PICKS OF THE WEEK
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (B)
U.S.; Edgar Wright, 2010, Universal Studios
In this ad-campaign-certified "epic of epicness," based on a graphic novel by Canadian Bryan Lee O'Malley, and smartly helmed by Edgar Wright (the guy who made Hot Fuzz and the mother of all zombie comedies, Shaun of the Dead), Michael Cera is playing, to kind-of-perfection, a goony-but-cute 22-year-old garage band bass player named Scott Pilgrim, who plays with a band called Sex-Bob-Omb, and lives (and shares an apparently half-chaste mattress) with a cool gay roommate named Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) and W.W.'s various steadies. Scott's other Sex-Bob bandmates are Kim the gal drummer (Alison Pill, the epitome of cute-snide), Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) and Stephen Stills (Mark Webber).
Scott also has a cutie of a high school girlfriend named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong, a living doll). But he nevertheless falls hard for a lavender-haired, poker-faced punk charmer named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who can really stab you with her eyes).
To win Ramona's heart (such as it is) and her bod (admittedly a killer) and her soul (who knows?), Scott has to vanquish the dread Seven Exes -- a snarling or smirking septet of former Ramona boyfriends (and one ex-girlfriend, and two twins), who show up, every 10 minutes or so, and preoccupy her mind and this movie.
Over and over, Scott gets challenged by the Mag Seven. So he gets this determined Michael Cera look on his kisser, gets down to some kick-ass Jackie Chan action, and, if he kicks their asses (they range from Jason Schwartzman as the smiling smug boss-man of your nightmares to Chris Evans as a blond Brit action star with an Eastwood growl), those defeated studs dissolve into coins, ready for the next video game match.
That's all there is. There ain't no more. Oh wait, there's also a rock band showdown/contest. You've seen it all before (except maybe for that over-occupied mattress in Scott's room). But not quite like this.
Director Wright has a new idea every 10 seconds or so, sometimes faster. Some of the gags are the old TV "Batman" this-is-a-comic-book '60s shtick, cranked up ten notches or so. Some of them are would-be sub-Stan Lee smart-assery. But a lot of them work. When lovers kiss, hearts spray at you. When a video-store vixen cusses, she's bleeped. The movie splits up into comic panels. When Scott hits a guitar note, the screen goes "D-D-D." Wright has his tongue so far and so constantly into his cheek, you sometimes worry that he'll strangle on his own whimsy.
But the movie makes you laugh. It made me laugh. I bet even you guys out there who didn't like it much, or got nervous because of Wallace on the mattress, half-snickered every now and then. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fulfills its mission.
The Magician (A)
Sweden: Ingmar Bergman, 1958, Criterion
Ingmar Bergman's 1958 classic The Magician carries us back to Sweden in the 19th century, a supposedly "enlightened" but dark country, a realm of snobs and mountebanks, of bawdy life and relentless death -- a fearful, funny, magical land where science battles superstition, realism clashes with fantasy, ghosts seduce witches, and August Strindberg dances with Hans Christian Andersen.
Through a stark, black-and-white forest rides a coachful of traveling players, a troupe starring the dour, silent mesmerist Albert Emmanuel Vogler (Max Von Sydow), his beautiful cross-dressing assistant and wife Manda (Ingrid Thulin), the genial, lusty barker/emcee Tubal (Ake Fridell) and Vogler's grandmother (Naima Wifstrand), a wise and wizened little old lady who brews potions and may be a witch.
Through the softly howling darkness, they wend their way to a town of large houses, splendid furnishings and blazing candles, where the complacent bourgeois rulers who engage them for an evening's entertainment scoff at magic, and snort at theater and its tricks. There, the players will present a show of levitation, telepathy and communion with spirits from beyond, before that audience of scornful nabobs, critics and rationalists. In the household, in the kitchen -- remember, actors always must use the back entrance and sleep with the help -- they will meet a host of lively servants, including another of Bibi Andersson's sexy Saras.
The troupe has problems. Vogler cannot talk. His wife is disguised as a man. Tubal is a drinker and a rake. The leaders in their audience despise them and want to make fools of them. The wires may break, the mirrors may crack, the levitating bodies may fail to rise and the curtains may fail to fall. And somebody, either in the cast or in the audience, may forget their lines.
But there's a magic in theater, a spirit raging within the silent magician Vogler. There's an angel in the wings, and maybe even a demon in the attic, and they can triumph over anything, even a hostile house. Even death itself (played by that distinguished actor Bengt Ekerot).
Bergman was a real man of the theater, and this is his ode to the stage, his valentine for his fellow directors and players, and his flip-of-the-bird to the snooty Svenskas and sarcastic world critics and carpers who tried to chasten or silence him, to cut him down to size. It's a comedy about death, anguish, persecution and humiliation, all those things that a Strindberg or a Hedrik Ibsen turned into drama and tragedy. Drama lurks here and so does tragedy, but they're both just part of the company. In Swedish, with English subtitles. (Extras: video interviews with Bergman, one by Olivier Assayas and Stig Bjorkmen; visual essay by Peter Cowie; booklet with essays by Geoff Andrew and Assayas, and an excerpt from Bergman's book Images.)
Moulin Rouge (A)
U.S.-Australia: Baz Luhrmann, 2001, 20th Century Fox, Blu-ray
We're in Paris, at the Moulin Rouge, during the heyday of Toulouse-Lautrec -- but we're really in movie musical paradise, the land of lovers and dreamers and dancers, or artifice and melody, where anything can happen. And will.
This is my favorite movie musical of the decade, even though it doesn't have any great singers or hoofers, and uses a partly borrowed score (from Elton John's "Your Song," to Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," to Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy," to Madonna's "Material Girl") . But it does have incredible visuals, swoony décor, explosive editing and a cast that includes Nicole Kidman as the beauty and Ewan McGregor as the poet, Jim Broadbent as the boss-impresario, Richard Roxburgh as the villainous Duke, and John Leguizamo as Toulouse -- terrific actors, all doing their own singing and dancing. (Extras: commentary by Luhrmann and others, featurettes and interviews.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Winnebago Man (A-)
U.S.: Ben Steinbauer, 2009, Kino
About two decades ago, on a hot day in Iowa, with flies buzzing and the camera and microphone running, a burly, bell-voiced TV writer-producer-performer-pitchman named Jack Rebney tried to get through a half-hour Winnebago sales film he'd written, while strolling around and inside the camper, speechifying and extolling the vehicle's many virtues.
But the heat poured down, the flies buzzed in his face, he kept going up on his own lines, and finally he began blowing his top when he blew a line. "Shit! Fuck! Shit!" he yelled, over and over again, and "My mind has turned to shit!" and other words children shouldn't hear. He exhorted everyone to calm down, "including me" and then blew a line and blew his top again.
Jack got though the sales film (it's one of the extras on this DVD) and later the filmmakers that day edited together a video of his various tantrums; it became a classic and got him millions of watchers and fans, and eventual super-stardom on the Internet. It also earned him the nicknames "The Angriest Man in the World" and "Winnebago Man."
But meanwhile, Jack disappeared. He'd had a long broadcasting and film career, starting on WBBM in Chicago, but suddenly you couldn't find him anywhere, even on the Internet, except for the Winnebago Man video.
Ben Steinbauer is a filmmaker, a film teacher and the director of this movie, and he loved Jack and loved the video. Ben is a gentle, soft-spoken guy here, and you get the idea that he never uses a four-letter word unless it's absolutely necessary. He decided to find the Angriest Man and film him, and he did.
Jack was living alone with his dog Buddha, working as live-in caretaker for a wildlife sanctuary, and he seemed to be happy in his reclusive life. Jack agreed to be filmed, but he was mostly nice, well-spoken, a sweet guy. A little aggravation; no tantrums. Not much there for a documentary, except for wildlife sanctuary lovers.
Then, a while later, Jack got back in touch. He admitted he's been putting on an act, playing nice for the camera. He invited Ben back. He agreed to be filmed again. Something had happened though, something sad. As Jack said, "his vision had left him." He was blind, but still at the sanctuary, still with Buddha. Jack was willing to talk though, even seemingly willing to get angry on camera again -- and there was a lot he was angry about, especially Dick Cheney.
Then Ben made a big mistake. He had wanted Jack to spew some, but he asked Jack to stop talking about politics, and talk about something personal instead. Jack didn't want to talk about himself and his life; he wanted to talk about what an asshole Dick Cheney was.
So the filming broke up. Too bad, but later Ben got a happy ending of sorts for this movie, by taking Jack to the Found Footage Film festival, where it was a packed house and they watched the Winnebago Man tape. Jack talked and they loved him and gave him great gusts of roaring applause and approval.
Anyway, do Jack a kindness and watch him in Ben's movie. It isn't perfect, but hell, neither was the Winnebago. (Extras: the complete lost Winnebago Sales Video, starring Jack Rebney; featurette with Jack, Ben and Michael Moore; trailer).
Grown Ups (C)
U.S.; Dennis Dugan, 2010, Columbia Pictures
Adam Sandler, who produced, co-wrote and stars in the amiable basketball nostalgia comedy Grown Ups, seems to have designed it at least partly to show off his cadre of friends and fellow comedians, as well as to dazzle us with his highly accurate long bank shot from the right side of the court.
Both are impressive. The fellow actors and friends include Chris Rock (playing hen-pecked house chef Kurt McKenzie), Kevin James (as affable over-eater Eric Lamonsoff), David Spade (as smarty-pants skirt-chaser Marcus Higgins) and Rob Schneider (as shameless vegan sort-of-hippie Rob Hilliard), who are the other four 12-year-old starters on Lenny Feder's (Sandler's) long-ago middle school championship basketball team, reassembled in their 40s to bury and pay tribute to their recently deceased coach. The rest of the cast includes Salma Hayek as Sandler's Hollywood wife Roxanne Chase-Feder, and Maya Rudolph, Maria Bello and Joyce Van Patton as the wives of Rock, James and Schneider.
It's a lazy but likable movie with a large, really good ensemble cast and a sloppy, if fitfully warm-hearted script that believes God put dog doo-doo on earth for people to step on or fall in. Grown Ups has a familiar problem: an oversupply of dumb, crude, not-very-funny jokes. Sandler and director Dennis Dugan (Don't Mess with the Zohan) cover this by trying to deepen the characters more than usual, and by having the cast laugh at a lot of their own stuff.
Love Ranch (C+)
U.S.; Taylor Hackford, 2010, National Ent Media
This should have been better, but it's not bad: a pungent fictionalized drama about the Mustang Ranch shooting, when Oscar Bonavena, the boxer-lover of Sally Conforte, wife and partner of Mustang owner Joe Conforte, was killed on the premises. The Mustang is the famous legal whorehouse outside Reno, Nev. The movie, which doesn't claim to be too accurate, changes the Confortes to the Bontempos, Charlie and Grace (Joe Pesci and Helen Mirren), and Oscar to "Armando Bruza," (played by Sergio Peris-Mencheta) a Brazilian boxer with a head injury -- and it centers the story around the doomed love affair of Grace and Armando, and Charlie's crazed jealousy.
The acting by the central trio is superb. But the script, by journalist Mark Jacobson, is a little too obvious. Ultimately, I didn't really believe the story, and I felt Jacobson was pushing points too hard and sometimes playing a little too automatic/romantic and politically correct. You can't do better than Mirren (Mrs. Hackford) and Pesci, though, and it's a kick in the head to see the genius psycho of GoodFellas back again. You think he's funny? Yeah!
Charlie St. Cloud (C)
U.S.; Burt Steers, 2010, Universal Pictures
Mystical love stories about star-crossed teen lovers, and baseball-mitt-pounding kid brothers from beyond the grave aren't my cup of saccharine-laced tea. But if you have to look at something like that, you could, I guess, do worse than Charlie St. Cloud. It's a ridiculous movie, but it's also good looking, well shot in Pacific Northwest coast forests and shorelines. Its star/lovers are hot-looking and likeably flirtatious. Professional cutie-pie Zac Efron (of the awful High School Musical movies and the very good but sadly ignored Me and Orson Welles) plays the title character: guilt-plagued Charlie McCloud. Amanda Crew is svelte and spunky boating enthusiast Tess Carroll. And that baseball-heaving ghostly kid brother, young Sam McCloud, is smashingly played by Charlie Tahan, a good kid actor who looks a bit like a youthful Steve Zahn, repainted by Norman Rockwell.
Charlie St. Cloud is based on a novel by Ben Sherwood called The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud. The movie begins with the brothers McCloud, poorer kids mingling with the smug smart-ass rich kids, winning a sailboat race and jumping and hugging each other in sunny freeze-frames.
It's too sweet to last. Soon we're introduced to their pretty single mom, Kim Basinger as Claire St. Cloud. And, all too soon, the brothers have driven off together in the night (Sam insisted on tagging along, which is a real danger sign), and gotten involved in a horrendous car-car-truck accident, one fatality and the temporary flat-lining of Charlie. He's saved by gabby paramedic Florio Ferrente (Ray Liotta).
But Sam isn't gone. His spirit lingers on, pounding his baseball mitt in the nearby forest, and waiting for faithful Charlie, who has promised to meet his dead little brother every day for a game of catch and a catch-up confab.
Eventually, five years pass. Mom Claire has left Charlie and relocated. And Charlie has gotten a job at the local cemetery so he can be near Sam and any other stray spirits who might materialize. He has a nearly incomprehensible Brit buddy named Alistair (Augustus Prew), and a crush on a fetching lass who shows up: a Kate Beckinsale-ish ex-classmate and dish named Tess.
Will love survive the grave? Will we ever see a marquee pairing of Amanda Crew and Augustus Prew? Will Success Spoil Zac Efron?
Tune in tomorrow. Meanwhile, with Efron staring mooningly at Tess and the camera, Charlie St. Cloud may please teens or 'tweens still in full squeal over Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, and ready for a Zac attack or two. (Extras: commentary by Sheers, featurettes.)
Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" (C+)
U.S.; Joseph Strick, 1970, Olive
Henry Miller's classic of unbuttoned hard-core-sex confession and four-letter-word ribaldry and misogyny, with the words and sex acts intact, but somewhat implausibly transferred from '30s Paris to late '60s Paris, probably because there was no money for sets. Director Strick took a lot of heat for his movie adaptation of Joyce's Ulysses, and he deserved to. But this movie is somewhat better, if a hard sit for any radical feminists who may mistakenly wander in. (Then again, it may confirm their worst suspicions about men.)
Rip Torn, sporting his shark's grin, seems to be having a damned good time as "Miller" (who does a brief cameo); Torn also narrates Miller's unfettered prose well. And Ellen Burstyn, as Miller's wife June, or "Mona," makes about as big an impression as you can possibly make in five minutes.