PICKS OF THE WEEK
Casino Jack and the United States of Money (A-)
U.S.; Alex Gibney, 2010, Magnolia
Alex Gibney's Casino Jack and the United States of Money is the amazing, genuinely scary and totally sobering story of Jack Abramoff, the supreme Republican lobbyist/dealmaker/moneyman, and also the poster child for a decade crazed by greed and contemptuous of rules, regulations and the problems of the common man and woman.
Abramoff, the one-time president of the college Young Republicans, was one of the group of young Turk collegiate conservatives from the '70s, a cadre of hard-driving ideological creeps who included Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed. In the '90s, Abramoff became a lobbyist and made himself into a direct pipeline to the fabled GOP minority whip Tom DeLay (known as the Hammer because of his famous cudgel-wielding, bashing "people skills" in Congress) and other powerful Republican congressional leaders. These were cynical legislators who got hefty campaign contributions and, quid pro quo, did favors, or acted favorably, or passed the "right" kind of laws for the right kind of money.
Jack was quite a guy, quite a salesman. In high school in Los Angeles, he was a football and wrestling star. He loved politics, loved money, loved the high life. He turned his talents to lobbying the Gingrich and Bush congresses instead. Peddling his access to DeLay and others, Jack charged huge fees to the government of the Mariana Islands (to get the government to ignore sweat shops), to several native American tribes including the Tiguas (for favorable legislation on their gambling casinos) and to many others. He bought a fleet of floating casinos off Miami and set up a dummy corporation called A.C.I. It was really a cash conduit for Republican money.
Jack and his buddies, in imprudent emails, laughingly called their clients "monkeys," "assholes" and "fucking Boy Scouts" and cursed them because the tribe didn't come up with more moolah, even as the Abramoff Mob drained the Tiguas of $32 million or more.
Meanwhile, it seems, almost the entire U.S. Congress was up for sale, lots of Republicans and a few Democrats as well. And it was conscienceless influence peddlers like Jack who funneled millions of dollars of campaign loot into the "right" pockets, along with gaudy vacations and free eats (at Jack's Washington, D.C., restaurant Signatures) and sexy ladies and God knows what else. Finally, the Washington Post's Susan Schmidt wrote a story. The party crashed and Jack wound up in the slammer along with several others whom we meet here -- not including DeLay, who resigned in 2006. We last see the Hammer smiling devilishly and trying, somewhat grossly, to summon up memories of John Travolta while strutting lasciviously to the Troggs' "Wild Thing," on TV's Dancing with the Stars. (Extras: commentary by Alex Gibney; deleted scenes; extended interviews; New York premiere Q&A; conversation with Gibney; featurettes.
U.S.; Terry Zwigoff, 1995, Criterion
Terry Zwigoff's unvarnished documentary about the great, scabrous, brilliant, hilariously low-down American comic book artist Robert Crumb -- and the other members of Crumb's sometimes sadly dysfunctional, eccentric but genuinely artistic family -- is a true Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Man Who Never Grew Up. Crumb's hippie-era comics -- treasures of the high-'60s era that ranged from the wildly popular (and eventually movie-ized) "Fritz the Cat" and his other Zap Comix looloos, Mr. Natural, Projunior, and the Snoid from Sheboygan to his later, more politically correct work with wife Aline Komisky-Crumb -- were the favorites of a generation, utilizing the tools of the past (the funny animal or urban roughneck clown style of the '40s and '50s -- to satirically record the foibles of the '60s.
Crumb was made by Zwigoff, Crumb's friend and fellow jazz band mate in the old-school Cheap Suit Serenaders, and it's a remarkable look at an era and one of its most popular outsiders, but also a scalding take on a troubled family: his brutal father, amphetamine-addicted mother and especially his older brother Charles, the cartoonist who didn't make it. It's a doozy. (Extras: commentaries by Robert Crumb and Roger Ebert; unused Footage; booklet with essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Crumb family comix.)
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (B)
U.S.; Werner Herzog, 2010, Industrial Entertainment
After inspiring Nic Cage to heights of New Orleans rogue cop lunacy in Bad Lieutenant 2, Werner Herzog takes another dive into modern neo-noir, working with an executive producer, kindred spirit David Lynch, guaranteed not to hinder his wildest, most darkly Teutonic fancies. The film's story, taken from life, follows a mad young actor (Michael Shannon), who becomes so caught up in his lead role of the matricide son in Aeschylus' Oresteia that he kills his own mother (Lynch favorite Grace Zabriskie), and then holds two hostages in a police standoff. (The identity of the hostages is one of the film's craziest japes.)
Thanks to the fusion of Lynch and writer/director Herzog (co-scripting with Herbert Golder), the movie is like a straight-faced Law and Order episode turned wacky nightmare. The rest of the stellar cast, fit for any nightmare, includes Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena as the very serious, helpful cops, Brad Dourif as a racist uncle who breeds ostriches, Irma P. Hall as the matronly neighbor/witness, Udo Kier as Oresteia's urbane German-accented director, and Chloe Sevigny as Shannon's Greek Chorus girlfriend.
Mad-eyed killer Brad McCallum is a quintessential Michael Shannon role, of course. Shannon is terrifyingly true, consumed with turning his life into art and his art into life, which is naturally part of the film's main theme. The movie is quintessential Herzog too, even though it was shot in his new country, America, and is saturated with nutty local color: the flamingos in the yard, the ostrich who swallows a watch and has it dug from its long throat, the stand-off pizza delivery through the police lines. The crazy '20s song played throughout the film, like the silly, sunny counterpoint to the killer's twisted soul, is Washington Phillips' "I Am Born to Preach the Gospel."
My Son, My Son is filled with allusions to Herzog's previous work; there are snippets recalling Even Dwarfs Started Small, Kaspar Hauser and Signs of Life, and Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo are evoked by a Peruvian flashback shot at the Urubamba River. The whole mood is playful, surreal and deadpan naturalistic.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (A)
U.S.; Josef Von Sternberg, 1927-28, Criterion Classics
Josef Von Sternberg was both European and American. In his childhood, his Austrian-Jewish parents moved back and forth between Vienna, Austria, and Queens, New York. Von Sternberg started in cinema by making training films for the Army Signal Corps during World War I, and his major breakthrough came in 1925, with the release of an independent feature called Salvation Hunters, which was a sort of vanity production paid for by its British actor star George K. Arthur and shot on location in the seedy dock world around San Pedro Bay.
This movie was a critical sensation, hailed for its poetic visuals and moody drama, and it became von Sternberg's entrée to Hollywood, where he clashed with his bosses at MGM, and made one lost film (said to be incredibly beautiful) for producer Charlie Chaplin, called The Sea Gull, or Woman of the Sea. Chaplin shelved the picture, and von Sternberg's career stayed in limbo until 1927, when he took a Ben Hecht story about gangsters in Chicago, and made a huge hit calledUnderworld.
For the next decade or so, von Sternberg was a major Hollywood filmmaker and an unusually brilliant one, a visual genius who thrived creatively in the worlds of hothouse Hollywood artifice. Something of a tyrant on the set, he became most famous for the string of extraordinary Marlene Dietrich star vehicles he made at Paramount after they first joined forces on the 1930 German film classic The Blue Angel -- going on to the perverse and glorious heights of Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, and The Scarlet Empress.
Von Sternberg's at his peak in the three powerful, lyrical silents restored in this Criterion set. The films are mostly stunningly restored and the package rich with extras.
Von Sternberg was a difficult man, a maverick and a highly self-conscious and sometimes pretentious artist who alienated the money men, drove some of his actors crazy, was harsh and demanding on set and sometimes lost his audience. But, if cinema, even in the midst of Hollywood schlock, can produce works of the most mesmerizing visual beauty, of subtle or high drama, and of exquisite poetry, then Josef von Sternberg was one of its true poets. (Extras: original orchestral scores for all three films by Robert Israel; second musical score for Underworld and The Last Command by Alloy Orchestra; second piano and vocal score for The Docks of New York by Donald Sonin and Joanna Seaton; visual essays on Von Sternberg's film work by Janet Bergstrom and Tag Gallagher; 1968 interview with Von Sternberg from Swedish television; booklet with essays on the three films by Geoffrey O'Brien, Anton Kaes and Luc Sante; notes on the scores by the composers; The original story for Underworld by Ben Hecht; excerpt, on Jannings from Von Sternberg's autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry.)
Bull Weed is a laughing genial gangster, Feathers is his boa-clad girlfriend, "Rolls Royce" is an alcoholic lawyer who loves them both. As played respectively by George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, and Clive Brook, these archetypal triangle characters became the center of a crime picture full of blood, machismo, gunfire, speakeasies, and a breathless escape from Death Row. Audiences ate it up.
But Von Sternberg also gives this bloody, bawdy movie a strange gravity and a shadowy lyricism that hypnotized '20s audiences. Ben Hecht based his story on the roughhouse Chicago gangster world of the Capones and the O'Bannons that he knew well from his newspaper days. Von Sternberg turned it into an early film noir, still a bit neglected by genre enthusiasts, but also one of the best of its gangland class. It still hooks you. (Silent, with music scores.)
The Last Command (A)
A Hollywood set becomes the last battleground for a symbolic duel between love and Communism, monarchy and revolution.
Emil Jannings plays, with every ounce of grand ham, weltschmerz and grand operatics he can muster, the war-hardened but generous Czarist general Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, now become an impoverished Hollywood extra prone to head shakes, and the mockery of his fellow bit players -- plucked suddenly to impersonate on camera his old role and rank in a movie about his last war. William Powell is the revolutionary turned Hollywood director who plucks the Grand Duke, and recognizes him. And Underworld's Evelyn Brent is the rebel girl they both love, and both lose.
Ex-Hungarian journalist turned Hollywood and Korda screenwriter Lajos Biro (The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Private Life of Henry VIII) wrote the irresistibly melodramatic script; the titles are by Herman (Citizen Kane) Mankiewicz. And Janning's "Best Actor" Oscar, the first ever awarded, was shared for both this film and Victor Fleming's The Way of All Flesh. (Silent, with music scores.)
The Docks of New York (A)
George Bancroft, who was the genial bank robber Bull Weed in Underworld and who later rode shotgun for John Ford as Curly in Stagecoach, rejoined Sternberg several other times, most notably as the Stoker in this pictorially magnificent Docks of New York. One of the most beautifully designed, lit and shot of all silent movies, and one of Sternberg's real masterpieces, Docks is another lowlife romance, like Salvation Hunters. This time it's set in a waterfront of ships, dives and cheap hotels, but one entirely concocted on a studio set -- a set graced by one of the greatest, rowdiest bars in all movie history.
The brawny, ballsy Stoker saves a nameless Girl (played by the gloriously blond and sultry Betty Compson) from suicide by drowning, then fends off some rough rivalry -- including the unwelcome attentions of the Stoker's mean shipboard boss, the Third Engineer (Mitchell Lewis) -- to marry the Girl before the boisterous bar crowd, under the ministrations of the only man with a name in this movie, Hymn-Book Harry (Gustav von Seyffertitz). The spurned Engineer's Wife, by the way, is played by Olga Baclanova, whom you'll recognize from Freaks.
Melodrama, sheer melodrama. But, as written by Jules Furthman and John "Monk" Saunders, directed by Von Sternberg, and photographed by Harold Rosson (who shot both The Wizard of Oz and The Asphalt Jungle), it becomes prime Hollywood, masterfully done and strangely, brilliantly lyrical and moving. (Silent, with music scores.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Prince of Persia (B)
U.S.; Mike Newell, 2010, Walt Disney
Prince of Persia, which is probably one of the best-looking Arabian fantasy movies ever, is also unfortunately, a movie based on a video game. And its ambiance and narrative structure is video-gamey all the way: The original story here is actually by the writer who scripted the game, Jordan Mechner.
The results, amazingly, aren't as shallow as you might expect, though they are dramatically and psychologically thin. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer reportedly lavished $150 million or so on the project, and after all, he's the guy who based three smash hit movies (with more to come) on the Disneyland theme park ride Pirates of the Caribbean.
Prince -- in which Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Dastan the adopted prince, battling traitors and snakes, wooing the beauteous Princess Tamina and trying to keep his hands on the fabled Dagger of Time -- is a movie that never lacks for something impressive to look at: a stunning composition by director Mike Newell and cinematographer John Seale, or an iridescent vision of old Persia (Iran) by production designer Wolf Kroeger, or some snazzy editing by Mick Audsley, Michael Kahn and Martin Walsh, or some fabulous ersatz stunts choreographed by French parkour inventor David Belle, or some breathtaking shots of the Moroccan deserts, dune after dune stretching away like some sandy, surreal panoramic tapestry.
But the movie had only one memorable performance, with a few funny lines, and that's from Alfred Molina, Peter-Ustinoving it up as the secondary character, Sheik Amar, an ostrich race entrepreneur. (Extras: featurettes; deleted scenes.)
Just Wright (C)
U.S.; Sanaa Hanri, 2010, 20th Century Fox
Queen Latifah, under the tutelage of director Sanaa Hanri, here assays her first major super-romantic lead role. She plays Leslie Wright, a primo New Jersey Net fan and ace physical therapist whose unreasonably gorgeous best friend Morgan Alexander (Paula Patton) steals away Nets superstar guard Scott McKnight (played by rapper Common, the artist once known as "Common Sense"), and then dumps him before the wedding after he tears up his knee.
Guess which bounteously beautiful physical therapist is ready to move into Scott's mansion and get his knee all primed and ready for the crucial last game of the Nets-Orlando series? Guess who wins the series, despite the actual on-screen presence of Orlando's Dwayne Wade? (Not to mention, in that game and others, "themselves" roles by Dwight Howard, Jalen Rose, Marv Albert, Kenny Smith, Elton Brand, and, at a jazz club, Terence Blanchard.) Guess which outrageously rehabilitated guard both Wade and Kobe Bryant should fear more than hell itself? Guess which physical therapist is now the subject of a bidding war between every NBA team shamelessly willing to get mention in a Queen Latifah film?
There hasn' been a sports movie like this since Tooth Fairy.
U.S.; David Fincher, 1995, New Line, Blu-ray
A serial killer well-versed in the Bible (Kevin Spacey, at his most insolent), plagues L.A. with one of those Ellery Queen-style elaborate "Ten Day's Wonder" plans. Pursuing him are cops Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman; Gwyneth Paltrow is the perfect wife. One of the most highly admired modern neo-noirs, Se7en certainly has high-style visuals and quite a cast. But I've always found the plot and the climax a stretch.