Posts Tagged ‘Jake Gyllenhaal’
CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: NEW
Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Alex Gibney, 2010 (Magnolia)
If you don’t watch this movie before the next election, you’ve got only yourself to blame.
Alex Gibney‘s Casino Jack and the United States of Money is the amazing, genuinely scary and totally sobering story of Jack Abramoff, the supreme Republican lobbyist/dealmaker/moneyman, and also the poster child for a decade crazed by greed and contemptuous of rules, regulations and the problems of the common man and woman.
Abramoff, the one time president of the college Young Republicans was one of the group of young Turk collegiate conservatives from the ‘70s, a cadre of hard-driving ideological creeps who included Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed. In the ‘90s, Abramoff became a lobbyist and made himself into a direct pipeline to the fabled G. O.P. minority whip Tom DeLay (known as “The Hammer” because of his famous cudgel-wielding, bashing people skills in congress) and other powerful Republican congressional leaders. These were cynical legislators who got hefty campaign contributions and, quid pro quo, did favors, or acted favorably, or passed the right kind of laws for the right kind of money.
Jack was quite a guy, quite a salesman. In high school in Los Angeles, he was a football and wrestling star. Then he underwent, supposedly, a religious conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox? Jack loved politics, loved money, loved the high life, loved movies. When told about this one being made, he suggested that director Alex Gibney (an Oscar winner), not make a boring old documentary, but instead make a snazzy action movie, because that’s where the money is. Jack even produced an actioner himself, a pile of ludicrous Rambo knockoff garbage called Red Scorpion (1989), starring Dolph Lundgren as a hunky Russian officer pursuing African rebels.
But Jack’s movie career faltered (Thank God!), and he turned his talents to lobbying the Gingrich and Bush congresses instead. Jack still knew where the money was. Supposedly a devout Jew, he joined forces with other alleged men of God like the Christian Coalition’s cutie-pie guerilla fighter Reed — all of whom apparently missed that passage in the Bible where Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven. These guys all loved money just as much as Wall Street’s Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko, and were just as ruthless of acquisition. Especially Jack.
Peddling his access to DeLay and others, Jack charged huge fees to the government of the Mariana Islands (to get the government to ignore sweat shops), to several native American tribes including the Tiguas (for favorable legislation on their gambling casinos) and to many others. He bought a fleet of floating casinos off Miami and set up a dummy corporation called A. C. I. supposedly run by a local lifeguard, newly named prexy Dave Grosh (who admits on camera that he probably wasn‘t qualified to run an Arby‘s). It was really a cash conduit for Republican money.
A Golden Goose? Jack and his buddies, in imprudent emails, laughingly called their clients monkeys, assholes and fucking boy scouts and cursed them because the tribe didn’t come up with more moolah, even as the Abramoff Mob drained the Tiguas of 32 million dollars or more.
Meanwhile, it seems, almost the entire U.S. Congress was up for sale, throughout the Bush era, lots of Republicans and a few Democrats as well. And it was conscienceless influence peddlers like Jack, who funneled millions of dollars of campaign loot into the Right pockets, along with gaudy vacations and free eats (at Jack’s Washington D. C. restaurant Signatures) and sexy ladies and God knows what else. Finally, somebody blew a whistle and some others flipped, or maybe God got angry at all these money-mad poseurs, and the Washington Post’s Susan Schmidt (part of the mainstream liberal media Fox News keeps cursing out) wrote a story. The party crashed and Jack wound up in the slammer along with several others whom we meet here. But not Delay, who resigned in 2006. We last see “The Hammer” smiling devilishly and trying. somewhat grossly, to summon up memories of John Travolta while strutting lasciviously to the Troggs’ Wild Thing, on TV‘s Dancing with the Stars.
Gibney keeps the pace relentless, and the show constantly moving (as they say about those action movies Jack adored). It‘s also richly informative, often enthralling, and far more exciting than Red Scorpion could ever hope to be. And scary to boot. And funny, if not funnier than the Hammer swivel-hipping and finger-pointing his way through Wild Thing.
Listen, if, after watching Casino Jack, some of you still believe the Republicans are the party of God, or of prudent economics, or of the people, or that the government wasn‘t disgracefully and perpetually up for sale under Bush (whom we see in photos with Jack, both of them looking very happy), and that it probably won’t be again under the current G.O.P. or those so-called Tea Party insurgent populists, then you‘re pretty naïve. And if you can’t figure out why the economy crashed after other lobbyists for the financial institutions much like Jack helped deregulate the banks and money centers, turning them into huge non-floating casinos that almost sank, you‘re living in some kind of bizarre dreamland.
Here’s the awful thing: The new G.O.P. seems poised to take over Congress again, which would put these moolah-worshipping connivers and crooks back in power and back at the tables: deregulating, bashing the poor, soaking the middle class and sucking up to the rich — while adopting the well-worn Republican electoral strategy of trashing the Dem President (Obama this time), promising tax cuts, and accusing all their foes of being Commies or close.
Can you fool some of the people all the time? I hope not. Meanwhile, Jack is in jail. Where he belongs. Because after all, every game does have its rules. And I‘m sure the old Orthodox Jock has found God and Rambo again. Maybe he and Scanlon and the others will pass through that needle‘s eye yet. Not the Hammer though. He was born to dance.
Extras: Commentary by Gibney; Deleted Scenes; Extended Interviews; New York Premiere Q & A; Conversation with Gibney; Featurettes.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Three Stars)
U.S.; Werner Herzog, 2010 ( Industrial Entertainment)
After inspiring Nic Cage to heights of New Orleans rogue cop lunacy in Bad Lieutenant 2, Werner Herzog takes another dive into modern neo-noir, working with an executive producer, kindred spirit David Lynch, guaranteed not to hinder his wildest, most darkly Teutonic fancies. The film’s story, taken from life, follows a mad young actor (Michael Shannon), who becomes so caught up in his lead role of the matricide son in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, that he kills his own mother (Lynch favorite Grace Zabriskie), and then holds two hostages in a police standoff. (The identity of the hostages is one of the film‘s craziest japes.)
Thanks to the fusion of Lynch and writer/director Herzog (co-scripting with Herbert Golder), the movie is like a straight-faced Law and Order episode turned wacky nightmare. (Some of the craziest moments though, come from life.) The rest of the stellar cast, fit for any nightmare, includes Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena as the very serious, helpful cops, Brad Dourif as a racist uncle who breeds ostriches, Irma P. Hall as the matronly neighbor/witness, Udo Kier as the Oresteia‘s urbane German-accented director, and Chloe Sevigny as Shannon’s Greek Chorus girlfriend.
Mad-eyed killer Brad McCallum is a quintessential Michael Shannon role, of course. Oddly, his McCallum comes across like almost the only character in the movie who mostly isn’t playing a role, or being somehow theatrical. Shannon is terrifyingly true, consumed with turning his life into art and his art into life, which is naturally part of the film‘s main theme. The movie is quintessential Herzog too, even though it was shot in his new country, America and is saturated with nutty local color: the flamingos in the yard, the ostrich who swallows a watch and has it dug from its long throat, the stand-off pizza delivery through the police lines. The crazy ‘20s song played throughout the film, like the silly, sunny counterpoint to the killer’s twisted soul, is Washington Phillips’ I Am Born to Preach the Gospel.
My Son, My Son, is also filled with allusions to Herzog’s previous work; there are snippets recalling Even Dwarfs Started Small, Kaspar Hauser and Signs of Life and Aguirre and Fiztcarraldo are evoked by a Peruvian flashback shot at the Urubamba River. The whole mood is playful, surreal and deadpan naturalistic.
I had a very hard time with the story, of course. But critics who’ve suggested Herzog is slipping, or veering off into weirdo dreamland, or that Lynch on Herzog is like black on black (or white on white), aren‘t giving My Son, My Son credit for the highly personal and imaginative work it so obviously is. This show was certainly a breath of fresh strange air after most of the predictable crud that gets thrown at us. We should be glad that this great German filmmaker, like Fritz Lang before him, has emigrated to America to make movies with and for us, all his nightmares intact. (In American, with English subtitles.)
PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC
Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) (Four Stars)
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1959
Godard. A Bout de Souffle. A film. Out of breath. Breathless.
What’s it about? A guy named Michel Poiccard steals a car, drives from Marseilles to Paris, ecstatically sings of a girl named Patricia (Pa-Pa-Pa-Patricia!), finds a gun, shoots and kills a cop on the road, tries to cash an uncashable check, stares at and mimics a Bogart still in front of a cinema, finds Patricia hawking New York Herald Tribunes on the street, goes to her room, bandies with her about love, art, philosophy and William Faulkner (Between grief and nothing I will take grief, she quotes from The Wild Palms)…
…He smokes endless cigarettes, gets betrayed, runs, gets shot, dies. Deguelasse, Michel mutters with his last breath, staring and making faces at Patricia. I don’t know what it means,’ says Patricia. She turns away from the camera. Finis.
END OF SPOILER
That’s Breathless, the 1959 black-and-white Jean-Luc Godard French film classic that, like Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane — another masterpiece by a revolutionary cineaste still in his 20s — forever changed the ways we look at film. It changed also the way moviemakers shot movies and critics wrote about them, and perhaps changed a bit the ways we all look at life too.
There’s a key difference though. Welles made us all believe that, if you could get all the tools of the movie industry at your disposal, you could tell stories so magical and deep, dense and rich and multi-leveled, that they’d open up a whole new world. Godard made us believe that, if you’d seen enough movies and were passionate about what you liked, you could grab a camera, find some friends, walk out on the street, and just start shooting. You could ignore much of the old studio apparatus and routine — and make a movie not according to the industry rules and protocols, but right out of your own life and thoughts, tastes and feelings.
Welles was a greater artist than Godard, and Kane the greater movie, still the best of all time in my opinion. But Godard’s feat was probably the more revolutionary: the more empowering, liberating. Citizen Kane, as Godard’s friend (later sometime antagonist, and McCartney to his Lennon), François Truffaut once said, probably started more (studio) movie directors on their vocation than any other. But Breathless probably made more people everywhere actually believe they could make movies themselves, whether they worked in a studio or not. There were decades of independent and experimental films before Breathless. But this was the one that, like Kane for the studio movie, made it all look so easy, so effortless. Just walk down a street with a camera. With a gun. With a girl. Just shoot.
Of course it’s not true. Breathless is a very artful piece, and a product of the French film industry. It was made by a director deeply schooled in film history and tradition and technique, even if its celebrated jump cuts –jagged editing leaps within a continuous scene, a technique which prompted the Time reviewer to call Breathless a cubistic thriller — made Godard’s movie look deliberately ragged and choppy. (Actually, the jump cuts were accidental, providential, and not something Godard used all that much in his later films. Here, there was a reason. Godard had shot Breathless too long, needed to cut half an hour or more, and allegedly took his mentor/Breathless cast member Jean-Pierre Melville‘s advice not to cut whole scenes to shave off the extra time, but to cut within scenes. Thence: the jumps.)
Godard’s youthful stars Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg (Michel and Patricia) were not nonentities. Belmondo had made ten films before Breathless, including A Double Tour for Godard‘s buddy (and a Breathless technical advisor) Claude Chabrol. He‘d even starred as D‘Artagnan on a TV version of The Three Musketeers. J ean Seberg, while still in her teens, fresh out of Marshalltown Iowa, had made two big Hollywood movies for one of Godard’s favorite directors, Otto (Where the Sidewalk Ends) Preminger, starring in Preminger‘s versions of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan and Francois Sagan‘s novel “Bonjour Tristesse.” Even if they were both flops back then (and they look much better today) they were well-known, world famous flops.
So Godard wasn’t just walking out on the street with his Cahier du Cinema pals when he made Breathless. But there are as lot of his buddies and Cahier-ites involved in it — including not just Truffaut, Chabrol and Melville, and the brilliant young cinematographer Raoul Coutard, but future directors like Philippe De Broca, Jean-Louis Richard, Jean Douchet, Richard Balducci and Daniel Boulanger, who co-wrote De Broca’s King of Hearts and plays the dour cop chasing Michel, Inspector Vital.
Still, on screen Michel and Patricia do look like two good-looking kids who just wandered into the movie off the street. They’re perfect movie lovers, blasé on the surface, dark or heart-broken underneath. They don’t talk the old familiar movie talk. They talk about life and art and politics. They josh and joust with each other. Coutard’s camera drifts around them. They smoke. We never see them screw, but we know they have.
One of the most often-cited, often discussed scenes in Breathless simply shows them lazing around Patricia’s room, staring or jabbering away, under prints of works by Renoir and Picasso. They don’t seem like a crook/killer and his trollop. They seem like a couple of intellectuals or semi-intellectuals, or a small-time hustler and a rich girl slumming. They’re involved in a thriller plot, taken by Truffaut from a real-life crime story. But it’s as if they just wandered into the thriller, just as they wandered into Pa-Pa-Patricia’s apartment.
Existentialism and Monogram Pictures (the low-budget studio to which Godard dedicated Breathless) embrace in Breathless. It’s a movie fed by many other movies, even if it suggests something off the cuff, unwinding before us, caught in the machinery of chance. The presence of a gun in the glove compartment of the car Michel steals is utterly fortuitous, the murder (for all we can tell) almost an accident, something that just happened between two kids. Part of the love affair of a Bogie “Harder They Fall” guy and a Fallen Angel out of Where the Sidewalk Ends.
That’s the key to most of Godard’s films of the 60s, which is still regarded (rightly) as his greatest period. It’s a movie-lovers anti-movie, or counter-movie, a defiant act of rebellion by a director who knows the score and deliberately breaks the rules. Breathless came out shortly after Truffaut had revolutionized French film ina different way with his own great feature debut, The 400 Blows, the semi-autobiographical tale of a runaway movie-loving delinquent, named Antoine Doinel. And in a way, Breathless, made from the story Truffaut found, is Godard’s 400 Blows, his semi-autobiographical fantasy about a runaway movie-loving delinquent named Michel. It was also a huge hit, the biggest critical and commercial success of Godard’s career. He never had another smash like Breathless, though, by now, he‘s made almost a hundred films, including, among them, a dozen or so inarguable classics, films like Vivre sa Vie, Pierrot le Fou and Contempt.
He became a Marxist for a while, and a lot of cine-academics in the ‘70s argued that his (then) politics were a major part of what made him great — though Godard’s most blatantly political films, his essays and documentaries from the ’70s, are among his least effective, least memorable. Later, he got more rigorous, more poetic, better again. Breathless is still easily the most powerful political movie he ever made, the most heart-wrenching romance. It’s had thousands of children. But it still looks as fresh as it did in 1959, though now, new black-and-white film and film-making are almost gone. We look at Breathless today and we think: Anybody can do this. I can do this. Just find some friends. Find your heart. Find a camera. Just shoot. (In French, with English subtitles.)
Crumb (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Terry Zwigoff, 1995 (Criterion Collection)
Terry Zwigoff‘s unvarnished documentary about the great, scabrous, brilliant, hilariously low down American comic book artist Robert Crumb — and the other members of Crumb’s sometimes sadly dysfunctional, eccentric but genuinely artistic family – is a true Portrait of the artist as a Middle-Aged Man Who Never Grew Up. Crumb’s hippie-era comics — treasures of the high-’60s era that ranged from the wildly popular (and eventually movie-ized) Fritz the Cat and his other Zap Comix looloos, Mr. Natural, Projunior, and the Snoid from Sheboygan to his later, more politically correct work with wife Aline Komisky-Crumb — were the favorites of a generation, utilizing the tools of the past (the funny animal or urban roughneck clown style of the ’40s and ’50s — to satirically record the foibles of the ’60s.
Crumb’ was made by Zwigoff, Crumb’s friend and fellow jazz band mate in the old-school Cheap Suit Serenaders, and it’s a remarkable look at an era and one of its most popular outsiders, but also a scalding take on a troubled family: his brutal father, amphetamine-addicted mother and especially his older brother Charles, the cartoonist who didn’t make it. It’s a doozy.
Extras: Commentaries by Robert Crumb and Roger Ebert; Unused Footage; Booklet with essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Crumb family comix.
CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: BLU-RAY
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Four Stars)
U.S.-New Zealand: Peter Jackson, 2000 (New Line)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Four Stars)
U.S.-New Zealand: Peter Jackson, 2001 (New Line)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Four Stars)
U.S.-New Zealand: Peter Jackson, 2003 (New Line)
Being released now in single volumes, in Blu-Ray, these three masterful epics, taken together, were my choice for best film of the decade of the 2000s — the Tolkien three-act fantasy, faithfully and splendidly filmed.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s original trilogy of Lord of the Rings novels — written during World WarII when Tolkien was a classics professor, was conceived (and executed) as a single ongoing story. So was Peter Jackson’s spectacular movie version of Frodo’s quest adventure. The film was planned from the beginning as a single work, and not in the usual We-got-a-hit-So-let’s-make-another-one routine that marks even some great movie trilogies like The Godfather.
Whether taken as a unit or separately, the complete Rings is an extraordinary cinema achievement, the contemporary equivalent of both Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen Saga and the early Star Wars movies. It’s made so wondrously well from its source — a pseudo-Norse saga all about plucky little hobbit Frodo Baggins’ and his heroic troupe’s great quest for the magical ring swiped by Bilbo — that you’re never restive, never disengaged. You happily drink in all this movie’s glorious sights and sounds, even in the lengthened director’s cut version, which runs 721 minutes, or more than 12 hours. That‘s an epic!
Tolkien’s book is one of the most beloved fantasies of 20th century literature, a classic that deserves its cult. The movie, or movies, are worthy of the book. Here, thanks to the film trilogy’s prodigious length and the vast size of the production, Tolkien’s Rings gets the kind of rich, full-blooded cinematic adaptation all great literature deserves: full, faithful, lush, beautifully crafted, written and cast, brilliantly done, pulsing with narrative energy, gorgeous visuals and raging excitement. Jackson‘s Rings is scripted with the faithfulness usually accorded a superior British TV novel adaptation, and produced with the grand outsize technique of a big studio super hit-to-be (though its home was a smaller company, New Line.
It becomes a movie cycle to remember — starring Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Viggo Mortensen as Aragon, and Andy Serkis (plus CGI effects) as Gollum, backed by Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom, Sean Astin, Sean Bean and Bernard Hill. Even if you dislike Rings, it’s a movie that should impress the hell out of you — and remind you as you watch, of why we love the movies, and of all the grand, rich, interconnected possibilities of literature, art and cinema.
PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SET
TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Prohibition Era (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1930-1939 (TCM/Warner Bros.)
They rise. They fall. Three quintessential variations on the classic Warners gangster rise and fall tale, all packed with blood, guts, booze and gunfire, all starring Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or both. (Bogey sneaks into one of them as well.) You’re better off with the earlier Warners gangster sets, which are more complete, but this set’s a real treat for the budget-minded. Included:
- Little Caesar (U.S.: Mervyn LeRoy, 1930) Three and a Half Stars. From W. R. Burnett’s great, terse, hard-boiled novel about a Capone-like gangster’s rise and fall. with Edward G. Robinson superb as the bestial Rico, supported (maybe) by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Sidney Blackmer and Glenda Farrell. Try not to feel a chill when Robinson moans Mother of Mercy (or God), is this the end of Rico?
- The Public Enemy (U.S.: William Wellman, 1931). Four Stars. Cold as ice, hot as whiskey, hard as stone: another matchless hoodlum rise and fall epic with another starmaking performance: Cagney’s as the feral thug Tom Powers. Donald Cook plays Tom’s Brother. (Cook was the original star, and Cagney had the brother role, but they switched parts.) With hot blonde babes Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell and the movies’ most famous grapefruit victim Mae Clarke. What an ending this one has!
- Smart Money (Alfred E. Green, 1931) (Two and a Half Stars) Robinson is a naturally lucky, brash barber/gambler who gets fleeced by the city slickers and smashes the card-sharps back in a milder, funnier version of the Little Caesar rise and fall story. Cagney, in an amazingly physical and balletic turn, is his tough sidekick/brother. (It’s their only pairing.)
- The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939). (Four Stars) Cagney and Bogart are WW1 army buddies who thrive and dive during Prohibition and its aftermath, which sees their boozy rise and violent fall. The rest of the salty Warners cast includes Jeffrey Lynn (as the straight arrow in the foxhole), Priscilla Lane (of the Lane Sisters), Gladys George and Cagney’s off-screen pal, Frank McHugh. This is Walsh at his best: tough fast, racy, deluxe storytelling. It’s top-chop Walsh-Warners too, with that great terrifying dance of death ending. Extras: Commentaries; documentaries; vintage short subjects, newsreels and cartoons; trailers.
OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVD RELEASES
Prince of Persia (Three Stars)
U.S.; Mike Newell, 2010
Prince of Persia, which is probably one of the best-looking Arabian fantasy movies ever, is also unfortunately, a movie based on a video game. And its ambiance and narrative structure is video-gamey all the way: The original story here is actually by the writer who scripted the game, Jordan Mechner.
The results, amazingly, aren’t as shallow as you might expect, though they are dramatically and psychologically thin. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer reportedly lavished 150 million dollars or so on the project, and after all, he’s the guy who based three smash hit movies (with more to come) on the Disneyland theme park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean. I’d be surprised if he didn’t make a lot of money on this one too. But if you walk into the show demanding anything more than a 150 million dollar video game movie, you’re probably going to be sadly disappointed.
Prince of Persia — in which Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Dastan the adopted prince, battling traitors and snakes, wooing the beauteous Princess Tamina and trying to keep his hands on the fabled Dagger of Time — is a movie that never lacks for something impressive to look at: a stunning composition by director Mike Newell and cinematographer John Seale, or an iridescent vision of old Persia (Iran) by production designer Wolf Kroeger, or some snazzy editing by Mick Audsley, Michael Kahn and Martin Walsh, or some fabulous ersatz stunts choreographed by French parkour inventor David Belle, or some breathtaking shots of the Moroccan deserts, dune after dune stretching away like some sandy, surreal panoramic tapestry.
But the movie had only one memorable performance, with a few funny lines, and that’s from Alfred Molina, Peter-Ustinoving it up as the secondary character, Sheik Amar. The Sheik is an ostrich race entrepreneur who helps Dastan of Nasaf — as he and Princess Tamina of Alamut (Gemma Atherton), try to rescue their respective kingdoms from the nefarious designs of the wily Nizam (Ben Kingsley, slumming again), brother to the late King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), and evil uncle to Dastan, gullible throne successor Tus (Richard Coyle) and vain general Garson (Toby Kebbell). Also around: steadfast warrior Seso (Steve Toussaint) and the infernally murderous Hassansin, bossed by their spectral-looking leader (Gisli Orn Garbarsson).
These are the kind of characters you’d expect to see in a video game — except for Sheik Amar who, unlike his ostriches, has precious few martial arts kick-ass skills. And they all, Tamina included, do a lot of bashing and back-flipping and scimitar-waving and throat-cutting and poisoned-cloakwork, so much so that you almost expect to see each fresh corpse vanish in a little video game pling when they’re bopped.
The characters don’t really speak to each other. They breathlessly exhort or expound on some new dastardly deed or invention. Meanwhile, the Hassansin are constantly lurking around, adopting menacing postures and conniving with Nizam. The only real surprise comes when Sheik Amar laments that his star ostrich, deprived of combat and the company of other ostriches, has become suicidal. (Unfortunately the moviemakers don’t give the ostrich a big ledge-standing suicide scene, followed by a little parkour. With these CGI experts, I bet it would have been sensational.)
Gyllenhaal has been suitably muscled up for his role, and stripped down and given lots of opportunities to show it off. But he doesn’t look really comfortable in the part. Arterton probably should have been allowed to be even sexier; after all, this isn‘t Omar Khayyam‘s Rubaiyat. Nor does the flood of exhortations in the dialogue, delivered in the high sharp tones of the British Parliament savaging each other in the House, seem to be fully stretching or satisfying Gyllenhaal or Arterton, or anybody else.
As for Kingsley, he’s a good sport about everything, including the sword fights with Gyllenhaal. And they reward all by giving Kingsley, Gyllenhaal and Atherton a reprise of the last cliff-hanger in North by Northwest, with Sir Ben copying Martin Landau, stomping on Cary Grant as he held Eva Marie Saint. (This time, Nizam stomps Dastan as he holds Tamina suspended above a fiery abyss.) Hitchcock did it better, which is no surprise.
Speaking of directors, the estimable Mike Newell has now, it seems, solidly moved into blockbuster-land, though I like him much better with medium or lower budgets, as in Four Weddings and a Funeral, An Awfully Big Adventure, the marvelous Enchanted April, Into the West and Donnie Brasco. I hope he returns to them.
Watching Prince of Persia, you’re always tempted to review the budget. But then, the budget (reportedly around 150 million) and the lavish techniques, materials and big stars bought by it are among the main reasons for watching this show. There’s plenty of meaty Arabian or pseudo-Arabian fantasy literature that could have been tackled at less than half the cost here — including Haji Baba, the original Arabian Nights, or even another Thief of Baghdad. And plenty of good roles for lots of good actors to play in them.
Is it quibbling again to complain that Bruckheimer and his screenwriters — Boaz Yakin (Fresh), and Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard (The Uninvited) — should have been inspired by more for their money than a popular video game? Maybe. But I still kept expecting to feel that pling as I played — that is, as I watched — Prince of Persia.
Just Wright (Two Stars)
U.S.; Sanaa Hanri, 2010
Anyone for another NBA championship series?
While you’re waiting, the movies have their own version of the NBA, as perhaps influenced by Desperate Housewives, Tyler Perry and the Duke Wayne-Dan Dailey spine rehabilitation scenes in The Wings of Eagles (“I‘m gonna move that toe!”)
The big news here though is that Queen Latifah, under the tutelage of director Sanaa Hanri, here assays her first major super-romantic lead role. She plays Leslie Wright, a primo New Jersey Net fan and ace physical therapist whose unreasonably gorgeous best friend Morgan Alexander (Paula Patton), steals away Nets superstar guard Scott McKnight (played by rapper Common, the artist once known as Common Sense), and then dumps him before the wedding after he tears up his knee.
Guess which bounteously beautiful physical therapist is ready to move into Scott’s mansion and get his knee all primed and ready for the crucial last game of the Nets-Orlando series? (I’ll give you a hint: It isn’t Dan Dailey.)
Guess who wins the series, despite the actual on-screen presence of Orlando‘s Dwayne Wade? (Not to mention, in that game and others, themselves roles by Dwight Howard, Jalen Rose, Marv Albert, Kenny Smith, Elton Brand, and, at a jazz club, Terence Blanchard.) Guess which outrageously rehabilitated guard both Wade and Kobe Bryant should fear more than Hell itself? Guess which physical therapist is now the subject of a bidding war between every NBA team shamelessly willing to get mention in a Queen Latifah film? Guess who has the hots for whom?
END OF SPOILER
There hasn’t been a sports movie like this since Tooth Fairy.
Meanwhile, the big question remains: Is Queen Latifah a plausible romantic movie leading lady? The answer: Of course she is. As long as the moviemakers, for the love scenes, supply a good queen-size bed.
A bigger question: Is Common, at 6’1 ½, a plausible superstar all-star NBA point guard? Capable of getting 16 rebounds in a single game? Well, Common drops through as lot of shots here. And he even looks a little like previous Nets superstar guard Jason Kidd. And he’s a pretty good actor. But…
Lost in Space (Blu-ray) Two Stars
U.S.; Stephen Hopkins, 1998 (New Line)
Danger, Will Robinson! Another beloved ‘60’s-’70s TV series, turned into another lumbering mega-million dreadnought of a movie. Gary Oldman, William Hurt, Mimi Rogers and Heather Graham take over for Jonathan Hale, Guy Williams, June Lockhart and the others, who at least get interview time in a good Extras package. But listen, if you buy something like this, you deserve what you get.
Extras: Commentaries by director Hopkins, writer Akiva Goldsman, producer Carla Fry and some main
technicians; Additional Scenes; Featurettes; Music Video; Interviews with the T.V. cast; trailer
James and the Giant Peach (2 Disc Blu-ray DVD Combo) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Henry Selick, 1996 (Walt Disney)
British writer Roald Dahl started out was a specialist in the adult and macabre, crafting witty little literary gems of crime, sex and suspense for class markets. (Playboy often ran them, and Alfred Hitchcock often adapted them for his TV show.) Then he switched to children’s stories, jettisoning the sex, adding more whimsy and fantasy to the suspense, and coming up with modern classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (filmed twice, first by Gene “Willy Wonka” Wilder and later by Tim Burton), and this juicy little tale of voyage and adventure, filmed by Burton (the producer) and Henry Selick: the team behind The Nightmare Before Christmas.
It’s an odd, sophisticated, beguilingly weird and somewhat creepy tale of an orphan boy named James (Paul Terry)* who escapes from his two awful aunts, Sponge and Spiker (Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley), when a giant peach shows up, and grows up, on their coastal hillside home, filled with genial giant talking bugs, and then sails off toward New York City, land of James’s dreams.
The film, done in Selick‘s sprightly stop-motion animation style, begins somewhat murkily and nightmarishly, then really takes off when the boy and the bugs sail away. The look is bewitching and the cast is swell: including Susan Sarandon (see below, with Tim Robbins) as the seductive Spider, Simon Callow as the posh-voiced Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as the streetwise Centipede, Jane Leeves as the matronly Ladybug, and David Thewlis as the Naked earthworm. Dahl’s stories are for children of course. But, like Edward Gorey‘s, they probably have their strongest admirers among adults. Here‘s an example. Extras: Featurette, Music Video, Trailer. * No relation to the cartoonist of Terrytoons.
Se7en (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.; David Fincher, 1995 (New Line)
A serial killer well-versed in the Bible (Kevin Spacey, at his most insolent), plagues L. A. with one of those Ellery Queen-style elaborate Ten Day’s Wonder plans. Pursuing him are cops Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman; Gwyneth Paltrow is the perfect wife. One of the most highly admired modern neo-noirs, Se7en certainly has high-style visuals and quite a cast. But I’ve always found the plot and the climax a stretch. Extras: Commentaries, Featurettes.
OTHER CURRENT OR RECENT BOX SETS
Deanna Durbin: The Music and Romance Collection (Five Discs) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Various Directors, 1938-48 (Universal)
In 1936, MGM put two teenage girl singers together in a short called Every Sunday — and let them
sing it our to see whom the studio would keep. In a way, the girls, who both had incredible pipes and rare talent, were Edna Mae Durbin (15) of Winnipeg, who’d become Deanna Durbin and Frances Gumm (14) of Minnesota, who was now Judy Garland. Deanna sang it sweet and classical, Judy sang it hot and jazzy, and Judy won the first round. MGM released Durbin, who got picked up by Universal and producer Joe Pasternak, and, that same year, starred in her first feature, Three Smart Girls, a huge hit that saved the whole studio. Judy was worked hard at MGM (some say worked to death), but she had to wait until 1939 for her legend to start with The Wizard of Oz.
Meanwhile, the teen princess Deanna was Universal’s biggest female star and she made a string of movies for Pasternak, and became a national darling. (She also sang regularly on Eddie Cantor‘s radio show.) Her classic character sang beautifully, often doing showcase works from opera, and she was unusually bright, quick-minded, energetic and resourceful. No ingénue naiveté for Deanna. She stayed a Smart Girl in almost all her movies, and costarred with classical maestro Leopold Stokowski in One Hundred men and a Girl. Her movie image may have been the brainiest and sharpest of all Hollywood musical female stars. Durbin herself sarcastically called her standard role, Little Miss Fix-it. and when she was a teenager, she often played matchmaker for the adults and elders around her.
She was an international darling too, the favorite Hollywood actress of both WW2 statesman/hero Winston Churchill (who regularly requested and got special pre-release screenings of her movies), and of legendary Holocaust victim/diarist Anne Frank who had two Durbin pictures on the wall of her hideout. Durbin remains today, according to polls, England’s favorite Golden Age Hollywood star.
I mention all this with some chagrin, because, up until I saw this set, Deanna Durbin was mostly an unknown quantity for me. I’d only seen her a handful of times, including her contest with Judy in Every Sunday, and that’s perhaps because she rarely worked for the auteur directors I followed. Robert Siodmak and Frank Borzage were on that short list, but she just missed a chance with Jean Renoir, who agreed to direct her, screened most of her films, liked her. (Renoir says the best Durbin movies were directed by Henry Koster of Three Smart Girls).
She‘s wonderful. You can tell why she meant so much to Churchill during the blitz, and to little Anne Frank hiding in her attic. Deanna Durbin projects such a fine, high, ultra-quick intelligence, such spark and verve and unstuck sweetness and unegoistic natural youthful beauty, that it’s inspiring to watch her. More than Judy, she was an ideal fantasy figure/role model for young girls, someone who (very believably) had everything in control, no matter what Hollywood complication was thrown into the works.
When Durbin quit after 1948, and moved to France, it was her own choice. She’d kept asking Universal for better scripts, better projects, and she mostly hadn’t gotten them. And it was final. The producers offered her the stage role of Laurie in the original Oklahoma. Alan Jay Lerner begged her to play Liza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. She turned them both down. She turned everybody down, including all (but one) request for an interview, in all those years. She said she wanted to be a nobody. (But she never will be, as long as film exists). She‘s still alive, somewhere in France.
These aren’t great movies, and only the Koster entry, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, is really beautifully and smartly directed. But she’s great. It’s moving to watch her still — charming everybody, knocking out her elders with her agile pure voice, fixing it all up so neatly, so sweetly, playing the kind of American princess all the world loves.
In a way, both of those competing teen girls won on that long ago 1936 Sunday: little hot jazzbo Frances and little sweet classical Edna Mae. And, in a more complex way, they both lost. But we won. Includes:
- Mad About Music (U.S.; Norman Taurog, 1938). Three Stars. Impish, high-spirited Deanna, hidden away at a Swiss girls’ school, is the unacknowledged daughter of Hollywood star Gail Patrick; she persuades composer Herbert Marshall (suavest of the suave) to impersonate her father. Nonsense, but likable. With Bill Frawley, Arthur Treacher and Franklin Pangborn.
- That Certain Age (U.S.; Edward Ludwig, 1938) Three Stars. Part of it is a Babes in Arms let’s-put-it-on-in-the-guesthouse-kids musical with Jackie Cooper as her beau. Part of it is a sort-of-romance, with her teen heart leaping as she rides a bike with Melvyn Douglas as a journalist on R. and R. Prime Durbin, though.
- Three Smart Girls Grow Up (U.S.; Henry Koster, 1939) Three Stars. This is quintessential Deanna Durbin, her top princess role, good Koster, and the sequel to the movie that made her a star and him a Hollywood director. Back with her two sisters, Deanna match-makes and gets into scrapes with fellow musician Bob Cummings. In many ways, a perfect Durbin star vehicle — and the opening long-tracking-shot credits and party scene actually look a bit like Max Ophuls, slumming. (That‘s a high compliment.)
- Because of Him (U.S.; Richard Wallace, 1946) Two and a Half Stars. A weird role for Durbin — a scheming, flirtatious Broadway hopeful, manipulating a tabloid scandal and trying to con both stage star Charles Laughton and playwright Franchot Tone into giving her a part. Silly script, but the cast works wonders with it.
- For the Love of Mary (U.S.; Frederick De Cordova, 1948). One and a Half Stars. Deanna is a fetching D. C. switchboard operator who ties up the town, is pursued by Edmond O’Brien, Don Taylor and Jeffrey Lynn, gets romantic help and tips from the President (that would have been Harry Truman), and helps annex a new territory. Directed by Freddy De Cordova (Bedtime for Bonzo). Absolutely awful. Her last movie, and you can see her point. At least she sins. Extras: Robert Osborne TCM intros; Publicity graphics; TCM Articles and Bio.
The Agatha Christie Hour (Two Discs) (Three Stars)
U.K.; Various Directors, 1982 (Acorn Media)
Agatha Christie was my favorite writer when I was nine or ten, and she can still do it for me. These five hour-long teleplays, adapted by Freda Kelsall, William Corlett and T. R. Bowen and done in 1982 — in the dominant old-fashioned, set-bound but toney British TV style of the ‘70s and early ‘80s — come from early Christie, and they’re based on two stories featuring her secondary sleuth, Parker Pyne who bills himself as a happiness expert (here played by the very familiar, weaselly-looking character actor Maurice Denham), two more of her excellent menace-and-suspense tales, and one comic romp.
Christie, whose books outsell every author in history but The Bible’s and Shakespeare, was one of the all-time geniuses at sheer storytelling, and at crafting mystery and crime plots. She was also infallibly entertaining and terrific at character and dialogue. But there’s a different, poetic, eerie quality to some of her suspense and terror tales, here in The Fourth Man and In a Glass Darkly. As with Charles Dickens (and, for that matter, Shakespeare), all of her stuff is very movie and TV-friendly and they should keep adapting it.
I don’t necessarily agree with the late, great Japanese director Kon Ichikawa, a Christie fanatic who thought she deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I still enjoy reading her more than many writers who did. And they wouldn’t give the Nobel to Graham Greene, either. (All films are U.K. productions.) Includes:
- The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife (U.K.; Michael Simpson, 1982) Two and a Half Stars. Very offbeat for Christie: Mr. Happiness Fix-it Parker Pyne (Denham) gets a straying husband’s erotic motor for his wife running again.
- In a Glass Darkly (U.K.; Desmond Davis, 1982). Three and a Half Stars. Best of this set. At a country manor, with both a wedding and World War I approaching, man impulsive soldier-to-be (Nicholas Clay) has a vision in a mirror of a young bride-to-be, murdered by her husband. He wrecks the marriage, and then marries her after a traumatic tour in the war trenches. But was he himself the image in the glass? Really eerie and a crackerjack story, very well-directed by Desmond Davis, who made that memorable 1964 Rita Tushingham-Peter Finch movie, Girl With Green Eyes.
- The Girl in the Train (U.K.; Brian Farnham, 1982) Three Stars. A semi-Hitchcockian, Tommy-and-Tuppence sort of mystery-comedy spy movie, about a fired, irresponsible young man who gets plunged into romance and intrigue on a train. The Fourth Man (U.K.; Simpson, 1982). Three Stars. Three brilliant professional men on a train, luminaries in the Church, law and medicine, discuss a perplexing case of schizophrenia and suicide at a French girl’s school. A fourth man, a stranger, knows something they don’t. (The stranger is played by the younger John Nettles, later of Midsomer Murders, and you’ll barely recognize him.)
- The Case of the Discontented Soldier (U.K.; 1982). A discontented major (William Gaunt), back from Africa, avails himself of Parker Pyne‘s (Denham) expertise. Meanwhile, inheritance and buried treasure problems loom for a woman (Patricia Garwood) whom the major encounters.
Extras: Christie and Parker Pyne Bios.
DVD Wrap: Prince of Persia, Letters to Juliet, Killers, The Black Cauldron, Cemetery Junction, and more…Tuesday, September 14th, 2010
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: Blu-ray
In Hollywood’s Cathedral of Concepts, the Reverend Jerry Bruckheimer presided over the marriage of a beloved amusement-park attraction to the classic swashbuckler. Nine months later, the fruit of their union arrived in the form of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Other children would follow. At the same church, seven years later, Reverend Bruckheimer would unite a popular action-packed video game with a direct descendant of Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad, with the result being Prince of Persia: The Sand of Time. The couple is unsure as to the prospect of future progeny. Unlike the agreements, which, in the past, resulted in such movies as Captain Blood and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, here the unions were founded on dowries valued at $200-million and backed by in-laws at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Walt Disney Pictures. It was a steep price, but someone had to carry the load for generations to come. Like a champion thoroughbred at stud, POTC has already demonstrated its ability to deliver the goods and keep on producing offspring. Whether POP: TSOT will have siblings remains an open question.
It would be difficult to find a more entertaining way to kill a Saturday afternoon in the suburbs than to commit two hours of time to Prince of Persia. That it didn’t return quite the bang for the budgetary buck as POTC is a matter for concern primarily for Disney shareholders, headline writers at Variety and other Hollywood soothsayers. In it, a remarkably buff Jake Gyllenhaal plays Dastan, the adopted son of a Persian potentate whose murder causes a power vacuum within the desert kingdom. The king’s blood relatives hold Dastan responsible for the assassination, forcing the innocent prince to beat a hasty retreat into the sandy wilderness. There, he’s joined by princess/sorceress Tamina (Gemma Arterton), who covets the glass-handled dagger carried by Dastan. The weapon, it seems, can not only be used to eviscerate enemies, but also to manipulate time and all sorts of other demonic forces. As directed by the very capable Mike Newell (Harry Potter, Young Indiana Jones), Prince of Persia hardly leaves more than a minute or two for audiences to catch their breaths, as the action evolves from ordinary swordplay to potentially apocalyptic horror. In this regard, Newell’s grand adventure lives up to its advance billing and hype. The crucial difference between POP and POTC arguably can be laid at the feet of the audience’s investment in the plight of the heroes and their ultimate success at retaining what rightfully belongs to them. Considering that POTC was inspired by one of the most venerable rides in the Disney kingdom – indeed, it was the last attraction Uncle Walt would personally oversee – very little of the mythology had to be explained. The POP video game had more limited generational appeal and its commercial success was dependent on the public’s ability to withstand the overwhelming barrage of fights, captures, escapes and special effects. No matter how well Gyllenhaal and Arterton performed, a half-baked script ensured they would play second fiddle to the action. Alfred Molina and Ben Kingsley bring a palpable sense of menace to the proceedings, and Morocco’s sands are match for those of ancient Persia, but something barely palpable was missing. None of this should detract kids and their dads, mostly, from enjoying the Blu-ray presentation, which looks terrific and adds a deleted scene: The Banquet: Garsiv Presents Heads; the interactive, pop-up feature, CineExplore: The Sands of Time; and behind-the-scenes, An Unseen World: Making ‘Prince of Persia,’; and BD-Live functionality.
The Black Cauldron: 25th Anniversary Special Edition
Released in 1985, after more than a dozen years of preparation and almost constant re-conceptualization, The Black Cauldron represents a major transitional point in the history of Disney animation. Budgeted at a then-astronomical $25 million — a million for every title in the studios Animated Classics series — it was an unusually dark and foreboding adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s series of children’s fantasies drawn from Welsh mythology. So potentially disturbing was the imagery, in fact, that incoming animation czar Jeffrey Katzenberg eliminated entire scenes before release, fearing the sword-and-sorcery epic might be dealt an R or PG-13 rating from the MPAA. As it was, Black Cauldron was the first animated feature to be released PG. (It can be argued that Bambi, at least, required more parental guidance than other G-rated entertainments, even by today’s standards.) An assistant pig-keeper named Taran, along with a band of misfit characters – including the oracular swine, Hen Wen — embarks on a quest to save mankind from the unholy forces pent up in the mysterious Black Cauldron. The cauldron is also coveted by the evil Horned King, who needs Hen Wen’s guidance if he is to possess the lands and riches of Prydain. It sounds pretty corny, but the visual effects delivered a powerful supernatural punch. The Black Cauldron was a huge disappointment commercially, a fact that could be blamed either on the PG rating or lingering effects of a creative slump at Disney. Katzenberg’s subsequent successes would soon make the film more of a footnote in studio history than a chapter onto itself. Among other things, though, The Black Cauldron is noteworthy today for its blend of old-school drawing styles and CGI technology, and for being the last film to be shot in Super Technirama 70. The anniversary edition adds a deleted scene, The Fairfolk and a Witches’ Challenge Game, while retaining a gallery of behind-the-scenes artwork and photos; the original theatrical trailer; a Quest for the Black Cauldron trivia game; and the 1952 Donald Duck cartoon, Trick or Treat.
Letters to Juliet: Blu-ray
Of all the love stories and rom-coms released in the last couple of years, I found Letters to Juliet to be the most appealing. Blessed with wonderful performances by Amanda Seyfried, Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Egan and Franco Nero – as well as good, if smaller turns by Oliver Platt and Gael Garcia Bernal – the nicely terraced, multi-generational romance is less interested in showcasing a flavor-of-the-month ingénue and terminally hip writing, than allowing a clever story to evolve at its own pace and the actors the luxury of looking natural on screen. Seyfried, one of the most versatile actresses of the current crop, plays a New York magazine writer who takes a pre-nuptial honeymoon with her chef fiancé, in Verona. While there, Sophie stumbles upon a group of women who retrieve and answer mail left for Juliet Capulet in the cracks in a wall in the courtyard where she and Romeo presumably exchanged pleasantries. One letter, found behind the brick façade, has been sitting there for several decades. Spellbound by its message of unrequited love, Sophie decides to track down the author and find out what happened to the star-crossed couple. As it turns out, Claire (Redgrave) is a wealthy widow, who, at this point in her life, wouldn’t at all mind an adventure. She accepts Sophie’s invitation to return to Verona – with her decidedly unromantic grandson in tow – to seek out the handsome Italian man whose path she crossed in her youth. All she can recall of her lost love, however, is that his name was Lorenzo Bartolini, and he once lived in a scenically wondrous section of Tuscany. The problem, of course, is that the local phone book is full of Lorenzo Bartolinis and none of them appear to be related. Sophie and Claire are up to the task, even if the handsome grandson isn’t. Given all that information, it should be possible for astute fans of the genre to guess one or two potential spoilers, at least, so I won’t ruin the surprise. Suffice it to say that director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30, Tadpole) takes full advantage of both the romantic and scenic landscapes, while refusing to condescend to the taste of 16-year-olds and those viewers who may never have read a sonnet by Shakespeare or, for that matter, anyone else. Because Bernal’s character is a successful chef, his tour of Verona includes tastings of splendid wines and mouth-watering pastas. If you aren’t hungry – or romantic — when you begin watching Letters, you will be by the time it’s over. So, be prepared. The extras include deleted and extended scenes; audio commentary with Winick and Seyfried; and featurettes on the making of Letters to Juliet and the actual courtyard in Verona.
If nothing else, the almost entirely humorless action rom-com, Killers, should prove once and for all that Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl simply can’t save a doomed theatrical film, alone or together. Neither possesses the physical presence or acting chops to hold an audience’s attention for more than a few minutes at a time, and their delivery of dialogue is pedestrian, at best. As likeable as they are on the small screen, very little of that chemistry translates to the megaplex. Here, Kutcher and Heigl are required to carry the weight of a script that is at once overly familiar and completely lacking in credibility. (That could apply, as well, to 90 percent of all of today’s rom-coms.) Kutcher plays Spencer, an ace assassin-for-hire who meets Heigl’s recently jilted Jen at an outdoor café in Nice, France. Naturally, Spencer keeps his profession a secret from his bride-to-be and her ultra-conservative parents (Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara). So smitten is Spencer that he agrees to hang up his assassin’s tools and move to suburban Atlanta, where he becomes a corporate consultant and Catherine is an accomplished computer tech. Fast forward three years, to when Spencer discovers there’s a $20 million reward on his head and the population of their hometown has grown exponentially with the presence of bounty hunters. They’re everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously, and Robert Luketic (The Ugly Truth) is required to turn his already slight domestic comedy into slapstick version of True Lies. The only spark of originality comes when Spencer agrees to go skeet shooting with his insufferably boastful father-in-law. The old man trash talks Spencer about his inability to shoot clay pigeons, until the young man lifts his shotgun imperceptibly and nonchalantly takes out a rapidly descending skeet a couple of feet above the ground. It blows Selleck’s mind and opens opportunities to familial intrigue left un-pursued by the director and writers. As it is, the assassins assigned to take out Spencer are far less capable – and entertaining – than the ones dispensed with by Inspector Clouseau. The Blu-ray edition adds deleted, extended and alternative scenes, a gag reel and the featurette, Killer Chemistry: Behind the Scenes with the Killers’ Cast. Nice looks nice in hi-def, too.
Cemetery Junction: Blu-ray
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant were the creative team behind the original BBC version of The Office, which, of course, inspired the hit NBC sitcom of the same title. They were responsible as well as HBO’s Extras and The Ricky Gervais Show, a re-creation of semi-animated radio chat show. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn their first theatrical feature, Cemetery Junction, was consigned to direct-to-DVD purgatory after the commercial collapse of last winter’s The Invention of Lying. Infinitely less complex than that overly cerebral comedy, Cemetery Junction is a straight-forward coming-of-age story, set in a working-class British burg in the early-‘70s. Inspired by Gervais’ hometown of Reading, Cemetery Junction is populated by people more influenced by post-war austerity than Carnaby Street and the Beatles. They are as dependent on the local factories for employment and retirement benefits, as they are on the local pubs for sustenance and camaraderie. Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government soon would rock these proud folks’ concept of security to the core, but, for now, they’re doing all right. Local lads Freddie, Snork and Bruce (Christian Cooke, Jack Doolan, Tom Hughes) have felt the youthquake and are dealing with the pop-cultural revolution in vastly different ways. Cemetery Junction clearly was inspired by American Graffiti in its portrayals of local kids at such a key juncture in their lives. Wisely, though, considering the setting, it also adds crucial information about the adults in the boys’ lives, including the local police. Although the movie didn’t enjoy great reviews in the UK, I found CT to be an extremely compelling entertainment. The Gervais-Merchant touch is palpable, without being snarky or condescending. Also good are Ralph Fiennes, as a soulless insurance executive who despises his own working-class background; Emily Watson, as his pitiable wife; and Felicity Jones, as the daughter whose every move has been pre-determined. In addition to wearing the hats of writer, producer and director, Gervais plays the machinist dad of the most adventurous young man, a guy who thinks he’s seen it all and learned that even a dead-end job is better than none at all. Be sure to listen to Gervais and Merchant’s commentary, which is as funny as it is informative. The period soundtrack is also pretty terrific.
Held Hostage is an above-average made-for-Lifetime thriller, in which Julie Benz (Dexter) plays a small-town bank manager forced to participate in robbery by hooded gunmen holding her young daughter as collateral. If that were all to the movie, though, it wouldn’t be as interesting as the average episode of Cops. Benz’ Michelle Estey goes along with the robbers only after sticks of what she believes to be dynamite are strapped to her body and that of the girl. Her orders are to stroll into the bank, as usual, and put the contents of the walk-in safe into a gym bag, which she’ll hand over to the bad guys. She disobeys orders by showing the rigged vest to a fellow employee and begging her not to pull the alarm until her daughter is freed. The operation is so slick, Michelle is automatically considered to be a willing accomplice and skilled liar. We know this isn’t true and watch with horror as she’s interrogated by police, doubted by co-workers and grilled by a self-serving lawyer after the real culprit is caught and put on trial. Her past is put on trial and her meager bank account is used evidence that she was complicit in the crime. Any half-way decent lawyer could have protected Michelle, but, typically, she believes the truth will keep her free. If TV movies were expected to be logical, though, there wouldn’t be any to review. Since it was based on an actual event, there are lessons to be learned here for Lifetime’s predominantly female audience.
Originally filmed as a two-part pilot for Italian television, Doc West is a throwback to the days when spaghetti westerns ruled the drive-in circuit. It stars 70-year-old Terence Hill (My Name Is Trinity) as a tough old hombre, Minnesota West (an oxymoron?), who, when he isn’t playing poker and chasing bad guys, practices medicine. Here, West goes after bandits who stole money targeted for his daughter’s education, back east. When things go sideways, he ends up in a local jail (for his own protection) minded by a sheriff played by 70-year-old Paul Sorvino. It ain’t much, but fans of Hill should enjoy Doc West.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
In case there was any doubt as to who the target audience is for My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, the words above and below the title proclaim, David Lynch Presents … A Werner Herzog Film. The packagers might just as well have added, Buckle up, fans, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Hot on the heels of Herzog’s exceedingly weird crime thriller, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, My Son, My Son re-assembles the pieces of a puzzle built from the actual 1979 murder of a San Diego woman, at the hands of her sword-wielding son. Apparently, the demented young man was channeling his character from a production of the Greek tragedy, Orestes, and was simply putting her out of some prophesized misery down the road. The killer, Brad McCullum, is played with glowering menace by Michael Shannon (the institutionalized neighbor in Revolutionary Road) and the ditzy mom by Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie. Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña play a pair of San Diego police detectives assigned to negotiate with McCullum, based on intelligence gleaned in flashbacks provided by his girlfriend (Chloë Sevigny), director (Udo Kier), an ostrich rancher (Brad Dourif), a not-at-all-surprised neighbor (Irma B. Hall) and a trademark Lynchian little person (this time. Gabriel Pimental). McCullum’s one of those damaged souls who believe God has him on speed-dial and has given him permission to do unspeakable things. We wonder what make people like him tick, but not until they’ve gone batshit and decimated a day-care center or post office. Otherwise, he’s the kind of person who kept to himself and was known to talk to himself. It’s prime territory for Herzog and Lynch, if more than a little too desolate and foreboding for the average filmgoer. Shannon is one scary dude, though. If nothing else, fans will enjoy counting the references to previous works by Herzog and Lynch.
Jimi Hendrix: The Guitar Hero: Classic Artists
Few rock musicians have left as substantial a legacy as Jimi Hendrix. In addition to a seemingly endless library of rehearsal tapes and video footage, Hendrix memorabilia includes plaster casts of his penis, sex tapes and a truckload of imprecisely worded wills and contracts. The basic facts are well known. After serving in the army and backing up such R&B greats as Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, the Seattle native appeared as if out of thin air in London, where he impressed the shit out of the leading rockers of the mid-1960s, including Eric Clapton, Dave Mason, the Beatles, Who and Rolling Stones. Most of the testimony collected for this Classic Artists edition comes from peer artists far more interested in his incomparable music than any recollections of hippy-dippy excess or scurrilous gossip. Among the first-hand witnesses are Dave Mason (Traffic), Clapton, Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), Eric Burdon (The Animals), Paul Rodgers (Bad Company), Ginger Baker (Cream), Mickey Dolenz (Monkees), Bev Bevan (ELO) and Stephen Stills. It is narrated by Slash. Extras include a 20-page booklet; Henry Diltz’ 8mm silent footage from the Monkees tour; the Experience performing Hey Joe at the Marquee; extended interviews; and photo galleries.
Mad Ron’s Prevues From Hell
Starcrash: Roger Corman Cult Classics
Grindhouse revivals will come and go, but the beyond-classic trailers included in Mad Ron’s Prevues From Hell will live forever. Apart from being important cultural artifacts, the previews describe an America learning to live with a new breed of killer, one unafraid to use an entire tool shed or surgeon’s locker worth of lethal instruments when the occasion calls for something more interesting than a knife or gun. Unlike the current generation of movie trailers, which must pass MPAA muster before being shown, the ones here lack nothing in the area of blood, gore, ground corpses, slashed veins, severed limbs, bouncing boobs and insensitive portrayals of minorities. Several add the warning, “Keep reminding yourself, it’s only a movie,” while others advise that medical staff will be in attendance for the faint of heart. Among the rarities is 1970′s Flesh Feast, which marked Veronica Lake’s final big-screen appearance, and the blatantly racist Africa: Blood and Guts, a documentary disguised as a horror movie about actual human and animal slaughter in post-colonial Africa. The mini-movies are bookended by exceedingly geeky skits, in which zombie imitators pretend to be watching a movie at the local Bijou. Feel free to fast-forward through these bits.
Necromentia is an exercise in torture porn unrelieved by logic or a recognizable narrative. The quartet of key characters, one more grotesque than the other, all have a vested interest in discovering a portal to hell. One wants to be re-united with a dead girlfriend; a professional sadist hopes to rescue his suicidal brother from eternal damnation; an obese pig-man taunts easily swayed cripples into self-mutilation; and the other is a messenger from Satan. The clues to finding the portals can only be found on a large occult symbol tattooed to on a large patch of dead skin. Fans of Hellraiser, Resident Evil and Saw are the target audience. The set adds commentary with director Pearry Reginald Teo; a Q&A with Teo and star Chad Grimes; and a trailer.
Previously titled The Adventures of Stella Star, Starcrash is the latest entry in Shout! Factory’s Corman Cult Classics series. A bargain-basement Star Wars rip-off, the incomprehensible spaghetti sci-fi adventure involves a mission by a team of space rebels to destroy a powerful new weapon, developed by the evil Count Zartham. Although the story is wafer-thin and the special effects prehistoric, even by 1978 standards, Starcrash is noteworthy for several things: a cast that includes David Hasselhoff, Marjoe Gortner, Christopher Plummer and cult princess Caroline Munro; a John Barry score (although he wasn’t shown the movie ahead of time); the direction of the otherwise estimable Luigi Cozzi; some wonderful color cinematography by Paul Besson and Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzo; and production design of Aurelio Crugnola ( Inglorious Bastards). The set adds several making-of featurettes, memorabilia and interviews, including one with Munro, who, to this day, confuses Starcrash with a work of art.
Janeane Garofalo: If You Will: Live in Seattle
Bill Maher: But I’m Not Wrong
Broken Lizard: Stands Up
If, like Richard Nixon, today’s Republican Party maintained a hit list of liberal pests, Janeane Garofalo and Bill Maher’s names would surely be near its top. Not that either comedian is immune to criticizing Democrats. It’s just that Republican politicians and radio talk-show goons continue to provide so much fertile ground for satire. Garofalo’s cable special, recorded in Seattle, doesn’t avoid politics, but she spends most of her time commenting on other things just as ludicrous, including current lifestyle choices, Hollywood scenesters, the media and her status as an asexual atheist. It’s her first solo show in more than a decade and she’s as sharp as ever. The set add a pair of extended riffs, on pets and a congressman’s right-wing wet dream.
Maher’s politically oriented material is far more predictable. Indeed, much of it already has been heard on his weekly HBO talk show. The hook here is that this unrepentant liberal atheist is playing before a crowd in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the nicotine-stained lungs of the Bible Belt. No matter, the crowd came to praise Maher, not to bury him. For all of his left-of-center posturing, Maher found room for the first-ever burka fashion show.
The Broken Lizard comedy troupe is best known for such movie showcases as Super Troopers and Club Dread. This Comedy Central special marks a return to their earliest professional incarnations at Syracuse and on the road. The stand-up material retains its sophomoric flavor with commentary on masturbation, getting high and drunk, sexual inadequacies, homoeroticism and the usual scatological references. It’s funny, but rarely hilarious. They also reminisce on how they came together as group. The bonus material includes a live Super Troopers sketch; scenes shot while on the road, between gigs; backstage musings; the bits Jay Loves Everyone, Erik’s Parrot Song, Wonder Woman and ’Who’s on First’ on Steroids.
America: The Story of Us: Blu-ray
A History of Scotland
The History Channel’s pop-history approach to America: The Story of Us opens the door to viewers who need to be reminded of what makes America stand out from the rest of the world, besides baseball, apple pie and Chevrolets. It’s an easy enough concept to forget, now that we’ve been in a constant state of war for almost 20 years and the national agenda is being set by uninformed focus groups, right-wing demagogues and people whose grasp of the 1st Amendment is limited to the freedom to burn the Koran on You Tube. Executive producer Jane Root employs CGI animation, re-creations, picture-postcard cinematography and celebrity interviews to illustrate key events in our history. The 720-minute Blu-ray edition adds an introduction by President Obama and additional scenes in discussions of the American Revolution, Declaration of Independence, George Washington, Civil War, Transcontinental Railroad, the Statue of Liberty, Henry Ford and the Model T.
Scotland may be a substantially smaller country than the United States, but its history is several time longer than ours and far more turbulent. Produced by BBC Scotland and the Open University, A History of Scotland offers a fresh look at the country’s early tribal clashes, geographical rivalries, wars with England, political struggles and such important leaders as William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Sir Walter Scott. The set is enhanced by beautiful cinematography and straight-forward story telling. Bonus features include How the Celts Saved Britain, presented by Dan Snow, and 24-page booklet containing historical facts and striking images of Scottish landmarks.
The Good Wife: The First Season
Glee: The Complete First Season
Less Than Perfect: Season 1
The League: The Complete First Season
The Hunger: The Taste of Terror
Being Human: Season Two
Fringe: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Lark Rise to Candleford: Season Three
Private Practice: Complete Third Season
Grey’s Anatomy: The Complete Sixth Season
The producers of CBS’ The Good Wife, soon to enter its second season, attempted to answer questions close to the minds of anyone who’s ever watched one of those press conferences in which a sexually disgraced politician is joined on the podium by his seemingly loving and supportive wife. One is how long might it be before the poor woman wises up and divorces the jackass – in Hillary Clinton’s case, never – and the other relates to how she would survive on her own in the outside world. Julianna Margulies was the perfect choice to play the wife of a Chicago politician (Chris Noth) caught in web of deceit mostly, but not entirely of his own creation. In The Good Wife, the errant husband was sent to jail and his wife and kids were required to downsize their lifestyle and dreams. Marguilies’ Alicia Florrick was fortunate to find a job in a prestigious law firm, but her husband’s antics and alibis were never far from her mind. Blessedly, perhaps, the law office offered plenty of diversions, in the form of inner-office politics and intrigue, fascinating cases and potential love interests. The drama was nominated for nine Emmys, winning one for Archie Panjabi’s turn as a private investigator for the firm. The DVD set adds commentary by the producers and stars; deleted scenes; the featurettes, The Education of Alicia Florrick: Making Season One and Aftermath: Real-Life Events; and on-air promos.
Glee: The Complete First Season combines and extends previous boxed sets of the series, whose premier season was divided roughly in half by Fox. The new DVD box takes full advantage of the show’s innovative approach to drama, comedy and musical production numbers with such participatory features as Glee Karaoke and Glee Jukebox; the director’s cut of the show’s pilot episode; and several behind-the-scenes looks at key scenes, including those in the Madonna episode; a fashion piece; and Sue’s Corner. For those who’ve already purchased the first half-season DVD, Fox is offering a separate Season One, Volume Two box.
The 2002 ABC sitcom Less Than Perfect took the Upstairs/Downstairs approach to chronicling everyday life at a large New York media conglomerate. The bridge to both worlds was provided by Sara Rue, as Claudia Claude Casey, a largish woman who swam her way across the temp pool to the rarefied air of the television news department. In her new position, Claude is required to deal with a petty pair of jealous co-workers, a demanding peacock of a boss (Eric Roberts) and downstairs friends (Andy Dick, Sherri Shepherd) who spend all of their free time upstairs. The sitcom also concerns itself with Claude’s weight issues and natural tendency to overeat and share her artery-congesting treats. It’s fun, even if almost every single joke is telegraphed several seconds before being delivered.
Now that a new NFL is upon us, the FX network is bringing back its raunchy, sports-centric The League, which is set against a backdrop of rotisserie-league football and the dweebs who obsess over its every nuance. Part scripted, part improvisation, the key players in The League are yuppies who can trace their friendship back to high school, where they honed the art of being class clowns and wiseasses. The women are universally gorgeous, even hornier than their husbands and boyfriends, and can go toe-to-toe with the guys while trading insults. The cast is very good and the writing sharp, even if the characters’ chosen hobby is pretty lame.
Showtime’s sexy 1997 anthology series The Hunger was inspired by Tony Scott’s erotically charged vampire romance of the same title, released in 1983. Instead of focusing entirely of vampires, as it might today, the Canadian export added other elements of horror, mostly psychological, to the mix. Like Red Shoe Diaries, The Hunger put a soft-focus glow on the sexuality, while telling a story only a tad more believable than the entries in Penthouse Forum. The selections in Taste of Terror are more noteworthy, today, for the presence of such still-rising stars as Daniel Craig, Giovani Ribisi, Lena Headey, Balthazar Getty, Timothy Spall, Jason Scott Lee and Amanda De Cadenet, as well as such veterans as David Bowie, Terence Stamp, Karen Black, Sally Kirkland and Michael Gross.
Fans of the occult will enjoy the BBC America series, Being Human, whose second season arrives on DVD. The key characters are vampire Mitchell (Aidan Turner), werewolf George (Russell Tovey) and ghost Annie (Lenora Crichlow), who live together in a Bristol flat and complement each other’s supernatural strengths and peculiarities. This season, the protagonists are threatened by CenSSA, a religious organization committed to the destruction or conversion of supernatural freaks.
Also in its second stanza is Fox’s Fringe, which explores unexplained phenomena, weird crimes and other bizarre incidents, known collectively as The Pattern. Naturally, the Boston-based ghost busters all share something more important than brains and wisdom: youth and good looks. The package adds The Mythology of Fringe, commentary, a gag reel, unaired scenes and other making-of material.
The third-season compilation of the PBS series Lark Rise to Candleford also is newly available. The set adds Flora Thompson Lived Here, in which artist and architect Sir Hugh Casson recounts the life of writer Flora Thompson by visiting her birthplace, Juniper Hill, Cottisford, which was the inspiration for the series.
Full-season compilations of ABC’s popular prime-time medical soaps, Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy, have been released ahead of the new fall season. In addition to the 23 episodes of Season Three, the five-disc DVD collection adds bloopers, deleted scenes and a collection of Kate Walsh’s personal favorite moments.
In the sixth year of companion series Grey’s Anatomy, much of the drama centered on the merging of staffs representing Seattle Grace and Mercy West hospitals. Bonus features include two newly extended episodes, in the finale; unaired scenes; outtakes; and webisodes of Seattle Grace: On Call.