PICKS OF THE WEEK
Disney Nature Earth (A)
U.S.; Alistair Fothergill/Mark Linfield, 2009, Disney
This is the shortened theatrical version of Planet Earth, the extraordinary BBC TV series from writer-narrator David Attenborough and producer Fothergill -- with a new narration read by James Earl Jones, for American audiences. The original is the one to own, of course; it's one of the greatest, most beautifully photographed documentaries ever made. But, as shortened by the original's producer-director, Fothergill, this rapid-read Reader's Digest edition of Planet Earth is a still-stunning substitute if you're time-challenged.
Like its source, Disney's concise Earth is a truly breath-taking portrait of the surface of our Earth and the species that live in its increasingly endangered wilderness terrains and ocean expanses. Their film takes us from lofty, icy mountain peaks to the weird monsters on the dark and mysterious ocean floors, from vast parched deserts to dense and fertile tropical rain forests, examining the animal and marine inhabitants with brilliant intensity and imagery of overpowering beauty. (A note for the squeamish: Be forewarned. This is nature as it really is. There's a lot of sex and violence.)
The cinematography, by 40 camera teams in over 200 locations, is absolutely staggering. The images make the case for conservation and sensible planet-care as forcefully and gracefully as it can possibly be made. And though I miss Attenborough as narrator, Jones, reading a script pitched at a more "American family" sort of audience, does it sonorously and well.
I loved this version, though I realize this choice may seem eccentric or, God help us, middlebrow. Aren't these two "just" nature documentaries: pretty in a Discovery Channel way, but lacking artistic or social heft? All I can say is: Watch them on the best TV set you can. See if you aren't bowled over too.
Sin Nombre (A-)
U.S.; Cary Fukunaga, 2009, Universal
Like Gregory Nava's El Norte, but on a larger and ultimately more tragic scale, Cary Fukunaga's widely praised indie is an epic of illegal immigration, following its America-bound Mexican protagonists on a perilous trek to the border. The story, with its dollops of romance, villainy, pursuit and vendetta, is more melodramatic than El Norte but just as gripping. The acting is intense, the filmmaking powerful. A good antidote to more rabble-rousing arguments on the subject, and a very good movie as well.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (A)
Belgium/France; Chantal Akerman, 1975, Criterion
A Belgian woman, Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), widow and mother, goes about her daily chores, homemaking, cooking, keeping the rooms tidy and neat. We watch Jeanne mostly in near-real time, see her routine in exhaustive detail. But something dangerous lies below the surface, giving the lie to the idea of a woman happy in her work.
Chantal Akerman's best, most perfectly fashioned and executed film, though casual viewers should be warned that this is minimalist filmmaking at its most excruciating. One of my old bosses, a hopeless idiot, once nearly fired me for praising it. He should have been one of Jeanne's clients. The last one. With Jan Decorte, Henri Storck, ex-Cahier du Cinema critic Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Yves Bical. (Two discs; in French, with English subtitles. Extras: Akerman's first film, Saute ma Ville, 1968; documentary; interviews with Akerman, Seyrig, Dielman cinematographer Babette Mangolte, and Akerman's mother, Natalia; booklet with essay by Ivone Margulies.)
Skin Game (A-)
U.S.; Paul Bogart, Gordon Douglas, 1971, Warner Archive
Star James Garner rekindled that old Maverick magic in a clutch of medium-budget comedy westerns released in the late '60s and '70s: notably Burt Kennedy's Support Your Local Sheriff! and Support Your Local Gunfighter, and this one. Playing easy-going, smooth-talking Old West sharpies, whose keen wits and glib patter outfoxed many a rich frontier dullard, or mean heavy, Garner was also the ideal centerpiece for these picaresque or colorful Wild West romps, and Skin Game -- costarring Garner and a very young (and non-bald) Lou Gossett as buddies and conmen running a phony runaway slave grift together before the Civil War -- gives him a terrific showcase.
Gossett is good too, and so are the supporting troupe, including Susan Clark (the tough leading lady of Don Siegel's Madigan and Coogan's Bluff), Brenda Sykes, Ed Asner (as a vicious slave-catcher) and Andrew Duggan. Screenwriter Pierre Marton is a pseudonym for the very witty Peter Stone, of Charade and Father Goose.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
TCM Greatest Classics Film Collection: Murder Mysteries (A)
U.S.; various directors, 1941-1954, TCM/Warners
Four classic mysteries -- three of which are classic films noirs as well -- that make superb use of three classic noir novels (by legendary hard-boiled writers Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain) and of the hit play by Frederick Knott. The noirs, directed by John Huston, Howard Hawks and Tay Garnett summon up the '40s as surely as Bogey, Bacall, a gun and two smoking cigarettes; Dial M for Murder shows how brilliantly Alfred Hitchcock could enliven a stage play, retaining all its claustrophobic intensity without really opening it up. An excellent set.
Includes: The Maltese Falcon (U.S.; John Huston, 1941, A), adapted, with rare perfection, from Hammett's great private-eye novel, starring Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr., Ward Bond and Barton MacLane. The Big Sleep (U.S.; Howard Hawks, 1946, A), one of two versions of Hawks' tough and twisty adaptation of Raymond Chandler's great private eye novel, with Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, Elisha Cook Jr. and Bob Steele. The Postman Always Rings Twice (U.S.; Tay Garnett, 1946, A-), the darkest of film noir romances, adapted from James M. Cain's classic crime tale, with John Garfield and Lana Turner as the steamy killer/lovers, supported by Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn, Audrey Totter and Leon Ames. Dial M for Murder (U.S.; Alfred Hitchcock, 1954, A-), adapted from Frederick Knott's play about tennis, trials and murder gone wrong, with Grace Kelly, Ray Milland, Robert Cummings, John Williams and Anthony Dawson.
U.S.; Robert Altman, 1970, Blu-ray, Fox)
Robert Altman's biggest commercial hit came when he took Ring Lardner Jr.'s script of Richard Hooker's novel about a screw-loose Korean War M.A.S.H. unit -- the same kind of '50s Army medical team depicted more straightforwardly in the 1953 Richard Brooks-Humphrey Bogart war movie Battle Circus -- and exploded it from inside, letting his imagination and cast run wild in this first of his great ensemble films.
Of course, no one really thought the movie was "about" the Korean War, despite its setting. M*A*S*H was always taken, rightly, as a lightly veiled depiction of Vietnam, a conflict that, except for John Wayne's flabbily gung-ho The Green Berets, was almost ignored cinematically while it was being waged. Altman and his great cast -- which included Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman as the original Hawkeye, Trapper John, Frank Burns and Hot Lips -- presented a view of war that was both crazily antic and bloodily convincing, a double-vision that continued in the wildly popular Larry Gelbart-Alan Alda TV series the movie spawned. One of the quintessential '70s movies, M*A*S*H was also a Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner and one of the few movies you could imagine named "Best of the Year" by both Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
State of Play (B)
U.S.; Kevin Macdonald, 2009, Universal
This is a thriller, adapted from the celebrated Paul Abbott BBC mini-series on journalism and politics with a phony, unsatisfying ending. But, as a gritty-scrappy, lovingly detailed mash note to our dying profession and vanishing world -- a milieu partly killed by the very Internet universe around us now -- and as a showcase for some brilliant and/or attractive actors (including Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Jeff Daniels and Jason Bateman) -- it clicks.
Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a shaggy, irreverent star reporter of the old school, or what we Front Page lovers like to think was the old school: a wise-ass, sloppy-dressed, booze-quaffing consummate pro, employed by the Washington Post, ah, make that Washington Globe. Affleck is Stephen Collins, a fashion-plate U.S. congressman whose intern has just been killed -- an intern with whom he was having an affair (as in the real-life Gary Condit-Chandra Levy case), ignoring the dangers to his promising career and lovely wife (Robin Wright Penn).
Rachel McAdams -- who makes my heart sing a little whenever I spot her in a cast list -- is Della Frye, a smarty-pants star blogger, who gets joined at the hip to Cal as an investigative team. Jeff Daniels is a conservative, scandal-conscious snake of a U.S. senator, monitoring the mess. And Helen Mirren is the hardnosed editor Cameron -- publishers breathing down her neck -- who wants to get the news out, and, more important, wants to sell it to enough people to save the Globe.
The movie, directed by Macdonald, who made the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September, shot the thrilling mountain climbing re-creation/doc Touching the Void and handled Forrest Whitaker's Oscar-glomming Idi Amin star turn in The Last King of Scotland, is very well directed but not especially well-written, despite a seemingly ace screenwriting team that includes Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray -- and despite a source teleplay, written by Abbott, that's considered a knockout.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the movie lies in the morally troublesome friendship between Cal and Collins. In England, they relish political sex scandals. (Gotcha!) In America, where one of our most beloved presidents, Jack Kennedy, was something of a chaser, political sex doesn't play the same way, though a scandal is just as ruinous. State of Play has a tendency toward preachments, and it also seems bent on avoiding certain lefty clichés while stumbling into others. Clichés can work well in thrillers, especially if they're twisted in just the right way. ("I adore clichés," Roman Polanski once said. "All the great artists use them.") Here, though, they aren't twisted enough.
Crowe does a good job of giving us some of the moral and psychological ambiguities of a crack reporter messy in his private habits but punctilious in his profession. His very diet -- cheese and chili burgers (and it looks like Crowe had a few himself as research) -- is expressive, as are his greasy mane and little-boy eyes. Della and Cameron are shallowly written, but McAdams and Mirren fill them out. Ben Affleck is slick and opaque, which works well enough. The guy who gives much more than the script probably gave him, is Bateman, as Dominic Foy, a fantastically sleazy P.R. hustler.
As a thriller, State of Play may be overheated and somewhat unsatisfying, especially compared to its illustrious source. But how can you knock a movie that has a newspaper office set like this one has? Those cubicles! That glass observatory office for Cameron! Production designer Mark Friedberg deserves an Alexander Trauner citation for this. And, despite the script, these actors know how to make the best of a great office or a dramatic opportunity.
The closing coda is great too. We get to see the Washington Post presses roll out a paper, and it's almost as exciting as that tower of newsprint in the News on the March newsreel for Kane. And nostalgic. As newspapers struggle and fall all around us, we're beginning to realize what an enormous loss we may suffer at their passing.
U.S.; Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2009, Sony
A hotshot pitcher from the Dominican Republic, named Miguel "Sugar" Santos (played by real-life ballplayer/actor Algenis Perez Soto), is signed by a major league club, flies off to Arizona training camp and is assigned to a minor league team in Bridgewater, Iowa -- where he's boarded by a devout baseball-loving farming family, the Higginses, with a pretty daughter, Anne (Ellary Porterfield). He starts the season like a flame-throwing strikeout king wonder, but then an injury sidelines him and language and cultural problems start messing with his head.
You may think you know where this is going, but you don't. There's no pretty waitress who believes in Sugar, no grizzled old vet to impart words of wisdom and no big redemptive game. This is instead one of the better baseball movies I've seen since Bull Durham, and that's because it's one of the more honest and realistic depictions of the game and its players -- and its real dramas and human issues.
Sugar is about how hard it can be to adjust to a new culture, even if you've got a 100 mph fastball to peddle. It's about the emptiness and condescension of some rote piety, and about the ways that guys from poor families in a new world can get caught in the machine. It's about the 90 percent who can get left behind or caught in a journeyman bind, for every success story that dazzles us. (Like the real-life World Series exploits of Jose Rijo, one of the ballplayer/actors here).
Director-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who dealt just as honestly with drug addiction in Half Nelson, won't let phoniness or sentimentality derail their story, no matter how much they sense the audience may want it. (And we do.) This one may feel like a too-realistic downer at first, but Boden and Fleck take us on the right game plan. They know what it feels like to win and lose: what it takes to make a loser, and a winner. And the thin line that separates the two.