PICKS OF THE WEEK
127 Hours (A)
U.S.: Danny Boyle, 2010, 20th Century Fox
Danny Boyle's 127 Hours is a great real-life survival story -- horrific and inspirational, stunningly crafted, and loaded with suspense, even though most of us already know all or part of the film's story, and most probably its shocking climax. It's about climber/explorer Aron Ralston (James Franco), trapped and alone for five days in a crevasse in a little-traveled area of Utah's Canyonlands National Park, his cell phone unusable, his arm stuck between stretches of rock, and ultimately forced to make a terrifying choice in order to have a chance at survival.
Ralston did survive, of course. He also wrote a book about the experience called Between a Rock and a Hard Place, and most people within range of a TV -- or not actually caught between rocks themselves -- know what he had to do to get himself free. That doesn't lessen the tension here. As Alfred Hitchcock often said, suspense depends not on surprise but on our strong identification with characters trapped or in crises -- which is certainly what director Boyle, co-writer Simon Beaufoy and a marvelous crew manage to set up and execute, stunningly, here.
It's searingly well played by Franco, in the second of his two top-of-the-line 2010 lead performances. (The other was the wholly dissimilar but equally brilliantly done assignment as beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl.) (Extras: commentary by Boyle, Beaufoy and producer Christian Colson; deleted scenes; featurette.)
Bambi (Diamond Edition) (A)
U.S.: David Hand, 1942, Walt Disney, Blu-ray/DVD combo
Walt Disney's Bambi is one of those classic family movies that children never forget, that adults still love, and that tends to make children of us all as we watch it.
This lush 1942 film adaptation of the classic Felix Salten book -- now released in Blu-ray, with every color shimmering, every brush stroke gleaming, every animal character (from Bambi, his regal dad and his loving and lovable mother, to that fussbudget old owl and Bambi's charming, stalwart chums Thumper the bunny and Flower the skunk) absolutely aglow with life -- plays just as well and just as beautifully, as it did nearly 70 years ago, on its first release.
It's one of the great movie nature stories and one of the great rite-of-passage children's tales -- and like Lassie Come Home, The Yearling and The Red Pony, it's one of a great cycle of animal movies in the '40. Thanks to Disney and his matchless '30s-'40s animation team -- headed here by director David Hand -- the movie unforgettably gives us the times and seasons in the life of the princely little deer Bambi.
Of course, Disney's classic feature cartoon tale of animals in the forest, the cycles of life, of mothers and fathers and their young, has a pro-ecology theme that's gotten even more powerful and topical through the years -- especially when we watch the movie's lovely, painterly forest ravaged and burned by the carelessness and brutality of the movie's chief villain: that shadowy, menacing, rifle-toting, mostly unseen but always dangerous figure whom the animals shudderingly call: "MAN!"
The movie, of course, is an animal's-eye view of the beauties of nature and the threats to it, and of the hunt, and it's probably done as much over the years to make movie audiences conscious of that beauty and those threats, as any nature-loving film endeavor up to those other great popular masterpieces of the whole ecology cinema canon: the wondrous David Attenborough-Alistair Fothergill BBC documentaries Planet Earth, Life of Birds, Life of Mammals and Blue Planet.
But those movies don't have, as Bambi does, a guaranteed pipeline to our heartstrings: characters we feel we know, life experiences that become our own, a great sacred natural cartoon domain that becomes our spiritual homeland as well as Bambi's.
Bambi was the last of the five great animated features with which Disney impressively kicked off his and his studio's feature cartoon filmography, and which, in many ways, Disney and the studio have never surpassed (or equaled) since. And, like the others -- 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (also directed by Hand), 1940's Pinocchio and Fantasia, and 1941's Dumbo -- it's a still-luminous showcase for the genius and craft of all his artists, their talents meshing back then in a grand synergy that still seems amazingly personal (Walt's personality, of course), staggeringly ambitious and amazingly accomplished.
It took barely a decade, after all, for the Disney studio to go from the "primitive" black-and-white line drawing style of Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy to the incredible color, detail and lushness of Snow White and the others. A decade!
Bambi is a movie that has never lost its own youth, even as the ages and seasons pass inevitably in the movie itself. For many years, Bambi and most of the rest of the great first five were regularly re-released to succeeding generations of children and their parents, until we all seemed to know them, and until the relative financial failures of some of those movies on first release (notably Pinocchio and Fantasia) were finally wiped out. Like the cycle of nature, the theme reworked in the Bambi-like 1994 hit The Lion King, these movies were always renewed and renewing, always returning, forever young. (Extras: introduction by Diane Disney Miller; deleted scenes; deleted song; inside Walt's story meetings; game; interactive galleries; Disneypedia: Bambi's forest friends.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy (B)
U.S.: Gore Verbinski, 2003-2008, Walt Disney
Here are three salty-dog adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp at his most playfully anti-heroic), on the high seas and in the Caribbean colonial digs, battling it out with stuffy snobs and nabobs (Jonathan Pryce, at his most playfully icky), ghostly buccaneers (led by Geoffrey Rush, at his most playfully villainous), and incidentally aiding two not exactly star-crossed lovers, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom.
In the old days, when I lived in Los Angeles and used to visit the original Anaheim Disneyland regularly, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" boat trip was my absolute favorite. The movies, inspired by the ride, are pale reflections of the wondrous ultimate 3D spectacle of that boat trip itself -- a masterpiece of theme park grandeur that sends you cruising through the waves and an inky Caribbean night, with pirate automatons attacking ships, stealing treasure and then wine, wenching and wassailing it in their orgiastic pirate haunts. I made sure we took the ride every time we were there. The movies aren't as good, although they do offer Depp in his best Keith Richards impersonation as Jumping Jack Sparrow. (Extras: featurettes; blooper reel, game, interactive tour.)
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (B-)
U.S.: Gore Verbinski, 2003
Captain Jack starts chasing spooks and ships. With Depp, Rush, Bloom, Knightley, Pryce.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (B)
U.S.: Gore Verbinski, 2007
Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) climbs on board. With the above cast, plus Nighy and Stellan Skarsgard.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (B)
U.S.: Gore Verbinski, 2008
More sea battles: a wearing experience for some, fun for others. With the above casts, plus Chow Yun Fat, and, as Jack's dad, the great Keith Richards. ("Good to be in the Caribbean! Good to be anywhere!")
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.: George Tillman, Jr., 2010, CBS Films
DRIVER. COP. KILLER.
Those three stark titles flash over the grim visages and grimmer physiognomies of the unholy trio of main characters in Faster -- stamping them on our consciousness just like the iconic intros for Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Here, they're the nicknames for three deadly foes in this road-runner neo-noir thriller: three murderous players spinning around a race track of death, hatred and revenge, in a vintage 1970 black Chevy Chevelle (Driver's), a Bakersfield police car (Cop's) and a Ferrari (Killer's). The fast. The faster. The fastest. The Good. The Bad. And The Ugly.
Cast as the threesome in this visually snazzy but whacked-out neo-noir are three actors trapped in parts that expose them to constant danger, frequent ridicule and sometimes make no sense at all. Dwayne Johnson is Driver, the ex-con on a mission from hell. Billy Bob Thornton is Cop, the dissolute, disheveled fuzz who's on the case and on the skids. And Oliver Jackson-Cohen is Killer, a stylish Brit hit man who looks a bit like Jake Gyllenhaal and does yoga.
This deadly trio of characters are three existential pawns in a wild game of murder, revenge and redemption, waged on the bloody streets, oily oil fields and desolate deserts of Bakersfield.
Faster, well-photographed by Michael Grady, tries for a neo-noir-gone-Leone kick. But it's undermined by its own would-be heartfelt sleaze factor. Billy Bob is always pretty good (though I wish he'd use a French or German accent some time) and he manages to keep a straight face here.
Johnson plays Driver with few words, the usual ripped physique, a constant glower, and lots of hammerlock charisma. Hell, it's a better part than Tooth Fairy.
Jackson-Cohen -- whose Killer calls his therapist between hits -- is sometimes upstaged by his own cell-phone, whose ring tone is, you guessed it, the Ennio Morricone title theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Unfortunately, Faster is nowhere more absurd than it is at the finish, when it springs three twists so preposterous you almost wish they had opted instead for, oh I dunno, having the three guys make nice and decide to open up a yoga school together instead. Called The Good, the Bad and The Ugly: Yoga Masters.
Love that Chevy Chevelle though. Does it really steer that well in reverse?
U.S.: Steve Antin, 2010, Screen Gems
Cher: Boy can she sing! Christina Aguilera: Boy can she sing and dance! Stanley Tucci: Boy can he act! Burlesque: What a crock of high-gloss...crud. (I'm aware that kids sometimes cruise the Internet.)
This is one of those "Oh my God!" movies. Even if you don't say it out loud, you'll be thinking it every 10 minutes or so, maybe every five minutes.
Steve Antin wrote and directed. (Wrote? Directed?) Christina Aguilera is Ali, from Iowa, a girl with a dream. She makes it to L.A. (Oh my God.) She gets robbed. She finds the gosh-darnedest place I ever saw allegedly in Hollywood -- and I used to live there. It's a show bar called "Burlesque," modeled on Cabaret and Chicago, with that great Cabaret alum emcee Alan Cumming as a greeter. He'll be wasted here, and I don't mean on booze or coke.
Up on stage, somewhere in Hollywood (or maybe in Oz), there are barely dressed sexy girl dancers, without poles, lip-synching songs. Cher is up there as owner Tess, lip-synching Cher (herself), in a pretty good tune called "Welcome to Burlesque" (the last time I had any hope for the movie). Soon we find that the club is full of sort-of striptease dancers who wear elaborate costumes, and lip-synch to, say, Marilyn Monroe's great "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number and other classics, while sort of stripping. Everybody seems to have a number except Cumming, who doesn't strip and who maybe couldn't clear the Cabaret rights. (Oh my God.)
Ali watches. She is entranced. (Oh my God!) She wants to sing, to dance, to take it all off (or maybe put it all on) -- which she did back in Iowa in the first scenes, all by herself, in a deserted bar. Tess is skeptical. (Why? Ali sings great.) But Ali, indomitable, just picks up a tray and just starts waitressing and gets hired. Meanwhile Tucci, as Sean the dresser/cohort/"Burlesque" jack-of-all-trades (especially rough), deals out snappy patter while zipping everyone up. Or down. For a brief fleeting minute or so way back when, he was a heterosexual and once even bedded Tess, who still loves him. (Oh my Gosh!)
Well, you get the drift.
The music is by Christophe Beck. The songs are all pretty good (though I'd like more Cher), but not worth suffering through the rest for.