MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Star Trek, Gone with the Wind, The Exiles, Fight Club, Humpday and more…


Star Trek (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; J. J. Abrams, 2009

The latest Star Trek movie, called simply Star Trek, is a genuine audience-pleaser, a film that can connect to the movie going masses, to the hard-core fans (Trekkies, Trekkers, Trekkums or whatever) — and even to a few moviegoers who couldn’t care less or think Trek is dreck and that Spock is a baby manual.

Here, director J. J. Abrams (of Mission: Impossible III and TV’s Felicity and Lost) and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Transformers) show how young Kirk (Chris Pine) and young Spock (Zachary Quinto) met after dear old days at the Starfleet Academy and their assignment (a complex chore, in Kirk‘s case) to the Enterprise, under Captain Chris Pike (Bruce Greenwood) — just in time to lock horns with the crazed Romulan villain Nero (Eric Bana), who’s hell-bent on blowing up everything Federated in sight. This is the first time out against heavy firepower and lizard-faced bad guys for the classic Enterprise ensemble. And now we know why Kirk was always so confident, Spock always so calm. At saving the universe, they’re naturals.

As we watch, a gang of evil, ugly, well-equipped Romulan space-villains intent on planetary genocide, and led by the obsessed Nero, run up against the Starship Enterprise‘s cocky young kids, including Kirk, Spock, Doc “Bones” McCoy, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov and all the rest, most just graduated from Starfleet Academy and eager to strut their space stuff.

I had a good time myself. But the current movie’s powers of mass audience manipulation may strike an ironic note, because the original TV series, which started back in 1966, was no huge popular hit, no pre-Star Wars or ’60s-style Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon. It was a more intellectual show that specialized in well-written moral fables, albeit set on a slightly tacky looking space ship control room set. And it was cancelled after three seasons — then brought back as a movie and several reborn TV series because of what was probably the most ferocious, undying and determined fan loyalty, against all odds, in the history of pop culture. (Star Wars addicts may object, but, remember, Star Wars started off with an all-time number one box-office hit, Star Trek with a beleaguered little critics’ darling prize-winning show kicked off the air by Klingon-like TV execs.)

Yet this new movie Trek reunion is a mega-grosser and big chunks of it almost are updated Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, or what Flash and Buck might have been with millions to spend and the cream of contemporary twenty-first century movie technology at their disposal.

The new Star Trek does manage to hit both bases. It brings back the classic ensemble, all now played at a younger age, by younger actors, adds acting room for Leonard Nimoy himself, and mixes the emotional drama and social message stuff, with one slam-bang action sequence after another. Star Trek, James Bond-style, starts off with a super-bang — a deep space blowup — and then after some childhood action or psychological stuff for Kirk and Spock, keeps racing us from one space fight and planetary catastrophe to another, with time in between for jokes and drama. It’s the action that tends to hog the show, but the personality that makes it hum.

Anyway, you’ll be happy to learn that this Star Trek — the eleventh movie in the science fiction TV-and-film series dating back to 1966 (when the whole thing started on TV, with the original cast) — definitively breaks the notorious Star Trek odd-numbered curse: the supposed series-long jinx, in which even-numbered Trek sequels are the good ones, odd-numbered ones disappointments.

The new Star Trek is an odd-numbered prequel — number eleven in sequence of release, number one as a series restart — that pretty much blows the house, or the galaxy, down, a wildly kinetic show that pleases on several levels. The camera rarely stops moving, or racing, through gargantuan sets and weird planet-scapes. The action is hellacious, the villains monstrous, the FX, as they say, mind-boggling. Meanwhile, the emotional-Kirk/logical-Spock clash scenes keep clicking, while the young Kirk dangles off so many towers and moving starship floors, he looks like a good candidate for cliffhanger insurance. Fans of quieter, more thoughtful fare — like, the original TV show — might start to feel they‘re on overload. (I did myself, for the first half hour or so.) But the mass audience and most Trek fans should be pretty happy.

It’s a relief to see how big a crush these moviemakers have on the original series, how determined they are to make this both a brilliant new start and a grand reunion. I hated the blaze-of-glory kiss-off of the crewless Kirk in Star Trek Generations. But the new movie wisely pays tribute to the old guard, making a fond and witty transition from the first cast to their counterparts. The new Kirk (Pine) is almost as cocky, and sometimes annoying as Bill Shatner; the new Spock, Zachary Quinto, has an eerie pointy-eared physical and dramatic resemblance to Leonard Nimoy. The other actors are all nice fits: Zoe Saldana as a sexy, sassy new Uhura, John Cho as a hyper-aware Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as an excitable Chekov — with special high marks going to Karl Urban’s youthfully irascible McCoy and Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead), who’s very funny as, natch, Scotty.

The original cast — Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), George Takei (Sulu), Walter Koenig (Chekov), DeForest Kelley (Bones), and James Doohan (Scotty) — may not be around here, of course, but they get a respectful nod from the filmmakers, the movie and from their counterparts. And traditionalists will enjoy the scenes where a grave and serene Leonard Nimoy, as Spock from the future, shows up in a major way, courtesy of time travel. To tell the truth, I would even have liked to see Shatner time-hopped back to the party too, even though he was killed off in the disastrous screw-up of Generations — an odd-numbered “Trek,” if there ever was one. But no such luck.

Maybe I speak too soon. One element, crucial to the Gene Roddenberry Star Trek mythos, does seem less evident here: the show’s signature predilection for those strong social themes. The original series attracted its fanatic following partly because of the cast chemistry, partly because of its nods to high-grade contemporary literary science fiction — some prime s. f. authors, like Theodore Sturgeon (“Amok Time”), Harlan Ellison (“The City at the Edge of Forever”) and Trek discovery David Gerrold (“The Trouble with Tribbles“) wrote some of the best scripts — but also because of those messages on brotherhood, universal peace, technology, ecology and other humanistic social themes, naturals for the ‘60s.

I suppose you could say that this Star Trek comes out four-square in favor of a good Starfleet Academy education, and strong inter-galactic cooperation, and against planetary genocide, and Romulan planetary terrorism. But it tends to be more of a blast-you-out-of-your-seats super-space opera, interspersed with Kirk-Spock meet-cute fireworks (and Uhura as the third side of the triangle)

As such, it’s fun, a terrific fresh start. Why ask for too much more? And maybe I’m action-jaded. Maybe there is a message here: You can’t triumph in the present or future without knowing, acknowledging and paying all due respect to the past. That’s a pretty good lesson. To steal a phrase from Ted Sturgeon, this is a “Trek” that stands a good chance (I’m sorry) to live long and prosper.

Gone With the Wind (Ultimate Collector‘s six disc Edition, Blu-Ray or two disc sets) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Victor Fleming/Sam Wood/George Cukor), 1939 (Warner)

Like the flawed but spectacular Margaret Mitchell novel from which it derives, the movie Gone With the Wind has never lost its power to enthrall and bewitch. Even as the world, the audience and the social and political currents around it change, and the movie‘s vision of a charming, gallant, if sometimes foolish Old South — a land of ruined antebellum splendor destroyed by war and the invading North, but rising indomitably from its ashes — recedes into popular myth, producer David O. Selznick‘s phenomenal film, can still, like Mitchell’s saucy and unconquerable heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, seduce or bulldoze almost all before it.

So can the movie’s stars: Vivien Leigh as the perfect, cynical, heart-stopping, wickedly beautiful Scarlett; Clark Gable as roguish, rakish but secretly noble Rhett Butler, with his casual heroism and impudent machismo; Olivia de Havilland as long-suffering, sweet, saintly Melanie Hamilton Wilkes; Leslie Howard as Melanie‘s husband and Scarlett’s obsession, weak Ashley Wilkes, trapped in his ideals; and even poor lovable Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel, in all her bulky splendor, popping loose the corset of clichés that imprison her as Mammy.

And so too can the sometimes forgotten director, Victor Fleming, who guided the movie robustly along, along, aided greatly by his uncredited fellow directors, George Cukor (who began it and was fired) and Sam Wood, least of the three, who came on as a relief man and continued as second director after Fleming briefly collapsed. And second unit man and serial expert B. Reeves “Easy” Eason. And, of course Mitchell herself and writer Sidney Howard, who channeled Mitchell’s mammoth and fiercely feminine vision, and together with the liberal Republican Selznick, filtered out the worst racist excesses of the book (read the novel again if you think I’m exaggerating), with an uncredited assist from that best of all Hollywood script doctors, Ben Hecht.

Some people love Gone and still aggressively believe it, and some love it even though they can’t believe it. But few can escape part of its seductive power and spell. It was my father‘s favorite movie, though as a World War 2 era refugee from Hitler’s Europe, he should have been more skeptical about Atlanta belle Mitchell‘s unabashedly slanted view of contented darkie slaves and kindly white masters, living happily together once upon a time in an idyllic agrarian empire of Southern knights and ladies fair, the world gone with the wind that Mitchell so ferociously celebrates and laments. The film was, for decades, America‘s most popular picture, succeeding that other super-movie Dixie myth, Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and today, it remains a touchstone for film buffs, whether they hail from South or North. The DVD set, which gets better every time it reappears, is a must if you love film — and especially popular film.

Margaret Mitchell‘s novel was both a romance and a revenge. She wished to present her Atlanta home and forebears as a faithful daughter of the South should, to obliterate the legend of that other great Southern-set bestseller, Uncle Tom‘s Cabin, and though producer David O. Selznick tried to clean the story up, and remove its more offensive tirades, it still beats with a heart of old Dixie. (In the book, Rhett is not imprisoned for blockade-running, but for killing an “uppity” black, and “black“ was not the word used.) And Gone With the Wind, so beautifully designed by William Cameron Menzies, so set the template for movies about the South and the Civil War, for years to come — until the post-war era really began to blow the old magnolias away.

It’s the characters that keep it alive, and the ideal way Selznick cast them. You cannot imagine a more perfect Scarlett than the diminutive, eternally flirtatious, relentlessly sexy and ambitious Vivien Leigh, or, even without an accent or a damn, a better Rhett than Gable. De Havilland, Howard and McDaniel are equally right, even though Howard clearly doesn’t like Ashley. And Mitchell populated her book with a grand pseudo-Dickensian gallery of supporting characters, all memorably incarnated here, from Thomas Mitchell as Scarlett’s loved and fallen father Gerald O‘Hara and Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat to Victor Jory as evil Yankee overseer Jonas Wilkerson.

Extras: Commentary by Rudy Behlmer; Documentaries; Featurettes; Short “The Old South” (Fred Zinnemann, 1940); Newsreels; Trailers; Foreign language version excerpts.

The Exiles (Two Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Kent McKenzie, 1961 (Milestone)

This unfairly neglected 1961 movie, about a day and night in the life of some Native Americans in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1960s — was written and shot by a young, British-born filmmaker who died in 1980 after only a handful of filmmaking opportunities and who probably never knew that he had made anything like a classic.

But, like Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence — a low-budget Manhattan-set film noir made the same year — The Exiles is a film that holds up superbly today. McKenzie, even with his minimal resources, hews out a slice of life that becomes indelible, that fulfills all its artistic goals and that probably looks better now than it did on its 1961 release — when its low budget might have been held against it.

The Bunker Hill area, visually preserved here by McKenzie‘s bare-bones, poetic cinematography — the cameramen were Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman and John Arthur Morrill — is a colorfully bumpy place, with one well-known, spectacular trolley elevation called Angels Flight, and it had a sizable Native American community. Using a fine amateur cast, McKenzie shows these tribal refugees with empathy, candor and without sentimentality or prettification.

As the night begins and deepens, pregnant Mary is left to wander by myself and catch some moves, while her boyfriend and his buddies — Homer Nish as Homer, Tom Reynolds as Tommy, Rico Rodriguez as Rico, and Clifford Ray Sam as Cliff — wander through the stores and bars, drinking, gabbing, gambling and trying to pick up women.

Some of the guys and pickups wind up on a hill overlooking L. A., listening to the plaintive strains of an old American Indian song. Mary is left to wake up and watch the boys return, contemplating the sad blankness of her life and last night.

The Exiles is very quiet in style, very true, very powerful. It shows scenes and people taken from life and, with artistic clarity and without over-emphasis. The movie convinces us in the end that we have seen these lives and this place as they must have been. It’s almost a great film, though perhaps I‘m low-rating it by saying that. Anyway, The Exiles needs to be seen. So did its people, and their lives.

Extras: Four Shorts by McKenzie; Commentary by Sherman Alexie and Sean Axmaker; Excerpt from Thom Andersen‘s “Los Angeles Plays Itself“; TV show with Charles Burnett; Other shorts; “Jug Band Man” script and masters thesis on “The Exiles” by McKenzie.



Fight Club (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; David Fincher 1999 (20th Century Fox)

David Fincher‘s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk‘s novel took Palahniuk’s tale of contemporary male panic about demasculinization and compensatory testosterone obsessions to extraordinary heights of dramatic hysteria and virtuoso film technique.

Ed Norton is the corporate wimp retail coordinator who wants to escape his world of sterile, mechanized touchy-feely victimhood, self help sickness groups and thoughts of testicular cancer. Brad Pitt is the super-aggressive projectionist and soapmaker/stud Tyler Durden who pulls Norton into the world of fight clubs, where buddies and strangers bash and thrash each other to get back in touch with their primal slugger and inner bully. Helena Bonham Carter is the lone female who tempts them both.

It’s satire of course, and a pretty deadly one. (‘Fuck Martha Stewart!“ Tyler cries in one barroom bull session.) But Fight Club’s unrelenting machismo and ferocious fight scenes (and trick ending) made some critics squirm and overreact — as if the movie were an ad for an actual new line of fight clubs some enterprising Hollywood entrepreneurs wanted to start up.

On the other hand, “Ain’t It Cool News’s” Harry Knowles dubiously claims this is a movie that divides the critical generations: that the young dig it, while the older are….scared of it? Nah. It’s true that Fight Club does transgress political correctness pretty thoroughly, and that‘s the critical faction that gets troubled. But it’s a much better movie than most of the glossy new action shows. It has wit, ideas, visual eloquence and sharp dialogue, to go with the smashing combat scenes — plus a keen-witted cast that includes Meat Loaf Aday and Jared Leto. And this picture definitely does give your inner bully a workout.

Extras: Commentary with Fincher, Pitt, Norton and Carter; Deleted scenes; Outtakes; Behind-the-scenes vignettes; Storyboards.



Experimental Cinema 1922-1954: Avant-Garde 3 (2 discs) (Three Stars)
U.S./France; Various Directors, 1922-1954 (Kino)

The third of Kino‘s box sets of classic era experimental films, some from France, but mostly from America, suggests that the avant-garde supply is beginning to thin out. I loved the first two sets, even though some of the Raymond Rohauer prints were scrappy. But there is only one great work here: Alberto Cavalcanti’s lyrical and sentimental 1926 Parisian street film, Rien que les Heures, a.k.a. Nothing but Time (not too sharp, or new-looking). And there’s only one other from a true genius experimentalist, Dimitri Kirsanoff‘s 1951 The Death of a Stag. Kirsanoff’s 1926 Menilmontant, available in the first Kino Avant-Garde set, was described by Pauline Kael as one of her two favorite movies.

But this anthology, complete with new notes, is still all pretty interesting, if sometimes in a navel-camera-gazing way. The films, mostly black and white, mostly with music tracks but rarely with dialogue, and often in the covertly homoerotic genre Jonas Mekas once attacked, often deal with the emotional confusion or persecution of alienated young men, never more so, of course than in Charles F. Klein‘s 1928 The Tell-Tale Heart, a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari knockoff made from Poe‘s story, and shot by the young, pre-Hollywood Leon Shamroy.

For the rest, there‘s stuff like 1952‘s Image in the Snow, a beefcake odyssey by Marie Menken’s husband (George to her Martha), Willard Maas; films by then experimental or art house mainstays James Broughton (Kael’s ex-husband), Sidney Peterson, Dudley Murphy and Mary Ellen Bute (art animation), and some surprises by Theodore Huff and the little-known Kent Munson (1948’s nourish The Uncomfortable Man) by animator Chester Kessler (the 1951 Plague Summer, adapted from Kenneth Patchen’s Albion Moonlight) and by the French Lettrist and Cocteau protégé, Marc‘O: the surprisingly sunny 1954 Cannes Festival hit Closed Vision, set mostly on the Cannes beach.

There are also four “Bonus Films,” not strictly underground items, including Bela von Block’s 1925 prohibitionist curiosity Episodes in the Life of a Gin Bottle, Robert H. Spring’s ‘50s home movie Falling Pink, a snatch of John Parker’s “Plan Nine”-ish 1955 C-Movie Dementia, and Charles A. Ridley’s priceless 1941 WW2 dancing Hitler jape, Schichlegruber Doing the Lambeth Walk.)

Maybe you had to experience films like these in the college film societies to still be touched by them. But I still am.

Includes: Danse Macabre” (U.S.; Dudley Murphy, 1922), Rien que les Heures (France; Alberto Cavalcanti, 1926), Tarantella (U.S.; Mary Ellen Bute/Ted Nemeth, 1940), Tomatos (sic) Another Day (U.S.; James Sibley Watson, 1930), The Uncomfortable Man (U.S.; Theodore Huff/Kent Munson, 1948), The Petrified Dog (U.S.; Sidney Peterson, 1948), The Lead Shoes (U.S.; Peterson, 1949), ) Four in the Afternoon (U.S.; James Broughton, 1951).

Also: Plague Summer (U.S.; Chester Kessler, ) The Death of a Stag (France; Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1951), Image in the Snow (U.S.; Willard Maas, 1952), Celery Stalks at Midnight (France; John Whitney, 1952), The Voices (U.S.; John E. Schmitz, 1953), Closed Vision (France; Marc’O, 1954).

Extras: Notes, outtakes and four bonus films.


Thirst (Three Stars)
South Korea, Park Chan-wook, 2008

Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin, with its pre-James M. Cain deadly adultery plot, was made into a fine French period noir by Marcel Carne. Here, the same dark novel supplies the inspiration for a bloody, violent, riveting, sometimes nauseating vampire movie by Park Chan-wook, who made the snazzy Korea-noir OldBoy and here tries to come up with a “Dracula Always Rings Twice.”

He almost does, though the film will be way too violent for people who think movies are way too violent — and maybe not violent enough for others. Like Park’s other stuff, it’s stylishly lurid and wildly exciting, and it has a great schnook-hero in Song Kang-ho, as the monk who woke up a vampire, and an absolutely terrific femme fatale in Kim Ok-vin (or bin) as Tae-ju, a gal who makes Lana Turner look like Bernadette of Lourdes. (In Korean, with English subtitles.)

My Sister’s Keeper (Three Stars)
U. S.; Nick Cassavetes, 2009

Who would have thought that that the filmmaker son of indie radical John Cassavetes would become one of the American movies’ more reliable of sentimental middle class weepies? My Sister’s Keeper, based by Cassavetes and writer Jeremy Leven on Jodi Picoult‘s book about a family coping and suffering as their eldest daughter Kate (Sofia Vassilievski) battles cancer, is movie that‘s hard to watch without crying — thanks to Cassavetes‘ (The Notebook) unabashed romanticism and effective tear jerking and the excellent heart-on-sleeve cast: Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric as steadfast parents Sara and Brian, Abigail Breslin as younger sister Anna (who was conceived partly to supply organs, parts and bone marrow for her desperately ill sister, Alec Baldwin as celeb lawyer Campbell Alexander (whom Abigail hires in a bizarre court case against her parents, and Joan Cusack as hard-nosed but soft-hearted Judge De Salvo, a stern, perceptive jurist who handles the hearing.

It’s Anna’s decision to sue that makes the movie unusual of its kind. She‘s fighting to regain control of her body and get medical emancipation from her mother’s furious insistence that she keep providing body parts (in this case, a kidney) for her stricken sister. That gives the film drama, but it also frankly destroyed much of my sympathy for Anna. I’d be happy to donate a kidney to save the life of someone I loved, and I suspect many others would too — or at least we want to believe we would. Even the last minute revelation that illuminates Anna‘s thinking doesn’t make up for the emotional confusion that her seeming stubbornness creates.

There‘s no denying that the film gets to you, though, especially when Vassilievski turns her radiant, dying, angelic face toward the camera and the light. Baldwin and Cusack deploy their considerable comic gifts to help balance the pathos, and Diaz is a dynamo of obsessed mother-love. Of course the movie is manipulative. Most tearjerkers, even the good ones, are. But it’s nice to see a sentiment-laden film with a cast this good and a subject this human.

The Limits of Control (Two and a Half Stars)
France/Spain/U.S.; Jim Jarmusch, 2009

A mysterious Lone Man (Isaach de Bankole) travels through France and Spain, making wordless assignations with all-star strangers (John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal and many others) some of whom keep passing him messages in matchboxes. Finally (spoiler, spoiler) the Lone Man encounters the ultimate in corruption, or maybe Bill Murray.

Despite a splendid cast, picturesque settings and knockout Christopher Doyle cinematography, this new Jim Jarmusch movie has gotten him his worst reviews in quite a while. I partly disagree. The deadpan acting, measured pace, painterly compositions and anti-Establishment theme may annoy some. But that’s partly because the first three on that list are such a deviation from the movie business as usual, at least for American writer-directors. Jarmusch has always been a rebel and a stylist, and this movie has lots of both: rebelliousness and style.

On the other hand, I‘m sorry to say that Isaach de Bankole, whom I usually like, may have been thrown a dirty curve with this lead role. He’s asked to keep our attention while doing and saying almost nothing. It’s a tough job. And that kind of role needs an actor who’s a bit less strikingly handsome and more oddball, explosive and dangerous-looking — like Lee Marvin in Point Blank, a movie that’s a very obvious influence here.

I think Jarmusch might have been better advised to cast himself as The Lone Man and Bankole as his boss. After all, Jarmusch is a founding member of the Sons of Lee Marvin, and, from some angles, he even looks a bit like L. M. — or maybe like his wayward offspring. Unfortunately, even if the movie were improved by something like that (and for me, it’s good enough as it is), J. J. would then probably have gotten even worse reviews. Somebody might even have called him a wannabe European socialist.

Is Anybody There? (Two and a Half Stars)
U. K.; John Crowley (2009)

Michael Caine plays a fatherly, seedy old magician who opens up a world of wonders for British lad Edward (Bill Milner), a lad who lives in his parents’ old folks home. This sentimental drama from director John Crowley (who made the fine, rowdy Intermission) and writer Peter Harness, is not as magical and marvelous as it could have been. And the elderly patients are often written a little too quaint or corny, despite a fine cast that includes Leslie Phillips and Peter Vaughan. But Caine rescues the movie, as he has many, many others, ever since he became an unlikely trail-blazing Cockney movie star in the ‘60s.

I saw Caine again recently in a snatch of 1966‘s Alfie on TV recently, and I had to marvel myself at his immense simpatico with the camera, at the way he effortlessly chats up the audience and how, endowing this selfish but charming London seducer with his blond good looks and pleasing manner, he was able to draw us right into the world of the movie. He does that here again as magician Clarence. Even though the movie takes a few bad turns, he keeps it on course. Caine — or “The Great Caine” in the words of his old East End chum Terence Stamp — is one actor who never lets us down.

Humpday (Two stars)
U. S.; Lynn Shelton, 2009

Two normally macho straight guy ex-college buddies in Seattle — responsible married man/city planner Ben (Mark Duplass) and still wandering Andrew (Joshua Leonard) — end up at a party with a bisexual artist, and decide to make an amateur porn movie, for a local contest, in which they have sex together. This plan, which they make while drunk and laughing, then start artistically justifying and philosophizing about when sober, causes no end of havoc between the two and Ben’s exasperated wife, Anna (Alicia Delmore), leading to one of the most uncomfortable motel assignation-or-not scenes ever. (The porn is being shot without crew or director.)

I thought this was pretty slight — thought the acting isn’t bad isn’t bad, in an improvy way. But the rationalizations, soul-searching and evasions of the two, under the writer-directorial hand of Lynn Shelton (who appears briefly as one of the lesbian partiers), while believable, didn’t strike me as that funny. Humpday also boasts one of the worst pickup basketball games I‘ve seen. Are these guys basketball virgins as well?

Bruno (Blu-Ray) (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Larry Charles/Dan Mazer, 2009 (Universal)

Irrepressible Sasha Baron Cohen does a gay fashionista routine, as campy Bruno. I thought “Borat” and its attack verite style were overrated; this movie suggests I was right.

The Professional (Blu-Ray) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S./France; Luc Besson, 1994 (Sony)

Like a lot of Besson, this is slick, fast, but empty — even though it was the movie that introduced most of us to Natalie Portman, as the New York girl who links up with a jaded hit man (Jean Reno), to battle a wacko crime boss (Gary Oldman) and his gunslingers. This is also not the longer (and better) international director’s cut, which is another reason not to get it.

sex, lies and videotape (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Steven Soderbergh, 1989 (Sony)

Steve Soderbergh’s modernist romance, with James Spader as an alienated video voyeur, Peter Gallagher as a philandering lawyer, and Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacamo as the women in the lawyer’s life and in the voyeur‘s videos, won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing — which spurred a bitter controversy. (Cannes jury president Wim Wenders, who likes alienated voyeurs, is said to have swung the vote.)

Both films became modern classics, though, in that jury‘s place, I would have voted for the jazzier Do over the more elliptical sex. Soderbergh’s breakthrough film, with its excellent quartet of actors — including Spader, the ideal smug, mean yuppie of the ‘80s, here off-type as a moody loner — has a European feel, Antonioni crossed with prime-time TV soap opera. And both its mood and (especially) its title were widely influential. I’m sure there was a video review column somewhere called “sex, lies and videotape,” and if there isn’t a new one called “sex, lies and DVDs,” it’s probably on its way.

Downhill Racer (Three Stars)
U.S.; Michael Ritchie, 1969 (Criterion)

Downhill Racer, a quintessential ‘’60s-‘70s American art film from debuting feature director Michael Ritchie, star-producer Robert Redford, and writer James Salter — is the moodiest and most visually striking of ski competition movies, with Redford as the callow, reckless, self-centered but supremely gifted young downhill racer Dave Chappellet, rankling and riling his coach (Gene Hackman), challenging his teammates (Jim McMullen), and jealously lashing at his new girlfriend (Camilla Sparv).

One of the nastiest and least sympathetic roles Redford ever played, it’s probably the reason this ambitious and very well-executed movie disappointed at the box office. You can have an anti-hero for a star in a popular movie, but he’s usually got to be funny too, like Paul Newman’s Hud, Marlon Brando‘s Stanley Kowalski or Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea — or for that matter, Hackman‘s Popeye Doyle and Redford‘s own Sundance Kid. And there are few, if any, laughs in the sparse dialogue by Salter, Jack Kerouac’s ex-Horace Mann high school classmate, that comes between Dave’s surly scrapes and the thrilling downhill ski scenes. (Tellingly, Ritchie’s later sports movies, like The Bad News Bears, Semi-Tough, and The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, often had plenty of comedy.)

Downhill Racer is still a surprisingly intellectual, realistic and artistic film for a major Hollywood production, and of course, that’s not at all atypical of ‘60s-‘70s Hollywood. The ensemble was smart and stellar, and the whole approach here was empty of shtick, false glamour or cliché. The ski scenes, which include handheld camera work by the downhill-racing skiers themselves, are truly exciting and beautiful, full of white glare, towering slopes and high speed.

It’s indicative of the level of ambition here by Redford and the others, that European art house hero and émigré Roman Polanski was originally slated to direct Downhill Racer. (Polanski also once wanted “Racer” star Redford for his other big project, Rosemary‘s Baby.) Salter, a well-regarded serious novelist who only wrote a handful of screenplays, was Jack Kerouac’s ex-Horace Mann high school classmate, and cinematographer Brian Probyn had worked for the brilliant British realists Ken Loach (Poor Cow and Cathy Come Home) and Peter Watkins (The War Game).

Ritchie, after the high, good years of the ’70s, had a spottier career with flashes of brilliance, like Smile. Downhill Racer, audience failure or not, shows more than a few flashes.

Extras: Featurette; video interviews with Redford, Salter, skier/advisor/stunt double Joe Jay Jalbert, and others; audio A. F. I. interview with Ritchie; trailer; booklet with excellent Todd McCarthy article.


Zorro: The Complete First Season 1957-58 (6 Discs)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1957-58 (Disney)

Zorro: The Complete Second Season 1958-59 (6 Discs)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1958-59 (Disney)

– Michael Wilmington
November 17, 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