PICKS OF THE WEEK
Gnomeo & Juliet (B-)
U.S.-U.K.: Kelly Asbury, 2011, Walt Disney Studios
This movie seems to have a totally crazy idea -- a musical animated feature riff on William Shakespeare's unbeatable Romeo & Juliet, with two sets of feuding lawn ornaments (mostly gnomes, but also a green plastic frog, and a pink plastic flamingo) battling and cussing out each other on the lawns of two feuding next-door neighbors: Juliet's Reds (on a lawn owned by Richard Wilson's Mr. Capulet) and Romeo's Blues (owned by Julie Walters as Miss Montague).
But, dopey as it sounds, it's more entertaining than you'd expect. I haven't seen a better Shakespearean gnome romantic musical comedy ever. (Then again, I haven't seen a worse one.)
The live gnomes, wearing conical red and blue hats (perhaps to indicate political persuasion), are led by their lawn ornament rulers Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine) and Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith). There's a Tybalt (a hard-case gnome voiced well by Jason Statham), a Benvolio (Matt Lucas as "Benny" of Benny and the Jets), a nurse (Ashley Jensen as the plastic frog Nanette), a friar (Jim Cummings as an out-of-sight pink flamingo named Featherstone). Ozzie Osbourne and Dolly Parton supply the voices for (I kid you not) a Fawn and a busty bombshell called Dolly Gnome. Hulk Hogan voices the main non-Tybalt heavy: a psychotic lawnmower called Terrafirminator. And Bill Shakespeare, or at least his statue, appears, sounding just like Patrick Stewart.
Meanwhile Gnomeo (James McAvoy) proves to be a sturdy little scamp with a roguish fringe of beard, and gnome-sweet-gnome Juliet (Emily Blunt) is an adventurous lass in a Dutch Girl outfit. They're pretty cute together, but the show is totally stolen by the lesser known Jensen and Cummings, as that weirdly flirtatious frog-nurse and that Peter Sellers-ish bizarrely accented flamingo.
I never thought I'd say it, but Michael Caine and Maggie Smith make pretty good lawn ornaments. Kelly Asbury (co-director of Shrek 2) directed; plenty of people worked on the script. (And it shows.) One of the movie's main attractions is the song score by Elton John (who has family connections here), mostly a greatest hits assemblage that includes "Crocodile Rock," "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting" and the seemingly inevitable "Your Song."
I like John's songs, they work amazingly well in cartoons, and it's fun to hear them here, even socked across by swinging lawn ornaments (voiced mostly by John).
But I wish they'd dreamed up some plausible reason, such as an invasion of Elton-Gnomes, to explain why the songs keep suddenly coming on. Then again, as far as gnome movies go (if not Shakespearean adaptations), this one is, uh, fairly well-motivated. Gnomivated.
U.K.: Ken Loach, 1970, Criterion Collection
Kes -- the story of a boy from Northern England coal country and the kestrel hawk he finds and trains and loves and loses -- is a masterpiece of British cinema realism, made by one of the great British social realist filmmakers: Ken Loach. It's a movie that few who see it forget, and though the subject -- a poor boy and his wild pet -- may seem a bit "Lassie-ish," or potentially teary, the treatment is so harshly real, the images so poetic and true, the acting so convincing and unmannered, that all sentimentality is drained from the story and the emotions left behind are pure, hard and unrelenting in their impact.
Loach never made a better film than Kes. Even though he's had one of the most distinguished and uncompromising careers in the post-war British cinema -- making (as Graham Fuller notes in this DVD's fine booklet) a string of classic and film festival prize-winners that includes Riff Raff, Raining Stones, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, My Name Is Joe, and Sweet Sixteen (after Kes), and the shattering, legendary TV drama, Cathy Come Home, this film remains the one that he -- and cinematographer Chris Menges and producer Tony Garnett -- are best judged by.
It's their prime legacy, and a splendid one -- a film that mixes flawless naturalism, scathing social criticism and sarcastic humor, with an understated but deeply moving poetic sense of the landscape and people around Barnsley in South Yorkshire: the cheerless houses, the verdant fields, the young kids at school, their sometimes maddening teachers, their trapped working-class parents and the sometimes rowdy coal-mining adults. Kes gives us all these people, and their ties to each other, and to the world around them: to a way of life that was disintegrating even then and now has largely vanished.
At the center of Kes is the boy Billy Casper, 15, played by a nonprofessional first-time actor named David Bradley whom Loach discovered at open tryouts in the Barnsley area. Bradley is one of the main reasons the movie is such a classic. With his solemn, grave expressions and hurt-looking eyes, his complete absence of affectation or the usual self-salesmanship, he's one of the most memorable young actors of that era.
As we watch him here, we can almost sense Billy's thoughts, feel his feelings. We accept him as both a typical and a fervently exceptional example of his region, of his class, of his generation.
Billy lives with his mother (Lynne Perrie) and his older brother Jud (Freddy Fletcher), in a dreary home so small that the boys have to share a bed. Jud is already down in the mines. Billy is in a time of transition, from school eventually to work. And a great deal of the movie is spent with Loach's and writer Barry Hines' mostly sarcastic portrait of Billy's teachers and advisers: the bumptious soccer coach Mr. Sugden (Brian Glover, another nonprofessional giving a classic performance), the sour-faced bully Mr. Gryce (Bob Bowes), the testy Youth Employment Officer (Bernard Atha) and the one sympathetic teacher, Mr. Farthing, played with enthusiasm by pro Colin Welland, the actor-writer who later won an Oscar for the script of Chariots of Fire.
Loach and Hines (adapting Hines' novel, A Kestrel for a Knave) concentrate on Billy's relations with these adults a bit more than they do on his interactions with his fellow kids, who, except for a few schoolyard bullies, tend to be a sometimes volatile mass -- or even than they do on his relations with Kes, the wonderful wild bird he finds in the stony remnants of a medieval monastery. The adults, except for Mr. Farthing (the only teacher who sees Billy with Kes), are part of the joyless environment that oppresses Billy, severely limits his options.
Kes, by contrast, is the soaring friend whose realms he escapes to, who gives Billy a sense of the limitless worlds outside Barnsley. When we see them together, see the bird flying and circling and see Billy spinning his lure, we can feel the boy's exhilaration, the hawk's natural grace. (Kes cannot be tamed, the film says, only trained.) And we can sense what a wealth of opportunities is being lost in 1970 Britain to Billy and others.
That's Loach's signature theme. Although he's a resolute left-winger and socialist, many of Loach's films, including Kes, are about the failures of government to take care of the poor, the betrayals of the welfare state. Loach and Garnett's famous TV play Cathy Come Home (included in this DVD package) painted such a dire and true portrait of Britain's housing crisis among the poor, that it resulted in actual housing legislation. (But not, Loach sadly noted, years later, a resolution that lasted.)
In Kes, we don't know what will happen to Billy. But we know that he and all the other children are ill-served by the system meant to teach and care for them. Billy learns more lessons from the kestrel than from the sometimes absurd adults who have him as pupil. And certainly his spirit is more uplifted by the sight of his bird, climbing the sky.
One problem with Kes, at least for American audiences, has always been the thickness and, for many, incomprehensibility of the Yorkshire accents of the local people who fill the cast. This Criterion package includes both a new restored digital transfer of the original soundtrack film, and the other, international version (made for other English-speaking countries), which contains a post-sync alternate soundtrack.
Also included: Cathy Come Home (U.K.: Ken Loach, 1966, A-). A young married couple (Carol White of Poor Cow, and Ray Brooks of The Knack) and their young children are thrown into homelessness and the dysfunction of the social welfare system by accident and misfortune. One of the great British social problem films. (Extras: Cathy Come Home; two versions of Kes -- a restored print of the original soundtrack version and the international post-sync release; documentaries (one from the South Bank Show) on making Kes and on Loach's career; trailer; booklet with Graham Fuller essay.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Silent Naruse (A-)
Japan: Mikio Naruse, 1931-34, Criterion/Eclipse
He was a sad-looking man who'd had an unhappy love life, early feuds with his bosses, and little beyond his career to make him feel any joy or optimism about life. He'd been raised in poverty, and stumbled into his profession. He married a beautiful woman, one of his actresses, and the marriage failed, disastrously.
He spent most of his time at his job, making movies, and his movies were often very sad too: tales of persecuted women, powerless men, hapless children, discontented families, businessmen whose jobs were failing and geishas who were older or near the end of their careers. His view of his native land, Japan, was dark, grim, melancholy, but -- it was thought by critics, colleagues and the public -- very true to life.
His name was Mikio Naruse (1905-1969).
For most aficionados of Japanese cinema, the three great names in Japan's first filmic Golden Age (the '30s through the '50s or '60s) are Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Naruse is the fourth -- and if he's slightly behind his three master colleagues, not as much of a visual stylist perhaps, not as riveting a storyteller as Kurosawa, as wise a human observer as Ozu, or as consummate a visual stylist as Mizoguchi, he's not behind them by much.
Of all the Big Four (let's call them that, at least for this review), Mikio Naruse may have been the most bitterly truthful. Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi offer views of life that may be as tragic, dark or sad as Naruse's often is, but that are somehow, perhaps through the beauty of their imagery, redeemed by their art. Naruse's special sadness is unrelieved. He is a stylist too in many ways (the writing, the acting, the simple, precise camerawork). But his style is more invisible, especially in the latter part of his career, than that of his three superb contemporaries.
Naruse began directing in the late silent movie era -- which, for Japan, stretched into the early '30s -- and he survived all the way until 1969, outliving both Ozu and Mizoguchi, making one of his acknowledged masterpieces, Scattered Clouds, two years before his death. His 1935 film Wife! Be Like a Rose! was an international hit and American art house release, at a time when few Japanese films were exported to the U.S. (Sachiko Chiba, the star of Wife! Be Like a Rose! was the wife in Naruse's first unhappy 1937-1944 marriage. She was no rose, and he was no gardener.)
Naruse directed a number of silent movies, of which five survive, and all five of them are in Silent Naruse. They are not all classics, though they are all good. (The best are the last three, Apart from You, Every-Night Dreams and Street Without End.) And they're all fascinating reflections of the Fascist-leaning, repressed, Emperor-worshiping Japanese society of the '30s, a closed system that Naruse, like Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, found fault with or opposed.
He is a great filmmaker, about whom most movie fans know very little. This is a very fine set, historically invaluable, dramatically moving -- even if, probably, it's mostly for true aficionados of foreign art film. I wish Criterion or Eclipse had boxed Naruse's later movies, specially Flowing, Mother, Repast and the annihilating romance, Floating Clouds. But maybe they'll get around to his '50s films (his finest period) later.
Meanwhile, whenever you remember Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi, try to remember also their excellent colleague, Mikio Naruse. He was a sad man and he made sad films, but beautiful and truthful ones. All the films in Silent Naruse have new musical scores by Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz. (Extras: film notes by Michael Koresky.)
Flunky! Work Hard (B)
The first extant of Naruse's films is a comedy about a poor, luckless, improvident insurance salesman (Isamu Yamaguchi) and his beleaguered family. It's breezy, sometimes farcical and, at times, it almost suggests the mood of the family comedy classic I Was Born But... that Ozu would make a year later. With Tomoko Naniwa and Seiichi Kato. Silent, with English intertitles.
No Blood Relation (B)
A real unabashed woman's picture melodrama: Tamae (Yoshiko Okada), a Japanese-born Hollywood movie star, returns to re-meet and help her old husband Atsumi (Shinyo Nara) financially (he refuses even though his business is failing) and to establish ties with the daughter, Shigeko (Hisako Kojima) whom she abandoned. But, despite Tamae's glamour and money, the little girl prefers her caring adoptive mother Masako (Yokiko Tsukuba), driving Kishiyo to kidnapping and a plot with Atsumi's greedy mother Kishiyo (Fumiko Katsuragi), to try to win her daughter's love. Scripted by Ozu's lifelong collaborator, Kogo Noda -- though it's no Tokyo Story. Silent, with English intertitles.
Apart from You (A-)
Naruse's first big critical hit, named to the Kinema Junpo list, this is the touching, perceptive tale of Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), an aging geisha facing the loss of her charms and the end of her career, of Kikue's alienation from her much-loved dropout hoodlum son Yoshio (Akino Isono), and of the kindness shown both Kikue and Yoshio by Terugiku (Sumiko Mizukubo), a young, beautiful and popular geisha, who is deeply resentful at being forced into her "dishonorable" profession to pay her family's debts. Finely crafted, very well-acted and reminiscent of Naruse's great later work. Script by Naruse. Silent, with English intertitles.
Every-Night Dreams (B)
Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima), a lovely ginza bar hostess and single mother of the lively little boy Fumio (Teruko Kojima), faces worse problems when her well-meaning but hopelessly inept and jobless husband Mizuhara (Tatsuo Saito, who looks a bit like a Japanese John Carradine) shows up and tries to reform the long-shattered family unit. A more violent melodrama than No Blood Relation, almost a semi-noir, and an example of Naruse's darkest side. Silent, with English intertitles.
Street Without End (A-)
Sugiko, a hostess who's offered a chance at movie stardom, passes it by for marriage to a rich, but troubled, man dominated by his family -- an unwise choice that threatens to ruin their lives. Both an intriguing backstage look at Japanese moviemaking in the '30s and a lacerating domestic drama. Naruse, like Ozu a fan of Hollywood's master of romantic comedy Ernst Lubitsch, includes a date at a Lubitsch movie here: The Smiling Lieutenant, with Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert. With Setsuko Shinobu and Hikaru Yamanouchi as the unlucky couple, and Akio Isono as Sugiko's feisty brother. Silent, with English intertitles.