PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.K.; Steve McQueen, 2008 (Criterion)
Harshly physical and scarringly violent, this stark drama about the 1981 IRA hunger strike at Maze Prison in Belfast and the death by starvation of strike leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), is full of ugly brutish deeds done in incongruously beautiful images. From the first moments, when the film plunges us into the famous H Block cells, where the walls of one cell are decorated with abstract shit paintings -- to the systematic beatings and humiliations, the threats, the assassination of a prison guard (Stuart Graham), and the slow awful wasting away of Sands during his strike, the movie bombards us with nearly unbearable visions of an awful time, while inspiring inevitable thoughts about hot topics like torture and extreme prison abuse.
This is the first feature movie by artist Steve McQueen and it's a heavily praised and much awarded picture: winner of the Camera d'Or for best first film and the FIPRESCI prize as Cannes and the Best Film and Actor awards at Chicago. The opening struck me a bit too weirdly photogenic: both the actor (Brian Milligan) and the images. Then the movie, and artist McQueen's painterly style, started to take hold, to shock and wear me down. The film's best scene is also its most austerely visualized: a two-shot, one-take, immobile 22-minute-long sequence of Sands talking starvation ethics and strategy at a visitor's table with a tough priest, Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). The ending is devastating. Even if McQueen never completed another movie, he'd have a place in Irish film history for this one. (Extras: documentaries on the making of Hunger and the Maze prison strikes; interviews with McQueen and Fassbender; trailer; booklet with Chris Darke essay.
U.S.; Martin Scorsese, 1990, Warner, Blu-ray, 3 discs
The best gangster movie Martin Scorsese ever made -- indeed probably the best, most accurate, most revealing gangster movie anyone has made (including Coppola in The Godfather Trilogy and Matteo Garrone in the recent Gomorrah) -- is GoodFellas, the volcanically exciting epic of three buddies who rise through the New York mob, live high, steal big, deal drugs or kill without qualms -- and wind up dead, in jail, or under witness protection.
The story is taken by Scorsese and scriptwriter/reporter Nicholas Pileggi from the real-life gangster career of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and his friends, called here Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci). Fueled by terrific period settings and a galvanic wall-to-wall period rock score (keyed by the Rolling Stone's ferocious "Gimme Shelter"), GoodFellas shows us, better than any other movie of its kind, the seductive allure of the mob life and its psychotic dangers and almost inevitable falls.
GoodFellas boasts scene after unforgettable scene -- Tommy's callous murder of the waiter, and the burying night with Mrs. Scorsese, the opulent "on the town" night club tracking shot, Henry's last psycho cocaine morning with the Feds on his trail -- but none perhaps as indelible, and as brilliantly evocative of the mob life, as the scene where quick-trigger Tommy, at a table full of wise guys, harasses Henry by saying again and again, with escalating malice and menace, "You think I'm funny?" until uneasy Henry finally breaks the spell with a laughing "Get the fuck out of here, Tommy!" It's a killer. Like GoodFellas. (Extras: two commentaries, with Scorsese, Pileggi, Liotta, Bracco, Sorvino, Ballhaus, producer Irwin Winkler, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and others; documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film; featurettes; gang-themed Looney Tune cartoons; storyboards; trailer.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Clint Eastwood: 35 Films, 35 Years of Warner Bros. (A)
U.S.: Clint Eastwood, Don Siegel and other directors, 1968-2008, Warner
From Dirty Harry to Unforgiven. From Where Eagles Dare to Letters from Iwo Jima. From The Gauntlet to Gran Torino.
Go ahead. Make our day.
OTHER NEW OR RECENT RELEASES
Law Abiding Citizen" (D+)
U.S.; F. Gary Gray, 2009, Overture Films/Anchor Bay Entertainment
In Law Abiding Citizen, a big, splashy movie thriller of astounding absurdity, costar Jamie Foxx plays Nick Rice, an overly ambitious prosecutor who makes one court deal too many. And costar-producer Gerard Butler plays Clyde Shelton a government high-tech destroyer who's an odd cross between Charley Bronson's bereaved, revenge-mad father/husband in the Death Wish series, and Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter at his most sadistically super-villainish. It's not a good mix -- Bronson should be a roamer, and Hannibal is a prisoner -- and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer's main gimmick (a one-man war against the justice system waged from a jail cell) is so preposterous that it keeps driving you right out of the movie.
It is gross understatement to say that Law Abiding Citizen makes no sense. It doesn't even try to make sense. For sheer lunatic improbability and bad ideas (and even bad punctuation), it will be hard to top.
The movie does have a good cast, all wasting their skills on cliché roles: Bruce McGill as the fatherly prosecutor, Colm Meaney as the tough detective, Viola Davis as the angry mayor, and Regina Hall and Emerald-Angel Young as Nick's steadfast pretty wife and adorable cello-playing daughter.
Foxx's Nick is someone we've seen before too: another egotistical pro primed for learning a lesson. And Butler's Clyde is the latest example of a revenge-crazed citizen, mixed with that usually preposterous character, the all-powerful super-villain one-man crime wave. What the hell have we done to deserve this movie?
Coco Before Chanel (B)
France; Anne Fontaine, 2009, Sony Pictures Classics
Another biographical love story of a legendary figure, this time portraying the French queen of fashion, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (Audrey Tautou), and her (again) ill-fated affair with the bedroom-eyed British upper-crust swain Arthur "Boy" Capel (Allesandro Nivola). As with Bright Star, the film is lustrously shot (by Christophe Beaucarne), and the acting honors go once again to the third side of the triangle: lusty, ever-urbane, gravel-voiced Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). The usually charming Tautou often seems too remote here: a spectator at her own life. But the film is full of style, and a love of style. (In French, with English subtitles.)
Troubled Water (A-)
Norway; Erik Poppe, 2009, Film Movement
The "water" of the title -- in this riveting Norwegian film about guilt, love, death and redemption -- refers to the Simon and Garfunkel song "Bridge Over Troubled Water," a pop anthem that a young church organist named Jan plays several times in the church that has just hired him after his release from prison. Jan (Pal Sverre) was convicted years ago in the disappearance of a young boy, whom Jan and a friend kidnapped on impulse from an outdoor cafe, a boy who may have drowned in the nearby river where his stroller was left. The quiet, inscrutable Jan has never admitted his guilt and now he wants to build a new life. The church gives him the chance -- as does the church's lovely young female priest, Anna (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), who falls in love with him.
Two clouds, though, loom over Jan. He has not admitted the past to Anna, whose little son looks a lot like the boy who may have drowned, awakening dark memories. And the vanished boy's mother, Agnes (Trine Dyrholm) lives and teaches in the area, and soon sees Jan in the church. Agnes is frightened, bitter, distraught.
This fine film, the latest selection in the Film Movement DVD of the Month Club -- an excellent service that supplies previously unreleased film festival winners, and short subjects each month -- was a double prize winner (jury and audience awards) at the Hamptons International Film Festival.
Troubled Water -- third of a trilogy by director Erik Poppe (Hawaii, Oslo) -- deserves high praise. The story -- told by Poppe and writer Harald Rosenlow-Eeg in a tricky, non-chronological structure that keeps unfolding the mystery and doubling back, immersing us in extreme emotions beneath the surface -- is engrossing, unpredictable and deeply disturbing. The characters are complex and believable, the actors superb. This is a first-rate film that foreign film lovers should really try to see. (In Norwegian, with English subtitles.) (Extras: The short film The Kolaborator: U.S.; Chris Bessounian, 2009, a powerful, well-shot short about a Yugoslavian soccer player caught up in the recent war, his "education" in execution by a brutal commander, and his fateful meeting with an old soccer friend. In Serbian, with English subtitles.)
OTHER NEW OR RECENT BOX SETS
Dirty Harry Ultimate Collector's Edition (A)
U.S.; various directors, 1971-88, Warner, 7 discs, DVD and Blu-ray
Those of us who think Clint is a great actor as well as a great producer-director have 1971's Dirty Harry to point to. Could anyone else have played that part -- the foul-mouthed, rebellious, short-fuse cop -- better (including the actors to whom it was offered before C.E.: John Wayne, Paul Newman and Frank Sinatra)? The follow-ups in the series are a mixed bag, but Sudden Impact is another classic. And they all have their moments, like this one: "...You gotta be askin' yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya? Punk?"
Included: Dirty Harry (A), Don Siegel, 1971. Magnum Force (B), Ted Post, 1973. The Enforcer (B), James Fargo, 1976. Sudden Impact (A-), Clint Eastwood, 1983. The Dead Pool (C+), Buddy Van Horn, 1988. (Extras: Featurettes, interviews.)