Posts Tagged ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’

MW on DVDs: Restrepo, Inception, The Grapes of Wrath, Shrek Forever After … and more

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010


Restrepo (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington, 2010 (Virgil)

Restrepo is a documentary about the war in Afghanistan that’s beautifully shot and terrifyingly convincing. The color photography is crisp and clear. The subjects, a platoon of American soldiers in the mountains, are amazingly candid. The directors — journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and combat photographer Tim Hetherington — try to capture the images and the words of their subject, the men of the Second Platoon, 183rd Airborne Brigade, and not obviously intrude on them. They succeed, admirably.

So we see the Second Platoon’s daily routine, watch them as they horse around, listen as they’re being interviewed by the filmmakers, watch an occasional battle from ground zero (usually signaled by bursts of gunfire and the camera image jerking around as the photographer tries to get his bearings). At the end, we see some of them leave. After fifteen months and over 50 casualties in the region, they will all leave, as the Americans abandon the Taliban-infested area, the Korangal Valley, regarded as one of the world‘s most dangerous hot spots.

The title Restrepo refers to a 20 year-old medic named Juan Restropo, who was the platoon‘s first casualty. Restrepo, whom we see very briefly, was a happy, generous guy who played the guitar and was very much liked by his buddies. They named their digs after him: Outpost Restropo.

The movie is all about war, danger and friendship — and judging by what we see here, the Afghanistan War is a pretty awful one to have to fight. There’s nothing obviously political in Restropo either way: no flag-waving, no military bashing. Junger and Hetherington‘s movie focuses instead on the men who have to fight the war the politicians whip up: the kind of war that most of those politicians — including bellicose chicken hawks like Dick Cheney — never fought and never will. That’s the true politics of it, I guess. As Sam Fuller once explained , if you make a war movie and do it honestly, it always becomes anti-war. And — think of those two vets who didn’t even know me but chased my attacker and got him — maybe it always becomes pro-soldier as well.



Inception (Four Stars)

U.S.; Christopher Nolan, 2010 (Warner Brothers)

It begins with a man washed up on the beach, awaking as if from a dream, waves crashing around him.

What happens next? Worlds of wonders. Dreamland cubed.

Christopher Nolan‘s Inception — with Leonardo DiCaprio as a tortured guy who shoves dreams into your head — is obviously some kind of masterpiece. It’s a truly — CLICHÉ ALERT — mind-bending science fiction movie about the power of dreams, the persistence of memory, the anguish of lost love, the chains of conscience and maybe as much as anything else, the sheer lunatic joy of making a big, crazy action movie spectacular with no rational limits on either your budget or your imagination.

That blurb cliché “Mind-Bending” is actually the right word (le mot juste) here. Nolan uses the magic of movies and moviemaking to try to bend our minds and play with our heads, to put our imaginations into overdrive and to expand the boundaries and possibilities of big-budget studio movie-making. (And he does it, in this age of Pixar, for adults.) Dom/DiCaprio’s job, manufacturing dreams, is the perfect movie profession and Nolan plays it, and him, to the hilt.

At one point, Nolan folds a whole packed Parisian street in on itself. Later, he turns a plush hotel corridor into a zero gravity battlefield, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Di Caprio‘s right hand man) swimming through the air or dancing from wall to ceiling to wall like Fred Astaire hoofing his way ‘round the revolving room of Royal Wedding. Elsewhere, Nolan and his company drive an express train through a Los Angeles street in the middle of a car-chase shootout, or have two characters walk up (and simultaneously down) a set of steps modeled after M. C. Escher’s famous Moebius Strip endless staircase — until the movie’s effects wizards break the steps loose and set the walkers free.

Nolan, like the young Orson Welles, is blessed (and cursed) with the moviemaking tools that Welles compared to the world‘s biggest electric toy train set, and he summons up one surreal image or ferocious action blowout after another. Brilliantly, swiftly, he (and editor Lee Smith) cut from year to year, character to character (DiCaprio‘s Dom Cobb, his team, his employer, his target and the tormentors in his memory), from country to country, city to city (Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Tangiers and the soundstages of Cardington, England), with a mix of stylistic chutzpah and loony abandon that perhaps only a moviemaker with a budget in the two hundred million dollar range, and a writer-director (Nolan) married to his producer (Emma Thomas), could muster.

The result has already been subject to all the obvious movie comparisons: from the Matrix and James Bond shows, to Dreamscape, and to Nolan‘s previous chronology-fracturing or reality-twisting thrillers Memento, Following, Insomnia and The Prestige; from DiCaprio’s previous 2010 nightmare excursion Shutter Island, and to Minority Report, Total Recall, Impostor and other Phillip K. Dick-derived nightmare movie fables.

But Inception, a movie drunk on the magic of movies, goes further. It summons up hints and echoes of everything from La Jetee, Hiroshima mon Amour and The Italian Job, to Vertigo, and Citizen Kane. The film is full of grand illusions, grand flourishes. In the smash-up cross-cutting finale, it recalls the roaring, fugal, four-part climaxes of D. W. Griffith‘s great mad silent epic Intolerance.

Hans Zimmer wrote the non-stop, bombastic but emotion-drenched score, which suggests Wagner at the Apollo; Edith Piaf, no less, sings, under the credits, her heart-twisting memoir/anthem of defiance Non, Je ne Regrette rien (No Regrets), which also threads though the entire movie.

It’s excessive. It’s overblown. But above all, it’s a movie by a filmmaker who loves movies, and wants to explore their possibilities in an arena as endless and bewitching as that Escherian staircase (which seems to be going nowhere, then springs suddenly free). Inception is like a heist thriller fashioned by Lewis Carroll, reincarnated, and based on some three-dimensional chess game –or like a whole roller-coaster ride designed by Escher, a wild plunge that keeps dropping though one Phillip K. Dickian alternative reality-world after another, until finally it almost leaves us where we began (delirious, washed ashore on a beach, below towering crumbling cliffs) — and then takes one more step.

It’s hard to synopsize any of this, because the whole movie is literally (and subliminally) one surprise and shocker


after another.


Besides, the inevitable, maybe planned effect of seeing Inception and maybe getting a little bewildered, is to want to see it again, to clear up the confusion or re-experience its delights, or possibly to gather evidence for a nasty debunking Kaelesque review. (Not once, but again, is the test of greatness. And maybe of a marketing strategy too.)

Still, it won’t hurt you to know that DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb is an American exile in Europe, and that he’s a highly paid, inwardly tormented specialist in the art and science of extraction. “Extraction” involves invading a human subject’s subconscious dream state to extract information — a process prized by corporations who want to steal ideas from each other.

Inception damners and debunkers need go no further than that: Why in the world would anyone spend so much money and go to such perilous extremes (a process that may involve kidnapping, deception, jail time and possible dream-state death) to steal an idea, when you might get the same results using the old fashioned methods of bribing an employee, hacking a computer, or hiring and wiring a hooker?

The answer is the same one you’d give to anyone who complained that John Ford‘s marauding Stagecoach Apaches didn’t win the battle by shooting the fleeing stagecoach’s horses. Why ruin a good story with too much damage from the over-analysts Alfred Hitchcock scornfully called “The Plausibles?”

Besides, why don’t those plausibles try riding after a stage and shooting a rifle at the same time? Plausibility be damned. With Inception, we’re talking about a movie where people steal each other‘s dreams and go in and out of each other‘s heads, for God‘s sake.

Anyway, Dom is hired, in our future and in the movie’s past, by the suave Japanese magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe of Tampopo) for a complex extraction job on a corporate rival. But Dom is asked this time to reverse his usual modus operandi: To implant an idea (or use inception) in the mind of a young corporate nabob-to-be, Robert (Bobby?) Fischer (Cillian Murphy), whose father, corporate head Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite) is dying, before the eyes of Bobby, and of Tom Berenger as the troubled legal counsel, Browning.

To help, Dom assembles a team of old reliables (dead-serious right hand man Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and genial chemist-anesthesiologist, Yussef, played by Dileep Rao), old rivals (brash “forger” or impersonator Eames, played by Tom Hardy), and fresh faces (brainy architect Ariadne, played by that freshest of faces Ellen Page.)

Ariadne‘s name, of course, is the same as that of the lady who helped the Theseus of Greek mythology thread his way in and out of the Labyrinth, and she helps introduce the other key plot element, besides being an invaluable angel of exposition. (Since she‘s new to the game, Dom has to give her a crash course in everything you wanted to know about extraction and inception but were afraid to ask). Her key plot function? Love and plot. Ariadne, it seems, is also the protege of brilliant, compassionate professor Miles (played by Michael Caine, who maybe should be incepted into every noirish movie), and Miles is also the father of Dom’s tragic dead wife, Mal (played by Marion Cotillard, who also played Piaf).


The tragedy of Mal’s death (she left their two children behind) is what has caused Dom‘s exile, and her persistence (and the children‘s) in his memory and dreams is what makes him a walking or dreaming time bomb.


That‘s the premise of the story, and you‘ll understand why too much further synopization may be unwise or unwieldy. Perhaps we should remember, as Nolan and Caine once explained to us (in the deadly magician thriller The Prestige), that the three acts of a great magic trick are, in fact, the Pledge (where something ordinary is introduced), the Turning (where it turns into something extraordinary) and the Prestige (where whatever disappeared in the earlier acts reappears).

It’s hard to describe anything in Inception as the Pledge, because almost nothing is ordinary, which may be another forgivable flaw. And the whole last part of the movie is steeped in that incandescent succession of dreamlike exploding action scenes that finally pour into the three-strand inter-twisting climax, where whatever disappears can’t always be trusted to reappear — but where it’s so damned entertaining, I never once thought of complaining. After all, Prestige isn’t everything.

Nolan seems fascinated by the idea of anti-chronological plots. (His Memento — a story told in reverse order, following a protagonist with short term amnesia — is a neo-noir of genius). He‘s also soft on reconfigured genre tropes and standbys, with talismen (the spinning little top that here keeps reappearing), with sexy killers and villains, and, most disturbingly perhaps, with husbands who have destroyed, intentionally or not, their wives. (Perhaps Emma Thomas should remember this the next time they put a budget together.)

In Inception, he revisits many old pets and odd obsessions and complicates them all. It’s not hard to see why this is a script that took him ten years or so to write, ever since Memento. (2001, wasn’t it?)

It’s rare to see a big Hollywood super-production for adults that‘s this complex, this ambitious, this amusingly tricky and this this woundingly personal — or that has so much psychological layering and emotional resonance. (Why, it’s almost like a kid’s movie from Pixar!) I went to see Incepetion twice, both to clear up confusion and to re-experience its delights. And though the confusion may be dismissed as another marketing strategy, (see above) — if you can’t figure it out the first time, buy another ticket and go again — the fact is, I did enjoy it more. (Not twice, but again, is the test of greatness,)

One of the movie’s great pluses is that cast, especially DiCaprio. As he did in Scorsese‘s Shutter Island, one of Inception‘s only artistic rivals among the big Hollywood movies this year (well, of course, there’s also Toy Story 3), DiCaprio supplies this show with a solid emotional center, anchoring a story that often seems in danger of flying off into zero-gravity FX limbo or devolving into some ersatz Phildickian dreamworld. Those tormented eyes, that quizzical half-grin, that deceptively boyish, slighty pinched matter-of-fact delivery of DiCaprio’s grounds the movie. Cottilard and Page help humanize Inception as well, and so of course, does Caine. And, in fact, so do all the others, in dreams or out.

They make the movie’s FX prestidigitation connect with us more. So does the interesting fact that Nolan uses mostly in-camera effects, except in stuff like the Escherite or trompe d’oeil fantasias where he needs CGI. (After all, the “socialist” French government won’t allow visiting Yank film companies to really fold Paris streets in on themselves.) CGI, when used to create something in a supposedly real world, can be annoying. Here, with real-life objects and in-camera effeets used to create dreams and make them solid, the more occasional CGI arabesques flow in seamlessly.

That‘s also why Inception deserves the high praise its gotten from most critics. I don’t mean to imply that this is some immaculate Inception, or to infer too much of a comparison between Nolan’s film and a godhead movie like Citizen Kane (though Inception is obviously, the work of a Kane-savyy diretcor, as well as a Blade Runner-savvy one). But like Citizen Kane, (whose design and effects team came partly from the dreamy ’30s Astaire-Rogers movies), Nolan’s new show is a movie that makes imaginative use of the zeitgeist and many of the technical magic tricks, devices and styles of its day (from Spielberg’s to Michael Bay‘s) — but bends them in trickier, deeper, more magical directions. It isn’t a movie that audiences love mostly for its characters and social ideas, like The Kids are All Right — even though the characters aren’t just along for the ride. Here, it’s the overall frame, design and style that are the main stunners.

In a way, the philosophical engineer of this train is the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whom we’ve mentioned before, and who saturates this movie like real maple syrup on a hot pancake. Dick’s commercial heyday, ironically, came with Blade Runner (based on his fantastic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) a movie released after Dick‘s death. These days — though in life, Dick was an often impoverished pulp creator, dismissed as a hack by Establishment lit-types — producers seem ready to buy and film anything of Dick’s, even a cheapo novella like Minority Report that he wrote for the lower-echelon sci-fi mag Fantastic Universe — maybe. even his shopping lists or death certificate.

Dick was the master of alternative world stories (like The Man in the High Castle, still unfilmed) — though one of the best Dick-style novels may be The Lathe of Heaven, a Phildickian pastiche done by his friend Ursula K. LeGuin. He also did stories about dreams within dreams and competing dreamers, including a terrific pulpy ‘50s Ace paperback novel called Eye in the Sky. And he portrayed the horror and aranois of the drug-ridden California world around him, in A Scanner Darkly. What makes Dick a great writer, and a great read, is the effortless, almost offhand way he creates those dream alternative worlds: step by step, brick by brick, talking about them as if they were already right here, all around us. That’s the approach Nolan often takes here, very pungently and successfully.

There’s another level to Inception. In some ways, and maybe not even intentionally (or inceptionally) this is a movie about making movies — about conceiving them, painstakingly getting them put together (with help from corporate types), and then watching almost helplessly, as they finally unfold. Gordon-Levitt describes his character Arthur, the calm, clear-headed facilitator, as like a “producer” and DiCaprio‘s mercurial Dom as like a writer-director. That they are.

And Dom’s crew is like the movie’s company-crew. Nolan’s crucial collaborators — production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, special effects supervisor Cris Corbould, Zimmer, cinematographer Wally Pfister, editor Smith, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland — are they the dream invader’s henchmen? Of course. The film is a bit like an action movie blockbuster crossed with Fellini‘s 8 ½, a movie about a movie that actually was made, despite everything.

When we watch films that plunge us into dreams or nightmares, or pull us into something like the dream state — movies like Kane, Vertigo or Singin’ in the Rain, Blade Runner, Beauty and the Beast, Sherlock, Jr. or Intolerance — we’re getting the pleasures of the movies in a pure way, caught up in the flow, lost in the reverie, singing in the storm. Inception is in that category, maybe not as good, but often as compelling and hypnotic, and nearly as … memorable.

It’s also a movie that made me sad for a different reason. Almost forty years ago, in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Union, in the heyday of the anti-Vietnam war era, a bad-tempered right wing fellow student from a well-heeled family, who got into a fight with one of my friends (I pulled the assailant off and Union security intervened) went looking for us the next morning, with a crescent wrench and an ice pick in his bag. He found me in the Union Rathskellar, rushed up and sent the wrench crashing down on the back of my head, fracturing my skull and coming within an eighth of an inch (according to my doctor) of killing or paralyzing me.

As I lay there in a genuine pool of blood, two other fellow students — both Vietnam vets as I remember — chased the wrench-wielder for several blocks, and, after he pulled his ice pick on them, they disarmed him and held him for the police. (God bless and keep you, guys, wherever you are.) I was carried to the UW hospital where the operation to clear out the loose bone chips was done quickly without anesthesia, and , that first night, when I was finally unconscious — dreaming maybe –my 56-year-old mother sat out in front of my hospital room all night, guarding it.

My attacker was later found guilty of conduct regardless of life. But, after insisting he was defending himself from me (by hitting me in the back of the head?), he was released without jail time by the judge, a notorious Madison drunk, who may have been sympathetic to the defendant‘s higher social class.

I survived. But, over the decades, ever since then, I began losing the hearing in my left ear, and, even worse, I began losing my ability to remember my dreams. I still remember in detail, many that I had before the attack and some that I had afterward, but almost none that I have these days, right now.

I know I still have dreams, because, very occasionally, I‘m startled awake in the middle of one and I remember what seems a minute or two of the pure fantasy that happened just before the wake-up. Once I was jumping up in a theater audience after suddenly remembering I was supposed to be in the very play I was watching. Once I slid down an icy crevasse, some place, somewhere. Once I did something or other with Julia Roberts. (A pretty good minute, that.). But most of the rest is gone.

I miss my dreams. Maybe my mother is in some of them. So I’m actually very happy to see all the grand, complex, extravagant and thrilling fanastias, pretend-dreams and mementos that Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and the others have put on the screen here, to shove or seduce mad visions into our heads.

The M. C. Esher staircase. The Paris street that folds over on itself. The zero gravity hotel corridor. The James Bondian snow battle. The express-train that comes suddenly out of nowhere. The lady Marion whom Leonard DiCaprio loves, standing on the ledge, about to jump. Edith Piaf. No regrets. The two little children, looking away. A Moebius Strip of the mind. A Phil Dick cocktail. Men in high castles. Scanners darkly. The van full of dreamers that keeps falling, falling, over a bridge and down toward the water below. The delirious survivor washed up on the beach, the waves crashing around him…

Inception forever, I say. Dreamers arise. For the most part, I’ll give Nolan a temporary pass from Hitchcock‘s Plausibles. After all, Nolan and all his crew give us plenty to dream on here. And dreams are precious, never more so than when you’ve lost them.

Extras: Featurettes; Conceptual and promotional art; Hans Zimmer score selections; trailers.



The Grapes of Wrath (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U. S.: John Ford, 1940 (20th Century Fox)

The best movies, like the best novels, affect you powerfully, but sometimes differently, throughout your life. They can move you, chill you, devastate you, teach you, maybe even change you.

Here is a great movie adapted from a great novel: John Ford‘s savagely beautiful, deeply emotional film of John Steinbeck‘s poignant, epic masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. The new DVD release has been out a while, but that hardly matters. You must own it, keep it in your hearts if not on your shelves.

It’s a book and a movie, of course, about the Okies: wandering poor American families, struck down hard by the Depression, forced from the land where they’d lived and farmed for generations, forced onto the roads, in rattletrap vehicles, with scant resources, then viciously exploited by the California corporate growers who battened off their misfortune and the cheap migrant labor it helped supply. It’s the saga, rustic and tragic, of the Joad family, farmers on the Oklahoma plains, driven off their farm by the wind that blew away the soul, the harsh climate that impoverishes and destroys the land, the harsh, foreclosing banking policies that impoverish or destroy the people.

We see the whole world of the Dust Bowl and the Depression through the experiences of the Joads: Ma and Pa, Grandpa and Grandma, Uncle John, the kids, Rose of Sharon, and, most unforgettably Tom Joad — the rebel with, finally, a cause, the fictional character to alive that Woody Guthrie wrote a song about him, and whose last words, to his Ma, before their last leave-taking, no one who sees this movie ever forgets.

In my youth, I loved both Steinbeck and Ford, prodigally. Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men is the first book that ever made me cry — when I read about George and Lenny and the rabbits at 11, off my grandparents’ bookshelves in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. In my college days, I was an English major (Henry James was preferred to Steibeck, or even Faulkner) and I may have let the literary-academic-political trend against Steinbeck sway me or silence me for a while. Fordians back then — and I was one, passionately — tended unfortunately to be sometimes anti-Steinbeck too, and to elevate Ford’s great, but somewhat ignored later movies, often with the conservative John Wayne (The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) at the expense of his great middle period pictures, often with the liberal Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln). It is one area where Andy Sarris steered us a little wrong.

Now that I’m older, I know better. I know that the anguish the movie and book record are if anything, underplayed; that the movie’s “sentimentality” is closer to reality than many other message movies that critics call “realistic” — and that the economic and social horrors that writer Steinbeck and director Ford evoke, are closer than we imagine, and would be much closer if it weren‘t for the political reforms that came out of the Depression, from FDR and the New Deal, reforms that people like Steinbeck and Ford fought for — and that the bank-worshipping, money-adoring G. O. P. now despises and wants to repeal.

I feel ashamed at even slight scraps of a callow “go along” reaction toward these two great artists and their American masterpiece — though, truth to tell, I always did love the book. But I now think the movie of The Grapes of Wrath is one of Ford’s four or five greatest films, worthy to be ranked right alongside The Searchers and Stagecoach, both of which in many ways, it resembles.

Like them, and many other Ford movies, it’s a quest film — and even a bit of a revenge movie too. It begins like The Searchers, with a solitary man appearing from the landscape, heading toward home: Tom Joad (Fonda), an ex-con with gentle eyes and a fierce temper, who killed a man and now returns home, on a darkening plain under a harsh sky, deserted. He remeets two old acquaintances, now wanderers too: Casey a preacher (John Carradine, in his finest movie performance), and Muley (John Qualen in his), a scavenger hiding like a “graveyard ghost” in the land he once farmed and owned. They talk: Steinbeck’s characteristic biblical, tough jawboning (sympathetically scripted by Nunnally Johnson), the talk of common folk, sometimes profane or earthy, sometimes elevated to simple grandeur.

Then: Tom’s family. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), the fleshy matriarch in a broad hat, who has to assume control. Pa Joad (Russell Simpson) the gaunt old patriarch, who cedes it. Wily, foxy, nervously cackling old Grampa (Charley Grapewin, in one of the greatest small parts in movie history), grinning Grandma (Zeffie Tilbury), the younger folk, the kids, all set to leave the land they grew up on — now stolen from them by the banks and the greed-crazed creeps, the money-grubbing politicians and callous fancy dans who run them, (and whose spiritual descendants fill the banks and the halls of congress today) — piling into a ramshackle truck, held together with spit and rope, that can barely hold them, on their way to the fruit-rich, grape-and-orange heavy farms of California, the promised land.

What they find are farms owned by corporations and policed by thugs, offering bare subsistence pay (not enough to feed a family), and, if you object, a bum’s rush, a blacklist and a killing club to the head.

It was Steinbeck’s most powerful, most controversial story, damned and banned and burned by the corporate growers and politicians, loved by readers. And it’s one of Ford’s great quests, like the ones in Stagecoach, in The Long Voyage Home, in Wagonmaster, in The Quiet Man, in The Searchers, in Cheyenne Autumn.

In images lovingly crafted by Ford and his matchless cinematographer, Gregg Toland, we see the truck farms and the cheap, ramshackle worker camps, run by local bullies and enforcers. We see the nascent labor movement, which preacher Casey embraces, and, because of which, he’s struck down by the thugs. We see the land and the people, magnificently shot by Toland in a style that suggest Walker Evans, in the year before Toland shot the equally brilliant — but much different — Citizen Kane.

Some of John Ford’s searches end happily; some don’t. The Grapes of Wrath takes us, and the Joads, on a shattering journey into the despoiling of the American dream. There’s hope in the movie, but it’s largely for the future — exemplified by the final somewhat forced “We’re the people” speech by Ma Joad, a scene that producer Darryl Zanuck (a Republican with principles and guts) wanted, and that Ford didn’t. (Ford refused to shoot it, and told Zanuck to do it himself, which the producer did.)

Ford wanted instead to end the film with the shot of solitary Tom, walking in silhouette on the hill, against the morning sky, alone, perhaps forever severed from his family, moving toward the certain future — perhaps to join a labor fight, perhaps to wander forever between the winds. Ford was right; Zanuck was wrong. And if The Grapes of Wrath had ended with that eloquent silhouette-on-the-hill shot (which Ingmar Bergman took and elaborated for The Seventh Seal), then its kinship to The Searchers (as well as Grapes’ more obvious Western movie descendant, Cheyenne Autumn) would be more often noticed. Tom Joad and Ethan Edwards walk or ride toward us out of the landscape, and then, at the end, they return to it.

Henry Fonda was a great actor, never better than as Tom Joad, but his later iconic position as the American cinema’s quintessential liberal sometimes blinds us to how good, how scarily, touchingly, wonderfully good, he can be. (And is, especially in The Grapes of Wrath). Fonda’s Tom Joad is a miracle of compact, truthful, deeply honest, deeply archetypal American movie acting. No one on God’s green earth could have done it better. We know Tom is kind, loving. We know he can be dangerous, a killer. We know he loves his family, his mother. (There is no other love interest, for Tom or anybody, except Rose of Sharon’s failed engagement.) We know he hates injustice. Watching him, watching that lean lanky torso, that grave face and those dark child’s eyes, and hearing that tough, simmering Midwestern drawl, we hate injustice too.

John Ford won the Oscar for The Grapes of Wrath. He deserved it. Jane Darwell won for Ma. She deserved it too. Henry Fonda was nominated and lost to his best friend, Jimmy Stewart. I’m sure even Jimmy would have said his old roommate deserved it more (just as Jimmy deserved it the year before, in 1939 for Mr. Swmith goes to Washington.)

But another actress — who never even got the chance, who wasn’t nominated, who didn’t even get the part — may have deserved it more too, was that one person on God‘s green earth who could do it better. Book or movie, “The Grapes of Wrath” is a masterpiece, and I‘m as moved by Darwell‘s Ma as everyone else. But let us now praise famous women: I believe “The Grapes of Wrath” would have been an even greater film, if Ford had been allowed the casting he wanted, the choice he personally made for Ma Joad, but that was nixed by the cost-conscious studio. Fox wanted a contract player. But Ford wanted Beulah Bondi to play Tom Joad‘s ma, as she had played Tommy Mitchell’s ma in Make Way for Tomorrow, and as she later played Jimmy Stewarts’s in It’s a Wonderful Life, and crochety old Granny in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner and many, many others.

Ford wanted Bondi and he cast her. He was right there too. A methodical teacher-turned actress, Bondi went to the Okie camps to live with and study those women. And then Fox took the part from her, the role that would have won her the Oscar — and would, I think, have been one of the greatest performances in all film history. (Watch Make Way for Tomorrow, and try to tell me I‘m wrong, and that John Ford was wrong.)

Jane Darwell threw her heart into the role and she deserved her season of glory. But so did Beulah Bondi, who never even got an Emmy until the end of her life (for The Waltons). And when I think of Bondi playing that last scene with Fonda, dancing with him to Red River Valley, then bidding him goodbye in the darkness, the strains of the folk ballad echoing over the fertile, scarred land, the two (in my imagination) playing the scene that was never shot, yet as beautiful and as real and moving to me as so many scenes in Grapes of Wrath that were, it makes me do once again what I did those many years ago — when I set down my grandparents’ copy of Of Mice and Men, on a summer afternoon, after I had just learned what words could do, what fictional characters could do, what literature could do, what an American story, deeply felt and beautifully told (by a Steinbeck, by a Ford), could do. It makes me weep.

Extras: An excellent double commentary by Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw and by Ford scholar (and my old writer/partner) Joe McBride; A&E documentary on Zanuck; Depression era Movietone News drought reports; Outtakes; Still Gallery; Featurettes.



The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries: Volume Two (Three Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.K.; Hugh David & Ronald Wilson, 1973 (Acorn Media)

Dorothy Sayers was a classic British murder mystery novelist whom tonier critics of the day preferred to Agatha Christie. Sayers’ writing style was more obviously literate (she later translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into English), her stories were more novelistic, her characters a bit deeper, her paragraphs longer, and in The Nine Tailors, she wrote a detective novel that, like E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case ) if not quite on the level of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone or Charles Dickens’ Bleak House), seemed a respectably serious novel as well as an engrossing murder mystery, and one that seemed to elevate the whole genre from melodrama to real drama. (I always preferred Christie, though.)

Sayers also invented a detective, Lord Peter Wimsey (marvelously played on British TV by Ian Carmichael, the naïve protagonist who clashed with Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas and Richard Attenborough in I‘m All Right, Jack). Wimsey was a fittingly named, classy comic character: an acid-tongued but compassionate detector with a taste for high literature, a gift for baroque piano playing, a genius for sleuthing, and the services of Bunter, the best butler this side of Jeeves. (Wimsey was a bit of a playful snob, and his leftist acquaintances were mostly comic relief.)

This set is the better of the two Acorn Wimsey sets now available — and not just because it contains a fine version of The Nine Tailors. These three adaptations, like the two in Volume One, are stylistically ordinary (like the original Upstairs, Downstairs, they look like TV shows more than movies), but they are all faithfully taken from Sayers’ novels, well and wittily written and consummately acted by Carmichael and the supporting casts. They’re real treats for anyone who remembers Sayers, Wimsey and the classic days of the British detective novel. And there are more of them than in Volume One!

Includes: Murder Must Advertise (U. K.; Rodney Bennett, 1973). Three Stars. Murder and Wimsey erupt in the sometimes tawdry worlds of British public relations and journalism. Five Red Herrings (U. K.; Robert Tronson, 1974). Three Stars. Sayers liked to satirize the Bohemian world of British artists; here she surrounds an arist‘s corpse with six suspects — five of them red herrings.

The Nine Tailors (U.K.; Raymond Menmuir, 1975). Three and a Half Stars. The world of British country church bell-ringing (source of the title), exhaustively researched and lovingly portrayed, provides part of the rich backdrop for this famous classic mystery about old crimes and stolen emeralds.

Extras: interview with Carmichael; Sayers and Carmichael biographies; Production notes.



Shrek Forever After (Also two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo) (Three Stars)

U.S.; Mike Mitchell, 2010 (Paramount)

Shrek Forever After is supposedly “The Final Chapter.” But that title may be partly true, partly false. Can anything really (or fantastically) be both final and forever after?

The mega-grossing DreamWorks feature cartoon series, which began with a bang in 2001 — a Cannes Film Festival Official Selection, and a best animated feature Oscar — has had is ups and downs in the two sequels since (2004‘s business-as-usual Shrek 2 and 2007‘s so-so Shrek the Third). But this Chapter Four in the hip fairytale of the enchanted Princess and her surly green Ogre love, won’t spell bankruptcy in anybody’s books.

It’s a funny movie, well-executed and well-acted, and it’s also , as the first Shrek was, and the next two often weren‘t, a pretty good story.

That can’t have been easy. The problem with making a follow-up to the 2001 Shrek is that, in narrative terms, it was perfect in itself. After Shrek the Ogre (Mike Myers), completed his quest with his ever-rapping Donkey pal (Eddie Murphy), and kissed the beautiful, but fitfully monstrous Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and she became not all-Princess but all-Ogre, and the two went off to live happily ever after in a world that didn’t have the Looks-Uber-Alles hiring policies of the average American TV show, the story really had nowhere else to go.

But like all automatic sequels to big hits, it went there anyway. Fast. Luckily, in those next two Shreks, Shrek and Donkey picked up some interesting travel companions — most notably the swashbuckling little pussycat Puss in Boots, voiced to a fine turn by Pedro Almodovar’s old pal Antonio Banderas. And the movies were entertaining enough, if not exactly the sassy, dreamy, wise-acre, Cannes-smashing triumph the first one was.

Shrek Forever After though (Did anyone try to make it Shrek 4Ever After?) has a nifty premise, thanks, one supposes to writers Josh Clausner and Darren Lemke. (Clausner wrote the Steve Carell-Tina Fey fish-out-of water mom-pop rom-com Date Night.) There’s a new villain in the kingdom of Far Far Away — well-actually an old villain, recycled from the Grimm Brothers: a smarmy, duplicitous, wicked little bad-chappie named Rumpelstiltskin, drawn as if he were a midget Jim Carrey or ‘50s comic Orson Bean, played like Billy Crystal as the devil, and voiced very amusingly not by a star actor but by a cartoon factory working stiff: DreamWorks’ head of story Walt Dohrn.

Rumpel, you’ll remember from Grimm, was always hoaxing and misleading people and robbing them blind on contracts, which suggests he had a future not in fairyland but on Wall Street. Now, the nasty little cartoon bastard is back, with his big strange Mother of a Goose and lots of awful schemes. He hates Shrek, hates Fiona, hates little birds and bunnies, hates everything good and decent, hates all of us. And he’s as sneaky and devious and destructive as a political campaign manager with a huge TV budget. Capitalizing on Shrek’s middle age malaise, a discontent that hits him at his Shrek triplets‘ hectic birthday party — and cognizant of the Green Guy’s yearning for the old days when he could just roar and everyone would run away — Rumpel offers him a contact. Shrek will get one day as the old horrific monster of the first Shrek. And all he has to give up is one insignificant 24 hours from sometime in his childhood.

Such a deal! And such a soundtrack! (Everything from “I’m a Believer” to the Carpenters’ “Top of the World.“) Unfortunately, Rump‘s contract has a Catch-22, an “It‘s a Wonderful Life” clause that wrecks Shrek‘s world and turns Far Far Away into someplace from which any Ogre would stay far, far away if we could: the shadowy, dark side Rump of Fairyland. The insignificant day Rumpelstiltskin chooses for foreclosure is the day Shrek was born, meaning that — in the new alternative-world Phil-dickian Far Far Away, run by Rump, the Goose, the Pied Piper, and lots of “Wizard of Oz-y” witches looking for Shreks to shred and Totos to stomp — Shrek, like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, was never born and never existed.

What a mess! People may be scared of him, but nobody knows Shrek. Donkey, now a beast of burden for the local witch brigade, doesn’t know him. Puss, now a lazy fat cat who can barely buckle his swash, doesn’t know him. The Gingerbread Man doesn’t know him. Fiona, now the leader of the local Ogre rebellion against the tyranny of Rumpelstiltskin, doesn’t know him, and won’t kiss him. And a true-love kiss is the only thing that will wipe out the bad contract, foil Rumpel’s plot and restore the Shrekian order. Shrek has only one day and night to get that smacker from the new two-fisted Fiona, while eluding the wicked witches, enduring 1001 wisecracks from Donkey and trying to keep Puss off the Fancyfeast.

I know you’ve heard it all before, especially “Top of the World.“ But I’ll bet you still want to see what happens next (even though you pretty much know). That’s the innovation of the fourth Shrek. It has funny, well-articulated characters — they all do — but it also has an engaging story.

The movie’s new director Mike Mitchell, doesn’t exactly have the most intimidating credentials. Both Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo and that sequel of sequels, Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo are on his resume. (Shame!) But he does a good job here, not only getting snappy performances from everybody (probably not that big a trick, considering this cast, which also boasts Larry King and Regis Philbin as Doris and Mabel), but deftly modulating the pace and mood from frenetic to somber, and the dramatic-comic hues from bouncy-light to horrific-dark.

Director Mitchell also plays four parts in the movie well, notably his show-stopping gig as Butter Pants, the little boy whose father (Ryan Seacrest) prods Shrek, at the birthday party, to deliver a good old-fashioned Shrekian roar. It’s a great bit: This squashed, dour-looking little toddler, repeatedly insists, in a phlegmatic, deep bass Foghorn Winslow sort of voice, “Do the roar” — the biggest laugh line in the entire movie. (In fact, Mitchell’s Butter Pants may get more laughs with fewer words than any character in movie history.) Overall, the character animation in Shrek 4 is terrific, especially for Puss in Boots (great cat moves) and Shrek (what a kisser). But actors like Dohrn, Banderas and Myers (the guy who puts the Shrek in “Shrek“) — not to mention Murphy and Diaz — are a large part of what makes the movie tick, and click.

For his amazing ability to act the ass, Murphy deserves a standing donkey ovation. For her Joan of Arc-ish inspiration — with her evergreen beauty, and a heart, as the DreamWorks advertising department might say, Somewhere Ogre the Rainbow — Diaz deserves a Princessy salute. And for his incredible penetration, as Puss, into the heart of feline cunning and cat bravado, Banderas deserves all the fancy-feasting, all the executive purring (and the promised spin-off movie) DreamWorks can provide. What an Ass! What an Ogress! What a Puss!

As for Myers, what can we say? What a Shrek! Do the roar, dude.

There is life after The Love Guru.

Monsters vs. Aliens (Three Stars)

U.S.; Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens seemed a little better to me while I was watching it than it does in retrospect. But it’s still a pretty nifty show: a fast-paced parody horror sci-fi comedy extravaganza with an all-star cast and lots of gaudy 3D effects. If you see it in 3D (and you should), it looks great — the kind of movie where the ingenious technology takes on an added measure of delight because its handled so skillfully and playfully.

Monsters is also a love letter to some of the most entertainingly cheesy horror movies of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, with specific references to The Attacking 50-Foot Woman (who becomes voice actress Reese Witherspoon’s Ginormica/Susan Murphy), The Fly (who becomes Hugh Laurie‘s fiendishly laughing Dr. Cockroach), The Blob (who becomes Seth Rogen in the role he was born to play, laid-back, Jell-O-bodied, ultra-blobby B. O. B.), Mothra/Godzilla (who becomes Insectosaurus, a behemoth who never speaks, but whose silence, according to a hot Hollywood rumor, was dubbed by either Joaquin Phoenix, or by Ben Stiller imitating Joaquin Phoenix, or by the late Marcel Marceau) and, I guess, The Gill Man/Creature from the Black Lagoon or maybe Eeegah! (who become Will Arnett as The Missing Link).

A formidable lineup indeed — though sadly, there was apparently nothing here for Phil Tucker‘s immortal crybaby Robot Monster, which, considering the modest expenditure on R. M.’s costume (a gorilla suit and a fish bowl, as I remember), seems a shame on all concerned. How soon we forget! But there are good enough jokes about s.f. icons Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters With an E. T.), George Lucas (it takes place in Modesto) and Stanley Kubrick (Kiefer Sutherland as Gen. W. R. Monger apes George C. Scott’s sublime Gen. Buck Turgidson, and there’s a Strangelovian war room for President Stephen Colbert).

The plot is wickedly ingenious and ingeniously…wicked. Susan, a Modesto TV gal about to be married to her preposterously vain news anchor fiance Derek (Paul Rudd) — who owes his career to the new masturbation fantasy strategy of selecting TV news anchors (and movie critics) — is plunged into a meteorite shower, swollen to near 50 foot proportions, dumped by disgraceful Derek, and then hurled by Gen Monger into the secret subterranean whoozits which is home to the rest of the Monster Mob,

The fearsome fivesome’s life-or-death mission: to battle and destroy the unstoppable extraterrestrial invasion of a gigantic robot and his maniacal employer, four-eyed Gallaxhar (played to nasty perfection by Rainn Wilson). Gallaxhar, like Chuck Jones’ Marvin the Martian in the Duck Dodgers cartoons, is loaded with gadgets and doesn’t go down easy. The robot utterly ignores Pres. Colbert’s touching grand gesture of intergalactic peace and love, a spirited rendition of the Close Encounters theme, segueing right into the equally throbbing theme from Beverly Hills Cop. Perhaps the next number in this thrilling Colbertian medley was “Can’t Stop the Music.” But we’ll never know; the robot rudely marched off to tear down the Golden Gate Bridge, without even a nod to Ray Harryhausen.

If you have blood in your veins and popcorn in your mitts, how could you not enjoy something like that? Especially when the filmmakers — directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and writers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky — immediately flex their 3D muscles by hurling meteors at us and bopping a paddleball, House of Wax-style right in our faces? How could you not be utterly entranced by a 50-foot-tall cartoon Reese Witherspoon, in 3D yet? And how refreshing it is to see a current movie where Paul Rudd doesn’t get the girl — or the guy.

The technical ingenuity of the better contemporary cartoon features is now such a constant that its easy to ignore it and complain about something else, like the script or the 3D glasses. But Monsters vs. Aliens keeps projecting right off the screen, in ways you can’t ignore, especially when Ginormica is around.

Kids be damned. I had a good time at M.v.A. and sometimes you’re lucky to get even that. Meanwhile, we can confidently await the inevitable sequel, this time in 4D, “Destroy all Monsters! Destroy all Aliens!“ — where Colbert and fish bowl-headed Robot Monster (Seth Rogen in the role he was born to play) sing “Sometimes When We Touch (The Honesty’s Too Much)” to a rampaging octopoid-android and The House Republican Glee Club does a frenzied can can cameo to “No, No, Nanette,” Anne Coulter does a Gypsy Rose Lee strip to her original song, “Destroy All Liberals,” while the MSNBC Hardball-ettes answer smartly with “Barack Around the Clock.“

I don’t see how it can miss — especially if they have a paddleball scene.

Mademoiselle Chambon (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

France; Stephane Brize, 2009 (Lorber/Kino)

“Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.“ So says the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. So perhaps, for much of Mademoiselle Chambon, says Stephane Brize, the director/co-writer of this Brief Encounter-ish tale of a somewhat happily married house builder, Jean (Vincent Lindon) who falls in love with his little boy‘s schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain).

Thanks to Lindon, Jean goes very believably heartsick when Mlle. Chambon plays the classical violin (especially Edward Elgar), and then also must deal with her approaching departure, his own strongly moral nature and the fact that his wife, Anne-Marie (Aurore Atika) is both blameless (even if she is ignorant about direct objects in French grammar) and pregnant.

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

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

Extras: Interview with Brize; Deleted scenes; Stills gallery; Trailers

Showest Serves Up Newsworthy-Lite Fare

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

LAS VEGAS — Exhibitor or journalist, one no longer attends ShoWest for its newsworthiness. Celebrity sightings are duly noted, as are the latest improvements in cookie-dough confections and sneak previews of tent-pole movies.

The absence of any real news went out with the administration of the late, ever-quotable Jack Valenti. When Valenti was ringleader of the MPAA circus, he would invite reporters to breakfast at on ungodly hour on the morning of the opening day, so they could fill their notebooks with data, statistics, dire warnings about over-spending and piracy, and praise for the ratings system he invented.

Those sessions no longer exist. All relative box-office data is released ahead of ShoWest, and the MPAA no longer reports costs related to the production and marketing of studio films. If there was one thing highly paid executives didn’t like about their former chief lobbyist in Washington, it was being admonished for their absurd budgets and lavish spending. It was especially unpleasant when Valenti borrowed from the Bible, Greek mythology and Shakespeare to make his points.

Even if all succeeding MPAA czars will be required to link world peace to the end of movie piracy, the days of rhetorical sturm und drang at ShoWest are long gone. In case anyone was keeping score at home, outgoing MPAA boss Dan Glickman announced that lots of people are making lots of money in Hollywood – thanks, in large part, to 3-D and foreigner revenues — even if 90 percent of its titles suck. And, copyright infringement continues to threaten our and every other democracy.

Amazingly, perhaps, after several years of pessimistic debate over the future of digital cinema and 3-D, there appears to be a shortage of screens capable of showing advanced 2-D and 3-D movies. The extraordinary success of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland provided merely the latest proof that 3-D is here to stay. It was only two years ago that the industry was stunned by the box-office success of Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert, and some observers feared it was a fluke occurrence. Now, 3-D movies are circling multiplexes like so many airplanes awaiting clearance to land in a storm.

With Avatar and Alice still selling Hefty bags full of popcorn for exhibitors – and 3-D hardware at a premium – the arrival of several major titles is reason for some concern. The imminent release of DreamWorks/Paramount’s How to Train Your Dragon and Warner Bros.’ re-formatted Clash of the Titans has prompted several studios to pressure exhibitors to clear – or retain – 3-D space for their titles. The penalty would be the withholding of 2-D versions of the same movies.With the release of such sure-fire titles as Toy Story 3, Shrek Forever After and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts I and II right around the corner, distributors are busy marking their territory.

While screen manufacturers, such as Harkness, pledged to ramp up production of 3-D-friendly screens, studios promised to continue making blockbuster movies. Nineteen 3-D movies are scheduled for release in 2010, alone. No one at ShoWest wanted to consider the downside, however. If, for example, the quality of such entertainment declined to the point where it ceased to be a lucrative diversion, the boom might quickly go bust.

Patrick Corcoran, spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners, voiced his concern that overexposure to 3-D format “might wear your audience out,” while the potential oversaturation of specialized screens in a market could cut into profits for competing exhibitors. Their ability to charge consumers extra for the privilege of watching movies in 3-D and large format could also be impacted.

Indeed, the biggest bummer all week came after Disney/Pixar announced it wouldn’t be able to preview Toy Story in 3-D. Anticipation had caused block-long lines to form outside the Paris and Bally’s Hotel theaters. It turned out, however, that the dispersal of 3-D glasses ahead of the screening was to facilitate the animated short, Night and Day. Undeniably fun to watch, Toy Story 3 lacked a certain je ne sais quoi in 2-D.

Ironically, the ShoWest schedule — apart from a sneak of Harry Potter and Technicolor’s product demonstration — was mostly devoid of 3-D presentations. In previous years, attendees had enjoyed full screenings and snippets of Up, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Battle for Terra, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens. If nothing else, these films assured exhibitors of the seriousness with which the major studios were taking 3-D.

With the proof of that commitment already in the pudding, this year’s selection of previews included Toy Story 3, in which the non-human characters must deal with Andy’s coming of age; Summit’s sumptuous romance, Letters to Juliet, with Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave; the Sony crowd-pleaser, The Karate Kid, which contemporizes the 1984 hit by setting it completely in China and substituting Jackie Chan for Pat Morita; Lionsgate’s insanely frenetic, Kick Ass, a superhero epic that was as funny as it was hyper-violent; CBS Films’ second feature, the urban rom-com Back-Up Plan, in which Jennifer Lopez is unable to find the perfect mate and father to her children … until she becomes pregnant, natch; Warner Bros.’ star-studded showcase offered glimpses of Sex and the City 2, the 3-D Clash of the Titans, Todd Phillips’ Due Date,” with Robert Downey Jr. and Zack Galifianakis, and the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, an action-adventure that makes Pirates of the Caribbean look lethargic, by comparison. The Monday-night indie showcase, which last year, previewed The Hurt Locker, offered Focus’ The Kids Are Alright, an offbeat family dramedy, with Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Mia Wasikowska; Apparition’s Aussie thriller, The Square; Roadside Attractions darkly comic, The Joneses; Sony Classics’ Get Low, with Bill Murray, Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek; and Zipline’s go-karting doc, Racing Dreams.

(It’s worth remembering, perhaps, that Sandra Bullock’s commercial comeback can be traced to last year’s ShoWest preview of The Proposition, which exhibitors loved. Another future Oscar-winner, The Cove, was screened here in 2009.)

– Gary Dretzka
March 22, 2010

Wilmington on DVDs: The Wizard of Oz, Monsters vs. Aliens and more…

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009


The Wizard of Oz (Four Stars)
U. S.; Victor Fleming, King Vidor (Unc.), 1939 (Warner)

Some movies appeal to just about everybody — like the heart-stoppingly entertaining and wonderful 1939 musical that MGM made out of L. Frank Baum’s American fairy tale, The Wizard of Oz (now released in a deluxe 70th anniversary DVD edition by Warner).

It’s a movie most of us saw for the first time in childhood and then grew up with though the years. I was 10 when CBS televised it nationally for the first time (in 1956), and I still remember the shock of joy that came over me as I watched it in the living room on Parkhurst Place, in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, with my Grampa Axel, Gramma Marie and Mother Edna — all of whom were already very familiar with it — especially when Judy Garland, as Dorothy Gale, stared at the sky above her Hollywood-Kansas barnyard backdrop, let loose those incredible 16-year-old pipes and brought down the house once again with Harold Arlen‘s and E.Y. Harburg’s hair-raising ballad “Over the Rainbow.”

What a song! What a singer! What pure, shattering emotion wrapped in rapturous show biz kitsch and MGM bliss! For years, Esquire Magazine made fun of that ballad in their annual Dubious Achievement issues, by recounting exactly how many times Garland had now sung it. (Who was keeping track?) But in fact, I’ll bet those smart alecs were sort of knocked out by it too: The crystalline notes, Judy‘s yearning, faraway gaze toward a somber sky with a storm brewing, and lyrics like “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why, can’t I?” that should have made you snort but instead broke your heart.

Then there was her fantastic supporting trio: Ray Bolger as the flopsie-mopsie, always-resourceful Scarecrow (“I would not be just a nuffin‘, my head all full of stuffin‘…), Jack Haley, Jr. as the metal-bod, sentimental Tin Man (“I hear a beat! How sweet!”), and Bert Lahr as the boisterous scaredy-cat Cowardly Lion. (“Oh, it’s sad, believe me missy, when you’re born to be a sissy…” Meeting Dorothy one by one, Singing the three parts of another Arlen-Harburg masterpiece — “If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/the Nerve” — followed by the lusty chorus of “We’re off to see the Wizard!“ the four grand companions, instantly became the most appealing quartet of adventurous buddies since the Three Musketeers and D’Artagnan. (Hovering sadly over them all, though, is the ghostly image of their absent comrade, poor Buddy Ebsen, cast as the Scarecrow, who cheerfully switched parts with the original Tin Man, Bolger, and then lost out completely when he got poisoned and sickened by the spray powder used to make his flesh tin.)

You‘d also be stumped to find a better nasty, evil witch with a more memorable creepy cackle than Margaret Hamilton‘s supremely malicious Wicked Witch of the West, aka Miss Gulch, or a shinier good witch than Billie Burke‘s winningly sweetie-pie Glinda. Or a more spectacular piece of Midwestern humbuggery and medicine show eloquence than Frank Morgan as Professor Miracle and the Wizard himself (and three other parts too). And what can you say about the Munchkins? (Better not say too much. This is a family movie.)

Judy Garland, just plain great as Dorothy, beat out the most popular child star in America — the most popular Hollywood child movie star ever — when she took the role away from Shirley Temple. And she makes the movie of course; it’s really one of the all time best movie musical performances (and part of Garland‘s own career top three, with “Meet Me in St. Louis“ and the 1954 “A Star is Born“). Judy‘s Dorothy is a perfect centerpiece and beating heart for Oz, because she plays it with a stunning conviction, and sparkling sincerity that sets off perfectly the glorious ”Smith‘s Premium Ham” clowning and vaudeville of her three fellow travelers — and also because, at least on our second time through, we know that this is Dorothy’s dream, brought on by the cyclone and a head-bonk, and that Oz is her creation — her fairy-tale Kansas — which is why it’s both her paradise and her nightmare.

The Wizard of Oz was directed by two big studio movie masters: Victor Fleming (the Oz scenes) and the uncredited King Vidor (the Kansas prelude and coda). Their styles are not really similar — Vidor was more of a populist poet, Fleming more of a robust yarn-spinner — yet here, they fuse perfectly. Every single scene jells and works like a charm in both the movie’s Kansas and Oz, and the only times I‘ve ever gotten restive during the dozens of times I’ve seen this film, is, occasionally, during The Cowardly Lion’s florid aria, ‘F I Were King” — and I can always forgive that for every other moment of Lahr’s blow-away performance. Fleming and Vidor guided him, and all the others, and all of the movie, flawlessly.

If you’ve been reading Mike Sragow’s Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master recently — and you should– you’ve probably already bought Sragow’s main thesis that the attractively macho, underrated Fleming, one of the directorial kings of MGM in the ’30s and ’40s, is a critically neglected movie genius, and that the director who made both most of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, released the same year — not to mention The Virginian, Red Dust, Bombshell, Treasure Island, Captains Courageous, Test Pilot, and A Guy Named Joe deserves more than passing mention in any Hollywood pantheon. (My one quarrel with Sragow’s excellent book is that he aims too many potshots and brickbats at Fleming’s best friend and fellow movie ace, Howard Hawks. Some residue of the old Kael-Sarris wars?)

Fleming and Vidor together presided over one of the most charmed and charming movie ensembles ever — transforming Noel Langley’s, Florence Ryerson’s and Edgar Allan Woolf‘s marvelously playful and witty script and Arlen and Harburg‘s fantastic songs — along with that peerless cast — into the stuff of movie magic — a show that never loses its power to grip us and tickle us and make us laugh and cry — the greatest kids (plus adults) movie this side of the rainbow. I loved it when I was 10, watching it with my childhood family. I loved it last night, watching it in my incredibly brave 94-year-old Mother Edna’s hospital room with her, on a computer on her food table, as she lay dying. I love The Wizard of Oz still, and I’m not alone.

Extras: Commentary by Oz-Garland scholar John Fricke; TV Specials The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic (Jack Haley, Jr.) and Memories of Oz; Featurettes; video storybook; profiles; sing-along feature; outtakes; deleted scenes; Harold Arlen’s home movies; ztills and trailer galleries; recording sessions; radio shows.



Monsters Vs. Aliens (Three Stars)
U.S.; Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon, 2009 (Paramount)

Monsters Vs. Aliens seemed a little better to me while I was watching it than it does in retrospect. But it’s still a pretty nifty show: a fast-paced parody horror sci-fi comedy extravaganza with an all-star cast and lots of gaudy 3D effects. If you see it in 3D (and you should), it looks great — the kind of movie where the ingenious technology takes on an added measure of delight because its handled so skillfully and playfully.

Monsters is also a love letter to some of the most entertainingly cheesy horror movies of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, with specific references to The Attacking 50-Foot Woman (who becomes voice actress Reese Witherspoon’s Ginormica/Susan Murphy), The Fly (who becomes Hugh Laurie‘s fiendishly laughing Dr. Cockroach), The Blob (who becomes Seth Rogen in the role he was born to play, laid-back, Jell-O-bodied, ultra-blobby B. O. B.), Mothra/Godzilla (who becomes Insectosaurus, a behemoth who never speaks, but whose silence, according to a hot Hollywood rumor, was dubbed by either Joaquin Phoenix, or by Ben Stiller imitating Joaquin Phoenix, or by the late Marcel Marceau) and, I guess, The Gill Man/Creature from the Black Lagoon or maybe Eeegah! (who become Will Arnett as The Missing Link).

A formidable lineup indeed — though sadly, there was apparently nothing here for Phil Tucker‘s immortal crybaby Robot Monster, which, considering the modest expenditure on R. M.’s costume (a gorilla suit and a fish bowl, as I remember), seems a shame on all concerned. How soon we forget! But there are good enough jokes about s.f. icons Steven Spielberg (“Close Encounters With an E. T.”), George Lucas (it takes place in Modesto) and Stanley Kubrick (Kiefer Sutherland as Gen. W. R. Monger apes George C. Scott’s sublime Gen. Buck Turgidson, and there’s a Strangelovian war room for President Stephen Colbert).

The plot is wickedly ingenious and ingeniously…wicked. Susan, a Modesto TV gal about to be married to her preposterously vain news anchor fiancée Derek (Paul Rudd) — who owes his career to the new masturbation fantasy strategy of selecting TV news anchors (and movie critics) — is plunged into a meteorite shower, swollen to near 50 foot proportions, dumped by disgraceful Derek, and then hurled by Gen Monger into the secret subterranean whoozits which is home to the rest of the Monster Mob,

The fearsome fivesome’s life-or-death mission: to battle and destroy the unstoppable extraterrestrial invasion of a gigantic robot and his maniacal employer, four-eyed Gallaxhar (played to nasty perfection by Rainn Wilson). Gallaxhar, like Chuck Jones’ Marvin the Martian in the Duck Dodgers cartoons, is loaded with gadgets and doesn’t go down easy. The robot utterly ignores Pres. Colbert’s touching grand gesture of intergalactic peace and love, a spirited rendition of the Close Encounters theme, segueing right into the equally throbbing theme from Beverly Hills Cop. Perhaps the next number in this thrilling Colbertian medley was “Can’t Stop the Music.” But we’ll never know; the robot rudely marched off to tear down the Golden Gate Bridge, without even a nod to Ray Harryhausen.

If you have blood in your veins and popcorn in your mitts, how could you not enjoy something like that? Especially when the filmmakers — directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and writers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky — immediately flex their 3D muscles by hurling meteors at us and bopping a paddleball, “House of Wax”-style right in our faces? How could you not be utterly entranced by a 50 foot tall cartoon Reese Witherspoon, in 3D yet? And how refreshing it is to see a current movie where Paul Rudd doesn’t get the girl — or the guy.

The technical ingenuity of the better contemporary cartoon features is now such a constant that its easy to ignore it and complain about something else, like the script or the 3D glasses. But Monsters vs. Aliens keeps projecting right off the screen, in ways you can’t ignore, especially when Ginormica is around.

Kids be damned. I had a good time at M.V.A. and sometimes you’re lucky to get even that. Meanwhile, we can confidently await the inevitable sequel, this time in 4D, “Destroy all Monsters! Destroy all Aliens!“ — where Colbert and fish bowl-headed Robot Monster sing “Sometimes When We Touch (The Honesty’s Too Much)” to a rampaging octopoid-android and The House Republican Glee Club does a frenzied can can cameo to “No, No, Nanette,” Anne Coulter does a Gypsy Rose Lee strip to her original song, “Destroy All Liberals,” while the MSNBC Hardball-ettes answer smartly with Chris Matthews’ “Barack Around the Clock.“

I don’t see how it can miss — especially if they have a paddleball scene.



Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (20th Anniversary edition) (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.; John McNaughton, 1986-90 (MPI Home Video)

A low-budget blood-and-guts dark side classic: McNaughton’s bone-chilling look at blue collar American pathology and murder, starring Michael Rooker as the cold-blooded Henry.



The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (3 discs) (Blu-Ray) (Four Stars)
U.S.; D. A. Pennebaker & Various Other Directors, 1967-1997 (Criterion)

Rock and roll will never die. Neither will the ‘60s. Here’s the proof: all thee D. A. Pennebaker and Co. docs on the Monterey Pop festival, plus all the outtakes. Jimi, Janis, and Otis live! Did you ever doubt it?

Includes: Monterey Pop (D. A, Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, Richard Leacock, others, 1967) Four Stars. With Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Ravi Shankar, The Mamas and the Papas, Otis Redding. Jimi at Monterey (U. S.; Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, 1986) Four Stars. With Jimi Hendrix. Shake! Otis at Monterey”\ (Pennebaker, 1989). The Outtakes (Pennebaker, 1997). Many extras.



Away We Go (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Sam Mendes, 2009 (Focus)

Away We Go is the sort of smart, nicely made, and personally-felt movie I should have gone for in a big way: a realistic contemporary comedy written by novelists/ husband-wife screenwriting team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, and directed by the estimable Sam Mendes, about an offbeat but sweet unmarried couple, amiable doofussy Burt and earthy Verona, played by John Krasinski of The Office and Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolph).

As these two wander around the country in search of at least a temporary home, we see them gently coping with impending parenthood and a group of sometimes alarmingly atypical relatives and friends, some of whom want their bods.

Away We Go is well-directed, well-acted, and well-written (in a way). And it has a number of beguilingly candid, well-observed scenes between Burt and Verona, that put to shame the notions of romantic love and parenting floated our way often in the average Hollywood domestic romance/comedy.


Actually, “Average” is the last word you’d conjure up in connection with Away We Go — which becomes a sophisticated road movie with blackouts, as the odd-duck couple travel from friend to relative to place to city, from Colorado to Phoenix, Tucson to Madison, Montreal to Miami –in search of not only a haven, but some kind of contentment or a clue to their up-in-the-air future.

Along the way, they interact with Burt’s laughing, irresponsible parents, Jerry and Gloria (those admirable comedians Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara), robust flirt Lily (played by Allison Janney in a piece of “over-acting” I liked), Carmen Ejogo as Verona‘s savvy sister Grace, Maggie Gyllenhaal suckling her kids as Burt’s old school pal Ellen (aka LN), Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey as the welcoming but troubled Tom and Munch, and Paul Schneider as a dumped hubby in Miami.

All this may be a bad ad for the joys of marriage. But it’s a quality job, paved with good intentions. Yet, despite my appreciation for the talent involved here, I didn’t much like Away We Go.

Why? Actually, it’s a type of ‘70s movie toward which I developed a mild resistance (after having a schoolboy crush on some examples): the “You and Me Against the World, Babe” romantic comedy. Here’s how this kind of movie works: We meet a funny, attractive often quirky couple — usually on their first encounter, though sometimes, as with Away We Go,”\ after they‘ve hooked up — and discover their superiority in brains, mores, cuteness, and so on, to almost every other character in the movie, who basically become comic butts. The model twosome weathers storms and wins out. Curtain.

There‘s often a self-congratulating smugness to all this — and though I‘m aware you could apply the same general outline to many of the great screwball comedies that are among the gems of the old studio system, what makes the “You and Me Against the World, Babe” sub-genre different, is its pretension to realism. We know that a screwball comedy is a concoction and a confection, and that the authors and actors are charmingly stacking the deck for our delight.

But the “Babe” comedies of the ’60s, ‘70s and later, like (good examples) The Graduate, Morgan! or even some Woody Allen, were allegedly a window on reality, as Away We Go obviously purports to be. Indeed, many of “Away’s” best moments are its little humane observations, like Verona‘s quiet clinch with Grace. And its most annoying are screwball-influenced antic japes like the scene allegedly set on Madison with Maggie Gyllenhall as a creepy academic sex fiend. (I knew Madison, I worked in Madison, Madison is a friend of mine — and this is no Madison.)

Krasinski and Rudolph have provided a lot of bright moments on TV, and they charge us up here too, as this funky, tender couple. But I‘m also suspicious of movies that suggest, however tongue-in-cheek that you should be in love with someone because everybody else available is a drag, a dog or a goofball. That strikes me as both elitist and a recipe for disaster, romantic, connubial and otherwise — which may be why these moves began to annoy me as views of the world — even though I still love the hilarious mad artifice of straight-up screwball comedies.

Actually, in my experience, you fall in love with somebody, because they enhance or heighten your appreciation of life, and open your sympathies toward other people, not vice versa. But that‘s another story. And another movie — clearly not the one Eggers and Vida made here.

Mendes is a very imaginative director who obviously has a somewhat dyspeptic view of American suburban life, which he also trashes in both American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. (Road is a “You and Me Against the World” romantic non-comedy that goes sour.) He’s very good with actors, and the performance level here is high. This should have been a very good movie — and maybe it would have been if the writers weren’t so locked into a sarcasm that seems to me unsimple payback. Unless you’re Bonnie and Clyde (a movie couple I adored, by the way) Mendes‘ “You and Me Better Than the World, Babe” strikes me as a dead-end road away from perdition.


Shrink (One and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Jonas Pate, 2009 (Lionsgate)

Kevin Spacey (see above) plays an emotionally ragged, scruffy and mega-tormented Beverly Hills psychiatrist named Henry Carter, a role that seems almost too right for him. But the movie isn’t right, even though Robin Williams shows up as one of Henry’s A-list clients, a sexaholic star actor named Jack. (Coppola allusion or Nicholson allusion?) Good as Spacey and Williams always are, maybe this would have been better with Spacey, in his goombah mode, playing jack and Williams doing one of his imporov shprtizes, inserted throughout the movie at odd intervals. (This is a movie with a lot of odd intervals.)
But then again, why stick Kingsley — or Spacey or Williams — in another sub-par, sub-bad and sub-beautiful “Inside Hollywood” flick, whatever Short Cuts or Crash ensemble pretensions it might have?

Carter’s client list also includes Dallas Roberts as a wired-up agent, Saffron Burrows as a mellowing bombshell, and assorted other Hollywood stereotypes, some of whom look as if they couldn’t get past the Brett Easton Ellis club bouncer, and none of whom have been handed any surprises by screenwriter Thomas Moffett. There‘s even a scene by the Hollywood sign, which deserves better.


The Girlfriend Experience (Two Stars)
U. S.; Steven Soderbergh, 2009 (Magnolia)

Steven Soderbergh flirts with hard core with this somewhat chic-pretentious look at an intellectual hooker (played by porn star Sasha Grey) who takes her job to a new level, playing “girlfriend” as well as “whore.” A James Toback sort of movie, without much juice. It’s no Oceans 12.


Objectified (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Gary Hustwit, 2009

Gary Hustwit (Helvetica) interviews modern designers from all over the world, and unearths a multiplicity of approaches, theories and philosophies about the way things should look and be in the twenty-first century. Some of the interviewees struck me as maddeningly pretentious and full of it; others were more human, eloquent and persuasive. The images are beautiful throughout — both the shots of the design experts in their environments and (some of). their works. The subjects include: Paula Antonelli, Dieter Rams, Chris Bangle, Fiona Ruby and Naoto Fukasawa. (In English, French, Dutch and Japanese, with English subtitles.)


Midsomer Murders, Vol. 13 (Four discs) (Three Stars)
U.K.: Various directors, 2008 (Acorn Media)

Midsomer Murders, now in its thirteenth volume, is still one of the best of the breed of English TV village murder mysteries. Based on the Caroline Graham mysteries, starring John Nettles as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, they’re modern stories that which preserve some of the feel of the classic Agatha Christies, while, as before, getting in lots of contemporary culture, character, sexuality, perversity and social comment. With Jane Wymark, Jason Hughes and Laura Howard.

– Michael Wilmington
September 29, 2009

ShoWest Sampler: Animation, 3-D and the new Woody Allen Film

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

LAS VEGAS — It’s been rumored here that the annual ShoWest soiree, as sure a harbinger of spring as any returning robin, soon could go the way of such once-storied conventions as COMDEX, VSDA, NATPE, NAB, Summer CES and E3.

The computer industry’s “geek week,” as COMDEX became known, once brought 200,000 conventioneers to this city, making room vacancies as scarce as Megabucks winners. Two years later, it disappeared completely. After the Summer CES, held each June in Chicago, was overwhelmed by the demands of an electronics industry in which shelf life was measured in months, not years, the only segment that continued to make things interesting spun itself off as the Electronic Entertainment Expo. That once rowdy convention, like VSDA and NATPE before it, now has deflated to the point where it could be held in a phone booth.

The only success story in the world of conventions lately has been the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, which is held simultaneous to the increasingly less fun Winter CES. Given the ready availability of freely available pornography on the Internet, though, it, too, might have gone the way of the dodo bird, if organizers hadn’t opened the exhibition floor and awards show to the public.

ShoWest became famous mostly for the largesse shown by Hollywood studios to North American theater owners. In the days before a handful of chains owned the majority of theaters and multiplexes, distributors would compete for the right to deliver the greatest number of celebrities to banquets and show the best product reels. There was nothing quite like it, even at Cannes or during Oscar week.

When video revenues began to overtake theatrical box-office, the same distributors who financed ShoWest made VSDA the best show in town. After such operations as Blockbuster and Hollywood began to dominate the mom-and-pops – and organizers became embarrassed by the growing adult-video sideshow – VSDA nearly disappeared entirely. Ditto, syndicated-television’s annual love fest, NATPE, which saw its value to broadcasters fall to Fox, UPN, the WB and the cable networks. The National Association of Broadcasters’ tech show, held each April in Las Vegas, hasn’t been the same since it let the software jockeys and post-production nerds steal the thunder from actual broadcasters.

For the last five years at ShoWest – or ever since “digital” became a buzzword in Hollywood — equipment-producing companies have attempted to assume the role once reserved for the studios. Smaller studios and production companies have partnered with such firms to put on a good show for the punters, but they couldn’t command the same star power as the larger entities. This week, the near-absence of gala studio-funded banquets and tchocke-filled goodie bags was more apparent than ever. If it weren’t for the excellent quality of movies that were previewed here, the death knell might already have sounded.

This isn’t to say, however, that that movie business is about to pull up stakes and move to some Third World country, where negotiators for SAG, AFTRA and the Writers Guilds would be shot on sight. No, as we learned this week, too, box-office revenues worldwide soared another 5 percent in 2008, bringing the grand total to $28.1 billion, and U.S. ticket sales already are tracking 8 percent better than those last year. Ducats now average $7.18 a piece and the number of screens with 3-D capability is nearing 2,000. Considering that some international markets have yet to emerge from the bedsheet-on-the-wall era of movie exhibition, the upside remains great.

Still, the MPAA seemed so embarrassed by its member studios’ willingness to overspend in the face of a worldwide economic crisis that, for the first time in 20 years, it refused to divulge industry estimates on production and marketing costs. That wasn’t the reason provided by the lobbying organization’s boss, Dan Glickman, for not revealing the every expanding numbers, of course. Last year, the average total cost was $106.6 million, up $6.3 million from 2006. Those are Bernie Madoff numbers … sometimes for the same payoff for investors.

By comparison, the estimated budget for the Best Picture-winning Slumdog Millionaire was $15 million, and its best publicity came from positive word-of-mouth. Milk was limited to the same amount of money, while Frost/Nixon and The Reader were allowed about $35 million. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million, not taking into account what it may have cost to market the picture (the industry average in 2007 was $36 million) after it was finished. To date, Slumdog has logged a domestic box-office gross of $137 million, while Button is plugging along at $127 million.

Even so, the MPAA reportedly has been faulted by some members for not scoring the same tax incentives and infusions of money from President Obama’s stimulus package as other, more troubled industries. In the face of such a public diss by easily bought legislators – many of whom still see Hollywood as suburb of Havana — it probably wouldn’t have been prudent for the studios to lavish even more money on rubber chicken, celebrity lineups and souvenir T-shirts at ShoWest. Alas, it was fun while it lasted.

That said, though, much of the reason exhibitors continue to attend ShoWest is to get sneak previews of the movies they’ll be showing in their theaters from March until Christmas. By all outward appearances, they weren’t disappointed.

As usual, Monday night was reserved for screenings of upcoming independent pictures. Several years ago, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was introduced to exhibitors at this forum and, ever since, they’ve come here looking to re-capture lightning in a bottle. Bill Milner’s heartfelt dramedy, Is Anybody There?, in which  a retired magician (Michael Caine) mentors a death-obsessed 10-year-old boy, drew packed audiences back-to-back, and Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing  Iraq war story, The Hurt Locker, also attracted much attention. Stephan Elliott’s lavish period adaptation of the Noel Coward rom-com, Easy Virtue was as much fun to watch for its beautiful rural setting as the all-star cast (Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth). Kristopher Belman’s documentary profile of LeBron James, More Than a Game, followed the Cleveland Cavalier star’s rise from the playgrounds of Akron to the NBA Pantheon, with the accent on the friendship he forged along the way.

For the next two days, though, the future of 3-D would dominate most of the discussion … just as it had last year, after The Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour blew the hinges off the box-office. Last weekend’s dynamite numbers for DreamWorks Animation’s Monsters Vs. Aliens — 56 percent of its nearly $60-million haul came from 3-D venues, even though they represented 28 percent of the 4,000 theaters showing the movie – gave exhibitors hope that their investments in digital projection systems might pay immediate dividends.

If that report didn’t provide enough cause for optimism, Disney/Pixar introduced a slate of 17 3-D projects that had everyone in the standing-room-only crowd dizzy with anticipation. A generous preview of Pixar’s first 3-D animated feature, Up, promised blockbuster numbers, as did news of plans to re-release Toy Story and Toy Story 2 as a digital 3-D double-feature for a two-week engagement in early October (along with a trailer for next summer’s Toy Story 3). Snippets from those movies, and the dance scene from a re-formatted Beauty and the Beast, came next, as did a peek at Pixar’s new series of animated shorts, Cars Toon, and a delightful scene from the 2-D, hand-drawn, The Princess and the Frog, set for a Thanksgiving 2009 release. Also in the pipeline are animated features from Jerry Bruckheimer, Robert Zemeckis, Tim Burton and a sequel to Disney’s 1982 ground-breaker, Tron.

At Tuesday’s luncheon presentation, Sony Pictures Animation previewed its September 3-D release, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The feature was adapted from Judi and Ron Barrett’s popular children’s book, in which a hapless scientist creates a rocket that, when shot into the sky, makes food fall from the clouds like rain.

Another stereoscopic feature, The Battle for Terra, imagined a futuristic battle for survival on a planet invaded by desperate Earthlings. The peaceful world is populated by humanoids who look like guppies, crossed with dolphins, and whose advanced technology might have been designed by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

Warner Bros., usually a competitor for the title of most-lavish banquet, this year was content to preview Terminator: Salvation, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Hangover and Sherlock Holmes, for which Robert Downey Jr. made a guest appearance.

Downey would be seen later that evening, as well, alongside Jamie Foxx and Catherine Keener, in Paramount’s The Soloist. Another full house greeted director Joe Wright and writer Susannah Grant’s already much-hyped drama, which was based on a series of columns by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. In addition to demonstrating that exhibitors enjoy watching movies as much as their customers – only they’re far more polite and appreciative of serious fare — The Soloist delicately alluded to the very real possibility that a decimation of newsrooms, even at the nation’s most important papers, could prevent stories like that of homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers from being published. It’s unlikely that the same impact would have been felt if Lopez were required to condense his reporting in a blog or Twitter, before it ran full in the Times, as is the current trend.

Wednesday began with a low-key presentation by Sony, during which exhibitors were teased with previews of Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ sequel to The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons; The Ugly Truth,  a rom-com with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler; Julia and Julia, in which Meryl Streep portrays Julia Child; the Peter Jackson-produced sci-fi thriller, District 9; Harold RamisYear One; and Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Attendees also were pleased to hear that the studio had committed to the resuscitation of its Ghostbusters and Men in Black franchises.

Among the live-action pictures showcased were the Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds rom-com, The Proposal, in which a much-hated publishing diva is forced, by fear of deportation, to marry her much younger assistant. The plot thickens when the city girl makes a pre-nuptial visit to his Alaskan hometown, where relatives played by Betty White, and Mary Steenburgen seriously test her resolve. Bullock looks quite a bit younger than her 44 years, so the purported age gap between her character and Reynolds’ isn’t nearly as wide as it should have been. Still, their chemistry is good, and The Proposal is the best comic vehicle Bullock has had in memory.

It was mentioned at one point during the convention that The Cove could appeal to many of the same people who made March of the Penguins such a hit. It would be a mistake to advance that theory in the documentary’s marketing campaign, though, as what happens to unsuspecting dolphins in their visits to a Japanese fishing region more accurately resembles the aquatic equivalent of genocide. In it, a group of western activists travel to the Japanese coast to reveal the deeply hidden secret of the almost daily dolphin harvests in a cove near Taiji. It’s where the country’s whaling industry has been memorialized and trained dolphins actually have been imported to entertain tourists. Also indicted and found guilty are the Japanese government officials who knowingly fed mercury-tainted seafood to students, bought votes at international trade gatherings and actively promoted the idea that whales and dolphins were “pests,” responsible for depleting the world’s fish inventory. The Cove is a powerful documentary, but I can only hope that cooler marketing heads prevail.

The week’s final screening was Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, a fractured romantic fairy tale that suggests the filmmaker’s four-picture European sojourn might have helped him see his beloved New York with fresh eyes. In it, grumpy Larry David plays a misanthropic physicist – and, of course, Allen’s newest alter ego – who gives up his research after a divorce and failed suicide attempt. After dinner, one night, he’s confronted by a blond waif who’s run away from her Mississippi home and is in desperate need of a meal and couch on which to sleep. Even though Evan Rachel Wood’s character touches all of his raw nerves, they embark on the unlikeliest of relationships. Things get even crazier when the girl’s estranged parents (Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr.) arrive in New York, a year later, separately, and experience culture shock. Often hilarious, Whatever Works is set for a June release.

Among the more entertaining aspects of any ShoWest was a tour of the exhibition floor, where theater owners could deal directly with purveyors of everything from floor polish and lighting strips, to genetically advanced popcorn and infinitely more gummy snacks. If the effects of the recession on the movie business could be seen anywhere in Las Vegas this week, it was here. Hardly any new treats were introduced by concessioners and the number of booths seemed diminished from last year’s show.

This meant the delightful cacophony of smells, sounds and tastes was sadly reduced, as well. Nowhere was the absence felt more succinctly than the booth annually maintained by Chicago’s Eisenberg Gourmet Frankfurters. In years past, people would wait in line for a half-hour for the opportunity to enjoy an Eisenberg hot dog or Polish sausage.

Last year, apparently, ShoWest organizers tried to reduce congestion around the booth, by asking the company not to offer traditional garnishes. Tragically, this week, the Eisenberg reps were manning the same location, but both the hot dogs and their magnetic aroma were missing, along with the relish and mustard. If corporate belt-tightening were to blame – “no comment” was the only explanation proffered – then, truly, the impact of the recession on show business must be more serious than box-office numbers would suggest.

– Gary Dretzka
April 3, 2009

ShoWest ’08

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

LAS VEGAS – Not many robins add a visit to the Strip to their itinerary, as they migrate north from their winter digs in Mexico. Blossoming fruit trees are few and far between and the fancies of young men turn less often to love than the pleasures associated with strip clubs and wagering on the NCAA basketball tournament.

One of the only sure signs of spring in these parts is ShoWest, convened each March under the banner of the National Association of Theater Owners. Although the annual convention and trade show has seen its better days, most winter-weary participants can hardly wait to return to sunny Las Vegas, where they will be wined and dined by studio executives, invited to screen upcoming movies, fill their suitcases with swag and observe mega-stars from afar.

Apart from attending a few seminars, sales meetings and awards ceremonies, all that’s required of NATO members is to have fun. That’s because most of the distribution deals are made elsewhere and without the advice or consent of the folks on the front lines of the movie business … the same ones who get shortchanged by the studios on blockbusters, and bloodied by the shrapnel of their bombs. Screenings are extremely well attended, not only because a few bona fide stars might be introduced from the stage, but also because these people genuinely love movies.

In recent years, the major studios have found other things to do with their money than to sponsor banquets, where historically they have previewed the movies the theater owners will exhibit in the months to come. In their absence, the vacuum was filled by such mini-majors as Lionsgate, Miramax and New Line, and hardware companies like Christie’s, DLP Cinema and Kodak. Even so, the gala presentations once associated with ShoWest had become as endangered as the average desert tortoise.

Fact is, though, the majors will come calling whenever they’re looking for someone with whom to share the burden of making show business profitable. The 2008 edition of ShoWest provided an example of how studios will attempt to enlist the support of business partners they no longer could ignore.

This time around, the majors wanted theater owners to get excited about the coming of age of 3-D cinema and the riches to be found by multi-tasking their large-format auditoriums. The message was little different than the one delivered in years past by such estimable filmmakers as James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Robert Rodriguez andGeorge Lucas, and pioneering companies like In-Three, Real D, DLP Cinema, Christie and Dolby Labs. Disney has been a leader in the advancement of 3-D entertainment, encouraging filmmakers to think multi-dimensionally and re-releasing such movies as The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3-D.

Per-screen box-office numbers for Disney’s concert film, Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert, Zemeckis’ 3-D editions of Beowulf and Polar Express, and 3ality Digital Entertainment’s U2 3D, demanded everyone’s attention. All of sudden, the format’s growth potential went from wishful thinking to can’t miss.

It must have come as a refreshing change for the theater owners to listen to keynote speakers who were optimistic about the theatrical movie-going experience. For most of them, listening to the media hype surrounding the dubious financial prospects for the podcasting and downloading of motion pictures and TV shows onto cellphone screens must have been painful.

It’s extremely likely that many of the potential blockbusters previewed at ShoWest will be shown on both normal-aspect and IMAX-sized screens, if not routinely in 3-D. Few new megaplexes are being built without one theater, at least, equipped with a digital projector capable of showing 2-D and 3-D movies. The costs related to retrofitting existing facilities also have become more manageable.

As DreamWorks Animation czar pointed out in his address, customers have displayed a willingness to pay a higher price to see 3-D movies, knowing the technology can deliver the goods and the theaters themselves are clean and comfortable. Moreover, studies show many fans are paying to see both the 3-D and 2-D versions of a favorite title.

These movies also are far more difficult to pirate or share over the Internet. Who would pay to own a 3-D movie that can only be shown on a 2-D monitor, or find value in a small-scale version of an IMAX movie?

One potential sticking point arrives in the form of feared glut of major releases arriving this summer. Theater owners anticipate having to find room for as many as 25 “event” pictures, compared with 18 in the same period last year. If more than a handful of distributors make their available in large- or 3-D formats, exhibitors could have a difficult time clearing space for everyone.

In this way, theater owners are as unhappy about the studios’ summer-centric distribution pattern for popcorn movie as the disgruntled fans of more serious fare who face a quality glut each December. NATO has asked MPAA member companies to consider spreading out their big-budget releases throughout the year, but only a few seem willing to buck the trend.

Even before ShoWest officially opened, panelists at a seminar on the changing international marketplace focused their attention on 3-D.

“The big growth product we have as an industry going forward is 3-D,” said Andrew Cripps, president of Paramount Pictures International. “I would ask everybody to get on board. If we’re going to make 3-D work internationally, we need to have the screens,” and, of course, digital projectors.

In his address Tuesday morning, Katzenberg reiterated his support for 3-D by giving exhibitors sneak peeks of next spring’s Monsters vs. Aliens and this summer’s otherwise 2-D Kung Fu Panda. (A scene from Panda was reshot from its original format, using 3-D technology new to the studio’s animators.)

DreamWorks Animation is committed to release its entire 2009 slate in digital 3-D. To make such a strategy pay off for everyone, Katzenberg predicted that an installed base of 3,000 to 5,000 3-D-ready theaters would be necessary for the Monsters vs. Aliens release. For the first, such a number didn’t seem ridiculously over-optimistic.

A few hours later, Robert Redford would implore many of the same exhibitors to embrace smaller-scale movies with the same enthusiasm. Despite the Motion Picture Academy’s willingness this year to lavish nominations on independently financed titles, theater owners always seem more willing to lose money on lowbrow Hollywood junk than to take a chance on indies, foreign and documentary titles. This year’s recipient of the ShoWest Visionary Award urged them to “continue to build a market for new voices and new works, continue to take chances on good stories, well told and told in new ways.”

He added, “Specialty films are now becoming the norm. With these films becoming so deeply ingrained in our American culture, I do feel we are the better for it.”

Also honored were Ang Lee and James Schamus, whose steamy period drama, Lust, Caution, continues to raise the hackles of Chinese authorities; and multi-hyphenatesAlan Ball, David Mamet and Helen Hunt, all of whose latest films – Towelhead, Redbelt, Then She Found Me — conveniently were on display the night before at the annual indie showcase.

Tuesday evening’s festivities began with screenings of DreamWorks/Paramount’s Kung Fu Panda and a preview of the Mike Myers/Jessica Alba comedy, The Love Guru, with both stars in attendance. Paramount’s after-party would trumpet Tropic Thunder, which stars Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and the ubiquitous Jack Black (who voiced the panda aspiring to martial-arts glory). Director-star Ben Stiller showed up at the soiree with Downey, whose actor-turned-soldier character is black. It’s difficult to imagine there not being a “blackface” controversy erupting during the marketing campaign for Tropic Thunder. Whether it will help or hinder potential box-office results remains to be seen.

Also screened on Tuesday were the indie classroom-comedy Hamlet 2 and What Happens in Vegas, in which Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher play a mismatched pair of jackpot winners who can’t remember how their celebration led to marriage. (How many times has that premise been employed?)

A large part of Wednesday’s program was devoted to the immediate future of 3-D, with a partial screening of nWave/Summit’s animated Fly Me to the Moon and New Line’s first-of-its-kind live-action feature, Journey to the Center of the Earth. The 85-minute Fly Me to the Moon will be released in August and could be deemed sufficiently “educational” to play at museum venues, as well as mainstream theaters. The latest adaptation of the classic Jules Verne sci-fi adventure stars Brendan Fraser, and is as much an amusement-park ride as a cinematic adventure. Both will test the theory that 45 minutes is about all any viewer can take of the 3-D experience.

That evening, Columbia Pictures took full advantage of the Las Vegas setting by screening its fact-based gambling-scam thriller, 21, at theaters in Paris and Bally’s, and celebrating the premiere with a lavish party at Planet Hollywood. The cast of 21, which adds some drama and romance to the story of a group of MIT students who beat the system, includesKevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess.

Thursday, before the annual award gala finale, Universal and Warner Bros. rolled out their big guns.

Universal and Marvel executives appear to have convinced themselves of the ability of its Hulk franchise to heal itself and give the studio the blockbuster not delivered by the Ang Lee/Eric Bana original. The Incredible Hunk stars Edward Norton and is directed byLouis Leterrier (The Transporter). This time around, no one is skimping on the CGI effects.

Fraser also turns up August 1 in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Ron Perlman is back in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, opening July 13.

The ABBA musical Mamma Mia! arrives a week later, with Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth. Angelina Jolie returns to the fantasy-thriller arena June 27, inWanted, alongside James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretschmann and Common.

At one time, Warners could be counted on to deliver the most stars for the conventioneers’ money, year after year. Now, the showing of a WB product reel qualifies as a special event. It didn’t disappoint.

Producer Joel Silver was on hand to introduce snippets from the Wachowski Brothers’much-anticipated adaptation of Speed Racer, which, he enthused, would be released PG on May 9. Stars Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox and Christina Ricci made cameo appearances for the NATO crowd.

Director Christopher Nolan introduced the IMAX-ready The Dark Knight, which, on July 18, picks up where Batman Begins left off. Standing alongside Christian Bale and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Nolan saluted the contributions made by the late Heath Ledger,who plays the Joker.

Other highlights included previews of Get Smart, a spy spoof adapted from the classic ’60s TV series, starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, will be reprised with America Ferrera, Alexis Bledel, Amber Tamblyn and Blake Lively. George Lucas also paid a surprise visit to the gathering.

WB boss Alan Horn reminded the audience that Lucas was returning to the fold for the first time since THX 1138 was released in 1971. His CGI animated The Clone Wars,which documents the period between the second and third episodes of the Star Warssaga, originally was intended to launch on TV’s Cartoon Network and TNT. Instead, it will debut August 18 on the big screen, because, as Lucas pointed out, it has “a little bit of anime, a lot of action and it’s exactly like the features, only more stylized. I think it can stand up to the live-action features.”

As essential to the ShoWest experience as the screenings and parties is the trade show, held concurrently with the other diversions. It’s where the latest advances in concessions, seats, janitorial supplies, projectors, bulbs, popcorn kernels, carpeting, sound insulation and promotional materials are put on display. It’s best to visit the exhibition floor on an empty stomach, as the temptation to pig out on all manner of candy, ice cream, soft drinks, coffee, tea, pizza, pretzels and hot dogs is overwhelming.

Most of the venders return year after year, offering slight variations on the previous convention’s goodies. The competition to concoct candies that are squishier, crunchier, gummier, more sour and longer lasting is fierce. Halloween has nothing on ShoWest.

Among the newcomers this year was the candy maker, Góa, which modestly bills itself as “the second biggest confectionary in Iceland.” Its representatives credit the “world’s purest water,” in part, for chocolate that would bring a tear to the eyes of Willy Wonka. Góa also produces licorice that actually tastes like the stuff Grandma and Grandpa might have enjoyed when they were kids. It was one of the most popular booths on the exhibition floor.

Samples of theater-ready White Castle hamburgers also proved to be irresistible. Pillsbury introduced cookies, donuts and brownie bits from its heat-and-serve line of Mini Sweet treats. To help wash them down, the folks at Frozen Beverage Dispensers encouraged exhibitors to sample freshly stirred confections, while Coke and Pepsi competed not only in the cola category, but also for consumers of power drinks, vitamin water, iced tea, coffee and fruit drinks.

Cretors, which has been popping corn since Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was one several exhibiters offering bags of popcorn to attendees. The company was demonstrating its Flo-Thru 80 popper and cylindrical flavor coater, which allows theater managers to pop caramel, jalapeno, Rocky Road and other flavors of candied popcorn on-site, in addition to the original flavor.

Like nearly every other company doing business in the western world these days, purveyors of packaging and maintenance products went “green.” Solvents became less harmful to the environment, emissions from machinery were made cooler and everything from trash bags to candy boxes qualified as biodegradable.

If only someone would invent a cheese-processing technique that eliminated – or, at least, neutralized — the potentially toxic and non-biodegradable properties of nachos.

For several years, conventioneers have made a beeline for the booth handing out samples of America’s Gourmet Beef Franks from Chicago’s Kelly Eisenberg company. The delicious aroma permeated the exhibition hall and there always was a line for the dogs, which came in half-servings and a choice of appropriate condiments.

Sadly, the Eisenbergs decided not to offer the tasty sausages at the 2008 trade show. For aficionados of concessionary fare, the disappointment was palpable.

“The other exhibiters complained that people were waiting in line for our hot dogs, instead of visiting their booths,” one salesman said. “Even cut in half, we couldn’t keep up with the demand, so the line would curl around the corner. It wasn’t a question of expense.”

Try that with popcorn, and NATO would have a revolution on its hands.

March 19, 2008

– Gary Dretzka