PICKS OF THE WEEK
Orson Welles' "Don Quixote" (A-)
Spain/U.K.; Orson Welles' Jess Franco, 1992, Image
Viva Welles! The wreckage of a great artist's most cherished labor of love is still well worth our time -- often far more than the successes and best efforts of lesser men and women. Take Orson Welles' troubled production of Don Quixote -- Miguel de Cervantes' literary masterpiece, the great Spanish novel of chivalry and illusions. Even in the diluted version released here by Image, it's an extraordinary film, blending a brilliant evocation of the book with boisterously creative modern (1950s) Spanish scenes, featuring an onscreen Welles-the-director, all emphasizing the story's, and the Don's, timelessness.
Welles' grand project was begun in the '50s. In it, Welles is the director-writer-narrator, Francisco Reiguera plays Quixote, and Welles' frequent compadre Akim Tamiroff is a visually perfect squire Sancho Panza. But the production, self-financed by Welles, dragged on so long that Reiguera finally begged Welles to complete it so that the old, faithful actor could die without guilt. Welles outlived them and finally had to dub them both.
Sadly, this cinematic masterpiece-to-be was still incomplete at his death. This version, released in Spain in 1992, was assembled, edited, redubbed and, in some cases, reshot, by Welles' second unit director, Jess Franco. The visuals, overwhelmingly, are by Welles. Much of the dubbed dialogue is too. But some of the picture print quality is mediocre, and some of the dubbing of all three major roles was done later by non-Welles actors.
So I can understand why some critics call it a travesty. It's also a great film -- much like the usurped release version of The Magnificent Ambersons, a mutilated movie that is still packed and seething with pure genius and incandescent creativity. I'm not exaggerating when I say that no movie this year gave me more enjoyment, and there's none that I loved more -- for its compelling images, robust voices, its spectacular land and cityscapes, its sublime visual and literary poetry -- even if occasionally I had to fill in the blanks and imagine what could have been.
This Image release is not the last word on Orson Welles' Don Quixote. Nor should it be. But, for us, it's the first glimpse -- and I was immensely grateful. It should be at the top of every film-lover's agenda to agitate for an improved Don Quixote and, finally, to get the best possible release versions of Quixote and the other incomplete Welles films: The Other Side of the Wind, The Deep, The Magic Show and The Merchant of Venice. Would we ignore a possible new Beethoven symphony, a rediscovered Vermeer painting, or a new play by Shakespeare?
The unfinished legacy of Orson Welles -- that matchless, prodigal, often unjustly unsupported maker of movies -- is just as essential. Let's bring them all to the light, all those films, all those possible treasures -- beginning with a better version than this of Welles' portrait of the magnificent mad knight and his richly human squire, Don Quixote de le Mancha and Sancho Panza.
U.S.; David Mamet, 2008, Sony Pictures Classics
Playwright David Mamet is also a film director and a screenwriter, and in the latter role, he's part of a select group that includes Woody Allen, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Ronald Harwood, Jean-Claude Carriere, Rafael Azcona (see below) and just a few others.
Now, one good thing about Mamet-as-director is that he has respect for Mamet-the-writer. Mamet preserves his own texts, in all their testosterone-driven, four-letter-word-soaked, intellectual tough-guy glory. One bad thing is that he sometimes has too much respect; he gets far too finicky about avoiding overlap and hearing all his own words -- as if he wanted to apply Bertolt Brecht's epic theater style to scripts that would work better as classy film noir or Sidney Lumet-style social drama.
Redbelt has another fine machismo-drenched Mamet script. It's about a martial arts teacher named Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who finds his business in jeopardy when he and a cop-student try to help a nervous lawyer (Emily Mortimer) in a jam -- and create problems compounded later when Mike trusts a corrupt movie star (Tim Allen). All these miscues lead the highly moral Mike into a fixed fight, in which the hero must discard his principles to salvage his life.
Mamet is dead serious about all this, which is all to the good. But the turnabout climax doesn't work, morally or dramatically -- not only because it's a weird idea that needs some craziness to put it across, but because it's too stiff and unspontaneous. The movie redeems itself, as do almost all Mamets, because the writing is so saltily eloquent and the acting, even when a bit overstylized, is so intelligent. The supporting cast includes Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay and Rebecca Pidgeon. But while the whole ensemble is fine, Ejiofor surpasses them all. Nobody can make that guy a robot.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Marco Ferreri Collection (A)
Italy/U.S.; Marco Ferreri, 1960-1988, Koch Lorber
This eight-disc set brings back one of the holy terrors of '60s and '70s Italian cinema, the ferocious satirist and unbuttoned comic cineaste Marco Ferreri: a terrific if variable collection capped by his outrageous classic La Grand Bouffe, in which four great actors -- Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, Michel Piccoli and Ugo Tognazzi -- eat, swill and fornicate themselves to death.
Ferreri was one of the most masterly dark comedy-makers of the '60s and '70s, beginning with the Spanish-made comedies co-written by his prime collaborator, screenwriter Rafael Azcona and continuing through irreverent Italian classics like The Seed of Man and Don't Touch the White Woman, and some classics not included here, like The Man With the Balloons and Dillinger Is Dead.
Ferreri experienced some difficulties after La Grande Bouffe. Perhaps he overreached. He tried and failed to crack the English-language market, and, like many another cinematic rebel in the teen-obsessed, studio-bound '80s, he hit some walls. Though he was a card-carrying Communist at times, he was criticized by some cine-Marxists for his sexual politics, which he himself described as "50% misogynist, 50% feminist." (Ferreri's attempts to appease his critics may have led to an unfortunate break with the unapologetically bawdy Azcona.) But the director came back and was still making movies at his death in 1997.
Throughout Ferreri's career, nobody but Luis Bunuel and a handful of others, could match or surpass his skill at belaboring and getting laughs from the bourgeoisie. Here are eight explosive examples. (Extras: Documentary, interview with Ferreri.)
El Cochecita (A-)
This is a delightful little dark comedy about an elderly man (Jose Isbert) in a selfish bourgeois Spanish household who becomes obsessed with getting a motorized wheelchair. In Spanish, with English subtitles.
The Seed of Man (A-)
A wild and woolly sci-fi comedy about child-bearing in a depleted post-nuclear apocalypse world, this film stars Godard's rebel muse, Anne Wiazemsky, and Annie Girardot. In French, with English subtitles.
La Grande Bouffe (A)
Four rich hedonistic pals -- played by Mastroianni, Noiret, Piccoli and Tognazzi -- carry bourgeois excess to a deadly extreme. In French, with English subtitles.
Don't Touch the White Woman (A)
One of the most amazing Westerns ever, made by a man who obviously finds them ridiculous and proves it by staging a travesty of a John Ford cavalry picture in the barren hole left by the destruction of the market area of Les Halles in Paris. Mastroianni plays General Custer, Piccoli is Buffalo Bill, Noiret is another general and Tognazzi is a crazy Indian, along with Catherine Deneuve as the white woman you can't touch, in this cheerfully lunatic satire. In French, with English subtitles.
Bye-Bye Monkey (B)
U.S., France/Italy; 1978
Mastroianni and Gerard Depardieu are artist-bums in a rat-infested Manhattan in this tribute to King Kong that's also an attempt by Ferreri to let the women have their say. (Among other oddities, Depardieu is raped.) It doesn't work, and the English-language dialogue is awkward, but it has some mad, terrific scenes. In English.
Seeking Asylum (A-)
G-rated Ferreri, but funny and socially barbed all the same: this is a playful comedy about a bizarre schoolteacher and his kids, starring and co-written by the irrepressible Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful). In Italian, with English subtitles.
Tales of Ordinary Madness (B)
Ben Gazzara, Ornella Muti and Susan Tyrell appear in one of the first (and best) films adapted from the pungent lowlife works of American novelist Charles Bukowski. In English.
The House of Smiles (A)
Like El Cochecito, this film -- a Golden Bear winner at the Berlin Film festival -- portrays the plight of the elderly in unorthodox ways: Bergman actress Ingrid Thulin stars as a retirement home inmate looking for love and freedom. In Italian, with English subtitles.
OTHE NEW AND RFECENT RELEASES
What Happens in Vegas (D)
U.S.; Tom Vaughn, 2008, 20th Century Fox
What Happens in Vegas borrows its title from the leering Las Vegas vacation TV ad campaign ("What happens in Vegas...stays in Vegas"), a promo-gimmick that suggests that you can wallow in sin and fun in Las Vegas and not worry about consequences -- or blackmail. This unoriginal moniker adorns one of those unhappy movies in which the high-priced cast -- especially gorgeous stars Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher -- behave odiously or stupidly to each other for a couple of hours, and then make a convenient switcheroo just in time for a madly unconvincing "happy ever after" ending. It's a romantic comedy for masochists, crum-bumophiles and star-gazers: barely romantic, not very funny and, unlike most unfunny Hollywood sex comedies, not even very good-looking. Also appearing are Queen Latifah as a marriage counselor and Dennis Miller as a judge -- it would have been funnier if they'd switched roles. The film was directed by Tom Vaughn, who actually made a humorous Brit romantic comedy named Starter for Ten.
Dude, Where's My Car? (D)
U.S.; Danny Leiner, 2000, 20th Century Fox
Dudes, where's your brains? The second part of this week's Ashton Kutcher festival of dreck. Actually, it's not a bad title, and at least Kutcher -- and costar Seann William Scott -- survived it. (Extras: An accidentally erased discussion of the movie's social and esthetic qualities by critic/car fancier Vern Dorkblossom: "Dude, Where's My Commentary?")
French; Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Marc Caro, 1991, Lionsgate
After the bomb, there's a little bit of trouble in Paris, satisfying meat-eaters. It's probably the best cannibalism comedy ever made; Eating Raoul isn't even close. With Marie-Loure Dougnac and Dominique Pinon. In French, with English subtitles.
The Legend of the Lone Ranger (D+)
U.S.; William Fraker, 1981, Lionsgate
Ho-hum Silver, away! And who was that Masked Man, anyway? (Klinton Spilsbury.) Save your money for Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (B+)
Italy; Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1976, Criterion
Four decadent aristocrats, obsessed with sex and derrieres, capture and imprison a group of attractive youngsters and, backed by brutal and sometimes horny guards, subject them to the worst excesses of depravity, sexual subjugation, buttock fetishism and toilet games that their warped minds can imagine. Pasolini is a great filmmaker, but I've always found this film -- considered a masterpiece by some -- to be an itchy, crawly and unpleasant, if esthetically courageous effort. No doubt that's partly intentional: Pasolini, adapting the Marquis de Sade's long-censored novel, a graphic depiction of a massive string of sexual/scatological orgies, shows this pageant of copulation, masturbation and defecation -- and of course, sadism -- in an austere, elegant style that bleeds it of almost all sensuality. The aristocrats are leering creeps; their victims are mostly curiously passive sex toys. But Pasolini, who was murdered by a hustler (and perhaps by a conspiracy) a few months after the film was finished, gives his last movie an extra social/political dimension by switching the time to the World War II era, and making the aristocrats fascists -- which of course they always were. I don't like it, but Salo is certainly effective and killingly well-made -- by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, production designer Dante Ferretti and composer Ennio Morricone, as well as Pasolini --and Criterion has given it a great package. In Italian, with English subtitles. (Extras: Three documentaries; optional English-dubbed soundtrack; interviews with Ferretti and critic/filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin; a booklet with essays by filmmaker Catherine Breillat, Sam Rohdie, Gary Indiana and others.)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Special Edition) (A)
U.S.; Michael Curtiz/ William Keighley, 1938, Warner, Blu-Ray
It's one of the all-time great movie swashbucklers, with Erroll Flynn as the dashing, impudent, master archer/swordsman Robin; Olivia de Havilland as the fetching Maid Marian; Alan Hale, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette among the merry men, and Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone as truly villainous villains. (Rathbone, by the way, was Hollywood's best fencer/actor and could have taken Flynn, who was better at boxing.) Curtiz shot the interiors, Keighley the exteriors, Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote the memorable score, and the whole film is as beguiling and delightful as a picnic (with great swordfights) in Sherwood Forest. (Extras: Commentary by Rudy Behlmer; Warner Night at the Movies with Leonard Maltin; documentaries; featurettes; deleted scenes; shorts; Robin Hood radio show; Korngold piano session.)