Posts Tagged ‘Bull Durham’

The DVD Wrap: Date Night, The Joneses, Triage, Helen, Multiple Sarcasms and more …

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Date Night

In anticipation of Date Night, some longtime fans of Tina Fey and Steve Carell might have wondered if the Second City alums and NBC sitcom stars would be more credible playing siblings, instead of husband and wife.

While no one could confuse them for identical twins, they share a lot of creative DNA. The same could be said, though, about any comic whose artistic roots lead back to Second City (Chicago or Toronto), the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade or Improv Olympics. The split-second timing, assured stage bearing, disciplined approach to the material and self-confidence absorbed there distinguishes them from graduates of Mom & Pop’s Acting Academy anywhere else.

Being primarily a chase-and-escape flick predicated on a single tenuous premise, Date Night simply wasn’t a film that fit comfortably within Fey and Carell’s wheelhouse. It worked best for me when the concise verbal gags were allowed to stand on their own and not telegraph something coming down the road: Fey confusing “whack off” for “whack” when confronted by armed thugs, and Carell’s reaction to the gaffe; her hilariously oblivious response to Carell’s interest in sex after the kids are put to bed; and a largely improvised pole dance, designed to amuse a brutish gangster.

Otherwise, Date Night is The Out-of-Towners with a car chase. (In the hands of Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis, Neil Simon’s fish-out-of-water comedy worked marvelously; not so with the more farcical adaptation provided Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn.) Here, New Jersey suburbanites Phil and Claire Foster have ventured into the wilds of Manhattan for a hastily planned celebratory dinner. Ridiculously cocky, Phil believes they can walk into one of the city’s trendiest restaurants and get a table, based solely on their good looks.

After being insulted by the snooty gay maître’d, Phil boldly answers the call for a table reserved for the Tripplehorns, who must have had other plans for the evening. No sooner do the appetizers arrive than the Fosters realize they’re impersonating a couple wanted by the police, mobsters and police on the mobsters’ payroll. From this point on, Date Night is off to the races. Although some of the chases and escapes are extremely well executed, Fey and Carell merely are required to mug their responses to what’s swirling around them … not their strong suit.

That said, however, Shawn Levy’s action-comedy is more entertaining than not and doesn’t lose much in the transfer to DVD. The Blu-ray version benefits from the inclusion of an excellent making-of featurette, in which Levy exuberantly describes how one goes about shooting a movie in New York under strict time and budgetary restraints. It also adds a gag reel, extended and deleted scenes, a longer version of the central car chase, commentary, camera tests, Disaster Dates With the Cast, teaser “PSAs” and a Live Lookup feature. – Gary Dretzka

The Joneses

Nearly a half-century after the events described in AMC’s Mad Men took place, marketing and advertising strategies have evolved to the point where it’s become nearly impossible to distinguish between the medium and the message … or “massage,” to coin a phrase made famous by Marshall McLuhan. In his debut as a writer/director, Derrick Borte anticipates a highly personal form of marketing, which combines subliminal advertising with product placement, direct sales and flat-out deception.

Demi Moore, David Duchovny, Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth comprise a picture-perfect nuclear family, the Joneses, newly arrived in an affluent suburban neighborhood populated by trend-conscious consumers. What their neighbors don’t know is that this unreasonably handsome family was placed among them for the sole purpose of promoting products they’ll associate with the Jones’ level of success. That none of the Joneses is related to the others only makes the marketing ploy that much more cynical. Even absent a hard-sell approach or strategically placed billboard, the products literally fly off the shelves of the manufacturers the Joneses represent.

Duchovny plays a scratch golfer, whose skill is attributed to a certain brand of equipment; Moore’s specialty is beauty products; Hollingsworth pitches skateboards to his pals at high school; and Heard sells gourmet food to diet-conscious hotties. No sooner does one product take off than another is introduced. Their supervisor, played by Lauren Hutton, keeps a running tally on sales and shamelessly manipulates the Joneses to maintain her exalted position in the pyramid scheme. So far, so good. It isn’t until Borte elects to lighten the darker shades of his comedy that this promising premise is swamped by a sudden wave of moralizing and the inevitable search for a positive message.

It arrives in the form of status-conscious neighbors (Gary Cole, Glenne Headly), who covet the products they associate with the Jones’ posh lifestyle. Unfortunately, the husband is sadly unaware of the fact that each new luxury sports car driven by his golf buddy is a product placed specifically for his perusal by the marketing company, and trying to keep up with the Joneses is economic suicide. When the inevitable tragedy finally spoils the fun, the script demands a sentimental conclusion. Still, it isn’t difficult to recommend The Joneses, based primarily on the ability of Duchovny and Moore to extend the central conceit as far as it goes. The Blu-ray edition only adds a couple of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka


American distributers have become so afraid of movies pertaining to the increasingly futile conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that small gems like Triage are being overlooked. Set in Kurdistan, practically on the eve of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 gassing of the city of Halabja, Danis Tanovic’s drama describes just how quickly a journalist can go from witness to victim in the heat of war, and have little or no recollection of how he got there. Here, a pair of freelance photographers has traveled from Ireland to a remote corner of the embattled province, specifically to record the activity in a rebel medical unit.

Sensing impending doom, one decides to split ahead of a rebel offensive, choosing to hike his way out of Iraq, instead of waiting for a relief vehicle. Several days later, that photographer has disappeared and the other, Mark (Colin Farrell), has been rescued from a nearby river bed, unconscious and seriously wounded, and returned to the triage unit. Even barely conscious, Mark understands that the same doctor he’d met earlier in the makeshift cave infirmary soon will be required to decide whether his injuries can be healed or he’ll be put out of his great misery with a bullet to the heart, as was the fate of other doomed fighters he’d photographed.

I’m not giving anything away by advancing the story to Dublin, where Mark tries desperately to recollect the specifics of the attack for his wife and the widow of his comrade. That he can’t remember anything but bits and snatches of the ordeal paralyzes him with fear, remorse and guilt. It isn’t until Mark gives in to the counsel of his wife’s (Paz Vega) elderly grandfather – a psychotherapist who once treated officers responsible for atrocities in the Spanish Civil War – that he begins to make sense of what happened. In the very capable hands of 88-year-old Christopher Lee, the dignified and dapper doctor uses his experiences in that even more gruesome conflagration to shape the treatment of Mark, a product of the gonzo school of photojournalism. Their exchanges are worth the price of a rental, alone.

Tanovic’s interpretation of Scott Anderson’s novel is informed by his experiences in the Bosnian war, which also resulted in his amazing first feature, No Man’s Land, winner of a 2002 Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. The DVD arrives with some very decent making-of material. – Gary Dretzka


It’s been a while since a movie about a woman suffering from advanced clinical depression has tickled the fancy of American audiences. Used to be, a high-profile actress could almost guarantee herself an Oscar nomination by playing someone whose grasp on reality was tenuous, at best. Now that the nation’s megaplexes have been surrendered to teenagers and fanboys, however, razors blades have been reserved mostly for cutting lines of cocaine, not wrists.

Even with a cast that included Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg, Brittany Murphy and Vanessa Redgrave, Girl, Interrupted failed to live up to the hype generated by Susanna Kaysen’s book. Ten years later, in Helen, Ashley Judd would deliver a performance that might have been considered for an Oscar nomination, if this were 1989 and the movie had opened in more than one theater in New York. In it, Judd plays a seemingly happy wife, mother and educator, who, without warning, displays signs of suicidal depression.

At first, her illness is confined to crying jags and withdrawal from family, friends and students. Before long, however, Helen refuses to acknowledge anyone’s kindness, except a student who suffers from a bi-polar condition. Her depression, which also precipitated a previous suicide attempt, has been in remission for many years. Her second husband, David (Goran Visnjic), pledges to support Helen throughout the coming ordeal, but, eventually, her seeming disregard wears him out, as well. Because Judd pulls out all the stops in her performance, none of this is pleasant to watch.

Helen doesn’t end badly, thank God, but it very easily could have. German writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck, whose Mostly Martha could hardly be more different in tone than Helen, reportedly was inspired by the suicide of a childhood friend. Moreover, in 2006, Judd entered a program for depression and co-dependency, in Texas. In an interview included in the bonus material, Judd is effusive in her praise of Nettelbeck’s interpretation of her character and how she came off in the finished product. Although Judd seems more interested in her husband’s racing career and University of Kentucky athletics, it would be nice to see her in movie roles that measure up to her talent and have some commercial potential. – Gary Dretzka

Multiple Sarcasms

Linda Morris and Brooks Branch’s hyper-neurotic dramedy, Multiple Sarcasms, harkens back to 1979, when otherwise successful middle-age professionals – men, predominantly — could afford midlife crises or bouts of middle-age craziness. The malaise invariably revealed itself as these pre-Boomers were about to turn 40 and all of the life choices they’d made, professionally and personally, began to sour. In the movies, this meant impromptu purchases of expensive sports cars and exotically skinned cowboy boots, affairs with women half their age and ill-advised divorces.

Today, of course, anyone that age with a job would be insane to risk being laid off, merely to satisfy an itch in their crotch. Here, Timothy Hutton plays a thusly stricken architect, who’s blessed with a wonderful wife (Dana Delany), a terrific daughter (India Ennenga), a yummy BFF (Mira Sorvino) and loyal pals (Mario Van Peebles, Laila Robins), yet is willing to sacrifice everything to fulfill a dream of writing a play (the Manhattan equivalent of buying Tony Lama boots and a Porsche).

Hutton portrays angst-ridden Boomers as well as any actor his age, but, here, his miseries could hardly be less compelling. These sorts of movies would be far more believable if the ditched spouses weren’t nearly so attractive and nurturing, and the kids were a smidge more unbearable. How difficult could that be? Multiple Sarcasms capably captures the look and feel of 1979, but swings and misses when it comes to capturing realistic human behavior. The Blu-ray package adds a making-off featurette and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Thorn in the Heart

In countless music videos, commercials and such films as The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind and Human Nature, French director/writer Michel Gondry has demonstrated an unmatched talent for combining child-like whimsy, off-beat characters and visual invention in the service of brain-tickling narratives. By comparison, Gondry’s new family-based documentary,The Thorn in the Heart, is conventional, bordering on sentimental. (Don’t worry, fans, his big-budget adaptation of the Green Hornet comic-book saga is scheduled to arrive in January.)

Thorn in the Heart pays homage to revered Gondry-family matriarch, Aunt Suzette, who taught in various rural outposts from 1952-86, mostly in one-room school houses and for the benefit of immigrants and the children of farmers and shopkeepers. By all accounts, Aunt Suzette was an excellent educator and remarkable human being, although she sometimes lost patience with her own kids. While her influence on Gondry isn’t immediately obvious, his family clearly valued scholarship, storytelling and imagination.

The bonus features include a post-screening Q&A and conversation with Gondry, from SXSW; a music video of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Little Monsters; stop-animation by collaborator Valerie Pirson; kids’ calendar sketches; and the featurette, Techno Suzette. – Gary Dretzka

Under the Mountain

Before watching this horror-fantasy for tweeners, I was unaware of the best-selling novels by New Zealand’s Maurice Gee. Under the Mountain was a departure for the Auckland-born author, who had been known for stories that cut against the grain of the country’s dull, conservative self-image. While lauded in most literary circles, Gee’s mysteries, thrillers and stories about dysfunctional families, crime and racism struck some critics as being overly sordid and violent.

Like his other stories, Gee set Under the Mountain in Auckland, a major city ringed by dormant volcanoes, some of whose craters had formed lakes and lagoons. Two houses on opposite sides of Lake Pupuke are central to the fantasy. Recently orphaned twins live with relatives in the modern home on one shore, while shape-shifting monsters inhabit the disheveled mess that also serves as a gateway to the underworld. Naturally, the red-headed twins are filled with more curiosity about the old house than the ones in their own neighborhood.

It’s further piqued by a mysterious stranger (Sam Neill) who is practiced in the art of fire-raising and sees in the kids an opportunity to save mankind from an apocalyptical mass eruption of volcanoes. Under the Mountain effectively mixes adventure with chilling supernatural events, suitable for tweeners and their parents, alike. Today, that’s a pretty good to trick. – Gary Dretzka

Loose Screws: Screwballs II
Say Goodnight

In 1982, Porky’s defied almost universal critical rebuke by making a bloody fortune and, in so doing, raised the bar on future depictions of teen depravity. Little more than a white-trash hybrid of American Graffiti and Animal House, Bob Clark’s remembrance of things past overflowed with the kind of gross-out humor sought by teenagers whose coming of age included sneaking into strip clubs, peeping on girls in the shower room and puking their guts out after too many beers.

The Porky’s trilogy begat the Screwballs series of lower-budget T&A ticklers, which advanced the setting from the rural 1950s South to suburbia in the 1960s. The primary goal of the male characters – not all of whom were dweebs — of course, was to lose their virginity. In Loose Screws: Screwballs II, four of the boys reprise their roles as incorrigible misfits, this time looking to romance the new French teacher, Miss Mona Lott, or any of a dozen horny coeds at Cockswell Academy. If unsuccessful, they’ll settle for photographing them in various stages of undress with a camcorder. Severin Films, which specializes in re-releases of cult titles, has given Loose Screws the Criterion Collection treatment, with interviews, making-of featurettes, commentary and added material.

The quartet of yuppie horndogs in David Van Allmen’s Say Goodnight isn’t all that far removed from the characters in Screwballs and Porky’s, except in that they’re contemporary and inhabit bars where cocktails tend to cost more than the hourly minimum wage. Otherwise, it’s the same old game of young men bragging about imaginary sexual conquests and commiserating over failed opportunities. The direct-to-DVD rom-com stars Aaron Paul, Carly Pope, Shannon Lucio, Smith Cho, Rob Benedict, David Monahan and Christopher Gessner. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Man Running
Just Another Day

Is it just my imagination, or have rap and hip-hop artists enjoyed an easier transition from the top-40 charts to the big screen than other musicians, athletes and non-professionals? Even when they’re not reduced to play gang-bangers and aspiring singer, such artists as Ice Cube, Ice-T, Method Man, DMX, Mos Def, LL Cool J, Tyrese, Ludacris, Common and, of course, Will Smith and Queen Latifah, have made names for themselves on TV and the movies.

In Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Righteous Kill, Home of the Brave and, now, Dead Man Running, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson has proven himself to be a more than capable actor. The latter is a British crime thriller that takes place in the heart of Guy Ritchie territory. Hard guy Tamer Hassan owes Jackson’s American-based gangster, Mr. Thigo, a small fortune and has been given exactly 24 hours in which to pay him back. Because he’s starting at zero, Hassan’s Nick isn’t expected to come up with the cash, so Thigo protects his investment by placing a gunman in the company of his invalid mum, well played by Brenda Blethyn. The race is a lot of fun to watch, even if it’s a overly familiar conceit, and there were are enough surprises to hold my interest until the end. The package adds interviews and making-of features.

The Wire veterans Jamie Hector and Wood Harris play opposite ends of the hip-hop game, one struggling to stay on top and the other struggling to get a leg up in it. Just Another Day records what can happen over the course of 24, not much of it good. In addition to the veteran actors, the cast includes rappers Trick Daddy, Lil Scrappy, Ja Rule and Petey Pablo. The package adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and piece on the music. – Gary Dretzka

The Lottery

At a time when it’s become virtually impossible to pass any bond issue designed to improve public education, and middle-class families of all colors have embraced private schools, politicians and voters apparently have left the problem for the next generation to fix. Among the possible solutions debated by those who still care about such things is the introduction of charter schools in public systems.

Without being doctrinaire or dictatorial, these schools take a no-nonsense approach to education, practically guaranteeing a college education to the students and parents who agree to stick with the program. That they are mostly successful in meeting their goals is indisputable. The larger problem is finding enough money to fund the programs – without leaving the less-endowed institutions with mere table scraps – and coming up with a fair way to select the fortunate few applicants.

The Lottery examines the process through the experiences of four Harlem families hoping to hear the names of their children called when the winners are announced. Director Madeleine Sackler’s documentary doesn’t pretend to be objective on the issue, coming down very much on the side of charter schools. It does offer a fair look into the labyrinth of conflicting opinions and competing forces fighting to protect their interests in the debate. The DVD includes a Q&A with Sackler and New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, from the Tribeca Film Festival screening, deleted scenes, media attention and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Bull Durham: Blu-ray
James and the Giant Peach: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Written and directed by Ron Shelton, himself a veteran of the minor-league baseball circuit, Bull Durham comes as close to describing the passion for the game felt by its participants as any other sports movie. By and large, ballplayers are a million times less interested in the poetics, artistry and metaphysics of their pastime, which has been romanticized beyond all recognition by literary types in cities whose teams compete at the highest level. Losers rarely get the same respect.

The minor leagues are where star players from the ranks of high school, college and foreign teams learn humility, patience, camaraderie and the basic skills taken for granted by those who’ve graduated to the Major Leagues. It’s the last place on their professional journey where they’re expected to make mistakes and allowed to learn from them, without being humiliated on national television or potentially costing teammates tens of thousands of dollars in bonus and post-season money.

Shelton also introduces a parallel romance that proves as educational to one player as any team meeting or coaching seminar. A triangle is formed using an older and wiser veteran, played by Kevin Costner; a raw talent with all of the skills of a future star, but none of the brains, played by Tim Robbins; and a sexy muse, who nurtures talent and comforts the weary, while waiting for an opportunity to star in her own “show.” If Susan Sarandon’s brainy baseball groupie – one player in a season, please – is the least credible character in Bull Durham, she’s also the kind of woman men dream of meeting and women see themselves as being.

Everything else rings true, right down to the boys-will-be-boys pranks and grueling bus rides. The Blu-ray package includes a DVD disc, which, for some reason, includes almost all of the commentaries, interviews, making-of features, a Costner profile and inside-baseball stuff.

It’s only been 14 years since Disney released James and the Giant Peach, adapted from a popular Roald Dahl children’s book by director Henry Selick and producers Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi. That may seem like a mere blip in the history of cinema, but it’s practically a lifetime in digital dog years. Consider, for example, how much more spectacular the most recent efforts by Burton (Alice in Wonderland) and Selick (Coraline) look than what’s revealed in the Blu-ray edition of Giant Peach. Not that it looks inferior, just that the integration of narrative elements, music and visual presentation are so much more fluid. No matter, the movie’s still wonderfully entertaining. The only Blu-ray exclusive in the package is an interactive “Spike the Aunts” game. – Gary Dretzka

Days That Shook the World: The Complete Series
Trauma: Season 1
Mercy: The Complete Series
Lytton’s Diary: Complete Collection

It’s fascinating how the entire story of Earth and man’s impact on it can be so easily encapsulated by producers of documentary series on cable television. In the same amount of time it took Ken Burns to chronicle the history of the Civil War, Major League Baseball or the national park system, other documentary makers have summed up the events that have shaped nations, civilizations, tribes and religions.

If one were able to splice together every documentary made about World War II, or Adolph Hitler, for that matter, the tape would be longer than the actual conflagration. The BBC and History Channel series, Days That Shook the World, provides a quick study of landmark events whose impact couldn’t be summed up in headlines, alone. Each episode paired re-creations of major developments in history, some of which were only loosely related. Among the titles are, First in Flight: The Wright Brothers and the Moon Landing; The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the Death of Diana; The Assassination of Archibald Ferdinand and the Death of Hitler; The Assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Release of Nelson Mandela; The Murder of the Romanovs and the Fall of the Berlin Wall; and Tutankhamen’s Tomb and the Rosetta Stone.

For various reasons, mostly relating to budgets and licensing fees, the stories are told through dramatic reconstructions, eye-witness accounts and archival footage.

Medical series have been a staple of television for as long as the medium has fielded prime-time schedules. By now, it’s almost impossible to predict which ones will succeed and which ones will stumble after their introduction. Mostly, it boils down to the attractiveness of the cast and soapiness of the scripts. NBC’s Trauma was populated by first-responder paramedics, who often were required to make life-and-death decisions in the field, using only the equipment that could be carried on a helicopter, boats or ambulances. It lasted 18 episodes. The DVD set adds commentary on the pilot and deleted scenes.

Another time-tested twist in the genre comes in series where the focus on the nurses. The NBC series Mercy focused on Veronica Callahan, a nurse who recently returned to the U.S. from Iraq, where she experienced every kind of serious injury and emotional meltdown. The DVD includes a director’s cut of the final episode, a gag reel, interviews with the cast and commentary.

The Thames Television series Lytton’s Diary followed the exploits of a Fleet Street gossip columnist (Peter Bowles), whose Rolodex contained the names and numbers of such disparate newsmakers as business moguls, deposed dictators, skinheads and criminals. Compared to today’s breed of gossip-mongers, Neville Lytton is a model of professionalism and sophistication. – Gary Dretzka

Clone Hunter

It’s impossible to say how much a movie costs to make, stripped of actors’ salaries and catering costs. I can’t imagine Clone Hunter costing more than $100,000 and it very easily could have been made for a tenth of that. Set in the distant future, on a planet owned by a single oligarch (in sultan’s drag), Andrew Bellware’s tale might best be described as a sci-fi/noir/western.

A pair of bounty hunters has been hired to track down a clone invested with the knowledge, memories and vanity of the owner of the planet. In this way, a truly self-absorbed individual could ensure a semblance of eternal life, at least. The escaped clone is threatening to destroy the planet, unless certain conditions are met. What distinguishes Clone Hunter from nearly every other direct-to-DVD sci-fi flick is its willingness to push the limits on conventional filmmaking.

When it isn’t downright blinding, the sepia-tinged lighting adds a dusty glow to the proceedings. The soundtrack seems to merge the hipster lean of Devo with the industrial noise of Stomp. It’s crazy, but not out of place in the context of the special visual effects, which range from cheesy to less cheesy. The bounty hunters, clones and residents of the polluted planet look as if they were recruited, hours earlier, from the local Starbucks. Indeed, the most charismatic character might be the virtual kitty cat, Naomi, who wanders around the space capsule and corresponds with the bounty hunters through telepathy … or something.

As such, Clone Hunter is the kind of movie that could appeal more to stoned hipsters and Star Trek splinter groups than true sci-fi aficionados. Indeed, after watching the director’s interview, it struck me that I may have completed misinterpreted the things I most enjoyed in Clone Hunter. – Gary Dretzka

Wilmington on DVDs: Sweetgrass, A Prophet, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, The Ghost Writer … and more

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010


Sweetgrass (Four Stars)
U.S.; Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Ilisa Barbash, 2010 (Cinema Guild)

In Sweetgrass, named for the lushly beautiful Montana country in which it takes place, we see the last summer pasturing of the vast sheep herd that once belonged to the Allested ranch in Big Timber: thousands of sheep blanketing the mountain slopes and valleys, bleating, baa-ing and clanging their cowbells like some grand atonal choir, ranging freely over the green grass and past the rushing rivers and under the high blue sky, surging like some white snowy river itself, with that entire tumbling, rippling, slowly moving mass of animal life itself cared for and guided by just two lone sheepmen in cowboy hats on horseback, with their alert and tireless sheep dogs loping alongside.

This stunning event was recorded by Lucien Castaing-Taylor (“recordist” or, I guess, cinematographer-director-editor) and Ilisa Barbash (producer), a husband-wife ethnographic filmmaking team then resident in Boulder, Colorado and now based at Harvard University. It was the last of its kind, because the Allested Ranch closed down in 2006, when Bush administration bureaucrats cancelled the public land grazing permit that the Allesteds and other independent ranchers had used for more than a century to feed their herds.

So what we see, though it isn’t explained until the end titles, is the end of a way of life — another wondrous American ritual and tradition, largely lost to the contemporary world.

As with Frederick Wiseman’s great socio-political documentaries, such as High School, Welfare and The Titicut Follies, there is no voice-over or narration. There’s precious little talk at all, and most of it comes from sheepmen John Ahern and Pat Connolly, who plan their work and gab laconically, or cuss something fierce, as they ride, or as they sip coffee and chew bacon, or just laze around and ruminate, in their camp chairs or by the fire.

Often they complain. But we can’t. They’re burdened by each day/s work, which looks endless. We’re blessedly privy to the beauties of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and that huge woolly cloud of sheep. As in King Kong directors Merian Cooper’s and Ernest Schoedsack’s great 1925 documentary Grass, a movie which watched another group in a more distant land, the Bakhityari or Persian tribesmen, taking their herds to pasture, we‘re absorbed by the spectacle and by the journey before us: with the sheep moving like a great white wave grazing uphill and down, as the sheepmen try to protect them (vainly in one instance) from marauding grizzlies and wolverines, as mothers suckle their young, and dogs run and nudge, as the season passes, and as we see what only a relative handful have watched before this.

Critics have generally loved this film — and they’re right — but Sweetgrass is unfortunately the kind of movie that would-be wits denounce because they say nothing is happening, that it‘s like watching paint dry. Or sheep graze. Nothing is happening? What in God‘s name were they looking at in the theatre? Their watches? Their navels?

Thanks be to the filmmakers for undertaking this journey, which took them two years (2001-2003) to record and eight in all to get on film and in theatres. We are in their debt, and also in that of the Allesteds and of sheepmen Ahern and Connolly (and hell yes, of the horses, dogs and the sheep herd as well), for the lyrical sights and uncommon beauties of Sweetgrass. At the end, crusty John Ahern, riding in a truck cab, is asked by his boss Allested what he’ll do next, and he replies that he “ain’t going to worry about it for a week or two.” You think: Well, that’s okay, get some shut-eye. You earned it. Goodbye, sheep. Adios, amigos. Extras: Commentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash; Additional Scenes; Trailer; Booklet with Robert Koehler essay.

A Prophet (Three and a Half Stars)
France; Jacques Audiard, 2009 (Sony Pictures Classics)

The Grand Prize winner at the last Cannes Film Festival, this brutal, unsparing prison picture, about the rise of a young Muslim convict who becomes the favorite of the prison‘s Corsican mob boss, has been widely hailed as a great foreign language film and a great crime movie.

Whoa. Not quite, says me. It’s certainly a riveting show, and it has an undeniably great performance by Nils Arestrup as the Corsican mobster Cesar Luciani (the kind of dour gangster role for which Lino Ventura once held the patent), and a magnetic one by newcomer Tahar Rahim as the rising Muslim assistant crook Malik El Djebena.


But, on first glance, I disliked the ending, which almost seems to secretly glorify the young thug, for no better reason than that he’s an improvement on the old thug, and to overly admire what I took  as a possibly equivocal and darkly ambiguous resolution as some kind of stirring “star-is-born” multi-cultural parable.

Maybe I’m wrong. Director-co-writer Jacques Audiard says that A Prophet is an anti-Scarface, and in some ways, he’s right. But the De Palma/Pacino 1983 Scarface, whatever the uses that some gangsta-rappers made of it, does say that crime shouldn‘t pay, and clearly shows why, as did the superb 1932 original Scarface by Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht and Paul Muni.


I’m not completely sure what A Prophet. But Audiard, here and in A Self Made Hero (with Mathieu Kassovitz) and The Beat that My Heart Skipped (with Romain Duris), seems to have a soft spot of some kind for psychopathic anti-heroes, or maybe to him, psychopathic heroes, as long as they’re cute, intense star material.

That doesn’t invalidate the film, or Audiard’s grim vision, or Rahim’s often incredible performance. But it makes the movie, to me at least, less powerful and satisfying than those two recent fact-based movies about Italian organized crime, Il Divo and Gomorrah. A Prophet, by contrast, seems to me at least partially a wish fulfillment fantasy. If so, it’s a wish I didn’t particularly like to see fulfilled, at least not without more criticism.

But A Prophet, whatever my cavils, gets you on the hook and keeps you there. It summons up a prison and criminal world that, up until the end, I found grimly plausible, fiercely exciting.  It also boasts that Arestrup performance, which is an absolute knockout. (In French, with English subtitles.)


Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music — The Director’s Cut (Four Stars)
U.S.; Michael Wadleigh, 1970-1994    (Warner)Both a great rock concert movie, and a superb  documentary on youth culture in the Vietnam War Years, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock — shot at the legendary 1969 Aquarian gathering at Max Yasgur‘s farm at Bethel, N. Y. (not the nearby Woodstock) –brings back the era and all its pot-fumed tenderness, horror, humor, beauty, ugliness, and glorious absurdities, as few other movies can.Caught by the virtuoso wide-angle cameraman Wadleigh (along with many others) in  amazing handheld widescreen images full of sweep and scope and seething with energy, and cut by editor/assistant director Martin Scorsese (and others) in vividly atmospheric sequences and evocative, witty split screen juxtapositions, the movie literally overwhelms youThe original three day concert — which wound up being one of rock history’s great freebies, when the crowds, measuring a half million plus, overflowed the ability to count or charge them ticket money — is rendered with shocking, lyrical immediacy. Woodstock records both the amazing social extravaganza surrounding the music — the gargantuan  sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll community that descended on Yasgur’s green farm fields, the bad trips and free food, the marijuana, nude romps and ubiquitous flashing peace signs, the ocean of communal feeling and occasional bummers — and, of course, the memorable music itself.David Gates’ dyspeptic Time Magazine anniversary cover story about Woodstock (a few years ago) to the contrary, it was a terrific concert. (Gates seems angry not only at ‘60s youth culture in general, but that acts like Merle Haggard weren’t on the bill. But you wouldn’t expect the bard of “Okie from Muskogee” to have shown up in 1969  at Bethel,  even if today, Haggard cheerfully will shares a show with peacenik Bob Dylan.)The original roster of acts in the 1970 movie included Crosby, Stills and Nash (ladling out, among others, Steve Stills’s honeyed lyric to Judy Collins, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” plus, under the closing credits, Joni Mitchell‘s soaring anthem to the whole affair “Woodstock“), along with Jefferson Airplane, The Who (“See Me, Feel Me“ the mesmerizing capper from “Tommy“), Richie Havens (the heartbreaking folk ballad “Motherless Child”), Joan Baez ( a hushed, reverent “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), Santana (the fever-drenched “Black Magic Woman”), Sly and the Family Stone (Taking us “Higher,” if possible), Joe Cocker (tearing out his classic version of “A Little Help from My Friends”) and, as a blazing climax, guitar god Jimi Hendrix, with his legendary exploding variations on “The Star Spangled Banner,” complete with sonic Hendrix booms on “rockets red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.”Over the years, Woodstock has picked up even more initially deleted musical high points, some not used in the original cut because of lesser picture quality (they were shot at night), like blues lady Janis Joplin‘s frenzied “Work Me, Lord”) and, in the extras here, three performances by Creedence Clearwater Revival (including “Born on the Bayou”). and one by the Grateful Dead (“Turn on Your Love Light”).

Throughout, either in the epic original and this expanded director‘s cut, Woodstock beautifully records both the amazing social extravaganza surrounding the music — the gargantuan  sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll community that descended on Yasgur’s green farm fields, the bad trips and free food, the marijuana, nude romps and ubiquitous flashing peace signs, the ocean of communal feeling and occasional bummers — and, of course, the memorable music itself. Peace.

Extras: Deleted performances (Baez, Country Joe & The Fish, Santana, The Who, Joe Cocker, Mountain, Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield, Sha Na Na); featurettes, documentary.


The Ghost Writer (1 Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Three Stars)
U.S.-U.K.; Roman Polanski, 2009 (Summit Entertainment)

Shutter Island is a movie Roman Polanski probably should have made, just as, for different reasons, Schindler‘s List was.  (He got a second great chance at Schindler’s subject matter, and triumphed with it, in The Pianist.) But Island is even more his kind of movie than Scorsese’s: a descent into subjective terror that fits Polanski’s eye-level nightmare style perfectly, a movie that might even be described as a mix of the elements of his masterpieces Repulsion (the crazy killer), Cul-de-Sac (the island) and Chinatown (the detective and the scandal).

The Ghost Writer is the movie Polanski did make: an adaptation of  Robert Harris’ prize-winning thriller The Ghost about an opportunistic (and nameless) young writer (Ewan McGregor) brought to an isolated retreat on Martha’s Vineyard, and hired to ghost-write the autobiography of a retired Tony Blair-like British Prime Minister named Adam Lang (played with 007-like machismo and insouciance by Pierce Brosnan), while trying to fathom what’s up with Lang’s wife (Olivia Williams), his assistant (Kim Cattrall), a mysterious political rival named Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) and a gabby old man (Eli Wallach).

Based on the movie, The Ghost doesn’t seem like a very good novel. The film didn’t seize my imagination or chill my blood as I wanted it too, even though I was primed for it, and even though Polanski directs it beautifully, visualizing each scene with an edgy, icy-gray or chilly-blue bleak atmosphere and a sense of underlying evil and panic. But Polanski is a master, and evidences of his mastery are all over the movie.

I once transcribed a Polanski interview, in which I thought he was saying to me that the two most important thing in movies were “characters and utmost fear,“ when what he was really saying, was  “characters and atmosphere.“ He gets at least two of those three here: atmosphere and utmost fear. But though the actors are good, none of the characters (not even the usually movie-stealing Wilkinson’s) is very memorable. And it’s hard to empathize with a character in a thriller, like McGregor’s Ghost, who shows so little fear, with so much danger and enigma around.

The Ghost may be a good writer, but he doesn’t seem to have read much John Grisham or watched Three Days of the Condor. The fact that Lang has been linked to a CIA scandal doesn’t seem to phase him. Neither does the coincidence of his predecessor being drowned in the first scene, nor any of the mysterious things that happen along the way.  Maybe the fact that the writer remains nameless has made him think himself invulnerable, already a ghost of himself.

Anyway, Polanski may be a captured fugitive, but he’s no fake, even if The Ghost Writer sometimes feels a little as if it were ghost-written. It’s been decades since Pauline Kael suggested that Polanski might become the new Hitchcock (at least before Truffaut did), yet this is his first thriller since Frantic in 1988. He’s capable of better in the genre; he’s capable of masterpieces. I hope he does them.

Extras: Interview with Polanski; Featurettes.

James and the Giant Peach (2 Disc Blu-ray DVD Combo) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Henry Selick, 1996 (Walt Disney)

British writer Roald Dahl started out was a specialist in the adult and macabre, crafting witty little literary gems of crime, sex and suspense for class markets. (Playboy often ran them, and Alfred Hitchcock often adapted them for his TV show.) Then he switched to children’s stories, jettisoning the sex, adding more whimsy and fantasy to the suspense, and coming up with modern classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (filmed twice, first by Gene “Willy Wonka” Wilder and later by Tim Burton), and this juicy little tale of voyage and adventure, filmed by Burton (the producer) and Henry Selick: the team behind The Nightmare Before Christmas.

It’s an odd, sophisticated, beguilingly weird and somewhat creepy tale of an orphan boy named James (Paul Terry)* who escapes from his two awful aunts, Sponge and Spiker (Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley), when a giant peach shows up, and grows up, on their coastal hillside home, filled with genial giant talking bugs, and then sails off toward New York City, land of James’s dreams.

The film, done in Selick‘s sprightly stop-motion animation style, begins somewhat murkily and nightmarishly, then really takes off when the boy and the bugs sail away. The look is bewitching and the cast is swell: including Susan Sarandon (see below, with Tim Robbins) as the seductive Spider, Simon Callow as the posh-voiced Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as the streetwise Centipede, Jane Leeves as the matronly Ladybug, and David Thewlis as the Naked earthworm. Dahl’s stories are for children of course. But, like Edward Gorey‘s, they probably have their strongest admirers among adults. Here‘s an example.

Extras: Featurettes.
* No relation to the cartoonist of Terrytoons.


The Kim Novak Collection (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Various Directors, 1955-59 (Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures)

My favorite Kim Novak line comes in Pal Joey, Columbia‘s dubiously altered, shamefully bowdlerized but still entertaining adaptation of the great cynical/lyrical O’Hara, Rodgers & Hart stage musical classic, in which Novak’s Linda English says to Frank Sinatra’s cabaret Casanova Joey Evans, in a girlish, amused, deliberately non-provocative voice, with no Mae West intonations or hints at all, “You‘re right. I do have a great shape. Confidentially, I‘m stacked.”

Stacked she certainly was: a willowy but sumptuous blonde bombshell with (usually) short-cropped platinum hair and a 37“ bosom that never knew a brassiere (“That‘s right!“ her Vertigo director Alfred Hitchcock once said tartly to Francois Truffaut. “She‘s particularly proud of that!”)

Pretty Novak, born in 1933, was a Chicago railroad worker‘s daughter and a natural beauty with haunting eyes and a vulnerable air, who became a movie star in her early twenties, with 1954‘s noir Pushover directed by her lover Richard Quine, and then a megastar with 1955‘s Picnic, directed by the explosive Joshua Logan, in which — as playwright William Inge’s small town Kansas princess Madge, with George Duning’s Theme from Picnic glowing behind her — Novak danced her way into the hearts and loins of William Holden‘s ex-football star/drifter Hal, and many more of the males of a susceptible nation.

The great years of her stardom, the mid to late ’50s,  are well-covered here. These movies give you the classic Novak image: a gorgeous fair-haired girl who’s a little troubled by her own long-legged, statuesque beauty, a bit hesitant about pushing herself forward, slinky and self-conscious, sometimes suspicious of men, a traffic-stopping but vulnerable glamour girl with brains and surprising sensitivity.

Like Marilyn Monroe, who often played it dumb, the real-life Novak was a reader. (Sinatra, one of her dates, wooed her with first editions, while his fellow Clansman Sammy Davis, Jr. hit the jackpot in one of the more famous secret love affairs of the ‘50s.) There’s a very well-written sleeper in this box, which you probably haven’t seen, but contains top-notch New York dialogue and one of her best performances: writer Paddy Chayefsky‘s and director Delbert Mann‘s Middle of the Night.

By 1964, she was considered past her prime, and when she played Polly the Pistol, the girlish hooker (with the belly-button jewel and the requisite heart of gold) in Billy Wilder‘s Kiss Me, Stupid, she shared in the movie‘s lousy notices. Today Kiss Me is rightly regarded as a flawed classic, and if original star Peter Sellers hadn’t had his heart attack and dropped out in mid shooting, we might see it as  a masterpiece, as some of the French do (“Embrasse-moi, Idiote!“)

But maybe she was too much a creation of the ‘50s, of the last fugitive years of the Golden Age, a kind of platinum blonde Jekyll and Hyde. Kim Novak could play it naïve and lower class, or tony and glamorous, and sometimes she played both in the same movie, as in her masterpiece, as Madeleine/Judy  in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. (He‘d wanted Grace Kelly for her part, but Hitch always wanted Grace Kelly, for every part.) Vertigo, of course, is in lots of Hitchcock Paramount or Universal sets. But it’s a shame Columbia couldn‘t cut a deal and get it in this one. What’s a Kim Novak collection without Vertigo?

She probably wasn’t a natural actress. She gave some awkward performances. But she was a natural-born star. Kim was one of the movie dream girls of my youth, and I still get a pang looking at her. Confidentially, she‘s stacked.

Includes: Picnic (U.S.; Joshua Logan, 1955)  Three and a Half Stars. William Inge‘s great Broadway dramatic hit about the way sex steams up in a small Kansas town at the annual picnic, with Novak as the town siren, William Holden as the drifter who steals her from his best friend (Cliff Robertson in the role the young Paul Newman played on Broadway), Betty Field as Kim‘s mother and Susan Strasberg as her little sister, who loves Carson McCullers, Rosalind Russell as the busybody schoolteacher whose aging beau, Arthur O’Connell, is marriage-shy. The stage play, which was also directed by Josh Logan, had a great ensemble cast — Janice Rule, Ralph Meeker, Eileen Heckart, Kim Stanley (understudied by Newman’s gal, Joanne Woodward), and O‘Connell. But there’s something iconic about this one, and something iconic and ultra-50ish about both Kim and the movie.

Jeanne Eagels (U.S.; George Sidney, 1957)  Two and a Half Stars. Novak plays the reckless, self-destructive ‘20s stage and screen beauty and superstar Jeanne Eagels, who made an onstage hurricane as Sadie Thompson in the Maugham play Rain, — a drama-goddess who drank and screwed and missed so many performances she was banned by Actors’ Equity, and died of a heroin overdose. It’s a tough part and not one of Novak’s real successes. But she had guts playing this brilliant talent and  bad girl.

Jeff Chandler is her Coney Island mentor/lover, Agnes Moorehead is her haughty teacher, and Murray Hamilton is the sleazy guy who helps push her over the edge. Sidney and cinematographer Robert Planck make it brassy and glamorous, there’s an allusion to director Frank Borzage, and a great trio of writers worked on the script: prolific Oscar-winner Sonya Levien (Quo Vadis, Drums Along the Mohawk) and those two excellent novelists Daniel Fuchs (Low Company) and John Fante (Ask the Dust).

Pal Joey (U.S.; Sidney, 1957)  Three Stars. Gene Kelly became a Broadway star, beckoned by the movies, when he playing the amoral, lady-killing show biz heel and kept man Joey Evans in the great musical play by writer John O‘Hara and the supreme song-writing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.  And Kelly was promised the movie and the role, with Rita Hayworth as his star, in the ‘40s by Columbia boss Harry Cohn. But in the ‘50s, when the movie was finally made, it was Gene‘s pal and ex “In the town” dance partner Frank Sinatra who got the move call for Joey. And though the film is regarded as  famously botched adaptation, it’s not really Sinatra’s fault, he sings the songs here as well as Kelly danced them, on stage.

This is actually one of Frank’s quintessential movie roles, full of Sinatra-isms like “gasser,” and “ring-a-ding,” with added songs by Rodgers and Hart, and with orchestrations by the unbeatable Nelson Riddle — Sinatra’s genius arranger on “Only the Lonely,“ “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,“ and many other classic albums, including all of Ella Fitzgerald’s George Gershwin Songbooks. Frank spins a real gasser on “Lady in the Tramp” (it’s worth the whole movie), and he also kills us on “I Could Write a Book,” and ”There’s a Small Hotel,” while the dubbed Rita Hayworth as the socialite Vera, who’s keeping Joey, delivers “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and true love/non-stripper Kim‘s dubber sings that poignant gem “My Funny Valentine.”

What the movie needs is even more Frank, even more Rodgers & Hart, packaged by Riddle. It also may have needed Billy Wilder, whom that famous bully Harry Cohn turned down as director. The problem was the script, which Billy would have fixed, but which certainly baffled Dorothy Kingsley. It was the ‘50s and the goddamned Breen office was still fouling up movies in the name of our morals. But a moralistic “Pal Joey” is like squeezing Mae West into a nun’s habit. Even so, Sinatra, “The Voice,”  singing “The Lady is a Tramp“ is enough to obliterate all bad, or goody-two shoes, memories.

Bell, Book and Candle (U.S.; Richard Quine, 1958)  Three Stars. Novak rejoins Jimmy Stewart in the same year as Vertigo playing Gillian Holroyd, lady witch and classy Greenwich Village shop-owner who has a cat named Pyewackett, and who utterly bewitches, bothers and bewilders Manhattan publisher Shep Henderson (Stewart) in this swanky adaptation of playwright John van Druten’s spooky romantic comedy, directed by ex-beau Quine. Novak ‘s fellow witches include those sometimes macabre, sometimes playful ladies Elsa Lanchester (Queenie) and Hermione Gingold (Bianca), Ernie Kovacs is a great drunken writer (on witchcraft) named Sidney Redlitch, Janice Rule (who played Novak‘s Picnic role on stage) is Jimmy‘s luckless fiancée Merle, and  Jack Lemmon, no less, is a grinning, streetlamp-quenching delight as Gillian’s impish brother, the bongo-playing warlock Nicky.

Witchcraft here is obviously a code or analogue for ‘50s Bohemianism and the Greenwich Village bi and homosexual counter-culture, and the witches all hang out in a hip club called the Zodiac. Bell has some of the look and feel, if not the richness and impact of a classic. It just misses, and I guess I wouldn’t have hired Daniel Taradash (Picnic‘s adaptor) for this script. Maybe they needed Billy Wilder for this one too. But you can’t beat that cast. Or that cat. Or that hat of Shep’s, symbol of a bewitched heart, that we see soaring and falling all the way from the skyscraper to the street.

Middle of the Night (U.S.; Delbert Mann, 1959)  Three Stars.  As interviewer Steve Rebello remarks, this is the sleeper of the set. Novak in her prime often had good screenwriters or sources, and here she has the best script (excepting Vertigo) she was ever given: Paddy Chayefsky‘s April-December romance Middle of the Night — done on TV with Eva Marie Saint and E G. Marshall, done on Broadway with Gena Rowlands and Edward G. Robinson, and done here with Novak and Fredric March. March is the affluent garment maker/widower who takes a good look at his secretary (Novak) one day and stumbles into heaven  and hell. The script, like Marty, is both crackling and compassionate, and the supporting cast includes Lee Grant (as Novak‘s savvy friend), Albert Dekker (as March’s girl-chasing partner), Glenda Farrell (as Novak‘s skeptical mother) and Martin Balsam as March’s sympathetic son-in law. The movie has that great ‘50s-’60s look: New York City in black and white. But it didn’t work with audiences, and it’s a shame.

Extras: Interviews and commentaries with Kim Novak and Stephen Rebello; Featurettes; Trailers.


Kick-Ass (Two Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Three Stars)
U.S.; Matthew Vaughn, 2010 (Lionsgate)

Kick-Ass is a movie made from a comic book about a wish-fulfilling teen geek who plays at being a super-hero named Kick-Ass, and then runs into some real heroes (including a wildly talented purple-haired 11-year-old nicknamed Hit Girl, and her death-dealing pa, Big Daddy) and some real villains (including a vicious mob boss and his spoiled-rotten son). Though it may sound as if the Farrelly Brothers or Judd Apatow wannabes had taken over the latest  action-comic picture epic, it’s better than we might have expected: at its best,  expertly done and full of snazzy, kick-ass, wish-fulfilling fun.

Director Matthew Vaughn, Guy Richie‘s ex-producer (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and helmer of the British neo-noir Layer Cake, shows the same mix of slam-bang action and a genial light touch that director Jon Favreau brought to Iron Man. Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman (adapting the comic by Mark Millar), know what their  basic audience wants to see. But they also know what audiences not usually attracted to this kind of movie may want to see as well: something witty and light and self-kidding, with the humor counter-balancing the carnage.

Of course, the carnage needs to be counter-balanced. Kick-Ass is funny. But it’s also so violent, and sometimes so convincingly bloody and savage, in its half-comic over-the-top action scenes — which include the kind of one-against-a-bunch climactic wholesale slaughter-fest usually administered by a Bruce Lee or a Sonny Chiba, but here dealt out by that 11-year-old girl —  that, at times, this movie becomes genuinely disturbing. (Parents should heed that “R” rating, which mentions “strong brutal violence, pervasive language, sexual content and nudity.”) Still, I can’t go along with the stern or skittish condemnations the show has aroused in some. That wounding violence, especially in a revenge fantasy, strikes me as not necessarily such a negative thing. Movie violence often should be more disturbing, should  have consequences.

And here, when high school geek Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) goes on his first costumed Kick-Ass expedition, and gets stomped by gang-bangers (well and half-realistically played by Johnny Hopkins and Ohene Cornelius) and run over by a car — winding up with nerve damage for the rest of the movie — it reminds us that violence hurts, that the world is full of pain, which is something that big action movies often leave out. That hurt gives more edge to the movie’s action, and also to its humor and satire, to the ways it burlesques and sends up the geek fantasies of vigilante-ism and super-celebrity that fuel almost every action-hero movie.

The fact that Kick-Ass starts life as a media-friendly geek-imagined fake, that the real super-heroine here is a cute little girl named Mindy Macready (played by Chloe Grace Moretz),  incredibly well-versed in martial arts and gunplay by her action-hero dad Damon (“Big Daddy”) Macready (Nicolas Cage), makes the movie more fantastic, less half-real. It’s also a riff on the gun culture that permeates our society, with presidential hopeful Sarah Palin (a kind of wannabe Hit Girl, but not as cute) smiling adorably while she calls on her followers to get their enemies in their sights and “reload.“

Wham! Bang! Thank you, Ma’am! In our introduction to this movie’s Hit Girl and Big Daddy, Mr. Macready reloads just like Sarah and her fan-boy militia. He aims and shoots his daughter from point blank range, then watches her bounce up, protected by body armor. Later Mindy kids Papa by requesting a pony for her birthday, when what she really wants are Palinesque weapons of destruction. Pony, my ass! The satire, deliberately profane,  kids our own gun-nutty cultural callousness. But the vulnerability of the movie’s good guys, and girl, facing a smash-face violence that often hits OldBoy levels, lets some reality seep back in. It keeps us anxious.

I haven’t read the Kick-Ass comics, written and drawn by Millar and John Romita, Jr.  (My own super-hero comic-reading heyday included Superman and Batman, and ended around the prime time of Johnny, Jr’s Daredevil-Spider-Man drawing dad Jazzy Johnny Romita, Sr.) But the story structure of the movie Kick-Ass reminds us that in the most popular super-hero fantasies, Clark Kent and Peter Parker are just as important as Superman and Spider-Man. Here the early scenes pivot around the ineffable nerdiness of Dave and his geek buddies, smart-ass Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters), and by way Dave is ignored by the school’s top girl, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), and kept away from fraternization with the Mafia rich kid Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) — and how Dave evades his parents (Garrett H. Brown and Elizabeth McGovern) to create the fantasy world of the masked, costumed, swaggering Kick-Ass, a multi-colored human action toy who’s exactly the kind of superhero a geeky kid would dream up.

Revenge fantasies are popular partly because they blow way our frustrations, and because the real world actually is full of bad guys and gang-bangers who really do hurt people. Crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), and his squad of torpedoes led by WiseGuy Big Joe (Michael Rispoli), are heavies with a touch of real-life viciousness (or at least reality filtered through other mob movies and TV shows) — and when some of those heavies go down like video-game targets, it’s hard to mind, especially when the vanquishing kick-asses are a nerd in a super-hero suit and a little girl with purple hair and lots of energy. Kick-Ass pushes our movie paradigms and clichés of violence and worm-turning to extremes, and whether you laugh at it, or go “Tsk-tsk,” probably depends on your own frustration-level. It made me laugh and sometimes cringe.

Extras: Commentary with Matthew Vaughn; Documentary; Featurettes; Live Menu System.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Also 3 Disc Blu-Ray) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Thor Freudenthal, 2010 (20th Century Fox)

This one is better than it first looks — and it initially looks pretty silly, despite the source.

That source: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a best-selling children‘s book by Jeff Kinney, written in the form of a diary by a supposedly actual wimpy kid, Greg Heffley (Zach Gordon), who’s suffering through the torments of middle school (Grades 6-8).

This wimpy kid is the Job of junior high, a sort of Coen-Brothersish “Serious Boy.” He’s picked on by classmates and older thugs, dissed by his teachers, shut out of a seat at the cafeteria, abandoned by his friend, pestered by guys even dorkier and wimpier than he, teased by the school paper editor, joshed by his parents, bullied by his gym teacher, out-wrestled by a female nemesis and ignored by the prettier girls. To top it all off, he‘s a bit of a jerk himself: an unreliable friend and a little liar.

Waiting for him and us throughout the movie is a joke we really don’t want to see: involving an open-face cheese sandwich, rotting and festering away, and  going greenish-nauseating, right in the middle of the outdoor playground basketball court. It’s a sandwich that nobody ever moves (don’t they ever play hoops at that school?) and we know that someone, somehow, somewhere, is probably going to have to eat it. Or seem to eat it. (“Eat it raw!“ as the bullies used to scream, back when I was in junior high.) Luckily, it doesn’t look anything like  real food.

Any more than this movie looks anything like a real middle school, or a real suburb. What saves all this school-kid angst, done in high-Spielbergian exaggerated style by Thor Freudenthal (who made the visually inventive but mostly awful Hotel for Dogs)?  The actors, mostly. Gordon as the “wimpy kid” diarist Greg and Robert Capron as his plump, sweet tempered best friend Rowley Jefferson, are so cute, so easy and adept, and so consistently funny, that they  redeem a lot of the movie’s sprightly, but over-cute and over-obvious comedy.

Gordon has a gravity and low-key intelligence that once would have made him ideal for a role played by another kid Gordon: Barry, as Jason Robards’ nephew in A Thousand Clowns.  And Capron’s Rowley is a real find: a great fat little sidekick with a wonderful seraphic smile and the disposition of a frisky puppy.

After.Life (Also Blu-ray) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Agnieszka Wostowicz-Vosloo, 2009 (Starz/Anchor Bay)

Christina Ricci, as car-crash victim Anna Taylor spends most of this movie nude, or in a red slip, and lying on a table at the funeral home. Liam Neeson, as funeral home manager/departures specialist Eliot Deacon, spends much of it staring down at her and speaking softly, trying to get Anna to accept her fate.

No this is not the breakthrough in necrophiliac movie romance we’re all not waiting for. It’s a sophisticated, scary horror film in which Deacon proves to have a wild talent, albeit one very helpful in his profession. Deacon can speak to the dead, before their interment — although here, he spends most of his time jawboning with Anna, and ignoring the others, who aren’t as pretty and don’t have red slips. Anna’s guilt-tripping boyfriend Paul (Justin Long), who would like to talk to her too, gets mysterious calls from the funeral home, and is very suspicious of both Deacon and his business and home, into which he keeps trying to break. And little Jack (Chandler Canterbury) can hear and see Anna, though that may simply mean he‘s a potential departures expert.

Neeson, underplaying beautifully, shows that he could have played Hannibal Lecter, or any of Peter Cushing‘s old Hammer roles, and done a first-rate job. It’s hard though, to imagine how Deacon is able to take care of a thriving funeral business in a huge house with a mortuary and an accompanying graveyard, and do it all, even the grave digging, all by himself — besides carrying on long conversations with corpses and making sure they don’t escape.

Ricci is a fine damsel in grisly distress. Long, also the Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel is suitably perturbed, especially when he gets his ghostly calls or takes a roll in the cemetery.

I think that Wostowicz-Vosloo shows a lot of talent here, but that her subject matter  is a shade too grisly and a little too lacking in real dark humor.  Don’t confuse this movie, by the way, with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wonderful 1998 fantasy After Life — which is not at all gruesome, and in which Ricci and Neeson do not appear, in red slips or otherwise.

Dogora (Three Stars)
France; Patrice Leconte, 2004 (Severin)

From the unusually versatile cineaste Patrice Leconte (Ridicule, The Hairdresser‘s Husband): A beautifully photographed semi-travelogue documentary, in which Leconte’s camera wanders around without narration in Cambodia — catching views of boats, people, waving grain, motorcycle riders, shabby or neon-lit city streets and relics of the past — while a very western and catchy orchestral/choral score by Etienne Perruchon gives the whole thing a Koyaaniqatsi feel.

I would have liked a little narration, or an identifying title or two, but Leconte has his perverse side. In the accompanying interview, he tells of a high school critic/interviewer who finally found a connecting thread in Leconte‘s variegated oeuvre — his films mostly deal with an encounter between strangers and are all set in enclosed worlds — and proceeds here to offer a film that utterly contradicts it. (No dialogue or subtitles.)

Extras: Interview with Leconte; Trailer.

Charlie’s Angels (Blu-ray) (Two Stars)
U.S.; McG (Joseph McGinty Nicol), 2000 (Sony)

Despite that omnipresent Farrah Fawcett poster, this ‘70s TV “classic” about glamour girl trouble-shooters wasn‘t really very good. And the movie is just more frenetic and expensive. It’s a supposed showcase for Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu as the Angels, and they look good it. (Then again, when don’t they look good?) With Bill Murray, Tim Curry, Sam Rockwell and LL Cool J. I hope they all had a great payday.

Bull Durham (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Ron Shelton, 1988 (MGM)

A tough old minor-league catcher on his last legs (Kevin Costner), a young pitching phenom with lots of attitude (Tim Robbins), and the team super-fan with a great idea of baseball bonuses, who stands between them (Susan Sarandon). The best of all minor league baseball romantic comedies, despite that crack of Costner’s about the JFK assassination. Well, I guess there aren’t that many minor league baseball romantic comedies…Okay, one of the best of all sports romantic comedies. Sports movies maybe. Sure.

Sarandon had to prove to the execs that she was sexy enough for this show, and they should have been ashamed of themselves for even asking. (At least she got a bonus herself: This is where she met future husband Robbins.) Three balls, no strikes. A dry, wry, sexy double-header. No, that‘s not a double entendre, at least not an intentional one.

Extras: Commentaries by Shelton, Costner and Robbins; Featurettes.

The Breakfast Club (25th Anniversary Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.; John Hughes, 1985 (Universal)

Five kids on weekend detention hall duty (class princess Molly Ringwald, jock Emilio Estevez, brain Anthony Michael Hall, freaky Ally Sheedy, and leather-jacket rebel Judd Nelson)  get stuck with the biggest asshole of a teacher/detention monitor the school has got (Paul Gleason). They bond. He gets his. I was mixed on this in 1985. After all the ‘80s were such a goddam terrible decade for movies, it all began to look like crap. But I feel a little nostalgic about Breakfast Club now. It’s probably John Hughes’ most heartfelt statement of suburban teen solidarity. (His best movie remains Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)

Part Time Work of a Domestic Slave (Three and a Half Stars)
Germany; Alexander Kluge, 1973 (Facets Video)

Director-writer Alexander Kluge and his star actress/sister Alexandra Kluge re-team for a movie that‘s similar to their great 1966 Venice Film Festival German New Wave breakthrough Yesterday Girl and just as provocative. It’s a radical, feminist, but not predictable look at marriage, sexism and labor unions, a Godardian mix of drama/melodrama and semi-documentary verite with Alexandra as Roswitha the activist wife of a student/ worker (Bion Steinborn), whose factory is slated for a secret closure and relocation to Portugal by its unscrupulous bosses.

The movie splits neatly in two, and committed mothers may be disturbed by it. In the first part, Alexandra works part time as an illegal abortionist’s assistant and the graphic operation scenes will make many cringe. In German, with English subtitles.

Extra: Kluge’s short documentary on education Teachers in Transition (Three Stars)

Crack in the World (One Star)
U.S.; Andrew Marton, 1965 (Olive)

Andrew Marton’s zenith as a filmmaker was undoubtedly his brilliant action direction of the chariot race in the William Wyler-Charlton Heston Ben-Hur. Here is what I hope is his nadir: a completely idiotic disaster movie, with passable effects and a ludicrous script, in which mortally ill and furiously obsessed scientist Dana Andrews (who takes his marching orders, bizarrely, from Alexander Knox and a conference room in London) fires a missile at the earth’s core so that we can pipe out the magma for fuel. Bad idea.

Unfortunately, our rash scientist creates a huge crack which travels fast around the world, leaving earthquakes, volcanoes and other catastrophes in its wake — but not too fast for Andrews‘ fleet-of-foot scientific colleague and romantic rival Kieron Moore, who keeps chasing the crack, and trying to fix things.

With Janette Scott, as Andrews‘s steadfast wife, who stands by her man even as the world seems on the verge of ending because of his stupidity.


The ending features the requisite couple shot, lots of red magma and a cute little squirrel poking his head up to catch a glimpse of sky.


The only possible reason for watching this genuine catastrophe (Dana Andrews fans should actively void it and catch his other 1965 movie, that neglected classic In Harm’s Way instead) is if you have designs on making an Airplane-style spoof on disaster movies, and want the most ridiculous premise possible. The ad tagline for Crack in the World, by the way, was “Thank God it’s only a motion picture!” Amen.

Appointment with Danger (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Lewis Allen, 1951 (Olive)

Brusque and hardcase postal inspector Alan Ladd goes undercover to investigate a murder that may be the key to a huge impending postal truck robbery. Phyllis Calvert is a nun who witnessed the murderers: that sterling noir pair Jack Webb and Harry Morgan of Dragnet), Paul Stewart is the robbery boss, and Jan Sterling does another moll. This is pretty entertaining in a “T-Men” sort of way, but not half as stylish.


Presenting Sacha Guitry (Four Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
France; Sacha Guitry, 1936-38 (Eclipse/Criterion)

Includes: The Story of a Cheat (France; Sacha Guitry, 1936.)  Four Stars. (In French, with English subtitles.) The Pearls of the Crown (France; Sacha Guitry, 1937.)  Four Stars. (In French, Italian and English, with English subtitles.) Desire (France; Sacha Guitry, 1937.)  Three Stars. (In French, with English subtitles.) Quadrille (France; Sacha Guitry, 1938.)  Three Stars. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Four essays by Michael Koresky.