PICKS OF THE WEEK
Shine a Light (A)
U.S.; Martin Scorsese, 2007, Warner
Anyone who loves movies or rock 'n' roll, or both, and doesn't get excited at the prospect of Shine a Light -- the new concert film with the Rolling Stones, directed by Martin Scorsese -- well, what can I say? They run the risk of cheating themselves out of an incandescent experience and a knockout show. This DVD is the vibrant record of a live 2006 concert at Manhattan's Beacon Theatre on the "Bigger Bang" tour -- and it's thrilling and warming and knock-you-on-your ass brilliant: a sexy super shock wave of rock.
No one plays rock with more lustiness, gusto and power than the now-in-their-60s Stones: Mick Jagger, the tireless perpetual-motion sex machine front man; Keith Richards, the wasted-looking, devil-fingered genius guitarist; Ronny Wood, his virtuoso reed-thin guitar buddy; and Charlie Watts, the stoic, peerless, calm-at-the-eye-of-the-storm drummer.
And no one records and captures rock with more sensitivity and visual panache than Scorsese -- the nervous fast-talking rock 'n' roll movie master. Marty edited part of the 1970 epic Woodstock at the start of his career, recently knocked off that stinging Bob Dylan rock doc No Direction Home and also, in The Last Waltz, with the Band and their all-star friends (including Dylan), crafted a real gem and one of Shine's few rivals as a rock concert film. Both of them are movies that put you right on stage, hurl you into the heart and soul of the music, start you up, get your heart pumping, zap you, unzip you and send shivers down your spine.
Neither Marty nor the Stones disappoint us in Shine a Light -- and that's putting it mildly.
Scorsese's director of photography, as in The Departed, is the fiery-eyed Robert Richardson (who often works with another Stone). And backing up Richardson is a whole hall of fame of fellow cinematographers, including John Toll, Andrew Lesnie, Robert Elswit, Ellen Kuras, Stuart Dryburgh and Emmanuel Lubezki. With that team of pro's pros on call, Scorsese uses the intimate shooting techniques he mastered in The Last Waltz. He keeps the cameras roaming the stage like best friends or co-conspirators, while the editing (David Tedeschi) pulls you in further and deeper. The movie seemingly shows us everything we'd want to see (the music, the camaraderie, the little back-squeezes and wry smiles), and it punches across both the thrill of listening to the concert and of making and living that music on stage.
Is Shine a Light the best rock concert movie ever? It's damn close. Stop Making Sense, by Jonathan Demme out of Talking Heads, is a worthy candidate for all-time concert movie honors. But Sense doesn't move you and shake you like this one. Neither does U23D, a good recent competitor that also pales next to Shine a Light.
I'm really partial to the best of the Stones' other concert movie gigs -- especially the Maysles Brothers' searing 1970 cinema verite classic Gimme Shelter and Michael Cohl, Julien Temple and company's huge screen blowout The Rolling Stones Live the Max -- but they're a step or three behind Shine as well. Woodstock and The Last Waltz are its only real competitors.
The inevitable questions arise, since the Stones are all now in their 60s: Could this be The Last Time? (Hope not.) And is Shine a Light an old man's movie? Not really, though it definitively shatters the myth that rock is a young man's game. The guys here wear their wrinkles and lines like badges. They can still boogie and scream up a storm.
God, can they still play and sing! Richards, the one we've been worrying about for four decades, rises from his Chuck Berry-Muddy Waters inferno once again and does another variation on his famous signature hey-I'm-still-alive greeting "Good to be here! Good to be anywhere!" by turning it into "Great to see you! Great to see anybody!" before proceeding to outplay and out-grin (and even for a moment, on "You Got the Silver" out-front) any half-dozen modern day pop tarts or guitar heroes.
As for indefatigable health nut Jagger, he once again lead-sings and sprints through a good part of rock music's all-time best songwriters' catalogue, the Jagger-Richards file. (Sorry -- Lennon-McCartney, Harrison and Starr, as a unit, quit too early). From "Start Me Up" to "Satisfaction," he jumps and jack-flashes, outsings and outdances everyone in sight or memory -- even, in some ways, the younger Mick. Somehow, this no-fat-on-these-bones 63-year-old impresses you more in his latter years.
Midway through, when Jagger traverses a wall of blazing light on stage, as the drums roll and pound for "Sympathy for the Devil," he seems to be passing through both Heaven and Hell, to some place better than either. He's the Stone that, like Sisyphus' rock, never stops rolling.
Am I forgetting Charlie Watts, the great Stone face with the magic hands, Buster Keaton's drum-pounding heir, the architect of the beat? Or Ron Wood, the fiercely intent guitar man/painter spilling out rivers of melody? Not much chance of that. So much guts and energy and great roaring music pours off the Beacon stage from the Stones and their top-chop backup band and backup singers (including primo bassist, Miles Davis veteran and Bill Wyman replacement Darryl Jones), that it seems a sin and a stupidity to run across the old dumb chestnut that rock is the musical province of youth and rebellion and the current Stones are superannuated corporatized pop geezers, ripe for exposure and hype-deflation by rock-crit whippersnappers or sodden star writers. (Sure, sure.)
Jagger a fossil? Richards a fig? Charlie a fogy? Ronnie a relic? Crap and triple crap. Rock is not intrinsically and exclusively the music of youth, community and rebellion -- any more than jazz or Tin Pan Alley were. That's a dubious seminar notion meant to scare up a little grad school respectability. At its core, rock is more the music of getting laid and getting high -- sometimes, of course, in youthful, communal, rebellious ways.
Does that seem to trivialize the music? It shouldn't. What's more important in life -- and to life -- than getting laid? Who makes better lovemaking records (or, as David O. Selznick called it, schtupping music) than the Stones? The rise of rock (and the Stones) paralleled and mirrored the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras. But the songs and their singers never had to be calls to revolution or social conscience to win us over, even though "Salt of the Earth" and "Street Fighting Man" still seem pretty damned good ones. The Stones' greatest songs -- including "Satisfaction," "Jumping Jack Flash," "Sympathy for the Devil," "Start Me Up," "Brown Sugar" and "Honky Tonk Women" (all on the set-list here) and others are mostly riveting, raunchy, primal turn-ons. That's why they're great.
Bill and Hillary Clinton -- Bill was the evening's birthday boy emcee -- were present at this concert. So was Ahmet Ertegun, the grand impresario of Atlantic, who died in an accident on concert night and has the film dedicated to him. Now, both the Clintons seem longtime Stones fans. (So is Barack Obama, who, when asked on TV to choose between the Beatles and the Stones, voted the Stones ticket.) And that shows something about the band's constituency, from boomers on. No matter whom they share a stage with -- and the other guests here include famed youngsters Jack White and Christina Aguilera (grinding away with Mick) and magisterial bluesman Buddy Guy (who gets Keith's guitar for a trophy) -- the once bad boy Stones always seem the real royalty.
And more. They can still get it on. They can still make us happy. When they sing and play, they're the ones who -- like Bob Dylan in that transcendent climax in Scorsese's other rock concert masterpiece The Last Waltz -- seem forever young.
The Outlaw and His Wife (A)
Sweden; Victor Sjostrom, 1918
With Victor Sjostrom (B-)
Sweden; Gosta Werner, 1981, Kino
A Man There Was (A-)
Sweden; Victor Sjostrom, 1917
With Ingeborg Holm (A)
Sweden; Sjostrom, 1913, Kino
Victor Sjostrom, a Viking of a 20th-century Swedish artist, a great actor-director with sad, somber eyes, infallible instincts and a granite chin, is best known for his masterful performance, at 78, as the dying, memory-tormented professor Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman's 1957 classic, Wild Strawberries. But Bergman picked Sjostrom not just for his genius as an actor but out of reverence for his Svensk Filmindustri mentor's massive screen achievements in the 1910s and '20s as one of the greatest silent filmmakers. Three of Sjostrom's early classics, two starring Sjostrom, are now being released on Kino, on two separate discs, along with a fine 1981 documentary, Victor Sjostrom, produced by Bengt Forslund (The Emigrants and The New Land).
The masterpiece of this consistently superb set is The Outlaw and his Wife (1918), a grim yet rapturously beautiful saga of love on the run, set in Iceland's mountains and based on the play by Johann Sigurjonsson. The story is reminiscent of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, but it's far sadder and more tragic -- with Sjostrom in one of his best brooding performances as Kari/Ejvind, the Jean Valjean-ish giant of a man who, like Jean, is unfairly imprisoned for years for stealing food for his family; then escapes, wins the heart of a rich widow (played by Edith Erastoff, who later married Sjostrom) and, after being exposed, is forced to flee with her into the mountains where they are pursued by an evil bailiff. Shot in Lapland by Sjostrom's great cinematographer Julius Jaenzon, the towering snowy landscapes are rugged and stunning; the story is full of ecstasy and anguish, danger and heartbreak. This is a great, historically important film that even the cognoscenti among you may have missed -- in a finely restored print.
A Man There Was (Terje Vigen) stars Sjostrom again, as another wronged hero in a powerful adaptation of an epic poem by Henrik Ibsen. Here, Sjostrom plays a man who loses his family when he's caught up in the crossfire of war and imprisoned as he tries to bring food -- then years later is faced with the option of saving, from an ocean storm, the family of the officer who captured him. The brilliant snowscapes of Outlaw are replaced by equally striking shores and seascapes, shot on location (by Jaenzon) with a dark poetry that summons up Turner or Winslow Homer.
Finally Ingeborg Holm, a big favorite of Bergman's, is an annihilating tearjerker, acted with tremendous, Griffith-like emotional power -- especially by Hilda Borgstrom in the title role. It's about another widow whose three children are torn from her by the cruel policies of the local workhouse and its heartless bureaucrats. This Dickensian tale has an elemental force that avoids the obvious sentimental pitfalls and becomes wrenchingly affecting. Taken together, Sjostrom's three films reveal an artistic/cinematic sensibility of the highest order. The documentary, director Gosta Werner's 1981 Victor Sjostrom, is a good, sympathetic tribute to this unjustly neglected master of the silent movie. (All Sjostrom-directed films are silent, with intertitles and musical scores; the documentary is in Swedish, with English subtitles.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Hungary; Bela Tarr, 1994, Facets
It's seven hours long, and it begins with an eerie mood-setter, a long humanless sequence of aimlessly wandering cattle on empty farm grounds. Then it continues with a relentlessly downbeat drama shot in long takes and black-and-white images of shivery force and beauty, with minimal dialogue and harrowingly bleak backdrops in the seediest of environs: an abandoned Hungarian collective farm mostly seen under an incessant rainfall.
Yet Bela Tarr's extraordinary Satantango, strange and maddening as it well may seem to the non-art film lover, is one of the oddball cinematic masterworks of our time: a movie that has mesmerized me on two separate viewings and that ranks with the finest works of other uncompromising contemporary film artists (and masters of extreme long-take staging) like Alexander Sokurov, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Theo Angelopoulos. This excellent Facets release is a deluxe film box set of unrelenting bizarreness yet formidable visual grace and masterly control, fit for the most demanding aficionados and purist film lovers.
The script by Tarr and Laszlo Krasznahorkai follows a band of outsiders, on-the-fringe characters who eke out a miserable existence on the abandoned farm, including several con artists who are bilking them or falsely raising hopes. Each scene tends (though not exclusively) to be shot in one or several long takes, with Gabor Medvigy's camera slowly yet magnetically prowling around the interiors and exteriors. People cheat on each other, spy on each other, hide from each other, and gather in forlorn groups for desperate journeys. What follows s a twisted odyssey and a supremely melancholy film noir, full of desolate images and incredible long takes. The remarkable cast includes Mihaly Vig, Putyi Horvath and Laszlo Lugossy.
This is a little-seen masterpiece -- and though some won't appreciate its long, anxious, low-key perfection, others will be gripped and astonished. Four discs, in Hungarian, with English subtitles. (Extras: Fully restored edition, plus Tarr's 1982 Shakespearean adaptation of Macbeth; Mihaly Vig's 1995 Journey on the Plain, a documentary on Satantango; and Tarr's 2004 Prologue, his segment of the omnibus film Visions of Europe.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Robert Luketic, 2008, Sony
The glitzy drama-fable follows a band of genius MIT students (played by a cast including Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth) led by a rogue prof (Kevin Spacey, at his meanest) who make regular card-counting forays into Las Vegas blackjack tables. The new guy is Sturgess, eventually suitably chastened by his experiences -- which include a beating at the hands of casino security expert Laurence Fishburne. This is supposedly based on fact, and on Ben Mezrich's book Bringing Down the House, but you'd never guess it. (Do casinos keep their licenses after thuggery like this? Why?) Helmed by Legally Blonde director Luketic, it has all the verisimilitude of a Vegas vacation TV ad. (Extras: filmmaker commentary, featurettes.)
Dark City (Director's Cut) (B)
U.S.; Alex Proyas, 1998, New Line
Good paranoid sci-fi noir in the Blade Runner "Phildick" tradition, with great décor, neat surprises and lots of tension. The cast includes Rufus Sewell (trying to figure out what the hell is going on), Jennifer Connelly and Kiefer Sutherland.
WarGames (25th Anniversary Edition) (B-)
U.S.; John Badham, 1983, TK
Ace computer hacker Matthew Broderick hacks his way into U.S. defense cyberspace and causes a crisis of Fail-Safe proportions. This passed for an ingenious premise back in the '80s, one of the dumbest of all movie decades; it still plays fairly well. With Ally Sheedy (Smile!) Dabney Coleman and Michael Madsen.
U.K.; Peter Watkins, 1967
After his big critical success with the 1967 anti-bomb mockumentary The War Game (no relation to WarGames, above), left-wing maverick Watkins tried to get a pop hit with this mix of rock, sex and anti-fascist political dystopian horror story. It doesn't really work -- the idea of the British welfare state deliberating mind-messing the masses through pop culture and rock 'n' roll is a little too schizo -- but does give us a peek at '60s supermodel Jean (The Shrimp) Shrimpton. Paul Jones plays the pop messiah; they should have uncast that Paul, hired Roger Daltrey and had The Who do the score.