A Star Is Born (Deluxe Edition) (A)
U.S.; George Cukor, 1954, Warner
Judy Garland had been in Hollywood semi-disgrace for several years, when she made the 1954 George Cukor version of A Star Is Born. After all these years, Star remains a moving and beautifully made movie, with incredible stories behind it.
It was a comeback movie, and one of the big hits of 1954, but it deserved to be even more of a triumph than it was. The shooting had seethed with drama. Fired four years earlier from her longtime MGM contract for tardiness and absenteeism, and dismissed from her latest movie, 1950's Annie Get Your Gun, Judy had been without a movie since then, earning her keep instead with her eventually legendary stage show. She chose as her comeback movie vehicle, for Warner Brothers, a musical remake of the backstage Hollywood classic A Star Is Born -- a show originally directed and conceived by William Wellman and co-written by that acerbic poetess of unrequited love, Dorothy Parker.
In that 1937 David Selznick movie, sweet, homey Janet Gaynor had played Hollywood star Vicki Lester nee Esther Blodgett, who was discovered by her husband, alcoholic matinee idol Norman Maine (originally played by Fredric March), and whose star and career rose just as Norman's (thanks to years of boozing and reckless behavior) decisively fell. That movie ends, as does the remake, on a note of sublime Hollywood heartbreak, as brave widow Vicki stands before a cheering crowd and declares, despite all the humiliation and tragedy she has endured, "This is Mrs. Norman Maine."
Indeed it was. MGM, the teen and 20s Judy's magical queendom, was the classic dream factory of the Golden Age. The Warners Judy tries to show instead the reality behind the dream. In Judy's new version, produced by her then-husband, Sid Luft, directed by George Cukor, scripted by Moss Hart, and with a song score by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, she plays Vicki as an initially nave but super-talented band singer turned movie and recording superstar, and, even if it has that old Garland nervousness, it's a perfect performance. Seductive, handsome, reckless, self-destructive Norman was played, with enormous sensitivity and irony, by James Mason. Jack Carson was perfection too, as the cynical studio publicity head, Libby, and Charles Bickford carries off the one major character who seems a bit false, the benevolent studio boss, Oliver Niles.
A Star Is Born is a universal drama, and much of Wellman's version was taken from life. Cukor's film is as honest as a Code era movie could be: the best realistic backstage portrayal of the classical studio era Hollywood ever put on film. In the Golden Age.
The first 40-minute section is a little masterpiece in itself. We watch headstrong Norman nearly make a drunken mess of a charity show, get rescued by Vicki, the little known band singer on the bill, and then see him wake up later to look for Vicki and maybe do a little night-prowling. Finally, he finds Vicki and her piano playing swain at a dark, smoky after-hours club, jamming with a handful of the other band musicians. Norman arrives just in time to hear the boys play and Vicki sing Arlen and Gershwin's great, sad, heart-stopping ballad "The Man that Got Away."
"The Man that Got Away," for me, is one of the four or five greatest numbers from the classic era of the Hollywood musical, and the only one of its quality that doesn't involve any dancing. It's an amazing song, amazingly well sung, and Cukor stages it with real brilliance.
The rest of "A Star is Born" is terrific too, of course. Judy does one memorable scene after another, all with that full-bore emotionality only she could muster, and Mason makes Norman into even more the tragic hero-weakling and glamorous, good-hearted dissolute wreck than March did in 1937.
But the movie afterwards is a bit broken up, another piece of studio butchery like Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. Star was shot long, and then made longer by the addition of another musical number, that Cukor didn't direct, the also-legendary "autobiographical" "I was Born in a Trunk" (in the Princess Theater in Pocatello, Idaho"). Cukor thought they could have sweat out the minutes, but it was taken from his hands and hacked at. The studio cutters chopped it up, throwing away some other good musical numbers and a lot of story scenes for the 1954 wide release.
For years, A Star Is Born" was a mutilated film. Then, in 1983, Los Angeles County Museum of Art film programmer Ron Haver and the movie's restorers found some of the missing footage and almost all of the missing sound track and they put it back together. (That's what we see here.) They re-created the scenes still missing with production stills and the audio track. And they assembled it all for a gala premiere at Radio City Music Hall. Mason was in attendance. But Cukor, who was also supposed to be there, missed the show. He died the night before, waiting for the light to dawn on the final premiere of his and Judy's complete long-lost masterpiece.
Judy's movie career never resumed on the old high, prolific level, and most audiences never saw A Star Is Born" the way it should be seen. Haver's restoration is a wonderful approximation. (Extras: deleted scenes; alternate takes; missing musical numbers; TV broadcast of the movie's actual Hollywood premiere, partly hosted by Jack Carson; recording session music; vintage radio show; post-premiere Coconut Grove party footage; Trailers.
The Last Station (A-)
U.K.; Michael Hoffman, 2009, Sony
The last days of Leo Tolstoy, as seen by his loving but hot-tempered and imperious wife, his worshipful agent and the young writer-diarist watching and recording it all. In those four roles, Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy are all superb -- and writer-director Hoffman sets them off beautifully. Mirren, I think, was unsurpassed last year by any other female movie role -- with only the inevitable Meryl Streep (as the lovably fussy gourmet Julia Child, of Julie and Julia) a very close second. (Commentaries by Hoffman, Plummer and Mirren; deleted scenes; outtakes; tribute to Plummer.
Enter the Dragon (A-)
U.S./U.K./Hong Kong; Robert Clouse, 1973, Warner, Blu-ray
Bruce Lee, the face that launched a thousand kicks, in his biggest international smash hit: a kung fu epic of such constant and electrifying action that it's hard to watch it without wanting to kick down a wall, or mix it up with a dozen or so martial arts marauders. Like Elvis or Ella singing, Fred or Gene dancing, Ali boxing, Michael or Kobe zeroing in on the basket, or Shakespeare writing a play, Lee makes it all look so easy. The setting is a kung fu island; the costars include John Saxon, Ahna Capri and Jim Kelly. But the fights are all that matter, and no one, not even Jackie Chan or Jet Li, has done them better.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Nagisa Oshima's Outlaw Sixties (B)
Japan; Nagisa Oshima, 1965-68, Criterion
Japan's Nagisa Oshima was one of the most truly radical of all the major '60s international cineastes -- more revolutionary than Godard, more sexually subversive than Makavejev, more impertinent and dangerous than Ferreri. He was opposed to his country's politics, its laws, its prejudices (especially against Koreans), its historical sacred cows, even to his own Japanese métier and its cinematic icons. Oshima professed to "absolutely hate" all other Japanese cinema, though he had such a great eye, it's hard to believe he wasn't somehow schooled by Kurosawa, by Ichikawa, by Kobayashi.
In the late '60s, Oshima hit his stride with the modernist classics Boy, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and Death by Hanging. Later, after making the most hard-core art film ever, the sexually graphic 1976 In the Realm of the Senses, he even revolted against his own producer, Anatole Dauman, who wanted on-screen sex, by disguising the copulation in Empire of Passion. Oshima directed seldom after making the bilingual masterpiece Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, with David Bowie, Tom Conti and Takeshi Kitano, in 1983 -- even though he was elected president of Japan's director's guild in 1980. His last film so far, in 1999, was Taboo. His late-career inactivity has been a great loss, to Japan and to the world of cinema.
The five movies in this box set, except for the powerful crime drama Violence at Noon, are not among Oshima's best. Some are flawed. Some, inevitably, go over the edge. But they all come from his greatest, most fertile period, many from the personal production company he named "Creation." They remain shocking, upsetting, volatile and beautifully shot. No other director could have made them. They are pure Oshima. (Extras: notes by Michael Koresky.)
The Pleasures of the Flesh (B)
A tutor who is a secret killer and who is also sexually obsessed with his rich former pupil, goes on a wild spending spree, squandering millions on sex and pleasure with the money entrusted to him by a blackmailing embezzler who has been sent to prison. A nerve-racking erotic thriller in the Japanese "pink" tradition, this is the most orthodox movie of the set, but also one of the most effective, and the most obvious precursor to In the Realm of the Senses. With Katsuo Nakamura and Mariko Kaga. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
Violence at Noon (A)
Based on the real-life story of a serial Japanese rapist-killer called "The Daylight Demon," this is an ultra-neo-noir crime movie about compulsive murder and perverse romance. It's as powerful, in its way, as those two supreme Japanese thrillers, Kurosawa's High and Low and Imamura's Vengeance Is Mine, and more disturbing than either. With Sae Kawaguchi, Akiko Koyama (Oshima's wife) and Kei Sato. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
Sing a Song of Sex (A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs) (B-)
An oddball nightmare comedy about four male students who idolize their attractive teacher and become involved with his lover and female fan club, and also with his penchant for classic Japanese bawdy songs. Death (maybe) and rape (maybe) follow, while the quartet revolt with their porno ballads against the local dreamy guitar-strumming student idealists who, Weavers-style, sing "This Land is Your Land," "Goodnight, Irene" and "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." Largely improvised, this is a good example of Oshima's comedy shortcomings. With pop star Ichiro Araki and Koyama.
Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (Night of the Killer)(B)
Another black-and-white thriller, more Kafkaesque, in which a bosomy girl obsessed with sex (Keiko Sakuri) and a sad-faced young man obsessed with death (Kei Sato) become involved with a secret gang of nihilists obsessed with killing and a clean-cut Westerner on a shooting rampage. This crazy narrative is told with icy clarity and weird formal beauty, and an ending that suggests Bonnie and Clyde in a fever dream.
Three Resurrected Drunkards (B-)
Three young guys, who start out by wandering on the beach, keep losing their clothes, their personalities and their national identities. The strangest of all Oshima's assaults on anti-Korean prejudice, it's another dubious display of Oshima-style comedy, which tries and fails for a '60s Richard Lester antic giddiness, though it does have a picaresque charm. With Kazuhiko Kato, Norihiko Hashida and Sato.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Green Zone (B)
U.S.; Paul Greengrass, 2010, Universal
Green Zone is a sometimes hellishly exciting political war thriller about the conning of America during and after the Iraq War. It's about the mess on the field after Bush and Cheney scammed the nation, and though it's flawed, it's also often a stunner. My main complaint with taking that official screw-up as a subject is that it comes seven years late.
But better late than never. Savvily written by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) and smashingly directed by Paul Greengrass (helmer of the last two Bourne movies and United 93), Green Zone is about how P.R. trumped intelligence (of both kinds) after the Bush administration used inaccurate spy reports to sell the Iraq War to Congress and the American public. That was the very war the neoconservatives had always wanted, from the moment they followed Bush into power -- and they stubbornly stuck to their guns, even when the search for the war's main justification, the all important weapons of mass destruction, kept coming up empty.
Though "inspired" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's reportage in the book Imperial life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, it's a fictional story, a drama done in Greengrass' best pseudo-documentary style with made-up or disguised characters and a hero who gradually discovers the real-life events and consequences that many of us already know.
The setting is Baghdad, after the war, mostly in and just outside the "Green Zone" or safe area for Americans away from the still turbulent streets. The central character, the guy who guides us through the maze of lies, is Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (played by Matt Damon), a no-nonsense soldier hunting for WMDs, and increasingly frustrated because the targeted hiding places, all vetted by an anonymous U.S. intelligence source known (but not yet to Roy) as "Magellan," contain none -- and because his complaints keep getting squelched by superiors and by a new all-powerful, super-slick U.S. official (modeled on Paul Bremer?) named Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear).
This is a movie that, whatever its nods to formula movie melodramatics and big-audience come-ons, is written with some feeling, and realized with stunning immediacy, full-throttle pace and sometimes eviscerating impact. (Extras: commentary by Greengrass and Damon; deleted scenes; featurettes.)
Remember Me (B-)
U.S.; Allen Coulter, 2010, Dreamworks
It's the summer of 2001 in New York City. Stanley Kubrick got it all wrong, even though we'd probably rather be in his world than this one. Something awful is about to happen. But to who?
Well, Robert Pattinson is rebellious rich boy Tyler, son of the wealthy and selfish rich guy Hawkins (Pierce Brosnan), and divorced and remarried mom Diane (Lena Olin). Emilie de Ravin is Ally Craig, whose dad is bitter policeman Sgt. Neil (Chris Cooper) and whose mom was killed long ago, in the movie's intro, in a subway assault by thugs.
One night, Tyler -- who drinks too much, shaves too little and has a tendency to brood and stare out of windows -- gets into a drunken brawl, and gets arrested, very physically, by Sgt. Craig. Bad move. Tyler's funny, nasty buddy Aidan (Tate Ellington) suggests that, for revenge, Tyler seduce Ally. Uh-oh. I smell the ten millionth dramatic variation on Romeo and Juliet! But where are those subway thugs? And doesn't writer Will Fettersi have something more cosmic in mind?
A lot of people have been comparing Pattinson in this movie to James Dean. But I'll believe that when I see Pattinson in a red leather jacket, screaming "you're tearing me apart!" or in a T-shirt yelling "I've got the bullets!" For imaginative Dean mimicry, I preferred Brad Pitt in Johnny Suede.
I think Allen Coulter (Hollywoodland) actually did a bang-up job of directing this movie, and that the actors were all good, even Pattinson. But that script....
She's Out of My League (C)
U.S.; Jim Field Smith, 2010, Dreamworks
She's Out of My League is -- you guessed it -- a teen-sex romantic comedy about a Five who snags a Ten. The movie's geeky, gangly but utterly lovable Five is an airport security guy named Kirk (played by Jay Baruchel, that fine actor who lost the fight in Million Dollar Baby and dorked it up in Knocked Up). Kirk is a geek who, at the airport, meets and charms a Hard Ten named Molly (Alice Eve, the knockout from Starter for Ten), and starts dating her, to the amazement of everybody, including his awful ex-girlfriend, a definite Three named Marnie (Lindsay Sloane); his obnoxious family, and his three hang-loose Hangover-Lite buddies, Stainer the rowdy Eight (T.J. Miller), Jack the helpful Ten (Mike Vogel) and sweet Devon (Nate Torrence), who's married and therefore doesn't need a number.
Good-guy Devon is involved in League's most unfortunately memorable scene, when he shaves off Kirk's pubic hair in the bathroom, to make him more suitable for a prospective Ten. It's a scene that I'm very glad the Farrelly brothers didn't get to first, though they certainly inspired it.
This movie, written by Sean Anders and John Morris (Sex Drive) and directed by Jim Field Smith, is, I'm afraid, a Hard Two. It's pretty much of a horny mess. But at least it comes out strongly against Looksism and Numberism. High time. We're trapped now, it seems, in a media world gone looks-loony and Ten-mad, a horrible empty-headed bigoted unbrave new world, a telegenic dictatorship where everyone seems to be judged on face and physique before anything.
Youth in Revolt (B-)
U.S.; Miguel Arteta, 2009, New Century
Michael Cera, in alleged revolt against middle-class society, plays both wimpy Nick Twisp and his Breathless-inspired French alter-ego Francois Dillinger, both of whom seem less than bad-asses, although Francois certainly does a lot of nasty things, all to impress Portia Doubleday, who's fond of Belmondo and Serge Gainsbourg records. If the rebellion and romance are both deficient here, so is the comedy, despite the presence of Steve Buscemi, Jean Smart, Mary Kay Place, M. Emmet Walsh and Fred Willard as the older generation. Smart-ass without being smart.
The Stepfather (B)
U.S.; Joseph Ruben, 1987, New Century
Terry O'Quinn is the deadly suburban stepfather who just wants everything to be perfect. A brilliant thriller script by author Donald Westlake puts this movie so far ahead to begin with that it's almost foolproof. O'Quinn's scary performance and Joe Ruben's sharp direction only sweeten the cake. With Shelley Hack.