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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Nothing But the Truth, Johnny Got His Gun, In the Realm of the Senses and more…


Nothing But the Truth” (Three Stars)
U. S. Rod Lurie, 2008 (Sony)

The most effective of writer-director (and ex-movie critic) Rod Lurie’s political melodramas is this absorbing legal thriller, obviously inspired by the case of the New York Times’ Judith Miller (but widely departing from it), in which a plucky but increasingly tormented Washington D. C. reporter (Kate Beckinsale) refuses to give up her main source for a sensational story that reveals the identity of a covert C. I. A. agent (Vera Farmiga) and embarrasses a conservative U. S. administration. As the jailed reporter begins to lose her freedom and her husband (David Schwimmer), two wily lawyers (very well-played by Matt Dillon and Alan Alda) battle over her fate and her principles.

The surprise ending is a little over-tricky, but Lurie keeps our interest throughout and his cast — including Angela Bassett as Beckinsale’s staunch editor — is terrific. But I wish Lurie would take a vacation from these political thrillers, at least once, and start mining the material he knows best: the real world of L. A. today, the Hollywood studios and modern high-stakes moviemaking.

Extras: Commentary, deleted scenes, featurette.



Johnny Got His Gun (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Dalton Trumbo, 1971 (Shout Factory)

Dalton Trumbo’s scalding, angry, very sad movie from his great anti-war novel, takes us into the mind and soul of a WW1 soldier/combat victim (Timothy Bottoms) who can’t speak or communicate, except to us. Trumbo’s long-time labor of love, which Luis Bunuel wanted to film, is an unabashed message movie of real pacifist idealism and relentless power. With Jason Robards, Jr., Donald Sutherland and Kathy Fields.

Extras: Documentary, interview with Bottoms, 1940 radio version with James Cagney, Metallica video, trailer.

In the Realm of the Senses (Four Stars)
Japan; Nagisa Oshima, 1976 (Criterion)

In 1976 Nagisa Oshima, one of Japan’s most radical filmmakers, wedded art-film aesthetics to hard-core pornography — using full frontal nudity and on-screen sexual intercourse to tell the famous story of Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), a ’30s house-servant whose lovemaking and perverse sex games with her married lover and boss Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji) in a nearby inn become more and more violent and strange until they go over the edge.

Oshima’s movie, which seemed to go to the limits of sex-and-violence, created a world-wide sensation. But it was banned in Japan and the uncensored version has yet to be shown there. Arguably, it even damaged Oshima’s later Japanese career; he was much less prolific after Realm than before, and many of his assignments came from foreign companies and producers. (Realm was made by French producer Anatole Dauman.)

It remains a true shocker. In images of burning austerity, Oshima and his actors plunge us into a feverish hothouse world of obsessive, endless sexuality, in which all bourgeois constraints are thrown away, until the last deadly consummation hits like a silk-bound hammer-blow. I’ve never found Realm especially erotic, despite all the on-screen sex. (Fuji and Matsuda go as far in their love scenes as two actors can.) But it is obsessively watchable. It’s also one of the most truly radical and “outside” movies ever made by a famous world director. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Commentary by Tony Rayns; interviews with Oshima and costars Matsuda and Fuji; deleted footage; U. S. trailer; booklet with Donald Richie essay and second Oshima interview.



Alain Resnais: A Decade in Film (Four Stars)
France; Alain Resnais, 1983-89 (Kino/Kimstim)

In the 1950s and 1960s, France’s Alain Resnais — a cinematic compatriot and soul mate of the “Cahiers du Cinema” crowd of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol — was a giant of the Nouvelle Vague and one of the leading avante-garde masters of world art cinema. Stylistically daring and densely intellectual masterpieces like Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, with their incredible technical-structural innovation and remarkably advanced literary scripts (by intellectually chic and highly-praised novelists like Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet), seemed to carry film to the outer limits of modernism and 20th century experimentalist artistry.

But in the 1980s Resnais, his earlier vogue past, began to specialize in a different type of movie — still literate and well-written, but more seemingly conservative in technique and style. Resnais became a master of the filmed play, and his subjects included “old-fashioned” writers like ‘20s melodrama expert and master of the “well-made play,“ Henri Bernstein (Melo), along with newer authors like wry, acerbic American cartoonist/scenarist Jules Feiffer (I Want to Go Home).

Actually, this new, more obviously theatrical style had its roots in the same love of aesthetics and the same thematic concern with love, art, conflict and alienation that had always preoccupied Resnais. But this time, he also assembled a superb recurring cinematic stock company of first class actors that included Fanny Ardant, Geraldine Chaplin, Andre Dussolier, Pierre Arditi and the director’s brilliant wife and muse Sabine Azema.

Resnais’ ‘80s movies, and the ones that followed (like Same Old Song and Smoking/No Smoking, did not shock and divide audiences that way Hiroshima and Marienbad had. But they remain — especially the quartet assembled for this Kino box — among his more delightful and rewarding works: smaller, shining gems by an aging master. (All the films are in French with English subtitles; I Want to Go Home is also in English.)

Included: Life is a Bed of Roses (France; Alain Resnais, 1983) Four Stars (A) This highly playful masterwork, set in a forest chateau initially designed as part of a proposed Utopian city, moves deftly back and forth in times and between “reality” and “fantasy” to tell three intertwining stories, set in the past, (the turn of the century, when the chateau is built), the present (the ‘80s, when it has become the site of an elite progressive school), and in the incandescently inventive minds of some chateau children. Resnais, working from an ingenious Jean Gruault screenplay, adopts the styles of three highly diverse French cinematic masters — Marcel L’Herbier, Eric Rohmer and Georges Melies — to tell the stories; the result is provocative, stimulating and constantly delightful. With Vittorio Gassmann, Azema, Ardant, Chaplin and Ruggero Raimondi (the opera star who played the title role in Joseph Losey’s film of Mozart’s Don Giovanni).

Love Unto Death (France; Resnais, 1984) Three-and-a-Half Stars (B+) Dark, almost unbearably sad romantic drama, which imagines what would happen if a fatalistic husband (Arditi) were magically saved from death by his love-mad wife (Azema). Written by Gruault, costarring Ardant, Dussollier and Jean Daste. In French, with English subtitles.

Melo (France; Resnais, 1986) Four Stars (A). One of Resnais’ greatest works: an adaptation of Henri Bernstein‘s 1929 play of love, infidelity, and betrayal among two long-time friends and concert classical violinists (Dussolier and Arditi), who share an eventually destructive passion for the wife of one of them (Azema). The cast is extraordinary, the style — which uses obvious theater stage-sets for the backgrounds and an elegant theater programme for the credits — is beautifully precise and hauntingly minimalist.

I Want to Go Home (France; Resnais, 1989). Three Stars. (B) A bizarre collaboration between comic strip artist/playwright/screenwriter Jules Feiffer and comic-lover/art film genius Resnais. It’s a close-to-the-bone dramatic comedy about irascible Cleveland comic strip artist Joey Wellman (played, in a peculiar but sometimes touching performance, by Singin’ in the Rain co-writer Adolph Green), his long-suffering girlfriend (Linda Lavin), his Francophile, Yank-bashing daughter (Laura Benson) and a goofy mélange of French expatriate admirers and interferers who drive Joey crazy (Gerard Depardieu, Micheline Presle, Ludivine Sagnier, Geraldine Chaplin).

Winner of the Best Film and Screenplay prizes at the Venice Film Festival, this is a strange film and not all of it works. But it grows on you. In English and French, with English subtitles.

Extras: Documentary on Life is a Bed of Roses; interviews with Arditi and producer Marin Karmitz; trailers.



Bride Wars (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Gary Winick, 2009 (20th Century Fox)

How‘s this for a fractured high concept: Beauteous best-friend babes and brides-to-be turn into crazed enemies for the stupidest reasons imaginable, and behave like viciously addled morons for two unfunny hours.

In this jaw-dropping fiasco, Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway play Liv and Emma, two lifelong chummerinos, both engaged at 26, whose longtime dream is to be married at Eloise’s palace, the Plaza Hotel. Suddenly, the best of friends become the worst of foes when Candice Bergen — as Marion, supposedly New York City’s classiest, most exclusive wedding manager — mistakenly books their Plaza Hotel weddings on the same day, instead of their real preference, the opposite ends of June. The interfering third bride, who got the wrong June date, won’t budge, for reasons that weren’t clear to me — maybe because everyone was shrieking and pummeling each other — and I also was mystified that the two gal pals, who are set to be each other‘s maids of honor, couldn‘t just work out a friendly compromise.

But no….So Liv and Emma both freak out and sadistically sabotage each other for weeks on end: planting phony wedding photos in newspapers, messing up each other’s suntans, dying each other’s hair blue, and even putting on soft-core home movies in the most embarrassing possible circumstances.

Why? Though they act like delinquent school escapees on crack, Liv is actually a high-powered lawyer and Emma a school teacher. So why don’t they take the obvious compromise and have a double wedding? Because then there‘d be no more movie? Because the writers have absolutely no imagination? Probably. (The official explanation is that schoolmarm Emma would feel slighted by sharing.)

Inanity piles on inanity. How did Bergen‘s boo-boo-prone Marion get to be New York‘s classiest wedding impresario manager? Why are the brides’ buddies and hubbies such do-nothing nebbishes and doofusses? And why isn’t a lifelong friendship worth more to them, than the schedules of their Plaza weddings? (Maybe the movie would have worked better if they weren’t friends but lifelong rivals.)

Bride Wars is also a poor title, however close it is to Star Wars. (Stuck on alliteration, I suggest “Marriage Monsters“ or even “Wedding Wars,“ instead.) The movie was directed by Gary Winick, who made a pretty good computer-animated 2006 show out of E. B. White‘s Charlotte’s Web, but fares less well with alleged human beings here.

Hotel for Dogs (Two Stars)
U.S.; Thor Freudenthal, 2009 (Paramount)

Pooch Marley, eat your heart out. In this one, scads of incredibly cute and amazingly gifted doggies, all strays or rescued from the dogcatchers, find a home of their own in an abandoned hotel discovered by two astonishing kids (Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin) — orphans who have been fostered out to live with a pair off cretin rockers, the Scudders (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon), but can now escape into a wonderful world of Rube Goldberg toy contraptions and feeding machines and doggies galore. (And no pooper-scoopers.)

Don Cheadle is around to confer a little false credibility as a kindly social worker who really likes kids and dogs. There’s a big canine chase at the end, almost worthy of The Bone Identity. (Sorry.) This one would have been better, and cheaper, as a Max Fleischer Grampy cartoon. I like dogs too, and I’ve even loved one or two, but this is getting ridiculous. Arf, already.

Notorious (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; George Tillman, 2009 (20th Century Fox)

A disappointing movie bio of murdered New York rapper Biggie Smalls, aka Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G. — played here robustly by the excellent Jamal Woodard (aka Gravy). There s a lot of meat on Gravy’s bones, but not enough on the movie‘s, which concentrates too much on making Biggie as a deprived cultural hero, and not enough, for my taste, on at least speculating about who killed who. At least Tillman covers the East Coast-West Coast rap community feud, which may also have claimed Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie).

The cast is good, the parts juicy. Angela Bassett shines as B.I.G.‘s mother, Naturi Nuaghton is Lil‘ Kim and Derek Luke puffs up Sean “Puffy” Combs. But we’re left asking too many questions and hearing not enough music. Notorious is no Cadillac Records. By the way, I think there should be a moratorium on unnecessarily repeated movie titles, especially when the earlier movie is an all-time Hitchcock classic, like the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman Notorious. Notorious B.I.G. is actually a nifty moniker.

Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Scott Hicks, 2008 (Koch Lorber)

One of modern music’s most prolific serious composers, and one of the few to break into movie music in a big way, Glass here gets a fine, beautifully shaped documentary portrait from Hicks (Shine).

The Hit (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.K.; Stephen Frears, 1984 (Criterion)

In 1984 Stephen Frears directed this first class neo-noir about a British gang supergrass (informer), played with eerie serenity by Terence Stamp, who is kidnapped in his Spanish hideaway by two deadly hit men, one a terse pro (John Hurt) and one a gabby psychopath (Tim Roth). Along the way, they also acquire an absolutely ferocious femme fatale (played by Laura Del Sol, the dancing siren of Carlos Saura’s Carmen), when they have to kill her sugar daddy (Bill Hunter).

The film, with its bleak, ironic mood and grand arena, suggests what might have happened if Antonioni or Claude Sautet had gotten hold of a novel by Jim Thompson or Georges Simenon. Peter Prince’s script is a lean roadmap to Hell on Earth, the visuals of the Spanish countryside (by cinematographer Mike Molly) somber and splendid, and Frears’ direction is classy, moody and tense.

All the acting is top-notch, but Hurt is a revelation. You rarely see this consummate actor, who sometimes specializes in neurotic or fey types, play it this tough. But — silent, calm and deadly, eyes always masked by his shades — he’s murderously convincing.

Extras: Commentary by Frears, Hurt, Roth, Prince, and editor Mick Audsley; interview with Stamp; trailer; booklet with Graham Fuller essay.

The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Friz Freleng, 1981 (Warner Bros.)

An all-Friz Freleng Warner Brothers show, starring those master clowns Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester, Tweety, Granny and Yosemite Sam — with the long-time much-honored and legendary Looney-Tuner Freleng showing off some of his best stuff.

The movie, starting with a bang: Friz’s Oscar-winning When-knighthood-was-in-flower spoof, Knighty Knight Bugs. (That sarcastic carrot-chomper Bugs probably makes the screen’s best court jester in between Danny Kaye’s and Woody Allen‘s.) And it keeps on flying. The extras include three ‘toons from Freleng‘s great colleague, Chuck Jones.

By the way, thanks again, Mel Blanc. You th-th-th-the man. (Thufferin’ Thuckatash!)

It’s a Pleasure! (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; William A. Seiter, 1945 (MGM)

No, it’s not! Sonja Henie, the winsome blonde, twinkly-eyed and twinkle-toed Norwegian International Olympic figure skating champ turned movie star, has made some pleasurable kitschy musicals (Sun Valley Serenade, for example). But this slushy-mushy romance-on-ice, costarring Michael O’Shea, ain’t one of them. What can you say when a movie’s most compelling performance may have been given by Marie “The Body” McDonald, playing a jealous wife?

– Michael Wilmington
April 28, 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