MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Me and Orson Welles, Ajami, Mona Lisa, Elvis 75th Birthday Collection, and more …


Me and Orson Welles (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Richard Linklater, 2009 (Warner/Target)

In Me and Orson Welles, Richard Linklater, a director whose films I usually like, takes on a highly ambitious subject that really, really appeals to me — a portrayal of the astonishing youthful theatrical triumphs of the 22-year-old Welles, his adroit and urbane (and long-suffering) producer John Houseman, and of their ingenious, experimental 1937 Mercury Theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He does them all really proud. Hail Caesar! Hail Orson! Hail Houseman! Hail Mercury players, past and present, real and recreated! And of course, Hail Richard — Linklater, that is.

Linklater’s movie is wonderfully acted, written and directed –a charming, exhilarating and exciting evocation of a thrilling era and some magnificent show people. At its center is one of the most extraordinary, and truly brilliant film performances of the year: the young actor Christian McKay’s amazing evocation of Orson Welles at 22.

Other actors who‘ve played Welles in the past, like Vincent D’Onofrio in Ed Wood or Angus Macfadyen in The Cradle Will Rock, have tended to get part of the persona: the resonant voice, the impish face, the huge physicality. But McKay gets it all. He looks like Welles, sounds like Welles (catching the rhythms, delivery, style and timbre, if not quite as deep a basso profundo), smiles like Welles, roars like Welles, and, whether sliding into radio’s The Shadow or into Shakespeare’s Brutus, noblest Roman of them all, even acts like Welles.

This is an utterly convincing portrayal physically. And it also, crucially, suggests Welles’ inner being: the extraordinary genius and intimidating energy, his vaulting ambition and also his demonic, self-destructive qualities. We can believe that McKay‘s Orson is capable of this Julius Caesar and the Kane to come. And we can also believe that he’s a hedonistic conniver capable of betraying his friends (like Houseman), tyrannizing his cast and crew and wounding his own career. It is an amazing job, a thrilling feat of humanity-catching.

Almost equally impressive are the films’ John Houseman, played with the right blend of cogency and exasperation by Eddie Marsan, the obsessed driving teacher of Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky. And Ben Chaplin as the tormented patrician George Coulouris (Kane’s Thatcher, playing Antony in the play), Leo Bill as the elfin prankster Norman Lloyd, and James Tupper, whose Joseph Cotton captures the Wellesian actor/crony‘s elegance and bemusement almost as perfectly as McKay catches Welles.

Efron’s young theatre student Richard Samuels, the witness to all this (after Welles picks him to play Brutus’ Lucius on the street before the Mercury) is a passably charming and likable job, not an impressive performance, like some of the others, but good enough to pass. Perhaps we shouldn‘t carp. It’s not Efron‘s fault that he got a box-office dreamboat ranking for that dopey, trivial smash hit, High School Musical. There are two other fictional characters here that also strike a chord: Zoe Kazan as Gretta Adle, the aspiring New Yorker short story writer whose music shop meeting with Richard kicks off the story, and Claire Danes as the friendly “ice princess” Sonja Jones, whose sexual power over all the Caesar men, triggers a climactic flare-up.

Linklater, whose own triumphs range from Slacker to Before Sunrise to School of Rock, is a sometimes wonderful filmmaker, a comic humanist who’s obviously fallen in love with his terrific subject: young Welles and the world around him. Linklater tries, mostly successfully, to give us the creative ferment of American society, drama, and media in 1937, fueled by the Depression and the gathering war clouds in Europe, in a welter of pop politics both radical and reactionary, of burgeoning social change and cultural upheaval.

At its edges, is the movie‘s witness, young Richard. And, at its center is the young Orson, the amazing prodigy who conquered American radio and the stage in his early twenties and then headed West to Hollywood and Citizen Kane. That’s in the future here, but not too far in the future; at one point we seem to see Welles struck and mulling over visions of Kane (or something to top Caesar) in his mind.

But meanwhile, there’s Caesar, with the young Richard as our observer — watching as Welles keeps the company in a constant state of creative excitement and panic: dropping and adding scenes at will, conducting multiple love affairs, racing by hired ambulance to his radio Shadow gigs, nurse-maiding and fathering and seducing his cast, and giving Caesar the contemporary resonance — with a fascist takeover– that he and Houseman (who has to straighten out all his messes) are sure will create an explosive success.

What follows is one of the best backstage dramas ever, a valentine to the theatre like Marcel Carne’s and Jacques Prevert’s Children of Paradise, and a lovely distillation of a wondrous time. (Not the least of Me and Orson Welles‘s pleasures is the superb period old record score, heavy on Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bunny Berigan and other ’30s jazz greats.)

I loved Me and Orson Welles and I hope it attains at least a modest success too, a warm connection to the audience (especially the movie buff audience) that it richly deserves. Sadly, when I went to the L. A. opening night screening at Landmark, the crowd was tiny, a fraction of the packed houses elsewhere for the gloomy and mediocre New Moon and the exciting but ridiculous 2012. Me and Orson Welles has it all over either of those bloated hits, topping them in everything but nonstop world destruction and neck-biting. Like McKay’s Welles, it puts on a great show with a seemingly modest budget. It shows us again what we love about the theatres, media, pop and high culture, and, finally, the movies. It also shows us, through McKay’s alchemy, the spitting image of a giant of us all.

Extras: Featurettes; Deleted Scenes.

Ajami (Three and a Half Stars)
Israel; Scandar Copti/Yaron Shani (2009)

Israel’s nominee for the 2009 foreign language film Oscar is an engrossing realistic thriller with convincing characters and a real background: the mixed Jewish, Arab-Muslim and Arab-Christian communities of Ajami, a neighborhood of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. The story is told out of sequence, continually doubling back, as if we were detectives piecing together the facts behind several deaths and murders, a series of crises which keep escalating into bloodier conflicts, worse misunderstandings.

The writer-directors are an Arab/Jewish team, and co-director Copti is also one of the actors, playing Arab Binj, one of the victims. One character, Dando who’s an often brutal Jewish cop (and himself a victim of violence), is played, extremely well, by an actual Jewish ex-cop, Eran Naim. The whole film is shot in that pseudo-documentary style (like the one Kathryn Bigelow uses in The Hurt Locker), where the actors are offhand or explosive and the camera keeps moving and jiggling.

I sometimes think that the Middle East’s problems might start to be solved if the area‘s filmmakers were running their countries, instead of the politicians. Israel produces some of the most humanistic and moving films around, and so does Iran. And this movie, even while its story tells of discord and tragedy, shows what people from different communities can do together, if they rise above hatred and division, and make an artistic community of their own. (In Arab and Israeli, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Featurette; Deleted Scenes; Trailer.


Mona Lisa (Four Stars)
U.K.; Neil Jordan, 1986 (Image)

George (Bob Hoskins, short, tough, superb), an explosive driver/gang member with bad taste in clothes and yearning eyes, a guy just out of the pen whose wife throws him on the street, is hired by his old boss Mortwell (Michael Caine, sly, mean, also superb) to drive around a classy hooker (Cathy Tyson, a real Mona Lisa, with no heart of gold). George has a big buddy (Robbie Coltrane, first-rate) who wants him to tell stories, like Lenny. And George falls in love, falls madly, to Nat King Cole’s heart-stopping record of “Mona Lisa,“ in a London and Brighton cityscape that suggests the bleak, tense, milieu of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock“ and This Gun for Hire — but that makes Greene’s bitter underworlds, by comparison, look almost safe and serene.

This is one of the great neo-noirs. Neil Jordan at the peak of his dark craft and Irish art. One of the great British crime films. One of the great British romances. It’s like Get Carter crossed with Brief Encounter. And, like The Long Good Friday, also out this week, it has a great, unmatchable performance by Hoskins, who should have gotten the 1986 Best Actor Oscar. (And I say that as someone who almost always roots for Paul Newman, the guy who beat him.)

One question: Since Hoskins and Jordan are obviously a classic movie team, an actor-director pairing on the Bogart-Huston, Mifune-Kurosawa, Gabin-Renoir, Stewart-Grant-Hitchcock level, why didn’t they work together again?

They didn’t. They should have. They still can. Attention, Neil Jordan. You’ve directed a lot of pretty boys, and sometimes they were good, memorable. But Hoskins was the Jordan actor with the heart of darkness, the fierce raw guts, the plug-ugly magnetism, the soul of anguish. He was born to act in your movies; you were born to direct him. You should have used him again and again. Why you didn’t, God only knows. So, write him another part like George in Mona Lisa, damn it, and see that he plays it.

Extras: Commentary by Jordan and Hoskins.


Elvis 75th Birthday Collection (Seven Discs) Three Stars.

This Elvis Presley 75th Birthday Collection helps prove again that Elvis could sing and act like an angel and a devil, but that few great American pop singers and movie stars were ever more exploited and fucked with by their managers than he was by the double-dealing, horse’s ass of a con man “Colonel Tom Parker.” The Colonel, an illegal alien from the Netherlands whose real name was Andreas Cornelis (Dries) van Kujik, and whose “military” “career” consisted of a psychotic breakdown and a dishonorable discharge, went on to rob Elvis blind, make some savvy but often imbecilic career decisions (especially throughout Elvis‘ movie career), and to put his fleeced star in one movie stinker after another, while lining his own pockets and making his client look like a total idiot.

Parker, at his nadir, made Elvis turn down the role of Tony in West Side Story (which would have put him in Oscar competition in 1961 and probably permanently made his film career), while forcing him into witless trash like Harum Scarum, Girls! Girls! Girls! and Tickle Me.

It’s true that Elvis, grinning gamely though each fresh catastrophe, makes even the worst of these rock-a-turkeys somehow watchable — even the flabbergastingly awful Clambake in this set, in which he sings a duet with Will (“Sugarfoot”) Hutchins.

But there’s only one real classic here: Don Siegel’s anti-racist western Flaming Star. Along with the Michael Curtiz-directed New Orleans film noir musical King Creole, Flaming Star was one of Elvis’ two personal favorites among his movies, which proves that he had good taste and judgment — even as the Colonel was looking around for another Fun in Acapulco.

This set is worth watching for Flaming Star, for part of Phil Karlson’s amiable musical remake of Curtiz’s Kid Galahad, and for some of the musical numbers, most of all the amazing blues ballad “Hard Luck,” which totally redeems another seeming disaster, 1966’s Frankie and Johnny. (See below.)

Includes: Love Me Tender (U.S.; Robert Webb, 1956) Two and a Half Stars. Scripted by Robert Buckner, the Dixie-loving screenwriter of Santa Fe Trail and Yankee Doodle Dandy, this is an okay post-Civil War Western, and also Elvis’ feature film debut. Rebel Richard Egan returns from the War with a cache of Yankee loot, only to find that worshipful younger brother Elvis has married Egan‘s love Debra Paget (Because she thought Egan was dead). It gets ridiculous after a while, but enjoyably so whenever rockin’ farm boy Elvis picks up his guitar, shakes his hips and drives the 19th century farmgals crazy — particularly with the misty smash ballad and “Aura Lee” knockoff “Love Me Tender.”

Flaming Star (U.S.; Don Siegel, 1960) Three and a Half Stars. A terrific anti-racist western with Elvis in his best film acting performance as Pacer, a tormented mixed-race Native American ranch boy faithful to his family, but caught in a whirlwind of war and prejudice. Only two songs, but this underrated movie deserves to be ranked with top revisionist Westerns of the “50s and early ‘60s, like Johnny Guitar, Run of the Arrow, Man of the West, Seven Men from Now and The Hanging Tree. The cast includes Barbara Eden (in a rare serious part), and, as Elvis’ loving bi-racial family, Steve Forrest, Dolores Del Rio, and John McIntire. Pacer’s poignant last line “Maybe someday, somewhere, people will understand folks like us,” oddly echoes the movie Elvis then should have done for 1961, West Side Story.
Wild in the Country (U.S.; Phillip Dunne, 1961) Two and a Half Stars. In the same year he was forced to turn down West Side Story by the Colonel, Elvis entered the James Dean sweepstakes as the brooding juvenile delinquent hero of this half-ambitious Southern melodrama, scripted from a J. R. (Lilith) Salamanca novel by no less than Clifford Odets. Philip Dunne was a good writer (How Green Was My Valley) but a stiff director (The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and here). The cast includes Tuesday Weld ( as a sugar-puss Southern slut), fellow conquests Hope Lange and Millie Perkins, and John Ireland and Gary Lockwood.

Kid Galahad (U.S.; Phil Karlson, 1962) Two and a Half Stars. Remade from the classic 1937 Edward G. Robinson-Bette Davis-Humphrey Bogart boxing drama — with Elvis in the Wayne Morris part of the ingenuous, good-hearted young boxer — this is an easy-going, well-directed show, with Gig Young, Lola Albright, Charles Bronson and Ned Glass in strong support. The song numbers though, make little dramatic sense. At least Elvis doesn’t sing in the middle of a boxing match — though the thought of the King wailing “Marie‘s the Name (of His Latest Flame)“ or “Little Sister” while pounding an opponent is intriguing.

Follow That Dream (U. S.; Gordon Douglas, 1962) Two Stars. Weird, low-energy comedy with Elvis and Arthur O’Connell as a maverick homesteading family in Florida. For example: E. P. sings the hit title number while lying on his back in the sand, accompanied by the radio.

Clambake (U.S.; Arthur Nadel, 1967) One Star. Do the clam! Richboy Elvis and the aforementioned Will Hutchins (as a peppy water-ski instructor) pull a “Prince and the Pauper “ switcheroo in Miami, trying to fool Shelley (Donna Reed Show) Fabares, Bill Bixby, James Gregory and others. There‘s actually a clambake, and Elvis sings one good song, the Ray Charles country hit “You Don’t Know Me.” Otherwise, this movie is so preposterously stupid that you may feel yourself blacking out as you watch it.

Frankie and Johnny (U.S.; Frederick De Cordova, 1966) Two and a Half Stars. This whole box set is worthwhile because of Flaming Star, and because of one song number on the otherwise lightweight, dopey Frankie and Johnny. F.& J. is a bizarrely old-fashioned, so-so Mississippi riverboat-to-Broadway musical comedy, directed by longtime Johnny Carson Show producer Freddy De Cordova (who here surpasses his most famous film, Bedtime for Bonzo, starring Ronald Reagan, for sheer trashy fun). Donna “Beverly Hillbillies” Douglas is riverboat belle Frankie, Elvis is compulsive gambler/crooner Johnny, and Harry Morgan is Elvis‘ gravel-voiced sidekick.

It sounds like another stinker. Most of it is. The movie limps along in the usual ‘60s dumb-Elvis-movie way, partly redeemed by an occasional Dixieland, jazz or old music hall number well-sung by Presley (“Down by the Riverside, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and, of course “Frankie and Johnny”).

Then comes the killer number.

It begins with deceptive corniness, and it’s not staged or shot very well. Thanks to Donna, down drops a fortune in Elvis’ gambling winnings out the window, and the New Orleans crowd passing below, stops, shouts and scoops them up before the busted gambler can get to the moolah-covered streets. Despondent, Elvis asks a black street shoeshine kid if he saw the money fall — and the kid says no, then asks him for change for a fifty.

“I ain’t got change for a one,” Elvis laments, then begins to wander off in the night, until he hears the kid breaking down his harmonica. He turns, and they join forces in a blues obbligato that just sends shivers down your spine. (“Oohhh, I’m really feelin’ mighty low…So, I got some blues to sing, and Oh, so much remembering…“) Elvis is singing his heart out here, from the first second. But who is this kid? He’s not a musician here, but an actor, a really good one who mimes the music beautifully. (The harmonica is actually being played by the great Charlie McCoy.) And there’s an instant natural sweetness and camaraderie in the relations of the two onscreen, that belies Elvis’ sometimes alleged racial sentiments.

Elvis sits on the sidewalk with the kid. A black cat conveniently crosses their paths, and Elvis launches into the rest of the spell-binding song “Hard Luck,“ written for this movie by Sid Wayne and Ben Weisman. (“Black cats, keep away from me. Take my advice: Go shinny up a tree.“)

It‘s so good you can barely believe it. Elvis’ voice is at its best, a creamy high register sliding into rich baritone, then shifting, gliding, wailing back up — and the nonpareil virtuoso McCoy, who backed up Bob Dylan on “Blonde on Blonde,” matches him lick for lick, in piercing, stabbing wails that keep driving and firing up the bluesy melody and the terse, witty rhymes. (“I got hard luck, the hardest kind of luck you’ll find. I ain’t lyin’! I’ve got the bluest kind of blues, drivin’ me right out of my mind.“)

This great, little known song — one of the best things Elvis ever did — just pours out as natural as breathing, short and sweet as a shake of the dice. (“She’s gone. Said ‘Toodle-oo.‘ Kissed her Goodbye and — my, my — my money too.”) As the King and the kid, worlds apart, commune though their music, they start to wander aimlessly across the street, no hip-shaking here, and those despairing, cynical, funny, low down words spill out like honey from a spoon, whiskey from a shot glass, blood from a cut throat. It stuns you, rocks you, quiet, then roaring. (“Where do I belong? Everything I do is wrong! All wrong, wrong as can be! Who’s stackin’ all the decks? Lady Luck has got the hex…on me!”)

It ends, too soon, with Elvis walking away from the kid, who’s still playing, the singer left alone and leaving us alone on the dark street. There‘s a sudden, almost imperceptible, pause before McCoy’s harmonica bursts out once again, and the last words tear out mad and sad from Elvis’ throat, flaming up in a cry of bluesy anguish and pop pain from this star of stars who seemed to be on top of the world, but wasn‘t, not as long as the Colonel was around to make him look like a fool, and gamble away his millions in Vegas.

“I guess hard luck always chooses, natural born losers like me!”

It’s so crushing, yet so easy. The last smears of McCoy’s harmonica croon like a hip “Taps,” like Dylan crashing into Robert Johnson and Ray Charles over Aretha’s and Bessie’s bent hearts at the crossroads, broken-backed and melancholy and then gone.

When I first heard this masterpiece, a little dejected by all the crap of the rest of “Frankie and Johnny,” I could barely believe my ears. It’s a flawless number, a killer, and, like “You‘ve Lost That Lovin‘ Feeling,” a song which Elvis covered in his ‘70s stage acts, it’s a pinnacle of white-boy soul. (That political slant may be why many have ignored it, but why shouldn’t we celebrate and love that great fusion of musics and cultures we find in pop and the blues?)

I listened to “Hard Luck,” awe-struck, then played it ten more times in a row. It was just like finding the primo album cut on a ‘60s Beatles or Stones album. Then I went to Google to find out who in the world was playing that harmonica (Charlie McCoy), and who the kid actor was. (No luck yet on imdb).

It was 1966. Elvis seemed on the downslide. Hipsters thought he was a joke. The Brits ruled. “Frankie and Johnny” was considered instant garbage for hopeless cornballs (which it mostly is), and I‘ll bet none of my friends even saw this movie (I sure didn’t) or would admit if they did. The moguls didn’t even release “Hard Luck” as the show’s single. They screwed up again, royally, and they put out the movie’s show-bizzy, pop-and-fizzy version of “Frankie and Johnny” for the charts instead. To my knowledge, Elvis never sang “Hard Luck” at his big ‘70s shows.

But listen, if they put out “Hard Luck” now posthumously, unmessed and untinkered with, I bet it could be Elvis’ last Number One hit. It’s “Heartbreak Hotel” with a hellhound on its trail. Well, maybe the music world, distribution, ipod and all, has changed too much these days. But that doesn’t matter. It’s a great song anyway.

I know a lot of you are starting to think this is all just nutty hyperbole. Listen, find it and play it for yourselves. It’s on the 75th Birthday Collection, of course, and so is that Siegel classic Flaming Star. But it’s also on You-Tube. Get it, turn up the sound and play “Hard Luck” on your lap-top or, better yet, on your DVD player. Elvis has not left the stadium. This tremendous song, that spine-tingling harmonica, that wonderful little kid actor, that great warm beautiful back-country blues voice will, trust me…Absolutely. Knock. You. Out.

Extras: Featurettes; Trailers.


The Back-up Plan (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Alan Poul, 2010

If you don’t have a back-up plan when you wander into The Back-up Plan, the new Jennifer Lopez picture, you may regret it — because then you’ll be condemned to watch this silly-ass movie, with no relief in sight. Unless you’re dippy about Jen Lopez, you‘ll suffer, trapped in yet another glossy, dopey, preachy, cliché-strangled Hollywood wanna-be romantic comedy, in which a spectacularly gorgeous couple — Lopez as stunner yuppie Zoe and Australian leading man Alex O’Loughlin as studly farmer/cheese maker Stan — behave like ninnies for a couple of hours, before happiness finally blooms and the bedroom blossoms.

In The Backup Plan, Jennifer Lopez’s Zoe starts out as fed up with men and dating, and so desperate for motherhood, that she decides — for reasons that certainly baffled me — to be artificially inseminated. This is a woman who has trouble with her date life? Really? Anyway, in the first of many dubious plot twists, the newly preggers Zoe immediately meets the man of her dreams, cheese maker Stan.

Smitten, Zoe hides her pregnancy, for a while at least, and the two woo each other to a fare-thee-well, donning chic or sexy wardrobes, uttering earthy but chic thoughts, leaping into bed and embracing huge pillows, roaming around chi-chi Manhattan nibbling chic goodies (and cheese), setting moonlit restaurant tables amusingly on fire, trading quips with wisecracking buddies (including Michaela Watkins as Mona, a sort of Jen-X Rhoda), and learning all the valuable life lessons any Manhattan yuppie worth her sea salt or any Aussie leading man with a good agent needs to know.

Those crucial subjects include maintaining relationships despite lots of banal dialogue, surviving pregnancy despite Robert Klein as your doctor, creative doggie care and successful cheese-creation.

I got no pleasure from any of this, but be forewarned. If you skip Back-up, you’ll miss lots of it and more.

You’ll miss the cute dogs, the cute goat farm, the cute single motherhood classes, and the cute old folks’ trysts with the touching romance between Zoe’s cute nana Linda Lavin and Nana’s cute beau of two decades Tom Bosley (who looks as if the movie were putting him to sleep). You’ll also be deprived of the smashing meet-cute boy-girl scene where both Zoe and Stan grab the same cab and spat charmingly over who gets it, as well as the big cute pillow that gets tossed in a dumpster, the cute arguments and reconciliations, and the massive infusion of cuteness whenever Stan wanders into the park and bumps into the chatty dad played by Anthony Anderson, who plops down on a bench beside him, dispensing pearls of cuteness and daddyhood.

You‘ll miss Stan’s farm, which he seem to be operating — complete with cheese making and packing operations — all by himself. And you‘ll miss the scene where he sees sexy Zoe and smashes his tractor, a moment of rustic humor that might rival The Egg and I, if Ma and Pa Kettle were around.

And what about the aforementioned Doctor Klein, as the wry Doctor Harris who keeps dispensing pearls of pregnancy wit and wisecrackery. The Doc steals the movie with his (and the script’s) most memorable line, “Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!“

As with It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and all its “Mads,” I’m not sure I got all of Dr. Harris’s “Vaginas” in there. But you get the drift.

And, last but not least, you’ll miss the memorable scene where J-Lo actually starts talking about her ass, reckoning that it used to be “way hotter.” (Not from where I sit.) Now, how desperate do filmmakers have to be to start insisting that Ms. Lopez’s famous posterior — insured, as I seem to remember (Against cellulite? Or acts of God?) by no less than Lloyd‘s of London — to be exploited in this manner? And there’s even more rear-end fixation. In scene after scene, Zoe walks away from the camera, reveling in her own derriere. I imagine this was intended either to illustrate the theme of running away from life, or to show that Zoe was just kidding about that “way hotter“ crack.

Derriere! Derriere! Derriere! Derriere! I suppose we should be grateful no one came up with even more fanny-wit, or with Farrelly-level gags about cutting the cheese. I‘m sarcastic, of course. The Back-up Plan is something that should be missed. It’s yet another contemporary Hollywood romantic comedy so bereft of wit and grace, so lost in the tropes of TV, that it often seems to be its own trailer or summer rerun. Concocted by TV writer Kate Angelo and TV director Alan Poul (Six Feet Under), it suggests a boob tube cubed. Jen’s show has everything but a laugh track, and, at my screening, it needed one.

To be brutally frank, this is a movie that once again disgraces the great tradition of the Hollywood Romantic Comedy: of Tracy and Hepburn, of Cary Grant and anybody, of Carole Lombard, of Lemmon and MacLaine, of Preston Sturges, Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder, Leo McCarey, Frank Capra, Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky and, more recently of Alexander Payne — a movie sinking to such, um, slickness, such blandness that it almost makes Jason Reitman look like Howard Hawks, Nancy Meyers look like George Cukor and Kevin Smith look like Ernst Lubitsch.

Bosom! Bosom! Bosom! Bosom!

Penis! Penis! Penis! Penis!

I’m afraid in the end I can only recommend this movie to fans so madly infatuated with Jennifer Lopez that they would cheerfully follow her into Hell. Actually, J-Lo looks fine here, even when she’s walking toward us — but though she projects some sweetness, it’s a waste of honey. As for O’Loughlin, who looks something like a squeezed Matthew McConnaughey, and acts as if he’d rather be off somewhere making cheese (or cutting it), this new Aussie’s love scenes have all the sparkle and fizz of vintage Kool-Aid. Or artificial insemination. To top it off, the blooper reel is a snore.

Look, I guess when you come right down to it, I don’t think it’s possible to make a good or appealing romantic comedy about Jennifer Lopez being artificially inseminated. It’s a lost cause as soon as Doc Klein works his magic and goes vagina-happy. Were the filmmakers just too gutless to take the obvious route of giving Zoe a baby by another, unworthy guy? Someone who, as in His Girl Friday, maybe looks like that actor Ralph Bellamy? Or Jason Patric? Never mind. The Switch and Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston are on the schedule.

It’s actually not impossible to wring laughs out of this semi-taboo subject. The great Jean Renoir — who once referred to Twentieth Century Fox as Eighteenth Century Fox — made a charming comedy about artificial insemination in 1959, the buoyant Picnic on the Grass, a film that was a joy to watch. But Renoir had sense enough to put his lovers in the beautiful impressionistic countryside, and not to haul us all over Manhattan and into the doctor’s office, and have Robert Klein declaim “Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!”

A line, I assure you, that would never have crossed Ernst Lubitsch’s lips. At least not in a movie.

The Square (Three Stars)
Australia; Nash Edgerton, 2008

This Australian nteo-noir, which takes the Double Indemnity-Blood Simple guilty-lovers plot to another murderous extreme, keeps us on the hook with a series of bloody jolts, tense set-pieces and gruesome twists — all handled by a very capable cast that includes David Roberts as the probable “square‘. of the title, Raymond Yale, an increasingly nervous building contractor who sometimes bends the rules and here breaks them entirely when his adulterous lover Carla (Claire van der Boom) pulls him into a vortex of crime.

Her scheme, which begins going wrong almost immediately, also involves her crooked husband Smithy (Anthony Hayes), his skuzzy mates, a bad-tempered arsonist named Billy (played by co-writer Joel Edgerton, Nash‘s brother) and Billy’s unreliable girlfriend (Lisa Bailey). Sternly looking down on them all is Raymond’s boss Gil, a good Edward G. Robinson equivalent, played by that very fine Australian actor Bill Hunter.

There are lots of shocks here and the whole movie has a dark hue and extremely hard edges — and a sheer toughness befitting Edgerton‘s decades-long background as a stunt man and stunt expert. He‘s the first of his profession perhaps to break through as a director since Burt Reynolds‘ buddy Hal Needham. (Edgerton uses better scripts.) Accompanying the feature is Nash Edgerton‘s excellent prize-winning short Spider, in which Nash also stars, and which has a deadlier shock than anything in The Square.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (Three Stars)
U.S.; Aviva Kempner, 2009

Aviva Kempner‘s treasurable documentary on Molly Goldberg herself, the great Gertrude Berg — and on her golden decades on radio (where the Goldbergs originated) and on TV, with the smash hit Jewish family comedy show about Molly and her brood in the Bronx — is both a splendid reminiscence of a superb, too often neglected actress and show, and a stinging portrait of a black list tragedy.

That’s, of course, the sad tale of the destruction of the career of Berg’s costar Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s hubby (perfectly) on the air, but who ended up losing his gig when the morons from Red Channels and the like called him a Commie. (Berg herself tried hard to help Loeb stay on the show, and later to start it up again and bring him back). Finally, the one time actors’ union activist Loeb lost heart and killed himself, inspiring the onscreen black list suicide scene played by Loeb’s friend (and host), Zero Mostel in The Front. May the people who drove Loeb out of TV and into his grave rot in Hell, and may their present-day apologists, like venom-tongued McCarthy fan Ann Coulter, rot along with them. And God bless Gertrude and Molly, which He surely does.

This is a terrific little movie, not least because Kempner so obviously adores her subject: the saftig, beaming, endlessly resourceful and funny Berg, who understood families, especially Jewish families, like few other show biz greats, and whose work as actress and writer inspired a flood of classic family TV sitcoms after her, from I Love Lucy to All in the Family and Roseanne.

Molly and the Goldbergs were sometimes damned as stereotypes. (Interviewee Ed Asner recalls that reaction.) But the movie I think, proves that her humor defused rather than fed any prejudices. Unfortunately, there are few Molly Goldberg videos or DVDs available today — the one available on Amazon comes mostly from the show’s final season, when the producers unwisely packed the Goldberg family off to the suburbs. But perhaps this fine, infinitely lovable little movie will inspire some kinescope-unearthing efforts for a future DVD.

Anyway, It’s good to see Molly again. And to remember how warmly and well she drew us into her window and into her world, with a simple “Yoo Hoo.”

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.


awesome stuff. OK I would like to contribute as well by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to modify. check it out at All custom premade files, many of them totally free to get. Also, check out Dow on: Wilmington on DVDs: How to Train Your Dragon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Darjeeling Limited, The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, The Hangover, The Human Centipede and more ...

cool post. OK I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some amazing and easy to customize. check it out at All custom templates, many of them dirt cheap or free to get. Also, check out Downlo on: Wilmington on Movies: I'm Still Here, Soul Kitchen and Bran Nue Dae

awesome post. Now I would like to contribute too by sharing this awesome link, that personally helped me get some beautiful and easy to modify. take a look at All custom premade files, many of them free to get. Also, check out DownloadSoho.c on: MW on Movies: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Paranormal Activity 2, and CIFF Wrap-Up

Carrie Mulligan on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Great Gatsby

isa50 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Gladiator; Hell's Half Acre; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Rory on: Wilmington on Movies: Snow White and the Huntsman

Andrew Coyle on: Wilmington On Movies: Paterson

tamzap on: Wilmington on DVDs: The Magnificent Seven, Date Night, Little Women, Chicago and more …

rdecker5 on: Wilmington on DVDs: Ivan's Childhood

Ray Pride on: Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

Quote Unquotesee all »

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