PICKS OF THE WEEK
Michael Jackson's This Is It (A-)
U.S.; Kenny Ortega, 2009, Sony, Blu-ray
Michael Jackson -- looking like a will-o'-the-wisp in military/gangster drag, singing like honey poured through quicksilver, and dancing like a jitterbug angel whirling on the head of a pin -- gets an extraordinary posthumous sendoff in Michael Jackson's This Is It. Something like Jackson himself, the movie is magical, gushy, drop-dead talented and pretty damned weird: a quasi-concert film, sort-of-documentary assembled from hundreds of hours of rehearsal footage of the upcoming "This Is It" show shot from March to June for Jackson's private archives. It's a record of a concert that never was: the London O2 Arena comeback he had been describing, with delicate morbidity, as his last curtain call -- a maybe-farewell or maybe-return to grace that was aborted and superseded by his June 25 death from (apparently) recklessly administered drugs.
Directed by Kenny Ortega -- who is also the director for the movie -- the shows look like they would have been knockouts. I was particularly fond of the melancholy "Billie Jean" routine and the black-and-white film noir number, co-starring Bogey, Rita Hayworth and Edward G. Robinson, created around "Smooth Criminal."
But the shows didn't go on, until, in a way, now. Instead, Jackson's demise and its wall-to-wall TV news coverage became a kind of from-the-grave farewell tour, triggering a worldwide orgy of public lamentation for the late King of Pop, that, at least temporarily, obliterated the last decade of relative artistic inactivity, plus the bad press and legal wrangles plaguing him over his alleged taste for romps with young boys.
But This Is It gives Michael Jackson, pop prince and tabloid pariah, a posthumous victory. Filled with his music, packed with his dance-steps, saturated with his creative work, the movie, in the end, says rather convincingly that it's only Jackson's music that matters now, only his feral showmanship and his private mindscape of moon walking, shape shifting and shadow dancing. That's what we're left with: the wicked pulse of "Beat It," the dreamy throb of "Billie Jean" and the butterfly lilt of "Human Nature" -- wrapped up tight in show biz razzle and dazzle. The creative mysteries and dark secrets behind and within him are now locked up, maybe forever. Only the songs and the show stay sharply in view.
Kenny Ortega is a good director of musicals, even though I hated his recent would-be piece de resistance, High School Musical 3. Ortega was Francis Ford Coppola's choreographer in One from the Heart and dance master for John Hughes in the '80s, and he even made a decent stab at a classical Hollywood musical in the much-dissed Disney Newsies. This is Ortega's best movie, and it's partly because he's in the ideal position to see and recall everything from the beginning and then to fashion the final cut. I could have done without the Chorus Line allusions -- no two shows could be more different -- but it's good to have somebody so skilled at musicals, someone who knows the show and its movement so well to wrap it up, and to help his star to his last curtain call.
Bright Star (A-)
U.K./Australia; Jane Campion, 2009, Sony
Jane Campion's sad, feverish tale of the blighted love affair between doomed genius romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his opinionated but passionate neighbor/clothesmaker Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), is, like most of Campion's work, edgy, smart and often beautiful. It's not as compelling as her best (The Piano, An Angel at My Table). And in fact, it tends to be a little slow, overdeliberate or, as my mother would have said, "pokey." I also felt myself frequently longing for a bit more of Keats' poetry on the soundtrack (there's some here, but not enough).
Bright Star, though, is a lovely period film. Coincidentally, it marks one of two superb photographic jobs out on DVD this week by Greig Fraser. (The other is The Boys are Back.)
What that gorgeous cinematography discloses is the tragedy of a poet racked by poverty, and of a love affair menaced by class and jealousy. Campion covers the last year or so of Keats' life, and does so with fidelity and admiration, but not over-reverence. The best performance of its fine cast is not from either of the lovers, not even the excellent Ms. Cornish, but from Paul Schneider as Keats' shaggy patron-colleague Charles Armitage Brown, a portrait of a gentleman patron smitten. Bright Star (the title is from the Keats poem) is, finally, both intelligent and ultra-romantic. At its best, it's worthy of Keats: a thing of beauty and a joy forever. (Extras: Featurettes, deleted scene.)
Paris, Texas (A)
U.S./German: Wim Wenders, 1984, Criterion
A gaunt man with haunted eyes and a red baseball cap -- Harry Dean Stanton as western outsider Travis -- walks somnolently though the vast desert wonders of the Southwest. He is found, nursed back to health, and then brought to Los Angeles by his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and sister-in-law Anne (Aurore Clement), and reunited with his young son Hunter (Hunter Carson, son of writer L.M. Kit Carson). Coming back into a world from which he seemed self-exiled, Travis then embarks on an odyssey to the seamy side of Houston to locate his ex-wife (Nastassja Kinski) and bring back together the remnants of his shattered family.
Director Wim Wenders and playwright Sam Shepard made Paris, Texas as a realistic but also mythic modern quest odyssey, in which this lone outcast -- reminiscent in his alienation of John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers -- emerges from the wilderness to try to reunite his family. It's a contemporary-set Western, with Travis traversing a land of both vast desert plains, mesas and mountains -- and also of mundane motels, L.A. luxury homes, and sleazy sex bars -- in company with his son.
Wenders shot Paris, Texas (a real location, by the way) with a superb cast, including eternal supporting actor and movie villain Harry Dean giving an uncommonly gentle performance in his first-ever lead role, and also with a great cinematographer: Robby Muller, whose ultra-naturalistic lensing and sunlit color images are a revelation. Muller's fantastic tableaux of the American Southwest are underscored by the plangent bottle-neck guitar of Ry Cooder.
The movie was shot so cheaply that many of the usual compromises were avoided, though some may have been forced by budget or time. I never knew until reading Dean Stockwell's interview in the booklet here that half of his (and Aurore Clement's) parts -- originally intended to last through the entire movie -- had been cut after shooting commenced. Of course that creates a flaw; it nags at you that Hunter's longtime guardians drop so completely out of the story.
Then again, almost everything in Paris, Texas fits and rings somehow true, because Wenders shoots with such poetic but insistent realism that, if something doesn't seem to make sense (like the disappearance of Walt and Anne), one feels that an explanation, as in life, has to lie somewhere. Some of the film's scenes were improvised during the shoot; excellent sequences that didn't make it into the final cut are among the Criterion DVD's first-rate extras. Paris, Texas won the Palme d'Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, and it remains a peak moment of Wenders' career. (Extras: commentary by Wenders; interviews with Wenders, Muller, Cooder, Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Peter Falk, Patricia Highsmith, Allison Anders, Claire Denis and Sam Fuller; featurette; documentary excerpt; deleted scenes; Super 8 home movies of the cast and crew; booklet with Nick Roddick essay, reminiscences from Wenders, Shepard, Kinski, Stanton, and Stockwell, and photos by Wenders.)
WWII in HD (A)
U.S.; Lou Reda/Scott L. Reda/Matthew Ginsburg (executive producers), 2010, History Channel, 3 discs
World War II, from start to finish, as recounted by 12 soldier or reporter eyewitnesses, and as seen through the eyes of many combat photographers on numerous all-color film shoots. Assembled from 3,000 hours of color war footage, this spellbinding documentary, made for the History Channel, gives us the war close up, narrated with great empathy and sober realism by Gary Sinise, told also in the words of the dozen men who went through it. Some are still alive and partly speak their testimony; all 12 have their original words partly or wholly read by a dozen well-known actors, including Josh Lucas, Steve Zahn, Amy Smart, Rob Lowe, LL Cool J and Ron Livingston.
The footage is amazing, though, of course, not as crisp and perfect as the usual HD release. But executive producer Lou Reda and his team have also done a marvelous job, in their seven hours plus span, of weaving the whole story together, from Pearl Harbor to Okinawa, from D-Day on Normandy Beach to the fall of Berlin. The pictures don't, of course, necessarily match the soldier's exact reminiscences, but the filmmakers create an illusion of seamless narrative.
The movie doesn't glorify war even slightly, but it fully reveals it while paying all due tribute to the gallant citizen-soldiers who fought it: ordinary men plunged into an extraordinary event -- and rising magnificently to the occasion. (Extras: featurette, character profiles.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Rossellini: The War Trilogy (A)
Italy; Roberto Rossellini, 1945-48, Criterion
Roberto Rossellini, widely regarded as one of the great masters in the canon of European film, is also sadly one of the lesser shown. These three great films, the first two made partly during World War II War in Italy, the third in its aftermath of wreckage and ruin in Germany, are among his most famous films, his most critically lauded at the time, and also among his very best -- exemplars of the film movement which Rossellini spearheaded (but which he says he doesn't recognize): neorealist. They present life as it is, caught forever by the camera's objective, poetic eye: real, raw, unforgettable. (All films are in Italian, English and German, with English subtitles.) (Extras: video introductions by Rossellini to all three films; audio commentary on Open City by Peter Bondanella; 2006 documentary Once Upon a Time..."Rome: Open City" with footage of Rossellini, Fellini, Ingrid Bergman and others; 2001 documentary Roberto Rossellini, by Lizzani, with tributes by Francois Truffaut and Martin Scorsese; interviews with Rossellini, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Adriano Apra, and others; visual essays by Tag Gallagher, Thomas Meder and Mark Shiel; Italian prologue for Germany Year Zero; booklet with essays by James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin MacCabe and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Rome: Open City (A)
Life in Rome in the waning months of the war as seen largely through the eyes of a group of young boys and saboteurs, with Aldo Fabrizi as a partisan-aiding priest, Marcello Pagliero as a partisan, Harry Feist as a German Major, and the sublime Anna Magnani as one of the screen's most memorable and heartbreaking mothers. A worldwide sensation, this is the film that heralded the arrival of neorealism and helped start similar film movements across Europe, Asia and the Americas -- one of the most important and influential works in film history.
Another neorealist masterpiece, a six-part anthology showing Italy during the liberation (as the grateful but impoverished and war-weary populace interacts with the American liberators, and as three American chaplains pay a visit to a reverent but somewhat prejudiced monastery) and, in the terrifying last chapter, still caught in the throes of last-gasp warfare between the Nazi army, the Italian partisans and the Americans. With Dotts M. Johnson, Maria Michi, William Tubbs and Achille Siviero. Co-written, like Open City, by Federico Fellini.
Germany Year Zero (A)
Least-known of the trilogy, but just as powerful: the devastating story of a young German boy (Edmund Meschke) and his beleaguered family in ravaged Berlin, a city of bombed-out buildings, widespread misery and thriving black markets. With script help by the young Carlo Lizzani. The music for all three films is by Rossellini's brother Renzo Rossellini.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Moscow, Belgium (B)
Belgium; Christophe van Rompaey, 2008, Terra Entertainment, 2008
Set in the working-class sections of the Russian namesake city in Belgium, Moscow is a good, solid, smart romantic comedy. It's the debut feature of director Christophe van Rompaey, and he has a lively, attractive visual style, a very good script (by his producer Jean-Claude van Rijckeghen and Pat van Biers) and a knack with actors. His film glows with life, throbs with humanity.
At the center of this swift little portrait of lovers in a city is Matty Mustard (well played by Peter Greenaway veteran Barbara Sarafian), a pretty but somewhat worn-looking 41-year-old mother of three, who was dumped, a half year ago, by her art teacher husband Werner (Johann Heldenbergh) for one of his sex-crazed students.
When we first see Matty, she looks bummed-out indeed, trudging though a supermarket behind a shopping cart. She doesn't crack a smile.
But something is about to happen to Matty: a collision in the shopping center parking lot that introduces her to the mercurial, hot-tempered, but strangely loveable long-haired truck driver Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), a guy with a love for all things Italian. Johnny blows his top, and gets Matty mad too, but shows up later to fix the dent in her fender. A fast worker, he asks Matty out, and, catching her in a receptive mood, sleeps with her -- an encounter she tries to dismiss as a one-off adventure, never to be repeated.
Johnny doesn't agree. And his furious romantic campaign, which includes Italian shoes and a fervent karaoke to the Nat King Cole hit "Mona Lisa," eventually attracts the attention of horny intellectual Werner, who decides that sex isn't everything and that, after all, he doesn't want to so easily shuck off his longtime wife and favorite model.
But there's no getting rid of Johnny -- and no escaping the charms of Moscow, Belgium either. It's a convincing portrait of an offbeat romance, clear-eyed and delightful.
Moscow, Belgium won the Critics' Week prize at Cannes and it suggests fine careers ahead for van Rompaey and his collaborators. It also suggests that, where romance is concerned, age doesn't matter. And neither do fender-benders. (In French, with English subtitles.)
The Boys Are Back (B)
Australia; Scott Hicks, 2009, Miramax
Scott Hicks (Shine) gives us the fact-based domestic drama -- based on a book by Simon Carr -- of an Aussie dad and self-indulgent sportswriter named Joe Watt (Clive Owen), who, when his second wife dies, has to grow up to be a proper dad to both his sons, one of whom has himself grown up with a (divorced) mother in England. Hicks is fine at adult soapers, and this one has very good acting, a good heart and a stunning visual style. Despite Owen's crisp portrayal of self-indulgence chastened, though, it's a sympathetic but largely unsurprising drama.
Soul Power (B)
U.S.; Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, 2009, Sony
The music is vibrant, but the context is scanty, in this concert film/documentary about "Zaire '74," the knockout three-day music festival that accompanied the storied Zaire "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Composed of musical outtakes from Leon Gast's "Rumble" doc When We Were Kings (which director Levy-Hinte co-edited), Soul Power preserves major artists and good acts at their performance peak -- including B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz, the Fania All-Stars and, as a rousing climax, James Brown -- as well as recording some incisive comments from Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Ali himself.
But thanks to a dubious decision by Levy-Hinte not to shoot new footage, there's no fresh perspective from the survivors today. There's also little about the politics of Zaire, or its bloody dictator Mobutu. The music makes the movie worth it, anyway.
U.S.; Christian Alvart, 2009, Overture/Anchor Bay
Humanity is fast heading for extinction, so someone has dreamed up a plan involving a space ship sent to other habitable worlds, containing Ben Foster, Dennis Quaid, a supporting cast of freaked-out astronauts (including Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue, and Cung Le), and, unfortunately, a whole horde of hungry, pale, zombie-looking things who huddle together like sick porno illustrations and chase the humans all around the slovenly, dark, noisy ship, a drifting clunker which looks and sounds like an abandoned factory or a slaughterhouse in Hell.
These people may actually deserve extinction, but don't dismay. The writers have what they think is a surprise for us, though a bigger shock would be if their movie actually made any sense. Director Alvart is French, and at times, he makes Luc Besson look like Robert Bresson. The extras include featurettes, an Alvart commentary and deleted or alternate scenes, and all I can say is, they didn't delete enough.
U.K.; Joe Wright, 2007, Universal
Atonement gives us the dark side of the Masterpiece Theatre ethic: a great class-busting pre-World War II romance at a British country manor, a love story that goes poisonous and tragic, feeding into the larger national tragedies of the exploding world conflict -- and whose mysteries aren't resolved until decades later, when the young have grown old, but memories still sting. The source for this multiple 2007 Oscar nominee is a novel by the oft-adapted Ian McEwan; the story is reminiscent of that now somewhat neglected British film classic, The Go-Between, Joseph Losey's and Harold Pinter's razor-sharp adaptation of the L.P. Hartley doomed-romance memory novel. ("The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.")
As in that book and movie, Atonement pivots around a thwarted passion between a rich girl (Keira Knightley) and a lower-class boy (James McAvoy), a love that goes bad, told from the viewpoint of a child: in Atonement's case, a precocious girl who later becomes the elderly, dying novelist we see at the end -- played by Vanessa Redgrave. (That's a direct family link to Go-Between, where the equivalent child-turned-old-witness part was played by Vanessa's father, Sir Michael Redgrave.)
I have a weakness for this kind of story. But, where I thought director Joe Wright went a little too youth-crazy and glamour-mad in his hit 2005 film of Miss Austen's Pride and Prejudice, here, his visual snap and vigor enhance the tale. Atonement is no Go-Between, but it's fine stuff for Anglophiles and romantics.
U.S.; Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999, New Line, Blu-ray
A Robert Altman sort of L.A. ensemble drama, focusing on melancholy, isolation, love (unrequited or not), show biz and charlatanism, stitched together by moody Aimee Mann songs, and featuring a stellar cast, including a number reprising from Anderson's 1997 Boogie Nights. The returnees: Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Luis Guzman, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Alfred Molina, and Ricky Jay. The new talent in Magnolia includes Tom Cruise (in probably his all-time-best performance, as a venal self-help guru), Melinda Dillon, Michael Murphy and, in his last movie, the great Jason Robards Jr. This is a genuine American art film -- a little pretentious but not damagingly so -- by a filmmaker unafraid of striving for art and swimming outside the mainstream.