PICKS OF THE WEEK
Solitary Man (B)
U.S.; Brian Kopelman and David Levien, 2010
The thing that fascinates people about a serial seducer like Ben Kalmen, magnificently played by Michael Douglas in Solitary Man, is his speed of conquest. What could take the average man, even in our liberated society, several months or, at best, weeks to do -- sleep with the woman to whom he's attracted -- a great serial seducer can knock off in a single night. Of course any fairly attractive and together woman can do the same thing with men just by smiling and crooking her finger. But, in our post-puritan culture serial seduction isn't as secretly admired a trait in females as it is in males.
I say "secretly admired" and that's the perverse motor of Solitary Man. In this tale of cocksmanship on the edge, the author's admiration for the central character is palpable but concealed. Ben himself seems near the end of his rope, lashed with contempt. Yet, a serial seducer like Ben has (or had) his way because, bad and unreliable as he may be, he brings some laughs, some joy even, and heightens the sense of life in his partners, even if, in a movie, he usually pays the piper. Here, we meet Ben, register his charisma, see him in action, know what he's capable of, and then watch him get trashed and flogged and humiliated for the rest of the picture.
Outwardly, Ben, a one-time famous, "honest" New York used car titan who fell afoul of the law, crashed and burned, is still clinging to the trappings of success, trying to get his daughter (Jenna Fischer) a spot at the college (Boston) he once generously rained with dough -- a chore which he botches, just as he messes up things with his lady friend (Mary-Louise Parker) and her saucy daughter (Imogen Potts), just as he mangles his still-friendship with his smart ex-wife (Susan Sarandon), screws up his would-be stud's mentorship of a young college kid hired to guide him (Jesse Eisenberg) and winds up waiting on tables for his elfin little chum and coffee shop owner Jimmy Merino (Danny De Vito).
Directors Brian Koppleman and David Levien, working from a Koppleman script, keep shoveling misery on him, until the movie almost overmoralizes and loses its spark. But, just like Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Douglas knows exactly how to play this guy, how to chart his reckless charm and his sexy gift of gab (like Paul Newman's in Hud) and also to leak out desperation at the edges. We watch this slick bozo wreck his life, yet we know he's still got something, even as it starts to disappear. He's a jerk, but a genuine, open-hearted one, and he's redeemed by a paradoxical sweetness, the nicer but buried qualities that made Nancy and Jimmy love him and still like him, despite themselves.
You won't find much better acting in any American movie this year. In Solitary Man, Douglas, who has a role perfect for him, plays it about as well as it could possibly be played.
L'Enfance Nue (A-)
France; Maurice Pialat, 1968, Criterion Collection
This is the first feature by Maurice Pialat -- now widely admired and influential, then a maverick who refused to court success by sentimentalizing, softening or prettying up his subjects.
Here, he examines a wandering foster child named Francois (played by 10-year-old amateur Michel Terrazon), who has a mean disposition, a rebellious spirit and bad companions. Like Jean-Pierre Leaud's Antoine Doinel in the Francois Truffaut films, this Francois is a boy outside, rejected by his parents, shunted from one foster home to another. And even though, partway through, he lucks out and gets the best foster (grand)parents imaginable, his splendidly generous real-life benefactors Rene and Marie-Louise Thierry, he still gets caught up in destructive mischief and crime, and gets punished.
Unlike the charming young Doinel, it's hard to like Francois. He's a petit con, a little jerk. He throws down stairs and grievously injures a pet cat (a horrifying scene), steals household money, and vandalizes cars on a freeway.
Produced by Truffaut and Claude Berri, L'Enfance Nue is a strong film on a painful subject. Adopting the super-realistic methods of John Cassavetes and his contemporary Jean Eustache, Pialat lets his actors (mostly non-professionals like Terrazon) improvise, and he makes lovely, raw images that never seem planned or contrived. But L'Enfance failed to attract an audience in 1968 (a year of rebellion), and Pialat has said they were right. He made the wrong film, produced a film the public had to reject, and Pialat accepted the verdict. Later, in modern classics like Loulou and Police (both with Gerard Depardieu), A Nos Amours (with the young Sandrine Bonnaire) and Van Gogh (with Jacques Dutronc as the ultimate outsider painter), he found his metier and his masterpieces.
Pialat, a true misanthrope, once won the Palme d'Or at Cannes (for Under the Sun of Satan, with Depardieu, Bonnaire and Pialat) and then gave the finger on stage to the fraction of the audience who booed him. What balls! (In French, with English subtitles. Extras: Pialat's 1960 black-and white short L'Amour Existe (A-), the film which attracted Truffaut; TV interview with Pialat; Visual essay by Kent Jones; video interview with Pialat's collaborators Arlette Langmann and Patrick Grandperret; booklet with essay by Phillip Lopate.
U.S.; George Lucas, 1971, Warner Home Video, Blu-ray
If George Lucas had expired after making this movie, and before making American Graffiti or Star Wars, he might have been known as the American cinema's lost Kafka, its maybe-Orwell, instead of the man who brought back Flash Gordon and broke the bank. It's a cautionary science fiction tale, done with a classy narrative expertise that suggests Robert Heinlein trying to be Theodore Sturgeon or Ray Bradbury, about a white-on-white futuristic dictatorship, with no love, no emotion, no fire. Robert Duvall and Maggie McOmie as the lovers who defy the tyranny of baldness and blandness and break out of the world of white. Visually, THX-1138 is assured and mesmerizing. Dramatically its cool and secretly mournful. And it explores moods Lucas would never plumb again. Well, Coppola never made another Rain People either.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Errol Flynn Adventures (A-)
U.S.; Raoul Walsh, Lewis Milestone, 1942-45, TCM/Warner
Errol Flynn was a genuine Hollywood Golden Age superstar, a natural actor and athlete who lit up the screen in roles like Robin Hood, Captain Blood, and Gentleman Jim Corbett. He was also a bastard, a sex-hound and an amoral drunk.
Don't take my word for it. Here's the word of one of Flynn's best Hollywood friends, David Niven: "The great thing about Errol," Niven wrote in one of his witty memoirs, "was that you always knew where you stood with him. He always let you down."
To illustrate, Niven tells the story of an idyllic Hollywood weekend he once spent with Errol and one of Flynn's innumerable lady friends off, I think, Catalina in Flynn's motorboat -- one of the many, many female conquests who helped create the almost universally understood American catch-phrase "In like Flynn." It was a hot, sunny day, and Niven dived in for a swim, as Errol worked his legendary charm on board.
Suddenly Niven heard a motor noise, looked up and was startled to see the boat taking off and sweeping away from him out to sea, as his Australian-born chum smiled and waved him goodbye, apparently convinced that the moment was nigh and that he could score better alone. Niven was miles from shore, with few or no other boats near. Resigned to his disposable sidekick fate, Niven started swimming toward shore.
Errol Flynn was born in Tasmania, son of a famous marine biologist, the descendant of real-life Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian (Flynn played his ancestor in the low-budget In the Wake of the Bounty), expelled from more schools than Charles Foster Kane, the writer of three somewhat well-regarded books, a good actor with a gift for on-screen heroism and good relations (for a while) with Warners action maestros Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh, a famously faithless husband (to Lili Damita, Patrice Wymore) who was arrested in 1942 for statutory rape (and acquitted), a hedonist who drank like his great sodden pal and mentor John Barrymore (and played him in Too Much, Too Soon), and who finally got into heroin and wasted away after making a last rotten film called Cuban Rebel Girls and after the appearance of his maybe ghost-written scandal-laden autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways.
Writer Charles Higham wrote another book recounting wickeder ways, claiming Flynn had sexual affairs with Tyrone Power (whose heart he broke) and Howard Hughes, and that, during the war, he was a Nazi spy. I can believe the former, but not the latter. But still, how many Hollywood stars could you even plausibly suspect of being a Nazi?
As David Niven said, "He always let you down." In life maybe. But not in his movies. (Extras: five Warners Night at the Movies packages, with contemporary trailers, newsreels, music shorts, drama or comedy shorts and Looney Tunes).
Desperate Journey (B)
U.S.; Raoul Walsh, 1942
Lots of fun. Yank bomber pilots and crew, including Flynn, Arthur Kennedy, Alan Hale and the irrepressible Ronald Reagan, race across Germany, pursued by dour Nazi officer Raymond Massey. Definitely tongue in cheek and highly entertaining.
Edge of Darkness (B)
U.S.; Lewis Milestone, 1943
This one has been sort of misunderstood, I feel, as a standard good World War II movie, typical leftist Hollywood political stuff, scripted by Robert Rossen and directed by Milestone, a melodrama about a Norwegian fishing village standing up to the Nazis occupiers with British guns. Actually, it's almost a crazy comedy of sorts, and it's the pro-war reversal of Milestone's great World War I anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front.
Flynn and Ann Sheridan are the head partisans, standing up to sadist Nazi Helmut Dantine, and inspiring classy villagers Walter Huston, Ruth Gordon and Judith Anderson to revolt. The movie begins with the village covered with corpses and Charles Dingle as the village's seeming lone capitalist, raving and ranting to the Nazi investigators.
Soon we see a thrill-packed flashback tale of the masses arming themselves and Nazi oppressors running amok, tossing around the elderly schoolteacher like a beanbag, mocking the local Polish prostitute, closing the fishery, raping Ann Sheridan and dying like dogs. The high point, worthy of Stallone, occurs when the village minister, heretofore the movie's most outspoken pacifist, prays at the church altar, says "Thy will be done," marches up to the bell tower and mows down a row of Nazis with a handy machine gun. Milestone and Rossen are excellent moviemakers, which is what keeps you watching all this, dumbstruck.
Northern Pursuit (B-)
U.S.; Raoul Walsh, 1943
Errol is a Canadian mountie who tries to fool Helmut Dantine again, as another, even meaner Nazi, into thinking he has German sympathies and will help with Dantine's mysterious dogsled expedition. The setup for this goes on forever and the payoff is strictly hack stuff. The last shot at the wedding of Flynn and Jean Sullivan, remarkably, is an obvious "In like Flynn" joke.
Uncertain Glory (B)
U.S.; Raoul Walsh, 1944
This has a bad rep, but I like it. Flynn plays a rare outlaw villain role, a murderer who escapes the guillotine in a bombing raid, is pursued and caught again by Inspector Paul Lukas (fresh from his Watch on the Rhine Oscar) and then has a chance to redeem himself by selling Lukas on the idea of Flynn giving himself up and claiming credit for a partisan bridge blowup, thereby saving 100 hostages. Schmaltzy but affecting and one of Flynn's best performances.
Objective, Burma! (A)
U.S.; Raoul Walsh, 1945
The one true classic and by far the top movie in this set. Director Raoul Walsh at his absolute action movie best; Flynn at his near best, as the gutsy leader of a group of American paratroopers trapped in Burma and trying to get out. The writers include Ranald MacDougall and two eventual members of the Hollywood Ten, Lester Cole and Alvah Bessie. But there's no propaganda or political slant. This is just a terrific war movie about a group going though hell or danger, as in Air Force, They Were Expendable, The Story of G. I. Joe and A Walk in the Sun.
Henry Hull is the old-guy reporter and Warner standby George Tobias is around, along with William Prince, Warner Anderson, John Ridgely and Dick Erdman. Very heavy anti-Japanese dialogue, but that seems par for the course for 1945 movie soldiers in a war movie.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Jorma Taccone, 2010, Rogue Pictures
I don't like to kick a movie when it's down. And, by now, to say that the Saturday Night Live spin-off '80s action movie parody MacGruber isn't very good and isn't very funny, isn't breaking any scoops.
Nor is it hot news to suggest that MacGruber star-writer and ex-SNL trouper Will Forte should stay away from celery for a few months. (The movie's big scene has Forte, as the much-awarded but seriously inept Green Beret/Navy Seals/Army Ranger super-commando MacGruber, distracting enemy gunfire by popping up on screen bare-naked with a celery stalk up his ass, and doing a little dance). Nor is it a surprise to find that SNL Live skits aren't as fool-proof movie material as, say, video games or movies with vampires or wizards.
U.K.; Derek Jarman, 2008, E1 Entertainment, Blu-ray
Caravaggio shows Jarman at the top of his game: a stunning portrait of the outlaw life of the great maverick religious painter, Michelangelo Caravaggio (Nigel Terry, of Excalibur), with a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Michael Gough, Sean Bean and Robbie Coltrane, caught in gorgeous frames that duplicate the artist's own lush chiaroscuro style.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Poirot: The Movie Collection, Set 5 (B)
U.K.; various directors, 2008-2010, Acorn Media
Agatha Christie's Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot, the unflappable detective with the impeccable suits and egg-shaped head, who relentlessly gathers the clues and juggles his "little gray cells" and in pursuit of murderers from false-halcyon country British manors to exotic climes, found his ideal film proponent, many Christie addicts feel, when the BBC started dramatizing Christie's novels and stories with the classically trained stage, film and TV actor David Suchet starring as Poirot.
No murder plot is too ingenious, no trail of evidence too deceptive, no motive too skillfully fabricated, no suspect too likely (or unlikely) for Suchet's Poirot, who, better than even Peter Ustinov or Albert Finney, conveys Poirot's deductive genius as well as his fastidious manners and lovable or maddening eccentricities, while also often giving the infallible crime-unraveler an emotional and psychological depth that other Poirots tend to lack. (Extras: documentary David Suchet on the Orient Express; Christie history; Poirot book list; cast filmographies.
Murder on the Orient Express (A-)
U.K.; Philip Martin, 2010
Orient Express has one of Christie's most ingenious plots and most radical departures from the detective story norm, and this version by director Philip Martin and scenarist Stewart Harcourt is beautifully produced, sumptuously shot and brilliantly cast. Toby Jones makes a particularly odious murder victim and Barbara Hershey, Eileen Atkins and Hugh Bonneville are among the deluxe trainful of suspects and detectives, stranded in the snow on the legendary luxury train.
Even if you're an admirer of Sidney Lumet's 1974 all-star movie of Orient Express, with Finney as Poirot, Richard Widmark as the villainous corpse, and Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Jackie Bisset, Anthony Perkins and Lauren Bacall among the Twelve Angry Suspects, you should enjoy this version. The extras include a delicious little travelogue where Suchet takes us aboard the actual Orient Express.
Third Girl (B-)
U.K.; Dan Reed, 2008
One of the late Christies, adapted by Peter Flannery, with Poirot aiding a beleaguered young heiress (Jemima Rooper), in what would have been, in the novel's time, the Swingin' Sixties. With Zoe Wanamaker as Poirot's inquisitive Christie-ish detective story writer friend Ariadne Oliver, along with James (Maurice) Wilby and Peter Bowles. Not bad, but not too good.
Appointment with Danger (B)
U.K.; Ashley Pearce, 2008
Set and shot in the Syrian desert and considerably revised, to the point of adding an important new character, Tim Curry as Lord Boynton, who is husband of the lady nobody likes, the first murder victim. Aficionados sometimes object, but this adaptation is notable for its ravishing location shooting, star cast (including Elizabeth McGovern and John Hannah) and for its canny exploitation of the profession and milieu of Christie's archeologist husband, Max Mallowan.