PICKS OF THE WEEK
Israel; Samuel Maoz, 2009, Sony Pictures Classics
Lebanon. Spring 1982. The war.
We are inside an armored tank with four Israeli soldiers, in Beirut, in the throes of the Lebanon War. The battle is a raging hellfield punctuated with death, only barely comprehensible to the men or to us. Israelis battle Arabs battle Phalangists (Christian Arabs). The streets pop with gunfire. You can't tell civilians from killers. The tank is hot and stinking and so small the four can barely move around -- tempers flaring, nerves frayed -- as they roll though the streets, and peer through a periscope or gunsight seeking traps to avoid, enemies to kill.
This death-battered tank crew consist of a commander, Assi (Itay Taran), a driver, Yigal (Michael Moshonov), a gun-loader, Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), and a gunner, Shmuel (Yoav Donat). The gunner is young and scared, and when he gets his first targets in his sights, some gunmen in a car, he's so struck by their humanity, their all-too-vulnerable flesh, that he can't pull the trigger -- and his hesitation gets some Israeli soldiers killed. To be a good soldier of a kind, he learns, you have to be a killer. Automatic. Don't think. Don't feel. Press the trigger.
Occasionally an officer named Jamil (Zohar Strauss) shows up and enters their crowded confines. He tells them everything is going okay, to hang in there, says they are headed for a rendezvous at a place called San Tropez -- same name almost as the famed French resort. Jamil seems to be some kind of bull artist. They come to realize they can only trust their eyes, trust and live the moments -- and their eyes only show them what's happening though the rectangular viewer of the periscope, through the electronic gunsight on the tank. They see people outside, ravaged streets, gunfire, empty streets, the flurry and the wait. "Safe" within the tank, they keep rolling forward, stopping, waiting, firing, waiting, firing again.
Where is San Tropez? Who is Jamil? What's going on outside? They are trapped in hell, in the sweltering "No Exit" belly of the tank. But they're not dreaming; it's no nightmare. It's their reality (and ours) then and now. They have to stay clear. They have to play soldier. They have to push their fears way way down, down to the darkest pit of their guts and brains, and twist them up and lock them in and throw away the key. They have to do their job. Don't think. Don't feel. Press the trigger.
Shmuel was about 20 when he served in the Lebanese War. 27 years later, that scared young gunner's real-life model had grown older and become an Israeli filmmaker named Samuel Maoz -- the man who wrote and directed Lebanon and saw it win the Golden Lion (Grand Prize) of the Venice Film Festival. So what we are seeing here is mostly what moviemaker Samuel, or what the good soldier Shmuel, remembers of his experiences as a 20-year-old gunner in a tank -- frightened, inexperienced, screwing up, squabbling with his tank mates, trying to do the right thing, trying to stay alive, trying to figure out what in hell is going on all around them. Trying to keep himself primed so he won't make another mistake.
As a gunner, he probably did. As a filmmaker he doesn't.
Great war films, and Lebanon is certainly one of them, are often made by men who actually saw the fighting or participated in it -- like the combat soldiers Sam Fuller, Oliver Stone or Maoz. There have been some extraordinary Israeli war films in recent decades, some from participants like Ari Folman (Waltzing with Bashir), and what's remarkable about many of them is their objectivity, the determination of these filmmakers to stay clear-eyed and hew to the truth.
Few of those movies strike you as so relentlessly objective, so fiercely devoted to the naked fact, as Lebanon. Maoz goes outside the tank only three times, at the opening and closing. Almost everything we see is in those iron confines, through periscope or gun sight.
Maoz' agenda here is very clear: to put us inside that tank, to let us know what it felt like to be 20, to be scared, to be confused, to be riding though a world of terror and slaughter, to feel the embrace of chaos, to hear the crackle of gunfire, to see the bodies drop, to have a human being in your gun sights. Don't think. Don't feel.... In Hebrew, with English subtitles. (Extras: documentary.)
Hotel Terminus (A)
France: Marcel Ophuls, 1988, Icarus
Hotel Terminus gives us a look at a human monster -- at his inescapable cruelty and undeniable monstrousness, and also at his sometimes troubling humanity.
In the course of Marcel Ophuls' classic 4-1/2-hour documentary, Ophuls casts a cool, wide-open eye on the notorious World War II Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie -- the bad cop who ruled Lyon, his slice of Vichy, with an iron fist, sent many Jews and Resistance fighters to their deaths, and, after the war, was a wanted fugitive for decades. Then, in the '80s, Barbie was extradited from his longtime hiding place in Bolivia and brought back to France for trial.
Ophuls, a calm and suave, occasionally impatient, but relentless interrogator, never confronts Barbie directly; a prisoner now himself, and out of reach. But Ophuls interviews numerous people who knew and know Barbie (or "Sonny," as his boyhood friends called him) during his years of infamy: victims, witnesses, officials petty and large, lawyers, spies, French, Americans, Germans, ex-Resistance fighters, possible collaborators, rationalizers who want us to forget the past and fierce critics and enemies who will obviously never forget it.
The movie is shot as a series of conversations, abetted by archive material: a mystery story with Ophuls as the detective and the audience as his Watsons. And it unfolds so steadily, so quietly, with such endlessly inquisitive assurance, that its many moments of truth become all the more wrenching.
One of the most interesting of the Hotel Terminus interviewees is with Jacques Verges, Barbie's unflappable, calm Euro-Asian defense lawyer -- and an ex-leftist and supporter of the Algerian revolution. Another is Rene Hardy, the French Resistance leader and possible turncoat, suspected by his old colleagues of delivering his legendary Resistance comrade Jean Moulin to Barbie -- and a man whom we see now near the end of his life, defending himself, recalling a deadly past that once gave meaning to that life, and now perhaps condemns it.
Movie buffs will recognize the name of Rene Hardy. he was the author who wrote the World War II novel Bitter Victory, about a cowardly officer who takes credit wrongfully for an act of heroism -- and he also co-wrote the screenplay of Nicholas Ray's movie adaptation, which starred Richard Burton and, as the duplicitous officer, Curt Jurgens. (Bitter Victory is the film that inspired the young French critic Jean-Luc Godard to say "Truth is blinding...and the cinema is Nicholas Ray.")
The movie grips you throughout. Barbie himself becomes, in the course of the film's many revelations, a perfect example of the bourgeois beast and assassin, the "good family man" and cold-blooded functionary who tortures and murders for a living -- and who is good at his job.
Unhappily, there are men, and women, like this around us still, and only the fact that the fascists and killers aren't in charge prevents some of them from plying their trade. It's not a job, perhaps, that some of them would have chosen, or even that they like. But, like Klaus Barbie, they do it. They do it. In French, with English subtitles.
Army of Shadows (A)
France; Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969, Criterion Classics, Blu-ray
Jean-Pierre Melville's finest, most real and most personal film was not one of his nonpareil gangster movies -- though, as you watch it, it often feels like film noir swallowing up the world. It's this great grim tale of the World War II Resistance based on Joseph Kessel's novel, starring Lino Ventura as the stoic Resistance leader "Gu" Gerbier, and Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassell and Serge Reggiani among his comrades and combatants.
Melville adapted the novel, drawing on his own years with the Resistance. The superb cinematography is by Pierre Lhomme. The movie is full of jailbreaks and gun battles and hairsbreadth action scenes, but it's not done in a typical, sensational, melodramatic manner. It doesn't get your motor racing in the usual way. Army of Shadows transpires in a gray world, bleak, chilling, full of the shadows of the title, where night is often falling, or has already fallen. And it's done in a manner that suggests men (and a woman) who know they will die, who are dead already, but still stubbornly refuse to submit.
Most movie horror is false, however entertaining. Here is true fear, inexorable, deadly, as tight and unsmiling as the face of Gu, sizing up his chances of living another 10 minutes. In French, with English subtitles. (Extras: commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendreau; interviews with Lhomme and editor Franoise Bonnot; archival footage and interviews with Melville, Kessel, cast members and real Resistance veterans; the short Jean-Pierre Melville and "Army of Shadows" (2005); documentary short Le Journal de la Resistance (1944); booklet with two fine essays by Amy Taubin and Robert O. Paxton, and excerpts from Rui Nogueira's book-length interview Melville on Melville.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Films of Rita Hayworth (B+)
U.S.: various directors, 1944-53, Columbia
She was so beautiful she made your hair stand on end, made your heart race, made your dreams blaze up.
One of the two great pin-up girls of World War II, in the famous shot that shows her kneeling in lingerie on a bed, Rita adorned the bunks and planes and knapsacks of many a soldier, sailor or flier, and even the A-bomb dropped on Bikini. (The other supreme pin-up, of course, was Betty Grable in a swimsuit, bottom jutting, smiling over one shoulder.) Rita was the Goddess of Columbia in the '40s: a tall, leggy, red-haired musical deity who didn't sing, but danced up a storm, and who cared anyway?
She was born Margaret Cameron ("Rita") Cansino in Brooklyn. But she became Rita Hayworth of Hollywood. You Were Never Lovelier was the title of one of her Columbia hits, and it fit her. She married a rich businessman named Edward Judson, who helped make her famous. Then she married Hollywood's resident genius Orson Welles (who put her, hair dyed blond, in his film noir flop-turned-classic The Lady from Shanghai) and then Aly Khan, the millionaire Muslim playboy, who made her a worldwide tabloid sensation, and then a producer and Burt Lancaster partner named James Hill, who put her in Separate Tables.
She grew old -- all goddesses grow old, if they're lucky -- but she was still beautiful.
The movies grew less frequent. She began to forget her lines. She had Alzheimer's. She died, at 68. Rita....
But all Hollywood goddesses can come back, can live again. On screens. In our dreams. On TV. And so does Rita in at least two films in this box set, both directed by Charles Vidor: in Gilda, which was another great noir and her all-time best and sexiest role, and in Cover Girl, where she and Gene Kelly whirl and embrace, immortal in dancing shoes. (Extras: talks by Marty Scorsese on Gilda, Baz Luhrmann on Cover Girl and Gilda, and Patricia Clarkson on Miss Sadie Thompson and Tonight and Every Night.)
Cover Girl (A-)
U.S.; Charles Vidor, 1944
The movie that made Rita Rita. She's a gorgeous show dancer, partner of Gene Kelly and Phil Silvers, who's picked as a star cover girl (the movie is also full of real ones) and beckoned by bright lights and rich suitors (Lee Bowman, Otto Kruger) and wise-cracking dames (Eve Arden, natch.)
Kelly and his young choreographer-partner Stanley Donen did the dances, which includes one number in the street that strongly suggests the later "Singing in the Rain" (cop and all) and another that's an all-time Kelly classic: the great, hair-raising, double-exposed "Alter Ego Ballet," where Gene dances with himself. (He never had a better partner, not even Rita or Fred.)
Tonight and Every Night (B)
U.S.; Victor Saville, 1945
Based on the real-life story of the Windmill, the famous London music hall theater that never closed during the Blitz, this considerably altered version has plenty of dancing space for Rita. With Janet Blair, Bowman, and Florence Bates.
U.S.; Vidor, 1945
Rita's all-time peak came when she strutted on stage in a Buenos Aires casino/night club in a black clinging gown and told the crowd -- including bitter, lovestruck casino manager Glenn Ford, and suave, evil casino owner (and her husband) George Macready -- to "Put the Blame on Mame." Wow! Rita at her sultriest and most goddess-y, Ford at his most neurotically masculine, Macready in what may (as much as Paths of Glory) be the ultimate George Macready performance.
This is the top Rita Hayworth movie vehicle. And, like Rita's Welles outing in Lady from Shanghai, it might be her greatest, and one of the greatest noirs, if it didn't have that weird ending where Macready goes away for a while and the plot stalls. In the end, who cares? And who cares if she's dubbed? She's a knockout. This is Rita, sex, noir, the movies, '40s super-fantasy. And Mame, of course....
Miss Sadie Thompson (B)
U.S.; Curtis Bernhardt, 1953
Of the three famous movie versions of W. Somerset Maugham's classic South Seas Island immorality play Rain -- Raoul Walsh's 1928 silent Sadie Thompson with Gloria Swanson, Lionel Barrymore and Walsh himself, as lusty hooker Sadie, the obsessed preacher and Sadie's sailor-lover, Lewis Milestone's 1932 Rain, with Joan Crawford, Walter Huston and William Gargan, and this one, with Rita, Jose Ferrer and Aldo Ray -- this may be the least, although it's robust, racy and entertaining. But the story always seems to play well, and it does once again.
U.S.; William Dieterle, 1952
Put the blame on Salome. As played by Rita, she's a hip-swinging doll. Stewart Granger's soldier is noble and Roman. Charles Laughton's Herod is horny and hammy. Judith Anderson, as his wife, is a pit of evil. And Alan Badel as John the Baptist has a head for framing. You'll be surprised here at who finally demands that Herod give them the head of John the Baptist, or whatever.
Somebody thought "The Dance of the Seven Veils" would be good Hayworth material (you won't believe that dance when you see it, either), and the result was this biblical clunker. Don't let the cast and director fool you. It's truly bad.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.: John Luessenhop, 2010, Sony
The less said about this movie the better. Still, there's a foot-chase scene -- maybe not a great one, but at least a fast and snappy one -- in which cops Jack Welles (Matt Dillon) and Eddie Hatcher (Jay Hernandez) chase bank robber Jesse Attica (Chris Brown) all over an L.A. business district and through a kitchen.
But where is the movie around the chase scene? The first half of Takers is grainy, gray and incoherent, and shot in slavish imitation of Michael Mann's Heat. Then we get the robbery, the chase, the shootout, cop scandals, the Mexican standoff. Some of it is splintered into foggy fragments, with a lot of slow-mo breakage, shot in witless imitation of Sam Peckinpah.
What's going on? Five chic bank robbers -- played by Brown and Michael Ealy, Hayden Christensen, Paul Walker, and Idris Elba as the Jamaican boss -- spend their off-ours in high-end revelry, looking like angry fashion models or Dead End Kids redesigned by Calvin Klein. They're contacted by T.I. Harris as Ghost, an obvious lying psychopath just out of jail, who has a robbery plan that a 10-year-old child zonked on airplane glue could probably spot as a setup.
Zoe Saldana pops in and out as a girlfriend, and, sadly, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the great actress of Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, is on board as Elba's coke-addicted sister. There's a lot of shooting and running and smashing, and dialogue that sounds as if it were improvised by drunks trying to crash Kate Mantilini's at midnight. And there's Matt Dillon, who fouls everybody up by actually giving a performance, as the moody Welles, a cop who looks as if he'd rather be at a funeral.
To say this movie is bad isn't doing it justice. The director-writer John Luessenhop was a Wall Street attorney, and if this is the way Wall Street insiders see the world, it's no wonder we crashed. But, still and all, there's that sort-of-great chase scene. Maybe they could build another movie around it. (Extras: Luessenhop and cast commentaries; music video.
U.S.; John Curran, 2010, Anchor Bay
Robert De Niro is a great movie actor trapped in an industry that doesn't seem to want to make great movies -- at least with older actors like De Niro, and like Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Bobby Duvall or Al Pacino.
What a waste! De Niro, who's a national acting treasure, has a potentially memorable dramatic role in Stone, a fairly good script by Angus MacLachlan (Junebug), pretty good direction by John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore) and good cast mates in Edward Norton, Frances Conroy and Milla Jovovich -- and he makes the most of the opportunity. It's the kind of showcase we'd want for him. De Niro plays a taciturn prison probation official named Jack, a quiet but selfish and brutal man with a dark family secret in his past, and he gives us many levels of this complex, unlikable man, while keeping him repressed and disguised. He shows us how Jack holds himself in, his weary lack of heart or ambition, how he listens and sizes people up, and how he escapes and explodes (at least twice) into momentary viciousness or madness.
Stone is also a potentially good vehicle for that excellent actor Edward Norton, playing Jack's somewhat psychopathic client, an arsonist and prisoner named Stone, whose hair is in cornrows, whose eyes have a dead meanness and a foxlike glitter, and who speaks in a rapid mushy blur of obscenity, jailyard slang, conman bluster and imitation gangsta rap. And it's a surprising breakout for sex-bomb Jovovich (The Fifth Element), whose compelling performance as Stone's sexually incendiary wife Lucetta (whom he dangles as bait in front of Jack to get his parole) is a mild surprise. Conroy has the much less juicy role of Jack's bullied wife Madylyn, but she brings it alive.
This is a film for adults, by adults, done with intelligence. The first scene between Stone and Jack in Jack's office, with Stone trying to needle and prod the man who will write the report on his possible release, dazzle him with verbal footwork and Jack quietly, sullenly, holding back and prodding Stone back, is great stuff. If the movie had kept that tempo and force and richness, it would have been a De Niro classic, and a Norton classic too.
But the payoff and the ending here are somewhat confused, vague, and evasive. This movie could have been a powerhouse; instead it just hits a climax of sorts, not too surprising, not too riveting, goes nowhere very interesting and then slithers off screen. It's kind of a punchless noir, and it doesn't live up to its promise. But De Niro and Norton, showing us again what they can do, leave us hungry for more. (Extras: featurette; trailer.)
Jack Goes Boating (B)
U.S.; Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2010, Anchor Bay
Jack Goes Boating, which marks the directorial debut of that admirable actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a sweet, smart little picture that fulfills its seemingly modest goals easily and well. It's not perfect, and audiences more used to the ubermenschen fantasies or gaudy sex dreams of many big-studio products may get impatient with playwright Robert Glaudini's tale of two seeming losers -- Hoffman as pudgy, insecure New York limo driver Jack and Amy Ryan as shy, insecure funeral home employee Connie -- urged toward each other by their mutual friends Clyde and Lucy (John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega), two matchmakers whose own marriage seems on the verge of collapse even as they try to open doors for others.
But modest virtues are still virtues. It's hard not to enjoy this show, nor to wish Hoffman well and see the seeds of even better things for him in this movie -- hard not to have a soft spot for these happily, deftly drawn people, especially Ortiz's flawed but good-hearted Clyde, always patient and ready to teach his buddy (to swim or to navigate life) and the shambling, messy Jack, ready to learn, dive, try to breathe underwater and try again.
Jack Goes Boating comes from a play that the two longtime colleague/friends did on stage together, and it's another example of why Sidney Lumet's strategy of long, detailed rehearsals before shooting (a tactic Hoffman has lauded as a model) pays off in spades, in the acting.
All the acting in Jack is fine, the mood is gentle, the dialogue (by Glaudini, adapting his play) sharp, and the visual style and images of Manhattan attractive and evocative. Jack has its silly sides. But the movie lulls you, warms you up and cools you out. It's a Marty in the key of Erik Satie. Even when Hoffman's movie is showing a ruinous dinner date exploding in drugs, squabbles and tantrums, it maintains its equanimity, humanity and tenderness. (Extras: featurettes; deleted scenes; trailer.
Lennon NYC (B)
U.S.: Michael Epstein, 2010, American Masters/New Video
John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York City in the '70s, and their fight to stay in the U. S. despite a government (the Nixon administration and their heirs) that seemed hell-bent on booting them out. Very pro-John, of course, but what's wrong with that? A sad story, well-told, from the breakup of the Beatles to the swan song of Double Fantasy.
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story (B)
U.S.: Jeffrey C. Sherman, Gregory V. Sherman, 2010, Walt Disney
The strange family saga of Robert and Richard Sherman: two brothers who supplied words (Bob) and music (Dick) to some of the most joyous and well-liked family pop tunes ever, including the ebullient score ("Spoonful of Sugar," "Jolly Holiday," "Feed the Birds" and the Oscar-winning "Chim-Chim-Cheree" to Disney's Mary Poppins) who were beloved pets of Walt himself, but who throughout their lives didn't jell emotionally and often couldn't get along -- and were eased out by the Disney brass that immediately followed Walt's death. Directed by two younger Sherman boys, Jeff and Greg, it's a fully engaging and oddly moving show, full of beguiling pop history. (Extras: featurettes; gallery of Bob's art; Sherman brothers' juke box.)