PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Complete Metropolis (A)
Germany: Fritz Lang, 1927, Kino
Metropolis, Fritz Lang's great, spellbinding science fiction epic about a futuristic city gone mad, has been regarded as a cinematic classic since almost the very hours of its premiere, in Berlin in 1927.
At that first showing, German audiences and critics -- most still in the throes of the postwar German economic collapse, the Weimar Republic's woes, and the orgiastic frenzies of the '20s -- were stunned by the film's scope, ambition and brilliance, by its incredibly elaborate visions of the future, and by its clear reflections of those ferocious contemporary conflicts that would eventually lead to Hitler, fascism and World War II.
Metropolis, then and now, was in some ways, nave and simplistic, a heart-on-sleeve movie ode to the possibilities of universal brotherhood and cooperation. But it was also a powerfully wrought, strikingly visualized allegorical fable about the war between Capital and Labor, waged on vast sets that created a towering city of skyscrapers, air cabs and skywalks, a rooftop paradise of playgrounds for the rich, and, deep below those bright streets, a dark cavernous world of underground factories, manned by huge Moloch-like machines and by marching, trudging, all but beaten-down workers who lead a herded, slave-like existence far from the sunlight.
Acting out the fierce social schisms in Lang's tale were a massively influential industrialist, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), his idealistic, progressive young son Freder (Gustave Frohlich), Fredersen's secretive assistant Josaphat (Theodor Roos), the factory workers' angelic darling and spokeswoman Maria (Brigitte Helm), the head worker Grot (Heinrich George) and the not-quite-mad scientist, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has created a robot "False Maria" (also Helm) to seduce the workers into self-destructive riot and revolt.
The movement of the film is from regimentation and mechanical entrapment to chaos -- what would happen to Germany in the years to come.
Metropolis' Berlin premiere was a triumph. Audiences were mesmerized by the overhwelming visions that Lang and his company -- including nonpareil cinematographer Karl Freund, art directors Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Carl Vollbrecht, and special effects photographer Eugen Schuftan -- had summoned up: a breathtaking world of wonders, dreams, extrapolations and nightmares that science fiction filmmakers, in later epics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Blade Runner and Avatar, have ever since strived to match or surpass
But that Berlin run was also one of the last times that audiences got to see Metropolis the way Lang and his chief collaborator -- the film's novelist/scenarist (and Lang's wife) Thea von Harbou -- intended it. The Berlin version was about 153 minutes long. But soon, the film was cut for distribution to the rest of Germany, cut further for American release, and cut again and again for its international distribution, eventually down to 87 minutes, for the 1984 disco version scored by composer Giorgio (Midnight Express) Moroder.
While Lang's great canvas of a city and a future in flames was repeatedly shortened and stripped and re-jiggered, World War II intervened. Lang, hating the Nazis, fled Germany for America and Hollywood. Von Harbou stayed behind and became a Nazi Party member herself. And the shattered couple's masterpiece was left, it seemed, to the whims and winds of history -- and in the dubious hands of fascist tyrants who were, ironically, sometimes among the movie's biggest fans. Soon, the original 153-minute version seemed lost forever. Those snipped-up cities became the Metropolis that most film enthusiasts knew for the rest of the 20th century.
When Metropolis was restored to a carefully reassembled 124 minutes and shown in Berlin in 2001 (the year in which the film is set, as Stanley Kubrick well knew), restoration supervisor Martin Koerber, while also celebrating the beauty of all they'd found and restored, sadly wrote that "a quarter of the regional premiere version of Metropolis -- including the part containing the core of the story as conceived by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang -- must be considered to be irretrievably lost."
As archaeologists are there to remind us, cities (and civilizations) can rise from the ashes and the earth. A nearly complete print of the original Metropolis was discovered in 2008, in an archive in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, Argentina. It was an epochal find. And it led to the reconstruction and the distribution (by Kino) of a 147-minute version that is now almost all of the 1927 Metropolis.
Restored are a long-gone crucial subplot involving Josaphat and the Metropolis underworld; a mysterious character called "The Thin Man"; a long sequence set in the "Yoshiwara," or red light district; and, many small bits that amplify and clarify the film's originally byzantine narrative. This is not just a longer Metropolis, but a brilliantly elaborated Metropolis that finally contains all the pieces of the puzzle. Shorn of the confusion of most of the previous cuts, it is, in the end, a well-spun narrative that grips us throughout -- besides filling us all over again with admiration for its sheer cinematic reach and fire and genius.
The false god of Metropolis is technology. The true god of the movie is humanity and love. The heroes of Metropolis are Lang and his munificently talented fellow artists. And the hero of the restoration tale is that Buenos Aires archivist, Museo del Cine curator Paula Felix-Dider, who finally brought to the light the film that had been thought lost for more than 80 years.
Lang himself came to reject Metropolis, perhaps because of the turn to Nazism of the woman he once loved. But their movie still amazes us. And the real-life story of loss, destruction and rediscovery behind this release gives us hope for other recoveries. Maybe someday, somewhere, someone will uncover the missing sections of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. And all those many missing reels of Erich Von Stroehim's Greed, Josef Von Sternberg's A Woman of the Sea, F.W. Murnau's Four Devils. All those missing silent films by Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. And all the rest of the lost gems of cinema's lost history. Maybe even the last six missing minutes of Metropolis. Silent, with English intertitles and the original score by Gottfried Huppertz. (Extras: documentary Voyage to Metropolis; interview with Paula Felix-Didier; 2010 re-issue trailer.
Argentina; Lisandro Alonso, 2009, Kino
Another excellent minimalist, neo-realist quest film from the writer-director of La Libertad: Here, a taciturn Argentine sailor (played by nonprofessional Juan Fernandez) journeys form the port city where his ship is docked, to the small Tierra del Fuego logging town where he once abandoned his family and where his old mother now lies dying. The dialogue is spare, the scenes tend to be one-take tableaux with moving camera, the mood is sad and restrained. Here is a picture of common people done without sentimentality, but with great reservoirs of unspoken feeling. Among modern minimalist art film directors, Alonso is one of the best. His landscapes and people stay in your mind like visions of the real world haunting you like waking dreams. In Spanish, with English subtitles. (Extras: booklet with Alonso interview; stills gallery.)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (A)
U.S./U.K.; David Lean, 1957, Columbia/Sony, Blu-ray/DVD
Moviemaker David Lean was a master of the epic (Lawrence of Arabia) and a master of the intimate (Brief Encounter, Summertime), and his greatest films tend to straddle some strange, near-sublime borderland straddling the two.
The Bridge on the River Kwai, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle, and an Oscar winner that's also a masterpiece, fuses perfectly those two sides of Lean. Set in the jungles of Burma in World War II, it's the story of a group of British prisoners of war, imprisoned in a Japanese P.O.W. camp, who are compelled by the harsh prison commandant, Colonel Saito (played by one-time silent movie matinee idol Sessue Hayakawa) to build a bridge connecting two parts of the jungle, crossing over the River Kwai.
Saito is proud, tyrannical, and sometimes brutal, and he's infuriated by delays. But he meets his match in Col. Nicholson, cool and punctilious, a gent not to be bullied, a soldier not to be pushed, a man not to be bent or (maybe) broken.
Nicholson was played, superbly, by Alec Guinness, one of Kwai's many Oscar-winners. The others included Lean, producer Sam Spiegel, cinematographer Jack Hildyard, composer Malcolm Arnold, and also, to his embarrassment, novelist Boulle, who was acting as a front for the actual scriptwriters, black list victims Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman. (Boulle, who couldn't write or speak English, had to accept the Oscar in person before millions of TV watchers).
In the film, Nicholson is a supreme, stalwart but self-deluding product of the British class system, and he clashes with Saito over the treatment of his officers, over the progress of the bridge, over the rules of the game. With his nasal whine of a clipped British voice slipping softly and implacably past the stiffest of stiff upper lips, Nicholson bends the hot-tempered brute/jailer to his will, then becomes fascinated by the building of the bridge, and just as determined as Saito to see it completed -- to see a job well done. (In real life, the treatment of British P.O.W.'s in Burma was so murderous that some British veterans objected to what they considered Lean's "rosy" picture.)
Meanwhile, another prisoner at the River Kwai camp, Nicholson's absolute opposite number, the happy-go-lucky American con-man, seducer and fraud Sears (William Holden) -- who escaped after Nicholson and his men arrived -- is returning to the camp, against his will, in a commando team led by the almost boyishly adventurous, yet sturdily competent and deadly determined Warden (Jack Hawkins). Their mission: Blow up the Bridge on the River Kwai.
God, did I love this movie when I saw it, at 11 years old! I bought the book, and began looking for Lean's name -- and Guinness' and Holden's and Hawkins' -- on other movies on TV. It was the very first picture I ever thought of as my favorite film of all time.
What hooked me? I loved the mixture of beautifully written and acted drama and explosive, relentless action (in color and wide screen), of gorgeous settings and high emotion, of hot savage jungle and cold irony.... I loved the grim coda: circling buzzards and doctor James Donald's scream, "Madness! Madness!" I loved the performances, the way Holden smirked, and Hawkins made calm genial threats, and the way Guinness' Nicholson muttered "What have I done?" before he staggered in a crazy loop and fell on the plunger. The Bridge on the River Kwai made me feel that movies could do much more than I imagined -- just as the next year, Citizen Kane made me feel they could do anything. (Extras: booklet, with essay from original 1957 souvenir book; featurettes; Holden and Guinness on The Steve Allen Show; 12 lobby cards.)
The Last of the Mohicans (Director's cut) (A)
U.S.; Michael Mann, 1992, 20th Century Fox, Blu-ray
From Michael Mann: A politically correct, but still blazingly exciting, version of James Fennimore Cooper's most romantic Leatherstocking tale: the bloody, brutal war story (French and Huron against British settlers) and buried love, between lovely Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and woosdsman hero and adopted Mohican Hawkeye, a.k.a. Pathfinder, a.k.a. Deerslayer, a.k.a. Long Rifle, a.k.a. Leatherstocking a.k.a., Natty Bumppo (all played by Daniel Day-Lewis), and unspoken feeling between sturdy Mohican Uncas and ethereal Hetty.
Day-Lewis, though seemingly odd casting, makes a terrific hero, Stowe a feisty heroine and Wes Studi (as Magua) a smoldering, scary villain. The other Indians are played by Native Americans too, including Wounded Knee activist Rusell Means as Hawkeye's eternal pal Chingachcook. The movie is well cast (also on hand are Jodhi May, Eric Schweig, Dennis Banks, Colm Meaney and Pete Postlethwaite, as is French actor-director Patrice Chereau as Montcalm), incredibly rich in detail, and beautifully shot in deep forests and high mountains, by Dante Spinotti. An excellent revisionist Western, in the Little Big Man vein (RIP Arthur Penn). Along with Heat, it's as good as Mann has done.
Two other movie versions of Last of the Mohicans, both worth a watch, are the classic 1920 silent film directed by Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Brown, with Wallace Beery as Magua; and a fine 1936 George Seitz version -- the one Mann remembered from his boyhood and adapted here -- scripted by Philip Dunne, with Randolph Scott as Hawkeye and Bruce Cabot as Magua. (Extras: commentary by Mann, featurettes.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Knight and Day (B)
U.S.; James Mangold, 2010, 20th Century Fox
Knight and Day doesn't make much sense, but do we really want it to?
Giving us an eyeful of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz as Roy Miller and June Havens, a couple pursued (seemingly) all around the world by rogue CIA agents and murderous international gun-runners, all after a mysterious new energy source called the Maguffin (excuse me, the Zephyr), this is a big, splashy top-star romantic comedy that tosses logic to the winds. It's a nightmare fantasy love-on-the-run chase thriller, and it tries to revive some of the glamour, fun, and crazy paranoia of a classic suspense romp like North by Northwest or Charade, while pulling them into a CGI-era spin.
Sometimes, it succeeds.
Actually, Knight and Day is a movie so charmingly senseless, so knowingly and unrepentantly over the top, and so cannily exploitative of the killer grins and happily narcissistic sex appeal of both Cruise and Diaz, that it entertains you almost in spite of yourself. I kept waiting to get tired of it, but the movie was always a skip or two ahead of me. It kept me smiling, even though it doesn't really have an original bone in its body (any more than Cruise or Diaz have a tooth out of place in their smiles).
Did we just see Roy and June meet cute in the Wichita airport, banging heads over June's overpacked luggage? Soon they're on a strangely underpopulated plane to Boston, flirting like mad, and when June takes a bathroom break to hyperventilate over Roy's sheer cuteness, the entire population of the plane disappears -- before the plane crashes in a cornfield (North by Northwest).
Soon, they're all in a mad Boston freeway chase, with Roy bounding from roof to roof like the young Jackie Chan, and June driving the driverless car ("You've got skills," Roy admiringly marvels after popping through a window to take the wheel), while guns blaze, windows shatter, cars flip, and bad guys splatter like ripe tomatoes.
You can't walk into a warehouse in this movie without dozens of CIA ninja-looking commandos dropping though the roof on you. You can barely board a plane without everybody getting killed. You can't try for a little star-to-star smooching without a fresh troupe of killers and kibitzers running by. And, as for that Maguffin, you get the definite feeling that if we don't get a new energy source by this movie's end, Knight and Day may have used up half the world's existing oil reserves in car chases and explosions.
The movie is senseless, and its also too fast and loud and relentlessly CGI-filled, but it's fun to watch anyway. (Extras: featurettes.)
Twilight Saga: Eclipse (C)
U.S.; David Slade, 2010, Summit Entertainment
Midway through Twilight Saga: Eclipse -- a mediocre movie based on another Stephenie Meyer novel, that raked in oodles of cash -- Taylor Lautner suddenly showed up, grinning and preening, seemingly deep into his role of Jacob Black the spurned but persistent Native American werewolf. Jacob was still competing for the affections of Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan, that somewhat sullen blue-jeaned virgin from small-town Washington state, a girl who was still dippy for Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen, the dreamy-eyed perfect-gentleman teen vampire, but who also still had some serious hots for Wolfman Jacob too.
What a guy! What a pair of guys! Thanks to Jacob's apparent inability to keep on his shirt and Edward's seeming inability to take off his pants, the Twilight Saga target audience seems to achieve double delirium, a bizarrely mesmerizing teen fantasy that involves no sex, lots of smooching in empty mountain landscapes, swooning embraces, seductive fangs, marriage vows and mother's wedding rings, a puzzling no-show inattendance at school and the relative rarity of parents, teachers and shirts, plus occasional or climactic rumbles between gangs of competing good and bad vampires, with the good vamps (Edward's gang) aided by huge, galloping but strangely weightless-looking werewolves, the size of horses (Jacob's pack).
Melissa Rosenberg once again wrote the script (from Meyer's novel) and the new director, succeeding Catherine Hardwicke (the first movie) and Chris Weitz (the second), is David Slade, who did his vampire prep on 30 Days of Night, won fans with Hard Candy, and delivers the kind of movie you'd expect from an ex-rock video helmsman: slick and full of fancy tableaux and big star close-ups.
Going the Distance (C+)
U.S.; Nanette Bernstein, 2010, New Line
Rom-com anyone? This thinking-person's romantic comedy about a long-distance relationship between Seattle reporter Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Manhattan music industry guy Garrett (Justin Long), has a snappier, more verbal script (by Geoff La Tulippe) than usual. It's certainly not drivel like those would-be comedies The Switch and The Back-Up Plan. And thank God there's not a sperm donor in sight. But it continues my disaffection from most modern rom-coms: an awful abbreviation for a once great but now sadly damaged genre.
The biggest problem here: Barrymore's Erin and Long's Garrett, partly due to the smart-alecky script, never strike you as being wildly enough in love to sustain any kind of long-distance relationship for any length of time or space, even between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Erin seems like she kinda sorta likes the guy, he's cute okay, as long as she didn't have a better offer, or maybe some roller derby tickets, by Tuesday. And Garrett seemed to be running some kind of con game involving frequent smiling and incessantly widened eyes. Sometimes, there s more affection between Garrett's two goofy buddies, Charlie Day as toilet-conscious Dan and Jason Sudeikis as "cougar"-hunting stud box. But maybe that's the point.
A point in the movie's favor: These Going the Distance characters, unlike all too many modern movie rom-com couples, do have topical conversations and they do make topical jokes about politics and culture. (Extras: commentary with Bernstein; featurettes; additional scenes.)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (C+)
U.S.; Thor Freudenthal, 2010, 20th Century Fox
This one is better than it first looks -- and it initially looks pretty silly, despite the source.
That source: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a best-selling children's book by Jeff Kinney, written in the form of a diary by a supposedly actual wimpy kid, Greg Heffley (Zach Gordon), who's suffering through the torments of middle school.
This wimpy kid is the Job of junior high, a sort of Coen-Brothersish "Serious Boy." He's picked on by classmates and older thugs, dissed by his teachers, shut out of a seat at the cafeteria, abandoned by his friend, pestered by guys even dorkier and wimpier than he, teased by the school paper editor, joshed by his parents, bullied by his gym teacher, out-wrestled by a female nemesis and ignored by the prettier girls. To top it all off, he's a bit of a jerk himself: an unreliable friend and a little liar.
What saves all this school-kid angst, done in high-Spielbergian exaggerated style by Thor Freudenthal (who made the visually inventive but mostly awful Hotel for Dogs)? The actors, mostly. Gordon as the "wimpy kid" diarist Greg and Robert Capron as his plump, sweet-tempered best friend Rowley Jefferson, are so cute, so easy and adept, and so funny, that they redeem a lot of the movie's sprightly, but over-cute and over-obvious comedy. (Extras: commentary by Freudenthal; featurettes; trailer.)
Vampires Suck (F)
U.S.; Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer, 2010, 20th Century Fox
Vampires may suck. But not as much as this movie.
A legitimate contender for worst movie of the decade, Vampires Suck is a parody of Twilight in which madcap writer-directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Meet the Spartans, Epic Movie) keep trying to turn bad scenes into worse jokes. I refuse to name any of the actors here, since they seem like defenseless pawns -- and act like them too.
A truly miserable experience, my friend, though it suggests the CIA might productively use endless-loop prints of Vampires Suck as a replacement for waterboarding.
U.S./U.K.: Paul Cotter, 2010, Film Movement
A not-so-close-knit British family -- taciturn World War II RAF bomber pilot Alistar (Shane Taylor), his too-compliant wife Valerie (Eileen Nicholas) and their bad-tempered, self-centered failure of a son Ross (Benjamin Whitrow) -- embark on a not-exactly-planned, not-quite-wise road trip to Germany, after the parents have an accident, and Ross, on a tight schedule because of his love life, is pressed into reluctant service as driver. He's a bad one, and his father has a bad conscience -- about the bombing run in which he participated over half a century ago.
Cotter's fine, extremely canny movie, done with an immaculate comic precision and darkish undertones, is about families and war and guilt: serious subjects, which it imbues with a breezy, almost farcical lightness. That doesn't mean the film doesn't move us. The little and big disasters of the trip, the bizarre family dynamics, the ever-passing landscape and casual, sometimes odd populace, and the strange, unexpected, almost screw-loose ending, accumulate into a stinging portrait of a family coping with memory and each other, and maybe of a Europe whose scars healed too soon, and whose redemptions arrived too late. (Extras: Edgar, a short film about pain, loss, old age and scant options; Bomber commentary by Cotter; behind-the-scenes extras.
Bee Movie (B-)
U.S.; Simon J. Smith/Steve Hickner, 2007, DreamWorks
Jerry Seinfeld is back, as the writer-producer voice-star Bee of this predictable but sometimes charming concoction about a bee that sues humankind for stealing honey and then has to re-right imbalanced nature. Clever, but not as seamlessly imaginative as the Pixar stuff, which it tries to resemble; the other actors include Renee Zellweger as the human love interest. She'd be a better honey-bee. (Extras: commentary by Seinfeld, alternate endings, deleted scenes, featurettes, music video, trailers, games.)
One Way Passage (A-)
U.S.: Tay Garnett, 1932, Warner Archive
A neglected gem, beloved by French Cahiers-style cinephiles -- in which William Powell, as a hunted murderer being transported to San Quentin, and Kay Francis, as a fatally ill socialite, enact one of the best Hollywood shipboard romances ever. This is one classic you probably haven't seen; the rest of the cast includes Warren Hymer as the hardboiled cop who arrested Powell, Frank McHugh as a chortling con man, Roscoe Karns tending the ship bar, and Aline MacMahon as a phony countess. The only Tay Garnett movie better than this one is the John Garfield-Lana Turner version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. (Made on demand by Warner Archive Collection: warnerarchive.com or wbshop.com.)