CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (A)
U.S.; Andrew Dominik, 2007, Warner
2007 was a year that saw a surprising resurgence of the American movie Western -- both classical and modern (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, 3:10 to Yuma) -- and one of the best was this retelling, by New Zealand-born filmmaker Andrew Dominik, of the oft-told legend of charismatic outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and the "dirty little coward," Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), who laid poor Jesse in his grave.
Dominik gives the movie that brainy mixture of stylization and spontaneity that Arthur Penn got so triumphantly in Bonnie and Clyde. This film's beautiful vistas have a dry, remembered quality that suggests old daguerreotypes, just as the performances have a force that gets into your head and nerves. Dominic's movie, a bent epic, portrays Jesse as a colorful psychopath and Ford as a two-faced wannabe and schemer who may be a bit in love with Jesse. In those roles, Pitt and Affleck are memorable and terrific. So is much of the film.
The Apartment (Collector's Edition) (A)
U.S.; Billy Wilder, 1960, MGM-Fox
The Apartment is Billy Wilder's comic-romantic '60s masterpiece: a funny, stinging portrayal of American corporate culture circa 1960 (success-wise) and the office pimpmanship and whoredom that fuels it all. Jack Lemmon, at his ebullient best, is C.C. Baxter, a rising young employee who loans out his apartment to his bosses for their extramarital shenanigans in return for favorable reports; Shirley MacLaine is Fran Kubelik, the winsome elevator girl of Baxter's dreams, and Fred MacMurray is Sheldrake, his boss, her married lover, and the man who holds the keys and calls the shots.
The main settings, designed by Alexander Trauner (Children of Paradise) are Baxter's slightly worn brownstone digs on Central Park West, where he strains spaghetti through a tennis racket and can't quite get Grand Hotel on his dinky TV, but where his Jewish doctor neighbor (Jack Kruschen) misperceives him as the stud of studs -- and also the gleaming Mies van der Rohe-style glass slab building where Baxter works, on a huge floor modeled after King Vidor's impersonal office space in The Crowd -- and where our boy will learn, step by risqué step, that you can't get a key to the executive washroom without getting your hands dirty.
Wilder's inspiration here was David Lean and Noel Coward's peerless 1945 extramarital romance film Brief Encounter, fueled by Billy's speculations about the pal who loans his room in that film to Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. The results are bittersweet, hilarious and marvelous. I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder's witty Some Like It Hot-mate, co-wrote the script, Andre Previn wrote the effulgent score, and Edie Adams (Mrs. Ernie Kovacs), Ray Walston and Krushchen support the three stars -- who are all at their absolute best. A multiple Oscar winner and an enduring classic that still makes you tear up and laugh; it's my own personal Wilder favorite. Another confession: I fell in love with Shirley M. after seeing this movie in 1960, and never got over it. (Extras: Commentary with Bruce Block, featurettes.)
Midnight Express (A)
U.S.; Alan Parker, 1978, Columbia
No movie about young Americans and drugs in the '70s is more horrific, more raw and realistic, yet strangely lyrical, than this searing re-creation of the prison experiences of the real-life Billy Hayes, who tries to smuggle some hashish out of Istanbul and winds up in a Turkish prison and a nightmare of sadism, abuse and corruption -- in a world where civil rights have been flushed down the toilet, brutality and bigotry rule and the only escape is the "midnight express" (death).
This fierce movie, scripted by the young Oliver Stone in a mood of fire and blood, still packs an incredible wallop, working as both a ferocious thriller and riveting social reportage. With John Hurt as Max (Bravo!), Randy Quaid, Bo Hopkins, Irene Miracle, and, as the prison guard from hell, Paul Smith. (Extras: Commentary and booklet by Parker, three featurettes loaded with interviews.)
BOX SET CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Films of Sergei Paradjanov (A)
Russia; Sergei Paradjanov, 1965-1988, Kino
One of the world's greatest film directors, a protean moviemaker and a truly supreme visual stylist, was the Russian genius Sergei Paradjanov. His career was cut short by censorship and a prison term, but he still produced a handful of works of extraordinary originality and immense artistry. His 1964 masterpiece, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, though, was his only real international hit, and, as with Orson Welles, one can mourn all the films he didn't make -- as well as his cruel and stupid mistreatment by the Soviet hacks who were his nemeses.
Still, the movies he did put on celluloid were fabulous, and Kino has packaged four of his finest (including a new widescreen transfer of Shadows) in this set which also includes a feature documentary, Paradjanov: A Requiem, a short 2003 documentary, Islands, about his friendship with that other great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and many other extras. Note: Almost any movie lover will be instantly impressed with the lush, exciting, overwhelmingly visual Shadows, but some may be daunted by the austere, less kinetic style of the other three films in the set. Don't be. All four are brilliant works that repay many reviewings. All the films are Russian releases, in Russian and Ukrainian, with English subtitles. (Extras: Documentaries, featurettes, interviews, photo galleries, filmographies.)
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (A)
Based on a story by Maxim Gorky's contemporary and friend, Mikhaylo Kovsyubinskiy, this pastoral romance and tragedy set in the Carpathian Mountains -- about two lovers, Ivan and Marichka, kept apart by fate -- is one of the most visually stunning of all Russian films, an international sensation in 1964 and a jaw-dropping cinematic feast on a level with the best of Tarkovsky, Eisenstein and Paradjanov's teacher Alexandre Dovzhenko (Earth).
The Color of Pomegranates (A)
After Shadows, which displeased Soviet authorities despite its great world success, Paradjanov's career was derailed, and his style changed. Shadows is one of the great camera movement films, but in his final three features, all in this set, the camera moves much more rarely, and a tableau style reminiscent of friezes and icon painting dominates -- as in Pomegranates, a rapturously colorful bio movie on the 17th-century Armenian poet, Arutuin Sayadian or Sayat Nova.
The Legend of Suram Fortress (B+)
A period battle-adventure film based on a Georgian war legend, and another movie where the camera also rarely moves, Suram Fortress sometimes looks and feels like some weird collaboration between Japan's respective masters of action and stillness, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu.
Ashik Kerib (A)
Paradjanov's last feature was dedicated to his recently deceased friend Tarkovsky; based on a Lermontov fairytale, it's a gorgeous tale of a wandering minstrel trying to win his love from her stern father. Like Paradjanov's other films, it's magic.
The Jean-Luc Godard Box Set (A)
France-Switzerland: Jean-Luc Godard, Lionsgate
No 20th-century filmmaker is more controversial, both more improvidently loved and hated, than the French critic/cineaste Jean-Luc Godard, the impudent classicist and reformed radical who almost never makes the kind of film that financiers (or most audiences) want to see, but makes them brilliantly. Here are four of Godard's post-1980 films, all made after he returned from his years as a quasi-Marxist minimalist cinema politico and re-entered (in a way) the world of the art film he had deserted in the '60s. I like him better this way. Many don't. That's their problem. All these films are French-Swiss productions, directed and written by Godard, in French and other languages, with English subtitles.
A weird, compelling backstage movie-making movie, with Isabelle Huppert, Hanna Schygulla and Michel Piccoli.
Prenom: Carmen (A)
An austere satire about a radical filmmaker (Maruschka Detmers) and her seedy movie director uncle, Jean-Luc Godard (played by Godard himself in a funny, self-kidding performance); the biggest critical and festival hit of the set. A Venice Grand Prize winner.
Godardian film noir, with a great cast: Claude Brasseur, Nathalie Baye, Johnny Hallyday, Jean-Pierre Leaud and the young (and gorgeous) Julie Delpy. The film is noirishly dedicated to Clint Eastwood, Edgar Ulmer and John Cassavetes.
Helas Pour Moi (B)
Bizarre religious parable about God-in-man, starring Gerard Depardieu -- who got along less well with Godard than he did with Jean-Luc's Nouvelle Vague ex-pal Francois Truffaut.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Across the Universe (B)
U.K.; Julie Taymor, 2007, Sony
Director Taymor takes dozens of Beatles songs by John Lennon-Paul McCartney or George Harrison, and weaves them into an archetypal '60s tale of youth, rebellion and love. Not a very good idea but, surprisingly, a lot of it works. (Extras: Extended musical numbers, commentary by Taymor and composer-musical supervisor Elliot Goldenthal, featurettes.)
Two Days in Paris (B)
France-U.S.; Julie Delpy, 2007, 20th Century Fox I love Julie Delpy, and Two Days, her writer-directorial feature debut, reveals her as a terrific actress in both French and English, and a beguiling filmmaker as well. It's about a French and American couple (Delpy and Adam Goldberg) hitting emotional roadblocks in Paris. Delpy's director-mentor Richard Linklater (with whom she and Ethan Hawke made the splendid romances Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), is obviously a strong influence here, but she has high gifts and a filmic personality all her own. (Extras: Interview with Delpy, extended scenes.)
The Brave One (B-)
U.S.; Neil Jordan, 2007, Warner
Star Jodie Foster, director Neil Jordan and supporting star Terrence Howard redo Michael Winner and Charles Bronson's sympathetic vigilante theme from Death Wish and improve on the original, without really justifying it. Not bad, but I'd rather they were all doing something else.
Elizabeth: the Golden Age (C+)
U.K.; Shekhar Kapur, 2007, Universal
Everyone here might be better employed too -- and I think Cate Blanchett (here doing the Virgin Queen Bess for Kapur for the second time) is as good as they come. But this movie is one Spanish Armada too many. (Extras: Featurettes.)
The Jane Austen Book Club (C)
U.S.; Robin Swicord, 2007, Sony
I love Jane Austen as much as Julie -- but in a different way -- and I'm even fond of some films of her work, like the BBC Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth as Darcy, and Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility. But this movie treats Austen like a guest topic on Oprah: a good ensemble -- Kathy Baker, Maria Bello, Emily Blunt and Jimmy Smits read her together and find their problems confronted or solved. That's not why I pick up Persuasion. Read the real stuff instead. (Extras: Cast and crew commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes.)
Tootsie: 25th Anniversary Edition (B+)
U.S.; Sydney Pollack, 1982, Sony
Some still like it hot. Pollack, writers Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, and star Dustin Hoffman whip up a drag comedy that was funny, gentle and hip all at once, with Hoffman as a struggling Manhattan actor who turns his career around by pretending to be an actress and winning a juicy soap opera role. It still works -- though I knocked it in Isthmus back in 1982. As Joe E. Brown says, "Nobody's perfect." With Jessica Lange, Charles Durning, Bill Murray, Pollack (in the agent role that started his simultaneous acting career), Teri Garr and Geena Davis. (Extras: Featurette, deleted scenes, screen test.)
The Aristocats (C+)
U.S.; Wolfgang Reitherman, 1970, Walt Disney
When Roy Disney helped turn the Disney feature cartoon franchise around with that undersea charmer The Little Mermaid in 1988, he and the others (Ashman-Menken, Musker/Clements, etc.) were rescuing Disney, in some ways, from movies like The Aristocats, a pussycat-Parisian musical comedy about rich pet cats menaced by an evil butler. Now, it prompts nostalgia, which only proves Holden Caulfield was right. (That's J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, not the joint stars of Dear Ruth.) Voiced by Eva Gabor, Sterling Holloway, Scatman Crothers and Phil Harris. That's what I like about the South. (Extras: Games, deleted scenes, featurette.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
The Jewish Americans (B)
U.S.; David Grubin, 2008, Paramount
A good Ken Burns-style documentary on the history and contributions of Jewish Americans to our melting pot culture. Well done. I knew about Ben Hecht, Abraham Cahan and the other great Jewish American creators, of course, but I was unaware that the Confederacy during the Civil War was largely run by the Jewish businessman/cabinet member Judah Benjamin. So too, I imagine, were many later Southern anti-Semites. Engrossing and illuminating. (Extras: Interview with Grubin, Jewish cooking featurette.)
Slings and Arrows (B+)
Canada; D: Peter Wellington, Bob Martin & Mark McKinney, 2003-2006, Acorn Media
An excellent Canadian TV drama/comedy series you may have missed: good as almost anything from Britain, rich in witty writing and top acting. In it, we watch a Canadian theater company, while mounting seemingly shaky productions of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, experience outrageous fortune: miscasting, cast loss, death and other calamities. The cast includes Paul Gross as the company's mercurial artistic director Geoffrey Tennant, the ghostly Stephen Ouimette, co-writer McKinney, Don McKellar, Rachel McAdams and Sarah Polley. Everyone's damned nigh mirror-up-to-nature perfect, and this show, in my opinion is at least as good as The Office or Sex and the City, and more literate than either.(Extras: Featurettes, cast interviews, bloopers, extended scenes, photo galleries, and trailers.)
Rosemary and Thyme (B-)
U.K.; various directors, 2003-2005, Acorn Media
The British love both murder mysteries and country gardens -- Agatha Christie was an expert at both -- and they're charmingly combined in this TV series, with felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris as a pair of flower enthusiasts who keep stumbling on corpses whenever they dig up or plant a garden. They're fun to watch, and the series is well written, well acted, and beautifully shot.
Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959 versions) (A)
U.S.; John M. Stahl, Douglas Sirk, 1934-1959, Universal
Struggling moms-turned-star-actresses Irene Dunne ('34 version) and Lana Turner ('59) and their stalwart African American maids Louise Beavers and Juanita Moore experience heartbreak when Beavers-Moore daughters Fredi Washington (of the Duke Ellington band) and Susan Kohner try to pass for white. Embarrassing? Sure. But it doesn't really matter that the culture has changed and that Fannie Hurst wrote the original novel. These are weepers with heart, soul and style, and, in the great '59 Sirk remake, there's a great bonus: Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shows up at the end for a church scene that tears your heart out. Believe it or not, Preston Sturges scripted the '34 version.
Portrait in Black and Madame X (C-)
U.S.; Michael Gordon/David Lowell Rich, 1960-66, Universal
If you want proof that Douglas Sirk was a brilliant director and transmogrifier of soapy trash, check out these two typical non-Sirk Universal soapers (one a soapy thriller, one a soapy trial weepie), both with sweater lady Lana Turner. You'll wish you were watching Imitation of Life. Includes Portrait in Black (U.S.; Michael Gordon, 1960, C-) and Madame X (U.S.; David Lowell Rich, 1966, D+).
Tammy and the Bachelor/Tammy Tell Me True/Tammy and the Doctor (D+)
U.S.; Joseph Pevney, Harry Keller, 1957-63, Universal
A triple Tammy is no double whammy, even if you had a teen crush on Debbie Reynolds (as I did) or her Gidgety successor Sandra Dee. The first bachelor-besotted Tammy, the only half-good one, costars Reynolds, Walter Brennan and the pre-funny Leslie Nielsen, and it's the one with the song. (Sample lyrics: "The old hootie owl hootie-hoos to the dove: Ta-am-my, Ta-am-my, Tammy's in love!") Easy Rider Peter Fonda always referred to Tammy and the Doctor, in which he costars, as Tammy and the Schmuckface. All movies are U.S. releases. Includes Tammy and the Bachelor (Joseph Pevney, 1957, C+), Tammy Tell Me True (Harry Keller, 1961, D), and Tammy and the Doctor (Harry Keller, 1963, D).
Phantom Empire (C+)
U.S.; B. Reeves Eason, Otto Brower, 1935, VCI Entertainment
You can't call this a good show with a straight face, but it's sure as hell an entertaining one. In this flabbergasting musical sci-fi Western serial, heroic singing cowboy Gene Autry (my idol at the age of six) leads the Junior Thunder Riders in battles against the evil alien hordes of the underground kingdom of Murania, which unleashes robots, armies, death rays, bad actors and the seductive queen Tika, in horrific forays against Gene and his pals. Will they survive? Even more important: Will they make it back to Radio Ranch in time for Gene's show? (Nearly every episode shows them racing back desperately for the broadcast.) Unbelievable -- even if you've seen it. And they sure as shootin', rootin' and tootin' don't make them like this any more. Happy trails, Gene. A camp classic.