Posts Tagged ‘I’m Still Here’

MW on DVDs: Metropolis, Flipped, Last of the Mohicans, The Bing Crosby Collection … and more

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010


Metropolis (Most Complete Version) (Four Stars)

Germany: Fritz Lang, 1927

Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s great, spellbinding science fiction epic about a futuristic city gone mad, has been regarded as a cinematic classic since almost the very hours of its premiere, in Berlin in 1927.

At that first showing, German audiences and critics — most still in the throes of the post war German economic collapse, the Weimar Republic’s woes, and the orgiastic frenzies of the ‘20s — were stunned by the film‘s scope, ambition and brilliance, by its incredibly elaborate visions of the future, and by its clear reflections of those ferocious contemporary conflicts that would eventually lead to Hitler, fascism and World War II.

Metropolis, then and now, was in some ways, naïve and simplistic, a heart-on-sleeve movie ode to the possibilities of universal brotherhood and co-operation. (Its final motto, which Lang later faulted, was “Between the head and the hand, stands the heart.“) But it was also a powerfully wrought, strikingly visualized allegorical fable about the war between Capital and Labor, waged on vast sets that created a towering city of skyscrapers, air cabs and skywalks, a rooftop paradise of playgrounds for the rich, and, deep below those bright streets, a dark cavernous world of underground factories, manned by huge Moloch-like machines and by marching, trudging, all but beaten-down workers who lead a herded, slave-like existence far from the sunlight.

Acting out the fierce social schisms in Lang’s tale were a massively influential industrialist, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), his idealistic, progressive young son Freder (Gustave Frohlich), Fredersen’s secretive assistant Josaphat (Theodor Roos), the factory workers’ angelic darling and spokeswoman Maria (Brigitte Helm), the head worker Grot (Heinrich George) and the not-quite-mad scientist, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has created a robot “False Maria” (also Helm), to seduce the workers into self-destructive riot and revolt.

The movement of the film is from regimentation and mechanical entrapment to chaos — or what would actually happen to Germany in the years to come.

Metropolis‘ Berlin premiere was a triumph. Audiences were mesmerized by the overwhelming visions that Lang and his company — including nonpareil cinematographer Karl Freund, art directors Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Carl Vollbrecht, and special effects photographer Eugen Schuftan — had summoned up: a breathtaking world of wonders, dreams, extrapolations and nightmares that later science fiction filmmakers, in later epics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Blade Runner and Avatar, have ever since striven to match or surpass

But that Berlin run was also one of the last times that audiences got to see Metropolis the way Lang and his chief collaborator — the film’s novelist/scenarist (and Lang’s wife) Thea von Harbou — intended it. The Berlin version was about 153 minutes long, not excessive for an epic like Metropolis. But soon, the film was cut for distribution to the rest of Germany, cut further for American release, and cut again and again for its international distribution, eventually down to 87 minutes, for the 1984 disco score version by composer Giorgio (Midnight Express) Moroder.

While Lang’s great canvas of a city and a future in flames was repeatedly shortened and stripped and re-jiggered, World War 2 intervened. Lang, the son of a Jewish mother, hating the Nazis, fled Germany for America and Hollywood. Von Harbou stayed behind and herself became a Nazi Party member. And the shattered couple’s masterpiece was left, it seemed, to the whims and winds of history — and in the dubious hands of fascist tyrants who were, ironically, sometimes (including Goebbels and Hitler himself) among the movie‘s biggest fans. Soon, the original 153-minute version seemed lost forever, replaced by a plethora of alternate “Metropolises” and of true and false Marias. Those snipped-up cities became the Metropolis that most film enthusiasts knew for the rest of the Twentieth Century.

When Metropolis was restored (and I have that version; I love it) to a carefully reassembled 124 minutes and shown in Berlin in 2001 (the year in which the film is set, as Stanley Kubrick well knew), restoration supervisor Martin Koerber, while also celebrating the beauty of all they‘d found and restored, sadly wrote that “a quarter of the regional premiere version of Metropolis, including the part containing the core of the story as conceived by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, must be considered to be irretrievably lost.”

But, between the head and the heart, it seems, stands the hand. Of the worker, the librarian, the finder, the keeper…

As archaeologists are there to remind us, cities (and civilizations) can rise from the ashes and the earth. Just as the original, long-lost version of Carl Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc was finally found (in a Norwegian asylum), a nearly complete print of the original Metropolis was discovered in 2008, in an archive in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, Argentina, a country itself battered by fascism, was subject to storms of history that may have delayed that discovery — and the print had deteriorated, become worn and scratched, over years of neglect.

Still, it was an epochal find. And it led to the reconstruction and the distribution (by Kino) of a 147-minute version that now contains almost all of the 1927 Metropolis.

Restored are a long-gone crucial subplot involving Josaphat and the Metropolis underworld; a mysterious character called “The Thin Man”; a long sequence set in the “Yoshiwara,” or red light district; and many small bits that amplify and clarify the film’s originally Byzantine narrative. This is not just a longer “Metropolis,” but a brilliantly elaborated one that finally contains all the pieces of the puzzle. Shorn of the confusion of most of the previous cuts, it is, in the end, a well-spun narrative that grips us throughout — besides filling us all over again with admiration for its sheer cinematic reach and fire and genius.

The false god of Metropolis is technology. The true god of the movie is humanity and love. The heroes of Metropolis are Lang and his munificently talented fellow artists. And the hero of the restoration tale is that Buenos Aires archivist, who finally brought to the light the film that had been thought lost forever for more than 80 years.

Lang himself came to reject Metropolis, perhaps because of the turn to Nazism of the woman who wrote the novel and (with him) the screenplay, his ex-love and ex-wife Thea. (The True Thea? The False Thea?) But their movie still amazes us. And the real-life story of loss, destruction and rediscovery behind this release gives us hope for other recoveries.

Maybe someday, somewhere, someone really will uncover the missing sections of Welles‘ The Magnificent Ambersons. And all those many missing reels of Von Stroheim’s Greed. Von Sternberg’s A Woman of the Sea. Murnau’s Four Devils. All those missing silent films by Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. And all the rest of the lost gems of cinema‘s lost history.

Maybe even the last six missing minutes of Metropolis.

In most cases, we probably won’t find and recover them, won’t retrieve the irretrievable. But, like Fritz Lang and the young, pre-Nazi Thea (who still believed in head, hand and heart), we can dream, can’t we? (Silent, with English intertitles and the original score by Gottfried Huppertz.)

Extras: Documentary Voyage to Metropolis; Interview with Paula Felix-Didier, the Argentine museum curator who found the lost print; Re-release trailer.



Flipped (Four Stars)

U. S.; Rob Reiner, 2010

For the past few years, I’ve been looking, yearning even, for some American studio movies that would make me feel the way I sometimes did as a movie-going kid — digging among all the sappy dreck and obvious trash of most so-called family movies today for the kind of warm, smart, family film I used to love: movies that had great characters, that depended for theirs impact on personality, writing “invisible direction” and a strong connection to the culture outside.

I’ve longed, usually in vain, for just a few live action movies that could made me laugh and cry the way It’s a Wonderful Life or The Quiet Man or The Wizard of Oz or Meet Me in St. Louis or the old Disney feature cartoons all did when I was young. Or the way the best Pixar animation often does now.

Rob Reiner just made one. Flipped.

You may be surprised at my high evaluation of Flipped — I’d rank this movie with my favorites of the year — because, even though Reiner‘s puppy love chronicle about a grade school crush in the ’50s and ’60s (told by the smitten girl and reluctant boy in alternate chapters), has received some positive or even ecstatic reviews, and fully deserves them, it’s also received almost as many mixed notices or witty, acid-tongued knocks.

Since Flipped’s nay-sayers tend to be from the more sophisticated media outlets, you may have sensed some consensus of hip brewing. It’s an understandable take. It’s been a long time since I‘ve felt about a Rob Reiner movie the way I feel about this one. But when I walked out of the screening room for Flipped, thoroughly entertained, I was also both elated and weeping. I could feel the tears coursing down for at least twelve blocks on my walk home. (I’ll tell you why later.)

Flipped risks the opposite response, critical contempt, just as its little heart-on-sleeve heroine, Juli Baker, keeps risking rejection by throwing herself on the line repeatedly for her leaden-footed, unadventurous big crush, Bryce Loski.

Yet not only has Reiner completely regained his form here (if he ever lost it), I actually prefer Flipped to Stand By Me. (I like Stand by Me fine, but I think it was a mistake for Wil Wheaton, and not River Phoenix, to have that gun at the end.) I would also rank Flipped with or above the other previous top movies in Reiner‘s canon, This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Misery, The Princess Bride and even When Harry Met Sally. I’d be surprised if, despite those sophisticated pans, he wasn’t very, very proud of it. And he should be.

Flipped is based on the 2001 teen novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, a longtime school teacher and mother, and someone who obviously understands kids from ground zero, with depth and sympathy. She‘s arranged the novel, ingeniously, as the two-sided story of a longtime schoolgirl crush.

In the beginning, live-wire second grader Juli Baker (played by the adorable Morgan Lily) rushes across her sunny suburban street to meet her new neighbors, the Loskis, and immediately flips for blonde, blue-eyed fellow second grader Bryce Loski (played at seven by the skittish-looking Ryan Ketzner). It’s one of those golden days, where every detail lingers forever afterward in your memory– for Juli, but not for Bryce, who immediately tries to ditch her. He gets his escape hatch when his dad Steven (Anthony Edwards), who understands pesky little girls and how annoying they can be, and tells him to go do some chores.

But before Bryce can run to his mother Patsy (Rebecca De Mornay), and hide behind her skirts, the determined Juli races after him, the two kids get tangled up, and they wind up holding hands in wittily romantic slow motion. It’s magic for her, embarrassing for him, and an image that hangs over the entire movie, until the very last shot.

From then on, we get the saga of Juli and Bryce from two sides — in alternating chapters, one told by the seemingly exasperated Bryce, the next by the seemingly indefatigable Juli. Soon we jump ahead, to the eighth grade, in 1963, where most of the story takes place.

In the movie, the kids are played as eighth graders by two splendid young actors, Callan McAuliffe and Madeline Carroll (Swing Vote). These two are both so good, so wonderfully unaffected and so completely into their roles, that you can pay them the ultimate actor compliment: You never see or feel them as separate from their characters. I think Madeline Carroll will always be thought of, and treasured, as Juli Baker, and that McAuliffe will likewise always be remembered as Bryce Loski. These youthful actors both give us everything we or Reiner could have wanted in these roles, all the subtlety and undercurrents and emotion, as does the rest of his astutely picked and beautifully controlled ensemble.

Carroll and McAuliffe score in their edgy scenes together and apart and also in the confidingly intimate voice-over narrations, where they speak their mind and tell us what they think and feel. That narrative device has also been wittily knocked, though, of course, it comes right out of the novel. Juli and Bryce’s narrations are funny, and kiddishly candid and revealing, and they tell us more about the kids, and about their families than the speakers themselves may fully understand as they speak.

They’re no natural couple. There’s a schism of temperament between them, and a class split as well.

The Bakers are blue collar, the Loskis white collar. Juli is a little dynamo, who wins science contests and is a brain and a crusader. She tends chickens and sells the eggs, hates the snobby little flirts and phonies in her class, like her big-hair nemesis, Sherry Stalls (Ashley Taylor), and adores her hard-working father, Richard (Aidan Quinn), who paints landscapes on the side; her mom Trina (Penelope Ann Miller); and her high-school age brothers Mark and Matt (Michael Bolten and Shane Harper.)

Juli gets to know, only later, the other family member, her Uncle Daniel (Kevin Weisman), whose partial strangling at birth by his umbilical cord left him mentally challenged and institutionalized, and whose health care bill keeps the whole family financially strapped.

Bryce, on the other hand, is something of a little suburban prince, with a more divided family. Smart but nowhere near as active and accomplished as Juli, he rejects her partly because his snobbish, acid-tongued dad, Steven (a role nailed by Anthony Edwards), looks down so snidely and dismissively on the Baker family and their messy yard (a weedy tangle because the Bakers’ landlord never maintains it and Richard lacks the time). Bryce‘s mother Patsy (Rebecca De Mornay) and his sister Lynetta (Cody Horn) are, in a way, princesses, too, but more likable, earthier ones. They’re basically on Juli‘s side — as is her strongest ally, Grandpa Chet (John Mahoney, good as always), who calls Juli “iridescent” and says she reminds him of his late wife, Patsy‘s mother. (Just as strongly, by the way, she reminds me of my own mother, Edna.)

Bryce, we eventually realize, really does like Juli, even if he can’t admit it. Maybe he would be her friend without prodding, if he had the guts (grade-school girls and boys of that era almost never mixed) and if he wasn’t so destructively influenced by his mean dad. And Bryce’s scathing papa’s venomous prejudices become more understandable after it’s revealed that Steven was a would be musician in his youth (a rock saxophonist in the movie, a guitarist in the book) who sacrificed his big dreams, hates his job, and wishes ill to anyone who has aspirations like the ones he tossed away. Bryce‘s worst instincts are also enhanced by his wannabe-rich-kid rat of a best friend, Garrett (Israel Broussard), a social bully and back-stabbing opportunist of the slimiest kind.

Now, you’ll see from this description that Flipped definitely has its dark and unsentimental, realistic side, that it’s no sunshiny Leave It To Beaver descendant. (It’s worth remembering though, as we now mostly don’t, that the TV Beaver was initially hailed by critics as a more naturalistic, sophisticated innovation in family TV comedies. And back then, it was.)

So, in Flipped, the incidents that drive the story forward are full of symbolic power, genuine conflict, strong themes and real emotion. This is a funny, charming movie about teen romance, but it’s also about bigotry and blasted dreams, social divisions and family tragedy. It’s about never giving up and about finally, morally growing up and becoming a person.

The characters resonate and so do the big scenes. Young Juli‘s neighborhood haven is a huge, gnarled old sycamore tree, from whose upper branches she dreamily watches the world below. When it’s finally slated for chopping down and removal, she tries to organize a town protest, even tries to enlist Bryce in her tree-in, but the embarrassed Bryce wont join — though that article about Juli’s crusade is what draws Grandpa Chet to her, and finally intrigues Bryce as well.

There’s an achingly real and painful sequence where Juli, who’s been selling eggs from her chickens to neighborhood ladies and giving them free every morning to Bryce, finally catches him sneakily throwing them away. There’s the marvelously strained and falsely convivial two-family Baker-Loski supper that Patsy organizes, where, afterwards, we finally see what a tormented bastard Steven really is.

All these episodes take on heightened significance, as we observe them through Bryce’s eyes, then Julie’s. Far from being hackneyed TV sitcom-style stuff, the whole movie is smartly designed and deftly constructed, full of passion, intelligence and wit. And full of a humanity rare for most movies these days. Flipped only seems like a sitcom if you’re not watching it closely.

That’s why it’s so right, so apropos, so flawlessly judged, that Reiner decided to re-set the story from (roughly) the present day to a span from 1957 to 1963, and to embellish the soundtrack with a Scorsesean medley of early ‘60s rock n‘ roll hits and oldies, starting with Curtis Lee’s bouncy “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” (as a fitting anthem for Juli), and ending, devastatingly, with The Everly Brothers’ (or at least Phil‘s) soulful, heart-breaking “Let It be Me.“ (Flipped, like Stand By Me, has the perfect last image and the perfect song playing over it.)

All these songs, juke box gems from the onset of the rock era, obviously mean something precious to Reiner. (They were, after all, the hits and dance songs of his youth.) And they’ll carry a charge to most of the audience as well, including most of the post-Boomer audience who know them only from revivals. There‘s an added boost from the period setting. Putting crusader/activist Juli and her eventual convert Bryce right on the cusp of the ’60s, means we know they’ll go through the late Civil Rights and Vietnam years together — and we know which side they’ll be on.

That isn’t necessarily true of the book. Author Van Draanen sets her Flipped in the present day. (It was published in 2001.) And one of the few cultural details she uses is to make Grandpa Chet a reader of novelist Tom (Patriot Games) Clancy. I hated that, not only because Clancy, a Cold War mega-thriller specialist and right wing trashmeister, seems to me such an overrated, overbought writer (Clancy’s Red Storm Rising is the worst-written long book I ever read all the way through), but because a taste for Clancy doesn’t jibe with Chet’s more liberal, open personality.

Van Draanen’s book is rich in details and insights into youth behavior, and she’s great at character and narrative. But Reiner and his collaborators and his marvelous cast have made it warmer, more deeply touching. Flipped the book would never have made me cry, though maybe Van Draanen doesn’t want tears.

Now I’ll tell you part of why the movie made my tears flow. (Part of the reason anyway.) It’s because something in it reminded me of my own childhood, though nothing that I‘m proud of.

When I was in the third grade, my mother Edna — the woman of whom Juli reminded me so much — began telling me about a family up the street whom she liked and who had a little girl named Caroline, who was about my age, was very smart and took care of some chickens, ducks and other farm animals that the family owned and kept nearby. Edna eventually brought me to meet the family, the animals, and Caroline, who had big eyes and a wide, blazing smile. She was very active and, as Edna said, very bright.

Caroline was a little older than me, and she was sort of temporarily gangly and, for the moment, very tall, as “little girls“ sometimes are at that age — a gawkiness they can grow out of spectacularly. She seemed delighted to have a friend near her age whom she could talk to and play with and show her animals. But I got worried that my classmates would think she was my girlfriend, and tease and laugh at us, if we were seen together too much. So I blew up one day in our house, and, with Caroline there, began storming childishly about how she looked, how she dressed, how tall she was. “Look at her dress! Look at her clothes!” ” I yelled, like a callous little idiot.

I cannot tell you how much I hate myself when I look back on that day, or when I remember Caroline sitting in a chair in our garage apartment, the big smile suddenly gone from her face. How still she was. How sad she was. I’ve replayed that scene and wished a hundred times I could go back in time and shake that little jerk, me, by the shoulders and yell and slap some humanity into him.

I didn’t even have the excuse of arrogant social class or a bad, snobbish father, like Bryce did. My father was a snob, but my parents were divorced and he wasn’t around. My mother and grandparents were maybe poorer than the Barkers. Somehow, I’d picked up that stupid prejudice and cruelty all by myself or from school-friends — a bigotry about looks and dress and apparent social class endemic in our culture and pop culture, and fed to us relentlessly, both then and now.

Poor Caroline. She’d done absolutely nothing to deserve my meanness, any more than Juli did in Flipped, or than Flipped has done to its acid-tongued critic/bashers. My mother made me apologize of course. Edna was embarrassed and hurt too, because in some way, I think she saw some of herself in Caroline and wanted me to like her. But I’d busted things badly; I didn’t have time to set them right.

Caroline‘s family left town shortly afterwards. I never saw her again. But, incredibly, she left me a present before they left. She gave me her two ducks — whom I named Charles Jonathan Duckworth and Janice Elizabeth Duckworth. For years, I fed those ducks and took care of them and walked with them, both quacking, up the street toward Caroline‘s old house, until one day, much later, Charles flew away.

I remember Caroline’s eyes to this day. And her smile. I remember them far more clearly than I do the sparkling eyes and flirty smiles of all the cute little girls, like Flipped’s Sherry Stalls, that I thought were so pretty at the time. But I remember her sudden sadness and stillness that day too. Over the years, every time I recall the day that I behaved like such a worthless little jerk and lost my friend, I dislike my old young self more, and wish more fervently I could wipe it all out, do something to bring back her smile, even for a second.

But how can you? Children can be very cruel. And cruelty uncorrected can blight your life. I hope Caroline was very, very happy all her life, and didn‘t have any more disappointing friends like me. And I hope she doesn’t have too hurtful a memory of the nasty little boy I was that day.

That’s one of the reasons I think Flipped is a great movie. (“I bless the day I found you; I want to stay around you…”) And it’s why I’d like people to try to ignore the negative comments it’s gotten, however persuasive they may seem, and to give it a chance. Don’t treat it like Rob Reiner’s folly, or like his been-there-done-that Stand By Me knockoff, because it isn’t. It’s really his pride and joy, one of the movies he‘ll be remembered for. Treat this sweet, brave, funny, charming, beautiful little picture like a potential treasure, a potential friend — like the little girl (or boy) who keeps knocking at your door and smiling and saying “Hi!‘” and who may have more to offer than you can possibly imagine.



The Last of the Mohicans (Director‘s definitive cut) (Four Stars)

U.S.: Michael Mann, 1992 (20th Century Fox)

From Michael Mann: A politically correct, but still blazingly exciting, version of James Fennimore Cooper’s most romantic Leatherstocking tale: the bloody, brutal war story (French and Huron against British settlers) and buried love, between lovely Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and woosdsman hero and adopted Mohican Hawkeye a.k.a. Pathfinder, a.k.a. Deerslayer a.k.a. Long Rifle a.k.a. Leatherstocking a.k.a. Natty Bummpo (all played by Daniel Day-Lewis), and unspoken feeling between sturdy Mohican Uncas and ethereal Hetty. (Cooper purists tend to dislike this film, but Mark Twain, who wrote the blisteringly funny Literary Offenses of Fennimore Cooper, might have approved. As a story, Mann makes it work.)

Day-Lewis, though seemingly odd casting, makes a terrific hero, Stowe a feisty heroine (second of out feisty Madeleines this week) and Wes Studi (as Magua) a smoldering, scary villain. The other Indians are played by Native Americans too, including Wounded Knee activist Rusell Means as Hawkeye’s eternal pal Chingachcook. The movie is well cast (also on hand are Jodhi May, Eric Schweig, Dennis Banks, Cole Meaney and Pete Postlethwaite, as is French actor-director Patrice Chereau as Montcalm), incredibly rich in detail, and beautifully shot in deep forests and high mountains, by Dante Spinotti. An excellent revisionist Western, in the Little Big Man vein. (R.I.P. Arthur Penn). Along with Heat, it’s as good as Mann has done.

(Two other movie versions of Last of the Mohicans, both worth a watch, are the classic 1920 silent film (Three and a Half Stars) directed by Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Brown, with Wallace Beery as Magua, and a fine 1936 George Seitz version (Three Stars) — the one Mann remembered from his boyhood and adapted here — scripted by Philip Dunne, with Randolph Scott as Hawkeye and Bruce Cabot as Magua.)

Extras: Commentary by Mann, Featurettes.



The Bing Crosby Collection (Three Stars)

U.S.: Various directors, 1933-47 (Universal)

“Dear gentle folk of Newport…Or maybe I should say ‘hats and cats’: I want you to lend an ear because, well, I want you to hear some really shimmering sharps and flats. For these cozy virtuosi, just about the greatest in the trade, are fixin’ to show you now, precisely how, jazz music is made!

“Well, you take some skins. Jazz begins. And then you take a bass. Man, now we’re getting’ some place…”

Bing Crosby, singing Cole Porter’s “Now You Has Jazz,” in High Society (1956)

Remember that eloquent baritone voice, soaring with melody, rife with melancholy, rippling with wit? Those icy blue eyes? Those wingy ears? That absolutely unflappable demeanor? Remember Bing’s priceless byplay with his trumpet-playing, scat-singing, virtuoso cohort on their great number quoted above, the nonpareil Louis “Satchmo“ Armstrong? (“Hey Pops, you want to grab a little of what’s left here?” “Yeah, Daddy, yeah!”) Remember “Dial ‘O’ for O’Malley?“

We can’t forget Der Bingle of course. But we tend to let slip what an entertainment industry phenomenon Crosby was, especially since his skinny Clan friend Frank Sinatra and that hillbilly cat upstart Elvis Presley have both tended to overshadow him since his death, as singer-actor movie star legends. But Crosby’s record is still pretty amazing.

Mr. C. was the undisputed top ’30’s-’40s recording star, with music’s all time top disc seller (White Christmas) and over 400 charted records in his career (more, this box’s notes gently remind us, than Elvis and The Beatles combined). One of the top box-office movie stars through the ’40s (often swapping positions with his ski-nosed pal Bob Hope). The top-rated radio star of the same decade (Hope again his main rival). A best actor Oscar-winner (for Father O’Malley in Leo McCarey’s excellent and now underrated “Going My Way.“) And don’t forget, Hope never won a competitive Oscar. (He never let us forget it, even when he got career ones.) Crosby paved the way for Frank, Elvis, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, everyone else, and don’t think they didn’t know it.

Crosby was not the usual kind of juke box idol, movie giant or matinee croon-swoon type. He was no schmo. He had a gift of gab, an admirable vocabulary, and he’d roll it out, anytime, anywhere. He‘s the only top 40 singer I can think of who could comfortably use words like “recherché“ and “discombobulate.” (His own writers accompanied him to his sets, which really annoyed Billy Wilder.)

In his early movie career, fresh out of Paul Whiteman’s band, he was sort of a typical singing popular starry-eyed guy, but he had a great sense of humor, was smart as a whip, made one-reel comedies, became a leading man, and also became one of the movies’ all-time great singer-stars and comedy straight men. (He’s usually at his best with partners, whether Hope, or Astaire, or Satchmo, or Frank and Dean — or a leading lady for whom he can lay on the withering schmaltz, and pour out the shimmering honey.

After all that fancy-shmancy intro, I’ve got say this set isn’t the best of Bing. It’s mostly early stuff, a little obscure, a little, dare we say, recherché. (He’s also the only top 40 idol who could get away with “dare we say.”) There’s only one classic here: Mississippi, with W. C. Fields. But it’s all fun to watch. By the way, you can get High Society from Warner. And you should. He does a great duet with Sinatra in the movie too. (“Is that what they’re saying? Well, did you evah!”) And also one with Grace Kelly. And “Now You has Jazz,” is — what can we say — sublime, iridescent, deliciously deliriously, absolutely the pinnacle of musical prestidigitation, a rocker with a bit of the bubbly. just one unsurpassable mellow and magnificent, cool and hot ballad for the ages. Or, as Frank would say, a gasser. (“From the equator, up to the pole: Everybody’s singin’, everybody wingin’ that rock, rock, rock, rock — rock n’ roll!”)

Hey, this intro was fun. I reserve the right to reuse some of it, if they ever put out another, better Crosby set. And they should.

College Humor(U.S.; Wesley Ruggles, 1933). Two Stars. College? Humor? Bing is a singing professor, competing for gals with, and crusading for a football team that includes Jack Oakie and Richard Arlen. and a campus that harbors George Burns and Gracie Allen. Rah!

We’re Not Dressing (U.S.; Norman Taurog, 1933.) Well, you can’t beat that cast or that title. Bing romancing Carole Lombard (who, he says in Call Me Lucky, took the title literally), plus Ethel Merman, more Burns and Allen, and, as a lounge lizard, Ray Milland. Here is My Heart(U. S.; Frank Tuttle, 1934). Two and a Half Stars. Bing, a rich crooner, disguises himself as a waiter to romance threadbare Russian royalty Kitty Carlisle and her retinue of Roland Young and Reginald Owen. Sort of imitation Lubitsch, with the best songs in the bunch: June in January“ and “Love is just Around the Corner.” (“And I couldn’t be forlorner.”)

Mississippi (U.S.; A. Edward Sutherland, 1935). Three and a Half Stars. W. C. Fields is a wily Southern riverboat captain and showman, Joan Bennett is a belle of the ball, and Bing is a reputed Northern coward who gains fame as The Singing Killer. A rib-tickling roundelay of rare and roguish jollity. Sing, You Sinners (U.S.: Ruggles, 1938). Two and a Half Stars. Crooner Bing, horn-tootling Fred MacMurray, and dance-up-a-storm young Donald O’Connor are a musical family who try to go straight, until Bing buys a race horse. They’re off! Songs: “Small Fry” and “Pocketful of Dreams.”

Welcome, Stranger (U.S.; Elliot Nugent, 1947) Three Stars. After “Going My Way,” they certainly weren’t strangers, but Bing and Barry Fitzgerald (“Impetuous! Homeric!”) collide again as grouchy old doctor and effervescent young medico, coping with evil pharmacists, medical conspiracies, small town gossip and Joan Caulfield affairs of the heart.



The Expendables (Also Blu-ray) (Two Stars)

U. S.; Sylvester Stallone, 2010

Sylvester Stallone could have been a contender.

In fact, once upon a time, he was the contender, even almost the champ. Rocky. F.I.S.T.? Rambo? Now comes The Expendables, an action movie for moviegoers who miss the ’80s. (Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to forget them.)

Sly is back, and he’s playing Barney Ross — not the heroin addict boxer of Andre De Toth’s Monkey on my Back, but the deep-voiced, heavily-muscled, mellowed but kick-ass leader of a gang of mercenaries that includes a whole Dirty Dozen or so of once or current upper-echelon action heroes: Lundgren as the scarred hothead Gunner Jensen, Jason Statham as London’s Lock, Stock basher Lee Christmas, martial artist Jet Li as Chinese mauler Ying Yang, wrestler turned actor Stone Cold Steve Austin as Paine, Terry Crews as Hale Caesar, Randy Couture as Toll Road — enough action stars or superstars to start a new country: Actionland, whose national motto is “Mess with the Best, and Die Like the Rest.”

Sending them on their way is a stern C. I. A. schmoozer named Church (played with an admirably straight face by Bruce Willis). Sitting this one out is another Stallone rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the smirking Trench. (“He wants to be President,” Barney mutters.) The main villain is Eric Roberts, in another headcase role as James Munroe (not the president). The love interest is Gisele Itie as Sandra, the radicalized daughter of the evil general of a wild and woolly banana republic.

And giving the guys tattoos, as scraggly Tool, is Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts‘ costar in that neglected 1984 NYC street classic “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” a top ’80s movie that a lot of people have forgotten or never knew. Rourke steals the entire movie, and Roberts steals what‘s left.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn‘t sometimes fun to watch all these guys, in their muscle-flexing, exploding fireball of a class reunion. But I’d also be lying if I didn’t say this was a second-tier action movie that doesn’t make much sense. (“But that’s the point!“ hard-core ’80s-lovers will lecture us. “It’s from the ‘80s! It’s not supposed to make sense! It made money!“ ) Oh yeah? If this movie had a lot more humor, more camaraderie and less phony cojones, more Mickey Rourke and Roberts, and even some more non-action Stallone, it could have been a lot better, Charlie. Instead, it’s an occasional hoot, but expendable. Extras: Commentary by Stallone; Featurette; Deleted scene; Gag reel.

Eat Pray Love (Also Blu-ray) (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.; Ryan Murphy, 2010

This movie — taken from Elizabeth Gilbert’s international bestseller about a year spent recuperating from a failed marriage and love affair, reaching nirvana through travel, romance, epicurean feasting and spiritual questing, communing with various great souls (who mix visionary searching with snappy patter) — is so well shot, on such gorgeous locations (Rome, India, Bali), with such a fine cast (Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Richard Jenkins, James Franco, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup), that for a while, it seems better than it really is. But it isn’t. In the end, I felt gypped, manipulated, chivvied, jived. Ain’t no way to the Truth.

You have to go to the book to find out that Gilbert got an (apparently very big) advance from her publisher specifically to write this tome, with four months allotted for each country: four months for Rome and food, four months for India and prayer, four months for Bali and whoopee. It’s all on the itinerary except perhaps for the climactic fling with Bardem as Felipe the boatman, without his Coen Brothers haircut.

Better than this movie, I think would have been a romantic comedy in which writer Liz sets up the whole spiritual-epicurean world cruise with her publisher, and then everything goes wrong, except at the end. But I guess life intervened, love intervened, the Great Soul flew down and blew smoke in our eyes. Close your eyes. Breathe. Follow the light. Eat. Pray. Love. Pray. Advance. Bank transfer. Pray. Advance. Bank transfer. We should all have such a publisher! Then we wouldn’t need a spiritual guide. Or Julia Roberts. No, strike that. We‘ll always need Julia Roberts. Love. Pray. Eat.

Extras: Featurette.

I’m Still Here (Also Blu-ray) (Two Stars)

U. S.; Casey Affleck, 2010

This movie — director Casey Affleck‘s seemingly unsparing look at the weird and infamous career-change crisis (from Oscar-nominated actor to slovenly, talentless rapper) of Affleck’s brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix — divided critics and media writers between those who thought it was a real documentary (or at least part of one), a non-fiction show full of bone-chilling glimpses of the dark side of Hollywood and the creepy side of success; those who thought it was a flat out mockumentary (or at least part of one) artfully concocted by Phoenix and Affleck, whose con game gulled David Letterman (perhaps) and much of the country; and those who don’t know and don’t care but think, in either case, it’s a crockumentary (or at least part of one) and were grossed out by producer-star Phoenix’s seemingly unsparing revelations, or skits, about what a complete asshole, deranged blowhard and ego-tripping nincompoop Joaquin or “Joaquin” can be.

It was a fake, of course and we should have known. (After all, the name of Joaquin’s and Casey’s production company was “They’re Going to Kill Us.”)

Pretty good acting job though. (By Sean Combs as well as Phoenix.) And an interesting acting challenge: Try to fool the whole country for a movie project, for a year. It even has a rich, juicy theme: the longing of a successful movie star to be an up-from-the-streets “outlaw” artist, the destructive hedonism of the Hollywood rich elite, and the ways that big money and big celebrity can curdle your brains.

Summer and Smoke (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Peter Glenville, 1961 (Olive)

Tennessee Williams’ play Summer and Smoke, set in 1916 in a small Deep South town, is about an idealistic preacher‘s daughter named Alma, who believes in the spirit, and a libertine doctor‘s son named Johnny, who believes in the flesh, and how she loves him all her life, and how he‘s drawn to her for at least one night (and maybe more), and how they just miss erotic connections, and wind up on opposite sides of the spirit-flesh debate. It’s one of his most personal and poetic works.

Williams even returned to Summer and Smoke later, as he did to his early play Battle of Angels — which became Orpheus Descending, and then the Brando-Magnani-Woodward film The Fugitive Kind — refashioning Summer years later as The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. But by then he had seemingly lost his commercial touch, if not his lyrical-dramatic one.

The movie — which has its ups and downs, but always has the benefit of Williams’ singing words and impassioned characterizations — also has a famous and first-rate performance: Geraldine Page’s Oscar-nominated turn as too-sensitive, heart-stricken, utterly trapped Alma, a woman whom she infuses with a bruised idealism and unrequited passion that almost hurt to watch, and whom she carries on a believable transition to Blanche DuBois-land and the kindness of one last stranger. (Earl Holliman, as it turns out, as a traveling salesman.)

Malcolm Atterbury and Una Merkel are also fine as Alma’s parents, the stern preacher and his demented spouse. So is McIntire, gruff and lovable again as Johnny’s doctor dad. And Rita Moreno, in the year she won an Oscar for Anita in “West Side Story,“ has another combustible role here, as Johnny‘s fiery temptress Rosa. (Too much fire this time, maybe and not enough scolding and dancing.)

But the movie, which got Oscar nominations for Page, Merkel and for composer Elmer Bernstein (who contributes an excellent, seething, bent-romantic score), seems sometimes florid and phony, in the way incautious, over-pretentious adaptations of Williams can often seem. Perhaps that’s partly due to director Peter Glenville, a theatrical whiz who knows good material (Becket) and gets fine actors, but sometimes cranks up the stage lust and dramatic pyrotechnics too much. Too summery, too smoky.

“Thomas Gomez turns up again, sweating and shouting,” Glenville-basher Pauline Kael said of Summer supporting actor Gomez, in one of her memorably witty knocks. And so he does, as Rosa’s gun-waving gangster- dad, the owner of Johnny’s favorite depraved den of sin and cockfights Moon Lake Casino — and a man who brings Bacchanal wherever he goes. (I’ll forgive Gomez anything though, because of “Force of Evil.“) As Johnny, Laurence Harvey, as so often during his early ‘60s big star career, seems to have a grudge against the world. It‘s a relief when Harvey, who was a fine Romeo in Renato Castellani’s 1954 Romeo and Juliet, gets to read some of Williams’ gentler lines, and to give Alma some of his softer looks.

I hate to say too many bad things about Summer and Smoke, because it’s the kind of material I’d like to see done more often today, with this level of production and cast. Tennessee Williams may have had his flaws, and his sins, but he could write beautifully and honestly, with feeling. Geraldine Page, a real pro, makes us recognize what strong theatrical stuff Summer and Smoke really is.

A Thunder of Drums (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Joseph M. Newman, 1961 (Warner Archive)

This adult Cavalry Western, about a blunt, prickly commander (Richard Boone), a brash lieutenant (George Hamilton, who’s part of a love triangle here with Home from the Hill” castmate Luana Patten), an insubordinate bully of a soldier (Charles Bronson), and the rest f the fort’s motley populace (including Richard Chamberlain and Slim Pickens), was written by James Warner Bellah, who also wrote Sergeant Rutledge and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for John Ford, as well as the stories from which Ford made the Cavalry Trilogy.

And if Ford had directed this film — which received unusually good reviews and was then forgotten — it might be considered one of his classics. Newman doesn’t do a bad job though, and Boone (who played the wry gunslinger Paladin in the offbeat TV western “Have Gun, Will Travel”) is, here as elsewhere, an excellent, underrated actor. (This movie is made on demand. Browse or

When Artists Lie

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

When Artists Lie

Still Combing Joaquin’s Beard

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Still Combing Joaquin’s Beard
Affleck Tells Telly An Exclusive
And – Also Exclusives Ebert For Interview And Rogerebert.Com
Plus –
Video Of Latest Letterman Tete-A-Tete

Casey Tells Another Tale To The Telly

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Casey Tells Another Tale To The Telly

Weekend Box Office Report – September 19

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

A trio of new films was expected to duke it out for weekend bragging rights but Friday box office returns burst that bubble. The cops and robbers of The Town prevailed with an estimated $23.6 million while the high school angst and hijinx of Easy A took place position with $18 million; followed with a $12.5 million gross for the horror entry Devil.

The session’s fourth national bow was the family-targeted Alpha and Omega (in 3D) that ranked fifth with $9.2 million.

And despite the surge of new blood, weekend box office was no better than on par with 2010; albeit with fewer people buying tickets.

The frame was also chock-a-block with new additions in regional and exclusive play. The Toronto fest favorite Incendies had a solid bow in Quebec of $170,500 at 29 venues while another TIFF debut, the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, rang up a per engagement average of $29,370 from four screens. Also good in limited exposure were Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut Jack Goes Boating and the black comic Leaves of Grass.

Though The Town was clearly out-pacing its competition in advance ticket sales, tracking pundits pegged the latter day Ridgemont High antics of Easy A as the box office leader for the frame. Devil was expected to be very close behind the duo.

But some unexpected twists altered the scenario. The most telling wild card was the fact that Devil went against the grain of drawing in women (horror films generally draw a majority distaff audience). Exit polls revealed the horror film’s audience at 60% while The Town, which was expected to be predominantly male, had a better than expected 45% female buyers.

Conversely, Easy A’s composition was two-thirds female and whenever two films display comparable strength, the one that favors males usually dominates. Men out-weigh women among avid filmgoers.

Weekend revenues should top out just shy of $100 million for a sizeable 24% boost from the immediate prior weekend. However, that also translated into a 1% box office drop from 2009. A year ago the debuts of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Informant held the top two slots with respective opening salvos of $30.3 million and $10.5 million.

Holdovers largely took it on the chin with last weekend’s chart topper Resident Evil: Afterlife going free fall by 63%. In general older titles saw their box office halved. The alternative hits of summer have pretty much run their course and specialized exhibitors are almost rabid about getting the deluge of film festival favorites on screen to bolster flagging sales.

Weekend Estimates – September 17-19, 2010

Title Distributor Gross (average) % change * Theaters Cume
The Town WB 23.6 (8,250) New 2861 23.6
Easy A Sony 18.0 (6,310) New 2856 18
Devil Uni 12.5 (4,460) New 2809 12.5
Resident Evil: Afterlife Sony/Alliance 9.9 (3,090) -63% 3209 43.8
Alpha and Omega Lions Gate 9.2 (3,490) New 2625 9.2
Takers Sony 3.0 (1,390) -48% 2139 52.3
The American Focus 2.7 (1,110) -52% 2457 32.8
Inception WB 2.0 (1,510) -29% 1305 285.1
The Other Guys Sony 1.9 (1,050) -43% 1827 115.3
Eat Drink Pray Sony 1.6 (980) -44% 1668 77.6
Machete Fox 1.6 (940) -63% 1704 24.2
Going the Distance WB 1.3 (660) -65% 2007 16.7
The Expendables Lions Gate 1.3 (720) -59% 1854 101
The Last Exorcism Lions Gate 1.2 (600) -64% 2013 40.1
Nanny McPhee Returns Uni 1.0 (600) -53% 1588 27.6
The Switch BV .91 (790) -55% 1158 26.6
Despicable Me Uni .86 (910) -48% 944 244.7
Lottery Ticket WB .62 (920) -49% 677 23.5
Get Low Sony Classics .57 (1,380) -34% 421 7.8
Vampires Suck Fox .54 (560) -64% 964 35.8
Toy Story 3 BV .43 (900) -44% 475 410.5
Weekend Total ($500,000+ Films) $94.30
% Change (Last Year) -1%
% Change (Last Week) 24%
Also debuting/expanding
Catfish Uni .25 (21,080) 12 0.25
Incendies eOne .17 (5,880) 29 0.17
Never Let Me Go Searchlight .12 (29,370) 4 0.16
I’m Still Here Magnolia .11 (970) 11% 111 0.25
Jack Goes Boating Overture 30,300 (7,580) 4 0.03
Leaves of Grass First Look 24,300 (8,100) 3 0.02
Picture Me Strand 6,800 (6,800) 1 0.01
The Freebie Phase 4 4,400 (4,400) 1 0.01
GasLand HBO 2,800 (1,400) 2 0.01
Kings of Pastry First Run 2,250 (2,250) 1 0.01

Domestic Market Share – January 1 – September 16, 2010

Distributor (releases) Gross Market Share
Fox (15) 1232.8 15.60%
Warner Bros. (21) 1229.4 15.60%
Paramount (11) 1227.5 15.60%
Buena Vista (13) 1086.8 13.80%
Sony (20) 967.9 12.30%
Universal (14) 718.4 9.10%
Summit (9) 424.5 5.40%
Lions Gate (10) 382.2 4.80%
Fox Searchlight (4) 70.6 0.90%
Overture (5) 67.4 0.90%
Focus (6) 62.8 0.80%
Weinstein Co. (6) 60.3 0.80%
MGM (1) 50.4 0.60%
CBS (2) 50 0.60%
Sony Classics (18) 49.8 0.60%
Other * (235) 199.9 2.60%
7880.7 100.00%
* none greater than 0.45%

Letterman Was In On Phoenix’s Fakery?!

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Letterman Was In On Phoenix’s Fakery?!

Casey Affleck Settles I’m Still Here Lawsuits

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Casey Affleck Settles I’m Still Here Lawsuits

Mr. Phoenix Seeks Gainful Employment

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Mr. Phoenix Seeks Gainful Employment

Wilmington on Movies: I’m Still Here, Soul Kitchen and Bran Nue Dae

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

I’m Still Here (Two Stars)
U. S.; Casey Affleck, 2010

This movie — director Casey Affleck‘s seemingly unsparing look at the weird and infamous career-change crisis (from Oscar-nominated actor to slovenly, talentless rapper) of  Affleck’s brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix — seems to have divided critics and media writers among between those who think it’s a real documentary (or at least part of one), a non-fiction show full of bone-chilling glimpses of the dark side of Hollywood and the creepy side of success; those who think it’s a flat out mockumentary (or at least part of one) artfully concocted by Phoenix and Affleck, whose con game gulled David Letterman (perhaps) and much of the country with him; and those who don’t know and don’t care but think, in either case, it’s a crockumentary (or at least part of one)  and were grossed out by producer-star Phoenix’s seemingly unsparing revelations, or skits, about what a complete asshole, deranged blowhard and ego-tripping nincompoop Joaquin or Joaquin can be, real or fake.

Okay. Here’s my opinion.  I think they  had us on.  Obviously.  Totally.  To me (and to lots of others) this looks like a Borat-style mix of a fake central character (Phoenix travestying himself) and a fake premise with some (maybe quite a few) real reactions from the real world around him. (How many, who can tell?)  Frankly, though I’ve been fooled, like almost everybody else, with the year-long tabloid media brouhaha whirling around Phoenix’s supposed retirement from acting and his rebirth as a rapper-who-can’t-rap, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell this guy really wants a hip hop life and that much of what we see here wasn’t dreamed up by the brothers-in-law and then perpetrated willfully before cinematographer Magdalena Gorka‘s supposedly omni-present camera — which sees everything, and goes everywhere, even, at one point (almost) up Joaquin’s assistant’s ass.

Affleck shows us some stuff we’ve seen. Phoenix self-destructing on the Letterman Show, decked out in  a scraggly, Hasidic-looking remnant of a ZZ Top beard, chewing gum (and then sticking it under Letterman‘s desk), announcing his movie star retirement and hip hop aspirations, and getting a tremendous ribbing from Letterman (Joaquin, I‘m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.). Phoenix being ribbed even worse, in absentia, on the Oscar Show, by Ben Stiller, who showed up for his presentation dressed like Joaquin on Letterman and acting if he were  ready to sniff everything on stage.  And Joaquin debuting his mind-boggling rap act at Las Vegas, dealing with a heckler by calling him a bitch, bragging about his own million dollar bank account, and then jumping, swinging, into the crowd.

We see also see some new stuff, the supposed backstory: notably two long sequences in which genuine rapper-producer Sean (P. Diddy) Combs agrees to produce Jo-Po if the money is there, and then tries to let him down firmly but gently after listening appalled, to his songs (I’m still real./I won’t kneel.) telling him he liked the first two, but it was kind of downhill from there, and  that you’re not at that point to work with me. (Believe me, he was kind.)

More.  Joaquin rambling on about how he hates acting, hates his life and wants to let out the real me (Answered prayers…).  Joaquin snorting something that looks like cocaine, smoking something that looks like pot, and nuzzling himself between the huge breasts of what looks like a hooker.  Joaquin,  bleary-eyed, turning down Stiller, who is offering him a part in Greenberg and seems stunned that the ex-actor obviously hasn’t read the script.  Joaquin screaming in agony, in the park, after the Letterman fiasco, about how he‘s fucked his career and fucked his life.  Joaquin tearing a new asshole on one of his assistants, Antony (Langdon), whom he accuses of betrayal and who later gets his revenge by sneaking into Joaquin’s bedroom on camera where his ex-boss is  sleeping and taking a shit in his face.


 Joaquin, trying to talk to his father, who doesn’t speak. Joaquin walking into the water and…


Did all this really happen, unfaked? Well, that question seems to be settled by the credits of I’m Still Here, which list Phoenix and Affleck as writers, give what looks like an actors credit to the Las Vegas hecklers, give a very large music credit to somebody else, and offer fulsome thanks to both Combs and Stiller (whom Joaquin, mysteriously isn’t mad at).

There are other clues all the way through. Summer Phoenix, who is Joaquin’s wife and Casey’s sister, never appears in this film, and yet hasn’t disowned either of them, despite those presumed coke-spattered hookers. Joaquin has an actor, Tim Affleck, playing his father.  Joaquin may have yelled at Antony (an actor from Velvet Goldmine) for betraying him, but he apparently didn’t dismiss either Casey or the cinematographer for shooting him unawares getting crapped on — or exercise his producer‘s option of excising this material. (Maybe it was a rogue shoot.)

The post-Letterman howl, as many have noticed, seems a bit too well and dramatically written (or improvised), and a bit too well caught. The Edward James Olmos water drop soliloquy seems too perfectly rhymed with the movie’s last shot. But some of  the other scenes have that slightly half-baked quality that a lot of on camera improvised acting has —  the sense that the actors are waiting to leap in and aren’t totally listening to each other.

A major point: Even given all the drugs seemingly ingested here, it’s hard to believe that Phoenix could be the same gifted actor who gave so many sensitive, intelligent, well-judged performances  –  including the voyeur in Two Lovers, which was done right before this film commences and his musically savvy impersonation of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line — and be here such a total, oblivious, off-the-wall  dickhead, off screen and on camera. Of course, there are plenty of Hollywood precedents. Witness the great John Barrymore taking impromptu dumps and whizzes at parties, introducing himself to the young Kate Hepburn by exposing himself, and playing his celebrated, universally-hailed  London premiere of Hamlet,  dead drunk, remembering all his lines, but lurching from arras to curtain to Ophelia to curtain, and vomiting behind them. That was the Great Profile. Somehow, the Joaquin we see here is a little too gross to be completely  convincing.

 Besides, if  Affleck and Gorka were really shooting Joaquin unplugged for a year, there has to be a some good stuff on him, some stuff where he behaves decently, at least some of the time (other than the shattered climax). Yet every scene in this movie, with the partial exception of the post-Letterman lament, seems designed (scripted?) to show him at his worst, which suggests a screenplay or outline with a theme.

Finally, the name of Joaquin’s and Casey’s production company is They’re Going to Kill Us. That’s something you might say when you’ve been caught playing an elaborate practical joke.

 I don’t know why I bothered with all that, except that there do seem to be some people who think this movie might be kosher, or aren’t sure. For those who do, I have the Brooklyn Bridge in my back pocket and I’ll sell it to you for a song. But not one of Joaquin’s.  

It’s another damned good acting job though.  (If it is.)  And an interesting acting challenge:  Try to fool the whole country for a movie project, for a year.  (The unlikelihood of getting away with that is one piece of evidence, sort of, in favor of the documentary theory).  And it’s even a rich, juicy theme: the longing of a successful movie star to be an up-from-the-streets outlaw artist, the destructive hedonism of the Hollywood rich elite, and the ways that big money and big celebrity can curdle your brains.

 I’m Still Here isn’t shot too well, but the acting is often super, especially by Phoenix and Combs (if he‘s acting). Is there an Oscar category for best leading male performance in a so-called documentary? Shine it up for Joaquin, who must be more than ready by now to rise from the asses. And get Ben Stiller to hand it to him.  Unbearded.    


Soul Kitchen (Three Stars)
U.S.; Fatih Akin, 2009

 Fatih Akin’s new movie is as nervy, fast-moving and hard-edged as Head On or The Edge of Heaven, but it’s mood and motive are much sunnier and bubblier. It’s a comedy, a bawdy and delicious one, about a Greek-German restaurant owner-manager trying to make a go of a hip little eatery called Soul Kitchen — ensconced in a large space in an industrial area of Hamburg, full of comfort food and jumping with pop music. The Kitchen, which booms out the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones, Ruth Brown and other soul classics over the speakers, and draws much of its patronage from a nearby art school, is a smoking little place.  Its menu (pizza, burgers, fries) is easy and toothsome, and its staff is congenial but it’s problems are also seemingly endless.

For much of the movie we simply watch the Kitchen’s owner-hero, Zinos Kazantzakis (played by real life restaurateur and longtime Akin buddy Adam Bousdoukos), run around  trying to solve them — to untangle his troubled love life, the keep his staff happy, and to keep out of the hands of predatory creditors, a relentless taxwoman and malicious, greedy business sharks. Zinos’ romantic turmoil mostly revolves around brainy journalist heiress-beauty Nadine (Pheline Roggan) who has a job (and maybe a new boyfriend) in China. His personnel quandaries stem from his new temperamental chef, Shayn Weiss (Birol Unel), who likes to throw knives, and from his ex-con brother Ilias (Moritz Blibtreu), who likes to gamble and has a crush on a waitress. His most troublesome tax collector, and most persistent predatory business shark (Wotan Wilke Mohring as Thomas Neumann) are often at his door, and , at least once, in each other’s arms. And we haven’t even mentioned the slipped disc.

Kazantzakis, who, of course, has the same name as one of Greece’s greatest novelists, Nikos Kazantzakis (The Last Temptation of Christ, Zorba the Greek), also has an energy and upbeat personality that seem equal to the task. But barely.  

The Turkish-German Akin‘s other movies — great, unsparing looks at urban youth and the immigrant experience in modern  Germany, have been lively and sexy and often grim. Soul Kitchen is lively and sexy and often funny. It definitely shows Akin has more strings to his bow, at least when his tummy is nicely full and his appetites slaked.

 This movie reminded me very pleasantly of college days in Madison, Wisconsin in the ‘60s and ‘70s , where a place called Soul Kitchen, with that menu (or at least the original menu), that staff and that play list, would have been the hit of the town. (They would have had to put The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” on the jukebox though. And it would have been played a lot.)  Akin’s show reminded me joyously of my old friend, the late Jim Cusimano, alias The State Street Gourmet, an eloquent writer and happy trencherman who was restaurant critic for our college paper, The Daily Cardinal, when I was the movie critic and Gerry Peary was the arts editor. These are happy, lip-smacking memories.

Bousdoukos may be a film acting amateur. But his years of pulling customers in for his food have given him a natural energy and a shaggy presence and charisma, that helps keep all these whirligig plots in motion. Blibtreu, as brother Moritz — a well-meaning but reckless guy who has trouble stamped on his neck — gives a marvelous supporting performance. And so does Unel as Weiss, a chef willing to pull a knife on a customer, rather than blasphemously heat up his bowl of gazpacho. The rest of the cast, all good, pungently illustrate the whole melting-pot pizzazz of life in the city when you’re (relatively) young, active, and alive to lots of options. And ready for snacks of all kinds.

Now mind you, Soul Kitchen is no profound, life changing cinematic experience. Who cares? I liked it a lot. And maybe I speak too soon of profundity or its absence. After all, this has to be a life changing experience for both Zinos and Ilias. It’s just that these are also troubles, however grave and vexing they appear, that we can laugh at, muddle through, and that can temporarily be solved by a tasty gyro or a heart-warming doumani. And some sweet soul music. (In German, with English subtitles.)   


Bran Nue Dae (Three Stars)
Australia, Rachel Perkins, 2009

 Movie musicals have been on the rise again recently, and here‘s a very curious and delightful, and often wonderful, mix of road movie and romantic musical comedy, based on the smash hit pop musical by Jimmy Chi and his band Knuckles.  

 The movie, brightly and engagingly directed by award-winner Rachel Perkins (Radiance) and beautifully shot by Lord of the Rings’ Andrew Lesnie, is a feast for eye, ear, funny bone and soul. Chi gives us something simultaneously old-fashioned and radical: an aboriginal musical. The hero, Willie (played by Rocky McKenzie), flees from a seemingly busted romance with his dream girl Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), to the dubious solace of  hard-case priest Father Benedictus (the excellent Geoffrey Rush), a man who never lets a soul get away.  Then Willie escapes from the holy trap to travel back home with two would-be hippies and a cheerful bum named Uncle Tadpole. Tadpole is played, in the film’s top performance (I’m sure Rush would agree)  by a terrific actor named Ernie Dingo, whose style, looks and talent are very reminiscent of Morgan Freeman‘s. (You can’t top that.)  

Bran Nue Dae is not a great musical and in many ways, its style and structure are a little over-familiar. But it’s also, often enough, tremendous, rousing fun. How can you not have a soft spot for a show whose showstopper song boasts the lyrics There’s nothing that I’d rather be, than to be an aborigine! song by a cheeky classful of Aussie kids right in the faces of their stern teachers?  G’day, indeed.


Mademoiselle Chambon (Three Stars)
France; Stephane Brize, 2009

“Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.“ So says the poet and  perhaps, for much of  Mademoiselle Chambon, so says Stephane Brize, the director/co-writer of this “Brief Encounterish“ tale of a somewhat happily married house builder, Jean (Vincent Lindon) who falls I love with his little boy‘s schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain). Thanks to Lindon, Jean goes very believably heartstruck when Mlle. Chambon plays the classical violin (especially Edward Elgar), and then also must deal with her approaching departure, his own strongly moral nature and the fact that his wife, Anne-Marie (Aurore Atika) is both blameless (even if she is ignorant about direct objects in French grammar) and pregnant.

Lindon and Kiberlain, both exemplary actors, are an interesting couple — she’s brainy, wispy and interested, he‘s brawny, good with his hands and shy  — and this adaptation by Brize and co-writer Florence Vignon of Eric Holder‘s novel, wrings as many drops  of erotic tension, as many moony stares and averted eyes, pregnant silences and yearning almost-touches, as it possibly can. Most of the passion is sub-surface, as it was in David Lean and Noel Coward’s postwar classic of Rachmaninoff-drenched repression. (See above).  The visual style is chaste too. When young, smart-ass media neo-conservatives bitch about French movies, this may be part of what bothers them. Sex mixed with principles isn‘t their cuppa and neither are movies that take romance seriously.

But in many great love stories, it’s the difficulties that make the drama, the frustrations that feed the pasion. And that‘s the case here, too. Thanks to Lindon and Kiberlain, we feel again what it means to suffer, silently. “Chambon” is not great, but its certainly good. Wispy, but good. (French, with English subtitles.)

Dargis Is Back And She’s Got Joaquin

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Manohla Is Back And She’s Got Joaquin

Hoaxer Hoaxes Joaquin Performance Pic At TIFF

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Hoaxer Hoaxes Joaquin Performance Pic At TIFF; Faux Hoax Or Team Affleck?

I Just Flew Into Toronto, and Boy, Are My Arms Tired

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

After a full day of travel, I finally landed in Toronto around 10PM tonight. I spent part of the flight watching screeners — I’ll have a review of Swedish film Behind Blue Skies up soonish, but in brief: it’s kind of a Swedish Holy Rollers (the Jesse Eisenberg, Hasidic Jews smuggling ecstasy flick), set in the ’70s, and stars Bill Skarsgård (Son of Stellan) in a soulful, impressive lead performance.

Phillips On Phoenix

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

“Rarely has the question of a documentary’s artifice mattered less. I genuinely hated this picture.”
Zeroes Out Phoenix
Plus – 12 More Tribune No-Stars

Joaquin Horrifies Roger

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

“He has no onscreen moment when he appears clean or sober. Whether drugs alone could account for his condition, or whether mental illness is also involved, is not for me to say.”
Joaquin Horrifies Roger

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

I’m curious to see Casey Affleck’s documentary about Joaquin Phoenix’s “rap” career, I’m Still Here.  It seems more obvious every day that Phoenix’s “retirement” from acting to focus on rapping was a complete put-on.  I think it hit home from me when I saw that Phoenix is listed as a producer on the film.  I find it hard to believe that someone who does the crazy things that purportedly happen in the documentary would allow the film to be released.  More than that, Affleck is Phoenix’s brother-in-law and I’m fairly sure that no family member would exploit someone’s downward spiral unless they were in on some kind of joke.

But the sad part for me is that this seems like such a waste of time for two incredibly talented actors.  Casey Affleck finally acted again after a three year layoff and gave us another masterful performance in The Killer Inside Me; the last performance Phoenix gave was the devastating, heartbreaking, and altogether fantastic portrayal of Leonard in Two Lovers.  I understand that these two buddies wanted to just hang out and make a documentary where Phoenix plays an elaborate prank on unsuspecting audiences.  It seems like a fun idea and all that, but it’s also a waste of talent.  These two guys are two of the finest actors we have and no matter how good I’m Still Here turns out, I can’t imagine I won’t be disappointed that these two didn’t spend that time giving us a few more great performances.

I think the issue is that Phoenix and Affleck are the kind of actors, like Daniel Day-Lewis, who don’t “enjoy” acting.  They see it as a job because they are so committed to what they do, actually believing in the craft of creating a performance.  So, the two of them just didn’t feel like doing all that hard work yet wanted to produce something because they are artists, after all.  And I’m Still Here is the result of that.  I understand where they’re coming from, but I hope and pray that they get back in front of the camera ASAP.

Three amigos