CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.K.; Joe Wright, 2007, Universal
Atonement gives us the dark side of the Masterpiece Theatre ethic: a great class-busting pre-World War II romance at a British country manor, a love story that goes poisonous and tragic, feeding into the larger national tragedies of the exploding world conflict -- and whose mysteries aren't resolved until decades later, when the young have grown old, but memories still sting.
The source for this multiple 2007 Oscar nominee is a novel by the oft-adapted Ian McEwan; the story is reminiscent of that now somewhat neglected British film classic, The Go-Between, Joseph Losey's and Harold Pinter's razor-sharp adaptation of the L.P. Hartley doomed-romance memory novel. ("The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.")
As in that book and movie, Atonement pivots around a thwarted passion between a rich girl (Keira Knightley) and a lower-class boy (James McAvoy) that goes bad, told from the viewpoint of a child. In this film's case, it's a precocious girl (Saoirse Ronan) who later becomes the elderly, dying novelist we see at the end -- played by Vanessa Redgrave. (That's a direct family link to The Go-Between, where the equivalent old-witness part was played by Vanessa's father, Sir Michael Redgrave.)
I have a weakness for this kind of story; The Go-Between is one of my all-time favorites. But, where I thought director Joe Wright went a little too youth-crazy and glamour-mad in his hit 2005 film of Miss Austen's Pride and Prejudice, here, his visual snap and vigor enhance the tale, and sometimes dazzle us all by themselves. There's a virtuoso long World War II beach tracking shot in the film's midsection that's pretty damned impressive. If Alexandre Sokurov hadn't already won the all-time tracking shot, long take sweepstakes with his 2002 one-take masterpiece Russian Ark, this one could have been a contender. Atonement is no The Go-Between, but it's fine stuff for Anglophiles and romantics.
U.S.; Mark Obenhaus, 2007, Sony
Scared of heights? Steep may cure you forever -- at least voyeuristically.
It's an absolutely incredible documentary about extreme skiing: a very dangerous sport that pits the skiers against outrageously steep, high, non-resort mountains where the intrepid skiers don't have to bother with ski-lifts, ski trails or any of the impediments of civilization vacations, but simply roar down those vast, white, near-wilderness spaces, racing down at sub-45-degree angles, hurtling over cliffs, diving into parachute drops, and occasionally dodging avalanches.
Wow! The history of the sport, beginning with the conquest by Bill Briggs of the Grand Teton, is all here, along with references to the Chamonix, France slopes, the landmark movie The Blizzard of Ahhs, and lots of footage in extreme ski paradise, Alaska's nonpareil Valdez range, sometimes with its inspiring impresario Patrick Coombs.
The result is a fascinating chronicle and the most exciting action movie I've seen in quite a while. Cinematographer Erich Roland deserves a medal and so do the skiers, who include Coombs, Andrew Mclean, Ingrid Backstrom, Seth Morrison and Chris Davenport. In fact, for raw real courage, blazing adventure and sheer thrills, Steep puts most of the current phony-baloney digital shoot-em-ups to shame. (Extras: commentary with Obenhaus, Backstrom and McLean, photo montages, interview with Coombs.)
Antonio Gaudi (A)
Japan; Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1984, Criterion Collection
A classic. One of the masterpieces of the masterly Japanese art film director Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman in the Dunes) is this 1984 documentary on the magnificent Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926). It's one of the cinema's premier tributes to another art form and a supreme artist, and Criterion has put a splendid package around it.
As Teshigahara's camera roams through the Spanish landscapes, recording Gaudi's incredible, fantastical architecture, his playful and voluptuous buildings, with their surprisingly bright and pastel colors, shapely contours, organic construction and delightful bric-a-brac, it reminded me at times of the mansions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kublai Khan or of Dr. Seuss. We're bewitched and mesmerized, as the deeply sympathetic Teshigahara, one of Gaudi's many Japanese admirers, reveals the unique mastery of this one-of-a-kind genius.
Teshigahara's superb film, without commentary and with minimal sound-track interviews, shows us Gaudi's works, many in his Catalonian homeland, and conveys all the radiant delight it still instills in us. And the supplements, in this case, richly enhance the experience. They include Visions of Space, a one-hour BBC special on Gaudi by art critic Robert Hughes; an earlier 1962 Ken Russell documentary; an interview with architect Arata Isozaki and two more Teshigahara films: Catalunya, a 1959 creation which records the director's first encounter with Gaudi's work; and Sculptures by Sofu -- Vita, a 1963 film about the sculptures of Hiroshi's father, another strong Gaudi admirer.
Before watching the Hughes documentary, I'd always pigeon-holed Gaudi as a sort of architectural Pablo Picasso, a humorous sensualist and playfully erotic master craftsman. But ex-Catholic Hughes reveals something else: Gaudi the devout, celibate Christian, whose work, rooted in nature and religious worship, was his own special kind of prayer. That's an amazing revelation, and this two-disc special belongs in the library of anyone who loves film, architecture -- and the beauties of the world around us. (In Japanese, Spanish and English, with English subtitles.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume One and Volume Two, TCM Archives (B)
U.S.; Various directors, 1930-33, Warner Bros.
The new Forbidden Hollywood set continues the deliciously off-color program of Volume One, which came out in 2006. I'll review them both here: They both cover the period between the proclamation of the blue-nosed movie production bible, the Hays Code, in 1930, and its decisive installation in 1934. This was when Hollywood's early talkie era of sin, sex and greater realism came to an end, banishing candid portrayals of real life, sex, politics and society and ushering in the fantasy-strewn era of two beds in every bedroom and the authority-loving ethos of purity czar Joseph Breen for the next two decades. The Code finally cracked in the late '50s and early '60s, thanks to Otto Preminger and other ballsy moviemakers.
Volume One contains three films, including the legendary Barbara Stanwyck sleep-around landmark Baby Face. Volume Two has five movies, all pretty spicy, along with a useful documentary on the period. The movies, many written or co-written by ex-newspaper writers who knew the score, still surprise us, mostly because of what classic Hollywood later led us to expect. (Extras: New documentary Thou Shalt Not: Sin, Sex and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood, commentaries, trailers.)
Volume One includes:
James Whale, 1931
The gem of Volume One: a much franker, but still highly romantic adaptation of the Robert E. Sherwood play -- better known in its more sentimental, cleaned up 1942 remake version with Vivien Leigh. The 1931 film doesn't leave any doubt that the main character (Mae Clarke) is a prostitute being pursued by an obsessed rich boy (Douglass Montgomery, a.k.a. "Kent Douglass"). Clarke, best known as the grapefruit gal in Jimmy Cagney's Public Enemy, is astonishing; watching her here, you'd think Clarke, and not Bette Davis (onscreen here as Montgomery's sweet ingénue sister), would wind up playing Mildred in Of Human Bondage
Jack Conway, 1932
Jean Harlow gives her gamiest "dirty-minded bombshell" performance, though here she's a redhead, rather than a platinum blond. (The writer is Anita Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Loos.) But Harlow still wreaks utter erotic havoc among Chester Morris and other schnooks. And she never reforms!
Alfred E. Green, 1933
One of the most erotically candid films of the period, co-written by later blacklist victim John Bright, this is hurt only by a sentimental climax. Stanwyck is the unstoppable Lily, a small-town girl of easy virtue who decamps to the city, and then goes from man to man, floor to floor, in an investment bank, finally winding up with the president (playboy George Brent), and leaving financial and social ruin behind her. Not a great movie, and rather mundanely directed by Green (The Jolson Story, Dangerous). But it's still a shocker; this version has four minutes that were censored out of the original release.
Volume Two includes:
Robert Z. Leonard, 1930
Norma Shearer, MGM's resident pre-Greer Garson grand lady and studio boss/"boy genius" Irving Thalberg's wife, got her (undeserved) Oscar for playing a grand lady who sleeps around in this movie, where, enraged by randy hubby Chester Morris, she adopts a male sexual code for payback. Robert Montgomery is also around, leering.
A Free Soul
Clarence Brown, 1931
Classic kitsch. Shearer again, as an adventurous rich girl falling into the expertly groping hands of sexy gangster Clark Gable, who steals her from his later Gone With the Wind Scarlett-rival Leslie Howard. Gable became a star here by treating Shearer like a whore, and fellow MGM legend Lionel Barrymore, as Shearer's alcoholic attorney father, copped a Best Actor Oscar for his grandly hammy and wildly improbable murder trial defense summation. Maybe brother John gave him tips on drinking and oratory.
William Wellman, 1931
Three on a Match
Mervyn LeRoy, 1932
Here's a fast, racy, unabashedly melodramatic tale of three ex-schoolmates (uppity glamour girl Ann Dvorak, good-hearted bad girl Blondell and mousey valedictorian Bette Davis), whose paths cross again right before fate and adultery begin tearing up their lives. With suave Warren William as the rich husband and Edward Arnold and Humphrey Bogart as gangsters. (Jeez, is Bette prim and is Bogey mean!)
Michael Curtiz, 1933
Ruth Chatterton is a brilliant, hard-driving auto company CEO who sleeps with her hunkier male employees and then dumps them, until brash, brainy inventor George Brent (Chatterton's real-life other half) turns the tables. Despite a softie ending, this one is a pre-feminist hoot.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
I Am Legend (B-)
U.S.; Francis Lawrence, 2007, Warner
Richard Matheson's haunting, oft-filmed tale of radioactive vampires bedeviling a lonely survivor features Will Smith in this latest adaptation. The first half, with Smith and his faithful dog roaming through amazing scenes of urban devastation, is near-great. Then -- too bad -- the movie goes quirky and preachy on us. (Extras (on two-disc version): Alternate theatrical version, four animated comics, DVD link to extensive online database.)
U.S.; Kevin Lima, 2007, Walt Disney
Audiences seemed to love Amy Adams and this movie's bizarre gimmick -- the beautiful princess in a Disney feature cartoon escapes into modern day Manhattan, bringing along her goody-two-shoes romanticism and her evil witch nemesis (Susan Sarandon, doing Cher). But I thought it was pretty silly -- or pretty and silly -- maybe because I was scared by Disney's Cinderella as a child. (Extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes, bloopers.)
Southland Tales (C+)
U.S.; Richard Kelly, 2007, Sony Classics
: Kelly's follow-up to his cult hit Donnie Darko is a madly indulgent, epic, Phil Dickish futuristic sci-fi fantasy, set in a crumbling L.A., with Dwayne ("The Rock") Johnson as an action star who's gone fourth dimensionally twitchy, plus an international tele-conspiracy headed by Wallace Shawn and Miranda Richardson, and costarring roles by Sarah Michelle ("Buffy") Gellar as a reality TV hooker and Seann William Scott as one, or possibly two, troubled cops on the run. Weird as hell and not especially good, but you can't say it's the same old song. (Extras: Featurette, animated short.)
Love in the Time of Cholera (B-)
U.K.; Mike Newell, 2007, New Line
Philandering poet Florentino Aziza (Javier Bardem) is in love his whole life with unapproachable rich girl Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno); finally, romance triumphs. Not up to its source, the great Gabriel García Márquez magic-realist novel, but I thought it was overly dumped on. Forget the novel and the film stands out from the crowd, lushly made, literate, well-acted and enjoyable. As the skinny, effete poet, Bardem gives a performance that, in both interior and exterior details, is about as far as you can imagine from his Oscar winning mad killer turn as Anton Chigurh. (It's as if the same actor turned out to be both Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart.)
Trigger Man (B)
U.S.; Ti West, 2007, Kino
A really good, taut little horror sleeper about three city guys who go hunting in Wilmington, Delaware (my kind of town) and fall prey to a mysterious sniper in the woods. It's a model of how to make an effective movie with little money and lots of skill and chutzpah. Costarring Reggie Cunningham, Ray Sullivan and Sean Reid. (Extras: Commentaries with West and the actors, Q&A with the director and cast, trailer.)
U.K.; Guy Ritchie, 2005, Sony
Ritchie tries to blend his usual ribald, neo-noir high jinks with an artsy fable about a outlandishly lucky gambler (Jason Statham) and his existential duel with a narcissistic gangster (Ray Liotta) and his deadly minions. Not quite there, but at least it's not a sell-out.
Bull Durham 20th Anniversary Edition (B)
U.S.; Ron Shelton, 1988, MGM
The smart, bawdy baseball romantic triangle comedy that scored big for writer-director Ron Shelton and all three of his couldn't-be-better stars: Kevin Costner as the old pro playing out his career in the minors, Tom Robbins as the cocky rising young phenom and Susan Sarandon, who recharged her career as the beauteous bedroom curveball team booster, with a talent for cynical remarks and team spirit. Maybe not the instant classic it once seemed, but still a lot of fun.
Italy; Alberto Lattuada, 1962, Criterion
One of the great '50s-'60s dark comedies, along with Phil Lopate picks Divorce Italian Style, Big Deal on Madonna Street and The Easy Life (Il Sorpasso), this is the picaresque tale of a punctilious Sicilian-born factory manager (the sublimely extroverted Alberto Sordi triumphing off type) who takes his family back home for a Sicilian vacation and winds up getting conscripted as a Mafia hit man. An arthouse hit in the '60s, it's been rarely revived since, but it plays now like gangbusters: a frequently hilarious, lively, bawdier version of the later Scorsese, De Palma and Coppola gangster epics -- ending in a bleak, Kafkaesque murder scene in New York. Lattuada had an excellent lineup of writers here -- including Marco Ferreri and the Age-Scarpelli team -- and the movie is a neglected classic, a big heaping feast of mirth and murder. (In Italian and English, with English subtitles. Extras: Interviews with Lattuada, his wife and son; trailers, promo caricatures by Keiko Kimura, booklet with essays by Lopate and Roberto Chiesi and a Lattuada interview.)
Pride of the Yankees (B+)
U.S.; Sam Wood, 1942, MGM
One of the best-loved American sports bio movies, with Gary Cooper in one of his signature roles as stoic, disease-stricken Yankee first-base hero Lou Gehrig, Teresa Wright, Walter Brennan and real-life Murderer's Row home run king Babe Ruth, supplying comic relief as himself. The ending, Gehrig's famous farewell speech, gets you teary; also interesting are the echoes of Citizen Kane that seem to have snuck in along with scenarist Herman Mankiewicz. (Extras: Featurettes, Curt Schilling interview.)