PICKS OF THE WEEK
Pineapple Express (B+)
U.S.; David Gordon Green, 2008, Sony
Just when I was beginning to get a little tired of the Judd Apatow movie gang -- a malaise started wafting about halfway though Step Brothers -- along comes Pineapple Express. I haven't laughed this hard at a movie comedy since Sideways -- a better, less messy picture which has a similar strategy: the total immersion of two intoxicated buddies in a nightmare of dangerous consequences and unraveling good times.
It actually may be my favorite in all of David Gordon Green's (George Washington) laudable filmography. But it's not the sort of movie we associate with him. It's an almost totally guilty pleasure: a balls-out action comedy where Green and co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg just don't seem to give a damn how far over the edge they go.
Pineapple Express chums Rogen and James Franco the former as an amiable, swizzled but often anxious pothead process server named Dale Denton and the latter as Dale's constantly schnockered but sweet-tempered pot dealer, Saul Silver -- get plunged into the dark side, thanks to Saul's relationship with super-mean drug czar Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and Jones' relationship with a crooked cop (Rosie Perez). Before long, they're neck deep in drug wars, car chases, gun-battles, mutilations, murders, slaughter and driving a stolen car through L.A. with your foot through the windshield -- the kind of insensate, overindulged mayhem that usually pops up in a Bad Boys-style movie.
This isn't that kind of movie. It's a genuine genre curve-ball, front-loaded with real emotions, more like Midnight Run on Acapulco Gold. Despite that emotion, it makes us laugh at real pain. Earlier, in the midst of all this high-spirited carnage, the blood-smeared and dirty Dale manages to get to a get-acquainted dinner with the appalled parents of his high school girlfriend, Angie. Rogen loses part of an ear at one point (he clumsily tries to reattach it), and poor Danny McBride, a Green regular playing a sleazy but good-hearted dealer named Red, gets himself almost dismantled by a pair of idiotic hit men (including Kevin Corrigan). Finally, the local Uzi-packing kung fu gang shows up, auditioning for John Woo. And did I mention that these guys also try to get out of their jam by peddling dope to schoolkids? I told you this was a hard movie to stand up for.
So why would you want to? For one thing, Rogen and James Franco here are a no-kidding smoking comedy team. The only stoned amalgamations you can compare them to are Cheech and Chong and Jeff Bridges' Dude and his buddies in the Coens' The Big Lebowski. Rogen and Franco and company take those classic movie comedy team types, the smoothie and the hysteric, and give it a different spin. Rogen's Dale is a suit-and-tie hysteric, and Franco's Saul is a stoned smoothie. Co-writer Rogen plays his anxious doper shtick to the hilt, and his motormouth dialogue (for himself and the others) deserves at least a His Girl Friday scroll.
And though all the other actors are good in Pineapple Express, the dude who really keeps this show on the road and cooking is Franco as Saul. Looking and sounding a bit like Brad Pitt in True Romance (he has that same perfect sneaky doper smile), Franco is so far into the part and ignites so many comic explosions, you keep wondering if there's real ganja on this set. Saul is as perfect a comic portrayal of a pothead dealer as Thomas Haden Church's Jack was of a sexaholic in Sideways.
An Oscar nom for an actor playing a sympathetic marijuana dealer? Just watch Franco closely all the way through. He's got this part nailed. Can you recommend Pineapple Express to everybody? Probably not. You can't recommend Sideways to everybody either, or W.C. Fields or Preston Sturges, or even Chaplin and Keaton. But this movie made me laugh, and personally, uh like, wow, I've never touched the stuff. As far as I remember.
Denmark/Sweden/Germany/France; Lars von Trier, 1991, Criterion
My favorite Lars von Trier movie is this oddball neo-noir item, released stateside as Zentropa. Set in 1945, in post-war Germany, it's about a navely idealist American named Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), who takes a job as a sleeper car conductor on a German railroad, and becomes involved with the seductive daughter of the railroad magnate (Barbara Sukowa) and her loony post-Nazi family -- as well as a band of German guerrilla saboteurs, called the Werewolves, who are wreaking havoc on the rails. This is pure nightmare theatrics. The style is a mix of Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and early Ingmar Bergman; the film is narrated by Bergman's great star Max von Sydow, who keeps trying to hypnotize us (almost successfully), and the score uses eerie/romantic themes from Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo music.
Europa is about as far as you can get from von Trier's later low-budget stoical film-making credo in the Dogma 95 manifesto, which might have been concocted to denounce exactly the kind of florid, deliberately artificial movie the iconoclastic Dane made here. Yet a great part of von Trier's talent lies in precisely the kind of wild expressionism and theatricality he uses here and mostly abandoned during and after Breaking the Waves. I wish he'd return to it. The cast includes Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Jaregard and Alphaville's Lemmy Caution, Eddie Constantine. (In English and German, with English subtitles.) Extras: Commentary by von Trier; documentary, featurettes, short, trailer, booklet with Howard Hampton essay.
Carmen Jones (A)
U.S.; Otto Preminger, 1954, Fox
Otto Preminger's raw, dusty, fiery musical version of Georges Bizet's eternally popular opera about the mad passions lit between smoky-sexy cigarette girl Carmen, and straight-arrow soldier Jose is adapted in this all-black stage version by librettist-lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. The music is unbeatable, of course, and it's a good show in every way. Preminger's tragic inamorata Dorothy Dandridge plays Carmen Jones and Harry Belafonte is soldier Joe (both of them are dubbed, Dandridge by Marilyn Horne). The rest of the excellent cast includes Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters and, in her movie debut, Diahann Carroll.
All these actors, minus Belafonte, turned up again in Preminger's vastly underrated 1959 film of Porgy and Bess; perhaps Harry didn't want his then-famous singing voice dubbed again. The role of Porgy went instead to Belafonte's somewhat reluctant (and tone-deaf) buddy, eventual superstar Sidney Poitier -- and Harry made his comment on it all by releasing a Porgy and Bess album with Lena Horne. For my money, both Preminger's Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess are among the great Hollywood musicals, though you can never see Porgy. You can see Carmen, and you should.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
I, Claudius (A)
U.K.; Herbert Wise, 1976, Image/20th Century Fox
Sometimes called the greatest TV series ever, this remarkable 1976 BBC adaptation of Robert Graves' splendid 1934 historical novel I, Claudius about the decline of the Roman Empire has an extraordinary cast. It's headed by Derek Jacobi as Clau-Clau-Claudius, the stammering Caesar who masquerades as a fool, along with Sian Phillips as the icily, elegantly evil Livia, killing everyone who stands in the way of her would-be emperor son Tiberius, played by George Baker. Brian Blessed co-stars as dotty emperor Augustus, Patrick Stewart as the cold-blooded murderous soldier Sejanus, Sheila White as Claudius' insatiable wife Messalina, and John Hurt, in his incredible, high-theatrical performance as mad Caligula, the fey, cross-dressing, screaming Satan. If you don't think Hurt is a great actor, you haven't seen this movie.
I, Claudius also has jewel-like production values, fine direction by Herbert Wise (who also made the BBC's anniversary adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar), and a truly brilliant script by one of the real masters of the television classic literary adaptation, Jack Pulman. Pulman, who died too young, at 58, also adapted, with great insight and skill, BBC versions of War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, David Copperfield, The Golden Bowl and many others. At this kind of assignment, there was nobody better. (His scant movie credits include 1962's The Best of Enemies.) And here, he richly translates Graves' historical scope and ironies, as well as superbly bringing to life his many memorable true-life characters.
I, Claudius is a deliciously sophisticated and consistently ingenious peek into the boudoirs, imperial halls, stadiums, orgy rooms and charnel houses of imperial Rome; it's lasting appeal lies in the way it fuses Shakespearean theatrics with juicy tabloid Confidential-style scandal, appealing to the beast and angel in each of us. And Jacobi's Claudius is an exemplary untraditional protagonist, a wily survivor who outlasts all his monstrous relatives -- and their amoral lusts for sex, blood and power -- by posing as an idiot. The royal Roman monsters keep laughing at stammering Claudius throughout his chronicle (the history he writes as an old man). Yet he gets the last laugh (posthumous revelation) even as he heads toward the final indignity of death.
This is one of those TV miniseries that devotees watch over and over again, though Herbert Wise's lack of auteur credentials means that it tends to be ignored by some cinephiles. It's also hurt by the more spartan TV production values and minimal exterior shooting of its day. But the real auteurs of this still riveting, still magnificent miniseries are Robert Graves and the unjustly uncelebrated Jack Pulman. And Phillips and Hurt and Jacobi. And, of course, Clau-Clau-Claudius himself.
The four-disc set, a must-buy for most film-lovers, also has a nonpareil extra, writer-producer Bill Duncalf's 1966 documentary The Epic That Never Was. Narrated with suave irony, impudence and savoir faire by Dirk Bogarde, it's about producer Alexander Korda's ill-fated 1937 attempt to adapt I, Claudius to the screen, in a brilliantly promising production directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring that unhappy genius Charles Laughton as Claudius, along with Merle Oberon, and, as Caligula, Emlyn Williams. On the evidence and surviving footage here, it would have been, despite the turmoil, a real classic. Epic also may be where Stanley Kubrick first heard the majestic opening theme of Richard Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra," which Duncalf also uses, two years before 2001.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Righteous Kill (B)
U.S.; Jon Avnet, 2008, Overture/Anchor Bay
It's is only another melodrama with some notable flaws -- an aging-buddy cops serial killer thriller cooked up without too much inspiration by writer Russell Gewirtz (Inside Man). And Jon Avnet once again seems a better producer than director. But I wasn't too disappointed by Righteous Kill, the second movie summit meeting between those two great, streetwise actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. These two haven't made enough movies together -- Heat was their only other onscreen meeting, though in Godfather II they shared the same movie in different time frames -- but even a less-than-superior vehicle is okay, as long as it gives this terrific pair an opportunity to drive and swing together.
Pacino remains a fantastic, wild, soulful-eyed comic/dramatic genius, and De Niro -- who has gotten more dour than manic in his maturity -- is still the best on the street. He can radiate a vulnerability and menace that jump-starts any movie. Neither has lost a step, at least any important ones, and their sometimes ravaged faces or bulkier bodies are still far more photogenic and magnetic than their younger followers and competitors -- including John Leguizamo, who's excellent as their fellow cop nemesis here. Extras: Commentary with Avnet, featurettes, trailer.
Bangkok Dangerous (C)
U.S.; Danny and Oxide Pang, 2008, Lionsgate
The Pang brothers' Hollywood remake of their 2001 Thai hit-man hit thriller -- also called Bangkok Dangerous -- is a gaudy, grim, ultraviolent neo-noir that's pretty hard to watch or enjoy, despite the presence of Nic Cage as American assassin Joe. In the movie, Joe is a taciturn, hardcase killer, given to fits of morose narration, who comes to Bangkok to fulfill four contracts for a pudgy local crime boss (Nirattisai Kaljarjek), but shows his soft spots by falling in love with a sweet, deaf pharmacist named Fon (Charlie Young), while starting to act as a mentor to his hip Thai assistant Kong (Shahkrit Yarmnarm, who's very good). That's a real switch: Kong is a patsy who would normally be scheduled for a rubout when the job is over.
The original Bangkok Dangerous had a real feeling of danger, mixed with its schmaltzy romance, but the remake feels mostly dour and dispirited. It misses the mark with schmaltz and carnage alike. It's a remarkably unmoving, gloomy-looking show. Cage has been ridiculed for his messy hairdo here in some reviews, but the problem isn't hairdressing, but the scenario (by the Pangs, with Jason Richman of Swing Vote). Much of what Joe does here, after he falls for both Fon and Kong, doesn't make sense on any level, and there's scant explanation of why he's become so emotionally vulnerable and rash. Why would a killer as hitherto cautious as Joe get himself into gun chases in the canal before hundreds of witnesses, unless he was determined to outdo Popeye Doyle in The French Connection? Why would he do almost anything we see here, unless he was determined to turn his life into an action movie and a Hong Kong bloodbath?
Technically, the Pangs are slicksters. But they've wasted Cage, and they need much better scripts than this thin knockoff of Graham Greene's often-looted This Gun for Hire.
The Wackness (C)
U.S.; Jonathan Levine, 2008, Sony
The Wackness -- which won the Sundance Film Festival audience award for writer-director Jonathan Levine -- is an arty little New York anti-romance that wafts us back to the summer of 1994, in the heyday of Forrest Gump, cannabis, hip-hop "wigger" lingo, and Mayor Rudy Giuliani's war on crime and pushcarts. It's an audacious but ultimately dispiriting love comedy about a dangerous three-cornered relationship among an insecure Upper East Side high school drug dealer named Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), his pot-smoking, deeply depressed '60s-loving psychiatrist Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), who gets paid by Luke in dime bags; and the shrink's sexy, hedonistic stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who breaks Luke's heart -- and takes his cherry.
The movie, well-acted but not well-written, plunges us into the dangerous liaisons of these three hip, glib but morally unattractive types, navigating us through drugs, promiscuity, masturbation, toilet sex, prostitution and near suicide -- as well as somewhat less gamy problems like facing eviction and finding Donovan songs ("Season of the Witch") on a local jukebox. Levine and Peck -- whose mumbling delivery suggests David Schwimmer trying to mimic Marlon Brando and Mickey Rourke -- work hard to make Luke both charismatic and likeably vulnerable. They're trying to create a magnetic schlemiel. But it's hard to sympathize with this dope.
Thirlby is much less mannered and more spontaneous, but her character has a similar creep factor. (The title comes from Steph's slangy remark that, while she looks for the "dopeness" in life, gloomy Luke looks for the "wackness.") The performance that almost makes the movie comes, as you'd expect, from Kingsley. Here, with his long messy hair, haunted eyes and four-letter gab, Kingsley's Squires suggests the late standup virtuoso George Carlin, both physically and verbally. And if that doesn't seem like a startling display of versatility by Sir Ben, imagine Carlin as Gandhi.
White Men Can't Jump (B)
U.S.; Ron Shelton, 1992, Fox
But some of them can shoot and pass. So can Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez and Ron Shelton. Speaking as an old basketball guard (Williams Bay H.S. 1962-4), I like this White Men Can't Jump: a sometime Venice Beach playground swish.