MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Food, Inc., North By Northwest, Forrest Gump, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and more…


Food, Inc. (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Robert Kenner, 2009 (Magnolia

Do you really know everything you should about the food you eat? Are you aware, for instance, that many of the pigs and chickens that wind up in your entrees live in inhuman conditions, crammed together in nearly airless, sunless warehouses, stuck deep in their own feces? (I know, I know: You don’t want to hear or see this. But you should.)

Are you aware that your food these days can be improperly monitored and supervised and that potential infestations of Ecoli and other toxins can slip by another of those safety nets that Bush and Cheney helped tear to shreds?

Do you know that the post-modern world of corporate farming is often run by corporate bullies who put smaller farms and agriculture workers through Hell (like a hapless seed-separator persecuted by Monsanto whom we see here)? That the old bucolic world of farms and farms we will remember and idealize is largely gone and has often been replaced by the usual greed-crazed creeps: this time soulless mega-farmers, less interested in quality than volume, less interested in selling food than making tons of moolah?

Documentaries can be great warning signals, and that’s what director Robert Kenner gives us here: a warning signal that we better listen to — as we didn’t really listen, for example, to the warning signal of I.O.U.S.A.

Food, Inc. is based largely on the research of authors Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) — who appear here frequently as onscreen commentators. It’s a scary movie that we should take very, very seriously. The infantile and venal anti-regulation policies of the Bush years have gotten us into an unpretty pickle on lots of fronts, and Food Inc. helps unveil one more of them, while also showing us a few organic alternatives.

As they used to say at the protest marches, “Right on.”



North by Northwest 50th Anniversary Edition (Two discs) (Four Stars)
U. S.; Alfred Hitchcock, 1959 (Warner)

Alfred Hitchcock‘s great romantic/comedy/thriller — with Cary Grant, at his witty, seductive, impeccable best, as “wrong man” Roger Thornhill, an overly smug Madison Avenue adman who gets mistaken for an elusive spy named George Kaplan (a CIA plant who doesn’t really exist) and embarks on a wild chase from New York to Rapid City South Dakota, along with some sinister real-life spies (James Mason and Martin Landau), an elegant, ice cool blonde who may be traitor or two-timer (Eva Marie Saint), a scholarly, watchful CIA agent (Leo G. Carroll), Roger’s own skeptical, sardonic mother (Jessie Royce Landis) — and a succession of wild escapades that include a murder at the U.N., a battle on Mount Rushmore, and, most memorably, a crop dusting plane “dustin’ where there ain‘t no crops.”

This is Hitchcock at his most entertaining, in the picaresque comic mood of his classic ‘30s British thrillers The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. The cast is nonpareil. The screenplay, by Ernest Lehman, is racy, sophisticated and packed with ingenious twists, top characters and clever lines. The Bernard Herrmann score, fleet and nerve-shredding, is absolutely unemployable. And Hitchcock’s direction, as always (but even more infallibly in this case) brilliantly amuses and thrills us exactly as The Master planned. One hesitates to use the word “perfection.” But, in describing North by Northwest, what other word will do?

Extras: Commentary by Lehman; three excellent documentaries on Cary Grant, Hitchcock and the making of North by Northwest; trailers and TV spots.


Forrest Gump (Four Stars)
U. S.; Robert Zemeckis, 1994 (Paramount)

Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks give us an American soldier-fool-saint, a naïve hero who traverses the Vietnam years with the innocence of a good-hearted, chocolate-loving child — and they make it stick. The Vietnam War protestor scenes are pretty slanted and bogus, and maybe Gump didn’t deserve the Oscar (though Hanks did). But it’s still an affecting, superbly made movie. Based on Winston Groom’s novel. With Robin Wright Penn, Gary Sinise, Sally Field and Mykelti Williamson.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Four Stars)
U. S.; Frank Capra, 1946 (Paramount)

Frank Capra’s holiday masterpiece about George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a small-town guy on the brink of suicide, who is shown by a whimsical guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) what would have happened if he’d never lived, what a difference his life really made and why it truly is more blessed to give than to receive.

In many ways, it’s Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol done in reverse. Here, on a magical Chistmas Eve, a good man is made to understand the meaning of his life, and the consequences of selflessness, just as Dickens’ Scrooge is made to understand the consequences of selfishness. (Scrooge was, coincidentally, a regular Christmas season radio role for Lionel Barrymore, who plays Wonderful Life‘s banker-villain Old Man Potter). For Capra, the scares, laughter and tears come as readily as they do in Dickens‘ literary classic. The script, by turns witty and sentimental, is by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (The Diary of Anne Frank and the Thin Man movies) and a raft of uncredited others, including Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets and Dorothy Parker. The great, rambunctious cast includes Stewart, Barrymore, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Gloria Grahame, Beulah Bondi, Sheldon Leonard, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen.
You’ve seen it before, but it always works. And it always will.

Extras: Documentary.



Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I (Four Stars)
U. S.; Various Directors, 1952-58 (Sony)

“Film noir” has become such an infallible movie buff brand name that we’ve been deluged with film noir box sets, some only dubiously noir and irredeemable second or third (or even fourth) rate. I don’t think you should straitjacket the genre into too many hard and fast definitions, but a film noir is not just any crime movie released some time between 1940 and 1962 (or even earlier). Nor does the genre begin with Double Indemnity and end with “Touch of Evil.

This is one set though, like the Warner and Kino noir boxes, that you should definitely check out, and, if you’re a true noir buff, definitely own. Five vintage black and white Columbia noirs are packed tight together here, all good (or great), all in pristine looking prints, with good extras. (The noir experts contributing include Martin Scorsese, Eddie Muller, and James Ellroy — who gets demerits for some forced jokes and for dubbing himself “The white knight of the far right.”)

The quintet of movies includes one inarguable top-rank classic (Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat), one inarguable minor classic (Don Siegel’s The Lineup with its fantastic San Francisco chase sequence) and three genuine sleepers, including The Sniper, Five Against the House and Irving Lerner’s ultra-low-budget existential hit man saga, Murder by Contract.

Includes: The Sniper (U.S.; Edward Dmytryk, 1952). Three Stars. A boyish serial killer (Arthur Franz in a Richard Basehart sort of role) begins shooting, from rooftops, the sexy women he lusts after (including Marie Windsor as a bar pianist). Adolphe Menjou, Gerald Mohr and Richard Kiley are the cops and headshrinker hunting him all over Frisco. This is Dmytryk in his Crossfire-Murder, My Sweet-Mirage top form.

The Big Heat (U. S.; Fritz Lang, 1953). Four Stars. Fritz Lang‘s great scorching revenge sage about the grim, bereaved ex-cop (Glenn Ford) on a one-man vendetta against the suave crime boss (Alexander Scourby) whose bomb killed the cop’s wife (Jocelyn Brando) — and his opposite number, Gloria Grahame as the moll who falls for Ford after her hood boyfriend, mob torpedo Vince (Lee Marvin at his absolute snarling meanest) scars her face with flung hot coffee, caffeine used as a lethal weapon.

Based on a novel by William McGivern (Odds Against Tomorrow). Like Fury, You Only Live Once, Scarlet Street and While the City Sleeps, this is one of Lang‘s American triumphs. Five Against the House (U.S.; Phil Karlson, 1955). Three Stars. Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore and Kerwin Mathews are four college buddies and a knockout lounge singer who get tied up in robbing a Reno casino for kicks. A smooth, fast Karlson job and a good, if minor, heist thriller. Keith, as a psycho Korean War vet, does the only top-notch acting here, but he’s good enough for the whole movie.

The Lineup (U.S.; Don Siegel, 1958). Three and a Half Stars. A movie version of the hit TV cop show, starring Warner Anderson and Tom Tully as tough Dragnet-style Frisco cops; in the film, Emile Meyer replaces Tully. But Siegel and writer Stirling Silliphant ditch the fuzz early to concentrate instead on lots of Frisco scenery and three terrific crooks on a heroine-collecting kill spree: Richard Jaeckel as the baby-faced dipso wheelman, Robert Keith (Brian’s dad) as the aesthete/manager who collects victim’s last words, and Eli Wallach, a wow as Dancer, the psychopath killer.

Terrifically well directed; the final car pursuit and gundown is the cream of the black-and-white pre-Bullitt-French Connection chases. Murder by Contract (U.S.; Irving Lerner, 1958). Three and a Half Stars. Made for peanuts, this low budget L. A. crime odyssey is almost as good an example as Ulmer’s Detour of noir economy of means. Vince Edwards is the finicky assassin who keeps blowing his shots to kill a mob witness; Herschel Bernardi (the cop on Blake Edwards’ TV Peter Gunn) is his adoring guide. As Scorsese says in his intro, this is a low-budget thriller with Antonioni touches.

Extras: Commentaries by Eddie Muller (“The Sniper”) and Muller and James Ellroy (“The Lineup”); Talks by Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Michael Mann.


The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Tony Scott, 2009 (Sony)

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 rewires one of the most flavorful and zingy New York City thrillers of the ‘70s — the street-smart, pedal-down action movie, based on a John Godey novel, about a hijacked subway train on the Lexington line and the rumpled streetwise transit cop (played by Walter Matthau), battling the ice-cold commando crook (Robert Shaw) who’s holding the passengers for a million dollar ransom — and turns that not-so-guilty old pleasure into something faster and sleeker but far less delicious. It’s less cool, less streetwise, more mechanical, and at the end, more off-the-tracks absurd.

Entertaining though. To their credit, the people who made this new Pelham — including Denzel Washington and John Travolta, cast in the hero and villain roles — seem to like the old movie. This new gang also seems to recognize that it was character and NYC atmosphere, more than out of control subway chases and high-tech razzmatazz, that made that show so memorable.

So director Tony Scott (Spy Game), writer Brian Helgeland (L. A. Confidential) and the cast supply us with characters here: led by Washington as low-key good-guy, yet under-a-cloud train dispatcher Walter Garber (named, obviously, for Walt Matthau’s Zach Garber) and Travolta, giggling and screaming away as Ryder, a Wall street thief/ex-con, with a Fu Manchu mustache and tattoos, a greed-is-good psycho who’s calling the hijack shots between tantrums.

Backing them up are John Turturro as a smart cop, Michael Rispoli as a stupid transit supervisor, Luis Guzman as a disgraced motorman helping Ryder, and James Gandolfini as a horny NYC mayor with a Rudy Giuliani complex. (At least it wasn’t Ed Koch.) All of them, plus Helgeland‘s occasionally tangy lines, are what lift this “Pelham” above the techno-ruck of most big action wannabe blockbusters, including most of Tony Scott‘s. (Name me a sillier flyboy movie than Top Gun, even if it did inspire a good dirty-minded Quentin Tarantino monologue.)

Except for sheer glossy action technique, the new Pelham is way lesser than its predecessor in most respects. But if Scott’s shot at Coney Island does get a bit nutty at the end, well, so did the 1974 Pelham. In fact, the whole damned premise is ludicrous. A subway car held hostage by a gang of rough-trade-looking bad guys who demand one million bucks (or ten million smackers in this case) in an hour? Give me a break. It didn’t make that much sense in 1974 either. But what was remarkable about that movie, and to a lesser extent this one, is that you ended up buying it anyway, because you liked the cast and the ride.

So, after a while, it isn’t all that necessary to link Godey’s wild-ass Manhattan madness plot up to the real world, but (if you want to have a good time, instead of carping about the rape of verisimilitude) to just concentrate instead on how the characters are navigated through the chases and clichés. Washington and Travolta are fun to watch throughout, even when Travolta is at his looniest, and the last train to logic has gone totally off the rails.

Did I say Sargent’s Pelham was flavorful? Well, if the first movie tasted like a Katz Deli hot pastrami or salami on rye, or an old Original Ray’s pizza slice washed down with an Orange Julius, this one goes down more like more expensive delicatessen, with a Dr. Browns’ diet Black Cherry, that you’re too rushed to finish. It still tastes good, even if you’d rather be at Katz’s, digging the “Send a salami to your boy in the Army” signs.

One thing that’s really wrong with this new move is the way it turns at the end into a Metropolitan Transit Authority version of Top Gun, with Washington’s Garber suddenly morphed into a wholly unlikely action hero, racing all around the subway grid, popping up though manholes in time to spot Ryder’s getaway, and then chasing him all over the bridge for a last man-to-man facedown.

No. Way. None of this is necessary, no matter what the marketing department guys thought. Walter is heroic enough, just putting himself in danger in the end — and it’s better to have the actual cop here doing the action movie heavy lifting, rather than having to figure out where a subway train dispatcher picked up all those unlikely martial skills and track star speed.

As a matter of fact, good as Turturro is (as usual), it would have been better for this Pelham to have a lead cop more like Matthau’s Zach Garber: salty, streetwise and a smart aleck. And by the way, no matter how hot and heavy the action movie riffs or the volatile chemistry between D. W. and J. T., there’s nothing in this movie anywhere near as wonderful as the last moment of the 1974 show: the sardonic freeze frame of Matthau giving one of the crooks, one of his “oh yeah, buddy?“ sucking-a-sour-pickle looks. That Whiplash Willie Gingrich once-over was worth a ten million dollar ransom — or a least a pre-inflation one million dollar windfall — all by itself.

Notes on Marie Menken (Three Stars)
Austria; Martina Kudlacek, 2006 (Icarus)

Marie Menken was an abstract artist and experimental filmmaker who initially never intended to publicly show her movies — which were often jittery, sped-up views of lyrical subjects like gardens, art works or beach scenes. Eventually though, she became a famous underground director and ‘60s figure, and a big influence on other American avant garde cineastes like Stan Brakhage.

Menken was also, it says here and elsewhere, the original model for Edward Albee‘s Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — just as her bisexual artist/filmmaker husband, Willard Maas, was the model for George, and their legendary arguments the inspiration for Albee’s play. (A shame we can’t hear one here.)

Kudlacek’s passively adoring portrait has valuable old footage of Menken, Maas and cohorts like Andy Warhol, who is shown in a bizarre rooftop Bolex camera duel with Menken, who later became a star of sorts herself, as the chunky harridan of Warhol‘s Chelsea Girls. There are also interviews with Jonas Mekas, Gerard Malanga (who becomes, in a way, the star of this movie), Kenneth Anger, Peter Kubelka, Alfred Leslie and others.

Like Menken‘s films, this one is somewhat off-the-cuff and off-putting. I am not, remember, a fan of most abstract art. But ironically, the best things in the package are the three complete short Menken films included: Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945), Glimpse of the Garden (1957) and Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1958-61). (Other Menken films are excerpted in Kudlacek‘s movie.) They’re not as terrific as Brakhage thinks, but they swing.

Howards End (Four Stars)
U.K.; James Ivory, 1992 (Criterion)

Probably the best of the Merchant-Ivory films and certainly their best-accepted here: A very classy, literate, beautifully acted, designed and filmed adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel about a staid, repressed upper-class British marriage and the passion that assaults it. Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins are ideally cast as the couple; Sam West is the interloper.

There are few better screenwriters for this type of script than the regular Merchant-Ivory adapter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (a novelist herself), and Forster was certainly Merchant- Ivory’s touchstone and good luck charm. Their plush 1985 version of Forster‘s A Room With a View began their strongest, most popular period; this film, in a way, marked the end of it. It’s a shame that they never got to do the Forster novel best suited to them: A Passage to India.” Much as I like David Lean‘s 1984 version, I would still have loved to see theirs. With Helena Bonham Carter and James Wilby.


The Mary Tyler Moore Show: The Complete Fifth Season (Three Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1974-75 (20th Century Fox)

A season of funny, humane episodes from the prime time of one of TV’s best-loved shows, as created and nurtured by original writer James L. Brooks: the career girl adventures of Mary Richards (Moore), the plucky producer at Minneapolis station WJM-TV’s prime time news show. It was one of TV’s best written shows (even when Brooks wasn‘t writing), and a favorite program of Alfred Hitchcock‘s.

The whole newsroom gang and support group are here: gruff father figure producer Lou Grant (Ed Asner), pricelessly vain and vacuous anchor man Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), needling cohort Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), lusty TV homemaker Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), Ted‘s placid, long-suffering mate Georgette (Georgia Engel) — plus Mary’s spin-off gal-pals Rhoda (Valerie Harper) and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman). Mary’s love life, as ever, tends to take a second seat to her office interactions; this was one working girl who really loved to work, and one show that loved to show her at work, focusing believably (like Brooks‘ later Taxi), on life in the workplace. Not much dressing here; no extras. But the original shows and the whole WJM ensemble, hold up fine.

– Michael Wilmington
November 2, 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