PICKS OF THE WEEK: NEW
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Kurt Kuenne, 2008 (Oscilloscope)
2008 was a year of remarkable documentaries. My favorites were Martin Scorsese’s sizzling Stones concert movieShine a Light and James Marsh’s extraordinary, gut-wrenchingMan on Wire, about Philippe Petit‘s high-wire walk between the World Trade Center twin towers. But this film is extraordinary too: a personal tribute from one boyhood friend to another, that turns into a startling true crime story. Few non-fiction films generate as much rage and sadness, pity and terror.
Filmmaker Kuenne and his main subject, Andrew Bagby, were best friends; Andrew starred in Kurt’s boyhood film efforts, brightening his life and others as well. But there was a dark side to 28-year-old Andrew‘s life, primarily emanating from the twisted character of his 40ish fiancée Shirley Turner, who was fatally obsessed with him. What happens between the two of them, which Kuenne records here, is a stabbing tale of passion and death — but also of the seeming inability of authorities to act sensibly in some dangerous situations.
I don’t want to give away too much of Dear Zachary — which is framed as a letter about his dad written by Kuenne to Andrew’s son. But the story it tells is one of the most riveting and heartbreaking of the year.
CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS
Rachel, Rachel (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Paul Newman, 1968 (Warner)
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were one of the great American movie couples — I’d rank them with Tracy and Hepburn — and they prove their mettle in the brooding romantic drama Rachel, Rachel. It’s the best of the five Newman movies released on Warner DVD last week, and the blue-eyed racer and food impresario makes nary an appearance. Instead, he directs wife Woodward in the film that won both of them best actress and best director prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Golden Globes and four Oscar nominations — and started off his feature directorial career with a bang.
It’s a movie that shows Newman‘s non-macho side: an adaptation of Margaret Laurence‘s novel A Jest of God that focuses on Rachel, a thirty-something small town spinster schoolteacher, who cares for her self-absorbed mother (Kate Harrington) and finds herself pursued by a frank-talking local stud (James Olson) and a nervous fellow teacher and friend (Estelle Parsons).
The screenplay is by Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel Without a Cause for Newman‘s old acting rival, Jimmy Dean, and it’s a sensitive, intelligent, very human piece of work that’s been tailor-made for Woodward, Newman‘s longtime partner and wife. He does beautifully by her, helping her craft a role full of changes, secrets and depths, and directing her with care, smarts and a really loving eye. She’s superb. Parsons and Geraldine Fitzgerald (as a local evangelist) are excellent too. And all of the cast play with the seamless skill of a first-rate repertory troupe.
Newman though, made, I think, one big mistake here: He should have cast himself in the seducer role he gave Olson. I can see the reasons that prevailed: If people had seen Paul Newman, they might have been thrown right out of the story. But that’s not necessarily the way we experience movies with big, well-liked stars, and if Newman had played the part (which is perfect for him), the movie would probably have been more of a box-office as well as critical hit — and might have helped his later directorial career much more. (Unlike Clint Eastwood, Newman tended to avoid obvious moneymaking projects in the films he directed, making instead mainly small, prestige pictures — perhaps another tactical error.)
Playing love ‘em and leave ‘em Nick would have also blessed us with another Newman-Woodward film pairing. I wish he’d done it — and I wish he’d directed many more. But I‘m glad we have this one.
Extras: Promo footage, trailer.
PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SET
The Natalie Wood Collection (Three Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors (1957-65) (Warner)
Natalie Wood was a sex goddess of great fragility and vulnerability, a girl who never quite grew up, whose flashing dark Russian eyes stole your heart, and who lived her life with a fear of drowning (before her actual death by drowning): one great child movie actress who grew up beautiful and a star. We’ll always remember Natalie her for Judy inRebel Without a Cause (which should have been included in this set), and for Maria in West Side Story, but especially for Deanie in Splendor in the Grass, her finest performance and film, which is included in this box. The others are worth watching too; even the execrable Sex and the Single Girl is fascinatingly awful. But Splendor, and its magnificent last scene, takes you, and her, to the heights.
Included: Bombers B-52 (Gordon Douglas, 1957), Two-and-a-Half Stars. With Karl Malden as a crusty Army sergeant/airplane mechanic, Wood as his daughter, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (son of the famous concert violinist) as the colonel who woos her. Not too bad, especially when its up in the air. Cash McCall (Joseph Pevney, 1959) Two-and-a-Half Stars. Life among the speculators. Slick romantic comedy drama, from Cameron Hawley’s bestseller about a crafty high financier, Cash (played by James Garner) who goes after money and Natalie, not necessarily in that order. With Dean Jagger, Nina Foch, E. G. Marshall and Henry Jones. Not bad either. The clever script is by Marion Hargrove of the WW2 wartime comic memoir See Here, Private Hargrove and TV’s Maverick.
Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan, 1961) Four Stars. One of the great small town romances, set in Kansas just before the Depression, with Warren Beatty as Bud Stamper, the town golden boy, Natalie Wood as his poorer-side-of-town girlfriend, Deanie Loomis, and Pat Hingle in his all-time best performance, as Ace Stamper, Bud’s heartless bully of an oilman dad. Also with Barbara Loden, Audrey Christie, Sandy Dennis, and briefly, playwright Inge himself as the town minister. Passionate, vibrant, a real American masterpiece.
Gypsy (Mervyn LeRoy, 1962). Three Stars. Director LeRoy messed up the great Sondheim-Styne-Laurents-Robbins stage musical — based on the early girlhood and take-it-off career of legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee — mostly by miscasting Rosalind Russell as Gypsy‘s ferocious stage mother, Mama Rose. (Two of Mama Rose’s best songs, dropped from the movie, are here, as extras). But Wood isn’t bad and neither, surprisingly, is Malden as Rose’s ever-faithful Herbie. My pick for Mama Rose: the still-active Judy Garland. Of course, it would have been a gamble, but think what she could have done with “Rose‘s Turn….”
Sex and the Single Girl (Richard Quine, 1964) Two Stars. A slick, lewd romantic comedy based on one-time Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown’s how-to bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl — starring Natalie Wood as the Single Girl and Tony Curtis as Sex. (Not my line, but I wish it were.) Awful. Awful — despite the fact that novelist Joseph Heller of Catch 22 co-wrote the flaccid script, and the cast includes Henry Fonda, Lauren Bacall, Count Basie and his Orchestra, and Edward Everett Horton. (Horton’s opener is the only scene that works.) I repeat: Awful.
Inside Daisy Clover (Robert Mulligan, 1965) Three Stars. A really weird movie, with some great scenes and performances. Set in the ‘30s, it’s about rebellious lower class beach pier girl turned child movie star Daisy (played by Wood, she’s supposedly 15), with, as her eccentric ma, Ruth Gordon, restarting her career), Christopher Plummer as an evil studio boss, Robert Redford as a bisexual matinee idol, and Roddy McDowall as Plummer‘s right hand. Based by screenwriter Gavin Lambert on his novel, it doesn’t quite jell, and its feel is more ‘60s than ‘30s. But it haunts you.
Extras: “Gypsy” outtake musical numbers, trailers, cartoons.
OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVDS.
What Just Happened (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Barry Levinson, 2008 (Magnolia)
Producer-director Barry Levinson and producer-writer Art Linson take a lightly veiled reality-based poke at Hollywood and how it can drive a well-meaning producer crazy (not to mention directors and writers). The title is shortened from Linson‘s Hollywood memoir What Just Happened: Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line — and the movie has such an excellent cast (topped by producer-actor Robert De Niro in the Art Linson-ish role of Ben, the story’s smart, harassed moviemaker) that it’s a crying shame it tends to fall apart. What Just Happened? is exactly what I felt while walking out after the movie’s spectacularly unsatisfying ending.
The three main threads, not too well woven, include Ben‘s attempts to get back in good graces with his alienated ex-wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), a rapprochement complicated by a randy screenwriter (Stanley Tucci) with a florist drama script — and also Ben’s production problems with Bruce Willis, fearlessly parodying himself as “Bruce Willis,“ the recalcitrant star who refuses to shave off a heavy beard he’s grown for one of Ben‘s movies, even though his nervous agent, Dick (John Turturro) and angry executives think Bruce now looks like Grizzly Adams.
Last of the threads: Ben‘s headaches with his new movie, “Fiercely,” a neo-noir thriller so artsy that star Sean Penn (as himself) not only dies at he end, but the killers shoot his dog — to the consternation of the test audience and studio head Lou (Catherine Keener). She demands big changes — which the vain and mercurial Brit director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) rages and dawdles over before the film‘s imminent Cannes premiere. (What Just Happened? was a real-life closing night Cannes entry.)
What happened? The problem, as often elsewhere, lies in the script. Scenarist Linson has some juicy characters and sometimes sharp dialogue, but he hasn’t re-imagined or repopulated these “bitter tales” enough and his story structure is too loose. (Perhaps he needed a collaborator.) There are few surprises in his resolutions, not enough conflict between Brunell and Ben, not enough Cannes color and characters or opening night tension over the movie (a great opportunity slipped away). And we could even use more of an explanation for Bruce Willis’s attachment to his new ZZ Top look.
De Niro, by the way, is very good. He gives an almost Spencer Tracy-ish performance as Ben, and he’s very well supported by everyone, especially Wincott, a real raw-edge, blowup specialist. (I still remember Wincott’s blazing Talk Radio turn). But the picture still doesn‘t work. It just goes to show: Making movies is no snap.
Sex Drive (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Sean Anders, 2006 (Summit Entertainment)
A raunchy, gross-out road comedy about sex crazed nerds and nervous virgins on the loose — which then tries to make amends for its dumb-but-calculated plot and trashy gags with a heart-warming climax in the Judd Apatow vein — Sex Drive is pretty bad. But it’s a little better than you might imagine, thanks to a lively cast and an excellent cinematographer (Tim Orr, of David Gordon Green’s movies).
Still, if your expectations for this one are low, you’re right on the money. In this brainlessly cheerful leer-fest, college-bound geek Ian (Josh Zuckerman) steals the vintage Pontiac GTO of his macho-man homophobic brother (James Marsden) for a Chicago-to-Knoxville ride with his pals: glib seducer Lance (Clarke Duke) and (Ian’s real crush) stalwart Felicia (Amanda Crew). The three endure endless foul-ups, so Ian can hook up with the hot Internet babe, whom he’s never met in the flesh, Ms. Tasty (Katrina Bowden).
Why? How? Ms. Tasty has declared herself ready to de-virginize desperate Ian — who has been posing on the net as a hot-talking football stud.
Yarggh! Ptooey! Stinkeroonie! The actors are not bad (especially Duke, and Seth Green as an Amish hipster) and the cheap laughs keep coming. But director-writer Sean Anders aims so low that, when he hits his targets or his prime target audience (indiscriminate teens and twenty-somethings looking to get lucky on a date), it’s like watching a boxer beat up a blind man. And, given the level of the humor — which includes masturbation, fellatio fantasies, road kill jokes, Amish orgies and Internet sex gab, and ends with a peek-a-boo shot at an old man’s scrotum — I’m surprised that no blind men were hired here and beaten up. (They do stomp and maim a small, helpless animal.)
This shameless geeks-and-babes farce may give you a chuckle. But, unless you’re desperate to be devirginized yourself, and willing to settle for a fellatio fantasy and Amish wet dreams, you’ll probably feel bad in the morning.
The Wedding Director (Three Stars)
Italy; Marco Bellocchio, 2006 (New Yorker)
Bellocchio‘s comic portrait of brilliant but on-the-skids film director Franco (deftly played by Sergio Castellitto), who hires on to help his admirer, a Sicilian wedding film director, shoot the nuptials of a beautiful young lady (Donatella Finocchiaro) with whom Franco has fallen in love. An outlandish story, lavishly and amusingly shot. With Sami Frey. (In Italian, with English subtitles.)
Extras: Featurette, trailer.
Delbaran (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
Iran/Japan; Abolfazl Jalili, 2001 (Facets/Celluloid Dreams)
A plucky Afghan boy refugee, who has illegally crossed the border into Iran, runs errands for an old man who runs a truck stop near the border, while trying to elude both local bandits and the police. A marvelous little movie, beautifully shot and full of atmosphere. Winner of the Don Quixote Prize at Locarno. With Kaim Alizadeh. In Farsi, with English subtitles.
When Time Ran Out… (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; James Goldstone, 1980 (Warner)
Producer Irwin Allen‘s most absurd disaster movie — in which the usual all-star ensemble is trapped on an island with an exploding volcano — unfortunately includes among its glittering cast such unfortunates as Paul Newman, Jackie Bisset, William Holden, Red Buttons, Valentina Cortesa and Burgess Meredith, all of whom should have much better (if less lucrative) things to do with their time. Once the volcano blows, crazy entrepreneur James Franciscus does everything possibly to keep everybody on the island, while hero Newman (surprisingly good in this crud), tries everything to rescue them.
The suspense is stupefying. The lava creeps along. So does the movie, which reaches its ludicrous peak, when Burgess Meredith does a high wire act on a crumbling suspension bridge over a river of lava, to rescue two screaming children. You won’t believe your eyes and ears — Carl Foreman and Stirling Silliphant are guilty of the screenplay — but its not quite campy and nutty enough to be genuine fun.
The Outrage (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Martin Ritt, 1964 (Warner)
Director Martin Ritt and writer Michael Kanin’s Western remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s great multi-angle crime drama Rashomon, with Paul Newman replacing Toshiro Mifune in a role that has now become a psychotic Mexican bandido, raping Claire Bloom and killing her husband (Laurence Harvey), while William Shatner, Howard Da Silva and Edward G. Robinson mull over the flashbacks. A real misfire, but its still smarter than most of today’s failures. Dwight MacDonald had a great putdown in his 1964 Esquire review of The Outrage, remarking that Laurence Harvey gave a better performance than usual, perhaps because he was gagged and tied to a post.
The Helen Morgan Story (Three Stars)
U. S.; Michael Curtiz, 1957 (Warner)
Michael Curtiz‘s ‘50s movies are often dismissed, and it‘s true he had no Casablancas, Sea Hawks, Yankee Doodle Dandys, or Mildred Piercesin the decade. But Curtiz did some pretty good stuff from 1950-1961 (his last filmmaking year), including The Breaking Point, Bright Leaf, Young Man With a Horn, White Christmas, We’re No Angels, King Creole, The Comancheros and this movie — which is a kind of film noir gangster bio-musical, based on the life and high and hard times of the scintillating but alcoholic Roaring ’20s “Showboat” songbird Helen Morgan (played byMildred Pierce’s evil Vida, Ann Blyth, well-dubbed by Gogi “The Wayward Wind” Grant), along with her reckless gangster boyfriend Larry Maddux (Paul Newman, at his bad boy sexiest).
The film, shot in Cinemascope and black-and-white, is very sentimentally written, like a combination of The Untouchables and I’ll Cry Tomorrow. But it looks great. In fact, it looks a bit like Billy Wilder‘s later gangster noir comedySome Like It Hot — which may have been influenced by this movie’s sets and coffee-booze-speakeasy gags. With Alan King, Richard Carlson and Cara Williams, and cameos by Walter Winchell, Rudy Vallee, and composer Jimmy McHugh (on Helen’s piano).
The Silver Chalice (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Victor Saville, 1954 (Warner)
This is the famously static biblical romance — based on Thomas Costain‘s bestseller about the statuesque sculptor (Newman) who supposedly did the casing and embellishments on the chalice Jesus used for The Last Supper — that started Newman‘s movie career, but that he so disliked that he took out a Variety ad on its re-showing, apologizing for it. Actually, he’s not bad. He gives the mock-religious eloquence an edge, and he certainly looks like a matinee biblical hero. Also in the movie: Pier Angeli (Jimmy Dean’s love and later Newman’s costar, under better circumstances, in Somebody Up There Likes Me) as the good girl; Virginia Mayo as the bad, Jack Palance as a mad magician, Lorne Greene as the Apostle Peter, and Natalie Wood, in a blonde wig, as the young Mayo. The sets are by the great Boris Leven (West Side Story, Anatomy of a Murder) and they reminded me, maybe perversely of Dr. Seuss’ goofy-moony designs for The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.
– Michael Wilmington
February 24, 2009