PICKS OF THE WEEK
Fanfan la Tulipe (A)
France; Christian-Jacque, 1952, Criterion
Gerard Philipe, a genuine French movie star legend, plays the dashing 18th-century French provincial Casanova and hero Fanfan, wooing beautiful ladies and crossing and slashing swords against black-hearted, elegant villains in one of the all-time great comic swashbucklers Fanfan la Tulipe -- an almost sinfully entertaining movie.
Philipe, with his haunting dark eyes and fetching half-smile, was the leading French matinee idol/movie star of his day -- his incredible good looks suggest a mix of the young Dirk Bogarde and Marcello Mastroianni -- and he had an inimitable mix of zest, brains and romanticism. He's perfect for this role, a brash young lady-killer -- not too smart this time but supremely brave and energetic -- whom we first discover dallying in a haystack. We then see him marched off by a mob for a shotgun wedding -- before he spends the rest of the movie -- after escaping the forced wedding with the help of sexy gypsy fortune teller Gina Lollobrigida and the local army recruiter -- racing around the countryside, through picturesque villages, splendiferous chateaus, and thrilling horse chases. He dares everything -- angry fathers, castle walls, hordes of guards and soldiers, the current war and even King Louis XV, a lecherous and dangerous chap played by Marcel Herrand of Children of Paradise -- in the pursuit of la gloire and l'amour.
Christian-Jaque won the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Fanfan, which went on to become a worldwide smash hit. And though he was not regarded as an auteur by the original New Wave critics, Jaque directs the picture like a champ, filling it with zest, humor and black-and-white beauty, faultlessly maintaining the hell-for-leather pace and the sprightly, effervescent tone. The witty, charmingly irreverent script was co-written by Henri Jeanson (who also cowrote Julien Duvivier's and Jean Gabin's great poetic realist romance Pepe le Moko), and Rene Wheeler (who co-wrote Jules Dassin's great film noir Rififi and Jacques Tati's great comedy Jour de Fete). The stunning cinematography is by the masterly Christian Matras, who shot Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game for Jean Renoir, and The Earrings of Madame de... and Lola Montes for Max Ophuls.
Philipe, who died too young in 1959, is a sublime comic seducer/adventurer here, a Scaramouche with style and flash. The superb comic villains include the suavely degenerate Louis XV of Herrand, the hilarious Noel Roquevert as the fatuously vain but deadly swordsman/soldier Fier-a-Bras, while Olivier Hussenot is a perfect sidekick as Tranche-Montagne. And the utterly gorgeous and winning heroines and ladies include Sylvie Pelayo as Princess Henriette, Genevieve Page (later the sly Madame of Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour) as Madame de Pompadour and the ravishing young Gina Lollobrigida -- so earthy, lusty and beautiful that the French journalists and critics coined the adjective "lollobrigidienne," to define her type -- as the peerlessly sexy Adeline.
Though Christian-Jaque's long and highly successful directorial career (he started with Fernandel comedies) was savaged by Francois Truffaut and the other young New Wave critics, he's pretty damned good and never better than here. Fanfan la Tulipe is the stylistic model for New Waver Philippe de Broca's comic-romantic adventures Cartouche and That Man in Rio and numerous others, and it's never been bettered in that genre either. Audiences around the world in the '50s loved this picture to death; it should have been revived long ago. In any case, trust me. If you have a taste for this type of movie, I guarantee you'll love Fanfan la Tulipe. No comment on the recent remake. (In French, with English subtitles. Extras: Featurette about Philippe, including an interview with his daughter Anne-Marie Philipe; excerpt from the colorized Fanfan, trailer, optional English-dubbed soundtrack, booklet with essay by Kenny Turan.)
U.S.; Martin Ritt, 1972, Koch Vision
From the prize-winning children's book by William Armstrong, set in the Depression-era South among a poor black sharecropping family, Sounder is one of Martin Ritt's finest films: an absolutely wonderful movie about hard times, canine devotion (the title animal, a hunting dog who breaks your heart) and family love. A multiple Oscar nominee for best picture, actor, actress and adapted screenplay, Sounder unfortunately competed for the prizes in 1972, the year of The Godfather and Cabaret. But it remains a family classic. Written by playwright Lonne Elder III, it stars Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson as the sharecropper parents, Kevin Hooks as their boy, and Taj Mahal (who also wrote the score) as a neighbor/balladeer.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Griffith Masterworks Two (A)
U.S.; D.W. Griffith, 1909-1931, Kino
D.W. Griffith was the great cinematic genius of the cinema's 1910s and 1920s, a magnificent blend of pre-World War I sensibilities, sentiment and romanticism, social conscience and then ultra-modern technical prowess and ingenuity. His greatest success, though, was his greatest curse: the incredible but racist 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, which conquered the nation's audiences like no film before and few since, but left him forever branded as a bigot.
Yet it isn't necessary to reclaim Griffith's munificent gifts with his other official masterpieces, like Intolerance and Broken Blossoms, nor to prove it by sampling the amazing artistry of his hundreds of pre-Birth shorts. Griffith's staggering command of his medium shines through in almost everything he touched, including the quintet of features here -- which include a restored version of the classic Way Down East and four lesser but still valuable works (including his only two talkies) -- all of which may seem antique to the non-lover of silent films, but through all of which shine the voice of a poet, the eye of a painter and the hand of a master.
Way Down East, that annihilating melodrama with its hair-raising scene of poor persecuted Lillian Gish on the ice floes, is the only masterpiece here. But The Avenging Conscience, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, is a nightmarish crime thriller, Sally of the Sawdust with Carol Dempster and stage great Alfred Lunt as well as the peerless W.C. Fields (in the vehicle Fields later refashioned as the sound movie Poppy) is a rare but very amusing Griffith comedy, and The Struggle, though a notorious flop in its day, is a soul-searing melodrama about alcoholism.
The 1930 Abraham Lincoln, written by Stephen Vincent Benet and starring Walter Huston as Lincoln, is one of his tacit apologies for the racism of Birth of a Nation -- with Lincoln's devastating slave ship scene and its deep, unfeigned and poetic love of the Great Emancipator himself. Unfortunately, it failed at the box office too. The public is definitely not always right, especially where movie geniuses are concerned.
Includes: The Avenging Conscience (1914, B), silent with music score and featuring Henry B. Walthall and Blanche Sweet; Way Down East (1920, A), silent with music score and featuring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess; Sally of the Sawdust (1925, B+), silent with music score and featuring With W.C. Fields, Carol Dempster and Alfred Lunt; Abraham Lincoln (1930, B+), featuring Walter Huston as Lincoln, Una Merkel and Cameron Prudhomme; and The Struggle (1931, B+), featuring Hal Skelly, Zita Johann and Evelyn Baldwin (Griffith's second wife).(Extras: The 1909 Griffith silent short with music score Edgar Allen Poe (sic); the 1993 Kevin Brownlow-David Gill documentary D.W. Griffith, Father of Film; introduction to the Birth of a Nation re-release, with Griffith and Walter Huston; introduction by Orson Welles to Sally of the Sawdust; excerpt from the Edison Studio's Uncle Tom's Cabin; photo galleries; trailers.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Peter Berg, 2008, Columbia Pictures
A movie like Hancock, the radically misfiring Will Smith superhero comedy, can actually drive you a little crazy while you watch it.
What went wrong? How can this big, expensive, talent-laden movie possibly have gotten so bad? How did a lineup that includes Smith, Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman and a roster of moviemakers that has director Peter Berg, writer Vince Gilligan (The X-Files) and producers Michael Mann, Akiva Goldsman and James Lassiter, jointly conjure up a movie so crass, pointless and cliché-packed that, after a half hour or so, you can't wait for it to be over? Who dreamed up those in-your-face sight gags with superhero Hancock (Smith) swishing long-range jail-yard basketball shots and exploding out of the sidewalks, or those familiar streets in front of Hollywood's Chinese Theatre crumbling and getting torn up by super-heroine Theron?
Contemplating this movie is about as pleasureless as if you suddenly heard that Pixar had announced, as their next project, their first live-action comedy, a $100 million scene-for-scene remake of The Road to Morocco starring Pauly Shore, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush as Dorothy, Bob and Bing.
Did the moviemakers have any premonitions of disaster when they included a train wreck as one of their big visual gags? Probably not. The train crash gag -- where seedy superhero John Hancock rescues trapped-on-the-tracks executive Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), while demolishing an onrushing freight train -- is actually one of the better jokes in a movie that could use many, many more.
But Hancock is definitely not in a league with those previous superhero summer blockbusters, the surprisingly witty Iron Man and the surprisingly emotional The Incredible Hulk, and it's also miles behind the regular-hero hit, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull. Frankly, it's on a level with homeless-hero nerdfest Drillbit Taylor, and I'm not so sure that one doesn't have the edge. The most surprising thing about Hancock is how unfunny, silly, mercenary-minded and seemingly thoughtless most of it is.
Space Chimps (D+)
U.S.; Kirk De Micco, 2008, 20th Century Fox
Space Chimps -- an animated feature about cute little simian cosmonauts in space -- has at least one virtue. It makes the other upcoming funny-animals/insects-in-space movie, Fly Me to the Moon, look good by comparison. Kids may appreciate this movie on some level, but adults who wander in may feel that they've fallen into feature cartoon hell.
They'll be assaulted by the outer space adventures and antics of Ham III (voiced by SNL and Lonely Island's Andy Samberg), an arrogant "star" who does a carnival chimp-cannonball act exploiting the memory of his famous astronaut chimp-grandpa, Ham -- and who is picked as one of three primates set to be shot through a space wormhole to recover or locate a lost space probe.
It's a "do or die" expedition. A venal fool of a senator (who seems to wield more power than a presidential fool) wants to shut down NASA's space program and turn it into an arts-and-crafts fest. Ham III -- who seems to have forgotten that this space shot will make him a superstar -- pooh-poohs the program and his "team-mates": fetching Luna (Cheryl Hines) and uptight military guy Titan (Patrick Warburton), until all of them head to the distant planet, where the U.S. probe has been commandeered by mad tyrant Zartog (Jeff Daniels) and where their allies include adorable little twinkle-alien Kilowatt (Kristin Chenoweth).
Early on, Luna reacts to Ham III by calling him "kinda funny, in an unbelievably annoying way." That might also describe the movie -- though even "kinda funny" is pushing it. Not even the 2001 parody cheered me up. The script, by Kirk De Micco (Quest for Camelot) and Robert Moreland (Happily N'Ever After) has lines like "chimp off the old block," "chimpathize," and other chimp-cracks that keep chimping away at our patience. The direction (by De Micco) drags it down further; the voice performances are coy and smart-alecky. Space Chimps, which is recommended only for actual chimpanzees, starts off badly and gets worse. Most of it is just chimp change.