PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Grade: A)
U.K.; Kenneth Loach, 2007, IFC
Ken Loach (My Name Is Joe, Sweet Sixteen) is one left-wing filmmaker who never gives up the fight. Here, he and screenwriter Paul Laverty look back at the Irish "troubles" circa 1920 and come up with a stark, sometimes lyrical drama in the mood of Sean O'Casey, Liam O'Flaherty and the John Ford of The Informer. Two brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy, a rare star whose charismatic pretty-boy looks are matched by harrowing intensity and sharp intelligence) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney) are swept up in the battles between Irish rebel groups and the invading British Black and Tans. Damien, destined for London studies and a medical career at first, is swerved toward revolution and Teddy's guerrilla tactics after observing some blood-soaked Black and Tan brutality; eventually, when the truce is signed, the two wind up on opposite sides. Tragedy awaits.
Loach won last year's Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or for Wind, and it's one of his peak efforts, so hard and pure that it breaks your heart and stops the tears in your ducts. If you remember the sectarian splits and violence of Madison in the '60s, the film will ring a disturbing bell; if you want to feel the sting and explosion of social chaos, Loach and Laverty are the artists to guide you there: to the hell that erupted in towns and fields, or, as the old song puts it, to the troubles in the green land where the wind shakes the barley.
Stranger than Paradise (A)
U.S.; Jim Jarmusch; 1984, Criterion Collection
Here is one of the great independent American films of the '80s, one of the movies that opened the gates and lowered the bridge: Jarmusch's magnificently unpretentious and absurdist black-and-white road odyssey, in which two New York buddies (John Lurie and Richard Edson) -- who suggest grownup Dead End kids filtered though John Cassavetes, Nick Ray and Miles Davis -- take a trip with Lurie's fierce Hungarian immigrant cousin (Eszter Balint). Very austerely shot -- each sequence is done in a single unbroken camera take -- and also beautifully written and acted, and extremely funny. The humor is edge-of-darkness stuff, gliding and stinging over a pool of anxiety and desperation. Jazzman Lurie wrote the score. In some ways, Jarmusch has never bettered this movie, his second, and its hip outsider view and immaculate style point ahead to all his other works, including the underrated Night on Earth. (See below.)
Included in the Paradise extras is Jarmusch's lazily hypnotic first feature, Permanent Vacation (U.S.; 1980, Grade B), which gives us another wry, slacker look at New York. No true movie buff should pass this up. Other extras: featurettes, trailers, booklet with essays by j. hoberman and others.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
A Dance to the Music of Time (B)
U.K.; Alvin Rakoff/Christopher Morahan, 1997, Acorn Media
Ken Loach makes one kind of British cinema, focusing with anger and compassion on the lower classes. Dance is a fine example of the other kind, parading and dissecting with wit and style the upper classes in the glossy "Masterpiece Theatre" vein of Brideshead Revisited or The Forsyte Saga. Based on Anthony Powell's brilliant, richly packed 12-novel semi-autobiographical saga, centering on Powell's surrogate, novelist/World War II spy Nicholas Jenkins (James Purefoy), this plush mini-series examines, with a jeweler's or Merchant-Ivory eye, the Brit upper classes and literary set: Oxford poets and novelists and Marxist critics, from adolescence to maturity and beyond.
It's not a well-known series in the U.S., but Dance provides many pleasures, small, medium and large. There's a cornucopia of wonderful Powellian characters, including juicy roles for Miranda Richardson (Pamela Flitton), Edward Fox (Uncle Giles), John Gielgud (Clarke), Paul Rhys (Stringham) and Alan Bennett (Sillery), and a terrific showcase for Simon Russell Beale in the plum part of school misfit turned flabbergasting success Kenneth Widmerpool. There are several incendiary romances, involving Jenkins and tart Pamela or sexy Jean (Claire Skinner), and the style of both directors, Alvin Rakoff and Christopher Morahan, is elegant, full of polished décor, long takes and an occasional Rodgers and Hart song.
My only large complaint: Though writer Hugh Whitemore has admirably compressed the cycle into four two-hour shows, it would have been better to give us more -- 12 shows, say, each based on one of the novels. After all, on TV, and the BBC, you have more time to dance.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
Blades of Glory (C-)
U.S.; Josh Gordon/Will Speck, 2007, Paramount
Another sports parody from Will Ferrell, who plays a macho/outlaw figure-skating champ, banned from competition, along with his biggest rival, graceful and boyish Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), when he picks an on-ice fight. Inevitably, the two come back as the first all-male figure-skating duo. It starts out gross but pretty funny, and then gets simply gross and formula-bound. Oddly, the deleted scenes are just as good as the ones they kept, and sometimes crucial to the plot. With Jenna (The Office) Fischer. Extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes.
Georgia Rule (D+)
U.S.; Garry Marshall, 2007, Universal
Typecasting anyone? Lindsay Lohan plays a troublemaking, hedonistic teen sent by her frazzled mom (Felicity Huffman), to live with her straight-arrow Idaho grandma (Jane Fonda), who actually washes her mouth out with soap. There, bad girl L.L. gets wooed by a Mormon hunk (Garrett Hedlund). Gradually, dark secrets emerge. Anyone for movie rehab? Georgia starts out as a sack of the usual clichés, then plunges into haywire melodrama and vacuous sermons.
The Office, Season Three (B+)
U.S.; various directors, 2006, Universal
One of TV's driest funniest, smartest comedies -- a low-key, sarcastic look at office life, shot pseudo-documentary style -- keeps getting funnier. If you ever tire of Steve Carell as the pathological boss and Raine Wilson as the classic doofus, there's always the quirky romance between Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski.
Remember the Titans (B)
U.S.; Boaz Yakin, 2000, Buena Vista
Based on a real-life sports story, set in Virginia during the desegregation of T.C. Williams High School, this movie doesn't spring many surprises, but it has enough quality and realism to get you pumped up. Two of the reasons: director Boaz Yakin () and star Denzel Washington as a black coach from North Carolina who takes over the newly integrated school and team and battles prejudice and strife on the way to a memorable season. Produced by the usually gun-crazy Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun).
Night on Earth (B+)
U.S.; Jarmusch, 1991, Criterion Collection
Jarmusch excels at episodic films like this one: with five stories, each set in a different city (Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki), all mostly in taxicabs, with drivers and passengers interacting in offbeat, zingy ways. The cast includes Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Isaach De Bankole, Roberto Benigni and part of the Aki Kaurismaki stock company; the spirits of Kaurismaki, John Cassavetes and Spike Lee and other movie rebels hover over these rides. The best sequence and one of the top things Jarmusch has ever done: the encounter between nervous Giancarlo Esposito, who wants to get back to Brooklyn, his bad-mouth sister-in-law (Rosie Perez) and Armin Mueller-Stahl as Helmut, an ex-East German clown who has somehow gotten a cabbie license though he can't seem to drive. That great sequence is worth the whole movie, but the rest isn't chopped liver.
Tomorrow Never Dies (C+)
U. S.; Roger Spottiswoode, 1997, MGM
That's what you think. Okay Bondsmanship from Pierce Brosnan (who deserved at least as many shots as Roger Moore), villain Jonathan Pryce (Brazil
A View to a Kill (D+)
U.K.; 1985, John Glen, 1985, MGM
The James Bond series at its absolute nadir; not even Christopher Walken as the villain can perk it up. Roger Moore wanders around, with one of the worst Bond girls (one-time Charlie's Angel Tanya Roberts) in living memory.
U.K.; John Glen, 1983, MGM
A real surprise. John Glen is not my idea of a classy Bond director, nor is Moore my idea of Bond. But this is one slick entertainment where everything works, including villain Louis Jourdan and Bond Girl Maud Adams.
Live and Let Die (C+)
U.K.; Guy Hamilton, 1973, MGM
Diamonds are Forever
U.K.; Guy Hamilton, 1971, MGM
Sean Connery's last "official" Bond outing (Never Say Never Again was part of a rival series) and, in its knockabout, shoot-'em-up way, it has sentimental value. The villain Charles Gray (of Rocky Horror) as Blofeld. The Bond Girls: Jill St. John and Lana Wood (Natalie's bustier little sister).
Dr. No (B)
U.K.; Terence Young; 1962, MGM
Those were the days. The one old-fashioned Bond movie, before screenwriter Richard Maibaum set the laughs, gadgets and chases template in From Russia With Love. Joseph Wiseman is the villain, Ursula Andress is the Bond Girl. And they didn't get as much of the Ian Fleming mood again until the most recent one, Casino Royale.