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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Knowing, Quo Vadis?, Lonely are the Brave and more…

Knowing (Also Blu-Ray) Two Stars
U.S.; Alex Proyas, 2009

Apocalypse anyone? Something awful is happening in the world and Nic Cage’s John Koestler is hot on its trail, after his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) pulls an odd page full of numbers out of a 50-years- buried time capsule at his elementary school. Nic’s gloomy-eyed, touchy teacher Koestler (his name inspired maybe by the author of Darkness at Noon) discovers that the numbers connect with a string of major disaster tragedies, including 9/11, over the last 50 years, with only a handful left to go.

Soon Koestler is running around like Chicken Little, with similar results, and a group of taciturn supernatural strangers, who vaguely resemble sinister pseudo- Stings or David Bowies, are tailing Koestler and Caleb — and also Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne), the daughter of the one-time little girl Lucinda (Lara Robinson) who wrote the numbers, and Diana‘s little girl Abby (also Robinson). Caleb has started writing numbers too, and at first I thought that was a hopeful sign for everyone except maybe the catastrophe-chasing Koestler — since it might mean we had years more of disasters to live through before any big Lights Out time. That shows how much I know about apocalypses, or movies with M. Night Shyamalan-sounding titles.

I might be making all this sound a little silly, but I couldn’t possibly make it sound as silly as it really is. For example, at one point, the teacher in charge of the time capsule makes her kids race through their drawings/predictions in the last minute, ripping Lucinda’s numbers out of her hands. Koestler keeps running from disaster to disaster — the numbers sheet includes latitude and longitude of the locations — with the cops never listening to his warnings, even after he develops a superb catastrophe track record. One thought. The climactic sun flares are perhaps the only recent disaster we can’t reasonably blame on George W. Bush, Karl Rove and the gang, but that doesn’t make them more palatable, butt the climactic hope-for-tomorrow scene, complete with bunny rabbits, qualifies Knowing for some kind of fuzzy-headed lib camp prize.

Proyas (The Crow, Dark City) hasn’t lost his intense, fantastic science fiction visual sensibility, Blade Runner crossed with The Wizard of Oz. He may be the director who really should have tackled Watchmen and his disaster scenes are blow-aways. But he should stay away from bunny-rabbits, unless he’s filming an Easter Egg hunt.

Bottom line: It’s about time for Nic Cage to take a vacation from mega-thrillers and start doing movies like Wild at Heart and Leaving Las Vegas again. He can always do another National Treasure if the Depression hits. Anyway, maybe these Knowing filmmakers can wait out the disasters and bury this movie in an elementary school time capsule. I guarantee our descendants will be pretty damn freaked and befuddled when they open it up in 2059.



Quo Vadis? (Three Stars)
Poland: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 2001 (Polart/Facets)

One of the more enjoyable biblical movie epics is Mervyn LeRoy’s spectacular and highly entertaining Quo Vadis, his 1951 version of Henryk Sienkiewicz’ huge bestseller about the Christians, the Romans, the gladiators, lions and mad Nero, fiddling away and firing up Rome. (Peter Ustinov’s Nero in LeRoy’s film alone is worth that price of admission.)

But Sienkiewicz’s novel was actually a serious, spiritually committed and classic historical fiction, and this TV version by the very gifted Jerzy Kawalerowicz (Mother Joan of the Angels, Pharaoh) is a far more faithful adaptation. It’s in the BBC I Claudius vein. Standouts in the huge all star cast are polish action/arthouse star Boguslaw Linda as Petronius, Michal Najor as Nero and Jerzy Trela, a Polish Oscar winner as Chilonedes. (In Polish, with English subtitles.)



Lonely are the Brave (Four Stars)
U. S.; David Miller, 1962 (Universal)

Dalton Trumbo‘s favorite of all his screenplays was this stirring adaptation of Edward Abbey’s Brave Cowboy — a moving and exciting modern chase western, with Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns, an individualist modern cowboy on the run from a posse that includes helicopters, high-powered rifles and police radio. Ironically, the quintessential leftist and black list victim Trumbo — both a superb screenwriter and a very prolific one — loved, best of all, the one movie of his that might seem most calculated to please conservatives and libertarians: this sympathetic Western tale of a rugged individualist fleeing the modern police bureaucracy into the mountains of the past. (Lonely are the Brave was also a favorite of its liberal star Douglas.)

Trumbo isn’t faking or condescending; he writes this story with empathy and power and he doesn’t stack the deck. The sheriff pursuing Douglas, savvy Morey Johnson, is played by Walter Matthau, as a crusty cynic who’s emotionally drawn to his prey. Matthau’s more brutal deputy is played by George Kennedy, Gena Rowlands is Douglas’s love Jerry, and the cast also includes Carroll O’Connor (as a fateful truck driver) and Bill Bixby. The pulsing score is by Jerry Goldsmith, the man you’d want if you couldn’t get Bernard Herrmann.

Lonely are the Brave is not only one of Trumbo’s — and Douglas’ — finest achievements on screen, but the peak effort of its director, David Miller, an underrated seeming journeyman who also made the classic Joan Crawford noir Sudden Fear. Here, he seems just the right collaborator for Trumbo and Douglas, serving this top notch material and colleagues without ego and with plenty of emotion and craft.

Extras: Featurettes on the film and on Goldsmith.



The John Barrymore Collection (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1920-

John Barrymore, one of America‘s greatest stage and screen actors, was a magnificent ham with genius: a spectacular thespian gift that could survive (at least for a while) an ocean of booze and unchecked sex and hedonism. (According to Barrymore, in Ben Hecht‘s Child of the Century, he played the London premiere of his celebrated — and universally praised — performance as Hamlet, roaring drunk just after a lengthy liaison with a stubborn but finally compliant British ice princess.)

But Barrymore was a big movie star even before he could utilize his great, mellifluent, ironic voice (an instrument built for both Shakespeare and melodrama.) As “The Great Profile,” he was a silent movie matinee idol to rival pretty boys like Rudolf Valentino and John Gilbert — and a sexier, finer actor than either.

This set showcases four of Barrymore most characteristic silents: his horrific repressed/savage portrayal of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, his urbane and romantic Sherlock Holmes, his lusty and impudent French criminal/poet Francois Villon and his peasant-turned-Czarist officer Ivan Markov, caught in the Revolution in Tempest. It’s a glowing set with one fine restoration (Sherlock Holmes) and four grand showcases for a brilliant actor whose greatness lay in more than his profile, a dramatic artist of munificent recklessness and stunning excess. (All silent, with musical accompaniment.)

Includes: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (U.S.; John Robertson, 1920) Three-and-a-Half Stars. With Nita Naldi and Brandon Hurst. Sherlock Holmes (U.S.; Albert Parker, 1922) Three Stars. With Roland Young, Carol Dempster, Louis Wolheim, Gustav von Seyffertitz and William Powell. The Beloved Rogue (U.S.; Alan Crosland, 1927) Three-and-a-Half Stars. With Conrad Veidt and Mack Swain. Tempest (U. S.; Sam Taylor, 1929) Three Stars. With Camilla Horn and Louis Wolheim.

Extras: Stan Laurel 1925 parody short Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride, shorts, excerpt, video essay and a wonderful intro and wrap-up by Orson Welles for The Beloved Rogue.

– Michael Wilmington
July 7, 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