CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: NEW
Sweetgrass (Four Stars)
U.S.; Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Ilisa Barbash, 2010 (Cinema Guild)
In Sweetgrass, named for the lushly beautiful Montana country in which it takes place, we see the last summer pasturing of the vast sheep herd that once belonged to the Allested ranch in Big Timber: thousands of sheep blanketing the mountain slopes and valleys, bleating, baa-ing and clanging their cowbells like some grand atonal choir, ranging freely over the green grass and past the rushing rivers and under the high blue sky, surging like some white snowy river itself, with that entire tumbling, rippling, slowly moving mass of animal life itself cared for and guided by just two lone sheepmen in cowboy hats on horseback, with their alert and tireless sheep dogs loping alongside.
This stunning event was recorded by Lucien Castaing-Taylor (“recordist” or, I guess, cinematographer-director-editor) and Ilisa Barbash (producer), a husband-wife ethnographic filmmaking team then resident in Boulder, Colorado and now based at Harvard University. It was the last of its kind, because the Allested Ranch closed down in 2006, when Bush administration bureaucrats cancelled the public land grazing permit that the Allesteds and other independent ranchers had used for more than a century to feed their herds.
So what we see, though it isn’t explained until the end titles, is the end of a way of life — another wondrous American ritual and tradition, largely lost to the contemporary world.
As with Frederick Wiseman’s great socio-political documentaries, such as High School, Welfare and The Titicut Follies, there is no voice-over or narration. There’s precious little talk at all, and most of it comes from sheepmen John Ahern and Pat Connolly, who plan their work and gab laconically, or cuss something fierce, as they ride, or as they sip coffee and chew bacon, or just laze around and ruminate, in their camp chairs or by the fire.
Often they complain. But we can’t. They’re burdened by each day/s work, which looks endless. We’re blessedly privy to the beauties of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and that huge woolly cloud of sheep. As in King Kong directors Merian Cooper’s and Ernest Schoedsack’s great 1925 documentary Grass, a movie which watched another group in a more distant land, the Bakhityari or Persian tribesmen, taking their herds to pasture, we‘re absorbed by the spectacle and by the journey before us: with the sheep moving like a great white wave grazing uphill and down, as the sheepmen try to protect them (vainly in one instance) from marauding grizzlies and wolverines, as mothers suckle their young, and dogs run and nudge, as the season passes, and as we see what only a relative handful have watched before this.
Critics have generally loved this film — and they’re right — but Sweetgrass is unfortunately the kind of movie that would-be wits denounce because they say nothing is happening, that it‘s like watching paint dry. Or sheep graze. Nothing is happening? What in God‘s name were they looking at in the theatre? Their watches? Their navels?
Thanks be to the filmmakers for undertaking this journey, which took them two years (2001-2003) to record and eight in all to get on film and in theatres. We are in their debt, and also in that of the Allesteds and of sheepmen Ahern and Connolly (and hell yes, of the horses, dogs and the sheep herd as well), for the lyrical sights and uncommon beauties of Sweetgrass. At the end, crusty John Ahern, riding in a truck cab, is asked by his boss Allested what he’ll do next, and he replies that he “ain’t going to worry about it for a week or two.” You think: Well, that’s okay, get some shut-eye. You earned it. Goodbye, sheep. Adios, amigos. Extras: Commentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash; Additional Scenes; Trailer; Booklet with Robert Koehler essay.
A Prophet (Three and a Half Stars)
France; Jacques Audiard, 2009 (Sony Pictures Classics)
The Grand Prize winner at the last Cannes Film Festival, this brutal, unsparing prison picture, about the rise of a young Muslim convict who becomes the favorite of the prison‘s Corsican mob boss, has been widely hailed as a great foreign language film and a great crime movie.
Whoa. Not quite, says me. It’s certainly a riveting show, and it has an undeniably great performance by Nils Arestrup as the Corsican mobster Cesar Luciani (the kind of dour gangster role for which Lino Ventura once held the patent), and a magnetic one by newcomer Tahar Rahim as the rising Muslim assistant crook Malik El Djebena.
But, on first glance, I disliked the ending, which almost seems to secretly glorify the young thug, for no better reason than that he’s an improvement on the old thug, and to overly admire what I took as a possibly equivocal and darkly ambiguous resolution as some kind of stirring “star-is-born” multi-cultural parable.
Maybe I’m wrong. Director-co-writer Jacques Audiard says that A Prophet is an anti-Scarface, and in some ways, he’s right. But the De Palma/Pacino 1983 Scarface, whatever the uses that some gangsta-rappers made of it, does say that crime shouldn‘t pay, and clearly shows why, as did the superb 1932 original Scarface by Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht and Paul Muni.
END OF SPOILER.
I’m not completely sure what A Prophet. But Audiard, here and in A Self Made Hero (with Mathieu Kassovitz) and The Beat that My Heart Skipped (with Romain Duris), seems to have a soft spot of some kind for psychopathic anti-heroes, or maybe to him, psychopathic heroes, as long as they’re cute, intense star material.
That doesn’t invalidate the film, or Audiard’s grim vision, or Rahim’s often incredible performance. But it makes the movie, to me at least, less powerful and satisfying than those two recent fact-based movies about Italian organized crime, Il Divo and Gomorrah. A Prophet, by contrast, seems to me at least partially a wish fulfillment fantasy. If so, it’s a wish I didn’t particularly like to see fulfilled, at least not without more criticism.
But A Prophet, whatever my cavils, gets you on the hook and keeps you there. It summons up a prison and criminal world that, up until the end, I found grimly plausible, fiercely exciting. It also boasts that Arestrup performance, which is an absolute knockout. (In French, with English subtitles.)
PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS
Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music — The Director’s Cut
U.S.; Michael Wadleigh, 1970-1994 (Warner)Both a great rock concert movie, and a superb documentary on youth culture in the Vietnam War Years, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock — shot at the legendary 1969 Aquarian gathering at Max Yasgur‘s farm at Bethel, N. Y. (not the nearby Woodstock) –brings back the era and all its pot-fumed tenderness, horror, humor, beauty, ugliness, and glorious absurdities, as few other movies can.Caught by the virtuoso wide-angle cameraman Wadleigh (along with many others) in amazing handheld widescreen images full of sweep and scope and seething with energy, and cut by editor/assistant director Martin Scorsese (and others) in vividly atmospheric sequences and evocative, witty split screen juxtapositions, the movie literally overwhelms youThe original three day concert — which wound up being one of rock history’s great freebies, when the crowds, measuring a half million plus, overflowed the ability to count or charge them ticket money — is rendered with shocking, lyrical immediacy. Woodstock records both the amazing social extravaganza surrounding the music — the gargantuan sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll community that descended on Yasgur’s green farm fields, the bad trips and free food, the marijuana, nude romps and ubiquitous flashing peace signs, the ocean of communal feeling and occasional bummers — and, of course, the memorable music itself.David Gates’ dyspeptic Time Magazine anniversary cover story about Woodstock (a few years ago) to the contrary, it was a terrific concert. (Gates seems angry not only at ‘60s youth culture in general, but that acts like Merle Haggard weren’t on the bill. But you wouldn’t expect the bard of “Okie from Muskogee” to have shown up in 1969 at Bethel, even if today, Haggard cheerfully will shares a show with peacenik Bob Dylan.)
The original roster of acts in the 1970 movie included Crosby, Stills and Nash (ladling out, among others, Steve Stills’s honeyed lyric to Judy Collins, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” plus, under the closing credits, Joni Mitchell‘s soaring anthem to the whole affair “Woodstock“), along with Jefferson Airplane, The Who (“See Me, Feel Me“ the mesmerizing capper from “Tommy“), Richie Havens (the heartbreaking folk ballad “Motherless Child”), Joan Baez ( a hushed, reverent “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), Santana (the fever-drenched “Black Magic Woman”), Sly and the Family Stone (Taking us “Higher,” if possible), Joe Cocker (tearing out his classic version of “A Little Help from My Friends”) and, as a blazing climax, guitar god Jimi Hendrix, with his legendary exploding variations on “The Star Spangled Banner,” complete with sonic Hendrix booms on “rockets red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.”
Over the years, Woodstock has picked up even more initially deleted musical high points, some not used in the original cut because of lesser picture quality (they were shot at night), like blues lady Janis Joplin‘s frenzied “Work Me, Lord”) and, in the extras here, three performances by Creedence Clearwater Revival (including “Born on the Bayou”). and one by the Grateful Dead (“Turn on Your Love Light”).
Throughout, either in the epic original and this expanded director‘s cut, Woodstock beautifully records both the amazing social extravaganza surrounding the music — the gargantuan sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll community that descended on Yasgur’s green farm fields, the bad trips and free food, the marijuana, nude romps and ubiquitous flashing peace signs, the ocean of communal feeling and occasional bummers — and, of course, the memorable music itself. Peace.
Extras: Deleted performances (Baez, Country Joe & The Fish, Santana, The Who, Joe Cocker, Mountain, Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield, Sha Na Na); featurettes, documentary.
PICK OF THE WEEK: Blu-ray
The Ghost Writer (1 Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Three Stars)
U.S.-U.K.; Roman Polanski, 2009 (Summit Entertainment)
Shutter Island is a movie Roman Polanski probably should have made, just as, for different reasons, Schindler‘s List was. (He got a second great chance at Schindler’s subject matter, and triumphed with it, in The Pianist.) But Island is even more his kind of movie than Scorsese’s: a descent into subjective terror that fits Polanski’s eye-level nightmare style perfectly, a movie that might even be described as a mix of the elements of his masterpieces Repulsion (the crazy killer), Cul-de-Sac (the island) and Chinatown (the detective and the scandal).
The Ghost Writer is the movie Polanski did make: an adaptation of Robert Harris’ prize-winning thriller The Ghost about an opportunistic (and nameless) young writer (Ewan McGregor) brought to an isolated retreat on Martha’s Vineyard, and hired to ghost-write the autobiography of a retired Tony Blair-like British Prime Minister named Adam Lang (played with 007-like machismo and insouciance by Pierce Brosnan), while trying to fathom what’s up with Lang’s wife (Olivia Williams), his assistant (Kim Cattrall), a mysterious political rival named Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) and a gabby old man (Eli Wallach).
Based on the movie, The Ghost doesn’t seem like a very good novel. The film didn’t seize my imagination or chill my blood as I wanted it too, even though I was primed for it, and even though Polanski directs it beautifully, visualizing each scene with an edgy, icy-gray or chilly-blue bleak atmosphere and a sense of underlying evil and panic. But Polanski is a master, and evidences of his mastery are all over the movie.
I once transcribed a Polanski interview, in which I thought he was saying to me that the two most important thing in movies were “characters and utmost fear,“ when what he was really saying, was “characters and atmosphere.“ He gets at least two of those three here: atmosphere and utmost fear. But though the actors are good, none of the characters (not even the usually movie-stealing Wilkinson’s) is very memorable. And it’s hard to empathize with a character in a thriller, like McGregor’s Ghost, who shows so little fear, with so much danger and enigma around.
The Ghost may be a good writer, but he doesn’t seem to have read much John Grisham or watched Three Days of the Condor. The fact that Lang has been linked to a CIA scandal doesn’t seem to phase him. Neither does the coincidence of his predecessor being drowned in the first scene, nor any of the mysterious things that happen along the way. Maybe the fact that the writer remains nameless has made him think himself invulnerable, already a ghost of himself.
Anyway, Polanski may be a captured fugitive, but he’s no fake, even if The Ghost Writer sometimes feels a little as if it were ghost-written. It’s been decades since Pauline Kael suggested that Polanski might become the new Hitchcock (at least before Truffaut did), yet this is his first thriller since Frantic in 1988. He’s capable of better in the genre; he’s capable of masterpieces. I hope he does them.
Extras: Interview with Polanski; Featurettes.
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.
* No relation to the cartoonist of Terrytoons.
PICK OF THE WEEK: Blu-ray
The Kim Novak Collection (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Various Directors, 1955-59 (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures)
My favorite Kim Novak line comes in Pal Joey, Columbia‘s dubiously altered, shamefully bowdlerized but still entertaining adaptation of the great cynical/lyrical O’Hara, Rodgers & Hart stage musical classic, in which Novak’s Linda English says to Frank Sinatra’s cabaret Casanova Joey Evans, in a girlish, amused, deliberately non-provocative voice, with no Mae West intonations or hints at all, “You‘re right. I do have a great shape. Confidentially, I‘m stacked.”
Stacked she certainly was: a willowy but sumptuous blonde bombshell with (usually) short-cropped platinum hair and a 37“ bosom that never knew a brassiere (“That‘s right!“ her Vertigo director Alfred Hitchcock once said tartly to Francois Truffaut. “She‘s particularly proud of that!”)
Pretty Novak, born in 1933, was a Chicago railroad worker‘s daughter and a natural beauty with haunting eyes and a vulnerable air, who became a movie star in her early twenties, with 1954‘s noir Pushover directed by her lover Richard Quine, and then a megastar with 1955‘s Picnic, directed by the explosive Joshua Logan, in which — as playwright William Inge’s small town Kansas princess Madge, with George Duning’s Theme from Picnic glowing behind her — Novak danced her way into the hearts and loins of William Holden‘s ex-football star/drifter Hal, and many more of the males of a susceptible nation.
The great years of her stardom, the mid to late ’50s, are well-covered here. These movies give you the classic Novak image: a gorgeous fair-haired girl who’s a little troubled by her own long-legged, statuesque beauty, a bit hesitant about pushing herself forward, slinky and self-conscious, sometimes suspicious of men, a traffic-stopping but vulnerable glamour girl with brains and surprising sensitivity.
Like Marilyn Monroe, who often played it dumb, the real-life Novak was a reader. (Sinatra, one of her dates, wooed her with first editions, while his fellow Clansman Sammy Davis, Jr. hit the jackpot in one of the more famous secret love affairs of the ‘50s.) There’s a very well-written sleeper in this box, which you probably haven’t seen, but contains top-notch New York dialogue and one of her best performances: writer Paddy Chayefsky‘s and director Delbert Mann‘s Middle of the Night.
By 1964, she was considered past her prime, and when she played Polly the Pistol, the girlish hooker (with the belly-button jewel and the requisite heart of gold) in Billy Wilder‘s Kiss Me, Stupid, she shared in the movie‘s lousy notices. Today Kiss Me is rightly regarded as a flawed classic, and if original star Peter Sellers hadn’t had his heart attack and dropped out in mid shooting, we might see it as a masterpiece, as some of the French do (“Embrasse-moi, Idiote!“)
But maybe she was too much a creation of the ‘50s, of the last fugitive years of the Golden Age, a kind of platinum blonde Jekyll and Hyde. Kim Novak could play it naïve and lower class, or tony and glamorous, and sometimes she played both in the same movie, as in her masterpiece, as Madeleine/Judy in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. (He‘d wanted Grace Kelly for her part, but Hitch always wanted Grace Kelly, for every part.) Vertigo, of course, is in lots of Hitchcock Paramount or Universal sets. But it’s a shame Columbia couldn‘t cut a deal and get it in this one. What’s a Kim Novak collection without Vertigo?
She probably wasn’t a natural actress. She gave some awkward performances. But she was a natural-born star. Kim was one of the movie dream girls of my youth, and I still get a pang looking at her. Confidentially, she‘s stacked.
Includes: Picnic (U.S.; Joshua Logan, 1955) Three and a Half Stars. William Inge‘s great Broadway dramatic hit about the way sex steams up in a small Kansas town at the annual picnic, with Novak as the town siren, William Holden as the drifter who steals her from his best friend (Cliff Robertson in the role the young Paul Newman played on Broadway), Betty Field as Kim‘s mother and Susan Strasberg as her little sister, who loves Carson McCullers, Rosalind Russell as the busybody schoolteacher whose aging beau, Arthur O’Connell, is marriage-shy. The stage play, which was also directed by Josh Logan, had a great ensemble cast — Janice Rule, Ralph Meeker, Eileen Heckart, Kim Stanley (understudied by Newman’s gal, Joanne Woodward), and O‘Connell. But there’s something iconic about this one, and something iconic and ultra-50ish about both Kim and the movie.
Jeanne Eagels (U.S.; George Sidney, 1957) Two and a Half Stars. Novak plays the reckless, self-destructive ‘20s stage and screen beauty and superstar Jeanne Eagels, who made an onstage hurricane as Sadie Thompson in the Maugham play Rain, — a drama-goddess who drank and screwed and missed so many performances she was banned by Actors’ Equity, and died of a heroin overdose. It’s a tough part and not one of Novak’s real successes. But she had guts playing this brilliant talent and bad girl.
Jeff Chandler is her Coney Island mentor/lover, Agnes Moorehead is her haughty teacher, and Murray Hamilton is the sleazy guy who helps push her over the edge. Sidney and cinematographer Robert Planck make it brassy and glamorous, there’s an allusion to director Frank Borzage, and a great trio of writers worked on the script: prolific Oscar-winner Sonya Levien (Quo Vadis, Drums Along the Mohawk) and those two excellent novelists Daniel Fuchs (Low Company) and John Fante (Ask the Dust).
Pal Joey (U.S.; Sidney, 1957) Three Stars. Gene Kelly became a Broadway star, beckoned by the movies, when he playing the amoral, lady-killing show biz heel and kept man Joey Evans in the great musical play by writer John O‘Hara and the supreme song-writing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. And Kelly was promised the movie and the role, with Rita Hayworth as his star, in the ‘40s by Columbia boss Harry Cohn. But in the ‘50s, when the movie was finally made, it was Gene‘s pal and ex “In the town” dance partner Frank Sinatra who got the move call for Joey. And though the film is regarded as famously botched adaptation, it’s not really Sinatra’s fault, he sings the songs here as well as Kelly danced them, on stage.
This is actually one of Frank’s quintessential movie roles, full of Sinatra-isms like “gasser,” and “ring-a-ding,” with added songs by Rodgers and Hart, and with orchestrations by the unbeatable Nelson Riddle — Sinatra’s genius arranger on “Only the Lonely,“ “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,“ and many other classic albums, including all of Ella Fitzgerald’s George Gershwin Songbooks. Frank spins a real gasser on “Lady in the Tramp” (it’s worth the whole movie), and he also kills us on “I Could Write a Book,” and ”There’s a Small Hotel,” while the dubbed Rita Hayworth as the socialite Vera, who’s keeping Joey, delivers “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and true love/non-stripper Kim‘s dubber sings that poignant gem “My Funny Valentine.”
What the movie needs is even more Frank, even more Rodgers & Hart, packaged by Riddle. It also may have needed Billy Wilder, whom that famous bully Harry Cohn turned down as director. The problem was the script, which Billy would have fixed, but which certainly baffled Dorothy Kingsley. It was the ‘50s and the goddamned Breen office was still fouling up movies in the name of our morals. But a moralistic “Pal Joey” is like squeezing Mae West into a nun’s habit. Even so, Sinatra, “The Voice,” singing “The Lady is a Tramp“ is enough to obliterate all bad, or goody-two shoes, memories.
Bell, Book and Candle (U.S.; Richard Quine, 1958) Three Stars. Novak rejoins Jimmy Stewart in the same year as Vertigo playing Gillian Holroyd, lady witch and classy Greenwich Village shop-owner who has a cat named Pyewackett, and who utterly bewitches, bothers and bewilders Manhattan publisher Shep Henderson (Stewart) in this swanky adaptation of playwright John van Druten’s spooky romantic comedy, directed by ex-beau Quine. Novak ‘s fellow witches include those sometimes macabre, sometimes playful ladies Elsa Lanchester (Queenie) and Hermione Gingold (Bianca), Ernie Kovacs is a great drunken writer (on witchcraft) named Sidney Redlitch, Janice Rule (who played Novak‘s Picnic role on stage) is Jimmy‘s luckless fiancée Merle, and Jack Lemmon, no less, is a grinning, streetlamp-quenching delight as Gillian’s impish brother, the bongo-playing warlock Nicky.
Witchcraft here is obviously a code or analogue for ‘50s Bohemianism and the Greenwich Village bi and homosexual counter-culture, and the witches all hang out in a hip club called the Zodiac. Bell has some of the look and feel, if not the richness and impact of a classic. It just misses, and I guess I wouldn’t have hired Daniel Taradash (Picnic‘s adaptor) for this script. Maybe they needed Billy Wilder for this one too. But you can’t beat that cast. Or that cat. Or that hat of Shep’s, symbol of a bewitched heart, that we see soaring and falling all the way from the skyscraper to the street.
Middle of the Night (U.S.; Delbert Mann, 1959) Three Stars. As interviewer Steve Rebello remarks, this is the sleeper of the set. Novak in her prime often had good screenwriters or sources, and here she has the best script (excepting Vertigo) she was ever given: Paddy Chayefsky‘s April-December romance Middle of the Night — done on TV with Eva Marie Saint and E G. Marshall, done on Broadway with Gena Rowlands and Edward G. Robinson, and done here with Novak and Fredric March. March is the affluent garment maker/widower who takes a good look at his secretary (Novak) one day and stumbles into heaven and hell. The script, like Marty, is both crackling and compassionate, and the supporting cast includes Lee Grant (as Novak‘s savvy friend), Albert Dekker (as March’s girl-chasing partner), Glenda Farrell (as Novak‘s skeptical mother) and Martin Balsam as March’s sympathetic son-in law. The movie has that great ‘50s-’60s look: New York City in black and white. But it didn’t work with audiences, and it’s a shame.
Extras: Interviews and commentaries with Kim Novak and Stephen Rebello; Featurettes; Trailers.
OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVD RELEASES
Kick-Ass (Two Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Three Stars)
U.S.; Matthew Vaughn, 2010 (Lionsgate)
Kick-Ass is a movie made from a comic book about a wish-fulfilling teen geek who plays at being a super-hero named Kick-Ass, and then runs into some real heroes (including a wildly talented purple-haired 11-year-old nicknamed Hit Girl, and her death-dealing pa, Big Daddy) and some real villains (including a vicious mob boss and his spoiled-rotten son). Though it may sound as if Farrelly Brothers or Judd Apatow wannabes had taken over the latest action-comic picture epic, it’s better than we might have expected: at its best, expertly done and full of snazzy, kick-ass, wish-fulfilling fun.
Director Matthew Vaughn, Guy Richie‘s ex-producer (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and helmer of the British neo-noir Layer Cake, shows the same mix of slam-bang action and a genial light touch that director Jon Favreau brought to Iron Man. Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman (adapting the comic by Mark Millar), know what their basic audience wants to see. But they also know what audiences not usually attracted to this kind of movie may want to see as well: something witty and light and self-kidding, with the humor counter-balancing the carnage.
Of course, the carnage needs to be counter-balanced. Kick-Ass is funny. But it’s also so violent, and sometimes so convincingly bloody and savage, in its half-comic over-the-top action scenes — which include the kind of one-against-a-bunch climactic wholesale slaughter-fest usually administered by a Bruce Lee or a Sonny Chiba, but here dealt out by that 11-year-old girl – that, at times, this movie becomes genuinely disturbing. (Parents should heed that “R” rating, which mentions “strong brutal violence, pervasive language, sexual content and nudity.”) Still, I can’t go along with the stern or skittish condemnations the show has aroused in some. That wounding violence, especially in a revenge fantasy, strikes me as not necessarily such a negative thing. Movie violence often should be more disturbing, should have consequences.
And here, when high school geek Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) goes on his first costumed Kick-Ass expedition, and gets stomped by gang-bangers (well and half-realistically played by Johnny Hopkins and Ohene Cornelius) and run over by a car — winding up with nerve damage for the rest of the movie — it reminds us that violence hurts, that the world is full of pain, which is something that big action movies often leave out. That hurt gives more edge to the movie’s action, and also to its humor and satire, to the ways it burlesques and sends up the geek fantasies of vigilante-ism and super-celebrity that fuel almost every action-hero movie.
The fact that Kick-Ass starts life as a media-friendly geek-imagined fake, that the real super-heroine here is a cute little girl named Mindy Macready (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), incredibly well-versed in martial arts and gunplay by her action-hero dad Damon (“Big Daddy”) Macready (Nicolas Cage), makes the movie more fantastic, less half-real. It’s also a riff on the gun culture that permeates our society, with presidential hopeful Sarah Palin (a kind of wannabe Hit Girl, but not as cute) smiling adorably while she calls on her followers to get their enemies in their sights and “reload.“
Wham! Bang! Thank you, Ma’am! In our introduction to this movie’s Hit Girl and Big Daddy, Mr. Macready reloads just like Sarah and her fan-boy militia. He aims and shoots his daughter from point blank range, then watches her bounce up, protected by body armor. Later Mindy kids Papa by requesting a pony for her birthday, when what she really wants are Palinesque weapons of destruction. Pony, my ass! The satire, deliberately profane, kids our own gun-nutty cultural callousness. But the vulnerability of the movie’s good guys, and girl, facing a smash-face violence that often hits OldBoy levels, lets some reality seep back in. It keeps us anxious.
I haven’t read the Kick-Ass comics, written and drawn by Millar and John Romita, Jr. (My own super-hero comic-reading heyday included Superman and Batman, and ended around the prime time of Johnny, Jr’s Daredevil-Spider-Man drawing dad Jazzy Johnny Romita, Sr.) But the story structure of the movie Kick-Ass reminds us that in the most popular super-hero fantasies, Clark Kent and Peter Parker are just as important as Superman and Spider-Man. Here the early scenes pivot around the ineffable nerdiness of Dave and his geek buddies, smart-ass Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters), and by way Dave is ignored by the school’s top girl, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), and kept away from fraternization with the Mafia rich kid Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) — and how Dave evades his parents (Garrett H. Brown and Elizabeth McGovern) to create the fantasy world of the masked, costumed, swaggering Kick-Ass, a multi-colored human action toy who’s exactly the kind of superhero a geeky kid would dream up.
Revenge fantasies are popular partly because they blow way our frustrations, and because the real world actually is full of bad guys and gang-bangers who really do hurt people. Crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), and his squad of torpedoes led by WiseGuy Big Joe (Michael Rispoli), are heavies with a touch of real-life viciousness (or at least reality filtered through other mob movies and TV shows) — and when some of those heavies go down like video-game targets, it’s hard to mind, especially when the vanquishing kick-asses are a nerd in a super-hero suit and a little girl with purple hair and lots of energy. Kick-Ass pushes our movie paradigms and clichés of violence and worm-turning to extremes, and whether you laugh at it, or go “Tsk-tsk,” probably depends on your own frustration-level. It made me laugh though.
Extras: Commentary with Matthew Vaughn; Documentary; Featurettes; Live Menu System.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Also 3 Disc Blu-Ray) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Thor Freudenthal, 2010 (20th Century Fox)
This one is better than it first looks — and it initially looks pretty silly, despite the source.
That source: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a best-selling children‘s book by Jeff Kinney, written in the form of a diary by a supposedly actual wimpy kid, Greg Heffley (Zach Gordon), who’s suffering through the torments of middle school (Grades 6-8).
This wimpy kid is the Job of junior high, a sort of Coen-Brothersish “Serious Boy.” He’s picked on by classmates and older thugs, dissed by his teachers, shut out of a seat at the cafeteria, abandoned by his friend, pestered by guys even dorkier and wimpier than he, teased by the school paper editor, joshed by his parents, bullied by his gym teacher, out-wrestled by a female nemesis and ignored by the prettier girls. To top it all off, he‘s a bit of a jerk himself: an unreliable friend and a little liar.
Waiting for him and us throughout the movie is a joke we really don’t want to see: involving an open-face cheese sandwich, rotting and festering away, and going greenish-nauseating, right in the middle of the outdoor playground basketball court. It’s a sandwich that nobody ever moves (don’t they ever play hoops at that school?) and we know that someone, somehow, somewhere, is probably going to have to eat it. Or seem to eat it. (“Eat it raw!“ as the bullies used to scream, back when I was in junior high.) Luckily, it doesn’t look anything like real food.
Any more than this movie looks anything like a real middle school, or a real suburb. What saves all this school-kid angst, done in high-Spielbergian exaggerated style by Thor Freudenthal (who made the visually inventive but mostly awful Hotel for Dogs)? The actors, mostly. Gordon as the “wimpy kid” diarist Greg and Robert Capron as his plump, sweet tempered best friend Rowley Jefferson, are so cute, so easy and adept, and so consistently funny, that they redeem a lot of the movie’s sprightly, but over-cute and over-obvious comedy.
Gordon has a gravity and low-key intelligence that once would have made him ideal for a role played by another kid Gordon: Barry, as Jason Robards’ nephew in A Thousand Clowns. And Capron’s Rowley is a real find: a great fat little sidekick with a wonderful seraphic smile and the disposition of a frisky puppy.
After.Life (Also Blu-ray) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Agnieszka Wostowicz-Vosloo, 2009 (Starz/Anchor Bay)
Christina Ricci, as car-crash victim Anna Taylor spends most of this movie nude, or in a red slip, and lying on a table at the funeral home. Liam Neeson, as funeral home manager/departures specialist Eliot Deacon, spends much of it staring down at her and speaking softly, trying to get Anna to accept her fate.
No this is not the breakthrough in necrophiliac movie romance we’re all not waiting for. It’s a sophisticated, scary horror film in which Deacon proves to have a wild talent, albeit one very helpful in his profession. Deacon can speak to the dead, before their interment — although here, he spends most of his time jawboning with Anna, and ignoring the others, who aren’t as pretty and don’t have red slips. Anna’s guilt-tripping boyfriend Paul (Justin Long), who would like to talk to her too, gets mysterious calls from the funeral home, and is very suspicious of both Deacon and his business and home, into which he keeps trying to break. And little Jack (Chandler Canterbury) can hear and see Anna, though that may simply mean he‘s a potential departures expert.
Neeson, underplaying beautifully, shows that he could have played Hannibal Lecter, or any of Peter Cushing‘s old Hammer roles, and done a first-rate job. It’s hard though, to imagine how Deacon is able to take care of a thriving funeral business in a huge house with a mortuary and an accompanying graveyard, and do it all, even the grave digging, all by himself — besides carrying on long conversations with corpses and making sure they don’t escape.
Ricci is a fine damsel in grisly distress. Long, also the Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel is suitably perturbed, especially when he gets his ghostly calls or takes a roll in the cemetery.
I think that Wostowicz-Vosloo shows a lot of talent here, but that her subject matter is a shade too grisly and a little too lacking in real dark humor. Don’t confuse this movie, by the way, with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wonderful 1998 fantasy After Life — which is not at all gruesome, and in which Ricci and Neeson do not appear, in red slips or otherwise.
Dogora (Three Stars)
France; Patrice Leconte, 2004 (Severin)
From the unusually versatile cineaste Patrice Leconte (Ridicule, The Hairdresser‘s Husband): A beautifully photographed semi-travelogue documentary, in which Leconte’s camera wanders around without narration in Cambodia — catching views of boats, people, waving grain, motorcycle riders, shabby or neon-lit city streets and relics of the past — while a very western and catchy orchestral/choral score by Etienne Perruchon gives the whole thing a Koyaaniqatsi feel.
I would have liked a little narration, or an identifying title or two, but Leconte has his perverse side. In the accompanying interview, he tells of a high school critic/interviewer who finally found a connecting thread in Leconte‘s variegated oeuvre — his films mostly deal with an encounter between strangers and are all set in enclosed worlds — and proceeds here to offer a film that utterly contradicts it. (No dialogue or subtitles.)
Extras: Interview with Leconte; Trailer.
Charlie’s Angels (Blu-ray) (Two Stars)
U.S.; McG (Joseph McGinty Nicol), 2000 (Sony)
Despite that omnipresent Farrah Fawcett poster, this ‘70s TV “classic” about glamour girl trouble-shooters wasn‘t really very good. And the movie is just more frenetic and expensive. It’s a supposed showcase for Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu as the Angels, and they look good it. (Then again, when don’t they look good?) With Bill Murray, Tim Curry, Sam Rockwell and LL Cool J. I hope they all had a great payday.
Bull Durham (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Ron Shelton, 1988 (MGM)
A tough old minor-league catcher on his last legs (Kevin Costner), a young pitching phenom with lots of attitude (Tim Robbins), and the team super-fan with a great idea of baseball bonuses, who stands between them (Susan Sarandon). The best of all minor league baseball romantic comedies, despite that crack of Costner’s about the JFK assassination. Well, I guess there aren’t that many minor league baseball romantic comedies…Okay, one of the best of all sports romantic comedies. Sports movies maybe. Sure.
Sarandon had to prove to the execs that she was sexy enough for this show, and they should have been ashamed of themselves for even asking. (At least she got a bonus herself: This is where she met future husband Robbins.) Three balls, no strikes. A dry, wry, sexy double-header. No, that‘s not a double entendre, at least not an intentional one.
Extras: Commentaries by Shelton, Costner and Robbins; Featurettes.
The Breakfast Club (25th Anniversary Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.; John Hughes, 1985 (Universal)
Five kids on weekend detention hall duty (class princess Molly Ringwald, jock Emilio Estevez, brain Anthony Michael Hall, freaky Ally Sheedy, and leather-jacket rebel Judd Nelson) get stuck with the biggest asshole of a teacher/detention monitor the school has got (Paul Gleason). They bond. He gets his. I was mixed on this in 1985. After all the ‘80s were such a goddam terrible decade for movies, it all began to look like crap. But I feel a little nostalgic about Breakfast Club now. It’s probably John Hughes’ most heartfelt statement of suburban teen solidarity. (His best movie remains Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)
Part Time Work of a Domestic Slave (Three and a Half Stars)
Germany; Alexander Kluge, 1973 (Facets Video)
Director-writer Alexander Kluge and his star actress/sister Alexandra Kluge re-team for a movie that‘s similar to their great 1966 Venice Film Festival German New Wave breakthrough Yesterday Girl and just as provocative. It’s a radical, feminist, but not predictable look at marriage, sexism and labor unions, a Godardian mix of drama/melodrama and semi-documentary verite with Alexandra as Roswitha the activist wife of a student/ worker (Bion Steinborn), whose factory is slated for a secret closure and relocation to Portugal by its unscrupulous bosses.
The movie splits neatly in two, and committed mothers may be disturbed by it. In the first part, Alexandra works part time as an illegal abortionist’s assistant and the graphic operation scenes will make many cringe. In German, with English subtitles.
Extra: Kluge’s short documentary on education Teachers in Transition (Three Stars)
Crack in the World (One Star)
U.S.; Andrew Marton, 1965 (Olive)
Andrew Marton’s zenith as a filmmaker was undoubtedly his brilliant action direction of the chariot race in the William Wyler-Charlton Heston Ben-Hur. Here is what I hope is his nadir: a completely idiotic disaster movie, with passable effects and a ludicrous script, in which mortally ill and furiously obsessed scientist Dana Andrews (who takes his marching orders, bizarrely, from Alexander Knox and a conference room in London) fires a missile at the earth’s core so that we can pipe out the magma for fuel. Bad idea.
Unfortunately, our rash scientist creates a huge crack which travels fast around the world, leaving earthquakes, volcanoes and other catastrophes in its wake — but not too fast for Andrews‘ fleet-of-foot scientific colleague and romantic rival Kieron Moore, who keeps chasing the crack, and trying to fix things.
With Janette Scott, as Andrews‘s steadfast wife, who stands by her man even as the world seems on the verge of ending because of his stupidity.
The ending features the requisite couple shot, lots of red magma and a cute little squirrel poking his head up to catch a glimpse of sky.
The only possible reason for watching this genuine catastrophe (Dana Andrews fans should actively void it and catch his other 1965 movie, that neglected classic In Harm’s Way instead) is if you have designs on making an Airplane-style spoof on disaster movies, and want the most ridiculous premise possible. The ad tagline for Crack in the World, by the way, was “Thank God it’s only a motion picture!” Amen.
Appointment with Danger (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Lewis Allen, 1951 (Olive)
Brusque and hardcase postal inspector Alan Ladd goes undercover to investigate a murder that may be the key to a huge impending postal truck robbery. Phyllis Calvert is a nun who witnessed the murderers: that sterling noir pair Jack Webb and Harry Morgan of Dragnet), Paul Stewart is the robbery boss, and Jan Sterling does another moll. This is pretty entertaining in a “T-Men” sort of way, but not half as stylish.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK: REVIEWS TO COME
Presenting Sacha Guitry (Four Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
France; Sacha Guitry, 1936-38 (Eclipse/Criterion)
Includes: The Story of a Cheat (France; Sacha Guitry, 1936.) Four Stars. (In French, with English subtitles.) The Pearls of the Crown (France; Sacha Guitry, 1937.) Four Stars. (In French, Italian and English, with English subtitles.) Desire (France; Sacha Guitry, 1937.) Three Stars. (In French, with English subtitles.) Quadrille (France; Sacha Guitry, 1938.) Three Stars. (In French, with English subtitles.)
Extras: Four essays by Michael Koresky.