PICKS OF THE WEEK
Spain: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, 2011, Roadside Attractions
In Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's sad and moving film Biutiful, Javier Bardem gives an extraordinary performance as a dying man named Uxbal: a small-time Barcelona hustler working a variety of scams and shady deals to support his two young children. Uxbal is a man living on the dark side who suddenly discovers that he's dying of prostate cancer.
Playing this role, so full of fallibility and pathos, Bardem at times to be carrying us to some bottomless psychic well of pain and sorrow. Yet Bardem's character in Biutiful (the title comes from his young daughter Ana's s misspelling of "Beautiful" ) is no saint. He's a con man who cons the bereaved by pretending to communicate with their dead, and, in his main job, helps exploit poor Asian and African immigrants, who work under miserable conditions in a secret factory building.
Uxbal is a family man, and there too he falls short. He tries to care for his two young children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Matteo (Guillermo Estrella), while being separated from their hot, high-stepping mother, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez). But he has a temper and gets easily distracted. Through all this, he is so overworked and pressed that at first it seems a cruel joke when he learns he is dying.
Uxbal is not really a good man; he's a petty crook, working for bigger crooks. But the revelation of his mortality and inevitable death makes him somehow want to be good, maybe to bring their mother back into the children's lives, make sure they're provided for, be better to the hapless Asians whom his employers so viciously exploit -- like the mother and her little girl whom he often worries will catch cold at night. (Uxbal gets a cheap space heater to try to keep them warm.). He wants to be a good man. But the irony is that he can't.
Marambra, the mother of Uxbal's children, a good-natured bipolar floozy, can barely take care of herself, let alone Uxbal and the kids (though she wants to). Uxbal's sleazy bosses Hai (Cheng Tai Sheng) and Li Wei (Luojin) are irresponsible sweatshop operators, and also lovers. And Uxbal's genial brother Tito (Eduardo Fernandez), who hires Uxbal's illegal workers, is a bit of a crook himself, and also has the hots for Marambra.
This is a morally dark, sordid world, with barely a model example of a good person anywhere to be seen. Maybe one. There's Ige (Dairyatou Daff), the Senegalese immigrant wife and mother who cares for Ana and Mateo when Uxbal can't. But, in a way, she's out for herself too. (Who can blame her?) In the movie, once Uxbal learns of his cancer, almost nothing goes right for him, or for anyone else, and it's clear that it's largely his own fault. This is the way he has lived his life. This is the way he will die.
Uxbal is not a good man, not a good father -- though he tries. He's simply a small-time hustler and a very good looking man with huge beautiful soulful eyes, who is being plunged further and further into darkness and misery as we watch.
It's a great performance and a great film. Inarritu -- in Amores Perros, in 21 Grams and here, has become a poet of contemporary pain and violence and sorrow. Here, he takes us into the seedy side of Barcelona -- Uxbal's crowded apartment, the shabby basement full of illegal Asian immigrants, streets full of Senegalese immigrant peddlers subject to police raids. And Inarritu shows us these mean streets with a stunning visual/dramatic style that suggests both the feverishly colored ferocity of a Scorsese and the compassion, high stagecraft and high humanism of a De Sica. The cinematographer is Rodrigo Prieto (Inarritu's usual camera partner), and he bathes the streets in fierce light, even as he picks out Uxbal and his children in their room, in shadows, as death draws nearer.
Uxbal's eyes are as sad as a pool in which a child has drowned. But Bardem doesn't overplay the role. He portrays this sensitive but crooked man gently, with compassion and with astonishing truthfulness. The misery is real, and Bardem and Inarritu make us feel it.
In the end, Bardem's Uxbal is "biutiful," because that's what the little girl Ana sees. Dying, her father becomes transfigured, and, so, for a moment, does she. And that feeling of forgiveness is what makes Biutiful a great movie, Bardem's Uxbal a great performance. (Extras: "making of" documentary; trailer.)
Italy: Vittorio De Sica, 1946, e one
We're all pretty familiar with Vittorio De Sica's great postwar neo-realist films Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D -- at least those of us are who love art cinema and foreign films. But fewer of us have seen his and writer Cesare Zavattini's equally great 1946 classic Shoeshine (Sciuscia), the devastating story of two shoeshine boys in postwar Italy, best friends Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi) and Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni), who do a side business in the black market, and get viciously trapped in the Italian justice and prison systems. (Interlenghi later played the central young wastrel Moraldo in Fellini's superb 1953 piece of provincial realism, I Vitelloni.)
De Sica, who was also a highly popular Italian matinee idol acting star, is at his directorial best here, shooting in the streets and the rubble of post-war Italy, working mostly with newcomers and amateurs, telling a story remarkable for its truth, drama and piercing social critique. In scenes that seem drawn almost straight from life, but that also have a bewitchingly artful shape and execution, De Sica shows us these two poor, industrious but luckless boys buying a horse with their hard-earned shoeshine booty, then getting tossed in jail, and losing both their freedom and soon, their love for each other. The prison society clamps down hard, as so does a privileged little delinquent named Arcangeli (Bruno Ortenzi), a spoiled brat who looks a bit like a ratlike Adrien Brody. It's a terrifying story, scariest because it seems so true, so inevitable.
Pauline Kael said something memorable about Shoeshine, one of her favorite movies: "If Mozart had written an opera set in poverty, it might have had this kind of painful beauty." It's a masterpiece, grossly underrated by some. And, if you want to see why De Sica is a great director, take your eyes from the main characters during one of the scenes, and watch what the people in the background of the shot are doing. They're directed beautifully, every movement convincing and lyrical. Here is a filmmaker who loved life and makes us love it too -- and to grieve for its diminishment and loss. In Italian, with English subtitles. (Extras: fine commentary by Bert Cardullo.)
Grand Prix (Two Disc Special Edition) (A-)
U.S.: John Frankenheimer, 1966, Warner, Blu-ray
I once asked John Frankenheimer what his own favorite among all his films was. He started to say The Manchurian Can… But then he stopped, and said, "No. Grand Prix. I loved doing that one."
In life, Frankenheimer really dug fast cars. And he's right. Not about Manchurian Candidate, necessarily, but about Grand Prix -- which was photographed in 70 mm in a series of ravishing locations that include Monte Carlo -- being a good, exciting, gorgeously shot, and sometimes very underrated film.
James Garner, Yves Montand, Antonio Sabato and Brian Bedford are among the cream-of-the-crop Formula One racers on the colorful European circuit. Toshiro Mifune is a big Japanese car nabob and racing team sponsor. Eva Marie Saint, Francoise Hardy and Jessica Walter are women who watch and maybe worry. William Hanley and Robert Alan Aurthur (Edge of the City) wrote it, and, whenever the cars rev up, Frankenheimer keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Grand Prix, now often cited as one of the all-time best car-racing movies, was initially underrated. Those racing scenes (some in flashy split-screen) are among the best ever. Brian Bedford, who recently had a Broadway stage triumph as Lady Bracknnell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, may be an odd choice for a Formula One racer. (Why not Michael Caine?) But the others are fine -- though Frankenheimer originally wanted Steve McQueen as his star, and I wish they'd found a slot for Paul Newman. (Maybe in Jim Garner's role, with Garner as a more easy-going rival.) One thing's for sure: Blu-ray is the way to see Grand Prix. Especially in Monte Carlo. (Extras: featurettes, trailer.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
I Am Number Four (D+)
U.S.: D.J. Caruso 2011, Touchstone/DreamWorks)
Sometimes, you look at a movie, and you know it's going to give you a bad time. But what can you do?
I Am Number Four is a super-glossy, not very good science fiction teen thriller, produced by Michael Bay and directed by D.J. Caruso, about a striking-looking kid named John (Alex Pettyfer), who's also known as "Number Four." Four comes from another planet and is being shepherded around America -- and protected from the bad Mogadorians of that same planet -- by his helpful guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant). Those bad Mogadorians, who have evil-looking creases by their noses, and are led by their evilly grinning Commander (Kevin Durand), have already killed Numbers One, Two and Three, and their guardians. There's another refugee from John's planet (Teresa Palmer), a striking looking blonde in black leather. She's wandering around. So is a cute little dog with an injured leg. (See, this movie has a heart.)
John, or Four, dyes his hair blond too, and becomes even more striking-looking. But he's tired of hiding. He wants to go to high school, though Henri warns him he'll have to be inconspicuous. (How can he be inconspicuous? He looks like a movie star with dyed-blonde hair.) So, on the first days of school, Four attracts the prettiest girl in school, artsy photographer Sarah (Dianna Agron), alienates her ex-boyfriend, the school's snotty star quarterback Mark (Jake Abel) and his hoodlum friends, and gains a Plato-like Sal Mineo sort of hanger-on buddy named Sam (Callan McAuliffe).
Inconspicuous? The picture's just started and already, Four has used up half the setup of Rebel Without a Cause, and he doesn't even have a red jacket. The rest is the same old stuff, science fiction-ized, nowhere near as good as Rebel, but very well-shot by Guillermo Navarro (Pan's Labyrinth), and juiced up with monsters and Mogadorians.
When I was a teenager, if I'd gone to a movie like this, I would have felt like I was being played for a sucker.
The Roommate (D)
U.S.: Christian E. Christiansen, 2011, Screen Gems
The psycho-roommate plot of Single White Female turned into teen-sex fashion porn. Minka Kelly is our heroine; Leighton Meester is the psycho. And they do their maniacal shenanigans at a school ("Los Angeles University") unlike anything this side of Suspiria -- which is far more fun. No books in the rooms, but plenty of blood on the floor. Don't be too intrigued by the box office this one generated. The audience was suckered. Christian E. Christiansen directed, badly. Sonny Mallhi scripted, horribly. It's awful.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (A-)
U.S.: Terry Gilliam, 1998, Criterion, Blu-ray
From Hunter Thompson's great mad chronicle of a wild druggie Voyage to the End of Vegas, inspired by his attempt to cover a motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated, with his buddy, radical Latino lawyer Oscar Acosta, and a convertible full of controlled substances. Johnny Depp is Hunter Thompson (alias Raoul Duke). Benicio Del Toro is "The Samoan Attorney" (alias Dr. Gonzo). Supporting hallucinations are played by Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Cameron Diaz, Harry Dean Stanton, Christina Ricci, Craig Bierko, Lyle Lovett, and so help me, Tobey Maguire, as a sensitive hippie hitchhiker, freaked out by his loony ride with Duke and Gonzo.
Gilliam, working from a Tony Grisoni/Alex Cox/Tod Davies/Gilliam script, makes no concessions to any civilized notions of a proper movie. Ralph Steadman's fantastic original Fear and Loathing illustrations hover over the picture like a swarm of bats. And Depp and Del Toro score in their seemingly unlikely roles like you wouldn't believe. Fans of the book -- the Moby Dick of drug tales -- will probably like this. Normal people will be appalled. Gonzo me, baby! (Extras: three commentaries, with Gilliam, with Depp and Del Toro, and with Dr. Hunter S. Thompson; deleted scenes; Thompson correspondence, read by Depp; documentary; featurettes; portrait of Acosta; artwork by Steadman; Fear and Loathing recording with Jim Jarmusch; booklet with pieces by Thompson and J. Hoberman.)
El Topo (B)
Mexico: Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970, Anchor Bay, Blu-ray
The infamous head trip midnight movie about the Sergio Leon-ish zen gunslinger (Christ, Buddha, Glauber Rocha and Clint Eastwood tossed together), played by writer-director Jodorowsky, his barenaked sidekick (played by Jodorowsky's 7-year-old son, Brontis), and their desert ride to enlightenment and bloody massacre.
With Mara Lorenzio and Alfonso Arau (here a bandit, later the director of Like Water for Chocolate). Full of narrative chaos, bargain basement pseudo-Leone theatrics and weird symbolic allegorical binges. John Lennon and the Easy Rider gang loved it. Yoko too, I suppose. It plays better stoned. So does "Revolution No. 9." (Extras: commentary and interview with Jodorowsky; English dub track; script excerpts; trailer.)
Hurry Sundown (B)
U.S.: Otto Preminger, 1967, Olive
Starting in 1959, Otto Preminger, who had been discovered and celebrated by Cahiers du Cinema in the mid-'50s, directed a string of lengthy, often spectacular movies mostly based on big best-sellers, all of which might be described as sociopolitical epics. These films tended to focus on American or world institutions: U.S. courtroom law (Anatomy of a Murder), the creation of the Israeli state (Exodus), American national politics (Advice and Consent), the Catholic Church (The Cardinal), the U.S. Navy in World War II (In Harm's Way) and race and class in the Deep South (Hurry Sundown).
Most of these movies tend to be underrated now, and Hurry Sundown is so underrated that my "B" rating may seem to some like addled enthusiasm. But this series may represent Preminger at his best, along with his earlier noirs Laura, Angel Face and The Man with the Golden Arm. Certainly, it shows him at his most ambitious.
Hurry Sundown, based on a K.B. Gilden novel and set in the immediate postwar period, is about two lower-class Southern farmers, one white (John Phillip Law), one black (Robert Hooks), battling to keep their land out of the hands of greedy developers. They're especially wary of the mendacious saxophone player/speculator Henry (Michael Caine), a smooth operator who's married to local belle Jane Fonda, whose family ceded part of the land to Hooks' now-desperately sick mother, Beah Richards. Faye Dunaway, in the same year as her Bonnie and Clyde breakthrough, plays Law's wife. Diahann Carroll is a crusading schoolteacher, George Kennedy is a blowhard sheriff and, stealing most of his scenes as a snide, crooked, racist judge in a white suit, is one of Preminger's favorite actors, Burgess Meredith.
The color cinematography is a little over-slick, but Preminger's trademark long-take style -- he once said the ideal film would be shot in only one take -- works very well here. The scenes flow together Premingerishly, and he avoids chopping the movie up into the helter-skelter fragments you might see today. The cast, sometimes ridiculed in 1967, look fine now, especially Meredith, Richards, Caine and Fonda.