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Wilmington on Movies: The Counselor

Friday, November 1st, 2013

 

 

THE COUNSELOR (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Ridley Scott, 2013

 

Is The Counselor as bad as  they say? Could anything be? After the bashing and trashing that the majority of the nation’s movie critics doled out to director Ridley Scott’s and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy’s glossy, violent, and densely talky thriller — a gaudy neo noir about beautiful people in El Paso mixed up with deadly drug dealers in Mexico  –  The Counselor  seemed to have taken one of those ultimate Heaven’s Gate-style Big Falls. A movie I’d been looking forward to, it now seems to be firmly ensconced  as an Ishtar of thrillers, and a Gigli of anti-establishment shoot-‘em- ups, if not a Plan 9 from Outer Space  of  all-star neo-noir dramas. Then again,  I’ve always been a defender of Heaven’s Gate. And, for that matter, of Plan 9 from Outer Space. As for Ishtar, I’ll forgive Elaine May anything because of Mikey and Nicky.

The Counselor, in some ways, seemed to be inviting mean wisecracks and it certainly got them — including several votes as the worst movie of all time. Despite  impressive credits and credentials — including a cast that boasted Michael Fassbender as the Counselor, Cameron Diaz as the Bad Girl, Javier Bardem as the Good Time Bad Guy, Brad Pitt as a Cowboy Slickster, and Penelope Cruz as the film’s only nice person, the Counselor’s Wife-to-be — this movie (with some notable exceptions) took a God-awful drubbing from reviewers: the same kind of whipping as some of its unhappy characters. Any praise mostly went to Bardem’s and Diaz’s two pet cheetahs. There were only a few burning questions: how on earth it happened and  whether Scott and his brazen star  Diaz  and  her now infamous yellow Ferrari deserved some kind of Clio for the lewdest  product placement in cinema history.

Diaz played the wicked Malkina, and, in the course of The Counselor, she does the nasty  with that Ferrari, while Bardem as the spiky-haired Reiner — shocked, shocked — peeks from the driver’s seat.  What did Ridley Scott ever do to deserve this? Shepherding what seemed a Tiffany project — an original screenplay by the much-praised, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy (a script right in the vein of the  recent Oscar-winning adaptation of McCarthy’s book No Country for Old Men) – Scott picked up some of  the worst reviews he’s gotten since — well, since  1982’s then-badly-received science fiction neo-noir Blade Runner.

Yet the movie, like Blade Runner, has its surprises. Fassbender plays the title character, a lawyer so archetypal and John Grisham-esque that he’s known simply as “The Counselor” — and so incautious that he gets involved with a Mexican drug cartel that smuggles the stuff in septic tanks. This outfit is run by  the estimable Ruben Blades  as El Jefe, a sort of post-Peckinpah gang boss, but not as crazy. El Jefe, part of a mostly first-rate supporting ensemble, is backed by a lot of well-paid immoral scuzzbags, including the  evilly grinning thug played by John Leguizamo, who took his name off the credits.  And the Counselor, whom we first meet in a luxury bedroom, pontificating under the sheets with Cruz (as his eventual fiancée Laura), learns soon enough what, apparently, years of law practice, plus some extremely dire  warnings, haven’t lodged in his handsome noggin: Crime does not pay. (Actually it does. It just won’t pay him.)

You’ve probably seen this kind of story before, but probably not quite as well-produced, and probably not with this kind of language — this high-flown rhetoric and moral questioning, and these philosophical zingers: “You‘re cold.” “Time has no temperature.“ “I’ve seen it all. And it’s all shit.“  When we first meet the Counselor, he’s in bed with the adorable Laura, ruminating away,  Then he’s in Amsterdam, buying a flawless 3 ½ carat diamond (for Laura’s ring) from a dealer played by the usually brainy Swiss-German New Wave veteran Bruno Ganz (An American Friend) , who starts the philosophical ball rolling with a few thoughtful, intense observations about life and death and morality,

Then the Counselor scoots back to Texas, for a confab with Bardem‘s Reiner (whose wild spiky fright wig hairdo is alleged to have been copied from producer Brian Grazer) and Reiner’s trophy murderess, the wicked Malkina, and the couple’s pride and joy, those two magnificent cheetahs. (These cheetahs are so impressive that Malkina has her back tattooed with spots to continue the motif.) Meanwhile, the jubilantly playful Reiner tries to warn the Counselor off. So does Pitt’s Westway. But nothing avails. This apparently, is no Country for Counselors.

What happens next you can probably guess: and if you can’t guess the details, you can get the general drift. But what’s the beef? I’ve seen many movies with stories just as “clichéd” and just as confusing,  and hundreds that were worse, even far worse, than The Counselor — and they didn‘t arouse this kind of bludgeoning contempt and these mass conniption fits. Actually, as others have noted, The Counselor is the sort of movie that critics describe as extremely bad, when what they should say is “extremely disappointing“ or an extreme let-down, or not what they would have expected, given its players and pedigree. (Actually, a number did say this.)

 

The Counselor, whatever you think of it, does have its moments, including a lot of  good performances — especially by Bardem, Pitt, Blades and even Leguizamo. Predictably, it also looks great, full of gorgeous menace and ravishing decadence, The problem, as many have noted, is the script — and the way it was handled.

Ridley Scott’s major sin here — other than making a bad or unprofitable movie, which plenty of moviemakers in Hollywood have done  before — seems to be that he employed an 80-year old Pulitzer Prize winning, critically admired novelist, Cormac McCarthy, as his screenwriter, instead of some young hotshot with a film school degree, a high-flying agent, a multi-picture deal, and a propensity for inserting the word “fuck” in every third speech — but that McCarthy sold him the same sort of script  that very same hotshot might have churned out, only longer and wordier and darker, with a nastier villainess. In addition, McCarthy and Scott interlarded the predictable and inevitable wild-ass action, gunplay and sex-scenes-in-posh-settings (the money scenes) with long literary, quasi-philosophical  speeches about life and death and morality, and not just by Ganz.  Yet the very things that make The Counselor interesting (despite itself) are those same attempts at moral seriousness and those same perversely eloquent  and writerly speeches and dialogues.

So — or so some of the film’s legion of detractors seem to surmise — the studios, seduced by McCarthy’s   Pulitzer and the Oscars won by No Country for Old Men, threw their hard-earned cash down the rat-hole of art , instead of investing in something with a third the dialogue, a third the ambition,  and twice the carnage. And Ridley Scott then lavished his inarguable gifts of visual dazzle on an unforgivably ambitious (read “pretentious’)  script written by a sometimes (at least according to many literary critics) great writer.

I’m being ironic, of course. But, contrary to what many contemporary movie observers fallaciously believe, writing “literary” dialogue, or writing lots of dialogue,  or borrowing and adapting literary dialogue from some classic of literature, are not mortal moviemaking sins, and in fact many great or good movies liberally employ them.  A love of literature was  Orson Welles’ stock in trade, and the most movie-adapted of all writers is William Shakespeare, whose works, as I remember, regularly get accused of pretension and over-length.

McCarthy though, is no anti-movie snob. He apparently loves movies. And The Counselor was a script that the movie-loving McCarthy wrote, after years of having his scripts turned down, some of which he then turned into novels (including reportedly, No Country for Old Men). He wanted to follow the rules — at least, some of them. Despite his predilections and crushes though, he seems to have inspired some film folk to see him as the enemy. Those attacks on McCarthy’s writing in The Counselor  sometimes became — and sometimes intentionally — attacks on  the whole idea of trying for brilliantly literary or consciously theatrical dialogue in a movie. They also became  attacks on the supposedly “uncinematic“ qualities of  filmed novels or filmed theater.

But if it’s on the screen or on the soundtrack, it’s cinematic; the question is one of quality, not kind. Though some literary movies are lousy, some aren‘t. We could use many more screenplays with the eloquence and sheer verbal energy and agility — and wit  — of His Girl Friday and Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Lolita and A Streetcar Named Desire and The Magnificent Ambersons and the great Shakespearean films of Welles and Olivier — and we could use more too, like No Country for Old Men. (I’m not comparing any of these movis to The Counselor, merely filing another brief for stronger and more ambitious literary content in film.)

 

Ironically, Ridley, in The Counselor — as some have noted —  wound up making the same kind of movie  that was the specialty of his late brother Tony (the director of Tarantino’s similarly violent and zingy script for True Romance). Tony Scott, who committed suicide by jumping off  a bridge, while The Counselor was being shot half a world away, was a critical bete noir to some, a cult hero to others. And  Ridley shut down shooting, and flew to his brother’s funeral — after that final act of Tony’s that brings to mind all those questions of life and death and morality and destiny that somehow sneaked their way into McCarthy’s “self indulgent” script.

What do I think about all this?  Well, as someone who is obviously biased in favor of both Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy, I‘d like nothing more than to join with the critics who gave The Counselor some of its lonely rave reviews. There was more than a little of this insulted and injured film that I enjoyed. But I have to admit I couldn’t make sense of some of The Counselor, and some of it bored me, and overall, it struck me as confusingly arranged, especially in the second half. (What really happens  to the cheetahs? Apparently there‘s a scene that was cut.) Pieces seemed to be missing, and I‘m not surprised that McCarthy had to trim the scenario down from 175 pages. 175 pages of movie script are supposed to translate to about three hours of movie. And  in this case — judging by the few script fragments I’ve seen — the results might have been closer to three and a half  hours or more. Still, sometimes,  when you cut down a long movie, the discontinuities wind up making it seem longer.

At any rate, I deviate from most, in feeling that the movie maybe should have been longer rather than shorter, or, as some people want it to be,  nonexistent.) And, in the end, no matter how “bad” the Counselor is, I’m in favor of directors like Ridley Scott filming scripts by writers like Cormac McCarthy, even if those  scripts have some long, or philosophically showy speeches that wouldn’t have passed muster with Syd Field.

Would the Counselor have been better or worse with more talk? Here is a mysterious typewritten scene from a padded envelope that was shoved under my apartment door last night, allegedly smuggled in from El Paso in a septic tank.  Though I don’t believe it for a second, it is supposedly missing or alternate dialogue from the scene where the wicked Malkina — who, in this version, is called The Wicked Malinka — confesses her sins to the  perturbed priest, Father Carlos (played by Edgar Ramirez). It was supplied by a rewrite man. The confessional scene is followed by a two page speech by the priest — a part the script, oddly enough, said was originally intended for Mel Brooks — on life, death, mortality and power steering.

 

READER WARNING: THIS SCENE CONTAINS EXPICIT LANGUAGE

Bless me father, for I have sinned.

Bless you daughter. Speak. When was your last confession?

I don’t know. Sometime after Bad Teacher.

Sometime after what, my child?

Oh nothing, father. Just a mortal sin I made for Columbia.

Well, what have you done lately?

Father I, I…I made a picture called The Counselor. And I fucked a Ferrari,

You….what?  Please my child, remember you are in the House of the Lord. You can convey your meaning without being…so explicit.

Yes father, I’ll remember. I…I did it with a  Ferrari.

You had carnal relations with a man named Ferrari?

No, with a car. A yellow Ferrari  With power steering. Then I went down on it. Then I did it again.

With a car? (A long pause.) Was that all you did?

No. They made us do sixty takes.

Who made you? Was someone else in the room? I mean: in the garage?

Yes. The director. And the whole crew. And Cormac McCarthy. It was in a studio. It was for a movie.

A movie? You were making a motion picture? Why?

I was very well-paid, Father. And Cormac McCarthy won a prize — The Nobel Prize I think. And they told me that Marilyn Monroe once did 60 takes for her director, Billy Wilder for a scene in Some Like It Hot.

My daughter, this is a very peculiar story. Are you sure you’re not making part of it up? How for instance is it possible to have carnal relations with a … with a sports car? Where were you?

I….I don’t remember.

And was that all you committed with the Ferrari?

Well no, There was also  the rehearsal.

The rehearsal?

Yes, but the rehearsal wasn’t with a  Ferrari. They had to use a Bentley because the Ferrari was on loan for a chase scene in, I think, Red 2.

Red 2? I saw Red 2, my child. There was no yellow Ferrari in Red 2!

Well, maybe it was a silver Mercedes. I don’t know, Father. After a while, they all look the same.

Wimington on DVDs: The Haunting, Eyes Without a Face, The Conjuring

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

 

THE HAUNTING (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half  Stars) U.S.: 1963, Robert Wise (Warner Home Video).

 

From Shirley Jackson‘s shivery, eerie, intellectual ghost story  “The Haunting of Hill House” — about   poltergeist investigator John Markway (Richard Johnson) and his mixed group of mostly amateur spook watchers (Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and Julie Harris) ensconced in a notorious “old dark house”  together — sometime noir master Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding weave a  classic supernatural thriller, a shocker witthut gore, a ghost movie seemingly without tangible ghosts. (Or is it?)

As repressed spinster Nell Lance, who finds herself succumbing to Hill House’s eerie spell and its terror-laced eroticism — and perhaps to Johnson’s enthusiastic charm and to Bloom’s ambiguous half-threat, half-seduction as (seemingly) a sort of fancily severe Greenwich Village lesbian — Julie Harris gives a movie-stealing performance. The cast are all well nigh perfect (including Lois Maxwell, Miss Moneypenny of the James Bond series, as Mrs. Markway). But Ms. Harris, a wonderful actress as always, makes you really feel the story’s terror, the menace and the entrapment of Hill House — as (like Jack Nicholson in The Shining), Nell is  pulled into the evil of the haunted domicile’s dark, dark past.

Wise’s movie is quite faithful to Jackson’s  novel, which was much admired by the literary critics of the ‘60s and later. The dialogue is literate and tense, and the story and décor are smartly ominous. The movie’s chillingly tasteful production designs and the crystal-sharp black and white cinematography (by Davis Boulton) gives this picture, shot in England, a classic look. It’s the kind of  brainy, spooky cinematic treat Wise might have whipped up for producer Val Lewton in the ’40s, in their RKO prime time of The Body Snatcher and The Curse of the Cat People —  if they’d only had this kind of budget.

Roman Polanski once named Wise’s The Haunting as one of his favorite movies, and you can see why he likes it so much. In fact, it’s shame that Polanski didn’t direct the 1999 remake of The Haunting, which was messed up by the producers and director Jan De Bont, and not helped at all by its even bigger budget and gaudier effects. Subtlety, intelligence and superb acting are what cast the spell for Wise and company, and Polanski probably would have brought all that back, and made the movie sexy and funny to boot — something the 1963 Haunting, with its swoony undercurrents. doesn’t really need.

 

EYES WITHOUT A FACE (“Les Yeux sans Visage”) (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars) France/Italy: Georges Franju,  1960 (Criterion Collection)

The eyes belong to Edith Scob — wounded and beautiful, as Christiane, the young car accident victim. But  the face, or faces, are the creation of her mad physician father, Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur, the Shakespearean actor of Children of Paradise), who keeps trying to repair her disfigured features by kidnapping lovely young Frenchwomen, surgically removing their pretty visages and trying to implant them on his daughter’s ruined head. While the dogs howl outside his laboratory, Alida Valli as  Genessier’s chic assistant Louise, prowls around elegantly, in Genessier’s dark, isolated mansion in the French woods.

The story may sound penny-dreadful and Hammer Horror-ish, but the production is of unusually high quality and  pedigree. Franju’s brilliant cinematographer was Eugen Schuftan, thr year before Schuftan won the Oscar for The Hustler. The playfully macabre score is by composer Maurice Jarre, two years before he won the Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia. The screenplay, based on Jean Redon’s novel, is by Redon, Franju and the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who wrote the novels on which both Diabolique and Vertigo were based.

This is one of the classic European horror movies, a shocker for aficionados, and it’s done with an impeccable style and flawless taste and imagination that belie the somewhat trashy story. (The original American release title was The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.) It’s also perhaps Franju’s most popular and well-remembered feature, a post-Holocaust masterpiece of lyrical dread and gothic suspense. (Franju’s even scarier and more poetic short documentary classic Blood of the Beasts, is set in a real-life Parisian slaughterhouse.) If you think you may have watched Eyes Without a Face, but aren’t quite sure, you probably haven’t seen it. This is one tale of terror you just don’t forget. (In French, with subtitles.)

Extras: Audio interviewer with film director Rene Clair; Trailer; Booklet with essay by Guy Maddin

 

THE CONJURING (Three Stars) U. S.: James Wan, 2013  (New Line Home Video)

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Horror movies are usually often judged oby how much they get under our skins: how much sheer emotional discomfort they generate. By that measure, and several others, the James Wan-directed scary show The Conjuring, failed to get to me. Mind you, I don’t think I’m the ideal audience for this kind of picture — even though this is a movie that seems to have scared almost everybody.

The Conjuring — scripted  very predictably (I thought) by the brothers Chad and Carey Hayes —  is supposedly based on the true story of a haunted house, possessed by demons and 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 obsessed Patrick Wilson. This, we are told, was the Warrens’ most challenging case. Of course it was. For one thing, it involved interior decoration as much as ghost-busting.

The Conjuring whisks audiences and critics back to 1971, where this 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), The Amityville Horror (1979), and various other movies about poltergeists and evil spirits. The Perrons haven’t just gotten a bad real estate deal here; they are under assault by devilish beasties who kill pets, mysteriously bruise Carolyn, and keep subjecting the kids—who, at one point, are compared to the Brady Bunch—to ghostly reflections, invisible assaults, slammed doors, and other reminders of the house‘s previous existence as the site of witchcraft, death and potential sequels.

Soon the house and the family are investigated by no less a pair of spook busters than the famousreal-life 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, 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 and terrifyingly —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 and unfazed cinematographer, John Leonetti—who start off the movie with some virtuoso moving camera ensemble shots, and keep piling on the snazzy visuals from then on.

The movie has its good points. It’s well acted (especially by Taylor and Farmiga), and well filmed (especially by Wan and 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. And indeed he does. He also  helps  prove that horror can be more effective if it starts off with character, and doesn’t rely too heavily on gore.

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 heart that doesn’t threaten to be cut out and stomped on. Wilson and Livingston (of Office Space) are good foils for the ladies. Farmiga and Taylor are the main reason that The Conjuring probably seems so effective.

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 bloody knock-off.  Maybe that’s horror enough.

 

Wilmington on DVDs: House of Wax (1953); After Earth; The Purge

Friday, October 11th, 2013

HOUSE OF WAX (3D/Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Andre de Toth, 1953 (Warner Bros.)

The hit 3D remake of Michael Curtiz’s flesh-crawling 1933 horror thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum, with Vincent Price as the mad, fire-scarred proprietor of a wax museum, who takes his subjects from life. Director de Toth, who had only one good eye, couldn’t see 3D, but he does a bang-up job, especially when there’s a paddleball around. In support are Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones (a real screamer)  and, as an evil henchman, Charles Buchinsky (a.k.a. Bronson).

Price’s horror movie heyday really dates from this show, the most popular 3D release of its era. You should also catch the Curtiz original (it’s on an old Warners box set), a weird little gem that stars Lionell Atwill in Price’s role, along with Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell — and that offers a tangy ’30s mix of  wise-cracking and the macabre.

No extras. Not even a paddleball. 

AFTER EARTH (Two Stars)

U.S.: M. Night Shyamalan , 2013

You’ve got to feel, a little, for Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan  as you watch their beautiful but misbegotten science fiction movie After Earth. In making this big, slow, pretty but pretentious and often preposterous movie, producer-writer-star Will handed  a multi-million dollar present to his son Jaden — giving him the prime slot in an epic science fiction show  — only to get stomped on by a lot of  the reviewers and ignored by a lot of the audience.

That’s a beating for a movie that’s actually somewhat  ambitious and even heartfelt: a film   about a father’s love for his son, and the son‘s desire to be worthy of it,  to become a Space Ranger and maybe help spawn a sequel. Does After Earth deserve all that abuse? Mostly yes, partly no. After Earth, as the title suggests, is a science fiction movie about what happens after the end of Earth as we knew it: after humankind, a millennium ago, left the planet for a new home called Nova Prime. So Will Smith and Shyamalan and their company have  imagined a universe where Earth, abandoned by people,  has been taken over by monstrous creatures, foliage and plant life.

Visually, the movie’s concept is impressive,  and the themes are big and ambitious and sympathetic. It’s what we might also expect from  Shyamalan , who often tries to bend the genres of horror, mystery and science fiction in order to examine something serious, often involving families. Sometimes he succeeds, as in The Sixth Sense. Sometimes he doesn’t, as in this turgid, self-important movie.

First we get back-story:  1,000 years or so ago, Earth was evacuated and humanity resettled on Nova Prime, populated by our space cadet descendants as well as ravenous monsters , who want us to leave, but who are kept at bay by heroes like the legendary Cypher Raige (Will Smith). After we learn all this, the action starts, in a manner of speaking. Onto the vaguely Avatar-looking New Earth, comes and crashes a space ship commanded by  Cypher , with a crew that includes his son Kitai (Jaden), who has just been denied advancement to the Space Rangers and is visibly upset.  When the ship hits an asteroid storm, or vice versa, every human but the two Raiges gets killed or lost or forgotten . Cypher himself is pinned down in the wreckage and  able to communicated only in pained, stoic tones that suggest a mortally wounded archbishop presiding at his own funeral.It’s all up to Kitai now, as his father, using a futuristic walkie-talkie and a variety of other compact wilderness techno-gizmos, tries to guide  the lad through the monstrous  foliage and the treacherous fluctuating heat, and  a fierce flying mama pterodactyl-thing and bad dreams to a space beacon that will allow them to call for help.  As we sit there watching this,  and as Cypher sprawls in the crash, broadcasting directions and stoic wisdom (Example: “Danger is real, but Fear is a choice”), Kitai makes his way though what used to be Earth, but now might better be caller Creepy Monster Land  or Rite of Passage Land or Slow Movie Land — or maybe Shyamaland. If you’re in the mood for life lessons, the movie has plenty of them.

There’s no denying it’s a failed show, so listless that it sometimes has a semi-narcotic effect. But the picture does have its good points (the lustrous visuals wrought by production designer Tom Sanders and cinematographer Peter  Suschitzky) as well as its bad ones (the lugubrious pacing and the incessant fatherly wisdom slowly and stoically imparted by Cipher).  A lot of After Earth’s problems also stem from the fact that Jaden looks too young for his part, or for the Rangers. He’s no movie tyro, but maybe his dad should have waited three or four years before ending Earth for him .

No extras. 

THE PURGE (One and a Half Stars) U.S.: James DeMonaco, 2013

Mass anarchy comes but once a year — or at least it does in the lower-budget, ultra-violent science fiction  fable, The Purge. Set ten years or so in the future, The Purge has a potentially good premise, botched in the execution. It imagines an America where the government has decided to allow one night of unpunished crime a year: one time span, from seven in the evening to seven in the morning, when the police don’t make arrests and no crime incurs punishment. This strange amnesty is intended as a pressure-reliever to keep the populace pacified and law-abiding the rest of the time. And, apparently it’s effective — at least for some (such as the rich and comfortable who can afford protection). That one night bloodbath of  untrammeled criminality  — as portrayed in writer-director James DeMonaco’s otherwise formula-bound horror movie — is enough, it seems to keep the populace upright, or largely so, for the other 364 days. In this world, or this movie, this crazy idea works. In a way.

What happens on Purge night? The people, including everybody but some select national leaders (of course) are unrestrained but also unprotected. They can do anything, break any law — because for those 12 hours, no police will patrol the streets or make arrests or even gather and keep evidence, no doctors will tend the injured in the hospitals, and every violation of the law, no matter how heinous, will  be forgiven automatically, in advance  — including armed robbery, murder, rape  and green-lighting  violent movies with potentially terrific ideas that wind up making no sense and indulging the violent fantasies they seem to be criticizing. Like this one.

The first half hour, which suggests an old Twilight Zone episode  is pretty good. Then the movie, with the exception of one clever late-inning twist, descends into chaos and clichés. It becomes just another violent siege movie, as, for those 12 hours of The Purge, we follow the travails of a supposedly ordinary (but pretty comfortable-looking) family, the Sandins. The Sandins live in a gated upper-middle class community, where the father, James (Ethan Hawke) has sold and supplied most of the security devices that protect his family and his neighbors, including barred doors, sealed windows, and multiple  surveillance cameras. There are also, of course, lots of guns and sharp or blunt instruments, and they will be used.

Hawke’s Sandin is an energetic white-collar guy who’s just been named his security company’s star salesman, and Hawke plays him with that offhand cheeriness and attractively crooked smile he uses when he’s playing someone who might get a comeuppance. The other Sandins, a familiar-looking bunch, include his well-styled, pretty, competent  wife Mary (Lena Headey), their pretty but rebellious, 16-year-old daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and their long-haired, sullen-looking, not so pretty but good-hearted 14 year old son Charlie (Max Burkholder). This family has generation-gap problems, such as Zoey’s over-eager boyfriend, Henry (Tony Diller). At dinner time, they seem touchy, but oddly self-preoccupied for a group about to face near-total social breakdown.

So we watch as the Sandins — supposedly safe in their gated community, locked behind their scads of security devices, surrounded  by equally well-off and protected upper-middle class neighbors, and led by a Father who seems to Know Best — try to keep out of harm’s way. (Non-Spoiler Alert: It ain’t gonna happen.) Later, they must try to cope with a sudden violent incident, with an intruder seeking help (Edwin Hodge as the Stranger), and with an invasion of what seem to be masked rich kids, led by the guy with the most Scream-ish  mask and voice (Rhys Wakefield). This  sinister-looking, privileged-seeming young bunch are hot to  terminate what they call homeless pigs, have chased the Stranger to the Sandins’  house, where he was seen on a monitor and let in by soft-hearted Charlie. Partly because he is African-American and the upper-middle-class lynch mob pursuing him is white, he nags at the Sandins’ conscience, and probably most of the audience’s, throughout. There’s also a surprise twist of sorts coming, one also reminiscent of the Rod Serling heyday of The Twilight Zone, and it supplies the movie’s only decent dramatic scene.

Director-writer DeMonaco is a specialist in siege movies; he wrote both The Negotiator and the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (which also starred  Ethan Hawke). But this movie, a surprise hit, was for me just another shoot-’em-up, with some obvious anti-anti-government messages. I’d like to have known why the doctors weren’t working, or why the visible menaces  in the movie (which doesn’t stray much outside the gates) mostly include that relative handful of kids in masks, or, indeed, why they bother to wear masks, unless it’s just to scare hell out of the Sandins, or why they seem so unafraid of the Sandins’ firepower, or why the Sandins don’t use it better .

One can envision, on this night of chaos and tumult,  hundreds and thousands of people in various locations, perhaps banding together (in another homegrown social-political movement), trying to storm houses and stores and banks and kill their enemies, everywhere. But this movie, probably because of the thriftier budget, just gives us  the usual family-in-terror stuff.

Would The Purge have played better for me  if it gave more vent to ideas and emotions, and less to ultra-violence? I’d like to think so. But part of the audience I saw it with, screamed and applauded and laughed at that violence, which I thought became boring and alienating. And, though I’d like to think that these moviegoers were responding to, or at least thinking about, some of the show’s ideas too, a lot of  them probably didn’t care what happened between the red meat scenes.

The Purge may be well-named. The movie‘s eventually almost non-stop brutality and terror have a kind of emetic effect — which is what happens in most of these pictures. The moviemakers, and they’re obviously intelligent people, might argue that it doesn’t matter as long as the picture works — which is the same argument they give to the fictional  government leaders who thought up the Purge and then hid in their own safety zones. Do we swallow it?

No extras.

Wilmington on DVDs: Star Trek Into Darkness; The Hangover, Part III; The Hangover

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

 

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS  (Three Stars)
U.S.: J. J. Abrams, 2013 (Paramount))

Perhaps Star Trek Into Darkness should have been called Star Trek 12: The Wrath of Spock. Even numbers, you know.

But no, that’s no good: producer-writer-director J. J. Abrams hates colons. Anyway, Star Trek Into Darkness turns out to be just what you might have expected from a 100 million- dollar-plus-budgeted blockbuster, released in 3D, 2D  and IMAX, directed by Abrams (Lost, Alias,Super 8), and acted and written by Abrams’ high-grade team on the 2009 re-boot re-hit Star Trek. That movie, coming after an 11-year Star Trek space-hiatus,  was a shrewdly calculated, well-executed show, with its share of  surprises, heavy-duty action scenes, big emotional moments  and nostalgic nods to the long 47 year history of Star Trek. And so is this one. I’m not in love with it, but I certainly enjoyed it.

What do you expect? Back on the Enterprise are the whole immortal crew, headed by Chris Pine as the impulsive, courageous, reckless (and horny) Captain James T. Kirk (who was originally William Shatner), and Zachary Quinto, as the pointy-eared, magisterially logical and seemingly unemotional  First Officer Spock  — once played by Leonard Nimoy, who‘s back in this movie with a cameo as “Spock Prime”).

Backing them up — as Kirk and Spock quarrel once again about the superiority of logic or instinct, science or soldierly action, brain or brawn  — are that crackerjack  space-crew of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Chief Engineer Montgomery “Beam Me Up, Scotty” Scott (Simon Pegg), Communications Officer Niota “Knockout” Uhura (Zoe Saldana),  Helmsman Hikaru “Smiley” Sulu (John Cho), and Ensign Pavel “How-Did-a-Russian-Get-On-Bboard?” Chekov (sic) (Anton Yelchin) — all the parts originated in the 1966-1969 series, and the first six Star Trek movies (1979-1989) by DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei and Walter Koenig.

One of the great appeals of the first six Star Trek movies, was always the appearance of that sort-of-magnificent seven. — not necessarily because they were great actors, but because we knew them for so long and we liked them — and because Shatner, no matter what you think of his florid line readings, fit his part of  the gutsy but sometimes anguished leader and okay guy, bemused by his intellectual buddy Spock.

Another familiar face this time, along for at least part of the ride, is the tormented-looking Bruce Greenwood as Kirk‘s mentor from the 2009 Trek, Admiral Christopher Pike. (Pike was the Enterprise’s original captain, the character played in the Star Trek pilot show by Jeffrey Hunter).  And the new blood in this new movie includes a real scene-and-planet-stealing villain, Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock himself) as the cold-blooded ex-Starfleet renegade  John Harrison (an alias), plus another admiral, Peter Weller (of Robocop) as the demanding and hawkish Alexander Marcus, head man on the U.S.S. Vengeance.. There’s even an Enterprise stowaway, Alice Eve as hubba-hubba Science Officer Carol Wallace (another alias).

Into Darkness begins with a bang in the twenty-third century, with a standard James Bond-Indiana Jones blast-you-out-of-your-seats opener, on the Planet Nibiru, where the always reckless Kirk and the often-exasperated Bones McCoy are being pursued by hostile pale-faced Nibirites, while Spock, in a heroic, self-sacrificing but unemotional mood, has lowered himself into  an active volcano, to try and save the planet. Spock does save the planet (as you might expect) and Kirk saves Spock (as you might also expect), and Kirk, for violating the Starfleet Prime Directive about opening action scenes, is demoted from Enterprise Captain to First Officer, and separated from Spock — a mistake that’s  rectified after the super-terrorist Harrison attacks and plunges into carnage a  Starfleet admiralty meeting in London. This results in the death of  Admiral Pike and Kirk’s  and Spock’s reinstatement as your favorite captain and first officer on the Enterprise with orders to hunt down Harrison to the ends of the universe — or actually the Klingon planet Kronos, where he’s hiding out.

The action starts right at the beginning and then keeps on coming.  In Darkness is a typical sci-fi war movie in the post-Star Wars style, whereas the Star Trek TV Show, which would have a fight every now and then, mostly was a series of  science fiction fables, with Ray Bradbury-style good-liberal messages. What most people remember, and even treasure, about the TV show, is not the space battles (what there was of them), but the characters and their tense interactions –most especially the ongoing moral-philosophical debate between Kirk and Spock.

Kirk was the constant hothead; Spock the professorial type who cooled things out. The two Abrams movies continue that conflict between two guys of widely differing temperaments, who basically love each other (as we’re told again and again). When Kirk, seemingly dying behind a glass door, reaches out his hand toward Spock‘s on the other side, you may think you’ve seen the gesture before (and you have), but the point is that most of us never get tired of it. Along with Ralph Kramden and Norton in “The Honeymooners” and Andy and Barney in “The Andy Griffith Show,” and  Cosby and Culp on “I Spy,”  Kirk and Spock were one of the great key ’50s-’60s TV bromances, and the new Star Trek series exploits and expands on that feeling.

It also shows them as young and heartily sexual, and full of juice and shenanigans. Chris Pine’s Kirk isn’t yet as full of himself as Shatner’s Kirk sometimes became, but the writers have turned him into a real ladies’ man. (In an early scene, we see him waking up from a threesome with two blondes, which is probably a Star Trek first.) And Spock has an often physical flirtation going with Uhura. Alice Eve is also aboard of course — but that seems a down-the line Kirk  adventure. As for the rest of the crew, I guess that they have to stay celibate or explore new dimensions for the post-war five year quest, or hope that the Enterprise finds intelligent, and lively, life in the universe.

As you can see, In Darkness is a typical sci-fi war movie in the post-Star Wars style, whereas the Star Trek TV Show, which would have a fight every now and then, mostly was a series of  science fiction fables, with messages. Darkness, as advertised, does have surprises in store — and you should strenuously avoid the IMDB cast list, if you want to stay surprised. If the movie has a major problem, and many won’t consider it  a problem at all, it‘s the need to keep the action scenes and space battles popping up at fairly frequent intervals. It does.

SPOILER ALERT

But though Benedict Cumberbatch is one grand hellfire villain, I still prefer Montalban’s Khan and his wrath. And for nuisance value, a Tribble or two.

END OF SPOILER

Extras (dispersed among the various “In Darkness” releases): Featurettes; Abrams commentaries.

 

 

THE HANGOVER PART III (One and a Half  Stars) U.S.: Todd Phillips, 2013

Movies, like people, can sometimes display disastrous judgment.

(A sort of SPOILERALERT over the next two graphs.)

I was watching The Hangover Part III with acrowd of civilians — regular people at a regular evening theatre showing — when suddenly the audience stopped laughing. Stopped cold. You can probably guess which scene shut them down. It’s the one that so many critics and reviewers have been complaining about, where Zach Galifianakis as super-doofus Alan is driving a  car on the freeway with an open trailer transporting (or so it seems) a large, very photogenic  giraffe, and Alan, stupidly, drives right under a bridge, decapitating the giraffe and sending the animal’s head (or so it seems) smashing bloodily into another car’s windshield, which causes that auto to swerve and trigger a massive pile-up and what seem to be several dozen more accidents.

The audience hadn’t started laughing at the movie yet  — though a few tittered a little when they first saw Galafianakis, and his dead-serious, bearded, seld-absorbed  Alan mug, no doubt in anticipation of the jolly times they expected ahead. But after the giraffe’s head (a phony one, of course) crashed into the other car’s windshield, total silence descended on the theater. Total. Silence. Not only did nobody laugh (audibly) at the giraffe “joke.” They didn‘t laugh for most of the rest of the picture, and they maintained that hear-a-pin-drop quietude until Melissa McCarthy showed up a good ways through the movie, as Cassie, the bad-mouth pawnshop proprietress. She got people at least tittering a little.

Todd Phillips, who directed all three Hangovers, and got co-script credits (with Craig Mazin) on the last two, is obviously a talented filmmaker. And in fact, it takes some talent (and chutzpah) to come up with (or let pass), a joke so bad that it shuts an audience up for most of a movie — especially a movie that’s part of the most successful comedy franchise in film history, and one that this audience  was probably really looking forward to.

You wonder if anybody  — in all the focus groups and studio screenings and editing sessions — complained about that scene, or suggested that it be cut. (Not that I think moviemakers should let their shows be cut or emasculated by studios and focus groups.) Or if they objected to the other scenes involving slaughtered animals: the guard dogs who get their necks snapped, or the fighting cocks who got killed.  Or to the script’s consistent mean-spirited verbal and physical cruelty and nastiness. (“It’s a giraffe. Who gives a shit?“ Phil says abut the road accident.) Or to the indulgence to and often triumphant amorality of the movie’s worst (and at times, funniest) character, gay gangster Mr. Chow  (Ken Jeong, flaming).

Or to the heightened brutality and immorality — and willingness to engage in all kinds of  destructive or sadistic behavior (supposedly in self-defense), up to and including abetting a murder — of the “heroes“ themselves: the superstar Hangover .”Wolfpack.” What happened to the ethics of that  buddy buddy cabal? That fierce foursome of arrested-development rich kid Alan, studly schoolteacher Phil (Bradley Cooper), hysterical dentist Stu (Ed Helms) and the once-again mercifully absent Doug (Justin Bartha)?

The first Hangover — a mystery story/bromantic comedy set in Las Vegas, done with high-wire-walking intensity — is a genuinely funny movie. It also had genuinely likable (and funny) protagonists, and genuinely scary (and funny) villains.   The Hangover II, set in Bangkok, brought back the original quartet and also Mr. Chow — as well as “comedy” that was increasingly  off-putting — was a huge mistake, a would-be edgy show that ultimately had more edge than comedy, and that may have alienated audiences more than anyone realized at the time.

 

Now comes Hangover III, in which the quartet returns again — with Phil, Stu and Doug at first trying an intervention with their aberrant pal Alan (after he goes off meds and screws up a few more times) and  getting mixed up again with the epicene and perfidious Chow. This proudly freaky mobster, on about the same time of their long ago lost weekend, stole some gold from he nefarious Marshall (newcomer John Goodman), and now he pulls them all back into the dark side. There are no hangovers, for most of the movie at least, but otherwise it’s the monkey business as usual — except almost everything is cruder and darker and  unpleasantly vicious.

The Hangover Part III has been pretty well-abused by critics, and it deserves to be., considering that it’s a well-financed sequel to the most popular movie comedy of all time.  The Hangover was funny partly because the Wolfpack (Alan excepted) were relatively normal guys who lost their inhibitions and got in trouble because Alan secretly slipped them a drug. In their brainsick state, they fell in with bad company, including a  tiger (not decapitated, as I remember). In The Hangover II , they also got wrecked without realizing it, though that movie, with its heavy quota of Bangkok depravity, wasn’t very funny either. In The Hangover III, they don’t even need booze or drugs. The threat of a good whacking from Goodman’s murderous Marshall is inducement enough.

There’s an attempt to go sentimental on us, with the guys benevolently trying to save Alan, and Alan trying to straighten out — but his reformation at the hands of  McCarthy’s pawnshop harridan Cassie (who bullies her wheel-chair-ridden mother) seems dubious. The movie’s last ultimate “morning after” gag (involving a hair-raising demonstration on Stu of either prosthetic or computer generated wizardry) is dubious too. In fact, I thought it belonged in the trashbin, along with the giraffe joke  and a lot of others — as well as  the whole strategy of downplaying Phil and Doug and constructing the movie mostly around Alan and Mr. Chow,

The Godfather Trilogy. The Apu Trilogy. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Dark Knight Trilogy… And now The Hangover Trilogy? Well, as they say in Hollywood, Money talks and bullshit walks. And if there was ever a trilogy that started out being Money and ended up as piece of walking bullshit, it’s The Hangover. You u get the idea, while  watching Hang III, that Phillips (and co-writer Craig  Mazin, who replaced, not too felicitously, the original writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) were actually tying to avoid formula and take the story in a new, audacious  direction. — before they wound up, like Phil and Alan, chasing Mr. Chow and dangling off a balcony edge of Ceasar’s Palace.

But there’s one consolation watching this third “Hangover.” You know there probably won’t ever be another one. Not if we’re lucky. You may think I’m being mean and unfair. But hey, it’s a movie. Who gives a shit?

 

____________________________________________________________________________________

 

THE HANGOVER (DVD or Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

U. S.; Todd Phillips, 2009 (Warner Bros.)

 

Recipe for a “Hangover“: Four male buddies — or actually, three buddies and a hanger-on who desperately wants to be one of the bunch — take off for Las Vegas and one last bachelor bash, driving a 1969 Mercedes borrowed from the bride‘s dad (Jeffrey Tambor). Reading right to left, they’re Phil, the studly but married English teacher (Brad Cooper), Stu the nerdy dentist (Ed Helms of “The Office“), Alan the slobby and somewhat wacked out brother-in-law-to-be (Zach Galifianakis), and Doug, the very tolerant, likable  groom (Justin Bartha).  Shake and mix well. Once in Vegas, our fun-loving quartet check into a deluxe hotel villa suite and begin their night of revelry with a toast up on the roof, with knockout libations that have been, unfortunately, secretly spiked with what one of them thinks is Ecstasy, but is actually the date-rape drug.

The next morning , three of them wake up in the suite, hung over and unable to remember a single thing that happened after they imbibed the drink and drug. Here’s what they see: the apartment wrecked,  booze on the furniture, a baby in a bassinet, one of dentist Stu’s front teeth missing, the Mercedes gone, pizza on the sofa, a mattress speared on the pole outside, a live tiger in their bathroom. And, oh yeah, the groom mysteriously missing, with barely hours for the guys to find and deliver him to the wedding and his beaming bride.

Pretty soon they’ll see Doug‘s mattress speared on a roof pole and  they’ll run into the cops whose squad car they stole, the gay Chinese gangster Mr. Chow whose blackjack loot they accidentally glommed, the friendly stripper/hooker named Jade (Heather Graham) whom Stu married last night at The Best Little Chapel, Someone called Black Doug, and Mike Tyson, who happens to own the tiger.

What happened? Where is their Doug? What about the impending nuptials with Tracy (Sasha Barrese)? And who the hell is Black Doug? (Since he’s played by Mike Epps, we at least know he’ll get some laughs.) Despite myself, I‘ve got to admit this is a terrific killer premise, at least for exactly the kind of raunchy, male-bonding comedy that usually plays to knuckleheads, but occasionally delivers the goods. The last one I remember that worked this well was Wedding Crashers, with Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Rachel McAdams, and a funny, dirty-minded cameo by Will Ferrell. (The memory of that last will help you forgive Ferrellhim for Land of the Lost, ) And, oh yeah, Brad Cooper.

The Hangover is an example of a movie genre I often dislike: the Daffy, Goofy Sex-Crazed Guys comedy (an 80s mainstay) — a picture in which we’re privy to the horny, boozy, pants-dropping antics of a gang of guys out for a smashed-but-keep-going, party-till-you-drop high time: a lewd-minded crew that often includes the stud, the nerd, the slob/weirdo and the nice guy/author surrogate (or variations thereof).

There have been hundreds of movies like this, and most of them stink. But this one works.

Why?  Director Todd Phillips, who has made at least one funny male-bonding comedy, Road Trip — as well as some others (Old School, “Starsky and Hutch) that I’d rather forget — has a  real flair for this wild and crazy guys kind of  situation. There’s a knowing edge to his handling of this very familiar stuff, the progressive revelations of their crazy misbehavior — that humanizes the story. Writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who were guilty of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Four Christmases (Take them back, guys) have dreamed up lots of funny bits, most of which work. But they’ve also given the whole thing a neat structure that makes the story far more interesting.

Instead of showing us the wild night as it happens, one blitzed catastrophe after another, they turn the whole show into a film-noir-in-reverse detective story, where the three guys left behind have to piece everything together, and suffer while they recall what irresponsible clowns they were.      This device makes the story more entertaining, funnier and also less offensive (than usual), since the guys are paying  for their misdeeds after indulging in them, and since we don’t see the orgies that got them in Dutch until a rapid-fire lewd end-credits sequence of the photos that recorded their blacked-out blowout. The movie suggests that there is such a thing as a morning after, and that they are consequences to every orgy.

Besides, it is always funnier to recall this kind of stuff afterwards, sober. Did I ever tell you about the night one of my friends walked out in the middle of W. Gilman street, stark naked and chugging a bottle of Aqua Velva, and two police cars pulled up around him? Or the time somebody‘s girlfriend started a water fight inside our apartment house that lasted for an hour and ended up waterlogging the kitchen? Then there was that drunken night time trip to the zoo and the rhinoceros house….  (The joke is: You think I‘m kidding, but I’m not.)

Finally, the element that really makes The Hangover is the cast. The three leads are perfect clown adventurers. Bradley Cooper’s Phil recalls every ultra-glib ladies man and take charge guy you’ve ever met. Ed Helms, as the defanged dentist Stu, is a dream of an angst-ridden straight man and guilty hen-pecked nerd, with a classic worried shockeroo look that suggests Harold Lloyd crossed with Charles Grodin. Zach Galifianakis (Dave the Bear in the lousy What Happens in Vegas) makes such a funny oddball out, like early fat-demonic Jim Belushi crossed with a delusional touch of Don Knotts,  that he even manages to survive one too many peeks at his butt. And Justin Bartha is a terrific likable guy — and a good sport too, since he has to miss most of the action.    The rest of the cast is good too, especially Rachael Harris as the girlfriend from hell, Heather Graham as the hooker from heaven, Epps as B. D., and Ken Jeong as the kind of gay Chinese gangster you don’t want to run into in a Turkish bath. Even Mike Tyson makes you laugh.

I’ve knocked  off half a star here for the cop car and blackjack scenes, and the sometimes mushy ending, none of which makes the wicked comic sense of  the rest of the movie. But, audiences for this type of show will get everything they want, while audiences who normally wouldn’t go near a picture like this will get more than they bargained for. I‘m usually not fond of movies that seem partly inspired by TV commercials. But this is one case where it’s good that what happened in Vegas didn’t stay there.

DVD Blu-ray extras: Theatrical and unrated versions; Picture-in-picture commentaries by Cooper, Galifianakis, Helms and Phillips; Gag reel; Pictures from missing camera.

Wilmington on DVD: Iron Man Three

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

IRON MAN THREE (Three Stars) U.S.: Shane Black, 2013
(Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment)

In Iron Man Three — capstone of the trilogy of films in which Robert Downey, Jr. plays brainy CEO Tony Stark a.k.a. the robo-suited super-hero Iron Man — Downey spends far more time out of his Iron Man suit than  in it. But that’s okay.  Downey, one of the most  brilliant movie actors around, also has one of the most interesting faces (a sardonic deadpan and soulful dark eyes) and he’s even more compelling when he’s not swallowed up in effects and hardware.

Iron Man Three may well be the last of the “Iron Man” series, but that’s okay too. After the series opener, 2008’s surprisingly good Iron Man and its not-so good sequel, Iron Man 2 (2010),  Downey has probably been encased long enough. So has Don Cheadle, who’s back as  iron buddy Col. James Rhodes a.k.a. (this time) Iron Patriot, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony’s inamorata/business partner Pepper Potts. Rhodes and Pepper are two more returnees from the first two movies—Jon Favreau as driver turned security chief Happy Hogan is another—and also back is Paul Bettany as Jarvis, one of the more distinctive computer voices since HAL in 2000. Favreau, of course, was also the director of the first two Iron Men, and he was probably largely responsible for the antic humor and humanism that made the first one click.

The new arrivals in the cast include four effective villains: Ben Kingsley as the Bin-Laden-ish terrorist The Mandarin; Guy Pearce as the techno-geek turned scientist/business stud Aldrich Killian (who was insulted by Tony 13 years ago, and has now invented a form of DNA weaponry called Extremis), James Badge Dale as Killian’s killer and brutal bad guy Savin, and  Stephanie Szostak as brutal bad gal Brandt.

Favreau (Swingers, Elf) directed the first two Iron Men, but here he’s ceded the directorial job to Shane Black — who became a hot screenwriter back in 1987 with the first Lethal Weapon, scripted some big shallow actioners (The Last Boy Scout) and graduated to cult writer-director of sorts with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a clever neo-noir dark comedy also starring Downey. The rest of the Iron Man Three cast ( a huge one that also includes some last-minute surprises) has Rebecca Hall as sexy botanist Maya Hansen, a   romantic rival for Pepper; a mostly boring U. S. President (William Sadler), who figures in the show’s best best action scene and a smart-alecky kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins), who gives Tony some good joke set-ups.

Anyway, after Iron Man 2, Three is not bad—though the best thing about it is not the expensive-looking 3D action sequences, but Downey’s acting in the lead super-hero role. With this franchise, along with The Avengers and Sherlock Holmes, Downey is not only the biggest box-office movie star in the world right now (at least for a while), but a great comic actor with a face that effortlessly registers irony, ambiguity and a soulful sarcastic glee. Downey can be as funny and engaging a spritzer as anyone since Robin Williams in his prime—and though he makes fun of some of the movies he makes, including this one,  he does it with a quiet gusto that’s more playful than mean.

But even though the Iron Many movies and  The Avengers made him a star—a superstar—and even though they he may eventually get deeper roles in more brilliant (if not as popular) movies, superhero pictures are not exactly what you want to see Downey get trapped in. Iron Man was a surprisingly terrific movie, Iron Man 2 a surprisingly misfiring sequel, and Iron Man Three lies somewhere between them. It’s definitely a show that delivers, explosively, what its audience wants to see, and it’s already the huge commercial hit everyone expects. But, perhaps because Downey seems more reined in this time, the movie tends to lack that something pungently extra that made the first Iron Man (co-written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby) so wildly entertaining and even moving, and the lack of which made the second (scripted by Justin Theroux) such a disappointment.

Iron Man Three is fun to watch most of the time, and I don’t see too much reason to knock it technically or politically. Any Downey movie is worth seeing, even when they‘re bad, which they sometimes are. But, if it’s not neo-con, Iron Man Three is maybe neo-comic, because Downey, hasn’t been fully unleashed. And, though Black pulls a number of zingers, in the dialogue and elsewhere, the movie is  as repetitive as most late-chapter super-hero franchise movies—even Marvel’s which are usually state of the friggin’ art.

By the way, I usually stay in my seat for all the end-titles, because  I like to get the music and song credits. But this time, all of you should stay, all the way to the end and the last credits, because one of the show’s best scenes and  performances, is one of the very last things we see on screen. It’s one of those Marvel teasers, one of the best of them. Stay. Trust me. It’s Marvelous. (Sorry.)

Wilmington on DVDs: World War Z; The Bling Ring

Saturday, September 14th, 2013

CO-PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

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

WORLD WAR Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most of all, why did they spend so much money on this? I saw a big chunk of the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead on TV a short while  before catching World War Z—and I was amazed again at how much George Romero accomplished with such scant-seeming resources. World War Z, by contrast, is almost top-heavy with spectacle and action, almost gorged with blood and guts. Occasionally that pays off, as in the Tower of Zombies scene in Jerusalem. But like most big movies, especially big horror movies, it could use more character, more dialogue, more ideas, more personality. And maybe one or two or three hundred, no, three thousand, less zombies.

Extras: None.

CO-PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW 

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

OmiGod!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wilmington on Movies: The World’s End

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

THE WORLD’S END (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Edgar Wright, 2013

we

I’ve let The World’s End go unremarked—so far—even though this cheerfully outrageous new comedy by Edgar WrightSimon Pegg and Nick Frost (all of Shaun of the Dead) is one of my favorite movies so far this year—and judging by the reviews, the favorite of lots of other critics (and audiences) too.

The movie deserves its accolades. It’s a hilarious, robustly imaginative and very smart blend of buddy-buddy dramedy, shrewd roughhouse British comedy and social satire and cinema homage (this time to Don Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwarings paranoid s.f. classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Of that kind and mixture of picture, I’d say it’s been done almost perfectly. Certainly, this high-octane show has among the funnier ideas, zestier performances and better, more corrosive dialogue of any movie, British, American or whatever, that’s been out recently. If you’ve missed it and are any kind of a fan of Ealing Studios, Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe or Monty Python-style humor, well, all I can say is “Shame on you.”

Like Shaun of the Dead (zombies) and that other Wright-Pegg-Frost parody Hot Fuzz (cop-crime), The World‘s End mixes biting British social comedy with American genre movie parody—and it hits the spot on both levels. The plot is reminiscent of the drunk buddies comedy The Hangover (the first one), and the Rogen and Company pop apocalypse farce This is the End. But it’s better than either, and funnier.

The acting is spot f—ing on. Pegg shines as the dissipated but still energetic and full of himself ex-teenage campus lord and Hootmeister Gary King—who once was the ruler of high school revels and is now an aging, dissolute semi-wreck. He gathers together his four ex-high school buddy-followers Steven Prince (Paddy Considine) Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), Peter Page (the splendid Eddie Marsan) and his now estranged once-best chummerino Andy Knightley (Frost, natch), all acting aces, to repeat and this time complete their epic school’s-end pub-crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven—a tour of pubs and pint-swills, finishing at the appropriately named World’s End.

Gary, in the decades since he ruled the roost, and pleasured the ladies and bossed his wild bunch, has become a demonic, dissolute motormouth, still living in the past and its old rotten glories. His four one-time acolytes, however, have eased into comfortable white-collar lives, and his ex-right hand chap Andy has become a teetotaler, alienated completely from his old pal. The tamed quartet is uncomfortable; Gary is in his boozy element, keeps dragging them onward.

Along their alcoholic way, they meet an old teacher (Pierce Brosnan), old nemeses and Sam (the splendiferous Rosamund Pike), an old flame of both Gary and Steven. As the booze flows, we begin to notice something funny about these pubs—Starbuckized pubs you might call them. But Gary is such a loudmouth and his chums are so magnificently uneasy that we don’t read between the lines… yet.

At first The World’s End seems like a rowdier, more roistering version of a Mike Leigh-style social drama-comedy or a more socially minded variant on a Yank bromantic hellraiser comedy. Then it takes a wild curve into Body Snatcher genre movie-land.  But, crazy as it all gets, the emotional richness of the first scenes keeps feeding into the later, more fantastic plot twists. Some people may prefer the first parts, some the later stuff. I liked it all.

Director-writer Wright and his two stars, Pegg and Frost, and their friends, Considine, Freeman and Marsan keep the show popping and sizzling all the way. The central trio have become one of the more reliable purveyor teams of really good, really smart movie comedy around—British to a T, with a refreshing blast of American comic inebriation, and funny beyond words. Now, let’s all ‘ave a pint, and get scussed and soused on the way to the Apocalypse.

 

Wilmington on DVDs: The Winged Serpent (Q), The Iceman, Now You See Me

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

THE WINGED SERPENT (Q) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Larry Cohen, 1982 (Shout! Factory)

A sleazy little semi-classic from the more daffily glorious times when horror movies had less gore, smaller budgets and more personality, The Winged Serpent (or Q, as it was called when I caught it in New York City on its first release) is a delightfully cheesy monster movie from Larry Cohen in his heyday. Cohen’s Robin Wood-certified masterpiece God Told Me To (or Demon) came out five years earlier, in 1977, but many joyous time-wasters find this one more memorable:

It’s all about an Aztec deity of whom you may have heard: Quetzalcoatl, the flying, and gruesomely hungry Godbird, who hides out in an NYC skyscraper, and bites the heads off sun worshippers and other rooftop hangers-out, until his nest is discovered by piano player-thief Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), who tries to snitch on Q and parley his knowledge into the Big Apple’s big time. Jimmy, a fearsomely vanity-less performance by Moriarty, is the best reason to see the movie. Moriarty, an ace at small-time bullies, mavericks and losers has never been better —not even in Bang the Drum Slowly or his bit in The Last Detail. And Richard Roundtree and David Carradine, as two cops who have Quinn’s number (they think) are almost as good. So is Candy Clark as the sex interest, Joan. The “Q:” is not bad either, though it obviously can’t play piano like Moriarty.

The Winged Serpent (or Q) is the kind of horror movie that amuses you, but doesn’t play off too much to your more sadistic instincts—which is all to the good, as far as I‘m concerned. And Moriarty is all aces, as a classic crumb-bum, trying to exploit the hell out of a Jaws-like cinematic scourge.

 

THE ICEMAN (Three Stars)

U.S.: Ariel Vromen, 2013

You want to know what “The Iceman” is? I’ll tell you. It was the nickname of a real-life Jersey guy named Richard Kuklinski who killed people for a living—and he’s the subject, the main guy, of a new movie called The Iceman, where he‘s played by that great f—kin’ actor Michael Shannon. Keep in mind that this fictionalized. They make some stuff up. But he (Richie I mean) was really good at it—whacking over a 100 guys by his count, maybe 250 by others, filling his contracts in so many different ways (shooting, strangling, poison, busting heads, slitting throats, etc.) that he never seemed to leave a signature. A pro, you know what I mean?

Richie started killing people in the 1960s, when he worked in the porn industry, and eventually he got hired by this wise guy Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) as a regular hit man for the Gambino family, and he was the best they had, the best you’ve ever seen, never mind that he wasn’t Italian. He was Polish. (Excuse me, he was Polish-American.) He was also a good family man. He took good care of his family—his wife Deborah (Wynona Ryder) and their two daughters Betsy and Anabel (Mega Sherrill and McKaley Miller)—and they didn’t have a clue all those years what Richie really did for a living (He told them he worked for Walt Disney, then that he was in something called currency valuation.)

The mob called him The Iceman because sometimes he’d kill a guy, then put him on ice and freeze him, and drop the body later, so the cops would be confused about the time of death. And also, of course, because the guy was like ice on the job, absolute ice. As cold as a Smith and Wesson, loaded, shoved against your neck, but don’t get me wrong: Richie had his nice side too. I mean, he took care of his family. He never killed a guy unless he was being paid or unless the guy had it coming. And he never killed women or children. Never.

That was his big mistake.

I won’t tell you what happened to Richie—you may know already because they made a TV documentary and wrote a book about him—and besides, you want a few surprises here, don‘t you? One thing that‘s no shock. Michael Shannon is terrific as Richie. I mean, the best. Even though the real Kuklinski was 300 pounds and Shannon is a better-looking guy, but it’s the movies, you know? This show has a lot of other even better-looking guys—I mean leading-man or one time leading-man types like Liotta as Roy, and David Schwimmer, that “Friends” guy, as this slimy little louse named Josh Rosenthal, and Chris Evans, Captain America himself, as this other hit man named Robert Pronge, whose cover is he drives a Mr. Freezy ice cream van, and Stephen Dorff as Joey, Richie’s brother in the slammer. And James Franco—he‘s only in one scene, but it’s a beauty. He plays this Marty Freeman, one of Richie’s hits, who prays to God to save him from Richie. I won’t tell you what happens. Hell, you already know.

But you know. why is Michael Shannon so Goddam good? The “Boardwalk Empire” Michael Shannon. I mean, the guy is first-rate, fabulous, good enough for an Oscar. Absolutely. You remember Revolutionary RoadTake ShelterBug? The tall crazy-looking guy with that weirdo don’t f-ck-with-me stare? No Oscar out of at least one of those? Give me a break. He should have had at least one, maybe two. And now one for this.

I tell you, it‘s amazing: He’s got this creepy look that scares the sh-t out of you. Never cracks a smile. When he talks, we believe him. I mean you believe this guy can slit the throat of some schmucko pool-player he just met, and then go home and be a good husband and father to Wynona and the girls. You believe he was this smart-ass spooky intellectual in Revolutionary Road too, and this obsessed crazy guy in Take Shelter. And the nut job in Bug. All I can say is: My hat is off to the bastard. A Chicago guy, I hear.

They just shouldn’t wait too long to give him his prize, you now? They shouldn‘t wait until he’s some old guy who has to drag his ass up on stage and mumble and got propped up by some big star introducer a—hole. They should give it to him while he can still stare down the camera, while he can still make some money off it.

Though I imagine he makes plenty of money anyway, Like Richie. He sure as hell makes enough movies.

The other actors and actresses, they’re pretty good too. I mean better than pretty good. Maybe not great, but just on the edge of great. The movie is just on the edge of great, too. I’m not sure what it’s missing, except maybe it’s like The Godfather. They need more scenes of Richie’s family life, with Deborah (Wynona), and the kids. Like Coppola had lots of scenes with the Corleone family. He started the whole movie with that big family wedding, and that was the best scene in the whole damned movie.

I don’t know, Maybe somebody thought that having too many scenes with Wynona at home would start to get boring. But you know what I think? Maybe that’s where the real tension of the movie lies. In this guy, this hit man, trying to keep up his front with his family and neighbors, and sometimes the mask almost slips, you know? Anyhow, it would have been some kind of contrast.

You know, the whole look of the movie reminded me a little of The Godfather. Dark and like shadowy and kind of grimy. Like real life, you know? The guy who shot it, the cameraman, Bobby Bukowski—another Polish guy, I guess. He’s good at shooting, like Richie. And you know what I hear? They shot this picture in Louisiana some place, not New Jersey. Just like that Brad Pitt movie where he was a hit man and so was the Sopranos guy Gandolfini. They shot that one in New Orleans, and, in the book, it was supposed to have been in Boston. Hey, what is this thing about Louisiana anyway? We’re a long ways away from Carlos Marcello—that old New Orleans outfit boss they think was partly behind the Kennedy hit.

Ah, fuggedaboutit. But there’s another thing that might interest you, especially since they only have this one Jew character in the picture I think, this Rosenthal, and he’s a louse. Iceman was directed and also some of it was written not by a guy like Scorsese or Coppola, some paisano like you’d think, but I swear, by this Jewish guy Ariel Vromen, who comes from Israel. Can you believe it? What’s the deal, they’re running out of Italians? They’ maybe gave Liotta and Gandolfino too much, and De Niro and that kid DiCaprio? Like hell they did. But anyway, you figure: the Israelis, in Tel Aviv, there’s a lot of blood in the streets there too. Maybe there’s whatever you call it, an affinity. An analogy. Whatever.

But I give this Ariel guy credit. You listen to the dialogue and you’d swear they’re all from New Jersey —or some place a lot like it. Not like they’re copping The Sopranos or something, but the mood of it. The swing of it, you know what I mean? I don’t know what else this director guy did—some movie named Danika, I never heard of it—but this one gets a lot of points, if for nothing else than it gives Michael Shannon that role of Richie Kuklinski, which is one hell of role.

I tell you, Shannon looks at you, or he looks at the camera, whatever, and the cold sweat just shoots right through you. I bet it spooks you almost as much as if you saw the real-life Iceman guy, the real Richie, ready to ice somebody. Or like Angelo, Gina Maria’s brother-in-law, remember him? The one who threw that numbers guy, Crazy Sonny Monicelli, down the stairs on Dominic‘s party on the Feast of San Genarro? He—I mean the real Richie—has to have been scary too, you know? How many people did I say he killed? 100? 250? Hey, that’s a lot of people. That‘s impressive.

NOW YOU SEE ME (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Louis Leterrier, 2013 (Summit Entertainment)

Movies are a magical art form—as Orson Welles, who was both a moviemaker and a magician, might have been quick to tell us. They transport us to magical lands, with magical people, and sometimes they excel at using magic and magicians as subjects. The Illusionist and The Prestige are recent pretty wondrous examples. Now You See Me isn’t.

Instead, this new cinematic magic show—in which four professional magicians join together for a Las Vegas-style super-act that may also be a super-crime—is a movie so self-consciously clever, so intent on surprising the hell out of us, and so utterly, shamelessly, mind-numbingly preposterous that you may walk out of it feeling that your mental pockets have been picked. (In a way, they have.)

Yet, like that Vegas-y magic act it shows us, Now You See Me snookers you for a while. For a half hour or so, I actually thought I was going to be pretty well entertained. The movie looks flashy, seems sort of smart, and throws a lot of star power at us. It’s directed by another of French action man Luc Besson’s protégés and Euro-slicksters (Bessonites?)—Louis Leterrier, the son of film director François Leterrier, and the helmer of Besson’s Transporter movies, as well as of the Ed Norton Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans).

Leterrier‘s films at least look good. (So, they say, did his dad‘s.) And, Now You See Me stars Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco (James’s’ kid brother) as the magicians—“The Four Horsemen” they’re called, despite the presence of Ms. Fisher—along with further costars Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent as an FBI and French Interpol agent on their trail (after one of their magic acts seems like an actual bank robbery), plus Michael Caine as a big smarmy financial guy and Morgan Freeman as a magic fraud expert out to expose the foursome. So it’s a movie that seems to have a lot going for it, including that Grade-A cast and a very flashy production—one of those ultra-high-tech shows where everything looks like a perfume ad and is edited like a car chase. And it even has some good writers, though they haven‘t done such a good job here.

The script—by Ed Solomon, Edward Ricourt and Boaz Yakin (who wrote that moving 1994 big city heroin drama Fresh—tries to be a piece of ingenious fakery, flimflamming us through the movie and the acts, with a string of surprises going off like murder mystery last-chapter fireworks at the end. But, by the time we reached that end, the actors were the main reason I was watching the show, and the explanations were more unbelievable (and more mystifying) than the mysteries themselves.

Now You See Me begins with the assembling of the magic men (and woman)—card-trickster and sleight-of-hand sharpie J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), escape artist Henley Reeves (Fisher), mind-reader /hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) and street thief Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). Quickly rising to the top of the magic charts, outstripping David Copperfield (this movie’s technical advisor) and Burt Wonderstone (this movie’s patron saint), they’re soon ready to stage their super-big, super-impossible (and super-illegal) super-trick. In a glitzy Vegas theatre deep in Hangover country, they pick a bewildered audience member, hypnotize him, make him believe he’s been teleported to the inside of his French bank’s vault (covered by remote cameras and relayed to the Vegas Hilton), somehow steal all the money (it seems) and then “teleport” the fortune back to the theatre, where they supposedly pour the loot down on the deliriously happy audience. Funny money?

Hey, that’s some act. And if you did it for a live audience, without the benefit of movie editing and CGI, it would no doubt blow everyone away. As part of a movie—with the benefit of editing and camera trickery—it’s not quite as impressive. Furthermore since our heroes have now committed a robbery in front of thousands of witnesses (some admittedly well-paid), you wonder why they still get bookings. (Maybe I missed it.) You wonder why the FBI (as represented by Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol (as represented by Melanie Laurent), or even just the local police, can’t do a better job with them. (There’s an explanation for that, but not a very satisfying one.) You wonder who pays Morgan Freeman to debunk magic acts. (Could he also get paid for debunking horror movies and fairytales?) You wonder if Wonderstone will show up and teleport them all to Wonderland and West Hollywood.

I should tell you that the movie later also offers what’s supposed to be a perfectly logical explanation for the “bank robbery trick“ and the other tricks and everything strange and seemingly magical that happens (something that might actually, supposedly happen in the real world), and if you can swallow them, you may be entertained by the rest of the Now You See Me. You might be amused by the alleged romance, or rom-com slight-of-hand, between the chic Laurent and Ruffalo at his sloppiest. But in the end, it’s all tricks and little magic.

Now You See Me is lucky it has its cast, especially Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, to anchor it in some kind of amusing humanity and acting expertise. But it doesn’t have enough of Caine, and Freeman, unfortunately, is saddled with some of the script’s more absurd plot twists. Of all the show’s many absurdities, the most absurd is the main trick itself—an elaborate triple-reverse wannabe-shockeroo that goes too far.

Of course, I don’t want to let any rabbits out of the hat. Or keep any Bessonites out of Bessonia. And I’m aware that “it’s only a movie.” But a movie, like a magic trick (and Now You See Me tries to be both) ought to find its own vein of internal logic and stick to it. Not only is the main trick here a piece of sleight-of hand or sleight-of-story that couldn’t happen in the real world. By rights, it shouldn‘t have happened in this movie either, not even to Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.

Wilmington on DVDs: The Great Gatsby

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

 

DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW
THE GREAT GATSBY (Four  Stars) U.S.-Australia: Baz Luhrmann, 2013 (Warner Bros,)

gatsby-frame

 “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning —

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald (“The Great Gatsby”)

I. Razzle Bazzle Dazzle Frazzle

Baz Luhrmann’s often dazzling, sometimes excessive, frequently fascinating film of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age masterpiece, The Great Gatsby—a movie that has been trashed by a number of critics—is not only no disaster. It’s one of the best movies of 2013. Predictably crammed with cinematic excess, and done in Luhrmann‘s (Moulin Rouge, Strictly Ballroom) high style, it’s a stunningly imaginative, sometimes madly enjoyable show. At it‘s best, it makes a classic of literature come alive again on the screen in startling, voluptuously entertaining new and old ways.

To be honest, some of it (not a lot) is over the top, self-indulgent and no doubt annoying to literary purists (and some impurists)—but not so much that it cancels out, or even seriously diminishes the many pleasures that this Gatsby and its superb source, marvelous cast and first-rate technical people have to offer. I saw the movie twice and reread Fitzgerald‘s novel again—and, between them both, I’ve rarely had a better time in or out of the movies all year. Mulling over how much pleasure The Great Gatsby in both forms gave me, makes me sad that people were steered away from it.

Luhrmann’s new movie is not the Gatsby I envisioned as I read (and re-read) the novel. But I didn‘t expect it to be, and you shouldn‘t either. This film may not capture all the aesthetic brilliance and sexy allure of the book. (How could it?). But it gives us plenty to enjoy, and I enjoyed most of it: including the Luhrmann-Craig Pearce script, which keeps intact a lot of Fitzgerald’s lyrical narration and fizzy icy-liquor dialogue. This Gatsby is often as much Luhrmann’s—and his wife, production-costume designer Catherine Martin’s—as it is Fitzgerald’s. But it has a lot of the book in it, and the resulting mixture is snazzy, beguiling, Smart, exciting and marvelous to look at. And, of course, courtesy of Fitzgerald, it has a great story, which, contrary to what you may have heard, has not been botched and debauched out of all recognition.

To the contrary. Though Luhrmann’s stamp is all over the movie, it’s still a quite faithful version of the book (more so than the three previous Hollywood versions): a literary adaptation that preserves much of the original text, but is also encased in a dreamy, show-bizzy musical romp and an ultra-romantic Roaring Twenties movie-movie style that keeps going off in wild stylistic riffs.

There’s something admittedly kitschy and pop-operatic and even pop-grand-operatic about Luhrmann’s style here, even when the music isn’t playing (which isn’t often). It’s as if Verdi, while composing one of his Shakespearean operas (Falstaff or Otello), had also been able to include a lot of Shakespeare’s original spoken text and dialogue as well, and threw in “O Sole Mio“ for good measure.  In this Gatsby though, the arias are usually Fitzgerald’s prose poems, spoken (very effectively, with a kind of morose reverie and regret) by Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. So we get the novel’s jewel-like words and phrases writhe across the screen in dancing subtitles, a tribute to Fitzgerald’s gorgeously alive prose.

In any case, I don’t think Luhrmann’s audacity with this material should be held against him—as if he’d committed some crime against art by not making the super-faithful, painstaking BBC miniseries version or respectful theatrical film that we wouldn’t expect from him anyway, and that somebody else can make later on. This is something different, a romantic musical Gatsby, a Gatsby for the new millennium. That’s part, of course, of what the movie’s detractors objected to. Perhaps because of all the hype, they’ve decided that Luhrmann is an ego-tripping revisionist show-off and that the book has been buried under the spectacular rubble.

But Fitzgerald’s classic novel is still the great animating force, inspiration and artistic structure behind the film and all its flights of fancy.  Luhrmann so obviously loves and admires the book and wants to give it his best, that his Gatsby becomes not only a  beautiful movie and the best Gatsby film adaptation of the several made so far (1926’s with gruff, glum Warner Baxter, 1949’s with suave Alan Ladd, and 1974’s with golden boy Robert Redford), but a sometimes truly fabulous entertainment, exploding past the book’s original, beautifully filled boundaries,  shooting off like a black sky full of fireworks over a blazing dance floor packed with intoxicated revelers.

II. The Jazz Age

If ever a novel seemed perfectly matched to the movies, it’s  Fitzgerald’s  “The Great Gatsby.“ The plot seems born for MGM or Paramount in their glory silent years. Even as you read it, the lustrous, glamorous  images burn into your memory. and the characters whirl and  dance in your mind while they flirt and kibitz and drink gobs of expensive liquor—gyrating and Charlestoning their frantic way through parties and assignations on the lawns and beaches and vast mansions of the fictional Long Island domains of East Egg and West Egg.

Romance and sin and drama and glossy décor and beautiful people and huge, mind-boggling wealth and other cinematic mainstays are there, and so are some great, provocative literary themes and characters. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is about the glamour and evil of money—as many movies were, especially in the Jazz Age—and it’s also about the glory and anguish of romance —as many movies are still, although usually they have happy endings and

(EXCUSE ME: SPOILER ALERT: roll over to reveal)

Gatsby, famously, doesn’t.

END OF ALERT

The central characters are not just rich, but super-rich or famous: Gatsby himself (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a performance of poignant splendor), pretty fragile belle-of-the-ball Daisy Fay Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), her wealthy, brutish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) and her semi-androgynous golf pro crony Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki)—as well as the more modestly moneyed “poor boy“ Wall Street bond-seller Nick Carraway (Maguire) who acts as the tale‘s ironic, grieving, poetic observer and narrator. (Only in a story as plush and rich, yet openly critical, as The Great Gatsby could a bond-seller from a well-to-do family be regarded as a poor boy.) And there are the others, even poorer than Nick: Isla Fisher as Tom‘s crass juicy mistress Myrtle Wilson and Jason Clarke as Myrtle‘s hapless and haggard husband, gas station owner and car guy George.

Both book and movie are about affluent, selfish American hedonists like Tom and Daisy who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money,” “careless” spoilers who live in posh East Egg, Long Island, and who seduce (and maybe diminish or destroy) people like Gatsby, the one-time Western plains poor boy who’s risen to the New York City heights, and who foolishly wants to be like them, and to win at their games.

The story is narrated (in both novel and movie) by the character often described as Fitzgerald’s literary surrogate, Nick Carraway, who has moved into a cottage next door to the estate of society titan Gatsby—and who becomes Gatsby’s friend and confidante after Jay learns that Nick is the second cousin of the great love of Gatsby’s life: pretty Daisy of Louisville, Kentucky, whom Jay met and fell in love with before he went off to World War I. (Daisy, a character both real and deeply fallible, is at least partly modeled after Scott’s  own radiant, emotionally disturbed  wife Zelda—a novelist herself.)

In movie as in book, flashbacks (or revelations told to Nick) keep carrying us back into the past Gatsby wants so desperately to recapture, the nights of love and courtship in Louisville, Kentucky with Daisy—and the film revels in this fluidity of time.  Then, after we learn of that devastating meeting and parting of Gatsby and Daisy—one of those intense romantic conjunctions that we never forget and never get over—we also learn the rest: how the lovers lost touch during the war and Daisy married rich all-American footballer/tennis/polo player and racist libertine Tom Buchanan (whose wealth is inherited and whose infidelities are legion), and moved into a mansion in the old money East Egg area on Long Island, just across the lake from what has now become Gatsby’s estate (and Nick’s cottage) in the new money West Egg area—far away, but close enough so Gatsby can see and tantalize himself with the haunting view off his pier of a flashing green light on the Buchanan estate, and Nick can tantalize himself with watching Gatsby watching it. In the rest of the story—which has one of the great American plots, besides being written so beautifully it stuns you—Gatsby woos Daisy again, and they all face the consequences.

 

Luhrmann’s movie is, as we said, faithful to its source. And where it deviates —as in having Nick writing the novel as therapy in an asylum where he’s being treated by a psychiatrist named Perkins (played by Aussie movie legend Jack Thompson) for, among other things “morbid alcoholism’—it has fairly good reasons and sometimes interesting results. That includes, amazingly, the use of a score with contemporary hip-hop music by executive producer Jay Z:  an idea that disheartened me when I first heard about it, but which I accepted quickly on screen. (Perkins, by the way, was the last name of Fitzgerald’s—and Hemingway’s and Thomas Wolfe’s—legendary Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins.)

We get a lot of Fitzgerald’s writing in the movie (sometimes in those writhing little scripts on screen) and that‘s another of the film’s strengths. Nick’s narration and most of the dialogue come largely out of the book—as opposed to the many film adaptations of major, narrated novels (like Mark Twain’s or Charles Dickens’ or Henry James‘) that simply, and, I think, mistakenly, jettison the original author’s words and prose, even though the words and prose are a large part of what made us love those books and writers in the first place. Rob The Great Gatsby of Nick’s painful, poetic, intoxicated   reveries and you’ve lost much of what makes it great. That doesn’t happen here.

In DiCaprio, the movie also has, in its title role, one of the best Gatsbys (if not the best) imaginable: the star of Titanic and The Aviator and The Gangs of New York playing what now seems a nearly perfect part for him, and playing it perfectly. DiCaprio has a great look as Gatsby. He’s an Arrow Collar guy with wary eyes and a softly vulnerable smile, and his most frequent salutation, “Old Sport,” spoken in a deliberately artificial stage accent, is an almost touching pastiche of the British aristocracy and the American pseudo-aristocracy. The movie’s Jay Gatsby, a mystery man and an ultimate 1920s romantic, is a heartbreakingly sweet and reckless character and DiCaprio makes him a believably sweet and reckless soul—an eternal love-torn boyish climber who won’t let go of the past and is hell-bent on winning back Daisy.

A delusion? “You can’t bring back the past,“ Nick warns Gatsby, (No you can’t, but that‘s what movies routinely do.)  Gatsby, radiating that “hope” and ‘romantic readiness” that Nick will sadly celebrate, answers buoyantly “Of course, you can.” Of course…You can buy anything. Why not the past? Or the future. (No you can’t.) Or even the present. (No. You can’t do that either —unless you move in the right circles.)

As for the rest of the cast, Edgerton, as Tom, very knowingly and powerfully incarnates the sometime cruelty of great, unearned wealth. Debicki is a properly saucy Jordan, Fisher an amusingly and sadly trashy Myrtle, Jason Clarke a hapless George (a man of ash living near the story‘s famed valleys of ashes) and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan has an anachronistic, dashing take on Gatsby‘s patron, Meyer Wolfsheim (supposedly the gambler who fixed the 1919 World Series).

The one casting problem for me was the Daisy of the usually admirable Carey Mulligan. The difficulty with this part—and Betty Field in 1949 and Mia Farrow in 1974 had similar problems with it —is that Daisy is someone loved unto death, beyond all reason, and even if we feel Gatsby is wrong to feel that way (and we probably do), we have to know why he does. We have to feel some part of what resonates so enduringly in his hopeful heart. Carey Mulligan is a sometimes-superb actress (as in An Education). But she’s more a brainy and sensitive gal than a heart-piercing or regal beauty (a Kidman, a Paltrow, a Wasikowska), and she (or maybe Luhrmann) have also chosen to have Mulligan play the part without enough of the high intensity, spark, and incandescence that would have made her more of a magnet. I should add that Mulligan gives a fine performance anyway. She‘s just not as perfect a match with the part as DiCaprio with his. Or as Maguire, whose Nick seems initially a well-contained, almost diffident witness and chronicler, the one rational guy around, but who also conveys a held-back yearning for Gatsby‘s approval that almost suggests Gatsby’s intense feeling for Daisy.

 

III. The Green Light

Finally, The Great Gatsby has a great look: a spectacular visual realization of the Roaring Twenties in New York, and the time’s orgies and gestalt. (The movie’s most compelling image, like the book’s, is the giant painting of  bespectacled eyes, on the abandoned optometrist‘s billboard, near the Wilson gas station. The eyes of an absent God?) That fantastic style showcases CGI and 3D in highly creative ways—especially in the show’s great gaudy centerpiece, the first big Gatsby party that Nick attends, with both period 1920s songs and hip-hop blasting way, and people in snazzy ‘20s duds jumping up and down to the music (which ranges from Jay Z to Fats Waller to George Gershwin’s crashing, soaring “Rhapsody in Blue,“ accompanied by fireworks), all bobbing like apples and candies and colored lights in a moonlit tide.

Together Luhrmann and Martin (and the company) have created their own little world of artifice and nostalgia, set in a dreamy fabrication of 1922 Long Island and Manhattan (actually shot in Luhrmann’s and Martin’s native Australia), a romantic-fantasy domain that knocks your eyes out again and again. It’s a world that, especially in the party scenes, makes you feel happily drunk—a feeling that fits, since the story is taken from a novel (like Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 “The Thin Man”) about people who drink too much, written by a self-indulgent genius of a writer who drank too much—and though The Great Gatsby’s narrator Nick Carraway tells us he‘s only been drunk twice, we may find it hard to believe him, at least without taking a few snorts ourselves.

This is Luhrmann’s Gatsby (yet Fitzgerald’s also). But the novel’s original qualities shine though as well. It becomes not only a beautiful movie and the best Gatsby film adaptation of the several made so far, but for me, an instant classic.

So why has the film been so vehemently attacked, so nastily axed? Maybe because it’s an adaptation of a book now routinely selected by people with good literature credentials as the Great American Novel, or at least one of them (with “Huckleberry Finn,” “Moby Dick,” “The Portrait of a Lady” and a few others), and many serious movie critics like to prove that they’re not seduced by a film’s literary pedigree into giving a good review, and also maybe that they’ve read the book and are appalled at the cinematic havoc wreaked.

And maybe because Baz Luhrmann, now routinely savaged by some as the crazy Aussie madman of the movies, has the kind of go-for-broke technique that either mightily entertains you or just plain rubs you the wrong way —a flamboyant, dare-anything style like Orson Welles’ in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, which was a film a lot of the original preview audience certainly thought was over the top, off the edge, and out to lunch. Now we think it’s magnificent. Maybe some day too, as with that F. Scott Fitzgerald novel that was rejected back in 1925, we’ll think the movie Gatsby is great.

Wilmington on DVDs: RIP Elmore Leonard; 3:10 TO YUMA

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

IN MEMORIAM: ELMORE “DUTCH” LEONARD (1925-2013)
3:10 to Yuma (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Delmer Daves, 1957 (Criterion Collection)

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Frankie Laine sings:

There is a lonely train called the 3:10 to Yuma.
The pounding of the wheels is more like a mournful sigh.
There’s a legend and there’s a rumor,
When you take the 3:10 to Yuma,
You can see the ghosts of outlaws go riding by.
Chorus: Riding by….
Laine: In the Sky… (Chorus echoes)
Laine: Way up high…The buzzards keep circlin’ the train.
While below, the cattle are thirstin’ for rain.
It’s all so true, they say, on the 3:10 to Yuma,
A man may meet his fate,. for fate travels everywhere.
Though you’ve got no reason to go there,
And there ain’t a soul that you know there,
When the 3:10 to Yuma whistles its sad refrain:
“Take that train…  (Chorus echoes)
“Take that train…” (Chorus wails.)
Ned Washington (lyrics) & George Duning (music):  “3:10 to Yuma

Here, in all its taut, bare-knuckle glory, is Delmer Daves’ best and most justly celebrated Western, the 1950s classic 3:10 to Yuma. An Eisenhower-era show that reflects both the staunch ideals and the queasy fears of those years, it’s a movie sharply scripted, crackling with tension, shrewdly cast  (Glenn Ford and Van Heflin are the leads and antagonists, supported by Felicia Farr, Henry Jones and Richard Jaeckel), and beautifully photographed in black and white by Charles Lawton Jr, who also shot the gorgeous color landscapes of Daves’ Jubal.

3:10 to Yuma—which may be the best title for a movie Western, ever—is based on a story by the young Elmore Leonard, who later became the primo contemporary American crime novelist (“Get Shorty,” “Freaky Deaky”) and also happens to be one of Quentin Tarantino‘s main writing models. (Leonard’s story is probably better than the movie.) The picture Daves made from it is another clockwork suspense Western in the tense tick-tock style of High Noon, with Heflin as the upright but financially strapped rancher Dan Evans, who hires on as armed escort for a dangerous and deceptive prisoner—affable outlaw boss and sexy killer Ben Wade (Ford)—all the way to the 3:10 train to Yuma (and justice), despite Ford’s relentless razzing and the gathering of his gang all around them.

Like Gary Cooper’s Marshall Will Kane in High Noon, Heflin’s Evans is the man of rectitude and honor harassed by outlaws, deserted by townsfolk, waiting for the inevitable showdown. But Ford’s Wade is a breed apart from Frank Miller’s silent, menacing “High Noon” gang. Like those deadly charmers Arthur Kennedy in Bend of the RiverRobert Ryan in The Naked SpurRichard Boone in The Tall T (also from a Leonard story) and Lee Marvin in Seven Men from Now, he’s the outlaw as seducer, the smiler with a gun. And 3:10 to Yuma, which boasts film noir mainstays Ford and Heflin as co-stars, is definitely one of the peaks of Western Noir.

Daves’ Yuma is also notable as one of the negative inspirations (see above) for Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. (The other was, of course, High Noon.) Hawks underrated them both. The 1957 3:10 to Yuma is an inarguably excellent black-and-white Western, one of the best in its class despite a disappointing ending—a mistake not much improved when the movie was remade in 2007 by writer-director James Mangold, with Russell Crowe as Wade and Christian Bale as Evans. The 1957 movie also has what many Westerns should have but only 3:10 to Yuma, Gunfight at the O. K. Corral, Rawhide, Blazing Saddles and a few others do: a title song sung by Frankie Laine. There‘s a legend and there‘s a rumor that the song in 3:10 to Yuma…was Frankie‘s top effort too—though Ned Washington‘s lyrics, which suggest an American Western Kwaidan, have almost nothing to do with the movie. Doesn’t matter.

So rest in peace, Dutch—but only if you want to. Sorry about the adverbs.

Extras: .Interviews with Elmore Leonard and Glenn Ford’s son, Peter Ford; Booklet with Kent Jones essay.

Wilmington on Movies: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Lee Daniels, 2013

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The butler’s real name was Eugene Allen—and he was a remarkable man who served eight U.S. Presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, while working on the White House household staff from 1952 to 1986, rising from pantry man to maître d’hôtel and chief butler. But in the deservedly popular movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, he’s become the fictionalized Cecil Gaines (staunchly and sensitively played by Forest Whitaker), and he and his family (including Oprah Winfrey in a bravura performance as Cecil’s battler of a wife Gloria) become a microcosm of the African-American experience from 1926, and the era of segregation, lynching and the Ku Klux Klan, to 2008, and the election of a black (or brown) man, Barack Obama, as President of the United States. I like Eugene, from what I know of him (which is admittedly not much), and I like Cecil too, as Whitaker so sympathetically embodies him. And I like this movie, even if it does have 41 producers.

The Butler is a stretch, and a sentimental exaggeration of course. More happens to the Gaines family, including their two diverse sons, radical activist Louis (David Olewoyo) and Vietnam warrior Charlie (Elijah Kelley)—than you could reasonably expect from a small city full of butlers and their offspring. Among the historical milestones that at least some of the Gaineses catch or witness or participate in, are Eisenhower’s Little Rock showdown with Gov. Faubus, the freedom rides, the sit-ins, the signing of the Civil Rights act, the ascendancy and later assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, and the rise of the black power movement—as well as intimate moments in the lives of Presidents (and their wives) Eisenhower (Robin Williams), John and Jackie Kennedy (James Marsden and Minka Kelly), Nixon (John Cusack), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), and Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda).

The casting of the presidents proves that Daniels has guts— and, some of the time, it pays off. Williams gives Ike one of his best pixie smiles (an “I Like Ike“ smile), Cusack’s Tricky Dick does some tricky politicking with the serving staff, Schreiber (very effective) shows us one of LBJ’s infamous in-the-crapper orations; and you’ll be surprised at how well Rickman gets Reagan, and Jane gets Nancy. It’s an all-star ensemble, of which Whitaker, careful, easy, sometimes a bit tormented underneath, remains the star, More often than not, his perfectly dressed and appointed and mannered Cecil manages, with the utmost discretion, to slip in a wise hint or sly nudge, or even just some kind of emanation, pointing in the right racial-political direction, while serving and softly bantering with his bosses, who just happen to be the most powerful leaders in the Free World. Who knew?

Cecil, whose life here may admittedly be over-packed with symbolism and Forrest Gump-ish incident, is still as likable and human and poignant as Forest Whitaker can make him—which is extremely likable and empathetic indeed. And though Cecil’s fictional story—which starts when he sees his mother raped and his father murdered by a racist rich kid (whom we should dislike, violently, as we should all racists) and climaxes with Obama’s victory—may be Hollywood-ized, it’s also meaningful and ambitious, and, in a big movie Oscar nominee kind of way, it’s moving.

The Butler is a mixture of historical pageant, political parable and domestic drama. And Cecil has less success at home than in the White House. He shows less power and control with his free-spirited household diva wife Gloria, or with his politically adventurous older son Louis, who, out in the field, gets a peoples‘ eye view of those historical landmarks and big events. Still, no one can (or should) top the show-stopping Oprah—and we can tell that Cecil and Louis are on a rocky path together when they get into a dinner-table dispute about whether Sidney Poitier is the white man’s “good” African-American. Here, I side with the older generation. Maybe Poitier was, to some degree, especially likable to whites. But I enjoyed both common man Gump and bridge-builder Poitier (especially in In the Heat of the Night), which makes it stand to reason, I guess, that I’d like much of The Butler, too—in common with a lot of last weekend’s mass audience.

Granted: The gussied-up history purveyed by director Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strongbased on Will Haygood’s Washington Post article about the real Eugene Allen—is movie-ized and, to a degree, kitschified. But so, to tell the truth, is much of the American “history” purveyed in the great historical movies of John Ford—like, for example Young Mr. Lincoln, where young Illinois lawyer Abe (Hank Fonda) wins an improbable legal victory in an improbable trial for an improbable poor family, exposing an improbably available killer in an Agatha Christie sort of climax and later marching off up that improbable hill yonder right into the Lincoln Memorial. Yet, despite all improbability, Young Mr. Lincoln is a great film—and no small part of its poetry and power comes from that very magical unlikelihood, a narrative device that Ford, like many of the best popular artists, is able to make magically real—at least for a moment. (By the way, I like Agatha Christie too.)

And—Oscar-mongering or not (Does anybody ever complain about Pulitzer-mongering?)—I certainly like Whitaker and Winfrey, and their boys, and their Presidents, and their First Ladies, and all the players and bystanders of this heartfelt tall tale—all the black and white (including Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and many, many others) and the big emotional moments and familiar people that crowd before us on Lee Daniels’ highly theatrical but always entertaining stage. I also think it‘s a salutary event that the box-office wars were won last weekend not by a violent or truly unbelievable show with a huge budget and a high body count, but by this more modestly budgeted (despite that cast) movie that at least tried to be more real, more true, more idealistic about life—and, just as Eugene Allen and Cecil Gaines did, to serve the people and well.

By the way, no reflection on Lee Daniels, but I’d love to have seen the movie that Spike Lee—reportedly an earlier directorial choice for the movie—would have made of this. “Cause I like him too.

The Butler has been dedicated to producer Laura Ziskin, who worked long on the project and died before its release.

Wilmington on Movies: Kick-Ass 2; Kick-Ass (DVD)

Friday, August 16th, 2013

KICK-ASS 2 (Two Stars)

U. S. Jeff Wadlow, 2013

hit_girl_kick_ass_2_movie-wide“I hate  reboots.“   That’s the pithy slogan emblazoned across a t-shirt worn in Kick-Ass 2. and it’s a fitting  piece  of self-analysis.. Kick-Ass 2 is an unnecessary reboot if  there ever was one, the kind of movie that gives sequels a bad name — an overblown comic-booky would-be juggernaut that  blows up in our faces and makes the whole idea of sequels begin to seem a little barfy. This  unamusing, gross, carnage-happy  picture takes what was a fairly entertaining and original movie, the 2010 superhero satire Kick-Ass, starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson and turns it into the kind of  overproduced unfunny show that Iron Man 2 became — though, almost paradoxically Kick-Ass 2 may boost the directorial reputation of its producer Matthew Vaughn, since he directed (and co-wrote) the original, but not this one, and therefore can’t be blamed for a lot of it — even though he did the hiring..

The director who can be blamed — doubly so, because he wrote the screenplay as well — is Jeff Wadlow, whose previous directorial efforts (Cry Wolf and  Never Back Down) I’ve missed, maybe luckily. Wadlow takes the original premise, plus something from the comic books (by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.)  as well as much of the original cast (minus Nic Cage whose Big Daddy met his maker in Kick-Ass One) and the original tech team, and then tries to make everything bigger crazier, wilder, more jam-packed with violence and weirdnesses (but not sadly, with more, or as many, or even it seems a tenth as many. good jokes or nifty ideas), What results is mostly a grab-bag of  anti-clichés and keen notions gone rotten, an almost incoherent carnival slaughterhouse of a movie, that tends to curdle our better memories of the first.

Back in 2010, that movie, the very first Kick-Ass, was a real surprise; a funny, foul-mouthed, ultra-violent super-hero comedy-action movie whose stars were a geeky high schooler who wanted to be a superhero (Aaron Johnson — as he was known then — playing David Lizewski a.k.a. Kick Ass) and a tough-a-cookie-as-you-get 11 year-old real super-heroine (Chloe Grace Moretz as Mindy Macready a,k,a. Hit Girl), plus Nicolas Cage as Mindy’s crime-busting Big Daddy. Pitted against them are the street punk to Godfatherish criminal element of Manhattan, including at the top, the Mafioso D’Amico family and their spoiled-rotten scion (Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris D’Amico a.k.a. Red Mist).

The idea behind the movie was funny  and even a little thoughtful. What happens if a comic book fan tries to become a super-hero in real life, or what passes for real life in this kind of movie? And what happens if a real super-duper crime-fighter is a bad-talking 11–year-old girl? And, on the way to the wrap-up, and later on the way to this dumb-ass reboot, Kick-Ass became e a kind of cultural icon for his fellow Big Apple geeks and geekesses.

Numero Uno Kick-Ass was crudely amusing; Numero Due is unamusingly crude, and  sometimes witlessly gross. I remember both laughing and cringing at Kick-Ass, though the laughs were in the ascendancy.. Now, in the sequel, the cringes  seem almost double, triple or more,  the guffaws.

There are interweaving cringe-inducing storylines: Kick-Ass himself, rebuffed by Hit Girl when he proposes they team up nd become a dynamic duo, instead joins another free-lance crime-busting club, called Justice Forever. It contains about seven masked marvels, all inspired by Kick-Ass, including Jim Carrey, plus prosthetic chin (which makes him look a bit like that classic Russ Meyer actor, Charles Napier), as Captain Stars and Stripes, and Lindy Booth as the spider-womanish Night Bitch. And they all have a showdown with Mintz-Plasse who has rebooted himself as the now unprintable M—-rf——r, and surrounded himself with super villains, including a gent called Black Death (Daniel Kaluuya), and the formidable bodybuilder Mother Russia (played by Olga Kurkulinski), resulting in scenes of mass bloodshed and loud clangs.

The second storyline (as if all that wasn’t enough) follows Hit Girl — who has abandoned her crime-fighting career at the behest of her legal guardian Detective Marcus Williams (a cop who, oddly, tries to discourage her crime-busting). Instead, Hit Girl/Mindy undergoes a reboot of typical middle school girl anxieties at the hands of the local mean girl bullies, led by  the outrageously vain and nasty Brooke (Claudia Lee). I feel no guilt  informing you that the come-uppance in this plot-strand involves a magic wand that induces projectile barfing and projectile shitting and other projectile tomfoolery, all accomplished with the best sick special effects money can buy.

These two storylines proceed with unusual goriness and grossness to their predictable intersecting projectile conclusions and to their inevitable moral, which I guess was “Crime Does Not Pay,” or maybe “Don’t projectile vomit in the school cafeteria,” or maybe “Down with reboots.”.

As in the first movie, Chloe Grace Morets, is the most beguiling of the actors — though the best performances are by John Leguizamo as Chris’s  henchman/servant Javier and Carrey as the unrecognizable Captain. It might be mentioned, or re-mentioned, that Carrey has been critical of the movie’s extreme violence.  In the case of Number Two, he‘s right. So is the t-shirt.

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DVD RESEARCH

KICK-ASS (Two Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Three Stars) U.S.; Matthew Vaughn, 2010 (Lionsgate)

Kick-Ass is a movie made from a comic book about a wish-fulfilling teen geek who plays at being a super-hero named Kick-Ass, and then runs into some real heroes (including a wildly talented purple-haired 11-year-old nicknamed Hit Girl, and her death-dealing pa, Big Daddy) and some real villains (including a vicious mob boss and his spoiled-rotten son). Though it may sound as if the Farrelly Brothers or Judd Apatow wannabes had taken over the latest  action-comic picture epic, it’s better than we might have expected: at its best,  expertly done and full of snazzy, kick-ass, wish-fulfilling fun.

Director Matthew Vaughn, Guy Richie‘s ex-producer (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and helmer of the British neo-noir Layer Cake, shows the same mix of slam-bang action and a genial light touch that director Jon Favreau brought to Iron Man. Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman (adapting the comic by Mark Millar), know what their  basic audience wants to see. But they also know what audiences not usually attracted to this kind of movie may want to see as well: something witty and light and self-kidding, with the humor counter-balancing the carnage.

Of course, the carnage needs to be counter-balanced. Kick-Ass is funny. But it’s also so violent, and sometimes so convincingly bloody and savage, in its half-comic over-the-top action scenes — which include the kind of one-against-a-bunch climactic wholesale slaughter-fest usually administered by a Bruce Lee or a Sonny Chiba, but here dealt out by that 11-year-old girl —  that, at times, this movie becomes genuinely disturbing. (Parents should heed that “R” rating, which mentions “strong brutal violence, pervasive language, sexual content and nudity.”) Still, I can’t go along with the stern or skittish condemnations the show has aroused in some. That wounding violence, especially in a revenge fantasy, strikes me as not necessarily such a negative thing. Movie violence often should be more disturbing, should  have consequences.

Revenge fantasies are popular partly because they blow way our frustrations, and because the real world actually is full of bad guys and gang-bangers who really do hurt people. Crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), and his squad of torpedoes led by WiseGuy Big Joe (Michael Rispoli), are heavies with a touch of real-life viciousness (or at least reality filtered through other mob movies and TV shows) — and when some of those heavies go down like video-game targets, it’s hard to mind, especially when the vanquishing kick-asses are a nerd in a super-hero suit and a little girl with purple hair and lots of energy. Kick-Ass pushes our movie paradigms and clichés of violence and worm-turning to extremes, and whether you laugh at it, or go “Tsk-tsk,” probably depends on your own frustration-level. It made me laugh and sometimes cringe.

Extras: Commentary with Matthew Vaughn; Documentary; Featurettes; Live Menu System.

Wilmington on DVDs: George Bernard Shaw on Film; G. I. Joe Retaliation

Friday, August 16th, 2013

 

George Bernard Shaw On Film (Three and a Half Stars) U.K.; Various Directors, 1941-1952 (Criterion/Eclipse)

adfadfLate in life, George Bernard Shaw entrusted the film rights for o all his plays to a relatively inexperienced  and threadbare thirty-something producer named Gabriel Pascal. Pascal, raised in Hungary, was an entrepreneur without money, and his only film credit up until then  had been, appropriately enough for a native-born Transylvanian, a movie called “The Living Dead.” But Shaw, then in his 70s, liked Pascal. The Nobel Prize-winning writer, the most famous playwright in the world at that time, and also a socialist who could get along with capitalists (if they made him money), had nevertheless resisted most other attempts to film his plays.

But Shaw made, and Pascal accepted, the major demand that the producer  not change or overly cut Shaw’s unusually verbose texts, but instead respect the playwright’s letter and law. In return, Shaw gave Pascal the rights to all his plays, and even worked on the screenplays (for which he took full credit), advised on the productions, and attended the shoots.

Pascal mostly did what Shaw wanted. (Once getting his producer‘s word, the crusty writer became more tractable as far as making changes designed to attract audiences and boost box office.) The first results were two instant classics made successively out of “Pygmalion,” in 1938, co-directed by Anthony Asquith and star Leslie Howard, and co-starring Wendy Hiller and Wilfred Lawson (a film available from Criterion but  not included in this set) and “Major Barbara,” a witty 1941 film with an extraordinary cast: Hiller again, supported by Rex Harrison, Robert Morley, Robert Newton, Sybil Thorndike, Emlyn Williams, Stanley Holloway and Deborah Kerr. Major Barbara was signed this time by Pascal, though most of the actual directing was done  by Harold French (who guided the actors) and the young editor David Lean, who, in his first stab at movie helming, handled both the camera direction and the montage.

Shaw and Pascal seemed now an unbeatable combination, producing and making great plays just as they should be made: leaving intact the  original ambitious themes and ideas and memorable characters and brilliant dialogue,  pulling in vast worldwide audiences for quality work, and with Pascal joining Alexander and the Korda brothers as yet another Hungarian master of prestige British cinema.

But, then came a legendary financial flop: the huge prodigal spectacle Pascal, as sole credited director, tried to wrest from Shaw‘s “Caesar and Cleopatra,” costarring Vivien Leigh as a saucy minx of a Cleopatra, and Claude Rains (Shaw’s personal choice) as a wise, bemused old warrior-king Caesar — along with Stewart Granger at his most dashing, Cecil Parker at his fubsiest, Basil Sydney at his staunchest, and Flora Robson and Francis L. Sullivan at their most sinister. The gorgeous location photography was by Freddie Young, who later returned to the desert to shoot Lawrence of Arabia” for Major Barbara’s co-director, David Lean.

That movie, shot in Egypt, was an Ishtar of its day, and it made Pascal something of a joke, and, despite Shaw’s continuing support, brought about the end of most of his lofty projects. The exceptions were  one more lower-budgeted film, the charming Androcles and the Lion, shot more cheaply at Howard Hughes’ RKO, with Alan Young (as Androcles), Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Newton, Maurice Evans and Jim Backus — and Pascal‘s long time plans for a musical version of “Pygmalion,” which were realized two years after his death.

That, of course became “My Fair Lady” — a project reuniting two actors from the 1941 Major Barbara, Harrison and Holloway, and a play that achieved such phenomenal success that it might have won a living Pascal back everything, prestige and cash, that  he lost on “Caesar” (as long as he didn’t try to direct it).

These films today look as good as they did on their release, and in “Caesar’s” case, a little better.  I wish Pascal had produced a few more. Which shows that Shaw was right about producers sticking to their, and his, words.

Included: Major Barbara (U.K.; Gabriel Pascal/Harold French/David Lean, 1941)  Four Stars. Caesar and Cleopatra (U. K.; Pascal, 1945) Two and a Half Stars. ” (U.S.; Chester Erskine, 1952). Three Stars.

(Extras: Liner notes by Bruce Eder.)

 

G. I. JOE: RETALIATION (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Jon M. Chu, 2013

G. I. Joe Retaliation may sound like another big, rotten box-office smash shooting down the pipes: another ridiculously over-violent action movie, in this case with characters based on Hasbro action figures or toys (and on Marvel Comics versions of them) with another machismo-drenched cast (topped by Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis and Channing Tatum) and another cliché-drenched script. And some of it as bad as your worst fears. But some of it surprises you.

Not at first though, You walk into the theater or turn on the player,  the lights (and your wits) dimming, and you think: Is that all there is? Is this what movies have come to? Are most of us now reduced to watching the 3D chronicles of the battles waged  by the toy hero G. I. Joe (Willis, in a supporting role), the massive hero Roadblock (Johnson, the star) and, for a while, the two-fisted hero Duke (Tatum, who was the star of the last 2009 G. I. Joe smash), with all three fighting the gang of the insidious Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) and his maniacal minions? Where is Ming the Merciless?

The movie then reveals its secret weapon: a light touch. The plot is familiar, but it’s done with some humor. In the story, the G. I. Joe guys are hit with a massacre (of most of their number, apparently including Duke), a frame-up of the ones left, including Roadblock and the adorable Lady Jaye (Adrienne Palicki), and a plot to conquer and  destroy the world, engineered by their old nemesis Cobra (I think) and involving a phony double of The U. S. President (Jonathan Pryce, of Brazil), who bullies a gathering of world leaders and starts yet another countdown to destruction (one of those countdowns that usually gets all the way past five), while the real President (also played by Pryce) languishes in captivity nearby, probably wishing he were in Brazil.

That’s what it’s all about: a lot of bang-bang, but no kiss-kiss — or at least none I remember. Be that as it may,  G. I. Joe Retaliation is better than most of te recent big-bucks bang-a-thons. Maybe the film partly works because of the cast: Johnson, Pryce as The Presidents real and ersatz, Willis, Tatum, Bracey, Byun hung-Lee as the aptly named Storm Shadow, Walton Goggins as a warden, D. J. Coltrona as Joe‘s man Flint, Ray Park as the aptly-named Snake Eyes and James Carville as the aptly named campaign advisor James (“It’s the economy, Stupid”) Carville.

Or maybe it was because of the truly spectacular action, which includes one certifiably killer scene: an amazing battle raging and soaring all over Himalayan cliffs and slopes, with Storm Shadow in a body-bag being carried or whooshed downhill  by his daredevils — with bad guys swooping at them to try to stop the escape, and the snow-capped mountains treated like the site of  a parkour chase, bodies tumbling like the popcorn that the entire audience probably failed to eat while they watched dumbstruck, as this outrageously exciting scene —  a sequence that puts the “cliff” back in cliffhanger — run its course.

Or maybe it was because the people who made Retaliation, director Jon M. Chu (of  the ludicrous, if high-spirited musicals Step Up 2 and 3) , and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (of  the undead comedy Zombieland), just don’t seem to be taking themselves or the movie all that seriously. They have fun with the clichés and formulas, which is more than you can say about most of these  gun-crazy shows.

So the movie wasn’t so bad after all. But don’t be fooled. Except for the mountain battle, it’s not that good either. Now, excuse me. Ming the Merciless and Storm Shadow are waiting in the hall with a high concept. It has something to do with the Himalayas.

Wilmington on DVDs: To the Wonder

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

 

DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

TO THE WONDER (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Terrence Malick, 2012 (Magnolia Home Entertainment)

I. Days of Heaven.

To the Wonder is one of those pictures that either knocks you out or irritates you—or maybe does a little of both. At its best, it’s a cinematic poem, another film of wonders by Terrence Malick, the writer-director of those American masterpieces Badlands and Days of Heaven. At its worst, it’s, well, it’s a little full of itself—the kind of movie some critics like to knock to prove they‘re not snobs, not obsessed auteurists, not in Malick‘s or anybody else‘s pocket.

It’s a love story—about an Oklahoma-born writer named Neil, played by Ben Affleck and somewhat based on Malick, and it’s about the two women he loves (Marina, played by Olga Kurylenko, and Jane, played by Rachel McAdams) both of whom are based on Malick’s wives, and about a melancholy priest named Father Quintana, played with sad, sad eyes by Javier Bardem, in his saint-rather-than-sinner mode—and probably borrowed from life as well.

All in all, it’s another strange, poetic, puzzling, stunningly visualized, and defiantly personal piece of spiritual autobiography on celluloid, an ambitious pictorially mesmerizing creation by an artist who makes movies as it the art form had just been invented, and he was free to do anything, try anything, but also by a man who’s hip to cinema technology and aware of other arts and literature as well—and finally, by a man who sees the world (in his films) with something like the newly opened eyes of a child (as a gorgeous, enrapturing place) and comprehends it with a child’s relatively fresh, unspoiled heart and soul. All of these seemingly contradictory artists are Malick, who, like Walt Whitman (another naïve and sophisticated poet) is large and contains multitudes and loves the way the sun pours down on leaves of grass.

That deliberately unabashed artistry (or, to detractors, artiness) is not all that unusual for Malick. Though he’s made only six feature films in his 40-year career—Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), The Tree of Life (2011), and now To the Wonder (2012-3)—Malick‘s style and point of view, the kind of actors and performances he likes, even where he likes most to place and move the camera (staring from along the earth up at heaven)—are unique and almost unmistakable. The sets are dressed marvelously by Jack Fisk and the land lit glowingly by Emanuel Lubezki, and, under Malick’s guidance, it all has a look both intensely poetic and intensely human—as unique a visual style as Welles‘s, Murnau’s or John Ford‘s.

II. Badlands.

What is unusual though, especially coming only a year after Malick’s big critical hit and Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner Tree of Life (also semi-autobiographical) is the sometimes vehement and even contemptuous critical drubbing he’s received from some reviewers, mostly serious ones, for this new film: the scornful dismissal of the film’s ravishing visuals as “perfume ad pictorials,“ the charges of narrative sloppiness and incoherence, and the reiteration of the indictment “pretentious.“ Roger Ebert liked it, praising it highly (and correctly) in the last wonderful movie review he ever wrote, but it’s the kind of movie that alienates a certain kind of critic.

Maybe it’s too personal. It’s an unusual film, as much classical as experimental. In a way, it’s a simple movie romance, about two people who fall in love in and with Paris (where movie couples often fall in love), and then marry and move to Oklahoma (where Malick also once lived) and where the marriage soon undergoes tumult and friction (as movie romances often do).

The original couple—Affleck’s Neil and Kurylenko’s Marina—have their Days of Heaven, and then their Badlands, especially when Neil’s old flame, McAdams’ Jane shows up and Bardem’s Father Quintana starts brooding in his (mercifully) almost empty church. Marina, a Ukrainian expatriate with a ten year-old daughter (Tatiana Chiline as Tatiana) has the same first name as Lee Harvey Oswald‘s Russian wife. But don‘t jump to conclusions. To the Wonder have socio-political content, but more of the Walt Whitman kind than Oliver Stone‘s:

The movie has a soundtrack made up of snatches of classics and semi-classics (Wagner, Berlioz, Haydn, Part) all merging into music of mutual and un-mutual attractions. Marina—trapped in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, after being brought down from the cathedral heights of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France—is alienated and friendless. Quiet Neil is increasingly drawn to Jane, Jane to Neil and Father Quintana, sadly celibate, is drawn to Marina. And the camera is drawn to all of them—especially Marina, around whom it whirls like a drunken lover trying to encircle and capture forever his loved one’s special beauty.

 

III. Wonder.

 

To the Wonder, like other Malicks, has little dialogue and a lot of voiceover. Malick’s usual method is to write and film the dialogue scenes, and then cut them down (like documentary footage) in his protracted, sometimes years-long editing process. Days of Heaven was once three or four hours long, and there are, it’s said by Richard Corliss, three different, complete versions (linear, impressionistic and the final cut) of The Thin Red Line.

 

Wonder, Corliss says, was so heavily cut that the film lost whole characters, including five played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Rachel Weisz and Barry Pepper. I second Corliss‘s suggestion that all five actors be restored for a supplement disc in the DVD release, preferably by Criterion, as Corliss also wants. If that sounds a pretty pretentious thing to want—well, so be it. I’d like to have seen the four-hour version of Easy Rider too. Not to mention von Stroheim’s Greed. Or Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. So what if Malick is his own Irving Thalberg or his own RKO? We don’t burn celluloid with a movie on it any more, at least not in plain sight.

 

What the critics who dislike Wonder seem to dislike most is that the movie’s characters are revealed less though dialogue and acting than through the flow of images—which are, as Roger Ebert noticed, like the flow in a silent film: by a Murnau, a Vidor, a Gance. Ebert also said that the actors in Malick’s film show the deliberately limited expressivity of the actors in a Robert Bresson film—and indeed Bardem at times suggests Claude Laydu, the country priest of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Silence… Narration. Music.

 

One can love something, a movie, a person, even if parts of it (or them) don’t work so well. That’s what I felt here. The sounds in To the Wonder—especially the voice-over and musical pieces that both Malick and Bresson use so well—are crucial to the film. But the story is powerfully told through the images as well: those visions of Hell, Earth and Heaven that convey a world of gorgeous nature and passionate people, caught by a Steadicam that keeps tracking and whirling around them. Move. Dance. Love. Tilt up: The sky. The wonder.

Wilmington on DVDs: Ran; Kagemusha

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

 

DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS

Ran” (Blu-Ray) (Four Stars)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1985 (Lions Gate)

ran20-hd

Akira Kurosawa’s lavish and violent epic Ran, inspired by “King Lear,” is one of the most famous and admired of all Shakespearean films. Most aficianados rank it at or near the top of the Bard’s film canon, even though Ran dispenses with the main element that makes Shakespeare so great and imperishable, jettisoning all of the bard’s British poetry (substituting a spare Japanese translation), along with a good deal of the play’s brilliant plot and unforgettable characters.

No “How sharper than a serpent‘s tooth…“  No “As flies to wanton boys…“ No “Out vile Jelly!“ This is Shakespeare stripped almost to the bleak, minimalist bones of the mad king’s tragedy — reduced to a lean, brutal tale of a reckless monarch, who disinherits his most loyal son (rather than daughter), elevates the others and is repaid with persecution and banishment to the wind and the rain with his last attendant, his faithful Fool.

Yet Ran (which means “Chaos”) is  ornamented with such lush period settings, and expanded with such vast bloody battles raging under a stormy sky, that the sufferings and wickedness, and occasional flashes of kindness, in the story smite us with redoubled force, before becoming  dwarfed in the immensity of Kurosawa’s medieval landscapes, almost lost under that towering gray sky.

Tatsuya Nakadai — whose first appearance for Kurosawa was in Seven Samurai, in the wordless part of a swaggering young samurai, one not picked as one of the seven —  here plays Lear as a tragic, demented vision out of both Shakespeare and Japanese Noh drama, a wild, white-bearded monarch now repaid for the violence he has inflicted on his enemies and his subjects, by the faithlessness of his own chosen heirs and by the seeming icy indifference of the world around him. Nakadai turns Lear (or Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, as he’s called here) into a gnarled tragic woodcut, a human version of Edvard Munch’s tortured painting “The Scream.“

The Fool is mimed and played by the transvestite performer Peter, and Lady Kaede, the most evil of all Lord Hidetora’s daughters-in-law, is indelibly impersonated by Mieko Harada. The other actors include Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu and Daisuke Ryu as the Ichimonji brothers. The nerve-rending music is by the peerless Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. And an old friend of Kurosawa’s was the assistant director on the battle scenes: Ishiro Honda, the science fiction directorial master of  the “Godzilla” and “Mothra” monster movies.

“Ran lacks much of the lusty boisterous quality of Kurosawa’s great ’50s and ‘6os battle epics, Seven Samurai,” The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo — and even of his other Shakespearean film (based on “Macbeth”), Throne of Blood.  But there are many compensations. It is a beautifully crafted, truly tragic film, a portrait not just of a man plunging toward grief and insanity, but of a whole universe teetering on chaos. When the darkness descends here, it falls in a way, on all mankind as well as on Lear. According to Kurosawa, he intended Ran to be a parable of the overwhelming fear and  omnipresent threat of annihilation in the nuclear age. (In Japanese with English subtitles.)
CO-PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS

KAGEMUSHA (Four Stars)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1980   (Criterion Classics)

akirasan

One of the great aKIRA Kurosawa   period action epics, this sixteenth century saga of a condemned thief   (Tatsuya Nakadai) who masquerades as a dead warlord, at the behest of the dead   man’s wily courtiers, is at once a canny political parable, an engrossing   psychological drama and a stunning adventure in the tradition of Kurosawa’s  Yojimbo, Seven Samurai and Ran. It’s full of the usual    ferocious Kurosawa action and spectacle, and the last battle scene is  hair-raising.
Nakadai, a last minute   replacement for Shintaro Katsu (the star of the “Zatoichi“ series, who proved  demanding and difficult), gives one of his best performances: a portrait of a man elevated  to phony grandeur, transformed by his deception, and lost in a world of   betrayal and bloodshed. Kagemusha  is a  magnificent later work by one of the greatest international filmmakers,  It  shows us life in chaos from the viewpoint of a   desperate charlatan, an outlaw accidentally trapped in the halls of power.   With Tsutomu Yamasaki, and Kenichi Hagiwara. (In Japanese, with English   subtitles.)

 Extras: Commentary by Stephen Prince; “Making of” documentary;  George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola discuss Kruosawa; Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity, a video  piece on Kurosawa”s own paintings and skethces for Kagemusha; Kurosawa Suntory whiskey commercials;  Kurosawa storyboards; Trailers and teasers. 

 

Wilmington on Movies: Elysium

Sunday, August 11th, 2013

ELYSIUM (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Neill Blomkamp (2013)

Matt DamonElysium, a big moneymaker this weekend, is another visually stunning dystopian science fiction movie nightmare in the Blade Runner mode, this one starring Matt Damon as a good outlaw and Jodie Foster as an evil government leader. In it, we are shown a future world where things have gone to hell and are about to get worse (maybe), due to the devastating consequences of greed, violence, brutality, authoritarian government, social and racial prejudice, and the insane selfishness of that era‘s one-percenters. It’s our world, of course, taken to extremes, Philip K. Dick or Robert Heinlein style.

Damon, exuding his usual boyish good-guy heroism, plays prison parolee and factory worker Max Da Costa, who lives in the Los Angeles barrio of 2154, a world that suggests a mix of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Fernando Meirelles’ and Katia Lund’s City of God. In the course of Elysium, Damon tries to save that world (or at least the people condemned to live on it—and himself, and the movie). It’s the second feature from the South African-born visual effects ace, Neill Blomkamp—whose District 9 (2009), was one of the more horrific and visually venturesome sci-fi shows of the past decade.

Damon plays Max Da Costa, an unjustly convicted prison parolee who works in a robot factory in 2154, on the ecologically blighted Earth, whose selfish leaders have escaped the world their spiritual-financial ancestors turned into an urban, polluted hell, left it to the underclass like Max and his largely Spanish-speaking fellow citizens and long since fled to the space station paradise of Elysium, hideaway of that era’s one-percenters. It‘s a place where the lawns are manicured, the languages are English and French, where universal healthcare through super-technology is a right of the rich, and where the rulers, like Jodie Foster’s Secretary Delacourt, don’t give a damn about the poor or disadvantaged, or Max, or you, or me.

Jodie FosterMax, who’s trying to go straight (in that violent Los Angeles of the 22nd century), gets a lethal dose of radiation poisoning thanks to his robot factory boss, who shoves him into a contaminated locker—and, as Max faces and races against his own death (like Edmond O’Brien in D. O. A.), he is forced to turn outlaw, to take up an offer of illegal and dangerous unemployment from his crook friend Julio (Diego Luna), and Julio’s smuggler-boss Spider (Wagner Moura). His mission: extract a lot of precious info from the mind of duplicitous robot manufacturer John Carlyle (the magnificently sleazy-acting William Fichtner).

Running against the big clock, Max also tries to crack the defensive barrier around Elysium, to gain access to the insta-cure universal health care technology available to the rich, but not the poor. (Apparently the Republicans prevailed in the health care battles back in the twenty-first century and this is the result.) Among the combatants and villains arrayed against Max, are the incomprehensible maniac head thug Kruger (Sharlto Copley, also of District 9), and Secretary Delacourt, a role in which Jodie Foster gets to dress straight and be tough, mean and snobbish. Actually, Foster may not be the most convincing pick for this part. (She’s too inherently nice.) But Damon is still one of the better populist heroes. As for the sadistic killer played by Copley, I couldn’t understand a word he said, except for the occasional “fuck.”

It’s not a bad story, and it’s set in pungent, polluted or contrastingly Kubrick-clean backdrops that mix the real (Mexico City standing in for L.A.), the unreal (the space station) and the surreal (those hints of Metropolis and nightmare). It also has—probably courtesy of progressives Damon and Foster as well as writer-director Blomkamp—some rousing preachments and stinging political themes.

Matt Damon;Jose Pablo CantilloThe movie’s biggest problem, and this is a congenital defect of many contemporary action shows, is that there’s too much bang, and not enough drama. The beginning, where Blomkamp’s world is being set up, and we get to know Max, his childhood girlfriend Frey (Alice Braga), and the rest of the characters, is the best part of Elysium. If it had continued in that vein, or at least had a better balance of thrills and humanity, Elysium would have been far more affecting, far more moving and exciting, and a much better film. But I realize I’m becoming repetitive and predictable. So are the movies that inspire it—including, unfortunately, Elysium.

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

L14A5480.dng

 

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 StillerVince 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.