MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Woodstock, Last Year at Marianbad, Waltz with Bashir and more…


Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music — The Director’s Cut (Four Stars)
U.S.; Michael Wadleigh, 1970-1994 (Warner)

Both a great rock concert movie, and a superb documentary on youth culture in the Vietnam War Years, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock — shot at the legendary 1969 Aquarian gathering at Max Yasgur‘s farm at Bethel, N. Y. (not the nearby Woodstock) — brings back the era and all its pot-fumed tenderness, horror, humor, beauty, ugliness, and glorious absurdities, as few other movies can.

Caught by the virtuoso wide-angle cameraman Wadleigh (along with many others) in amazing handheld widescreen images full of scope and seething with energy, and cut by editor/assistant director Martin Scorsese (and others) in vividly atmospheric sequences and evocative, witty split screen juxtapositions, the movie literally overwhelms you
The original three day concert — which wound up being one of rock history’s great freebies, when the crowds, measuring a half million plus, overflowed the ability to count or charge them ticket money — is rendered with shocking, lyrical immediacy. Woodstock records both the amazing social extravaganza surrounding the music — the gargantuan sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll community that descended on Yasgur’s green farm fields, the bad trips and free food, the marijuana, nude romps and ubiquitous flashing peace signs, the ocean of communal feeling and occasional bummers — and, of course, the memorable music itself.

David Gates’ dyspeptic Time Magazine anniversary cover story to the contrary, it was a terrific concert. (Gates seems angry not only at ‘60s youth culture in general, but that acts like Merle Haggard weren’t on the bill. But you wouldn’t expect the bard of “Okie from Muskogee” to have shown up in 1969 at Bethel, even if today, Haggard cheerfully will shares a show with peacenik Bob Dylan.)

The original roster of acts in the 1970 movie included Crosby, Stills and Nash (ladling out, among others, Steve Stills’s honeyed lyric to Judy Collins, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” plus, under the closing credits, Joni Mitchell‘s soaring anthem “Woodstock“), along with Jefferson Airplane, The Who (“See Me, Feel Me,“ the mesmerizing capper from “Tommy“), Richie Havens (the heartbreaking fold ballad “Motherless Child”), Joan Baez ( a hushed, reverent “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), Santana (the fever-drenched “Black Magic Woman”), Sly and the Family Stone (Taking us higher, if possible), Joe Cocker (tearing out his classic version of “A Little Help from My Friends”) and, as a blazing climax, guitar god Jimi Hendrix, with his legendary variations on “The Star Spangled Banner (complete with sonic Hendrix booms on “rockets red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.”

Over the years, the movie has picked up even more initially deleted musical high points, some not used in the original cut because of lesser picture quality (shot at night), like blues lady Janis Joplin‘s frenzied “Work Me, Lord) and, in the extras here, three performances by Creedence Clearwater Revival (including “Born on the Bayou”). and one by the Grateful Dead (“Turn on Your Love Light”).

Throughout, either in the epic original and this expanded director‘s cut, “Woodstock” beautifully records both the amazing social extravaganza surrounding the music — the gargantuan sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll community that descended on Yasgur’s green farm fields, the bad trips and free food, the marijuana, nude romps and ubiquitous flashing peace signs, the ocean of communal feeling and occasional bummers — and, of course, the memorable music itself. Peace.

Extras: Deleted performances (Baez, Country Joe & The Fish, Santana, The Who, Joe Cocker, Mountain, Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield, Sha Na Na); 15 featurettes, documentary.

Last Year at Marienbad (Two discs) (Four Stars)
France; Alain Resnais, 1961 (Criterion Collection)

It begins with sonorous, trancelike, seemingly endless narration, laid over stunning black and white Vierny cinematography of a palatial hotel, whose seemingly endless corridors and baroque décor provide the narrator worth his subject. Then it becomes briefly a highly stylized play put on in the hotel’s ballroom and watched by the guests. Then begins an hour and a half-long seduction in which a suave, relentless fashion plate called X (Giorgio Albertazzi) keeps trying to persuade the elegant wife, called A (Delphine Seyrig) of a saturnine, skeletal-faced rich guest named M (Sacha Pitoeff) that they met last year in Marienbad (or Frederiksbad, or wherever), and had an affair, and that now they should run off together.

A doesn’t remember, or says she doesn’t, though the persistent X keeps pursuing her and repeating his tale, while the husband M keeps playing an addictive game in which rows of cards or matchsticks are laid on a table in four rows of 1, 3, 5 and 7 pieces, and the players each pick as many as they want from only one row, the objective being to avoid pulling the last match or card. The husband always wins. X, we suspect, will win at love.

I’m no fan of French nouveau roman novelist, Marienbad screenwriter and later filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writing — which often seems to me fancy, empty, and bloodlessly pretentious. But this movie, director Alain Resnais’ second feature after the great Hiroshima, Mon Amour, still strikes me as some strange kind of masterpiece. It takes place in a spectacular German palace/spa, whose magnificent decor (recalling scenery from Kane’s Xanadu grounds in Citizen Kane), shot by Sacha Vierny at three different hotels, provides a rich backdrop for the seduction. (Or is it really a reunion?). And the action, accompanied by classical style organ chords, composed by actress Seyrig’s brother Francis, when Olivier Messian turned down Resnais’ first request), keeps unfolding like a recurring dream of romantic obsession. (Last Year at Marienbad was heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Resnais even includes a parody of a Hitch cameo.)

The movie never even remotely feels real, except, oddly, when the characters are playing M‘s game. (It works by a simple numerical trick.) At one point, writer Robbe-Grillet insisted that X was lying to A, while director Resnais avowed that he was telling the truth. But, after all these decades, Marienbad — which won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival — retains its old hypnotic power, visual beauty and fascinating rhythms. (M – A = A + X.) And the secret of M’s game? Well…. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Two fine short documentaries by Resnais (Tout la Memoire du Monde (1956) Three-and-a-Half Stars. Le Chant du Styrene (1958) Three-and-a-Half Stars. Plus documentary; audio interview with Resnais, video interview with Ginette Vincendeau; and booklet with Mark Polizzotti and Robbe-Grillet essays.



Waltz with Bashir (Four Stars)
Israel/France; Ari Folman, 2008 (Sony)

Israeli director Ari Folman‘s incredible blend of memoir, animation and documentary, recalling Folman’s real-life experience of the first Lebanon war, in cold sweat dreamlike images, a macabre and finally revelatory fantasy/detective story of marauding wolves, war, death and screaming victims.

Absolutely unique and unforgettable. Winner of The National Society of Film Critics’ “best picture” award, and probably a contemporary classic. In Hebrew and English, with English subtitles.

Extras: Commentary by Folman; interview with Folman; featurettes.



Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Four Stars)
U.S.; Stanley Kubrick, 1964 (Columbia/Sony)

Stanley Kubrick and writers Peter George and Terry Southern’s great nightmare comedy about a nuclear bomber plane sent to attack Moscow by Sterling Hayden’s crazed Air Force General Jack D. Ripper (“(I cannot allow)… the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurity all of our precious bodily fluids“) — an imprudent attack that will inevitably trigger a planet destroying retaliation by the U. S. S. R.’s new secret “Doomsday Machine” — makes you laugh until the humor and horror choke in your throat.

An ultimate film noir, the move is both a hair-raising suspense story and a weird, wild blood-chilling farce, with George C. Scott as the explosive war hawk General Buck Turgidson (“Mr. President, I‘m beginning to smell a great big fat commie rat!”), Slim Pickens as Major King Kong (“That’s regardless of your race, your color and your creed!”), James Earl Jones ((“The bomb bay door) won’t open, sir!”), Keenan Wynn as Col. Bat Guano (“You know what I think? I think you’re some kind of deviated prevert!”) and Peter Sellers in his fantastic triple role of increasingly perturbed RAF Group Captain Mandrake (“I‘m, sure they all died thinking of you! Every man jack of them, Jack!”), bland Stevensonian U. S. President Merkin Muffley (“Gentleman! You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”), and the prosthetic-armed, robo-heiling, dark-glassed Kissingerian nuclear advisor Dr. Strangelove (“Mein Fuehrer! I can valk!”)

A rampaging, hilarious, horrifying classic. In a full house, it leaves you helpless with laughter. In a nearly empty theater, it can scare hell out of you.



The Jack Lemmon Film Collection (Three Stars)
U. S.; Various directors, 1954-64 (Columbia)

He was such a nice guy, his Hollywood nickname was “Saint Jack.“ He was such a great movie actor, that his knack for quicksilver emotions, and inimitable, rapid-fire, stammering delivery could make you laugh or cry. Whenever he started a scene, he always said off-camera,, as an invocation, the phrase “Magic Time!“ which was also the catch-phrase his classic alcoholic role Joe Gillis used when he raised a glass of liquor in Days of Wine and Roses. He never lost the knack, his audience or the magic: the incomparable farceur and irreplaceable tragedian Jack Lemmon.

Lemmon became one of the American movies’ great star acting experts in either comedy (as the cross-dressing schmo of Some Like it Hot or the key-wise rising executive schmuck in The Apartment) and drama (as the tragic souse of Wine and Roses and the desperate American dad abroad of Missing). But he started as a comedy specialist, and this nifty Columbia collection, whose historical treasures belie the sometime mediocrity of the movies, lucidly records his rise from his first movie year (1954 the annum of Phffft! and of his first film, It Should Happen to You, which also should have been here), to the year he became the American movies’ number one box-office draw (1964, which marked the release of his unlikely smash Good Neighbor Sam).

The directors here include the steady Val Lewton unit graduate Mark Robson, Lemmon‘s comedy buddy and wedding best man Richard Quine (who later committed suicide) and the mysterious David Swift, who rose from young phenom creating TV’s Mr. Peepers and masterminding two Walt Disney Studio-Hayley Mills hits Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, to guiding Lemmon to box office glory in the cheerfully lewd sex comedies Under the Yum Yum Tree, and Good Neighbor Sam, to all but vanishing.
But it doesn’t matter who directed Lemmon, whether Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, Costa-Gavras or the smart group here. When Saint Jack was on screen, in darkness or in light, it was always “Magic Time!”

Includes: Phffft! (U.S.; Mark Robson, 1954). Three Stars. A bright, sarcastic romantic comedy from sharp-witted writer George Axelrod, who unfortunately didn’t get either Lemmon or (Wilder‘s first choice) Walter Matthau, as the nebbish day-dreamer of an on-the-loose hubby for the movie of his big Broadway hit The Seven Year Itch (Broadway star Tom Ewell repeated his role) but gets both Lemmon and the great Judy Holliday here (plus Kim Novak at her sexiest and Jack Carson in a Carson-ish, Matthau-ish role) for this divorce romp. It’s no The Awful Truth, but then, nothing is.

Operation Mad Ball (U.S.; Richard Quine, 1957). Three stars. Post-WW2 European-based Yank soldiers execute the “maddest mad ball ever.” under the nose of their stuffy superior (Ernie Kovacs). Lemmon is the main ball operator Hogan, Dick York (Bewitched) is his right hand, Mickey Rooney is a jazzbo impresario, Kathryn Grant is Hogan‘s would-be honey. Somehow, this is almost perfect of its kind, though its kind is tipsy-minded and slight. Co-written by Blake Edwards.

The Notorious Landlady (U. S.; Quine, 1962). Two-and-a-Half Stars. Quine and co-writers Edwards and Larry Gelbart try to pull off a Hitchcockian suspense comedy — with Lemmon as a smitten American junior diplomatic guy, Fred Astaire as his exasperated superior, and Novak as his bombshell landlady, who may have murdered her missing husband. It’s all trivial but likable, though the last seaside chase scene has a loony, intoxicated exuberance.

Under the Yum Yum Tree (U. S.; David Swift, 1963). Two-and-a-Half Stars. Lemmon shows his lecherous side as yet another Hogan (Was Hogan of Hogan’s Heroes modeled on him?) in this bouncy adaptation of Lawrence Roman’s leering sex comedy play about a notorious landlord and his bevy of sexy tenants, including academic ex Edie Adams, and bossy student wife-to-be Carol Lynley, a persuasive beauty who persuades boyfriend Dean Jones to try sexless cohabitation as co-tenants. Unfortunately, their apartment is owned by Lemmon’s sex-crazed Hogan, keeper of the keys, and the idol of pricelessly swishy and leering maintenance man Paul Lynde and his prudish wife Imogene Coca.

Good Neighbor Sam (U.S.; Swift, 1964). One of Lemmon’s biggest ‘60s hits, now almost forgotten, is this romantic comedy about a straight arrow suburban advertising graphics family man, chosen to head up a key campaign, because the client (Edward G. Robinson) is another prude, and Lemmon’s Sam has to pretend that his wife (Dorothy Provine’s) best friend next door (Romy Schneider at the peak of her European stardom) is actually his wife and that Romy’s separated husband (Mike Connors) is Dorothy’s spouse. Fun, ridiculous and very ‘60s TV-ish. (The gags include a parody of the old Hertz “Put you in the driver’s seat” ads, complete with the Hi Los.)

Extras: TV “Ford All-Star Theater” play Marriageable Male (Two stars) An okay TV comedy, costarring Ida Lupino and directed by Ted Post; the documentary, Jack Lemmon, The Man Behind the Magic narrated by son Chris Lemmon (the Jack-Clint Eastwood golf anecdote, is worth the admission); photo gallery; trailers.



Confessions of a Shopaholic (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; P.J. Hogan, 2009 (Touchstone)

Shopaholic is all about a shop-crazy young writer-on-the-make named Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher).The writers (Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth, and Kayla Albert, adapting Sophie Kinsella) have recognizable senses of humor. The whole thing, thanks probably to producer Jerry “Boom Boom” Bruckheimer, is really — here’s that word again — slick. And fast. And often gorgeous. Most of all, Isla Fisher is some kind of screwball comedy heroine. Hubba-hubba-hubba. A sexy redhead with one of those warm, inviting smiles that tear you up (or tore me up) in the seventh grade, she’s also really funny. She can be as loonily abandoned as Carole Lombard or Lucille Ball after a Jack Daniels, and here she makes even the stupid gags work.

Fisher’s Rebecca, courtesy of Kinsella‘s book (which was set in England), is a shopping addict who’s also obsessed with getting a gig on Vogue-ish fashion magazine Alette, named for Queen of Chic Alette Naylor (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, sporting the French accent you usually only hear in her French films). Settling for a job on “Successful Saving,” edited by Luke Brandon, Becky becomes famous as the savings-savvy columnist The Girl in the Green Scarf, while being pursued for credit card debt by the relentless nerd Derek Smeath (Robert Stanton).

There‘s a wedding, and a maid-of-honor crisis, that‘s mercifully shorter than those ditzy Plaza nuptials in Bride Wars. And there are roles for John Goodman and Joan Cusack as Becky’s parents, and John Lithgow as the magazine emperor. The whole movie isn’t bad, but it whizzes by a little too fast. While you can’t imagine a slow Jerry Bruckheimer film, a great (or very good) comedy luxuriates in its scenes more. IMDB says Isla Fisher is Sacha Baron Cohen’s girlfriend. That may explain why she’s so funny. In self defense.

Inkheart (Two-and-a-Half Stars)
U.K.; Iain Softley, 2008 (New Line)

A movie for bookworms — a group to which I’m proud to belong. This time the source is Cornelia Funke‘s bestselling German series: Another elaborate children‘s fantasy spectacular literary adaptation, in the Harry Potter mode. The show gives us nervous scholar Mortimer Folchart (Brendan Fraser), his adventurous young daughter Meggie (Elizabeth Hope Bennett), library loving, acid-tongued Elinor (Helen Mirren), dotty author Jim Broadbent and a raft of characters who come out of Broadbent’s book, including arch villain Capricorn (Andy Serkis) and hysterical Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), who all came pouring out of a book, which Mo had the misfortune to read ten years ago.

Explanation: Mo is a Silvertongue, which means that when he reads a book, he can unintentionally bring the characters to life. (Hollywood could use him.) He can also unintentionally send real people into the books, the unfortunate fate of his wife.
Iain Softley was better with The Beatles (“Backbeat”) and Henry James (“The Wings of the Dove”) than he is with Funke. But, since the movie has been given a full Brit all-star treatment, it’s an okay classy entertainment. If you want to see a non-trollish Serkis delivering lizard-cold villainy, Inkheart is the place to go.

The Pink Panther 2 (Two Stars)
U.S.; Harald Zwart, 2009 (MGM)

Peter Sellers is dead – and The Pink Panther 2 doesn’t dig him up. I’m not sure why Steve Martin wants to revive Sellers’ great buffoon Inspector Jacques Clouseau so badly, but this movie is no better than his first Pink Panther remake.

The director is Harald Zwart, the Norwegian soccer enthusiast who also made One Night at McCool’s, but this isn’t his plate of lutefisk. The cast is wasted. Jean Reno is back as sidekick Ponton. Emily Mortimer is back as Clouseau’s adorer Nicole, and Lily Tomlin tosses in a few smirks as Mrs. Berenger. Jeremy Irons, looking for a Brideshead to revisit, is the mournful-looking heavy Avellanado, involved in Pink Panther diamond chicanery. Clouseau’s rival detectives and experts — all hired to find the missing Panther — include Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, and the Bollywood Bombshell, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Kevin Kline has deserted the role of Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and he’s been replaced by John Cleese. (Not bad, but what about Richard Dreyfuss? Imagine his double takes, whenever anybody calls for “Inspector Dreyfus.”)

The problem with Martin’s take on Clouseau is that Martin’s a much nicer guy, not as much of a pretentious fool, and he doesn’t get that look of insane preoccupation on his face that Sellers got so perfectly. Nor does he have enough idiotic catch-phrases and outrageous mispronunciations. How about: “I am Clouseau! I am here to find my jewels and seize the malefactors! Beware, criminals and cretines, you have met your matches!” Blake Edwards, come home.

Taxi Blues (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
Russia; Pavel Lounguine, 1990 (Koch Lorber)

A hard-as-nails, ex-hard-line taxi driver named Shlykov (Piotr Zaitchenko) gives a ride to a drunken dissolute but brilliant Jewish jazz saxophonist, Lyosha (Piotr Mamonov) then has to roust him out when he’s stiffed for a big fare — beginning a feud/friendship that nearly careens onto catastrophe and destroys them both. They’re a study in opposites. Shlykov embodies the old pre-Glasnost Communist Soviet Union: dictatorial, brutal, and sentimental. Lyosha, who can wail on the sax like Charlie Parker or Dexter Gordon, symbolizes the new post-Gorbachev Russia: volatile, unpredictable, a bit selfish and corrupt. But, as played by the two Piotrs, they’re real, live human beings, and Lounguine gives us a Moscow that feels real too — a city on the edge of chaos as seen by a jazzman and a Taxi Driver just as alienated as Scorsese‘s and De Niro‘s. (In Russian, with English subtitles.)

Diary of a Suicide (Three Stars)
France: Stanislav Stanojevic, 1972 (Facets)

Neglected but weirdly brilliant experimental film from the heyday of French art cinema; the story has stylistic grace and a Bunuelian, dreams-within-dreams feel; Sami Frey and Delphine Seyrig star as a Mediterranean tour guide and interpreter who are more than they seen, Marie-France Pisier is an anarchist terrorist and Sacha Pitoeff (See Marienbad above) Is amelancholy prison guard with a terrible secret. A mesmerizing little film, from a gifted, untamed but unprolific Yugoslavian-French filmmaker director who should have given us much more. In French, with English subtitles.

Extras: interview with Stanojevic.

Party Girl (Three Stars)
U. S.; Nicholas Ray, 1958 (Warner Archive)

Robert Taylor is a brilliant ‘30s Chicago mob attorney who uses his twisted legs and cane to elicit jury sympathy; Lee J. Cobb is his brutal and murderous (but sentimental) gang czar boss; Cyd Charisse is Taylor’s va-va-voom show girl lover; and John Ireland is Cobb’s head gun-toting sleaze. It doesn‘t feel much like the ’30s, especially when the gloriously leggy Charisse does her bongo-accompanied specialty number. But this is a quintessential auteurist fave from the great sad romantic Nick Ray. The script may stumble, but the direction is sure-footed — and the whole movie has a lush, glamorous, feverish gleam. I especially like the way Cobb (a superbly over-the-top actor, and a fantastic heavy, as is Ireland) toys with the acid he plans to throw in Cyd‘s pretty face if Taylor won’t knuckle under. (“Could have been, could have been, Tommy. Could still be.”)

– Michael Wilmington
June 23, 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