MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVD, The Rest: Somewhere, Gulliver’s Travels, Country Strong, Birdemic, Mirage, The World in His Arms


Somewhere (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Sofia Coppola, 2010 (Universal)

Sofia Coppola’s film Somewhere, the Golden Lion winner at the last Venice Film Festival, is about a star Hollywood movie actor named Johnny Marco (played with deceptively lazy-looking grace and expertise by Stephen Dorff) who lives a pointless life of hedonism and play at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard (the Hollywood landmark where John Belushi overdosed), in between publicity and press appointments orchestrated by his publicity people, room visits by twin blonde pole dancers, sexy/druggie parties, flights off to Italy for film festival appearaces and preparations for whatever his next movie may be. (Whatever it is, we can tell it will be something he really doesn’t give a damn about.)

The one spark of redemption in his joylessly self-indulgent routine is a visit by his daughter Cleo, 11 (played by Elle Fanning), with whom he plays video games, drives around L. A., and shares the kind of normal family routines and emotions empty from most of the rest of his life. The movie, very realistic, and very spare of dialogue, with the feelings buried down beneath, was very austerely shot in the glummest of sunny L. A. days by Harris Savides, made in the indie-est of indie styles by a writer-director who knows the Hollywood scene from the ground up, Sofia Coppola, and executive produced by her legendary film director father Francis Ford Coppola.

Did Sofia, who also wrote and directed the highly regarded 2003 Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, put some of herself into Cleo? Probably. But more important, she puts herself in every frame of her film, the most personal and uncompromising of personal looks at a world she probably knows (or knows of) very well.

Extra: Featurette “Making Somewhere.”

Gulliver’s Travels (Also Blu-ray) (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Rob Letterman, 2010 (20th Century Fox)

For some reason, this big-time, big-bucks adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s oft-filmed fantasy adventure-political satire about Lemuel Gulliver — a lost sailor shipwrecked in Lilliput, land of the teeny people, and later in Brobdingnag, land of the humungous people — has become a romantic comedy vehicle for Jack (I kid you not) Black.

This Gulliver’s Travels has also been “modernized“ (i.e.: updated) into silliness. Jack B. is now Lem Gulliver, Manhattan travel writer, lost in the Bermuda triangle, and then an accidental voyager to Lilliput, where he becomes the Big Cheeserino — before finally getting stranded in Bagofcrap, land of the ridiculous cliché.

The director is Rob Letterman of Monsters Vs. Aliens, and the writers are Joe Stillman of Shrek, and Nicholas Toller of Get Him to the Greek, and they’ve all seen better days. (So has Jonathan Swift. So has Jack Black. ) There is also a kind of traveling Gulliverette, played by Amanda Peet, as Lem’s editor, Darcy, and she winds up in Lilliput too. Plus there’s a best buddy role for Jason Segel of I Love You Man — who nevertheless shouldn’t let himself get typed as SuperPal. (Segel should play a worst enemy or two).

Meanwhile, Black, who also produced, seems to like toying with all his fellow castmates, peeking into windows and defeating armadas. Keeping everyone on their toes, he clumps all around the movie, without ever stepping on those diminutive Lilliputians scurrying all around beneath him. (Does Jack have cat feet?) The visual effects in Gulliver’s Travels are good, but the movie is sort of, you know (forgive me), just not too swift — though it might have worked if they’d done it in period. Trust Jonathan Swift. He’s lasted a long time. Extras: Featurette; Gag reel. 

Country Strong (Two Stars)

U. S.: Shana Feste, 2010 (Sony)

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill. He sounds too blue to fly. The Midnight train is whinin’ low. I’m so lonesome, I could cry,”
-Hank Williams

It’s hard sometimes to put your heart on your sleeve, and make it stick. Buffeted by memories of that brilliant 2009 Country & Western tearjerker Crazy Heart — and other similar movies from Tender Mercies to Sweet DreamsCountry Strong tries to summon up the same sense of simple homespun beauty and back roads music and sometimes hellbound self-destruction, and doesn’t make it.

It’s too obvious, formula-bound, too twisted up in standard-issue heartstring stuff. It means well. The actors are mostly good (at both acting and singing). But they’re trapped in telegraphed heartache.

Gwyneth Paltrow is the star — and she should have been a knockout, sometimes is. Paltrow plays (and sings) the part of alcoholic six-time Grammy winning country star Kelly Canter– recovering from a catastrophe at a Dallas concert, enduring a stay in rehab and forced back on the road for a comeback tour by her loving but pushy husband James. (She also has a hurt little bird that she takes care of.)

James (played very well, but frustratingly, without a song, by country star Tim McGraw) is a good man who’s learned too well to play the game, and maybe becomes more concerned with Kelly’s career than he is with Kelly. There are two younger players who complete the quadrangle. Garrett Hedlund (Tron Legacy) plays (and sings) a part time (but extremely good) C&W singer named Beau Hutton who works at Kelly’s clinic and has an affair with her. Leighton Meester (Gossip Girls) plays (and sings) Chiles Stanton, a self-conscious beauty queen prone to stage freeze-ups, who’s trying to start a C&W career, and who becomes James‘ protégé and mistress.

All four of them wind up on the comeback tour, where three of them sing, sparks fly, concerts are canceled, and hearts are, well, put on sleeves. I never found out what happened to that hurt little bird. Anybody catch something I missed?

Director-writer Shana Feste — who also made the 2010 domestic drama The Greatest — probably couldn’t have asked for a better cast. Unfortunately, I mostly didn’t believe a word of this movie, or at least most of the words. I didn’t believe the relationships, the affairs, the crises, the instant reactions of the crowd to the two new-comers, didn’t believe the final resolution (which I won’t reveal, spoiler-alerted or not). I didn’t believe Kelly’s loving husband and friends and interested co-workers would leave Kelly alone so often, at such crucial moments. I didn’t even believe I was in Texas. (I wasn’t; the movie was shot in Nashville.)

I should say though that Country Strong has one great scene. In that scene, Kelly goes to an elementary school on a “Make a Wish” visit and sings to a little boy who has leukemia. The boy is quiet and frail-looking, but still feisty. She lifts him in her arms, dances with him, sings sweetly. It may sound a little forced, sound like obvious heart-tugging, my problem with the rest. But it works. I believed it.

And you know, I believed Hank Williams. I believed Patsy Cline.  I believed Johnny Cash. I believed Waylon Jennings. I believe Willie Nelson. I believed Tammy Wynette. I believe Merle Haggard. I believe k.d. lang. I believe Kris Kristofferson. Hell, when the lights are low, and the beer spills a little, and the jukebox is playing a real sad song with a slide guitar, I want to believe ‘em all. As Hank said…

“The silence of a falling star lights up the purple sky. And, as I wonder where you are, I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

 Extras: Music videos; Extended performance; Original ending; Deleted scenes.

Birdemic Shock and Terror (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.: James Nguyen, 2008 (MPI)

A parody of Hitchcock’s The Birds that tries to be deliberately bad, and succeeds. Hailed as a “cult hit,” a “worldwide midnight movie sensation,” and “the best worst movie all time” (on “CBS Sunday Morning”), but it must work better when you’re out at night, in a theatre, surrounded by a lot of people laughing at and ridiculing it. I saw it all by myself, and it was deadly.

“Schlock and Error” is more like it. With Whitney Moore as the threatened heroine (she’s not bad, which must have been a chore), Alan Bagh as the threatened hero, a lot of floppy props and inept effects as the malevolent feathered friends, and a cameo by original “Birds” star Tippi Hedren, who deserves much better. Tech credits are all appalling, which is, of course, intentional. See it, if you must see it, with the rowdiest friends, or casual acquaintances, you can find. Extras: Commentaries by director James Nguyen, and actors Moore and Bagh; Deleted scenes; Featurettes; Trailers; Electronic press kit.

Mirage (Three Stars)

U.S.: Edward Dmytryk, 1965 (Universal)

Mirage, a good show that you may have missed, begins in a Manhattan skyscraper blackout where a famous world peace advocate plunges to a sidewalk-splattering death and we meet, in the shadows, lights-out brouhaha and bustle up and down the dark stairs, a very puzzled accountant named David Stillwell (played with stoic confusion by Gregory Peck), who seems to have blacked out on most of his recent life.

Peck is immediately thrust into a turbulent trackdown of his vanished past, involving that suicide/fall/maybe-homicide victim (Walter Abel), friends that maybe aren‘t friends (Kevin McCarthy), deadly pursuits by determined or smarmy thugs (including George Kennedy and Jack Weston), a mysterious mastermind named The Major (Leif Erickson), an unfriendly psychiatrist (Robert J. Harris), and repeated “accidental” tete-a-tetes with a mystery woman (Diane Baker) seemingly miffed because Peck has forgotten all about her.

This is an intriguing, entertaining, well-acted black-and-white film noir — or maybe it classifies as a neo-noir, because it’s from the mid-sixties — sharply written by Peter Stone (Charade) and tautly directed by Edward Dmytryk (HUAC guts-spiller but also the maker of those noir classics Murder My Sweet, Crossfire and The Sniper and  that terrific psychological Western Warlock). Mirage runs lots of twists and riffs on the classic amnesia thriller format (as in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1946 Somewhere in the Night), and grips us most of the way toward a slightly too obvious ending. Adapted from the novel Fallen Angel, by leftist writer Howard (Spartacus) Fast, the picture has politics too.

And the movie, to its eternal credit, has Walter Matthau, a year before the great Hollywood sourpuss won an Oscar (appropriate name) for his peerlessly crooked performance as Jack Lemmon’s sharpie shyster brother-in-law Whiplash Willie Gingrich (no relation to Newt, except morally), in Billy Wilder‘s somewhat underrated comedy masterpiece The Fortune Cookie. Here Matthau, at his dour-faced best, is another sharpie pro: underemployed streetwise private eye Ted Caselle, whom Peck’s Stillwell hires to try to figure out what’s going on. It’s one of those tangy, memorable, pungent supporting performances that are one of the joys of a good Hollywood genre movie, which Mirage definitely is. No extras.


The World in His Arms  (Three and a Half Stars.)

(U.S.: Raoul Walsh, 1952 (Universal).

“Lusty” and “rowdy” and “top of the line” are three descriptions that aptly suit both the movies and the personal qualities of  Raoul Walsh — a hard-boiled classic moviemaker who lived from 1887 to 1980, directed over a hundred movies from 1914 to 1964, and probably bored fewer audiences than any other vintage Hollywood moviemaker.

This is one of Walsh’s more exciting non-Western adventure pictures. Scripted by Borden Chase (Red River) from the bestselling novel by Rex Beach, it’s the tale of swaggering, heroic Captain Jonathan Clark, a.k.a. “The Boston Man” (aka Gregory Peck), a titan of the sailing and seal trades, a nemesis to the Russians of Alaska, and an impertinent  hero who woos a Russian princess (Ann Blyth), races an unscrupulous but ever-genial Portuguese Captain (Anthony Quinn)  to Alaska, and then has to join forces with the “Portugee” to beat the Russkies. Here, though, they’re not Communists but mean royalty, played by Carl Esmond and other stuffed shirts.

This is Peck in his less noble, more fun-loving mode, and it’s Quinn as rowdy and lusty as I’ve even seen him. But Ann Blyth? As a Russian princess? Is she, like Peter Sellers, a master of American accents? Oh well, she’s so pretty, who cares? As for Raoul Walsh, I’ll say this for him: He’s a great action man, a great brawlmeister, great with tall ships,  and a great director to close down a bar with. Can you say that about Yasujiro Ozu? (Not unless you love saki.)     No extras.

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2 Responses to “Wilmington on DVD, The Rest: Somewhere, Gulliver’s Travels, Country Strong, Birdemic, Mirage, The World in His Arms”

  1. Tyler says:

    The daughter’s name is Somewhere is Cleo, not Chloe.

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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