PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Counterfeiters (B+)
Austria; Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007, Sony
Movies about World War II and the Holocaust are often contenders for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar -- and that's partly because of the age and interests of the likely nominators. Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters, this year's Oscar winner from Austria, is typical. It's a sometimes over-obvious but absorbing story, based on fact, about a group of Jewish death camp inmates who are forced to help finance the Nazi war, by forging first British and then American currency. Heading up the operation: a one-time master counterfeiter/prisoner named Salomon Sorowitsch -- played by Karl Markovics, who looks a bit here like Ingmar Bergman's dissipated black sheep cousin.
Sorowitsch is a complex character. And Ruzowitzky's style, full of hand-held, mobile, active camerawork, sweeps and jumps you into the story, which has moments both poignant and powerful. There were better foreign-language films last year, including Belle Toujours and Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, but this one is definitely worth your time. It's no counterfeit. In German and French, with English subtitles. (Extras: Commentary by Ruzowitzky, deleted scenes, historical artifacts, "making of" featurette, interviews with Ruzowitzky, Marcovics and real-life counterfeiter Adolf Burger.)
Terms of Endearment "I Love the 80s" edition (A)
U.S.; James L. Brooks, 1983, Paramount
This is part (the best) of a Paramount promotion hailing an American movie decade -- the '80s -- which I personally consider one of the worst ever. But this rerelease of James L. Brooks' supreme tearjerker, based on the Larry McMurtry novel about a Texas mother and daughter (the peerless Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger), is one exception that helps prove the rule.
It's a wonderful movie and not at all typical of the Hollywood '80s, an often mindless decade that tended to drown us in special effects, bloody buddy-buddy action, unfunny teenage sex comedy and farces about wild and goofy, sex-crazed guys on the loose. Instead, Terms of Endearment, with its superb cast (including Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow and Danny De Vito) and excellent mounting by writer-director Brooks, gave us what we mostly didn't get in the '80s: a funny and moving yet realistic story about a recognizably human family, filled with admirable social detail, an honest confrontation of pain and anguish, and an absolutely terrific mature adults' love story between sexy grandma Shirley and raffish astronaut Jack Nicholson.
This movie, on first viewing, made me cry. It has that effect on even more world-weary and cynical types than me -- including the Motion Picture Academy, which gave it five Oscars -- two for Brooks as writer and director, one apiece for actress Shirley and supporting actor Jack and one for best picture of 1983.
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Brideshead Revisited (A)
U.K.; Charles Sturridge, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1981, Acorn Media
Justly renowned as one of the finest of all TV literary miniseries, this 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's superb 1945 novel -- a semi-autobiographical account of his years at Oxford and afterward, climaxing in a bleak World War II coda -- puts to shame the current, overrated Brideshead re-revisitation feature by Julian Jarrold, starring Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain, Ben Whishaw as her doomed son Sebastian and Mathew Goode as Waugh surrogate Charles Ryder.
Beautifully scripted by John Mortimer (creator of Rumpole of the Bailey) and very richly and finely directed by Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay Hogg, the BBC Brideshead is one of the most faithful, lavish and wondrously literary of all the best British TV classic novel adaptations. In its sumptuous 11 episodes and 659 minutes, we follow Charles (Jeremy Irons, in his deservedly star-making performance) and his love affair with a family and a house: the Marchmains and Flytes of Brideshead. As recounted with bittersweet irony by Charles, the romance begins with his not-so-latently homosexual friendship with the exquisite, teddy-bear-lugging, sweet eccentric Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews, who with his blond, sodden, bleary-eyed grace, seems a perfect physical match for the part) and ends, heartbreakingly, with his near-marriage to Sebastian's saucy, sinful but finally reverent sister, Julia (Diana Quick, who has a bit of Jackie Bisset in her).
Along the way, the adorable but fragile Sebastian disintegrates into full-blown alcoholism, and Charles' rationalism collides disastrously with the fervent, complicated Catholicism of the Brideshead household, especially that of rigid, regal Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom), whose pleasure-loving husband (Laurence Olivier) has decamped like many another British aristocratic voluptuary to Venice.
Irons seems a perfect Charles. The actor's meticulously phrased, dreamy and sonorous narration of Waugh's words and descriptions provides the ideal entry into the world that so entrances Charles -- the lush grounds, and charmingly eccentric family life of Brideshead. This world is vanishing even as he discovers it in his early Oxford days of 1922, as the mansion and family that he allows to seduce him and finally breaks -- so relentlessly and inevitably -- his heart.
If you like or love British literary film adaptations, this is one to own. I cannot imagine a better film version of Waugh's magnum opus than this one. Ironically it's so good, it makes the new movie version seem better too, because, if you've seen it first, you can fill in all the blanks and correct the sometimes unwise changes made by Jarrold and company in their new film. The miniseries' remarkable cast also includes John Gielgud, Stephane Audran and Jane Asher. Sturridge later went on to make a very good 1988 film of Waugh's A Handful of Dust, with James Wilby, Kristin Scott Thomas, Judi Dench and Alec Guinness. But this was his hour -- his 11 hours -- in the sun, along with much of the rest of the Brideshead company as well. (Extras: Documentary Revisiting Brideshead; interviews with Irons, Sturridge, Andrews, Quick and others; commentaries by Irons, Quick, Andrews and others; outtakes, filmographies, production notes, photo gallery.)
Larisa Shepitko (A)
Russia (U.S.S.R.); Larissa Shepitko, 1966-77, Criterion Collection/Eclipse Series 11
One of the great woman filmmakers of all time is the now sadly neglected Russian writer-director Larisa Shepitko -- the student of the classic Russian master Alexander Dovzhenko, and married to the equally gifted Elem Klimov (Come and See), colleague and peer of Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovksy. She was killed in a car crash in her prime at the age of 40, and memorialized here with a box set containing her superb early work, Wings and her unquestioned masterpiece, The Ascent.
Wings is the stirring story of a frustrated Russian World War II veteran Nadezhda (played by the great actress Maya Bulgakova), a onetime fighter pilot who now leads a dull and uninspiring life as a school principal -- and whose glorious, exciting past, scaling the heights and soaring heavenward in her bomber, is tellingly contrasted with her more ordinary, and very earthbound, present.
The magnificent The Ascent, one of the great anti-war films, again focuses on World War II, following two Byelorussian peasant soldiers through dangerous snow-covered rural territory, villages and farmlands as they try to find their way back to their company. Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin play the soldiers, and the story, based on Vasili Bykov's novel Sotnikov, is fashioned by Shepitko into one of the true post-war-era Soviet classics. The evocative black-and-white cinematography by Vladimir Chukhnov beautifully communicates the wintry cold and the angst-ridden journey, and Shepitko's brilliant direction builds almost unbearable tension on the way to the movie's stunning, emotional, transcendent climax.
My only complaint about this excellent, long-needed package from Criterion/Eclipse is that it isn't longer. I wish it also included Shepitko's 1963 Heat, shot on the Kazakh steppes, her 1973 medical drama You and I, her short films and Farewell, her deeply moving final project, an ecological drama reminiscent of Elia Kazan's Wild River directed by her husband, Klimov, after she died on the way to the location.
Cinephiles, trust me. You may not have heard of Larisa Shepitko, but you must own or at least see this set. In Russian, with English subtitles. Includes: Wings (1966, A) and The Ascent (Shepitko, A).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
A Midsummer Night's Dream (B)
U.S./U.K.; Michael Hoffman, 1999
This late '90s version of Shakespeare's whimsical masterpiece boasts a good cast: Kevin Kline as Bottom, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett and Stanley Tucci (Puck) as the fairies, and Callista Flockhart and Christian Bale among the very confused lovers.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles "I Love the '80s" edition (B+)
U.S.; John Hughes, 1987, Paramount
I've always thought this road comedy with straight, wired-tight Steve Martin being driven crazy by his unwelcome road partner, blowhard John Candy, was John Hughes' best movie. But it needed some more scenes -- especially a longer, stronger intro for Martin and Candy on the plane. Well, according to the late Candy, with whom I gabbed one night, there was a longer version, by at least an hour, and it contained exactly the sequence I thought it needed. Can Hughes, or somebody, give us a director's cut or original cut of this pop moviemaker's unsung masterpiece? I'm serious.
Children of a Lesser God "I Love the '80s" edition (B-)
U.S.; Randa Haines, 1986, Paramount
An affecting drama from Mark Medoff's play, this film follows a romance between deaf Marlee Matlin (the '86 Oscar-winner) and hearing William Hurt.
Top Gun "I Love the '80s" edition (C)
U.S.; Tony Scott, 1986, Paramount
It's the all-time homoerotic fighting flyboys movie, with Tom Cruise leading the hunks into the shower and the skies. Ridiculous, but it grabs you. Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Meg Ryan and Kelly McGillis are among the towel-holders.
Pretty in Pink "I Love the '80s" edition (B)
U.S.; Howard Deutch, 1986, Paramount
Writer John Hughes is at his cutest here, with Molly Ringwald facing a choice between flawed dreamboat Andrew McCarthy and best buddy Ducky (Jon Cryer, never better).
Footloose "I Love the '80s" edition (C)
U.S; Herbert Ross, 1984, Paramount
Kevin Bacon hoofs. Sarah Jessica Parker is around too.