PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.K.; Roman Polanski, 1965, Criterion Collection
In Roman Polanski's shiveringly erotic horror film Repulsion, the 22-year-old Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, a blond French beauty, with a disarmingly lost-looking and childlike face and a disturbingly sexy, nubile body (often exposed here) -- a girl who begins to go frighteningly mad when her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) leaves her alone a week or so, for a trip back to Paris.
Soon, the beautiful, nave and very sexually skittish young Carol, the object of mostly unwanted desire from nearly every man in the neighborhood, loses her job as a manicurist at the local beauty shop and -- increasingly prey to threatening nightmares and macabre sex fantasies -- holes up in her sister's messy apartment and keeps sinking into alienation and insanity as the dirt and squalor piles up, the shadows deepen and the food sprouts and rots. When the outside world begin to intrude -- in the persons of Colin, a likeably lovelorn young would-be beau (John Fraser), and a lecherous landlord (Patrick Wymark) -- Carol strikes back savagely, repulsed, with a bloody knife.
Repulsion, Polanski's first English-language movie, and also the first of his many collaborations with the reclusive, brilliant French screenwriter Gerard Brach (Cul-de-Sac, Dance of the Vampires, Tess, Bitter Moon), is one of the scariest films ever and also one of the great '60s black-and-white film noirs. Polanski, his ingenious art director Seamus Flannery, and the remarkable British cinematographer Gilbert Taylor -- who was coming off two other black-and-white British classics, 1964's A Hard Day's Night and Dr. Strangelove -- plunge us into a world of escalating horror and oozy, trembling, tactile fright -- where the sight of a skinned, decaying rabbit carcass or the sound of a dripping faucet become as terrifying as the slashed corpses and Carol's horrific Cocteau-ish dreams of groping hands emerging from the walls around her.
The most disturbing image in the entire film, for me, is the recurring sight of three stooped, threadbare little buskers, two hunched over and one walking backwards, as they play their odd haunting music, on the sidewalks below the mounting terror in the apartment. Who are those buskers? What is their world? What do they signify? Why do they seem so ominous, so alien, such harbingers of doom?
Polanski would later trap himself in a deadly apartment in the Brach-scripted The Tenant and, very memorably, he would imprison Adrien Brody, like Anne Frank, in a holocaust hideaway, as Warsaw Ghetto fugitive and classical musician Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist. But Carol's entrapment here, both physical and emotional, is the most eerie. Polanski uses Deneuve's stunning beauty, the gorgeous face and figure that had already conquered the international art film world in Jacques Demy's Cannes Palme d'Or winner, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, to hook and plunge us into his whirlpool of strangeness and horror.
It's a weird reversal. Carol is both the object of intense voyeurism (reminiscent of shower-bound Janet Leigh in Psycho) and a voyeur herself, both the inspiration and the dispenser of violence. It's easy to psychoanalyze the holocaust fugitive and sometime sexual outlaw Polanski, the agoraphobic Brach, and Repulsion -- a last shot of a family photo in Helen's apartment, suggests that Carol was always a loner and maybe the victim of sexual molesting. But nothing can prepare you for the sheer tactile and visual intensity and shock of this nightmare: the way Polanski and his incredible company, on a minimal budget, immerse us in inexorably mounting madness and relentless mental and physical deterioration.
That's why, ultimately, Repulsion scares such hell out of us. Because Polanski's movie makes Carol's nightmare so indelibly, entrappingly, inescapably our own. (Extras: Commentary by Polanski and Deneuve, two documentaries including interviews with Polanski and Taylor; trailers; booklet with essay by Bill Horrigan.)
Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (A)
U.S.; Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden, 2009, Red Distribution
Anita O'Day was a white girl jazz singer whom almost all the experts rank with the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn. She was also a plucky, often unlucky adventuress who led a real jazz life -- a biography, improvised and dangerous, that included hard times and years as a heroin addict, thanks to her "bad influence" junkie drummer-consort.
This superb documentary, successful on every level, brings us both the music and the woman, the song and the singer, from her early big band days with Gene Krupa ("Drum Boogie") and Stan Kenton ("And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine"), to her still active octogenarian years -- with plenty of classic O'Day performances and glowing testimonials from a gallery of experts.
There's an unforgettable high point: Anita at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival (in the performance immortalized on Bert Stern's Jazz on a Summer's Day), resplendent and ultra-cool in her summery straw hat and Vogue charmer outfit, delivering her legendary knockout, playfully dissonant, completely untraditional rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown." You listen. You watch. All you can say is "Wow!" (Extras: Booklet, bonus O'Day performances.)
Twelve Monkeys (A-)
U.S.; Terry Gilliam, 1995, MCAV9, Blu-Ray
Terry Gilliam's wild, oddball sci-fi epic, inspired by Chris Marker's 1962 ode to time remembered and worlds lost, La Jetee, puts Bruce Willis through the time-space wringer as a tireless time traveler, seeking the source of a killing worldwide plague that ravaged Earth in the '90s. Like Brazil, Twelve Monkeys is another darkly comic Gilliam extravaganza, with a terrific cast that includes Christopher Plummer, Madeleine Stowe, Frank Gorshin and, in one of his very best performances, as a memorable nutcase, Brad Pitt.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler (B)
U.S.; various directors, 1933-36, Warner Archive
Those '30s super-camp musical stars and frequent movie singing boy and girlfriend -- dimpled Dick Powell and dazed darling Ruby Keeler -- are best known for their jaw-dropping Busby Berkeley choreographed outings in 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and Dames. This more obscure budget bundle from the admirably inclusive Warner Archive Collection offers Powell and Keeler's three other joint film appearances (including the two directed by the great Hollywood romantic Frank Borzage), plus one apiece with Dick and Ruby changing partners.
The more famous of the Borzages, 1934's Flirtation Walk -- which sets Dick and Ruby's lovebird antics in West Point -- was a big hit and a best picture Oscar nominee. The other movies are mostly neglected or forgotten and sometimes terminally cute, like the costars at their wooziest and whimsiest.
But how can your heart not be warmed and tickled a bit, by Dick's ingratiatingly boyish smile and flirty boy-tenor warbling and by Ruby's somnolent singing and strangely heavy-footed, floppy-armed toe-tapping? These movies are all pretty entertaining. Even the weakest of them, the cloying Ready, Willing and Able (that's what you think) may make you smile.
And the two Borzages -- by-gosh-and-golly celebrations of the mythos of Army (Flirtation Walk) and Navy (the forgotten and underrated Shipmates Forever), by one of the screen's great makers of pacifist love stories or fables (Seventh Heaven and No Greater Glory) -- are both bizarrely heartwarming and oddly spirit-rousing. So are Dick and Ruby. All movies are U.S. releases.
Flirtation Walk (B)
Frank Borzage, 1934
With Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Pat O'Brien and (in a bit) Tyrone Power. The Warners lovebirds bill and coo at West Point, under sturdy O'Brien's watchful Irish eye.
Happiness Ahead (B)
Mervyn LeRoy, 1934
With Powell, Josephine Hutchinson and Frank McHugh. Dick is a love-struck skyscraper window washer smitten with a rich girl playing poor. The love interest, then-lithe and sexy Josephine Hutchinson, was a '30s romantic mainstay; 25 years later, flashing the same beneficent smile she was even more memorable as the phony U.N. diplomat's wife in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.
Shipmates Forever (B)
With Powell, Keeler and Lewis Stone. Obviously an attempt to reinvent the hit Flirtation Walk in a Navy setting, this one puts brash crooner Dick (like The Doors' Jim Morrison, an admiral's son) and naval-gazing charmer Ruby at Annapolis. I actually like Shipmates a little better, because it's a little nuttier.
Alfred E. Green, 1936
With Powell, Keeler, Joan Blondell, Jack Oakie and Hugh Herbert. The funniest of this quintet, this tale of a batty, horny millionaire (Hugh Herbert, "woo-wooing" away), his singin' son, and the melodious or fast-talking trio behind a dubious but fancy-schmancy dress shop (Keeler, Blondell and Oakie) also boasts imitation Fred-and-Ginger numbers by Paul Draper and Keeler. The script was co-written by F. Hugh ("The Moon is Blue") Herbert, and no, he's no ("woo-woo!") relation.
Ready, Willing and Able (C)
Ray Enright, 1937
With Keeler, Lee Dixon and Allen Jenkins. Keeler is a phony musical star (interesting casting), but removing Dick does this series no good. This one does, however, boast the screen debut of the Johnny Mercer song classic "Too Marvelous for Words," in a marvy, just too-too and just too very-very giant-typewriter production number.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Fast and Furious (D+)
U.S.; Justin Lin, 2009, Universal
Fast and Furious -- fourth in the mega-muscle-car-chase, car-crash series that began with The Fast and the Furious back in 2001 -- is a show for anyone who likes to waste a lot of time, or who could get sexually excited at the thought of Vin Diesel in a 1970 Dodge Charger smacking into Paul Walker in an F-Bomb Camaro (or maybe it was the 1972 Gran Torino), while a gang of fiendish Mexican drug dealers snarl and swagger, hide out in churches and smuggle heroin though the border in racetrack cave tunnels, and every girl is either rubbing fenders in bikini tops, spouting soap operatic twaddle or hopping from diesel fuel trucks as they careen around mountain roads during daring gas heist robberies.
Meanwhile, reggaeton hits flood the soundtrack, the L.A. FBI agents in charge of the heroin case scream and sucker punch each other, our pal Vin dangles suspects out of windows and the whole gang parties and rocks on occasionally in the Dominican Republic.
Should I go on? You don't have to be a mindless cretin or an auto-junkie to be entertained by this movie, but it sure helps. It also helps to have seen the original Fast and the Furious since this picture, unlike the second and third installments, is more of a genuine sequel, picking up the original characters where they actually left off. Unfortunately, back in 2001, I walked out of The Fast and the Furious (a rare early escape for me) because I wasn't reviewing it and it looked incredibly stupid -- and I've regretted that ever since, because now, unless I decide to catch it on DVD, I'll never really know why people keep going to these damned things. I then skipped the solo Paul Walker narco-thriller 2 Fast, 2 Furious -- the title alone made me cringe, though I'm sure some marketing expert thought it was the cutest sequel handle since the nickname Die Harder -- but I had to sit through The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, on the job. It was torture.
Now comes Fast and Furious without any impeding articles, and with the actual joint return of the team of Vin's surly Dom Toretto and Walker's California cutie Brian O'Conner -- two bros under the skin on opposite sides of the law. Along for the rides: their girlfriends, truck-hopping Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Brian's ex-squeeze and Dom's sexy sis Mia (Jordana Brewster), all racing around in a very messy plot involving Mexican narco-sharks Campos, played by John Ortiz and Fenix, played by Laz Alonso, plus those bad-tempered FBI agents -- all done in a style that I guess is intended to evoke Sam Peckinpah on cocaine, or Sergio Leone without spaghetti, but instead suggests a Michael Bay clone on crystal meth.
I'm sure that director Justin Lin (whose Better Luck Tomorrow now looks even more overrated) and writer Chris Morgan, don't care about reactions this, and are laughing all their way to the bank -- much like that previous car-chase expert Hal Needham, who directed his buddy Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit (and some of its inglorious progeny) and once affirmed that his favorite kind of movie criticism was a whole wheelbarrow full of money.
Anyway, Dom and Letty are south of the border, Brian and Mia (unattached to each other) are in L.A., Campos and Fenix are racing around in between with their heroin, and the audience watching them, at least according to the marketing plan, is supposedly eventually in a reggaeton-drenched trance, blissed out on speed, Chevy Chevelles and bikini tops. But, despite good Amir Mokri cinematography, the only time this bloated buzz-bomb of a movie entertained me was in that first gas truck heist, though after a while that just reminded me how much I'd rather be watching a movie like Henri-Georges Clouzot's nitro-on-the-trucks thriller The Wages of Fear, or even William Friedkin's failed Fear remake Sorcerer -- or hell, even Smokey and the Bandit -- than this turbo-charged turkey.
I'd like to say that Vin Diesel -- the surly young Telly Savalas type who became a star because of the first Fast -- transcended his vehicle, because I enjoyed his work in Saving Private Ryan and Sidney Lumet's Find Me Guilty" (Diesel would have been good in the Jack Warden part in Lumet's 12 Angry Men, which is a big compliment.) But the fact is that nobody transcends their vehicle in this movie. These vehicles are untranscendable. This script is undrivable. These speeches are unspeakable. The best performance in Fast and Furious is given by the Dodge Charger, or maybe the 1972 Ford Gran Torino or the F-Bomb Camaro or the 1987 Buick Grand National. The cars have the most charisma, and the keenest psychology. They also have the best lines. I hope they get their own movie soon, maybe one as well-written as Pixar's Cars.
So what's next for the fast and furious franchise? Well, how about wrapping up the whole gas-guzzling magilla with the grand summation 2 Fast 2B Furious or maybe 2 Furious 2B Fast -- in which bros-under-the-hood Dom and Walker give it all up, join a monastery in Bavaria and are forced to compete in a high-stakes snowmobile and pogo stick race through the mountains, masterminded by evil mogul Adolph Shickelgruber. One of our heroines (spoiler alert) could come back as an angel and the other could model Bavarian bikini tops. Of course, if you look on the bad side, that movie could be a surprise hit and we might then be flooded with monks-on-pogo-sticks movies with Gregorian reggaeton soundtracks (12 Angry Monks?). Too bleepin' bad. 'Cause then Vin will never get to re-team with Lumet and make a real 12 Angry Men and Women, with Johnny Depp or Meryl Streep as Juror No. 8. (Extras: Commentary by Lin, digital copy of film, featurettes, gag reel, short film Los Bandeleros.
The Education of Charlie Banks (C)
U.S.; Fred Durst, 2008, Anchor Bay
One of those stud-nerd male bonding stories, fairly intelligent but not too convincing, about introvert Charlie (Jesse Eisenberg) and the invasion of his elite college milieu by sometimes brutal street kid extrovert Mick (Jason Ritter). Wrier Peter Elkoff based it on a real incident and some real characters, but they don't seem real. They seem like male-bonding and dream-girl fantasy figures, with Great Gatsby pretensions, and the ending just clangs. (Extras: Commentary with Durst and Ritter.)
Soldier in the Rain (A-)
U.S.; Ralph Nelson, 1963, Warner Archive
Based on William Goldman's funny, touching novel about male bonding and the sneakier operations of the peacetime Army, with Jackie Gleason, Steve McQueen and Tuesday Weld in three paradigmatic roles: as wily Master Sgt. Maxwell Slaughter, his worshipful acolyte Supply Sergeant Eustis Clay, and Maxwell's improbable honeybunch of a teen queen girlfriend. It starts as broad comedy, then veers into sentimental drama, well-done in both cases by one of my favorite utterly neglected directors, Ralph Nelson (Requiem for a Heavyweight, Lilies of the Field).
The ritual Slaughter-Clay goodbye by McQueen and Gleason ("See you later, Maxwell." "Until that time, Eustis, until that time") becomes quite affecting, and this is maybe the best and richest movie performance Gleason ever gave. The scenarists, Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin, were just on the verge of the Peter Sellers-Inspector Clouseau series when they adapted Goldman here, and in a way, this is a more serious companion to scripter Edwards' earlier Jack Lemmon-Mickey Rooney-Ernie Kovacs screwball service comedy, Operation Mad Ball. But that one didn't make you tear up a little, as this one does. With Tony Bill and Tom Poston.
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (D+)
U.S.; Arthur Lubin, 1944, Universal
As campy as they come: The Jon Hall-Maria Montez exotic team, this time without Sabu (quite a loss), return for another Arabian Nights romantic farrago. (I prefer Popeye's Ali Baba, saying "Open, sez me.") Andy Devine, in a rare off-type bullyboy mode, plays the fierce outlaw and ferocious swordsman Abdullah, and Turhan Bey is also around. If this movie were a genie, you'd want to shove it back in the bottle. But it has its (few) moments.
Johnny Eager (B)
U.S.; Mervyn LeRoy, 1941, Warner Archive
Either late gangster or early noir, this wildly improbable but engaging crime romance has Robert Taylor as a sexy gang boss playing nice for the parole people, Lana Turner as the prosecutor's susceptible blond bombshell daughter who falls for Taylor, Edward Arnold as the prosecutor dad who hates him, Barry Nelson and Paul Stewart as assorted scum who double-cross him, and, in his Oscar-winning supporting performance, Van Heflin as Taylor's drunken poetry-quoting sidekick, who probably loves him more than Lana. For an American Golden Age studio crime movie, scripted by the estimable John Lee Mahin (writing with the erratic Duke Wayne hanger-on James Edward Grant), this one doesn't make much sense. But it's watchable.
Four Daughters (B)
U.S.; Michael Curtiz, 1938, Warner Archive
The Lane Sisters, Priscilla, Rosemary and Lola, play three of the four daughters of fatherly classical musician/teacher Claude Rains. (Gale Page plays the fourth.) Their enthusiastic beaus include grinning Jeffrey Lynn, sturdy Dick Foran, affable Frank McHugh, and, in the role of misanthrope composer Mickey Borden that made him a star, John Garfield -- whose acidic presence here is like a tarantula crawling across a Norman Rockwell cover. Based on a Fannie Hurst story and directed by Curtiz with such zip, energy and pace that you tend to buy everything. This was a big hit, and the Lane Sisters in their late-'30s-early-'40s heyday, especially the second-string Ginger Rogers-ish Priscilla, were quite an act.