PICKS OF THE WEEK
Quantum of Solace (B)
U.K.-U.S.; Marc Forster, 2008, MGM
Quantum of Solace, eh?
The first James Bond picture I saw was Goldfinger, during its first national release, at the Orpheum Theater. The theater was packed from stem to stern, and the audience, many probably University of Wisconsin students like me, was alive to the movie -- to every crinkled smile and steely quip of Sean Connery as 007, and every cliffhanger and laser-to-the-crotch that threatened him. It connected with the crowd like few shows I've seen.
Goldfinger knocked me out back then -- because of the intense audience response, but also because it was exciting and funny. (Remember that last word.) I've never had quite that juicy a ride with any 007 bash since, though The Spy Who Loved Me came close.
Now, on to the most recent Bond on my dance card: Quantum of Solace. (The title comes from an otherwise unrelated Ian Fleming short story.) It has a good director (Marc Forster of The Kite Runner), good or semi-good writers (Neal Purvis and Robert Wade of three previous Bonds and, more important, Paul Haggis of Million Dollar Baby and Crash). And it's probably the biggest-grossing Bond ever. But truth to tell, it didn't do as much for me as Goldfinger -- or for the spotty 10:30 a.m. crowd with whom I saw it.
It's not bad. It's certainly formula Bond. Daniel Craig's new, more sullen Bond beds the tart, bossy Camille (Olga Kurylenko), while pursuing her nefarious lover, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), owner of the duplicitous Greene Planet, an eco-corporation that's actually a criminal enterprise, and winds up foiling a Bolivian water swindle. Given its goals -- esthetic, commercial and otherwise, it's a success. Craig has clearly sealed the deal as the new Bond, grimmer and less bemused than Connery (still the best, in my Goldfinger-gilt mind), but capable of leaping from rooftop to rooftop and displaying casual sadism like few spy-killer-loverboys you could name.
Yet, despite strenuous efforts in The Bourne Identity vein, it's not as entertaining as Casino Royale, Goldfinger or, for that matter, From Russia, With Love, which is the movie I would advise the designated writers to watch carefully, again, before embarking on the next Bond script.
The 1963 From Russia, With Love was the favorite Bond film of writer Richard Maibaum, who wrote or co-wrote most of them, from 1962's Dr. No to 1989's License to Kill. Maibaum probably liked it so much because it gave him a formula and a franchise and a very good living for three decades. It was the movie that established the mode and style that made the movie series such a hit: a mix of the grim sadism and elegant wish fulfillment of Fleming's novels and the cool, insider humor that Maibaum and the others injected, and which Connery was so expert at delivering. ("Shocking!" Bond/Connery wryly says, after electrocuting a foe.)
Bond without humor is a hamburger without catsup, an Aston-Martin without steering, a gourmet dinner without wine. The 007 crew rediscovered something interesting in Casino: the elitist sadism of the books. But the humor is what makes Bond tick. Remember Dick Maibaum.
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1970, Criterion Classics
One of Akira Kurosawa's strangest and most haunting films, and his first in color, Dodes'ka-den is set in a Tokyo slum which, shot in radiant hues against stylized studio sets and cycloramas, sometimes resembles a gorgeous, curious playground. (It also looks like the child's crayon drawings that paper one hut's wall.) The sources of this movie are the short stories, set among impoverished Japanese, by writer Shugoro Yamamoto; the stories -- which show us such human tragedies and comedies as a case of jovial wife-swapping, a man whose wartime sufferings make him long for suicide, a young girl's rape by her sleazy uncle, a handicapped husband bullied by his abusive wife, and the slow starvation of a ragged homeless man and his tiny frail son, who live in a wrecked car and dream of a custom-made luxury home.
Any one of most of these tales could break your heart; together they form an odd, piercing pageant of suffering and perseverance, woven together like the Raymond Carver short stories Robert Altman made into Short Cuts. The color images have a childlike saturated gleam and the acting has a fairytale swagger and lyricism. Dodes'ka-den, which Kurosawa made with the help of his three colleague/friends Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi and Keisuke Kinoshita (the four tried to form a mutual production company but the failure of Kurosawa's film killed it) shows, like his film of Gorky's Lower Depths, his strong empathy with the poor and downtrodden. Though his perspective is often from a samurai's eye, he finds something to love in many of these beaten-down people, something to hate in a few.
Dodes'ka-den, made after his miserable American studio experience with Tora! Tora! Tora! (intended as a joint project for Kurosawa and John Ford) inaugurates the second half of the sensei's career. Though I found this film perplexing at first, back in 1970, over the years, I've begun to love it and see it as one of his masterpieces. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.) (Extras: Documentary on the making of Dodes'ka-den, Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create; trailer; booklet with Stephen Prince essay.)
Italy; Luchino Visconti, 1976, Koch Lorber
No one paints the Italian upper classes like maestro Luchino Visconti. L'Innocente, a visually stunning adaptation of the Gabrielle d'Annunzio novel, is a feast of sumptuous imagery and décor (life among the aristocrats), set behind shocking sexual obsessions and mad perversity. Giancarlo Giannini, as Tullio, an arrogant philanderer, cheats on his seemingly innocent wife (Laura Antonelli) with a beautiful fellow libertine (Jennifer O'Neill). Then, after discovering his wife's infidelity with a famous novelist, he goes mad with jealousy, desire and bloodlust.
This was Visconti's last film, and, as in Conversation Piece, he directed it from a wheelchair. But despite the somewhat static, stately feel, it's both a beautiful film and an often extremely disturbing one. Living a life of grandiloquent ease and luxury, of classical music recitals and fencing matches, the characters, especially Tullio, seem to lack for nothing. Yet they may lose everything, in the crucible of their own selfishness, passion and corruption. Like Visconti's great classic The Leopard, this is an operatic vision of grand but deeply flawed lives, full of beauty, grief, rage and terror. In Italian, with English subtitles. (Extra: Carlo Lizzani interview with L'Innocente writer Suso Cecchi d'Amico.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Three: William Wellman (A-)
U.S.; William Wellman, 1931-33, Warner Bros./TCM Archives
William Wellman was a raging bull of a maverick moviemaker, a two-fisted guy who liked to cry, and who loved airplanes, dancers, battling authority and making movies -- and one of the most interesting segments of his career is the one we see here. These are his films from the pre-Code era, when he was churning out (mostly for Warner Brothers), fast, racy movies that tended to show life as it is -- adultery, prostitution, gangsterism, bootlegging, Depression and social unrest -- without the filters of Hollywood's later era of censorship.
This was the period when Wellman made the Jimmy Cagney gangster classic Public Enemy. It's not included here, but you can tell these six films are from the same unbuttoned and daring studio era. The TCM set contains lots of nifty extras, including two good documentaries on Wellman, and one masterpiece, Wellman's great rough-house saga of kids on trains in the Depression, Wild Boys of the Road, starring Frankie Darro and Wellman's wife (and ex-Busby Berkeley dancer) Dorothy Coonan. Boys is the peak movie here, but the other five all have strong moments, vital imagery and audacious themes and stories. Bravo, Wild Bill! (Extras: Documentaries Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick, directed by Todd Robinson, and The Men Who Made the Movies, directed by Richard Schickel; commentaries; three S.S. Van Dine murder mystery shorts; cartoons, trailers.)
Other Men's Women (B)
Surprisingly strong triangle tale set in the world of trains and engineers, with Grant Withers, Mary Astor and Regis Toomey. Jimmy Cagney, in his pre-star days, has a supporting role; had he played the lead, this might have been a Warners classic.
The Purchase Price (C+)
Somewhat reminiscent of F.W. Murnau's City Girl, this peculiar romance has torrid Barbara Stanwyck as a tough city chantoozie on the lam, seeking refuge with stalwart Midwestern farmer George Brent. Outrageous but fun.
Frisco Jenny (C+)
A Madame X-style soap opera, with elegant sufferer Ruth Chatterton as the rich Frisco madame, who watches her illegitimate son (Donald Cook) rise to success and (unfortunately for her) moral idealism.
Midnight Mary (B)
The incredibly gorgeous young Loretta Young (who was as photogenic as Garbo or Dietrich) plays a tough beauty from the streets who becomes the moll of a brutal gangster (Ricardo Cortez) and the lovelight of a kind rich boy (Franchot Tone). Crazy clichéd stuff, but it really works. A sleeper.
Heroes for Sale (B)
One of the looniest political message movies ever, with self-sacrificing World War I vet Richard Barthelmess traveling through a pageant of Depression adventures and tragedies (including a labor riot exploding around poor Loretta Young). There's even a Communist inventor. All of it teaches us something about the New Deal and other political new waves.
Wild Boys of the Road (A)
Back in the 1960s, campus radicals, antiwar protestors and other rebels were crazy about this movie. And it still holds up both as blistering melodrama and as powerful populist moviemaking. In the depths of the Depression, two buddies (Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips) hit the road to help their strapped parents. On the way from the Midwest to New York City, they pick up a girl hobo (Dorothy Coonan), and endure hardship, starvation, train rape (by guard Ward Bond) and riots. One of Wellman's very best, along with Wings, Public Enemy, The Ox-Bow Incident and The Story of G.I. Joe. You'll be amazed at how this movie gets to you.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Odd Couple Paramount Centennial Collection (B)
U.S.; Gene Saks, 1968, Paramount
Nervous, punctilious Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) and wise-cracking slob Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) are longtime poker buddies thrown together in Oscar's N.Y. apartment because of marital troubles. Can they survive their own semi-conjugal non-bliss? Neil Simon's best play, and one of the best modern stage comedies -- though Simon never really did solve that last act. Saks' direction is pedestrian but okay; it's a shame Billy Wilder couldn't have done it with his two best acting buddies. (Simon's instincts were right though; Billy would have changed it. But then again, he might have solved the last act.)
To Catch a Thief Paramount Centennial Collection (A-)
U.S.; Alfred Hitchcock, 1955, Paramount
Cary Grant is a Riviera cat burglar, framed by another mysterious thief and chased by both the local gendarmerie and his old pals in the Resistance; Grace Kelly is a rich, luscious vacationer who can really get those fireworks going. One of Hitchcock's most purely entertaining movies, beautifully shot in Cannes and surrounding locations, with Grant and Kelly making up his sexiest couple, except maybe for Grant and Bergman in Notorious. From the novel by David Dodge. With Jessie Royce Landis, Charles Vanel and John Williams.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Midsomer Murders, Vol. 12 (B)
U.K.: various directors, 1997-2000, Acorn Media
Midsomer Murders, now in its 12th volume, is still one of the best of the breed of English TV village murder mysteries. Based on the Caroline Graham mysteries, starring John Nettles as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, they're modern stories that preserve some of the feel of the classic Agatha Christies, while getting in lots of contemporary culture, character, sexuality, perversity and social comment. With Jane Wymark, Jason Hughes and Laura Howard. All films in this four-disc set are U.K. productions, released in 2006.
Included: Four Funerals and a Wedding, directed by Sarah Hellings; Country Matters, directed by Richard Holthouse; Death in Chorus, directed by Hellings; and Last Year's Model, directed by Holthouse. (Extras: Text interviews with Nettles and Hughes, Graham biography, cast filmographies.)