PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW & BLU-RAY
127 Hours (Four Stars)
U.S.: Danny Boyle, 2010 (2oth Century Fox)
Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is a great real-life survival story — horrific and inspirational, stunningly crafted, and loaded with suspense, even though most of us already know all or part of the film’s story, and most probably its shocking climax. It’s about climber/explorer Aron Ralston (James Franco), trapped and alone for five days in a crevasse in a little-traveled area of Utah‘s Canyonlands National Park, his cell phone unusable, his arm stuck between stretches of rock, and ultimately forced to make a terrifying choice in order to have a chance at survival.
Ralston did survive of course. He also wrote a book about the experience called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” and most people within range of a TV — or not actually caught between rocks themselves — know what he had to do to get himself free. That doesn’t lessen the tension here. As Alfred Hitchcock often said, suspense depends not on surprise but on our strong identification with characters trapped or in crises — which is certainly what director Danny Boyle, co-writer Simon Beaufoy and a marvelous crew (including editor Jon Harris and cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak) manage to set up and execute, stunningly, here.
Wonderfully told by Boyle, it’s also searingly well played by James Franco, in the second of his two top-of-the-line 2010 lead performances. (The other was a wholly dissimilar but equally brilliantly done assignment as beat poet Allen Ginsberg in “Howl.”)
Watching Franco here, as he plunges himself into a part so taxing physically, psychologically and even spiritually, and does it so brilliantly, you tend to forgive him for that awful, howlingly embarrassing turn he gave as co-host (with the equally sabotaged Anne Hathaway) at the last Oscar Show. Not their fault. After all, Franco and Hathaway didn’t pick themselves as hosts. Or write those empty, fatuous lines. Or get hung out to dry by the whole bankrupt Looks and Youth Uber Alles philosophy of many current movie and TV execs.
Memo to future Oscar producers: Don’t keep engaging in the great American media masturbation fantasy. Think of those two guys your writers referenced on the Oscar Show to try to excuse yourselves. Think of Bob Hope. Think of Billy Crystal. Think of what they brought to the table. Think of Robin Williams, whom you guys keep mistakenly passing over as the Oscar Show host. (He’s unpredictable? He’s dangerous? He’ll be bleeped? Bleepin’ great!) For the Oscars, you need for your hosts comedians or comedy-minded actors, funny guys and gals who can think on their feet, ad lib if necessary, generate good times, swiftly respond to everything, milk sentiment when needed, and above all, keep things going and recover from catastrophes. Witty, not pretty, is what you want in your host. (That said, Jeff Bridges, with nary a laugh, had the best line deliveries of that whole awful evening. Not that Jeff is all that pretty. And he is, after all, The Big Lebowski. Dude!)
Here, Franco has a damned good script, a damned good director. And damned good fellow moviemakers who know what they’re doing. Forget the Oscars. (127 Hours, by the way, probably deserved some statuettes it didn’t get.) Here, Franco makes the most of what he’s got. So did Ralston.
Extras: Commentary by Boyle, Beaufoy and producer Christian Colson; Deleted scenes, Featurette.
PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC & BLU-RAY
Bambi Diamond Edition (Blu-ray and DVD Combo) (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.S.: David Hand, 1942 (Walt Disney)
I don’t want to come across as too much of a softie, or as an easy mark for Disneyfied sentiment. But aw shucks, how can you help it? This lush 1942 film adaptation of the classic Felix Salten book — now released in Blu-ray, with every color shimmering, every brush stroke gleaming, every animal character (from Bambi, his regal dad and his loving and lovable mother, to that fussbudget old owl and Bambi’s charming, stalwart chums Thumper the bunny and Flower the skunk) absolutely aglow with life — plays just as well and just as beautifully, as it did nearly 70 years ago, on its first release.
It’s one of the great movie nature stories and one of the great rite-of-passage children’s tales — and like Lassie Come Home, The Yearling and The Red Pony, it’s one of a great cycle of animal movies in the ‘40. Thanks to Disney and his matchless ‘30s-‘40s animation team — headed here by director David Hand — the movie unforgettably gives us the times and seasons in the life of the princely little deer Bambi: his widely celebrated birth (as the new Prince of the Forest), his first faltering bent-legged steps, the tenderly wise tutelage by his mother (while his royal stag dad is busy King-ing it up elsewhere ), his meetings with his forest friends and future wife, the russet-colored falling leaves of autumn, the cold snows of winter, crisis and tragedy, and finally, poetically, the new spring. There we find the problems of “twitter-pation” (a Disney term for emerging sexuality), and finally, the renewal and birth of the next Prince.
END OF ALERT
Of course, Disney’s classic feature cartoon tale of animals in the forest, the cycles of life, of mothers and fathers and their young, has a pro-ecology theme that’s gotten even more powerful and topical through the years — especially when we watch the movie’s lovely, painterly forest ravaged and burned, and Bambi’s parents and friends threatened or harmed, by the carelessness and brutality of the movie’s chief villain: that shadowy, menacing, rifle-toting, mostly unseen but always dangerous figure whom the animals shudderingly call: “MAN!”
The movie, of course, is an animal‘s-eye view of the beauties of nature and the threats to it, and of the hunt, and it‘s probably done as much over the years to make movie audiences conscious of that beauty and those threats, as any nature-loving film endeavor up to those other great popular masterpieces of the whole ecology cinema canon: the wondrous David Attenborough-Alistair Fothergill BBC documentaries Planet Earth, Life of Birds, Life of Mammals and Blue Planet. (If you haven’t seen these movies on TV or DVD, you’ve missed a cinematic revelation.)
But those British movies, splendid, educational and knowingly and enthusiastically narrated (by Attenborough) as they are, don’t have, as Bambi does, a guaranteed pipeline to our heartstrings: characters we feel we know, life experiences that become our own, a great sacred natural cartoon domain that becomes our spiritual homeland as well as Bambi‘s. They don’t have the little spotted fawn Bambi hiding behind his mother from his first (and last) crush Faline, or the bashful little self-conscious skunk Flower (Uncle Pepe Le Pew’s unlikely American nephew?), or Bambi’s great self-sacrificing mom nestling and protecting him and calling for him frantically as the hunters go on their rampage in the Great Meadow.
They don‘t have the little deer‘s groovy, chubby smart-alec little sidekick Thumper to keep thump-thump-thumping and wise-cracking away, offering pearls of forest wisdom like his defiantly non-correct version of his dad’s doggerel homily “Eatin’ greens is a special treat. It makes long ears and great big feet …But it sure is awful stuff to eat!” (“I made up that last part myself.”)
Bambi was the last of the five great animated features with which Disney impressively kicked off his and his studio’s feature cartoon filmography, and which, in many ways, Disney and the studio have never surpassed (or equaled) since. And, like the others — 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (also directed by Hand), 1940’s Pinocchio and Fantasia, and 1941’s Dumbo — it’s a still-luminous showcase for the genius and craft of all his artists, their talents meshing back then in a grand synergy that still seems amazingly personal (Walt’s personality, of course), staggeringly ambitious and amazingly accomplished.
It took barely a decade, after all, for the Disney studio to go from the “primitive” black and white line drawing style of Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy to the incredible color, detail and lushness of “Snow White” and the others. A decade!
Bambi is a movie that has never lost its own youth, even as the ages and seasons pass inevitably in the movie itself. For many years, Bambi and most of the rest of the great first five, were regularly re-released to succeeding generations of children and their parents, until we all seemed to know them, and until the relative financial failures of some of those movies on first release (notably Pinocchio and Fantasia) were finally wiped out. Like the cycle of nature, the theme reworked in the Bambi-like 1994 hit The Lion King, these movies were always renewed and renewing, always returning, forever young.
I first saw Bambi as a child (with my mother, of course) in the ’50s. I saw it again, for this column, as an older (old?) man in a brand new restored 35mm print at Chicago‘s Museum of Contemporary Art, accompanied by a Q&A session with a current Disney Studio animator and by the actor who, as a boy voiced young Bambi, the still vigorous and sharp retired U.S. Marine Donnie Dunagan.
It will probably be the last time I ever see Bambi in a 35 print in a theatre, maybe the last time I‘ll see it ever. (I always hoped I’d see it some day though, with kids of my own.)
But the movie, unlike the Prince of the Forest, hasn’t aged. Most of it never will. And what has aged in it has become sometimes even more precious. Bambi, whether in 35 mm, DVD, Blu-ray or not, whatever the format, whatever your age, whatever the season, is a picture that should be seen and re-seen — especially by us, humanity, MAN.
Extras: Both DVD and Blu-ray versions; Introduction by Diane Disney Miller; Deleted scenes; Deleted song; Inside Walt’s Story Meetings; Game; Interactive galleries; Disneypedia: Bambi’s Forest Friends.
PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SET
Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy (Three Stars)
U.S.: Gore Verbinski, 2003-2008 (Walt Disney)
Avast, ye lubbers! Here are three salty-dog adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp at his most playfully anti-heroic), on the high seas and in the Caribbean colonial digs, battling it out with stuffy snobs and nabobs (Jonathan Pryce, at his most playfully icky), ghostly buccaneers (led by Geoffrey Rush, at his most playfully villainous), and incidentally aiding two not exactly star-crossed lovers, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom. (Actually they’re more like stardom-blessed lovers).
I didn’t much like the first of these movies, I enjoyed the second, and I would have enjoyed the third, if writing about it hadn’t been such a horrible experience, if a group of bloodthirsty pirates hadn’t attacked and boarded me old ship, maties, and made many of my old friends (and many of the best of them) walk the plank, and then sent the ship on an orgy of brutal high jinks, inane new navigation charts, sadistic abuse, inhuman and ruthless cutting and slashing, and gross dim-witted piratical revelry that made the place a living if sometimes outrageously comic Hell.
Soon the once proud old tall ship started sinking, sinking…But the word is that on spooky moonlit Caribbean nights, you can see that high-masted old vessel, its sails in tatters, its poopdeck in ruins, still drifting forlornly on cold dark waves, and you can hear, ever so faintly, wild mad laughter and the distant ghostly voices of that pirate crew, singing of fifteen execs on a dead man‘s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of (very expensive) rum, of the joys of bankruptcy, of looted pension funds and of grave-dancing grave-robbers from Hell.
Avast, ye lubbers! Keelhaul the swabs! It’s too bad Errol Flynn wasn’t there to retake the ship.
Enough of horror stories. Actually, in the old days, when I lived in Los Angeles, and used to visit the original Anaheim Disneyland regularly, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” boat trip was my absolute favorite. (I suppose that stamps me as lowbrow and somewhat lower-class. So be it. Ya swabs.) The movies, which came later (which were, in fact, inspired by the Ride) are pale reflections of the wondrous ultimate 3D spectacle of that boat trip itself — a masterpiece of theme park grandeur that sends you cruising through the waves and an inky Caribbean night, with pirate automatons (smarter than the ones I knew) attacking ships, stealing treasure and then wine-wenching-and-wassailing it in their orgiastic pirate haunts. I made sure we took the ride every time we were there. The movies aren’t as good, although they do offer Depp in his best Keith Richards impersonation, as Jumping Jack Sparrow. And you can play these in your living room, without getting wet or running the risk of being lashed to the mast or slashed by a cutlass.
Speaking of Flynn, since it’s obvious that Michael Curtiz‘s classic 1935 Captain Blood lies partly behind this Pirate trilogy (and the pirate ride before it) , and since TCM/Warners recently re-released “Blood” on a Flynn box with The Sea Hawk and the dry land swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood, you should know that the Flynn box is cheaper, and a better box than this — though less of a high tech wonder. But high tech isn’t everything, especially on the high seas.
Includes: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (U.S.: Gore Verbinski, 2003) (Two and a half Stars) Captain Jack starts chasing spooks and ships. With Depp, Rush, Bloom, Knightley, Pryce.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (U.S.: Gore Verbinski, 2007) Three Stars.
Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) climbs on board. With the above cast, plus Nighy and Stellan Skarsgard.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (U.S.: Gore Verbinski, 2008) Three Stars.
More sea battles: a wearing experience for some, fun for others. With the above casts, plus Chow Yun Fat, and, as Jack’s dad, the great Keith Richards. (“Good to be in the Caribbean! Good to be anywhere!”)
Extras: Featurettes; Blooper reel, game, Interactive tour.OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVD RELEASES
OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVD RELEASES
Faster (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: George Tillman, Jr., 2010 (CBS Films)
DRIVER. COP. KILLER.
Those three stark titles flash over the grim visages and grimmer physiognomies of the unholy trio of main characters in Faster — stamping them on our consciousness just like the iconic intros for Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (Waaa-wa-wa!) Here, they’re the nicknames for three deadly foes in the new road-runner neo-noir thriller Faster: Three murderous players spinning around a race track of death, hatred and revenge, in a vintage 1970 black Chevy Chevelle (Driver’s), a Bakersfield police car (Cop‘s) and a Ferrari (Killer‘s). The fast. The faster. The fastest. The Good. The Bad. And The Ugly.
Cast as the threesome in this visually snazzy but whacked-out neo-noir, are three actors trapped in parts that expose them to constant danger, frequent ridicule and sometimes make no sense at all. Dwayne Johnson is Driver, the ex-con on a mission from Hell. Billy Bob Thornton is Cop, the dissolute, disheveled fuzz who’s on the case and on the skids. And Oliver Jackson-Cohen is Killer, a stylish Brit hit man who looks a bit like Jake Gyllenhaal and does yoga.
Or should we get into the terse, monosyllabic spirit of things encouraged by writers Tony and Joe Gayton (The Salton Sea) and director George Tillman, Jr., (Soul Food), recall Johnson’s superstar wrestler heyday and I.D. them as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Billy “The Bob” Thornton and Oliver “The Jackson” Cohen?
The Rock, The Bob. The Jackson. Driver will kill you, Cop will collar you. Killer will teach you the lotus position.
According to Faster — a sometimes exciting, sometimes really silly thriller that would like to be the new Point Blank, The Driver or Kill Bill, but can‘t quite make it into third gear — this deadly trio of characters are three existential pawns in a wild game of murder, revenge and redemption, waged on the bloody streets, oily oil fields and desolate deserts of Bakersfield.
The Rock’s Driver is on a mad, monomaniacal revenge spree after being sprung from a ten year prison sentence. The Bob’s Cop is Loser Number One, it seems: a slovenly, unshaven detective, with parenting problems, a skeptical partner, Cicero (played by Carla Gugino), a heroin habit, and — always a danger sign — only weeks to go until retirement.
And the Jackson’s Killer is a retired financial whiz, and self-improvement nut who takes on assassinations for a lark, has been hired to whack Driver by one of his potential victims, but has promised his supermodel-looking girlfriend, Lily (Maggie Grace), that he’ll settle down to smell the roses and all the good things in life — great sex, target practice, financial chicanery, and yoga — after this one last job (another danger sign).
Oh, I forgot the other lead characters: the cars. Or CARS. They’re pretty damned important here too, especially that constant scene-stealer, the Chevy Chevelle that Driver uses to do 180 degree skid turns, speed against the traffic flow, and outrace other muscle cars while in reverse.
Driver loves to drive, sometimes in the wrong lane. But mostly he‘s hell-bent on revenge, from the moment at the beginning when he marches down the cell block floor, sneers at the Warden’s (Tom Berenger) good wishes, races to a local junkyard, pops into the Chevy, gets a list of his enemies and stoolies and betrayers from a crooked investigator and starts wreaking havoc on all the murderous vermin who double-crossed him in a heist job. On the slime beyond slime and the scum beneath scum who killed his brother and got Driver sent off to prison where he apparently became a millionaire, selling contraband cigarettes or porn or advertising or something. (Maybe it was bootleg DVDs of Point Blank and Escape from Alcatraz.) .
Like Lee Marvin‘s Walker in Point Blank (called Parker in Richard Stark/Donald Westlake’s original novel, “The Hunter“) Driver wants to find the rats who screwed him. But, unlike Walker (who’ll settle for his money) Driver won’t stop until each one of them suffers and dies, in as photogenic a way as possible. Telemarketer. Dirty Old Man. Bathroom Thug. And all the rest, including Evangelist (Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje), screaming for mercy and supplying the author’s message. (I shouldn’t josh. That was the best scene in the movie.)
END OF SPOILER
Faster, well-photographed by Michael Grady, tries for a neo-noir-gone-Leone kick. But it’s undermined by its own would-be heartfelt sleaze factor. Billy Bob is always pretty good (though I wish he’d use a French or German accent some time) and he manages to keep a straight face here (it must have been hard), despite playing a Cop who has survived even though he shoots up in johns, comes to work unshaven and in need of a fix and has trouble getting his kid to Little League games.
Johnson plays Driver with few words, the usual ripped physique, a constant glower, and lots of hammerlock charisma. Hell, it’s a better part than Tooth Fairy.
Jackson-Cohen — whose Killer calls his therapist between hits — is sometimes upstaged by his own cell-phone, whose ring tone is, you guessed it, the Ennio Morricone title theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
One thing bewildered me, and has bewildered others. How can Driver — a six foot plus bald muscle-bound hunk of a hulk, scowling and marching around like The Terminator with an upset stomach — keep whizzing around the town, blasting victims before surveillance cameras, killing people right and left, have his mug shot plastered everywhere on TV as Suspect No. One in a crime wave, constantly engage in high speed chases and massive traffic violations everywhere, and yet never seem to get fingered by the public or a stray cop? Is everyone in Bakersfield on heroin?
Despite myself, I enjoyed part of this. I like it sometimes when the slime beyond slime gets iced on screen. And this movie, for all its sadistic folderol, has a smidgen of humanity. I liked Tillman‘s Soul Food,” a good-hearted ensemble family movie, and I appreciated the occasional humanity Tillman tried to mix in with the standard brutality and melodrama here.
But one of the reasons film noir became so classic, is that the writing and the original stories back in the ‘40s were often so damned good. Hammett. Cain. Chandler. Woolrich. Hughes. Hecht. Polonsky. Huston. Thompson. Most of the ‘70s neo-noirs were well-written too. (Hard to beat Bob Towne‘s Chinatown.) But, script-wise, it’s been a crapshoot since the ‘70s, and that’s a word I’d apply here too. Crap. Shoot.
The scripts for the post-70s neo-noirs are sometimes absurd and often have happy endings. (A lot of the classic noirs did too, but darker is always better.) I won’t tip the hue here. I don’t want spoil any (absurd) surprises. Unfortunately, Faster is nowhere more absurd than it is at the finish, when it springs three twists so preposterous, you almost wish they had opted instead for, oh I dunno, having the three guys make nice and decide to open up a yoga school together instead. Called “The Good, the Bad and The Ugly: Yoga Masters.”
Love that Chevy Chevelle though. Does it really steer that well in reverse?
Burlesque (Two Stars)
U.S.: Steve Antin, 2010 (Screen Gems)
This is one of those “Oh, My God!“ movies. (Excuse me, “Oh my Gosh!“) Even if you don’t say it out loud, you’ll be thinking it every ten minutes or so, maybe every five minutes.
Steve Antin wrote and directed. (Wrote? Directed?) Christina Aguilera is Ali, from Iowa, a girl with a dream. She makes it to L. A. (Oh, my God.) She gets robbed. She finds the Gosh-darnedest place I ever saw allegedly in Hollywood — and I used to live there. It’s a show bar called “Burlesque,“ modeled on Cabaret and Chicago, with that great “Cabaret” alum emcee Alan Cumming as a greeter. He‘ll be wasted here, and I don’t mean on booze or coke.
Up on stage, somewhere in Hollywood (or maybe in Oz), there are barely dressed sexy girl dancers, without poles, lip-synching songs. Cher is up there as owner Tess, lip-synching Cher (herself), in a pretty good tune called “Welcome to Burlesque” (the last time I had any hope for the movie). Soon we find that the club is full of sort-of striptease dancers who wear elaborate costumes, and lip-synch to, say, Marilyn Monroe’s great “Diamonds are a Girl‘s Best Friend” number and other classics, while sort of stripping. Everybody seems to have a number except Cumming, who doesn’t strip and who maybe couldn’t clear the “Cabaret” rights. (Oh, my God.)
Ali watches. She is entranced. (Oh, my God!) She wants to sing, to dance, to take it all off (or maybe put it all on) — which she did back in Iowa in the first scenes, all by herself, in a deserted bar. Tess is skeptical. (Why? Ali sings great.) But Ali, indomitable, just picks up a tray and just starts waitressing and gets hired. Meanwhile Tucci, as Sean the dresser/cohort/“Burlesque” jack-of-all-trades (especially rough), deals out snappy patter while zipping everyone up. Or down. For a brief fleeting minute or so way back when, he was a heterosexual and once even bedded Tess, who still loves him. (Oh, my Gosh!)
Ali still has no home. Never fear. To the rescue comes cutie-pie bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet, trying to Brad Pitt it up). Jack offers his digs, recently vacated by his fiancée. Ali moves in, takes the couch. They don’t sleep together. (Oh, my God!) Somebody is about to foreclose a mortgage on Burlesque, and the evil studly rich guy Marcus (Eric Dane) wants to buy the place, put up condos. He also wants to sleep with Ali and he dates her up and takes her to his swanky digs in the hills, but she’s too busy occupying the couch and not sleeping with Jack. (Oh my gosh and golly!)
One fateful night, another dancer tries to sabotage Ali‘s lip-synch act, but Ali saves the day by actually singing. She sounds just like Christina Aguilera! She becomes a smash hit! (Oh, my God!) Tess, inspired, throws together a new show , with live singing and the house band, in about a day. (Oh, my God!) It’s hit after hit, smash after smash, though there’s not much room in the club, and they chopped up Alan’s one song. But the editors put Ali on the cover of the L. A. Times Calendar section anyway, a venue so prestigious and exclusive they once nixed a cover pic of Robert Altman for a location story on The Player. (I swear.)
Despite this howling success, the mortgage is still due. Ali is still on Jack’s couch. Marcus is still hot to trot and he‘s furrowing his brow and bragging about his millions and his philanthropy. Tess’s old partner throws a drunken fit. Tess yells “I don’t want to put any more tequila on your cornflakes!“ (Savor that line; It’s the best they’ve got.) But one other fateful night, Jack puts on red jammies with little white things, does a strip for Ali, and holds a box of Famous Amos cookies over his thingie. (Oh, My God!)
Well, you get the drift. So, if you want to see this, go ahead. As Mad Magazine used to say all the time, “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.“ (Or words to that effect.)
The music is by Christophe Beck. The songs are all pretty good (though I‘d like more Cher), but not worth suffering through the rest for. Wait for the DVD, so you can just play the songs and skip the drama, the comedy, the mortgage foreclosure, the tequila and cornflakes, Tucci’s zipper technique and Jack‘s red jammies. And Jack’s hidden thingie.(Oh my God!) As they say in Chinatown, I’m doing you a favor — and that’s even if you love Cher, Christina, Tucci and Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. Lip-synched. (Oh, my God!)
Extras: Commentary by director-writer Steve Antin; Alternate opening; Alternate musical numbers; Blooper reel.