MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Wise Blood, Valkyrie and more…


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U. S.; John Ford, 1962 (Paramount)

John Ford’s last great Western is a visually spare masterpiece about the new and old frontiers, a classic mostly unappreciated in its day. And it boasts the “Casablanca” of movie Western ensemble casts, a remarkable gallery topped by friendly movie legends James Stewart and John Wayne.

Stewart is Ranse Stoddard, an idealistic eastern attorney at law, who listens to Horace Greeley, and “goes west” to the wide-open town of Shinbone, where he discovers danger and destiny — and then returns years later for the funeral of an old friend. Wayne plays that departed friend: Tom Doniphon, a boisterous but fair-minded horse rancher, ace fast-draw gunman and Ranse’s sometimes unwilling guardian angel. Also in Shinbone: Vera Miles as Hallie, “prettier than a cactus rose,” caught between Ranse and Tom, a strong woman who learns how to read and sees the wilderness grow into a garden. Lee Marvin is Liberty Valance, the cattlemen’s demonic enforcer, gunslinger and murderer. Edmond O‘Brien is the drunken but eloquent newspaper editor, Dutton Peabody. They’re all fantastic, at or near their very best.

The lusty supporting ensemble, including the remnants of Ford’s classic repertory company, has Andy Devine as the cowardly, free-loading Marshall Linc Appleyard, Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef as Liberty‘s violent “myrmidons,” John Carradine as the cattlemen’s mouthpiece, Denver Pyle, Anna Lee, Ken Murray, O. Z. Whitehead — and Carleton Young as the pushy new editor with a narrator’s voice of doom, who demands an explanation for Ranse’s presence at Tom’s funeral, and becomes privy to a shocking, poignant confession.

Liberty Valance is practically a Western noir, shot in sometimes noirish black and white, with few landscape scenes and mostly interiors. And it’s framed as a crime-story murder mystery that finally reveals the deceptive underpinnings of our social fabric and national mythos. That’s “reveals,” remember. Ford’s stubborn detractors often scoff at the matchless Western-maker for the scene here where Young tears up his story, explaining “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend“ — completely forgetting that Ford has just “printed the fact” to all of us, exposing the conventional history of Ranse and Valance as a lie and the editor as a cover-up artist.

Although much of Liberty Valance, is a boisterous, rollicking Wild West tale, done in a rambunctious, unbuttoned, and often highly theatrical performance style, it turns into one of the saddest Westerns ever made, as elegiac as Ford‘s How Green Was My Valley. I cried the first time I saw it, right at the moment when Willis Bouchey‘s effusive train conductor proclaims “Nothing‘s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!” and passenger Jimmy Stewart, giving a last dark look at his lost past, shakes out the flaming match in his hand. I still do.

Extras: Commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, including audio interviews with Wayne and Stewart; documentary; trailer; picture galleries.

Wise Blood (Four Stars)
U. S.; John Huston, 1979 (Criterion)

Flannery O’Connor’s stunning, bleak novel about war veteran Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), who returns home to Georgia, to wander the streets and start up a new-fangled religion he calls the Church of Christ Without Christ — a faith without faith which offers no Jesus, no redemption, no sin, no salvation, nothing but the darkness within and the blinding light without.

Understandably, Hazel’s new creed doesn’t catch on well in Georgia. But in the course of his weird sermonizing, Haze meets a blind preacher named Asa Hawks, who isn’t blind (Harry Dean Stanton), Hawks’s pure young daughter Sabbath Lily, who isn’t pure (Amy Wright), a worshipful buddy named Enoch who ends up in a gorilla suit (Dan Shor), a guitar-strumming charlatan named Hoover Shoates who steals his church (Ned Beatty), and another Church Without Christ preacher who isn’t a preacher (William Hickey), along with Bomba the Jungle Monarch, a mummy and a kindly landlady who never wants him to leave (Mary Nell Santacroce). But of course Hazel has to leave — with or without Christ.

Wise Blood, an odd, superb little movie, was very faithfully adapted from O’Connor‘s novel, the work of a devoutly religious writer of real dark genius. It was produced and co-scripted by Michael Fitzgerald, the son of O’Connor‘s friend, translator Robert Fitzgerald, and the would-be producer of writer-director Orson Welles’ proposed movie account of his and John Houseman’s legendary production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. (The script, cast and production for that lost, brilliant opportunity were all set, but the money fell through at the last minute.) And Wise Blood was directed by just the fellow you want to handle material like this — because you know he won’t betray or cheapen it — John Huston. Hardly anybody went to see it when it came out, even though it’s one of Huston’s best movies. But God damn it, they should have.

Extras: Interviews with Huston, Fitzgerald and Dourif; audio recording of O’Connor reading her greatest story, A Good Man is Hard to Find; trailer; booklet with Francine Prose essay.



Valkyrie (Also Blu-Ray) (Three Stars)
U. S.; Bryan Singer, 2008 (United Artists)

As history, this film account of the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by Col. Claus von Stauffenberg and his conspirators on July 20, 1944, may be deficient. Nor, despite an excellent cast and general fidelity to the facts, does it score very high marks as a realistic psychological/historical drama. But, as a high-gloss, high-powered, high tech (WW2 era) thriller, with real-life overtones, it’s often hell on wheels — and I enjoyed it more than director Singer‘s vaunted (and somewhat overrated) X-Men series.

It’s slick; it‘s fast, and Tom Cruise is not bad casting. He plays Stauffenberg garbed in Nazi regalia he makes look as spiffy as Armani, and with his chiseled chin slicing forward and one piercing dark eye covered by a patch worthy of Raoul Walsh or Andre De Toth, he’s at least as interesting as he was in his recent ferocious comic turn as a sybarite film producer in Tropic Thunder. Here, Cruise plays an unambiguous hero thrust into a super-noir nightmare packed with fascists, bombs, revolutionaries and conspirators.

The movie is a nightmare and Stauffenberg and his cohorts (including Kenneth Branagh as Major-General Henning von Tresckow, Terence Stamp as Beck, Bill Nighy as Gen. Olbricht, and Tom Wilkinson, in the film’s best performance as sly double turncoat Gen Fromm) are a group partly quixotic, somewhat crazy and, in Fromm‘s case, really slimy. (The movie doesn‘t spend much time characterizing their motives; politically, many were conservatives and even royalists.) Hitler himself comes on (played by David Amber) as a cold, silent ghoul — reminding you a bit of Singer‘s Nazi horror movie Apt Pupil from Stephen King. (actually, what was really scary about the real-life Hitler, besides the magnitude of his crimes, was his flirtatiousness and temper tantrums.

As the plot unwinds, you’re both engrossed and amazed by the sheer complexity of the scheme, the way the Army Reserve is hoodwinked into taking over after Hitler is killed, supposedly by a bomb set by the one-armed, three-fingered Stauffenberg. (You can check the real-life facts in the insider‘s book To The Bitter End, retitled Valkyrie, by conspirator Hans Bernd Gisevius.) But the narrative hooks don’t really dig in until the assassination day commences. Audience-wise, it might have been better to start the plot up immediately and cover the earlier stuff in flashbacks.

That said, Christopher McQuarrie‘s script (his first collaboration with Singer since their best movie, The Usual Suspects) is a model of obsessive forward motion and knife-edge clarity. There’s nothing boring about Valkyrie. It just doesn’t leave you with enough. It’s at the end, and afterwards, that you feel history, and Stauffenberg, are being short-changed.



Pig, Pimps and Battleships: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura (Three discs)
Japan; Shohei Imamura, 1961-4 (Criterion)

Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura is an absolute master at psychology, and showing the dark side of Japanese life and society, the danger zone of sexuality and evil we often see or glimpse in Kurosawa, but rarely in Ozu or Mizoguchi.

The ‘60s films in this excellent set are rightly regarded as Imamura’s first masterpieces, and their subjects and themes are as candid, lacerating and as unsparing as they came in that era: crime and corruption in a postwar port city in the great dark comedy Pigs and Battleships, and the abuse and mistreatment of Japanese women in the classics The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder. All films are Japanese productions, in Japanese, with English subtitles.

Included: Pigs and Battleships, (Japan; Shohei Imamura, 1961) Four Stars. The Insect Woman (Imamura, 1963) Four Stars. Intentions of Murder (Imamura, 1964).

Extras: Interviews with Imamura and critic Tony Rayns, documentary, booklets with essays by Rayns, James Quandt and Audie Bock.

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: WWII Battlefront Europe (Two Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1949-1970 (TCM/Warner)

Another terrific TCM package, this time focusing on World War II battle movies, ranging from the 1949 Battleground, made only a few years after the war had finished, and three late ’60s movies, starring Marine vet and sniper Lee Marvin and (postwar) Army Special Forces vet Clint Eastwood — both better occupied here than they were in their joint venture, the 1969 Lerner and Loewe Western musical, Paint Your Wagon, where Clint and Lee M., to their everlasting mortification, sang, respectively “I Talk to the Trees (But They Don’t Listen to Me)” and “Wanderin’ Star.” (For this, they maybe sacrificed The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West.)

These are all good movies, though only Battleground, directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, and based on the famous “Nuts” Siege of the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne” (the bastards are played by Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban, James Whitmore, John Hodiak, and others), with its snowy imagery and underplayed battle scenes, can lay any claim to being a somewhat realistic (hard-bitten/romantic) war movie. (Don’t expect something like Wellman’s classic The Story of G. I. Joe, though.) Robert Aldrich‘s Dirty Dozen, like Battleground, was a smash hit with a terrific ensemble (Marvin, joined by John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Jim Brown, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine and many others), as well as crackling action and a tense atmosphere of buddy-buddy bravura and violent cynicism that made it a huge 1967 hit.

The two Clint movies are about as realistic as the Civil War scenes in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but they’re also almost as much fun. Both directed by the underrated Brian G. Hutton (whom IMdB, dubiously, says abandoned his directorial career to become a plumber), they’re entertaining movie-movies that you can’t take seriously — and shouldn’t. Where Eagles Dare, from an original story and script by Alistair (Guns of Navarone) MacLean, has a blazing-away C. E. backing Richard Burton in a “Navarone”-style kill-the-Nazis-in-the-castle commando mission, where Clint obligingly shoots more Nazi soldiers, it seems, than Patton‘s entire Third Army did.

Kelly‘s Heroes, made the same year as Robert Altman‘s M*A*S*H, is similarly irreverent, and it even has a hippie tank gunner role for Donald “Hawkeye” Sutherland (as well as juicy comic parts for Telly Savalas, Carroll O’Connor and Don Rickles). These four movies all make a lot of noise, grip you and entertain you. They also all have humor and character in their packs. Should we laugh at war? Maybe not. But I defy you not to feel something martial at the end of “Battleground,” when the Battered Bastards march in ranks and sing out “Sound Off.” (“You’re left! You’re right!”)

Included: Battleground (U.S.; William Wellman, 1949) Three-and-a-Half Stars. The Dirty Dozen (U.S.; Robert Aldrich, 1967) Three-and-a-Half Stars. Where Eagles Dare (U.S.; Brian G. Hutton) Three Stars. Kelly’s Heroes (Hutton, 1970) Three Stars.

Extras: Commentary on Dirty Dozen by Jim Brown and others; featurettes; vintage shorts and cartoons, including Tex Avery‘s Little Rural Riding Hood.



Paul Blart: Mall Cop (One Star)
U.S.; Steve Carr, 2008 (Sony)

Devotees of shopping malls, bad jokes and movie catastrophes might find some amusement in Kevin James’ mind-boggling new star vehicle Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But the movie lost me somewhere between Blart’s drunken barf-fest at the mall employee’s karaoke party and the chubby mall cop’s heroic battle with a bad-ass gang of nasty free runners, vicious BMX bike riders, and brutal skateboarders: speedy hooligans who take over Blart’s mall ( a real one, in Birmingham, Mass.), drive out all the customers for a heist, led by Kier O’Donnell as the evil, wisecracking Veck. (What, no Dawn of the Dead zombies?)

But all these in-disgustingly-good-shape bad guys prove no match for ton-of-fun hero Blart who — inspired by his love for comely Amy (Jayma Mays), who is being held hostage. along with a rancid pen salesman Casanova (Stephen Rannazzisi), by the Veck mob — races to the rescue on his PT (Personal Transporter), braving everything, to get a date. As Blart goes from a polyester Fatty Arbuckle to a kill-the-creeps Arnold Schwarzenegger type, the movie easily cops the “I Lost My Heart at Taco Bell” prize, trouncing Mall Rats, Scenes from a Mall and that Dawn of the Dead remake to become the worst shopping mall movie in living memory.

James is a pretty funny actor. But this movie is beyond resuscitation. I wonder if anyone suggested to James that he might have had a much better show by forgetting that siege, concentrating on character gags and letting Blart chase around the skateboard-BMX-free running crew and best the Casanova, without everything escalating into a Hard Boiled style action movie wingding fiasco? (But of course, Observe and Report, with Seth Rogen as an even crazier mall cop, was just down the pipe.)

Outlander (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Howard McCain, 2008 (Weinstein Company)

Outlander is a visually spectacular but dramatically cheesy sci-fi gorefest with a surprisingly good cast — headed by Caviezel, Sophia Myles, John Hurt and Ron Perlman — trapped in an oddball story that dubiously tries to mix up The War of the Worlds-style alien invasion shockers with heroic literary sagas like the Icelandic and Norse epics, and Beowulf.

Aaargh! Rothgar! What a concept! Monsters from outer space vs. lusty Viking warriors! Fire-breathing extraterrestrials attack carousing, battle-hardened, mead-quaffing sword-slingers! “Predator” vs. “The Vikings!“ The fort burns up! Wenches scream! Adorable kids hide! Brave Kainan (Caviezel) flirts with feisty wench-princess Freya (Miles), while fighting the blazing outer space marauder, with the aid of hot-tempered Wulfric (Jack Huston, grandson of John), reckless Gunnar (Perlman) and wise old Rothgar (John Hurt, for God’s sake).

Isn’t that the kind of picture you’ve been dying to see? Probably only in a moviemaking world where marketing hooks can be more important than scripts, would we end up with something like this. But give writer-director Howard McCain (no grandson to John) some credit. McCain does most of Outlander with a straight face and he‘s even had Icelandic scholars translate part of his dialogue into old Norse (a movie first), and had the actors sometimes speak it. With a straight face.

Yet, though Outlander isn’t exactly “Plan Viking from Outer Space,” it might be more entertaining if it were. I wouldn’t have minded a cheapo-nutso movie that blended Ed Wood’s honest-to gosh flying saucers with dippy Scandinavian heroes out of some Guy Maddin pastiche. Unfortunately there’s a loony sobriety to Outlander that tends to kill any real chance for subversive laughs. And it’s positively, uh, hurtful to see a consummate actor like Hurt — whom I recently re-watched, with much delight, doing his great mad performance as Caligula in I Claudius — wandering around in animal skins trying to duck alien-flames and match-make between Kainan and Freya, while Wulfric burns. Aaargh! Rothgar!

Fanboys (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Kyle Newman, 2008

Remember the dear dead time when Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace was being prepped for its epochal opening?

That cultural landmark is memorialized in Fanboys, which is about four (no make that five) wildly obsessed Star Wars fans, who have decided to travel to California and find the new print of George Lucas’s eagerly awaited prequel before it opens. One of them is dying of cancer (Chris Marquette as Linus.) One of them is his best buddy, trying to give him one last laser-jolt (Sam Huntington as Eric). One is your average pop culture schlemiel (Jay Baruchel as Windows). One is trying so hard to be Jack Black, the fur on his chest almost fries. (Dan Fogler as Hutch). One is a fangirl, who seems to be around so we won’t muse about veiled homoeroticism. (Kristen Bell as Zoe.) Their goal: to steal that new print of Phantom Menace, not as movie pirates, but as dedicated movie geeks. I would have thought just seeing it would be enough.

Waiting in the wings, for one of the most movie/in-groupy set of cameos this side of The Player, are Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Seth Rogen, Jay and Silent Bob, William Shatner (who might consider suing himself for libel) and some guy who supposedly looks like Harry (Ain’t It Cool) Knowles, but is actually Ethan Suplee. The movie follows baldly in the footsteps of Robert Zemeckis’ 1978 I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which was about Beatles fandom, but keeps stumbling and screeching. The gags involve the likes of the boys doing a striptease at a biker bar, tons of Star Wars references, a feud between these Star Warriors, and the Trekkies (or Trekkers, or possibly Trekkums), a raid on the Skywalker Ranch and other improbable escapades. My prediction? You won’t laugh too much. You won’t cry. But you may develop an allergy to R2-D2 costumes. And, by the way, why did Shatner pop up here and not in Star Trek?

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Blu-Ray Skynet Edition) (Three Stars)
U. S.; James Cameron, 1991 (Lionsgate)

Here’s the problem: You’ve got to make a sequel to a smash hit 1984 science fiction horror thriller, whose lead actor has become even bigger mega-star Arnold Schwarzenegger — despite the fact that the mega star‘s character was the first film’s main heavy, and was killed (I mean really killed, outright obliterated) at the end of it.

They figured out how to do it (sort of). But, despite its four tech Oscars, this one still isn’t as good as The Terminator. A hint: Schwarzenegger could have been an even meaner villain here, and it would have worked. And since he‘s a cyborg involved in time travel, you can keep making him, or bringing him back, over and over again, no matter how many times you kill him. With Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong.

Saxophone Colossus (Four Stars)
U. S.; Robert Mugge, 1986 (Acorn Media)

A wonderful jazz documentary and concert film, with probably the best of all living jazz improvisers, then and now: tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. The numbers include “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” “G-Man” (the performance where Rollins makes his famous jump) and the world premiere, in Tokyo, of Rollins’ “Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra,” with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra. (This is just the kind of piece Charlie Parker always wanted to create, and the concert is worthy of Bird.) Out of sight!

A personal note: I played this movie’s namesake and original Rollins album, Saxophone Colossus, all though my college years. My only complaint here is that Mugge didn’t include Rollins playing that tremendous record’s two finest cuts, “Blue Seven” and “St. Thomas.“

Extras: Interview with Mugge.

Thousands Cheer (Three Stars)
U.S.; George Sidney, 1943 (Warner Archive)

Equally adept cavorting on the trapeze, or dancing with a mop and a broom, soldier boy Gene Kelly woos colonel’s daughter and soprano Kathryn Grayson, as World War II beckons and more woo is pitched by K. G.’s divorced mom and dad (played by Mary Astor and John Boles, who doesn‘t look as if he could handle either of these womenfolk).

The story is typical MGM glossy junk. But it’s just an excuse for another flag-waving all-star spirit raiser, with toe-tappin’ Gene and bosomy coloratura Kathryn joined for the climactic big show by M. C. Mickey Rooney (catch the Mick’s Clark Gable-Lionel Barrymore imitations), Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, Lena Horne, June Allyson, tiny scene-stealing Margaret O’Brien, Frank Morgan, Donna Reed, the bands of Bob Crosby, Benny Carter and Kay Kyser, and — delivering, as usual, the knock-out showstopper — Judy Garland in a swinging rendition of “The Boogie Woogie Piano Boy of Carnegie Hall,” accompanied, in his movie debut, by fleet-fingered Jose Iturbi. Hubba Hubba!

Under Full Sail (Three Stars)
U.S.; Various directors, 1922-33 (Flicker Alley)

Another little gem from silent movie specialists Flicker Alley. They’ve packaged the Cecil B. DeMille-produced sea saga The Yankee Clipper (Rupert Julian, 1927) (Two-and-a-Half Stars), a mellerdrammer about the Foo Chow to Boston tea trade tall ship race, starring William Boyd and Ellen Fair, with four seagoing shorts, documentaries or clips, including the whale hunt scene from Elmer Clifton’s 1922 Down to the Sea in Ships.

The three others: the 1928 Ship Ahoy (1928), The Square Rigger, a 1932 Fox‘s Magic Carpet of Movietone short, and the 1933 Alan Villiers doc Around the Horn in a Square Rigger. This is perfect stuff for a lazy Sunday afternoon when you’d like to take a peek into the past. With new scores by Dennis James and Eric Beheim.

Extras: Audio reminiscence by Yankee Clipper child star Frank “Junior” Coghlan; booklet with notes by James and John E. Stone.

– Michael Wilmington
May 19, 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