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Wilmington on DVD: The Road, Walkabout, Sinatra, Dear John

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The Road (B)
U.S.; John Hillcoat, 2009, Sony

Here's another adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel, and if not as good as the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, it's even bleaker and more violent.

An undescribed apocalypse has struck America, and an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are wandering together across the gray, barren, devastated landscapes, toward the ocean. Along the way, they encounter lone warriors, cannibalism, deadly archers, brutal marauders and almost everything your worst nightmares about social decay and failure might summon up.

This is really no country for old men, though one dying old chap manages to show up, poignantly played by a grizzled Robert Duvall. The other gloomy denizens of this awful blighted new world are enacted very well by Molly Parker (the absent mother, in flashback), Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron and others. In almost every case, as new victim-wanderers appear, things keep getting worse and worse.

Director John Hillcoat, who made those two other bleak adventure films The Proposition and Ghosts of the Civil Dead, is relentless in his depiction of social collapse. He clearly has a good source in McCarthy's novel. And if The Road isn't exactly the kind of jolly youthful sex romp or outlandish action shocker in gorgeous surroundings the studios keep giving us, it's admirably true to its own dark vision. Apocalypse may be a frenzied roller coaster ride in smash doomsday hits like 2012. But here it's something eerier and realer: the dark, lowering cloud just outside your window.

Walkabout (A)
Australia/U.K.; Nicolas Roeg, 1971, Criterion

Two upper-class white children lost in the Australian wilderness/outback (played by Jenny Agutter and Roeg's son Lucien John), are aided in their journey back to civilization by an Aborigine boy (played by David Gulpilil, in his screen debut). The bonds of humanity unite the trio; the ties of culture and sexuality tear them apart.

This great, visually magnificent, dramatically astonishing film helped establish the Australian New Wave, even though its director, Nicolas Roeg -- making his feature debut as sole director after a distinguished cinematographic career (Petulia, Far from the Madding Crowd, second unit on "Lawrence of Arabia") and after sharing directorial credit with writer-director Donald Cammell in 1970 on the feverishly experimental Mick Jagger classic Performance -- was British. It remains perhaps Roeg's finest solo film, one of the all-time classic "quest/journey" movies, and a peak effort of the Australian cinema.


Frank Sinatra Triple Feature (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1955, 1959, 1962, MGM Entertainment

A gasser of a budget edition of three of the best from the Chairman of the Board.

Guys and Dolls (A-)
U.S.; Joseph Mankiewicz, 1955
A swinging, but slightly miscast, movie of the great Frank Loesser Broadway musical, based on Damon Runyon's stories and characters. Marlon Brando plays gambler supreme Sky Masterson and Sinatra is crap-game impresario Nathan Detroit, and it should have been Sinatra as Sky and Dean Martin as Detroit. (The two Clan members sing those roles on a Reprise album, with Bing Crosby and others). The rest of the cast is all aces: Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine, Stubby Kaye, B.S. Pully and Sheldon Leonard.

A Hole in the Head (A-)
U.S.; Frank Capra, 1959
Sinatra as a failing Miami hotel owner with a young son (Eddie Hodges) and a kooky girlfriend (Carolyn Jones), trying to put on a front for some possible finance sources: his rich pal (Keenan Wynn) and his steady, conservative family (Edward G. Robinson and Thelma Ritter). Eleanor Parker is the decent woman trying to help. I saw this at 13 and loved it, and I didn't know diddly about Capra-corn. The Oscar-winning theme song "High Hopes," sung by Frank, later became JFK's 1960 presidential campaign tune.

The Manchurian Candidate (A)
U.S.; John Frankenheimer, 1962
The greatest Sinatra movie, and there isn't a song in it. But there is a bone-chilling shocker of a political thriller plot (scripted by George Axelrod, from Richard Condon's novel) about presidential politics, brainwashing and assassination, plus terrific black-and-white neo-noir visionary direction by Frankenheimer (the revolving camera track in the ladies club nightmare execution scene is an all-time stylistic coup), and a fantastic cast: Janet Leigh, Laurence Harvey, Hendy Silva, James Gregory (as the reactionary McCarthyistic U.S. senator), John McGiver, and, as the most evil mother in the history of movies, Angela Lansbury.


Dear John (B-)
U.S.; Lasse Hallstrom, 2010

Nicholas Sparks novels have been made into some of the sappiest, most ostentatiously glamorous star-crossed-lovers-obsessed movie romances ever -- including Nights of Rodanthe and the absurd Message in a Bottle -- and this Jamie Linden script of another Sparks schmaltzfest is really no better, even though director Lasse Hallstrom makes it look good, and Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried are a powerfully attractive young star couple. But the story -- in which Tatum's somber hunk John Tyree and Seyfried's winsome blond cutie Savannah Curtis meet on the beach and fall in love on the Carolina coast in two breathless weeks, then are separated for years while John fulfills Armed Forces commitments in the world crisis after 9/11 -- is as phony as they come.

A "Dear John" letter is what World War II soldiers used to receive from their sweethearts, dumping them for somebody stateside. That's what John gets here, after he decides, following the half-month of heaven, that he really has to serve one last year, which becomes two, which keeps mushrooming -- until I could feel the audience silently screaming "Enough! Make some phone calls!"

Swede Hallstrom is a gifted, compassionate filmmaker. His My Life as a Dog is one of the great modern post-1980 family films, and "The Cider House Rules" is a modern classic of an American domestic drama. Hallstrom shouldn't get stuck with stuff like this. Couldn't the producers have given him a break and sent him a "Dear Lasse" letter instead?

Carlito's Way (A-)
U.S.; Brian De Palma, 1993, Universal

De Palma in a Scarface mood, with a gaudy, gripping crime thriller about a Puerto Rican crook trying to go straight (Al Pacino), and his slime bag of a lawyer, who won't let him (Sean Penn). All the De Palma flash and style, plus a great actors' duel between Pacino and Penn, backed by John Leguizamo, Penelope Ann Miller, Luis Guzman, Viggo Mortensen and Paul Mazursky. From Edwin Torres' novels.

L. A. Story (B)
U.S.; Mick Jackson, 1991, Lionsgate

Los Angeles, Martinized -- with Steve Martin as a not-so-wild-and-crazy weather guy. Funny, but no Manhattan. Coulda been, maybe. With Victoria Tennant, Richard E. Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kevin Pollak and Patrick Stewart.

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