MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVD: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Tourist, The Twilight Zone Season Two, The Clowns, Exit Throught the Gift Shop, Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed.


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U. S.; David Yates, 2009 (Warner Brothers)

From the moment, right near the start of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, when we see three dark, murderous Death Eaters swooping across London, wreaking CGI havoc on the foggy city below, right up to this new movie‘s hellish climax, with teen wiz Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) observing as his wizardly mentor Prof. Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) fights in a lake of fire filled with deadly, squirmy creatures and monsters, the new Harry Potter movie drenches us in a mix of horrific fantasy and teen romance/sexuality that’s a world away from the sugary magical tone in the series’ 2001 kickoff, the Chris Columbus-directed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer‘s Stone.

Back then, Potter and Company stirred and slurped up a confectionary fantasy that, despite the picture’s high-prestige British adult supporting cast, wasn’t so far, in style and mood, from ‘60s post-Mary Poppins-era Walt Disney Studio — and closer in feeling, to the gung ho kids’ adventure of an early Star Wars.

Now the series has gone dark and arty. (More than a few people have compared it to Star Wars” somber sequel The Empire Strikes Back.) The supporting adults are juicier and more theatrical, the villains increasingly threatening and stylishly demonic. (Here, Alan Rickman, as the snobbish, over-lordly menace Prof. Severus Snape, surges to the fore).
And its still youthful heroes and heroine (the pensive Radcliffe as Harry, the increasingly photogenic Emma Watson as right hand lass Hermione Granger, and a brawnier Rupert Grint as sporty sidekick Ron Weasley) are taller, more filled-out, more teen-idolish and more preoccupied with affairs of the heart and glands, as well as with the dark side horrors and potential cataclysms that now rightly preoccupy Harry as a dutiful young Chosen One.

The story has grown and ripened, and so have the young protagonists, over the seven volumes of author J. K. Rowling‘s fabulously popular series — and they have in the movies as well. I still prefer the middle two films, directed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, to the first two, by Home Alone‘s Chris Columbus, and the latest two by BBC helmer David Yates. In a way, “Half-Blood Prince” strikes me as a bit too dark, arty and creepy — while the Columbus opening episodes were too blithe and bouncy. (Yes, I know, the kids are growing up. Life gets darker, meaner. It’s all relative.)
The arcs of all the stories though, have stayed pretty much the same, with Harry and his chums again encountering British boarding school crises, while evil forces gather around Harry, and final battles must be waged. Here, in addition, Harry and friends must adjust to specifically teen romantic problems, while Harry and Dumbledore also investigate the dark past and hold off the increasingly awful and awesome assaults of the off-screen dark Lord Voldemort’s onscreen torpedoes — including Snape, Helena Bonham Carter as the devilishly sexy and ferocious Bellatrix Lestrange, and Tom Felton as sullen student baddie Draco Malfoy.

The Rowling series blends several British classic youth-reader literary staples, the school romance and the horror adventure fantasy, with unusual fullness and detail. The movies, mostly scripted by Steve Kloves — who once gave us, as writer-director, that memorable adult 1989 Bridges Brothers and Michelle Pfeiffer romantic drama The Fabulous Baker Boys — seem as faithful to the Rowley novels as David O. Selznick always tried to be to the books he filmed. The movies compress the novels’ large spans of events, and give us as many characters as they can — often played by the cream of Britain’s older British thespian talent, like Rickman, Carter and Maggie Smith.

Here, Michael Gambon pretty much steals the acting honors, along with a dithering new Professor of Potions, Horace Slughorn, played with his usual priceless distractedness and fumfery by Jim Broadbent. But there are also sharp turns for Rickman, Carter, Smith (as the magisterial Minerva McGonagall), and, very briefly, Robbie Coltrane as stout fella Hagrid. These older stars tend to have a field day in their parts, while the younger Potterites — including Harry, Hermione and Ron — are less flavorsome, even if, as here, they happen to be in the throes of youthful desire.

Gambon and Broadbent are the acting treasures here. About the younger actors, I’m not as enthusiastic. They’re good, never great, and perhaps it’s wrong to expect them to be. They are, after all, intended as conduits for the emotions and dreams of the huge youth audiences the movies intend to rally. At that, they’re still fine, if not always dandy.
The movie’s sheer darkness, and its refusal to talk down to its vast audience, are what make the Potter series increasingly interesting — one of the few franchise movie series, that has tended to get better and more ambitious and difficult as it has gone along. The later Potter movies, like this one, tend to be more literary and theatrical, and, though it still relies on heavy displays of special effects and CGI prowess, this one tends to flaunt them less.

Obviously, a huge franchise movie like one of these Harry Potters, is playing by different rules, and in a different arena, than the art films it may sometimes recall. Yet it’s nice to see that the producers of the movie versions of such titanic bestsellers, aimed initially at children, feel a compulsion, along with supplying the requisite catalogue of cinematic and hormonal wonders, to make their movies deeper, smarter, classier. Harry Potter movies are not at the top of my must-see list, but it’s good to be able to sit through them without wondering why adult needs and desires aren’t being serviced with as much lavishness. Here, they are. Extras: Featurettes.



The Clowns (I Clowns) (Four Stars)
Italy/France/Germany: Federico Fellini, 1970 (Raro Video)

At the age of seven, little Federico Fellini, of Rimini, Italy, ran off with the circus.

Luckily for us, the circus returned him to this parents after a few days. And Fellini grew up to become a small town wastrel (with his Rimini friends, whom he later immortalized as I Vitelloni). Eventually, he went off to Rome, where he became a failed student, a successful cartoonist, part owner of the Funny Face Shop (which sold sketches and photos of American G.I.s for loved ones back home), a jack-of-all-trades for a troupe of traveling players (including a spunky young actress named Giulietta Masina), a scriptwriter for radio, plays and films (including Rome: Open City and Paisa for Roberto Rossellini), and finally, a world famous movie maker (La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2). For decades, he was the biggest directorial star of Rome’s Cinecitta Studios — where, in 1970, at the age of 50, Federico ran away with the circus all over again.

The wondrous result is The Clowns (I Clowns): a sometimes neglected but truly delightful little film, bursting with glee, made originally for television in 1970. The Clowns, while not that well-known, is Fellini‘s fondest, funniest tribute to art, to show business, and, above all, to the companies of clowns who romp and screech and slug each other and pratfall their way around all the circus sawdust and tinsel of all the world, and whose white or raggedy faces, fixed smiles and wild uninhibited behavior terrified him when he was seven — but must have attracted him very deeply as well.

Fellini, as always, uses his somewhat fanciful autobiography as a frame. The Clowns is a documentary filmed in Rome and Paris among mobs of actual circus people (Joseph Bouglione, Jean Houcke), actual clowns (Charlie Rivel, Louis Maisse, Alexandre Brugny de Brailly, Ludo, Nino, the Fratellini family, and Charlie’s daughter, Victoria Chaplin), another circus-loving film director (Pierre Etaix) and even a circus historian (Tristan Remy).

But it’s also part (a big part) mockumentary (see Exit Through the Gift Shop), in which most of the scenes are staged and actors play the presumed technicians and members of Fellini‘s supposed film crew (and Fellini himself plays “Fellini“). It’s part dramatic/comic reminiscence of Rimini (the seeds of Amarcord are here, and we see such later Amarcord mainstays as the midget nun and the fascists, examples of “real life” clowns). And it’s part rumination on the eternal variance and tension between the two main types of circus clowns: the White Clown and the Augusto.

Remember this now, all you would-be clowns. The white clown is white-faced, graceful, aristocratic, a gentleman and dandy, often smiling. The Augusto is a tramp-clown, with shabby clothes and a sorrowful countenance, often frowning, a Gloomy Gus and the butt of innumerable jokes by the white clowns and everyone else. (Comedians and comic actors can be classified this way too. Cary Grant is a white clown. Laurel and Hardy are both Augustos. Chaplin is a strange mixture of both.) So, you see, class division and class warfare exist in the clown world as well. Maybe they even originated with clowns.

In the heyday of the circus, which had already passed in 1970, there were famous White clowns, famous Augustos. We see plenty of them here. (We and Fellini also watch a frustratingly short film clip of the man reputed to be the greatest of all Augustos, Enrico Sprocani a.k.a. Rhum). Most of all, we see hordes of Italian clowns running madly all around the circus rings, terrifying children like little Federico.

And me as well. When I was a tiny child, no single figure on TV or elsewhere scared me more than Clarabelle the Clown, on the Howdy Doody Show. Clarabelle was a madcap white clown with a seltzer bottle, who ran around smiling, never speaking, and often squirting people. He reduced Howdy and Buffalo Bob Smith’s kid audience in the Peanut Gallery, to frenzies of mirth and squeals of delight — and he was played, oddly enough, by Bob Keeshan, who later became a paragon of kinder, gentler children’s TV programming in his other famous incarnation as the benevolent Captain Kangaroo.Still, despite Keeshan’s reform, Clarabelle and his terrifying smile and his orgies of seltzer-squirting scared me silly.

The clowns of The Clowns don’t scare you though. They make you feel sympathetic, protective. You can love them, even if they sometimes don’t make you laugh. The Clowns was financed by Italian TV, and it played to a huge TV audience (in black and white), before starting its premiere theatrical run (in color). It’s a beautiful film, and never pompous or pushy. Many of the usual Fellini collaborators are with him here: co-screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi (of Roma and Satyricon), cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (for the first two Rimini weeks, before Dario Di Palma takes over), designer Danilo Donati and, of course, inevitably, maestro/composer Nino Rota, penning another grand carnivalesque score, and making loving, clownish use of Richard Wagner‘s Ride of the Valkyries, Georges Bizet’s Toreador Song from Carmen, and the great pop songs “Fascination” and — hauntingly, unforgettably — “Ebb Tide.”

So The Clowns looks and sounds great of course. I think it’s one of Fellini’s lesser-known masterpieces, like the even lesser-known short feature Toby Dammit from 1968‘s Spirits of the Dead. But it also has a lively, antic, almost slapdash/slapstick pace, a comic frenzy that emanates from the clowns themselves, but radiates out to include the world all around them as well. In one of the movie’s more memorable moments, the sober-looking Fellini is asked by a pompous interviewer about the symbolism of the clowns, and, before he can finish his reply, two empty buckets fall on the heads of both of them. (And Signore Fellini, the buckets symbolize…?)

So, which are you: a White Clown or an Augusto? After The Clowns opened in Madison, Wisconsin in the ‘70s, my University of Wisconsin friend Gerry Peary went around classifying members of the Madison film and university communities (a stellar bunch) as either one of the other. But it’s not a simple question. Nor is The Clowns a simple movie, even if it goes rowdy and slings buckets at us. The end of the show, like that Rimini beginning, is a comic orgy of rampaging Italian clowns (Enrico Fumigalli, Carlo Pisacane, the Four Colombaionis, the 3 Martani Brothers, Antonietta Beluzzi, Luigi Leoni), that turns sad, turns happy, turns happy-sad-happy and then ends with one of the loveliest scenes in all of Fellini: the clown duet to “Ebb Tide.”

My God, what a scene! If you don’t clench up a little when the last trumpet notes of “Ebb Tide” ring out — its exultation, climax and diminuendo — and if sometime while watching this movie, you don’t briefly want to run a way and join the circus, then maybe you need a squirt from Clarabelle or a bucket on your head.
Oh, and Anita Ekberg is in The Clowns too. And she’s funny, dammit!

What a wonderful, lovingly assembled  little package this is: Federico Fellini’s The Clowns (I Clowns), has been digitally restored and given new subtitles, and the set also includes the Fellini short A Matrimonial Agency (three stars), his episode in the multi-part 1953 anthology film Love in the City which also had writer-directorial contributions from Antonioni, Lattuada, Risi, Lizzani, and Zavattini; Adriano Apra’s visual essay Fellini’s Circus; and a beautiful 50-page booklet containing Fellini‘s own writings, his reminiscences on the film and plenty of Fellini drawings as well.


Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed (Three and a Half Stars)
Germany: Alexander Kluge, 1968 (Facets)

Alexander Kluge is a gigantic figure in the German cultural landscape. He exemplifies…what is most vigorous and original in the European idea of the artist as intellectual, the intellectual as artist.”
Susan Sontag

Appropriately bracketed as a classic pick this week with Fellini’s I Clowns Alexander Kluge’s Artists at the Top of the Big Top: Perplexed is also a European art film about circuses and circus people. But this is a film in black-and-white, where the filmmakers would have answered the question Fellini dodged in The Clowns about symbolism, and then done something symbolic to illustrate the answer, and had an illustrated lecture on symbolism and the history of art, and the politics of circuses.

Kluge, in other words, is as intellectual a radical filmmaker as you can find, and Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed – which is also known as “Artists Under the Big Top: Disoriented” or “The Artist in the Circus Dome: Clueless” (these are not jokes) — is an intellectual and radical a film as he ever made, a black and white dramatic treatise on art and politics and their hybrids that no one on earth could accuse of selling out to anybody, except maybe Roland Barthes.

The heroine of “Artists,” or “Perplexed,” is Leni Peickert (played by Hannelore Hoger of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), an intense but seemingly humorless circus-lover, whose circus-loving father died and left her with a passion to run a circus herself, and to somehow mix the acts with her other obsessive interest: radical anti-war and anti-capitalistic politics. Without ever cracking a smile (but occasionally stripping to the buff), Leni hires performers, talks with experts, plans acts, find tents and even hangs around with some very photogenic elephants — but somehow never gets it all together. She winds up instead at a TV station, where she and her comrades try to mix art and politics, or news and politics, once again, with disastrous results. The moral might be summed up thus: If you want to radicalize the circus, or TV news, watch out for the elephants.

If you’re going to watch “Artists: Perplexed“ though, this is the version to get. Facets has included, as an extra, the 1970 short The Indomitable Leni Peickert, which is described as a follow-up to “Perplexed.” (Imagine a full-blown sequel, the name emblazoned on a marquee: “Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed 2.”) But “Leni” is less a follow-up than the actual culmination and climax of the first movie, and they should be seen together, “Leni“ right after “Perplexed.“

Kluge was an ex-documentarian and he shoots “Perplexed” like a ‘60s documentary, full of wordy dialogues and cinema verite-looking scenes and monochrome montages. It’s not a cheerless movie — a couple of Beatles songs are on the soundtrack — but it is relentlessly serious, though not unlikably so. I actually watched it twice, and would happily watch it again, if anybody wanted to see it with me. They really don’t make them like this any more. (Part of a series of Alexander Kluge films being released by Facets as The Alexander Kluge Collection; I hope they eventually put them all into a box set.)
Extras: The Alexander Kluge shorts The Indomitable Leni Peickert (1970) (Three and a Stars) and Execution of an Elephant (Three Stars), which makes use of Edwin S. Porter’s and Thomas A. Edison‘s 1903 Electrocuting the Elephant.


The Twilight Zone: Season 2 (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Various directors, 1960-61(CBS/Image)

“You’re traveling through another dimension: a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey through a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the sign-post up ahead! Your next stop: The Twilight Zone.”

“A brief and frenetic introduction to Mr. Rod Serling, 37, a fabulously successful TV writer, a child of the 20th century, a product of the population explosion, one of the inheritors of the legacy of progress — and much to his surprise and occasional consternation, a fledgling TV star as the bitingly deep-voiced host and narrator of a prize-winning weekly science fiction anthology series that Mr. Serling calls The Twilight Zone.
“Let us watch Mr. Serling now, as he pauses at his typewriter, and lights another cigarette — an Oasis if you please — and as he ruminates on the ironies of life and show business. On his show, Mr. Serling and his fellow writers and directors regularly craft and present little half-hour dramas with moral and social messages — tales about the dangers of totalitarianism, about the bomb, about prejudice, ignorance, greed and the pitfalls of progress.

“They do this because, in addition to reaping the financial rewards of a hit TV program, Mr. Serling honestly wants to educate and elevate his audience, in line with the liberal idealism of America‘s youthful new president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and his New Frontier. They want to be taken seriously — or at least taken with a smile and a shiver, but understood seriously.

“Yet the huge TV audience which laps up Mr. Serling’s show seem instead to digest these stories as simple horror fantasies, good for a chill, but not really applicable to their own lives. For Mr. Serling, this has become like something in his stories: a recurring nightmare, or a message from the future, or a visit to the past, or a plane ride going wildly off course. Is anybody there? Is there anybody out there who can understand that The Twilight Zone, in a way, is no fantasy? That it’s about real things, real people, real events? Things that really happened, or may happen, to Mr. Serling, as he sits at the typewriter, an Oasis in his hand, in a room full of the kind of books that, as in one of his most recent scripts, may someday be declared obsolete, and taken away?

“Mr. Serling wonders. And as he does, something strange starts to happen before his eyes. Mr. Rod Serling, 37 and not prone to hallucinations, notices that his typewriter is beginning to type by itself, turning out a story he hasn’t yet imagined, about a world he doesn’t yet see. But soon he will see that world, and so will everyone else, because this is a tale that could only be written…in The Twilight Zone.”

The box set of the second season of one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Rod Serling‘s The Twilight Zone, with all 29 episodes now gathered in this excellent set, isn’t quite as good as the first, but it’s still good enough. There are signs of pressure: Some missed weeks toward the end of the run, and what seem slightly lower budgets and production values for a few of the shows. And there’s the awful sight of Serling pulling out a cigarette during his last few sign-offs and hawking a brand called Oasis, claiming that it’s “the softest.”

The writing is the same though: superb, and most of it by Serling. (There are some fine scripts by other hands, including Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, and more and more impressively, Charles Beaumont.)

The subjects are still daring, the characters still memorable, the dialogue and narration still crisp, eloquent and smart. The eerie, nerve-jangling music is still by, among others, Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith. And the voice is still Serling’s: authoritative, ironic, inviting us each week into his now well-established domain, the Twilight Zone.
A lot of the older vet Hollywood directors who helped helm the “Zone” for its first season (like Robert Parrish, Robert Florey, Mitchell Leisen) are gone this season, along with a few of the good newer TV specialists of 1959-60 (Ted Post, Ralph Nelson, Stuart Rosenberg). But the series’ very best director, John Brahm (Time Enough at Last) is back for two stellar outings, both with the series’ acting champ, “Time” librarian Burgess Meredith. And there are some fine young directors continuing from 1959-60 or newly recruited to the troupe, including Buzz Kulik, Elliot Silverstein, Douglas Heyes, and Jack Smight.

I’ve read that The Twilight Zone is Leonardo Di Caprio’s favorite TV series. Good taste. No wonder he makes so many good movies. He’s right, though. It’s still a great show, still with great casts (Meredith, Art Carney, Jack Carson, Agnes Moorehead, Luther Adler, Dennis and Fritz Weaver, and Cliff Robertson), and this is another great set.

Note: Almost all Twilight Zone episodes are good, rarely ever even mediocre. The asterisks below signify the following: * Of special interest. **Classic episode. *** Top of the Zone.

Includes: Disc One: *** ‘King Nine Will Not Return (Buzz Kulik, 1960) With Robert Cummings. A flight captain and a WW2 warplane, alone in the desert. Writer: Rod Serling. **”The Man in the Bottle” (Don Medford, 1960) With Luther Adler and Joseph Ruskin. In a dusty shop, those legendary genie’s wishes tease and trick again. Writer: RS. * Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room (Douglas Heyes, 1960) With Joe Mantell. The big city underworld, a cheap room, a mirror and two personalities. A Thing About Machines (David Orrick McDearmon, 1960) With Richard Haydn. Household machines revolt against an insufferable snob (Haydn). Writer: RS.

** The Howling Man (Heyes, 1960) With H. M. Wynant and John Carradine. The Devil and holy men in a night-shrouded castle. Writer (from his short story): Charles Beaumont. ** Eye of the Beholder (Heyes, 1960) In another world, beauty and cosmetic surgery are relative. With Maxine Stuart and Donna Douglas. Writer: RS. *Nick of Time (Richard L. Bare, 1960) With William Shatner, Pat Breslin. In a small town diner, a cheap fortune telling machine starts predicting the future — correctly. Writer: Richard Matheson.

Disc Two: * The Lateness of the Hour (Jack Smight) With Inger Stevens and John Hoyt. To his daughter (Stevens), an inventor’s household humanoid robots are not a blessing, but a curse. Writer: RS. **The Trouble with Templeton (Kulik, 1960) With Brian Aherne, Pippa Scott and Sydney Pollack (as the stage director). A grand old theater actor (Aherne) dreams of the past, and suddenly rediscovers it. Writer: F. Jack Neuman. * A Most Unusual Camera (John Rich, 1960) With Fred Clark. Three grifters find a camera that shoots pictures of the future. Writer: RS. **Night of the Meek (Smight, 1960) With Art Carney and John Fiedler. A drunken department store Santa (Carney) finds a magical Christmas sack. Writer: RS.

**Dust (Heyes, 1961) With Thomas Gomez, Vladimir Sokoloff, John Larch, and Douglas Heyes, Jr. In a violent old West town, a young man is about to be hanged; a crooked peddler (Gomez) offers a way out. Writer: RS. Back There (McDearmon, 1961) With Russell Johnson and Paul Hartman. A man who thinks time travel can change history goes back himself to the night Lincoln was shot. Writer: RS. ** The Whole Truth (James Sheldon, 1961) With Jack Carson, Loring Smith and Arte Johnson. The world’s most dishonest used car salesman (Carson, natch) buys a Model A which makes him tell the truth — about everything. Writer: RS.
Disc Three: **The Invaders (Heyes, 1961) With Agnes Moorehead and Heyes. A lonely woman in an isolated house is besieged by a tiny UFO and its tiny spacemen. Writer: Matheson. A Penny for Your Thoughts (Sheldon, 1961) With Dick York. A young office worker discovers the perils of telepathy. Writer: George Clayton Johnson. ** Twenty-Two (Smight, 1961) With Barbara Nichols and Jonathan Harris. A star stripper (Nichols), while hospitalized, has a recurring nightmare about a menacing nurse and the morgue in the basement. Writer: RS. The Odyssey of Flight 33 (Addis, 1961) With John Anderson. A commercial plane suddenly goes wildly off-course, in space and time. Writer: RS.

***Mr. Dingle, the Strong (John Brahm, 1961) With Burgess Meredith, Don Rickles and James Westerfield. The best actor (Meredith) and best director (Brahm) of the first two Twilight Zone seasons return for a comic, light-fantastic take on weakness, strength, celebrity, two-headed extraterrestrials and bar-room bets. Writer: RS. Static (Kulik, 1961) With Dean Jagger, Carmen Mathews and Bob Crane (as the disc jockey). An old man (Jagger), who lost his love (Mathews) but loves the past, finds just the right radio station. Writer: Beaumont. * The Prime Mover (Bare, 1961) With Dane Clark and Buddy Ebsen. Two small-time gamblers (Clark and Ebsen), one with a wild talent, take a Las Vegas casino into the Twilight Zone. Writer: Beaumont. Long Distance Call (Sheldon, 1961) With Billy Mumy, Lili Darvas and Philip Abbot. A boy’s beloved but dead grandmother calls him on their private phone. Writers: Beaumont & William Idleson.

Disc Four: **A Hundred Yards Over the Rim (Kulik, 1961) With Cliff Robertson, John Crawford and John Astin. The determined leader (Robertson) of a lost, thirsty wagon train, finds more than sand over the rim. One of the series’ great titles adorns one of its best shows. Writer: RS. * The Rip Van Winkle Caper (Addis, 1961) With Simon Oakland, Oscar Beregi, and John Mitchum. Four robbers in a million dollar gold bar heist enlist G. Gordon Liddy to peddle their loot on TV…No, sorry, the four freeze themselves and awaken 100 years later, ready for a lesson in economics (not from Liddy). Writer: RS. *The Silence (Boris Sagal, 1961) With Franchot Tone, Liam Sullivan, Jonathan Harris and Cyril Delevanti. A club snob (Tone) bets a loudmouth he can’t keep silent for a year, with ominous consequences. Writer: RS.

***Shadow Play (Brahm, 1961) With Dennis Weaver, Harry Townes and Wright King. A seemingly deranged man convicted of murder (Weaver) claims the trial, sentence and impending execution are all part of his (recurring) nightmare, and that when he dies in the chair, everyone else in the world will die with him. Another great one, from noir master Brahm. Writer: Beaumont. ** The Mind and the Matter (Kulik, 1961) With Shelley Berman. A white collar fussbudget (“Inside” comedian Berman) would rather the world were empty of other people…and suddenly it is. Writer: RS. ** Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? (Montgomery Pittman, 1961) With John Hoyt and Jack Elam. Two cops follow the footsteps from a snowstorm-crashed UFO to a diner with eight people. But which is the Martian? Prototypical “Zone” comedy: one imagines it complete with illustrations by Astounding Science Fiction’s Kelly Freas. Writer: RS.

*** The Obsolete Man (Elliot Silverstein, 1961) With Burgess Meredith and Fritz Weaver. In a dystopian future world, run by “1984” style statists, a soft-spoken librarian (Meredith) argues for his usefulness to society, while the brutal Chancellor (Weaver) of a new bookless world shouts him down. A brilliant companion piece to that other Meredith-and-books Serling fable Time Enough at Last — and, like “Time,” it’s Serling, and the “Zone,” at their absolute best. The direction, by Elliot (“Cat Ballou”) Silverstein, is positively Brahmian. Writer: Rod Serling.

Extras: Serling‘s complete ‘50s “Suspense” science-fiction TV play Nightmare at Ground Zero (*); 25 Audio Commentaries, featuring directors Kulik and Heyes, writers Johnson and Robert Serling (Rod‘s brother), actors Robertson, (Dennis) Weaver, Rickles, Mumy, Berman and Douglas, and Twilight Zone scholars, historians and writer/admirers; Interviews with regular “Zone” cinematographer George T. Clemens, and actors Joseph Ruskin and H. M. Wynant; 15 radio dramas of episodes in this set; 22 isolated music scores by Herrmann, Goldsmith and others; Serling promos.


The Tourist (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2010 (Columbia)

There comes a time in life when you realize, sadly, that you‘ll probably never see Venice, except in dreams and movie-houses — never see the Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal, never eat at Caffe Florian, never ride in a gondola, or watch the sun glinting down on the City of Water, the City of Bridges, the City of Masks, Serenissima — and that’s when movies like The Tourist become more important to you.

Important, but not necessarily better. The Tourist, a lushly photographed touristic Hitchcockian exercise in romantic-movie-thrillerism for Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, starts with impressive travelogue credentials. It’s filled with ravishing views of the legendary city where Casanova plied his trade and Antonio Vivaldi composed concerto after concerto for his girls’ school, and where Kate Hepburn tumbled so memorably into the canal: filled with the glorious sights of those canals, the gondolas, the old hotels — and of ravishing Angie smiling and sashaying through it all, stopping traffic and inspiring voyeurism as only Angelina can. This is a city we’d probably all like to visit, and it’s shot here by director-co-writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and cinematographer John Seale, with all the color and the luster they can, uh, muster. (Without bluster or fluster). A huge advantage, that.

Which The Tourist then sort of squanders. Von Donnersmarck, the thriller-savvy writer director of the Oscar-winning German Cold War surveillance suspense movie The Lives of Others, has two witty co-scenarists here — Christopher McQuarrie of Bryan Singer‘s twisty, zappy The Usual Suspects (which has a twist ending) and Julian Fellowes of Robert Altman‘s Agatha Christie-ish, Jean Renoiresque Gosford Park (which does also). And one would have thought this talented threesome could easily acquit their assignment: restarting the agenda of Hitchcock‘s To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest.

I love that Lady Vanishes sort of movie. And initially, I had nothing but fond feelings and expectations for this film — and for Jolie as Elise Clifton-Ward, and for Depp‘s typically whimsical and lightly fey lead male character, Frank Tupelo. Elise is the babe of babes. Frank is a mousy-looking math teacher thrown into international intrigue when British spy and fugitive gang girlfriend Elise becomes his maybe-evil angel.

My tilt seemed especially apt when it developed that Frank hailed from my old home town, Madison, Wisconsin, the city where I lived and went to school, and to the movies, for a decade and a half. I can testify that Franks’ shaggy, wispy hairdo, which has caused consternation in some ultra-critical circles, is pretty much what some young male Madisonians used to wear, at least when I was there, and may still wear — and that in fact, I often avoided haircut expenses in just such a manner myself.

Wandering farther afield, I recall our fair city even had a few knockouts in the Angelina Jolie class (I remember them well) — and that we also often (at least in the ‘60s and ‘70s), sincerely believed we were as overrun with spies, undercover cops and murderous gangsters, as The Tourist’s Venice seems to be here.

Well, enough Remembrance of Things Past. Get thee behind me, Proust. And Ella’s. These days most of us, ex-Madisonians or not, don’t want a slice of life from a movie like The Tourist. We want what Hitchcock always promised from this kind of show (in the genre that he practically invented): slices of cake. Though the plot here might seem to promise (and even serves up) some Hitchcockian delectation, it begins to get soporific and stillborn and as wispy as Frank’s hair, almost as soon as the strangers-on-a-train flirtation starts. Robert Walker and Farley Granger had better flirty badinage, and so did Cary Grant and — take your pick — Grace Kelly (To Catch a Thief), Ingrid Bergman (Notorious), Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) or Audrey Hepburn (in Stanley Donen‘s sparkling Hitchcock pastiche Charade).

The plot? Elise, it seems, is the girlfriend of the mysterious Alexander Pearce, an international outlaw in flight from both Scotland Yard — which has her on camera, manned by the obsessive Dana Andrews-ish cop, Acheson (Paul Bettany) nearly everywhere she goes, from Paris to Venice — and from the killer-thugs of Russian mobster Ivan Demidov (played by Steven Berkoff, the rich scum of the first Beverly Hills Cop), from whom Pearce conned and stole billions of dollars, or enough to qualify him for a tax cut extension from the Republicans in the U.S. Congress.

In the very first scene, a pretty cool opener, Elise, at a Parisian sidewalk café, gets a note from Pearce (a note she quickly reads and burns, while being monitored by the Yard guys) telling her to head for Venice, find some schnook of Pearce’s own general size and build, latch on to him, and sucker Scotland Yard and Demidov into thinking the patsy is really Alex. (Well, we had a lot of schnooks in Madison too, myself included.)

So, she does, and, in this case, Depp, now the seeming Hitchcockian “wrong man” of your dreams, has Elise pitching what seems to be woo and dragging him up to her palatial apartments for what seems to be a roll in the sheets (but isn‘t), and he also has murderers and minions (aided by Christian de Sica, Vittorio de Sica’s boy, as a crooked cop) chasing him all over the rooftops and canals.

That’s the itinerary. They meet, they flirt, they fake us out, they almost smooch, they run from cops and killers. Depp fumbles and shambles and sometimes looks as if he can’t believe his good luck, and sometimes acts as if Brad Pitt were staring over his shoulder. Jolie looks more than ever like a European glamour star hottie out on a shoot, but has been dubiously encouraged to say little, and say it like Kristin Scott-Thomas.

Paul Bettany is quite good, and his part should have been pumped up with another scene or two. Steven Berkoff is just as snobby and sadistic as he was in Beverly Hills Cop. There’s even a Bond around — Timothy Dalton — to complain about tactics. Ah Venice, city of dreams, where Angelina Jolie may pick you up, while Russky goons manacle you to a gondola. Ah Madison, city of bad hair, Beatle albums and student riots. Ah Hollywood, which has a meet-cute for every occasion and a tale for every two cities.

The Tourist is based on French cineaste Jerome Salle’s 2005 French thriller Anthony Zimmer, which took place in Nice instead of Venice, and which is still unreleased in the U.S., despite having good notices, plus Sophie Marceau, Yvan Attal, Sami Frey and Daniel Olbrychski in the main parts. But Tourist is maybe too touristy. It often fails to crackle and delight in the Cary Grant ways it should.

In fact, if I were in the Court Jester-Danny Kaye sort of mood that my luster-muster-fluster-buster-cluster remarks above suggest, I’d say maybe that Tourist was a fizzle, not a sizzle, in the drizzle of Venezia. (or Venizzle?) I don’t object to the relative paucity of suspense scenes in this film, because most contemporary thrillers have too many, and this one has at least four passable ones. What irks me is the movie’s relative failure to build up the beguile factors of Jolie and Depp‘s roles, or to come up with some sexy shower scene or fancy teasing crosstalk for them. This film is like a would be dinner party that’s all canapés and dessert, and where the Russians drank all the wine and the Italians drank all the vodka.

Nevertheless, I would insist that, as failed movies go, The Tourist has stuff to compensate. The spirit of Hitch. Angelina sashaying. Depp yearning. Bettany on the prowl. And Venice. Ah, Venice. We may never get there, but we can still hear the lap of the waves in stereophonic sound, see Kate tumble, hear the gondolier‘s song. “O sole mio…” Isn’t that what movies are for? If only, if only…Ah, the hell with it. (In English, French and Italian, with English subtitles.) Extras: Commentary by von Donnersmarck; Featurettes; Out-takes.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Three Stars)
U.S.: Banksy, 2010 (Oscilloscope)
For the record, this sardonic, cynical, whip-fast Oscar-nominated “documentary” from the secretive street artist Banksy — about an obsessed L. A. doc-maker named Thierry Guetta, who shoots a “documentary” about street artists like Shepherd Fairey and Space Invader (and Banksy), gets nowhere with it (because he has no talent), and then decides to become an artist himself, nicknames himself Mr. Brainwash, holds a huge L. A. art show, getting some L. A. Weekly people to (unknowingly) shill for him, and becomes the rage of the art world — strikes me as fake. Or mostly fake. (Certainly Mr. Brainwash and his “art” are fakes.)

And, as the son of a genuinely brilliant artist (Edna Wilmington) who got nowhere professionally or financially or critically her whole life — while phonies like Mr. Brainwash were conning critics into writing about them and suckers into buying their junk — I resented the hell out of it.

But Banksy is no fake. This movie made me laugh a lot. And, like all of us, I tend to forgive anyone who makes me laugh. Extras: “B Movie,” a film about the “art” of Banksy; Deleted scenes; “Life Remote Control” lawyer’s edit.

Yogi Bear (One Star)
U.S.; Eric Brevig, 2010

“It ain’t over till it’s over.“
Yogi Berra (from Wikipedia)

What can you say? A bunch of movie guys were determined to make a show out of the ’60s TV cartoon series Yogi Bear — starring Dan Aykroyd as the voice of Yogi and Justin Timberlake as the voice of Boo Boo — and there was nothing anybody could do to stop them.

Yogi, of course, was that brash, picnic-basket-obsessed cartoon bear from the studio-shop of erstwhile “Tom and Jerry” Oscar winners Hanna and Barbera, a bear whose signature was his cheap drawing, silly hat and goofy voice. In the era when limited animation became the vogue, Yogi was born to be cheap, made to be cheap. He was cheapness personified.

“90% of the game is half-mental.“
Now, defying all sense of proportion, and of true bearishness, millions and jelly-ilions of dollars have been lavished on a big-movie reprise of Yogi, Boo Boo and Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon ecological showcase, Jellystone Park. The ultimate in CGI 3D wizardry has been employed to fly Yogi up in the air, scoot him over Jellystone panoramas, and sail him past picnickers and picnic baskets as the Yoge chortles “I‘m smarted then the average bear!“ and “Give me that pic-a-nic basket, dammit!“ and other witty or archetypal lines.

Screenwriters Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Stemin, fresh from their labors on The Rock’s show Tooth Fairy, have been hired to write or rewrite those lines and others as well, producing (with the help of Brad “Wild Hogs“ Copeland) a script that sometimes makes Tooth Fairy look like The Red Shoes.

“Always go to other people‘s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.”

Ah, yes. There’s a romance between plucky Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh) and documentary filmmaker Rachel (Anna Faris), and there’s another, more gullible ranger, named Jones (T. L. Miller) and there’s an evil mayor (Andrew Daly), who wants to close Jellystone Park and turn it onto, I don’t know, Casino Jack condos or something. Couldn’t they just have advertised, “At this park, we have two talking bears who walk around in hats and shirts and crack jokes?” Wouldn’t that be a draw?

“I really didn’t say everything I said.”

Visual effects guy Eric Brevig (who directed the recent Journey to the Center of the Earth remake) tries to make sense of all this. He can’t. But Aykroyd, ignoring any effort to reproduce the voice of original Yogi, Daws Butler, blazes new trails in Yogi-dom. (What about giving Dan that classic lost album, “BluesBears: Daws Butler and June Foray sing B. B. King?“)

What can you say about Yogi Bear? That this movie is more profound than the original Huckleberry Hound, more moving than Snagglepuss, more shattering than Deputy Dawg, and just as good as the movies somebody will no doubt make out of all of them? Just kidding. It’s really just another big, bad, expensive movie that leaves you speechless. And kingless. And bearless. As a wise man once said: A movie as bad as this can’t possibly be this bad. Yogi, we hardly knew ye.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.“ — Yogi Berra

Extras: Featurettes; Looney Tune “Rabid Rider”; Game.

How Do You Know (Two Stars)
U.S.: James L. Brooks, 2010 (Sony)

I have nothing much to say about the a new James L. Brooks romantic comedy — from the highly gifted writer-director who made Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News, and helped Jack Nicholson win two Oscars (“Terms” and As Good as It Gets) but who here casts Jack below (and gives him less lines than) Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd, three younger stars playing a romantic triangle vaguely reminiscent (and I do mean vaguely) of Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. Nothing to say but just this:

“Hold the chicken!” (You want me to hold the chicken?) “I want you to hold it between your knees!”

No, let’s develop that thought a little more. Let’s imagine Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd, the three stars billed above Nicholson, each doing that Five Easy Pieces truck stop scene. (I have nothing against any of them, by the way.)

Wilson, I think, would play it a little confused and bemused, and even slightly disbelieving and semi-reasonable, all the way though, and then finally explode frantically on “You see this sign?“ and the ultimate table-sweeping. Then he’d try to gather himself together. Maybe even apologize. Mr. Goof.

Rudd would probably do the scene haggard and a little unkempt as if he‘d been up all night and wasn’t quite himself. Then he‘d begin to stare and stare at the waitress as she kept frustrating him. Then he‘d say, with utter calm, “I want you to hold it between your knees!“ Then he’d give a fakey smile on “You see this sign?” before he sweeps the table. Then another smile and some hand-waving. Mr. Charm.

Reese Witherspoon could do the whole scene cold, just like Jack, though maybe she’d remove her sun-glasses at some point, and give the waitress a long hard stare. And, after she swept the table, she’d give a little “I-don’t-believe-I-just-did-that” shriek. Ms. Attitude.

As good as it gets, which isn’t very good, “How Do You Know” is still never as entertaining nor as vibrant, memorable, and terrific as those few table-sweeping Bob Rafelson-concocted minutes in “Five Easy Pieces.” or Terms of Endearment. And James L. Brooks is a good writer, a good director. There’s no real excuse for this. Except the system, of course.

Look, it’s like this. Movie ageism to the contrary, I’d rather see Jack do the scene himself, looking just as he does now. No one builds a tantrum like the Man. And I’d rather see Owen, Paul and Reese supporting Jack instead of vice versa. You know something? I bet they all would too. Extras: Commentaries with Brooks, Wilson and others. Conversation with Brooks and composer Hans Zimmer; Blooper reel.

On the Double (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Melville Shavelson, 1961 (Paramount/Olive)

Danny Kaye. I can’t waqit. A mediocre Danny Kaye movie is still usually funnier than, say, a mediocre Adam Sandler or Owen Wilson movie. This one has Mr. “Split Personality” Daniel Kaminski himself, in an okay but not scintillating script by co-writers Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson (who also directed), as a cowardly, neurotic U. S. soldier (Kaye) who, because of his amazing resemblance to a vain and sadistic British general (Kaye), is recruited to impersonate the general and fool the Nazis and maybe some movie critics too.

Now, this mean general has a beautiful wife (Dana Wynter), whom the war staff neglects to inform about the substitution, and for whom our kid from Brooklyn instantly falls. Though sick of her husband, she then falls for a guy who looks just like him and is trying to impersonate him, but is nicer. (If she likes rapid-patter songs and sentimental ballads, especially by Danny’s wife Sylvia Fine, she’s hit the jackpot.) There are also an unusual number of Nazi spies who have infiltrated the British Army officer class here, and are impersonating various twits, snobs and Nigel Bruce impersonators. They could have all been played (better) by Peter Sellers. (But he might have messed up the movie by chasing Dana.)

Not too sharp, this movie. A turkey may be lurkin‘ in the murk where Mel is workin‘. A spy tells a lie, as he tries not to die. This movie isn’t proving to be giggly or groovy. But, at the end, Rose and Shavelson come up with some stuff, better stuff than that, and it gets somewhat crazy and funny. More Kaye, I say. And more Sellers too. No extras.

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One Response to “Wilmington on DVD: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Tourist, The Twilight Zone Season Two, The Clowns, Exit Throught the Gift Shop, Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed.”

  1. Speaking of Charles Beaumont, we just released a documentary about the Twilight Zone writer on DVD. Beaumont died of early onset dementia and aging at age 37. The documentary features interviews with William Shatner, Roger Corman, George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan, Ray Bradbury, Forrest J Ackerman, and many others.


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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