MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

MW on DVDs: The Town, Mother and Child, Despicable Me, The Other Guys, Nanny McPhee Returns … and more


The Town (Extended Cut/Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Ben Affleck, 2010 (Warner)

The Boston, Massachusetts, of Ben Affleck‘s new movie The Town – and of The Departed, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and other recent thrillers, Dennis Lehane-derived or not — is decades away from the morally bent city of that great under-seen 1973 neo-noir The Friends of Eddie Coyle. But it has a similarly chilly temperature, the same clipped sense of smart-ass New England doom and Kennedy-accented cynicism welling up from the mean, sullen streets.

The Town, based on Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan (and scripted by Affleck, Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig), is a more of a movie-movie than any of the others. It has three (count ’em) rock ’em sock ‘em action heist set-pieces, each carefully spaced through the story, each increasingly violent, eye-blasting and showcase set-piecey, until the last one, a post-Heat busted heist and shootout at Fenway Park, with cops and crooks drenching each other with automatic gunfire, that all but smashes you, French Connection-like, out of your seat.

But it still seems like a real city, a real community soaking itself into the bones of the characters, seeping out through their casual, slangy patter. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by the British thriller specialist Peter Yates, and featuring one of Robert Mitchum‘s best, least typical roles (as Coyle), was written by a Boston lawyer, George V. Higgins, and it feels as real as a fight across the street, with an ending that shreds naiveté like a fast gut-punch.

The Town is an entertainment and a romance, which finishes the way you want a good entertaining movie to end. (A good tough-minded Elmore Leonard-ish movie, not a clichéd one.) But the world it creates — thanks partly to the memories of director-co-writer-star and ex-New Englander Affleck — is as convincing as the drizzly Paris of Rififi, gray and grim, tough and soulful.

The Town is set in Charlestown (maybe that would have been a better title) — which, we’re told, produces more bank robbers per block than anywhere else in America, a place where stickups are a sort of neighborhood tradition, passed on from father to son. Small wonder then, that one of the main characters, Affleck’s Doug MacRay, seems good at his job, yet morally dissonant from what should be the calloused feelings of the career robber he plays, Doug MacRay, while his psychopathic buddy Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker), is hard as a crushed fender, a born thief, and maybe a born killer too.

We first see Doug, Jem and their two regular accomplices, holding up a bank, with casual ruthless organization and skill, leaping over barriers, forcing everyone to the floor, eerily wearing horror movie skull masks. (Later, in the second heist, even more eerily, they wear the masks of cadaverous nuns). Doug is hard-nosed, efficient, but strangely considerate, especially to the pretty bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), who has to open the vault for him. Jem is vicious and unpredictable, repeatedly smashing one hapless banker on the floor, then deciding to kidnap Claire, then releasing her.

Jem is still worried though, that she’ll screw them up somehow, especially since she actually lives in their area (the posher part) — which is why Doug, to save them from committing an unnecessary rub-out, hooks up with Claire at the Laundromat, and why (the sort of thing Higgins wouldn’t write), he falls in love with her and she apparently with him. Jem, the voice of neo-noir and a buddy probably envious of his pal‘s conquests, is properly disgusted, acidly wondering, “You gonna fuck all the witnesses?”

From then on, it’s partly the roller-coaster ride we expect, punctuated with shootouts, a mad speeding-Bullitt of a car chase (through packed streets) and those regular, explosive heists — and partly the more touching romantic/neighborhood drama that feeds our interest. There are two sets of villains here (not counting Jem): a couple of evil gang guys and robbery-facilitators who work in a florist shop (shades of Sternberg’s Underworld), including a dour chap named Fergie Colm, the meanest, scariest bastard Pete Postlethwaite has ever played (Colm has a voice like Irish metal chips, rattling together), and an urbane, amiably nasty young FBI agent, Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), who reminded me of Eddie Coyle‘s streetwise young cop Richard Jordan. (Hamm steals so many scenes, the Townies should make him an honorary heist guy.)

On the movie’s other plot-strand, the star-crossed lovers track, Affleck and Hall are terse and knowing, but passionate, and watching them — jealously, hurt — are Jem and Jem’s sister, Doug‘s hooker ex-squeeze, Christa (Blake Lively). That’s pretty much the dramatis personae, except for Doug’s unforgettably bitter jailbird dad Stephen (Chris Copper), who’s there to remind us what happens when life goes sour and the Charlestown bank party is over.

The style of the movie fits its characters. Affleck‘s visual plan is unsentimental, cool and clear, with the aches and twinges buried underneath, his timing in the drama scenes just slow and methodical enough to keep you hooked, and not too jumped up or aggravated, like the usual Street Western.

Watching The Town, I rarely felt a step going false (as you can, for example, in a crock like Takers). Affleck doesn’t betray his material. But he doesn’t transcend it either. He makes a good movie that does its job, and grips us, scares us, twists the emotional knife, and gives us something extra. That’s enough for now. Charlestown should be proud. And, by the way, never buy flowers from Pete Postlethwaite.

Extras: Theatrical & Extended Cuts with Commentaries by Affleck; Featurettes.

Mother and Child (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Rodrigo Garcia, 2010 (Sony)

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, motherhood was one of the great movie subjects — reprised so insistently, that, in the ’50s and ’60s, an inevitable anti-maternal revisionism arose in great dark movies like Psycho and The Manchurian Candidate.

But they couldn’t wipe out poignant masterpieces like The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, Make Way for Tomorrow, Wild River, both Imitations of Life — or this wonderful new film called Mother and Child. It’s a beautiful movie about three generations of mothers, all of whom pay dearly when the second among them, Karen, has a baby girl at 14, and is forced by her own mother, Nora, to put the girl up for adoption.

So Karen grows into a bitter, disillusioned, single woman (played in middle age by Annette Bening). She works at a hospital, sometimes rejecting co-workers who try to befriend her — like all-too-patient therapist Paco (Jimmy Smits) — still taking care at home of the elderly Nora (Eileen Ryan), but resentful of the way her life plunged so far off course. Unknown to Karen, a young woman and adopted daughter — Naomi Watts as hotshot lawyer Elizabeth — lives nearby, and is embarking on an affair of her own with her married boss Paul (Samuel L. Jackson).

And another young woman, Lucy (Kerry Washington), unable to have a child with her quiet husband Joseph (David Ramsey), is trying to apopt a child from a local Catholic agency with the help of the nun in charge, Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones).

At first, it seems that these three interweaving stories may never meet, except in the most obvious way. But they all share large themes of parenthood and love, rejection and redemption — and, as the movie progresses, they veer closer and closer. I suppose some jaded moviegoers may see the plot as sappy and schmaltzy. But Rodrigo, who directed another fine ensemble drama in Nine Lives, doesn’t write and direct it in an obvious, preachy way, and the actors don’t play it that way either.

Often, the movie seems to deliberately work against sentiment, show Nora, Karen and Elizabeth with unpleasant, selfish qualities a world away from the Beulah Bondis or Jane Darwells or Juanita Moores. And there are at least three other mothers as well, none a cliché. Tracy (Carla Gallo), smiling and pregnant, lives next door to Elizabeth, and so does her susceptible husband Steve (Marc Blucas) . Surly Ray (Shareeka Epps) is about to have a child, which she plans to give up for adoption, And Nora‘s well-liked housekeeper Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo), of whom Karen is suspicious and even jealous, brings her little girl (Simone Lopez) to work with her, as my mother once brought me.

The stories gradually run together, like streams feeding a great, rushing river. The images, lit by cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet like little poems, are bathed in sunlight or shadow. Mother and Child, is about the pain of motherhood, the difficulties of having children. But it’s about the joy as well. And the characters, and the actors playing them, are convincing enough that we feel, almost constantly, both that anguish and that happiness. Toward the end, there is a seraphic expression, of rapture and peace, on actress Bening’s face, as she plays or incarnates Karen, that I won’t forget easily.

Throughout the movie, Garcia keeps showing us how inwardly strong, yet outwardly fragile, life and family bonds can be, how the tiniest things (a lost letter, a casual encounter) can crucially affect people. And he’s able to counteract sentimentality by the lightness of his touch, the cool economy of his storytelling, the wit and fineness of his dialogue, the dark elements he plays so unerringly against the light, the tragedy always just a step away, the sudden bursts of humor lifting above it, the life in this piece that keeps beating on, and the way all his actors reach so far inside.

I don’t imagine Mother and Child cost very much. Corporations won’t rise or fall on its receipts. It certainly won’t be seen by many people. But it deserves to be. God bless these mothers, these women, and the actresses who play them, and the actors and the moviemakers who support them so ably on screen. They all deserve our thanks.



The Night of the Hunter (Also Blu-ray) (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U. S.; Charles Laughton, 1955 (Criterion Collection)

Some movies take a while to reach their audiences: for example, Charles Laughton’s great Faulknerian film noir The Night of the Hunter.

Based on Davis Grubb’s Southern Gothic novel, beautifully scripted by James Agee, spellbindingly directed by Charles Laughton, evocatively shot by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, and memorably acted by Robert Mitchum (in probably his best performance), and by Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Darden, Don Beddoe, Peter Graves, and the two little-known child actors Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce, it’s a spellbinding tale of murder, terror and wild flight.

In this truly mesmerizing tale, we see two horrifically orphaned West Virginia kids John and Pearl Harper, desperately fleeing the honey-tongued but murderous Preacher Harry Powell (Mitchum), a black-clad, brim-hatted charlatan who has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles to help along his sermons, and who killed their mother Willa (Shelley Winters), for the money their now-executed dad (Graves) stole — loot now hidden inside Pearl‘s doll.

Harry is the Hunter. The children are his prey. After their poor sad, seducible mom is killed by Preacher Harry, and after Harry unsuccessfully tries to bully or cajole the fortune’s hiding place from them, the children escape down the river in an open boat. And for them the world of the rural South in the Depression becomes a magical twilight land of Halloween horrors, a nocturnal cataract of rushing water, moonlit skies, ghostly trees, croaking frogs, watchful owls, pensive rabbits and evil spiders spinning their webs. As they flee, Preacher Harry follows them on horseback, far-off but omnipresent, a specter etched in silhouette against the evening sky, singing, in Mitchum’s rich, lazy baritone “Leaning, leaning…Safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning…Leaning on the everlasting arms.“

Are any classic noir images or sounds more scarily poetic than that flight, that drifting boat, those hands tattooed with “LOVE” and “HATE,“ that black-clad maniac preacher, that spider, that river, that song? “Leaning, leaning…“

Today, you couldn’t navigate a decent movie buff confab trying to argue that The Night of the Hunter wasn‘t an all-time film classic. But back in 1955, audiences rejected it, or more likely, ignored it and didn’t even know what they were missing. Laughton never directed another movie. It was the last script of Agee’s career. Mortality seemed to hang over the movie, like Preacher Harry‘s shadow. The Night of the Hunter is one of those movies that had to be rescued by television, by revival houses, by movie critics writing about how much they loved it. And it was revived and recalled to life, largely because it’s both scary and smart as hell and a real movie buff’s movie.

Laughton modeled the film’s whole visual style on the silent movies of D. W. Griffith, on their lyrical pastoralism, their dramatic power and simplicity, and their stark, rich imagery — and that’s part of the reason the heroine of the film, the children’s savoir Miz Cooper, is played by Griffith’s Way Down East angel Lillian Gish, then close to 60, but eternally enduring, with a hymn on her lips and a rifle in her lap.

Perhaps part of that unresponsive 1955 audience subconsciously objected to the archaic (but bewitchingly beautiful) style or the idea of frail-looking Lillian outwitting a stud like Mitchum in a fight or a song — or maybe they were uneasy at Preacher Harry’s evangelical-style preachments and his frequent jocular one-sided conversations with God, his buddy, whom he obligingly informs of all his wicked chicanery and of the credulous widder women he intends to dispatch to the pearly gates, as soon as the deity refers them along.

Or maybe they were puzzled by Hunter’s unusual mix of artifice and realism, of West Virginia location scenes shot by the young Terry (Time Out of War”) Sanders, Grapes of Wrath-era period detail, and those proto-Griffith lyrical compositions shot on the California back lot. “Leaning, leaning…”

Mitchum is incredible in the movie. His performance is a nerve-jangling masterpiece spiked full of menace, macabre off-kilter sexiness and bizarre comedy. When he howls like a wounded beast or banshee chasing the young ’uns, or rustically sermonizes (like an evil Mike Huckabee), or duets with Miz Cooper on “Everlasting Arms,“ you know you’re watching an actor who has no fear, few limits and no false vanity, as well as one of the damnedest senses of humor of the whole post-Bogart ‘40s-‘50s generation of movie hero-antihero-sometime-villains.

“Leaning (on Jesus), leaning (on Jesus)…Safe and secure from all alarms…“ The backstage heroes of the movie, of course, are Laughton and Agee. Superb director, superb writer. What a shame so few initially saw their great movie, their wondrous poem of terror, family, false gods, redemption and the river. But The Night of the Hunter eventually uncovered all its treasure, and this excellent two-disc Criterion edition, is proof.

“Leaning, leaning…Leaning on the everlasting arms…“ Among this movie‘s many admirers, by the way, was my mother Edna (I realize I talk about her too much), who once told me that The Night of the Hunter was one of her all-time favorite pictures. She loved the way this movie looked, loved the story, and she thought Mitchum was great. Well, of course! Edna was a poet, a painter. You couldn’t sneak a classic past her.

Extras: Commentary with Terry Sanders, Robert Gitt, Preston Neal Jones and my old pal F. X. Feeney; Documentary with Feeney, Jones, Sanders and producer Paul Gregory; Documentary “Charles Laughton directs “The Night of the Hunter,“ with outtakes and production footage; Video interview with Laughton biographer and actor Simon Callow; Archival documentary with Mitchum; Interview with Cortez; “Ed Sullivan Show” clip with the movie’s stars; Gallery of sketches by Davis Grubb; Trailer; Booklet with fine essays by Terrence Rafferty and Michael Sragow.



Despicable Me (Three Stars)

U.S.; Pierre Coffin/Chris Renaud, 2010 (Universal)

Despicable Me — a 3D cartoon about a plot to steal the moon, a cad who redeems himself and the three little cuties who redeem him — is a movie that at times irresistibly amuses, and at times, pushes too hard. It also gives Steve Carell, the Despicable Me of the title, one of his best recent movie roles.

But mostly, it gives us adults another good time at the movies that are supposedly being made for our children. The very fact that this movie puts a word like “despicable” in its title, a word that most adults probably can’t even pronounce, shows that it’s not scared of stretching boundaries. And even if Despicable Me, done by Illumination and the French house Mac Guff Ligne, falls down a bit at the end, and doesn’t quite hit the mix of satire and sentiment it wants, it’s still a pretty good show.

Carell here plays Gru, a fat, sinister little chap who looks like an Edward Gorey drawing on steroids. Gru, who’s bossed around by his busy-body Mom (Julie Andrews), is also the suburban czar of a bunch of bulbous, skittering, insanely helpful little yellow beings called Minions (voiced by, among others, this movie‘s directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud), aiding him in his ambitious villainy.

And Gru is concerned that his reputation for spectacular crime is being outshone by a new, lippy super-miscreant named Vector (Jason Segel of I Love You, Man), who has just swiped the Egyptian Pyramids and replaced them with huge, inflatable Egyptian Pyramid balloons — a spectacular crime if there ever was one.

Not to be outdone, Gru shoves ahead with his own grand scheme, his creme du crime scenario, to shrink and steal the moon, aided by his own equivalent for James Bond’s gadget-master Q, Dr. Nefarious (Russell Brand). But Vector proves an unscrupulous and obnoxious foe, just as Gru’s banker proves to be another greedy banker-jerk. To facilitate his moon-grab scheme, Gru is forced, he thinks, to adopt thee little girls from the local orphanage — the adorable Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) — and to enlist them and their expertise at cookie selling, to win the duel with cookie fiend Vector. Can he remain despicable in the face of such cuteness in triplicate? Can ice melt in June on a Riviera beach?

All of this leads up, of course, to a race to the moon. But it doesn’t move or end quite as you’d expect. Even if you can guess everything that will happen (spoilsport), the sprightly animation, the witty script by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul and the deft voice-acting by Carell, Segel and Brand — and by Kristen Wiig as the orphanage meanie-mistress Miss Hattie — keep it light and funny.

Like many French, or French-derived cartoons — including those recent modern classics by Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist) or Michel Ocelot (the Kirikou movies) — Despicable Me has a delicious, dark little twist to its images. Pixar, very typically American, presents a world of good and evil, locked in combat. The better French animation, a touch more urbane, often mixes good with evil — as Despicable Me does here, showing the “nice” side of despicable Gru.

Carell is one of those comic actors, like Peter Sellers, who excels at playing self-deluded, self-centered phonies. But Carell can tease the human element in too, as he does here. Working without his body, or rather working with Gru’s plump, creepy animated physique, Carell creates an unusually complex, sometimes explosive character — as the great Mel Blanc always did for Looney Tunes.

Despicable Me disappointed me a little. But it’s full of sly little hooks, floating gags, burst of whimsy. And, of course, it has, despicably and wonderfully, Steve Carell, to be its Blanc Man.

Extras: Commentary by Coffin, Renaud and Minions; Three Mini-movies by Minions; Featurettes.



TCM Greatest Classics Film Collection: Astaire and Rogers (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Various Directors, 1934-37 (TCM/Warners)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the greatest romantic dance team in the history of movies, and I think it‘s safe to say that they‘ll never be surpassed. They were an elegantly amazing (Fred), saucily irresistible (Ginger) pair — he in his top hat and tuxedo and she in her gorgeous clingy evening gowns and golden hair — and they whirled and leaped and flirted and embraced and hoofed their way into the hearts of millions of Depression era moviegoers, by showing them exactly the kind of lives most of the country couldn’t possibly have: wooing and pursuing each other, seemingly without financial worries, through Art Deco penthouses, in swanky night clubs, in glamorous hotels, on cruise ships, and in spectacular ballrooms that quickly emptied to give them room whenever Fred and Ginger started to dance together.

They were a couple of Midwesterners who used stage names. Fred was originally Fredrick Austerlitz of Omaha, Nebraska, and Ginger was Virginia Katherine McMath of Independence, Mo. Fred had partnered for years with his finally retired sister Adele, and the Astaires were toasts of Broadway and London. Ginger was a stage dancer and a budding movie starlet in the Busby Berkeley troupe: a golddigger in Golddiggers of 1933, and also in 42nd Street, with sweet, bland Ruby Keeler blocking her way. But once Astaire and Rogers were introduced on screen, they clicked immediately.

They were first paired as secondary leads in the campy 1933 RKO musical Flying Down to Rio, totally stole the show from nominal stars Gene Raymond and Dolores Del Rio, and for the rest of the decade, they were perfectly paired in a series of fabulously entertaining, musical, and highly popular, swell-egant, elegant musicals, all choreographed by Fred and his alter-ego Hermes Pan, scored by some of the greatest songwriters of all time, costarring a stock company of marvelous, quirky, scene-stealing clowns (Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick), graced with lighter than air direction by Mark Sandrich or George Stevens. All the movies were tailor-made for the team’s special gifts and chemistry. All of them were (mostly) wonderful.

The pictures were repetitive, but we wanted them to be. Fred usually played a dapper, energetic entertainer (a dancer, of course) with an elfin smile, a great wardrobe and magic feet, who took one look at Ginger and was hooked. Ginger was a saucy blonde dish with a rather scornful, but slightly promising, smile who was a little leery of Fred, thought maybe he was a bit phony, a bit pushy, a bit too-too. He chased. She demurred. He seemed squelched, until he got her on the dance floor. Then all bets were off. He courted her with The Continental, aroused her with Cheek to Cheek, stole her heart with Never Gonna Dance or something by Gershwin. They embraced, they dipped, they glided, they spun, they fell in love.

When they moved together on the dance floor, you could feel it, see it, you could sense hearts really beating as they danced, incomparably, together. As Irving Berlin wrote, and as Fred sang in his charmingly thin, reedy voice, “Heaven. I‘m in Heaven…And my heart beats so that I can hardy speak! And I seem to find the happiness I seek, when we’re out together, dancing cheek to cheek!”

The secret of the Astaire-Rogers movies is that they’re typical Hollywood/Broadway romantic comedies, a little Lubitschian, a little fluffy and daffy, hewing to the classic Boy-meets-girl, Boy-loses-girl, Boy-gets-girl formula. But the love scenes were mostly on the dance floor, instead of in the clinches. And they were love scenes. Working to songs by some of the absolute best songwriters of the last century of American stage and screen — Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and the Gershwin Brothers (Rodgers and Hart are the only notable absentees) — they simply danced the pants off any other movie musical couple.

Wow, were they something! No one danced as well as Fred. (Well, maybe Gene Kelly, who was Fred‘s other great partner.) And Ginger did everything Fred did, except (as they said) she did it backwards. This was one movie couple who made love right in front of the audience, right during the heyday of the Production Code, because they did most of their romancing on the dance floor. Few movie love scenes were ever as incandescent.

“He gave her class. She gave him sex.” That was the opinion of their fellow ‘30s RKO star and future legend, Katharine Hepburn. (Something similar may have been true of Hepburn’s own equally magical pairing with Spencer Tracy, to whom she gave both class and sex.) Well, Kate was right, as usual. But together, the two of them — Astaire and Rogers, the dancing couple supreme — gave us all class and sex. And they gave us wit and poetry and gaiety (the old kind), romance and happiness and beauty and great good times. And Heaven! They were the nonpareil dancing pair who could empty any dance floor, upstage any orchestra, make any songwriter‘s heart pound with joy.

Has anyone ever made Berlin‘s Cheek to Cheek seem as wonderful as Fred and Ginger did while dancing cheek to cheek, he in his tux and she in that damned white feathery dress that molted all over him and prompted Fred to later sing sarcastically, “Feathers, She’s got feathers…?” Has anyone packed more exuberance into Kern‘s “Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off, and Start All Over Again,” roller-skated better to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” danced up such a storm as “The Continental?” They were two great partners, and they were great again, when he went to MGM, and she stayed at RKO. Yet never again were they so perfectly matched: two screen lovers of whom the Gershwin brothers could truly say, “We may never, never meet again on the bumpy road to love. But we’ll always, always keep the memory of…”

No, no. They can’t take that away from me, from you, from any of us. Ready? Now clear the floor, everybody. Fred and Ginger are gonna dance again. Cheek to cheek. And this is something you want to see.

Includes: The Gay Divorcee (U.S.; Mark Sandrich, 1934). Three and a Half Stars. This movie set the romantic comedy template for most of the Astaire-Rogers films (Fred chases Ginger amid swanky splendor and silly supporting actors), introduced both the series’ most frequent director, Mark Sandrich, and a lot of the regular supporting cast (fussbudgets three Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhode, and Eric Blore), plus Alice Brady and Betty Grable. It also offers two top-chop Fred and Ginger dances, Cole Porter’s classic “Night and Day” and the monster number set to Oscar-winner “The Continental.” (Hot trivia: Erik Rhode, memorable here as Ginger’s professional co-respondent and her vain would-be seducer in Top Hat — where he has the memorable line, “For the woman, the kiss! For the man, the sword!” — was the boyfriend of Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg a.k.a. Julian west, longtime Manhattan fashion maven and the star/financier of Carl Dreyer’s horror classic Vampyr.)

Top Hat (U.S.; Mark Sandrich, 1935). Four Stars. In some ways, this is the perfect Fred and Ginger movie (it was also their biggest commercial hit), with posh London settings, a plot similar to Gay Divorcee, practically the same supporting cast (Horton, Blore, and Rhode, with Helen Broderick and, in a bit, Lucille Ball), and a tremendous Irving Berlin score (including “Isn’t It a Lovely Day…”, the marathon “Piccolino,” “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” and their unbeatable dance to “Cheek to Cheek”). Of its kind, almost flawless.

Swing Time (U.S.; George Stevens, 1936). Four Stars. The series; most unusual plot, and its most atypical. With Fred as a pro dancer from the sticks and Ginger as his Manhattan dance instructor-turned partner, it lets in more of the Depression than these movies usually allow. In support: Victor Moore (another ace comic taking over briefly from Horton as Fred‘s sidekick), plus Blore, Broderick, bandleader Georges Metaxa and future Frigidaire lady Betty Furness. This is the series’ other great classic, according to dance critic Arlene Croce and nearly everyone else. Not as good a story as Top Hat, Swing Time may actually have a superior score: Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields penned for it the standards-to-be “Pick Yourself Up,” “A Fine Romance,” “The Way You Look Tonight” (that year’s Oscar-winner but done here almost as a throwaway), “Bojangles of Harlem” (Astaire’s heartfelt tribute to one of his few peers, Bill Robinson), and the searingly dramatic heartbreak duet “Never Gonna Dance.”

Shall We Dance (U.S.; Mark Sandrich, 1937). Three and a Half Stars. The plots to these movies are all pretty silly. This is the silliest, with Fred as Yank dancer Pete Peters, who masquerades as the Russian ballet great Petrov, while wooing Ginger in a tabloid scandal romance. Horton is back. (What a comedy pro he was.) So is Blore, along with Jerome Cowan (Floyd Thursby himself), and Harriet Hoctor. And though Top Hat and Swing Time are hard to top for music, this is the best Astaire-Rogers song score: George and Ira Gershwin, in their prime, supply the standards (and one jazzy surprise) “They All Laughed,’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Shall We Dance,“ “Slap That Bass,“ and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

(By the way, it’s obviously best to get one of the complete Astaire and Rogers sets with all ten of their movies, including everything from RKO and their one MGM outing The Barkleys of Broadway. But if you’re looking for an inexpensive alternative, this set has their four best and most typical movies, and lots of neat extras. It’s a very good buy.)

Extras: Commentaries by Ava Astaire (Fred’s daughter), Larry Billman, John Mueller, Hugh Martin, Kevin Cole; Featurettes; Vintage musical shorts & cartoons; Bob Hope comedy short; Radio promo; Trailers.



The A Team (Also Blu-ray) (Two Stars)

U.S.; Joe Carnahan, 2010 (20th Century Fox)

Some movies are so fast and choppy and violent they become almost boring, and, for me, The A Team slipped over the line time and again. A would-be-bang-up movie version of the 1983-86 Stephen Cannell TV Show — which was about four ex-Vietnam special forces fugitives, led by cigar-chomping wise-cracker John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), who hire themselves out as free-lance commandoes — the movie crashes and smashes and keeps blowing up in our faces.

The A Team commandoes and their combatants defy all laws of physics and sanity as that destroy trucks, blast each other with machine-guns, chase each other through raging infernos, crash and drop out of skyscraper windows, turn a tank around as it falls out of an airplane, and, at one point, accidentally set fire to millions of dollars and watch it burn. (A symbol for the movie itself?)

What’s going on? It’s a plot, hatched by mercenaries in Iraq and other miscreants, to steal U. S. treasury plates and forge billions of dollars — jam-packed with CGI and elaborate action sequences that spare no expense and often don’t make a lick of sense.

The movie opens with the introduction of the new A-Team, the four characters we remember from TV, recast: sage plan man Hannibal (Liam Neeson), horny con artist Face (Bradley Cooper), crazy pilot “Howling Mad” Murdock (Sharlto Copley), and the ferocious Mohawk-haired driver/gunner B. A. Baracus (Quinton “Rampage“ Jackson), the guy who, as played by Mr. T. on TV, liked to say “I pity the fool.” They’re all Army rangers here, this time starting off in Iraq instead of Vietnam — darlings of the U. S. military, who get framed for the messed-up robbery of those money plates, and sent to the slammer (or , in “Howling Mad’s” case, the Cuckoo’s Nest). Then, as before, they break out, this time in order to save their reputations and retrieve the plates from the evil mercenary, Pike (played by co-writer Brian Bloom), one of those slick fiends who likes to taunt you before he kills you. From then on, it’s the business as usual, double-crosses and hell breaking loose every ten minutes or so.

Technically, there’s never a dull moment. But often it seems dull, because the moments don’t string together that well — and because the director (Joe Carnahan) and his editors (Roger Barton and Jim May), seem incapable of holding onto a shot longer than a second or two.

Watching nothing but a barrage of one-second-long shots, even if Kurosawa, or Sergei Eisenstein or Sam Peckinpah could do it, can actually play havoc with your concentration, conjuring up a disposable world where anything can happen, but nothing matters. Anyway, now I know why Sam Peckinpah inserted those slow-motion scenes, in between his fusillades of short shots. He needed them to keep the right rhythm, and to temporarily relax his audience. We never really relax in A Team, and in a lot of the new action movies.

The original show, which also starred Dirk Benedict as “Face,” Dwight Schultz as “Howling Mad,” and Mr. T, the hot-tempered villain of “Rocky III,” as Baracus (the roles played here by Cooper, Copley and Jackson) — was a tongue-in-cheek mix of Mission Impossible, The Fugitive and The Dirty Dozen. And it tried for comedy and even, sometimes, sentiment as well as action. So does this movie, much less often.

The TV version, at least what I caught of it recently, was a slower, cheesier but funnier show than the movie. And since Cannell (who co-wrote 97 “A Team” shows with Frank Lupo) is also the producer of the film there are plenty of echoes: Hannibal‘s omnipresent cigar, B. A.’s mohawk, Face’s horniness, and Murdock’s rest periods in the madhouse.

Liam Neeson is a much different Hannibal than Peppard was. But Neeson is also one of the few elements that holds the movie together. As in his absurd smash action hit Taken, where he hit France like the Luftwaffe, Neeson‘s gravity and rock-solid screen presence tends to ground the movie and its violent silliness, keep it from seeming too out-to-lunch.

Neeson can’t save the movie though. Neither can Bloom, who surprisingly gives one of A Team’s best performances, as the nefarious Pike. Why didn’t he co-write lines as good for everyone else? Instead, he and the other moviemakers keep trying to blast us out of our seats, blow the screen up in our faces, hit us with one-second punches. Zap! Zam! Powie! Ker-boom! I tell you, I pity those fools.

The Other Guys (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Adam McKay, 2010 (Sony)

The Other Guys — a rip-roaring buddy-police satire in which Will Ferrell and Mark Walhberg play mismatched desk-jockey cops who get their chance to shine on the street — is a funny movie, no arguments. But in the months since its release, it’s diminished some, in my estimation.

Sure, it’s a fast, slick, exciting action show, full of slam-bang chases and gunfight razzmatazz, and enough pop-culture in-jokes to gag a Quentin Tarantino wannabe, plus red-hot Eva Mendes as Ferrell’s hot-doc wife. At its best, The Other Guys is what it wants to be: Lethal Weapon crossed with The Odd Couple and Saturday Night Live, an exploding whiz-bang celebrity-packed nonstop rama-lama-ding-dong of a rampaging homo-erotic street thriller comedy. At its worst, it’s still funny. But shallow.

It’s not, in the end, a show that wipes you out. And with all that firepower — including extended muscle-flexing cameos by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the celebrity Supercops whom the deskbound Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Wahlberg) sort of replace — it really should have.

Director-co-writer Adam McKay (Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) has dreamed up, a would-be high-concept super-show in which two reigning super cops exit, and the hyperbolic Hoitz, who hates his desk job, and the ultra-anal Gamble, who loves his, get their shot at some Freebie and the Bean/Die Hard With a Vengeance action — even though Hoitz keeps throwing fits, and fellow cop Damon Wayans keeps sneering at them, and their wise ass boss, Captain Gene Mauch (Michael Keaton, named here for a baseball manager in-joke) won’t trust Gamble with anything but a wooden gun.

The new Guys’ target is a financial scam run by dithering money czar David Ehrson (Steve Coogan), a greed-crazed weasel with a Ponzi in his pants, whose hard-assed Irish torpedo Roger Wesley (Ray Stevenson) eats supercops for lunch. The Other Guy-cops drive around. They bond, Beverly Hills Cop-ishly. Hoitz is amazed at the nerdy Gamble‘s ungodly success with women. (Not just Mendes as wife Sheila, but every knockout in sight). Gamble gets a better caliber wooden gun. And the special effects and stunt guys all have their fingers on their triggers.

As everybody has been saying, this is better than Cop Out. But then, stale pizza stuck on the bottom of your chair is probably better than Cop Out. Comedy is often best when it sneaks up on us or drops out of the sky. And here, the comedy keeps crashing though the wall, and pushing the pedal to the metal.

Extras: Commentary; Featurettes; Music Video; Deleted and extended scenes.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Zack Snyder,” 2010 (Warner)

A no-holds-barred adaptation by the energetic Zack Snyder, of a Tolkien-ish children‘s animal adventure series by Kathryn Lasky, all about warring owls, and two kids birds Soren and Kludd (voiced by Jim Sturgess and Ryan Kwanten) torn between the good owls, the Guardians, and the bad ones , the Pure Ones.

Beautiful and exciting, even dazzling, but also somewhat incoherent and hard to follow. There’s certainly a lot of amazing 3D, and one hell of a last battle — and two terrific voice characterizations by Geoffrey Rush as the grizzled good owl Ezylryb and Helen Mirren, as an ivory faced femmey bad one, Nyra. But owls have generally similar, and often non-expressive faces. It’s actually hard to tell one from another, unless you hear a voice like Rush‘s or Mirren‘s. And the movie didn‘t reach me, didn’t kill me. There’s a limit to what an owl can do, even with CGI.

Nanny McPhee Returns (Three Stars)

U. S.; Susanna White, 2010 (Universal)

I love Emma Thompson, even when she’s made up snaggle-toothed and warty. And this Thompson-written, Thompson-starring way-beyond-Mary-Poppins WW2-era film of the Matilda books of Christianna Brand — who also wrote that wonderful WW2-set thriller Green for Danger (which became one of Alistair Sim‘s finest hours) — is a little loud, but pretty sunny, pretty chipper, pretty good.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, as mommy Green, and Rhys Ifans as Phil’s-your-uncle Green-for-Danger, are snappy. (There’s that word again). Eros Vlahos, as Cyril, may grow into a silly, sunny British snob to match any Monty Python or even Hugh Grant. Ralph Fiennes is getting typed as the cloud that covers the sun; he should try a part as Sunny Smiles, the Banjo Man. (“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…“) Great little flying piggies in this movie. Miss Topsey and Miss Turvey, I’m sorry, take a hike. Nanny is not really supercallifragilist-whatever. But sweet Emma, she rocks.

Extras: Commentary by White; Deleted Scenes; Featurettes

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (Two Stars)

U.K.; J Blakeson, 2009 (Anchor Bay)

Minimalist suspense. Two kidnappers (Eddie Marsan and Martin Compson), wearing masks, abduct heiress Alice (Gemma Arterton) and tie her onto a bed in a windowless room, demanding ransom from her dad. All is not what it seems, and director J Blakeson’s dialogue is Pinteresque. This is sort of like Ransom or No Orchids for Miss Blandish redone as No Exit, with faint whiffs of Saw. Marsan, as always, is very good. You could do worse. Then again, you could do much better.

Extras: Commentary with Blakeson; Deleted and extended scenes; Storyboard featurette; Outtakes.

Strictly Ballroom (Three Stars)

Australia: Baz Luhrmann, 1992 (Miramax/Buena Vista)

Before the razzle-dazzle and virtouosity of Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrman sparkled on a smaller stage in the sleeper hit Strictly Ballroom, a nifty, much lower-budgeted, bu still flashy and imaginative look at a smalltime Australian dance contest and the couple (Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice) who break the rules, fashion some new steps and set the show on its ear. (Their signature tune: Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”) They’re no Fred and Ginger. (See above.) But then, nobody is.

Extras: Commentary; Documentary with Luhrmann; Featurette; Deleted scene; Design Gallery.

Escape From Zahrain (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Ronald Neame, 1962 (Olive)

This is what used to pass for an intelligent Middle Eastern-set thriller. Yul Brynner is the escaped nationalist Arab leader, on the run in a prison van across the desert. Sal Mineo is a young revolutionary idealist/commando. Jack Warden is a cynical opportunistic American along for the ride. Madlyn Rhue is one of those beautiful nurses who always shows up, no matter where you are. Anthony Caruso is a psychopath who may possibly find redemption. James Mason, trapped in a cameo, may have been hoodwinked into thinking this was a “Desert Fox” reunion. At one point, the van rolls over.

Ten years later, Escape director Ronald Neame went on to make The Poseidon Adventure, a mega-hit thriller about a passenger ship that turns upside down in the ocean. I’m sure his experience here, up-side-down or not, served him well. No extras.

Sundown (Two Stars)

U.S.: Henry Hathaway, 1941 (TCM/Westchester Films Inc.)

From sometime action and true noir master Hathaway: a sort of minor league “Four Feathers-ish” adventure set somewhere in East Africa, in which Nazis lurk, natives revolt, Bruce Cabot tries to become another John Wayne, George Sanders and Reginald Gardiner go all noble and British on us, Harry Carey Sr. is a great white hunter, Joseph Calleia gets conned, Dorothy Dandridge vanishes almost before you know she’s there, and Gene Tierney plays Zia, the exotic and perhaps duplicitous trader-princess. Mis-written by Barre Lyndon, this is very rare and sort of fun, in a sort of crazy way. No extras.

Bachelor Mother (Three Stars)

U.S.: Garson Kanin, 1938 (Warner Archive)

Master screenwriter Garson (Born Yesterday) Kanin, during his brief Hollywood directorial prime (seven films, some classic, from 1939 to 1941) here helms the usual Norman Krasna double entendre script: a romantic comedy with lots of innuendoes. Target of most of those innuendoes: Ginger Rogers as a sexy but sweet department store shopgirl, discharged after Christmas season service, who gets accidentally saddled with an abandoned baby, and discovers she can keep a job if she weathers lewd speculation and keeps playing Mama.

David Niven is the usual handsome wealthy store-owner’s-son beau, Charles Coburn is Niven’s crusty but benevolent dad, and Frank Albertson, later the lech who hits on Janet Leigh in Psycho, here plays (very well) another lech, hitting on Ginger. This movie, well-made but unsurprising, later remade as the Debbie Reynolds-Eddie Fisher comedy “Bundle of Joy, is regarded by some as a Golden Age classic, but it’s a bit overrated. It has some charm and humor though, and Ginger even jitterbugs! Made on Demand. Link Warner or

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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