MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

MW on DVDs: Disneynature Oceans, The Maltese Falcon, The Exorcist, Visions of Europe, Predators … and more


DisneyNature: Oceans (Blu-ray & DVD) (Four Stars)

France-U.S.; Jacques Perrin/Jacques Cluzaud, 2009

A real gem, from France, where they love to watch the world through a camera eye. Made by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, the two directors of the magnificent birds-in-flight documentary Winged Migration, here’s an equally magnificent view of the ocean and its denizens. Fantastic music. Incredible cinematography. Good narration. It was done by Perrin himself (who once acted the part of the young reporter in Z) in the French original. Here in this DisneyNature version, it’s by a non-Bonded Pierce Brosnan.

Disneynature’s 2009 Earth, fashioned from the Alastair Fothergill-David Attenborough masterpiece Planet Earth, was a real movie event last year, though I prefer the original. And this is easily one of the best pictures I‘ve seen all this year — the kind of thing movies can do better than any other art form. If you skip it and buy Predators instead (see below), you ought to have your head examined. Or you should be eaten by a hump-backed whale. Or forced to repeatedly watch nothing but stuff like Predators and Night of the Demons.



The Maltese Falcon (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U.S.; John Huston, 1941 (Warner Bros.)

Dashiell Hammett‘s The Maltese Falcon was one of the first detective novels to be regarded as literature by serious critics, to be praised by names like Alexander Woolcott. And the book‘s terse, hard-bitten, coolly realistic portrait of a working private eye, Hammett’s immortal hard-boiled Frisco sleuth Sam Spade, set the mold and the standard for years, decades, half-centuries to come.

But, good as it was, respected as it was, The Maltese Falcon seemed to defy all attempts at cinematic adaptation –it was botched twice at Warner Brothers, once in 1931, with Ricardo Cortez as Spade, and again in 1936, with Warren William as Spade (and Bette Davis as the femme fatale) — until it finally found a writer-director, 35-year-old John Huston, who treated Hammett’s writing as literature and treated the book as a classic-to-be. The result: an inarguable movie milestone and one of the great detective films of all time. It was also an early fountainhead of film noir, a style which took many of its strongest visual and thematic cues from both Huston‘s Falcon and another 1941 picture by John’s pal Orson: Citizen Kane.

How did Huston do it, when the two earlier versions were such shoddy goods (‘31) and such a bad joke (’36)? Easy. Huston, a longtime fictionalist and first-rate screenwriter (Sergeant York for Hawks, High Sierra for Walsh) was one cineaste who respected good writing. So he basically filmed the book, keeping the story and the dialogue as is, and devising (with cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who’d shot most of Doug Fairbanks Sr.‘s movies, and also Sergeant York, and later, Casablanca) a visual approach and design that fit Hammett and Spade to a dark “T.”

Taking their cues from Hammett’s hard-edged prose, Huston and Edeson created onscreen a shadowy world of cheap-shop shamus’s offices, and dark streets with accumulating corpses, and bare sinister hotel rooms full of gumshoes and gunsels, fat men and femme fatales, effeminate Levantines and bullying cops, of viewpoints tilted and askew and drenched in shadows and darkness, and of bad, immoral people or dubious characters (see all the above) poking their heads into the frame to eyeball each other, trying to sniff out the whereabouts of the jewel-encrusted, murderously valuable Maltese Falcon.

Huston did something else that had eluded the previous directors, Roy De Ruth (‘31) and William Dieterle (’36). He cast the film perfectly, picking all the right actors for all those “wrong” people. Mary Astor, whom George S. Kaufman had given a bad public rep for sexual hanky panky, oozes nervous pulchritude (“She‘s a knockout,” says Spade‘s savvy secretary Effie), phony innocence, lying bitchery and utter heartlessness as Brigid O’Shaugnessy, the bad noir gal who hires Spade and sets the trap in motion. (No femme was ever more fatale.) Peter Lorre, the great madman of Fritz Lang’s M, swishes evilly, creepily and often hysterically as the perfumed, cane-wielding little rat Joel Cairo. Don’t blink, but who could have done a better near wordless “good luck” cameo for his son, playing the dying Capt. Jacoby, Falcon in hand, than the matchless Walter Huston?

Find me two better flatfeet, the good cop and the bad cop, than Ward Bond’s Polhaus and Barton MacLane‘s Dundy. (Go ahead. I dare you.) Find me a better sleazy weasel of a partner for Spade than Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer. Or a better sex-crazed, weepy wife for Miles than Gladys George‘s Iva. Or a better Girl Friday secretary for Spade than Lee Patrick’s Effie. Or a spookier, more boyishly pathetic gunsel than that top-of-the-line little hard guy Wilmer Cook, as incarnated by Elisha Cook, Jr. (“Gunsel,” by the way, doesn’t mean what you think. It was private eye slang for homosexual consort.)

And if you think the actor ever lived who could have topped Sydney Greenstreet (making his film debut) as the Falcon‘s indefatigable, jovial, relentless hunter, that compulsive talker and book-reader, the fat man, Caspar Gutman — that anyone living or dead could have conjured up a better sinister smile, or captured quite that quiet baleful-eyed once-over he gives Spade, or that wicked hiccuping laugh, or those chubby cheeks and cold eyes, or spewed more eloquent and genially malevolent chit chat (“By gad, sir, you’re the man for me…I’m a man who likes to talk to a man who likes to talk!”)…Well, all I can say is: You’re dreaming, my friend, dreaming.

Then there’s Bogie. Thank God for the stupidity and bad script judgment of George Raft — who turned down High Sierra (it went to Bogart), turned down The Maltese Falcon (it went to Bogart, the actor Huston wanted anyway) and then even may have turned down Casablanca. (Is this guy nuts?) Good results anyway. Because nobody plays it hard-boiled, smart or tough like Bogie. Not Raft. Not Cagney, not Robinson, not Garfield. (And they’re all terrific). And not even Lee Marvin. Hell, not anybody. Bogie is the four-term President of Noir. (Marvin may be the Vice President of Neo-noir.)

Bogart’s Sam Spade is also one of the all-time great (lot of those in this review, aren’t there?) Hollywood lead acting jobs: perfectly shaped, articulated and executed. With that vicious grin, that mean twitch of a lip, that sullen stare, and those matchlessly insolent (except for Betty) wise cracks, all punch-lined by Max Steiner’s smashing, crashing score, Bogart’s Spade is the ultimate good bad guy, or bad good guy.

Spade, modeled by Hammett on his own career as a Pinkerton detective, is totally believable as a first-tier shamus, a smart aleck supreme, and a walker on the mean streets (where, according to Raymond Chandler, a man must go). When Spade hectors and cons Wilmer, chivvies the cops and pours them booze, grins at Brigid and says “you’re good; you’re awful good,” or spars verbally with the intellectual heavy Gutman, he cracks us up.

When he sends over Brigid and tells her he won’t play the fall guy for her, he chills our blood. And when he clutches the phony falcon to his chest and tells Ward Bond (Who needs to quote Shakespeare right anyway?), that it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of” (on), then he opens up the door to the movie world of bad dreams and great shots, the world of Noir. Nobody can ever close it.

And now we know how to make a movie of The Maltese Falcon.

Extras: Commentary by Eric Lax; Featurettes’ Warners 1941 blooper reel; three radio versions, two of The Maltese Falcon, two with Bogie, one with Edward G. Robinson; 1941 trailers; Makeup tests; Warner Night at the Movies, with 1941 newsreel, musical short, two Looney Tunes, and trailers for all three movie versions of The Maltese Falcon.



The Exorcist: Extended Director’s Cut and Original Theatrical Edition“ (Two Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: William Friedkin, 1973 & 2010 (Warner Bros.)

The Devil gets into Regan (Linda Blair), the pre-teen daughter of movie star Chris McNeill (Ellen Burstyn), and raises all kinds of old-fashioned special effects hell, while two priest-exorcists (older, wiser Max Von Sydow and younger, tormented Jason Miller) try to exorcize it and a movie-loving cop (Lee J. Cob) watches out for the evil he knows and the evil we don’t.

Based by screenwriter William Peter Blatty on his best-selling novel, and directed with edgy realism and pictorial panache by William Friedkin (two years after The French Connection), this one scared the public silly back in the Nixon era. And still does. (The extended cut has ten extra minutes.)

Extras: Commentaries (on the original) by Friedkin and Blatty and (on the director’s cut) by Friedkin; Documentaries; Intro by Friedkin (on the original); Interview gallery; Original ending.

DisneyNature: Ocean (See above.)



Visions of Europe (Six Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Roy A. Hammond (aerial director/executive producer), Sam Toperoff (producer/editor/writer), 2001-9 (Acorn Media)

One of the most visually stunning travelogue series ever, the “Visions” sets from WLIW in New York, offer spectacular aerial tours of the great sights of Europe, shot in gorgeous high definition cinematography, accompanied by typical but well-executed music and narration.

Among the many sights seen (from way overhead) here: London, Paris, The Alps, The Rhine, the Cote d’Azur, Rome, Vienna, and St. Peter’s Square. (Watching the Roman set, you can imagine for a while that you’ve changed places with Marcello Mastroianni’s hedonist/journalist Marcello in La Dolce Vita, and you’re swooping over the city in a helicopter.)

I showed these grand cinematic tours repeatedly to my 90-something mother Edna in the last years of her life — and she loved them. Of course, as a painter and artist and lifelong student of art, Edna had been familiar with the history of these places for most of her life. But she never got to see them in real life, never got to walk along the Seine or through the Louvre, to fly above the Mediterranean, or to gaze at Michelangelo’s ceiling in Rome.

Many people like Edna never have nor will either. And many others as well. These films, done about as well as this kind of travelogue project can be, were a wonderful substitute for being there, and they’d be a great gift for anyone who can’t go, or wants to go, or wants to remember what it was like, to see the world. Here, it’s seen beautifully, from far above, as few others can.

Includes: Visions of Italy (U.S.; Roy A. Hammond/Sam Toperoff, 2001, 2002, 2008). Four Stars. Contains the programs Visions of Italy: Northern Style, Visions of Italy: Southern Style, Visions of Sicily and Visions of Italy: The Great Cities (Rome, Florence, Naples, Capri, etc.) Other Sights: Lake Como, Pisa, Venice, Pompeii, Calabria, Palermo, St. Peter’s Square, The Coliseum.

Visions of Greece (U.S.; Duby Tal, aerial director-producer/Toperoff, 2002-3). Three and a Half Stars. Contains the programs Visions of Greece and Visions of Greece: Off the Beaten Path. Sights: Athens, Corfu, Crete, Rhodes, Thessaloniki, The Nissiros Volcano.

Visions of France (U.S.; Hammond/Toperoff, 2004). Three and a Half Stars. Contains the programs Visions of France: Provence and Visions of France: The Riviera. Sights: The Mediterranean Sea, Arles, Avignon, Aix, Luberon, Grand Canyon of Verdon, The Cote d’Azur, Cannes, Nice, St. Tropez, Monaco.

Visions of Germany (U.S.; Hammond/Toperoff, 2004-2005). Three and a Half Stars. Contains the programs Visions of Germany: Bavaria and Visions of Germany: Along the Rhine. Sights: The Rhine, Bonn, Constance, Cologne, The Bodensee, The Black Forest, Koblenz, Heidelberg. (Music by Beethoven, Wagner and Strauss.)

Visions of Austria (U.S.; Hammond/Toperoff, 2007). Three and a Half Stars. Sights: Vienna, Schonbrunn Palace, Bregenz, Innsbruck, Salzburg. (Music by Mozart, Strauss and Schubert.)

Visions of the Great Cities of Europe (U.S.; Hammond/Toperoff, 2009). Three and a Half Stars. Sights: London, Budapest, Rome, Florence, Vienna, Prague, Dublin, Paris.

Extras: Hours of bonus footage not seen on the TV series.



Predators (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Nimrod Antal, 2010 (Fox)

I‘d be less than honest if I didn’t inform you that Predators — a horror movie about a Dirty Half-Dozen or so of mercenaries parachuted down onto a planetful of monsters — isn’t a piece of god-awful shit. I would however be borrowing, and maybe putting to better use, one of the two words most often employed by screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch in their flabbergastingly bad dialogue. And I don’t mean “god-awful.”

This is a picture oddly hailed in some critical corners as an effective shocker and a return to the cinematic glories of the original 1987 Predator. Effective? Shocker? Glories? Actually, the original Predator was no great shakes as a movie either, even though it provided a showcase for two future United States governors, star commando Arnold Schwarzenegger (California) and backup heavy Jesse Ventura (Minnesota) — and even though it has a dubious rep as a cult show.

A heavy-duty, high-concept action movie in which growling, scowling macho mercenaries lost in the South American jungle, battled a monster from outer space, it was basically just as dumb and just as badly written (by Jim and John, the Thomas Brothers) as this one, though it benefited some from John McTiernan super-slick, Die Hard era direction.

The first Predator was mostly just another witless high concept marketing-hook movie from that witless, high concept marketing-hook movie decade, the god-awful Eighties. I guess you had to be a movie going kid of 12 or so to appreciate them, or to get nostalgic for stuff like Commando, Rambo or Top Gun.

I don’t have a clue why producer Robert Rodriguez, a moviemaker I usually like, was so hot on breathing life back into Predator-land, especially after those rotten Alien-Predator match-ups had almost deservedly wiped it out. Or why producer Rodriguez talked the gifted Hungarian-American director Nimrod Antal (Control, Vacancy), into staging this sort-of-sequel, not to mention recruiting a cast that boasts talents like Adrien Brody, Laurence Fishburne, Alice Braga, and Topher Grace, but who here (except for Fishburne, getting what these writers probably regarded as an aria) are put to work, dreaming up new ways to slog through the forest, dodge stampeding monsters, spray automatic gunfire and inflect the words “shit” and “fuck.”

The basic premise actually isn’t bad. In fact, a lot of it comes straight from one of the movies’ all-time adventure-suspense classics — not the bloated bloody Predator but that ingenious, and endlessly imitated ’30s gem, from King Kong co-director Ernest Schoedsack (and original author Richard Connell) The Most Dangerous Game. In that knockout 1932 movie, Joel McCrea and Fay Wray were turned into beasts of prey, hunted through an island jungle by the elegant Hitchockian psychopath Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). It’s old, it’s black-and white, and it has old-fashioned effects and stagier dialogue. But, if you walk out of Predators, as you probably should, and rent and take home The Most Dangerous Game instead, I can almost guarantee you‘ll have a better time.

Then again, maybe Predators really does understand its audience. (A sobering thought.) The new movie starts out with a bang: eight glum mercenaries — or actually seven mercenaries and one dork of a doctor (Topher Grace as the movie’s Odd Man In) — parachute into a huge jungle forest on what turns out to be an alien world where the sun never moves, there are several moons in the sky, and herds of terrible multi-horned, spiked, armored, savage beasts, modeled on the original Predator, begin repeatedly charging at them and trying to kill them.

The eight’s de facto leader is Adrien Brody as hardcase gunman Royce, who was in the middle of a battle somewhere when suddenly everything went white and he found him self falling, falling into Predators. Royce is accompanied by a group of gun-packing strangers who all seem to have dropped in from other battles or other movies: Danny Trejo as the perpetually glowering Cuchillo, Goggins Walton as the Joe Pantolian-ian wise-ass whiner Stans, Braga as the fetching Israeli commando Isabelle, Grace as token doofus Edwin, Louis Ozawa Changchien as the samurai-yakuza hybrid Hanzo, and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (whose name probably won’t become a household word) as the African warlord Mombasa. All of them except Edwin and Stans are heavily armed, strong, silent types — though, for my money, not strong or silent enough.

Soon, Royce has it all figured out. (Nothing fazes this guy, not even the viscuous glop leaking out of the Predators.) It seems they’ve all been swooped up and dropped onto the planet as sport prey for the Preds — whom we later learn (from Laurence Fishburne as scavenger-veteran Noland, chatting in his cave) are divided into two classes: incredibly mean and murderous Predators or just sort-of-mean and not-quite-as-murderous Predators. Or “Wolves” and “Dogs.” (No “Puppy” Predators here, but Rodriguez probably didn’t go after Pixar.)

So, while Royce hatches plots to get them out of this mess, hell keeps breaking loose. The Predators keep attacking. The mercenaries keep blasting and swearing. Horrible traps keep getting sprung. Viscous glop keeps dropping. Isabelle keeps trying to soften up Royce, a thankless but probably not impossible task. (After all, she is Sonia Braga’s niece. And a Predator‘s dish, in both senses.)

This planet and its various monsters, meanwhile, turn out to be truly bizarre, truly outrageous. As Roger Ebert has pointed out, the Predators have so many horns and spears around their mouths and so many spikes on their bodies, it’s probably impossible for them to either eat or copulate, which means they would have died off long ago. And the planet has so immobile a sun and so many moons, it probably would have long ago burned up, or drowned in the tides.

But I‘m sure the moviemakers have an answer for all this. Maybe there’s improved global warming technology on the planet, financed by the Predator Leaders with the proceeds from their hunts. Maybe the Predators have hinges on their horns, or inhale sustenance though their noses or feet. Or maybe they have retractable penises and little trap doors in their stomachs which open up to reveal ravenous, evil little elves who pop out to make sperm bank deposits and also to gather herbs, mushrooms, and Puppy Predators and then pop back in. Or maybe these monsters just die off every week and the producers order a brand new bunch of Predators from Idiotic Cliché-land.

In the midst of all this viscuous glop comes the movie‘s real Achilles’ Heel — or should we say its Achilles shit-heel. The dialogue. Aaarrrgh! I’m not kidding when I say that if Predators had better dialogue, and the richer characters and humor that really good badinage and byplay spring from — or even if it just got rid of all the junk-talk it has now and replaced it with moans, screeches and quizzical grunts — it might have been a more bearable movie, even perhaps a good one. But here the empty cross-talk, except for Fishburne‘s aria (which, maybe remembering happier times, he seems to be trying to play as if it were one of Brando‘s Apocalypse Now monologues), is just minimalist four-letter-word-drenched cliché-macho horse manure. Or should we say predator-poop?

I didn‘t write it down, but, as I remember, some of the speeches went like this. “Fuck you!” “Fuck Me!” “Fuck all of you!” “What the fuck is going on around here?” “What the fuck is this shit?” (Or maybe it was “What the shit is this fuck?“) One of the juicier speeches, hysterically delivered by Walton: “We killed it! We killed it! We fuckin‘ killed it! We killed it! We killed it! We fuckin‘ killed it! Now what do you think of that?” (What indeed?) And the movie’s would-be “Make-my-Day” piece de resistance: “Let’s find a way off this fuckin’ planet!” Amen, brother.

Adrien Brody can be a marvelous actor, sensitive and magnetic. (So can Topher Grace.) But, with this movie and Splice, which I also disliked — but which had better dialogue than Predators — he seems to be trying to pull a Nicolas Cage: to parley his Pianist Oscar and elevate into the higher-paid reaches of action or horror movie stardom. I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

Actually, Brody has already made a very good (if underrated) adventure movie, the Peter Jackson King Kong. But, in every way except financially (which I concede makes a difference), I think he might be better off making more “Pianists” and lower-budget, smarter suspense films or noirs, or even running for Governor of New Jersey, than diving into stuff like Splice or Predators. Is Brody really happy fornicating with monsters (Splice) or hoisting an Uzi here and saying “What the fuck?” The Predators could use better scripts too. Or a daring chef and maybe a good sex therapist.

Predators isn’t completely stuck on Planet Moron. Even the screenwriters obviously have higher aspirations. At one point, Royce informs Isabelle and us that he’s cribbing some of his lines (not the ones above) from Hemingway. And one bare-chested Hanzo swordfight scene is obviously a homage to Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai master-swordfighter scene. (Unless it’s a homage to Taylor Lautner.)

Wisecracks aside, I bear no ill will toward Antal or Rodriguez, who have entertained me mightily in the past, especially with Control and Sin City. But, on one level, one can only hope Predators doesn’t attract enough fan boys, idlers and casual moviegoers to make it a sequel-worthy hit — because then we’ll actually have to find out…


….how they got off that f–kin’ planet. Frankly, I couldn’t give a shit.


Please Give (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Nicole Holofcener, 2010 (Sony Classics)

In the smart but somewhat off-putting comedy Please Give, writer-director Nicole Holofcener tackles an offbeat, half-promising subject: a group of upscale Manhattanites who feel guilty about having it so good, or feel miffed because they don’t have it even better.

I can laugh, but I can’t commiserate. (It’s clear that Holofcener wants us to do both.) Many people have it so much worse than the self-absorbed, smart but somewhat off-putting middle-class city-dwellers we see here that it‘s hard to feel sympathy for them — the couple played by Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt who buy bargain furniture at rock bottom prices from bereaved relatives at estate sales and resell it at their pricy “antique” store (and who are waiting for the 91-year-old neighbor to die so they can take over her apartment); that same old lady’s gorgeous mean granddaughter (Amanda Peet), a facial cosmetician who makes fun of her grandma, trashes or condescends to everybody else, seduces Platt’s Alex and stalks the new girlfriend of her ex; the couple’s overweight, zit-faced daughter (Sarah Steele), who keeps throwing snit-fits and demanding attention, and thinks a pair of 200 dollar designer jeans will solve all her problems; the antique shop’s gullible sucker-sellers and customers; and, unhappily enough, even the 91-year-old neighbor lady (Ann Guilbert), unappreciative of the daily efforts of her one good, helpful granddaughter (Rebecca Hall), and insulting and irascible toward everyone else.

You know what? The hell with these people. They should feel guilty.

The problem here is that most of them apparently don’t — except for Keener’s Kate, remorseful because she and her hubby are exploiting misery, who therefore runs around trying to volunteer at various local community organizations (but finds they depress her too much), and dispenses twenty-dollar bills to homeless panhandlers (to the film‘s, but not my, amusement), mistakenly showering some of her largesse on a restaurant patron waiting on the sidewalk just because he’s black. Kate’s behavior may be foolish, excessive and misdirected. But the impulse is justified. Come to think of it, old neighbor lady Andra’s misanthropy may be justified too.

Of course, if I’m reacting this way, this personally, it’s because Holofcener and her cast have drawn these characters so fully and well, that they’ve taken on some life of their own, and become capable of being morally measured or judged. Kate is foolishly good, just as Alex is roguishly but entertainingly bad. She’s an idealist who suffers at the thought that they may be profiting from pain. He’s a realist who to some degree, accepts pain and cheating as part of life, and thinks that a good joke can always straighten things out — but, in the end, is more affected by Kate’s idealism, maybe wants to be the husband she probably deserves.

Keener and Platt play this pair with enough casual naturalism (Platt) or wounded sensitivity (Keener) that we can relate to their basically unlikable lot. As for their daughter Abby, Sarah Steele plays her observantly and utterly without any actor’s vanity — though the last familial love scene between loving Mom, penitent Pop and jeans-crazy Daughter made me cringe.

More moral measurement. Rebecca, the empathetic radio technology tech who administers mammograms, and cheerfully visits Andra, even when she gets nothing but sourpuss cracks in return, is clearly a relatively good, caring person. And her sister Mary, who does facials at a spa, is clearly a relatively bad, selfish one — though Holofcener eventually showers generosity on them both. Is this the “Everyone has their reasons” grand compassion of a Jean Renoir? It often seems closer to the “Let’s all get along” tolerance of the average family diplomat.

It’s suggestive that several of the film’s critics, describing these two sisters, have called Mary a beauty and Rebecca a “plain jane.” Yet how could a stunner like Rebecca Hall, even without a stylish get-up or make-up, possibly be described as plain? Is it because we’re conditioned to find snappish, cruel, well-dressed, smart-asses like Mary as sexy? And people like Rebecca as schnooks and doormats? Is it because too many of us would rather be Marys than be Rebeccas, even if Mary is a shit? I ask; I do not know.

Ann Guilbert as Andra has potentially the best role in the movie, and she plays it with just the right weariness and droll bite. But she’s been cheated — and so are we — by the fact that Holofcener writes this role so darkly and basically unsympathetically, because the filmmaker so strenuously tries to avoid the obvious sentimentality we’d feel toward an elderly woman in what are probably her last days.

At one point, when Kate, Alex, Mary, Rebecca and Andra all get together, Mary starts talking about Andra and the disposition of her apartment after she’s dead, as if Andra weren’t even there. I was reminded of the memorably callous treatment of the children toward their economically strapped parents in Leo McCarey‘s poignant/funny masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow — a movie that would probably inspire Kate to tears, Alex to irony, Mary to contempt/discomfort and Rebecca to thoughtfulness — and a film that Holofcener should definitely make a point of watching some day, if she hasn‘t already.

There’s actually great potential in that Please Give get-together scene — if only Holofcener would grant Andra, amid her acerbic complaints, moments of more sympathy, lightness, connection, humanity. But she doesn’t. And it’s hard to understand why. The press book tells us that Please Give is based on real life, on a real old lady and her younger neighbors/landlords, who all became friends. Friends? Did reality seem too sappy for a biting Manhattan comedy about guilt and privilege?

Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing) makes dryly funny, compassionate, realistic, verbally agile comedies with an urban setting. She once worked for Woody Allen (on Hannah and Her Sisters) and she’s clearly mining his territory, though with less wit and style. Please Give is a pretty good movie, and a notably well-acted one. But it’s been somewhat over-praised by some Manhattanphile critics, who perhaps recognize the characters too quickly as part of their own milieu, or the milieu they want to be near.

I confess I’d like Please Give a lot better if the pathos were deeper, and/or the jokes funnier. After all, Alex has a point. So does Kate. So does Rebecca. So does Mary and even pimply daughter Abby. So does Andra, God bless her. As Renoir said, “Tout le monde a ses raisons.” And as Woody Allen said, “I can’t keep up that level of charm. I’d have a heart attack.”

Night of the Demons (One Star)

U. S.; Adam Gieraschi, 2009 (e one)

Seven horny young hunks, druggies and babes, left behind when a Halloween party at a spooky old mansion is broken up by the cops, discover that a bunch of demons (fiends so bad they were expelled from Hell) are trying to get at them, turn them into demons, and take over the world — unless they and we all go though a dumb, far more expensive knock-off of The Evil Dead. Bad writing, bad acting, bad direction — but surprisingly good cinematography (by Yaron Levy). Sample dialogue: “You worked at Taco Bell? That’s awesome!” Question: “What are you, a liar or an idiot?” Answer: “An idiot.” There’s also a rock song about necrophilia. (Not kidding.) This one sometimes makes Predators look like The Exorcist. With Shannon Elizabeth and Edward Furlong.
Extras: Commentary by Gieraschi and others; Featurette.

Hand in Hand (Three Stars)

U.K.; Philip Leacock, 1960 (Columbia/Sony)

This sweet little film is the sort of picture often beloved by people who saw it very young and remembered it for years afterward. (It was a mainstay of the C.B.S. Children‘s Film Festival, hosted by those eminent Kuklapolitans, Kukla, Fran and Ollie.) Scripted by Diana Morgan and directed by Philip Leacock — who directed Steve McQueen in The War Lover, and shot a bit of Monterey Pop with documentarian brother Ricky Leacock — it’s a children‘s story about conquering religious prejudice and overcoming social schisms. The delightful (only occasionally syrupy) protagonists are a pair of bright, friendly seven year olds who meet in elementary school: a Catholic boy named Mike O‘Malley (Philip Needs) and a Jewish girl named Rachel Mathias (the adorable Loretta Parry).

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it’s almost too nice, too generous. The kids don’t really confront too much in the way of local bile, hostility and prejudice, except for some passed-on bigotry from the playground bully and some religious hysteria from Mike‘s mother — who’s played by Kathleen Byron, the unforgettable religious-sexual hysteric Sister Ruth in Powell-Pressburger‘s Black Narcissus.

The movie really needs an older, meaner bigot or two as a primary antagonist, but it manages fine anyway. Most of the older folks are quite tolerant and good-hearted, especially two collegial fellow sports fans and buddies, the local priest and rabbi (played by John Gregson and Derek Sydney), as well as a cantankerous old shopkeeper (Finlay Currie, who was Magwitch, the escaped convict of Lean‘s Great Expectations) and Dame Sybil Thorndyke (Major Barbara) as a hospitable, kindly, elderly relative of Queen Elizabeth, who picks Michael and Rachel up hitch-hiking on the road and shows them around her mansion. The movie though does convey how hard it is for small children of varying faiths (and, though it doesn’t stress the point, of varying sexes) to maintain a friendship.

Hand in Hand is, above all, a nice, warm-hearted film. It honestly makes you feel good, but it isn‘t sticky. The softly-lit, lyrical black-and-white photography is by someone you’d never peg for an assignment as gentle and low-key as this one: Freddie Young, the great romantic landscapist who lit and shot those spectacular vistas for David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago.

If you have young or very young children, I’d recommend this as one of the movies that, like The Wizard of Oz and the early Disney feature cartoons, should be a part of their childhood. The anti-prejudice message is obvious — but then, it should be.

Knock on Wood (Three Stars)

U.S.; Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, 1954 (Olive)

Danny Kaye, supported by Bob Hope team writer-directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, plus patter-songs and romantic ballads by his then-wife, Sylvia Fine, plays star entertainer/ventriloquist Jerry Morgan, whose acid-tongued dummy Clarence keeps messing up his love life. While performing in London, and losing another fiancé to his alter-ego’s wise-cracks and insults, Danny gets involved with competing teams of spies, both after some microfilm defense plans which end up in two versions of his dummy, Clarence and Terrence. Chaos and nonsense, with both Clarence and Terrence, ensue, and soon Jerry (or Danny) has spies dropping dead all around him.

Mai Zetterling, a Swedish Ingmar Bergman actress, and later an art-film director herself, plays the woman analyst who turns Danny into a prat-falling, gibbering, seat-belt-entangled fool. That excellent but little-used (in movies) actor David Burns is Danny’s Jewish mother of a manager. And Torin Thatcher is the most snobbishly satanic of the spies.

This is a good comedy with a few terrific scenes (Danny and Mai tangled up on the plane, the scene where Danny gets trapped onstage in a classical Russian ballet). But it has the seed of something great.

Toward the end of the movie, Danny spouts a little of his usual nonsense patter about the various criss-crossing spies, going (I think): “There was Gromeck and Brodnik and Shostic and Papinek. When Gromeck met Papinek…” Well, it’s not much, but the next time Panama, Frank and Kaye got together, in 1956’s The Court Jester, the star and writers let their imaginations run wild in the same direction and devised that classic tongue-twister “The pellet with the poison‘s in the vessel with the pestle. (Or the flagon with a dragon.) The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.”

And that great Kaye routine (his best) throws the castle (with a passel of vassals in a hassel) and the patter (with a splatter on the platter with a clatter) into chaos (in Laos and Barbados), and the audience into a panic (with Papinek and Gromeck and Brodnick). By the way, wasn‘t Gromeck the cop that got killed by spy Paul Newman in Hitchcock‘s Torn Curtain? Or was that Brodnick?

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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

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~ David Simon