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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Drag Me to Hell, Natural Born Killers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and more…


Drag Me to Hell (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Sam Raimi, 2009 (Universal)

Drag Me to Hell, from Sam (“SpiderMan”) Raimi, is a terror fest in his Evil Dead mode and gear: a scary movie that’s really scary and a horror flick that, despite a hell-bound plot that‘s not too original, managed to keep the audience with whom I saw it in the theater, jumping and screaming — and then laughing and applauding after each fresh jump and scream, all the way to the last shot.

I won’t say I was one of the screamers. But I did jump more than once — and I’ve seen David Lean‘s Great Expectations, Brian De Palma’s Carrie and the Evil Deads and Rosemary‘s Baby and the like, so I knew what to expect.

Here‘s what we get. Alison Lohman is young bank office manager Christine Brown, who’s in competition with office sneak Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee), both bucking for a promo from fake-kindly boss Mr. Jacks (David Paymer). Mindful of the mortgage crisis (the movie has incredible crash timing) tells her not to be too nice. So unlucky Christine denies a mortgage payment extension to the fiercely unkempt, raggle-toothed and gnarly-nailed Mrs. Ganush (played by Lorna Raver, the big hit of a very good cast) — who begs for more time so she won’t lose her home, and pulls out her gooey false teeth when the stunner Christine confers with Jacks and comes back to refuse the extension. Then, as they say, all Hell breaks loose.

Hell hath no fury like an elderly mortgage victim. Despite the best efforts of touchy psychic Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), of fellow Satan victim Shaun Sen Dena (Babel‘s Adriana Barraza) and stalwart fiancé Clay Dalton (Justin Long) — who keeps, however, going home at inopportune moments — Christine is in for some really bad times. (President Obama might consider requiring all bank executives be forced to watch Drag Me to Hell once a week until they loosen credit.) But I think I should shut up about the rest. I will however advise cat-lovers of possible havoc to their sensibilities. And the kitten doesn’t suffer as long as the bank officer.

Another caveat. Drag Me to Hell is a terrifically entertaining movie, though it’s clearly offensive to some of the audience, and though the script, by Sam and Ivan Raimi, is no great shakes. But the direction is gruesomely fabulous. And, as with Nightmare on Elm Street, there’s a jocular air to it all that keeps the movie amusing as well as horrific. Give the devil his due — which was certainly missing in the much harder-trying Angels and Demons.” This movie — I can’t help it — may hand you a hell of a time.


Natural Born Killers (Director‘s Cut) (Also Blu-Ray) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Oliver Stone, 1994 (Warner)

Oliver Stone’s mad-dog-violent “love on the run” neo-noir, one of the most controversial movies of the ’90s, may get better and better every time you see it in a new release. But that doesn’t mean it still couldn’t use some improvement. There’s a crucial change Stone still has to make, to turn Killers into the incendiary masterpiece it deserves to be, and I hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for him to do it. Killers is a modern classic, but it’s not a spotless classic.

God knows the movie had plenty of nay-sayers when it came out, though I gave it four stars in my original Tribune review and still won’t budge — even if I’ve come to believe this movie still contains a major (but easily correctible) flaw. Original scripter and co-writer Quentin Tarantino didn’t like what Stone did with his script about killer-lovers Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) and their over-the-top crime spree — and he‘s always had a point. Stone‘s and Tarantino’s styles don’t really mesh; but they do explode and catch fire.

It’s easily Stone’s most experimental and wildly inventive film, and for me, a weirdo peak of ‘90s moviemaking. M. & M. a deranged modern version of Bonnie and Clyde and the pseudo-Starkweather couple in Badlands, go on a robbing and killing rampage that starts with Mallory’s dad (Rodney Dangerfield, in a sitcom-from-Hell parody) and keeps bloodily growing and growing. Eventually they become national media stars, then rebel jailbirds, then psycho legends, thanks to irresponsible TV-hounds like Robert Downey Jr.’s Aussie tabloid Foxy screamer. Tommy Lee Jones is also around as a sadistic prison warden, and the rest of the cast includes Tom Sizemore, Edie McClurg, Steven Wright, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Balthazar Getty, and Native American activist Russell Means.

The movie, which is about American violence on all levels, keeps leaping and lunging from one crazy burst of carnage, flipped-out media satire and bloody fantasy to another.

Here’s what’s still wrong. This edition, as in the Director’s Cuts released before, includes added footage and an appendix of some key deleted scenes, including Stone’s original (“alternate”) ending, with Arliss Howard as the guardian angel/demon who keeps popping up throughout the movie. That ending — bleak, horrific, and total noir — is the one Stone definitely should have used, instead of the compromised pseudo-happy-ending-with-Mickey-and-Mallory-in-the-Winnebago cut he made for release, and that he keeps confoundingly hanging onto.

Note to O. S.: The greatest film noirs — and NBK is already one of the best neo-noirs — tend to have dark, unhappy endings. So should Natural Born Killers, which originally had a doozey. Dammit, it feels wrong for M. & M. to get away smiling in the climax, just as it feels wrong for a similarly “happy” ending to wrap up in mercenary measure the two movie versions of Jim Thompson’s bleaker and better novel, The Getaway. It feels right for M&M to descend into hell, where they really belong. If Stone is still somehow skittish about committing himself, maybe he should release a DVD that contains both the original “NBK” and the one with all changes, including those Arliss Howard scenes. He’ll be doing us (and himself) a favor. He’ll be giving us a classic neo-noir, with just the right dark bang-up finish.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (3 Discs) (Four Stars)
U. S.; David Hand, 1937 (Disney)

Walt Disney’s pride and joy, with both DVD and Blu-ray discs in one package. A fairytale movie perfect for children, and the grownups who accompany them. one of the landmark movies of Hollywood‘s Golden Age, and the first great animated feature, blessed with still thoroughly charming and thrilling imagery and one of the finest of all cartoon song scores. (Leigh Harline’s set includes “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Heigh Ho” — and not many cartoon scores wind up getting a Miles Davis to cover them). The voice actors include Adriana Caselotti, Lucille LaVerne, Pinto “Goofy” Colvig and Billy Gilbert.

It never really ages — any more than Dopey, Grumpy and Doc do. Extras: Commentary by John Canemaker, music video, games, sing-along, original Disney storyboards, and featurettes.


Stop Making Sense (Four Stars)
U. S.; Jonathan Demme, 1984 (Vivendi)

Jonathan Demme’s cool look at David Byrne’s and Talking Heads on stage in their “Psycho Killer”-”Burning Down the House” prime is sometimes called the greatest rock concert film of all time. It isn’t. It’s easily trumped by Martin Scorsese’s blazing classic The Last Waltz and his knockout recent classic-to-be Shine a Light, not to mention “Woodstock” or “Monterey Pop.“ But “Stop Making Sense” is still some kind of show. Sinuous songs with ferocious lyrics and infectious beats and riffs, wrapped up in Byrne’s absurdist vaudeville. Like Scorsese (probably a big influence here), Demme never shows the audience, concentrating instead on the music and the musicians. They’re more than worth it.


Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913 (Four Stars)
France; Alice Guy-Blache/Louis Feuillade/Leonce Perret, 1897-1913 (Kino)

Following Flicker Alley’s epic anthology of short films by the great magician-filmmaker Georges Melies, here’s another precious French treasure-lode lovingly culled from some of the earliest years of world cinema: Kino’s splendid collection of more than 75 short films (and one 1913 feature), made by three more essential pioneers of French film: Alice Guy (aka Guy-Blache), Louis Feuillade and Leonce Perret.

It took a while to get through the twelve or so hours of this package, but I love early cinema (the pre-Chaplin era of early Griffith and Melies) and, for me, it was a real joy. Except for devout cinephiles, I can‘t promise epiphanies for all of you, but it‘s a grand, cherishable package nonetheless.

All three of the directors here, who were successively the artistic directors and heads of production at Gaumont Studio, are masters of their craft. Alice Guy, a woman cineaste from the very dawn of cinema, and Leonce Perret, a fine silky melodramatics, are both revelations. And Louis Feuillade, famous for the riveting crime thriller serials Judex and The Vampires, looks even better after the display of versatility he puts on here. The musical scores, mostly by Patrick Laviosa, are appropriate, charming and melodic. The films, carefully restored, mostly look great. There are also two very useful documentaries on Feuillade and Perret — though why there wasn‘t a third, telling the fascinating tale of Alice Guy, is a mystery, and the box set’s one notable flaw.

Includes: Volume 1: Alice Guy. (France; Alice Guy, 1897-1907) Four Stars. 64 films and film fragments, including Serpentine Dance by Mme. Bob Walter and Bathing in a Stream (1897), Disappearing Act and Surprise Attack on a House at Daybreak (1898), Wonderful Absinthe (1899), Avenue de L‘Opera, Pierrette’s Escapades and The Cabbage Patch Fairy (1900), Midwife to the Upper Class (1902).

Faust and Mephistopheles (1903), The Statue, Spain and six tinted-color, sound performance films with Polin, Dranem and Felix Mayo (1905), The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ, An Obstacle Course, The Hierarchies of Love and The Consequences of Feminism (1906), The Race for the Sausage, On the Barricade and The Dirigible ’Homeland’ (1907). All silent, with English intertitles and musical scores.

Feminists will adore this volume — devoted to Alice Guy, a prolific and gifted contemporary of Melies and the Lumiere Brothers, who was also Gaumont’s artistic director up to 1907 (when she emigrated to America). Guy, also known as Guy-Blache (from her husband‘s name), proved that women could be master filmmakers long before Hollywood‘s somewhat misogynist heyday.

Guy’s very first films sometimes aped the fantasies of Melies and the realities of Lumiere. She also was an early experimenter in both color and sound (with her hand-tinted, synchronized-record films of famous French singer/performers). She was a rowdy slapstick comedy director; her best here is the wild and woolly 1907 The Race for the Sausage, in which a lively dog, after snatching an incredibly long sausage-chain from a food shop, leads a bevy of Parisians on a merry chase. And she was even a pioneer of the religious spectacle — with a lushly designed and reverent 33 minute biblical epic, obviously intended to be released primarily in short parts, called The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ.

Those feminists again, in love with a wonderful Guy, will be charmed by her more female -oriented tales: including her melodrama of mother-love in the French Revolution (1907‘s On the Barricades), her somewhat La Ronde-like sex comedy The Hierarchies of Love (1906), and the sex-change farce The Consequences of Feminism (1906), in which all the women act like men and vice versa.

Volume 2: Louis Feuillade. (France; Louis Feuillade, 1907-1913) Four Stars. The Colonel’s Account (1907), A Very Fine Lady (1908), Spring (1909), The Fairy of the Surf (1909), Custody of the Child (1909), The Defect (1911), The Roman Orgy (1911), The Trust (1911), The Heart and the Money (1912), The Obsession (1912), Tragic Error (1913), Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant (1913), The Agony of Byzance (1913). All silent, with English intertitles and musical scores.

Extra: Documentary Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms, Three Stars. Louis Feuillade, a major figure of French silent movies, a hugely popular crafter of mystery thriller serials, an incredibly prolific moviemaker (over 800 films), and the creator of one of the cinema world’s first great femme fatales (Musidora as black-clad temptress Irma Vep, siren/leader of that demonic Parisian gang, the Vampires), here shows what he can do with an impressive variety of genres: including, as the slipcase partly notes, the wild comedy of 1907‘s The Colonel’s Account, the crime and intrigue of 1911‘s The Trust, the Zola-esque social drama of 1911’s The Defect, the wistful fantasy of 1909’s The Fairy of the Surf, the tragic romance of 1913‘s Tragic Error, the sometimes tragic/epic period spectacle of 1911‘s The Roman Orgy and 1913‘s The Agony of Byzance and even a madcap comic romp with a runaway child star and a stolen elephant, Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant (1913).

The most gifted of the three master-filmmakers here (though not by as much as you’d think), Feuillade excels at almost everything. His style is crisp, immediate, lusty and full of joie de vivre and the joy of creation. This anthology shows that there’s plenty more where Judex came from.

Volume 3: Leonce Perret. (France; Leonce Perret, 1912-1913). Four Stars. The Mystery of the Rocks of Kadar (1912). Two and a Half Stars. The Child of Paris (L’Enfant du Paris) (1913) Four Stars. All silent, with English intertitles and musical scores.

Extra: Documentary Leonce Perret: The Filmmaker‘s Filmmaker, Three Stars. Perret is the least familiar name here, but still hardly less talented than his two colleague/predecessors, cinephiles will be taken aback by the Leonce Perret slipcase quote from the renowned critic/historian Georges Sadoul, who says of 1913‘s The Child of Paris, that Perret’s style exhibits “an extraordinarily refined cinematic repertoire…of numerous innovations, all of which Perret implemented with flair, in stark contrast to..the still somewhat primitive technique of D.W. Griffith at the time.

More refined than the “primitive” Griffith?” That made be hard to swallow, especially since Child of Paris is blatant semi-Griffithian melodama itself, the sub-Oliver Twist-ish tale of yet another child star (female this time), who loses her Army office father, runs away from the boarding school and falls in with thieves and kidnappers. But Child is an elegant show, smooth as satin, engrossing, full of evocative location work and superbly crafted. Perret is a discovery; Guy a confirmation. And Feuillade remains a pre-noir genius.

The Proposal (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Anne Fletcher, 2009 (Touchstone)

Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds make a shiny, spiffy romantic comedy couple in The Proposal, which, despite a merely ordinary mismatched couple green card sham-marriage script, by Peter Ciarelli, has been very well directed by Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses), an ex-choreographer with personality and comic grace.

Bullock hasn’t been that hit-visible for much of the decade. But she has a proper star turn here, she looks great and she really seduces the screen, as a beautiful but self-absorbed, ball-breaking Manhattan book editor named Margaret Tate, who discovers that she’s about to be deported back to Canada because of a paperwork snafu, and enlists her male secretary, Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds in one of his umpteen recent performances) — who hates her (or thinks he does) — as a temporary husband.

Back the feuding couple go to Andy’s hometown, Sitka, Alaska, to hobnob with Andrew‘s loveably rich family — including sweet mama Mary Steenburgen, pushy business dad Craig T. Nelson and foxy grandma Betty White (shoplifting scene after scene). There, Ms. Tate discovers that she and Andrew are simpatico in the nude, and that life can be beautiful, and funny, even if you’re being harassed by an immigration agent named Gilbertson and your governor is Sarah Palin.

This is the kind of unapologetically clichéd script that could have tripped up many another director. But Fletcher has a deft touch and an eye for movement and personality, and her actors, especially Bullock and Reynolds, are mostly as charming and funny as they can be. Reynolds has instant affability, even when he’s playing a little mean (which he isn’t here), and Bullock is a real doll, even when she’s playing mean as hell (which here, she is). Next time out, I hope Fletcher has a better script, but she shows here she doesn’t always need one.

Land of the Lost (One and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Brad Silberling, 2009 (Universal)

The new Sid and Marty Krofft movie edition of their old 1974 TV show Land of the Lost, with Will Ferrell as Rick Marshall, is the kind of picture that makes you thankful for concession stands. The Kroffts’ original TV “Land“ was a likeably cheesy and engagingly absurd kid‘s TV fantasy-adventure show, about a park ranger dad and his amazingly reckless two children, who got whisked off through a waterfall time warp or something, into a weird land of rampaging dinosaurs, swooping pterodactyls, an angry T. Rex, cheerful monkey-men and bizarre erect lizard-creatures.

The show was a bargain basement King Kong puppet show, with the actors gesticulating and bantering, while the puppet monsters cavorted and threatened them. Production-wise, it was amusing because it was tacky. This series’ animation was to the classic King Kong as Plan Nine from Outer Space is to 2001.

In this version, the Kroffts have strangely sacrificed their old family audience approach in favor of better special effects and raunchier jokes — as if they’d decided to make their movie about H. R,. Pufnstuff and make him a flasher.

Will Ferrell (a big fan of the original show) plays a seemingly demented scientist named, like the original park ranger, Rick Marshall. Rick, an obnoxious Ferrell-y chap, falls into elementary school teacher obscurity after picking a fight with Matt Lauer, while being interviewed on Today about time warps, and later falls through a time warp at a desert horror show ride and ends up in dinosaur land, along with his own versions of Will and Holly. This time, they’re not his children, but adults: boorish horror show operator Will (Danny McBride) and Dr. Rick’s sexy, adoring assistant Holly (Anna Friel). Chaka (or Cha-Ka), the monkey man shows up too, played by Jorma Taccone of SNL. And, to give you an idea of the movie‘s humor, both Chaka and Will start off by groping Holly’s bosom every chance they get.

There are also orgy jokes and toilet gags even though, initially at least, we’re in a world without toilets (though not without caca.) The special effects and dinosaurs, are pretty good, but that doesn’t necessarily help this movie. (Matt Lauer has gotten some good reviews here, though he should definitely keep his day job.) As for this Land, maybe it should have stayed Lost, at least until the Kroffts got all the orgy gags out of their system.

Every Little Step (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; James D. Stern/Adam Del Deo, 2008 (Sony)

A backstage documentary about a revival of creator-choreographer-director Michael Bennett’s modern classic musical A Chorus Line, which also backtracks, to tell the story of the first show and how it was made. The doc is somewhat overrated, but not bad at all. And it makes you wish Bennett and not Richard Attenborough, had made the movie of the original Chorus Line.

The Stepfather (Three Stars)
U.S.; Joseph Ruben, 1987 (Shout! Factory)

Terry O’Quinn plays the seemingly perfect second husband looking for the perfect family in a halcyon, near-perfect little suburb — except that this sterling stepfather is really a crazed killer, and if his new family doesn’t measure up to his high standards, they’re going to suffer, suffer.

A brilliant screenplay by Donald Westlake, from a story by Westlake, Brian Garfield and Carolyn Lefcourt, keys this famous, tense little sleeper, one of the best of the family psychological thrillers — which just goes to show how important good screenplays, and occasionally bad fathers, are in movies. With Jill Schoelen and Shelley Hack.

Happy Birthday to Me (Two Stars)
U. S.; J. Lee Thompson, 1980 (Anchor Bay)

Someone is killing off the privileged, spoiled, sexed-up rich-kid members of the local high school’s toniest clique, a band of insiders that includes Melissa Sue Anderson, slumming it after The Little House on the Prairie, as disturbed young Ginny. One by one, they go down hard, murdered by barbells or impaled on a shish-ke-bob stick or shoved into the cake at a grisly birthday party, in this gruesome little trifle.

One of the few late‘70s-early ‘80s teen slasher horror movies, by a famous old-line director — J. Lee Thompson of Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone — and it shows that Thompson can keep his flair for nasty, sadistic suspense even under the most ridiculous circumstances. With Glenn Ford in the unrewarding role of an intense therapist, trying to straighten out Ginny and figure it all out before someone maybe kills him. (Perhaps he‘s dreaming of Gilda and The Blackboard Jungle.)

– Michael Wilmington
October 13, 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