PICKS OF THE WEEK
Nothing But the Truth (B)
U.S.; Rod Lurie, 2008, Sony
The most effective of writer-director (and ex-movie critic) Rod Lurie's political melodramas is this absorbing legal thriller, obviously inspired by the case of the New York Times' Judith Miller (but widely departing from it). Nothing But the Truth finds a plucky but increasingly tormented Washington, D.C. reporter (Kate Beckinsale) who refuses to give up her main source for a sensational story that reveals the identity of a covert CIA agent (Vera Farmiga) and embarrasses a conservative U.S. administration. As the jailed reporter begins to lose her freedom and her husband (David Schwimmer), two wily lawyers (very well-played by Matt Dillon and Alan Alda) battle over her fate and her principles.
The surprise ending is a little over-tricky, but Lurie keeps our interest throughout, and his cast -- including Angela Bassett as Beckinsale's staunch editor -- is terrific. But I wish Lurie would take a vacation from these political thrillers, at least once, and start mining the material he knows best: the real world of L.A. today, the Hollywood studios and modern high-stakes moviemaking. (Extras: Commentary, deleted scenes, featurette.)
Johnny Got His Gun (B+)
U.S.; Dalton Trumbo, 1971, Shout Factory
Dalton Trumbo's scalding, dark, sad movie from his great anti-war novel takes us into the mind and soul of a World War I soldier/combat victim (Timothy Bottoms) who can't speak or communicate, except to us. Trumbo's longtime labor of love, which Luis Bunuel wanted to film, is a message movie of real pacifist idealism and relentless power. With Jason Robards Jr., Donald Sutherland and Kathy Fields. (Extras: Documentary, interview with Bottoms, 1940 radio version with James Cagney, Metallica video, trailer.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Alain Resnais: A Decade in Film (A)
France; Alain Resnais, 1983-89, Kino/Kimstim
In the 1950s and 1960s, France's Alain Resnais -- a cinematic compatriot and soulmate of the "Cahiers du Cinema" crowd of Franois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol -- was a giant of the Nouvelle Vague and one of the leading avante-garde masters of world art cinema. Stylistically daring and densely intellectual masterpieces like Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, with their incredible technical-structural innovation and remarkably advanced literary scripts (by intellectually chic and highly praised novelists like Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet), seemed to carry film to the outer limits of modernism and 20th-century experimentalist artistry.
But, in the 1980s, Resnais, his earlier vogue past, began to specialize in a different type of movie -- still literate and well-written, but more seemingly conservative in technique and style. Resnais became a master of the filmed play, and his subjects included "old-fashioned" writers like '20s melodrama expert and master of the "well-made play" Henri Bernstein (Melo), along with newer authors like wry, acerbic American cartoonist/scenarist Jules Feiffer (I Want to Go Home).
Actually, this new, more obviously theatrical style had its roots in the same love of esthetics and the same thematic concern with love, art, conflict and alienation that had always preoccupied Resnais. But this time, he also assembled a superb recurring cinematic stock company of first-class actors that included Fanny Ardant, Geraldine Chaplin, Andre Dussolier, Pierre Arditi and the director's brilliant wife and muse, Sabine Azema. Resnais' '80s movies, and the ones that followed (like Same Old Song and Smoking/No Smoking, did not shock and divide audiences that way Hiroshima and Marienbad had. But they remain among his more delightful and rewarding works: the smaller, shining gems of an aging master. All the films in this four-disc set are in French with English subtitles; I Want to Go Home is also in English.
Life Is a Bed of Roses (A)
France; Alain Resnais, 1983
This highly playful masterwork, set in a forest chateau initially designed as part of a proposed Utopian city, moves deftly back and forth in times and between "reality" and "fantasy" to tell three intertwining stories, set in the past (the turn of the century when the chateau is built), the present (the '80s, when it has become the site of an elite progressive school), and in the incandescently inventive minds of some chateau children. Resnais, working from an ingenious Jean Gruault screenplay, adopts the styles of three highly diverse French cinematic masters -- Marcel L'Herbier, Eric Rohmer and Georges Melies -- to tell the stories; the result is provocative, stimulating and constantly delightful. With Vittorio Gassmann, Sabine Azema, Fanny Ardant, Geraldine Chaplin and Ruggero Raimondi (the opera star who played the title role in Joseph Losey's film of Mozart's Don Giovanni).
Love Unto Death (B+)
France; Resnais, 1984
This dark, almost unbearably sad romantic drama imagines what would happen if a fatalistic husband (Pierre Arditi) were magically saved from death by his love-mad wife (Sabine Azema). Written by Jean Gruault, co-tarring Fanny Ardant, Dussollier and Jean Daste.
France; Alain Resnais, 1986
One of Resnais' greatest works: an adaptation of Henri Bernstein's 1929 play of love, infidelity, and betrayal among two longtime friends and concert classical violinists (Dussolier and Arditi), who share an eventually destructive passion for the wife of one of them (Azema). The cast is extraordinary, the style -- which uses obvious theater stage-sets for the backgrounds and an elegant theater programme for the credits -- is beautifully precise and hauntingly minimalist.
I Want to Go Home (B)
France; Alain Resnais, 1989
A bizarre collaboration between comic strip artist/playwright/screenwriter Jules Feiffer and comic-lover/art film genius Alain Resnais. I Want to Go Home is a close-to-the-bone dramatic comedy about irascible Cleveland comic strip artist Joey Wellman (played, in a peculiar but sometimes touching performance, by Singin' in the Rain co-writer Adolph Green), his long-suffering girlfriend (Linda Lavin), his Francophile, Yank-bashing daughter (Laura Benson) and a goofy mélange of French expatriate admirers and interferers who drive Joey crazy (Gerard Depardieu, Micheline Presle, Ludivine Sagnier, Geraldine Chaplin). Winner of the Best Film and Screenplay prizes at the Venice Film Festival, this is a strange film and not all of it works. But it grows on you. In English and French, with English subtitles. (Extras: Documentary on Life Is a Bed of Roses; interviews with Arditi and producer Marin Karmitz; trailers.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Bride Wars (D+)
U.S.; Gary Winick, 2009, 20th Century Fox
How's this for a fractured high concept: Beauteous best-friend babes and brides-to-be turn into crazed enemies for the stupidest reasons imaginable, and behave like viciously addled morons for two unfunny hours.
In this jaw-dropping fiasco, Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway play Liv and Emma, two lifelong pals, both engaged at 26, whose longtime dream is to be married at Eloise's palace, the Plaza Hotel. Suddenly, they become the worst of foes when Candice Bergen -- as Marion, supposedly New York City's classiest, most exclusive wedding manager -- mistakenly books their Plaza Hotel weddings on the same day, instead of their real preference, the opposite ends of June. The interfering third bride, who got the wrong June date, won't budge, for reasons that weren't clear to me -- because everyone was shrieking and pummeling each other -- and I also was mystified that the two best gal pals, who are set to be each other's maids of honor, couldn't just work out a friendly compromise.
But no. So Liv and Emma both freak out and sadistically sabotage each other for weeks on end: planting phony wedding photos in newspapers, messing up each other's suntans, dying each other's hair blue, and even putting on soft-core home movies in the most embarrassing possible circumstances.
Why? Though they act like delinquent school escapees on crack, Liv is actually a high-powered lawyer and Emma a schoolteacher. So why don't they take the obvious compromise and have a double wedding? Because then there'd be no more movie? Because the writers have absolutely no imagination? Probably. (The official explanation is that schoolmarm Emma would feel slighted by sharing.)
Inanity piles on inanity. How did Bergen's boo-boo-prone Marion get to be New York's classiest wedding impresario manager? Why are the brides' buddies and hubbies such do-nothing nebbishes and doofusses? And why isn't a lifelong friendship worth more to them than the schedules of their Plaza weddings? (Maybe the movie would have worked better if they weren't friends but lifelong rivals.) Bride Wars is also a poor title, however close it is to Star Wars. (I suggest Marrying Monsters instead.) The movie was directed by Gary Winick, who made a pretty good computer-animated 2006 show out of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, but fares less well with alleged human beings here.
Hotel for Dogs (C)
U.S.; Thor Freudenthal, 2009, Paramount
Pooch Marley, eat your heart out. In Hotel for Dogs, scads of incredibly cute and amazingly gifted doggies, all strays or rescued from the dogcatchers, find a home of their own in an abandoned hotel discovered by two astonishing kids (Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin). These orphans have been fostered out to live with a pair off cretin rockers, the Scudders (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon), but can now escape into a wonderful world of Rube Goldberg toy contraptions and feeding machines and doggies galore. (And no pooper-scoopers.) Don Cheadle is around to confer a little false credibility as a kindly social worker who really likes kids and dogs. There's a big canine chase at the end, almost worthy of The Bone Identity. (Sorry.) This one would have been better, and cheaper, as a Max Fleischer Grampy cartoon. I like dogs too, and I've even loved one or two, but this is getting ridiculous. Arf, already.
U.S.; George Tillman, 2009, 20th Century Fox
A disappointing movie bio of murdered New York rapper Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G. -- played here robustly by the excellent Jamal Woodard (a.k.a. Gravy). There's a lot of meat on Gravy's bones, but not enough on the movie's, which concentrates too much on making Biggie as a deprived cultural hero, and not enough, for my taste, on at least speculating about who killed who. At least Tillman covers the East Coast-West Coast rap community feud, which may also have claimed Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie).
The cast is good, the parts juicy. Angela Bassett shines as B.I.G.'s mother, Naturi Nuaghton is Lil' Kim, and Derek Luke puffs up Sean "Puffy" Combs. But we're left asking too many questions and hearing not enough music. Notorious is no Cadillac Records. By the way, I think there should be a moratorium on unnecessarily repeated movie titles, especially when the earlier movie is an all-time Hitchcock classic, like the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman Notorious. Notorious B.I.G. is actually a nifty moniker.