of movie bromnce sexism (well, not only that), but because that’s the way new collegiate guys like Mike and Sulley (especially Sulley) experience college life. Boy-girl stuff (or the variants) are a big part of the way we all experience college: as a youthful wonderland of love play and daydreams.(Littler kids in the audience would tolerantly dismiss this ass “mush stuff.“ Or they used to.) The movie could also use another little-human girl-to-be-frightened, perhaps a part of Boo’s family.

The movie would also be lots better with more  complete songs by Randy Newman, (He wrote the Monster University Alma Mater, and the Swedish rockers Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso contributed the party song “Roar”; otherwise it’s mostly all music, without Newman lyrics.) I’m not sure why most cartoons have dumped complete original song scores, because it was a splendid tradition that produced a lot of classics. But why hire one of the great popular song lyricists of our time and other times, and then not use his words most of the time, when Randy Newman’s words are so fantastic? (“Roll down the window. Pull down the top. Crank up the Beach Boys, baby. Don’t let the music stop!”  “Human kindness is overflowing. And I think it‘s gonna rain today…”)  Would you want Cole Porter or Bob Dylan  mostly without their words? Listen, it’s not like the guy’s going to be writing forever.

Then there are the negatives: the college movie clichés, all the stuff that we like Pixar movies for not including. Like the games and the meanies that remind you of The Internship and innumerable others.

What does it have that’s good? Billy Crystal. John Goodman. Helen Mirren. Those incredible meticulous and slap-happy Pixar visuals. Newman’s music even mostly without Newman’s words. And at least some of the flavorful, character-filled dialogue we mostly don’t get in the so-called adult movies. And that Pixar specialty: heart mixed with wit and playfulness. Crystal and Goodman, playing teenagers, or teenage voices, get the rhythm and energy right; they suggest youngsters who will grow into the later Mike and Sulley. And, once again, they have lots of chemistry—or  as much chemistry as a little talking green ball can have with a gruff, multi-colored bear dude with a dinosaur tail .

By the way, they should have called the movie Monsters U., because leaving the “University” in sounds a little  pretentious, and anyway, that’s what kids will probably call it later,

A last word: There’s a splendidly rainy  and buoyant little short cartoon running with Monsters U. called The Blue Umbrella. Directed by Saschka Unseld, it’s obviously modeled on that great French short by Albert Lamorisse and his little son Pascal — The Red Balloon. And it’s not as good. Does it matter?