PICKS OF THE WEEK
Miracle at St. Anna (A)
U.S.; Spike Lee, 2008, 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks
Spike Lee's new World War II picture Miracle at St. Anna, about the fantastic/tragic adventures of four black Buffalo Soldiers in a small Tuscan village behind Nazi lines, is exactly the kind of large-scale, personal, deeply ambitious American movie we don't see enough of these days: humanistic, literate, a story with epic breadth, historic scope and a wealth of fascinating characters, excellently acted and beautifully shot.
The movie, adapted by James McBride from his 2004 novel, has a rich, dense novelistic feel, combining the blood-and-guts force of a full-throttle war saga with the exquisite fancies and grace of a South American magic realist tale by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes or Mario Vargas Llosa. Scenarist McBride preserves much of what's best about his book. And Lee films it with loving craft, authority and dedication. He's working at the top of his game here, as he also was in Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and Four Little Girls.
The movie takes place mostly in a long flashback to 1944, toward the end of the "Good War," when the soldiers of the Army's Negro 92nd Division were on the march in Italy, commanded by white officers, but segregated from the rest of the white troops. Four riflemen -- pensive 2nd Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), slick and cynical Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), watchful, careful Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) and huge, hulking but gentle Pvt. 1st Class Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) -- get separated from their unit in an attack, and their rescue is botched when their hot-tempered racist white commander, Capt. Nokes (Walton Goggins), refuses to believe they actually penetrated enemy lines. Soon, all four reach the village of St. Anna di Stazzema; while on the journey, Train rescues a mysterious little boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). Angelo is that iconic innocent we've seen in many another Continental war or anti-war movie -- in Forbidden Games, in Paisa, in Ivan's Childhood and The Night of the Shooting Stars -- and here he's subject to visions, fancies and horrific recent events.
The flashback is less about the unusual treasure Negron still has decades later (a memento of the war) than the priceless treasure he lost -- the companionship of his mismatched little cadre of Army buddies and the brief paradise of tolerance they all found in the village -- with the vibrant townspeople (including Omero Antonutti of the Taviani Brothers films), and a band of deadly partisans led by the elusive and dangerous Peppi "Great Butterfly" Grotta (Pierfranceso Favino) and also including, ominously, Rodolfo (Sergio Albelli) -- whom Negron encounters decades later, in the film's framing story.
It's a complex tale, and the characters and events keep accumulating. But Lee and his longtime editor Barry Alexander Brown (co-director of the Madison documentary The War at Home) organize and present the tale beautifully, moving easily from one group to the other. St. Anna is masterfully directed, wonderfully written and acted -- a film that stares unblinkingly into the face of war and finds its human side: a magical tale that speaks with angels.
Frozen River (B+)
U.S.; Courtney Hunt, 2008, Sony
Writer-director Courtney Hunt makes an admirable feature debut with this vividly detailed, tense and compassionate drama of a single mother (played by indie-TV mainstay Melissa Leo in a brilliant, acidly real performance deservedly nominated this year for a Best Actress Oscar) who gets sucked into illegal alien smuggling on the America-Canada border. Frozen River is both a gripping thriller and a convincing human story -- and, as the mother driven to desperate extremes by a collapsing economy, Leo gives a memorable portrayal of the travails and temptations to which America's working poor are subject. Her face is a map of disappointment and pain, the snowy landscape around her a topography of the American Dream, unredeemed.
The Exterminating Angel (A)
Mexico; Luis Bunuel, 1962, Criterion
A festive group of upper-class Mexican nabobs and dilettantes, dressed in evening clothes, retire to a friend's sumptuous mansion for drinks and snacks after a play. Suddenly, strangely, they discover that, no matter how hard they try, they can't, or won't, leave -- and that most of the house servants have deserted them as well. These fancy ladies and gents are not imprisoned by external forces; they simply can't move out of the damned salon, on any persuasion. Soon the elegant assemblage has fallen into squalor, selfishness, jealousy, hunger and bestial behavior. Can even God rescue them? Perhaps. But an even worse surprise awaits them....
Bunuel's great, corrosive, dark fable about social norms, The Exterminating Angels, is one of his most searingly witty films: a great cosmic joke on the bourgeoisie, their manners, their morals and the dubious charms Bunuel would later strip bare in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. This is the work of a film master at his peak of brilliance and provocation. With Sylvia Pinal (the star of Bunuel's Viridiana) and Claudio Brook. In Spanish, with English subtitles.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Germany; F.W. Murnau, 1921-6, Kino
Murnau is a set that should be a cornerstone of any movie lover's collection, six often remarkable silent films by a great director too often neglected and ignored, the German master F.W. Murnau.
Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Bielefeld, Germany, of mixed German-Swedish descent, Murnau (who adopted his last name from a city where he worked in theater as a young man) was a genius of film -- part of the great post-war German wave that also produced Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and G.W. Pabst. A student of art history and a protégé of theatrical legend Max Reinhardt, he had the best camera eye of all of them, and he helped bring the visual and dramatic treasures of great painting and theater into the movies, creating works of high emotion, macabre moodiness and sometimes supernatural beauty. In Murnau's matchless composition and design, we can see some of the dense, exact virtuosity of the Dutch masters Rembrandt, Vermeer and Bruegel, whom he revered; and the major literature he adapted included classics by Goethe, Moliere and Bram Stoker.
Eventually, Murnau emigrated to Hollywood, where he created two American masterpieces, 1927's Sunrise and 1931's Tabu, before dying in 1931, at 42, at the peak of his powers, in a car accident.
This wonderful box set replaces an early Kino 5-film Murnau box that included the South Seas classic Tabu (Milestone's release, and still available from them), but lacked Kino's recently restored versions of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh and the rediscovered The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke. (Sunrise is available in the excellent Murnau, Borzage and Fox set from 20th Century Fox, along with his flawed but interesting 1930 City Girl.) Kino's new edition pays fitting tribute to a true master of cinema. All the films are German silents directed by Murnau, with music scores and either English intertitles, or German intertitles with English subtitles. (Extras: Documentaries on Murnau, Nosferatu and The Last Laugh; commentary on The Finances of the Grand Duke by David Kalat; excerpts from eight Murnau films; orchestral accompaniments (including the original Giuseppe Becce score for The Last Laugh, rerecorded); screen-test footage of Lubitsch's abandoned 1923 film Marguerite and Faust; and photo and set design painting galleries.)
The Haunted Castle (B-)
A gathering of aristocrats at a gloomy, rain-drenched chateau includes a sinister count (Lothar Mehnert), who may be his brother's murderer -- as well as the brother's beautiful widow and a strange man of God. An earlier Murnau ghost story that pales next to Nosferatu, made the next year. But it still provides some eerie pleasures.
One of the creepiest and most poetically sinister horror movies ever, Murnau's uncredited (and court-challenged) adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, is also one of the finest silent films. And it has one of the great horrific film monsters: Max Schreck as Count Orlok (Dracula) who looks (and acts) like a walking corpse, dry as dust and famished for blood. Murnau shot this classic on both palatial, cavernous sets and in the actual Carpathian mountains, and it's the film's signal achievement that it makes vampires seem real, German expressionism seem naturalistic, and death seem close, seductive.
The Finances of the Grand Duke (B)
This sunny, seaside, romantic comedy/farce pits a pleasure-loving Grand Duke (Harry Liedtke) against scheming bankers, crooks, a famous Swedish con man (Alfred Abel), a Russian princess (Mady Christians), and four crazy revolutionaries. A totally off-type assignment for Murnau -- it suggests Lubitsch at his airiest -- which he acquits delightfully.
The Last Laugh (A)
An old, proud hotel porter (played magnificently by Emil Jannings), guides guests and luggage into Berlin's swanky Atlantic Hotel, resplendent in a uniform that suggests a Transylvanian general. But one day, he is heartlessly robbed of his position -- and his precious coat -- and exiled to the lowly, humiliating job of washroom attendant. Distraught, he steals the uniform for one more appearance at a wedding -- but the theft may be discovered, and the broken old man crucified by the cruel laughter of his neighbors. Brilliantly directed by Murnau, this great film has been considered a classic from its first release, when its innovative camerawork and powerful story stunned viewers worldwide. This is a restoration of the lesser seen (and superior) German release version.
All-too-short but scrumptiously and wittily done version, done with real taste and elegance, of the classic Moliere comedy about a religious hypocrite and con man (Jannings), his wealthy dupe (Werner "Dr. Caligari" Krauss) and the gull's beauteous wife (Lil Dagover), who sees through Tartuffe. A real treat.
This visually splendid version of Goethe's classic play about the old scholar Faust (Gosta Ekman) who pursues youth and love, and finds destruction, with the aid of a lecherous, capering Mephistopheles (Jannings, at his ripest and hammiest), was an artistic high point for Murnau. His love of the great painters and great theater find here a perfect synthesis. With, as the young lovers, Camilla Horn and the later prolific Hollywood director, William Dieterle.
OTHER NEW OR RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Oliver Stone, 2008, Lionsgate
Oliver Stone is one of the most ambitious, accomplished and gutsy of all active American filmmakers; he never makes an uninteresting movie. But, in W., his engrossing and irreverent bio-drama on the likable but often ludicrous 43rd president, George W. Bush, I don't think Stone has been ambitious enough.
It certainly takes guts to take such an ultra-critical look at a (then) sitting U.S. president and his inner circle, and to rush it into release right before the election of W's successor, Barack Obama. And it's a good job. Working with his Wall Street co-writer Stanley Weiser, Stone is able to draw a coherent, convincing view of the Texas rich-kid party guy turned overreaching God-fearing prexy, and to make it stick.
Well-written, well-cast and directed with Stone's usual boldness and rich detail, the movie has top-notch performances by Josh Brolin as the prodigal Bush (he's as good as Will Ferrell's SNL Bush, but not quite as frat-boy/dimbulb funny), James Cromwell as his folksy/patrician dad George H.W. Bush, Elizabeth Banks as his perky wife Laura Bush, Toby Jones as a sneaky little Karl Rove, Bruce McGill as bedeviled CIA director George Tenet, and Jeffrey Wright as a beleaguered Colin Powell. And there's an astonishing job by Richard Dreyfuss as Vice President Dick Cheney, a performance so perfect in externals and mood that, when you first see him, Dreyfuss almost seems more like Cheney than Cheney himself.
W. probably should have been longer, and even more daring. But anyway, Stone's movie shows very well Bush as both a horrible president, and a great guy to have a beer with. I guess W. missed his calling. But Richard Dreyfuss hasn't. His Dick Cheney will haunt your dreams.
Nights in Rodanthe (C+)
U.S.; George C. Wolfe, 2008, Warner
Nights in Rodanthe is nother somewhat hokey Nicholas (The Notebook) Sparks novel about romance and good feelings turned into a plush but hokey movie. A gorgeous divorcee (Diane Lane) and a doctor with a guilty past (Richard Gere) find love in the midst of arguments, Dinah Washington and Brook Benton songs, hot nights and a hurricane -- in a beachside house, gussied up by production designer Patricia von Brandenstein, that's to die for. I'd buy that house if I could, but unfortunately the film, despite its cast (including Viola Davis, Law and Order's Christopher Meloni and one powerful scene from Scott Glenn), is no hurricane. Or even much of a hot night. It's too rich to be good or affecting, too gorgeous to be true. (Despite everything, major fans of Lane and Gere probably won't be disappointed.)
Soul Men (C+)
U.S.; Malcolm D. Lee, 2008, Weinstein
Soul Men, in which Bernie Mac gets a proper sendoff -- and the late Isaac Hayes does as well -- has (too bad) all kinds of script problems. But it has something most other movie comedies would sell their souls for: two big juicy feuding-guys-on-the-road parts and two terrific costars to play them: Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson, both of whom dig in and grab the audience by the funny bone.
Mac and Jackson get their laughs -- as Floyd Henderson (Jackson) and Louis Hinds (Mac) of the Real Deal: two famous '70s backup singers, whose lead singer, Marcus Hooks (John Legend) split off for solo stardom, leaving them to bicker and break up. Now Marcus has died and the two survivors, who haven't socialized for decades and lead totally different lives -- Louis is a salesman and Floyd is an ex-con dropout -- are reuniting to appear and sing old hits at Marcus' sendoff at Harlem's hip Mecca, the Apollo Theater, the house James Brown brought down.
It's not a bad movie idea. But writers Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone don't really sell us on the series of mishaps and outrageous catastrophes that bedevil the duo before and during the tribute. Be that as it may, there isn't a scene where Mac and Jackson don't deliver the goods. They supply all the subtext, motivations and humanity that the script often lacks. The movie is worth it just to see them. Especially Bernie Mac. Rest in peace.
U.S.; Fernando Mereilles, 2008, Miramax
Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's futuristic nightmare Blindness, about a North America suddenly afflicted with an epidemic of "The White Sickness," or sudden blindness, here is given a first-rate production by director Fernando (City of God) Mereilles. That movie was was hot and furious; this one is cold, bleak and full of pain. Mereilles, Saramago and screenwriter/actor Don Mackellar startlingly open up an unexpected Hell beneath our feet -- a nightmare where most of the populace is blind, quarantined and left to rot in ill-run hospital-cum-prisons by a terrified government that seems eventually to go missing in action.
This horrific scenario gets an extremely grim but stylish treatment by Mereilles, cinematographer Cesar Charlone and the production designers, who create a world of devastation, trash, incarceration and wandering stricken people in the ruins. Their excellent cast is topped by Julianne Moore as the one woman among the quarantined, who can (secretly) see, Mark Ruffalo as her disconsolate doctor husband, McKellar as a thief who gets his, and Gael Garcia Bernal as the proudly depraved "King of Ward Three," who sets up his own private dictatorship. All of this takes place in the scurviest, scariest jail/hospital this side of 28 Days Later and The Deer Hunter -- and later on in a fabulously convincing trashed metropolis. A kind of super-Twilight Zone episode that's, at heart, a dystopian epic of social degeneration. And, as the doctor's wife, Moore is tremendous.