CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Matt Reeves, 2008, Paramount
Cloverfield is one of the scariest monster movies I've seen recently -- or maybe ever. The top TV talent making this, producer J.J. Abrams (Lost), director Matt Reeves (Felicity) and writer Drew Goddard (a Lost writer), use an ingenious framing device. They show a devastating monster invasion of New York City as if it were being recorded accidentally by a home video camera run by a young Manhattan partier as the invasion starts. The label on the tape, designated later as military evidence, chillingly points out that the footage is from a camera retrieved at Incident Site US-447, the "area formerly known as Central Park."
With convincing offhand casualness, we go straight from the party and its erotic high jinks, low jokes and overwrought arguments about relationships to the horrific assault on the city (in what first suggests another 9/11 attack). We see it throughout as the kids do, from the edges of the action, as they try to flee to safety, rescue each other or keep from being killed. All the while, Manhattan's city lights go out, the streets shake, tankers explode, and huge, terrifying monsters we can't quite see prowl the streets and butcher the populace -- all from the vantage point of the camcorder and the kids, who both keep running.
It's a terrific idea, reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, but also of Orson Welles faux alien invasion radio broadcasts in his radio classic War of the Worlds, and Abrams, Reeves and Goddard pull it off brilliantly. The handheld one-camera shooting is dead-on and so is the cast, including Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David and Mike Lucas. Even if you consider yourself immune to horror movies, this one might get to you. (Extras: Commentary by Reeves, documentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, alternative endings.)
Merrill's Marauders (B+)
U.S.; Samuel Fuller, Warners
A classic. Sam Fuller's glossy but tough war movie about Gen. Frank Merrill and his "Marauders" -- American World War II soldiers battling the Japanese in Burma -- has a different feel than Fuller's gritty black-and-white films The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets. But it's just as powerful. The wide-screen color images of jungle warfare may not match that other World War II Burma classic, David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, but they're lushly colorful, stinging.
Jeff Chandler, in his last screen role, plays Merrill, and he brings a vulnerability and final pathos to the performance that wasn't always apparent in his standard adventure hero roles of the '50s (though you're reminded of how effective he was opposite James Stewart as Cochise in Broken Arrow. The supporting cast is drawn from the Warner Brothers movie and TV stock company of the '50s and early '60s -- Claude Akins (the house villain in Rio Bravo and others), Ty Hardin (Bronco), Will Hutchins (Sugarfoot), Andrew Duggan, Peter Brown and others -- and, under Fuller's hands, they shine.
Marauders hasn't received as much praise, in Fuller's critical glory days, as, say, The Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street and Shock Corridor. But perhaps that's because it doesn't have that hard-edged B movie noir look Fullerites like. But it's one of his better movies, and a direct precursor to his World War II masterpiece The Big Red One.
She Done Him Wrong (B+)
U.S.; Lowell Sherman, 1933, Universal
Two great movie erotic icons of the 1930s -- the voluptuous and cynical red hot mama Mae West and that suave romantic acrobat Cary Grant -- had a momentous sexual summit meeting in the classic She Done Him Wrong, the movie version of one of writer-star West's hit plays, about the boudoir life and antics of sultry, indomitable Diamond Lil and her seduction of straight-arrow Grant.
It was West's idea; she personally selected the young Cary (pre-stardom), and wrote their crackling classic scenes, including her famous invitation to "come up and see me sometime." She also offers jazzy, lewd renditions of the non-Dennis Hopper "Easy Rider" and "Frankie and Johnny." This movie is not only incredibly entertaining but a cultural landmark. West's bulging bodice, dirty-flirty eyes and nonstop double entendres eventually helped bring on movie censorship.
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Silent Ozu (Three Family Comedies) (A)
Japan; Yasujiro Ozu, 1931-33, Criterion/Eclipse
One of the great filmmakers of all time, known in America mostly to aficionados, was Yasujiro Ozu, the quiet genius of the domestic comedy and family drama, expert on films about fathers, mothers and their children. This set contains three great family comedies from the '30s, the decade when he established his preeminence as a movie maker and won three of his record-breaking six Kinema Junpo "Best One" awards -- two of them for movies in this set, Passing Fancy and I Was Born, But....
Ozu never married. He lived most of his life with his single mother. But, perhaps because he was denied an ordinary one of his own, his view of family life was profound, sometimes very funny and often deeply moving. These three films are all comedies about financial problems and all silent. (Ozu held out against talkies until 1936.) They may surprise audiences who know the director only for poignant talking classics like Tokyo Story or Late Spring. But, like Russia's Anton Chekhov, Ozu mastered comedy before tragedy and the sad masterpieces of his middle and late periods. This set opens a priceless window on pre-World War II Japan and on the heart and soul of one of the cinema's treasures, sensei Yasujiro Ozu. (All films in Japanese, with English subtitles.)
Tokyo Chorus (B+)
An insurance salesman's family, in economic trouble, is counting on a bonus he won't receive. From this potentially sad subject, Ozu milks both warm comedy and charming realism.
I Was Born, But... (A)
One of Ozu's masterpieces: the sparkling tale of two little boys who want their white-collar dad to show some gumption and resort themselves to desperate measures. One of the great silent comedies and one of cinema's best portrayals of childhood.
Passing Fancy (A)
One of Ozu's favorite situations, the relationship of a single parent and child (which mirrored his own life), receives one of its most memorable portrayals in this comedy, set in a Tokyo tenement, about dad Kihachiro (Takeshi Sakamoto) and his rambunctious little son (Tokkan Kozo, one of the two scamps from I Was Born, But...).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Savages (B+)
U.S.; Tamara Jenkins, 2007, Fox
The problems of death and an aging parent become the occasion for sharply realistic comedy and three excellent performances: by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the harassed children and Philip Bosco as the disintegrating dad.
Charlie Wilson's War (B)
U.S.; Mike Nichols, 2007, Universal
Director Nichols and stars Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Hoffman (in another of his superb 2007 acting jobs) show us a side of American politics both shadowy and heroic, as they dramatize the real-life adventures of a hedonistic congressman secretly battling Afghan terrorists.
The Shop Around the Corner (A)
U.S.; Ernst Lubitsch, 1940
Auntie Mame (B-)
U.S.; Morton DaCosta, 1958
The Lord of Mismatches alone only knows why these two movies were put together. Lubitsch's Shop Around the Corner, with Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Frank Morgan, is one of the all-time great American romantic comedies and DaCosta's Auntie Mame is a big, crude, stagy, bumptious but likable eccentric-rich-lady farce, with Rosalind Russell in one of her signature roles. As long as you don't watch these two consecutively, I guess it's okay.
The Major and the Minor (B)
U.S.; Billy Wilder, 1942, Universal
Ginger Rogers, prepping maybe for Howard Hawks' back-to-youth comedy Monkey Business, plays a fetching young lady, strapped for cash, who poses as a 12-year-old to get a cheap train fare, and winds up at a girls' school with solicitous Ray Milland, who just can't understand why he reacts to her so strongly. Wilder's first Hollywood directorial effort, and he was already testing the limits. The movie, funny and risqué, was later remade as You're Never Too Young (1955), with Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis in the Ginger and Ray roles. A good musical chunk of that movie later popped up in R.W. Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons.
U.S.; Mitchell Leisen, 1939, Universal
Claudette Colbert is a poor poseur playing countess among a chic and daffy bunch that includes Mary Astor, Monty Woolley, Francis Lederer, Hedda Hopper and John Barrymore, in one of his grand drunk roles. The setting is that magical place Ernst Lubitsch admiringly called "Paris, Paramount," and the script is by those '30s Paramount wizards Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, one of their best.
Easy Living (B+)
U.S.; Leisen, 1937, Universal
A top screwball comedy from screenwriter Preston Sturges, who imagines what might happen if an angry millionaire (Edward Arnold) tossed his wife's mink coat out a penthouse window and a pretty, zippy working girl (Jean Arthur, no less) picked it up, and his amorous son (Ray Milland) then fell in love with her. Witty, irreverent. Bravo, Sturges.
The Ocean Waif (B-)
U.S.; Alice Guy Blache, 1916 (Kino)
The first of all woman filmmakers was France's Blache, whose career began in 1896, parallel with Melies and the Lumiere brothers. She's good, too: a prolific, stylish purveyor of domestic dramas, romances and comedies, who, for a time, ran her own studio (Solax). In this film -- a diverting but somewhat saccharine romance between the title waif (Doris Kenyon) and a handsome novelist (Carlyle Blackwell) with rich friends and a disapproving fiancée -- she's on hire to William Randolph Hearst and subject to his sentimental whims. Not her best but historically a treasure. The film is silent, with intertitles and a Jon Mirsalis score; some of the footage is flawed.
U.S.; Ruth Ann Baldwin, 1917
An amusing western parody from another lost woman director of the 1910s. This film is also silent with intertitles and a score by Mirsalis.
The Magic of Melies (B)
France; Georges Melies, 1904-08, Kino
Not as impressive as Flicker Alley's magnificent five-disc, 173-film Melies set -- a DVD masterpiece if there ever was one. But if you want a good sampler of gems from the superb French silent moviemaker, this one will amaze and entertain you. Includes: 15 films from 1904 to 1908, Charles Musser notes and a 1978 documentary, Georges Melies, Cinema Magician, by Patrick Montgomery and Luciano Martinengo. Among the films: the delightful 1904 The Impossible Voyage, plus The Cook in Trouble (1904), The Eclipse (1907), Long Distance Wireless Photography (1908) and others.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Houdini The Movie Star (B)
U. S.; various directors, 1919-23, Kino
The most famous stage entertainer of the early 20th century was a mysterious and often mind-bending magician named Harry Houdini. Houdini -- born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, and raised in Appleton, Wis. -- specialized in elaborate and seemingly impossible escapes, squirming loose in minutes or seconds from handcuffs, straitjackets, "water torture cells" and locked, chain-wrapped trunks. He also performed flabbergasting stage illusions, some so improbable and seemingly dangerous they can still send shivers down your spine.
He was born in Hungary to a Jewish family and a rabbi father (Mayer Samuel Weisz) who emigrated to America, where Harry's (or "Ery's") name was slightly altered to Ehrich Weiss. Impoverished, victimized by anti-Semitism (then and later on in life), the young Erich found refuge in the world of show business, where he developed his jaw-dropping act.
Houdini's fame was worldwide and his name is still legendary. Mostly forgotten, though, is his brief but sometimes spectacular career as a movie star. Since 1926, when the illusionist died of peritonitis, his movies have been little known and rarely revived. But his film work is available now, in Kino's Houdini the Movie Star.
From at least 1907 on, Houdini appeared in short films that recorded his escapes and illusions. But he became an actual movie star in 1919 when he played the heroic lead, Quentin Locke, in a 15-part serial exploiting his stage act, The Master Mystery. It was a hit. Afterwards, Houdini's affair with the movies grew. He acted in several others, formed his own production company, and eventually became a "hyphenate": writing and producing, and finally directing, his own films. The later ones weren't successful, and by 1923, Houdini's cinema activity had ceased.
Most of Houdini's film work is contained in the Kino box set. And, though most of the movies aren't very good in themselves, they're still a fascinating memento of a great American entertainer who was, like Georges Melies and Orson Welles, both magician and moviemaker.
Includes: the 15-episode serial The Master Mystery (Burton King, 1919, C), feature excerpt The Grim Game (Irving Willat, 1919, C); Terror Island (James Cruze, 1920, C+), the Houdini produced and written The Man From Beyond (Burton King, 1922, C-), and Haldane of the Secret Service (Harry Houdini, 1923, C-). (Extras: Short films of actual Harry Houdini escapes and tricks performed by Houdini, plus one re-created by his brother Hardeen (1907-1923); 1914 audio recording of Houdini introducing his Water Torture trick; Slippery Jim (France, Ferdinand Zecca, 1910); French silent trick comedy inspired by Houdini; Censor Board reports on Houdini acts and films; image galleries; extensive notes by Bret Wood.)