Posts Tagged ‘James and the Giant Peach’

Wilmington on DVDs: Casino Jack, My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?, Breathless, Crumb and more …

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010


Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Alex Gibney, 2010 (Magnolia)

If you don’t watch this movie before the next election, you’ve got only yourself to blame.

Alex Gibney‘s Casino Jack and the United States of Money is the amazing, genuinely scary and totally sobering story of Jack Abramoff, the supreme Republican lobbyist/dealmaker/moneyman, and also the poster child for a decade crazed by greed and contemptuous of rules, regulations and the problems of the common man and woman.

Abramoff, the one time president of the college Young Republicans was one of the group of young Turk collegiate conservatives from the ‘70s, a cadre of hard-driving ideological creeps who included Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed. In the ‘90s,  Abramoff became a lobbyist and made himself into a direct pipeline to the fabled G. O.P.  minority whip Tom DeLay (known as  “The Hammer” because of his famous cudgel-wielding, bashing people skills in congress) and other powerful Republican congressional leaders. These were cynical legislators who got hefty campaign contributions and, quid pro quo, did favors, or acted favorably, or passed the right kind of laws for the right kind of money.

Jack was quite a guy, quite a salesman. In high school in Los Angeles, he was a football and wrestling star. Then he underwent, supposedly, a religious conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox? Jack loved politics, loved money, loved the high life, loved movies. When told about this one being made, he suggested that director Alex Gibney (an Oscar winner), not make a boring old documentary, but instead make a snazzy action movie, because that’s where the money is. Jack even produced an actioner himself, a pile of ludicrous Rambo knockoff garbage called Red Scorpion (1989), starring Dolph Lundgren as a hunky Russian officer pursuing African rebels.

But Jack’s movie career faltered (Thank God!), and he turned his talents to lobbying the Gingrich and Bush congresses instead. Jack still knew where the money was. Supposedly a devout Jew, he joined forces with other alleged men of God like the Christian Coalition’s cutie-pie guerilla fighter Reed — all of whom apparently missed that passage in the Bible where Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle  than for a rich man to enter Heaven. These guys all loved money just as much as Wall Street’s Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko, and were just as ruthless of acquisition. Especially Jack.

Peddling his access to DeLay and others, Jack charged huge fees to the government of the Mariana Islands (to get the government to ignore sweat shops), to several native American tribes including the Tiguas (for favorable legislation on their gambling casinos) and to many others. He bought a fleet of floating casinos off Miami and set up a dummy corporation called A. C. I. supposedly run by a local lifeguard, newly named prexy Dave Grosh (who admits on camera that he probably wasn‘t qualified to run an Arby‘s). It was really a cash conduit for Republican money.

A Golden Goose? Jack and his buddies, in imprudent emails, laughingly called their clients monkeys, assholes and fucking boy scouts and cursed them because the tribe didn’t come up with more moolah, even as the Abramoff  Mob drained the Tiguas of 32 million dollars or more.

Meanwhile, it seems, almost the entire U.S. Congress was up for sale, throughout the Bush era, lots of Republicans and a few Democrats as well. And it was conscienceless influence peddlers like Jack, who funneled millions of dollars of campaign loot into the Right pockets, along with gaudy vacations and free eats (at Jack’s Washington D. C. restaurant Signatures) and sexy ladies and God knows what else. Finally, somebody blew a whistle and some others flipped, or maybe God got angry at all these money-mad poseurs, and the Washington Post’s Susan Schmidt (part of  the mainstream liberal media Fox News keeps cursing out) wrote a story. The party crashed and Jack wound up in the slammer along with several others whom we meet here. But not Delay, who resigned in 2006. We last see “The Hammer” smiling devilishly and trying, somewhat grossly, to summon up memories of  John Travolta while strutting lasciviously to the Troggs’ Wild Thing, on TV‘s Dancing with the Stars.

Gibney keeps the pace relentless, and the show constantly moving (as they say about those action movies Jack adored). It‘s also richly informative, often enthralling, and far more exciting than Red Scorpion could ever hope to be. And scary to boot. And funny, if not funnier than the Hammer swivel-hipping and finger-pointing his way through Wild Thing.

Listen, if, after watching Casino Jack,  some of you still believe the Republicans are the party of God, or of prudent economics, or of the people, or that the government wasn‘t disgracefully and perpetually up for sale under Bush (whom we see in photos with Jack, both of them looking very happy), and that it probably won’t be again under the current G.O.P. or those so-called Tea Party insurgent populists, then you‘re pretty naïve. And if you can’t figure out why the economy crashed after other lobbyists for the financial institutions much like Jack helped deregulate the banks and money centers, turning them into huge non-floating casinos that almost sank, you‘re living in some kind of bizarre dreamland.

Here’s the awful thing: The new G.O.P. seems poised to take over Congress again, which would put these moolah-worshipping connivers and crooks back in power and back at the tables: deregulating, bashing the poor, soaking the middle class and sucking up to the rich — while adopting the well-worn Republican electoral strategy of trashing the Dem President (Obama this time), promising tax cuts,  and accusing all their foes of being Commies or close.

Can you fool some of the people all the time? I hope not. Meanwhile, Jack is in jail. Where he belongs. Because after all, every game does have its rules. And I‘m  sure the old Orthodox Jock has found God and Rambo again. Maybe he and Scanlon  and the others will pass through that needle‘s eye yet. Not the Hammer though. He was born to dance.

Extras: Commentary by Gibney; Deleted Scenes; Extended Interviews; New York Premiere Q & A; Conversation with Gibney; Featurettes.   


My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Three Stars)
U.S.; Werner Herzog, 2010 ( Industrial Entertainment)

After inspiring Nic Cage to heights of New Orleans rogue cop lunacy in Bad Lieutenant 2, Werner Herzog takes another dive into modern neo-noir, working with an executive producer, kindred spirit David Lynch, guaranteed not to hinder his wildest, most darkly Teutonic  fancies. The film’s story, taken from life, follows a mad young actor (Michael Shannon), who becomes so caught up in his lead role of the matricide son in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, that he kills his own mother (Lynch favorite Grace Zabriskie), and then holds two hostages in a police standoff. (The identity of the hostages is one of the film‘s craziest japes.)

Thanks to the fusion of Lynch and writer/director Herzog (co-scripting with Herbert Golder), the movie is like a straight-faced Law and Order episode turned wacky nightmare. (Some of the craziest moments though, come from life.) The rest of the stellar cast, fit for any nightmare, includes Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena as the very serious, helpful cops, Brad Dourif as a racist uncle who breeds ostriches, Irma P. Hall as the matronly neighbor/witness,  Udo Kier as the Oresteia‘s urbane German-accented director, and Chloe Sevigny as Shannon’s Greek Chorus girlfriend.

Mad-eyed killer Brad McCallum is a quintessential Michael Shannon role, of course. Oddly, his  McCallum comes across like almost the only character in the movie who mostly isn’t playing a role, or being somehow theatrical. Shannon is terrifyingly true, consumed with turning his life into art and his art into life, which is naturally part of the film‘s main theme. The movie is quintessential Herzog too, even though it was shot in his new country, America and is saturated with nutty local color: the flamingos in the yard, the ostrich who swallows a watch and has it dug from its long throat, the stand-off pizza delivery through the police lines. The crazy ‘20s song played throughout the film, like the silly, sunny counterpoint to the killer’s twisted soul, is Washington Phillips’ I Am Born to Preach the Gospel.

My Son, My Son, is also filled with allusions to Herzog’s previous work; there are snippets recalling Even Dwarfs Started Small, Kaspar Hauser and Signs of Life  and Aguirre and Fiztcarraldo are evoked by a Peruvian flashback shot at the Urubamba River. The whole mood is playful, surreal and deadpan naturalistic.

I had a very hard time with the story, of course.  But critics who’ve suggested Herzog is slipping, or veering off into weirdo dreamland, or that Lynch on Herzog is like black on black (or white on white), aren‘t giving My Son, My Son credit for the highly personal and imaginative work it so obviously is. This show was certainly a breath of fresh strange air after most of the predictable crud  that gets thrown at us. We should be glad that this great German filmmaker, like Fritz Lang before him, has emigrated to America to make movies with and for us, all his nightmares intact. (In American, with English subtitles.)


Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) (Four Stars)
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1959 (Criterion)

Godard.  A Bout de Souffle. A film. Out of breath. Breathless.

What’s it about? A guy named Michel Poiccard steals a car, drives from Marseilles to Paris, ecstatically sings of a girl named Patricia (Pa-Pa-Pa-Patricia!), finds a gun, shoots and kills a cop on the road, tries to cash an uncashable check, stares at and mimics a Bogart still in front of a cinema, finds Patricia hawking New York Herald Tribunes on the street, goes to her room, bandies with her about love, art, philosophy and William Faulkner (Between grief and nothing I will take grief, she quotes from The Wild Palms)…


…He smokes endless cigarettes, gets betrayed, runs, gets shot, dies. Deguelasse, Michel mutters with his last breath, staring and making faces at Patricia. I don’t know what it means,’ says Patricia. She turns away from the camera. Finis.


That’s Breathless, the 1959 black-and-white Jean-Luc Godard French film classic that, like Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane  — another masterpiece by a revolutionary cineaste still in his 20s — forever changed the ways we look at film. It changed also the way moviemakers shot movies and critics wrote about them, and perhaps changed a bit the ways we all look at life too.

There’s a key difference though. Welles made us all believe that, if you could get all the tools of the movie industry at your disposal, you could tell stories so magical and deep, dense and rich and multi-leveled, that they’d open up a whole new world. Godard made us believe that, if you’d seen enough movies and were passionate about what you liked, you could grab a camera, find some friends, walk out on the street, and just start shooting. You could ignore much of the old studio apparatus and routine — and  make a movie not according to the industry rules and protocols, but right out of your own life and thoughts, tastes and feelings.

Welles was a greater artist than Godard, and Kane the greater movie, still the best of all time in my opinion. But Godard’s feat was probably the more revolutionary: the more empowering, liberating. Citizen Kane, as Godard’s friend (later sometime antagonist, and McCartney to his Lennon), François Truffaut once said, probably started more (studio) movie directors on their vocation than any other. But Breathless probably made more people everywhere actually believe they could make movies themselves, whether they worked in a  studio or not. There were decades of independent and experimental films before Breathless. But this was the one that, like Kane for the studio movie, made it all look so easy, so effortless. Just walk down a street with a camera. With a gun. With a girl. Just shoot.

Of course it’s not true. Breathless is a very artful piece, and a product of the French film industry. It was made by a director deeply schooled in film history and tradition and technique, even if its celebrated jump cuts –jagged editing leaps within a continuous scene, a technique which prompted the Time reviewer to call Breathless a cubistic thriller — made Godard’s movie look deliberately ragged and choppy. (Actually, the jump cuts were accidental, providential, and not something Godard used all that much in his later films. Here, there was a reason. Godard had shot Breathless too long, needed to cut half an hour or more, and allegedly took his mentor/Breathless cast member Jean-Pierre Melville‘s advice not to cut whole scenes to shave off the extra time, but to cut within scenes. Thence: the jumps.)

Godard’s youthful stars Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg (Michel and Patricia) were not nonentities. Belmondo had made ten films before Breathless, including A Double Tour for Godard‘s buddy (and a Breathless technical advisor) Claude  Chabrol. He‘d even starred as D‘Artagnan on a TV version of The Three Musketeers. J ean Seberg, while still in her teens, fresh out of Marshalltown Iowa, had made two big Hollywood movies for one of Godard’s favorite directors, Otto (Where the Sidewalk Ends) Preminger, starring in Preminger‘s versions of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan and Francois Sagan‘s novel “Bonjour Tristesse.” Even if they were both flops back then (and they look much better today) they were well-known, world famous flops.

So Godard wasn’t just walking out on the street with his Cahier du Cinema pals when he made Breathless. But there are as lot of his buddies and Cahier-ites involved in it — including not just Truffaut, Chabrol and Melville, and the brilliant young cinematographer Raoul Coutard, but future directors like Philippe De Broca, Jean-Louis Richard, Jean Douchet, Richard Balducci and Daniel Boulanger, who co-wrote De Broca’s King of Hearts and plays the dour cop chasing Michel, Inspector Vital.

Still,  on screen Michel and Patricia do look like two good-looking kids who just wandered into the movie off the street. They’re perfect movie lovers, blasé on the surface, dark or heart-broken underneath. They don’t talk the old familiar movie talk. They talk about life and art and politics. They josh and joust with each other. Coutard’s camera drifts around them. They smoke. We never see them screw, but we know they have.

One of the most often-cited, often discussed scenes in Breathless simply shows them lazing around Patricia’s room, staring or jabbering away, under prints of works by Renoir and Picasso. They don’t seem like a crook/killer and his trollop. They seem like a couple of intellectuals or semi-intellectuals, or a small-time hustler and a rich girl slumming. They’re involved in a thriller plot, taken by Truffaut from a real-life crime story. But it’s as if they just wandered into the thriller, just as they wandered into Pa-Pa-Patricia’s apartment.

Existentialism and Monogram Pictures (the low-budget studio to which Godard dedicated Breathless) embrace in Breathless. It’s a movie fed by many other movies, even if it suggests something off the cuff, unwinding before us, caught in the machinery of chance. The  presence of a gun in the glove compartment of the car Michel steals is utterly fortuitous, the murder (for all we can tell) almost an accident, something that just happened between two kids. Part of the love affair of a Bogie “Harder They Fall” guy and a Fallen Angel out of Where the Sidewalk Ends.

That’s the key to most of Godard’s films of the 60s, which is still regarded (rightly) as his greatest period. It’s a movie-lovers anti-movie, or counter-movie, a defiant act of rebellion by a director who knows the score and deliberately breaks the rules. Breathless came out shortly after Truffaut had revolutionized French film ina different way with his own great feature debut, The 400 Blows, the semi-autobiographical tale of a runaway movie-loving delinquent, named Antoine Doinel. And in a way, Breathless, made from the story Truffaut found, is Godard’s 400 Blows, his semi-autobiographical fantasy about a runaway movie-loving delinquent named Michel. It was also a huge hit, the biggest critical and commercial success of Godard’s career. He never had another smash like Breathless, though, by now, he‘s made almost a hundred films, including, among them, a dozen or so inarguable classics, films like Vivre sa Vie, Pierrot le Fou and Contempt.

He became a Marxist for a while, and a lot of cine-academics in the ‘70s argued that his (then) politics were a major part of what made him great — though Godard’s most blatantly political films, his essays and documentaries from the ’70s,  are among his least effective, least memorable. Later, he got more rigorous, more poetic, better again. Breathless is still easily the most powerful political movie he ever made, the most heart-wrenching romance. It’s had thousands of children. But it still looks as fresh as it did in 1959, though now, new black-and-white film and film-making are almost gone. We look at Breathless today and we think: Anybody can do this. I can do this. Just find some friends. Find your heart. Find a camera.  Just shoot.  (In French, with English subtitles.)


Crumb (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Terry Zwigoff, 1995 (Criterion Collection)

Terry Zwigoff‘s unvarnished documentary about the great, scabrous, brilliant, hilariously low down American comic book artist Robert Crumb — and the other members of Crumb’s sometimes sadly dysfunctional, eccentric but genuinely artistic family  —   is a true Portrait of the artist as a Middle-Aged Man Who Never Grew Up. Crumb’s hippie-era comics — treasures of the high-’60s era that ranged from the wildly popular (and eventually movie-ized) Fritz the Cat and his other Zap Comix looloos, Mr. Natural, Projunior, and the Snoid from Sheboygan to his later, more politically correct work with wife Aline Komisky-Crumb — were the favorites of a generation, utilizing the tools of the past (the funny animal or urban roughneck clown style of the ’40s and ’50s — to satirically record the foibles of the ’60s.

Crumb’ was made by Zwigoff, Crumb’s friend and fellow jazz band mate in the old-school Cheap Suit Serenaders, and it’s a remarkable look at an era and one of its most popular outsiders, but also a scalding take on a troubled family: his brutal father, amphetamine-addicted mother and especially his older brother Charles, the cartoonist who didn’t make it. It’s a doozy.

Extras: Commentaries by Robert Crumb and Roger Ebert; Unused Footage; Booklet with essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Crumb family comix.   


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Four Stars)
U.S.-New Zealand: Peter Jackson, 2000  (New Line)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Four Stars)
U.S.-New Zealand: Peter Jackson, 2001  (New Line)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Four Stars)
U.S.-New Zealand: Peter Jackson, 2003  (New Line)

Being released now in single volumes, in Blu-Ray, these three masterful epics, taken together, were my choice for best film of the decade of the 2000s — the Tolkien three-act fantasy, faithfully and splendidly filmed.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s original trilogy of Lord of the Rings novels — written during World WarII  when Tolkien was a classics professor, was conceived (and executed) as a single ongoing story. So was Peter Jackson’s spectacular movie version of Frodo’s quest adventure. The film was planned from the beginning as a single work, and not in the usual We-got-a-hit-So-let’s-make-another-one routine that marks even some great movie trilogies like The Godfather.

Whether taken as a unit or separately, the complete Rings is an extraordinary cinema achievement, the contemporary equivalent of both Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen Saga and the early Star Wars movies. It’s made so wondrously well from  its source — a pseudo-Norse saga all about plucky little hobbit Frodo Baggins’ and his heroic troupe’s great quest for the magical ring swiped by Bilbo — that you’re never restive, never disengaged. You happily drink in all this movie’s glorious sights and sounds, even in the lengthened director’s cut version, which runs 721 minutes, or more than 12 hours. That‘s an epic!

Tolkien’s book is one of the most beloved fantasies of  20th century literature, a classic that deserves its cult. The movie, or movies, are worthy of the book.   Here, thanks to the film trilogy’s prodigious length and the vast size of the production, Tolkien’s Rings gets the kind of rich, full-blooded cinematic adaptation all great literature deserves:  full, faithful, lush, beautifully crafted, written and cast, brilliantly done, pulsing with narrative energy, gorgeous visuals and  raging excitement. Jackson‘s Rings is scripted with the faithfulness usually accorded a superior British TV novel adaptation, and produced with the grand outsize technique of a big studio super hit-to-be (though its home was a smaller company, New Line.

It becomes a movie cycle to remember — starring Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Viggo Mortensen as Aragon, and Andy Serkis (plus CGI effects) as Gollum, backed by Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom, Sean Astin, Sean Bean and Bernard Hill. Even if you dislike Rings, it’s a movie that should impress the hell out of you  — and remind you as you watch, of why we love the movies, and of all the grand, rich, interconnected possibilities of literature, art and cinema.



TCM  Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Prohibition Era (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1930-1939 (TCM/Warner Bros.)

They rise. They fall. Three quintessential variations on the classic Warners gangster rise and fall tale, all packed with blood, guts, booze and gunfire, all starring Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or both. (Bogey sneaks into one of them as well.) You’re better off with the earlier Warners gangster sets, which are more complete, but this set’s a real treat for the budget-minded.  Included:

  • Little Caesar (U.S.: Mervyn LeRoy, 1930) Three and a Half  Stars. From W. R. Burnett’s great, terse, hard-boiled novel about a Capone-like gangster’s rise and fall. with Edward G. Robinson superb as the bestial Rico, supported (maybe) by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Sidney Blackmer and Glenda Farrell. Try not to feel a chill when Robinson moans Mother of Mercy (or God), is this the end of Rico?
  • The Public Enemy (U.S.: William Wellman, 1931). Four Stars. Cold as ice, hot as whiskey, hard as stone: another matchless hoodlum rise and fall epic with another starmaking performance: Cagney’s as the feral thug Tom Powers. Donald Cook plays Tom’s Brother. (Cook was the original star, and Cagney had the brother role, but they switched parts.) With hot blonde babes Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell and the movies’ most famous grapefruit victim Mae Clarke. What an ending this one has!
  • Smart Money (Alfred E. Green, 1931) (Two and a Half Stars) Robinson is a naturally lucky, brash barber/gambler who gets fleeced by the city slickers and smashes the card-sharps back in a milder, funnier version of the Little Caesar rise and fall story. Cagney, in an amazingly physical and balletic turn, is his tough sidekick/brother. (It’s their only pairing.)
  • The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939). (Four Stars) Cagney and Bogart are WW1 army buddies who thrive and dive during Prohibition and its aftermath, which sees their boozy rise and violent fall. The rest of the salty Warners cast includes Jeffrey Lynn (as the straight arrow in the foxhole), Priscilla Lane (of the Lane Sisters), Gladys George and Cagney’s off-screen pal, Frank McHugh. This is Walsh at his best: tough fast, racy, deluxe storytelling. It’s top-chop Walsh-Warners too, with that great terrifying dance of death ending.  Extras: Commentaries; documentaries; vintage short subjects, newsreels and cartoons; trailers.



Prince of Persia (Three Stars)
U.S.; Mike Newell, 2010

Prince of Persia, which is probably one of the best-looking Arabian fantasy movies ever, is also unfortunately, a movie based on a video game. And its ambiance and narrative structure is video-gamey all the way: The original story here is actually by the writer who scripted the game, Jordan Mechner.

The results, amazingly, aren’t as shallow as you might expect, though they are dramatically and psychologically thin. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer reportedly lavished 150 million dollars or so on the project, and after all, he’s the guy who based three smash hit movies (with more to come) on the Disneyland theme park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean. I’d be surprised if he didn’t make a lot of money on this one too. But if you walk into the show demanding anything more than a 150 million dollar video game movie, you’re probably going to be sadly disappointed.

Prince of Persia — in which Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Dastan the adopted prince, battling traitors and snakes, wooing the beauteous Princess Tamina and trying to keep his hands on the fabled Dagger of Time — is a movie that never lacks for something impressive to look at: a stunning composition by director Mike Newell and cinematographer John Seale, or an iridescent vision of old Persia (Iran) by production designer Wolf Kroeger, or some snazzy editing by Mick Audsley, Michael Kahn and Martin Walsh, or some fabulous ersatz stunts choreographed by French parkour inventor David Belle, or some breathtaking shots of the Moroccan deserts, dune after dune stretching away like some sandy, surreal panoramic tapestry.

But the movie had only one memorable performance, with a few funny lines, and that’s from Alfred Molina, Peter-Ustinoving it up as the secondary character, Sheik Amar. The Sheik is an ostrich race entrepreneur who helps Dastan of Nasaf — as he and Princess Tamina of  Alamut (Gemma Atherton), try to rescue their respective kingdoms from the nefarious designs of the wily Nizam (Ben Kingsley, slumming again), brother to the late King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), and evil uncle to Dastan, gullible throne successor Tus (Richard Coyle) and vain general Garson (Toby Kebbell). Also around: steadfast warrior Seso (Steve Toussaint) and the infernally murderous Hassansin, bossed by their spectral-looking leader (Gisli Orn Garbarsson).

These are the kind of characters you’d expect to see in a video game — except for Sheik Amar who, unlike his ostriches, has precious few martial arts kick-ass skills. And they all, Tamina included, do a lot of bashing and back-flipping and scimitar-waving and throat-cutting and poisoned-cloakwork, so much so that you almost expect to see each fresh corpse vanish in a little video game pling when they’re bopped.

The characters don’t really speak to each other. They breathlessly exhort or expound on some new dastardly deed or invention. Meanwhile, the Hassansin are constantly lurking around, adopting menacing postures and conniving with Nizam. The only real surprise comes when Sheik Amar laments that his star ostrich, deprived of combat and the company of other ostriches, has become suicidal. (Unfortunately the moviemakers don’t give the ostrich a big ledge-standing suicide scene, followed by a little parkour. With these CGI experts, I bet it would have been sensational.)

Gyllenhaal has been suitably muscled up for his role, and stripped down and given lots of opportunities to show it off. But he doesn’t look really comfortable in the part. Arterton probably should have been allowed to be even sexier; after all, this isn‘t Omar Khayyam‘s Rubaiyat. Nor does the flood of exhortations in the dialogue, delivered in the high sharp tones of the British Parliament savaging each other in the House, seem to be fully stretching or satisfying Gyllenhaal or Arterton, or anybody else.

As for Kingsley, he’s a good sport about everything, including the sword fights with Gyllenhaal. And they reward all by giving Kingsley, Gyllenhaal and Atherton a reprise of the last cliff-hanger in North by Northwest, with Sir Ben copying Martin Landau, stomping on Cary Grant as he held Eva Marie Saint. (This time, Nizam stomps Dastan as he holds Tamina suspended above a fiery abyss.) Hitchcock did it better, which is no surprise.

Speaking of directors, the estimable Mike Newell has now, it seems, solidly moved into blockbuster-land, though I like him much better with medium or lower budgets, as in Four Weddings and a Funeral, An Awfully Big Adventure, the marvelous Enchanted April, Into the West and Donnie Brasco. I hope he returns to them.

Watching Prince of Persia, you’re always tempted to review the budget. But then, the budget (reportedly around 150 million) and the lavish techniques, materials and big stars bought by it are among the main reasons for watching this show. There’s plenty of meaty Arabian or pseudo-Arabian fantasy literature that could have been tackled at less than half the cost here — including Haji Baba, the original Arabian Nights, or even another Thief of Baghdad.  And plenty of good roles for lots of good actors to play in them.

Is it quibbling again to complain that Bruckheimer and his screenwriters — Boaz Yakin (Fresh), and Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard (The Uninvited) — should have been inspired by more for their money than a popular video game? Maybe. But I still kept expecting to feel that pling as I played — that is, as I watched — Prince of Persia.


Just Wright (Two Stars)
U.S.; Sanaa Hanri, 2010

Anyone for another NBA championship series?

While you’re waiting, the movies have their own version of the NBA, as perhaps influenced by Desperate Housewives, Tyler Perry and the Duke Wayne-Dan Dailey spine rehabilitation scenes in The Wings of Eagles (“I‘m gonna move that toe!”)

The big news here though is that Queen Latifah, under the tutelage of director Sanaa Hanri, here assays her first major super-romantic lead role. She plays Leslie Wright, a primo New Jersey Net fan and ace physical therapist whose unreasonably gorgeous best friend Morgan Alexander (Paula Patton), steals away Nets superstar guard Scott McKnight (played by rapper Common, the artist once known as Common Sense), and then dumps him before the wedding after he tears up his knee.

Guess which bounteously beautiful physical therapist is ready to move into Scott’s mansion and get his knee all primed and ready for the crucial last game of the Nets-Orlando series? (I’ll give you a hint: It isn’t Dan Dailey.)

Guess who wins the series, despite the actual on-screen presence of Orlando‘s Dwayne Wade? (Not to mention, in that game and others, themselves roles by Dwight Howard, Jalen Rose, Marv Albert, Kenny Smith, Elton Brand, and, at a jazz club, Terence Blanchard.) Guess which outrageously rehabilitated guard both Wade and Kobe Bryant should fear more than Hell itself? Guess which physical therapist is now the subject of a bidding war between every NBA team shamelessly willing to get mention in a Queen Latifah film? Guess who has the hots for whom?

There hasn’t been a sports movie like this since Tooth Fairy.

Meanwhile, the big question remains: Is Queen Latifah a plausible romantic movie leading lady? The answer: Of course she is. As long as the moviemakers, for the love scenes, supply a good queen-size bed.

A bigger question: Is Common, at 6’1 ½, a plausible superstar all-star NBA point guard? Capable of getting 16 rebounds in a single game? Well, Common drops through as lot of shots here. And he even looks a little like previous Nets superstar guard Jason Kidd. And he’s a pretty good  actor. But…


Lost in Space (Blu-ray) Two Stars
U.S.; Stephen Hopkins, 1998 (New Line)

Danger, Will Robinson! Another beloved ‘60’s-’70s TV series, turned into another lumbering mega-million dreadnought of a movie. Gary Oldman, William Hurt, Mimi Rogers and Heather Graham take over for Jonathan Hale, Guy Williams, June Lockhart and the others, who at least get interview time in a good Extras package. But listen, if you buy something like this, you deserve what you get.

Extras: Commentaries by director Hopkins, writer Akiva Goldsman, producer Carla Fry and some main
technicians; Additional Scenes; Featurettes; Music Video; Interviews with the T.V. cast; trailer


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: Featurette, Music Video, Trailer.  * No relation to the cartoonist of Terrytoons.


Se7en (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.; David Fincher, 1995 (New Line)

A serial killer well-versed in the Bible (Kevin Spacey, at his most insolent), plagues L. A. with one of those Ellery Queen-style elaborate Ten Day’s Wonder plans. Pursuing him are cops Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman; Gwyneth Paltrow is the perfect wife. One of the most highly admired modern neo-noirs, Se7en certainly has high-style visuals and quite a cast. But I’ve always found the plot and the climax a stretch.    Extras: Commentaries, Featurettes.


Deanna Durbin: The Music and Romance Collection (Five Discs) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Various Directors, 1938-48 (Universal)

In 1936, MGM put two teenage girl singers together in a short called Every Sunday — and let them
sing it our to see whom the studio would keep. In a way, the girls, who both had incredible pipes and rare talent, were Edna Mae Durbin (15) of Winnipeg, who’d become Deanna Durbin and Frances Gumm (14) of Minnesota, who was now Judy Garland. Deanna sang it sweet and classical, Judy sang it hot and jazzy, and Judy won the first round. MGM released Durbin, who got picked up by Universal and producer Joe Pasternak, and, that same year, starred in her first feature, Three Smart Girls, a huge hit that saved the whole studio. Judy was worked hard at MGM (some say worked to death), but she had to wait until 1939 for her legend to start with The Wizard of Oz.

Meanwhile, the teen princess Deanna was Universal’s biggest female star and she made a string of movies for Pasternak, and became a national darling. (She also sang regularly on Eddie Cantor‘s radio show.) Her classic character sang beautifully, often doing showcase works from opera, and she was unusually bright, quick-minded, energetic  and resourceful. No ingénue naiveté for Deanna. She stayed a Smart Girl in almost all her movies, and costarred with classical maestro Leopold Stokowski in One Hundred men and a Girl. Her movie image may have been the brainiest and sharpest of all Hollywood musical female stars. Durbin herself sarcastically called her standard role, Little Miss Fix-it. and when she was a teenager, she often played matchmaker for the adults and elders around her.

She was an international darling too, the favorite Hollywood actress of both WW2 statesman/hero Winston Churchill (who regularly requested and got special pre-release screenings of her movies), and of  legendary Holocaust victim/diarist Anne Frank who had two Durbin pictures on the wall of her hideout. Durbin remains today, according to polls, England’s favorite Golden Age Hollywood star.

I mention all this with some chagrin, because, up until I saw this set, Deanna Durbin was mostly an unknown quantity for me. I’d only seen her a handful of times, including her contest with Judy in Every Sunday, and that’s perhaps because she rarely worked for the auteur directors I followed. Robert Siodmak and Frank Borzage were on that short list, but she just missed a chance with Jean Renoir, who agreed to direct her, screened most of her films, liked her. (Renoir says the best Durbin movies were directed by Henry Koster of Three Smart Girls).

She‘s wonderful. You can tell why she meant so much to Churchill during the blitz, and to little Anne Frank hiding in her attic. Deanna Durbin projects such a fine, high, ultra-quick intelligence, such spark and verve and unstuck sweetness and unegoistic natural youthful beauty, that it’s inspiring to watch her. More than Judy, she was an ideal fantasy figure/role model for young girls, someone who (very believably) had everything in control, no matter what Hollywood complication was thrown into the works.

When Durbin quit after 1948, and moved to France, it was her own choice. She’d kept asking Universal for better scripts, better projects, and she mostly hadn’t gotten them. And it was final. The producers offered her the stage role of Laurie in the original Oklahoma. Alan Jay Lerner begged her to play Liza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. She turned them both down. She turned everybody down, including all (but one) request for an interview, in all those years. She said she wanted to be a nobody. (But she never will be, as long as film exists). She‘s still alive, somewhere in France.

These aren’t great movies, and only the Koster entry, Three Smart Girls Grow Up, is really beautifully and smartly directed. But she’s great. It’s moving to watch her still — charming everybody, knocking out her elders with her agile pure voice, fixing it all up so neatly, so sweetly, playing the kind of American princess all the world loves.

In a way, both of those competing teen girls won on that long ago 1936 Sunday: little hot jazzbo Frances and  little sweet classical Edna Mae. And, in a more complex way, they both lost. But we won. Includes:

  • Mad About Music (U.S.; Norman Taurog, 1938). Three Stars. Impish, high-spirited Deanna, hidden away at a Swiss girls’ school, is the unacknowledged daughter of Hollywood star Gail Patrick; she persuades composer Herbert Marshall (suavest of the suave) to impersonate her father. Nonsense, but likable. With Bill Frawley, Arthur Treacher and Franklin Pangborn.
  • That Certain Age (U.S.; Edward Ludwig, 1938) Three Stars. Part of it is a Babes in Arms let’s-put-it-on-in-the-guesthouse-kids musical with Jackie Cooper as her beau. Part of it is a sort-of-romance, with her teen heart leaping as she rides a bike with Melvyn Douglas as a journalist on R. and R. Prime Durbin, though.
  • Three Smart Girls Grow Up (U.S.; Henry Koster, 1939) Three Stars. This is quintessential Deanna Durbin, her top princess role, good Koster, and the sequel to the movie that made her a star and him a Hollywood director. Back with her two sisters, Deanna match-makes and gets into scrapes with fellow musician Bob Cummings. In many ways, a perfect Durbin star vehicle — and the opening long-tracking-shot credits and party scene actually look a bit like Max Ophuls, slumming. (That‘s a high compliment.)
  • Because of Him (U.S.; Richard Wallace, 1946)  Two and a Half Stars. A weird role for Durbin — a scheming, flirtatious Broadway hopeful, manipulating a tabloid scandal and trying to con both stage star Charles Laughton and playwright Franchot Tone into giving her a part. Silly script, but the cast works wonders with it.
  • For the Love of Mary (U.S.; Frederick De Cordova, 1948). One and a Half Stars. Deanna is a fetching  D. C. switchboard operator who ties up the town, is pursued by Edmond O’Brien, Don Taylor and Jeffrey Lynn, gets romantic help and tips from the President (that would have been Harry Truman), and helps annex a new territory. Directed by Freddy De Cordova (Bedtime for Bonzo). Absolutely awful. Her last movie, and you can see her point. At least she sins. Extras: Robert Osborne TCM intros; Publicity graphics; TCM Articles and Bio.     


The Agatha Christie Hour (Two Discs) (Three Stars)
U.K.; Various Directors, 1982 (Acorn Media)

Agatha Christie was my favorite writer when I was nine or ten, and she can still do it for me. These five hour-long teleplays, adapted by Freda Kelsall, William Corlett and T. R. Bowen and done in 1982 — in the dominant old-fashioned, set-bound but toney British TV style of the ‘70s and early ‘80s — come from early Christie, and they’re based on two stories featuring her secondary sleuth, Parker Pyne who bills himself as a happiness expert (here played by the very familiar, weaselly-looking character actor Maurice Denham), two more of her excellent menace-and-suspense tales, and one comic romp.

Christie, whose books outsell every author in history but The Bible’s and Shakespeare, was one of the all-time geniuses at sheer storytelling, and at crafting mystery and crime plots. She was also infallibly entertaining and terrific at character and dialogue. But there’s a different, poetic, eerie quality to some of her suspense and terror tales, here in The Fourth Man and In a Glass Darkly. As with Charles Dickens (and, for that matter, Shakespeare), all of her stuff is very movie and TV-friendly and they should keep adapting it.

I don’t necessarily agree with the late, great Japanese director Kon Ichikawa, a Christie fanatic who thought she deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I still enjoy reading her more than many writers who did. And they wouldn’t give the Nobel to Graham Greene, either. (All films are U.K. productions.)  Includes:

  • The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife (U.K.; Michael Simpson, 1982) Two and a Half Stars. Very offbeat for Christie: Mr. Happiness Fix-it Parker Pyne (Denham) gets a straying husband’s erotic motor for his wife running again.
  • In a Glass Darkly (U.K.; Desmond Davis, 1982). Three and a Half Stars. Best of this set. At a country manor, with both a wedding and World War I approaching, man impulsive soldier-to-be (Nicholas Clay) has a vision in a mirror of a young bride-to-be, murdered by her husband. He wrecks the marriage, and then marries her after a traumatic tour in the war trenches. But was he himself the image in the glass? Really eerie and a crackerjack story, very well-directed by Desmond Davis, who made that memorable 1964 Rita Tushingham-Peter Finch movie, Girl With Green Eyes.
  • The Girl in the Train (U.K.; Brian Farnham, 1982) Three Stars. A semi-Hitchcockian, Tommy-and-Tuppence sort of mystery-comedy spy movie, about a fired, irresponsible  young man who gets plunged into romance and intrigue on a train. The Fourth Man (U.K.;  Simpson, 1982). Three Stars. Three brilliant professional men on a train, luminaries in the Church, law and medicine, discuss a perplexing case of schizophrenia and suicide at a French girl’s school. A fourth man, a stranger, knows something they don’t. (The stranger is played by the younger John Nettles, later of Midsomer Murders, and you’ll barely recognize him.)
  • The Case of the Discontented Soldier (U.K.;   1982). A discontented major (William Gaunt), back from Africa, avails himself of Parker Pyne‘s (Denham) expertise. Meanwhile, inheritance and buried treasure problems loom for a woman (Patricia Garwood) whom the major encounters.
    Extras: Christie and Parker Pyne Bios.     

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.