PICKS OF THE WEEK
Russia; Nikita Mikhalkov, 2008, Studio Trite
12 is a modern Russian version of one of the great virtuoso American melodramas: writer Reginald Rose's teleplay-turned-movie-turned-stage play 12 Angry Men. Rose's original is the pressure cooker tale, told mostly in "real time," of 11 jurors who are gradually swung around, one by one, during arguments, by Juror No. 8 -- played by Robert Cummings in the 1954 Franklin Schaffner-directed "Studio One" TV show, Henry Fonda in the 1957 Sidney Lumet movie, Jack Lemmon in William Friedkin's 1997 TV remake and by nervous, increasingly defiant Sergei Makovetsky here.
Juror No. 8, the one clear calm voice starts out as the one man in the group, who believes a young minority defendant (originally Puerto Rican), accused of murdering his father, is innocent. Here, for Mikhalkov, there are some cultural shifts: The defendant is from Chechnya, his stepfather victim is Russian, and the social issues have been enlarged to include the new Russia's problems with corruption, rebellion and the Chechen war.
Mikhalkov himself -- an actor so good his brother Andrei Konchalovsky insists he's "the Russian Jack Nicholson" -- plays the even-tempered jury foreman, the role done in Lumet's movie by Martin Balsam. And Mikhalkov and Makovetsky are part of a tremendous, full-bodied, hold-nothing-back ensemble who almost match Lumet's stellar group for passion, pro fervor and precision. Especially good in the Russian troupe are Sergey Garmash, as a grinning cabbie/bigot who combines the old Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley main antagonist roles of embittered father and genial bigot, Yuriy Stoyanov as a waffling TV producer (Robert Webber's waffling ad man?) and Valentine Gaft as a Jewish survivor (George Voskovec, I suppose).
I'm very partial to Rose's script, based on his own actual jury service, and I also love Lumet's movie, which has risen in critical estimation over the years. I'm even a fan of the Schaffner original (which you can see on Koch Vision's "Studio One Anthology") and the Friedkin remake. But, for the first hour or so, I was a little down on Mikhalkov's and screenwriter Vladimir Moiseyenko's (The Return) Russky update. It seemed to me too operatic, too inflated and theatrical-gimmicky, too blustery, too loud. I missed Rose's and Lumet's seamless stagecraft, their neat structure and subtly changing atmospherics -- the ways they make that jury room keep closing in on those 12 men.
Relocating the jury from a claustrophobic jury room (which Lumet actually kept making smaller as his jury arguments progressed and exploded) to a huge, dank-looking school gymnasium (with a freedom-yearning little sparrow flying around trapped inside) seemed too heavy/symbolic. So did all the therapy sessions of the jury members, windy psychodramas much expanded from their U.S. equivalent scenes. (Sometimes Mikhalkov's jury seems to be discussing everything but the murder; Rose's and Lumet's angry men stay on point -- keeping the movie solidly in the classic '50s leftist-drama track with On the Waterfront, High Noon, Rebel Without a Cause, and A Place in the Sun.)
But, I was with 12 by the end -- by which time that specifically Russian sonorous theatricality, and the sudden strange shifts in the jury debate, no longer bothered me. In the last section, when Mikhalkov springs his surprise twist, it's obvious he's not trying to duplicate or simply update the Lumet film with a new background. He's making an intense dramatic comparison between the social visions of both versions, and their effects on the jurors -- between the varying political and court systems out of which the American classic and its new Russian translation/transformation operate. 12 and its cast finally impressed me greatly, and the film only takes on enhanced meaning and emotion if you're familiar with Lumet's 12 Angry Men.
Now, Lumet's movie is the best. No Juror No. 8, however committed, will ever argue me out of that verdict. But Mikhalkov's 12 is a stirring variation. It's also a fitting tribute to the whole international leftist tradition of morally charged political theatre and movies -- and to our universal ideals of justice, in America, Russia, or anywhere.
Belgium; Bouli Lanners, 2008, Film Movement
A car dealer interrupts a junkie-thief in mid-burglary at his home, and then both forgives and embarks with him on a cracked Chevrolet odyssey of familial homecoming and weird rediscovery. Austere looking and raffishly funny, a Cannes Film Festival Directors' Fortnight pick, this is one of the best recent road movies, and an impressive outing as director-writer-costar for Lanners. In French, with English subtitles.
For All Mankind (A-)
U.S.; Al Reinert, 1989, Criterion
Al Reinert's incredible 1989 documentary on the men in the moon -- a mass portrait of the 24 astronauts who participated in mankind's only trips to the moon, the manned Apollo moon flights between 1968 and 1972 -- plays like one of the great science fiction epics, even though what we see is indisputably science fact. Culled from the mountains of footage recorded by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration during the period, including a multitude of stuff actually shot on the space ships and on the moon itself, augmented with audio interviews with 13 astronauts, it is an extraordinary document of an amazing set of voyages, and of the 24 men who underwent this irreplaceable experience: a series of trips to the moon and back that was undertaken -- as John F. Kennedy (almost) says in the film's prologue, and as the NASA space cowboys left behind in a plaque on the moon -- "(We come in peace) for all mankind."
Reinert gives us something comparable in its extraterrestrial lyricism, strangeness and galactic rapture to Kubrick's 2001. But reassuring as well. Reinert's movie is often as homey and "ordinary" as the ubiquitous crewcuts and often-Southern drawls of the Houston ground team, as familiar as the taped music that went into space -- including country ballads by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and, most appropriately, Frank Sinatra singing "Fly Me to the Moon" -- and as poetically otherworldly as 2001 itself or as Tarkovsky's Solaris. It's a visionary film made out of what are almost home or industrial movies -- the most expensive and mind-boggling ever taken, of one of the most astonishing human adventures. Thirteen of the astronauts, notably including Alan Bean, Jim Lovell, T. Kenneth Mattingly and Gene Cernan -- speak on the sound track, and although none of them were initially identified in the film's original release and showings, here on the DVD, you can opt to include their I.D.s on screen -- a better way of watching this film, I think.
As the movie shows us spectacular shots of the men on huge metal missiles launching into space in cascades of fire, drifting though a vast black empty infinity in the weightless cabins of the Apollo ships, or romping on the moon with a mix of awe and boyish playfulness ("I was strolling on the moon one day, in the merry merry month of May (December)" -- you truly are witnessing sights that are both extraordinary and all but unrepeatable. Accompanied and enhanced by an appropriately lunar and mystical score by Brian Eno and others, For All Mankind stones you with its grandeur, becalms you with its humanity. (Extras: Commentary with Reinert and astronaut Eugene A. Cernan; documentary; interviews with 15 astronauts; video program on Alan Bean's artwork; booklet with essays by Terrence Rafferty and Reinert.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Bardelys the Magnificent and Monte Cristo: The Lost Films of John Gilbert (B+)
U.S.; various directors, 1922-26, Flicker Alley
John Gilbert is most famous as the silent matinee idol who became one of the great casualties of the sound film era: his voice supposedly too high and "unmasculine" to suit his highly virile "Great Lover" image for translation to the talkies.
That's wrong, of course, as the 1933 Greta Garbo-Gilbert sound classic Queen Christina has long amply demonstrated. But this release of two rediscovered "lost films" starring Gilbert, including the King Vidor-directed Bardelys the Magnificent, reaffirms, like Gilbert's 1925 Vidor classic The Big Parade (the biggest movie box-office hit of the '20s), what a great and mesmerizing silent movie actor he was, a master of both brooding Valentino-ish romantic intensity and playful Fairbanksian high spirits.
Bardelys, the jubilant and impudent tale of a storied French Casanova who finally falls in love, with a virginal belle played by Vidor's then-wife Eleanor Boardman, and nearly loses both his love and his life to vicious court intrigues, is based on a novel by that supreme swashbuckler author Rafael Sabatini, the original writer of Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and one of my boyhood favorites, Scaramouche (with its smashing opening line, "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad"). It's a gleaming restoration of a beautifully photographed film, thought lost for years, but now missing only a short silent reel. (The still-lost footage is re-created, A Star is Born-style, with stills.)
Gilbert here breaks hearts, crosses swords and leaps and vaults from high walls to rooftops with lusty abandon. His flashing dark eyes make him an ideal movie romantic hero. But he also projects real emotion, real sadness. Bardelys is thrilling, poignant and full of high-spirited hilarity by turns, and its comic scenes, especially the wild climax with its breathtaking shots of Doug Fairbanks-style athletics as Gilbert's Bardelys escapes form the gallows, is a real laugh-and-cheer showstopper.
Monte Cristo, directed by the now forgotten Emmett J. Flynn (who's not bad), was a very popular early movie of the Alexander Dumas classic, one of the most oft-filmed of all famous novels. This rediscovery is much less pristine and glorious than Bardelys. It's a more used, scrappy-looking and faded print recovered from Czech archives. But the always-compelling story, and Gilbert's intense performance, make it eminently watchable anyway.
For silent film lovers especially, this little anthology is a great treat. It's both revelatory showcase for Gilbert's underrated gifts, and, in the case of Bardelys the Magnificent, lots of rousing fun. Both films are silent, with titles and music tracks. (Extras: Commentary on Bardelys by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta; documentary Rediscovering John Gilbert; art and photo galleries; booklet with essays by Vance and Maietta.
Includes: Bardelys the Magnificent (U.S.; King Vidor, 1926, A-), with John Gilbert, Eleanor Boardman and Arthur Lubin (the future Abbott and Costello director, playing a pomped-up Louis XIII); Monte Cristo (U.S.; Emmett J. Flynn, 1922, B), with Estelle Taylor and George Seigmann.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Haunting in Connecticut (D+)
U.S.; Peter Cornwell, 2009, Lionsgate Home Entertainment
The Haunting in Connecticut is a haunted house horror movie, supposedly based on fact, dismayingly full of shadowy rooms, dingy décor, rotting corpses, a bedeviled family, screaming kids and a loud, clanging, clamorous soundtrack to cue the scares. There's even an exorcist of sorts, played by the always intense Elias Koteas -- who manages the movie's best performance, despite the absurd scene where he suddenly realizes he may have screwed up.
Haunting seems about as real as a three-dollar cadaver, but there's no accounting for taste. Grisly, cliché-packed, unimaginative horror movies desperately trying to repeat the horrific successes, and excesses, of the past have popped up regularly recently. And Connecticut, which might have been called The Amityville Snorer, is no worse than some. Then again, watching it is about as much fun as waking up with a corpse in your bed -- which in this movie would have been followed by a shock cut, a scream and a loud clang.
The hell-hounded family of The Haunting in Connecticut are the Campbells -- including cancer-stricken son Matt (Kyle Gallner), courageous mom Sara (Virginia Madsen), excitable kids Peter and Mary (Ty Wood and Sophi Knight), lively cousin Wendy (Amanda Crew), and troubled dad Peter (played by Hal Hartley stalwart Martin Donovan). Peter, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, has a drinking problem, but, unlike Jack, he doesn't have any great tantrum scenes. ("Heeeere's Johnny!") He does, however, have a bland drunken snit fit about the family leaving too many lights on. (Isn't that the cinematographer's job?)
Ah, the poor Campbells. Ignoring the danger signs, including a friendly warning from the landlord, and funeral documents and equipment that don't seem to have been removed since the 1920s, they move into the house -- hoping, despite its bad reputation, that living there will help Matt's treatment and recovery. Had they but known! Fairly soon, all hell starts breaking loose, highlighted by the continuous appearances of those rotting corpses, who keep popping up like skeletons on a carnival scare ride, along with another group of pale, dead but very active, Hellraiser-looking dudes who have strange, incomprehensible inscriptions written all over their bodies -- perhaps this movie's screenplay.
Director Peter Cornwell, in his feature debut, shows smidgens of talent for gruesome atmosphere, and editor/songwriter Tom Elkins works overtime trying to crank up the fear level. But the script never jells, most of the live actors seem dispirited, and the movie, overall, seems less scary than Dick Cheney. Or, for that matter, Blimp Rushbomb. Devotees of rotting corpses, however, will get more than their fill, as will lovers of shock cuts, dingy decor and loud clangs. Devotees of haunted house movies are advised to stay home and rent The Shining.
Bye-Bye Monkey (B)
U.S./France/Italy; Marco Ferreri, 1978, Koch Lorber
Marcello Mastroianni and Gerard Depardieu are artist-bums in a rat-infested Manhattan in this tribute to King Kong that's also an attempt by Ferreri to let the women have their say. (Among other oddities, Depardieu is raped.) It doesn't really work, and the English-language dialogue is awkward, but it has some mad, terrific scenes. In English.
Don't Touch the White Woman (A)
France/Italy; Marco Ferreri, 1974, Koch Lorber
One of the most amazing Westerns ever, made by a man who obviously finds them ridiculous and proves it by staging a travesty of a John Ford cavalry picture in the barren hole left by the destruction of the market area of Les Halles in Paris. Mastroianni plays General Custer, Piccoli is Buffalo Bill, Noiret is another general, and Tognazzi is a crazy Indian (along with Catherine Deneuve as the white woman you can't touch), in this cheerfully lunatic satire. In French, with English subtitles.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Intelligence (Season 2) (B)
Canada; various directors, 2005-2006, Acorn Media
From Mr. Vancouver Noir, TV creator-producer-writer Chris Haddock (Da Vinci's Inquest): the second season (12 episodes) of one of the best cop series ever. A maze of police informers and gang treachery that sharply mines the twin themes of Scorsese's The Departed.