PICKS OF THE WEEK
Monsoon Wedding (A)
India; Mira Nair, 2002, Criterion Collection
Mira Nair's joyous movie about a wedding in Delhi -- constantly disrupted by family squabbles, sudden crises, covert romantic interludes, cultural clashes among the guests, dark buried secrets erupting to the surface and finally, a full-blown monsoon rainfall, not to mention a musical climax that outdoes Bollywood -- is both her most popular film and her best. It's her Rules of the Game, an ensemble masterpiece by a filmmaker whose work is often the epitome of cinema multiculturalism. In many ways, she seems to have been pointing toward this grand amalgam of comedy and tragedy in all her work, both fiction and documentary.
Nair, working with a script by her young Columbia film student, Sabrina Dhawan, wittily and lovingly penetrates the colorful, dense surface of a landmark two-family event. In an upper-middle-class household, a bride and groom, who have other loves and interests, are about to join together two families, one Bengali, one (like Nair herself) Punjabi, with long histories, seen and unseen. And, as they do, all jolly hell (and heaven) is about to break loose. The intoxicating result, Monsoon Wedding, is reminiscent of Robert Altman's too-neglected classic A Wedding, of course, though it's a happier, more buoyant film, and it also suggests -- as Pico Iyer's excellent essay in the Criterion booklet explicates -- Shakespearean comedy at its most Midsummer Night's Dreamy.
Nair's superb cast includes Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Tillotamma Shone, Vasundhara Das and, as the irritating event planner, Vijay Raaz. The gorgeous, sparkling production design and cinematography are by Stephanie Carroll and Declan Quinn. The lilting, infectious music is by Mychael Danna. And probably only one filmmaker in the world could have drawn it all together, or so seamlessly managed this magnificent multicultural Indian jamboree: Mira Nair, whose work ranges from urban neorealist tragedy (Salaam Bombay) to poignant family drama (The Namesake) to romantic fantasy (Kama Sutra). All those threads merge here, in her greatest work. (In English and Bengali, with English subtitles.)
Also included in the package are three short documentaries by Nair -- "So Far from India" (1982), "India Cabaret" (1985), and "The Laughing Club of India" (2000) -- and four Nair fiction shorts: "The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat" (1993), "11'09''01 -- September 11 (Segment: India)" (2002), "Migration" (2001), and "How Can It Be?" (2008). All seven films have introductions by Nair. (Extras: Commentary by Nair; interviews with Shah, Quinn and Carroll; trailer; booklet with essay by Pico Iyer.)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (A-)
U.S.; John Hughes, 1987, Paramount
John Hughes' funniest comedy -- except for maybe Ferris Bueller's Day Off -- pairs off a middle-class, introverted fussbudget business guy (Steve Martin, at his most laughably neurotic), who's trying to get home for Thanksgiving, with a genial slob of an accidental traveling companion (John Candy at his most hilariously obtuse) on adjoining airline seats. Immediately, they don't hit it off, which means, of course, that they'll be stuck with each other for the entire movie, yoked together when the plane trip goes awry, in a mad impromptu journey homeward by train, auto or any means possible.
Easy Rider (A-)
U.S.; Dennis Hopper, 1969, Sony Pictures, Blu-ray
In 1969, Easy Rider -- a low-budget revolution in which writer-producer Peter Fonda and writer-director Dennis Hopper play Wyatt and Billy, two shaggy, pot-blowing bikers, riding cross country to New Orleans, the Mardi Gras and an evil destiny, after a big cocaine score -- exploded onto America's movie scene and culture like few low-budget movies ever have, winning the Camera d'Or (for best first film) at Cannes, and becoming a landmark film in the '60s-'70s U.S. New Wave.
It still plays like a guitar jam house afire, with blazing Laszlo Kovacs cinematography, a trend-setting rock soundtrack (keyed by Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild") that fundamentally changed the way movies have been scored ever since, and an iconic cast headed by Fonda, Hopper, and the nonpareil Jack Nicholson as happily drunken lawyer George Hanson (in the performance some friends say that, booze aside, is closest to Nicholson's real personality). The cocaine buyer in the opening scene, by the way, is Phil Spector.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Dusan Makavejev, Free Radical (A-)
Yugoslavia; Dusan Makavejev, 1965-68, Criterion
Dusan Makavejev's early Yugoslavian fiction features, three of which are collected here, were among the happiest, funniest yet most disturbing to emerge from Eastern Europe in the '60s. Makavejev, who later went even further with the Reichian orgies of his censored classic W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, begins to open up here. He blends the forms of sexual comedy and crime story in his first two fiction features, which are both about love, jealousy and death: Man Is Not a Bird, set in an isolated mountain copper-mining city on the Bulgarian border, and Love Affair, which, aided by a real-life sexologist and criminologist, follows the ill-fated Belgrade affair of a sexy telephone operator (Eva Ras) and a morose sanitation expert/exterminator (Slobodan Aligrudic.)
In the third film, Makavejev fused his already well-developed documentary style with a delightfully campy and enjoyably silly 1942 Serbian film curio. In Innocence Unprotected, he took the first Serbian sound movie -- a happily cliché-packed romance/thriller/melodrama written, directed by and starring famous Yugoslavian strong man and escape artist Dragoljub Aleksic -- and surrounded it with interviews with Aleksic, and others from the cast and crew, shot in the present day, plus scenes of postwar destruction and rebuilding, propaganda snippets and other social flotsam.
The results, in all three cases, are sometimes jubilant, sometimes melancholy dark comedies that cheekily penetrate the sociopolitical and psycho-sexual vagaries of the Soviet bloc countries in the Cold War era as have few films before or since. All films in Serbian, with English subtitles.
Includes: Man Is Not a Bird (1965, A-), with Milena Dravic and Janez Vrhovic; Love Affair: Or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967, A), with Eva Ras and Slobodan Aligrudic; Innocence Unprotected (1968, A-), with Aleksic and Ana Milosavijevic.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (C+)
U.S.; Michael Bay, 2009, Paramount
This might better be called Transformers: Revenge of the Hasbro Action Toys. Because that's who the real stars are: those indefatigable ultra-complicated toy robots, the good autobots and the bad decepticons, who bash and smash and mash and thrash each other for two and a half hours, in spectacular U.S., French, Jordanian and Egyptian locales, while the poor humans involved -- including anxious Sam Witwicky (Shia la Beouf), foxy Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), snarling agent-turned-deli-guy Simmons (John Turturro) and obnoxious college kid hedonist Leo (Ramon Rodriguez) -- run around with scared or pugnacious expressions, getting the same ultimately short shrift Raymond Burr and Takashi Shimura got as they mulled things over while '50s Tokyo was menaced in the English language cut by Godzilla, King of the Monsters. (For my money, 'Zilla would have eaten these decepticons alive. And he acts better too.)
Despite undeniable technical virtuosity of the most extreme sort from director Michael Bay and his crew, this robot toy sequel has been bashed, mashed, thrashed and trashed by the critics as well, few of whom have been showing much respect for the skill it takes to making toys come alive, even as the humans around them keep behaving like frantic toys. The chorus of nix-sayers has a point. Why should you care more whether a 'bot gets squashed by a Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) and whether Sam makes it with the local sex-bot, than whether Simmons makes a good pastrami on rye and whether Sam and Leo make it in one piece from the local fraternity bash to the depths of the Sphinx?
The cast is mired in the robo-fights: helpless onlookers transfixed by children's games amok. And writers Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman seem to have exhausted themselves dreaming up wisecracks for the robots, few of which are worth the effort to hear above the mass carnage and nonstop din of the action scenes.
U.S.-U.K.; Stephen Frears, 2009, Miramax
I like Stephen Frears, sometimes very much (The Grifters, Bloody Kids, The Hit). But one movie of his that I've always found a bit overrated was his 1988 Dangerous Liaisons, scripted by Christopher Hampton from his play of the Choldlerlos de Laclos French epistolary novel about upper-class sexual games.
Here, Friars and writer Hampton once again tackle a French erotic classic, Colette's romantic Cheri -- and I liked it even less. The main reason: Rupert Friend as Cheri, the young lover of Michelle Pfeiffer's fetching lady of love and leisure Lea de Lonval, and the son of Kathy Bates' maddening Madame Peloux.He is the most charmless, least compelling romantic hero I've seen in quite a while. A literary-based romance, especially one with currents as dark as this, ought at least to convince you of the couple's passion. In this case, I could barely stand to see the two of them together on screen. What did this languid clown do to deserve Pfeiffer?
The film, as if in compensation for this emotional thinness, is quite beautiful to look at. But it lacks emotional resonance or conviction. And what's worse is that it makes love into what Colette's Gaston thought it, in the Minnelli movie of Gigi: a bore. If you want a real period French romance, check out The Earrings of Madame de…
The Stepfather (B)
U.S.; Joseph Ruben, 1987, Shout! Factory
Terry O'Quinn plays the seemingly perfect second husband looking for the perfect family in a halcyon, near-perfect little suburb -- except that this sterling stepfather is really a crazed killer, and if his new family doesn't measure up to his high standards, they're going to suffer. A brilliant screenplay by Donald Westlake, from a story by Westlake, Brian Garfield and Carolyn Lefcourt, keys this famous, tense little sleeper, one of the best of the family psychological thrillers -- which just goes to show how important good screenplays, and occasionally bad fathers, are in movies. With Jill Schoelen and Shelley Hack.
Germany; Maximilian Schell, 1984, Kino
Max Schell's powerful portrait of one of the cinema's great romantic icons, Marlene Dietrich, survives the seemingly crippling drawback of Dietrich's refusal to be photographed for Schell's documentary. (She does consent to an audio interview.) But few movie stars have left more haunting visions behind, and Schell cannily uses both the star's voice of the film's present time and the lustrous movie images of her past to create an indelible portrait of timeless beauty and movie fantasy. (In English and German, with English subtitles.)
Happy Birthday to Me (C)
U.S.; J. Lee Thompson, 1980, Anchor Bay
Someone is killing off the privileged, spoiled, sexed-up rich-kid members of the local high school's toniest clique, a band of insiders that includes Melissa Sue Anderson, slumming it after The Little House on the Prairie, as disturbed young Ginny. One by one, they go down hard, murdered by barbells or impaled on a shish-kebob stick or shoved into the cake at a grisly birthday party, in this gruesome little trifle. One of the few late-'70s-early '80s teen slasher horror movies, by a famous old-line director -- J. Lee Thompson of Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone -- and it shows that Thompson can keep his flair for nasty, sadistic suspense even under the most ridiculous circumstances. With Glenn Ford in the unrewarding role of an intense therapist, trying to straighten out Ginny and figure it all out before someone maybe kills him.