MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: A Secret, Dodes’ka-den, L’Innocente and more … plus, this week’s box set


A Secret (Un Secret) (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
France; Claude Miller, 2007 (Strand Releasing)

The young French film critic Francois Truffaut used to snipe at the obvious craftsmanship and overt social/political themes of what he almost sneeringly called “the tradition of quality.” Here, Truffaut’s ex-assistant Claude Miller offers an impressive modern equivalent of that tradition and that quality: a beautifully crafted, sensitively acted, adaptation of Philippe Grimbert’s autobiographical novel about a French Jewish family caught up in the Holocaust, a budding romantic triangle, and wounding questions of Jewish identity.

As recalled by a troubled young therapist, Francois Grinberg (played by the ubiquitous Mathieu Amalric), in the ‘80s, (and seen at earlier points in his life and his parents’), it’s a revelation of the family secrets that lie behind his alienation from his more athletic and hard-nosed father Maxime (Patrick Bruel), his adoration of his fashion model/swimming champion mother Tania (Cecile de France) and his fantasies about an imaginary ghost brother. In fact, back during the Nazi occupation of France and the horror of the camps, there was a brother, Simon (Orlando Nicoletti) and another wife to Maxime, Hannah (Ludivine Sagnier), — and what happened to them has colored everything since in the lives of his family.

This is an excellent, shimmering family drama — as good as anything the old “quality“ directors like Claude Autant-Lara or Jean Dellanoy, or writers like Aurenche and Bost, made — and almost as good as Truffaut’s own WW2-set message movie The Last Metro. Of course, the older Truffaut was far more tolerant of than the angry, feared young critic he used to be. I think he would have loved this movie, for example — and saluted his old assistant. It‘s one of Miller’s best films, and it proves that fine directors improve with age. (Miller is 67). And that tradition, and quality, are nothing to sniff at. (In French, with English subtitles. )



Dodes’ka-den (Four Stars) (A)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1970 (Criterion Classics)

One of Akira Kurosawa’s strangest and most haunting films, and his first in color, Dodes’ka-den is set in a Tokyo slum which, shot in radiant hues against stylized studio sets and cycloramas, sometimes resembles a gorgeous, curious playground. (It also looks like the child‘s crayon drawings that paper one hut‘s wall.) The sources of this movie are the short stories, set among impoverished Japanese, by writer Shugoro Yamamoto; the stories — which show us such human tragedies and comedies as a case of jovial wife-swapping, a man whose wartime sufferings make him long for suicide, a young girl‘s rape by her sleazy uncle, a handicapped husband bullied by his abusive wife, and the slow starvation of a ragged homeless man and his tiny frail son, who live in a wrecked car and dream of a custom-made luxury home.

Any one of most of these tales could break your heart; together they form an odd, piercing pageant of suffering and perseverance, woven together like the Raymond Carver short stories Robert Altman made into Short Cuts. The color images have a childlike saturated gleam and the acting has a fairytale swagger and lyricism. Dodes’ka-den, which Kurosawa made with the help of his three colleague/friends Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi and Keisuke Kinoshita (the four tried to form a mutual production company but the failure of Kurosawa‘s film killed it) shows, like his film of Gorky’s Lower Depths, his strong empathy with the poor and downtrodden. Though his perspective is often from a samurai’s eye, he finds something to love in many of these beaten-down people, something to hate in a few.

Dodes’ka-den, made after his miserable American studio experience with Tora! Tora! Tora! (intended as a joint project for Kurosawa and John Ford) inaugurates the second half of the sensei’s (the master’s) career. Though I found this film perplexing at first, back in 1970, over the years, I‘ve begun to love it and see it as one of his masterpieces. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Documentary (on the making of Dodes’ka-den), Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create; trailer; booklet with Stephen Prince essay.

L’Innocente (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
Italy; Luchino Visconti, 1976 (Koch Lorber)

No one paints the Italian upper classes like maestro Luchino Visconti. This visually stunning adaptation of the Gabrielle d’Annunzio novel, is a feast of sumptuous imagery and décor (life among the aristocrats), set behind shocking sexual obsessions and mad perversity. Giancarlo Giannini, as Tullio, an arrogant philanderer, cheats on his seemingly innocent wife (Laura Antonelli) with a beautiful fellow libertine (Jennifer O’Neill). Then, after discovering his wife‘s infidelity with a famous novelist, he goes mad with jealousy, desire and bloodlust.

This was Visconti‘s last film, and, as inConversation Piece, he directed it from a wheelchair. But despite the somewhat static, stately feel, it’s both a beautiful film and an often extremely disturbing one. Living a life of grandiloquent ease and luxury, of classical music recitals and fencing matches, the characters, especially Tullio, seem to lack for nothing. Yet they may lose everything, in the crucible of their own selfishness, passion and corruption. Like Visconti’s great classic The Leopard, this is an operatic vision of grand but deeply flawed lives, full of beauty, grief, rage and terror. ( In Italian, with English subtitles.)

Extra: Carlo Lizzani interview with L’Innocente writer Suso Cecchi d’Amico.



Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Three: William Wellman (Three and a Half Stars) (A-)
U. S.; William Wellman, 1931-33 (Warner Bros./TCM Archives)

William Wellman was a raging bull of a maverick moviemaker, a two-fisted guy who liked to cry, and who loved airplanes, dancers, battling authority and making movies — and one of the most interesting segments of his career is the one we see here. These are his films from the pre-Code era, when he was churning out (mostly for Warner Brothers), fast racy movies that tended to show life as it is — adultery, prostitution, gangsterism, bootlegging, Depression and social unrest — without the filters of Hollywood’s later era of censorship.

This was the period when Wellman made the Jimmy Cagney gangster classic Public Enemy. It‘s not included here, but you can tell these six films are from the same unbuttoned and daring studio era. The TCM set contains lots of nifty extras, including two good documentaries on Wellman, and one masterpiece, Wellman’s great rough-house saga of kids on trains in the Depression, Wild Boys of the Road, starring Frankie Darro and Wellman‘s wife (and ex-Busby Berkeley dancer) Dorothy Coonan. Boys is the peak movie here, but the other five all have strong moments, vital imagery and audacious themes and stories. Right on, Wild Bill! ( All fiction features directed by William Wellman.)

Includes: Other Men’s Women (William Wellman, 1931). (Three Stars) Surprisingly strong triangle tale set in the world of trains and engineers, with Grant Withers, Mary Astor and Regis Toomey. (Cagney, in his pre-star days, has a supporting role; had he played the lead, this might have been a Warners classic.The Purchase Price (1932). (Two-and-a-Half Stars). Somewhat reminiscent of Murnau’s City Girl, this peculiar romance has torrid Barbara Stanwyck as a tough city chantoozie on the lam, seeking refuge with stalwart Midwestern farmer George Brent. Outrageous but fun.

Frisco Jenny(1933). (Two-and-a-Half Stars) Madame X-style soap opera, with elegant sufferer Ruth Chatterton as the rich Frisco madame, who watches her illegitimate son (Donald Cook) rise to success and (unfortunately for her ) moral idealism. Midnight Mary(1933). (Three Stars) The incredibly gorgeous young Loretta Young (who was as photogenic as Garbo or Dietrich) plays a tough beauty from the streets who becomes the moll of a brutal gangster (Ricardo Cortez) and the lovelight of a kind rich boy (Franchot Tone). Crazy clichéd stuff, but it really works. A sleeper.Heroes for Sale (1933) (Three Stars). One of the looniest political message movies ever, with self-sacrificing WWI vet Richard Barthelmess, traveling through a pageant of Depression adventures and tragedies (including a labor riot exploding around poor Loretta Young). There’s even a Communist inventor. All of it teaches us something about the New Deal and other political new waves.

Wild Boys of the Road(1933) (Four Stars) Back in the 1960s, campus radicals, anti-war protestors and other rebels were crazy about this movie. And it still holds up both as blistering melodrama and as powerful populist moviemaking. In the depths of the Depression, two buddies (Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips) hit the road to help their strapped parents. On the way from the Midwest to New York City, they pick up a girl hobo (Dorothy Coonan), and endure hardship, starvation, train rape (by guard Ward Bond) and riots. One of Wellman’s very best, along with Wings, Public Enemy, The Ox-Bow Incident and The Story of G. I. Joe. You‘ll be amazed at how this movie gets to you.

Extras: Documentaries Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick (D: Todd Robinson) (Three Stars) and The Men Who Made the Movies (Richard Schickel) Three Stars (B); commentaries; three S. S. Van Dine murder mystery shorts; cartoons, trailers.



Quantum of Solace (Three Stars)
U.K.-U.S.; Marc Forster

The latest James Bond, Quantum of Solace (the title comes from an otherwise unrelated Ian Fleming short story) has a good director (Marc Forster of The Kite Runner), good or semi-good writers (Neal Purvis and Robert Wade of three previous Bonds and, more importantly, Paul Haggis of Million Dollar Baby and Crash). And it’s probably the biggest grossing Bond ever. But truth to tell, it didn’t do as much for me as Goldfinger.

It‘s not bad. It‘s certainly formula Bond. Daniel Craig’s new, more sullen Bond beds the tart, bossy Camille (Olga Kurylenko), while pursuing her nefarious lover, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), owner of the duplicitous Greene Planet, an eco-corporation that’s actually a criminal enterprise, and winds up foiling a Bolivian water swindle. Given its goals — aesthetic, commercial and otherwise, it’s a success. Craig has clearly sealed the deal as the new Bond, grimmer and less bemused than Connery (still the best, in my mind), but capable of leaping from rooftop to rooftop and displaying casual sadism like few spy-killer-loverboys you could name.

Yet, despite strenuous efforts in the Bourne Identity vein, it’s not as entertaining as Casino Royale, Goldfinger or, for that matter, From Russia, With Love, which is the movie I would advise the designated writers to watch carefully, again, before embarking on the next Bond script.

The 1963 From Russia, With Love was the favorite Bond film of writer Richard Maibaum, who wrote or co-wrote most of them from 1962’s Dr. No to 1989‘s License to Kill. Maibaum probably liked it so much because it gave him a formula and a franchise and a very good living for three decades. It was the movie that established the mode and style that made the movie series such a hit: a mix of the grim sadism and elegant wish fulfillment of Fleming‘s novels and the cool, insider humor that Maibaum and the others injected, and that Connery was so expert at delivering. (“Shocking!” Bond/Connery wryly says, after electrocuting a foe.)

Bond without humor is a hamburger without catsup, an Aston-Martin without steering, a gourmet dinner without wine. The 007 crew rediscovered something interesting in Casino: the elitist sadism of the books. But the humor is what makes Bond tick. Remember Dick Maibaum.

Bolt (Three Stars)
U.S.: Byron Howard, Chris Williams

A better, and funnier, movie than you might think. Directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams and writers Williams and Dan Fogleman imagine an intrepid dog named Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) and his loving mistress Penny (Miley Cyrus), who are the stars of an unlikely TV series where Bolt is a superdog, and Penny his on and off-screen mistress, and where Bolt has been conned into believing that all his fantasy heroics are actually happening. That’s not such a hot premise.

But once Bolt and Penny are separated and Bolt starts to fight his way back through the fly-over zone from New York to L. A., the show becomes amusing — thanks to some stellar 3D effects and character animation, and voice characterizations by Travolta, Susie Essman (a wow as the feline cynic Mittens) and Mark Walton as the irrepressible hero-worshipping hamster Rhino. The result is a kind of hopped-up cartoon Incredible Journey. Yet it got to me.

The Kite Runner (Blu-Ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.; Marc Forster, 2007 (DreamWorks)

Based on Khaled Hosseini’s very popular (and partly autobiographical) novel about two young friends in Afghanistan separated by class divisions and later the war, turned by director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) into a lovingly crafted movie that, for most of the way, remains admirably intelligent, a truly humane and compassionate drama. In Arabic and English, with English subtitles.

Extras: Commentary with Forster, Hosseini and screenwriter David Benioff; Words and Images from The Kite Runner; trailer.

The Odd Couple: Paramount Centennial Collection (Three Stars)
U. S.; Gene Saks, 1968 (Paramount)

Nervous, punctilious Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) and wise-cracking slob Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) are long time poker buddies thrown together in Oscar’s N.Y. apartment because of marital troubles. Can they survive their own semi-conjugal non-bliss? Neil Diamond’s (excuse me, Neil Simon’s) best play, and one of the best modern stage comedies — though Simon never really did solve that last act. Saks’ direction is pedestrian but okay; it’s a shame Billy Wilder couldn’t have done it with his two best acting buddies. (Simon’s instincts were right though; Billy would have changed it. But then again, he might have solved the last act.)

To Catch a Thief: Paramount Centennial Collection (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Alfred Hitchcock, 1955 (Paramount)

Cary Grant is a Riviera cat burglar, framed by another mysterious thief and chased by both the local gendarmerie and his old pals in the Resistance; Grace Kelly is a rich luscious vacationer who can really get those fireworks going. One of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining movies, beautifully shot in Cannes and surrounding locations, with Grant and Kelly making up his sexiest couple, except maybe for Grant and Bergman in Notorious. From the novel by David Dodge. With Jessie Royce Landis, Charles Vanel and John Williams.

Max Fleischer’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (Three Stars)
U. S.; Dave Fleischer, 1939 (EI Entertainment)

The Fleischer Brothers’ attempt to match Walt Disney’s 1937 fairytale smash, Snow White. with a cutesy, tuneful cartoon feature from the Lilliput section of Jonathan Swift’s classic satire/adventure. Of course, they can’t catch Snow, but it’s the most elaborate and ambitious movie the Fleischers ever made, and it’s still fun rto watch — even if the main comic character, ever-yapping Gabby, is pretty damned obnoxious. The print is gorgeous.

Extras: Two “Gabby” cartoons, made from Gulliver outtakes; Fleischer Studio documentary The Making of a Cartoon.


Midsomer Murders, Vol. 12 (Four discs) (Three Stars)
U.K.: Various directors, 1997-2000 (Acorn Media)

Midsomer Murders, now in its twelfth volume, is still one of the best of the breed of English TV village murder mysteries. Based on the Caroline Graham mysteries, starring John Nettles as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, they’re modern stories that which preserve some of the feel of the classic Agatha Christies, while getting in lots of contemporary culture, character, sexuality, perversity and social comment. With Jane Wymark, Jason Hughes and Laura Howard. All films are U. K. productions, released in 2006.

Included: Four Funerals and a Wedding (Sarah Hellings), Country Matters (Richard Holthouse), Death in Chorus (Hellings), Last Year’s Model (Holthouse).

Extras: Text interviews with Nettles and Hughes, Graham biography, cast filmographies.

– Michael Wilmington
March 24, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon