PICKS OF THE WEEK
Easy Virtue (B)
U.K.; Stephan Elliott, 2009, Sony
Noel Coward's blithe, spirited, sexy '20s play, Easy Virtue, is not new to movies. This country manor comedy of good and bad manners, about a sexy, free-spirited young newlywed subjected to snobbishness, idiocy and bigotry by her young hubby's aristo family, and fighting back with a drizzle of wicked japes and bon mots, was, in fact, somewhat indifferently adapted in 1927 by the young Alfred Hitchcock. I've seen Hitch's version, and don't remember much of it. But clearly, he wasn't as much inspired by Coward's brittle wit and psycho-sexual kinks -- or whatever was left of them in the screenplay -- as David Lean would later be in Blithe Spirit, or as director-co-writer Stephan Elliott (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is here.
Incredibly, a better movie than Hitchcock's has been fashioned by Elliott. For one thing, he has a better cast in less dolorous roles. Instead of Isabel Jeans and Ian Hunter, suffering in an alcohol-blighted household, Elliott has the unsettlingly gorgeous Jessica Biel as scrumptious interloper, new wife and lady racer Larita, Ben Barnes as her Brideshead-icily wimpy spouse John, and, as the Whittakers, John's icily intolerant mother and his surprisingly receptive father, the resplendently bitchy Kristin Scott Thomas and the pride of the BBC Pride and Prejudice, Colin Firth.
There's sumptuous scenery and cinematography, guilty secrets, horrid sisters, saucy fox hunts and glamorous BMWs. The whole movie has the blithe air and tipsy spirit of a musical comedy romance, and indeed, Ellliott peppers it with five songs by Coward (including, tellingly, "Mad About the Boy") and three by the equally gay Cole Porter, ending the show with a rousing ensemble number by the cast. There's something a little cruel about the show, but Coward knew how to play his audience, and so does Elliott. I should mention, by way of warning, that this is the only movie I have ever seen where the sympathetic heroine sat on and squashed to death a tiny, yelping lapdog -- though I guess the Humane Society must have monitored everything.
Silent Light (A-)
Mexico; Carlos Reygadas, 2007, Vivendi Entertainment
The Mexican auteur of Japon and Battle of Heaven returns with this Cannes Jury prize winner about adultery, death and redemption among a community of fair Teutonic Mexicans, with an amazingly brave slow sunrise opening, and a resurrection ending modeled on Carl Dreyer's exalted Ordet. Silent Light is primarily for art film buffs, of course; it's the sort of movie philistines damn as "like watching paint dry." But many of us will be delighted with it. With Cornelio Wall and Maria Pankratz.
U.S.; David Mamet, 1991, Criterion
One of writer-director David Mamet's best movie originals: a deliberately paranoid police thriller about a Jewish cop, Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), who gets mixed up with the bitter family and the strange cabals revealed in the candy store killing of an old Jewish woman, who may have been a victim of a secret fascist organization, combated by a secret Jewish organization. The dialogue, as always with Mamet, is scabrous and fine. The visuals (partly courtesy of the great Coen brothers' cinematographer Roger Deakins) are unusually good. The acting is sometimes stiff (Mamet's big filmic flaw), sometimes super -- especially the top jobs from Mantegna and William H. Macy as the partner-cops and Ving Rhames as a terrifying fugitive. (Extras: Commentary by Mamet and Macy; video discussion with Mamet actors Mantegna, Ricky Jay and others; gag blooper reel; TV spots; booklet with excellent Stuart Klawans essay.)
Wagon Master (A)
U.S.; John Ford, 1950, Warner
Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. are two rambling cowboys who sign on to guide a wagon train of Mormons to their Western promised land; Ward Bond is the hot-tempered Mormon elder who hires the pair (and always seems in danger of falling into the traps of sin). Sexy Joanne Dru and Shakespearean ham Alan Mowbray are part of an incongruously colorful troupe of actors. And that neglected '40s-'50s supporting ace Charles Kemper (The Southerner, On Dangerous Ground) is Old Man Clegg, the vicious patriarch of a group of murderous outlaws who are the wagon train's demons and bear more than a family resemblance to the Clanton clan in Ford's shoot-'em-up masterpiece My Darling Clementine.
Like Clementine, this is one of Ford's greatest Westerns -- and one of the best films the genre ever produced. Gentler and more lyrical than most, it's a comic-picaresque ode to the pioneer spirit: so beautifully shot and rousingly staged that the images linger in your mind like monochrome reveries of the past. You have missed an American movie treasure if you've missed this one -- and most non-Ford buffs have. The movie later inspired the hit '50s TV show Wagon Train, with Bond playing Major Seth Adams, an equally hot-tempered variation on his role here -- and scenes from Wagon Master pop up in the 1960 Wagon Train episode "The Colter Craven Story," Ford's one directorial contribution to the series. They look better here -- in one of the most visually entrancing and lustily entertaining of all Westerns.
Throne of Blood (A)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1957, Criterion Essential Arthouse
Akira Kurosawa meets William Shakespeare in this dark, horrific version of Macbeth -- with Toshiro Mifune as the murderously ambitious thane (here a medieval Japanese war lord), who conjoins with his evil Lady (Isuzu Yamada) to try to kill his way to the top -- and ends in a castle surrounded by branch-toting warriors as a screaming bloody target, his body pierced by hundreds of arrows, like St. Sebastian turned porcupine. One of Kurosawa's most admired films, perhaps because if its blend of classic literary lineage and hell-bent action. The atmosphere reeks of tension and evil; the witches are as scary as Kwaidan, and the action/battle scenes are both epic and terrifying. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
The Country Teacher (B)
Czech Republic/Germany/France; Bohdan Slama, 2008, Film Movement
Poetic and lusty triangle drama from the Czech republic, about a teacher from the city, a single mother and her teen son (one of his students) -- and how the trio's bonds become stronger when the teacher's sexual orientation comes out. A good job on every evel, from one of the best and most adventurous arthouse labels around. (In Czech, with English subtitles.) (Extras: Short film Peter and Ben, directed by Pinny Grylls.)
Requiem for a Dream (A-)
U.S.; Darren Aronofsky, 2000, Lionsgate
Aronofsky's scorching adaptation of the powerful Hubert Selby Jr. heroin novel -- a cinematic dive into hell if there ever was one. With Ellen Burstyn (brava!), Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly.
Amadeus: Director's Cut (A)
U.S.; Milos Forman, 1984, Warner, Blu-ray
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) is a lewd and laughing little hellion, whose cackles of glee bespeak the soul of a mischievous boy mated with a great lyrical, angelic genius of music. Antonio Salieri (the Oscar-winning F. Murray Abraham) is an ugly little man with the soul of a politician, the skills of an accountant and the musical gifts of a competent but uninspired journeyman. When they cross paths, genius flames, but mediocrity triumphs, in this splendid adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play, as directed by Milos Forman, whose hearts is always with misfits and rebels. This is Forman's director's cut, longer and more melodious, like Mozart's Requiem.
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
TCM Greatest Classics Film Collection: Horror (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1932-1963, Turner Home Entertainment
Classic horror movies, all stylish and scary, culled (and skulled) from the '30s to the '60s.
U.S.; Tod Browning, 1932
Browning's unforgettable, nightmarish shocker set in the world of carnival "freaks," with a cast that includes real-life sideshow performers, plus Olga Baclanova and Wallace Ford. Andrew Sarris called it one of the most compassionate films ever made, and in a strange way, it is.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (A+)
U.S.; Victor Fleming, 1941
The often-filmed Robert Louis Stevenson thriller about the good doctor whose potion turns him into a bad man. Spencer Tracy's Jekyll-Hyde is much more realistically played and psychologically oriented than the classic hammery of predecessors John Barrymore and the Oscar-winning Fredric March. Tracy does him with makeup less extreme, as a brilliant, sensitive but tormented Victorian Britisher beset with repressions and secret desires that explode into evil with the creation of Hyde. Fleming directed this movie near his Gone With the Wind-Wizard of Oz pinnacle, with a John Lee Mahin script, and, though it's a bit slow getting going, the last 30 minutes are a noir triumph. The excellent supporting cast includes later Fleming inamorata Ingrid Bergman (as Hyde's terrorized sex victim Ivy), Lana Turner, Donald Crisp, Ian Hunter and C. Aubrey Smith.
House of Wax (B)
U.S.; Andre de Toth, 1953
The hit 3D remake of Michael Curtiz's flesh-crawling 1933 thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum, with Vincent Price as the mad proprietor of a wax museum, who takes his subjects from life. De Toth, who had only one good eye, couldn't see 3D, but he does a bang-up job; in support are Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones and Charles Bronson.
The Haunting (A)
U.S.; Robert Wise, 1963
One of the subtlest horror movies ever. Based on a novel by Shirley Jackson (The Lottery), it's a surprisingly realistic and relentlessly psychological haunted house movie, in the intellectual spirit of Wise's mentor on the '40s Body Snatcher-Curse of the Cat People RKO classics, producer Val Lewton. With a superb cast: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. This film is also a special favorite of modern horror maestro Roman Polanski.
Nikkatsu Noir (B+)
Japan; various directors, 1957-1967, Criterion Eclipse
Five fast, stylish Japanese lower-budget cop-and-crook noirs from the studio that specialized in them: feisty Nikkatsu. These movies, one directed by the legendary Seijun Suzuki (maker of the baroque classic Branded to Kill, which got him fired from Nikkatsu), and another considered a neglected genre classic (Takashi Nomura's incredible A Colt Is My Passport), are among the better foreign-language international variants of noir. The black-and-white cinematography gleams, the tough actors, pretty actresses or hammy supporting thespians (including, in the leads of two, that smirking Nipponese Lee Marvin, Joe Shishido) posture and brawl amusingly, and the time you spend watching them just whips by. Hard-core noir buffs will love these movies, but so will others. (All in Japanese, with English subtitles.)
Includes: I Am Waiting (Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1957, B), with Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitahara. Rusty Knife (Toshio Masuda, 1958, B), with Yujiro Ishihara, Mie Kitahara and Akira Kobayashi. Take Aim at the Police Van (Seijun Suzuki, 1960, B), with Michitaro Mizushima and Mari Shiraki. Cruel Gun Story (Takumi Furukawa, 1964, B), with Joe Shishido and Chieko Matsubara. A Colt Is My Passport (Takashi Nomura, 1967, A-), with Joe Shishido, Chitose Kobayashi and Jerry Fujio.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT DVD RELEASES
Next Day Air (C+)
U.S.; Benny Boom, 2009, Summit Entertainment
In the Philadelphia ghetto underworld, a dangerous and crazy neighborhood where there are, as Humphrey Bogart once remarked, so many guns and so few brains, a pot-smoking delivery guy named Leo (Donald Faison) mistakenly delivers a box full of cocaine to two equally stupid criminal wannabes, Mike Epps as Brody and Wood Harris as Guch, who then try to peddle the blow to stoic-faced but inept dealer-cousin Shavoo (Omari Hardwick) and taciturn torpedo Buddy (Darius McGrary). Unfortunately, the intended cocaine recipient, Jesus (That's Jee-zuz, not Hay-soos) lives up the hall with his Santeria-obsessed girlfriend Chita (Yasmin Deliz). And, after doing a cut-rate Robert De Niro impression, he's off on a mad search for the Next Day Air guy and the coke, pressured by implacable gang czar Bodega Diablo (Emilio Rivera), who apparently doesn't have a sense of humor.
Diablo may be poker-faced, but I laughed all the way through this defiantly tasteless African American crime comedy, a neo-noir with attitude and a strong feature debut for both music video director Benny Boom and writer Blair Cobbs.
The movie however, is really sabotaged by its ending, not so much by the violence (which works well enough and is a good resolution for the amusingly amoral plotline) but the goofy and Hollywood-cokey coda after the blowup, which takes us out of the world of Reservoir Dogs and back into the world of Friday. Even if the audience likes that ending, it's a mistake, and it throws the show's moral fudging and cutesy flaws, easy to ignore otherwise, into relief. On the other hand, the dialogue is unusually good, and the acting is terrific, including Mos Def as a light-fingered fellow delivery man and Malik Barnhardt as the guy who sleeps through it all.
Van Helsing (C)
U.S.; Stephen Sommers, 2004, Universal
Another version of Dracula, the most expensive and also the most frenetic and the least literary -- with vampire-slayer Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) duking it out with Count Drac (Richard Roxburgh, camping it up), the Wolf Man (Will Kemp) and Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley), while flirting with a Transylvanian cutie (Kate Beckinsale). Despite the cast, it's like a vampire videogame gone amok.
An American Werewolf in London (B)
U.S.; John Landis, 1981, Universal
One of the best modern werewolf films, perhaps because it's both funny and serious: Two American travelers (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) hike through the British countryside, and fall afoul of the lycanthropic curse. Fangs for the memories. (I'm sorry.)
U.S.; Alan Parker, 1980, Warner
The title song (by Dean Pitchford and Michael Gorem) is as catchy as they come, though you may have heard Irene Cara sing it too often if you were around in 1980. They certainly should have done a better script, with a premise like this: the lives and loves of kids at New York City's School of the Performing Arts. But director Alan Parker and an exuberant young cast keep it lively.
Directed by John Ford (A-)
U.S.; Peter Bogdanovich, 1971-2006, Warner
The final version of one of the great moviemaker documentaries, with a great cantankerous subject: John Ford, who made Westerns. The interviewees include John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara and Clint Eastwood.