MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Easy Virtue, The Country Teacher, Wagon Master and more…

Easy Virtue (Three Stars)
U. K.; Stephan Elliott, 2009 (Sony)

Noel Coward’s blithe, spirited, sexy ’20s play, Easy Virtue, is not new to movies. This country manor comedy of good and bad manners, about a sexy, free-spirited young newlywed, subjected to snobbishness, idiocy and bigotry by her young hubby’s aristo family, and fighting back with a drizzle of wicked japes and bon mots, was, in fact, somewhat indifferently adapted in 1927 by the young Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve seen Hitch’s version, and don’t remember much of it. But clearly, he wasn’t as much inspired by Coward’s brittle wit and psycho-sexual kinks — or whatever was left of them in the screenplay — as David Lean would later be in Blithe Spirit, or as director-co-writer Stephan Elliott (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is here.

Incredibly, a better movie than Hitchcock’s has been fashioned by Elliott. For one thing, he has a better cast in less dolorous roles. Instead of Isabel Jeans and Ian Hunter, suffering in an alcohol-blighted household, Elliott has the unsettlingly gorgeous Jessica Biel as scrumptious interloper, new wife and lady racer Larita, Ben Barnes as her Brideshead-icily wimpy spouse John, and, as the Whittakers, John’s icily intolerant mother and his surprisingly receptive father, the resplendently bitchy Kristin Scott Thomas, and the pride of the BBC Pride and Prejudice, Colin Firth.

There’s sumptuous scenery and cinematography, guilty secrets, horrid sisters, saucy fox hunts and glamorous BMWs. The whole movie has the blithe air and tipsy spirit of a musical comedy romance and indeed, Ellliott peppers it with five songs by Coward (including, tellingly, Mad About the Boy) and three by the equally gay Cole Porter, ending the show with a rousing ensemble number by the cast. There’s something a little cruel about the show, but Coward knew how to play his audience and so does Elliott. I should mention, by way of warning, that this is the only movie I have never seen where the sympathetic heroine sat on and squashed to death a tiny, yelping lapdog — though I guess the Humane Society must have monitored everything.


The Country Teacher (Three Stars)
Czech Republic/Germany/France; Bohdan Slama, 2008 (Film Movement)

Poetic and lusty triangle drama from the Czech republic, about a teacher from the city, a single mother and her teen son (one of his students) — and how the trio’sr bonds become stronger when the teacher’s sexual orientation comes out. A good job on every evel, from one of the best and most adventurous arthouse labels around. (In Czech, with English subtitles.) With short film Peter and Ben, directed by Pinny Grylls.



Wagon Master (Four Stars)
U.S.; John Ford, 1950 (Warner)

Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. are two rambling cowboys who sign on to guide a wagon train of Mormons to their Western promised land; Ward Bond is the hot-tempered Mormon elder who hires the pair (and always seems in danger of falling into the traps of sin). Sexy Joanne Dru and Shakespearean ham Alan Mowbray are part of an incongruously colorful troupe of actors. And that neglected ’40s-’50s supporting ace Charles Kemper (The Southerner, On Dangerous Ground) is Old Man Clegg, the vicious patriarch of a group of murderous outlaws who are the wagon train’s demons and bear more than a family resemblance to the Clanton clan in Ford’s shoot-’em-up masterpiece My Darling Clementine.

Like Clementine, this is one of Ford’s greatest Westerns — and one of the best films the genre ever produced. Gentler and more lyrical than most, it’s a comic-picaresque ode to the pioneer spirit: so beautifully shot and rousingly staged that the images linger in your mind like monochrome reveries of the past. You have missed an American movie treasure if you’ve missed this one — and most non-Ford buffs have. The movie later inspired the Number One hit ’50s TV show Wagon Train, with Bond playing Major Seth Adams, an equally hot-tempered variation on his role here — and scenes from Wagon Master pop up in the 1960 Wagon Train episode, The Colter Craven Story, Ford’s one directorial contribution to the series. They look better here — in one of the most visually entrancing and lustily entertaining of all Westerns. See Directed by John Ford below.


Throne of Blood (Four Stars)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1957 (Criterion Essential Arthouse)

Akira Kurosawa meets William Shakespeare in this dark, horrific version of Macbeth — with Toshiro Mifune as the murderously ambitious thane (here a medieval Japanese war lord), who conjoins with his evil Lady (Isuzu Yamada) to try to kill his way to the top — and ends in a castle surrounded by branch-toting warriors,-as a screaming bloody target, his body pierced by hundreds of arrows, like St. Sebastian turned porcupine. One of Kurosawa’s most admired films, perhaps because if its blend of classic literary lineage and hell-bent action. The atmosphere reeks of tension and evil; the witches are as scary as Kwaidan, and the action/battle scenes are both epic and terrifying. In Japanese, with English subtitles.



Amadeus: Director’s Cut (Four Stars)
U.S.; Milos Forman, 1984 (Warner)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) is a lewd and laughing little hellion, whose cackles of glee bespeak the soul of a mischievous boy mated with a great lyrical, angelic genius of music. Antonio Salieri (the Oscar-winning F. Murray Abraham) is an ugly little man with the soul of a politician, the skills of an accountant and the musical gifts of a competent but uninspired journeyman. When they cross paths, genius flames, but mediocrity triumphs, in this splendid adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play, as directed by Milos Forman, whose hearts is always with misfits and rebels. This is Forman’s director’s cut, longer and more melodious, like Mozart’s Requiem.



Nikkatsu Noir (Three and a Half Stars)
Japan; Various Directors, 1957-1967 (Criterion Eclipse)

Five fast, stylish Japanese lower-budget cop-and-crook noirs from the studio that specialized in them: feisty Nikkatsu. These movies, one directed by the legendary Seijun Suzuki (maker of the baroque classic Branded to Kill, which got him fired from Nikkatsu), and another considered a neglected genre classic (Takashi Nomura’s incredible A Colt is My Passport), are among the better foreign language international variants of noir. The black and white cinematography gleams, the tough actors, pretty actresses or hammy supporting thespians (including, in the leads of two, that smirking Nipponese Lee Marvin, Joe Shishido) posture and brawl amusingly, and the time you spend watching them just whips by. Hard-core noir buffs will love these movies, but so will others. (All in Japanese, with English subtitles.)

Includes: I Am Waiting (Japanese; Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1957) Three Stars. With Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitahara. Rusty Knife (Japanese; Toshio Masuda, 1958) Three Stars. With Yujiro Ishihara, Mie Kitahara and Akira Kobayashi.

Take Aim at the Police Van (Japanese; Seijun Suzuki, 1960) Three Stars. With Michitaro Mizushima and Mari Shiraki. Cruel Gun Story (Japanese; Takumi Furukawa, 1964) Three Stars. With Joe Shishido and Chieko Matsubara. A Colt is my Passport (Japanese; Takashi Nomura, 1967). Three and a Half Stars. With Joe Shishido, Chitose Kobayashi and Jerry Fujio.



Next Day Air (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Benny Boom, 2009

In the Philadelphia ghetto underworld, a dangerous and crazy neighborhood where there are, as Humphrey Bogart once remarked, so many guns and so few brains, a pot-smoking delivery guy named Leo (Donald Faison) mistakenly delivers a box full of cocaine to two equally stupid criminal wannabes, Mike Epps as Brody and Wood Harris as Guch, who then try to peddle the blow to stoic-faced but inept dealer-cousin Shavoo (Omari Hardwick) and taciturn torpedo Buddy (Darius McGrary). Unfortunately, the intended cocaine recipient, Jesus (That’s Jee-zuz, not Hay-soos) lives up the hall with his Santeria-obsessed girlfriend Chita (Yasmin Deliz). And, after doing a cut-rate Robert De Niro impression, he’s off on a mad search for the Next Day Air guy and the coke, pressured by implacable gang czar Bodega Diablo (Emilio Rivera), who apparently doesn’t have a sense of humor.

Diablo may be poker-faced, but I laughed all the way through this defiantly tasteless African-American crime comedy, a neo-noir with attitude and a strong feature debut for both music video director Benny Boom and writer Blair Cobbs.

The movie however, is really sabotaged by its ending, not so much by the violence (which works well enough and is a good resolution for the amusingly amoral plotline) but the goofy and Hollywood-cokey coda after the blowup, which takes us out of the world of Reservoir Dogs and back into the world of Friday. Even if the audience likes that ending, it’s a mistake, and it throws the show’s moral fudging and cutesy flaws, easy to ignore otherwise, into relief. On the other hand, the dialogue is unusually good and the acting is terrific, including Mos Def as a light-fingered fellow delivery man and Malik Barnhardt as the guy who sleeps through it all.


Van Helsing (Two Stars)
U. S.; Stephen Sommers, 2004 (Universal)

Another version of Dracula, the most expensive and also the most frenetic and the least literary — with vampire-slayer Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) duking it out with Count Drac (Richard Roxburgh, camping it up), The Wolf Man (Will Kemp) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley), while flirting with a Transylvanian cutie (Kate Beckinsale). Despite the cast, it’s like a vampire video game gone amok.


An American Werewolf in London (Three Stars)
U.S.; John Landis, 1981 (Universal)

One of the best modern werewolf films, perhaps because it’s both funny and serious: two American travelers (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) hike through eh British countryside, and fall afoul of the lycanthropic curse. Fangs for the memories. (I’m sorry.)


Fame (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Alan Parker, 1980 (Warner) (1980)

The title song (by Dean Pitchford and Michael Gorem) is as catchy as they come, though you may have heard Irene Cara sing it too often if you were around in 1980. They certainly should have done a better script, with a premise like this: the lives and loves of kids at New York City’s School of the Performing Arts. Bu director Alan Parker and an exuberant young cast keep it lively.


Directed by John Ford (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Peter Bogdanovich, 1971-2006 (Warner)

The final version of one of the great moviemaker documentaries, with a great cantankerous subject: John Ford, who made Westerns. The interviewees include John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara and Clint Eastwood.

– Michael Wilmington
September 15, 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