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Wilmington on Movies: We’re the Millers

Saturday, August 10th, 2013

WE’RE THE MILLERS (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2013

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Back in the 1990s, during the TV heyday of “Friends,” the sight of Jennifer Aniston doing a strip tease on camera in some other movie would have probably been enough to set off fantasies and cultural shock waves of super-seismic proportions. What a disgrace? What a babe! What a bod! What moral decay! What heavenly hair! What an angelic…!

Sad to say, when the big strip tease number with Aniston comes in her new movie We’re the Millers, it’s a disappointment, a bust—and not the kind you expect either. The disrobing of the legendary Rachel isn’t the epic sex fantasy scene one might imagine, but just another misjudged scene in a somewhat daring but basically lousy movie comedy—a forced, crude, often senseless show about a group of misfits or outsiders (played by Aniston, Jason SudeikisEmma Roberts and Will Poulter), pretending to be a typical American suburban bourgeois family (called the Millers), while smuggling dope across the border from Mexico,

I hasten to add that none of the blame for this disappointing strip is Ms. Aniston’s, and that she’s totally game and still looks great, in clothes or out of them. The take-‘em-off number—in which Aniston, as professional stripper Rosie O’Reilly, is trying to distract and discombobulate the vicious drug traffickers who supplied the two tons of marijuana now secreted in the Miller‘s RV—is too fast, not imaginative, not funny, and not sexy enough.

The rhythm is off in the strip, as it is for much of the movie. During the course of this would-be dirty-funny movie Jennifer graces us with not just one but several strip-tease numbers; indeed one of the major points of Rosie as a character seems to be to get Jennifer out of her clothes, or at least some of them—shimmying against a dance-pole in a platinum wig in one scene or beguiling those drug distributors by peeling off her Capri pants, in the number they probably show in the trailer. But these scenes, like much else in the movie—except for the sequences with Nick Offerman as a benevolent D.E.A agent and Kathryn Hahn as his homespun but hot-to-trot wife—are too obvious and too forced, lacking in wit and imagination, and even a little sloppy. This movie‘s idea of a funny, audacious gag is to have one character pull down his pants to show us his scrotum, blown up to cantaloupe size after he’s bitten by a scorpion.

The premise—for which we should thank (or not) a team of writers—is second- or third-rate pseudo-Farrelly stuff. Sudeikis, in a full attack of smarminess that suggests he wants to follow (or fall) in Chevy Chase‘s footsteps, plays David Clark, an affable, shaggy, glib dope dealer who loses all his ganja-gotten gains one night while coming to the aid of a young neighbor (Poulter as super-doofus Kenny Rossmore) who’s being threatened by some low-lifes. Stripped of both his dough and his pot by the delinquents, David later tries to square things with his supplier and ex-college buddy Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms), who actually out-smarms Sudeikis), Gurdlinger, who actually claims to be the drug kingpin, offers his old pal an option: smuggle that couple of tons of pot in from Mexico in the R. V., while pretending to be a solid, clean-cut citizen named, of course, Miller.

Convinced he can’t be believably straight enough without a “family,” David hastily recruits three other Millers: Aniston‘s hard-bitten ecdysiast Rosie as the mama, Poulter’s somewhat neurotic and virginal Kenny as the son, and Roberts’ runaway street kid Casey Mathis as the daughter. This foursome, initially not too simpatico with each other, turn out better at being bourgeois than you’d first guess and things go sort of swimmingly, until a nasty plot twist gets unloaded at the hacienda of drug czar Pablo Chacon (Tomer Sisley) and his number one thug, the genuinely scary-looking One Eye (Matthew Willig). Soon, The Millers, or “The Millers,” hook up with D. E. A. guy Fitzgerald (Offerman) and his spouse (Hahn) and his daughter (Molly Quinn) on the way, will learn much more the perils of driving an RV full of marijuana, as guns and chases and phony incest gags and scrotum jokes abound.

A few questions emerge from all this cannabis-laced mountebankery and mayhem. Why would any self-respecting pot trafficker, even as devious a miscreant as Gurdlinger, conceive such an idiotic scheme (the two tons of pot aren’t paid for), a plan that seems more than likely to fail completely and get them all killed, himself included? Why does David entrust his life and future to the dubious hands of a stripper who dislikes him, a troubled kid and a homeless runaway. Why do David and Rosie get into a sexually compromising situation with a D. E. A. agent and his wife—and let the kids make out by a window while the agent’s daughter is prowling around? Of course, it can be argued that movie comedies are full of characters that behave stupidly, put themselves in compromising positions and into mortal danger, and somehow evade arrest or death. But there’s an art to setting up these situations so they seem somehow plausible, and that art is almost lacking in We’re the Millers.

The notions or morals behind the movie, as written by the tag-team and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (director of the Ben Stiller-Vince Vaughn sports farce Dodgeball and the arty The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) seem to be many and contradictory is that these phony Millers have a greater aptitude for “normality” and straightness than we thought, that the actor playing the D. E. A. agent in a dope comedy, will probably steal the movie (unless it’s a show by Cheech and Chong), that sex and pot both scramble your mind, and any plot device, however imbecilic, will be accepted by an audience hungry for entertainment, or pot, or sex, or all three and that movies about pot should be legalized for their medicinal value, especially in complaints involving the scrotum. Also, that if you hire Jennifer Aniston for a role that requires her to strip-tease, you should let her tease as well as strip. Slower, slower…

Wilmington on Movies: Planes

Saturday, August 10th, 2013

PLANES (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Klay Hall, 2013

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In movies, especially movies intended for kids, originality isn’t everything. Adults are sometimes another story.

Planes, as most of us know by now, is a kind of knockoff of Cars and Cars 2, two Pixar films that were pet toons of now Disney head John Lasseter (who co-wrote and directed them)– and were also popular with audiences and toy-buying parents, though trashed by a lot of critics. Planes is a popular and somewhat trashed cartoon show, too. But cute.

Planes—which isn’t a Pixar movie but sure as, uh, heck looks, feels and sounds like one—is actually a product of Disneytoon Studio, another of the branches of the Disney animation empire now run (very well) by Lasseter. Stylistically, it’s in the same groove as Cars, but with cute little big-eyed planes whirring around instead of cute little big-eyed cars—or, for that matter, cute little big-eyed toys, monsters, fish or robots. Yet though Planes can get overly familiar, the movie, which was originally intended as a straight-to-video item, then upgraded to a theatrical release, has its moments.

It’s the story of yet another international race (like the Grand Prix in Cars 2), this time with a plucky little underdog—predictably adorable crop-dusting plane Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook)—rising up from the American heartland (in this case, Propwash Junction) to compete against the superstars of the sport. Dusty, with an omnipresent grin under his propeller, is a working stiff with dreams of glory who finally gets his chance when he makes the cut for that round-the-world championship race—where his main competition is swaggering multi-trophy champ and bully-plane Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith, exuding ego).

Our cute little hero enlists the help of his buddies, Chug the Truck (Brad Garrett), Dottie the Forklift (Teri Hatcher), and even recruits a heavy-duty coach, the dark-tempered but sky-savvy Skipper (Stacy Keach), a war vet with a legendary rep. When Dusty surprisingly makes it into the finals—against Ripslinger and an international gallery that includes crusty Britisher Bulldog (John Cleese), French-Canadian bombshell Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Rochelle’s devoted serenading suitor El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui) and Indian ace Ishani (Priyanka Chopra)—the stage is set, the race is on, and the lovable clichés come tumbling out like gumballs from a gumball machine.

To say you’ve seen it all before is putting it mildly. Lasseter sometimes seems, especially here, like a big jubilant child unloading his huge toy chest for all his playmates—which is usually a pleasure but sometimes, at least lately, predictable. He was the executive producer for Planes – it’s a Disneytoon Studio production rather than a Pixar one—and he helps gives the movie a classy-looking, energetic shine. It’s a good-looking show despite its unoriginal, uninspired but not uncongenial script. Much of what’s in the two Cars movies (the characters, the plot, the backgrounds, the cornball. somewhat stereotypical humor, the would be heartfelt themes, even the presence of super-sports announcer Brent Mustangburger (voiced, as in Cars 2, by Brent Musburger)—has its equivalent in Planes, except that Planes is heavier on uplift and lighter on jokes.

It’s a less adult-friendly movie than the Cars twosome. But, with its skyful of cute little planes and thrills in the clouds executed with the current Disney Studio panache, it’s definitely kid-friendly. It’s a nice-looking movie, and that’s what gives it some redeeming value for adults. Director Klay Hall and writer Jeffrey M. Howard (both veterans of Disney’s “Tinker Bell” video series), are two cartoon-makers who both obviously love aircraft (reportedly since boyhood) and they’ve dreamed up, or borrowed, a story that has lots of scope and space for spectacularly cute flying scenes. After all, their movie was intended as a straight-to-video item, so it‘s already something of an over-achiever. At its best, especially when it’s airborne, Planes is still, well, cute.

 

Wilmington on DVDs: Guys and Dolls

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

GUYS AND DOLLS (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Joseph Mankiewicz, 1955 (Warner Brothers)

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If there was ever a part Frank Sinatra was born to play—and sing—it was Sky Masterson, the lady-killing, dice-rolling, high-living gambler who is the main man and big shooter of the classic New York-Broadway musical (and the Hollywood movie made from it) Guys and Dolls. Sinatra loved the show, loved the part, and liked to include Sky’s signature song, “Luck Be a Lady” in his acts. And. Frank was at the top of his career and game and box-office clout when the movie (produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed and written by Joseph Mankiewicz) was released in 1955. There’s no question that, in 1955, Sinatra was the greatest, most famous, most admired pop singer/recording artist in the world. (His only peers and rivals then, like Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, were unsuitable casting for Sky.)

But when the movie was cast, Goldwyn decided instead to go for the guy who was then regarded as the greatest movie actor in the world, Marlon Brando. Sinatra was cast in the movie too, but in the, less charismatic role of Nathan Detroit—New York City gambling entrepreneur and proprietor of The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York. Sinatra is swell as Detroit—it’s actually one of his best movie musical roles—and Brando is not half-bad as Sky. His acting is superlative; he‘s slick as a whistle and handsome as a Times Square gent in full streetwise blossom. But face it: As well as he could fake it (and he does act out the songs a bit like Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady”), Brando could not sing like Sinatra. Sky was Frank’s part, and he proved it a few years later when his record company, Reprise, released an album of the songs from “Guys and Dolls,” with Frank singing some of Sky‘s, and other numbers recorded by Dean MartinSammy Davis, Jr. and Crosby. (It was a gasser.)

Even with its dubious bit of star casting however, the movie of Guys and Dolls is a killer show. Set on Times Square, in Havana and in the high spots and delis of Broadway, adapted and directed by Mankiewicz and with a fantastic, witty, street-smart song score by Frank Loesser, it’s a hard-boiled romantic comedy based on Damon Runyon’s hard-boiled, vernacular-heavy Broadway stories of life among the guys who gamble and the dolls they gamble for. Here those high-rolling guys include Brando’s Masterson and Sinatra’s Nathan, with dolls Vivian Blaine (the only holdover from the stage version) as Miss Adelaide, Nathan‘s longtime fiancée, and Jean Simmons as Sergeant Sarah Brown, a fiercely faithful, beautiful and seemingly proper soul-gatherer for the local Salvation Army—and also the gal who eventually conquers the ace gambler‘s luckiest and most vulnerable spot, his heart.

Other denizens of this choice slice of Manhattan folklore include Sheldon Leonard as slickster Harry the Horse, B. S. Pully as granite-faced gangster Big Jule, and those two amiable horse experts, Johnny Silver as Benny Southstreet, and the perfectly cast Stubby Kaye as Nicely-Nicely Johnson. The pudgy dynamo Kaye probably, during the run of the stage “Guys and Dolls” stole the show every night twice—the first time as part of the ensemble in the unforgettable “Fugue for Tinhorns” (“I got the horse right here; his name is Paul Revere…”) and the second time with the unbeatable “Sit Down, (Sit Down, Sit Down,) You‘re Rockin’ the Boat.” “Guys and Dolls would probably still be a great musical if it included just those two songs and the big ballad “A Woman in Love,” and “Luck Be a Lady,” But the movie was so crammed with first-class tunes with great lyrics, that it could survive Goldwyn‘s perverse removal of one of the show‘s biggest hits, “A Bushel and a Peck”, and its replacement with the cute but so-so “Pet Me, Poppa.”

 

The man who wrote those songs—both the music and the lyrics—was another Frank: Frank Loesser, one of he best and most inventive and funniest and most purely lyrical pop songsmiths ever. (Loesser also wrote the words and music for the excellent scores of the stage shows “The Most Happy Fella” and the Pulitzer Prize-wining “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”) Guys and Dolls was written for the stage by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and they (and Runyon) are responsible for its Runyonesque language and lingo, which are both oddly formal and engagingly raw —like the speech of finicky but uneducated gangsters trying to tip-toe into high society.

But Loesser is the main reason the stage show is a classic. It’ s hard to analyze his special qualities as a songsmith, but one of them is his almost perfect matching of the words and music, a quality he shares with Cole Porter. Loesser’s lyrics sound absolutely right, and his songs are so well wrought that they practically sing themselves—which is why Brando almost gets away with Sky Masterson. Loesser had spent most of his career writing not for Broadway but for Hollywood, where his most famous song was the ingenious seduction ballad and double-entendre Oscar-winner “Baby It’s Cold Outside.“ When he wrote the songs for Guys and Dolls, he was at his peak, his work has an effortless grace and wit—and he was just a few years away from another great score for the underrated 1952 Goldwyn/Danny Kaye movie musical, “Hans Christian Andersen.”

Joseph Mankiewicz, Goldwyn’s choice to direct Guys and Dolls, was no Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli, and probably not even a George Sidney. In fact Mankiewicz never directed another musical, before or afterwards—which at least gives him a very high average in that genre. It can be argued (but I wouldn’t) that “Mank“ didn’t really (totally) direct this musical either, since his strategy was to handle all the dialogue and acting scenes (of which there are quite a few) and hand over all the singing and dancing numbers to his genius choreographer Michael Kidd, whose romping, stomping signature was already all over the classic Western numbers of Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers—and who here proves just as synchronous with the rhythms of America’s biggest, classiest city and one of the best musicals ever set in it.

The movie Guys and Dolls, has long taken a second row in the movie musical pantheon to the great dancing musicals of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. But the show, both on stage and on film, has grown in stature over the years, until the play is now generally regarded as one of Broadway’s best—if not the best. The movie is revered to such an extent that even the numbers written for and added to the picture, like Sinatra’s “Adelaide’s Lament,” have been added to the play revivals as well. The movie is everything the slightly illegal side of Broadway was (or how we like to imagine it: fast, breezy, clever, high-stepping full of inside dope and rapid chatter and the promise of big rewards—and the zing and sting of romance in the city.

One question has to be asked. Should Sinatra have played Sky Masterson instead of Brando? The answer is probably yes. Brando tries hard– and he’s absolutely magnetic when he’s just doing dialogue. But singing? It’s like Pagliacci telling us he coulda been a contender. It’s not that he doesn’t hit the notes. He does, but the strings of your heart don’t sing as they would for Frank. In a way, it’s a shame they couldn’t have waited a few years and cast Frank and Dino, like the Reprise album. (One of Dean’s biggest record hits, by the way, was Loesser’s “Standing on the Corner” from “Most Happy Fella.”)

Better yet though may have been a piece of casting that was actually available at the time and would have given Hollywood’s Guys and Dolls a good shot at being remembered today as a great musical in the Singin’ in the Rain/Top Hat/An American in Paris class. The part of Sky Masterson was actually offered to Sinatra’s old On the Town partner, Gene Kelly—and though Kelly couldn’t sing as well as Frank either, and sometimes not even as well as Brando, he (and Kidd) could have given Guys and Dolls what it doesn’t have now: great dance numbers to go with those great songs. Imagine Kelly waltzing to “A Woman in Love” or careening all around the crap game to “Luck Be a Lady.“ As Marlon once said (in a taxi cab): “Wow!“

What happened? MGM wouldn’t loan Kelly out—even though Goldwyn was their middle name. Listen… Ah, why make a fuss when it’s already over? Anything can be improved, even Singin‘ in the Rain. (For one thing, they could put back those deleted scenes on the DVD.) But hey, Mr. MGM of the 1950s, let me inform you: It may be Sam Goldwyn’s fault that Frank did not sing “Luck Be a Lady.

But it’s your fault Gene did not dance it. Youse were not gentleman, I fear. Now, sit down; You’re rockin’ the boat.

Extras: Documentaries The Goldwyn Touch and From Stage to Screen; More musical performances; Trailer; Booklet.

 

Wilmington on DVDs: Oblivion

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

OBLIVION (Three Stars)
U.S.: Joseph Kosinski, 2013 (Universal)

oblivion-5Oblivion, a stunningly visualized, dramatically erratic science fiction film epic about what happens after the Apocalypse, maybe, is really two movies: one good, one not so good. First, it’s the long-lost progeny of 2001: A Space Odyssey and “The Twilight Zone.” (Good.) Second, it’s a Tom Cruise killer-thriller space opera about a rebellion on our ravaged earth. (Not  good.)

 The 2001-inspired section, thanks to the film’s visual artists (which include director-writer Joseph Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda of Life of Pi), is often extraordinary—and get a load of the movie’s splendiferous vistas: those sand dunes out of Lawrence of Arabia, those cloud castles out of Up, those moody dreamy interiors out of Solaris. The way the movie looks is one of its main attractions. Another is the acting (Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko and Melissa Leo).

The second part of Oblivion, which is more big-bucks action movie-driven, is well cast and well acted, but both predictable and often befuddling. From the midpoint of Oblivion on, the movie often doesn’t make much sense. The premise is reminiscent of all those “Zone” episodes which took place in the (seeming) future, or (seeming) deep space, and where we‘re watching something rich and strange and often nightmarish, in a world that we can sense is going to change radically—and often does. On a post-nuclear war Earth, cosmic cleanup operator/sky-boy Jack Harper (Cruise) and his British co-worker/bedmate Victoria Olsen (Riseborough) are located in what looks like a super-Hollywood Hills sort of number called the Skytower. They, and everyyone else will be  evacuated to the Saturn moon of Titan, while Earth suffers the ruin and wreckage of 60 years of planetary warfare with alien invaders called the Scavengers. Earth is now a blasted wasteland, with its seas drained for energy, and with a number of famous landmarks (the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the New York Public Library) poking Planet-of-the-Apes-like, out of the sandy devastation.

Jack and Victoria are spending their last time there, mopping up what’s left of Desert Earth, in anticipation of humanity’s impending exodus. Meanwhile, nasty Scavengers, or Scavs, roam around menacingly, even though humankind supposedly won a 60-year war, and  Jack/Tom cruises around in the Top Gun-nish cockpit of his glider  Bubbleship and treasures  a sumptuously weathered old hardcover book called “The Lays of Ancient Rome” by Thomas Macaulay. Also haunted by memories of a beautiful woman he saw on the observation deck of the Empire State Building (Olga Kurylenko), he is about to meet a flock of other characters played by Morgan Freeman (Beech, a rebel leader),  Kurylenko (Julia, the real beauty), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Sykes, a hothead) — and to find out that neither he, the Earth, nor the Scavengers, nor Victoria, nor any of the others.  nor almost anything all is quite what it seems, even if we’ve seen a lot of it before in other movies.

There aren‘t many movies around as stunning to look at as the first part of Oblivion and it‘s worth a look. Kosinski displayed a strong visual imagination in the critically bashed TRON: Legacy., but this is his show—adapted from a story and graphic novel he wrote — and it’s clear he has more emotion invested in it. Maybe Cruise does too.  He doesn’t quite triumph over the forced ending—nobody can really, except Morgan Freeman, who, it seems, can survive anything. But the movie has its moments, and many new pictures don’t have even that much. Oblivion doesn’t quite turn real, or even convincingly unreal In the end, it’s just another Tom Cruise action spectacular. But at least it’s not oblivious to other possibilities.

Extras: None.

Wilmington on Movies: Heaven’s Gate (Director’s Cut)

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

HEAVEN’S GATE (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Michael Cimino, 1980

The restored director’s cut of Heaven’s Gate has been released in the U.K.

It’s past time to resuscitate the reputation of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Remember how they shot it down? It was known after its release (before its release too, actually) as Cimino’s Folly, Cimino’s Trainwreck,  the out-of-control, over-expensive epic that all but bankrupted United Artists and made a laughingstock out of its Oscar-winning filmmaker. Most of all, it became famous as the object of numerous journalistic attacks and of Stephen Bach’s venomous making-of book, “Final Cut.”

Blasted mercilessly by some of the leading critics of its day (including, notably, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby), it was praised by a handful of others (including me, at Isthmus of Madison), and has steadily grown in stature and  positive assessments over the years. Like Sergio Leone‘s also-abused (if not as much)  but glorious epic western Once Upon a Time in the West, Heaven’s Gate deserved better than the audiences and critics of its era gave it. Maybe this superb Criterion package will garner the film a little more respect, or at least another chance.

It deserves one. In retrospect, Heaven’s Gate—in the original version, a sumptuously shot near-four-hour saga costarring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert and Jeff Bridges—looks more and more like a film convicted and massacred  unjustly. “Cimino’s Folly” now seems one of the major movie Westerns  of its day, an esthetically-visionary, politically-daring  and sometimes staggeringly beautiful picture, rather than the spendthrift, pretentious catastrophe Bach describes in his tell-all. It was an ambitious movie that realized many of its ambitions, an audacious, sometimes great picture that fails big when it fails, but succeeds magnificently when it succeeds.

Set in  Wyoming cattle country, largely  in 1892, Cimino‘s movie—a longtime labor of love from the filmmaker who won 1978 Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for The Deer Hunter—is, like Francis Coppola‘s similarly troubled 1979 Vietnam saga Apocalypse Now, a phenomenon show. It’s one of the few American movie epics that can be compared, in scope, historical sophistication, daring and beauty, to the great post-1960 European film epics like Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard or Bernardo Bertolucci‘s 1900.  (Both those films had problems too, and violent detractors.)

As with The Leopard, the politics of Heaven’s Gate are leftist and the esthetics classical. Cimino‘s story, taken from historical records, was  based on a real-life “class war”: The Johnson County War, fought by the immigrant settlers of that region against the all-powerful ranchers of  the Wyoming Cattle Grower’s Association and a cabal that included that state‘s Governor. The impetus for the war was the ranchers’ insistence that the settlers were rustling their cattle. But more likely, it seems, the spur was the aggravation of these gentlemen at having to share the grasslands with anyone else. So, importing gunmen from Texas to Caspar, Wyoming, the cattle growers—led in the film by arrogant cattle king Frank Canton (Sam Waterston, in evil mode)—became determined to wipe out their neighbors, beginning with 150 people they have on a private ranchers’ private death list.

Trying vainly to keep the peace is the film‘s main protagonist, the local marshal James Averill (Kristofferson) —an honest law enforcer who is also involved in a blazing love triangle with the local Madame, Ella Watson (Huppert), and one of Canton’s hired enforcers, Nathan Champion (Walken), who turns on his own leader. All three of these characters, considerably altered, come from life, and the Harvard graduate Averill is Michigan State and Yale graduate Cimino‘s obvious surrogate.

We first see the young Averill, robust and gleaming, one of the proud and happy young Eastern elite, in his vast, elaborate college graduation ceremonies, decades earlier  at Harvard, where the Greeleyesque (and unnamed) Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) exhorts the young men to Go West. Averill does, but by the time we see him again, he has become an embittered and cynical lawman, alienated from his own gentleman’s class (the killer-ranchers led by Canton), in love with a whore (his legal wife is back east), and full of grudging admiration for the mercurial gunman Champion. Averill is the main witness to the carnage that ensues: the slaughter of over a hundred settlers by the Wyoming cattle country elite.

Heaven’s Gate‘s detractors often accuse the movie of having no story, or if it does, of having a murky and unfocused one. But Heaven‘s Gate is not especially hard to follow and it has plenty of story — including the political battle, the three-cornered romance, the clashes between Marshal Averill and the gentleman ranchers and his alcoholic old Harvard classmate/friend Billy Irvine (played with brittle melancholy by John Hurt). What the film doesn’t have — its major flaw — is enough dialogue and dialogue scenes to perfectly round out the characters of Averill, Ella, Jeff Bridges’ John L. Ridges, Canton, the settlers’ spokesperson Mr. Eggleston (Brad Dourif), and the others.

It’s fine for Walken’s Champion to be  a man of few words; it suits his charisma. But Cimino likes to tell his stories more in pictures than in dialogue, and a movie like this, and characters like these,  needs more talk, and more personality conveyed through the dialogue. Cimino instead likes to create big, sweeping, epic and mostly wordless scenes—like the wedding party in The Deer Hunter, and here, the dance on the Harvard campus, the settlers’ roller rink celebration, the furious ambush of Champion by the enforcers, and the final bloody Johnson County War—and to avoid too much conversation. Those great, lavish tableaux are part of what makes him interesting as a filmmaker. But they’re also so arty and intentionally overpowering that they irritate some observers.

The Deer Hunter had the same paucity of dialogue. (Cimino‘s Clint Eastwood actioner Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, didn‘t need it.)  But when the film‘s major internal emotional conflict is that of an academically gifted Harvard man, adjusting to the shock and awe of the frontier, it would have been better to let him and the others open up more, even if part of the point is that Averill, once a young Eastern gentleman,  has adjusted to his more terse, more laconic Western environment.

At any rate, here now is Heaven’s Gate, in the more complete 216-minute version that played a week or so in New York City and then was eviscerated—first by the critics and then by the studio.  Cimino’s 1980 movie was blasted both for costing too much, for not being a masterpiece—and for not giving us characters we could love, instead of the flawed and vulnerable Averill, Champion and Ella. In any case, Heaven’s Gate has survived, been restored and looks better today. Its very high ambitions and historic sweep are what we miss in most of our epics today. The picture could be better—almost everything and every movie  could be better, except Citizen Kane and The Godfather and The Rules of the Game and Singin’ in the Rain. But it’s definitely not a catastrophe. The studio should have stood behind it.

I remember when I saw Heaven’s Gate first, in New York City. I rushed off to the theater the next day, because movie people were sure that Canby’s review had killed the film, at least in its “final cut,” and that, if and when it played in the rest of the country, it would be severely edited, as Greed was, and made, as best anyone could, into something more commercial and ordinary, like the RKO cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. (Both those films, of course, were masterpieces, even in the mutilated versions.) The  crowd gathered in the moviehouse that day, some defiant, and we watched the triangular love story and the class war, and the charging horses and the grasslands and the firelit bordello, and we looked at Isabelle Huppert, that wonderful actress—whom Steven Bach called, I think, a “potato-face” in his book. We watched the bullets blazing into the house of Champion, turning the walls into latticeworks filled with streams of light and death.  And after a while, someone in the front rows yelled “Fuck Vincent Canby!”

Then David Mansfield’s little waltz came on, and the audience quieted. Perhaps we realized it wasn’t fair, that the anger was misplaced. Canby didn’t kill the 1980 Heaven’s Gate. At least, not alone. He was backed and encouraged by a studio and by accountants and a film community and an establishment, and maybe by a list, and most of all, by a state of mind, and a sense of class. Listen, I apologize to Vincent Canby. He was a gentleman.

Extras on the Criterion Collection DVD: New restored transfer, supervised by Cimino; Audio interview with Cimino and producer Joann Carelli;  New Interviews with Kristofferson, composer-actor-fiddler Mansfield; and assistant director Michael Stevenson;  Teaser and TV Spot; Booklet with a 1980 interview with Cimino and an essay by Giulia D‘Agnolo Vallan.

Wilmington on Movies: Blue Jasmine

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

BLUE JASMINE (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Woody Allen, 2013

Blue Moon, You saw me standing alone,

“Without a dream in my heart,

“Without a love of my own.”

“Blue Moon, you knew just what I was there for…”

Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (words).

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

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

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

When we first see Jasmine, she’s on a  plane headed for San Francisco and a temporary refuge with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, the breezy free spirit of  Mike Leigh’s 2008 Happy-Go-Lucky),  jabbering away about her life to her captive seatmate (Joy Carlin), who tells her husband later that Jasmine started off the conversation by talking to herself — which she does more and more these days.

Soon, Jasmine has reached the Mission District where Ginger lives with her auto repair guy boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale) — which is where we get the first of many deliberate parallels to Williams’ great, sad, lyrical play A Streetcar Named Desire. Jasmine has arrived like Blanche DuBois at the New Orleans apartment of her sister Stella and of Blanche’s macho nemesis, Stella’s brutal hubby Stanley Kowalski — at a place which is her last stop, with a household where she’s partly welcome and partly  resented and desired, and where her only hope of escape is Stanley‘s mama‘s boy bowling buddy Mitch..

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

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

Why does Allen turn his story into  grim parody of one of America‘s greatest saddest plays? Well, in fact parody, and putting himself into different artistic worlds, is the soul of much of his comedy; In a way, he can be as much a parodist as Mel Brooks — but where Brooks sends up Frankenstein and Star Wars, Allen has classier targets: Bergman, Fellini, film noir. Like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, he likes to flee into other worlds, other times. Once he put himself into Bogart’s world, now he enters Tennessee Williams’. With less jokes this time.

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

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

Allen is 77. This is his 44th movie. Whatever else you can say, or complain about him, his work ethic is tremendous. Yet some critics (admittedly a minority) still tend to handle him like  a pariah  or like an unhip old codger who needs instruction in the niceties of art — to treat him and his work with what seems contempt. Well, for his sins, he should suffer, I guess. (That’s what the blues is about.) But punishment should have an end. Anyway, in a climate as conducive to bad movies as our own right now, his productivity and intelligence begins to seem a kind of artistic heroism. We should applaud him sometimes, rather than cast the same old stones .

To tell the truth, I would have liked Blue Jasmine better if it were funnier  — and it could have been, and kept the big dramatic moments too. A Streetcar Named Desire has plenty of jokes, and so do Chekhov and Shakespeare. Chekhov after all, regarded himself as a comedic playwright — and he wasn’t just  referring to the early plays, the funny ones.  Uncle Vanya can make us laugh too.

 

 

Wilmington on Movies: 2 Guns

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

2 GUNS (Three Stars)
U.S.: Baltasar Kormákur, 2013

2-guns__03Fast and slick, violent and sarcastic, predictable but entertaining, 2 Guns is a smarter-than-usual big-budget crime thriller in a season that hasn‘t seen that many really good ones. I was pretty well entertained by it all the way through, but it melted away fairly soon after I left the theatre—which was more a problem with the writing than with the direction or acting.

The source is a graphic novel by Steven Grant, adapted with some verve by TV writer Blake Masters (Brotherhood, Law and Order L.A.), and the show has two of the best smart-ass leading men around, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg—bouncing zingers off each other as undercover agents pretending to be crooks (Washington is seasoned and sardonic D.E.A. guy Bobby Trench and Wahlberg is his junior partner, wisenheimer Stig Stigman of U.S. Naval Intelligence), and then bouncing more zingers off a supporting gallery that includes the perversely vicious drug czar Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos, who manages to look like death warmed over), Bobbi’s stunner D. E. A. ex-girlfriend Deb (Paula Patton, who looks like 40 million) and a tangy array of crooks, lawmen and not-so innocent bystanders (James MarsdenFred WardPatrick FischlerAzure ParsonsRobert John Burke and the incredible Bill Paxton) all under the snappy direction of a gifted filmmaker, Baltasar Kormákur whom I would call the Icelandic Don Siegel, except it doesn’t do him justice.

2 Guns is well directed, well acted, well shot (by Oliver Wood), well scored (by Clinton Shorter), well edited (by Michael Tronick), and never boring (though occasionally annoying). The script is better than average. Unfortunately, most of the big action movie screenplays these days are so lousy or uninspired, calling them “better than average” is a dubious accolade. The dialogue is glib and crisp and cheerfully dirty—especially when the two stars are delivering it.—but it’s also at the service of one of those stories that begins to crumble and fall apart when you start thinking about it. That’s okay if you‘re up for the ride. You can turn off your brain for most of the show, and have a fairly good time—even if, when you walk out afterwards, the story has gone up in flames like one of Stig’s offhand burn-down-the-house-or-the café fire-flips.

Washington and Wahlberg start off like a typical rag-each-other bromance cop couple, with the glib Bobby expressing quiet exasperation and the cheerfully annoying Stig given to flirting with waitresses, lascivious winks and flipping lit matches. And pretty soon they have both sides of the law chasing them and they get to indulge their specialties, or what we often want to see from them—while playing these undercover agents, who are unaware of each other’s true identities and jobs (though they’ve been working together for a year or so) and who‘ve been assigned to rob a bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico—a bank that has a lot more money in its vault (a cool 40 million) than either of them imagines.

SPOILER ALERT, SORT OF (roll over)

Actually, they’re being set up by somebody and they’re expected to self-destruct—a fate that seems more perilous when we learn that the stolen dough is partly the property of the C. I. A., represented here by the extremely malign but oddly affable agent Earl (played by Paxton—usually typed as a nice guy, but here sensational as a bad one)—who shows up to track down the loot and starts launching into sadistic interrogation sessions with some added Russian Roulette.

END OF ALERT

If this all seems highly unlikely and complex and a little batty, that’s the way it plays. But in a sort of good way. The fact that Washington and Wahlberg and Paxton and the others, keep it entertaining and somewhat plausible in a movie-movie kind of way is a tribute to the movie actor’s art, or maybe to the power of movie stardom. As an acting team, or star combo, Washington and Wahlberg have chemistry to spare, even though they’re both playing wise guys.

Really hip movie people will recognize the bank-with-too-much-money plot twist, as well as the fictional city of Tres Cruces, New Mexico, as both grabs from (or homages to) one of the great, but lesser-known movie crime thrillers of the 1970s: Charley Varrick, with Walter Matthau as a free-lance bank robber and “last of the independents“ Varrick and Joe Don Baker as the businesslike hit man chasing him: a movie directed by our man Don Siegel—and a show I like much more than this movie‘s other oft-cited influence, Lethal Weapon. It didn’t bother me at all that Masters and Kormákur borrowed from (or paid tribute to) Charley Varrick. In fact, I wish they’d stolen or paid homage more. 2 Guns tends to be at its best when it’s at its most unoriginal.

Northern whiz Kormákur has been prolific throughout the 2000s, splitting his time between theater and movies (that would make him the Icelandic Ingmar Bergman) and also hopping between Icelandic art films (101 Reykjavik and The Deep) and Hollywood popular genre thrillers (Contraband, also with Wahlberg). I‘ve missed most of them, though, on the strength of the direction here, which is often terrific, I should do some catching up. But what about a remake of Charley Varrick ? Trouble is: Nobody could match Matthau and Baker. Not even Washington and Wahlberg. Or Edward James Olmos and Bill Paxton.

 

Wilmington on DVDs: Tristana; Mamma Mia! The Movie; Trance

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

 

TRISTANA (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
Spain: Luis Buñuel, 1970 (Cohen Media Group)

Tristana-largeThe most beautiful actress alive matched with the most enduringly and brilliantly rebellious filmmaker: That was the incendiary matchimg of star Catherine Deneuve and director Luis Buñuel—who were most famous for their 1967 erotic drama Belle de Jour. In that great film, Deneuve—so lovely and so classically, radiantly, sexily blonde that she took up residence in your dreams forever—played Severine, the icy, ravishing French wife, who becomes a whore during the day in a picturesque bordello, to escape her boring bourgeois life and her handsome but boring husband (Jean Sorel)—and falls into a world of crime, hypocrisy and dreamlike perversity and peril.

But they made another. In fact, the movie collaboration between them that Buñuel preferred—and one of the most personal films of his entire career—was Tristana (1970). Shot in Spain, based on a novella by Benito Perez Galdos (adapted by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro), this not underrated but definitely underseen films starred Deneuve in a role just as arousing and disturbing as Severine: Tristana, the young orphan seduced and exploited and virtually imprisoned by her guardian Don Lope (Fernando Rey). Don Lope, worldly and egocentric, is an aristocrat (eventually a wealthy one) of radical political beliefs, whose desire for his ward undermines his more liberal ethics—even as Tristana, a seeming victim, turns exploiter herself and exacts a terrible revenge.

Tristana is a masterpiece, but it’s also a grimmer, sadder, more psychologically wounding film than Belle de Jour, which was regarded as a great art film turn-on of the 1960s, during the somewhat frenzied romps of Sexual Revolution. But, if audiences thrilled to the whorehouse fear, desire and wayward beauty of Belle de Jour, what were they to make of Tristana, in which the most memorable erotic encounter occurs when a one-legged woman exposes herself to the lustful deaf-mute son of her guardian-husband’s houseservant? Buñuel, notorious for his audacity, has directed some of the cruelest scenes in all of the cinema, in films like Un Chien AndalouL’Age d’OrLos OlvidadosEl and Viridiana—but he never filmed a crueler scene than Tristana on the balcony: a coolly shocking sequence that delighted no less an epicure of sadism, than Alfred Hitchcock.

Deneuve’s heart-stopping beauty as Tristana makes her plight more affecting, her fall more painful, her desire for revenge more explicable. Buñuel alters Galdos’ novel, changing the setting from the more populous city of Madrid to the more aesthetic Toledo—and the time from the 1890s to the 1930s. He puts the action on the almost-eve of the Spanish Civil War, obviously to intensify the story’s political themes. Don Lope, the showy radical, would back the anti-clerical republic over the Fascist forces of Buñuel’s old nemesis Franco. The Toledo equivalent of a limousine liberal, Don Lope likes to sit in clubs and sip wine and gab about ideology and events with fellow intellectuals, with a complacency that echoes that of the bourgeoisie whom he despises.

Tristana, whose life becomes a series of disillusionments and hurts, endures blow after blow, then begins to deal them back. Her romance with the handsome artist, Horacio (Franco Nero, the good-looking guy who played both Lancelot and Django) is blighted and destroyed. She may not profess or seek or espouse a revolution. But here, in this story and in this private world with Don Lope, she is Revolution. Buñuel was an old radical himself, and an old surrealist, and he knew that the establishment could be (was) wicked and that art could wound and beauty could kill. I love Belle de Jour but Tristana chills to the bone. Hitchcock was right about that balcony scene. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)

Extras (an unusually excellent package): Commentary with Catherine Deneuve and Kent Jones; Alternate ending; Visual essay by Peter William Evans; Two trailers; Extra English-dubbed track for the film; Booklet with essay by Cineaste editor Richard Porton; Excerpts from Catherine Deneuve’s diary on the making of the film, and excerpt from critic Raymond Durgnat’s 1977 book “Luis Buñuel.”

MAMMA MIA! THE MOVIE (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S./U.K.; Phyllida Lloyd, 2008 (Universal)

mamma-miaI wasn’t an ABBA fan in their 1974-82 heyday, when they were one of the world’s biggest pop groups, though as someone with two Swedish-American grandparents, I might have had a little national pride for their hit-making prowess—as I do for Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman and Victor Sjöström and even, at times Bjorn Borg. But they sound good now. (Abba, that is.) Mamma Mia! is a movie musical composed of their original song hits—all originally written by Abba members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (and non-member Stig Anderson) and sung at the time by those two, accompanied by their ABBA-dabba then-wives, Agneta Feltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. And the movie makes ideal use of those easy-going, irresistible tunes and ultra-lite English language words.

The ultra-catchy songs that result are strung around a fragile, amusingly absurd story about a wedding on a Greek island, involving Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), the gorgeous daughter of independent single woman and island resort owner Donna (Meryl Streep). Unbeknownst to her mother, the young bride invites all three of the men (Pierce BrosnanColin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård) who were Donna’s lovers and may be Sophie’ father. (Neither mom nor any of her dads really know. Hey, it was the 1960s.) Three is the magic number here: Mom has two friends (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters) and so does Sophie—and all of them, and the three guys, get heavily involved in the musical action. “Mamma Mia has a powerhouse cast, though not necessarily for a musical.

There’s something cozily delightful about the way the ABBA songs summon up all the corny, cockeyed romanticism that the story kiddingly whips up. The result, full of sunlight, rhythm, dancing and torch songs, campily directed by Phyllida Lloyd, didn’t remind me that much of one of the old MGM classics—with their wit and finesse. But it did recall some 20th Century Fox shows, with their garish high spirits and occasional nuttiness. Carmen MirandaBetty Grable and Don Ameche wouldn’t have been out of place here—and neither are Streep, Brosnan, Skarsgård, Baranski and the others here. When these “legitimate” actors start selling these songs, it’s entertaining in a loony way that plants an almost constant silly smile on your face. Streep, who sang well in Robert Altman’s swan song, Prairie Home Companion, “is really game, and she shamelessly belts out her songs (like “The Winner Takes it All”)—while Brosnan, shamelessly croons away elsewhere.

There’s also a fantastic bit under the end credits when Streep, Waters and Baranski in clingy sequined suits, belt out “Dancing Queen.” At the end, Streep steps up and asks us if we want more. My audience did—and the trio obliged them, joined by Brosnan and the guys in disco garb, for a roaring rendition of “Waterloo.“ Talk about magic moments. ABBA may have been pop in a world that the tonier rock critics tended to define as punk. But punk never made you feel this good.

TRANCE (Three Stars)
U.K.: Danny Boyle, 2013

126-TRANCE-PS (2).tifTrance, a new erotic thriller from Danny Boyle, is a fast and fancy dance over a whirling floor of crime, suspense and sex. It begins with the theft of a world-famous painting (Francisco Goya’s spooky “Witches in the Air”), swiped from a London auction in mid-sale, and it continues through all kinds of stylish neo-noir alleys and crannies full of bloody gangsterism and Inception-like psychological mystery, until the whole show finally ends with an unraveling that twists and turns and radically changes a lot of what went before.

It’s an exciting movie, and mostly unpredictable. But it’s not completely comprehensible, even when it’s all over, and Boyle and his screenwriters have sprung their last wowser. In any case, you don’t want to talk too much about what happens in Trance to people who haven’t seen it, because it‘s got surprises that may genuinely surprise.

What seems to be happening at first is the complex, meticulously planned and daring theft of that painting, complete with smoke bombs and switcheroos, in the middle of a posh, exclusive London auction, by a brutal but stylish gang led by the fashionable Frank (Vincent Cassel). One of the auction house’s junior employees, Simon (James McEvoy) tries to save the painting by encasing it and running off with it. (Or does he?). But he bumps into Frank and gets cracked on the head, and Frank gets the Goya package. (Or does he?) Soon we discover—and it’s not too much to reveal this, since it’s a key point early on—that Simon is part of the plot, and that the painting has disappeared, and that, apparently because of that head-crack, Simon hasn’t the foggiest clue where it is. How to crack open his head, or memory, again? Well, Frank hires a luscious and oh-so-smart American hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), to unlock the priceless secret in Simon‘s mind, which she starts confidently to do. (Or does she?)

Trance is the kind of movie that manages to be compelling even when it’s confusing; I defy you not to scratch your head a little when the climaxes start climaxing. But it’s a smart show. Boyle is rejoined here on the script by his first feature screenwriter John Hodge (of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting), along with Joe Ahearne, who wrote (and directed) the TV film, also called Trance, on which this picture is based. As in Shallow Grave, there’s a touch of meanness about the movie, along with a high style theatrical edge and a rollercoaster speed and frantic plunge and roll that can discombobulate and even alienate you, even if you still enjoy the ride. The actors are all razor-sharp and noir-ishly off-color—including the hypnotic Dawson, the cracked-open McAvoy, and all the heavies (Danny Sapani as Nate, Wahab Shiekh as Riz, and Matt Cross as Dominic), and especially Cassel.

Cassel, who here has the kind of weathered grace the older Bogart or Widmark had—made his movie star debut in 1995, as the French banlieue juvenile delinquent Vinz (the guy with the gun) in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine. Since then he has specialized a lot in neo-noir, and he brings the part a casual criminal authority, without having to push too hard. McAvoy, on the other hand, makes a more ambiguous character of Simon, a seeming innocent with an evil side. His boyishness is seductive; his weakness is deliberately off-putting. I hate the idea of great works of art being handled like this (razored and ripped from their frames and raced around in the chaos of the robbery, and then lost). But the whole film is so artificial—like a mix of Spellbound and The Thomas Crown Affair—that you can’t take it too seriously. The film, shot by Boyle‘s usual camera-mate Anthony Dod Mantle, is full of glowing colors and helter-skelter action and pungent villains and sumptuous sights—the most scrumptious of which is definitely the beautiful and brainy Ms. Dawson.

Trance isn’t one of Danny Boyle’s best films, but then again, he doesn’t make many bad or uninteresting ones. The movie recycles one of his favorite themes—sudden wealth and its consequences—in interesting new ways. And Boyle keeps it popping, even when the confusion outpaces the compulsion. The plot has its ragged moments, but it’s also satisfying to see a contemporary thriller that isn‘t monosyllabic, vicious and monotonously violent—at least not all the time. By the way, in case you’re worried, the Goya painting, “Witches in the Air” is still safely ensconced in its home in Spain’s Prado Museum. If you’re ever in Spain, you can see it still in fine shape, without smoke bombs.

Wilmington on Movies: The Wolverine

Friday, July 26th, 2013

THE WOLVERINE (Three Stars)
U.S.: James Mangold, 2013

The Wolverine

Hugh Jackman may have sung up a storm as Victor Hugo’s long-suffering Jean Valjean in Tom Hooper’s impressively non-lip-synched movie Les Misérables. But as the title superhero of The Wolverine, Jackman is, for a while, faster than a speeding bullet train — which is probably more impressive to some audiences. After all, anybody can sing. But how many movie guys can battle a robot, clout a Viper and race through a riot with the richest woman in Japan?

Jackman is a movie star who seethes with talent. And if not all of it is on tap in The Wolverine—if the show often seems a slightly silly project for a serious or even an unserious actor—it’s still pretty much fun to watch. The second Wolverine offshoot of the X-Men series, it’s been called the best superhero movie of the summer (or the year) and it probably is. I wouldn’t want to get into any arguments about it, especially with the fans of a pec-flexing character who scowls and squints like Clint Eastwood, and sports what look like foot-long steel talons shooting out of his fingers.

The first good thing to be said about The Wolverine—loosely inspired by a four-issue comic series by Frank Miller—is that it mercifully doesn‘t end with a multi-destruction war in which a large city is attacked by supervillains and defended by superheroes. Instead, it merely has an old-fashioned climactic brawl between our intrepid superhero Wolverine (a.k.a. Logan) and several super or semi-super villains. And that isn’t even the movie’s best action scene. The train fight is. Iron Man Three, eat your heart out.

The movie begins Inception-like with dreams (by Wolverine) that start with the A-bombing of Nagasaki at the end of World War II, and show the long-lived Logan escaping from a huge well, while saving the life of heroic young soldier Yashida (Ken Yamamura). That dream dissolves into another one with Logan and his deceased lady love Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) in bed, and then dissolves again into the snowy woods in grizzly country where bears prowl and a piquant little pink-hired doll named Yukio (played by the lively Rila Fukushima) has popped up to guide him back to Japan and to the now extremely old and dying and very, very rich Yashida (played in old age by Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who wants to glom onto his one-time Yank savior‘s secret of eternal (or thereabouts) wolverine life—besides introducing him to his own granddaughter-heiress and Logan’s eventual leading lady, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). (I was rooting for Yukio, but then I always was a sucker for a sense of humor.)

The WolverineYashida wants Wolverine longevity? Fat chance, Soon, at Yashida’s funeral, all photogenic hell breaks loose and we see such combatants and character actors as Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), Harada (Wil Yun Lee), Naburo (Brian Tee), and the slitheringly sexy and cold-blooded Viper, played with venomous pizzazz by Svetlana Kodchenkova, as well as some dude in a robot suit who gets in on the action at the end.

Now there’s a dramatis personae for you! I didn’t even mention the Dick Tracy-style thug Pock-Face, played by Shinji Ikefuji. Or Yukio’s chubby rock-’n-roll boyfriend Kukio, played by Yatsujiro Fatsujiro. Or the insane Gourmet Yakuza chef Akira Who Devours Dragons with Rice, played by Ikiwuki Sukiyaki. Two of them don’t exist, but I’m sure we can sneak them all out in a spoiler alert. (Just kidding.)

Anyway, as it picks up speed, and digs deeper than usual, The Wolverine becomes both gratifying and frustrating. The movies, despite all visible evidence to the contrary, were not invented primarily in order to mount and display vast kajillion-dollar action spectacles derived from the collective works of the comic book factories D. C. and Marvel Comics. But as long as so much time is being spent and so much expense is being lavished on them—and so much less on the kind of fine novels, good plays, and heartfelt original stories that used to be fodder for Hollywood movie scripts (and were fashioned into both botches and classics)—let’s hope that more of the super-adventures that are made are as good as this one.

The Wolverine was directed by the almost bizarrely versatile James Mangold (Heavy, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) and the script is credited to a gifted threesome that includes Christopher McQuarrie (of the noirish The Usual Suspects), Mark Bomback (of the incredibly exciting train thriller Unstoppable) and Scott Frank (of a number of good or interesting pictures including Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Minority Report)—and their show pours on the action and the production values. But it also ladles out the personality, and emotion that these kinds of movies often skimp on—and even throws in some humor. It’s a good show, full of zip and style—maybe not as good as I may be making it seem. But you can’t say this film doesn’t do what it’s meant to do, or that it doesn’t joyously exceed some of the usual parameters. Man of Steel, eat your heart out.

The second good thing to be said is that our superhero is refreshingly non-super at times. The Wolverine is definitely my favorite Wolverine or X-Men movie, in part because Logan this time is given what can be a hero’s most precious quality, vulnerability. Jackman plays him as someone with weaknesses—and one of his most striking moments occurs when he drags himself though the snow, the target of bad guy archers and festooned with spears until he resembles some porcupine St. Sebastian.

The third good thing is that the movie, set in Japanese backgrounds, designed by Francois Audouy and photographed by Ross Emery, looks absolutely great. Not as great as Gate of Hell maybe, but certainly better than most super-action pictures. The beauty of the classic Japanese hysterical movies, and some modern ones, often comes from a mixture of aestheticism and violence, grace and deadly force, and The Wolverine has a lot of that mix. The movie genuinely knocks your eyes out, and not just when Yukio, Mariko and The Viper are on camera.

Like many of the super-action movies, this one doesn’t make sense at times. But The Wolverine looks great and it has some emotional depth and when it has to, it moves like lightning. And Jackman, most of the time, looks either super or heroic or both. Eat your heart out, Captain America.

Wilmington on Movies: The To Do List

Friday, July 26th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

 

 

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

1948 Wendell Corey & Stanwyck Sorry Wrong Number

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BULLET TO THE HEAD (Two and a Half  Stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extras: None

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

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

 

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

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

BANDE A PART

Par Jean-Luc

Godard.

Bande a Part

(Band of Outsiders.)

 

Avec

Anna Karina

As Odile Monod

 

Avec

Claude Brasseur

As Arthur Rimbaud.

Avec

Sami Frey

As Franz Kafka.

Avec

Daniele Girard

As The English Teacher.

 

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

 

Un Film de

Nouvelle Vague

New Wave

Monogram

Gaumont

 

Avec

Pulp.

Poetry.

Politics (Peut-etre).

Two Guys, A Girl and a Gun.

Robbery

Murder

Abduction.

Betrayal

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Playing at Being Outlaws and Artists

The Gray Suburbs

A House by the River

A Car with the Top Down

An English Lesson

Love and Death and Coffee and Cigarettes

The Race through the Louvre

Locked in the Closet

The Big Heist

Showdown

Escape

 

Inspiree par:

Design for Living.

They Live By Night.

The Naked Kiss.

The Big Sleep.

Strangers on a Train

Detour.

Shadows.

Give a Girl a Break

I Soliti Ignoti

Voyage en Italie.

A Bout de Souffle

Bob le Flambeur

Du Rififi Chez les Hommes

 

Et Avec

J. L. Godard

As The Narrator

As Nicholas Ray

As John Cassavetes.

As Donald Siegel.

As Samuel Fuller

As Raoul Walsh

As Jerry Lewis

As Jean-Pierre Melville

 

Band of Outsiders:

David Goodis.

Jim Thompson.

Horace McCoy.

Dashiell Hammett

William Faulkner

Raymond Queneau

Paul Eluard

Andre Breton

Karl Marx

 

Original Music by

Michel Legrand

Of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

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

 

Choreographed by Bob Fosse

Photographed

In Glorious

Black and White

By Raoul Coutard

And with the special appearances of

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance

The Immigrants

 

Cinephiles of the world, arise.

You have nothing to lose but your chains..

Henri Langlois and S. M. Eisenstein

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

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

And to Tirez sur le Pianiste.

And to Les Cahiers du Cinema,

And to Claude, Jacques and Eric

The Hitchcocko-Hawksians.

And to Papa Andre Bazin

Tirez sur le Cineaste!

Avec Gratitude to the Louvre Museum and Andre Malraux

And to Anna.

(In French, with English subtitles.)

 

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

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Wilmington on DVDs: Gate of Hell

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: The Conjuring

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extra: Trailer; Martini Minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on DVDs: 42

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extras: None. (A badly missed opportunity.)

Wilmington on Movies: Pacific Rim

Saturday, July 13th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: Grown Ups 2

Friday, July 12th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other ratings:

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

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

Wilmington on DVDs: Spartacus; Backdraft; Spring Breakers

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Who needs school?  Who needs work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on DVDs: Safety Last!

Monday, July 8th, 2013

DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

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

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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.