MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

MW on DVDs: Howl, Doctor Zhivago, Gone with the Wind, Blade Runner: The Final Cut, The Quintessential Guy Maddin


Howl (Three Stars)

U. S.: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, 2010

is a film inspired by the great Beat poem by that great Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg — and if it‘s not a great Beat movie, then it‘s still a very good one, powerful and decent, and a passionate plea for the role of the artist in a sometimes destructive society.

Unreeling in its 1956 settings like some scream of anguish buried in a matter-of-fact transcript on a courtroom table, this movie Howl is full of admiration for Ginsberg, and of feeling and anger against injustice. It both visualizes (and animates) Ginsberg‘s poem — still a cinematic and literary explosion with all its evocations of Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis, of Artur Rimbaud’s Season in Hell, and of Walt Whitman‘s Leaves of Grass.

And the movie visualizes as well Ginsberg and his youthful world of orgy and eloquence in Manhattan, San Francisco and points between (with Kerouac and Cassady): showing us a drab but threatening ‘50‘s terra firma, in the words of the Howl, “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked/ Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix/ Angel-headed hipsters burning for the heavenly connection/ to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”

Words, words that have echoed ever since — which is, of course, what poetry does and should do. The movie portrays Ginsberg before, after — and especially during — his most crucial, anxious and potentially destructive life-moment: his and his poem Howl‘s trial for obscenity in San Francisco.

The writer-directors are those two admirable gay-themed documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (of The Times of Harvey Milk). The script comes straight from the trial transcripts and the testimony is amazing entertaining, packed with drama and rich with personality and political irony. Howl itself is read powerfully by lead actor James Franco and illustrated and animated by art director Eric Drooker. (I didn’t mind Drooker’s pictures, though some do; Franco‘s readings, and performance, are exemplary.)

The movie is about art and society, but also about how the American justice system is supposed to work — how it’s meant to protect the rights of all, and to balance opposing claims: in this case, the rights of the public not to be disturbed, against the rights of a great poet to disturb them. One leaves Howl inspired by both the spectacle of the trial of the poet and the uncommon poetry of the trial.

The players, besides Franco, include David Strathairn as the sincere if wrong-headed prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, Bob Balaban as the eminently fair but unpredictable Judge Clayton Horn, Jon Hamm as Ginsberg’s plucky and unflappable defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, Jeff Daniels as the bigoted “expert literary witness” Professor David Kirk, Treat Williams as counter expert witness, critic and Sinclair Lewis biographer Mark Schorer, and, in half of one of the year’s top acting displays, Franco as a letter-perfect, sensitive and simmeringly emotional Ginsberg — completing a terrific 2010 actor’s double whammy with Franco’s other great 2010 performance, as climber/explorer Aron Ralston in 127 Hours.

If they allowed double nominations in the acting category, Franco would easily get my double vote. Ginsberg — whom I met twice, in Madison, Wisconsin and at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention riots — gets my triple vote as a great poet, a major American cultural figure and a gentle, good-hearted man.

He did a strange thing in Madison which I’ve never forgotten. When I was introduced to him he suddenly reached over, put his hand on my head, and placed his fingers right in the little indented bowl of the skull that was my memento of a violent encounter with a wrench-wielding anti-hippie, anti-anti-war Wisconsin student. “Were you born with that?” Ginsberg asked. It wasn’t a sexual come-on; or if it was, it was an extremely discreet and non-harassing one. And the result was that I never felt self-conscious about the injury again, and still don’t. It takes a gentle and kind man to steal away private anguish like that, or to make a Howl that moves the world.



Doctor Zhivago (Four Stars)

U.S.-U.K.; David Lean, 1965 (Warner)

Boris Pasternak’s novel of romance and revolution in pre and post-Communist Russia, which won Pasternak both the world-wide prestige of the Nobel Prize and the enmity and hostility of his own government, became, in the hands of director David Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt, one of the paradigmatic ’60s movie love stories — thanks to both its gorgeously shot settings (by cinematographers Freddie Young and Nicolas Roeg) and to the beautiful faces, longing gazes and banked passions of its unforgettable lovers: Omar Sharif as gentle, steadfast, self-sacrificing Zhivago, and Julie Christie as tough, irresistible heartthrob Lara.

The rest of the cast is pretty damned good too. Alec Guinness, Lean’s touchstone, underplays scarily as Zhivago’s pragmatic revolutionary relative Yevgraf. Rod Steiger is the rotten opportunist and Lara-seducer Komarovsky, Ralph Richardson is bumptious father-in-law Alexander. Geraldine Chaplin is Zhivago‘s beaming, tender wife Tonya, Tom Courtenay is Lara’s lover Pasha turned people’s General Strelnikov. And, in one of the most incendiary small parts ever, Klaus Kinski is the screaming, clapping, handcuffed anarchist on the train, Kostoyed.

But it’s Yuri and Lara that we remember longest: two lovers constantly thwarted and kept from each other, yet so irresistibly, mutually attracted, that when we finally see them fall into each other‘s arms in their snowy hide-away, it’s like watching two magnets rush and cling.

Doctor Zhivago has held up, in the age of the Vietnam War and the New Wave, some critics blocked it out. It still looks great, and many of us wish they still made movies like this.

Lean, whose career masterpiece was 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, was still at his creative and personal zenith with Doctor Zhivago. Based on a major novel, this film mixes politics and drama, romance and overpowering scenic beauty, with all the great British moviemaker’s spectacular control and immaculate skill. We can’t forget his images, his rhythms, his romantic yarn-spinning, any more than we can blot out Zhivago’s memorably romantic music score (“Lara’s Theme”) by Maurice Jarre. Or the stunning sights of snow-clad pre-and-post-revolutionary Russia, shot in Spain. Or the faces of Lara and Yuri, before they fall into each other’s arms.

Extras: Commentary by Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger and Sandra (Mrs. David) Lean; Documentary Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic; retrospective “Doctor Zhivago: A Celebration“; vintage featurettes; Geraldine Chaplin screen test; Trailers.



Gone With the Wind (Also Blu-Ray) (Four Stars)

U.S.; Victor Fleming/Sam Wood/George Cukor), 1939 (Warner)

Like the morally flawed but gorgeous and spectacular Margaret Mitchell novel (and heroine) from which it derives, the movie Gone With the Wind has never lost its power to enthrall and bewitch.

Even as the world, the audience and the social and political currents around it change and evolve, and as the movie‘s vision of a charming, gallant, if sometimes foolish Old South — a land of ruined antebellum splendor destroyed by war and the invading North, but rising indomitably from its ashes — recedes into popular myth, producer David O. Selznick‘s genuinely phenomenal film, can still, like Mitchell’s saucy and unconquerable heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, seduce or bulldoze almost all before it.

So can the movie’s stars: Vivien Leigh as the perfect, cynical, heart-stopping, wickedly beautiful Scarlett; Clark Gable as roguish, rakish but secretly noble Rhett Butler, with his casual heroism and impudent machismo; Olivia de Havilland as long-suffering, sweet, saintly Melanie Hamilton Wilkes; Leslie Howard as Melanie‘s husband and Scarlett’s obsession, weak Ashley Wilkes, trapped in his ideals; and even poor lovable Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel, in all her bulky splendor, popping loose the corset of clichés that imprison her as Mammy.

And so too can the sometimes forgotten director, Victor Fleming, who guided the movie robustly along, along, aided by his uncredited fellow directors, George Cukor (who began it and was fired) and Sam Wood, least of the three, who came on as a relief man and continued as second director after Fleming briefly collapsed. And so, of course, can the writers: Margaret Mitchell herself and playwright Sidney Howard, who channeled Mitchell’s mammoth and fiercely feminine vision, and, together with the liberal Republican Selznick, filtered out the worst racist excesses of the book (read the novel again if you think I’m exaggerating), with an uncredited assist (he rewrote the whole script in a week) from that best of all Hollywood scenarists and script doctors, Ben Hecht.

Some people love Gone and still aggressively believe it, and some love it even though they can’t believe a word of it. But few can escape part of its seductive power and spell. It was my father Martin‘s favorite movie, though as a liberal Jewish World War 2 era refugee from Hitler’s Europe, he should have been more skeptical about Atlanta belle Mitchell‘s unabashedly prejudiced view of contented darkie slaves and kindly white masters, living happily together once upon a time in an idyllic agrarian empire of Southern knights and ladies fair, that world gone with the wind that Mitchell so ferociously celebrates and laments.

The film was, for decades, America‘s most popular picture, succeeding that other super-movie Dixie myth, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and today, it remains a touchstone for film buffs, whether they hail from South or North. The DVD set, which tends to get better every time it reappears, is a must if you love film — and especially if you love popular film.

Margaret Mitchell‘s novel though was both a romance and a revenge. She wished to present her Atlanta home and forebears as a faithful daughter of the South should, to obliterate the legend of that other great Southern-set bestseller, Uncle Tom‘s Cabin, and though producer David O. Selznick and his writers tried to clean the story up, and remove its more offensive slants and tirades, it still beats with a heart of old Dixie. (In the book, Rhett is not imprisoned for blockade-running, but for killing an “uppity” black, and “black“ was not the word used.) Gone With the Wind, so beautifully designed by William Cameron Menzies, so thrillingly acted by the cast, set the template for movies about the South and the Civil War, for years to come — until the post-war Civil Rights era really began to blow the old magnolias away.

As for the possibly toxic effects today of Margaret Mitchell’s appalling, genteel racism and weird reactionary feminism — as filtered through the politics of everybody else who worked on the movie, including Selznick, Fleming, Sidney Howard, the cast and the very liberal Ben Hecht — well, frankly, I don’t give a damn.

It’s the characters, the scope, sweep and wild emotion that keep this story and movie alive, and the ideal way Selznick cast them and surrounded those people with a vivid fictional/cinematic world. You cannot imagine a more perfect Scarlett than the diminutive, eternally flirtatious, relentlessly sexy and ambitious Vivien Leigh — or, even without an accent or a damn — a better Rhett than Gable. De Havilland, Howard and McDaniel are equally right, though Howard clearly doesn’t like Ashley.

And Mitchell populated her book with a grand pseudo-Dickensian gallery of supporting characters too, all memorably incarnated here, from Thomas Mitchell as Scarlett’s loved and fallen father Gerald O‘Hara and Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat to Victor Jory as evil Yankee overseer Jonas Wilkerson. Most of them are gone now, along with both my father and mother. But Gone With the Wind, and Rhett and Scarlett, remain — unreconstructed, undeconstructed, in beautiful Technicolor, still and always the belle of the ball.

Extras: Commentary by Rudy Behlmer; Documentaries; Featurettes; Short “The Old South” (Fred Zinnemann, 1940); Newsreels; Trailers; Foreign language version excerpts.



Blade Runner: The Final Cut (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U. S.; Ridley Scott, 1982. (Warner Bros.)

Blade Runner was considered a failure in its time — in 1982 when star Harrison Ford was at his Han Solo-Indiana Jones box-office summit, and the movie’s s way sub-Star Wars receipts were as unpleasant a surprise as the shocks that waylay Ford‘s futuristic cop Rick Deckard in this darkest of sci-fi epics. Nowadays, director Ridley Scott‘s visually overwhelming film of the Philip K. Dick novel is rightly judged a classic — a masterpiece of both science fiction and film noir, and a fit subject for this stunning “final cut” edition.

Dick’s novel was originally called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; the title Blade Runner comes from “beat” master William Burroughs. The movie, written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples (who wrote Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven) gives us the hard-bitten Deckard as a anti-replicant squad cop in 21st century Los Angeles, a dark, rainy, neon-drenched city of night in which the look of Heavy Metal is mixed with the mood of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Replicants are “off world” work (or slave) robots whose look (and behave) so real that can often try (and fail) to pass for human. Deckard’s job is to catch some renegade reps led by Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty (the performance he’ll never top): a cadre that includes sumptuous Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy and wild-eyed Brion James (“Time to die!”), with Deckard aided by a savagely streetwise L. A. cop contingent that includes Edward James Olmos and a pre-Blood Simple M. Emmet Walsh. In the middle is Sean Young’s Rachael: Is she futuristic Lauren Bacall heroine or replicant femme fatale?

This splendid package contains the new “Final Directors Cut” which, we’re assured, is Scott’s last word on the subject.



The Quintessential Guy Maddin (Three and a Half Stars)

Canada: Guy Maddin, 1990-2004 (Zeitgeist)

This incredible little box set offers gives us five or six trips around the bend with Winnipeg’s number one film auteur Guy Maddin. (The name comes from Guy Madison, but I wont explain why.) Here’s what I had to say about this amazing cineaste of broken dreams and exemplar of ‘30s poverty row chic revisited, in the old Chicago Tribune, years ago.

“Exquisitely weird, absurdly droll, crafted with a flair for stylistic forgery that borders on the uncanny, the unique parody films of Winnipeg director Guy Maddin occupy their own crazed little niche in cinema history.

“There is nothing like them, nothing even close.

“Has anyone ever made a film remotely similar to Maddin’s 1988 Tales From the Gimli Hospital, which is supposed to be a tale of frustrated homosexual passion, set in a 19th Century Manitoba hospital, during a plague, culminating in a duel with stuffed fishes by two tale-spinning lunatics, all supposedly being filmed by an expatriate hack director in the 1930s?

“Obviously Guy Maddin has tongue firmly in cheek. Also obviously, he is a genuine master film parodist. Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein for example, parodies 1930s Universal horror movies, but it doesn’t look like one. Neither do most other pastiches.
But when Maddin sets out to re-create a ’30s film, he gets it all: the toy-like sets, the grainy glow of the camera work, the precise style of the compositions, the trance-like quality of the acting, the dragged-out rhythms. The acting is bad in just the right way. It’s like some unholy collaboration between David Lynch and the younger Edgar Ulmer. He even gets the soundtrack hiss after a cut.

“The result is the sort of ’30s film, forgotten almost immediately, that is excavated and hailed decades later as a lost classic, to the bewilderment of many and the delectation of a few.”

Back to today: Maddin’s subject matter generally includes all the wild, usually repressed stuff of melodrama and film noir: mad love, twisted desire, murder, evil plots, incest, obsession, dietary disorders, and even vampirism, along with (not so typical) desperate visits to the wax museum of Winnipeg’s ice hockey Maroons. He is one of the few directors I can think of who still shoots silent movies, and who regularly puts exclamation points on his intertitles — or, for that matter, who still regularly uses intertitles, and sometimes prints them out-of-focus. Maddin shoots in both color (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) and black and white (Cowards Bend the Knee) and black-and-white, tinted (Careful), and he‘s at his best in the various shades of monochrome and noir. He should never shoot in anything else. (But then, they said that about Edgar Ulmer too.)

These five sometimes insanely delightful films, often scored to classical music (Beethoven, Mahler) or other vintage records, were made during the decade and a half right after Tales of the Gimli Hospital, up to a few years before Maddin’s last feature (to date), 2006‘s Brand Upon the Brain. (He’s got a new one coming.) They take you to worlds you’ve never seen, at least like this, in a style that seems strangely familiar and bizarrely poetic, if madly askew. They’re gems of the half-serious put-on, feats of mock-noir, masterfully deadpan shaggy-world jokes.

The 5-disc set even includes Maddin’s generally recognized masterpiece, the fervently praised mock-Russian 2000 short commissioned by the Toronto Film Festival, The Heart of the World.

No one I can think of makes movies quite like them. If they do, they haven’t confessed.

Includes: Archangel (Canada: Guy Maddin, 1990). (Four Stars) In the midst of the Russian Revolution, which some of the movie’s main characters don’t realize is over, love blooms, passion ignites, fever dreams pulse, amnesiacs leer, soldiers march, tempers flare and dialectics are frozen stiff. One of the most characteristic, and most admired, of all Maddin’s films, shot with glorious black-and-white, and screw-loose lyricism. I love it.

Careful (Canada: Maddin, 1992) (Four Stars) In another 1930s semi-parody, in the remote Alpine mountain village of Tolzbad, amid glacial splendor and towering peaks, the dangers are so great that all villagers tiptoe around and talk in whispers for fear of causing avalanches. Within this highly charged atmosphere , snow-bursts of madness, murder and obsession all erupt with staggeringly crazy force and/or genteel lunacy. With Brent Neale as the love-deranged Johann, Sarah Neville as the evil Klara , Gosia Dombrowolska as the tragic Zenaida, and Kyle McCullough as the other brother Grigorss. Another of Maddin’s inarguable weirdo dark gems.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (Canada: Maddin, 1997) Three Stars. Shot in an old Winnipeg foundry turned studio, this movie takes us to the fictitious, B-Movie “Tempest-style“ coast of Mandragora, for another round of obsessive passions and purple dialogue (from Maddin’s screenwriter George Toles). Though it has the best cast of any Maddin (including Shelley Duvall, Frank Gorhsin and Alice Krige, this, for me, is one of the least of the Maddins, because — seething with tawdry magic as it sometimes is — it’s shot in a seedy, soft, overripe-looking color that doesn’t match his feats of monochrome.

The Heart of the World (Canada: Maddin, 2000) (Four Stars) Maddin’s greatest movie, even if’s only minutes long: the Holy Grail of Toronto Film Festival curtain-raisers. ’20s Russian modernism and an eternal triangle pastiched into a ravishment of quasi-Eisenstein, pseudo-Lang riches.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (Canada: Maddin, 2003) Three and a Half Stars. Culled from Bram Stoker and F. W. Murnau, Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi and Tod Browning, the legend of Dracula lives and dances in this adaptation of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet‘s Dracula ballet, which is scored to music from Mahler’s First and Second Symphonies (including the chilling danse macabre Mahler made of “Frere Jacques”), and adapted and choreographed by Mark Godden.

They’re all here: sinister Count Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang) vulnerable Lucy Westernra (Tara Birtwhistle) and Mina Murray (Cindy Marie Small), deadly-serious vampire slayer Van Helsing (David Moroni), and Dracula’s depraved assistant Renfield (Brent Neale). And though it may not be a personal film, (then again, maybe it is) this is perhaps Maddin’s most stylish and visually beautiful work.

Cowards Bend the Knee (Canada: Maddin, 2004) (Three Stars). If most Maddins suggest the ’30s, this one almost summoned up the ’40s on the lower porno fringes of low-rent moviemaking. This is the one with Winnipeg Maroons ice hockey museum; its protagonist is a tormented hockey star named Guy (Darcy Fehr), who falls into the hands of a murderous vixen. Not Maddin’s best, but then, Edgar Ulmer made some sub-par or bad movies too.

Extras: Five commentaries by Maddin, George Toles, Mark Godden and others; the 1995 short Odilon Redon (Three Stars), on the French symbolist painter; Documentary on Maddin Waiting for Twilight, narrated by Tom Waits; Four short film fragments from a lost Maddin feature adapted from Herman Melville stories; Preview looks at 2006 Maddin feature Brand Upon the Brain; Featurettes; Radio interviews; Private Maddin photos; Collages and storyboards.



Dinner for Schmucks (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Jay Roach, 2010

There are plenty of primo American comedy actors around right now; all we need is the movies to put them in. Dinner for Schmucks, with its story courtesy of French buddy-comedy master Francis Veber, and its showcase roles for Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, and that nonpareil doofus comedy king Steve Carell — almost makes it, but not quite. By my unofficial and almost certainly inaccurate count, one third of the jokes work (including most of the ones involving Carell), one third of them fall sort of flat and one third muck and snicker around somewhere in the middle, before flying off into some weird outer-space of Hollywood schmuck-humor. That’s not a bad average, actually. Director Jay Roach‘s Austin Powers movies don’t always hit that mark.

Schmucks is an Americanization of that funny Veber comedy, The Dinner Game. (The original French title was Le Diner des Cons which may translate more accurately as “Dinner for Assholes.“) Dinner Game is all about a mock and mocking get-together in which smug bourgeois business-creeps invite what they consider obnoxious losers (or their inferiors) to a dejeuner, indulge and secretly ridicule them, and then present a prize for the biggest schmuck, or most outrageous asshole. Of course, the tables get turned.

Rudd and Carell play the bourgeois and the schmuck here, the roles originally played by Thierry Lhermitte and Jacques Villeret, and the Yanks work well together (as they did in Judd Apatow‘s The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Rudd plays Tim Conrad, a would-be exec success with a sexy-sweet art gallery girlfriend named Julie (Stephanie Szostak). Tim is a nice guy whose naïve desire for winner status in a typical callous corporation full of well-dressed bullies, back-stabbers and ass-kissers, makes him easy prey to the invitation of his “con” of a boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood, with his world-class smirk) to find a loser and come to party with the winners. Rudd is a good fit for a role like this: he‘s like a less nervous Jack Lemmon, crossed with a slightly dazed and confused Billy Crystal.

Carell‘s Barry — a repressed and goofily grinning IRS auditory whom Tim accidentally hits with his car — is too well-meaning and terminally nice to be called a real asshole. He‘s the ideal perfect loser though. Like Peter Sellers (whose eerie mastery of comic accents gives him the actor’s edge on everybody), Carell can go so deeply into comic self-delusion, that he pulls us all down there with him. And like Sellers, he‘s trapped in his own masks.

Veber didn’t show the dinner. Roach and his writers, David Guion and Michael Handelman (“The Ex“) stage a real Fancy Feast in a mansion of a dining hall, and send their movie right over the edge. Still, Carell and Rudd are a nearly ideal classic smoothie-and stooge comedy team (in the tradition of Crosby and Hope, Martin and Lewis, or Abbott and Costello), and with Galifianakis around they make up two stooges and a smoothie.

The script isn’t structured very well and the jokes are erratic all the way through. In this feast of comics, there’s sometimes a famine of laughs. But the laughs are there eventually. I’ll bet there was a lot of improvisation on this set — and with “Dinner of Schmucks‘” gallery of stooges and smoothies, and Barry’s gallery of “mouseterpieces”, you get at least some of your comedy money’s worth. Extras: Deleted scenes, Schmuck-ups.

Machete (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Robert Rodriguez/Ethan Maniquis, 2010 (20th Century Fox)

For me, this was a big disappointment. Robert Rodriguez can be a great pulpy filmmaker, as he is in Desperado and Sin City, and here he seems to have a platform ripe for good cheap thrills and schlocky shocks, crazy comedy and acid social commentary: the no-holds-barred ultra-violent Grindhouse tale of a Mexican EveryHitman named Machete, who‘s mistakenly hired by a mysterious politico (Jeff Fahey, of White Hunter, Black Heart) to take part in a phony assassination scheme rigged to boost the candidacy of a right-wing, anti-immigration U.S. Senator (Robert De Niro), who’s secretly in league with a vicious Mexican drug lord (Steven Seagal, off-type) and a psychopathic border vigilante chief (Don Johnson).

Best of all, the hero/antihero part of Machete is played by Rodriguez favorite Danny Trejo — who has great tattoos, a great weathered face, a good working knowledge of dangerous criminals, and happens to be one of the most prolific (and reliable) actors in movie history. Trejo has actually done 70 movie roles since the joke trailer for Machete appeared in Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature in 2007. He‘s done (or is slated for) 195 movie roles throughout his career, ever since Andrei Konchalovsky jump-started Trejo’s career in 1985, by casting this deadly-looking acting amateur and obvious natural as the main boxing match heavy in Runaway Train. And I haven’t checked IMDB yet this morning.

Trejo also has two terrific leading ladies: Jessica Alba as knockout border cop Sartana and Michelle Rodriguez as Luz, a drop dead activist and immigrant-smuggler who operates a Mexican underground railroad out of a burrito stand. And I haven’t even mentioned Cheech Marin as the local Padre (who gets crucified), and Lindsay Lohan as April, Fahey’s drug-addict daughter, who runs wild in a nun’s habit.

Unfortunately, I had more fun writing out that cast list than I did watching the movie. Not that the show isn’t entertaining. (How could it not be?) But after dreaming up that franchise peg, and after hiring that cast, and especially after getting Danny Trejo locked in, Rodriguez seems to have thought the script would write itself. It didn’t. This picture — designed to look like a bad, sleazy but fun and exciting ’70s movie actioner, something like Truck Turner or Billy Jack — actually is (too often) genuinely bad and sleazy. Extras: Digital copy; Audience reaction track; Deleted scene.

Coraline 3D (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Henry Selick, 2009 (Universal)

Henry Selick’s Coraline is a delightful, sharp, whimsical, wittily imagined and wondrously executed feature cartoon for adults and the smarter or more sophisticated kids — adapted from Neil Gaiman‘s novel about a discontented little girl, dissatisfied with her parents, in a big, somewhat creepy Edward Gorey-ish looking old house. (Coraline, natch, voiced by Dakota Fanning and memorably animated as a kind of sullen, blue-haired little pre-Goth girl.)

Coraline is a rebel. She has a nice but boringly preoccupied mom and pop (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), who are immersed in work on catalogues, distant and not very indulgent. Unhappy, this touchy little girl longs for new surroundings. And, after hearing odd noises, seeing eerie sights, crawling through a painted-over door and falling into a kind of dark, three-dimension vortex-tunnel, that’s what she gets: a new pair of parents (also voiced by Hatcher and Hodgman) who keep indulging her, smiling and feeding her yummy meals.

They’re the “Other Parents” and what they want from little Coraline in return for all this swell parenting is submission to their button cult: a ritual that demands that they sew black buttons over their eyes. And Coraline’s as well.

You can see right away that Coraline isn’t intended for the usual family audience –the target crowd for movies like Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa or Kung Fu Panda. This is not a super-cute animated movie, but instead a smart, eye-catching, and engaging one. Selick, as in his equally fun and spooky The Nightmare Before Christmas, and James and the Giant Peach, works in a form capable of great artistry and sophistication: stop-motion puppetry, the genre that also produced such gems as the films of Wadyslaw Starewicz (the endlessly beguiling The Cameraman’s Revenge and The Mascot), George Pal, Jiri Trnka (that splendid Stagecoach pastiche Song of the Prairie and the Kafkaesque classic The Hand ), and celebrated modern practitioners, like Jan Svankmajer and The Brothers Quay.

Here, Selick shows how 3D, and the new animation, combined with the old art of stop-motion, can enhance a tale — can play up the creepy, macabre atmosphere of something like Coraline. It’s a pip of a story, and Selick clearly relishes telling it — as his actors relish voicing it. The magic that proves dangerous for a Coraline, or a Dorothy in Oz, is a delight for us. And, by the way, if you enjoy Selick’s puppet imagery, you should give Starewicz, Trnka and Svankmajer a try too.

On Faith and Reason (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Mark Ganguzza, Sally Roy, 2006 (Athena)

Bill Moyers is ridiculed by some as the Mr. Goody Two Shoes super-liberal ringmaster of P.B.S., but I think he’s an excellent interviewer, very civilized and perceptive. And these dialogues — focusing on religious belief and conducted with a wide variety of writers, of different faiths, at a PEN conference — is, as they say, engrossing and illuminating.

My favorites were Moyers’ talks with The Satanic Verses author, target and one-time world-wide fugitive Salman Rushdie (everyone should hear this), and novelists Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis. The other conversations, all interesting and worthwhile, were with novelist Mary Gordon, philosopher Colin McGinn, writers Jeanette Winterson, David Grossman, Anne Provoost, Pema Chodron and Richard Rodriquez, climatologist John Houghton, and playwright/rapper Will Power,

Backdraft (Three stars)
U. S.; Ron Howard, 1991 ( Universal )

Truly spectacular fires, a fine cast and a nicely melodramatic plot involving feuding brother firefighters (Kurt Russell and William Baldwin) keep this Chicago fire blazing. With Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Donald Sutherland.

Good Neighbor Sam (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; David Swift, 1964 (Sony)

One of Lemmon’s biggest ‘60s hits, now almost forgotten, was this romantic comedy about a straight arrow suburban advertising graphics family man, chosen to head up a key campaign, because the client (Edward G. Robinson) is another prude. Lemmon’s Sam then has to pretend that his wife (Dorothy Provine’s) best friend next door (Romy Schneider at the peak of her European stardom) is actually his wife and that Romy’s separated husband (Mike Connors) is Dorothy’s spouse. Fun, ridiculous and very ‘60s TV-ish. (The gags include a parody of the old Hertz “Put you in the driver’s seat” ads, complete with the Hi Los.)

Under the Yum Yum Tree (Three Stars)
U. S.; David Swift, 1963 (Sony)

Jack Lemmon shows his lecherous side as yet another Hogan (See Operation Mad Ball. And was Hogan of Hogan’s Heroes modeled on him?) in this bouncy adaptation of Lawrence Roman’s leering sex comedy play about a notorious landlord and his bevy of sexy tenants, including academic ex Edie Adams, and bossy student wife-to-be Carol Lynley, a persuasive beauty who persuades boyfriend Dean Jones to try sexless cohabitation as co-tenants.

Unfortunately, their apartment is owned by Lemmon’s sex-crazed Hogan, keeper of the keys, and the idol of pricelessly swishy and leering maintenance man Paul Lynde and his prudish wife Imogene Coca. Lewd and bouncy, it’s like an oddball mix of Playboy and Disney. (Costars Lynley and Jones both did tour with the Disney Studio, and director David Swift had his first big hit with the Hayley Mills Pollyanna.)

The Notorious Landlady Two and a Half Stars.
U. S.; Richard Quine, 1962 (Sony)

Quine and co-writers Blake Edwards (R.I.P.) and Larry Gelbart try to pull off a Hitchcockian suspense comedy — with Jack Lemmon as a smitten American junior diplomatic guy, Fred Astaire as his exasperated superior, and Kim Novak as his bombshell landlady, who may have murdered her missing husband. It’s all trivial but likable, though the last seaside chase scene has a loony, intoxicated exuberance.

Operation Mad Ball (Three Stars)
U.S.; Richard Quine, 1957 (Sony)

Post-WW2 European-based Yank soldiers execute the “maddest mad ball ever.” under the nose of their stuffy superior (Ernie Kovacs, no less). Jack Lemmon is the main ball operator Hogan, Dick York (“Bewitched”) is his right hand, Mickey Rooney is a jazzbo impresario, Kathryn Grant is Hogan‘s would-be honey. Somehow, this is almost perfect of its kind, though its kind is tipsy-minded and slight. Co-written by Blake Edwards.

Phffft! (Three Stars.)
U.S.; Mark Robson, 1954 (Sony).

A bright, sarcastic romantic comedy from sharp-witted writer George Axelrod, who unfortunately didn’t get either Lemmon or (Wilder‘s first choice) Walter Matthau, as the nebbish day-dreamer of an on-the-loose hubby for the movie of his big Broadway hit “The Seven Year Itch.“ (Broadway star Tom Ewell repeated his role.) But he gets both Lemmon and the great Judy Holliday here (plus Kim Novak at her sexiest and Jack Carson in a Walter Matthau-ish role) for this divorce romp. It’s no The Awful Truth, but then, nothing else is either.

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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