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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

1183878 - WHITE HOUSE DOWN

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?

Wilmington on DVDs: Things to Come

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

 

PICK OF THE WEEK; CLASSIC

THINGS TO COME (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.K.: William Cameron Menzies, 1936 (Criterion Collection)

The two great early Godfathers of literary science fiction were the fanciful Frenchman Jules Verne and the immensely-learned and opionated Britisger H. G. Wells. But though both of these writers have been adapted endlessly for the movies, only one of them wrote a science-fiction screenplay, adapted from one of his own books. That was Wells, the author of  The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The First Men in the Moon — And of The Shape of Things to Come, a future history of the world, written as from the 22nd century, that Wells — along with director William Cameron Menzies, producer Alexander Korda, set designer Vincent Korda, cinematographer Georges Perinal, montage expert Laszlo Moholy-Nagy , composer Arthur Bliss and actors Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke and the others — made into what was, after Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the most spectacular of all ’20s and ’30 sci-fi movies, a visual marvel that is still is capable today of eliciting gasps and instilling wonderment.

The 2001 of its day, Things to Come purports to predict the future — thanks to its author Wells, who, as  advertised by  his more than one hundred books of fiction, fact and extrapolation, was widely heralded throughout the world as  a modern Nostradamus and a master of scientific speculation. Wells’ involvement insured that the movie would be taken seriously — and not pegged as another Flash Gordon, or even as another Metropolis.

The movie begins on a  Christmas Eve of the present, on the brink of an impending world war, which, in a remarkable precursor of the actual World War II Blitz, soon makes a bombed-out wreck of “Everytown,“ the Londonish metropolis where, presumably, Everymen and women live, and where almost all the film takes place. Wells’ chronicle skips from one generation to the next, spamming about over a hundred years, and, though missing the cell-phone and the Internet, predicting a host of other scientific advances, the most prominent of which include a rocket to the moon, sleeping gas and a new world order, a society founded on airplanes, from which heroic scientists will direct the world‘s work and make sure that war and crime, at least in the future, are things of the past.

Wells’ movie has good scientists — Raymond Massey as John Cabal and his aeronaut grandson Oswald — and a bad dictator: Ralph Richardson as the brutal and  Rabelaisian Boss, who runs things and pleasures himself,  and is against any scientific and  political progress unless he can run hat too. And there’s a loudmouth, dead-wrong TV commentator: Cedric Hardwicke as Theotocopulos, a kind of Luddite who uses television to foment and lead a revolt against science, progress and space travel. .

There are things that don’t quite work in Things to Come, the most prominent of which is the 70-year-old Wells’ stiff and preachy dialogue, which, as spoken by Massey (pompously), Richardson (lustily, with Shakespearean gusto), and Hardwicke (dourly), rarely sounds either real or properly dramatic. What does work though is the film‘s extraordinary, often mind-blowing visual design. Director Menzies was one of the cinema‘s great art director/designers (his masterpieces of design include Gone With the Wind and the Doug Fairbanks Thief of Baghdad — and he and Korda create here an overpowering new world  of futuristic sights and sounds, — of imaginary visions of industry, war, aeronautics and lifestyles that,, almost 80 years after the film’s release, still exerts a hypnotic spell.

Not always. As speculation or drama, Things to Come, despite some bull’s-eyes, now sometimes looks and sounds a bit antique, as almost all old science fiction does, sooner or later, including 2001. But Wells‘; historical sweep and range of thought are still impressive and provocative, and Menzies and Korda‘s designs and visions are impressive too. If the movies are, in great part, a visual art, Menzies was certainly one of the great artists. His and Wells’ Things to Come may have its flaws, its pomposities. But it’s also full of dreams and  wonders and flights of fancy and (would be) fact. One watches these dreams of things to come, from the man who wrote The Time Machine and the man who painted Gone with the Wind, still amazed.

Extras: Fine, informative, lively commentary by David Kalat; Interview with Christopher Frayling on the show’s design; Visual essay by Bruce Eder; on Bliss’s score; Unused special effects footage by Moholy-Nagy; 1936 recording of a reading from Wells; Booklet with an excellent new essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, editor of the Library of America.

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Wilmington on DVDs: Two Mules for Sister Sara; Of Human Bondage; Jack the Giant Slayer

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

Two Mules for Sister Sara (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Don Siegel, 1970 (Ais)

Clint Eastwood as a gunslinger and arms guy in revolutionary Mexico gives a ride to Shirley MacLaine, who’s playing a whore disguised as a nun—which he doesn’t realize until later on. Ace action director Don Siegel and two of my favorite movie  actors have a lot of fun with this oddball light-hearted, well-done show that suggests the John Huston-Deborah Kerr-Robert Mitchum nun-soldier adventure-romance Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison somehow plopped into Leone Land. The scriptwriters include another Western-action ace, Budd Boetticher and Hollywood Ten blacklist victim Albert Maltz. The hot, gorgeous cinematography is by the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa—Luis Buñuel’s longtime collaborator.

Speaking of hot and gorgeous, that’s an apt description of MacLaine, even in her habit. And the movie hs a classic comedy-love-near death scene: Clint, drunk, getting a bullet in his body explosively extracted by Shirley.

Extras; None.

OF HUMAN BONDAGE (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: John Cromwell, 1934 (Kino)

RKO’s 1934 Of Human Bondage is an important part of film history  for several reasons. It’s director John Cromwell’s faithful, intelligent (if severely shortened) adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s best-selling and much-admired semi-autobiographical novel about the sad early life of  a sensitive and idealistic London medical student named Philip Carey, who falls ruinously in love with a pretty, yet selfish and sadistic waitress named Mildred. The movie is a classic — not just because it’s a fine version of a powerful novel with a very moving lead performance by Leslie Howard in the Maugham-ish role of Philip– but because it’s the movie that made a star of the acrtess who played Mildred, 26-year-old Bette Davis.

Bette  — then just a young feisty Warner Brothers contract player — arrived, after this movie, as a first-rank Hollywood leading lady and stayed to become an inarguable Hollywood immortal. She was a superstar and a top-level actress with a potent personality and great range, one of the few who could evolve in a very long career through so many changes — from bad girl to glamour queen to Oscar goddess to character queen to thriller-movie gargoyle to revered elderly legend — and yet never become boring, or sacrifice her audience’s sympathy. Not even when she reared back in the 1949  Beyond the Forest, assumed a saucy, frosty stance, swept the house with a contemptuous gaze and snorted “What a Dump!“ — which became also  the famous opening line in  Edward Albee‘s great scorching play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“What a dump.” At times that seems Bette’s indictment of the whole overblown, trash-happy Hollywood system that she battled for decades (especially when she was the discontent, dissident queen of the Warners lot), fought to get better roles, a better shake, better movies. She had to fight. She did fight. Always. After a flotilla of early ‘30s potboilers, in which she and other gifted but ill-used Warners contract players like Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson (if she was lucky) would bat and fast-talk each other around, she became an acting star in another studio‘s movie: This movie, as sullen, slutty  Mildred in  Maugham’s  unsparing portrait of his most unhappy love affair. (In real life, reportedly, “Mildred” was a sullen, slutty boy.)

Opposite the incredible Ms. Davis, Howard plays Philip with that mix of impeccable good breeding and humanity that made him a favorite of the ladies onscreen and off. And Bette plays Mildred as a conniving bitch who puts him, and herself, through pungently emotional hell. She plays the part with a fearlessness and  a lack of vanity, an absolute sense of herself, and Mildred, and of the kind of dark unprivileged urban milieu  Mildred exemplifies. It’s an unforgettable performance, and so is Howard’s and the movie is unforgettable and deeply affecting largely because of them. The rest of Human Bondage’s unusually  fine cast –guided by Cromwell, a real actors director — includes Frances Dee, Reginald Denny, Kay Johnson, Alan Hale aand Regimald Owen.

Mildred was also the role for which Bette was denied a well-deserved Oscar. But it was also probably responsible for the undeserved Oscar she got next year in 1935 for the bad girl potboiler Dangerous. Bondage was remade  and Mildred was played twice more in Hollywood features: by Eleanor Parker in 1946, and by Kim Novak in 1964. Neither perfromance is much remembered today, except as more proof that Mildred was a part that Bette Davis owned, in the movie that began and also confirmed her legend.

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ACK THE GIANT SLAYER  (Also Blu-ray/DVD/UV Digital Copy Combo Pack) (Also 3D) (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Bryan Singer, 2013 (New Line Home Video)

T

Zillions of dollars  have been spent on Jack the Giant Slayer — a new Bryan Singer-directed version of the oft-told fairy-tale about a boy and his beanstalk — in order to make it the most fantastically spectacular and expensively outlandish version of Jack and the Beanstalk you could possibly imagine: a Jack and the Beanstalk with all the scope and none of the sense of  a classic war epic like “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” (“For Whom the Beans Sprout?”)

That money has bought a lot of towering castles, awesome mountain scenery, jaw-dropping effects, star character actors keeping a straight face (the best of them are Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy and Ian McShane), and lots of maniacally elaborate special effects — of which the most maniacal are the movie’s CGI-engendered giants (CGIants, we should maybe call them). It’s all designed as a kind of a fairytale Die Hard, and in a way it is.

. But, in the end,  the whole thing often doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. (Sorry.) Jack and the Giant Slayer has some entertaining stuff — stunning scenery, action, costumes and castles — and occasionally even some good writing or acting. But what all that money ( reportedly somewhere around $190 million),  hasn’t bought is an idea worth having or a  script worth filming. The story is shallow and predictable  — even though four writers, including  Christopher McQuarrie of The Usual Suspects, and  David Dobkin of Wedding Crashers — labored over it.

The story, which you’ve heard before, is treated with an odd respect, as if it were “Beowulf “ or “Le Morte d‘Arthur.” It begins with Jack catching sight of  a beautiful princess and defending her from boors, then trading his white horse for some beans, which are dropped to the ground, sprout and send up that humungous beanstalk, whooshing up to the sky and, past the clouds, to  Giant Land (or Gantua), a vast mountainous landscape filled with great stone heads spitting out waterfalls, and huge, slovenly, heavy-muscled, tooth-challenged giants.

Since the stalk took the princess up to Gantua, her disturbed father, King Brahmwell (McShane) sends some knights — and Jack — on an expedition to bring her back: and the troupe includes the good knight Elmont (McGregor), the bad smarmy knight  Roderick (Tucci), our boy Jack and some hapless carriers. Soon good guys are battling bad guys, expendable cast members are hurtling to their deaths, a magical crown is passing from hand to hand, the Giants are getting set to wage war and gobble the losers, and the beanstalk may come crashing down any moment on the Castle of Cloister.

 

The movie’s budget does give us a hellishly exciting movie spectacle. But it doesn’t give us a hero and heroine  who are interesting, at least here, for any other reasons than their extraordinary good looks, and the fact that they were hired as the leads for a movie that cost $190 million. The two leads are plucky farmhand and bean-counter Jack, as played by Nicholas Hoult and adventurous Princess Isabelle,  as played by Eleanor Tomlinson. They  look good. But their emotions are minimal, even when the whole kingdom is crashing down around them or when the scary giant team of Gen. Fallon and Gen. Fallon’s Small Head (voiced by Bill Nighy, with the extra head supplied by John Kissir), show up to look ugly and bite off human body parts like bon bons, or when more beanstalks start shooting up to the clouds.

In the midst of all this fabulously expensive brouhaha, one watches these two perfectly nice youngsters making moony eyes at each other and the camera, and gamely clambering up the enormous, twisty-stalked, green beanstalk, and one feels sorry for them. What a drag it must be to have movie star looks, but not to have dialogue worthy of a star to say. The beanstalk has better lines than these two.

There’s more to this movie than my smart-assery suggests. It is physically beautiful, thanks to Singer, as well as cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and production designer Gavin Boquet, and thanks also, I guess, to that 190 million dollars. Every once in a while McGregor or Tucci or McShane remind you how good they can be. But it’s difficult to watch Jack, the Giant Slayer without noting the absurdity of making a 190 million dollar show based on Jack and the Beanstalk. Of course this show could use more humor — but in a way the movie is a joke itself: a Shaggy Giant Joke.

Extras: Featurettes; Gag reel; Deleted scene. 

 

Wilmington on Movies: Man of Steel

Monday, June 17th, 2013

MAN OF STEEL (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Zack Snyder, 2013


SPOILER ALERT: This review gives away some stuff. Skip it unless you’ve already seen the movie—which you probably have. Or until you do. Or if you just don’t give a damn.

I. Look! Up in the sky!

Man of Steel is one of the loudest movies I’ve seen recently. Or maybe ever. In this almost constantly erupting show guns fire, buildings topple, planets explode. Watching the picture—which revives Superman for the movies on the 75th anniversary of his first appearance in Action Comics (April 1938)—I felt as if I were being continually blasted out of my seat, and it wasn’t an enjoyable feeling. The film, directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (who gets story crdit),  is an almost  deafening ride from beginning to end—loud not only aurally, but also visually, technically, cinematically  and even philosophically. If you turned the sound off, as I often felt like doing, you get the idea the images would probably keep clanging around or shooting off in your head, like fireworks—especially during the movie‘s long, long final act of mass carnage and Metropolis destruction, with its unpleasant echoes of 9/11, and its tendency, like many another recent fantasy-action movie, to wreck everything that can be wrecked.

Man of Steel, of course, is already a huge hit and crowd-pleaser, grossing over a hundred million dollars domestically on its first weekend. But after watching it twice, my opinion didn’t really change. (Money isn’t everything.) The technique and effects are often fabulous; the story tends to be overblown and over-familiar. I was entertained by a lot of it: Henry Cavill, as Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman,  and Amy Adams as Lois Lane, are a really cute couple. Michae1 Shannon is fantastic as the main villain, the vengeful General Zod, and I was surprised at how much I liked some of the seemingly offbeat casting— like getting Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Clark’s Smallville foster parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent, or hiring  Laurence Fishburne to play Daily Planet editor Perry White. (Sadly, I didn’t hear him say “Great Caesar‘s Ghost!”)

It’s got a lot going for it. It’s not a bad or  indifferent movie. But it’s not a particularly good one either. It’s nowhere near as appealing or as entertaining, or as much sheer fun, as the first two Superman movies back in 1978 or 1981, directed  by Richard Donner and Richard Lester, written by David & Leslie Newman and Robert Benton and Mario Puzo, and both starring Christopher Reeve, an almost freakily brilliant pick to play Superman. And though the special effects today dwarf anything Donner, Lester and their crews could accomplish, they‘re not quite as much fun either.

Of course, it‘s obvious that fun wasn’t exactly, or totally, what Snyder, Goyer and Nolan (who was also one of the producers) were after. They aren‘t trying for a light touch, or irony, or even for much humor. Man of Steel takes a much darker and more serious view of Superman, more like Nolan’s somber take on Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy.

II. It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

The movie begins, as the comic book origin story did, with the destruction of  the planet Krypton, and the last-minute rescue of little Kal-El (Superman’s real name) by his scientist father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who sends  a space ship on auto-pilot, speeding the Baby of Tomorrow earthward. Also showing up at this world’s end is General Zod (played here by Shannon, and in the 1978-81 Supermans  by Terence Stamp). Stamp was wonderful, but Shannon has a stranglehold on the role, and on the movie, and his General Zod doesn’t waste time. As Krypton simmers and bursts into flame, the glowering natural-born-warrior manages to stage a coup, kill his friend Jor-El, and get tried and sentenced to cryogenic imprisonment in the Phantom Zone, in what seems, at least the way Snyder and David Brenner edit it, like half an hour or so.

The rest of the movie makes elaborate use of flashbacks (Nolan made Memento, after all) to tell the fragmented story of how little Kal-El, adopted by the Kents of Smallville, Kansas and renamed Clark Kent, struggles with identity problems growing up, is confronted by catastrophes (a tornado, drowning classmates), and finally faces his first big challenge: the possible destruction of Earth by the reawakened, and burning-angry General Zod. There’s a moral twist (and I do mean “twist”): Clark was taught by his dad never to reveal himself, even to save lives or avert tragedies, until the right time—whenever that is. Clark obeys him at times, disobeys at others. But I agree with David Poland that it’s a massively uncomfortable experience to watch Superman, the guy who can do almost anything (that’s the  appeal of the fantasy) standing around doing nothing while people are endangered—even if his daddy told him to.

Eventually Zod arrives, out of suspended animation at last, and threatens Earth with annihilation unless the government hands over Kal-El (whom Jor-El implanted with the DNAs of much of Krypton) and then starts to make good on his threats. In the last act, another city (Metropolis, this time) gets hammered.  That’s standard villainous destroy-the world stuff, but it gets a little excessive, the fiftieth time around.  Will audiences never tire of it? It’s also odd to see Amy Adams’ piquant Lois Lane—who is introduced relatively early in the movie, but later in the actual chronology—nosing around and knowing as much about Clark Kent as she does. What about the Secret Identity, which was one of the main elements in the Superman fantasy? What about the fact, just as crucial, that the classic Lois Lane adored Superman but thought mild-mannered Clark was a bit of a nerd? Obviously, times have changed and probably the creative team here has something cooked up for the sequels (amnesia, maybe). But, unless I missed something in all the last-act pyrotechnics, this Lois may be The Woman Who Knew Too Much. At least, for my no doubt old-fashioned taste.

Shot by Amir Mokri, the movie looks like a million. (Pardon me: a hundred million.) But director Snyder, even if he doesn’t bore you, also rarely lets up. His pictures, from Dawn of the Dead on, tend to hammer you into submission. They rarely give you enough time and space to enjoy their own grace notes —or what could be grace notes, if the heat and the decibel level went down a little. His Superman, Henry Cavill, one of the stars of  British TV’s “The Tudors,” is a good-looking man of steel, and he can act the angst. Yet he may be suffering more torment than he should handle here — though I appreciate that having your planet blow up while your mother (Ayelet Zurer) dies and you shoot off into space might qualify as childhood trauma.

The Superman of old was a child of movie fantasy, as much as of the comics. According to Wikipedia, the Superguy’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, based him and his appearance on movie stars like the senior Doug Fairbanks (for Supe) and Harold Lloyd (for Clark Kent) —as well as on author Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Martian explorer John Carter—and they got the name “Metropolis” from another of their cinema favorites, the great Fritz Lang science fiction movie. (A couple of nice Jewish boys from Cleveland, they probably didn’t get “Superman” from reading Nietzsche.) So The Man of Steel, concocted out of pre-World War II pop culture, and probably at least partly a response by its authors to ’30s world tensions and the rising dangers of Fascist Germany, was a strong fantasy figure for any little kid, of either sex, who got pushed around or who felt like an outsider. The movie seems to be playing on that—by emphasizing how hard his own foster dad thinks it is for little Kal-El to be accepted. (I’d say one super-rescue caught on camera, should do the trick.) Super-alienation wasn’t always that much a piece of  the core Superman fantasy. Maybe that’s why Shannon as General Zod seems to be taking over so much of this movie. His alienation and torment—and his rage—resonate more. They’re more wounding and scary.

III, It’s Superman!

I‘m not indifferent to the seductions of the Superman legend. I bought my first Superman comic (or my mother bought it for me), at the age of five, in 1952 at a Chicago El station newsstand. I once had a huge collection of Superman, Superboy, Action Comics and World‘s Finest Comics (in which there were Superman-and-Batman tandem stories)—which was lost in one of our many moves. I caught many of the TV shows, with poor typecast  George Reeves as Superman and Noel Neill as Lois Lane. And I even wrote and drew a few of my own  Superman comics when I was a kid. (They were derivative and not very good, but at least they weren’t expensive.) I’ve seen most of the movies—even a snatch of the 1951 dog Superman and the Mole Men, with Reeves. So. though I never followed the comics much after the ‘50s, I’m not ignorant of the charms of the legend and its many offshoots. To the contrary, Superman was one of my great heroes when I was ten or twelve or so.

A hundred-million-dollar gross isn’t exactly Kryptonite to the people who wield green lights, and stories similar to mine are probably true for a lot of the core audience for this movie.  But if  you’re not committed to the mythos of Superman in some way, I wonder if  the new picture will affect you emotionally as much. Tons of people will apparently go to any big old superhero show—at least until they run out of big old super-heroes. But Man of Steel, for all its initial success, and for all its interesting quasi-realist approach (handheld camera, limited CGI) seemed to be missing something. It lacks some elements that the story doesn’t absolutely have to have, but would make it  more enjoyable. Like wit, playfulness, humor, heart, the quieter, more Hitchcockian kind of suspense, even that sense of pop grandeur  Donner and Lester got so well—as well as the recognition that the Reeve movies were giving us something we loved a lot, and that meant something special to us, but that is now more then a little silly and mad—yet that we can return to for a few hours, and remember what it was like, when Superman flew.

Anyway, I’m not sure I would have liked this new movie all that much at twelve — though I know I would have liked the Donner and Lester and Chris Reeve films (the first two Reeve shows, not the others). But then, when I was twelve, the idea of a hundred million dollar movie based on Superman, and one in which Lois Lane knew who Clark Kent was, and Superman didn’t wear his little red trunks, would have seemed utterly bizarre and even a little nuts. I also think my 12-to-13-year old movie tastes—which ran to pictures I saw on TV and iinthe theatres like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Bridge on The River Kwai, The Quiet Man and Some Like It Hot (all movies that probably couldn‘t get greenlit today)—would have found this movie too frenetic, too crazy, too much. And too loud.

Wilmington on Movies: The Bling Ring

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

THE BLING RING (Three Stars)
U.S.: Sofia Coppola, 2013

OmiGod!

That’s the  most frequently exclaimed exclamation in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring—I’ll bet I heard it in the movie at least a hundred times—and the phrase fits this picture and its people like a Gucci glove or like Louboutin shoes or like a critical cliche. It‘s used constantly by the title characters, an amateur bunch of L. A.-area teenaged thieves who pull heists at celebrity homes, and it can have a slightly toxic effect. Say it a few times, and you can almost feel the brain cells seeping out of your head. OmiGod! OmiGod! OmiGod!

What the catchphrase means—”I don‘t believe it!” or “ This is amazing!“ or maybe just “Hosanna!“—may affect you less than the mock-religious quality of its incessant repetition by the  Blingers. They were a gang of four wannabe-fashionista girls, and one computer geek boy from the San Fernando Valley. Based on real life kids who were the subjects of  a Vanity Fair article about their crimes, they became famous for going on joy-raids into the homes of the celebrity rich of Los Angeles-and-thereabouts, and stealing their bling: that is, their jewelry, shoes, objets d’art and fancy clothes and occasionally wads of dough the owners just leave lying around the place.

These were no petty robberies, and they aren‘t in the movie either. The kids—whose targets included Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, and most famously, Paris Hilton—netted nearly three million dollars worth of loot, though they got considerably less than that from the fences. And the raids were ridiculously easy. The fictionalized gang—including ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang), Nicki (Emma Watson),  and the only guy, Marc (Israel Broussard)—simply checked up on their favorite celebs on the Internet, found when they were going out of town on some celebrity gig and then went on their “shopping“ expeditions in the empty and unprotected homes.

These are a brazen but pretty inexperienced bunch. They never broke into the houses, but always got in through open doors or windows or with keys left under the mats. And they got their booty from people who had so much stuff that some of them, like Paris Hilton, didn’t even know, at first, that anything was missing. They were caught because they were incredibly stupid. They totally ignored the surveillance cameras some of their victims had on, and they sent out Facebook pictures of  themselves waving the loot. OmiGod!

Director-writer Coppola shows the Bling Ring for what they were: selfish and dopey, and she shows them with clarity and candor that mark all her films. Coppola makes American indie films that look like European films—The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere—and this is a European-style movie as well. But it’s also one of her most American films, in theme, subject and performances. These greedy, reckless, lazy, good-looking, mostly arrogant kids, obsessed with celebrity, obsessed with looks and loot, are the faces of the American wannabe idle rich, and Paris’s swanky domicile, which didn’t seem to contain a single book, is a kind of equivalent of Gatsby’s glittering mansion, except that it’s empty, in more ways than one.

But the movie still looks and feels European. It‘s not all sharp edges, and bright light pouring down on hunks and hotties,. It has that misty, dreamy, well-textured look Coppola always got from her  excellent longtime cinematographer Harris Savides (who also worked for David Fincher). Savides bec ame ill during the shooting and later died, and he was replaced by his assistant, Christopher Blauvet, who does a beautiful, unobtrusive job. Perhaps not as beautiful as Savides’, who was responsible for the film’s single most widely-discussed and praised shot, the long stationary take of Audrina Partridge’s home, at nighttime, with the Bling Ring moving from room to glass-walled room, picking up swag.

The cast is led by Katie  Chang, who makes a marvelous flirty psychopath out of Rebecca, by Israel Broussard, who does a nice variation on the usual high-school movie outsider kid who improbably gets the girl (or girls), and by Emma Watson (Hermione of the Harry Potter movies) who is a little scary as the gang‘s most self-deluded outlaw Nicki. (Nicki thinks the life-lessons from this experience will serve her well when she becomes a philanthropist or world leader.)

The others in the gang, all fine, imclude Tarmissa Farmiga as Sam, and Claire Allen as Chloe—and they all, singly or together, help paint this eerie portrait of the young, the selfish, and the vacuous—the image-crazy, bling-crazy products of a youth-intoxicated culture. The best acting in the movie though, is by the actress playing one of the film’s handful of parents: Leslie Mann as Nicki’s blissfully silly mom Laurie. Laurie is as thoughtless as her daughter is acquisitive. And Mann’s big acting moment comes when she leads some of the girls in witlessly clichéd new age self-helpish prayers—when you’d think a simple chorus of “OmiGods!” would have been more appropriate.

I liked the film very much at first. The best of it seems a sharp-eyed, sometimes stunning look at the utter vacuousness and amorality of much of the more visible modern culture. But it seemed to float away afterwards, and I think it needs more acid in its system. The film presents its gang as a little juiceless and too banal. There’s little or no sex in their routines and not even much heat. The kids, except for the notable nasty and manipulative Rebecca, seem almost  empty, waiting for a camera and a paparazzo to bring them some life. They are hooked on acquisition, on their addled dreams of becoming rich and famous and beautiful, or “famous for being famous.” As if to demonstrate this view, Paris Hilton appears in the film as herself and lends her digs—one of the actual crime scenes—to Sofia for the shoot. Her house looks like a set—and like the other sets impersonating the homes of Lindsay Lohan and the others.

So what’s the message? Does it need one? Is it a simple matter of getting more surveillance equipment, and maybe some guns? Me, I thought the message might be was as simple as the Biblical saying “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Isn’t that right? Isn’t that how it all  really comes down? Like totally. OmiGod!

Wilmington on Movies: This is the End

Friday, June 14th, 2013

THIS IS THE END (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen, 2013

Just when I’d practically given up buddy-buddy movie comedy for dead, after the wipeouts of The Hangover III  and The Internship, along comes This is the End, from writer-directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, to revive your faith in bad taste and arrested development. This picture, which combines the comic anarchy of early Marx Brothers movies with the insane parody movie-movie-ness of Mel Brooks, and the contemporary realistic raunch of Rogen’s Godfather,  Judd Apatow, is so funny you may actually laugh yourself senseless watching it. And you may not of, course. Your loss, Dude. And Ms. Dude.

Goldberg and Rogen, two nice Jewish boys grown up (sort of), may be taking their revenge on movies like The Exorcist, or Night of the Living Dead for having once scared them, and also most of their imitators, or not. In any case, they’ve concocted, for The End,  what seem hundreds of sometime ridiculous or offensive but mostly hilarious jokes and given them to actor Rogen and his five outrageously self-flagellating actor-buddies James (The Great Profile) Franco, Jonah (“The Possessed”) Hill, Craig (“Take Yo Panties Off”) Robinson, Jay (Woody, Jr.) Baruchel and Danny (Mr. Filth) McBride—all of whom appear in the movie playing themselves (or travesties of themselves ) along with a lot of other young, hip Hollywood movie stars, playing (and travestying) themselves. It’s a wild, weird hybrid: a combination horror movie parody and bromo-com (or whatever), about a wild party at James Franco’s house in Hollywood, attended by Seth Rogen and malcontent houseguest Jay Baruchel, that is suddenly hit by what an earthquake that seems like a 15 on the Richter scale, but actually turns out to be the Apocalypse, a.k.a. the End of the World.

Rogen, Hill, Watson, Aziz Ansari.

The show starts off  with some quasi young-buds-in-Hollywood  comic realism. Jay Baruchel shows up at his old pal Seth Rogen’s house, whining. Seth hopes to cheer him up by taking him to Franco‘s. We arrive at the party with the raffish Rogen and his California-phobic  Canadian pal Jay, who has intellectual contempt for James and his other guests—including Craig Robinson and Jonah Hill (but not yet  Danny McBride). Jay  hates movies that are universally loved (Craig Robinson’s instant insight)  and the people who make them, and just wants to leave and be miserable somewhere else. But before he can, all Hell breaks loose.

The earthquake hits. The party empties out quickly onto Franco‘s immaculate lawn, where a yawning abyss opens, and screaming revelers plunge into fiery darkness, with nary a Black Sabbath song (except “The End of the Beginning“) to comfort them. Drenched in name-dropping wit and frenzy, actors like Rihanna and Michael Cera are  hurled and hurtled into the pit. Los Angeles becomes a shrieking madhouse of natural disasters, monsters and hysterical nincompoops with pretty-faced TV reporters reporting it all.  (Becomes?) Rogen and his other main actors (including McBride, who wasn’t invited to the party, with good reason) are finally all trapped together in Franco‘s place where, outside, zombies prowl, and where, inside, homosexual innuendo abounds—and which Franco tries to defend (the house, not the innuendo) with a prop World War I pistol salvaged from his 2006 movie about the Lafayette Escadrille, Flyboys. Eventually, we get an Exorcist parody, with Jonah Hill (who keeps bragging about his role in Moneyball) as Linda Blair—and that‘s funny too, especially when Jonah’s big head swivels.

Is this comedy funny? Does rain fall? Does the earth turn? Do toilets flush? It’s funny as hell, and not as permanent. In fact, as tasteless, self-referential, all-star comedies go, This is the End is probably the greatest repository (speaking of toilets) of toilet-level humor since, I don’t know, since some movie with a lot of toilet jokes. It’s the Casablanca of raunchy horror comedies — unless The World’s End is now.  This is the End is so funny, it made me crap in my pants, piss up my nose, fart in my ear, belch down my esophagus, vomit up my liver and fall out of my theater seat onto the multiplex floor, where I broke my neck—still laughing, mind you—died, and went to Hell, arriving there moments before Michael Cera and Rihanna.

Rogen’s and Goldberg’s comedy makes you (or at least, me) crack up, often, by kidding itself, kidding its stars, and plunging us into a Hieronymus Bosch landscape and a Zap Comix/Mad Magazine nightmare of the world’s end, with movie stars trapped in their palaces, and terrified Angelenos running somewhere amok in the streets, pursued by ravenous devils, murderous zombies, hungry cannibals, and other angry tourists. It’s a rip and a riff on contemporary (mostly) bad movies done with no brakes and a constant stream of jokes, most of which hit the mark, and some of which hit the crapper, which probably was the mark anyway. The movie is as funny as they come. (Yes, there are ejaculation jokes, too.) (Sorry.) Meanwhile, the un-intrepid five (sometimes six) anti-anti-heroes of This is the End cower comedically and cravenly wise-crack in Franco‘s luxury digs, while just outside their Hollywood Hills prison, the ongoing end begins to Rapture saved souls up the blue light elevator to Heaven, and the yawning abyss keeps plummeting the damned down to Hell. (The Abyss may yawn, but you won’t.)

Rogen and the other guys seem so omnipresent these days—one of them seems to pop up in every third movie you see—that you may feel the whole movie is an egomaniac romp, that they’re just here to brag about their youth, their money, their careers, their sex lives, their highs, and how Rogen and Goldberg got the  studio to greenlight a movie based  on Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse, a 9-minute short made by Rogen, Goldberg and Jason Stone in 2007, with much the same main cast. You could  compare their direction and cinematic chutzpah to  Federico Fellini’s, Orson Welles’, Robert Bresson’s or Martin Scorsese’s—except that you’d sound like some kind of idiot if you did. (Then again, Robert Bresson never got laughs like this, not even in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé.)

This movie and its cast  have no visible vanity here. Rogen plays himself as a slobby videogame-playing layabout, Baruchel as a pompous misanthrope, Jonah Hill as finicky and full of himself, Franco as a self-adoring narcissist, Robinson as a crude sarcastic gagster, and McBride as the guy nobody wants to invite to any party (with good reason). They’re playing on their movie personas of course, and on what we may imagine they might be like—and also, probably a little bit, on themselves really. But they all keep scoring. eatedly.

You’re sometimes reminded of the great mock comic feuds that the top radio comedians of the 1940s used to have with each other—Jack Benny and Fred Allen, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, W. C. Fields and Charlie McCarthy—of those put-on, phony-venomous insult-fests that stretched into their movies as well. All six of the main stars of This is the End, and everybody else Rogen and Goldberg hired on, cheerfully kid the hell out of each other, playing themselves often as licentious, self-deluding, hypocritical, oafish buffoons—somehow trapped in a movie that might have been dreamed up by M. Night Shyamalan and Rob Zombie after a few tokes and mai tais. You might say that Rogen and Goldberg and their cast strip away the veneer of oafish buffoonery that permeates today’s Young Hollywood, to expose the real buffoonish oafery underneath.

Everyone seems to show up, all playing “themselves”: Emma Watson, Channing Tatum, Mindy Kaling, Christopher Mintz-Passe, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel—even, it‘s rumored, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson and the cast of The Hangover III, whose cameo appearances as lost souls or devils were cut out when the little horns they were given to wear kept falling off their ears. (Just kidding.).

One thing struck me as odd. I realize this is a buddy-buddy world and a buddy-buddy movie, but still, why didn’t they have more women stars around? Where did all the ladies go? There are a lot of them at the party, doing exactly what a licentious buffoon would want them to do, and Emma Watson later shows up,for an extended politically incorrect gag, But mostly it’s just us and the six guys, who all seem to be bachelors, including Danny McBride who shows up toward the end, with Channing Tatum on a leash and dog collar. This so bewildered me that, since I don‘t read celebrity magazines, I Googled all of them, and discovered that four of the guys are (or were) married, one is engaged, and the sixth, James Franco, though suspected by many,  is covered by a list of previous girlfriends and relationships. Reassured? I didn’t think so.

Of course, this is Rogen’s and Goldberg’s Apocalypse, and they can do anything they want with it. And they pretty much do. They’ve made a hell of a comedy, and so have all their buddies and gal pals, and I can‘t wait for “This is the End II,” or “Dude, Where‘s My Apocalypse?” Now, if they can just get those little horns with the rubber bands to keep from falling off…

Rogen, Goldberg.

Wilmington on DVDs: Badlands

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

 

PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

 BADLANDS (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Terrence Malick, 1973 (Criterion Collection)

I. Heartland

The late 1960s and early 1970s, in America, were hard times of  violence and  loneliness, war and craziness and wild beauty—and we see a portrait of a lot of that trauma, in microcosm, in Terrence Malick‘s shattering 1973 classic (which takes place in the 1950s), Badlands. Set in  the badlands of the American West—in the lovely, empty-looking desolation of states like Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota—it’s the story of two young people on the run: Kit, a manchild in his 20s in T-shirt and jeans, who works on the trash truck and tries to model himself after James Dean , and Holly, a girlchild who’s just 15, a high school baton twirler with a strange blank stare, who thinks Kit is the handsomest boy she’s ever seen.

These two moonchildren run off together after Kit tries and fails to reconcile Holly’s mean, smiley sign-painter father (Warren Oates) to their relationship, and then, plumb out of arguments, just shoots him dead and burns his house down. It’s probably Kit’s first murder; he’s such a weirdly polite young man that it’s hard to envision it otherwise. But soon he develops a taste for slaughter and he and Holly have embarked on a savage cross-country trek by stolen cars, one that includes the massacre of many people, including Kit’s best (only) friend Cato (Ramon Bieri). Soon Kit seems to be killing not out of need or fear, but out of some perverse pleasure he gets out of pulling the trigger and making a soul disappear from a body. “He was the most trigger-happy person I’d ever seen,” Holly finally concludes as she narrates the story to us in her flat, unemotional voice. Trigger-happy is the right word.

Kit and Holly—played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, in the first lead roles for either of them—are a couple of beautiful but amoral (at least in Kit’s case) American eccentrics who seem to have gotten most of their ideas about love and romance and beauty from the movies, or from pulp magazines or TV. Sheen makes Kit an outwardly gentle but inwardly savage killer: Spacek makes Holly, who tells their story, a seemingly dazed teenage romantic. Both rarely give a full smile. Kit, who burned down Holly’s home after he shot her father, and threw some belongings in the pyre, likes to steal or pick up, or bury mementoes or send them sailing off on a balloon. Why? To prove he was there? Maybe. He keeps constructing his own dream world, even as the real world is falling apart below their feet, even as the cars race from site to site, death to death. They build paradisiacal tree houses, dance to Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange,” and then—when fate is closing in, they dance to Nat King Cole’s achingly romantic ballad “A Blossom Fell”—in the night, on the road, by the lights of their stolen car. “You’re really something,“ Holly’s father tells Kit—smiling—before Kit kills him. He really is.

Kit and Holly were inspired, to a degree, by real people: serial killer Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, who embarked on just such a murder spree in 1957-58, and wound up killing eleven people, some of them with a cruelty that surpasses anything we see in Malick‘s movie. The real Charles Starkweather—whom we can see in the Bill Kurtis “American Justice” TV segment included on the excellent Criterion release of Badland—was a cold-hearted bastard and vicious, if photogenic, psychopath who killed people because he was a thief and it was easy, and who betrayed Caril Ann in the end, trying to pin his crimes on her. He had no redeeming characteristics that you could notice.

II. Movieland

Badlands was also inspired by the 1967 masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde, by Arthur Penn, Robert Benton, David Newman and Warren BeattyPenn gets a “thank you” in the credits—another movie where unsavory real-life characters, the Clyde Barrow-Bonnie Parker gang, become attractive and sympathetic. Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde are  both films that, to some degree, glamorize criminals (or characters based on criminals) who, in real life,  did very bad things—which is one of the reasons Bonnie and Clyde got such vehement attacks from some reviewers on its first release.

What really disturbed, and disturbs, some people about both these films are  the ways that Malick and Penn make their deadly protagonists beautiful—make us like them, even get crushes on them. All four pretty miscreants—Bonnie, Clyde, Kit, Holly—are stunningly attractive, which gives them all the classic movie short cut to sympathy, something we also see in other “Bonnie and Clyde“-inspired films like Gun Crazy. But they’re also almost cripplingly naïve and childlike—and that’s why we tend to like all of them, right up to the very last moments of their stories.

There’s something else that Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde share: a true, piercing sense of the rough-hewn beauty of the American landscapes and of the American physiognomy. And while Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have movie-star knockout looks—the kind of faces moviemakers use to sell us the movies, and what the movie themselves sell—Sheen and Spacek have a different kind of good looks: an outsider sexiness, a moonchild charm. There’s something tender and beguiling about them both. Spacek‘s Holly, just a girl really, has a face that’s pale, quiet and dusted with freckles. Sheen’s Kit is a polite narcissist who fusses with his hair and has a bemused half-grin that he drops into the air and lets skip, like a flat rock spreading ripples in a still pond. He’s also a maniac, which Holly eventually discovers, but a seemingly sweet one, for whom shooting people becomes a kind of art form, splatter painting.

Both movies, made in the Vietnam era, are about the struggle between the establishment and its outlaws, and both deliberately blur the boundaries between what we see as good and evil. We like the Penn movie’s people, Bonnie and Clyde, and Buck and C. W., and even Blanche, and they’re funnier than Kit. But Clyde is more of a businessman who’s chosen crime as a profession,. Kit is a born killer—maybe even natural-born—and I think we’re probably more afraid of  him than any of the jolly Barrow gang. We should be.

Badlands’ two lead actors are beautiful, and so is the film: a series of stunning landscapes out of Wyeth or Hopper or John Ford, images that can fill us with delight and awe—as when one of Kit’s stolen cars races along the road, pouring out smoke or silhouetted against the sky. In his next film, Days of Heaven, Malick would also get incredible beauty in exterior shots, thanks in large part to two great cinematographers, Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler. (Badlands went through three camera artists: Tak Fujimoto, Brian Probyn and finally, Stevan Larner.) But if Days of Heaven has perfection and astonishing visual poetry in its Texas panhandle scenes (actually shot in Calgary), Badlands,  which was shot all over many locations, on a minuscule budget—in what Malick has called an essentially outlaw production—has something madder, freer. It’s a darkening vision of two naïve kids in love and flight, but it’s also the head shot of a killer, picking out his targets.

Charles Starkweather was an evil, damned  creature. But, in the end, Kit—the killer dreamed up by a poet and his painters—may be just as frightening. He’s the evil that gets close to you, who’s there, smiling, with a gun in his hand, almost before you know it.

III. Badlands

When you remember Badlands, you remember the landscapes, and Kit and Holly — and Warren Oates and his mean smile. But you also remember the music and the apposite spell it casts: especially Carl Orff’s and Gunild Keetman’s “Gassenhauer”  with its tinkling barebones sound, and Erik Satie’s spare, haunting piano piece “Trois Mourceaux en Forme de Poire,” and “Love is Strange“ and “A Blossom Fell.” (The original music is by George Tipton.) These pieces create a much different mood than the furious, fast-fingered Earl Scruggs banjo-picking  hit, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the accompaniment of Bonnie and Clyde’s bank robbery.

The Barrow gang might have heard someone like Scruggs, playing something like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” somewhere. But Kit and Holly would never have heard music with the sophisticated playfulness, or melancholy or European classic status of Orff or Satie. This is Malick’s chosen music and his comment on this invented couple whom he loves, despite the danger and death in their wake. The question Badlands poses, like Bonnie and Clyde, is the riddle of which is more deadly: society or its outlaws. We  think we know the answer, but we don’t.

When I first saw Badlands, on its first release, in 1973, I thought it was good, but not as good as Bonnie and Clyde, which I loved. (It’s always been one of my favorite movies.) Now I feel that both pictures are on a level, both are classics, and Badlands may even be the more original of the two. But maybe that’s because Penn only made one more masterpiece, Little Big Man, while Malick has made several—Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. Penn gradually fell silent, not voluntarily, while Malick chose to be silent for twenty years after Days of Heaven and now, toward the end of his career, has become more prolific and active, while still controversial—winning the Cannes Palme d’Or for Tree of Life, and made more films since. But he’s  never done a movie more poetic. more gorgeous than Badlands or Days of Heaven. Tender and violent, stunning and terrifying, Badlands is about the America and the people we think we know but really don’t, the people we never understand but only hear about from afar. It’s about  that car racing along the road against the sky, that gun pealing out its message of death, those twisted childlike lovers, looking for freedom and finding a whirlpool of murder, and, at the end of all things, Nat King Cole’s creamy, flawlessly shaped and carressing voice singing his hit from the car radio, “A Blossom Fell.”

Extras: Documentary, Making “Badlands,” (2013), with interviews with Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek and art director Jack Fisk; Interviews with editor Billy Weber and executive producer Edward Pressman; “Charles Starkweather” (1993), an American Justice TV episode with Bill Kurtis; Trailer; Booklet with first-rate essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.

Wilmington on DVDs: The Enforcer; Les Visiteurs du Soir; Oz, the Great and Powerful; Snitch

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

THE ENFORCER (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Bretaigne Windust & Raoul Walsh (uncredited), 1951 (Olive).

The Enforcer, the last movie Humphrey Bogart made for Warner Brothers, begins with one of the grimmest scenes in all of film noir. It’s night, deadly night. We are in the criminal courts building of a huge city. Bogie, as crime-busting assistant D.A. Martin Donovan, and his fellow cops (King Donovan and Roy Roberts), are holed up on one of the upper stories of the concrete tower, guarding  their star witness, professional killer and murder manager  Joe Rico (Ted De Corsia), from the pre-trial assassination Rico is sure is coming for him — engineered by his relentless boss, and Donovan’s defendant, Mendoza (Everett Sloane, who occupies a cell in the same building.

Rico is just outside Donovan’s office, surrounded by cops, But his knaveries are cracking, and they snap when rifle fire, from a Mendoza employee across the street , rakes the window of his “safety zone.” Soon,  Donovan’s only witness, in the trial that will break the country’s biggest murder-for-hire racket, has bashed one of his guards, and broken out of the toilet window, trying to inch along an outside ledge to reach a nearby fire escape — a futile endeavor, from which Donovan at the window tries to dissuade him and that ends with Rico’s plunge to his death.

Frustrated, their case in ruins and the trial only hours away, Donovan and his cops begin to go over all the evidence again, searching desperately for the tell-tale detail that may yet trap Mendoza. It’s a horrific tale with a gallery of characters, killers and victims out of a nightmare (Sloane, De Corsia, Bob Steele, Jack Lambert, Michael Tolan, and the incredible young Zero Motel as semi-hysterical hit man “Big Babe” Lazick). With that hellish company, The Enforcer takes us on a tour of a moral nightfall as black and ruthless as the murder-for-hire corporation run by Mendoza.

That world is drawn at least partly from real life. Based on the then-shocking revelations of the American underworld uncovered by the Kefauver senate committee’s hearings on organized crime, The Enforcer plays like Sartre crossed with Jim Thompson and Mario Puzo. It’s both stylized cinema and brutally convincing. The Kefauver hearings, watched by much of the country on TV, were the events that first put the underworld slang terms of  “contracts” and “hits” into  the language, and we hear them for the first time in a movie here. The script, written by Martin Rackin, but the rubout operation in the movie is a portrayal of the real-life Murder, Inc., while Bogie’s character Donovan was inspired by real-life prosecutor Burton Turkus and De Corsia’s brilliant job as Rico by real-life Number One killer Abe Reles.  (Peter Falk would later play Reles in the 1961 movie Murder, Inc.) Rackin’s script is far more adventurous than most crime movies, and it uses the familiar  noir device of flashback narration, and flashbacks within flashbacks, to great effect.

The Enforcer is one of the most underrated of the classic ‘50s film noirs — perhaps because the movie isn’t usually credited to the man who was on set for most of the shooting, noir master Raoul Walsh. Walsh took over when the original director, Bretaigne Windust, fell ill after a few days of production and he shot the rest of the picture. (Walsh later refused all screen credit , because he didn’t want to spoil a colleague’s big career  break.) Walsh didn’t do any of the preparation of course. But his impeccably hard-bitten, vigorous  style and on-the-edge images are clearly recognizable throughout the film, and his collaboration here with Bogie is as memorable as their earlier teamings on High Sierra and The Roaring Twenties.

It’s also a familiar-looking Bogart performance.  but familiar Bogart means classic Bogart — tough, savvy, sharp, clear as crystal – with all the tricks we never tire of. This was Bogie‘s last movie distributed by Warner Brothers, the studio that helped make him a film immortal, but that also often exasperated the hell out of him. Donovan may be a typical role for him, but typical Bogie is always top of the line. It’s also a fitting goodbye to his turbulent home studio, for film noir’s greatest actor and the fedora-hatted king of the Warner lot.

Extras: None.

 

LES VISITEURS DU SOIR (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

France: Marcel Carne, 1942 (Criterion Collection)

One of the great French World War 2-era films, but little watched in America today (which is a shame), Les Visitors du Soir is another classic collaboration between director Marcel Carne and writer Jacques Prevert, the two romantic film masters who made 1939’s landmaark film  Le Jour de Leve and the 1945 masterpiece Children of Paradise. Shot while the occupying Nazi Army and the turncoat Vichy government had France in chains, it’s a period film set in the middle ages, with visuals that remind you of illuminated manuscripts and a story often interpreted as an allegorical attack on the Nazis — something that went largely unnoticed (or uncommented on) at the time.

Les Visiteurs begins with two minstrels on horseback, Dominique and Gilles (Arletty and Alain Cuny), riding through monumental landscapes and approaching a huge castle — a towering palace where their physical charms and ballad-singing will conquer the court, then embroiled in an elaborate wedding. Their special victims are the susceptible ruler Baron  Hugues (Fernand Ledoux) who falls for Dominique, The Baron’s flawlessly sweet and lovely  daughter Anne (Marie Dea) who loves Gilles, and her sly husband-to-be Reynaud (Marcel Herrand), who becomes obsessed with Dominique. What none of the court realize, however, is that these wandering seductive minstrels are actually emissaries of the Devil, dallying (or are they?) with humans, and that The Devil himself (Jules Berry, perfect casting for the part) will soon show up to collect his due. (Or will he?)

It’s a beautiful film of course. The cinematography is by Roger Hubert and the splendid Middle Ages sets are by Alexandre Trauner, who worked incognito, since  he was a Hungarian Jew, unemployable by the Nazis. The writing , by Prevert and Pierre  Laroche, is the witty, poetic, elegant and earthy cream of the classic pre-New WaveFrench cinema. The acting is nonpareil. Les Visiteurs du Soir (usually called The Devil’s Envoys in English, was a huge hit in World War II-era France, and its success enabled Carne and Prevert. Arletty and Herrand and Hubert (and the still anonymous Trauner) to make Children of Paradise together. The two films  are obviously connected; If you love one, you will almost certainly love the other. And love, as the devil‘s envoys here imperishably demonstrate, can triumph over fascism, the Devil’s creed. (In French, with subtitles.)

Extras:  Documentary L’aventure des “Visiteurs du Soir” (2009); Trailer; Booklet with Michael Atkinson essay.

 

Oz, The Great and Powerful  (Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy) (Three  Stars)

U.S.: Sam Raimi, 2013 (Walt Disney Home Video)

Let’s imagine a  new  version of one of the world‘s certifiably well loved movies: that beloved 1939 MGM classic, The Wizard of Oz. Let’s envision Oz, The Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raini, starring James Franco  as Oz, a new movie (and now a new DVD-Blu-ray combo) from the Disney Studio.

How to you bring this old show up to date? Well, first you throw out Dorothy, or any kind  of Dorothy little-human-girl-protagonist equivalent. (Makes sense , I guess, since anyone trying to walk in Judy Garland’s ruby red slippers, was bound to catch critic-flak. Who wants to be compared to the musical  girl marvel of MGM?) Then you upgrade the Wizard of Oz character — Professor Marvel, as played with gloriously hammy eloquence by the great Frank Morgan in 1939 — from a supporting role to central star. To catch a younger audience, you turn Marvel into a sexy ladies’ man played by James Franco.

Then you surround Oz, or Oscar, as he’s been renamed here (avoid the obvious Oscar host Franco joke) with sexy star witches,  Instead of a dithering moonstruck  Billie Burke type as Glinda the Good and a ferociously cackling Margaret Hamilton type as The Wicked Witch of the West, you cast super-blonde Michelle Williams as Glinda, and ultra-brunette Mila Kunis as her antagonist Theodora. A.k.a. The WWW.  You turn the three into a sort of  romantic triangle — and you end up with Kunis doing Margaret Hamilton anyway.

Wait. There’s more. Not content with two sexy witches, you bring in another beautiful nasty lady, called Evanora, (played by Rachel Weisz), and have her stage a kind of palace coup before a cast of thousands. You give The Wizard a garrulous flying monkey named Finley as a sidekick. You dump the old Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Jr. and Bert Lahr parts of The Scarecrow, The Tin Woodman and The Cowardly Lion (or perhaps their granddads), because, again, who wants to be compared to Ray Bolger, Jack Haley Jr. And Bert Lahr?

You clutter up the landscape with Munchkins and Winkies and more flying monkeys and colors vaguely reminiscent of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds turned into a video game. You don’t write any new songs –except one that flitted by so fast I barely heard it. (Who wants to be compared to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “If I Only had a Brain?“) You stage a big slam-bang climax, reminiscent of Ten Days that Shook the World, with Munchkins . You…

But why go any further? There’s lots of good stuff in Oz — production stuff from  designer Robert Stromberg and  cinematographer Peter Deming. But on a script level, do you have any real hope for this movie? You probably should have bailed out as soon as you heard that James Franco was the new Wizard of Oz. Instead of the smoothie con man patter of a Frank Morgan equivalent, or the quick-witted raps of  Robert Downey, Jr. (reportedly the original choice for this movie), we get the lackadaisical seductive gabs of Franco, who is at his best playing rebels (James Dean, Allen Ginsberg) or laid-back, grinning stoner types (Pineapple Express). So why didn’t they give him equivalent of the ’39 movie’s stoned-in-the-poppy-field scene.

Maybe  Downey, Jr. could have brought it off. But to take the world of a populist, feminist writer like “The Wizard of Oz’s” L. Frank Baum (who preferred girl heroines) and to put, at its center,  Franco’s randy Oscar, surrounded by sexy witches, seems silly. The film isn’t bad  — it has enough good people and colorful  scenes to keep it floating along on a wave of semi-entertainment. But I’d suggest that a big-bucks Wizard of Oz prequel, without a Dorothy-style  heroine, and without songs or much comedy, is barking up the wrong poppy field.

The movie was directed by Sam Raimi, who sometimes seemed closer to the spirit of  The Wizard of Oz in the Evil Dead movies than he does in this new Oz. (Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell pops up as Oz‘s gatekeeper.) It was written by Mitchell Kapner (of the Bruce Willis-Matt Perry comedy The Whole Nine Yards) and —— Lindsay-Abaire (of Robots, Rise of the Guardians and Rabbit Hole).  Together, with a good cast and splashy visuals, they‘ve made a spectacular Oz movie with precious little of the fun, funniness, charm, gaiety, exuberance, wit, songs, or tongue-in-cheek wit and wonder that the original had.

I should mention, of course, that the mass audiences went to this new Oz in droves.

Extras: Second Screen: “The Magic of Oz, the Great and Powerful”; Featurettes; Mariah Carey music video.

 

SNITCH (Two and a Half  Stars)

U.S.: Ric Roman Waugh, 2013 (Summit Entertainment

Snitch isn’t the movie you first think it’s going to be: which is probably a big, rough, clichéd, somewhat silly action movie, tailor made for star Dwayne (once “The Rock”) Johnson. In his day, Johnson has made some clichéd action pictures (The Scorpion King) and some silly movies — The Tooth Fairy and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. But, in Snitch, he and the moviemakers try to do something more sensible: a film with ideas and emotions as well as muscles and carnage.

It’s not completely successful. But it’s still a better movie than you’d expect — better written, better filmed, better acted (by Johnson and the rest of an unusually strong cast). Snitch, allegedly “based on a true story” — which is an exaggeration — is about a relatively ordinary American guy named John Matthews (Johnson),  a freight truck company owner, whose son Jason (Rafi Gavron)  is arrested for drug possession and intent to distribute (of a box of Ecstasy), and faces a 10 year jail sentence,

That unusually harsh punishment for a first time offender is thanks to the minimum sentences mandated by the War on Drugs laws, and the only way Jason can get a better deal is if he helps entrap somebody else (which is exactly what happened to him in the Ecstasy case). Jason however is no dealer; the only drug contact he has is the guy (the actual dealer) who set him up — and the prosecutor on his case (Susan Sarandon as Atty. Joanne Meighan) is pretty unsympathetic and harsh herself. She’s also involved in a heavy political campaign and wants whatever good press she can get. (“The liberals think I’m a bitch,” she explains. From what we see here, the liberals are right.)

And so  John — who feels guilty because he remarried, and spends far more time with his new family,  than with Jason and his mother (Melina Kanakaredes) — offers to help uncover some drug dealers himself, despite the fact that he‘s as much a stranger to this dark world as his son. Meighan, up for election and anxious for good publicity, gives him a shot,  and, with the aid of one of his workers, an ex-con named Daniel James  (played by Jon Bernthal) he wangles an intro to a vicious local dealer named Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams). Matthews offers his trucks as transport, and that suggestion involves him in smuggling cocaine  and leads this “ordinary guy” to Malik’s boss Juan Carlos Pintera a.k.a. “El Topo’ (Benjamin Bratt) and to a job transporting a fortune in drug money across the Mexican border.

 

John, we soon realize, is in way over his head, as is James, whom John hasn‘t informed of his police deal and informant (or snitch) status. Both John and the prosecutors — who include Sarandon and Barry Pepper in a solid turn as the goateed vet agent Cooper — are working in a very gray moral zone. Not because they’re double-crossing the drug cartel, which is good riddance,  but because the prosecutors are leading John into a situation that could almost certainly get him killed (and, at first, not telling him), and John is leading Daniel into violating his probation and endangering his family and  freedom,  something Daniel clearly didn’t want to do — at first. That moral question is what makes Snitch more interesting than it first appears to be.

Most movies like Snitch simply exist to have four or five big action scenes and a couple of scenes where the heroes glower and the villains chew the scenery. Snitch has action scenes — director-writer Ric Roman Waugh was a stunt man and stunt director for years, just like Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit). But there are only a few of them, only one that’s somewhat over the top (the last 16-wheeler chase)  and anyway, these scenes don’t  overwhelm the movie. Instead, what keeps you watching are the characters and the suspense whipped up by the sight of John and Daniel (and their families)  getting into worse and worse danger. It’s  a peril that we’re not sure that either of them can handle.

In the usual crime thriller (which often involves drugs), the hero can handle everybody and we never doubt it from the moment we read the credits. Here we’re not so sure that Johnson can get out of this alive or at least uninjured. In addition, we probably don’t like Meighan and we’re not sure of Cooper. John has a credible and sympathetic motivation: his love for his son and the guilt he feels about neglecting him. And  suspense is also generated by Jason’s fear that he’ll be destroyed by prison life, and John‘s that he‘ll be found out.

 

The script for Snitch was co-written by Justin Haythe, who also adapted Richard Yates’ modern classic novel “Revolutionary Road” for director Sam Mendes.  The dialogue is much better than usual for this kind of movie, and Johnson holds his own with an unusually strong cast. The director Waugh has a flotilla of stunt credits and some directorial ones, but he seems more interested in serious moviemaking than Needham ever was.

Waugh   handles the action well, as you’d expect, but he’s just as good with most of the non-action scenes.  There’s not a bad performance in the movie, and several of the actors — especially Williams, Bernthal and Pepper — are exceptional. I thought the movie’s color and framing sometimes looked too rough and ugly. But at least the cinematographer (Dana Gonzales) gives Snitch a style: neo-noir crossed with mock-doc.

 

 

Wilmington on Movies: The Internship

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

 

THE INTERNSHIP (Two  Stars)

U.S.: Shawn Levy, 2013

Vince Vaughn is an actor who tends to work better with partners—Jon Favreau in Swingers, for example. Still, when it came to 2005’s Wedding Crashers, he and Owen Wilson hit the mother lode of buddy-buddy comedy. It’s one of the funnier movies of the millennium, and Vaughn and Wilson, as two swinging young lawyers who crash weddings for the goodies and the women, had sizzling early-Martin & Lewis-style chemistry. Like all comedy teams that click, they were, are, a study in contrasts. Vaughn was fast-talking \; Wilson was slow. Vaughn was tall and hunky; Wilson was average and clunky. Vaughn was tart; Wilson was sweet.  Vaughn was something of a cynic; Wilson was something of a romantic. We liked Wilson; we were a little leery of Vaughn.

They were like most primo movie comic teams. each supplied something the other lacked. They clicked, it worked, and I can still remember the constant, explosive bursts of laughter they and their movie generated in the packed house where I and a beautiful lady-friend first saw the picture., both laughing ourselves silly.

Times change. The world moves on. The Bush Era is so over, it seems more like the Roaring Twenties, or even the Pleistocene Age. And the idea of swinging lawyers, crashing weddings to glom onto free food and casual sex, seems less like a fun party, and more like economic necessity. Vaughn and Wilson’s newest collaboration, The Internship — an attempt to catch at least part of  Wedding Crashers’ comedy lightning in another slick bottle — strips them of the comforts of status and money, and makes them a couple of ordinary (or at least more ordinary) guys up against it.  And it fails, almost abjectly, although these guys haven’t necessarily lost their charm or their chemistry, even though they were thirtysomethings then, and fortysomethings now, and they’re playing to an audience with a core of of twentysomethings (and older), plus whatever twelvesomethings get in on the PG-13.

The ultimate example of movie product placement (I hope), and a relative disgrace to the memory of Wedding Crashers, The Internship is also the ultimate suck-up to Google, the wildly popular, omnipresent  computer search engine which helped change society, the economy, and our lifestyles — and, our heroes hope, can now change, for the better, their life-styles and economy too. To that end, Wilson and Vaughn play Nick Campbell and Billy McMahon,  a hapless pair of slick-talking, but now obsolete, designer watch sales guys, whose company has dissolved. They hear about it first from their potential customers, who probably got it from Google. And, when they check in with their ex-boss (John Goodman, uncredited, doing a John Goodman knock-off), he informs them –  unhappily, because they’re a likable pair and because he’s John Goodman — that they’re dinosaurs, that he’s a dinosaur too, and that he’s heading for Florida, Adios suckers.

Things get worse. Billy returns home to discover he’s lost his home and girlfriend  (to foreclosure). He moves into Nick‘s apartment and (temporarily) his bed. Nick, temporarily girlfriendless,  goes off to start a new job: selling  mattresses for his sister’s horny, self-infatuated boyfriend  (Will Ferrell, uncredited, at his most  Ferrellesque). But, in the middle of Nick’s first mattress pitch, Billy comes rushing in and collars him,  proclaiming that he’s found it: the answer, the passport to paradise, the jackpot, or what Max Bialystock would call “the mother of them all.” He’s arranged for the two of them to apply for summer internships at Google, a (fictional)  opportunity seemingly reserved for twenty-something college computer whizbangs, But it’s a chance that Billy is sure the two of them can win, digitally challenged as they may be — with the help of a double enrollment to the online Phoenix University (Google it if you don’t believe him) and a lot of slick, snappy patter, some of it improvised.

At this point, if you have any aversion to the computer age, you might as well walk out of he theater and try to find John Goodman in Florida, because that’s as funny as things get. Billy and Nick show up at Google headquarters around San Francisco, and get selected as one of the competing teams of interns by a (mostly  young) Google panel of experts. And he rest of  the movie is a long, mushy, French wet kiss and Swedish Massage and Silicon Valley mash note to Google, in which we discover that Google is a great place to work, a great place to sample (or horde, as Billy does) free food in their cafeteria, a great place to start up two new romances, a great place to play something that looks like soccer for lunatics, a great place to sleep it off after a bender at the strip clubs, and a great place to jump-start the economy, at lest if you’re Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson and you’re now crashing computers instead of weddings.

It’s a standard script and it touches all the bases you think it will, not very amusingly. There’s the thrill-a-minute intern competition — in which oldsters Nick and Billy naturally are teamed up with the last pick geeks nobody else wants :repressed  mama’s boy Yo-Yo Santos (Tobit Raphael), smart-ass wet blanket Stuart (Dylan O’Brien) cutie-pie Neha (Tiya Sircar), and their Google manager, Lyle (Josh Brener), a nerd trying to be hip. There’s the seeming taskmaster contest boss Mr. Chetty (Aasif Mahdvi) and meanie Brit snob nemesis Graham (Max Minghella), whose team keeps beating them, while he keeps dissing them. There’s a mysterious campus  figure the credits list as “Headphones” (Josh Gad), who obviously will pop up later.  There are  the romances we promised for Nick and Billy — namely with initially snippy Aussie Google gal  Dana (Rose Byrne) and another Googler, Marielena (Jessica Szohr), who also works at the strip club. There is Google jargon, like “nooglers” and “googlier,“ and there are screw-ups, and reconciliations, and innumerable renditions of  “What a Feeling” from Flashdance, which must be the a favorite song of one of the producers, or one of the writers — or both if they happen to be producer-co-writer-costar Vince Vaughn.

Most of all, there’s an ending you can small coming a mile off, or two miles, or three. (Hell, Google it.)

The idea behind the movie, which appealed to me,   is that Billy and Nick may be old. (Old? Isn’t 40 the new 20?) And they may be phonies, and they may be a broke in an economy getting broker, but they still have something to offer the twentysomethings of Silicon Valley, and Mr. Chetty: their humanity, their street smarts, and their chemistry. That’s the message of The Internship, and it comes courtesy of co-producer/co-writer/costar  (the one that probably likes Flashdance), Vince Vaughn, who also had the idea of reuniting with Wilson, and wrapping a movie around Google and Google culture. He also co-wrote ,with Jared Stein, (The Watch and Mr. Popper‘s Penguins)) the jam-packed, fast-paced dialogue — most of which he speaks so fast you can sometimes barely catch it. Unfortunately, everyone at the movie’s Google tends to have the same rhythm and voice, which gets Googly-monotonous.

Vaughn was also nice and unselfish enough to write his movie buddy Owen a better part than he wrote for himself. Not that much better, but Wilson does get to do the scene where he demonstrates to his dinner date (Byrne) just how bad a date and a dinner  can be. And that’s also, belatedly,  about as funny as the movie gets after the beginning.

 

The Internship was directed by Shawn Levy (of those Nights at the Museum), with all the Hollywood casual glamour and big movie shine he can muster — and Levy makes everything look pretty good. Keeping things lively and energetic even when the script wallows in formula or collapses into Googlyism. The Internship is actually onto something interesting — the effects of the collapsed economy on guys who were used to  having a never-ending party and never growing up, and being nurtured by corporations or the government.

That’s an interesting subject.  But probably the right way to make a funny comedy our of it, is not to play favorites (as this movie obviously does with Google), but to invent a fictitious search engine company, and then feel freer to satirize it. It’s a cliché (or should we say, a tradition) of movie comedy that  the comic heroes, even if they’ve mostly been boobs or phonies, straighten up and win out in the end. But this movie’s worshipful attitude toward Google tends to kill the humor — even if some of the touches, like the Google beanies (are they for real?), seem like satire.

. There are funny movie comedies that use real-life commercial products and even make fun of them — as Billy Wilder did when he had Jimmy Cagney as a hot-tempered Coca Cola Executive in West Berlin in One, Two, Three, screaming at the end, when a Pepsi bottle dropped out of one of his Coke machines. But Shawn Levy is no Billy Wilder. And Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are no Matthau and Lemmon, even if, to some of the new audience, the stars of Wedding Crashers may seem like two grand old men of show business. Here, a lot of the time, they’re gabbing their way through a third-rate Googlier bromance and the infomercial from Hell. And it’s painful. Who would have thought there’d come a time when one bad movie would make us nostalgic for the Bush years?