PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Chris Smith, 2009, FilmBuff/Vitagraph
This mesmerizing documentary from Chris Smith (An American Movie) may scare the living hell out of you. At the very least, it will spur you to think of things and speculations we've been too often been derelict in facing -- especially the current financial crisis, which could become even worse, and the impending massive change on our planet, when, inevitably, we finally use up our finite oil supplies.
According to the interviewee here, ex-LAPD policeman turned author, lecturer and investigative Internet reporter Michael Ruppert, that change and that collapse are closer than we realize. Our entire financial system, eroded by derivatives and reckless policies, is actually a huge Ponzi scheme, predicated on the false notion of eternal, irreversible growth, ripe for another huge fall. Our fossil fuel supplies and reserves have already passed their peak and are on the way down. Our political systems are fatally corrupted by money and big corporations. (Ruppert condemns both right and left for their inattention to the catastrophe he envisions, but he has especially harsh words for oilman George W. Bush and Halliburton boss Dick Cheney.) Iraq was fought over oil, and not the seemingly non-existent "weapons of mass destruction." Our mainstream media ignores the big stories, and tends to swallow the fictions of power, and to glide away from many of the more disturbing truths and trends they should reveal and investigate.
Ruppert, on camera alone for most of the movie, was a good cop and the son of a CIA man. He lost his job in the '70s and became an outsider, when he accused the CIA of running a drug-smuggling ring and of trying to recruit him into it. That's why Smith got in touch with him and became fascinated with his story.
Some may dismiss Ruppert as a crank and a conspiracy theorist. But the vision he paints -- and he's a brilliant raconteur and lecturer -- is disturbingly consistent and, in the end, scarily plausible. His theme is a powerful one, and maybe inarguable, the classic Christian dictum: The love of money is the root of all evil. Smith presents Ruppert without preachment or editorializing, with discreet illustration, and with a terrifying lucidity. The movie grips you like few you will see this year. Or ever. (Extras: deleted scenes; update; trailer.)
The Fugitive Kind (A-)
U.S.; Sidney Lumet, 1960, Criterion
Adapted from Tennessee Williams' failed play Orpheus Descending, The Fugitive Kind is about a sexy, guitar-playing, snakeskin-jacketed drifter named Val Xavier (Marlon Brando), who riles up a small, very prejudiced Mississippi town -- especially the sexually frustrated general store owner Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani), her evil bedridden husband Jabe (Victor Jory), an angelic sheriff's wife named Vee Talbot (Maureen Stapleton), Vee's bigoted husband (R.G. Armstrong), and an outcast nymphomaniac and cemetery habitué named Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward). The retitled Orpheus -- which also flopped when Williams first wrote it as Battle of Angels -- failed again as a movie, both critically and commercially, despite that great cast, a fine, poetic Williams-Meade Roberts script, evocative cinematography and art direction by Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront) and Richard Sylbert (The Graduate), a moody jazzy score by Kenyon Hopkins (Wild River) and top-notch direction by Sidney Lumet. And despite the fact that, as David Thomson argues persuasively in the Criterion booklet here, Fugitive Kind ranks with both Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire and Baby Doll as one of the best and most faithful of all Williams movie adaptations.
Mostly, Kind is criticized for veering toward Williams self-parody, for being shot in the North (Lumet refused to subject his racially mixed cast to pre-Civil Rights Bill Southern hospitality), and for being a disappointment, coming from such a high-voltage cast. It's true that Brando and Magnani's scenes don't crackle the way you'd expect from such a great actors' summit meeting. (Lumet explains in an interview here that the nervous Magnani, who may have expected an off-screen love affair with Brando that never materialized, nixed rehearsals, the lifeblood of most Lumet films.)
But, even so, the acting here, from everyone, is really exceptional. Brando has some great, sotto voce monologues, Magnani is full of weary, pent-up longing, Stapleton rends your heart, Jory and Armstrong are terrifying, and Woodward is superb as one of Williams' patented Southern wounded souls. The Criterion package also includes the rare, valuable 1958 Kraft Theatre broadcast, Three Plays by Tennessee Williams, three moving one-acters, introduced by Williams himself: "Mooney's Kid Don't Cry" with Ben Gazzara and Lee Grant; "The Last of the Solid Gold Watches" with Thomas Chalmers and Gene Saks; and "This Property is Condemned," with Zina Bethune and Martin Huston. (Other extras: interview with Lumet; featurette; booklet with Thomson essay.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Bob Hope Thanks for the Memories Collection (Three Stars)
U.S.; various directors, 1938-48, Universal
Bob Hope -- he of the snappy patter and great leering innuendo-laden kisser -- was the most popular comedy movie star in America in the '40s, when most of these movies were made. Hope and crooning Road partner Bing Crosby won the box office polls throughout that decade, and topped the radio ratings as well, while Bing added massive record sales to the mix. But the ski-nose never got much respect from "serious" critics then or now, even while ruling the mass audience roost.
Nevertheless, Hope's movies, especially from this period, still make us laugh. He even has notable defenders: including Woody Allen, who loves Monsieur Beaucaire, and often copied Hope's erotic desperation, transparent con and nervous bravado schticks for his own movie roles.
Here are six of Hope's most typical comedies, all from his movie prime. I question the inclusion of Road to Morocco, which is available in most Crosby-Hope Road sets; I would have liked to see Beaucaire here instead. And I wish they'd restored both The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers, two atmospheric "old dark house" pseudo-noirs, with Hans Dreier sets, that look a little faded here. But these movies are all fun. And, if you haven't seen Nothing But the Truth, you're in for a nice surprise. (Extras: G.I. command performances, 1944, 1945; featurettes, trailers.
Thanks for the Memory (B-)
U.S.; George Archainbaud, 1938
Not the first time Hope and Shirley Ross sang the title song which became his signature tune (that was in The Big Broadcast of 1938), but one of his first big star opportunities, with Ross and Hope as troubled newlyweds, a blocked author and his breadwinning spouse. (The couple introduced another standard here, "Two Sleepy People.") Ross' disappearance from movies a few years later is a little mysterious. She was a good actress and singer and looked a bit like a mix of Ginger Rogers and Dorothy Lamour; she's fine here. The source is a witty Frances Goodrich-Albert Hackett play, but the adaptation gets a little sleepy toward the end. Otto Kruger, Roscoe Karns, Charles Butterworth and Hedda Hopper are also around.
The Cat and the Canary (B)
U.S.: Elliot Nugent, 1939
Hope's first hit scare comedy, based on the oft-filmed John Willard play about an old dark house full of nervous would-be heirs (headed by Hope and Paulette Goddard), who are tormented by the threat of escaped maniacs, impending murder, a sinister housekeeper (Gale Sondergaard) and a mysterious killer who hides in the walls and creeps like a cat. With John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, George Zucco, Elizabeth Patterson, Nydia West man and John Wray.
The Ghost Breakers (A-)
U.S.; George Marshall, 1940
An even bigger scare comedy hit, and one of Hope's better movies. A haunted mansion in Cuba is investigated by the Hope-Goddard team, with Goddard as the sexy heiress-in-distress and Bob as Larry Lawrence, a radio star on the lam turned pre-Bill Murray-Dan Aykroyd Ghostbusters type. With Paul Lukas, Anthony Quinn, Richard Carlson and Willie Best.
Nothing But the Truth (A-)
U.S.; Nugent, 1941
The one where Bob is a nave Miami stockbroker who bets his wolfish boss (Edward Arnold), co-worker (Glenn "Grisby" Anders) and client/rival (Leif Erickson) that he can tell nothing but the truth for an entire day, while trying to earn charity money on the bet for the boss' niece (Goddard again). Fat chance. This is the best script in the set (Ken Englund and Don Hartman), and the most perfectly cast part for Hope. It's also a better and wittier show than the 1997 Jim Carrey knockoff of the same idea, Liar Liar. With Best, Grant Mitchell, Helen Vinson and Clarence Kolb.
The Road to Morocco (A-)
U.S.; David Butler, 1942
"Where we're goin', why we're goin', how can we be sure? Bet your bottom dollar we meet Dorothy Lamour." (Or words to that effect.) A smoothie (Bing) and a stooge (Bob Hope), enjoy a few Arabian Nights. Most people prefer this among all the Crosby-Hope Road movies, and so do I. With Dottie L., natch, plus Quinn, Vladimir Sokoloff and Yvonne De Carlo.
The Paleface (B)
U.S.; Norman Z. McLeod, 1948
Hope's very funny Western spoof, with Hope as the deluded "hero" dentist, Painless Peter Potter, Jane Russell as his two-gun wife Calamity Jane, who's stringing him along to battle some gun-smugglers, plus Robert Armstrong, Iris Adrian, a comic showdown, wagon train chase and stake-burning, and lots of bodices, bullets and the Oscar-winning song Buttons and Bows, sung by an erotically addled Potter with concertina. Co-scripted by Frank Tashlin, who insisted on directing the 1952 sequel, Son of Paleface -- which was even funnier.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Book of Eli (B-)
U.S.; Allen & Albert Hughes, 2010
In this exciting but disappointing sci-fi thriller from the Hughes Brothers, Denzel Washington plays a lone, sacred warrior wandering westward through the ruins of the Apocalypse, shepherding the last copy of the Holy Bible (King James Edition) through a blighted landscape of car-wreck plains and parched cities. Eli, traveling ever onward though the blasted country, guards the scriptures (and his life) from a water-hording tyrant named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), while single-handedly kicking and sword-slashing to death whole vicious gangs of slimy, chopper-riding thieves or truck-driving thugs and killers, a surly wild bunch who seemed to have modeled their lives and wardrobes on the scurvier villains of The Road Warrior.
Washington, meanwhile seems to have modeled Eli on some combination of Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshiro Mifune in their bloodier samurai epics, Oskar Werner's Montag in Fahrenheit 451, and Jeffrey Hunter or Max von Sydow's performances as Christ in King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Amazingly, he nearly brings it off. Washington is one of those movie stars who has the ability to really hold the screen with reaction shots and a near-wordless intensity, and when he doesn't use his Nicholson-ish smile, he's able to look so tense and fraught, you fear that something awful is imminent -- which, in this movie, it often is.
The Book of Eli is both an action saga and a religious-themed fable-drama, and it needs someone with Washington's burning sincerity and convincing grace under pressure to make the hero believable and the premise acceptable. It also probably needs someone with Oldman's ability to play evil from the inside as its heavy. And someone like the Hughses at the helm to really get into showing us this kind of After-the-Fall wreck of a world.
Eli arrives at the sub-Wild West city bossed by Oldman's Carnegie (whose own method of winning friends and influencing people, a la namesake Dale Carnegie, involves dispensing the sole local water supply and killing dissenters). There Eli runs into Tom Waits, appropriately at the bar, as well as Carnegie's dumb-as-hell murdering minions, his blind wife (Jennifer Beals) and his red-hot stepdaughter (Mila Kunis as Solara, the role Sarah Palin was born to play). Soon, Eli and Solara are on their way west, with Carnegie's road warriors right behind them -- and the movie settles into its familiar chase-in-the-desert groove. And I pretty much enjoyed it, on its own clichéd level, for most of its length. (Extras: deleted scenes; Lost Tale short.
Happy Tears (C-)
U.S.; Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2010
No tears from me on this, and not much happiness either. Directed and written by Mitchell Lichtenstein, the actor-director-writer son of pop art painter Roy, it's a small-town, eccentric-family comedy-drama, about two sisters -- Parker Posey as richer and selfish Jayne, Demi Moore as lower-class and somewhat more generous Laura -- trying to take care of their old dad Joe (Rip Torn, still roaring at 78). The cantankerous old cuss would rather be tended by Ellen Barkin's Shelly, a curvy whore with a stethoscope, than his daughters, who squabble about his care while he makes plans to dig up his back yard, for the buried treasure he believes is there.
Memo to Mitch Lichtenstein: Mixed tones like these, trying to blend happiness and tears, are often the hardest to set up and sustain. And a story about such potentially painful subjects needs jokes that work and at least one genuinely kind person, no matter how foolish they may first seem, to throw everything else into relief.
Word Is Out (B)
U.S.; Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein, Lucy Massie Phenix, 1977, Oscilloscope
Made just before the onslaught of AIDS, this is a liberal, hopeful, sympathetic documentary about gays and lesbians in America. It now seems part of an almost distant past, but it's still worth watching.