By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Steamboat Bill, Jr., The White Ribbon, The Lovely Bones, Film Noir Classics, A Single Man … and more


Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Ultimate Two-Disc Edition) (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Charles F. Reisner (and, uncredited, Buster Keaton), 1928 (Kino)

Buster Keaton — he of the sad grave eyes, the unsmiling countenance and the omnipresent pork-pie hat — had undoubtedly the world’s most engaging poker-face. He also had a body born for slam-bang slapstick, and an absolute genius for complex mechanical gags that leave you agape.Keaton, the favorite filmmaker of Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night), Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train), and Frederick Garcia Lorca (Blood Wedding), was a treasure. And one of the real cinema mother lodes available to us all is the Kino Keaton library, as collected by Kino International: the great Buster Keaton silent features and shorts of the 1920s, from Cops, The Playhouse and The Boat, to The General, Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator. If you haven’t seen them, or don’t own them, your life is poorer, your world less bright and happy, your laughter less.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. is one of Keaton’s slaphappy masterpieces, the last of his independent productions, before he unwisely went to MGM, who signed him and screwed him. You can tell it is Buster’s, as both star and creator. You can discern his eye and hand from the rip-roaring gags and the impeccable visual style, even though the movie is signed by only one director, Charles F. Reisner — and even though Reisner was a gifted comedy specialist, who was associate director on three Charlie Chaplin silent classics (The Kid, The Pilgrim and The Gold Rush), and went on to direct comedy masters like W. C. Fields, Abbott and Costello and The Marx Brothers.

Reisner is good. But Bill, Jr. is pure Buster, pure delight. As often, he plays a sissy or misfit who has to rise to athletic/heroic heights — and does so spectacularly and hilariously. He’s the dandified incompetent William Canfield, Jr. arriving from an Eastern education where he‘s apparently earned a doctorate in foppery, to re-team with his disgusted dad, the burly and rough-hewn Mississippi steamboat Captain Bill, Sr., played with a formidable glower and immense physical presence by that quintessential silent movie villain, Ernest Torrence.

There Buster also tries to woo the beauteous gal Kitty King (Marion Byron), away from her rich bully-snob of a dad, and Bill Sr.‘s chief riverboat rival, John James King (Tom McGuire). There’s a boat race of course: and it’s the granddaddy and main model of the other classic riverboat races in John Ford’s Steamboat Round the Bend and Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge. And there are those innumerable small physical gags that Keaton does with such flawless expertise — whether he’s trying to break his old man out of jail, or trying on new hats, or pratfalling into the Mississippi.

But there’s an even greater, more fantastic, more intimidatingly intricate and wonderful comic set-piece in Steamboat Bill, Jr.: the Cyclone. Wow! When this nightmarishly playful windstorm hits the town, scattering buildings and people and conveyances hither and yon (not to mention Bill, Jr. himself), we’re seeing one of Keaton‘s ultimate gag sequences and one of the all time great silent movie comedy scenes –. done with no CGI, no in-camera special effects, no editing tricks. When an entire wall tears loose and comes almost crashing down on the seemingly oblivious Buster, missing him by inches only because he’s standing where the doorway will land, it’s really a wall, really a doorway, really a fall, really a crash. And it really does…Miss. Him. By. Inches.

To compare the physical comedy greatness of Steamboat Bill, Jr. with the toilet gaggery of, say, Grown Ups, is to see why today’s movie comedians, and today’s audiences too, maybe should consider investing in some DVDs and going to slapstick school with Charlie, and Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy. And, of course, with Buster.

He may not smile or laugh, but we sure do.

Extras (a prime group): The complete, and completely different, alternate Raymond Rohauer version of Steamboat Bill, Jr., constructed from alternate takes; Three music scores on different tracks, by the Biograph Players, Lee Erwin (organ) and William Perry (piano); “Making of” Documentary; Short Why They Call Him Buster; Stills gallery; Two recordings of the folk song Steamboat Bill.


The White Ribbon (Four Stars)
Germany: Michael Haneke, 2009 (Sony Pictures Classics)
In The White Ribbon, this year’s Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, we’re taken to a small village in Northern Germany, before the onslaught of World War I and the modern age. A mysterious crime wave breaks out in the seemingly staid, church-going, God-fearing community — and it’s punctiliously described and narrated to us years later by the local schoolteacher (played by Christian Friedel, with the older voice-over by Ernst Jacobi). The village doctor breaks his arm when his horse is deliberately tripped by a wire. A baron‘s son is abducted and tortured. Acts of vandalism and brutality abound.

Who is responsible? The inquisitive, integral teacher thinks he knows — thinks he sees the moral crack in the peaceful façade of the town ruled, supposedly with Christian principles, by the condescending baron (Ulrich Tukur), the stern pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and the selfish doctor. But can even the perceptive, well-meaning teacher really fathom the evil at work here, comprehend the amorality that may climax two decades later, when the town‘s children will have grown, the parents will be old, and fascism and the Holocaust will have taken over Germany?

No contemporary international filmmaker trains a cooler eye on evil, and opens up a more insightful intelligence on the flaws, brutalities and follies of humankind than the Austrian writer-director Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Cache, Funny Games, 24 Fragments in a Chronology of Chance.) His style is classic. Here, evocative period sets and gorgeous black and white photography (by Christian Berger) are added to Haneke’s usual repertoire of long takes, studied compositions and rigorous acting. His subject matter is seemingly cruel, unsparing, empty of solace. Haneke gives us humanity at its most outwardly bourgeois and inwardly bad. He has taken the measure of evil, and, like that other Austrian “cynic,” Billy Wilder, he will not let it hide.

To me, Haneke is a major film artist of our time. But I should also say that he gives me little pleasure, his work is extremely disturbing to some, and I even find his films slightly — but only slightly — overrated by literate critics. Remember, though, that this is a moviemaker who has already won three top prizes in three different years at Cannes.

The White Ribbon, by the way, is a symbol of innocence. Despoiled. (In German, with English subtitles.) No extras.


The Lovely Bones (Also DVD) (2 Disc Special Edition) (Three Stars)
U.S.; Peter Jackson, 2009
Peter Jackson — or should we say “Sir Peter Jackson” — has a high old CGI time here, adapting Alice Sebold‘s spooky-lyrical novel about the ghost of a poignant young teenage murder victim watching from Heaven the aftermath of her murder: the fates of the serial killer who destroyed her and the family and friends she left behind.

It’s a stunning-looking movie, with two remarkable performances — Saoirse Ronan as the victim, Susie Salmon, and Stanley Tucci as the neighbor/killer, George Harvey. Bravo to both. And the heavenly effects are, as you‘d expect, spellbindingly over the top. Jackson and his effects people, and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) keep sliding you from one psychedelic fantasy-scape to another, with such nonstop virtuosity that Bones becomes almost oppressively imaginative.

Ronan helps hold it altogether. The young star of Atonement gives us the near-essence of girlhood, innocence and live-wire young beauty. Tucci is blood-chilling. Perhaps he’s watched tapes of the creepily bland and self-effacing serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. At any rate, Tucci catches that sense of oddly reasonable-sounding mushy calm that Dahmer had, and when George’s psyche begins to splinter in several scenes, it’s primally scary.

The rest of the cast are more ordinary, though Susan Sarandon has a grande dame scene-stealing turn as salty old Grandma Lynn. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, as Susie’s parents, however, rarely ring true.

The Lovely Bones is something of a disappointment, but only because Jackson and his co-writers (Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) are also responsible for the first 2000 decade‘s best movie achievement, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since The Lovely Bones is not, obviously, in that category — not even one of this year’s best movies, there’s been a tendency to over-knock it. Had this movie come out of nowhere, it might not have been so savagely treated by some. But heaven can’t be captured by a computer; and knighthood can have its drawbacks.

Film Noir Classics II (Five Discs) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors,

Noir, it seems, is everywhere. The Warner Brother/RKO Film Noir Classic Collections, right up to next week’s release of Volume Five, are the prize noir DVD sets out right now, brimming with street crime classics, soaked in hard-boiled evil, packed with high shadowy style.

But right behind them, I’d place the two Columbia Film Noir Classics sets, of which Number II is now available. Open it up, and crime and sin boil out as if from Pandora’s (or Vita Pierce’s ) Box. Gangsters and criminals kill. Citizens suffer or fall. Rain slickens the streets. Cops hover and brood. Jailbirds break out. Femme fatales drag your soul to hell.

It‘s a first-rate set, with prize movies from top noir stars Richard Conte, Fred MacMurray, Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Dorothy Malone, Anne Bancroft, Vince Edwards, and Aldo Ray, stylish direction by ace directors Phil Karlson, Jacques Tourneur, Irving Lerner, Richard Quine and the godfather himself, Fritz Lang, and scripts written or adapted by canny scribes David Goodis, Georges Simenon, Stirling Silliphant, Alfred Hayes, Roy Huggins, Bill S. Ballinger, Thomas Walsh, and (no kidding) Emile Zola.

The brilliant black-and-white cinematography is by Burnett (Bonnie and Clyde) Guffey, who did three of the films, and Lucien (The Wild Bunch) Ballard, who shot Lerner‘s City of Fear. These movies may not all be four star specials, but the selection, presentation and extras elevate the whole set. Lost souls may fall in gun-crazy heat. But noir always rises.

Included: Human Desire (U.S.; Fritz Lang, 1954) Three and a Half Stars. This was the second time Fritz Lang adapted a film noir first made by his French comrade-in-arms Jean Renoir. First, Lang made the classic Scarlet Street (1945) from Renoir’s classic La Chienne (1931). Here he makes the flawed but fascinating Human Desire from Renoir’s 1938 masterpiece La Bete Humaine, based on Zola‘s novel of trains, alcohol, infidelity and murder. Glenn Ford stands in for Bete’s Jean Gabin (not ignobly, but he‘d be better off without the Hayes Code); Broderick Crawford replaces Fernand Ledoux and Edgar Buchanan navigates for Julien Carette. Gloria Grahame, not surprisingly, is a better slut that Renoir’s Simone Simon — but then, she‘s just a girl who can’t say “No,” even in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Pushover (U.S.: Richard Quine, 1954). Three Stars. Except for Vertigo, Kim Novak was never more luscious and incendiary onscreen than she is here, as a gangster’s moll, staked out by Fred MacMurray, Phil Carey and boss E. G. Marshall; Fred falls as hard as he did for Barbara Stanwyck. It’s often called the poor man’s Double Indemnity. (In a way, it’s also a poor man’s Rear Window.) But does that make Double Indemnity the rich man‘s Pushover? Not on your life, pigeon.

Nightfall (U.S.; Jacques Tourneur, 1956) Three Stars. Noir deluxe, from a novel by David Goodis (Down There). Aldo Ray is a wrong man, wanted for the murder of his best friend, who’s pursued by a helpful bondsman (James Gregory) and two psychopath bank robber/killers: one bad (Brian Keith), the other worse (Rudy Bond, doing a Tommy Udo). Ray’s Good Samaritan/lover: Anne Bancroft as a fashion model who likes tough guys. This starts out as if it will be almost as good as Tourneur’s great noir Out of the Past, but it isn’t dark enough. The opening scene, but the way, is shot at the cross country Hollywood Boulevard news-stand, a block away from my old Hollywood apartment at Yucca and Cherokee.

The Brothers Rico (U.S.; Phil Karlson, 1957) Three and a Half Stars. From a Georges Simenon novel, written in French, but set in America. One of the best of the lower case Mafia shows. Richard Conte is perfect (no pitch) as a solid Miami citizen/businessman with old ties to the Mob, whose two younger brothers are in big, big trouble. Classic Karlson of its kind.
City of Fear (U.S.: Irving Lerner, 1959) Three Stars. Second of the two legendary micro-budget Irving Lerner ‘50s crime movies. (The first, Murder by Contract, was in Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I.) Again starring the peerlessly surly Vince Edwards, it’s about an escaped con (Edwards), who’s eluding cops and medicos in L. A. (John Archer, Lyle Talbot and City of Fear co-writer Steve Ritch), while killing, crossing and carrying around dangerously radioactive material he thinks is invaluable uncut heroin.

Lerner, though nearly unknown except to auteurists and noir fans, is dry, expert, unexcited and really, really good.

Extras: Martin Scorsese on The Brothers Rico; Christopher (Memento) Nolan on noir in general and a bit of City of Fear and Pushover; Emily Mortimer on Human Desire (You can tell she‘d like to be Gloria Grahame, but honey, no one can…); Trailers.


A Single Man (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Tom Ford, 2009 (Sony)

Christopher Isherwood’s novel about a grief-stricken gay man in a sunnily oppressive Santa Monica ocean-side landscape, trying to cope with the recent loss of his long-time partner here becomes a sensitive, well-acted, beautifully shot drama — not a great film perhaps, but an extremely good one, with a very moving central performance by Colin Firth (the great Darcy of the BBC Pride and Prejudice) as the widower. The frames are impeccable, the cast (including Julianne Moore) mostly top-notch, the mood sad and withering.

My one cavil: Isherwood, the author of the famously autobiographical Berlin Stories, was not weaving an autobiographical or even semi-autobiographical story here, but the main character here is certainly very self-derived. I knew Isherwood slightly and interviewed him once onstage at Los Angeles‘ Nuart Theatre — he was a tremendous movie buff and frequently showed up at classic movie revivals, especially the ones that the late Ron Haver programmed for years at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And fine as Firth is, there’s something missing in his characterization, a delicacy, a wistfulness.

John Hurt, or a younger Hurt, would have been a better match for the part. And if Hurt had played it, he might even have won the 2009 Best Actor Oscar that the deserving nominee Firth lost to Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. (Of course, who would have wanted Bridges to lose?) That’s a minor point. It’s a major movie.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
Sweden; Niels Arden Oplev, 2009 (Music Box)

A terrific, smart, very sharp Swedish mystery thriller, based on one of the late Steig Larsson’s posthumous blockbuster novels , this one is about Nazis, serial killers, and cold-case murder mysteries on an isolated island — with an incredible performance by newcomer Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth, a black-leather, bisexual, computer expert on the trail of misogynists and monsters.

There‘s also strong support from Michael Nykvist as Mikael, a Larsson-like left-wing investigative journalist (in temporary disgrace) and Sven Bertil-Taube as a rich industrialist who wants Mikael to crack the decades-old disappearance of his daughter. Larsson’s book was originally called Men Who Hate Women and the movie is, likewise, a full-throttle assault on violent sexism, to the extent that some viewers may flinch or get repelled and disturbed. But, like The Silence of the Lambs, this is a bloody, no-holds-barred shocker that turns misogyny inside out. (In Swedish, with English subtitles.)

Brooklyn’s Finest (Three Stars)
U.S.; Antoine Fucqua, 201O

Brooklyn’s Finest, the new police melodrama from Antoine Fucqua (Training Day), is a neo-noir with lots of visual punch and swagger. Swooped along through the mean streets and dingy hallways by Fucqua’s gaudy repertoire of crane and tracking shots, it‘s an urban crime thriller that gives us three interweaving stories about three bad-news cops. As if in a three-part Departed, we follow, by turns, impending retiree Eddie (Richard Gere), whose gal pal is a whore and who’s so depressed he wakes up and puts a gun in his mouth for practice. Then there‘s narc/family man Sal (Ethan Hawke), a father of five (with two in the oven), who has medical and home repair issues suffered along with wife Angela (Lili Taylor), and who augments their depleted income by rubbing out dealers and crooks (like Vincent D’Onofrio’s Calo) and confiscating loot.

Finally there‘s quiet, rebellious, had-it-up-to-here Tango (Don Cheadle), who’s been undercover with the gangs so long, including a current gig with buddy/mobster Caz (Wesley Snipes), that his dreams of a nice, safe desk job seem to be vanishing forever — especially when he has to lock horns with boss Hobarts (Will Patton) and supervising federal agent Smith (Ellen Barkin, at her meanest.) All these actors give high-grade performances, with the edge maybe going to Cheadle. And I liked Hawke and D’Onofrio in their opening Brando-Steiger-style front-seat rip.

The movie’s three main guys don’t hang around together. But they’re obviously all headed for Crash-style multiple trouble. And though the term Brooklyn’s Finest is intended with irony, to me, at least, two of the trio, Eddie and Tango, were actually good cops or potentially good cops getting a bad deal — and Sal’s problems could have been solved by decent pay. So, why is big money going instead to those lousy health care insurance execs and greed-crazed congressmen, and not divvied among people who really keep us from getting killed?

It’s a mistake, I think, to process or judge this move too much as if it were a realistic crime story by Joseph Wambaugh, or even an episode of Law and Order. Director Antoine Fucqua (Training Day), working with an intricate but often implausible script by writers Michael C. Martin and Brad Caleb Kane, uses the surface realism of the street scenes and the profane chatter and fuck-you-no-fuck-you dialogue to set up another movie that‘s basically a street western. Fucqua specializes in street westerns and operatic cop movies, and he‘s good at them. With all his moving camera shots, he sometimes seems like the Max Ophuls of street sleaze. He also tries at times to be the Sergio Leone of neo-noir and, at his best, he almost makes it. His big weakness: Over-the-top endings that don’t make any damned sense.

Mystery Train (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Jim Jarmusch, 1989 (Criterion)

Jarmusch‘s grimly funny, deadpan-poetic triptych about three groups of travelers or fugitives in Elvisland, or Memphis, Tennessee — two Japanese Sun Records devotees and lover/tourists (glum Masatoshi Nagase and the delightful Youki Kudoh), a sweet-tempered Italian widow and a madly over-talkative runaway wife (Nicoletta Braschi and Elizabeth Bracco), and three nebbishes packing guns and booze (The Clash’s Joe Strummer, plus Rick Aviles and Steve Buscemi) — who all end up in the same seedy hotel, where they hear the same gunshot and the same DJ playing Presley’s version of Blue Moon (Tom Waits), and maybe see the ghost of Elvis.

At the hotel, desk clerk Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (in an unforgettable behind-the-beat performance) and bellhop Cinque Lee (Spike’s brother) are manning the desk, which seems to be drifting in some David Lynchian, Coen Brothers-ish nightmare of screw-ups, screwballs and rockabilly oldies. (The bellhop’s tears keep flowin’; the desk clerk’s dressed in black.) Tom Noonan shoots the shit as a creep with an Elvis story. Rockets Redglare shoots pool. Robby Muller shoots.

By the way, supposedly reflecting Jarmusch’s own views, Nagase‘s Jun keeps sullenly arguing with Youki’s Mitzuko that Carl Perkins is a better rocker than Elvis. Well, give me a fuckin’ break. A better songwriter maybe.

Extras: Q&A with Jarmusch; Excerpts from 2001 documentary Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me; Documentary on Memphis; Photo gallery; Booklet with essays by Dennis Lim and Peter Guralnick.

Twins (One and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Ivan Reitman, 1988 (Universal)

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito are twins, separated at birth. Arnold is an angelic simpleton; Danny is a mean little jerk. It didn’t make me laugh in 1988, and the years since have not been kind to high concept marketing-hook comedy. Besides, this is a full-screen version of a widescreen movie, so even people who like Twins, should avoid it. No extras.

Funny Farm/Spies Like Us (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: George Roy Hill/John Landis, 1988/1985 (Warner)

Two so-so comedies with Chevy Chase. (Where have we heard that before?) Funny Farm (Two Stars) was George Roy Hill’s unfortunate swan song, a “city guy in the suburbs” comedy of some warmth but of less than Norman Rockwell-ian wit. Spies Like Us, (Two and a Half Stars), co-starring Dan Aykroyd, has some laughs, but it’s mostly a bloated attempt to send up spy films and Crosby-Hope “Road” movies at the same time.

Continental Divide (Two Stars)
U.S.; Michael Apted, 1981 (Universal)
Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan‘s stab at a high-style Tracy-Hepburn sort of romantic comedy, with mismatched partners finding true love, lacks the verbal wit and sparkle of a Woman of the Year. And it stubs its toe a bit on the casting: Chicagoan John Belushi plays the Mike Royko/Jimmy Breslin-style hard-boiled Chicago newspaper columnist and Blair Brown (Days and Nights of Molly Dodd) plays the eagle expert in the Rockies. But at least they tried — and there’s some nostalgia, for me at least, in seeing Chicago in its journalistic heyday. With Allen Goorwitz (a.k.a. Garfield) and Tim Kazurinsky.


Versus (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
Japan; Ryuhei Kitamura, 2000 (Tokyo Shock)

The Leopard (Two Discs) (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
Italy; Luchino Visconti, 1963 (Criterion)

Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts 1934-37 (Two Discs) (Three Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1934-37 (Kino) MW on DVD isthmus

– by Michael Wilmington
July 6, 2010

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Leonard Klady's Friday Estimates
Friday Screens % Chg Cume
Title Gross Thtr % Chgn Cume
Venom 33 4250 NEW 33
A Star is Born 15.7 3686 NEW 15.7
Smallfoot 3.5 4131 -46% 31.3
Night School 3.5 3019 -63% 37.9
The House Wirh a Clock in its Walls 1.8 3463 -43% 49.5
A Simple Favor 1 2408 -50% 46.6
The Nun 0.75 2264 -52% 111.5
Hell Fest 0.6 2297 -70% 7.4
Crazy Rich Asians 0.6 1466 -51% 167.6
The Predator 0.25 1643 -77% 49.3
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The Hate U Give 0.17 36
Shine 85,600 609
Exes Baggage 75,900 62
NOTA 71,300 138
96 61,600 62
Andhadhun 55,000 54
Afsar 45,400 33
Project Gutenberg 36,000 17
Love Yatri 22,300 41
Hello, Mrs. Money 22,200 37
Studio 54 5,300 1
Loving Pablo 4,200 15
3-Day Estimates Weekend % Chg Cume
No Good Dead 24.4 (11,230) NEW 24.4
Dolphin Tale 2 16.6 (4,540) NEW 16.6
Guardians of the Galaxy 7.9 (2,550) -23% 305.8
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4.8 (1,630) -26% 181.1
The Drop 4.4 (5,480) NEW 4.4
Let's Be Cops 4.3 (1,570) -22% 73
If I Stay 4.0 (1,320) -28% 44.9
The November Man 2.8 (1,030) -36% 22.5
The Giver 2.5 (1,120) -26% 41.2
The Hundred-Foot Journey 2.5 (1,270) -21% 49.4