PICKS OF THE WEEK
Batman Begins (B)
U.S.; Christopher Nolan, 2005, Warner, Blu-Ray
Holy Bats! As a kid, I collected the Batman comic books -- as well as Detective Comics and World's Finest Comics, in which he also appeared -- throughout the '50s, a decade when their creator, Citizen Bob Kane, was still signing the stories. Later, at the UW-Madison, I suffered through the over-campy, tongue-in-cheek '60s TV series with Adam West as the batguy and Burt Ward as his longtime companion Robin (Holy Smartass!), and later, the earlier, pasteboard serial by star Robert Lowery and director Spencer Bennet. (Holy Ineptitude!) I rejoiced, a little, when Tim Burton's first two super bat-movies appeared (Holy Scissorhands!), with Michael Keaton (Holy Mr. Mom!) as the caped crime buster and Jack Nicholson an immortal Joker (Holy Temper Tantrum!), only to be diminished by the subsequent overblown Joel Schumacher sequels. (Holy Over the Top!)
Batman Begins handed the whole caped crusader project over to cowriter-director Christopher Nolan, of the nifty film noir-in-reverse Memento. (Holy Amnesia!) The 2005 film was an improvement on Schumacher's undynamic duo. (Holy Guano!) And Nolan's upcoming sequel The Dark Knight has bat-buzz at a fever pitch. (Holy Hype!) Justifiably so. Meanwhile, Batman Begins is just what the comic used to be in its own beginnings, and became again in the hands of revisionist, noir-drenched artist-writers like Frank Miller: dark, gothic, scary and full of angst and urban horror. (Holy Gotham City!)
The cast includes Michael Caine as a magisterial, wry Alfred the butler (Holy Jeeves!), Morgan Freeman as head bat-businessman Julian (Holy Daisy Driver!) and Gary Oldman as police cohort Gordon (all of whom repeat their roles in Knight), plus Liam Neeson (Holy Schindler!), Tom Wilkinson, Rade Serbedzija (Holy Macedonian Rain!), Cillian Murphy, Rutger Hauer (Holy Blade Runner!) and the overexposed -- between the scandal sheets, at least -- Katie Holmes (Holy Dianetics!).
Batman Begins. Good cast. Good movie. Good new Blu-Ray DVD. And Christian Bale, who has a similar part in American Psycho, plays the star role here as a saturnine playboy with a talent for mayhem and a tormented alter-ego. (Holy Freud!) He looks like he belongs in a bat-suit. (Holy Raising Kane!)
Mon Oncle Antoine (A)
Canada; Claude Jutra, 1971, Criterion
Claude Jutra's beautiful Canadian film Mon Oncle Antoine, one of the cinema's most memorable and humane portrayals of an adolescent rite of passage, remains something of a neglected masterpiece, at least in the U.S. That's a shame, and one that this marvelous Criterion Collection two-disc set should go a long way to redress.
Director-co-writer-actor Jutra's portrayal of a small-town boyhood in asbestos-mining territory in the 1940s, centering on teenager Benoit (Jacques Gagnon) and his alcoholic/storekeeper uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) has been three times voted in separate decades, by Canada's film critics, their country's greatest movie. That's an impressive achievement. And since Antoine is a French-language film, made during the '70s "Quiet Revolution" in minority French-speaking Quebec, its consistent poll victories (among a critical community drawn primarily from the country's English-speaking majority) confirms the wide and strong esteem in which Jutra and his work are held, both in Canada and Europe.
Unlike its American critical equivalent Citizen Kane, Mon Oncle Antoine is a quiet classic. There are melodramatic incidents, including sexual encounters, a death and a coffin lost in a snowstorm. But mostly Jutra convincingly re-creates small-town life, as remembered by Clement Perron, who co-wrote the semi-autobiographical script, based on his own town and life. We see the orphaned Benoit working in Antoine's general store and helping out with his undertaking business; his fellow workers include his Aunt Cecile (Olivette Thibault), the store's plucky, bemused clerk Fernand (played by Jutra himself) and another teenager, Carmen (Lyne Champagne), on whom Benoit has a big crush. (Fernand and Cecile are also having a light affair.)
What happens during the course of the film is Benoit's often funny, sometimes sad or rude entry into adulthood, spurred by tragedy in a local family whose surly father, Jos (Lionel Villeneuve) is a defiant separatist. Around this dark core, Jutra gives us the textures and rhythms of daily life in the mining town, all rendered with a stunning sense of truth: the opening of the store, a botched display window unveiling, Christmastime merrymaking, the stunning disrobing of the town belle Alexandrine (Monique Mercure) peeped on by Benoit, sexual encounters in the coffin room, and the Christmas gift-giving rounds of the despised English-speaking mine owner.
The film's mistily colored period provincial atmospherics (shot by the great cinematographer Michel Brault) suggest Francois Truffaut, or Terrence Malick in a Renoir mood. The DVD extras -- which include documentaries on Jutra and the film and also the 1957 Jutra-Norman McLaren short A Chairy Tale -- are superb. This is a true, inarguable classic.
Still, despite the film's enormous critical success (including eight Canadian Oscars), Jutra had difficulties financing his own personal projects for the rest of his career, a predicament that ironically mirrored the French-English national schism this film had seemed to help heal. He died in 1986 at the relatively young age of 56, only two years after Antoine's first "best film" poll victory -- committing suicide by drowning in the St. Lawrence River after discovering that he had early Alzheimer's. But, like all the greatest films, Mon Oncle Antoine survives its maker, survives its time. It will always be with us.
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Catherine Deneuve (5 Film Collection) (B)
France; various directors, 1968-84, Lionsgate
This collection assembles five lesser-known films with the ravishing French movie actress who, in the opinion of many, was/is the world's most beautiful woman. (Her poster was on my college room walls for three years, right beside Humphrey Bogart, Ray Charles, Steve McQueen and James Dean.) These five films are not her best, of course, but they're not bad at all, and have been usually hard to find. She's at her most beauteous and sexy, in my opinion, opposite Yves Montand, in the underrated Jean Paul Rappeneau's scrumptious comedy Le Sauvage.
Includes: Manon 70 (Jean Aurel, 1968, B-); Le Sauvage (Jean Paul Rappeneau, 1975, B+); Hotel des Ameriques (Andre Techine, 1981, B+); Le Choc (Robin Davis, 1982, B-); and Fort Saganne (Alain Corneau, 1984, B).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Kimberley Peirce, 2008, Paramount
A somewhat overrated and often overmelodramatic social critique/road movie from the director of Boys Don't Cry, this film focuses on a returning Iraq War veteran (Ryan Phillippe) who is trapped in the Bush administration's endless tour scam and becomes a fugitive. The film is well-acted, but it would have been more effective as a critique, if the warrior had returned to duty earlier.
The Ruins (D)
U.S.; Carter Smith, 2008, DreamWorks
Two fun-loving, sex-happy college couples decide to end their Mexican beach holiday by exploring some obscure Mayan ruins. But angry, gun-slinging natives and the predatory vines infesting a pyramid soon make them regret it. It's a really awful horror movie, based by screenwriter Scott Smith on his best-selling novel. The situation is ridiculous and the college foursome behave so stupidly, all credibility is slaughtered. Lover's quarrels and amateur surgery on a besieged pyramid? Bloodthirsty attacks by squealing, parasitic killer vines? Give me a break. With Jonathan Tucker and Jena Malone.
Jet Li's Fearless (Unrated director's cut) (B)
U.S.-Hong Kong; Ronny Yu, 2006, Universal
Yu's cut of this often excellent martial arts action drama -- based on the historical career and legendary battles of fight master Huo Yuan Jia and played Li in what he says is his last kung fu role -- has 40 extra minutes, all dealing with character as much or more than action. A must for aficionados; good for civilians as well.
Van Helsing (D+)
U.S.; Stephen Sommers, 2004, Universal
The Dracula story is retold from the viewpoint of vampire hunter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, in a role that has been played before by Edward Van Sloan, Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins). It's over-the-top high-tech moviemaking at its most confounding and often senseless. Kate Beckinsale and Richard Roxburgh (as the Count) co-star.
The Mummy Returns (C-)
U.S.; Stephen Sommers, 2001, Universal
The likable Brendan Fraser does an Indy routine in this overproduced horror/adventure saga sequel, which leaves its early origins far behind. Unlike other Universal and Hammer versions, it deserves mummification -- though it was, like Sommers' first mummy feature, a big hit. With Rachel Weisz.
The Mummy (C-)
U.S., Stephen Sommers, 1999, Universal
Mummy dearest strikes for the first time. It's just as bad and spectacular as its own sequel, though Fraser holds it afloat.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (B-)
U.S.; Roger Corman, 1963, MGM
This Corman's '60s sci-fi flick starsRay Milland as the man who sees too deeply for his own good. With Harold J. Stone and Don Rickles; it's a pity you can't watch this in a drive-in.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (C+)
U.S.; Henry Levin, 1959, Fox
Since Jules Verne usually works well on screen, this amiable version of his second published novel rises above mediocrity. Through typical '50s special effects, intrepid explorers prowl around the earth's busy center, oddly inhabited by prehistoric beasts and other King Kong leftovers. Top-chop actor James Mason (who replaced the deceased original star Clifton Webb) is the leader; Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl and Diane Baker are also inexplicably around. (Why not Zsa Zsa Gabor and Fabian?) By the way, the book -- which I finally caught up with -- is still a good read.