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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)

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The notions or morals behind the movie, as written by the tag-team and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (director of the Ben 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.

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

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: Blue Jasmine

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

BLUE JASMINE (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Woody Allen, 2013

Blue Moon, You saw me standing alone,

“Without a dream in my heart,

“Without a love of my own.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Wilmington on Movies: 2 Guns

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT, SORT OF (roll over)

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

END OF ALERT

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

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

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

 

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

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: The Wolverine

Friday, July 26th, 2013

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

The Wolverine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilmington on Movies: The To Do List

Friday, July 26th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

 

 

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

1948 Wendell Corey & Stanwyck Sorry Wrong Number

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BULLET TO THE HEAD (Two and a Half  Stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extras: None