MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

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


The Magnificent Seven (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; John Sturges, 1960 (MGM)

Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1954 battle epic, Seven Samurai was originally distributed in the U.S. under the title The Magnificent Seven. So that’s the title MGM used when John Sturges made the seemingly inevitable Western remake — in which seven hired gunfighters, mostly American and all with colorful back-stories, signed on to protect an impoverished Mexican village from devastating yearly raids by a gang of vicious marauding bandits.

The seven glorious mercenaries are led, in a role that’s the equivalent of Takashi Shimura’s samurai leader part, by black-clad gunman Chris (played by Yul Brynner, still sporting a chrome dome from his two star-making 1956 parts as The King in The King and I and Ramses in The Ten Commandments). And they’re a genuinely magnificent bunch: Steve McQueen as Chris’s right hand gun, Charles Bronson (the tender-hearted kids’ idol), Jim Coburn (the arms expert or “perfect warrior“), Robert Vaughn (the guy with the shakes), Brad Dexter (the mercenary who thinks Chris must have spotted a fortune in the village) — and, given the impossible job of subbing for Toshiro Mifune, German import Horst Buchholz as the wild man/outsider. The villain, one of the nonpareil heavies in any movie Western, is the snarling bandit chief played by Eli Wallach (“You came back! Why did you come back?”) — and his part here is a kind of bastard cousin to Wallach’s later role as the Ugly in Sergio Leone‘s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

I sometimes think the movie would have been better if Burt Lancaster or Robert Mitchum had played Chris. (Maybe Lancaster rematched with Douglas as another of the Seven.) But why rob Brynner of one of his three moments of screen glory?

John Sturges is often short-shrifted an a non-auteur, and it’s true that he lacks the visual style of a Western master like Budd Boetticher or Anthony Mann. But he’s directed an awful lot of good or interesting movies — including Escape from Fort Bravo, Kind Lady, The People Against O‘Hara, Jeopardy, Last Train from Gun Hill, The Old Man and the Sea, The Hallelujah Trail, Hour of the Gun, Howard Hughes’ weirdo favorite Ice Station Zebra — and those four genuine action classics, The Magnificent Seven, Bad Day at Black Rock, “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Great Escape.

I don’t remember a single movie-going kid in 1960, girls as well as guys, who wasn‘t a fan of Sturges‘ The Magnificent Seven and its epic septet. (Most of the guys, me included, wanted to be Steve McQueen as Hilts, the chopper-riding “Cooler King” of The Great Escape.) Seven still plays like a dream today, despite the memory of three sub-par sequels, in which first George Kennedy and then Lee Van Cleef finally took over for Brynner.

Why shouldn’t it still work? The Sturges remake of Seven Samurai has a great story, a great cast, top production, and, of course a great musical score: Elmer Bernstein‘s jaunty, wildly catchy martial main theme, which may be the most instantly recognizable sound track music (with the kill themes of Psycho and Jaws right behind) in the entire history of movies. And to say that Sturges’ movie is not the equal of Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai is not really much of a knock. No other action movie is either.


Date Night (Three Stars)
U.S.; Shawn Levy, 2010 (20th Century Fox)

Steve Carell and Tina Fey make a great movie comedy couple in Date Night — even though they’re handicapped by the movie’s often trivial formula script. Playing a nice suburban hubby-and-wife accidentally set loose in a wild and crazy urban underworld, they’re loose and sharp and totally in command. Carell and Fey, a primo pair, engage our sympathies, make us smile and laugh. They do everything we’d expect from the stars of two smart shows like The Office and 30 Rock — and from the comedians who nailed for all time, weasely office bosses like the fictitious but instantly recognizable Michael Scott and personality-kid politicos like the equally unmistakable Sarah Palin.

But the movie itself — a slick and quick but often shallow and silly mix of North by Northwest and the 1970 The Out-of Towners, from director Shawn (Night at the Museum) Levy — keeps letting them down, shoving clichés and car chases down our throats. Some of the humor suggests Norman Lear just past his prime, but too much of it suggests Chevy Chase just past his — or the inferior 1999 Steve Martin-Goldie Hawn Out-of-Towners. (To be more precise, it suggests someone who’d like to be as funny as Lear, and Simon, but can’t quite pull himself from the swamps of high-concept stereotype.)

At the end, when the moviemakers put some outtakes under the credits — and Carell and Fey get to play around with funny accents and different comic personas — we get a glimpse of what Date Night could have been, if Levy had really set them loose, and if they all weren’t partly hamstrung by Josh Klausner’s thin, obvious fish-out-of-water scenario.

Say what you want, though: This movie gets its laughs. Carell and Fey, as funny a pair as TV has right now, play Phil and Blaire Foster, a good-hearted, very likeable, fairly hip suburban couple, trying to light a fire under their now boring and routine marriage, by turning their regular date night into something special: eschewing the usual Friday night at the movies (where they’d maybe see something like Date Night), heading off to an ultra-chic Manhattan restaurant and shooting the works. Of course they end up with more than they bargained for, but not more than you could expect from Levy.

Soon, in fact, the works are shooting back at them. After the Fosters recklessly jump ahead in line at the trendy eatery Phil picks, by claiming to be the no-show Tripplehorns (a mythical couple named after the actress in Basic Instinct, who‘ve been paged, just like the mythical George Kaplan was at the start of North by Northwest), bad things start to happen. They’re pulled from their table by two thugs, Armstrong and Collins (Jimmi Simpson and Common), whom they mistake for restaurant security, but who prove to be gunmen in the pay of the local wise-guy gangster boss (Ray Liotta, mysteriously unbilled). Liotta doesn’t think he’s funny — like Joe Pesci in GoodFellas. (But we do.) He‘s very angry at the ”Tripplehorns,” and wants either his goods or their corpses.

The Fosters escape, the thugs on their tail, and are soon involved in everything from shoot-outs to sex clubs to slapstick sub-French Connection high speed chases with taxi cabs and screaming drivers stuck to their grilles. And since Armstrong and Collins prove to be crooked cops, the fugitive Fosters, amazingly plucky and resourceful through all their misadventures, can’t even get police help in Rudy Giuliani‘s city.

One of the remarkable things about Date Night is what a smashing cast Levy has assembled for this over-obvious, not-too-swift script. Besides Carell, Fey and the others above, there are middling to brief star turns by Mark Wahlberg as Holbrooke, a shirtless stud of a security guy who helps the Fosters out, James Franco and Mila Kunis, terrific as the real “Tripplehorns,” Taraji P. Henson as good cop Det. Arroyo, William Fichtner as the D. A., Leighton Meester as the Foster’s babysitter, and, most surprisingly, Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig — who have almost nothing to do as the troubled New Jersey suburban couple next door, but do it very well. I also saw someone I could swear was Michael Moriarity hanging around with Arroyo, but since he was unbilled too, maybe it was a doppelganger or a Law and Order flashback.

Tina Fey and Steve Carell make it all mesh and click. He’s playing a good-hearted, super-organized, bread-winner, not a schmuck like Office’s Michael , but someone who could work with the schmucks: a guy who wants to show his wife he can be not just a regular Joe, but a take-charge stud as well, and who keeps trying to play it cool when he keeps getting in over his head. Carell is great at this kind of half-anal, show-off role. And when Phil gets intimidated by Holbrooke’s bare chest, we can see the character’s flipside, the insecurities he‘s hiding, not too successfully.

Fey’s Claire is a perfect nice-to-the-bone, super-organized housewife. She manages to be both sexy and funny — and even sweet — as well. Part of the kick of Fay’s now-legendary Palin impression, is that she gets ditziness, phoniness, ignorance and even a sweet, goofy side to her Palin as well — although the real-life lady they called Sarah Barracuda in high school, is probably more aware and more of a phony than Fey plays. Palin obviously has some meanness and cut-throat political cunning under the ever-smiling cutes and sexy fluff, and Fey hasn‘t quite pulled it out yet.

What Date Night winds up doing at the end — putting Claire and Phil in the wise-guy’s sex club, disguised as a dancer-hooker and her pimp — is the key to its comic strategy, which is not unlike all those ’60s’ Rock Hudson/Doris Day double-entendre comedies where the movie played at showing gamy, sexually promiscuous and perverse stuff, but the star characters, Rock and Doris, were really faking it. Phil and Claire, who are more like Tony Randall and Doris, are faking it too, especially in the sex-club scene, when they start dancing around a stripper’s pole, and this is something the two stars get exactly right. They make the Fosters knowing, but not too knowing, hip but not too hip. (They’ve clearly gotten almost all of their info about the underworld from movies and TV, but then so probably has writer Klausner.) We see the naiveté beneath the phony bravura, and that makes them more charming.

Date Night would have been much better if the filmmakers had axed or shortened the car-chase and the action, dumped some of the Marky Mark pec jokes, and let Carell and Fey play around with the lines and scenes a lot more. Yet what these two genuinely crowd-pleasing co-stars prove here is they can carry a movie, even a movie that might be limping without them. Even though this isn’t that good a show on its own, I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing the Fosters together again, even on another date night — and even if they had to include an honest-to-goodness Sarah Barracuda cameo.


Little Women (Four Stars)
U.S.; George Cukor, 1933 (MGM)

Katharine Hepburn‘s favorite movie role was in a part that in fact much resembled her, a role that had all her radiant spirit, energy, fire, her sparkling wit and even her patrician New England roots. Of course, it was her incandescent performance as brainy, hardy New Englander Jo March in George Cukor’s great film of the Louisa May Alcott classic — a film which ironically came out the same year (1933) that Hepburn won her first “best actress” Oscar for another good but-not-quite-as-good movie, as stage-struck young actress Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory.

They’re both of them superb performances, but Hepburn’s Jo is perfection: an impeccable, blazingly attractive, richly imagined job in a neglected classic, a book unfairly dismissed by some as a girl’s library favorite and by others as undemanding Americana.

In fact, Little Women is as much a classic film about an American family, as, in different ways, are Meet Me in St. Louis, The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird. Cukor’s film, an impeccably mounted and very faithful David O. Selznick production, brings this new England city in the Civil War years to warm, pulsing life, as it also does Jo a full-blooded human being in a glowing family portrait, and her three sisters (Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, Jean Parker), her big-hearted mother (Spring Byington), and feisty neighbor (Edna May Oliver) and their often smitten neighbors and beaux (Paul Lukas and Douglass Montgomery.)

Cukor’s celebrated brilliance with actors (especially Hepburn) is on full display here, as are his flair for detail and his impeccable taste. It’s one of his best films, and also one of Selznick’s. If you love Kate Hepburn, and who doesn‘t, it should be a favorite of yours as well.

Chicago (Two Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Frank Urson (and, uncredited, Cecil B. DeMille), 1927 (Flicker Alley)

Maurine Watkins’ play Chicago, based on her brief experiences as a Chicago Tribune reporter, covering sensational murder cases, is one of the most cynical of all newspaper romantic comedy-dramas. It’s acid on wry, the dark, trenchant tale of a faithless wife who kills her lover, tricks her schmo husband and sees her unscrupulous lawyer parley the case into a deluge of Chicago newspaper headlines and hot-mama publicity.

It’s a venomous, crackling tale from the Ben Hecht era. And it’s the source of the brash 1942 William Wellman-Ginger Rogers movie Roxie Hart, of the 1972 Bob Fosse-Kander-Ebb Tony-winning stage musical Chicago, of the Oscar-winning 2002 movie adaptation of that show, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere — and of this 1927 silent movie version, starring Phyllis Haver as Roxie, based on the play and produced (and substantially directed) by Cecil B. DeMille.

The official director was Frank Urson, a ‘20s filmmaker and frequent DeMille assistant director. Any way, however much DeMille did on Chicago, which he had found and purchased and obviously liked, it was a lot — according to his salary, the work records, and the very look and feel of the film. It‘s suggested that he took his name off Chicago, because they were in too close proximity to another DeMille 1927 show, the story of Jesus in King of Kings — starring as Christ, an actor they called The Queen of Queens, H. B. Warner.

DeMille had his cynical side and he gives full vent to it here. Roxie (gorgeously played by Phyllis Haver, a doll of a blonde who married rich, left the movies in 1929, and committed suicide in 1960), exploits and cuckolds her smitten hubby Amos (Victor Varconi) with her pudgy little bully of a lover Casely (irascible fatso Eugene Pallette, for God’s sake). Then she shoots and kills Casely when he tries to leave, and an opportunistic prosecutor (Warner Richmond) seizes on the case, along with the local scandal-hungry press, who make Roxie their latest doxy.

Disillusioned but still faithful to Mrs. Hart, Amos hires one of Chicago’s top defense lawyers, the endlessly resourceful but cash-flow-obsessed Billy Flynn (Robert Edeson), and the case is on. It was rough stuff in 1926, when Watkins’ play played Broadway. It was rough in 1927, when scripter Lenore Coffee adapted it for this movie. It was rough in 2002, when Marshall’s Billy, Richard Gere, made a mockery of the law on screen, and the Death Row dollies sang their ode to murder. (“He had it coming.“) And it’s rough now.

Maybe the play is a classic. It’s sure lasted, and it sure feels like one. So does the movie. But Watkins only did a few more stage shows, including So Help Me God, another tough play about Warren Harding-style political corruption (which was just revived on Broadway and was strongly reviewed). Then she worked for a while in the ’30s in Hollywood, where her strongest credit was co-writer on the 1937 Spencer Tracy-Jean Harlow-Powell-Loy newspaper comedy Libeled Lady, directed by Jack Conway. Urson died a few years later in a fishing accident. Cecil B. DeMille, of course, went on forever, or almost forever. This near-perfect print came out of his personal vault. C. B.‘s last movie was a childhood favorite of mine, the 1956 The Ten Commandments, where DeMille dubbed the Voice of God, then had the tablets handed to Charlton Heston‘s Moses.

We see a lot of commandments broken in the 1927 movie Chicago. Tell me it doesn‘t happen in Chicago, 2010.

Extras: 1950 documentary The Golden Twenties (producer: Richard de Rochemont) (Three Stars); 1985 short documentary The Flapper Era (Lauren Lazin) (Three Stars); 2010 documentary supplement The Real Roxie Hart (d: Jeffery Masino, Silas Lesnick); Booklet with essays by Thomas H. Pauly (source of a lot of the information above), Robert S. Birchard and Rodney Sauer.


Presenting Sacha Guitry (Four Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
France; Sacha Guitry, 1936-38 (Eclipse/Criterion)

Sacha Guitry took up movies relatively late in life. The star actor-playwright-stage director, le grande homme of the French theater, and author of over 120 plays (many of which he also acted in and directed) from the early 1900s to his death at age 72, had made a few silent pictures, from 1915 to 1917 (including a documentary with appearances by Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Sarah Bernhardt).

Guitry also wrote a screenplay for the 1931 talkie Le Blanc et le Noir, yet the Russian-born stage wizard didn’t really start his multi-tasking movie career of directing (and writing and starring in) French feature films until 1935’s Pasteur. But he quickly mastered them, with the same effortless fluency and urbane eloquence which had enabled him to conquer the stage as a playwright in his teens. From then on, Guitry was unstoppable on both stage and screen, and his last movies as writer-director (Le Trois font le Paire and the classic Lovers and Thieves) came out in the year of his death, 1957.

Guitry was in his prime, perfectly set in his famous star persona — the witty boulevardier and charming man of the world with a penchant for history and amour — in the four films from the mid to late 30s that Criterion has assembled for this package. They include two of his official classics, 1936’s The Story of a Cheat (Guitry’s acknowledged masterpiece) and 1937’s The Pearls of the Crown, along with two delightfully stagy (and wondrously cinematic) Guitry plays-turned-films, 1937’s Desire and 1938’s Quadrille. Are they boring or turgid? Non, non. Will you enjoy them, if you’re the tiniest bit Francophile (and what true cinema-lover isn’t? Oui, oui!

Includes: The Story of a Cheat (France; Sacha Guitry, 1936.) Four Stars. A formerly wealthy, now threadbare, gambler and con artist, recounts his colorful life while sipping wine and playing with a watch at an outdoor café. In this classic, beloved by Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais and many other French cineastes, Guitry plays the Cheat, narrates (and reads all the other parts) in a kaleidoscopic self-portrait of a charming scoundrel, living the high life as a croupier, gambler and con artist, in Monte Carlo and other sparkling cities.

The unnamed Cheat spares us nothing. So confident is he of his charm that he begins the biography with a grim yet amusing tale of the poisoning of his entire family, which only he survived. Perhaps the most urbane film ever made; one wishes Orson Welles (who should have been Guitry’s American counterpart and who acted in Guitry films in the ’50s) had had as many opportunities, and as rich. With Guitry’s sexy wife and stage accomplice, Jacqueline Delubac, as one the Cheat’s partners-in-crime. (In French, with English subtitles.)

The Pearls of the Crown (France; Sacha Guitry, 1937.) Four Stars. One of the most amazing, and amusing, of all costume drama-comedy-romances: the occasionally factual, often fictitious history of seven perfect pearls given to the girl Catherine de Medici by the wily Pope Clement VII, four of which wind up in the Crown of England, and three of which….well, let Sacha tell it. Over a span of several centuries, the seven pearls pass through the hands and lives of a glittering historical gallery that includes Henry VIII, Mary of Scotland, Elizabeth the Queen, at least two Napoleons, Louis XVI, the Bastille-stormers of the French Revolution, Madame Du Barry, and the Queen of Abyssinia (played by Arletty, the unforgettable femme fatale of Carne and Prevert‘s Children of Paradise).

Befitting the work of a writer-director who was the godson of Russia’s Czar Alexander II, Guitry’s view of the monarchy and its wandering crown jewels, is irreverent and cynical, comic and unsparing. Like Lubitsch, Guitry portrays royalty with its doors open and its pants down. He also plays four roles including the narrator/sleuth Jean Martin and Napoleon III; Guitry’s fellow cast members include Delubac, the great Jean-Louis Barrault (young Napoleon) and the great Raimu, of the Marcel Pagnol Trilogy. (In French, Italian and English, with English subtitles.)

Desire (France; Sacha Guitry, 1937.) Three Stars. In this set-bound but very fluid and graceful adaptation of one of his plays, Guitry, at 52, has the nerve to play an irresistible valet named Desire, whose mistresses (including one played by his costar/wife Delubac) keep falling for him. It‘s a role he was born to play, as movie-lovers were born to watch it. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Quadrille (France; Sacha Guitry, 1938.) Three Stars. At the Paris Ritz, a romantic triangle turns quadrangle when a handsome, horny American movie star (George Grey), seduces the wife (Gaby Morlay) of an urbane, witty and seductive “Paris-Soir” magazine editor (Guess Who) who has a thing for his star reporter (Delubac, again). Another Guitry play, setbound but sparkling: and what sexy Hollywood comedies like Libeled Lady or Midnight could have been, if the Hays Office hadn’t been around. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Four essays by Michael Koresky.

The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (Three and a Half Stars)
Japan: Akira Kurosawa, 1943-45 (Criterion Collection)

Great film directors often reveal themselves almost immediately. The young Akira Kurosawa, made his first four films during the World War 2 years. They were two martial arts sagas set in the 19th century, a contemporary patriotic celebration of women war factory workers, and a period drama adapted from well-known classics of the noh and kabuki theater. Only one of them, the noh movie The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tale, is a true film classic, but that one is quintessential Kurosawa: robust, thrilling, full of emotion, even though most of it was shot on a simple stage set.

But all four are exciting, involving, highly engaging and entertaining, and one of them, the first Sanshiro Sugata (or Judo Saga) was a hit that jump-started the fledgling filmmaker’s eventually legendary career. As one watches it — the fierce drama and spectacular fights — one feels as Kurosawa‘s great and much-esteemed elder colleague did at the movie’s first studio screening. Sensing the disapproval of the attendant censors, and wanting to quickly pre-empt them, Ozu jumped from his seat and yelled “Bravo Kurosawa!”

Includes Sanshiro Sugata (Judo Saga) (Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1943). Three Stars. The handsome, gentle-featured Susumu Fujita plays Sanshiro Sugata, who joins up with master Shogoro Sano (Denjiro Ookouchi), during a late 19th century feud between devotees of judo and jiu-jitsu, and becomes the greatest of judo fighters, facing a final showdown with his main rival/for in a hillside landscape of waving windswept grain. (Where are you, Bruce Lee?) In the first of his many performances for Kurosawa, Takashi Shimura, later the leader of the Seven Samurai, plays aging martial arts master Murai, also the father of love interest Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki).

A big audience hit. Interestingly, Fujita — who later acted in both the Sanshiro sequel and in Tiger‘s Tail does not much resemble Kurosawa’s later main protagonist/star and staff hero, the fiery, glowering Toshiro Mifune. (Fujita is more a Tatsuya Nakadai type.) But one of Sanshiro’s early opponent victims does look like Mifune. And so, in a way does Yukiko Todoroki as the brooding, violent main villain, the fighter in the waving grain, Gennosuke Higaki. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)

The Most Beautiful (Japan; Kurosawa, 1944). Three Stars. Although he was descended from samurai, and was the greatest cinematic poet of samurai warfare (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo), Kurosawa did not believe in Japanese WW2 militarism, had a basically anti-war, anti-nuclear weapons philosophy, and was not anti-American. (His main cinematic models as a young man were the Americans John Ford, Howard Hawks, George Stevens and Frank Capra.)

This is his only WW2 propaganda film and he deliberately set it far from the losing battle — in a home-front optics factory where all the workers are women and where we Americans, descendants of Japan‘s eventual conquerors, can still uncritically admire the women‘s courage and self-sacrifice. Though he has pretty much required to make it, and though it is not at all one of his major movies, it was, Kurosawa said, “the (movie) dearest to him.” The reason: While making it, he fell in love with his star, Yoko Yaguchi, who plays the dedicated and compassionate work leader Tsuru. After the film, he married her, and they were still man and wife when Kurosawa died, over a half century later, in 1998. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)

Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two {Judo Saga) (Japan; Kurosawa, 1945). Three Stars. In this sequel to the popular 1943 Judo Saga, Sanshiro returns to fight some ugly Americans ( a little more forced WW2 propaganda) and the mad dog brothers of his strongest combatant from the first film, Gennosuke Higaki. Those are the Higaki Brothers: sullen Tesshin (played by Yukiko Todoroki, who also played Gennosuke) and flamboyant, explosive, white-robed Genzaburo.

This is technically, the better of the two “Sanshiros,“ though less emotional. The last fight takes place on the mountains, in heavy snow, which seems pretty peculiar, but as Kurosawa said, it’s a matter of aesthetics. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (Japan; Kurosawa, 1945). Four Stars. See above. In the twelfth century, in the mountains, a lord (Tadayoshi Nishina) and his samurai (led by Denjiro Ookouchi, and including later Rashomon stars Takashi Shimura and Masayuki Mori), joined by a comical, sometimes cowardly and often frenzied porter (played by diminutive comedy star Kenichi Enomoto), try to sneak through the enemy lines, disguised as monks and their retinue. The border guard’s leader is the just warrior Togashi, played by Susumu Fujita, the Sanshiro of Judo Saga. He has vicious, super-militaristic colleagues. A clash seems inevitable. Though barely an hour in length, set-bound, and banned until 1952 by occupying American authorities (because it was noh), this is pure Kurosawa. Bravo. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Four essays by Stephen Prince.

Death at a Funeral (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Neil LaBute, 2010 (Sony)

Is nothing sacred? Even funerals and valium? This is practically a scene-for-scene remake of the 2007 British comedy, directed by Frank Oz, about an upper-class funeral going bonkers, with new director Neil LaBute using the same Dean Craig screenplay, but transplanting it from an English manor to a black Los Angeles upper-middle-class mini-mansion — repeating all the originals’ toilet humor, tantrums, mistaken drug ingestions, and little-man-in-the-coffin gags, and even hiring the same brilliant actor as the little man, Peter Dinklage.

The rest of the cast includes Chris Rock as Aaron, the good-guy wannabe-writer son of the funeral’s dead father, Regina Hall as Aaron’s baby-crazy wife Michelle, Loretta Devine as the on-again off-again distraught mama Cynthia, Martin Lawrence as Aaron’s successful (if irresponsible) writer brother Ryan, Zoe Saldana as rebellious daughter Elaine, James Marsden (fabulous) as her nervous white boyfriend Oscar, (he gets the mistaken hallucinogen dose instead of valium and memorably freaks out), Danny Glover as Russell, the uncle with bad potty habits, Tracy Morgan as Norman, his literally shit-faced victim, and Keith David as the minister who can’t figure out why there’s such a long delay in the ceremony. (The reasons: Blackmail and Uncle Russell unleashed.)

This is one terrific cast, and the movie has style and tone. But I have a confession. Since reviewing the first Death in the Funeral (see below) I’ve been through two very sad funerals myself, and I had problems this time. Not because I’m now automatically opposed to the idea of dark comedy at a funeral, but because I now think you have to be more careful and recognize or establish the gravity of the moment more, before you start transgressing it. And you need to have at least one character responding in a more humane or decent way, in a movie like this, for the dark comedy to work right, and not be sporadically offensive (a character like Katie Johnson as the seemingly sweet old lady in The Ladykillers or Hildy’s fiance in The Front Page).

This funeral, on the other hand, begins going nutso from the start. None of the guests ever really act as if they’re at a sad event — though I give Chris Rock major points for trying. (He’s sabotaged by the coffin gag antics at the end, to which Aaron should have objected more strenuously.)

I suspect one reason Marsden’s Oscar is so funny all the time, with his loopy, drugged-out, blissed-out outrages, is because drug-sabotaged Oscar is just not responsible for his own actions. He‘s trying to be a good guest, but is increasingly thrown off the mark by the hallucinogen he mistakenly popped. Glover, believably cantankerous, is hilarious too, and Dinklage is just as good in either version.

But, perhaps because British movies often have you rooting against their upper-class comic butts, and because these characters have more potential here for earthy reality, I was uneasy and unhappy through much of the first third of this movie. Then Marsden and Glover started making me laugh — though, the balance was off all the way to the end, and when it got “warm-hearted” for the closer, this Death still seemed a bit forced and phony. Rest (or poop) in peace, Uncle Russell.


Death at a Funeral (Three Stars)
U.S.-U.K.; Frank Oz, 2007 (MGM/20th Century Fox)

A dark British comedy, directed with a Muppet-light touch by Frank Oz (Miss Piggy), about an upper-class funeral that goes absolutely haywire, thanks to “valium,” mescaline and a little blackmail. Oz is no Alexander Mackendrick, but he has a top cast (Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Tudyk, Andy Nyman, Peter Dinklage, Kris Marshall and Jane Asher) and they’re funny enough.

Extras: Commentaries by Oz, Craig, Tudyk and Nyman.

The Joneses (One and a Half Two Stars)
U.S.; Derrick Borte, 2010 (20th Century Fox)

Here’s a genuinely awful movie, disguised as a luscious satire on consumerism. Using a script of his own that deserves exile, first time director-writer Derrick Borte asks us to keep up with his Joneses — a phony family with a phony name played by Demi Moore and David Duchovny as the comely parents, and Amber Heard and Ben Hollingswirth as their pretty offspring. The Joneses, none of them related, have been recruited by Lauren Hutton as the nefarious KC, hired to mingle with their fellow suburbanites, gain their trust and adulation, and push products. But since all their neighbors seem just as pretty, phony and improbable as the Joneses are, one wonders why they needed to be hired at all. Wouldn’t a few TV ads have sufficed? Or a Tupperware Party?

The entire cast deserves our sympathy. At the end, the movie asks us to forgive all its sins with a few author‘s messages on coming out, being yourself and rejecting phoniness. All I can say is “Physician heal thyself.” These are no Joneses to keep up with.

Welcome (Three Stars)
France: Philippe Lioret, 2009 (Film Movement)

A moving mix of contemporary social themes and romantic melodrama. The protagonists are Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a 17-year old Kurdish refugee from Iraq desperate to be reunited with his girlfriend in London, and Simon (Vincent Lindon), a soon-to-be-divorced French swimming instructor in Calais. Bilal decides to learn to swim so he can cross the channel to be with his love; Simon, heart-broken by the end of his own marriage, undertakes to teach him. More and more they become enmired in this impossible-seeming quest. More and more, we see Bilal as an almost suicidal romantic, determined to keep love alive, while Simon, too easily, let it slip away. With Audrey Dana, radiant as Simon’s lost love.

Lindon, who works often for Claude Lelouch, is a classic earthy French leading man in the Gabin-Raimu-Depardieu mold. Melodrama aside, the film touches you. (The title is ironic.) (In French, with English subtitles.) Winner of the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Label Europa Cinemas Award of the Berlin Film Festival, and the Grand Prize for Dramatic Feature of the Heartland Film Festival.

Extras: The short German film The Berlin Wall (Germany: Paul Cotter, 2009) (Three Stars), about what seems a late attempt by one bereaved old widower, to rebuild the Wall. (Film Movement is an international art film DVD-of-the-Month club which offers new releases and shorts every month.)

The Thorn in the Heart (Three Stars)
France; Michel Gondry, 2009 (Oscilloscope)

Essentially, this is a home movie by Michel Gondry (director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), who focuses on the lives of his indefatigable and much-loved (and widowed and nearly blind) schoolteacher Aunt Suzette, and her family, especially her son (and Gondry’s cousin) Jean-Yves, a gay model train lover, an outsider, and, for Suzette, “the thorn in her heart.” This is a lovely story of how families work together, persevere, laugh, tell stories, and love each other despite everything. It’s also a story of how a simple country teacher can make a difference, can be more truly a hero or heroine, than say, all the fictional Uzi-firing movie mercenaries and death-dealers played by all the Stallones, Schwarzeneggers and Willises. God bless you, Suzette. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Extras (all created or curated by Gondry): Featurettes; gallery of drawings by young pupils; Q & A with Gondry; Charlotte Ginsburg’s short Little Monsters; Stop-motion animation by Valerie Person.

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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