PICKS OF THE WEEK
Paranormal Activity (B)
U.S.; Oren Peli, 2009, Paramount
This surprise mega-hit, which had a production budget big enough for a few Chinese dinners and a small car, has grossed mega-millions on a minuscule initial investment. Why? The setup, of course, is ingenious. Actors Katie Featherson and Micah Sloat, playing brainy bedmates Katie and Micah, are mostly alone together in Micah's isolated house, where Katie is being pursued by the ghosts or demons that have plagued her all her life. Meanwhile, Micah tries to find evidence of what's happening and cure her, by filming everything he can on his video camera -- including eerie nocturnal views of the pair sleeping, with a very scary running time record blipping along on the bottom right corner of the screen.
Cloverfield actually holds its own amateur-camera conceit better than this movie. But Paranormal Activity is still pretty damned clever. The dialogue is believable. The acting is very good throughout. And the shocks aren't over-frequent or overplayed. Very smartly marketed, it deserved to be a hit. Distribution companies should take more chances on this kind of smart, low-budget little gem, even when they aren't horror movies.
Two for the Seesaw (B)
U.S.; Robert Wise, 1962, MGM
William Gibson's two-character romantic comedy, about the red state-blue state romance between a visiting Midwestern lawyer and a New York City free spirit, was a Broadway hit with a brilliant, magical stage cast: Henry Fonda as the lawyer and Anne Bancroft as his luckless urban sweetie Gittel Mosca. It would have been nice to see those two in this movie version.
Still, the movie has an attractive pair of its own, king of cool Robert Mitchum and princess pixie kook Shirley MacLaine. The two had an off-screen affair with each other during the shooting, and the natural affection shows. The movie, not as juicy or warm as it might have been with Fonda and Bancroft, is well-acted and crisply and cleanly directed, sometimes on location, by one of Jean-Pierre Melville's favorite filmmakers, Robert Wise. (Melville once named Wise's jazz-scored noir heist thriller Odds Against Tomorrow as one of his three favorite movies.) Seesaw was a model new-style romance for the '50s; it also touched base in the increasingly liberated '60s. And Mitchum and MacLaine can get motors running in any era.
Summer Storm (A-)
U.S.; Douglas Sirk, 1944, VCI Entertainment/Kit Parker Films
From the vantage point of Communism's first years, the summer storms of love and folly in early-20th-century czarist Russia are recalled by the memoirs of an aristocratic ex-judge in this Douglas Sirk adaptation of Anton Chekov's poignant novel The Shooting Party. It's as compelling as any vintage '50s Sirk melodrama. Back in those seemingly innocent times, everyone and everything, especially the susceptible males, seems to revolve around the irresistible peasant class schemer femme fatale Olga (played by Linda Darnell at her poutiest and most insolently sexy). Among her victims: George Sanders as a moody, sophisticated judge, enslaved by passion; Edward Everett Horton as a genial, fey count nicknamed "Piggy," infatuated as well; Hugo Haas as her adoring peasant worker husband; Sig Ruman as her drunken lout of a father; and Anna Lee as the judge's abandoned fiancée -- who's now a Communist-era publisher reading his scandalous memoirs.
Under Sirk's urbane, literate, tasteful direction, they're all first-rate. Horton actually may have merited an Oscar nomination. The eternal Astaire-Rogers doofus sidekick's portrayal of lustful, dithering, pleasure-loving Piggy is a great performance -- though it was critically neglected in 1944, probably because Piggy's hilarious yet pathetic mannerisms seemed so inevitably Hortonesque.
This is one of Sirk's best, most personal and most finely crafted films -- though it doesn't have that reputation at all. It's a much better movie than Sirk's official (and engagingly absurd) classic, Magnificent Obsession.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Casualties of War/Black Hawk Down
U.S.; Brian De Palma, Ridley Scott, 1989-2001, Sony
In The Hurt Locker mode: two scarring, high-style looks at the most brutal sides of war.
Casualties of War (B)
U.S., Brian De Palma, 1989
A tormented might-be whistle-blower (Michael J. Fox) tries to deal with the nightmarish aftermath of a Vietnam patrol that led to rape and murder -- and with the menace of the macho leader (Sean Penn) who brought it on. Written by David Rabe, based on a real-life incident and Daniel Lang's New Yorker reportage, this is a controversial but popular movie, much admired by De Palma partisan Pauline Kael.
Black Hawk Down (A-)
U.S.; Ridley Scott, 2001
Portrait of a disaster: the failed 1993 U.S. Somalian expedition, which we see, piece by bloody piece, from the viewpoints of soldiers always under fire, always a second or so from possible death. Amazingly well reconstructed and stunningly photographed (by Slawomir Idziak). The lusty, cast includes Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Jeremy Piven, Orlando Bloom, Sam Shepard and Tom Sizemore.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Shane Acker, 2009, Universal
The future, darkly. In this often stunning-looking feature cartoon the world has become a twilight mass of wreck, ruin, devastation and weird buildings, rotting under dour skies and populated by doll-like little robots with button eyes, pursued by their nemesis, a huge monstrous metal killing machine. They're all remnants of a Terminator-style war between men and machines, in which the dear little robots, spawn of a humanistic scientist (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer), preserve all that is left of the human race, its sensibilities and ideals. Meanwhile, the killing machine chases the humanoids through streets and wasteland -- and the robots, urged on by plucky No. 9 (Elijah Wood), seem doomed to fall, one by one, to the claws of the monster.
Incredible animated visuals adorn this beautifully designed dystopian fantasy-fable, expanded by director-story writer Shane Acker from his Oscar-nominated short, and produced by a combine that includes Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (of the Night Watch movies). The short was a wordless chase duel between 9 and the monster. The movie adds the other eight robots and gives them personalities and conflicts. We get domineering, gloomy leader No. 1 (Christopher Plummer), steadfast No. 5 (John C. Reilly), old scientist No. 2 (Martin Landau), obsessive artist No. 6 (Crispin Glover), outspoken fem-doll No. 7 (Jennifer Connelly) and, of course, adventurous, reckless No. 9 -- who wreaks far more havoc among his fellow survivors than he intends. Despite that cast, the dialogue scenes are often weaker than the wordless ones -- but the latter makes the film special.
9 has visuals to match, or even at times surpass, the marvelously blighted dystopian landscapes of Wall-E. But it isn't as good a story, and it doesn't have as lovable a hero -- perhaps because gung-ho little 9 really does overreach, bringing on potential destruction to his mates. Still, Acker has the kind of graphic cartoon genius Burton had (in his shorts), and it's clear why they're kindred spirits. Something wondrous may come of their partnership, if not always from the seeming future ruins of our eco-damaged, machine-ruled planet.