MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Synecdoche, NY, Faust and more …plus, this week’s box set


Synecdoche, New York (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Charlie Kaufman, 2008 (Sony)

Synecdoche (def.): A figure of speech where the whole is used for the part or the part for the whole. I.e.: steel for sword, or thief for pickpocket.

As an actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman can project so much sparkling intelligence on the one hand and so much dysfunctional eccentricity on the other that he’s something of a synecdoche himself: humanity for the actor, or the actor for humanity.
He’s a natural for the crazy artist role in ace screenwriter Charlie (Adaptation) Kaufman‘s brilliantly oddball writer-directorial debut.

Hoffman, neuroses firmly on tap and ego and id somersaulting all over each other, plays Caden Cotard, a small-time playwright/theatre director in Schenectady (rhymes with “Synecdoche”), N.Y. who lives with a faithless stunt-canvas painter named Adele Lack, cheats with a sexy theatre worker named Hazel (Samantha Morton) and who has become a tormented, self-obsessed man crumbling into physical decay and madness, when he suddenly gets a big time MacArthur genius grant and plunges into an insanely complex, semi-autobiographical, stage project in a Manhattan warehouse.

This endless theater piece involves so much Pirandellian sleight-of-hand-and-mind — characters playing characters playing other characters, life turned into a shell game, reality twisted into a moebius strip — that deciphering the plot is something like tumbling into one of Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai hall of mirrors while reading blackberry texts by Barthes, Borges, and Sigmund Freud. The themes are life, art and various interpenetrations, and the ending has a wistful-poetic sadness that suggests it‘s all a dream, it’s all madness — or is it?

Kaufman’s script is first rate — ambitious and playful, funny and sad, brilliant and barmy. It was really cheated out of an original screenplay prize last Oscar-time, possibly because too many voters agreed with the shallow critical dismissals of “Synecdoche” as “pretentious.” Hah! We should have more movie pretensions as rich, audacious and imaginative as this.

As for Kaufman’s direction, it’s solid. He knows and picks excellent actors — like Tom Noonan as the actor playing Caden, Emily Watson as the actress playing Hazel, Michelle Williams as the actress playing Adele, Hope Davis as the celebrity shrink, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Teutonic menace. He has a good visual imagination, and, most important, he doesn’t mess up his script. I’m sure we’re going to see some terrific stuff from him, as long as he doesn’t worry about being pretentious.

After all, as that great, renowned and long-necked philosopher Gerard du Giraffe, is fond of saying: Life is a dream. A dream is life. And vice versa.



Faust (Four Stars)
Germany; F. W. Murnau, 1926 (Kino)

Faust (1926) (A) This visually splendid version of Goethe’s classic play about the old scholar Faust (Gosta Ekman) who pursues youth and love, and finds destruction, with the aid of a lecherous, capering Mephistopheles (Jannings, at his ripest and hammiest), was an artistic high point for Murnau. His love of the great painters and great theatre find here a perfect synthesis. With, as the young lovers, Camilla Horn and the later prolific Hollywood director, William Dieterle.



Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (Four Stars)
Japan; Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933-41 (Criterion Eclipse)

Criterion‘s Eclipse series has been peerless at providing showcases for more obscure works by great, famous directors (like Bergman, Kurosawa, Lubitsch, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Rossellini) and the great works of more obscure directors (like Raymond Bernard and Larisa Shepitko). Here they take the latter course, box-setting four ‘30s gems by a filmmaker few of us have seen or (in some cases) even heard of: Hiroshi Shimizu. Shimizu, a touching and deeply human Japanese comedian/realist who is expert at creating the illusion and distilling the poetry of everyday life, and a master at directing fine ensemble casts.

Shimizu was a friend and mutual admirer of Ozu’s, and they share the same warm, generous, compassionate world view, though their methods are very different. Ozu’s great works, like Late Spring and Tokyo Story, were carefully scripted and precisely staged and shot. Shimizu frequently worked without scripts or with only rough sketches. Sometimes, he made up scenes on the spot — like his American counterparts Gregory La Cava and Leo McCarey.

I love these movies, especially the poignant, funny and picaresque 1936 bus ride saga, Mr. Thank You. In this unscripted delight, handsome young Ken Uehara plays an unfailingly kind bus driver, whose salutation “Thank you! Thank you!” greets all the pilgrims that he passes on the mountain roads from rural Izu to Tokyo, and partly back again. The 1941 Ornamental Hairpin is also a gem. Taken together, Shimizu’s films, despite seemingly soap operatic subjects, are not at all false, sappy or saccharine . They’re radiant, wise and very warm-hearted, and it’s a pity we don’t have more American equivalents. Like saki and fine music, they gladden the heart and soothe the soul. (All the Shimizu films are Japanese, and all, except the silent Japanese Girls at the Harbor are in Japanese language, with English subtitles.)

Included: Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933). (Three-and-a-Half Stars). Two young girl friends are driven apart by a man, another rival and a scandalous shooting. This melodramatic subject is handled with great delicacy and feeling, and shot on beautiful Yokohama seaside landscapes. With Michiko Oikawa and Yukiko Inoue. Silent, with musical score, Japanese intertitles and English subtitles.Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, 1936) (Four Stars). The best in the set. A good-hearted bus driver, nicknamed “Mr. Thank You” (Uehara) is a shining example among his diverse group of passengers, and to the pedestrians who also know and love him — and rarely fail to ask for favors. In a way, the mood here suggests the great bus ride sequence of It Happened One Night, translated to the more discreet Japanese sensibility and extended to feature length. The cast is top-rate, the mountainscapes poetic. Bravo, Shimizu!

The Masseurs and a Woman (Shimizu, 1938) (Three-and-a-Half Stars). Blind masseurs and beautiful or customers at a bucolic mountain resort. Another warm but savvy Shimizu ensemble piece. Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, 1941) (Four Stars) Two great actors — Mizoguchi‘s favorite leading lady Kinuyo Tanaka and Ozu’s favorite leading man Chishu Ryu — emerge from this famous Shimizu ensemble comedy-drama about a beguiling cross-section of vacationers at another mountain resort, all of whom become involved in the shy romance of a kept Tokyo woman (Tanaka) and a solider whose foot was injured, in a spa pool, on her hairpin. No extras.

Murnau (Four Stars)
Germany; F. W. Murnau, 1921 (Kino)

A set that should be a cornerstone of any movie lover‘s collection: six often remarkable silent films by a great director almost universally hailed in his time, the German master F. W. Murnau.

Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe of mixed German-Swedish descent, Murnau (who adopted his last name from a German city where he worked in theatre) was a genius of the cinema — part of the great post-war German wave that also produced Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and G. W. Pabst. A student of art history and a protégé of theatrical legend Max Reinhardt, he had the best camera eye of all of them, and he helped bring the visual and dramatic treasures of great painting and theatre into the movies, creating works of high emotion, macabre moodiness and sometimes supernatural beauty. In Murnau’s matchless composition and design, we can see some of the dense, exact virtuosity of the Dutch masters Rembrandt, Vermeer and Breughel, whom he revered; his subjects included classic plays by Goethe and Moliere.

This essential box set replaces an early Kino 5-film Murnau box that included the South Seas classic Tabu (Milestone’s release, and still available from them), but lacked Kino’s recently restored versions of Nosferatu and The Last Laughand the rediscovered The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke. (Sunrise is available in the excellent Murnau, Borzage and Fox set from 20th Century Fox, along with his flawed but interesting 1930City Girl.)

(All the films are German silents directed by Murnau, with music scores and either English intertitles, or German intertitles with English subtitles.)

Includes: The Haunted Castle (Germany; F. W. Murnau, 1921) See below. Nosferatu (1922) (Four Stars) One of the creepiest and most poetically sinister horror movies ever, Murnau’s uncredited (and legally-challenged) adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a silent film masterpiece. Heavily influenced by the occult movements of the day, it also has one of the great horrific film monsters: Max Schreck as Count Orlok (Dracula). Orlok, the fore-runner of Lugosi and Karloff, looks (and acts) like a walking corpse, dry as dust and famished for blood. Murnau shot this classic on palatial, cavernous sets and in the actual Carpathian mountains. It’s the film signal achievement that it makes vampires seem real, German expressionism seem almost naturalistic, and death seem very close, a breath on the neck, seductive.

The Last Laugh (1924) (Four Stars) An old, proud hotel porter (played magnificently by Emil Jannings), guides guests and luggage into Berlin‘s swanky Atlantic Hotel, resplendent in a uniform that suggests a Transylvanian general. But one day, the old porter is heartlessly robbed of his position — and his precious coat — and exiled to the lowly, humiliating job of washroom attendant. Distraught, he steals the uniform for one more appearance at a wedding –but the results prove disastrous. Brilliantly directed by Murnau, this great film was considered a classic from its first release; its innovative camerawork and powerful story moved audiences worldwide. This is a restoration of the lesser seen (and superior) German release version. The Finances of the Grand Duke(1924) See below.

Tartuffe (1925) (Three-and-a-Half Stars) An all too short but scrumptiously and wittily done version, done with real taste and elegance, of the classic Moliere comedy about a religious hypocrite and con man (Jannings), his wealthy dupe (Werner “Dr. Caligari” Krauss) and the gull‘s knockout wife (Lil Dagover), who sees through Tartuffe. Faust (1926) See above.

Extras: Documentaries on Murnau, Nosferatu and The Last Laugh; commentary on The Finances of the Grand Duke by David Kalat; excerpts from eight Murnau films; orchestral accompaniments (including the original Giuseppe Becce score for The Last Laugh, rerecorded); screen test footage of Lubitsch‘s abandoned 1923 film Marguerite and Faust; and photo and set design painting galleries.



Twilight (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Catherine Hardwicke, 2009 (Summit Entertainment)

I haven’t read Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling teen vampire novels, but this would-be ultra-romantic movie — made by Catherine Hardwicke ( Thirteen) , a director I’ve admired in the past — didn’t awaken any insatiable hungers.

The movie is about an ordinary high school girl from a broken home, Bella (Kristen Stewart) who enters a new school in her police chief dad‘s (Billy Burke) Northwest small town and finds herself befriended by local cuties and also the impassioned desire-object of the disturbingly handsome Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who looks like a Ralph Lauren ad and acts like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Despite warnings from everybody, including Edward, Bella falls in love. And the trouble begins — not from Edward’s friendly vampire family (dad Peter Facinelli and his teenage kids), but from a trio of renegade bloodsuckers that shows up. It takes about half the movie for things to really get going — and then the thrills are fairly typical big-studio heartstoppers: aerial love scenes, Hong Kong style flying fights and a super-baseball game, interspersed with family arguments and high school antics intended to ground the fancifully grisly stuff in some kind of shopping mall reality.

When Hardwicke and Twilight cast member Nikki Reed (along with Evan Rachel Wood and Holly Hunter) made Thirteen, they hooked us by their honesty. The movie depicted teenagers with a fierce candor, and when it delved into the wild side, it didn’t sensationalize. Hardwicke tries to bring that kind of veracity toTwilight to counterbalance the vampire stuff. But it doesn’t work. The story is a romanticized teen masturbation fantasy, a bit better written and acted than usual.

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

Can the old, archetypal moving story of Lassie Come Home — about the incredible collie who goes cross country to rejoin a beloved master — meld amicably with cartoon show biz satire and backstage movie pyrotechnics, in an all-out 3-D funny-animals cartoon feature? It does inBolt, which is a better, and funnier, movie than you might think. Directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams and writers Williams and Dan Fogleman imagine intrepid doggie 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 engaging 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.” The songs, including one co written and sung by Cyrus (with Travolta), are pretty good, the jokes are mostly funny and the technique is spectacular, like a Looney Tune cubed. As for Travolta, he hasn’t been this appealingly doggish since Pulp Fiction.

Elegy (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Isabel Coixet, 2008 (Sony)

Adapted from a Philip Roth novel, this is an intense May-November romance about the affair of a novelist and his young admirer (the admirable pair of Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz), that one suspects might have spring from a Roth experience or two. Dennis Hopper steals his scenes as the writer’s crony.

Quo Vadis (Blu-Ray) (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Mervyn LeRoy, 1951 (Warner)

A terrifically entertaining biblical saga, based on the best-selling classic novel about Nero’s mad reign, by Polish Catholic novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz. The blockbuster movie, which MGM thought might top Gone With the Wind, relishes both Nero‘s antics, as performed unforgettably by Peter Ustinov, and the impassioned assault by a cocky Roman commander (Robert Taylor) on a beauteous adopted Christian (Deborah Kerr) — and his inevitable conquest by her body and soul. Unusually well cast and directed with a flair for sumptuous spectacle and outrageous melodrama by LeRoy, it’s more fun than Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments put together, and as exciting as either. (Yes, I’m including the Red Sea parting in Commandments and the chariot race inBen-Hur).

The most amazing human element inQuo Vadis is the incredible High Roman comedy team of Ustinov as the insanely effete and self-infatuated Nero and Leo Genn as his sardonic straight man Petronius. These two, both nominated for Oscars for Quo Vadis, may have you in stitches every time Nero rolls out a new orgy, plots a new intrigue, tries to instigate coliseum bloodbath with his effete thumb or — most horrible of all — pulls out his lyre and warbles one of his own songs. Ustinov manages to create the most memorable credible, and hilarious Roman historical monster until John Hurt‘s Caligula came along in I Claudius.

Fascinatingly, this epic Christian movie saga was brought most congenially to the screen by a Jewish director (LeRoy), three Jewish or part-Jewish screenwriters (John Lee Mahin, Sonya Levien and S. N. Behrman) and a Jewish studio head (Louis B. Mayer). The Polish cinema has produced much more faithful movie epics adapted from Sienkiewicz, like Aleksander Ford’s Knights of the Black Cross, but none more enjoyable.

The Extras include an excellent commentary by my old L. A. Weekly pal F. X. Feeney, a featurette, trailer, and the original road show and exit music.

The Robe (Blu-Ray) (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Henry Koster, 1953 (20th Century Fox)

Minister-turned-novelist Lloyd C. Douglas wrote the book behind one of the nuttiest of all movie domestic dramas (soaps to you), Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession. Here, he supplied the plot for one of the nuttiest, if oddly moving, biblical epics: the bizarre spiritual adventure story of brooding Roman centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), who goes bonkers and then becomes inspired when he touches the robe Christ wore on crucifixion day, Jean Simmons as the beauty who spurns an emperor’s dubious bed for love of Marcellus, Victor Mature as the rebellious and hunky slave gladiator Demetrius, Michael Rennie, making the Earth Stand Still again as the Apostle, and Jay Robinson as the campiest Caligula until Hurt.

More Jewish off-screen talent was involved in this first Cinemascope movie, including director Koster and black-listed ghost Albert Maltz, who co-wrote the script with Philip Dunne, but the results in this first movie in Cinemascope are less engaging, if not daffier. It makes you wonder what Lloyd Douglas‘s sermons were like.

The Haunted Castle (Three Stars)
Germany; F. W. Murnau, 1921 (Kino)

A gathering of aristocrats at a gloomy, rain-drenched chateau includes a sinister count (Lothar Mehnert) who may be his brother‘s murderer — as well as the brother’s spooky widow (Olga Tschechowa) and a strange, strange man of God. An earlier Murnau ghost story that pales next to Nosferatu, made the next year. But it still provides some eerie pleasures. (Silent, with music score, German intertitles and English subtitles.)

The Finances of the Grand Duke (Three Stars)
Germany; F. W. Murnau, 1924 (Kino)

This sunny, seaside, romantic comedy/farce pits a pleasure-loving Grand Duke (Harry Liedtke) against scheming bankers, crooks, a famous Swedish con man (Alfred Abel), a Russian princess (Mady Christians), and four crazy revolutionaries. A totally off type assignment for Murnau — it suggests Lubitsch at his airiest — which he pulls off delightfully. (Silent, with music score, German intertitles and English subtitles.)

– Michael Wilmington
March 17, 2009

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.


awesome stuff. OK I would like to contribute as well by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to modify. check it out at All custom premade files, many of them totally free to get. Also, check out Dow on: Wilmington on DVDs: How to Train Your Dragon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Darjeeling Limited, The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, The Hangover, The Human Centipede and more ...

cool post. OK I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to customize. check it out at All custom templates, many of them dirt cheap or free to get. Also, check out Downlo on: Wilmington on Movies: I'm Still Here, Soul Kitchen and Bran Nue Dae

awesome post. Now I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some beautiful and easy to modify. take a look at All custom premade files, many of them free to get. Also, check out DownloadSoho.c on: MW on Movies: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Paranormal Activity 2, and CIFF Wrap-Up

Carrie Mulligan on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Great Gatsby

isa50 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Gladiator; Hell's Half Acre; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Rory on: Wilmington on Movies: Snow White and the Huntsman

Andrew Coyle on: Wilmington On Movies: Paterson

tamzap on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Magnificent Seven, Date Night, Little Women, Chicago and more …

rdecker5 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Ivan's Childhood

Ray Pride on: Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

Quote Unquotesee all »

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