MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Strictly Ballroom; Cloak and Dagger; The Guilt Trip; Mama


Australia-U.S.: Baz Luhrmann, 1992 (Miramax Lionsgate)

Before the razzle-dazzle of Romeo and Juliet, or the spectacular virtuosity of Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann sparkled on a smaller stage in his Australian sleeper hit Strictly Ballroom, a nifty, lower-budgeted, but still flashy and imaginative little gem of a musical movie.

It’s Lurhmann’s romantic look at a small time Australian dance contest and at the gorgeous couple (Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice) who break the rules, fashion some fancy new steps and set the show on its ear. (The movie’s signature tune is Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”) The whole show is pretty, exhilarating and fun to watch — and so is the wannabe star couple. Of course, they’re no Fred and Ginger. But then, nobody is.

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


U.S.: Fritz Lang, 1946 (Olive).

Fritz Lang was at his Hollywood studio best in the 40s, especially in the middle of the decade, when he made Ministry of Fear and The Woman in the Window (both 1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) — all films with good scripts or strong literary sources that Lang made even more special. On the other hand, Cloak and Dagger, the glossy World War II spy drama that Lang directed a year later (1946), is well-directed and supremely well-shot (by Sol Polito), but not that well-written. It’s an unimaginative intrigue-as-usual film noir that, while not bad, isn’t too high in the Lang canon.

It’s an unabashed formula picture, with a professional but hackneyed boy-meets-girl plot. American Spy Gary Cooper (a.k.a. Professor Alvah Jesper) and resistance fighter Lilli Palmer flirt and run in the waning days of World War II, in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, where Coop has been parachuted to prevent wizened little professor Vladimir Sokoloff (Polda) from inventing the atom bomb for Hitler before the Manhattan project back home. Coop’s mission: snatch the scientist and fly him out — while doing his best to score points with Palmer, an Austrian-German actress playing an Italian partisan named Gina. Helping out is another dashing partisan, Pinkie, played by Robert Alda, who had just starred as George Gershwin in the 1945 bio-musical Rhapsody in Blue and might have better employed as Coop’s romantic rival.

Cloak and Dagger is hamstrung by a second-rate script, as clichéd as its title, even though it was written by two celebrated Hollywood lefties (and later members of the Hollywood Ten) Ring Lardner, Jr. and Albert Maltz, and is based on a story by Boris Ingster, the director of the 1940 film noir classic Stranger on the Third Floor. With all that talent, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Cloak and Dagger, but nothing particularly right with it either: little that’s very memorable or exciting, even while Coop is racing though Europe, one step ahead of the Gestapo. (One exception: the nerve-rnding, near-silent fight-to-the-death between Coop and a suspicious Nazi, with a bustling street outside.)

The picture’s major flaw is that it doesn’t have a continuous, effective villain, like Dan Duryea in Lang’s three previous pictures. One good, suave heavy (maybe like Palmer’s husband Rex Harrison) could have given Coop something stronger to play against, and juiced up the show. But perhaps we expect too much here of the auteur of Metropolis and M, and maybe too much of Gary Cooper, who despite his problems impersonating a nuclear professor and German-speaking spy, does still manage to look super-duper. By the way, if you can spot any Communist propaganda in this movie, you may have a future on Fox News.

THE GUILT TRIP (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Anne Fletcher, 2012 (Paramount)

The Guilt Trip they call it? Well, in this movie, Barbra Streisand, bless her, plays a nice Jewish mother named Joyce Brewster and Seth Rogen plays her not-so-nice Jewish, or at least half-Jewish, son Andy — and for this movie I have just one word: Meshuggener! No, that’s not nice. The movie tried. Its heart was in the right place. It’s about a mother and son — a nice picture for this holiday season, when a mother is lucky if she hears from her son, once — and the two of them are driving cross-country together while he peddles his invention, this super-duper cleaning product that he invented, called Sci-o-clean or Schmatzo-Clean or something. I’m not kidding. It sounds like Hollywood mishigoss, I know. But Andy is taking his cleaner to these big corporations all over the country, a cleaner they make out of coconuts and soy sauce, and Joyce, the mother is there for, you now, moral support. Moral support! We should all have such moral support when we drive cross-country to peddle our coconuts.

Would you like a little chicken soup? It’s no trouble; it’s just in the rerigerator. No, it’s no trouble; don‘t worry about it. Such a worrier, like my cousin Si….So, anyway the two of them, Joyce the mother and Andy the son, they drive from Virginia to Texas to Santa Fe to San Francisco (so economically too, in a compact car and with what do you call them, process shots out the window). And, on the way they quibble and they kvetch. He quibbles and she kvetches. And he screams. Oy! A little too much, maybe.

One thing I have to ask. Barbra Streisand, she‘s a lovely lady still, still– with a lovely voice. (She’s 70, really? My God, she looks 50.) So why didn’t they give her a song to sing? They’re embarrassed maybe that she once played Fanny Brice in that movie Funny Girl and she sang “People who need people?” They’re embarrassed that she could make people cry with her singing? This movie should have a song and a scene half as good as “People, people who need people, are the luckiest people…”. I’m serious. Or half as good as “Second Hand Rose.” “Even Jake the plumbuh, he’s the man I adoah. He had the noive ta tell me…“

Okay, okay, I’ll stop singing, Mr, Caruso. Mr. Pavarotti, Mr. Golden Throat Cantor Sirota Placido Domingo, whom nobody can sing to when he’s around. But this Guilty Trip or whatever, it should even have a song as good as, you should pardon the expression, “You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog” by Mr. Elvis the Pelvis Presley. And you know, I bet Miss Streisand could probably make us cry with that one too. “Hound dogs, hound dogs who need hound dogs…” Okay, okay. Such a sense of humor you don’t have.

The movie, too. I mean it. Miss Barbra, she‘s a funny lady, too, still, so why didn’t they give her a joke to tell? Ot a joke that was, God forgive me, funny, at least. I’m serious. Or rather The Guilty Trip is serious, too serious. The jokes in this movie, they give you the idea the writer and the director think it would be disrespectful to laugh too hard. Can you imagine? They have a perfectly good funny actress playing the mother, Miss Barbra Streisand, and a perfectly good funny actor playing the son, Mr, Seth Rogen, and still the best joke they can come up with is Mrs. Brewster trying to win a contest and she should, forgive me, make a pig out of herself eating a four-and-a-half pound steak at some fancy Texas steakhouse called Cattleman’s Ranch or The Cattle Kettle or something, full of, what do you call them, cowpokes. Cowpokers. Cowboys. Like Mr. Ben Graw, this cowpuncher played by Mr. Brett Cullen, who likes Joyce and who reminded me a little of Cousin Randy the laminectomy specialist. A little. Whatever. Eat your soup; it’s getting cold.

Anyway, Miss Barbra. She eats. She’s almost done. She stops. No explanation, except maybe you know, she feels queasy. This is as good as they’ve got? This is a big fancy-schmancy expensive Hollywood joke? A joke about almost vomiting? And as for that contest, that mishigoss, that so-called prize: that’s all she gets for eating, God help us, a four-, five-pound steak with a salad and potatoes and biscuits and some kind of dessert? That’s all those cheapskate cowpokers give her as a prize, is that when she eats it all, she gets one, you should excuse the expression, lousy free dinner? And maybe some Pepto? They should give her free steaks till the cows come home, and they should give it to everybody in their so-called phony contests, except of course your cousin Diana, the Greenwich Village Vegan, God bless her. (Eat your soup; it looks lonely sitting there. Be polite.) Chiselers, that’s what they are. In the script I mean. I know none of it really happened, thank you very much.

Then, Mr. Seth Rogen. About him, I was completely bewildered, I must tell you. Rogen: The actor who plays Joyce’s son Andy, who looks like my cousin Si’s nebbish son Ricky. Andy, the so-called son! You should excuse that expression too: Mr. Rogen, the star of that distinguished world-renowned moving picture, Knocked Up. What does he do now that he’s not running around, you should excuse the expression, knocking people up? Knocking ladies up?

He yells at his mother. He insults his mother. He’s embarrassed by his mother. His mother who gave him life and cooked his meals and cleaned up his messy room and made sure he didn’t walk to school with his pants on backwards and his hat upside down. For this– Mr, Fancy Schmancy Seth Rogen — you scream and carry on like your mother committed some kind of crime? Such a son as that, he should be ashamed. He should be eating her steak for her. For shame, Mr. Fancy Schmancy Seth Rogen. I hope some day when you knock some more people up, you should have such a son as that.

You know what would have saved this Guilty Trip for me? If at the end, when they have those credits that go on forever — like Cousin Si’s second wife Mabel or Uncle Bert talking about his gout — they’d had Miss Streisand sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.“ Wouldn’t that have been nice? They could have brought in Mr. Tony Bennett, I’m sure they’re friends, to sing it with her. Such a song: perfect for her. It would have given people a nice feeling when they left the theater.

What? You think it’s corny? Corny, he says? Thank you Mr. New York sophisticate Top Ten David Letterman. Like nobody wants to hear Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett sing a wonderful song about the city San Francisco where the mother Joyce and son Andy end up? Well, maybe. The world has changed is all I can say. Wait a minute. You say I’m all confused? This movie isn‘t The Guilty Trip; It‘s The Guilt Trip? Like that‘s some big difference? Oh, I see.

You say The Guilt Trip is actually a tribute to the screenwriter’s mother — written, by the cartoon writer, Mr. Dan Fogleberg, excuse me, Dan Fogleman — who wrote those nice cartoons, Cars and Bolt and Tangled. And he wrote this movie about his own mother, Joyce, and named Miss Streisand‘s character Joyce after her. You’re sure? Andy the character is actually taking his mother across country while he peddles his coconuts, because he wants to have a reunion between Joyce and her old boyfriend, the man she gave up for Andy’s father, also named Andy? And there’s a surprise ending? Oh sure there is, like these people in Hollywood can keep a secret.

Well, if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. If Mr. Fogle-Schmogel writes about what he did to help his mother, he must be a nice boy. At heart. These movies today are so confusing, I think maybe they even confuse the people who make them. So I‘m sorry, sorry. Sorry to you, Miss Streisand, Sorry to you Mr. Fancy Schmancy Seth Rogen. (Yes, I won’t call him fancy-schmancy any more. ) Sorry to you, Mr Unfancy Rogen. Sorry to Miss Director Anne Fletcher. (Did she really make a movie about 27 Dresses? How industrious!)

As for Mr, Dan Fogleman. Well, God bless him, I say. There’s a son. Not like some sons I could name who can never pick up the phone and dial a number or answer a phone call when somebody makes it across country, at all that expense? No, he wouldn’t treat his mother like that. Instead, he makes a movie about her, even if it’s sometimes hard to understand. Or sometimes even corny. What can I say? Nothing. No, one thing I do say. Meshuggener!

Not the movie. Somebody fancy-schmancy right here in this room, right here within my earshot. I say no more. My lips are sealed. Eat your soup. By now, Mr. I Know What’s Corny, it’s so cold you could make chicken-flavored ice cubes out of it.

Extras: None.

MAMA (Three Stars)

U.S.:Andy Muschietti, 2013 (Universal)

Remember the good old, bad old days of movie horror, when screen frightmeisters didn’t always seem to try to turn our stomachs to make our hair stand on end? Remember when blood and gore and paranormal high jinks and lousy, deliberately amatuerish-looking camerawork and weren‘t the names of the game, when audiences could get scared at a moviewithout also getting revolted? Some pretty good movies helped make that grisly transition — shows like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street, and even not so good but interesting pictures like The Blair Witch project— but that doesn’t mean those same movies weren’t also resposnible for an awful lot of crap.

Mama is something of a throwback, and at times a stunning one.. At times, it’s not stunning at all. But at its best, this state-of-the-art modern ghost story — another scare saga from the Guillermo Del Toro factory — recalls those earlier, less bloody days of fear and (not necessarily) loathing, when horror films were made for adults, and when they could even strive to be a little subtle, and literate. Filled with elegant, spooky images of otherworldly phantasms plaguing fairly real-seeming people, Mama spins a yarn about two little feral girls, Victoria and Lilly, left in the forest in a shabby cabin after their distraught father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) freaks out, following a financial wipe-out, and hustles the girls out to the forest. His goal: trying to kill them both, followed by his own suicide.

The girls, however are rescued by a sinister-looking wraith-thing that is (or was) apparently their mother (played by Javier Botet, with lots of CGI). And five years later — after somehow surviving in the woods by themselves for all that time — the girls are discovered and brought back to civilization. (Unfortunately, there are still financial woes, thanks to the U. S. Congress at its most monstrous.)

So the lassies are set up in a fairly posh home by an inquisitive doctor interested in their psychology (Daniel Kasha as Dr. Dreyfuss). They are cared for by their late father’s brother, a Bohemian-style artist named Lucas (Coster-Waldau in the second stanza of a double part) and his punky-pretty girl band girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Needless to say, the two little girls – the tamer and more civilized Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and younger, wilder Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) — prove quite a handful. Not as much of s handful, though, as the flying, swooping, totally spooky creature who is apparently their very protective mom. Or what she’s become.

I’m not partial to a lot of modern horror movies, especially the ones with a big Ick-factor. But I like most of Del Toro’s work, and I enjoyed this one. Del Toro was the executive producer here, and the director-cowriter, making his feature debut, is Andy Muschietti. He’s no Del Toro, but he’s an imaginative chap with a very spiffy visual sense, Besides, starting Mama off with a big financial crisis demonstrates that the movie has a good sense of what’s genuinely scary about contemporary society — and who the real monsters are. Also, having a heroine who’s a punk rocker of sorts shows both that the movie is somewhat hip and that Jessica Chastain — an Oscar favorite this year for her work as the CIA Bin Laden hunter in “Zero Dark Thirty“ — can be an amazingly versatile actress.

Playing Annabel, she attracts and repels (a little) and stirs things up. She also gives us a sense of reality, and her believable reactions to all the spooky things swirling around her pull us right into the action. So do the wild responses of Charpentier and Lelisse as Victoria and Lilly, two of the scariest little girls on screen since the blank-faced little ghosts in Stanley Kubrick’s and Stephen King’s chilling classic The Shining.

Watching Mama, I was occasionally reminded of another classic movie horror tale about a little girl and her mother, producer Val Lewton’s and co-director Robert Wise’s 1944 low-budget Curse of the Cat People. Mama isn’t low-budget, and it doen’t have any cat people, cursed or not, but, at times, it scares you without creeping you out. So does Jessica Chastain.

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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