MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Casino Jack, My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?, Breathless, Crumb and more …


Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Alex Gibney, 2010 (Magnolia)

If you don’t watch this movie before the next election, you’ve got only yourself to blame.

Alex Gibney‘s Casino Jack and the United States of Money is the amazing, genuinely scary and totally sobering story of Jack Abramoff, the supreme Republican lobbyist/dealmaker/moneyman, and also the poster child for a decade crazed by greed and contemptuous of rules, regulations and the problems of the common man and woman.

Abramoff, the one time president of the college Young Republicans was one of the group of young Turk collegiate conservatives from the ‘70s, a cadre of hard-driving ideological creeps who included Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed. In the ‘90s,  Abramoff became a lobbyist and made himself into a direct pipeline to the fabled G. O.P.  minority whip Tom DeLay (known as  “The Hammer” because of his famous cudgel-wielding, bashing people skills in congress) and other powerful Republican congressional leaders. These were cynical legislators who got hefty campaign contributions and, quid pro quo, did favors, or acted favorably, or passed the right kind of laws for the right kind of money.

Jack was quite a guy, quite a salesman. In high school in Los Angeles, he was a football and wrestling star. Then he underwent, supposedly, a religious conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox? Jack loved politics, loved money, loved the high life, loved movies. When told about this one being made, he suggested that director Alex Gibney (an Oscar winner), not make a boring old documentary, but instead make a snazzy action movie, because that’s where the money is. Jack even produced an actioner himself, a pile of ludicrous Rambo knockoff garbage called Red Scorpion (1989), starring Dolph Lundgren as a hunky Russian officer pursuing African rebels.

But Jack’s movie career faltered (Thank God!), and he turned his talents to lobbying the Gingrich and Bush congresses instead. Jack still knew where the money was. Supposedly a devout Jew, he joined forces with other alleged men of God like the Christian Coalition’s cutie-pie guerilla fighter Reed — all of whom apparently missed that passage in the Bible where Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle  than for a rich man to enter Heaven. These guys all loved money just as much as Wall Street’s Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko, and were just as ruthless of acquisition. Especially Jack.

Peddling his access to DeLay and others, Jack charged huge fees to the government of the Mariana Islands (to get the government to ignore sweat shops), to several native American tribes including the Tiguas (for favorable legislation on their gambling casinos) and to many others. He bought a fleet of floating casinos off Miami and set up a dummy corporation called A. C. I. supposedly run by a local lifeguard, newly named prexy Dave Grosh (who admits on camera that he probably wasn‘t qualified to run an Arby‘s). It was really a cash conduit for Republican money.

A Golden Goose? Jack and his buddies, in imprudent emails, laughingly called their clients monkeys, assholes and fucking boy scouts and cursed them because the tribe didn’t come up with more moolah, even as the Abramoff  Mob drained the Tiguas of 32 million dollars or more.

Meanwhile, it seems, almost the entire U.S. Congress was up for sale, throughout the Bush era, lots of Republicans and a few Democrats as well. And it was conscienceless influence peddlers like Jack, who funneled millions of dollars of campaign loot into the Right pockets, along with gaudy vacations and free eats (at Jack’s Washington D. C. restaurant Signatures) and sexy ladies and God knows what else. Finally, somebody blew a whistle and some others flipped, or maybe God got angry at all these money-mad poseurs, and the Washington Post’s Susan Schmidt (part of  the mainstream liberal media Fox News keeps cursing out) wrote a story. The party crashed and Jack wound up in the slammer along with several others whom we meet here. But not Delay, who resigned in 2006. We last see “The Hammer” smiling devilishly and trying, somewhat grossly, to summon up memories of  John Travolta while strutting lasciviously to the Troggs’ Wild Thing, on TV‘s Dancing with the Stars.

Gibney keeps the pace relentless, and the show constantly moving (as they say about those action movies Jack adored). It‘s also richly informative, often enthralling, and far more exciting than Red Scorpion could ever hope to be. And scary to boot. And funny, if not funnier than the Hammer swivel-hipping and finger-pointing his way through Wild Thing.

Listen, if, after watching Casino Jack,  some of you still believe the Republicans are the party of God, or of prudent economics, or of the people, or that the government wasn‘t disgracefully and perpetually up for sale under Bush (whom we see in photos with Jack, both of them looking very happy), and that it probably won’t be again under the current G.O.P. or those so-called Tea Party insurgent populists, then you‘re pretty naïve. And if you can’t figure out why the economy crashed after other lobbyists for the financial institutions much like Jack helped deregulate the banks and money centers, turning them into huge non-floating casinos that almost sank, you‘re living in some kind of bizarre dreamland.

Here’s the awful thing: The new G.O.P. seems poised to take over Congress again, which would put these moolah-worshipping connivers and crooks back in power and back at the tables: deregulating, bashing the poor, soaking the middle class and sucking up to the rich — while adopting the well-worn Republican electoral strategy of trashing the Dem President (Obama this time), promising tax cuts,  and accusing all their foes of being Commies or close.

Can you fool some of the people all the time? I hope not. Meanwhile, Jack is in jail. Where he belongs. Because after all, every game does have its rules. And I‘m  sure the old Orthodox Jock has found God and Rambo again. Maybe he and Scanlon  and the others will pass through that needle‘s eye yet. Not the Hammer though. He was born to dance.

Extras: Commentary by Gibney; Deleted Scenes; Extended Interviews; New York Premiere Q & A; Conversation with Gibney; Featurettes.   


My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Three Stars)
U.S.; Werner Herzog, 2010 ( Industrial Entertainment)

After inspiring Nic Cage to heights of New Orleans rogue cop lunacy in Bad Lieutenant 2, Werner Herzog takes another dive into modern neo-noir, working with an executive producer, kindred spirit David Lynch, guaranteed not to hinder his wildest, most darkly Teutonic  fancies. The film’s story, taken from life, follows a mad young actor (Michael Shannon), who becomes so caught up in his lead role of the matricide son in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, that he kills his own mother (Lynch favorite Grace Zabriskie), and then holds two hostages in a police standoff. (The identity of the hostages is one of the film‘s craziest japes.)

Thanks to the fusion of Lynch and writer/director Herzog (co-scripting with Herbert Golder), the movie is like a straight-faced Law and Order episode turned wacky nightmare. (Some of the craziest moments though, come from life.) The rest of the stellar cast, fit for any nightmare, includes Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena as the very serious, helpful cops, Brad Dourif as a racist uncle who breeds ostriches, Irma P. Hall as the matronly neighbor/witness,  Udo Kier as the Oresteia‘s urbane German-accented director, and Chloe Sevigny as Shannon’s Greek Chorus girlfriend.

Mad-eyed killer Brad McCallum is a quintessential Michael Shannon role, of course. Oddly, his  McCallum comes across like almost the only character in the movie who mostly isn’t playing a role, or being somehow theatrical. Shannon is terrifyingly true, consumed with turning his life into art and his art into life, which is naturally part of the film‘s main theme. The movie is quintessential Herzog too, even though it was shot in his new country, America and is saturated with nutty local color: the flamingos in the yard, the ostrich who swallows a watch and has it dug from its long throat, the stand-off pizza delivery through the police lines. The crazy ‘20s song played throughout the film, like the silly, sunny counterpoint to the killer’s twisted soul, is Washington Phillips’ I Am Born to Preach the Gospel.

My Son, My Son, is also filled with allusions to Herzog’s previous work; there are snippets recalling Even Dwarfs Started Small, Kaspar Hauser and Signs of Life  and Aguirre and Fiztcarraldo are evoked by a Peruvian flashback shot at the Urubamba River. The whole mood is playful, surreal and deadpan naturalistic.

I had a very hard time with the story, of course.  But critics who’ve suggested Herzog is slipping, or veering off into weirdo dreamland, or that Lynch on Herzog is like black on black (or white on white), aren‘t giving My Son, My Son credit for the highly personal and imaginative work it so obviously is. This show was certainly a breath of fresh strange air after most of the predictable crud  that gets thrown at us. We should be glad that this great German filmmaker, like Fritz Lang before him, has emigrated to America to make movies with and for us, all his nightmares intact. (In American, with English subtitles.)


Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) (Four Stars)
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1959 (Criterion)

Godard.  A Bout de Souffle. A film. Out of breath. Breathless.

What’s it about? A guy named Michel Poiccard steals a car, drives from Marseilles to Paris, ecstatically sings of a girl named Patricia (Pa-Pa-Pa-Patricia!), finds a gun, shoots and kills a cop on the road, tries to cash an uncashable check, stares at and mimics a Bogart still in front of a cinema, finds Patricia hawking New York Herald Tribunes on the street, goes to her room, bandies with her about love, art, philosophy and William Faulkner (Between grief and nothing I will take grief, she quotes from The Wild Palms)…


…He smokes endless cigarettes, gets betrayed, runs, gets shot, dies. Deguelasse, Michel mutters with his last breath, staring and making faces at Patricia. I don’t know what it means,’ says Patricia. She turns away from the camera. Finis.


That’s Breathless, the 1959 black-and-white Jean-Luc Godard French film classic that, like Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane  — another masterpiece by a revolutionary cineaste still in his 20s — forever changed the ways we look at film. It changed also the way moviemakers shot movies and critics wrote about them, and perhaps changed a bit the ways we all look at life too.

There’s a key difference though. Welles made us all believe that, if you could get all the tools of the movie industry at your disposal, you could tell stories so magical and deep, dense and rich and multi-leveled, that they’d open up a whole new world. Godard made us believe that, if you’d seen enough movies and were passionate about what you liked, you could grab a camera, find some friends, walk out on the street, and just start shooting. You could ignore much of the old studio apparatus and routine — and  make a movie not according to the industry rules and protocols, but right out of your own life and thoughts, tastes and feelings.

Welles was a greater artist than Godard, and Kane the greater movie, still the best of all time in my opinion. But Godard’s feat was probably the more revolutionary: the more empowering, liberating. Citizen Kane, as Godard’s friend (later sometime antagonist, and McCartney to his Lennon), François Truffaut once said, probably started more (studio) movie directors on their vocation than any other. But Breathless probably made more people everywhere actually believe they could make movies themselves, whether they worked in a  studio or not. There were decades of independent and experimental films before Breathless. But this was the one that, like Kane for the studio movie, made it all look so easy, so effortless. Just walk down a street with a camera. With a gun. With a girl. Just shoot.

Of course it’s not true. Breathless is a very artful piece, and a product of the French film industry. It was made by a director deeply schooled in film history and tradition and technique, even if its celebrated jump cuts –jagged editing leaps within a continuous scene, a technique which prompted the Time reviewer to call Breathless a cubistic thriller — made Godard’s movie look deliberately ragged and choppy. (Actually, the jump cuts were accidental, providential, and not something Godard used all that much in his later films. Here, there was a reason. Godard had shot Breathless too long, needed to cut half an hour or more, and allegedly took his mentor/Breathless cast member Jean-Pierre Melville‘s advice not to cut whole scenes to shave off the extra time, but to cut within scenes. Thence: the jumps.)

Godard’s youthful stars Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg (Michel and Patricia) were not nonentities. Belmondo had made ten films before Breathless, including A Double Tour for Godard‘s buddy (and a Breathless technical advisor) Claude  Chabrol. He‘d even starred as D‘Artagnan on a TV version of The Three Musketeers. J ean Seberg, while still in her teens, fresh out of Marshalltown Iowa, had made two big Hollywood movies for one of Godard’s favorite directors, Otto (Where the Sidewalk Ends) Preminger, starring in Preminger‘s versions of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan and Francois Sagan‘s novel “Bonjour Tristesse.” Even if they were both flops back then (and they look much better today) they were well-known, world famous flops.

So Godard wasn’t just walking out on the street with his Cahier du Cinema pals when he made Breathless. But there are as lot of his buddies and Cahier-ites involved in it — including not just Truffaut, Chabrol and Melville, and the brilliant young cinematographer Raoul Coutard, but future directors like Philippe De Broca, Jean-Louis Richard, Jean Douchet, Richard Balducci and Daniel Boulanger, who co-wrote De Broca’s King of Hearts and plays the dour cop chasing Michel, Inspector Vital.

Still,  on screen Michel and Patricia do look like two good-looking kids who just wandered into the movie off the street. They’re perfect movie lovers, blasé on the surface, dark or heart-broken underneath. They don’t talk the old familiar movie talk. They talk about life and art and politics. They josh and joust with each other. Coutard’s camera drifts around them. They smoke. We never see them screw, but we know they have.

One of the most often-cited, often discussed scenes in Breathless simply shows them lazing around Patricia’s room, staring or jabbering away, under prints of works by Renoir and Picasso. They don’t seem like a crook/killer and his trollop. They seem like a couple of intellectuals or semi-intellectuals, or a small-time hustler and a rich girl slumming. They’re involved in a thriller plot, taken by Truffaut from a real-life crime story. But it’s as if they just wandered into the thriller, just as they wandered into Pa-Pa-Patricia’s apartment.

Existentialism and Monogram Pictures (the low-budget studio to which Godard dedicated Breathless) embrace in Breathless. It’s a movie fed by many other movies, even if it suggests something off the cuff, unwinding before us, caught in the machinery of chance. The  presence of a gun in the glove compartment of the car Michel steals is utterly fortuitous, the murder (for all we can tell) almost an accident, something that just happened between two kids. Part of the love affair of a Bogie “Harder They Fall” guy and a Fallen Angel out of Where the Sidewalk Ends.

That’s the key to most of Godard’s films of the 60s, which is still regarded (rightly) as his greatest period. It’s a movie-lovers anti-movie, or counter-movie, a defiant act of rebellion by a director who knows the score and deliberately breaks the rules. Breathless came out shortly after Truffaut had revolutionized French film ina different way with his own great feature debut, The 400 Blows, the semi-autobiographical tale of a runaway movie-loving delinquent, named Antoine Doinel. And in a way, Breathless, made from the story Truffaut found, is Godard’s 400 Blows, his semi-autobiographical fantasy about a runaway movie-loving delinquent named Michel. It was also a huge hit, the biggest critical and commercial success of Godard’s career. He never had another smash like Breathless, though, by now, he‘s made almost a hundred films, including, among them, a dozen or so inarguable classics, films like Vivre sa Vie, Pierrot le Fou and Contempt.

He became a Marxist for a while, and a lot of cine-academics in the ‘70s argued that his (then) politics were a major part of what made him great — though Godard’s most blatantly political films, his essays and documentaries from the ’70s,  are among his least effective, least memorable. Later, he got more rigorous, more poetic, better again. Breathless is still easily the most powerful political movie he ever made, the most heart-wrenching romance. It’s had thousands of children. But it still looks as fresh as it did in 1959, though now, new black-and-white film and film-making are almost gone. We look at Breathless today and we think: Anybody can do this. I can do this. Just find some friends. Find your heart. Find a camera.  Just shoot.  (In French, with English subtitles.)


Crumb (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Terry Zwigoff, 1995 (Criterion Collection)

Terry Zwigoff‘s unvarnished documentary about the great, scabrous, brilliant, hilariously low down American comic book artist Robert Crumb — and the other members of Crumb’s sometimes sadly dysfunctional, eccentric but genuinely artistic family  —   is a true Portrait of the artist as a Middle-Aged Man Who Never Grew Up. Crumb’s hippie-era comics — treasures of the high-’60s era that ranged from the wildly popular (and eventually movie-ized) Fritz the Cat and his other Zap Comix looloos, Mr. Natural, Projunior, and the Snoid from Sheboygan to his later, more politically correct work with wife Aline Komisky-Crumb — were the favorites of a generation, utilizing the tools of the past (the funny animal or urban roughneck clown style of the ’40s and ’50s — to satirically record the foibles of the ’60s.

Crumb’ was made by Zwigoff, Crumb’s friend and fellow jazz band mate in the old-school Cheap Suit Serenaders, and it’s a remarkable look at an era and one of its most popular outsiders, but also a scalding take on a troubled family: his brutal father, amphetamine-addicted mother and especially his older brother Charles, the cartoonist who didn’t make it. It’s a doozy.

Extras: Commentaries by Robert Crumb and Roger Ebert; Unused Footage; Booklet with essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Crumb family comix.   


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Four Stars)
U.S.-New Zealand: Peter Jackson, 2000  (New Line)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Four Stars)
U.S.-New Zealand: Peter Jackson, 2001  (New Line)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Four Stars)
U.S.-New Zealand: Peter Jackson, 2003  (New Line)

Being released now in single volumes, in Blu-Ray, these three masterful epics, taken together, were my choice for best film of the decade of the 2000s — the Tolkien three-act fantasy, faithfully and splendidly filmed.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s original trilogy of Lord of the Rings novels — written during World WarII  when Tolkien was a classics professor, was conceived (and executed) as a single ongoing story. So was Peter Jackson’s spectacular movie version of Frodo’s quest adventure. The film was planned from the beginning as a single work, and not in the usual We-got-a-hit-So-let’s-make-another-one routine that marks even some great movie trilogies like The Godfather.

Whether taken as a unit or separately, the complete Rings is an extraordinary cinema achievement, the contemporary equivalent of both Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen Saga and the early Star Wars movies. It’s made so wondrously well from  its source — a pseudo-Norse saga all about plucky little hobbit Frodo Baggins’ and his heroic troupe’s great quest for the magical ring swiped by Bilbo — that you’re never restive, never disengaged. You happily drink in all this movie’s glorious sights and sounds, even in the lengthened director’s cut version, which runs 721 minutes, or more than 12 hours. That‘s an epic!

Tolkien’s book is one of the most beloved fantasies of  20th century literature, a classic that deserves its cult. The movie, or movies, are worthy of the book.   Here, thanks to the film trilogy’s prodigious length and the vast size of the production, Tolkien’s Rings gets the kind of rich, full-blooded cinematic adaptation all great literature deserves:  full, faithful, lush, beautifully crafted, written and cast, brilliantly done, pulsing with narrative energy, gorgeous visuals and  raging excitement. Jackson‘s Rings is scripted with the faithfulness usually accorded a superior British TV novel adaptation, and produced with the grand outsize technique of a big studio super hit-to-be (though its home was a smaller company, New Line.

It becomes a movie cycle to remember — starring Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Viggo Mortensen as Aragon, and Andy Serkis (plus CGI effects) as Gollum, backed by Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom, Sean Astin, Sean Bean and Bernard Hill. Even if you dislike Rings, it’s a movie that should impress the hell out of you  — and remind you as you watch, of why we love the movies, and of all the grand, rich, interconnected possibilities of literature, art and cinema.



TCM  Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Prohibition Era (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1930-1939 (TCM/Warner Bros.)

They rise. They fall. Three quintessential variations on the classic Warners gangster rise and fall tale, all packed with blood, guts, booze and gunfire, all starring Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or both. (Bogey sneaks into one of them as well.) You’re better off with the earlier Warners gangster sets, which are more complete, but this set’s a real treat for the budget-minded.  Included:

  • Little Caesar (U.S.: Mervyn LeRoy, 1930) Three and a Half  Stars. From W. R. Burnett’s great, terse, hard-boiled novel about a Capone-like gangster’s rise and fall. with Edward G. Robinson superb as the bestial Rico, supported (maybe) by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Sidney Blackmer and Glenda Farrell. Try not to feel a chill when Robinson moans Mother of Mercy (or God), is this the end of Rico?
  • The Public Enemy (U.S.: William Wellman, 1931). Four Stars. Cold as ice, hot as whiskey, hard as stone: another matchless hoodlum rise and fall epic with another starmaking performance: Cagney’s as the feral thug Tom Powers. Donald Cook plays Tom’s Brother. (Cook was the original star, and Cagney had the brother role, but they switched parts.) With hot blonde babes Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell and the movies’ most famous grapefruit victim Mae Clarke. What an ending this one has!
  • Smart Money (Alfred E. Green, 1931) (Two and a Half Stars) Robinson is a naturally lucky, brash barber/gambler who gets fleeced by the city slickers and smashes the card-sharps back in a milder, funnier version of the Little Caesar rise and fall story. Cagney, in an amazingly physical and balletic turn, is his tough sidekick/brother. (It’s their only pairing.)
  • The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939). (Four Stars) Cagney and Bogart are WW1 army buddies who thrive and dive during Prohibition and its aftermath, which sees their boozy rise and violent fall. The rest of the salty Warners cast includes Jeffrey Lynn (as the straight arrow in the foxhole), Priscilla Lane (of the Lane Sisters), Gladys George and Cagney’s off-screen pal, Frank McHugh. This is Walsh at his best: tough fast, racy, deluxe storytelling. It’s top-chop Walsh-Warners too, with that great terrifying dance of death ending.  Extras: Commentaries; documentaries; vintage short subjects, newsreels and cartoons; trailers.



Prince of Persia (Three Stars)
U.S.; Mike Newell, 2010

Prince of Persia, which is probably one of the best-looking Arabian fantasy movies ever, is also unfortunately, a movie based on a video game. And its ambiance and narrative structure is video-gamey all the way: The original story here is actually by the writer who scripted the game, Jordan Mechner.

The results, amazingly, aren’t as shallow as you might expect, though they are dramatically and psychologically thin. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer reportedly lavished 150 million dollars or so on the project, and after all, he’s the guy who based three smash hit movies (with more to come) on the Disneyland theme park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean. I’d be surprised if he didn’t make a lot of money on this one too. But if you walk into the show demanding anything more than a 150 million dollar video game movie, you’re probably going to be sadly disappointed.

Prince of Persia — in which Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Dastan the adopted prince, battling traitors and snakes, wooing the beauteous Princess Tamina and trying to keep his hands on the fabled Dagger of Time — is a movie that never lacks for something impressive to look at: a stunning composition by director Mike Newell and cinematographer John Seale, or an iridescent vision of old Persia (Iran) by production designer Wolf Kroeger, or some snazzy editing by Mick Audsley, Michael Kahn and Martin Walsh, or some fabulous ersatz stunts choreographed by French parkour inventor David Belle, or some breathtaking shots of the Moroccan deserts, dune after dune stretching away like some sandy, surreal panoramic tapestry.

But the movie had only one memorable performance, with a few funny lines, and that’s from Alfred Molina, Peter-Ustinoving it up as the secondary character, Sheik Amar. The Sheik is an ostrich race entrepreneur who helps Dastan of Nasaf — as he and Princess Tamina of  Alamut (Gemma Atherton), try to rescue their respective kingdoms from the nefarious designs of the wily Nizam (Ben Kingsley, slumming again), brother to the late King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), and evil uncle to Dastan, gullible throne successor Tus (Richard Coyle) and vain general Garson (Toby Kebbell). Also around: steadfast warrior Seso (Steve Toussaint) and the infernally murderous Hassansin, bossed by their spectral-looking leader (Gisli Orn Garbarsson).

These are the kind of characters you’d expect to see in a video game — except for Sheik Amar who, unlike his ostriches, has precious few martial arts kick-ass skills. And they all, Tamina included, do a lot of bashing and back-flipping and scimitar-waving and throat-cutting and poisoned-cloakwork, so much so that you almost expect to see each fresh corpse vanish in a little video game pling when they’re bopped.

The characters don’t really speak to each other. They breathlessly exhort or expound on some new dastardly deed or invention. Meanwhile, the Hassansin are constantly lurking around, adopting menacing postures and conniving with Nizam. The only real surprise comes when Sheik Amar laments that his star ostrich, deprived of combat and the company of other ostriches, has become suicidal. (Unfortunately the moviemakers don’t give the ostrich a big ledge-standing suicide scene, followed by a little parkour. With these CGI experts, I bet it would have been sensational.)

Gyllenhaal has been suitably muscled up for his role, and stripped down and given lots of opportunities to show it off. But he doesn’t look really comfortable in the part. Arterton probably should have been allowed to be even sexier; after all, this isn‘t Omar Khayyam‘s Rubaiyat. Nor does the flood of exhortations in the dialogue, delivered in the high sharp tones of the British Parliament savaging each other in the House, seem to be fully stretching or satisfying Gyllenhaal or Arterton, or anybody else.

As for Kingsley, he’s a good sport about everything, including the sword fights with Gyllenhaal. And they reward all by giving Kingsley, Gyllenhaal and Atherton a reprise of the last cliff-hanger in North by Northwest, with Sir Ben copying Martin Landau, stomping on Cary Grant as he held Eva Marie Saint. (This time, Nizam stomps Dastan as he holds Tamina suspended above a fiery abyss.) Hitchcock did it better, which is no surprise.

Speaking of directors, the estimable Mike Newell has now, it seems, solidly moved into blockbuster-land, though I like him much better with medium or lower budgets, as in Four Weddings and a Funeral, An Awfully Big Adventure, the marvelous Enchanted April, Into the West and Donnie Brasco. I hope he returns to them.

Watching Prince of Persia, you’re always tempted to review the budget. But then, the budget (reportedly around 150 million) and the lavish techniques, materials and big stars bought by it are among the main reasons for watching this show. There’s plenty of meaty Arabian or pseudo-Arabian fantasy literature that could have been tackled at less than half the cost here — including Haji Baba, the original Arabian Nights, or even another Thief of Baghdad.  And plenty of good roles for lots of good actors to play in them.

Is it quibbling again to complain that Bruckheimer and his screenwriters — Boaz Yakin (Fresh), and Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard (The Uninvited) — should have been inspired by more for their money than a popular video game? Maybe. But I still kept expecting to feel that pling as I played — that is, as I watched — Prince of Persia.


Just Wright (Two Stars)
U.S.; Sanaa Hanri, 2010

Anyone for another NBA championship series?

While you’re waiting, the movies have their own version of the NBA, as perhaps influenced by Desperate Housewives, Tyler Perry and the Duke Wayne-Dan Dailey spine rehabilitation scenes in The Wings of Eagles (“I‘m gonna move that toe!”)

The big news here though is that Queen Latifah, under the tutelage of director Sanaa Hanri, here assays her first major super-romantic lead role. She plays Leslie Wright, a primo New Jersey Net fan and ace physical therapist whose unreasonably gorgeous best friend Morgan Alexander (Paula Patton), steals away Nets superstar guard Scott McKnight (played by rapper Common, the artist once known as Common Sense), and then dumps him before the wedding after he tears up his knee.

Guess which bounteously beautiful physical therapist is ready to move into Scott’s mansion and get his knee all primed and ready for the crucial last game of the Nets-Orlando series? (I’ll give you a hint: It isn’t Dan Dailey.)

Guess who wins the series, despite the actual on-screen presence of Orlando‘s Dwayne Wade? (Not to mention, in that game and others, themselves roles by Dwight Howard, Jalen Rose, Marv Albert, Kenny Smith, Elton Brand, and, at a jazz club, Terence Blanchard.) Guess which outrageously rehabilitated guard both Wade and Kobe Bryant should fear more than Hell itself? Guess which physical therapist is now the subject of a bidding war between every NBA team shamelessly willing to get mention in a Queen Latifah film? Guess who has the hots for whom?

There hasn’t been a sports movie like this since Tooth Fairy.

Meanwhile, the big question remains: Is Queen Latifah a plausible romantic movie leading lady? The answer: Of course she is. As long as the moviemakers, for the love scenes, supply a good queen-size bed.

A bigger question: Is Common, at 6’1 ½, a plausible superstar all-star NBA point guard? Capable of getting 16 rebounds in a single game? Well, Common drops through as lot of shots here. And he even looks a little like previous Nets superstar guard Jason Kidd. And he’s a pretty good  actor. But…


Lost in Space (Blu-ray) Two Stars
U.S.; Stephen Hopkins, 1998 (New Line)

Danger, Will Robinson! Another beloved ‘60’s-’70s TV series, turned into another lumbering mega-million dreadnought of a movie. Gary Oldman, William Hurt, Mimi Rogers and Heather Graham take over for Jonathan Hale, Guy Williams, June Lockhart and the others, who at least get interview time in a good Extras package. But listen, if you buy something like this, you deserve what you get.

Extras: Commentaries by director Hopkins, writer Akiva Goldsman, producer Carla Fry and some main
technicians; Additional Scenes; Featurettes; Music Video; Interviews with the T.V. cast; trailer


James and the Giant Peach
(2 Disc Blu-ray DVD Combo) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Henry Selick, 1996 (Walt Disney)



British writer Roald Dahl started out was a specialist in the adult and macabre, crafting witty little literary gems of crime, sex and suspense for class markets. (Playboy often ran them, and Alfred Hitchcock often adapted them for his TV show.) Then he switched to children’s stories, jettisoning the sex, adding more whimsy and fantasy to the suspense, and coming up with modern classics  like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (filmed twice,  first by Gene “Willy Wonka” Wilder and later by Tim Burton), and this juicy little tale of voyage and adventure, filmed by Burton (the producer) and Henry Selick: the team behind The Nightmare Before Christmas.

It’s an odd, sophisticated, beguilingly weird and somewhat creepy tale of an orphan boy named James (Paul Terry)* who escapes from his two awful aunts, Sponge and Spiker (Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley), when a giant peach shows up, and grows up, on their coastal hillside home, filled with genial giant talking bugs, and then sails off toward New York City, land of James’s dreams.

The film, done in  Selick‘s sprightly stop-motion animation style,  begins somewhat murkily and nightmarishly, then really takes off when the boy and the bugs sail away. The look is bewitching and the cast is swell: including Susan Sarandon (see below, with Tim Robbins) as the seductive Spider, Simon Callow as the posh-voiced Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as the streetwise Centipede, Jane Leeves as the matronly Ladybug, and David Thewlis as the Naked earthworm. Dahl’s stories are for children of course. But, like Edward Gorey‘s, they probably have their strongest admirers among adults. Here‘s an example.  Extras: Featurette, Music Video, Trailer.  * No relation to the cartoonist of Terrytoons.


Se7en (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.; David Fincher, 1995 (New Line)

A serial killer well-versed in the Bible (Kevin Spacey, at his most insolent), plagues L. A. with one of those Ellery Queen-style elaborate Ten Day’s Wonder plans. Pursuing him are cops Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman; Gwyneth Paltrow is the perfect wife. One of the most highly admired modern neo-noirs, Se7en certainly has high-style visuals and quite a cast. But I’ve always found the plot and the climax a stretch.    Extras: Commentaries, Featurettes.


Deanna Durbin: The Music and Romance Collection (Five Discs) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Various Directors, 1938-48 (Universal)

In 1936, MGM put two teenage girl singers together in a short called Every Sunday — and let them
sing it our to see whom the studio would keep. In a way, the girls, who both had incredible pipes and rare talent, were Edna Mae Durbin (15) of Winnipeg, who’d become Deanna Durbin and Frances Gumm (14) of Minnesota, who was now Judy Garland. Deanna sang it sweet and classical, Judy sang it hot and jazzy, and Judy won the first round. MGM released Durbin, who got picked up by Universal and producer Joe Pasternak, and, that same year, starred in her first feature, Three Smart Girls, a huge hit that saved the whole studio. Judy was worked hard at MGM (some say worked to death), but she had to wait until 1939 for her legend to start with The Wizard of Oz.

Meanwhile, the teen princess Deanna was Universal’s biggest female star and she made a string of movies for Pasternak, and became a national darling. (She also sang regularly on Eddie Cantor‘s radio show.) Her classic character sang beautifully, often doing showcase works from opera, and she was unusually bright, quick-minded, energetic  and resourceful. No ingénue naiveté for Deanna. She stayed a Smart Girl in almost all her movies, and costarred with classical maestro Leopold Stokowski in One Hundred men and a Girl. Her movie image may have been the brainiest and sharpest of all Hollywood musical female stars. Durbin herself sarcastically called her standard role, Little Miss Fix-it. and when she was a teenager, she often played matchmaker for the adults and elders around her.

She was an international darling too, the favorite Hollywood actress of both WW2 statesman/hero Winston Churchill (who regularly requested and got special pre-release screenings of her movies), and of  legendary Holocaust victim/diarist Anne Frank who had two Durbin pictures on the wall of her hideout. Durbin remains today, according to polls, England’s favorite Golden Age Hollywood star.

I mention all this with some chagrin, because, up until I saw this set, Deanna Durbin was mostly an unknown quantity for me. I’d only seen her a handful of times, including her contest with Judy in Every Sunday, and that’s perhaps because she rarely worked for the auteur directors I followed. Robert Siodmak and Frank Borzage were on that short list, but she just missed a chance with Jean Renoir, who agreed to direct her, screened most of her films, liked her. (Renoir says the best Durbin movies were directed by Henry Koster of Three Smart Girls).

She‘s wonderful. You can tell why she meant so much to Churchill during the blitz, and to little Anne Frank hiding in her attic. Deanna Durbin projects such a fine, high, ultra-quick intelligence, such spark and verve and unstuck sweetness and unegoistic natural youthful beauty, that it’s inspiring to watch her. More than Judy, she was an ideal fantasy figure/role model for young girls, someone who (very believably) had everything in control, no matter what Hollywood complication was thrown into the works.

When Durbin quit after 1948, and moved to France, it was her own choice. She’d kept asking Universal for better scripts, better projects, and she mostly hadn’t gotten them. And it was final. The producers offered her the stage role of Laurie in the original Oklahoma. Alan Jay Lerner begged her to play Liza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. She turned them both down. She turned everybody down, including all (but one) request for an interview, in all those years. She said she wanted to be a nobody. (But she never will be, as long as film exists). She‘s still alive, somewhere in France.

These aren’t great movies, and only the Koster entry, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, is really beautifully and smartly directed. But she’s great. It’s moving to watch her still — charming everybody, knocking out her elders with her agile pure voice, fixing it all up so neatly, so sweetly, playing the kind of American princess all the world loves.

In a way, both of those competing teen girls won on that long ago 1936 Sunday: little hot jazzbo Frances and  little sweet classical Edna Mae. And, in a more complex way, they both lost. But we won. Includes:

  • Mad About Music (U.S.; Norman Taurog, 1938). Three Stars. Impish, high-spirited Deanna, hidden away at a Swiss girls’ school, is the unacknowledged daughter of Hollywood star Gail Patrick; she persuades composer Herbert Marshall (suavest of the suave) to impersonate her father. Nonsense, but likable. With Bill Frawley, Arthur Treacher and Franklin Pangborn.
  • That Certain Age (U.S.; Edward Ludwig, 1938) Three Stars. Part of it is a Babes in Arms let’s-put-it-on-in-the-guesthouse-kids musical with Jackie Cooper as her beau. Part of it is a sort-of-romance, with her teen heart leaping as she rides a bike with Melvyn Douglas as a journalist on R. and R. Prime Durbin, though.
  • Three Smart Girls Grow Up (U.S.; Henry Koster, 1939) Three Stars. This is quintessential Deanna Durbin, her top princess role, good Koster, and the sequel to the movie that made her a star and him a Hollywood director. Back with her two sisters, Deanna match-makes and gets into scrapes with fellow musician Bob Cummings. In many ways, a perfect Durbin star vehicle — and the opening long-tracking-shot credits and party scene actually look a bit like Max Ophuls, slumming. (That‘s a high compliment.)
  • Because of Him (U.S.; Richard Wallace, 1946)  Two and a Half Stars. A weird role for Durbin — a scheming, flirtatious Broadway hopeful, manipulating a tabloid scandal and trying to con both stage star Charles Laughton and playwright Franchot Tone into giving her a part. Silly script, but the cast works wonders with it.
  • For the Love of Mary (U.S.; Frederick De Cordova, 1948). One and a Half Stars. Deanna is a fetching  D. C. switchboard operator who ties up the town, is pursued by Edmond O’Brien, Don Taylor and Jeffrey Lynn, gets romantic help and tips from the President (that would have been Harry Truman), and helps annex a new territory. Directed by Freddy De Cordova (Bedtime for Bonzo). Absolutely awful. Her last movie, and you can see her point. At least she sins. Extras: Robert Osborne TCM intros; Publicity graphics; TCM Articles and Bio.     


The Agatha Christie Hour (Two Discs) (Three Stars)
U.K.; Various Directors, 1982 (Acorn Media)

Agatha Christie was my favorite writer when I was nine or ten, and she can still do it for me. These five hour-long teleplays, adapted by Freda Kelsall, William Corlett and T. R. Bowen and done in 1982 — in the dominant old-fashioned, set-bound but toney British TV style of the ‘70s and early ‘80s — come from early Christie, and they’re based on two stories featuring her secondary sleuth, Parker Pyne who bills himself as a happiness expert (here played by the very familiar, weaselly-looking character actor Maurice Denham), two more of her excellent menace-and-suspense tales, and one comic romp.

Christie, whose books outsell every author in history but The Bible’s and Shakespeare, was one of the all-time geniuses at sheer storytelling, and at crafting mystery and crime plots. She was also infallibly entertaining and terrific at character and dialogue. But there’s a different, poetic, eerie quality to some of her suspense and terror tales, here in The Fourth Man and In a Glass Darkly. As with Charles Dickens (and, for that matter, Shakespeare), all of her stuff is very movie and TV-friendly and they should keep adapting it.

I don’t necessarily agree with the late, great Japanese director Kon Ichikawa, a Christie fanatic who thought she deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I still enjoy reading her more than many writers who did. And they wouldn’t give the Nobel to Graham Greene, either. (All films are U.K. productions.)  Includes:

  • The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife (U.K.; Michael Simpson, 1982) Two and a Half Stars. Very offbeat for Christie: Mr. Happiness Fix-it Parker Pyne (Denham) gets a straying husband’s erotic motor for his wife running again.
  • In a Glass Darkly (U.K.; Desmond Davis, 1982). Three and a Half Stars. Best of this set. At a country manor, with both a wedding and World War I approaching, man impulsive soldier-to-be (Nicholas Clay) has a vision in a mirror of a young bride-to-be, murdered by her husband. He wrecks the marriage, and then marries her after a traumatic tour in the war trenches. But was he himself the image in the glass? Really eerie and a crackerjack story, very well-directed by Desmond Davis, who made that memorable 1964 Rita Tushingham-Peter Finch movie, Girl With Green Eyes.
  • The Girl in the Train (U.K.; Brian Farnham, 1982) Three Stars. A semi-Hitchcockian, Tommy-and-Tuppence sort of mystery-comedy spy movie, about a fired, irresponsible  young man who gets plunged into romance and intrigue on a train. The Fourth Man (U.K.;  Simpson, 1982). Three Stars. Three brilliant professional men on a train, luminaries in the Church, law and medicine, discuss a perplexing case of schizophrenia and suicide at a French girl’s school. A fourth man, a stranger, knows something they don’t. (The stranger is played by the younger John Nettles, later of Midsomer Murders, and you’ll barely recognize him.)
  • The Case of the Discontented Soldier (U.K.;   1982). A discontented major (William Gaunt), back from Africa, avails himself of Parker Pyne‘s (Denham) expertise. Meanwhile, inheritance and buried treasure problems loom for a woman (Patricia Garwood) whom the major encounters.
    Extras: Christie and Parker Pyne Bios.     
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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