PICKS OF THE WEEK
Clash of the Titans (B)
U.S.; Louis Leterrier, 2010, Warner
The Kraken, Medusa, Pegasus and the lobster monsters are smashing successes in director Louis Leterrier's lavish remake of Clash of the Titans -- the 1981 Ray Harryhausen mythological epic. But the people and the gods could use a little more work. That's a typical story for a big-studio fantasy blockbuster: great CGI, great effects and action, but obvious characters spouting, in this case, predictable mytho-gibberish.
Yet this genuinely spectacular movie, which plunges us into the adventures of the demigod wanderer Perseus, impersonated by Avatar's Sam Worthington (with a Russell Crowe glower and some Don Johnson stubble), does have something to pop your eyes in almost every scene. We follow Perseus' incredibly action-packed agenda, from the moment he's plucked out of a coffin floating in the ocean, and from his mother's arms, by good fisherman Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), to his Spartacus-like capture at Argos, to his recruitment into the war of the humans against the gods (and devils), to his last bloody battle with the rampaging Kraken and the madly pretentious Hades.
Leterrier (who also directed The Incredible Hulk), keeps hurling all this spectacle and mythomania into our faces -- from bloody warfare and tumbling statues on the ocean-whipped crags and cliffs of Argos, to writhing snake-women slithering up from the lava pits of the fiery underworld ruled by whispery Hades (Ralph Fiennes), to the soaring flight of the black-winged Pegasus swooping over Ancient Greece, to the Lawrence of Arabia like desert trek of Perseus, Draco (Mads Mikkelsen) and some monstrous-looking pseudo-Arab sheiks mounted on the suddenly tamed scorpions, to the climactic furious moment when the Kraken explodes up from the ocean and makes all Hades break loose for the last act.
Wow! I defy anyone not to be entertained by scenes like that.
On the other hand, I defy anyone not to wish, just a little, that this movie had a little less pomp, and a bit more circumstance. Writers Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi don't do a bad job. But they don't do a particularly good one either. And this new Clash would be better, and more coherent, if it were narrated all the way through, instead of just at the beginning.
The Secret of the Grain (A-)
France; Abdellatif Kechiche, 2007, Criterion
This superb French film, set among an extended Franco-Arab family in the Southern French seaport town of Sete, has the raw, gutty realism and emotional truth of a movie by John Cassavetes or Maurice Pialat, plus some of the ensemble brilliance of a Robert Altman ensemble show. In it, Abdel (a.k.a. Abdellatif) Kechiche, a wonderful new director, takes us into the heart and soul of a melancholy, active, scooter-riding but very quiet old man -- a Maghrebi immigrant named Slimane (Habib Boufares) -- and his lively, sometimes infuriating family.
Severed from his longtime port job, Slimane decides to parley his savings and his wife's talent for making fish couscous (the grain of the film's title) to open a restaurant. He does, with not entirely happy results. Along the way, Kechiche paints a thoroughly convincing portrait of the city's colorful, but sometimes painful mixed-race milieu. The entire cast catches and holds us, especially Hafsia Herzi as indomitable teen Rym. The semi-documentary shooting style works perfectly. And Boufares is, finally, heart-breaking. In French and Arabic, with English subtitles. (Extras: interviews with Kechiche, the film's musicians, and actresses Hafsia Herzi and Bouraouia Marzouk; the short "Sueur," Kechiche's re-edit of Secret of the Grain's belly-dancing scene, with Kechiche's introduction; interview with film scholar Ludovic Cortade; trailer; booklet with essay by critic Wesley Morris.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Two by Yasujiro Ozu: "The Only Son"/"There Was a Father" (A)
Japan: Yasujiro Ozu, 1936/1942, Criterion
Japanese film master Yasujiro Ozu was a storytelling genius who could reflect and interpret a whole world by showing just a small but very human part of it, something tiny and seemingly limited in scope but vast in implication: usually a Japanese family undergoing some turmoil or crisis, the people of the drama or comedy expressing deep emotions beneath calm, often smiling surfaces that, for us at least, do little to hide the torment or upheaval they may be going through.
Ozu began as a mostly comic creator, a humorist. He was especially good with stories involving children (like the great 1932 I Was Born, But…), whom he portrayed without sentimentality, often as humorously selfish and impudent little brats. But gradually, he let his stories deepen and darken, as he began to focus instead on the problems, transitions and tragedies of the often self-sacrificing parents who indulged those scamps -- or, in one of his favorite storylines, had to gently push their adult son or daughter from the nest into marriage.
No director in the history of movies wrung more quiet poignancy from the spectacle of self-sacrificing, loving and sometimes mistreated parents than Ozu -- most intensely perhaps in his acknowledged masterpieces Tokyo Story, and Late Spring, and in the two films here.
Ozu's style is one of the most exquisite and deceptively simple in all of the cinema and one of the most instantly recognizable. A motionless camera, often mounted three feet from the floor, the seated actors often filmed head on. The sights and sounds of the city, the seaside, office buildings, family rooms. One austere, lovely image after another.
He tended to used the same actors over and over. Two of his all-time favorites were the chunky and watchful Choko Iida, who plays the mother in The Only Son, and the slender and slow-talking Chishu Ryu, who appears in almost all Ozu's films and who plays the father in There was a Father.
Ozu's films became sadder (though he never made anything quite so sad, quite so moving as 1936's The Only Son and 1953's Tokyo Story, which was inspired by McCarey's heartbreaker about neglected parents, Make Way for Tomorrow. But he still always knew how to make an audience watch and listen, cry and sometimes laugh.
Here are two of Yasujiro Ozu's most memorable people, so real and human we don't even seem to be watching them in a movie: a mother and a father who love their only children and who make great sacrifices for them. (Extras: excellent interviews on both films by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson; booklet with fine essays by Tony Rayns and Donald Richie, and a moving interview with actor Chishu Ryu.)
The Only Son (A)
Japan: Ozu, 1936
A quiet, determined widow woman (Choko Iida) who works in a provincial silk-making factory, in Shinshu in central Japan, sacrifices her whole life and even the family home, to give her bright young son a good education in Tokyo. Finally traveling to Tokyo by train to pay her boy a long-deferred visit, she discovers that her son, now a man, has left school, married, and had a child without telling her -- and that he now lives, a relative failure, eking out a living as a night teacher. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
There Was a Father (A)
Japan: Ozu, 1942
A widowed school teacher (Chishu Ryu) gives up his profession out of guilt when one his students dies on a school outing, then gives up a home life with his only son in order to work in higher-paying Tokyo to earn money for the boy's school in the provinces and later his college education. With Japan now in the throes of World War II, the father spends a rare week with his son, fishing and reminiscing, but rejects the young man's wish that they finally live together, because, the father insists, they must each do their duty. Sorrow follows. Considered one of the great Japanese home-front spirit-raisers, this film is nevertheless empty of the usual World War II-era martial spirit and jingoism. It is also the film that made Ryu a star, and was his best-remembered role. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Art of the Steal (B)
U.S.; Don Argott, 2009, IFC
Albert C. Barnes was a Philadelphia-area doctor and inventor who amassed a huge fortune and used it to buy a wonderful collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art, heavy on his favorites Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso -- a collection that is now worth billions, and, long housed and hung as Barnes wanted and planned, has been called one of the world's great art collections. But Barnes, who died last mid-century, was a bad-tempered leftist New Deal Democrat at war with the conservative Philadelphia art establishment, whose critics had trashed his collection as "decadent" and then spent most of the 20th century into the 21st century trying to get their hands on it, as its value grew and grew.
Barnes' special enemy was the rabidly right-wing publisher (of The Philadelphia Examiner and TV Guide) and Nixon pal Walter Annenberg and a nemesis named Ray Perelman who, long after Barnes' death, decided he was going to conspire with the movers and shakers of the state (including Gov. Ed Rendell) to acquire this treasure trove of art and move it away from the Merion, Pa., school and gallery where Barnes wanted to keep it forever -- and put all those priceless Renoirs and Picassos in Philadelphia, where Barnes had vowed they would never, ever go.
This is how they did it, how other art-lovers fought against them, and what finally happened to the paintings. I have to say I think Barnes was a little quixotic and that he probably erred in keeping the collection so relatively inaccessible. But he created a thing of beauty, and he deserved better than posthumous defeat at the hands of his biggest, richest, meanest or most powerful foes. Life is short, art is long and stealing is always with us, especially as practiced by establishments.
Repo Men (C)
U.S.; Miguel Sapochnik, 2010, Universal
Health care runs amok in yet another nightmare-formula sci-fi future, based on screenwriter Eric Garcia's novel The Repossession Mambo, shot by Miguel Sapochnik like...a rock video! Liev Schreiber is the smiling cynical huckster who sells transplant organs on credit. Jude Law and Forest Whitaker are hardcase repo men who rip them out. Jude, of course, winds up with a new heart, in several senses of the word. The love-on-the-run interest is Sonia Braga's niece, Alice Braga, as another victim with reclaimable organs. Clarice van Houten (who was great in Verhoeven's The Black Book) pops up as the kind of wife who gives marriage a bad name.
Fights! Chases! Betrayals! One-man massacres! Phildickian nightmares! Hard bluish light! Ka-boom! An awful lot of blood and guts. A lot of sometimes off-putting dystopian bleakness.
Whitaker and Schreiber are fine. Law is pretty good, but he needs a different haircut.
U.S.; Kyle Newman, 2009, Weinstein Company
Sometimes, things can look bleak these days. The economy. The climate. The tax accountants. Blimp Rushbomb, launching into another ditto-headed tirade.
But...remember only yesterday? Back in 1999, when you had something in movies to look forward to? When George W. Bush was still partying in Texas? When Dick Cheney hadn't yet morphed into Darth Vader? The dear dead time when Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace was being prepped for its epochal opening?
That great cultural landmark is memorialized in Fanboys, which is about five wildly obsessed Star Wars fans who have decided to travel to California and find the new print of George Lucas' eagerly awaited prequel before it opens. One of them is dying of cancer (Chris Marquette as Linus). One of them is his best buddy, trying to give him one last laser-jolt (Sam Huntington as Eric). One of them is your average pop culture schlemiel (Jay Baruchel as Windows). One of them is trying so hard to be Jack Black, the fur on his chest is almost frying (Dan Fogler as Hutch). One of them is a fangirl, who seems to be around so we won't muse about veiled homoeroticism (Kristen Bell as Zoe). Their goal: to steal that new print of Phantom Menace, not as movie pirates, but as dedicated movie geeks.
Waiting in the wings, for one of the most movie-in-groupy set of cameos this side of The Player, are Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Seth Rogen, Jay and Silent Bob, William Shatner (who might consider suing himself for libel) and some guy who looks like Harry Knowles, but is actually Ethan Suplee. The movie follows badly in the footsteps of Robert Zemeckis' much better 1978 I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which was about Beatle fandom -- and Fanboys keeps stumbling and screaming. The gags involve the boys doing a striptease at a biker bar, tons of Star Wars references, a feud between these Star Warriors, and the Trekkies, a raid on the Skywalker Ranch and other improbable escapades. My prediction? You won't laugh. You won't cry. You might cringe. And you may develop an allergy to R2-D2 costumes.
Operation: Endgame (D)
U.S.; Fouad Mikati, 2010, Anchor Bay
Recipe for disaster: On the morning of Barack Obama's inauguration, the shadow government, or some kind of rogue something-or-other, decides to shut down The Factory -- not Andy Warhol's old studio, but an elite secret cell of competing teams of commando-killers, all named after Tarot cards, located in a bunker several miles below Los Angeles, and unacknowledged by the real government, probably out of abject shame. To his seeming horror, a new Factory recruit, The Fool (Joe Anderson, the deputy of The Crazies) -- who is being shown the ropes by The Chariot (Rob Cordry, the boor of Hot Tub Time Machine), a malcontent agent addicted to tirades and cuss words -- finds himself caught in the meltdown.
As we watch, in what is intended to be a mix of mounting anxiety and rib-tickling merriment, the Factory boss, The Devil (Jeffrey Tambor), is murdered, and the competing teams start killing each other off, while a surveillance team of two appalled doofuses watch everything on a video monitor and keep making dorky, politically correct remarks.
Despite a good cast and a sort-of daring script, this would-be satiric thriller is totally sabotaged by amazingly uninspired direction, smart-ass writing and annoyingly unspontaneous acting. (The most spontaneous actor performer here, and he's in the news footage, is George W. Bush, who looks really pissed.) Most everybody plays their parts as if they just memorized their lines off-camera a few minutes before shooting, or want to be somewhere else, and I don't blame them.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" (Three Stars)
U.S.; Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith, 2009, First Run Features
The inside story on why Daniel Ellsberg, a trusted pentagon official who was helping plan the Vietnam War, turned against it, and leaked to The New York Times the papers that proved the U.S. government was lying about the war, had been lying a long time, and no doubt would have gone on lying about it all forever, had the papers not been leaked. How you react to this, and to the revelation that Ellsberg's politics were heavily affected by his family, may depend on your own political philosophy and your opinion, or tolerance, of lies and liars. A good, not inspired documentary, about a good man who was maybe inspired. (Extras: audio highlights of the Nixon tapes; Woody Harrelson and Naomi Wolf on Ellsberg.)
A Voyage Round My Father (A-)
U.K.; Alvin Rakoff, 1982, Acorn Media
Another heartfelt story of parent and child, this time lawyer-writer John (Rumpole of the Bailey) Mortimer's jeweler's-eye memoir of life with his blind lawyer-father (the model for Rumpole) and mother on their country estate.
Mortimer's writing is both acidly funny and compassionate. The cast is superb. Alan Bates narrates and plays Mortimer as a man, Jane Asher (Paul McCartney's '60s girlfriend) plays John's wife, Elizabeth Sellars is his mother, and, as his father, 75-year-old Laurence Olivier gives one of his greatest late-life performances: wary, leery, salty, eloquent, cantankerous, perfectionistic, acrid, garden-loving, full of barrister wiles and sometimes whining crankiness, a beloved father shown with all his flaws clearly and yet lovingly on display. Alvin Rakoff is one of the better British TV directors. Anyone who finds Ozu's portrayal of parents overly sentimental will relish the brine and wit of this one. (Extras: biographies.)