Posts Tagged ‘the thin red line’

Wilmington on DVDs: The Thin Red Line, Mid-August Lunch, Grindhouse, The Twilight Zone, A Nightmare on Elm Street … and more

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010


The Thin Red Line (Two Discs) (Four Stars)

U.S.; Terrence Malick, 1998 (Criterion Collection).

Let‘s talk about a really great American movie that has been somewhat underrated and neglected, and shouldn’t be any more, not after this superb new Criterion two-disc release. The movie is Terrence Malick‘s 1998 film of James JonesThe Thin Red Line. Bravo. Bravo again. As many goddamned “Bravos” as the page will hold.

The Thin Red Line was Jones’ (also underrated) 1962 novel about the soldiers of C-for-Charlie Army Rifle Company in the U. S. attack on the Japanese fortifications on Guadalcanal in 1943, most of it dealing with the capture, at the cost of many lives, of a fictitious hill. It’s a great American war novel: terse, blunt, profane, violent, compassionate, tremendously well-informed and battle-savvy, historically knowing, full of believable characters melding into a convincing whole. Overall, it’s a book that paints an unforgettable picture of a crucial military event and of guys that fought it, men who, as we read, live and breathe and die on the page.

Jones fought and was wounded on Guadalcanal; he knew what went on there. As the novelist who firmly and irretrievably put the word “fuck” into American literature — and who fills the pages of The Thin Red Line with it — Jones obviously isn’t a writer to mince words, gild lilies, wave flags or hand us the phony-baloney public relations garbage Guadalcanal diary-show-shit we might expect. Jones gives us the war and he gives us the soldiers, straight up, scared, guns blazing and trying to stay alive for another day, another hour, another minute. Some of them do.

The Thin Red Line was made into an okay 1962 movie by director Andrew Marton (he’s the peerless second-unit director who made the Ben-Hur chariot race) with Keir Dullea and Jack Warden as Witt and Welsh, the roles played for Malick by Jim Caviezel and Sean Penn.

Unfortunately nobody introduced Jones to Anthony Mann, whose Men in War Jones praises (with reservations) in a 1963 Saturday Evening post critique on several then-recent American war movies, an article published in “Line’s” special booklet.

Yet maybe it’s a good thing that Mann didn’t make The Thin Red Line back then instead of Marton, because he couldn’t possibly have done a better job than Malick does here — and neither could Sammy Fuller, Howard Hawks, Arthur Penn, David Lean, Sergei Bondarchuk, Raoul Walsh (who had a crack at Mailer‘s The Naked and the Dead and fucked it up), John Ford, or (probably) Akira Kurosawa. (The only time I flinched in that list was when I wrote Kurosawa, but likely the “sensei” would have done it from the other side anyway.)

Malick does an incredible job here, makes an incredible movie. In the Thin Red Line DVD booklet, David Sterritt calls The Thin Red Line “the greatest war movie ever made,” and if that seems hyperbole now, I guarantee it’ll ring a lot truer, and cut a lot deeper, after you watch this Criterion disc. Malick is a different kind of storyteller that Jones. He‘s a great poet where Jones is a great prose reporter and storyteller, and he gives us the poems and the songs that Jones couldn’t have sung, just as Jones gives us the narrative stuff that Malick couldn’t have experienced or imagined.

Every frame that Malick stages, that the actors play, that Jack Fisk designs and that cinematographer John Toll shoots, is beautiful, turbulent, and/or hellishly exciting, from the moment we see Witt (Caviezel) relaxing A. W. O. L. in a native village, to the scene where Welsh (Penn), his friendly nemesis, finds and arrests him, saves his ass, and gets him on the boat that‘s taking them all to Guadalcanal.

Here’s just part of the roster we kibitz on during the story‘s warfare: Privates Witt, Bell (Ben Chaplin), Doll (Dash Mihok), Tills (Tim Blake Nelson), Dale (Arie Verveen), Tella (Kirk Acevedo), Sico (Robert Roy Hofmo), Beade (Nick Stahl), Ash (Tom Jane) and Train (John Dee Smith); Corporal Fife (Adrien Brody); First Sergeant Welsh (Penn), and Sergeants Keck (Woody Harrelson), Storm (John C. Reilly), and McCron (John Savage); Captains Staros (Elias Koteas), Bosche (George Clooney), Gaff (John Cusack); First Lieutenant Band (Paul Gleeson); Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte); and Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta).

Now, that’s a hard group to keep track of in any theater, especially since the movie has a lot of poetic narration and mystical, rapt voice-over, some by characters like Train, who don’t seem that important — which is why this DVD is such a Godsend. Almost all the characters of Thin Red Line are identified in the subtitles when they first speak, and some later as well, and the booklet has a huge full cast list that should keep you always on top of the story and the roster, of who lives and who dies. Remember, this is an extremely complex movie that can be watched several, or even numerous times, so it’s damned good to have that kind of watcher’s aid.

The story is basic. C-for-Charlie, according to the brass, has to take the hill; the Japanese are dug in and firing away. Brig. Gen. Quintard (Travolta) is a peacock-proud cynic and politician who orders the assault. Lt. Col. Tall (Nolte) is a callous bastard who keeps hurling his men into battle sometimes without enough water and supplies or adequate backup, roaring “inspirational” encouragement and patting his “boys” on the back, boyishly desperate himself to win his spurs after a lifetime of being passed over. (This part by the way, deserved an Oscar, or at least a nomination. Nolte will never be better, and few others will either.)

Capt. Staros (Koteas — and the character was “Stein” in the novel) is a good decent, competent, together officer who refuses to sacrifice his men needlessly and bravely stands up to the half-nuts Tall; of course, he gets screwed.

Bosche (Clooney) is a smoothie, totally in charge when he gets there. Gaff is a good guy who watches and listens and helps take the hill. Bell (Chaplin) dreams fondly of his wife (Miranda Otto), while death and chaos rage around him; he‘s in for a shock. Keck (Harrelson) has a death scene that will haunt your fucking dreams for years. Storm is a classic pop-off; his best scene was cut, is in the DVD annex, and should be put back in. (So should Bosche’s edited advice to Bell.) Band is a slimy jerk who deserves to be court-martialed by boa constrictors. Fife is scared shitless. Aren’t we all?

That’s the stuff of the story; men fight and die, shoot and climb, lie and survive. But what makes Malick’s Thin Red Line special, what makes it great (I think I may end up agreeing with Dave Sterritt if I watch it again and think it over), what puts it on the level of Seven Samurai and War and Peace and They Were Expendable, and maybe past them, is the astonishing lyrical sensibility which Malick brings to the story: the way he sees the world.

As in Days of Heaven and Badlands, we’re entranced, ravished. Like the water Tall cheats his men out of, it restoreth our soul. Those tableaux of Malick’s are piercing, heart-stopping. The deep greens of the forest, the blue of the faraway skies, the ocean lapping the beach as men disembark, the waving grasses on that bloody hill, the way a defeated Japanese soldier clutches his comrade‘s head, the way men see past the sky as they lie dying, Witt‘s hurt soft eyes as he watches the native villagers turn from him, the way night bleeds into day and back again.

The key to James Jones and the brilliance of his war novels, is something he often mentioned, and that his novelist daughter Kaylie recalls during an interview she gives on the bonus disc. He loved soldiers. He hated war. That’s why he and Malick are in a locked-step, lock-heart synch we couldn’t have imagined before this movie, and that we may have missed back in 1998, the first time through.

Jones tended to repeat his character types. He has said that Line’s Witt and Welsh, the rebel and the cynic, are different versions of the two From Here to Eternity characters Prewitt (played in the movie by Montgomery Clift) and Warden (Burt Lancaster), and that the story is kind of eternal. That fits Malick’s poetic conception and it completes the story. The Thin Red Line, like almost any great movie, is a world you enter, some lives that you share, a skin you slip into for a while. But, like the Iliad or Blowin’ in the Wind, it’s also a song you can sing.

Amen. Bravo again. Fuckin’ great.

(This Criterion two-pack boasts an excellent batch of extras.)



Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto) (Three and a Half Stars)
Italy; Gianni Di Gregorio, 2008 (Zeitgeist)

Gianni Di Gregorio, co-writer of the great Italian crime film, Gomorra, here executes a bewitching lovely, warm and funny change of pace.

With Matteo Garrone, the director of Gomorra and The Embalmer (another Di Gregorio script), as his producer, Di Gregorio has written, directed and stars in Mid-August Lunch. It’s a delicate, wry, brilliantly observed comic tale about a unemployed 50ish bachelor in Rome named Gianni (played by Di Gregorio). Gianni has just one friend, drinking buddy Viking (Luigi Marchetti). He spends most of his day caring for his 93-year-old mother Valeria (played by Gianni’s mother, Valeria De Fransiscis) — cooking for her, helping her daily doings, reading Dumas‘ The Three Musketeers to her at night.

Behind in his rent, sweltering in the dog days of summer, Gianni is solicited by condominium-owner and manager, Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), and asked to wipe out part of his condo debt by temporarily caring for Alfonso‘s mother Marina (Marina Cacciotto) and his aunt Maria (Maria Calli).

Improbably enough, Gianni’s doctor (Marcello Ottolenghi) also drops by that same day, examines him, and then requests that the now crowded caretaker, for that night, also take in the doctor‘s mother Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza). This leaves the gentle, considerate Gianni without a bed, but with plenty of opportunity, aided by Viking, for his culinary talents to flourish — as long as he doesn’t violate Grazia‘s stringent dietary restrictions. (The lure of a macaroni casserole demolishes those anyway.) The four women are at first a little contentious, especially about the custody of the TV. But finally family, friendship and pasta conquer all.

That’s it. No car-chases. No shootouts. No hanky-panky. No vampires. No glamour-pusses. But lots of food and laughs. I’ve seen several films recently about older people, and this is by far the best: wittily and wisely written, subtly and beautifully made. By showing us what happens when these marvelous old ladies are treated well, and lovingly, it emphasizes how badly old people are often treated elsewhere. But this is not a sad movie. It’s joyous. The acting, some by non-professionals, is superb. It made me laugh, fondly. (In Italian, with English subtitles.)



Grindhouse (Blu-Ray) (Three Stars)

U.S.; Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez, 2007 (Vivendi)

Includes: Terror Planet (U.S.; Robert Rodriguez, 2007) (Two and a Half Stars). Rodriquez’ amusingly sleazy spoof of an old-fashioned, unintentionally funny, unintentionally sleazy, science fiction horror movie. The first half of the modern Grindhouse double feature Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino open up here.

Also: Death Proof (U.S.; Quentin Tarantino, 2007). Three Stars. The longer version of Tarantino’s half of his Grindhouse pastiche double feature stunt with Robert Rodriguez, Death Proof is a feminist car-chase sadistic romp with a Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!-style ensemble of tough girl drivers (Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson and others) battling it out with the evil Stunt Man Jack (Kurt Russell.) Nasty fun. Extras: Extended and unrated footage, featurettes, trailer.



The Twilight Zone: Season One (Blu-ray) (Five Discs) (Four Stars)

U.S.; Various Directors, 1959-60 (CBS/Image)

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity…

Portrait of a man, smoking a cigarette at a cocktail party, on the edge of an abyss. His name is Rod Serling, he is 36 years old, and he makes his living writing serious, hard-hitting contemporary television plays for picky network executives and hard-to-please sponsors, working in the toughest, cruelest entertainment arena of them all, American network TV.

Serling’s teleplays, with titles like “Patterns” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “A Town has Turned to Dust,” win prizes and big audiences and critical hurrahs. But Mr. Serling is not satisfied. He is not really enjoying himself at this loud party in a swanky penthouse on the 36th floor overlooking glamorous, exciting New York City — despite the drinks and the food and the important people and the beautiful women all around him.

Instead, he is remembering the smaller city where he grew up — Syracuse, New York — and all the small towns on all the train stops along the way, in the quieter days and more peaceful times before World War 2. Mr. Serling is envisioning his boyhood, in the land of the past.

But he is also thinking, as he stands smoking reflectively in the party din, with jazz on records played by Dave Brubeck or Miles Davis, of the nightmares that may await in the land of the future: of astronauts lost on strange planets and distant asteroids, of robots who fall in love, of a monster on the wing of a plane, of the folly of making bets with the devil, of a man whose life turns into a movie set, and of another man whose lovers are the figments of fancy in his scripts. He is thinking of a woman bedeviled by her exact double in a lonely bus station, of beautiful trumpet solos and lost souls in Manhattan traveling between life and death, and of an empty world after a nuclear attack with full libraries and only one broken pair of glasses.

Rod Serling doesn’t know it, but that world is closer then he realizes. It is nearer than he imagines. Only a typewriter away. The very next stop on an imaginary train. (A stop named Willoughby.) Behind the shadows in a room he doesn’t yet see, it lies, waiting for him. As that fresh cigaret burns in his hand and the people and ladies carouse around him, something odd, something frightening, is about to happen. The stars blaze and the children are calling and the monsters await and another world is opening up on the patio overlooking the night below, a world that will soon entice and dazzle him — and then take over his life forever.

It is the world Mr. Rod Serling will soon recognize … as The Twilight Zone.

Rod Serling’s original show The Twilight Zone is one of my four or five all-time favorite TV series, and also, I think, one of TV’s greatest creations. (My other personal favorites, by the way, include I Love Lucy, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Andy Griffith, Maverick, Playhouse 90, and the various Sid Caesar shows. Like Serling, you see, I treasure my boyhood.)

Obviously I also think that this Blu-ray box set, beautifully packaged by people who clearly love the show too — and a set that covers what may have been the series’ best season of shows — is an essential, a treasure. Like Serling and his cigarettes, you’ve just got to have it.

Twilight Zone, of course, is the classic anthology program of half-hour fantasy and science fiction dramas, mostly original, that Serling mostly wrote and always introduced — with his eloquent, crystal-clear words and unmistakable sonorous, punchy delivery — on CBS from 1959 though 196-. The inspiration for the series probably was that superb editor Anthony Boucher’s classy genre story-periodical The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (maybe a bit of H. L. Gold’s Galaxy and John W. Campbell’s earlier Astounding too); F. & S. F. published exactly the kind of stories Serling now chose to write, and also supplied him with one of his two most frequent fellow Twilight Zone scripters, Richard Matheson. (Serling’s other prime collaborator, Charles Beaumont, mostly wrote for Playboy.)

The Serling Zone teleplays were Ray Bradbury-Theodore Sturgeon sort of tales, little gems of suspense and horror and lyrical fantasy, which seemed to be originating in bad dreams that suddenly took over real life, or, we soon discovered, had been “real” life all along. Wish fulfillment gone awry and recurring nightmares were two of Serling’s recurring dream-themes. His tales were fables, fairytales, prediction and horror, in slices or sections.

The show was absolutely brilliantly produced (Serling was the exec), wonderfully written and cast, loaded with top actors like Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, Ida Lupino, Ed and Keenan Wynn, Gig Young, and Burgess Meredith, and stunningly shot in crisp black and white noir-style photography and eerie images that have never aged, mostly by George Clemens (like Serling, a “Zone” Emmy winner). The early signature theme and many of the early shows were scored by the best composer you could possibly get for suspense music: Bernard Herrmann.

The roster of directors in Season One — including strong new “50s talents (Ted Post, Stuart Rosenberg, Douglas Heyes, Jack Smight, Ralph Nelson) and a solid core of movie and film noir veterans (John Brahm, Mitchell Leisen, Robert Parrish, Robert Florey) — was stellar, and it continued to be one of the show‘s strengths.

Serling knew his helmsmen (his most collegial ‘50s collaborator had been John Frankenheimer, who‘d gone to the movies by Zone time ) and he knew the kind of scripts and stories that would draw them in. Brahm was the best Zone director of all in the ‘59-’60 season. He’s the guy who guided the best Zone show of all, the masterly “Time Enough At Last,” the irony-laden librarian/broken glasses fable that starred Meredith. But, surprisingly, Parrish was a great Zone director too, and so was Florey (no surprise), while Post, Rosenberg, Stevens, Don Medford, Nelson, Smight and a few others were all top-of-the-line.

Serling‘s most famous and awarded ’50s teleplays were often liberal message dramas about subjects like corporate cruelty (“Patterns“), brain-washing (“The Rack“), exploitation (“Requiem for a Heavyweight”), and lynching (“A Town has Turned to Dust”). He was notable for a special blend of street-smart toughness (Serling was a World War 2 paratrooper and a big sports and jazz fan) mixed with heartfelt compassion.

Few of the great ’50s TV tele-playwrights, not even Paddy (“Marty”) Chayefsky, had a softer heart for their characters than Serling. He continued that warm vein of compassion and that unabashed, unafraid liberalism though the years of Zone, a show never afraid to attack racism, bigotry, or exploitation, to decry the nuclear arms race, to empathize strongly with the little guy, the old, the dying, or to stand behind the worthier progressive causes of his day. (How ironic then, that Serling’s special private paradise was usually in the faraway past.)

I have a lot of respect for Stephen King’s taste in horror, but I just don’t understand how King can say that The Outer Limits was the best show of its kind (a very clear nudge at Twilight Zone). Outer Limits was a top-notch, scary show, and it was certainly a haven for noir writer Joseph Stefano (Psycho) and for director Gerd Oswald (A Kiss Before Dying) and I‘m sure King would love to have written for it. Its hour length, which Serling had wanted for Zone, is more flexible. But Twilight Zone is in a class by itself. Even, eventually sad to say, for Serling himself.

Serling was 36 when he started The Twilight Zone, exactly the same age as a lot of the talented, oddball or tormented male characters he would quickly and indelibly sketch for us in those unforgettable, inimitable introductions. That, and the several years of Zone that followed, were the writer/host’s inarguable peak, his great seasons of imagination. Rod Serling died at 50 in 1975 of heart disease, after decades of chain-smoking the nicotine sticks that must have killed him, that killed Bogie too. We’d like to think, of course, that his death was as kind as the ones he liked to give his most special characters — even if it probably wasn‘t. We’d like to think he finally made it there, wherever he wanted to be, that the last thing Rod Serling heard may have been the “All Out” for the stop at Willoughby.

And also, of course, for the last stop in The Twilight Zone.

( All shows are U.S. TV productions. They’re all good. The sign * indicates a show of special interest, ** indicates a classic. All Rod Serling scripts are indicated; some are adaptations.)

Includes (on Disc One): *“Where is Everybody” (Robert Stevens, 1959) with Earl Holliman (Writer: Serling). **”One for the Angels” (Robert Parrish, 1959) with Ed Wynn and Murray Hamilton (Serling). A great one. “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” (Allen Reisner, 1959) with Dan Duryea (Serling); **“The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” (Mitchell Leisen, 1959) with Ida Lupino and Martin Balsam (Serling); *“Walking Distance” (Robert Stevens, 1959) with Gig Young (Serling); *“Escape Clause” (Leisen, 1959) with David Wayne and Thomas Gomez (Serling); *”The Lonely” (Jack Smight, 1959) with Jack Warden and Jean Smart (Serling).

Disc Two: **“Time Enough at Last” (John Brahm, 1959) with Burgess Meredith (Serling). My nominee for the best of all Twilight Zones. **“Perchance to Dream” (Robert Florey, 1959) with Richard Conte (Charles Beaumont). **“Judgment Night” (Brahm, 1959) with Nehemia Persoff (Serling). *“And When the Sky was Opened (Douglas Heyes, 1959) with Rod Taylor (Serling). **“What You Need” (Alvin Ganzer, 1959) with Steve Cochran and Ernest Truex (Serling). **”The Four of Us are Dying” (Brahm, 1960) with Don Gordon and Beverly Garland (Serling). *“Third from the Sun” (Richard L. Bare, 1960) with Fritz Weaver (Serling, based on Richard Matheson). *I Shot an Arrow Into the Air” (Stuart Rosenberg, 1960) with Dewey Martin (Serling).

Disc Three: “The Hitch-Hiker” (Alvin Ganzer, 1960) with Inger Stevens (Serling). **”The Fever” (Robert Florey, 1960) with Everett Sloane (Serling). “The Last Flight” (William Claxton, 1960) with Kenneth Haigh (Matheson). “The Purple Testament” (Bare, 1960) with William Reynolds (Serling). “Elegy” (Heyes, 1960) with Cecil Kellaway (Beaumont). **”Mirror Image” (Brahm, 1960) with Vera Miles and Martin Milner (Serling). *”The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (Ron Winston, 1960) with Claude Akins (Serling).

Disc Four: **“A World of Difference” (Ted Post, 1960) with Howard Duff (Matheson). *“Long Live Walter Jameson” (Anton Leader, 1960) with Kevin McCarthy (Beaumont). **”People are Alike All Over”
(Leisen, 1960) with Roddy McDowall (Serling). “Execution” (David Orrick McDearmon, 1960) with Albert Salmi (Serling). *“The Big Tall Wish” (Ron Winston, 1960) with Ivan Dixon (Serling). **”A Nice Place to Visit” (Brahm, 1960) with Larry Blyden and Sebastian Cabot (Beaumont). * “Nightmare as a Child” (Ganzer, 1960) with Janice Rule (Serling). **“A Stop at Willoughby” (Parrish, 1960) with James Daly (Serling). Another great one.

Disc Five: “The Chaser” (Heyes, 1960) with George Grizzard. ** “A Passage for Trumpet” (Don Medford, 1960) with Jack Klugman and John Anderson (Serling). “Mr. Bevis” (William Asher, 1960) with Orson Bean (Serling). *“The After Hours” (Heyes, 1960) with Anne Francis (Serling). **“The Mighty Casey” (Parrish & Ganzer, 1960) with Jack Warden (Serling). **”A World of His Own” (Ralph Nelson, 1960) with Keenan Wynn, Phyllis Kirk and Serling (Matheson).

Special: *“The Time Element” (Allen Reisner, 1958), with William Bendix and Martin Balsam (Serling). This is the hour-long Twilight Zone pilot show, about frantic psychiatrist patient Pete (Bendix), in 1958, who keeps dreaming himself back to December 7, 1941, on Pearl Harbor, and is afraid he won’t wake up before the Japanese attack — as shown on “Desilu Playhouse” and introduced by Desi Arnaz.

Extras: Interviews with Serling, Matheson, Clemens and others; Commentaries by Taylor, Holliman, Post, and others; Radio versions of the shows; Isolated music scores; Serling network pitch and promos.



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 Hell scared out of me, by a new movie called A Nightmare on Elm Street. This 1984 Wes Craven horror super-shocker, was about a grinning school janitor with a hideously burned face named Freddy Krueger, who wore a tacky striped sweater, a dirty fedora and had steel-claw fingernails — a wise-cracking homicidal maniac who ran amok in the dreams of the local high-schoolers, taunting and killing them in both fantasy and reality. The movie was so murderously effective, I was almost afraid to walk home. And home was only a block away.

I still think that first Nightmare has one of the great scare horror movie premises ever: a killer who looks like an evil clown, haunts everyone’s dreams at will, can’t be caught and takes obscene, hilarious relish in all his murders. A monster who lives in your dreams and is always there, ready to slash. You can keep away from the haunted mansion and the Bates Motel. You can lock the doors on Halloween, maybe avoid maniacs, fly away from the Living Dead and even elude the Terminator. Maybe. But how can you stop yourself from falling asleep? And meeting Freddy again? And again? (Unfortunately, the runaway success of Craven’s Nightmare prompted more than a few too many sequels.

Now, decades later, there have been eight more trips to Elm Street, and any teenager who goes anywhere near that tree-lined block, probably belongs in a padded cell — where they will almost certainly fall asleep and find Freddy waiting for them. The cheerfully murderous Mr. Krueger, played by genial Robert Englund, has ripped off so many nasty quips and killed so many promising young actors, including Johnny Depp in the first movie, that he probably qualifies as an honorary Hollywood producer or talent manager. But, of those eight other trips, only the 1987 Nightmare 3, and the other one directed by Craven — 1994‘s Wes Craven‘s New Nightmare — were worth a damn.

Now comes the lavishly budgeted modern remake that, as with other recent remake atrocities — the new Last House on the Left and the new Friday the Thirteenth — bids to re-start the whole nightmare cycle all over again: a super production with lots of splatter but without Craven, without Englund, without Depp, without Heather Langenkamp, Patricia Arquette, Chuck Fleischer and all the rest of the gallery of the nightmare-ridden and slashed — and most importantly, without shame. This movie isn’t even worth half a damn.

Co-written without inspiration by Wesley Strick (of the Scorsese Cape Fear), half-stylishly directed by Samuel Bayer (of numerous rock videos), and with Jackie Earle Haley bravely replacing the seemingly irreplaceable Englund, the new A Nightmare of Elm Street purports to tell us what really happened way back when, to fill in the complete backstory that sent Freddy off on those endless bloody rampages.


It seems that Freddy is a friendly pedophile with an unquenchable lech for comely young artist Nancy Holbrook (Rooney Mara), that he was burned alive by a mob of angry parents led by Clancy Brown as Alan Smith (ee?), that Smith‘s boy Quentin (Kyle Gallner) also has the hots for Nancy, that the two of them plan to foil Freddy by half-falling asleep in his old haunts. (Fat chance, suckers.) And that Freddy probably gained entry into everybody’s nightmares because of his passion for the Everly Brothers‘ ‘50s ballad “All I Have to Do is Dream,” which, played under the credits, provides this movie‘s unquestioned high point. (But why not also give us Bobby Darin’s great “Dream Lover?“ Or Mama Cass‘s “Dream a Little Dream of Me?”)


Now that you know the awful truth, you are spared the necessity of seeing this awful movie, and New Line has been spared the horrific duty of preparing eight more horrendous sequels. Poor Robert Englund has been spared the torment of watching Jackie Earle Haley scratching his steel claw fingernails against blackboards, furnaces, bedroom walls and nubile flesh — those fingernails, that flesh, that should be his, his! (Why couldn’t Englund be granted at least a cameo here? Playing, say, the high school psychiatrist?)

As for Haley, a fine actor who, in this movie, lacks Englund‘s gusto, he can now return to more plausible perversions in artier films like Little Children, and be forever spared the chore of showing up at shopping malls and fan conventions in his striped sweater, cackling “Hey! I’ll take a stab at this!” and dipping his fore-fingernail into inkwells for autographs.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is slick but empty, flashy but familiar, bloody but bowed. I wasn’t scared walking out of it this time. I should have been scared, walking in.

Secretary (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Steven Shainberg, 2002 ( Lionsgate )

A shy-looking boss (James Spader) hires a quiet secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who develops a taste for degradation. Daring, but overrated.

DVD Geek: The Thin Red Line

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Bookended with cameo appearances—each has one scene—by John Travolta near the opening and George Clooney near the end, Terence Malick’s 1998 WWII feature, The Thin Red Line, about the taking of Guadalcanal, is filled with actors who were moderately well known at the time of the production and actors who have since gone on to become quite famous, including Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, John Savage, Jared Leto and John C. Reilly.  It is clear looking back now, however, that Nick Nolte owns the movie.  His character, a passed over colonel who has stuck it out to be in a war, is not very likeable, which is why he was probably ignored amid the backhanded praises that it is an ‘ensemble’ film, but you fear for the man in almost every scene, that he might pop a vein.  He’s harsh, he’s pushy, he has an ugly haircut, and he’s out of place, surrounded by youngsters (Travolta plays his C.O.), but in every microscopic opening he gets, Nolte imbues his character with a deep humanity.  It would be so easy to take the character over the top—and many actors could probably do nothing else in the circumstances—but Nolte is as restrained and measured as his character is heated and maniacal, and the more often you see the film the more you suspect that it will end up being the actor’s crowning achievement.

The inclusion of Clooney and Travolta is essentially a distraction imposed by the studio.  It also, probably, turned people away, because those are the two actors in the cast that general audiences would have come to see—nobody in his right mind goes to see a movie only because Sean Penn is in it—and would have been disappointed by their limited screen time.  Running 171 minutes, the film is one of Malick’s handful of masterpieces—four movies in three decades, with a fifth to appear shortly—and blends the excitement, confusion and nihilism of war with careful reflections on the value of existence.  There are several points in the narrative where the film cheats to get past a tough spot (basically jumping ahead and not worrying about how characters solve various battle dilemmas), but once you come to accept that shortcoming, the rest is true glory.  It is, however, a film that depends desperately on the quality of its presentation to convey, most powerfully, its conflict between the horrors of war and the beauties of cinema, and rising to that occasion is the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release.  20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released the film on DVD initially.  It was a fabulous DVD, but the BD is a great deal better.  Presented in DTS, the film’s highly detailed audio mix is not only all-encompassing, it is designed to be amplified, so that you can raise it to a higher volume level than you do other films without encountering distortion.  The movie is intended to be an immersive experience—it says as much in its opening shots—and the louder and better the audio delivery is, the less aware you are of anything outside the film.  The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  

The picture is a slight but distinctive improvement over Fox’s DVD.  On the DVD, the colors are a bit lighter, contrasts are less detailed and the image isn’t quite as sharp.  Fox had also released a DTS DVD, without the one extra feature, an excellent music sampler, that the standard DVD had.  The picture transfer is the same.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound on the standard DVD is somewhat mushy.  The sound on the DTS DVD is sharper, but it still has a very weak rear-channel presence.  The DTS track on the BD blows them both away.

The BD has a 35-minute segment from 1999, after the production was finished, containing interviews with several of the cast members.  Their various imitations of Malick during their recollections of events create a unique composite portrait of the director that will have to suffice in the absence of any direct depiction of him at work.  There is another 18-minute retrospective interview from 2010 with casting director Dianne Crittenden, who shares some great screen test footage, and tantalizing images of now famous actors who didn’t make the grade.  Another 27-minute retrospective interview with editors Leslie Jones, Saar Klein and Billy Weber from 2010 goes over Malick’s very challenging filmmaking process, coaxing his vision out of the enormous amount of footage that he shot.  They also reveal that during the process, Malick never, ever watched the film in full from beginning to end, as he preferred to look at and work on just portions of it at a time.  There is a very nice 16-minute retrospective interview with composer Hans Zimmer, who describes the collaborative and creative process he had with Malick in great detail, and uses his insider’s viewer to discus the dynamics of the film’s themes.  Shifting gears, there is a good 19-minute interview with Kaylie Jones, the daughter of novelist James Jones, who talks about her father’s background, his war experiences, and his life as an expatriate writer.

Included as well are 13 minutes of deleted scenes.  Most have slight tonality problems, presenting characters too negatively, but there is one terrific scene with Clooney that might have had to go to maintain the balance of his star presence.  A 7-minute montage of production stills (including photos of some of the elaborate crane set ups) are accompanied by a recording of a Melanesian Choir that was featured more extensively in the DVD’s sampler.  There are 15 minutes of original newsreels about the battles for Guadalcanal and the rest of the Solomon Islands chain, and a trailer.

The film is also accompanied by an excellent commentary track featuring producer Grant Hill, production designer Jack Fisk and cinematographer John Toll.  They identify where each sequence, and sometimes each cut, was shot—the three major locations were Queensland Australia, Guadalcanal itself, and California—and explain how the light, which was rarely supplemented with artificial illumination, was captured.  Both Toll and Hill compare working with Malick to working with Carole Ballard, and all three describe Malick’s methods as a director. 

“Terry was shooting and he said, ‘Cut,’ and suddenly Wardrobe and Hair and everybody ran in to make touchups, and he was so frustrated that I believe that was the last time he ever said, ‘Cut.’   Now he just shoots until he hears that flap of the film in the camera.”

“Terry had never done a film on this scale before.  That’s where sort of the frustration came in at times.  If you have five hundred people halfway up the mountain and for some reason, a technical reason or some performance reason, you have to stop and re-set, it’s 40 minutes by the time everybody is back to original positions, which was part of the reason Terry just decided to let them run out, because he figured maybe he’d get something in the last half of the roll.”

“Filmmaking is all about taking very limited amounts of film and piecing it all together and coming up with a sequence, and sometimes the more of those pieces you have to work with, the better off you are.”

“There are a lot of small pieces in this film that come from the ‘run up’ and the ‘run out’ of the reels.”

Hill also explains that unlike normal film productions, where each day’s shooting is planned down to the smallest detail, there was a controlled but fuzzier approach to the day’s work when Malick was involved.  “It wasn’t something that I was able to get a clear idea of just from reading the script because Terry said, he uses the script as a guide.  So eventually what we did is put all of the major sequences, in a sense, into individual boxes, as they were reflected in the schedule, and they became, in a sense, like sort of ‘playboxes.’  If a sequence had 10 days in the schedule, the understanding was that we’d support pretty much whatever we could do within that 10 days to do that sequence in terms of providing time and resources and whatever, but at the end of that time, what we walked away with would be the component pieces to make that sequence work.  It worked, I think, very well, and it worked, I think, very well for Terry.  It gave him freedom to shoot the sequences in a way that worked for him, but at the same time, it gave him the necessary breaks and the necessary time allocation that would keep him all the time within the overall schedule that we’d made, which was something that he was very keen to do, and in fact in the end he shot the movie in the number of days that he said he would be able to.”

The DVD Wrap: Get Him to the Greek, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, The Thin Red Line, The Law, Ellery Queen … and more

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Get Him to the Greek: Blu-ray

In Richard Benjamin’s delightful 1982 comedy, My Favorite Year, all junior writer Benjy Stone was required to do was get the famously debauched British actor, Alan Swann, from his New York hotel to a nearby studio, where a popular comedy-variety show (think, “Your Show of Shows”) is being broadcast live to a national audience.

MW on DVDs: The Killer Inside Me, The Law (La Loi), Palermo or Wolfsburg, Get Him to the Greek … and more

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010


The Killer Inside Me (Three Stars)
U.S.; Michael Winterbottom, 2010

All these years, ever since it first appeared as a paperback original novel in 1952, a possible movie of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me — the first-person deep-noir tale of a smooth-talking small-town Southern deputy sheriff and murdering bastard named Lou Ford — has been a movie masterpiece waiting to happen.