Posts Tagged ‘Please Give’

Frenzy on the Wall: If I Had a Ballot 2011

Monday, January 24th, 2011

2011 was not a very strong year for movies, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t worthy performances and filmmakers that deserve some attention.  As I do every year,  I’m going to give my picks for the Oscars in the major awards as if I had an actual ballot.  Since the Academy cannot be trusted to make the right decisions and will probably make the safe choice whenever possible, it’s fun to give my perspective.  Needless to say, I don’t see the Academy sending me a ballot anytime soon.

Best Picture

  • The American
  • Black Swan
  • Blue Valentine
  • The Social Network
  • Trash Humpers

I don’t believe in the Academy’s new(ish) rule to expand the category to ten nominees, so I’m going with five.  I think Black Swan and The Social Network are locks for spots and Blue Valentine will most likely make an appearance, but you can forgot about the Academy nominating something as deliberate as The American or something as truly avant-garde as Trash Humpers.  The Academy will pat itself on the back for nominating Black Swan, thinking that it’s an “art” film when it’s really just an amazingly well-done and dense genre picture.

I’m not knocking Black Swan at all – it was my second favorite film of the year – but what the voting bloc views as “avant-garde” and what is actually avant-garde are two entirely different things, so let’s not applaud the Academy just because they nominate a film as complicated as Black Swan; that should be the norm and we should be pushing them to go even further.

Having said that, I think all five of these films are worthy pictures of getting nominated in a field of ten in any given year.  A film like The American or Trash Humpers probably wouldn’t make it on my ballot of five in a stronger year and Blue Valentine is pushing it.  I didn’t catch the latter film until recently and I think it’s strong from start to finish, but that scene at the hospital towards the end really strained credulity.


I just don’t see how a man can go into a hospital and punch someone/wreck the place without security or an orderly coming to help.  People in hospitals are trained to subdue people who may get violent and yet, the man in question is able to walk out of the place and get in his car.  More than that: this was a film that I related to on such a deep level for almost every second of the film until that moment, when I could no longer relate to that character.  It’s a shame, because it’s a perfect film otherwise.

(End Spoilers)

But really, The Social Network is the film to beat and I don’t see anything coming close.  It’s not a revolutionary movie, it’s just a really great story told well.  It’s a profound statement about the times we live in and there are a lot of issues of betrayal, friendship, privacy, etc. that are brought up and explored in the film.  But more important than any of that is that it is exceptionally entertaining on a surface level.  The subtext of the film would not be nearly as interesting if it wasn’t for the fact that the text itself is so funny, poignant, and exciting.  It’s not perfect, but it’s close to it.  If I had any issue with the film, it’s that I wish it was at least an hour longer.  It’s the film of the year and unless the Academy is incredibly short-sighted (and they are), it will win Best Picture.

Best Director

  • Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
  • Anton Corbijn (The American)
  • David Fincher (The Social Network)
  • Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers)
  • Gaspar Noe (Enter the Void)

Ordinarily, I believe that the best five films are the five best directed films.  However, I had to make room for Gaspar Noe for his dynamic achievement with Enter the Void.  It’s not a great film because Noe’s script is a bit too trite, but the way he brings the impossible to life is something to be applauded and rewarded.  Derek Cianfrance did a fantastic job,  though I think it owes a big debt to the films of John Cassavetes, but it’s really not about the job that he did with Blue Valentine, but rather how masterful Noe’s direction was for Enter the Void.

Noe and Korine were the only filmmakers this year that sought to create something that was unique to the screen yet familiar enough to audiences.  I don’t think they were perfect because their natural impulse is to push the audience away rather than invite them in; it’s almost like they created video art rather than cinema (although that argument is a slippery slope and worthy of its own column).  Both Noe and Korine were successful in bringing their eccentric visions to life, but I can’t say they were the best because it was harder for me to engage with their works.

I think Corbijn did a fine job with The American, which has one of the most beautifully melancholic tones and a somnambulant yet charming pace.  The film it reminded me of the most was Anthony Minghella’s fantastic The Talented Mr. Ripley.  Both films are about handsome killers who hide themselves and fall in love, yet can’t escape their pasts; and both films are set in beautiful European cities that are shot lovingly and without rapid movements of the camera.  It’s really a complete 180 from Corbijn’s first feature, Control, and showed that he’s capable of all sorts of genres.  I’m excited to see what he does next.

For me, this award is a race between Aronofsky and Fincher.  These couldn’t be two more different films and both are really indicative of who each of these directors are as filmmakers.  Aronofsky’s Black Swan is hyper and emotional while Fincher’s The Social Network is controlled and tightly focused.  I think both films are touching in their own ways and both have (very different) built-in reasons to keep us from being too heartbroken by what occurs.  But for me, I have to go with what I thought was the better film and that’s The Social Network.  Having seen both multiple times, I don’t think The Social Network loses anything on repeat viewings whereas Black Swan loses the element of surprise that makes it so distressing to watch the first time around.  So, Fincher should – and will – win the award for Best Director.

Best Actor

  • George Clooney (The American)
  • Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole)
  • Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
  • Andy Garcia (City Island)
  • Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine)

To me, it’s a real shame that Aaron Eckhart isn’t getting more love for his performance in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole.  He and Nicole Kidman are equals in that movie, one performance doesn’t work without the other and both of them smash it out of the park.  Eckhart is understanding and sympathetic and yet flawed and on the verge of making mistakes; what makes his performance (and the film) work so well is that we relate to both his and Kidman’s characters from moment to moment.

Gosling is similarly great and for a lot of the same reasons.  Blue Valentine is also a film about a couple first and foremost and wouldn’t work if the two actors weren’t at the top of their games.  Gosling is given the more difficult role in Blue Valentine because he does quite a few things that might make us detest him, yet he more than makes up for it by playing a character who is understanding at the oddest of times – and Gosling makes it feel earned.  His character is not a particularly intelligent person and we’re given a few hints at why this might be the case, but can sympathize with his longing and with the ways in which he tries to make this relationship work.  Gosling and Eckhart both deserve to be nominated.

Clooney and Garcia are playing two completely different parts (and I just realized at this moment that they played adversaries in the Ocean’s 11 franchise).  Clooney is introverted from beginning to end and is loathe to tell his secrets to anyone.  Garcia is more manic and upbeat, anxious to get his secrets out.  People don’t give Clooney a whole lot of credit because he’s always so cool, calculated and…well, handsome as hell.  But he’s playing a difficult part in The American because so much of it is dependent on the way in which he moves rather than the way in which he speaks.  Garcia’s part in City Island is the exact opposite – it depends so much on how his speech and manner changes from scene to scene depending on who he is around.  Clooney’s part is dramatic and tragic in every sense of the word; Garcia’s part is dramatic in the hysterical sense of the word.  Both actors play their parts as perfectly as could be expected and I’d be willing to bet that if you swapped their roles, we wouldn’t be talking about either movie right now.

Finally there is Jesse Eisenberg who gives the best male performance of the year in The Social Network.  There isn’t enough I can say about this guy, who manages to make the character of Mark Zuckerberg into both villain and hero.  We cringe when he puts down his best friend because we know he’s better than that.  We believe he’s capable of redemption, that he’s not a monster.  The tragedy of the film is that he’s a person that so badly wants to connect with the people around him, that he wants to be popular, and yet he fails at every turn on a human level while succeeding on a business level.  Ultimately, at the end of the film, he’s in the Facebook offices surrounded by people and yet he’s completely alone – headphones on his ears, isolated from everyone and even his best friend can’t jolt him out of this unreality by smashing his laptop because there’s always another computer at his disposal.  Eisenberg convinces us that Zuckerberg is human and so we realte to much of what he does.  If we didn’t,  we wouldn’t be so disgusted by what he does wrong.  He should win Best Actor, but he won’t because the Academy will reward Colin Firth’s stammering performance in The King’s Speech.

(Side note: The King’s Speech is a perfectly decent film but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.  Firth is a great actor, but this is hardly his crowning achievement.  The truth of the matter is that we can see Firth’s acting in every scene, we can see the wheels turning.  William Goldman once said that actors love playing drunks and mentally disabled people because Oscar voters can actually see them acting, knowing that the actor themselves isn’t actually disabled in any way.  But those aren’t the difficult roles at all; rather, the difficult roles are the ones where it’s hard to see the strings.  I think Firth does a good job in The King’s Speech, but I don’t think it was particularly difficult role to pull off.)

Best Actress

  • Madeline Carroll (Flipped)
  • Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
  • Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
  • Rachel Weisz (Agora)
  • Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

It was difficult to leave off Jennifer Lawrence (excellent in Winter’s Bone), Annette Bening (for that one amazing scene in The Kids Are All Right), Zoe Kazan (astounding in The Exploding Girl), Tilda Swinton (heartbreaking in I Am Love), Carey Mulligan (wonderfully understated in Never Let Me Go) and Hailee Steinfeld (for carrying True Grit).  It was a strong year for lead female performances.

However, I couldn’t in good conscience omit young Madeline Carroll’s dynamite turn in Rob Reiner’s Flipped.  I don’t blame you if you haven’t seen the movie because it doesn’t look like it’s going to be nearly as engaging as it is.  It’s a sentimental and saccharine-laced story of young love in early 60s suburbia, but one of the primary reasons why it works so well is Carroll’s charisma.  She’s playing an eccentric character who is irrationally in love with the boy next door.  The only reason the film doesn’t work is because Carroll is so much more magnetic than her counterpart.  She’s so good that it almost ruins the movie because no other part of the film works as well as her performance.  Carroll is someone to watch for.

Rachel Weisz carries Agora in a way that very few actresses could.  She is powerful and dynamic as Hypatia, the mathematician and astrologer in 5th century Alexandria.  There is a fine line that Weisz navigates between being magnanimous and being a martyr, yet Weisz’s Hypatia is noble throughout without us ever feeling like we’re being given a caricature of a decent person in the face of evil.  A lot of the dialogue Weisz has to recite is a bit cumbersome, but she is able to pull it off and make it sound natural.

Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams are fantastic for all of the reasons I mentioned above in regards to their co-stars.  Kidman does some of the best work of her career in Rabbit Hole, giving us a character who is going through unimaginable pain.  And Williams continues to prove that she might be the best actress of her generation by playing a woman on the precipice of imploding.  What makes both performances so strong is the fact that both actresses make difficult choices in order to make their characters feel real and human.  The disinterested look in Williams’ eyes as she walks past Gosling in the shower “future room” sequence in Blue Valentine or the way Kidman smacks herself in the shoulder in the climactic argument in Rabbit Hole, these are tics that the actors bring to the table that humanize their characters in unexpected ways.

But the performance of the year – male of female – is Natalie Portman in Black Swan.  It’s not just that Portman’s Nina Sayers is so fragile that she’s almost on the verge of tears in almost every scene or that she commits herself so fully to this unhinged performance that is both repulsive and attractive at the same time, it’s that in addition to all of the typical acting traits she exhibits, she is also a convincing dancer.  Let me make that clear: Portman’s dancing ability and the way in which it morphs throughout the film is integral to the development of the character.  When Portman dances at the end of the film and we see that she has finally captured the essence of the “black swan” role, I could tell that there was a difference in the way she danced.  I’m not a ballet scholar, but even I could tell that there was a different emotional tone to her dance at the end of the film.  It wasn’t just in the way she moved – although there was that – but it was in the look in her eyes.  I can’t think of another performance that I’ve seen in recent years that was so dependent on movement and I can’t think of another performer who pulled it off so well.  Portman is in nearly every frame of Black Swan and she doesn’t give a single false note.  Nina Sayers is the Daniel Plainview of this year.

Best Supporting Actor

  • Matt Damon (True Grit)
  • John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)
  • Kevin Kline (The Extra Man)
  • Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom)
  • Justin Timberlake (The Social Network)

The most difficult thing about this category was figuring out The Social Network situation.  I could easily replace Timberlake with Andrew Garfield or Armie Hammer.  And it was difficult not to put Garfield or Hammer in there in place of Kevin Kline or Matt Damon, as well.  Ultimately, I went with Timberlake in my Social Network slot because the film goes to a completely different level the moment Timberlake steps on the screen.  He is playing the most engaging character, for sure, but he is absolutely mesmerizing.  Timberlake has always been charismatic, but here he uses it to play a character who he is ruthless and villainous; he is the Iago of the film and his paranoia is always bubbling under the surface.

Kline and Damon are both playing oddball characters in their respective films and there are few actors better suited to those sorts of eccentrics than the two of them.  Kline plays a kind of greasy and unhygienic “gentleman” that I had never seen before on a film screen, yet he makes it seem familiar and comfortable.  And Damon plays a cocky and stupidly courageous Texas Ranger.  When writing about their characters, one has to use odd word pairings in order to describe them, like “stupidly courageous” or “unhygienic gentleman;”  for that alone, I think they deserve to be here.

Hawkes and Mendelsohn, for me, gave the two best performances in this category and they are surprisingly similar.  They both play shady criminals who are akin to caged animals, ready to strike at a moment’s notice despite the fact that there aren’t many scenes where they do.  It’s all in the way these actors move, the eerie calm in their eyes.  They are playing different sides of the same coin, to be sure, since Mendelsohn is truly villainous and Hawkes is surprisingly heroic.  However, if Animal Kingdom was from Pope’s perspective, perhaps he would seem more heroic and if Winter’s Bone was from Teardrop’s perspective then he might seem more evil.  I found it hard to shake either of their performances and each had a specific scene that was emblematic.  In Animal Kingdom, there was the scene in which Pope harasses one of his younger brothers and calls him gay and in Winter’s Bone, there’s the scene in which Teardrop gets pulled over by the cop.  In both scenes, we can tell from the performances of Hawkes and Mendelsohn (as well as their co-stars in those scenes) that they are capable of doing absolutely anything in that moment.  We have no freaking idea how these characters are going to react in those scenes and that’s what makes their performances so fantastic.

If I had to pick a winner, though, it would have to be Hawkes.  When the film ended, I wished I was following Teardrop on to wherever the hell he was going.  It haunted me.

(Side note: I know, I left Christian Bale off for The Fighter.  Truthfully, I really liked his performance and thought it was the best Bale has been since Rescue Dawn.  However, similarly to Colin Firth, I think Bale has the showier role and I think quite often he goes over the top.  I think he’s saved somewhat by the fact that Melissa Leo goes so far over the top that Bale’s scenery-chewing doesn’t seem so blatant, yet I found his scenes to be a bit cringe-worthy at times and for the wrong reasons.  He wasn’t terrible, and I’m certainly in the minority, but I didn’t buy into his character whole hog the way I wanted to.)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Greta Gerwig (Greenberg)
  • Rebecca Hall (Please Give)
  • Barbara Hershey (Black Swan)
  • Mila Kunis (Black Swan)
  • Dianne Wiest (Rabbit Hole)

I’m hesitant to even put Gerwig in this category because I think she’s really the lead of the film in so many ways, but I wanted to sneak her in here because she really holds that movie together.  Ben Stiller has the showier title role of the stunted adult, but Gerwig fascinated me because I know that character.  She plays the young hipster who is trying to get by and accidentally (and naively) sleeps around with all the wrong guys, including the title character.  Each of her mistakes is easily forgivable because she’s such a decent person, but despite seeming like she has her head on straight, she continues to see Greenberg, a man who is wrong in every way possible.  I really admired the way Gerwig was willing to do less in each of her scenes, knowing that the audience would be understanding her more because of her quietness.

Rebecca Hall is also playing a character that often goes overlooked by most award-givers: a nice person who does good things.  Hall plays a woman who is kind to her cantankerous grandmother and gives mammograms, often to older women.  She isn’t a dark or dangerous character, but a decent one who strives to be better.  In other words, Hall plays a character like many of us; someone who feels obligated to care for the people that she loves.

The fact that Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest gave terrific performances in their respective films should come as no shock to anyone who has followed their careers.  These are two wonderful actresses.  Wiest is quietly heartbroken and devastated throughout Rabbit Hole, hoping to spare her daughters the pain that she has felt.  Hershey, on the other hand, is playing a character who is almost hoping to pass on the pain she felt to her daughter.

For me, the winner of this category has to be Mila Kunis, for many of the same reasons why Portman should win her category.  Black Swan does not work if Kunis is not Portman’s equal and other in the film.  When Kunis shows up in the film, it’s that same feeling as when Timberlake shows up in The Social Network: everything becomes more electric and exciting.  Each scene with Portman and Kunis in Black Swan is ripe with tension and emotion because of the way they play off one another.  Witness that scene in the restaurant.  It’s not just that Kunis eats a burger while Portman eats her salad, it’s that Kunis derives pleasure from her food without much thought while Portman pokes around at her food meekly and painfully.  I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of Kunis in the awards conversation, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t win this year.

The Rest

The column is running a little (okay a lot) long, so here would be my winners in some of the other categories:

Score – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network, hands down, no contest.  One of the best albums of any kind that I heard this year.

Cinematography – Benoit Debie for Enter the Void, for doing things with the camera I never thought possible.

Best Original Screenplay – Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis for Blue Valentine.  A great screenplay for what it leaves out.

Best Adapted Screenplay – Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network.  Duh.

Best Documentary – Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, even if it might be a gigantic joke on all of us.  A fascinating portrait of the rise of graffiti art.

Frenzy on the Wall: 2010 Top Ten

Monday, December 27th, 2010

2010 has not been a great year for movies.

I think the films that are on this list are superior works of cinematic art, but I think that I saw more mediocre and middling fair than ever before. Is it that the actual quality of the films this year wasn’t as good as the past few years, or is my own perception of “good” and “great” changing as I grow older?

Critics and film writers will always be out of touch with the mainstream, because we see so many movies that the cumulative effect is to make everything — especially mainstream Hollywood films — seem formulaic and predictable. As a result, we look outside Hollywood for something that will surprise or delight us.

Frenzy on the Wall: How About Some Awards Buzz for These Guys?

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Every year around this time, the award-season storylines begin to take shape. You see, like in politics, it’s not always the best candidate or film that gets awarded, it’s usually the one with the best publicity, the best “story.” When Best Picture actually goes to the best film, all it means is that the best particular film that year just so happened to have a great hype machine behind it. As a result of this, a lot of really deserving films and actors don’t get the recognition they deserve.

This is where critics and film writers are supposed to come in; they are supposed to be the ones who point out the films and performances that you haven’t seen, but should.

More and more, it seems like film writers on the beat are merely “covering” the awards and prognosticating rather than offering opinions. Just because the “buzz” is telling a writer that a certain film is a “lock” to get nominated, it doesn’t mean they should just parrot back that buzz. Most of the “buzz” comes from PR folks anyway, or people with a vested interest in what gets talked about as a front-runner. As a film lover first and foremost, I will never stop proselytizing when I believe I’ve seen something noteworthy.

So, I’d like to bring your focus to a few different films and performances that should be talked about more as contendersthis awards season.

Please Give

Nicole Holofcener’s film is a wonderful little movie about what it means to be kind and caring. It follows the lives of two families in New York City: Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt are a husband and wife with a teenage daughter who live next door to a cantankerous 91-year-old woman. That old woman is cared for by her loving granddaughter, played by Rebecca Hall, who lives with her blunt and uncaring sister Amanda Peet.

There are a lot of little moments that I found especially touching, but especially the performances of Catherine Keener and Rebecca Hall. They are playing women who are good and decent, striving to be better people. What makes them so fascinating is that they aren’t portrayed as martyrs; they have flaws too, like real people.

I found it especially touching when Keener goes to a school for mentally disabled children, with the hopes of volunteering and helping, but is so overcome by sadness for these children that she breaks down crying; she cares too much, she feels too much, to help. Or, perhaps it’s knowing that no matter how much she tries to help these children, they will never get better.

Holofcener is a fantastic and underrated writer/director, who continues to get great performances from all of her actors and writes films that are filled with nuance and poignancy. So, of course, she’s never been nominated for her writing or directing. I wish I could say that it would change this year, but it probably won’t. But do yourself a favor and check out her latest movie.


John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone

Jennifer Lawrence is justifiably getting a lot of credit and award-buzz for her lead performance in Debra Granik’s gritty, dirty film. But Lawrence doesn’t even give the best performance in Winter’s Bone and it’s not to say that Lawrence isn’t fantastic – she is – but rather that John Hawkes is so utterly brilliant that he blows everybody else off the screen.

Hawkes has long been an actor I’ve admired, one that is consistently underrated, but as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, he really cements himself in my mind as one of the finest character actors out there. From the second he shows up on screen, he’s got this quiet ferocity that is always bubbling beneath the surface. There is always doubt as to what his motivation is or whether or not he’s a “good guy.” But one thing is certain: he is terrifying.

One of the best scenes I’ve seen all year is when Teardrop and Ree are pulled over by the Sheriff. With just a few words and that scary, unmoving presence, Teardrop not only convinces the Sheriff that it would be best for him to get back in his car, but he convinces us that the Sheriff makes a good decision by walking away.

In a better world, Hawkes would be the front-runner for Best Supporting Actor right now; as it stands, I haven’t heard any “buzz” about him at all.


Rachel Weisz in Agora

Agora is one of my favorite films that I’ve seen this year and it came and went in a blink without anybody paying much attention. In an article I wrote earlier this year, I called it “The Great Atheist Film.” I stand by that.

It’s a film that stuck with me, a big-budget epic that decided to tackle the controversial topic of religious intolerance. Alejandro Amenabar deserves heaps of credit for not only attempting to dive into the topic, but successfully structuring an engaging story around it (not to mention the monumental task of getting it funded).

But the film doesn’t work at all if it doesn’t have the great Rachel Weisz as its lead character, the astronomer Hypatia. In my earlier column, I said about her performance: “Rachel Weisz is truly astounding in this film, as she often is. Hypatia is not an easy character to play; she must be idealistic yet intelligent, a dreamer but a realist. Weisz is such a wonderful presence, so charismatic and likable that although her character is not as fleshed-out as she could be, she is still imbued with a certain vigor and humanism.”

I’d also add that it’s a performance that is reliant on not just her words, but in the passion behind those words. Weisz has to deliver lines that might not necessarily roll off the tongue easily and she pulls them off. Weisz also does something that I love to see actors do: allow their characters to think. When Hypatia comes to a conclusion about something, Weisz lets us see the wheels turning in her head, her eyes darting back and forth.

Weisz has won an Academy Award for her exquisite turn in The Constant Gardener, but she should be getting buzz in the lead category for Agora. Alas, I don’t think anybody has seen it besides me.


Trash Humpers

Okay, there is no world that exists where a film like Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers would get an Academy Award. This is a truly bizarre film without any coherent narrative and is probably one of the most visceral films I’ve ever seen, a film whose goal seems to be to unnerve and annoy its audience. It might not have the same pretentious attitude of a lot of Godard’s later work, but it reminds me a bit of that man’s experimental spirit … albeit with a bit more of a sense of humor.

This was a film that I saw a few months ago and wanted to write about, but I just didn’t know how. As I was watching it, I wouldn’t exactly say that I enjoyed the experience. But in retrospect, I really love what it does. It’s a film that is just a series of weird scenes where four bandits in old-person make-up just kinda fuck shit up in Nashville. They trash houses, break electronics, and yes, hump trash. And if the whole film followed that pattern, I don’t know that I would think it was anything more than an interesting – failed – experiment.

But then something happens in the last reel of the film. It changes. We no longer focus on all four of the bandits, but two. These two bandits, Herve and Momma, are played by Harmony Korine himself and his wife Rachel. It’s unclear how, but the two of them splinter off and somehow have possession of a baby. They aren’t destroying things anymore and the film ends (spoiler alert, I guess) with Momma singing to the baby as she rocks it back and forth in a pram.

Now, maybe I was in a strange mood, but I found this extraordinarily touching and affecting. It was probably the most personal moment in any of Korine’s films, at least in my eyes, because it seemed to be so much about who he is as a filmmaker (and perhaps a person). He used to be the enfant terrible of indie cinema, happy to be the wacky artist who trashed everything (including his own body for a discard comedy called Fight Harm, look it up). But now he’s grown, he’s matured and he’s moved on from being that person. And despite the fact that Trash Humpers is about people giving fellatio to trees and looks like a found VHS tape, it might be the most mature and confident thing he’s directed.

It’s not a film that will win any awards, but for the patient viewer who understands what he’s signing up for, it might be a real find … or you’ll think I’m insane.

The DVD Wrap: Toy Story 3, The Pacific, Please Give, Don’t Let Me Drown, V: The Complete First Season … and more

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Toy Story 3: Blu-ray

The third edition of the Toy Story saga will resonate more with parents, I think, than their children. Youngsters will enjoy it, of course, but most of them won’t be able to appreciate the melancholy that informs the underlying themes: separation and loss. Now 18, Andy is about to leave for college. His parents are feeling the first pangs of empty-nest syndrome and the toys sense they’re being put out to pasture … or worse.

In Pixar’s world, toys are no less exempt from extreme anxiety than adults. Apart from Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), however, they have almost nowhere to turn for answers, and Andy has left them out of the loop as to their futures. After so many years of service, Woody expects his comrades will be packed up in bag and be moved to the attic, from which Andy someday will rescue them. Instead, the toys are packed up in a bag and mistakenly left on the curb, from which they’re picked up and donated to Sunnyside Daycare.

Only Woody is left behind, desperately confused and lonely. Where some toys would find an opportunity for a productive retirement and home away from home, Woody only sees forced imprisonment. Among the toys already enjoying life at Sunnyside are Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Ken (Michael Keaton). Woody’s helpful presence, while welcome, wouldn’t have been an essential part of life at the center, if it weren’t for the fact that its owners harbor several deep and dark secrets. Because of this unexpected threat, Sheriff Woody will be expected to ride to the toys’ rescue once again, with the assistance of another toy-loving human, Bonnie.

Like its predecessors, Toy Story 3 combines exceptional storytelling with cutting-edge technology in the service of a thoroughly realized family entertainment. (As was the case for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, I don’t anticipate seeing a Blu-ray edition of TS3 in 3D until the market for stereoscopic television has reached critical mass.) The Four-Disc Blu-Ray / DVD Combo & Digital Copy version adds a wonderfully imaginative animated short, Day And Night, with the commentary of director Lee Unkrich and producer Darla Anderson.

Toss in such featurettes as The Gang’s All Here, which focuses on the returning voice talent for TS3, and Toys!, which examines how all the non-human characters, along with those we meet at Sunnyside Daycare and in Bonnie’s room, were created. Also included are short pieces, Buzz Lightyear Mission Logs: The Science of Adventure, made in conjunction with NASA; Paths to Pixar, which traces the careers of key company employees; Studio Stories: Where’s Gordon?, locating a hidden room at Pixar; Studio Stories: Cereal Bar, about a Pixar confection; Studio Stories: Clean Start, in which animation team members shave their heads at the start of TS3 production; and A Toy’s Eye View: Creating a Whole New Land.


The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series

Once upon a time, broadcast and cable television were separated in the same way the NFL and AFL were throughout most of the 1960s. It wasn’t until Joe Namath and the Jets upset the heavily favored Colts, and, a year later, the Chiefs did the same to the Vikings, in Super Bowl III and IV, that anyone took the future of consolidation seriously. In the television arena, broadcast networks dominated ratings and competition for Emmy Awards for many decades. The cable industry was taken so lightly that its best shows weren’t even recognized by Emmy voters until 1988.

Nine years later, though, creative parity among the various broadcast and cable networks rendered the CableAce Awards obsolete. Still, it was only in categories limited to mini-series and specials that cable excelled. Disney’s Avonlea caught the eye of nominators, as did Lifetime’s The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, but only after being transplanted from NBC. Garry Shandling would change things forever. In 1988, Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was a finalist in four categories. In 1993, Shandling rode the first big waves of the HBO juggernaut, alongside the sexy adult comedy Dream On, with The Larry Sanders Show. It was the game-changer everyone had either been anticipating or fearing.

For those who missed it the first time around, all 89 original episodes of The Larry Sanders Show are available in a 17-disc gift box, along with as generous a bonus package as I’ve seen outside the Blu-ray arena. The state-of-the-art presentation from Shout! Factory could hardly be any more entertaining, informative and provocative. First and foremost, the show itself holds up extremely well, even 17 years after Episode One. Indeed, given what’s happened in the talk-show arena – from the retirement of Johnny Carson to NBC’s Conan O’Brien debacle – the show’s depiction of what happens behind the scenes and around the edges of a late-night talk show could be mistaken for a documentary. When Larry Sanders isn’t being bitingly funny, it’s as sad a representation of the forces governing personal and commercial success in show business as anything since Network.

Like every other late-night talk show launched after Carson joined the Tonight Show, Larry Sanders” is dominated by its gracious star, a congenial sidekick and a closely observant producer. Here, though, the host is chronically neurotic, self-absorbed and often oblivious to the concerns of everyone around him, with the exception of his duplicitous producer, Arthur, and venal sidekick, Hank “Hey Now” Kingsley (marvelously rendered by Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor). “Larry Sanders” also devoted large chunks of time to the concerns of Sanders’ many writers, assistants, post-show hook-ups, bookers, and his always-problematic domestic relations.

Nearly 190 actual celebrities appeared on show, as guests of the show primarily, with some receiving substantial storylines of their own. It’s a delicate balance, but one that was maintained for six increasingly dark and complex seasons, thanks to such gifted writers as Shandling, Peter Tolan and Judd Apatow, series regulars Linda Doucett (Shandling’s former fiancé), Janeane Garofalo (24), Penny Johnson (24), Wallace Langham (CSI), Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show), Jeremy Piven (Entourage), Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), Sarah Silverman, Scott Thompson (Kids in the Hall”) and Kathryn Harold (Chicago Hope).

The boxed set adds deleted scenes and commentaries; an introduction to the DVDs, with Shandling; The Making of the ‘Larry Sanders Show,’ hosted by Greg Kinnear; a discussion with Shandling and Apatow, on the writer’s process; extended cast interviews; Shandling’s personal visits with guest stars Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, Carol Burnett, David Duchovny, Sharon Stone, Tom Petty, John Stewart and Ellen DeGeneres; a 60-page booklet; and a discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Howard Rosenberg’s class at USC.

Some of the personal visits are as revealing as a printout from one of Shandling’s psychotherapy sessions. I was reminded of two other things while watching the DVDs: 1) how Shandling’s experience as Carson’s guest host, and friendship with Jay Leno and David Letterman, informed the show, and 2) how none of today’s generation of hosts is likely to share their desks with someone as savvy and self-assured as Shandling, again.


The Sound of Music: 45th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray

There’s something decidedly un-musical about the distinction, 45th Anniversary Edition. Sapphire Edition” doesn’t sound much better, though, and Limited Edition Collector’s Set was reserved for another gala presentation. 45th Anniversary Edition begs the question, “Why couldn’t they wait for 50?” I suppose the same could be said of Sapphire Edition, though: “Why couldn’t they wait for gold?” If nothing else, 45th Anniversary Edition distinguishes it from the 40th Anniversary Edition (ruby) and two previous editions (coral, alabaster).

Fact is, all one needs to know going into the video store is that this much beloved musical has made the transition into Blu-ray with nearly all of the charm and magic that made the movie so wonderful. The larger the home-theater screen, of course, the more genuine the experience will seem.

In anticipation of the new hi-def release, sing-along concerts were staged in 500 theaters around the country and the cast was reunited for an Oprah special. The re-mastered Blu-ray edition takes full advantage of that tradition, which began in 1988 at London’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, by adding a Music Machine Sing-Along and on-screen lyrics on both the hi-def and conventional DVD discs. Besides 7.1 DTS-HD Sound, the anniversary package includes Your Favorite Things: An Interactive Celebration, a new immersive viewing experience with behind-the-scenes images, lyrics, trivia track and location quiz; commentaries with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and director Robert Wise; Musical Stages: Creating ‘The Sound of Music, with a new interactive Backlot Tour and featurettes on the songs, stage show, movie, restoration and the real-life Von Trapp family; A City of Song, a virtual map of filming locations in Salzburg, Austria; vintage Rodgers & Hammerstein and The Sound of Music programs; screen tests, interviews and photo galleries; and DVD, with its own extras.

Looking ahead to the holidays, true fans might enjoy finding the Limited Edition Collector’s Set under their tree, instead. It holds a 100-Page “My Favorite Things” scrapbook; snapshots from Salzburg; a reproduction of the original 1965 souvenir program; and “My Favorite Things” music box.


He Who Hits First, Hits Twice: The Urgent Cinema of Santiago Alvarez

Mainstream American media outlets take it in the chops from both sides. Right-wing radio hosts have convinced their listeners that the television networks and newspaper editorial boards are composed of communists and terrorist sympathizers. Progressives on the other side of the political spectrum accuse the MSM of being only interested in profit margins and maintaining the status quo. Nowhere is the ineffectiveness of the American media more pronounced than when it’s attempting to deal with war.

Historically, editors and publishers have stumbled all over themselves in the rush to support the President and avoid images that might spoil the breakfasts of sensitive suburbanites. They simply can’t help themselves. Being labeled unpatriotic is a far more frightening prospect than being proven wrong or complicit five months or five years down the road. The other aspect of war seldom revealed is the stiff toll paid by civilians and infrastructure of our so-called enemies when the bombs fall. During the war in Vietnam, American audiences rarely were asked to consider the effects of a blanket bombing campaign on non-combatants. Reporters blindly accepted the statistics handed out to them by military brass, until the numbers stopped adding up.

If the leaked WikiLeaks data has demonstrated anything, it’s that no one in our government wants the public to know the true cost of war.

Nearly 40 years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, “He Who Hits First, Hits Twice” offers visible evidence that the North Vietnamese people had faces, raised children, swept the streets outside their homes, despaired of seeing their sons and fathers come home in one piece, and went hungry when American bombs destroyed paddies, gardens and supply routes. Another film shows us a Ho Chi Minh who wasn’t a cold-blooded killer or megalomaniac.

Santiago Alvarez was an American-born documentary maker of Cuban descent, who was handed the keys to the island’s cinematic kingdom by Fidel Castro. Indeed, thanks to the American blockade, he was one of the few Cuban filmmakers who had access to cameras and film stock. Even then, Alvarez was constantly required to improvise, especially in his attempts to cover the American civil rights movement via borrowed journalistic material.

Unlike previous generations of documentary and newsreel makers, Alvarez refused to adhere to strict guidelines when it came to editing and soundtracks. I was completely taken aback when strands of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” “Surfing Bird,” “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!” and “Hava Nagila” accompanied video of American POWs, guerrilla fighters and civil-rights marches. Also striking was copious footage of a dynamically charismatic Che Guevara working the crowds in Bolivia and Cuba. Alvarez’ techniques anticipated MTV by 20 years. The Facets Video package also includes a film portrait of the filmmaker by Travis Wilkerson.

Also new from Facets Video are double-feature packages of Hu Sang’s New Year Sacrifice and Feng Xiaoning’s Red River Valley, both of which focus on the plight of women in different historical eras, and The Haunting Cinema of Frantisek Vlacil, which is comprised of the Czech director’s Adelheid and The White Dove.


The Pacific: Blu-ray
V: The Complete First Season
Commish: The Complete Series
Renegade: Complete Series
TapouT: The Complete Series

In addition to the participation of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and/or Clint Eastwood, several things connect HBO’s The Pacific to Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, Letters From Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and, to a lesser degree, Schindler’s List, Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon.

Primary among them is an overriding awareness of the fact that great sacrifices and great heroism, in war and peace, aren’t limited to Medal of Honor winners or military-academy graduates. Nor is it necessary for an officer to resemble John Wayne or Robert Mitchum to command the respect of his troops. These may seem like obvious points, today, but, for most of the 20th Century, Hollywood demanded that larger-than-life characters win our wars, almost single-handedly. Until the opening 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, Americans who died in battle did so in ways not likely to offend mainstream audiences.

Just as the war in the Pacific Theater was fought in a completely different way than the Allied advance in Europe was conducted, the follow-up to Band of Brothers would necessarily be a different breed of cat. The Pacific devotes far more time to the home lives of its characters, if only because the nature of island-to-island combat precluded the kinds of bonds that developed among soldiers marching together to Berlin.

The 10-part The Pacific was based on the wartime memoirs Helmet for My Pillow, Red Blood, Black Sand: With John Basilone on Iwo Jima, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa and China Marine: An Infantryman’s Life after World War II. The key players were Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), Leckie (James Badge Dale) and Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone (Jon Seda), who fought at Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, none of which resembled the battlefields of Europe. The mini-series won Emmys in 8 of the 24 categories in which it was nominated.

The splendid Blu-ray package, contained in a tin ammo box, includes a battleship full bonus features. All 10 episodes offer picture-in-picture tracks, comprised of interviews with surviving veterans or family members of deceased soldiers, analysis by historians, first-hand accounts of the conditions and wartime oddities the Marines endured, pop-up factoids, bios and photographs. There also is an interactive Field Guide, with animated maps, historical information, interviews, archival footage and photographs; Profiles of ‘The Pacific, in which six of the men who inspired the mini-series are introduced; a 30-minute making-of featurette; and the documentary, Anatomy of the Pacific War.

ABC’s hugely hyped sci-fi series V, a re-imagining of the 1983 TV movie and mini-series on NBC, describes what happens when an alien horde of Visitors suddenly appears on Earth, ostensibly to promote peace and interplanetary cooperation. They resemble humans in the same way as local TV news anchors resemble their viewers … like eerily synthetic facsimiles. Before long, the newcomers’ real motives are revealed to be sinister.

The DVD package includes The Actor’s Journey from Human to V, An Alien in Human Skin: The Makeup FX of V, Breaking Story: The World of V, The Visual FX of V, commentary by executive producers Scott Rosenbaum and Steve Pearlman, bloopers and deleted scenes. The second season is scheduled to begin in early January.

The release of the complete-series collections of The Commish and Renegade reminds us of the recent passing of Stephen J. Cannell, who created as many programs as anyone in the history of television. In the dark-horse hit The Commish, Michael Chiklis plays a small-town police commissioner required to use his wits, instead of weapons, to keep the peace. The 17-DVD package completes the DVD presentation of the show’s 94-episode run.

Cannell also produced Renegade for USA Network, from 1992 to 1997. The action series featured Lorenzo Lamas as a bounty hunter framed by a crooked cop (Cannell) in the murder of his girlfriend. After escaping from jail, Lamas’ hunky Reno joins a pair of friends (Branscombe Richmond, Kathleen Kinmot) in the bounty-hunting trade. Like Richard Kimble, in The Fugitive, Reno is desperately seeking the only person who knows the truth. The new 20-disc box contains all 110 episodes from the series’ five-year run.

TapouT: The Complete Series follows “Mask,” “Punkass” “SkySkrape” as they scour the cornfields and ghettos of America, looking for future MMA champs and chumps. Each episode gives fans a chance to hear the fighters’ stories and watch their bouts in the cage. Also appearing are MMA superstar Chuck Liddell and UFC President Dana White.


Van Gogh: A Brush with Genius: IMAX

If it’s OK to diminish the size of a great painting for re-production in a scholarly journal, coffee-table book or travel brochure, is it also kosher to blow the image up to the size of a four-story condominium? The original IMAX version of Van Gogh: A Brush With Greatness must have begged that question in France, which, as far as I can tell, is the only place where Francois Bertrand’s film was shown on the jumbo screen.

The rest of us have been reduced to watching the dazzling film in high-definition on Blu-ray. Given the wonders of hi-def, it’s not a bad compromise, really. The 40-minute documentary follows the same footsteps as those who’ve previously profiled Van Gogh. The focus here, though, is less on the artist’s descent into madness – productive, though it may have been – but on the architecture, colors and textures of his paintings.

Bertrand was given exceptional access to the treasures found in the vaults of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, where he was able to photograph them under ideal circumstances. The filmmakers then compared the subject matter, rendered in oils and charcoal, to actual locations in Arles, Saint Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise, also on high-resolution IMAX film. In an interview, Bertrand says he quite literally wanted to immerse audiences in the paintings, allowing them to study the ridges of Van Gogh’s brush strokes from a completely different angle.

The Blu-ray version doesn’t quite deliver the same aesthetic punch, but what’s there is wonderful. Anyone familiar with Van Gogh’s work probably will want to turn down the sound on the narrative, which is intended to enlighten newcomers, not aficionados.


Not of This Earth: Roger Corman’s Cult Classics
Terror Within/Dead Space: Roger Corman’s Cult Classics
Scream Queens/Scream Dream

Two years after it was revealed that porn superstar Traci Lords, then 17, had used a fake birth certificate to enter the adult film business, Roger Corman sensed an opportunity to exploit her 15 minutes of fame. After all, any teenage capable of faking as many orgasms as Lords (newly 20) probably could play a damsel-in-distress in one of his drive-in confections. And, indeed, she was well up to the task.

Corman had produced and directed the original alien-vampire thriller, Not of This Earth,” way back in 1957, so he had a proprietary interest in making it work … without spending a fortune, of course. The 1988 re-make never was intended to make anyone forget Alien or Blade Runner, simply to turn a profit by allowing punters to witness the magnificence of Lords’ bosom in the service of a thread-bare sci-fi premise. Arthur Roberts played an alien who arrives in L.A. in search of a ready supply of blood, a substance desperate lacking on his home planet.

After killing a couple of horny teenagers for no good reason, the alien locates a doctor sufficiently intrigued by his condition to provide transfusions. Lords’ Nurse Nadine is hired to perform the procedures. To do this, she’s required to move into his creepy mansion and work alongside his unctuous chauffer. Before long, all sorts of innocent civilians – prostitutes, vacuum-cleaner salesmen – are invited into the house, where they’re drained of their blood and thrown into the furnace.

Jim Wynorski, who would go on to make such immortal films as Blair Wench Project and The Return of the Swamp Thing, directed Not of This Earth with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Miraculously, it somehow manages to hold up 22 years later, in this upgraded DVDs. Lord, who also would enjoy a productive mainstream career in films and on TV, adds a lengthy interview to the package.

It would be nice to say that this week’s other Corman Cult Classic release, a double-bill of The Terror Within and Dead Space, provides the same campy kicks. Apart from appearances by George Kennedy and Andrew Stevens, however, the former title is little more than an Alien rip-off, staged in an underground research facility in the Mojave Desert, post-Apocalypse. Fans of Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) may want to check out its companion scientists-in-jeopardy flick, Dead Space, set on a faraway planet. Even in 1992, this one was destined to go straight-to-video. The package adds a reel of grindhouse previews.

Scream Queens Double Feature and Scream Dream aren’t even as entertaining as those two features. In Scream Dream, flash-in-the-pan Carol Carr plays heavy-metal singer Michelle Shocked (no relation to the folk singer), who’s apparently sold her soul to the devil. After fans beginning disappearing, she’s fired by the band’s image-conscious manager. It isn’t long before Shocked’s replacement joins the coven, as well. That’s about it. The cinematography stinks and the music isn’t much better.

Legitimate scream queens Melissa Moore, Veronica Carothers and Jasae star in the Double Feature: Swimsuit Sensations and Knockout Workout. Neither amounts to anything more than a compendium of the women’s favorite exercises and swimsuit designs. The ladies also tell their life stories, which aren’t terribly interesting, either.


Please Give
Don’t Let Me Drown
The Hungry Ghosts
Passenger Side

In the media, New York and Los Angeles represent opposite sides of the same American coin. We drive, they walk; we obsess over traffic jams and earthquakes, they agonize about how much to tip rude cab drivers and lazy doormen; we see illegal immigrants behind every palm tree, they cringe every time a plane flies too closely over the skyline.

Even today, no better example of the show-biz schism can be found than in reruns of I Love Lucy, before and after the Ricardos’ two-season migration from Manhattan to Beverly Hills. It was the same show, but the vibe could hardly be more dissonant. The Mertz’s, especially, looked as if they’d stepped out of an entirely different sitcom. Law & Order: Los Angeles is trying to make the same conversion. Good luck.

These three new films are New York to the core. Any resemblance to Los Angeles, or anywhere else west of Ground Zero, is strictly coincidental.

In Nicole Holofcener’s ensemble dramedy, Please Give, Catherine Keener plays a Manhattan wife, mother and entrepreneur with an overriding guilt complex. Her Kate frets over buying used furniture from the families of recently deceased people and re-selling items at exponentially higher prices. She and her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), can hardly wait for the woman next-door to die, so they purchase her apartment and connect it to their unit.

Their daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), can’t stand watching Kate hand out $20 bills, leftover food and cosmetics to anyone she sees who looks poor or homeless (mom even approaches a casually dressed black gentleman waiting outside a restaurant for a table to open). And, if that weren’t enough mishigas, we’re introduced to two other families in Kate’s orbit, with problems of their own that need fixing. Among their lot are Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet and Ann Guilbert. All of the actors are given plenty to do and the space to do it. They respond with energetic performances. If their characters aren’t always likable, neither is anyone else in the city.

Don’t Let Me Drown is a terrific indie drama that did well on the festival circuit, but failed to find a distributor. I’m guessing that this oversight had a lot to do with the fact that most of New Yorkers we meet are of Puerto Rican, Dominican and Mexican descent. All live on the razor’s edge separating abject poverty from mere subsistence. Before 9/11, the families we meet were able to dream of climbing out of their respective holes. Now, however, one is mourning the loss of daughter/sister lost in the terrorist attack, while the bread-winner in the other family likely has developed a terminal illness from sifting through the debris at Ground Zero.

The two youngest members of the families, teenagers Stefanie (Gleendilys Inoa) and Lalo (E.J. Bonilla), have several things in common, besides 9/11, but the clouds from that day continue to hover over them, as well. After several false starts, the teens finally give themselves permission to fall in love and look beyond Ground Zero. Director Cruz Angeles elicits splendid performances from a cast full of fresh faces, while also taking full advantage of the gritty Brooklyn settings. Somehow, too, Cruz manages to carve a ray of light out of those ashen clouds.

Michael Imperioli wrote and directed The Hungry Ghosts, a slice of New York life in which five people of different ages, races, backgrounds spend the better part of the film’s 105 minutes searching for spiritual healing and refuge from the urban malaise. If the title refers to the Buddhist concept of hungry ghosts not being able to bid farewell to the living, the faces and accents are 100 percent Big Apple.

The stories don’t overlap in the same way as in Crash, but the characters eventually do arrive at common intersections. Hungry Ghosts was developed at Imperioli’s off-Broadway Studio Dante. Its ensemble cast includes Steve Schirippa (The Sopranos), Aunjanue Ellis (The Caveman’s Valentine), Sharon Angela (City Island), Nick Sandow (How to Make It in America) and Tina Benko (Brotherhood). The acting is excellent, but the story definitely will appeal primarily to New Yorkers.

By comparison, Passenger Side couldn’t have been set anywhere but Los Angeles. On the morning of his 37th birthday, dissipated author Michael (Adam Scott), receives a telephone call from his estranged brother, Tobey (Joel Bissonnette), a recovering junkie. Tobey begs his brother to chauffeur him around L.A. for the day, in search of something he avoids revealing. The choices are pretty much limited to money, drugs or a woman, though.

It’s safe to assume that the lads were once close, but, at some point, Michael stopped putting up with Tobey’s shit and that of their mother. Their banter is comparable to the bobbing and weaving that takes place between boxers in the first round of a fight. Occasionally, one or the other connects with a jab, but writer/director Matt Bissonnette doesn’t push either his characters toward a knockout. Instead, their long and winding road-trip allows plenty of space for long periods of silence and vacant stares through the windshield of life.

Every so often, an old acquaintance of Tobey will appear, adding several minutes of comedy, drama or discomfort to the proceedings. Lots of seemingly aimless driving takes place in Passenger Side, so the great physical diversity of Los Angeles County naturally also serves as a character. So do the songs on the soundtrack, which punctuate and comment on what’s happening to the brothers.


Fade to Black

Orson Welles was a larger-than-life character, who commanded the spotlight wherever he went. In Fade to Black, Danny Huston plays the great filmmaker and raconteur at a particularly delicate point in his life and career. His marriage to Rita Hayworth had just evaporated and no one was beating down the doors to finance his pet projects. In 1949, Welles traveled to Italy to play a devious hypnotist in King Louis XV’s court in Black Magic. While there, Fade to Black posits, Welles becomes involved in an on-set murder mystery with political overtones.

The movie is on the weak side, but performances by Huston, Diego Luna, Paz Vega, Christopher Walken and Violante Placido are well worth the price of a rental. Anyone who enjoyed Orson and Me might want to shop and compare the two.



Heather Graham, Jennifer Coolidge and Amber Heard play a trio of women with rage issues in this uneven straight-to-DVD dramedy. They meet at a court-ordered group-therapy session, where women with similar problems reveal the conditions that led to their crimes and arrests. After one of them (Joey Lauren Adams) describes the abuse meted out by her meathead husband. After the slob punches his wife out in a bar, the ladies decide they’ll exact revenge for their friend.

This, of course, inspires the women to form an “extermination” crew, based in Coolidge pest-control warehouse. It may not be a novel idea, but, for an hour or so, the interplay reminded me of Desperate Housewives. The rest, not so much. I’ve seen a lot worse.


Attack on Darfur

Uwe Boll, a director who critics love to hate, has been so moved by accounts of the daily horror faced by villagers and refugees in Darfur that he made a movie about it. It follows on the heels of several excellent documentaries about the war in Sudan, as well as well as the broader tragedy of genocide in Africa.

In Attack on Darfur, Boll’s dramatization of a particularly vicious attack on unarmed villagers by the Jangaweed raiders definitely tests viewers’ ability to stomach simulated violence. Here, the writer/director raises the question, again, as to when it is ethical for a journalist to step into a situation with the intention of changing its foreseeable outcome. The reporters and photographers are driven to the remote village by a UN “peacekeeper,” who’s not allowed to protect the villagers with armed response.

A couple of the journalists demand he allow them to borrow weapons and return to the assault. This ain’t Rambo, however, and the Jangaweed fighters aren’t Hollywood stunt men. The confrontation is exciting to watch, but terribly graphic. The reporters are played by Billy Zane, Edward Furlong, Noad Danby, Matt Frewer, David O’Hara and Kristanna Loken, and they do a fine job. It’s the work of African actors, some of them novices, that is most impressive, though. I think it can be fairly argued that Boll takes the slaughter past its logical extreme.

While it’s correct to say most viewers won’t respond to a serious problem viscerally until its shoved directly in their face, it’s also worth pointing out that no distributor is likely to touch a movie that enrages and sickens its audience in equal measure. That appears to have been the fate of Attack on Darfur, which arrives on DVD virtually unscreened.


The Adonis Factor

Showtime’s The L Word and The Real L Word helped popularize the term, “lipstick lesbian.” Christopher Hines’ enlightening documentary, The Adonis Factor, examines why some gay men spend endless hours (and lots of money) in the gym and salons, so as to fit the mold of a body builder “pretty” enough to be the cover-boy of prominent gay and straight lifestyle magazines. It’s an obsession that begins in a neighborhood health club and sometimes ends in a rehab clinic.

That’s because looking ultra-buff and eternally young often requires mass amounts of steroids and botox, and crystal meth too often fuels revelry in the nightclubs, bars and pool parties where “A-list” studs gather. Hines has assembled a wide cross-section of witnesses, including quite a few Adonis types from L.A. and Atlanta; models; doctors and shrinks; and social observers. The film even breaks out rival clans within the Adonis crowd, among them “bears” with beer bellies.

The conceit behind Unfaithful is as undemanding and frivolous as a one-night stand. In it, real-life writer-director Claude Peres (a.k.a., Director) invites German porn star Marcel Schlutt (a.k.a., Actor) to join him in an overnight tryst, to be recorded as a work of performance art. Actor is under no obligation to participate if he gets turned off by the sex or the scent of Director’s cologne. There’s no contract and they can stop whenever one wishes.

That’s nice work, if you can get it. Unfaithful is shot in natural light, which sometimes means the glowing tip of a cigarette is all that’s illuminated. The dialogue probably wouldn’t win any screenwriting prizes, either. Fans of hard-core boy/boy action probably won’t find enough sex here to float their boats, but those attracted to artsy erotica might consider giving it a try.


I Am

The chapter breaks in this Crash-inspired drama are provided by the 10 Commandments. Key characters bump into each other during the course of the narrative and tests of faith are laid before them like so many hurdles at a track meet. The film is populated by 10 key characters, all of whom have broken one of the Lord’s strictures. The breaches cause their lives to go completely off-kilter, filling them with pain and loss.

Before it’s too late, though, the sinners are given an opportunity to become re-acquainted with their savior. (It’s set in the City of Angels for a good reason, we’re told.) I Am may be a Christian film, but its production values are up to industry standards and the message is delivered home without the need of a sledge hammer. A Katherine McPhee music video is part of the presentation.


Kylie Minogue: Rare & Unseen

I’ve been a big fan of the rock-history lessons dispensed in Wienerworld/MVD’s “Rare & Unseen” series of DVDs. They’re thoroughly researched, as musical as they can be without spending a fortune on licensing fees and often quite provocative. By comparison to previous subjects, Kylie Minogue is something of a featherweight.

The Aussie pop star has sold a lot of CDs, but the songs heard here are no more interesting than your average ditty by Britney Spears, whose career path was similar to that of Minogue. The interviews appear to have been taken from Australian television newsmagazines and reveal nothing the singer might consider embarrassing. Fans might want to check out the singer’s early appearances, once thought erased, on the children’s show, Ghost Train.


Christmas in the Clouds

Made in 2001 and given a tentative release in 2005, Christmas in the Clouds finally has made its way to DVD. As holiday rom-coms go, it’s an especially agreeable confection. The film’s greatest selling-point is its many Native American actors – Graham Greene and Wes Studi, playing against type, among them – and the picturesque Utah mountain background.

It’s nearing Christmas and the staff of a Native American-owned ski resort is expecting two noteworthy arrivals. One is a hotel/restaurant critic from a fancy magazine and the other is a blinding snow storm. Somehow, the manager confuses the arrival of a pretty Mohican woman with that of the real columnist (E. Emmet Walsh), and goes overboard to make her cozy.

In fact, the woman (Mariana Tosca) is the pen pal of a much older former chief, who she mistakes for the much younger manager (Timothy Vahle). The large number of mistaken identities adds a slapstick element to what so far has been a rather gentle ride. The best bits are provided by Greene, as the vegetarian head chef who tries to make his meat and poultry dishes look as unappetizing as possible, and hard-guy Studi, who, here, calls numbers at a resort bingo tournament.


Los Angeles Lakers: 2010 NBA Finals Series: Blu-ray

The rings already have been handed out to members of the Lakers championship team and the banners lowered from the ceiling of Staples Center. The new season is officially upon us. For those who still haven’t had their fill of the exciting seven-game finals against the hated Boston Celtics, NBA Entertainment and Image have just released the Blu-ray and DVD packages wrapping everything up with a tidy purple-and-gold bow. This “Collector’s Edition” contains all seven games in their entirety, with locker-room material and post-game press conferences.

MW on DVDs: Disneynature Oceans, The Maltese Falcon, The Exorcist, Visions of Europe, Predators … and more

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010


DisneyNature: Oceans (Blu-ray & DVD) (Four Stars)

France-U.S.; Jacques Perrin/Jacques Cluzaud, 2009

A real gem, from France, where they love to watch the world through a camera eye. Made by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, the two directors of the magnificent birds-in-flight documentary Winged Migration, here’s an equally magnificent view of the ocean and its denizens. Fantastic music. Incredible cinematography. Good narration. It was done by Perrin himself (who once acted the part of the young reporter in Z) in the French original. Here in this DisneyNature version, it’s by a non-Bonded Pierce Brosnan.

Disneynature’s 2009 Earth, fashioned from the Alastair Fothergill-David Attenborough masterpiece Planet Earth, was a real movie event last year, though I prefer the original. And this is easily one of the best pictures I‘ve seen all this year — the kind of thing movies can do better than any other art form. If you skip it and buy Predators instead (see below), you ought to have your head examined. Or you should be eaten by a hump-backed whale. Or forced to repeatedly watch nothing but stuff like Predators and Night of the Demons.



The Maltese Falcon (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U.S.; John Huston, 1941 (Warner Bros.)

Dashiell Hammett‘s The Maltese Falcon was one of the first detective novels to be regarded as literature by serious critics, to be praised by names like Alexander Woolcott. And the book‘s terse, hard-bitten, coolly realistic portrait of a working private eye, Hammett’s immortal hard-boiled Frisco sleuth Sam Spade, set the mold and the standard for years, decades, half-centuries to come.

But, good as it was, respected as it was, The Maltese Falcon seemed to defy all attempts at cinematic adaptation –it was botched twice at Warner Brothers, once in 1931, with Ricardo Cortez as Spade, and again in 1936, with Warren William as Spade (and Bette Davis as the femme fatale) — until it finally found a writer-director, 35-year-old John Huston, who treated Hammett’s writing as literature and treated the book as a classic-to-be. The result: an inarguable movie milestone and one of the great detective films of all time. It was also an early fountainhead of film noir, a style which took many of its strongest visual and thematic cues from both Huston‘s Falcon and another 1941 picture by John’s pal Orson: Citizen Kane.

How did Huston do it, when the two earlier versions were such shoddy goods (‘31) and such a bad joke (’36)? Easy. Huston, a longtime fictionalist and first-rate screenwriter (Sergeant York for Hawks, High Sierra for Walsh) was one cineaste who respected good writing. So he basically filmed the book, keeping the story and the dialogue as is, and devising (with cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who’d shot most of Doug Fairbanks Sr.‘s movies, and also Sergeant York, and later, Casablanca) a visual approach and design that fit Hammett and Spade to a dark “T.”

Taking their cues from Hammett’s hard-edged prose, Huston and Edeson created onscreen a shadowy world of cheap-shop shamus’s offices, and dark streets with accumulating corpses, and bare sinister hotel rooms full of gumshoes and gunsels, fat men and femme fatales, effeminate Levantines and bullying cops, of viewpoints tilted and askew and drenched in shadows and darkness, and of bad, immoral people or dubious characters (see all the above) poking their heads into the frame to eyeball each other, trying to sniff out the whereabouts of the jewel-encrusted, murderously valuable Maltese Falcon.

Huston did something else that had eluded the previous directors, Roy De Ruth (‘31) and William Dieterle (’36). He cast the film perfectly, picking all the right actors for all those “wrong” people. Mary Astor, whom George S. Kaufman had given a bad public rep for sexual hanky panky, oozes nervous pulchritude (“She‘s a knockout,” says Spade‘s savvy secretary Effie), phony innocence, lying bitchery and utter heartlessness as Brigid O’Shaugnessy, the bad noir gal who hires Spade and sets the trap in motion. (No femme was ever more fatale.) Peter Lorre, the great madman of Fritz Lang’s M, swishes evilly, creepily and often hysterically as the perfumed, cane-wielding little rat Joel Cairo. Don’t blink, but who could have done a better near wordless “good luck” cameo for his son, playing the dying Capt. Jacoby, Falcon in hand, than the matchless Walter Huston?

Find me two better flatfeet, the good cop and the bad cop, than Ward Bond’s Polhaus and Barton MacLane‘s Dundy. (Go ahead. I dare you.) Find me a better sleazy weasel of a partner for Spade than Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer. Or a better sex-crazed, weepy wife for Miles than Gladys George‘s Iva. Or a better Girl Friday secretary for Spade than Lee Patrick’s Effie. Or a spookier, more boyishly pathetic gunsel than that top-of-the-line little hard guy Wilmer Cook, as incarnated by Elisha Cook, Jr. (“Gunsel,” by the way, doesn’t mean what you think. It was private eye slang for homosexual consort.)

And if you think the actor ever lived who could have topped Sydney Greenstreet (making his film debut) as the Falcon‘s indefatigable, jovial, relentless hunter, that compulsive talker and book-reader, the fat man, Caspar Gutman — that anyone living or dead could have conjured up a better sinister smile, or captured quite that quiet baleful-eyed once-over he gives Spade, or that wicked hiccuping laugh, or those chubby cheeks and cold eyes, or spewed more eloquent and genially malevolent chit chat (“By gad, sir, you’re the man for me…I’m a man who likes to talk to a man who likes to talk!”)…Well, all I can say is: You’re dreaming, my friend, dreaming.

Then there’s Bogie. Thank God for the stupidity and bad script judgment of George Raft — who turned down High Sierra (it went to Bogart), turned down The Maltese Falcon (it went to Bogart, the actor Huston wanted anyway) and then even may have turned down Casablanca. (Is this guy nuts?) Good results anyway. Because nobody plays it hard-boiled, smart or tough like Bogie. Not Raft. Not Cagney, not Robinson, not Garfield. (And they’re all terrific). And not even Lee Marvin. Hell, not anybody. Bogie is the four-term President of Noir. (Marvin may be the Vice President of Neo-noir.)

Bogart’s Sam Spade is also one of the all-time great (lot of those in this review, aren’t there?) Hollywood lead acting jobs: perfectly shaped, articulated and executed. With that vicious grin, that mean twitch of a lip, that sullen stare, and those matchlessly insolent (except for Betty) wise cracks, all punch-lined by Max Steiner’s smashing, crashing score, Bogart’s Spade is the ultimate good bad guy, or bad good guy.

Spade, modeled by Hammett on his own career as a Pinkerton detective, is totally believable as a first-tier shamus, a smart aleck supreme, and a walker on the mean streets (where, according to Raymond Chandler, a man must go). When Spade hectors and cons Wilmer, chivvies the cops and pours them booze, grins at Brigid and says “you’re good; you’re awful good,” or spars verbally with the intellectual heavy Gutman, he cracks us up.

When he sends over Brigid and tells her he won’t play the fall guy for her, he chills our blood. And when he clutches the phony falcon to his chest and tells Ward Bond (Who needs to quote Shakespeare right anyway?), that it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of” (on), then he opens up the door to the movie world of bad dreams and great shots, the world of Noir. Nobody can ever close it.

And now we know how to make a movie of The Maltese Falcon.

Extras: Commentary by Eric Lax; Featurettes’ Warners 1941 blooper reel; three radio versions, two of The Maltese Falcon, two with Bogie, one with Edward G. Robinson; 1941 trailers; Makeup tests; Warner Night at the Movies, with 1941 newsreel, musical short, two Looney Tunes, and trailers for all three movie versions of The Maltese Falcon.



The Exorcist: Extended Director’s Cut and Original Theatrical Edition“ (Two Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: William Friedkin, 1973 & 2010 (Warner Bros.)

The Devil gets into Regan (Linda Blair), the pre-teen daughter of movie star Chris McNeill (Ellen Burstyn), and raises all kinds of old-fashioned special effects hell, while two priest-exorcists (older, wiser Max Von Sydow and younger, tormented Jason Miller) try to exorcize it and a movie-loving cop (Lee J. Cob) watches out for the evil he knows and the evil we don’t.

Based by screenwriter William Peter Blatty on his best-selling novel, and directed with edgy realism and pictorial panache by William Friedkin (two years after The French Connection), this one scared the public silly back in the Nixon era. And still does. (The extended cut has ten extra minutes.)

Extras: Commentaries (on the original) by Friedkin and Blatty and (on the director’s cut) by Friedkin; Documentaries; Intro by Friedkin (on the original); Interview gallery; Original ending.

DisneyNature: Ocean (See above.)



Visions of Europe (Six Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Roy A. Hammond (aerial director/executive producer), Sam Toperoff (producer/editor/writer), 2001-9 (Acorn Media)

One of the most visually stunning travelogue series ever, the “Visions” sets from WLIW in New York, offer spectacular aerial tours of the great sights of Europe, shot in gorgeous high definition cinematography, accompanied by typical but well-executed music and narration.

Among the many sights seen (from way overhead) here: London, Paris, The Alps, The Rhine, the Cote d’Azur, Rome, Vienna, and St. Peter’s Square. (Watching the Roman set, you can imagine for a while that you’ve changed places with Marcello Mastroianni’s hedonist/journalist Marcello in La Dolce Vita, and you’re swooping over the city in a helicopter.)

I showed these grand cinematic tours repeatedly to my 90-something mother Edna in the last years of her life — and she loved them. Of course, as a painter and artist and lifelong student of art, Edna had been familiar with the history of these places for most of her life. But she never got to see them in real life, never got to walk along the Seine or through the Louvre, to fly above the Mediterranean, or to gaze at Michelangelo’s ceiling in Rome.

Many people like Edna never have nor will either. And many others as well. These films, done about as well as this kind of travelogue project can be, were a wonderful substitute for being there, and they’d be a great gift for anyone who can’t go, or wants to go, or wants to remember what it was like, to see the world. Here, it’s seen beautifully, from far above, as few others can.

Includes: Visions of Italy (U.S.; Roy A. Hammond/Sam Toperoff, 2001, 2002, 2008). Four Stars. Contains the programs Visions of Italy: Northern Style, Visions of Italy: Southern Style, Visions of Sicily and Visions of Italy: The Great Cities (Rome, Florence, Naples, Capri, etc.) Other Sights: Lake Como, Pisa, Venice, Pompeii, Calabria, Palermo, St. Peter’s Square, The Coliseum.

Visions of Greece (U.S.; Duby Tal, aerial director-producer/Toperoff, 2002-3). Three and a Half Stars. Contains the programs Visions of Greece and Visions of Greece: Off the Beaten Path. Sights: Athens, Corfu, Crete, Rhodes, Thessaloniki, The Nissiros Volcano.

Visions of France (U.S.; Hammond/Toperoff, 2004). Three and a Half Stars. Contains the programs Visions of France: Provence and Visions of France: The Riviera. Sights: The Mediterranean Sea, Arles, Avignon, Aix, Luberon, Grand Canyon of Verdon, The Cote d’Azur, Cannes, Nice, St. Tropez, Monaco.

Visions of Germany (U.S.; Hammond/Toperoff, 2004-2005). Three and a Half Stars. Contains the programs Visions of Germany: Bavaria and Visions of Germany: Along the Rhine. Sights: The Rhine, Bonn, Constance, Cologne, The Bodensee, The Black Forest, Koblenz, Heidelberg. (Music by Beethoven, Wagner and Strauss.)

Visions of Austria (U.S.; Hammond/Toperoff, 2007). Three and a Half Stars. Sights: Vienna, Schonbrunn Palace, Bregenz, Innsbruck, Salzburg. (Music by Mozart, Strauss and Schubert.)

Visions of the Great Cities of Europe (U.S.; Hammond/Toperoff, 2009). Three and a Half Stars. Sights: London, Budapest, Rome, Florence, Vienna, Prague, Dublin, Paris.

Extras: Hours of bonus footage not seen on the TV series.



Predators (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Nimrod Antal, 2010 (Fox)

I‘d be less than honest if I didn’t inform you that Predators — a horror movie about a Dirty Half-Dozen or so of mercenaries parachuted down onto a planetful of monsters — isn’t a piece of god-awful shit. I would however be borrowing, and maybe putting to better use, one of the two words most often employed by screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch in their flabbergastingly bad dialogue. And I don’t mean “god-awful.”

This is a picture oddly hailed in some critical corners as an effective shocker and a return to the cinematic glories of the original 1987 Predator. Effective? Shocker? Glories? Actually, the original Predator was no great shakes as a movie either, even though it provided a showcase for two future United States governors, star commando Arnold Schwarzenegger (California) and backup heavy Jesse Ventura (Minnesota) — and even though it has a dubious rep as a cult show.

A heavy-duty, high-concept action movie in which growling, scowling macho mercenaries lost in the South American jungle, battled a monster from outer space, it was basically just as dumb and just as badly written (by Jim and John, the Thomas Brothers) as this one, though it benefited some from John McTiernan super-slick, Die Hard era direction.

The first Predator was mostly just another witless high concept marketing-hook movie from that witless, high concept marketing-hook movie decade, the god-awful Eighties. I guess you had to be a movie going kid of 12 or so to appreciate them, or to get nostalgic for stuff like Commando, Rambo or Top Gun.

I don’t have a clue why producer Robert Rodriguez, a moviemaker I usually like, was so hot on breathing life back into Predator-land, especially after those rotten Alien-Predator match-ups had almost deservedly wiped it out. Or why producer Rodriguez talked the gifted Hungarian-American director Nimrod Antal (Control, Vacancy), into staging this sort-of-sequel, not to mention recruiting a cast that boasts talents like Adrien Brody, Laurence Fishburne, Alice Braga, and Topher Grace, but who here (except for Fishburne, getting what these writers probably regarded as an aria) are put to work, dreaming up new ways to slog through the forest, dodge stampeding monsters, spray automatic gunfire and inflect the words “shit” and “fuck.”

The basic premise actually isn’t bad. In fact, a lot of it comes straight from one of the movies’ all-time adventure-suspense classics — not the bloated bloody Predator but that ingenious, and endlessly imitated ’30s gem, from King Kong co-director Ernest Schoedsack (and original author Richard Connell) The Most Dangerous Game. In that knockout 1932 movie, Joel McCrea and Fay Wray were turned into beasts of prey, hunted through an island jungle by the elegant Hitchockian psychopath Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). It’s old, it’s black-and white, and it has old-fashioned effects and stagier dialogue. But, if you walk out of Predators, as you probably should, and rent and take home The Most Dangerous Game instead, I can almost guarantee you‘ll have a better time.

Then again, maybe Predators really does understand its audience. (A sobering thought.) The new movie starts out with a bang: eight glum mercenaries — or actually seven mercenaries and one dork of a doctor (Topher Grace as the movie’s Odd Man In) — parachute into a huge jungle forest on what turns out to be an alien world where the sun never moves, there are several moons in the sky, and herds of terrible multi-horned, spiked, armored, savage beasts, modeled on the original Predator, begin repeatedly charging at them and trying to kill them.

The eight’s de facto leader is Adrien Brody as hardcase gunman Royce, who was in the middle of a battle somewhere when suddenly everything went white and he found him self falling, falling into Predators. Royce is accompanied by a group of gun-packing strangers who all seem to have dropped in from other battles or other movies: Danny Trejo as the perpetually glowering Cuchillo, Goggins Walton as the Joe Pantolian-ian wise-ass whiner Stans, Braga as the fetching Israeli commando Isabelle, Grace as token doofus Edwin, Louis Ozawa Changchien as the samurai-yakuza hybrid Hanzo, and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (whose name probably won’t become a household word) as the African warlord Mombasa. All of them except Edwin and Stans are heavily armed, strong, silent types — though, for my money, not strong or silent enough.

Soon, Royce has it all figured out. (Nothing fazes this guy, not even the viscuous glop leaking out of the Predators.) It seems they’ve all been swooped up and dropped onto the planet as sport prey for the Preds — whom we later learn (from Laurence Fishburne as scavenger-veteran Noland, chatting in his cave) are divided into two classes: incredibly mean and murderous Predators or just sort-of-mean and not-quite-as-murderous Predators. Or “Wolves” and “Dogs.” (No “Puppy” Predators here, but Rodriguez probably didn’t go after Pixar.)

So, while Royce hatches plots to get them out of this mess, hell keeps breaking loose. The Predators keep attacking. The mercenaries keep blasting and swearing. Horrible traps keep getting sprung. Viscous glop keeps dropping. Isabelle keeps trying to soften up Royce, a thankless but probably not impossible task. (After all, she is Sonia Braga’s niece. And a Predator‘s dish, in both senses.)

This planet and its various monsters, meanwhile, turn out to be truly bizarre, truly outrageous. As Roger Ebert has pointed out, the Predators have so many horns and spears around their mouths and so many spikes on their bodies, it’s probably impossible for them to either eat or copulate, which means they would have died off long ago. And the planet has so immobile a sun and so many moons, it probably would have long ago burned up, or drowned in the tides.

But I‘m sure the moviemakers have an answer for all this. Maybe there’s improved global warming technology on the planet, financed by the Predator Leaders with the proceeds from their hunts. Maybe the Predators have hinges on their horns, or inhale sustenance though their noses or feet. Or maybe they have retractable penises and little trap doors in their stomachs which open up to reveal ravenous, evil little elves who pop out to make sperm bank deposits and also to gather herbs, mushrooms, and Puppy Predators and then pop back in. Or maybe these monsters just die off every week and the producers order a brand new bunch of Predators from Idiotic Cliché-land.

In the midst of all this viscuous glop comes the movie‘s real Achilles’ Heel — or should we say its Achilles shit-heel. The dialogue. Aaarrrgh! I’m not kidding when I say that if Predators had better dialogue, and the richer characters and humor that really good badinage and byplay spring from — or even if it just got rid of all the junk-talk it has now and replaced it with moans, screeches and quizzical grunts — it might have been a more bearable movie, even perhaps a good one. But here the empty cross-talk, except for Fishburne‘s aria (which, maybe remembering happier times, he seems to be trying to play as if it were one of Brando‘s Apocalypse Now monologues), is just minimalist four-letter-word-drenched cliché-macho horse manure. Or should we say predator-poop?

I didn‘t write it down, but, as I remember, some of the speeches went like this. “Fuck you!” “Fuck Me!” “Fuck all of you!” “What the fuck is going on around here?” “What the fuck is this shit?” (Or maybe it was “What the shit is this fuck?“) One of the juicier speeches, hysterically delivered by Walton: “We killed it! We killed it! We fuckin‘ killed it! We killed it! We killed it! We fuckin‘ killed it! Now what do you think of that?” (What indeed?) And the movie’s would-be “Make-my-Day” piece de resistance: “Let’s find a way off this fuckin’ planet!” Amen, brother.

Adrien Brody can be a marvelous actor, sensitive and magnetic. (So can Topher Grace.) But, with this movie and Splice, which I also disliked — but which had better dialogue than Predators — he seems to be trying to pull a Nicolas Cage: to parley his Pianist Oscar and elevate into the higher-paid reaches of action or horror movie stardom. I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

Actually, Brody has already made a very good (if underrated) adventure movie, the Peter Jackson King Kong. But, in every way except financially (which I concede makes a difference), I think he might be better off making more “Pianists” and lower-budget, smarter suspense films or noirs, or even running for Governor of New Jersey, than diving into stuff like Splice or Predators. Is Brody really happy fornicating with monsters (Splice) or hoisting an Uzi here and saying “What the fuck?” The Predators could use better scripts too. Or a daring chef and maybe a good sex therapist.

Predators isn’t completely stuck on Planet Moron. Even the screenwriters obviously have higher aspirations. At one point, Royce informs Isabelle and us that he’s cribbing some of his lines (not the ones above) from Hemingway. And one bare-chested Hanzo swordfight scene is obviously a homage to Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai master-swordfighter scene. (Unless it’s a homage to Taylor Lautner.)

Wisecracks aside, I bear no ill will toward Antal or Rodriguez, who have entertained me mightily in the past, especially with Control and Sin City. But, on one level, one can only hope Predators doesn’t attract enough fan boys, idlers and casual moviegoers to make it a sequel-worthy hit — because then we’ll actually have to find out…


….how they got off that f–kin’ planet. Frankly, I couldn’t give a shit.


Please Give (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Nicole Holofcener, 2010 (Sony Classics)

In the smart but somewhat off-putting comedy Please Give, writer-director Nicole Holofcener tackles an offbeat, half-promising subject: a group of upscale Manhattanites who feel guilty about having it so good, or feel miffed because they don’t have it even better.

I can laugh, but I can’t commiserate. (It’s clear that Holofcener wants us to do both.) Many people have it so much worse than the self-absorbed, smart but somewhat off-putting middle-class city-dwellers we see here that it‘s hard to feel sympathy for them — the couple played by Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt who buy bargain furniture at rock bottom prices from bereaved relatives at estate sales and resell it at their pricy “antique” store (and who are waiting for the 91-year-old neighbor to die so they can take over her apartment); that same old lady’s gorgeous mean granddaughter (Amanda Peet), a facial cosmetician who makes fun of her grandma, trashes or condescends to everybody else, seduces Platt’s Alex and stalks the new girlfriend of her ex; the couple’s overweight, zit-faced daughter (Sarah Steele), who keeps throwing snit-fits and demanding attention, and thinks a pair of 200 dollar designer jeans will solve all her problems; the antique shop’s gullible sucker-sellers and customers; and, unhappily enough, even the 91-year-old neighbor lady (Ann Guilbert), unappreciative of the daily efforts of her one good, helpful granddaughter (Rebecca Hall), and insulting and irascible toward everyone else.

You know what? The hell with these people. They should feel guilty.

The problem here is that most of them apparently don’t — except for Keener’s Kate, remorseful because she and her hubby are exploiting misery, who therefore runs around trying to volunteer at various local community organizations (but finds they depress her too much), and dispenses twenty-dollar bills to homeless panhandlers (to the film‘s, but not my, amusement), mistakenly showering some of her largesse on a restaurant patron waiting on the sidewalk just because he’s black. Kate’s behavior may be foolish, excessive and misdirected. But the impulse is justified. Come to think of it, old neighbor lady Andra’s misanthropy may be justified too.

Of course, if I’m reacting this way, this personally, it’s because Holofcener and her cast have drawn these characters so fully and well, that they’ve taken on some life of their own, and become capable of being morally measured or judged. Kate is foolishly good, just as Alex is roguishly but entertainingly bad. She’s an idealist who suffers at the thought that they may be profiting from pain. He’s a realist who to some degree, accepts pain and cheating as part of life, and thinks that a good joke can always straighten things out — but, in the end, is more affected by Kate’s idealism, maybe wants to be the husband she probably deserves.

Keener and Platt play this pair with enough casual naturalism (Platt) or wounded sensitivity (Keener) that we can relate to their basically unlikable lot. As for their daughter Abby, Sarah Steele plays her observantly and utterly without any actor’s vanity — though the last familial love scene between loving Mom, penitent Pop and jeans-crazy Daughter made me cringe.

More moral measurement. Rebecca, the empathetic radio technology tech who administers mammograms, and cheerfully visits Andra, even when she gets nothing but sourpuss cracks in return, is clearly a relatively good, caring person. And her sister Mary, who does facials at a spa, is clearly a relatively bad, selfish one — though Holofcener eventually showers generosity on them both. Is this the “Everyone has their reasons” grand compassion of a Jean Renoir? It often seems closer to the “Let’s all get along” tolerance of the average family diplomat.

It’s suggestive that several of the film’s critics, describing these two sisters, have called Mary a beauty and Rebecca a “plain jane.” Yet how could a stunner like Rebecca Hall, even without a stylish get-up or make-up, possibly be described as plain? Is it because we’re conditioned to find snappish, cruel, well-dressed, smart-asses like Mary as sexy? And people like Rebecca as schnooks and doormats? Is it because too many of us would rather be Marys than be Rebeccas, even if Mary is a shit? I ask; I do not know.

Ann Guilbert as Andra has potentially the best role in the movie, and she plays it with just the right weariness and droll bite. But she’s been cheated — and so are we — by the fact that Holofcener writes this role so darkly and basically unsympathetically, because the filmmaker so strenuously tries to avoid the obvious sentimentality we’d feel toward an elderly woman in what are probably her last days.

At one point, when Kate, Alex, Mary, Rebecca and Andra all get together, Mary starts talking about Andra and the disposition of her apartment after she’s dead, as if Andra weren’t even there. I was reminded of the memorably callous treatment of the children toward their economically strapped parents in Leo McCarey‘s poignant/funny masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow — a movie that would probably inspire Kate to tears, Alex to irony, Mary to contempt/discomfort and Rebecca to thoughtfulness — and a film that Holofcener should definitely make a point of watching some day, if she hasn‘t already.

There’s actually great potential in that Please Give get-together scene — if only Holofcener would grant Andra, amid her acerbic complaints, moments of more sympathy, lightness, connection, humanity. But she doesn’t. And it’s hard to understand why. The press book tells us that Please Give is based on real life, on a real old lady and her younger neighbors/landlords, who all became friends. Friends? Did reality seem too sappy for a biting Manhattan comedy about guilt and privilege?

Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing) makes dryly funny, compassionate, realistic, verbally agile comedies with an urban setting. She once worked for Woody Allen (on Hannah and Her Sisters) and she’s clearly mining his territory, though with less wit and style. Please Give is a pretty good movie, and a notably well-acted one. But it’s been somewhat over-praised by some Manhattanphile critics, who perhaps recognize the characters too quickly as part of their own milieu, or the milieu they want to be near.

I confess I’d like Please Give a lot better if the pathos were deeper, and/or the jokes funnier. After all, Alex has a point. So does Kate. So does Rebecca. So does Mary and even pimply daughter Abby. So does Andra, God bless her. As Renoir said, “Tout le monde a ses raisons.” And as Woody Allen said, “I can’t keep up that level of charm. I’d have a heart attack.”

Night of the Demons (One Star)

U. S.; Adam Gieraschi, 2009 (e one)

Seven horny young hunks, druggies and babes, left behind when a Halloween party at a spooky old mansion is broken up by the cops, discover that a bunch of demons (fiends so bad they were expelled from Hell) are trying to get at them, turn them into demons, and take over the world — unless they and we all go though a dumb, far more expensive knock-off of The Evil Dead. Bad writing, bad acting, bad direction — but surprisingly good cinematography (by Yaron Levy). Sample dialogue: “You worked at Taco Bell? That’s awesome!” Question: “What are you, a liar or an idiot?” Answer: “An idiot.” There’s also a rock song about necrophilia. (Not kidding.) This one sometimes makes Predators look like The Exorcist. With Shannon Elizabeth and Edward Furlong.
Extras: Commentary by Gieraschi and others; Featurette.

Hand in Hand (Three Stars)

U.K.; Philip Leacock, 1960 (Columbia/Sony)

This sweet little film is the sort of picture often beloved by people who saw it very young and remembered it for years afterward. (It was a mainstay of the C.B.S. Children‘s Film Festival, hosted by those eminent Kuklapolitans, Kukla, Fran and Ollie.) Scripted by Diana Morgan and directed by Philip Leacock — who directed Steve McQueen in The War Lover, and shot a bit of Monterey Pop with documentarian brother Ricky Leacock — it’s a children‘s story about conquering religious prejudice and overcoming social schisms. The delightful (only occasionally syrupy) protagonists are a pair of bright, friendly seven year olds who meet in elementary school: a Catholic boy named Mike O‘Malley (Philip Needs) and a Jewish girl named Rachel Mathias (the adorable Loretta Parry).

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it’s almost too nice, too generous. The kids don’t really confront too much in the way of local bile, hostility and prejudice, except for some passed-on bigotry from the playground bully and some religious hysteria from Mike‘s mother — who’s played by Kathleen Byron, the unforgettable religious-sexual hysteric Sister Ruth in Powell-Pressburger‘s Black Narcissus.

The movie really needs an older, meaner bigot or two as a primary antagonist, but it manages fine anyway. Most of the older folks are quite tolerant and good-hearted, especially two collegial fellow sports fans and buddies, the local priest and rabbi (played by John Gregson and Derek Sydney), as well as a cantankerous old shopkeeper (Finlay Currie, who was Magwitch, the escaped convict of Lean‘s Great Expectations) and Dame Sybil Thorndyke (Major Barbara) as a hospitable, kindly, elderly relative of Queen Elizabeth, who picks Michael and Rachel up hitch-hiking on the road and shows them around her mansion. The movie though does convey how hard it is for small children of varying faiths (and, though it doesn’t stress the point, of varying sexes) to maintain a friendship.

Hand in Hand is, above all, a nice, warm-hearted film. It honestly makes you feel good, but it isn‘t sticky. The softly-lit, lyrical black-and-white photography is by someone you’d never peg for an assignment as gentle and low-key as this one: Freddie Young, the great romantic landscapist who lit and shot those spectacular vistas for David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago.

If you have young or very young children, I’d recommend this as one of the movies that, like The Wizard of Oz and the early Disney feature cartoons, should be a part of their childhood. The anti-prejudice message is obvious — but then, it should be.

Knock on Wood (Three Stars)

U.S.; Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, 1954 (Olive)

Danny Kaye, supported by Bob Hope team writer-directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, plus patter-songs and romantic ballads by his then-wife, Sylvia Fine, plays star entertainer/ventriloquist Jerry Morgan, whose acid-tongued dummy Clarence keeps messing up his love life. While performing in London, and losing another fiancé to his alter-ego’s wise-cracks and insults, Danny gets involved with competing teams of spies, both after some microfilm defense plans which end up in two versions of his dummy, Clarence and Terrence. Chaos and nonsense, with both Clarence and Terrence, ensue, and soon Jerry (or Danny) has spies dropping dead all around him.

Mai Zetterling, a Swedish Ingmar Bergman actress, and later an art-film director herself, plays the woman analyst who turns Danny into a prat-falling, gibbering, seat-belt-entangled fool. That excellent but little-used (in movies) actor David Burns is Danny’s Jewish mother of a manager. And Torin Thatcher is the most snobbishly satanic of the spies.

This is a good comedy with a few terrific scenes (Danny and Mai tangled up on the plane, the scene where Danny gets trapped onstage in a classical Russian ballet). But it has the seed of something great.

Toward the end of the movie, Danny spouts a little of his usual nonsense patter about the various criss-crossing spies, going (I think): “There was Gromeck and Brodnik and Shostic and Papinek. When Gromeck met Papinek…” Well, it’s not much, but the next time Panama, Frank and Kaye got together, in 1956’s The Court Jester, the star and writers let their imaginations run wild in the same direction and devised that classic tongue-twister “The pellet with the poison‘s in the vessel with the pestle. (Or the flagon with a dragon.) The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.”

And that great Kaye routine (his best) throws the castle (with a passel of vassals in a hassel) and the patter (with a splatter on the platter with a clatter) into chaos (in Laos and Barbados), and the audience into a panic (with Papinek and Gromeck and Brodnick). By the way, wasn‘t Gromeck the cop that got killed by spy Paul Newman in Hitchcock‘s Torn Curtain? Or was that Brodnick?

Wilmington on Movies: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Please Give and Harry Brown…

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Samuel Bayer, 2010

Twenty-six years ago, I walked into the only theater that ever stood on the very same block where I lived — the Vogue in Los Angeles on Hollywood Boulevard between La Brea and Cherokee — and got the living, screaming (more…)

Please Give, writer/director Nicole Holofcener

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010