PICKS OF THE WEEK
Nowhere Boy (B)
U.K.; Sam-Taylor Wood, 2010, Sony/The Weinstein Co.
Nowhere Boy is a good film, a moving, well-crafted film, but its resonance for anybody who was in their teens and 20s during the '60s heyday of the Beatles will be much more intense. It's the emotional, touching story of the Liverpool youth of John Lennon, and his relationship with the two women who had the most profound influence on his young character: Lennon's aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). For better and worse, these two -- the mother who left him and the aunt who raised him -- shaped the young man John is by end of the film. They molded also the world-shaking artist he became, along with his great mates Paul, George and Ringo.
As we watch, John grows from a shy, fun-loving, but tragedy-stricken 15-year-old with a taste for rock 'n' roll, into a confused son who finds his lost mother (Julia, of the "seashell eyes" and "windy smile" in Lennon's poignant White Album song), and to a guy at once rebellious, arrogant, sensitive, vulnerable, bullying and disarmingly playful, who acted like a street tough in Liverpool. Finally, just about to blossom and break loose, we see the beginnings of Beatle John, a brilliant and iconoclastic musician-poet -- a rocker with an Elvis scream, who can make his guitar "howl and move." Playing with Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and George Harrison (Sam Wood) -- Ringo Starr has yet to join them -- John is still the lead singer of a group called not the Beatles, but the Quarrymen. But Hamburg, and the birth of the Beatles are both on the horizon. (For the Hamburg tale, you can see Backbeat.)
There's precious little Beatles music here, except for the opening chord from "Hard Day's Night," and, under the credits, John's solo album cry of anguish "Mother." But we get a strong Beatles feel from the cast. John is played by a fine young actor named Aaron Johnson, who looks eerily like Lennon (though he's handsomer), and who is also the husband of Nowhere Boy director Sam Taylor-Wood. (She's a lady and mother, despite the "Sam.")
It's a remarkable performance. Johnson makes us like John, sympathize with him, understand how torn he is that the good-time siren Julia left him (unable to care for all her children), how he's drawn to her sensuality, her smiling pain, her frolics. And he lets us see also how John chafes under the more responsible (and dowdy) Mimi's discipline. But he also shows us John as a bit of a bastard, a mixer, a bully who tyrannizes his mates, bashes his best friend Pete Shotton at a party, and bashes Paul as well, then sadly, contritely apologizes to both. This is a guy whom we know could write (and even feel) the nasty punk mood of his Ray Charles knockoff, "Run for Your Life" from Rubber Soul ("I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man..."), but who could believably later write all those tender, rapturous, heart-struck love songs to Yoko Ono.
Johnson plays his first few scenes almost wordlessly. But then he dives into John's verbosity and cut-and-slash wit and impudence. The way Johnson tilts his head is pure Lennon; so is the way he curls up unashamedly in his mother's arms.
The key thing about the Beatles, besides the fact that they were the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band (sorry, Rolling Stones), is that they were these four great friends and terrific musicians together, who together could do it all, do everything together, who made each other better (with a little help from George Martin) and pulled each other up to the top.
So, in a way, I'm not instantly receptive to the idea of a film about John Lennon, tormented young artist and lone rebel with an acoustic guitar. It's the synergy of the Beatles I love, their community. But if you're going to take that approach, then Taylor-Wood and hubby Aaron have chosen the right melody and the right key. They fill this movie with all you need, love -- enough to carry it into our hearts and minds. So do those two wonderful actresses, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff, as Mimi and Julia. I haven't said enough about Kristin and Anne-Marie, of course. But then, mothers are used to being taken for granted. And if you don't feel a twinge at the movie's last pre-credit title, which is about Mimi, then maybe you're a bit of a bastard yourself. I thought John (and Paul) couldn't make me smile in a movie theater again, like I did when I was a teenager, watching A Hard Day's Night for the first time. I should have known better.
U.S.; Randall Wallace, 2010, Walt Disney
If you've got a great story, in life or in movies, sometimes the best thing to do is just tell it clearly, and don't load it up with agendas and tack-ons. Secretariat has a great story, an almost unbelievable tale -- the incredible saga of the horse who won the 1973 Triple Crown, blew away the field, set unmatchable records, and is still regarded almost universally as the greatest race horse who ever lived and ran.
Director Randall Wallace and scenarist Mike Rich's movie generates suspense and narrative tension in different ways than making you wonder what will happen next -- or ultimately. This is a movie that takes us behind the scenes of a story we may partly know -- and then shows us what we don't know about it, tells us about how and why it all happened, and introduces us to the backgrounds and the people behind the story, the gallery of characters who were present at the creation of the legend.
All that turns out to be as fascinating as the re-created spectacle of Secretariat, dueling three times on the track with another great horse, Sham, his insistent Triple Crown runner-up and a thoroughbred racer who would have been the record-breaker himself if Secretariat wasn't around.
The problem with making an inspirational sports movie about horse-racing is that the races themselves only last a few minutes. Seabiscuit triumphed over that by giving us the backstory. Secretariat does something similar, handing us a long, well-drawn look into a world most of us won't know. But the races themselves are squeezed for all the drama they can yield -- with captivating long shots and close-ups, with slow-motion, with telephoto wizardry, with jockey Ron Turcotte battling his way, on the unconquerable Secretariat, up through the pack to daylight and the inevitable (almost always) finishing line.
Those scenes are exhilarating, in a way modern sports movies often can be. But the backstory, the tale behind the race, is exhilarating too.
That story revolves around the strong, non-stereotypical woman who, in real life, owned this history-making stallion, held onto him and backed his rise to fame and glory despite heavy odds and constant difficulties: Penny Chenery Tweedy (glowingly played by Diane Lane). The daughter of a once prominent stable owner (Scott Glenn), who dies and leaves her his seemingly failing operation, Penny shows classic inspirational sports saga gumption and decides to keep up the business, Virginia's Meadow Stables.
What saves Penny and Meadow Stables is Secretariat. He's an amazing horse from the moments of his birth, when he stands up in the stall almost instantly, after emerging from Royal's womb. His nickname is "Big Red." His groom, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), swears he can understand the humans around him and what they're thinking, though they can only marvel at him.
Penny assembles a crack team behind Secretariat that includes Eddie, the maternal go-to gal Miss Ham (played by Margo Martindale, in what should probably be described as a quintessential Margo Martindale role), his plucky jockey Turcotte (played spot-on by real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth), and, most importantly, her gaudily dressed, acid-tongued new trainer Lucien Laurin (played, with his usually screen-grabbing relish and panache, by John Malkovich.)
Obviously, there's a feminist theme here. But the movie doesn't hammer at it, doesn't pile on too many scenes where Penny -- played with her usual quiet natural radiance and effortless magnetism by Diane Lane -- bests some chauvinistic or testosterone-heavy foe, gracefully ball-busting him.
If Lane makes us fix on her on screen without any strain, then Malkovich retains his title as one of the top modern scene-heist artists in movies. Garbed in flamboyant pinks and outlandish haberdashery, his voice and manner "tart as a grand aunt" (as Norman Mailer once said of Truman Capote), Malkovich plays the kind of believably weirdo character that would never have been imagined by a yarn-spinner for a movie like this, who could only spring somehow, however fictionalized, from life itself.
Wallace wrote the screenplay for Mel Gibson's Oscar-winning Scots heroic saga Braveheart, and he directed Gibson's somewhat pretentious kick-ass Vietnam War movie, We Were Soldiers. Rich is an inspirational sports-movie specialist; he wrote The Rookie (2002) and Miracle. This movie's adviser, Bill Nack, also wrote the book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, on which the film is based, and he's a real expert on the subject, bringing scads of the little, lesser-known facts and rich details that make this movie seem so real, so knowing. The houses look impeccable but lived-in. The talk seems right; the characters converse with that easy, courtly, cocky-casual semi-arrogance the American upper and upper-middle classes often affect.
But we can also see how a phenomenon like Secretariat breaks up classes, vanquishes snobbery, reduces a whole crowd of breathless spectators into a mass of gaping, amazed kids-at-heart. That's what happened on the race tracks, as never before, and never since, with Secretariat. (Extras: commentary by Wallace; featurettes; interview with Penny Chenery Tweedy; multi-angle Secretariat simulation; music video.)
Shock Corridor (A-)
U.S.; Samuel Fuller, 1963, Criterion
Sam Fuller's classic black-and-white B-movie Shock Corridor -- about an arrogant reporter, hunting Pulitzers, who gets himself falsely committed to an insane asylum, in order to solve a murder committed inside its walls -- is a cheap little picture, made for peanuts, that packs a wallop in one powerfully conceived and incandescently unhinged scene after another. Fuller fears neither God nor man in this show, and he especially doesn't fear most movie critics, whose every canon of taste and judgment he tends to ignore or trample on, but who wound up largely on his side anyway.
Set mostly in the asylum's endless corridor as well as the stark sleeping dormitories and spotless asylum kitchen, a nearly empty police station and one or two rooms of what's supposed to be a big metropolitan daily, Shock Corridor makes its very cheapness an asset. The movie turns its low budget minimalism into something surreal and nightmarish, a world emptied of conventional signposts, solace and clutter, an arena in which the lunatics and doctors can act out their strange playlets.
The asylum corridor of the title stretches off into infinity, while lunatics loiter in the hall and have nutty conversations. Meanwhile, reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck of The Big Valley) hunts up three crazy witnesses to try to find the killer, while brutal guards patrol the halls and harass the inmates, occasionally giving them a whack upside -- until finally, Fuller stages the kind of wild "B" climax that can haunt your dreams.
If you try to compare Shock Corridor to a relatively realistic picture of mental institutions and psychiatry like Milos Forman's and Bo Goldman's film of Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, or even The Snake Pit, you'll find it wanting. Fuller may be a hard-nosed reporter, an expert student and observer of the dirty underbellies of the societies he portrays in his movies. But he's also a symbolist and polemicist, who likes to editorialize, and use his stories to get at some overarching truths. The Cold War, racial prejudice and the arms race are as loony as the inmates. Journalism is a trust, not a goldmine; madness and sex are nothing to toy with.
The movie was cheap and the cast less than A-list (but still good). But the technical talent on Shock Corridor was ace-high. Eugene Lourie (of Renoir's Rules of the Game and The Southerner) did the sets. Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter) was the cinematographer. They make the movie look great.
Shock Corridor still plays like a hospital afire. Shot and cut by Fuller just as he wanted, made without interference (or profits) on the fringes of the industry, with nothing held back and probably nothing softened, it's a movie that, like Johnny, may seem at first too brash and too loud and too unbraked and too damn-your-eyes, drown-the-set sure of itself. But it gets the story told. (Extras: Adam Simon's 1996 documentary on Fuller, The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Camera; video interview with Constance Towers; trailer; booklet with a Robert Polito essay; Daniel Clowes illustrations, and an excerpt on Shock Corridor from Fuller's autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Sherlock Jr. (A)
U.S.: Buster Keaton, 1924, Kino
The Three Ages (B)
U.S.: Eddie Cline, 1923, Kino
In Sherlock, Jr., Buster Keaton is a small-town movie projectionist, a lonely sad-eyed guy with a poker-face, a porkpie hat perched on his head, and that sudden, seemingly unconscious athleticism that always astonishes us. He yearns for the love of town belle Kathryn McGuire, is frustrated by slick, mustached rival Ward Crane, and tumbles into a jewel robbery, which -- as a confirmed fan of detective Sherlock Holmes, he intends to detect and solve.
But before he can, Buster falls asleep in the movie theater's projection booth, and ends up walking into the movie itself -- where he finds McGuire, Crane and another thwarted romance -- along with a montage that Eisenstein would have sold his Potemkin for: an utterly mischievous montage that keeps dropping him rudely from one scene to the next, one location to the next, from mountains to deserts to bustling streets.
Along with The General and The Navigator, Sherlock Jr. represents the acme of Keaton's comic genius, his fertile imagination and uncanny technical prowess. CGI be damned. In 87 years, Sherlock Jr. has not been surpassed for sheer dreamlike invention and execution. It never will be.
In Three Ages, Buster sends up D.W. Griffith's 1916 masterpiece Intolerance and its prodigious four-episode, alternating-stories structure -- a comic nudge and tribute from one moviemaking giant to another. It's no Intolerance. And no Sherlock Jr., for that matter. But funny stuff. The Stone Age, the Roman Empire and the Jazz Age are all Busterized. Wonderfully. (Extras for Sherlock Jr.: Three musical scores by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the Club Foot Orchestra and a Jay Ward-compiled vintage jazz score; commentary by David Kalat; "Making of" documentary; visual essay on locations by John Bengtson. Extras for Three Ages: three scores, an orchestra one by Robert Israel, one for piano, and one for organ by Lee Irwin; excerpt from Griffith's 1912 Stone Age film -- Keaton inspiration -- Man's Genesis; Bengtson visual essay on the locations; Three Ages recut as three short films.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.: Robert Schwentke, 2010, Summit Entertainment
The name Red stands for "Retired: Extremely Dangerous," which is the legend stamped on the files of Bruce Willis, as fifty-something Black Op specialist Frank Moses -- and also on the files of his longtime colleague/buddies, played by top-chop actors Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman. In addition, it's the title of a graphic novel series by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer about retired CIA pals uncovering plots and going on rampages, and of the cleaned-up, fairly entertaining and likable, but basically kind of silly action thriller that director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler's Wife) and writers Jon and Erick Hoeber have made from it.
Mind you, I like all these actors -- and many of the others in Red. But Red's script is the same old malarkey, only with an older, better, brainier cast. Any movie that casts all the above actors -- and others here like Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, James Remar, and for the love of God, 93-year-old Ernie Borgnine as Henry, the CIA records keeper -- maybe deserves a medal. But it also lays itself open to ageist cracks and youth-crazed dopey biases, which are far too rabid in movies and TV these days anyway.
Red tries to attack those biases, make fun of them. But there's a problem. Like many modern movies with older actors, this picture has them playing too constantly young and spunky (Morgan Freeman as the more vulnerable 80-year-old Tom Matheson honorably excepted), when they'd be more effective playing older, more vulnerable but smarter (like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Arthur Hunnicutt in El Dorado).
The plot has Frank falling for young Sarah Ross (Mary Louise Parker), a chatty phone operator at his CIA pension number -- and then nearly getting rubbed out at his home by a hit squad that seems to be under the command of fashionable CIA stud William Cooper (Karl Urban). So Frank grabs Sarah, and takes off on a transcontinental, multi-location jaunt/chase to find and warn and recruit his old pals and colleagues: Freeman as the wry-smiling Matheson, Mirren as two-gun Victoria, and Malkovich as Marvin Boggs, the recluse/weirdo of the bunch.
The movie is fast and pretty funny, and it gets around. It's not too good, thanks to the script, but I liked the company, and you probably will too. (Extras: commentary with CIA man Robert Baer; featurette; deleted and extended scenes.)
Inspector Bellamy (B)
France: Claude Chabrol, 2008, Ifc Independent Film
Inspector Bellamy, an odd but richly drawn, sardonic and compelling detective story starring Gerard Depardieu, was the last feature directed (and co-written) by France's Claude Chabrol, a filmmaker whose excellent movies, mostly about crimes and the French bougeosie, have charmed, disturbed and held me spellbound for almost half a century. A jolly man in real life, directing movie after movie almost to the end, Chabrol released Bellamy in 2008 -- and then went on to make two more TV episodes (both mystery stories) before dying at 80 in September.
Long before the end, Chabrol turned out to the most prolific and productive of all his old Cahiers du Cinema critic-turned filmmaker buddies, the remarkable quintet who launched the "Nouvelle Vague" together: Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette -- and Chabrol.
Now, only Godard and Rivette are left.
It's a sad occasion but a good film. Depardieu plays Bellamy as a solid, bourgeois, randy but dutiful husband and keen-eyed cop, a kind of homey Inspector Maigret with a "soft spot for murderers," who runs into two problems on his summer vacation with Mme. Bellamy (Marie Bunel): the arrival of his drunken ex-con stepbrother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac), and his strange encounter with a natty insurance agent named Emile Leullet (Jacques Gamblin), who may have faked his own death in order to start a new life with his sexy mistress Nadia (played by the very sexy Vahina Giocante).
Bellamy's cat-and-mouse relations with the fugitive are mysterious, but almost comical, as if Leullet were a Raskolnikov seeking out his own Inspector Porfiry. And the French Inspector's savage links with frere Jacques, in the other part of the movie, are dark, deep, profoundly twisted. Inspector Bellamy grips and surprises you, but easily, surely, without any fuss.
Depardieu, who works even more constantly than Chabrol did, rivets you with his casual expertise, but also almost shocks you with his late-Brandoesque bulk. He's immense, beyond Raimu. The fiery, consummate actor who, it seemed, could either go savagely modern or play all the great French classical stage and literary roles, from Cyrano on, now seems in shape only for a classical turn as Gargantua, in a film of Rabelais.
It doesn't affect his performance, which is, as always, effortless, magnetic and inwardly exuberant. The other actors are fine as well, and the movie, shot by Eduardo Serra, has a relaxed roll and rhythm, as if it were a snap to make. Chabrol, who once said that a film without a murder didn't interest him, has often been called the French Hitchcock. Here he sometimes seems like a Lang, a Preminger or a Renoir as well. Despite his age, he'd often been at his best in recent years, from 1995's La Ceremonie on, and Inspector Bellamy, while not a masterpiece, is certainly a master's work. In French, with English subtitles.
Legacy: The Story of Civilization (A-)
U.K.: Peter Spry-Leverton, 1991, Athena
Oxford historian Michael Wood takes us on a grand tour of the countries that were early cradles of civilization: India, China, Egypt, Iraq, Central America and finally, Europe. Beautifully photographed, lucidly narrated, factually packed: an educational treat. (Extras: profiles of great thinkers of the Axial Age; viewer's guide booklet.)