PICKS OF THE WEEK
My Blueberry Nights (B+)
U.S.; Wong Kar Wai, 2008, Weinstein Company
My Blueberry Nights is a sweet movie romance and a jazzy film noir reverie that, at its best, wafts you right back to the moods and themes of the American maverick cinema of the '70s, a great era that many of us miss. The U.S. directorial debut of Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai (Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love) and the film acting debut of Grammy winning singer-composer Norah Jones -- Nights is visually stunning, well-written and very well-acted, by a pretty gifted cast that also includes Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, Frankie Faison and (in one of her top screen performances) Natalie Portman.
Why, then, is Blueberry Nights being treated so shabbily by some critics? This movie -- intellectual, erotic and visually sumptuous -- deserves better. It's an unabashed romance for grownups, about a young woman in New York, Elizabeth, played by Jones, who is the subject of much of the abuse. Dumped by her faithless boyfriend, Lizzie then takes off on a cross-county ramble to reawaken her heart -- after meeting the most likely candidate for an instant romantic replacement, Jude Law's kindly Brit café-owner Jeremy. Jeremy runs an all-night coffee shop and is instantly smitten; he feeds her blueberry pie à la mode and smooches her as she slumbers at his counter. But Liz, seemingly oblivious, leaves him to embark on the trek that takes her to Memphis and Las Vegas -- to hearts easily broken, like David Strathairn as Arnie, a sad, alcoholic ex-cop, and cold, cold hearts like Rachel Weisz as the cop's bed-hopping ex-mate Sue Lynne and Natalie Portman as saucy poker ace adventuress Leslie.
Wong, as before, is adept at conveying longing, obsession and the agonies of unrequited love. The movie is ravishing to look at and a delight to listen to, one of Wong's blissful romantic dreams. Ry Cooder composed the score, Darius Khondji photographed the people and places, and Wong's co-writer is the prolific American crime novelist Lawrence Block (8 Million Ways to Die).
Block's script, which smartly taps the classic film noir vein, is a smart, agile romance set in a stylized hard-boiled urban milieu, and, in a way, Wong's and Block's characters are all noir archetypes. Elizabeth is the good, loving girl manhandled by a cad; Sue Lynne and Leslie are a pair of femmes fatales, brunette and blond; Arnie is a flawed lawman/author surrogate (Block's most famous series character is the alcoholic private eye, Matt Scudder) and Jeremy is a nice guy denizen of the night, one of those gabby countermen popping up in film noirs from The Killers on.
The archetypes are there for structure and melody; this is a film that, despite its drenching romanticism, can feel as real as a slap. The section with Arnie and Sue Lynne, mostly set in the bar where Elizabeth serves and Arnie always claims it's his last night of booze, is a shattering rendition of jealousy and obsession. For everyone who thinks it a cliché, I can only say, I know these people, I know these feelings. Wong's first American movie is a torch song on a dark barroom jukebox, about slices of blueberry pie, tears, postcards and broken noir hearts.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (A-)
Japan/U.S.; Paul Schrader, 1985, Criterion Collection
Yukio Mishima, one of 20th-century Japan's most famous and admired authors, was a would-be modern samurai who wielded a deadly pen -- and who died a bloody, theatrical death, committing hara-kiri (or seppuku) after a failed attempt at taking over a garrison with his own private army and trying to inspire a military revolt.
This first of two excellent Criterion editions probably should have been released as one box set, something that would probably have aroused vetoes from Mishima's heirs. Together or separately, they create a portrait of a great, mad, narcissistic artist obsessed with conflagration, suicide, art, love, death and the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, as painted by Guido Reni and others.
Schrader's Mishima, produced by Francis Coppola and George Lucas, interweaves a tense drama of Mishima's last day and his failed samurai rebellion, interwoven with black-and-white flashbacks to his biography from childhood to the brink of death and highly stylized dramatizations of sections of three Mishima novels, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko's House and Runaway Horses. Permission for a fourth excerpt, from Forbidden Colors, was denied by Mishima's family because of that book's homosexual content.
I was mixed on Mishima when it came out in 1985, but today it seems to me much better, more complete, more moving, than it did in 1985, when I was looking for something closer in impact to Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. The elements are superb: Ken Ogata (the terrific psycho killer of Imamura's Vengeance is Mine) is wonderfully two-edged as Mishima (with Roy Scheider just as effective providing the English narration), and the cinematography by John Bailey, the production design by Eiko Ishioka, and the hypnotic score by Phillip Glass are all brilliantly effective.
The film itself, which takes some of its stylistic cues from classicist/Buddhist filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu and some from rebel/experimentalists Nagisa Oshima and (maybe) Masahiro Shinoda, lacks a certain effortless grace and force. Like Mishima's life and art, it seems willed. But Schrader's Mishima remains one of the most artful and piercing movie biographical dramas of its time, or ours. In Japanese, with English subtitles and narration. (Extras: commentary by Schrader and Alan Poul; BBC documentary The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima; narrations in both Japanese (by Ken Ogata) and English (by Roy Scheider); interviews with Mishima, Bailey, Glass and others; booklet with essays by Kevin Jackson and others.)
Patriotism (The Rite of Love and Death) (B)
Japan; Yukio Mishima, 1966, Criterion Collection
Patriotism gives us an even more intimate look at Mishima and his fixations on militarism, art and self-immolation. A chaste, silent black-and-white adaptation of one of his short stories, it features Mishima as a dedicated soldier, Lt. Takeyama, troubled about a failed coup and bent on hara-kiri, with Yoshiko Tsuruoka as his also seppuku-doomed wife. The style and setting suggest noh theater, enacted in classic Japanese interiors and a raked Zen garden, and the suicide scene itself is scarily rapt. Patriotism, the runner-up in the dramatic shorts category at the 1966 Tours Short Film Festival, is deeply disturbing, both because of the beauty it finds in self-destruction and slit bellies and the ways it turns sadomasochism into art. The film is silent, with English intertitles. (Extras: A "Making of" documentary; Mishima interview and audio recording; booklet with Tony Rayns essay, Mishima production notes and original Mishima short story Patriotism.)
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Glitterbox: Four Films by Derek Jarman (A-)
U.K.; Derek Jarman, 1985-94, Zeitgeist
This four-film box set of pictures by the late Derek Jarman showcases the work of one of the most uncompromising and gifted gay independent filmmakers of the 20th century. Jarman began as a painter and as Ken Russell's art director on that incendiary 1974 drama of religion, history and sex, The Devils. When he became a writer-designer-director, with 1976's Sebastiane (on St. Sebastian), he used his painterly gifts and literate bent to unleash one of the most defiant gay sensibilities of his era -- and to form a wondrous little stock company that embraced cinematographers like Gabriel Beristain and actors like Karl Johnson, Michael Gough and Jarman's "muse," Tilda Swinton.
The Angelic Conversation, the filmmaker's own personal favorite, and Caravaggio show Jarman at the top of his game. The former is a lyrical examination of the homoerotic implications of Shakespeare's sonnets, as read by Dame Judi Dench, and the latter a stunning portrait of the outlaw life of the great maverick religious painter, Michelangelo Caravaggio (Nigel Terry), with a cast that includes Swinton, Gough, Sean Bean and Robbie Coltrane, caught in gorgeous frames that duplicate the artist's own lush chiaroscuro style.
Wittgenstein and Blue were released by Jarman in 1993, one year before his death from AIDS. The former is another unique bio-drama, starring Johnson as the rebellious, closeted Viennese-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and presenting his life as a rich burlesque full of academic conflict, Martians and movie-house groping (Wittgenstein's favorite actresses were Carmen Miranda and Betty Hutton), costarring Gough as Bertrand Russell, Swinton as Lady Morrell, and John Quentin as John Maynard Keynes. The devastating Blue, made when the director was virtually blind, backdrops Jarman's musings on life, death and art with a solid, unvarying screen of blue, the last color in his rich palette.
Includes: The Angelic Conversation (1985, A), Caravaggio (1986, A), Wittgenstein (1993, B), and Blue (1994, B). (Extras: Commentary by Beristain (on Caravaggio); interviews with Jarman, Swinton and others, featurettes, short films (Alex Bistikas' The Clearing); storyboards; design sketches; and liner notes by Colin McCabe.)
OTHER NEW OR RECENT RELEASES
Vantage Point (C+)
U.S.; Pete Travis, 2008, Sony
This cross-cutting story of a wildly complex and outlandishly improbable assassination attempt in a South American country, told from multiple viewpoints, few of which make any sense, has a certain stylistic gusto, if you're not a stickler for logic. It also has a star cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, Dennis Quaid and William Hurt. It's no Rashomon, though it would sure like to be. (Extras: Commentary by Travis; featurettes.)
Drillbit Taylor (Extended Survival Edition) (D+)
U.S.; Steven Brill, 2008, Paramount
The Judd Apatow group may be making too many movies these days, and here's one of them: a revenge-of-the-nerds comedy that's a definite candidate for smarter rethinking or rewriting. Owen Wilson plays one of the elite homeless guys of the so-called People's Republic of Santa Monica, an ex-soldier and self-proclaimed survival expert who gets hired by some high school geeks (Troy Gentile, Nate Hartley, David Dorman) to protect them from schoolyard psycho bullies, including Alex Frost, who's like a cross between Eddie Haskell and Freddy Krueger. The cast seems to be having fun, but the story is both predictable and illogical, familiar and frowsy. It's produced by Apatow; co-scripted by Kristofor Brown, Seth Rogen and (or so they say) "Edmond Dantes." (Extras: Commentary by Brill, Brown and cast members; interview with Brown and Rogen; many deleted or extended scenes; gag reel; "survival features.")
City of Men (B-)
Brazil; Paulo Morelli, 2008, Miramax
A TV sequel to producer Fernando Meirelle's superb Brazilian delinquency thriller City of God, about two friends caught in the hell of the Rio streets, is not up to its predecessor but still an exciting show. In Portuguese with English subtitles.
Shotgun Stories (B)
U.S.; Jeff Nichols, 2007, Liberation Entertainment
Is there a North Carolina/Arkansas school of film-making? Maybe not, but this film by David Gordon Green's fellow Little Rock, Arkansas homeboy and North Carolina School of the Arts schoolmate Jeff Nichols in his first dramatic feature, impresses you in some of the same ways Green's work (like George Washington) does. Set in small-town Arkansas, it's the hauntingly understated tale of a family feud -- waged by three abandoned young man against the more "legitimate" sons of their father, their half-brothers sired after their dad left their mother and found the Lord and a new family. Shotgun Stories is remarkably non-exploitive. Even as the feud explodes into gunplay and killings, the film never descends into hysteria. And the acting -- especially by Michael Shannon and Douglas Ligon as two of the outsider brothers -- always stays quietly real. Green was a producer here, and like George Washington, Nichols' Shotgun Stories is a model of low-budget independent regional filmmaking.
Girl on the Bridge (B)
France; Patrice Leconte, 1999, Legend
Daniel Auteuil and Vanessa Paradis costar in this romantic fable from Leconte about a knife-thrower who rescues a jumper on a bridge, and of their curious, mercurial relationship. In French, with English subtitles.
U. S.; Michael Lehmann, 1989, Anchor Bay
The well-liked, cynical, overrated high school comedy of murders and social status, costars Christian Slater and Wynona Ryder and was written by Daniel Waters.
U.S.; Sidney Lumet, 1983, Legend
A fine social/political family drama was adapted by Lumet with his usual depth and skill from E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, which was inspired by the story of the Rosenberg children. It costars Timothy Hutton, Lindsay Crouse, Mandy Patinkin, Ed Asner and Ellen Barkin.
Baby, It's You (B)
U.S.; John Sayles, 1983, Legend
Here's a very atypical but extremely likable outing by Sayles: a high school romance in which a class queen (Rosanna Arquette) courts danger with an outlaw type (Vincent Spano). This one costars Robert Downey Jr. and Matthew Modine. I love the last scene.
Won Ton Ton, The Dog That Saved Hollywood (D)
U.S.; Michael Winner, 1976, Legend
A dog of a movie comedy, this parodies/travesties the silent movie reign of canine superstar Rin Tin Tin. It costars many familiar Hollywood faces, none of whom we'll embarrass here.
The Busy Body (D+)
U.S.; William Castle, 1967, Legend
Sid Caesar, Anne Baxter, Dom DeLuise, Godfrey Cambridge, Georgie Jessel and Richard Pryor (in his movie debut) costar in this corpse of a comedy from exploitation-horror king Castle about a wandering corpus delicti, surrounded by idiots. At least it's a change of pace for the guy who made Homicidal and The Tingler -- and who should have shot this mess in laugh-o-rama.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Shane (Two-pack) (A)
U.S.; John Ford/George Stevens, 1962-53, Paramount
Two great Westerns, from two of the masters. Valance, the supreme genre classic that's both a historical elegy and a murder mystery, is also the Casablanca of Westerns; the great cast includes John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Andy Devine, Lee Can Cleef, Strother Martin, John Carradine and Edmond O'Brien. The 1962 Burt Bacharach-Gene Pitney top 40 hit "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" was written for this movie, but, in a bad move, rejected by Ford. Shane features Alan Ladd in his signature role as a Western gun Galahad, plus Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Jack Palance (those gloves!) and, unforgettably, Brandon DeWilde as the ranch son who worships Shane. Includes: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962, A) and Shane (George Stevens, 1953, A).
Boomerang and Harlem Nights (Two-pack) (D)
U.S.; Reginald Hudlin/Eddie Murphy, 1992-89, Paramount
Two poor Eddie Murphy comedies. The first, marginally better, and costarring Robin Givens and Halle Berry, is about an egomaniacal "player" getting his comeuppance. The other is an awful period gangster farce, which wastes not only writer-director-star Murphy, but also Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx. Includes Boomerang (Hudlin, 1992, D+) and Harlem Nights (Murphy, 1989, D).