PICKS OF THE WEEK
Germany; Fritz Lang, 1931, Criterion
Fritz Lang's great, hair-raising 1931 German crime thriller M was the masterpiece of his career and remains the true filmic father of all film noir. This new Criterion Blu-ray edition, a masterpiece of DVD production, belongs in the collection of every true movie-lover.
Written by Lang's then-wife Thea von Harbou (who also wrote her husband's classics Metropolis, Spies and the Dr. Mabuse films), and directed with matchless ingenuity and nerve-rending mastery of suspense by Lang, M stars the brilliant young Peter Lorre as the compulsive child-murderer Hans Beckert, a chubby little deviate who throws Berlin into turmoil: a horrendous, sweet-faced, serial killer modeled on the real-life Dusseldorf Strangler. It is a role and a performance that leave you almost drained, that seem to plunge right down into an inferno of evil and into the darkest nights of a lost soul.
Lang shows us both the murders and the social chaos triggered by them. When Beckert's, or M's, string of murders causes the police to clamp down on organized crime -- in the underworld run by the suave gentleman-thief Schranker, played by Gustaf Grundgens -- the outlaws strike back, pursuing the murderer through the shadowy, concrete world of Berlin at night, as relentlessly as the cops, led by the unconnable detective Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), pursue him by day -- and finally subjecting the mad killer to one of the most amazing trial scenes in the history of cinema.
M is as much a creative movie milestone as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, a film that was obviously very influenced by Lang's picture, with its ghastly visions of a city lost in bloodshed and shadow, shot by cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner in pools of light and darkness. M is also clearly one of the main progenitors of all film noir -- even though it preceded what many critics see as the birth-period of noir (in the early '40s, with Kane, Stranger on the Third Floor, also starring Lorre, and Huston's The Maltese Falcon), by almost 10 years.
Lang and von Harbou, working in the period when Germany itself was about to descend into Nazi madness and murder, create in M the ultimate movie city of night, ruled by an elite of police and criminals that remind you a bit of Bertolt Brecht's theatricalized underworld in The Threepenny Opera and a bit of the fear-crazed London of Alfred Hitchcock's silent "Jack the Ripper" thriller The Lodger. And, in Lorre's M -- so nicknamed because of the letter (signifying "Murderer") chalked on his back by a criminal "blind beggar" to identify him to the gangs -- the filmmakers fashion a psychopath par excellence, pursuing his helpless little victims with sweets and smiles, and then, when he's caught, screaming out "I can't help myself! I can't help myself!" like a fat, evil, desperately howling child deprived of his toys. (In German, with English subtitles.) (Extras: English-language version of M; commentary; interviews with Fritz Lang -- one by William Friedkin; M le Maudit, directed by Claude Chabrol; interview with Wagner; booklet with essay by Stanley Kauffman.
Edge of Darkness (B)
U.S.; Martin Campbell, 2010, Warner Home Video
Edge of Darkness, Mel Gibson's first star vehicle in seven years, is a Boston-set vengeance-is-mine thriller with brains and bite, and an excellent pedigree -- a crime drama movie with more than car chases and shootouts on its dance card.
Gibson may have been off the movie star circuit for a while, and he may still suffer some bad fallout from his drunken arrest and seeming anti-Semitic outburst. But he's picked his show well here. This is good, solid material, based on the legendary, anti-Thatcherite, British TV mini-series this movie's director, Martin Campbell, made back in 1985 from a script by the late action specialist Troy Kennedy-Martin (The Italian Job). Gibson plays a tough, street-savvy, bereaved Boston cop who loses his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) to a drive-by shooting, slowly discovers that she may have been the target of assassination and a corporate cover-up, and takes after the people responsible, who include corporate or government heavies Danny Huston and Damian Young to kill or expose them, one by one.
It's a very good, tense, exciting movie, a bleakly paranoid tale, updated by writers Bill Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Lovell (Lantana) -- even if it'll seem a bit familiar, in plot, mood and attack, to anyone who's ever seen a '70s paranoid neo-noir (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor or any of their numerous imitators) or read a John Grisham novel. Derivative it may be. But just because you've heard the song before, doesn't mean it can't get you on the hook.
Toy Story (A-)
U.S.; John Lasseter, 1995, Walt Disney
Toy Story 2 (A)
U.S.; John Lasseter/Ash Brannon/Lee Unkrich, 1999, Walt Disney
In many ways, the most important American movie release of 1995 was director/co-writer John Lasseter's Toy Story, the first animated feature from Pixar -- which scored a big audience hit with this bouncy, funny tale of a community of toys who (just as we always expected) all come alive when their boy-owner Andy (voiced by John Morris) and his mom (Laurie Metcalf) leave the room. Among the delightfully computer-animated gang: stalwart cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), timid dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn), excitable Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), lovelorn Ms. Bo Peep (Laurie Potts) and the newest arrival, intrepid cosmonaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) -- whose arrival creates a surfeit of heroes, a potentially dangerous rivalry between Woody and Buzz.
Toy Story seduced both audiences and critics, and it was succeeded by Toy Story 2 --in which Buzz and the gang have to save Woody from an evil toy seller Al (Wayne Knight) and a life in the Al's Toy Barn toy warehouse museum, with yodeling Cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and gabby old coot Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer). It's one of the rare sequels that is both a totally logical outgrowth of the original, and even better than its predecessor as both art and entertainment. It's no exaggeration to say that Toy Story 2 is the Godfather 2 of feature cartoons. (Let's hope that the upcoming Toy Story 3 doesn't prove to be a Godfather 3.)
Both Toy Story and Toy Story 2, by the way, boast song scores by that song-writing genius, evil Angeleno, and seeming nemesis of short people and long red lights, Randy Newman. His "You've got a Friend in Me" is a great kid anthem. And his abandoned-toy ballad "When She Loved Me" (sung by Sarah McLachlan in 2) is a real heart-tugger. And the eight-man writing teams on both movies include Lasseter, Pete Docter (Up), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) and Joss Whedon.
Pixar has kept up that kind of commercial/critical double whammy triumph ever since. Defying the averages, they manage to keep turning out better and better movies. And they've gone on to become one of the major cultural/commercial forces in American movies, if not the foremost of all. The only complaint I have about Pixar is that it frustrates me that this company, supposedly making movies for children (though really for adults just as much) makes movies that so much smarter and better, and even more adult -- than the vast majority of the live-action stuff for more supposedly mature audiences. (Extras: featurettes, deleted scenes; animated studio stories.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Essential Arthouse: Kurosawa Collection (A)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1943-93, Criterion
Three gems from Akira Kurosawa, one of the three giants of the Japanese Cinema's Golden Age (with Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi) and the father of the modern action-adventure movie. The trio spans the range of his talents: In his '50s-'60s masterpieces Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and (included here) The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa pioneered an explosive, ingenious style of multiple camera use and brilliantly cadenced rapid-fire editing that revolutionized action moviemaking, enormously influencing Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, an unabashed knockoff of Yojimbo), Clint Eastwood (The Outlaw Josey Wales), and many, many others.
But, if he had never shot an action scene, Kurosawa would still have been a great moviemaker. A master also of dark-hued drama, lusty comedy and poignant romance, he was a widely read and richly endowed artist whose major literary influences included the Russian novelists (he adapted both Dostoyevsky and Gorky) and Shakespeare's plays. His transformations of "Macbeth" into "Throne of Blood" (included here) and "King Lear" into "Ran" are among the most celebrated and justly admired of all Shakespearean films. His "Ikiru" (also included here) is a masterpiece of compassionate psychological/social drama.
Kurosawa has his cinematic peers. But he has no superiors, not even his idol John Ford. (All the films in the Kurosawa Collection are Japanese productions directed by Kurosawa, in Japanese, with English subtitles. This is a budget anthology with no extras. Aficionados who are not cost-conscious, will probably prefer the 25-film collection A.K. 100, or the other Criterion Kurosawa sets, which have extras.)
Kurosawa's most atypical film, though some regard it as his greatest achievement: the poignant tale of a dying low-level government bureaucrat, a small city playground, and the old man's last attempt at redemption. (The protagonist is played by Takashi Shimura in one of his two finest performances, along with his role as the leader of the "Seven Samurai.") The title means "To Live."
Throne of Blood (A)
Akira Kurosawa meets William Shakespeare in this dark, horrific version of Macbeth -- with Toshiro Mifune as the murderously ambitious thane (here a medieval Japanese war lord), who conjoins with his evil Lady (Isuzu Yamada) to try to kill his way to the top -- and ends in a castle surrounded by branch-toting warriors, as a screaming bloody target, his body pierced by hundreds of arrows, like St. Sebastian turned porcupine. One of Kurosawa's most admired films, perhaps because of its blend of classic literary lineage and hell-bent action. The atmosphere reeks of tension and evil; the witches are as scary as "Kwaidan," and the action/battle scenes are both epic and breath-taking.
The Hidden Fortress (A)
The great Akira Kurosawa action samurai epic, the movie whose storm-the-fortress plot helped inspire George Lucas's Star Wars and whose bickering peasants were morphed into C-3PO and R2-D2. One of the supreme adventure movies. With Toshiro Mifune as the gruff warrior (one of his best roles), Minoru Chiaki and Takashi Shimura.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.: Scott Stewart, 2010, Sony Pictures
In Legion, director-co-writer Scott Stewart has tried to gussy up a ludicrous Apocalyptic horror story, that he co-wrote (a script that makes The Book of Eli seem like Pilgrim's Progress), with a lot of gaudy visuals, set in a desert truck stop in the middle of nowhere. There, in the wilderness, Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton, Tyrese Gibson, Lucas Black, Adrianne Palicki and other unfortunate actors are assaulted by a combo of villains and supernatural maniacs that includes zombies, killers, hordes of locusts, fiendish ice cream truck guys who can stretch like Plastic Man, biblical quotations, a weird little old lady who bites people and crawls up walls, and (hold your breath) God himself.
Say what? It seems that God has become, as one character eloquently puts it, "sick of all this bullshit." (The movies too?) So Our Lord has decided to end the world not with another flood, or with deleted scenes from 2010, but by turning the whole planet into a remake of Night of the Living Dead, with touches of The Birds, Near Dark and The Shining tossed in for spice. I had no idea God was such a movie buff; unhappily we never see Him. (I would have cast Christopher Plummer.)
Instead we get all those zombies. And more. The Lord's hench-seraphim in this apocalypse are the Archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand), who turns out to be a Jackie Chan fan, and his old partner, the Archangel Michael, one angel who has obviously seen The Terminator. Mike tosses away his wings, trades kicks with Gabe and tries hard to save the young baby due this Christmas season, carried by the truck-stop's waitress Charlie (Palicki). The zombies are after the child too, but Michael keeps fighting them off, holding them at bay.
Hey. Listen, I hate to mention this, but God can do anything He wants. If He wants to end the world, or close a truck-stop, or shut down a whole movie (because it embarrasses him), He doesn't need all those zombies. (Okay, okay, free will; I get it....) Anyway: Why couldn't the Devil get in on this too? Didn't he have something to do with humanity's downfall? Is he chopped liver? Doesn't Big Luce get no respect? Or is he too busy waiting for Roman Polanski to make Rosemary's Baby 2: Look Who's Talking?
Stewart has visual talent, and Legion often looks great, but plays lousy. It's one movie that needs a guardian angel itself to rescue it from plot-holes. Especially when Stewart repeatedly slows things down for his dramatic scenes, and the zombies just stand around outside, doing nothing, waiting for their next cue -- or maybe waiting for Dennis Quaid to get his big line. (Extras: featurettes.)
The History of the World, Part One (B)
U.S.; Brooks, 1981, 20th Century Fox
Hollywood-style History, Brooksed. It's good to be the king.... But sometimes, it's better to be the Mel. With Brooks, Korman, Kahn, Leachman, Caesar -- and Shecky Greene. But hey, where's Henny Youngman as Louis XIV? Where's Dom DeLuise as Nero? Where's the sequel? Anyway, it's good to be the auteur.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights (C+)
U.S.; Mel Brooks, 1993, 20th Century Fox
Brooks sends up Robin Hood, assisted by Cary Elwes, Roger Rees, Tracey Ullmann, and lots of merry men. In like Flynn, it ain't. But Brooks makes a good Rabbi Tuchman. ("This castle is guaranteed to close...on page four!")