PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.: Sofia Coppola, 2010, Universal
Sofia Coppola's film Somewhere, the Golden Lion winner at the last Venice Film Festival, is about a star Hollywood movie actor named Johnny Marco (played with deceptively lazy-looking grace and expertise by Stephen Dorff) who lives a pointless life of hedonism and play at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard (the Hollywood landmark where John Belushi overdosed), in between publicity and press appointments orchestrated by his publicity people, room visits by twin blonde pole dancers, sexy/druggie parties, flights off to Italy for film festival appearances and preparations for whatever his next movie may be. (Whatever it is, we can tell it will be something he really doesn't give a damn about.)
The one spark of redemption in his joylessly self-indulgent routine is a visit by his daughter Cleo, 11 (played by Elle Fanning), with whom he plays video games, drives around L.A., and shares the kind of normal family routines and emotions empty from most of the rest of his life. The movie, very realistic, and very spare of dialogue, with the feelings buried down beneath, was very austerely shot on the glummest of sunny L.A. days by Harris Savides, made in the indie-est of indie styles by a writer-director who knows the Hollywood scene from the ground up, Sofia Coppola, and executive produced by her legendary film director father, Francis Ford Coppola.
Did Sofia, who also wrote and directed the highly regarded 2003 Lost in Translation, put some of herself into Cleo? Probably. But more important, she puts herself in every frame of her film, the most personal and uncompromising looks at a world she probably knows (or knows of) very well. (Extra: featurette Making "Somewhere".)
The World in His Arms (A-)
U.S.: Raoul Walsh, 1952, Universal
"Lusty" and "rowdy" and "top of the line" are three descriptions that aptly suit both the movies and the personal qualities of Raoul Walsh -- a hard-boiled classic moviemaker who lived from 1887 to 1980, directed over a hundred movies from 1914 to 1964, and probably bored fewer audiences than any other vintage Hollywood moviemaker.
The World in His Arms is one of Walsh's more exciting non-Western adventure pictures. Scripted by Borden Chase (Red River) from the bestselling novel by Rex Beach, it's the tale of swaggering, heroic Captain Jonathan Clark, a.k.a. "The Boston Man" (Gregory Peck), a titan of the sailing and seal trades, a nemesis to the Russians of Alaska, and an impertinent hero who woos a Russian princess (Ann Blyth), races an unscrupulous but ever-genial Portuguese Captain (Anthony Quinn) to Alaska, and then has to join forces with the "Portugee" to beat the Russkies. Here, though, they're not Communists but mean royalty, played by Carl Esmond and other stuffed shirts.
This is Peck in his less noble, more fun-loving mode, and it's Quinn as rowdy and lusty as I've even seen him. But Ann Blyth? As a Russian princess? Is she, like Peter Sellers, a master of American accents? Oh well, she's so pretty, who cares? As for Raoul Walsh, I'll say this for him: He's a great action man, a great brawlmeister, great with tall ships, and a great director to close down a bar with. Can you say that about Yasujiro Ozu? (Not unless you love saki.) No extras.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Gulliver's Travels (B-)
U.S.: Rob Letterman, 2010, 20th Century Fox
For some reason, this big-time, big-bucks adaptation of Jonathan Swift's oft-filmed fantasy adventure-political satire about Lemuel Gulliver -- a lost sailor shipwrecked in Lilliput, land of the teeny people, and later in Brobdingnag, land of the humungous people -- has become a romantic comedy vehicle for Jack (I kid you not) Black.
This Gulliver's Travels has also been "modernized" (i.e.: updated) into silliness. Jack B. is now Lem Gulliver, Manhattan travel writer, lost in the Bermuda Triangle, and then an accidental voyager to Lilliput, where he becomes the Big Cheeserino -- before finally getting stranded in Bagofcrap, land of the ridiculous cliché.
The director is Rob Letterman of Monsters Vs. Aliens, and the writers are Joe Stillman of Shrek, and Nicholas Toller of Get Him to the Greek, and they've all seen better days. (So has Jonathan Swift. So has Jack Black.) There is also a kind of traveling Gulliverette, played by Amanda Peet, as Lem's editor, Darcy, and she winds up in Lilliput too. Plus there's a best buddy role for Jason Segel of I Love You Man -- who nevertheless shouldn't let himself get typed as SuperPal. (Segel should play a worst enemy or two).
Meanwhile, Black, who also produced, seems to like toying with all his fellow castmates, peeking into windows and defeating armadas. Keeping everyone on their toes, he clumps all around the movie, without ever stepping on those diminutive Lilliputians scurrying all around beneath him. The visual effects in Gulliver's Travels are good, but the movie is sort of, you know (forgive me), just not too swift -- though it might have worked if they'd done it in period. Trust Jonathan Swift. He's lasted a long time. (Extras: featurette; gag reel.)
Country Strong (C)
U.S.: Shana Feste, 2010, Sony
"Hear that lonesome whippoorwill. He sounds too blue to fly. The Midnight train is whinin' low. I'm so lonesome, I could cry." -- Hank Williams
It's hard sometimes to put your heart on your sleeve, and make it stick. Buffeted by memories of that brilliant 2009 Country & Western tearjerker Crazy Heart -- and other similar movies from Tender Mercies to Sweet Dreams -- Country Strong tries to summon up the same sense of simple homespun beauty and back-roads music and sometimes hellbound self-destruction, and doesn't make it.
It's too obvious, too formula-bound, too twisted up in standard-issue heartstring stuff. It means well. The actors are mostly good (at both acting and singing). But they're trapped in telegraphed heartache.
Gwyneth Paltrow is the star -- and she should have been a knockout, sometimes is. Paltrow plays (and sings) the part of alcoholic six-time Grammy winning country star Kelly Canter -- recovering from a catastrophe at a Dallas concert, enduring a stay in rehab and forced back on the road for a comeback tour by her loving but pushy husband James.
James (played very well but, frustratingly, without a song, by country star Tim McGraw) is a good man who's learned too well to play the game, and maybe becomes more concerned with Kelly's career than he is with Kelly. There are two younger players who complete the quadrangle. Garrett Hedlund (Tron Legacy) plays (and sings) a part time (but extremely good) C&W singer named Beau Hutton who works at Kelly's clinic and has an affair with her. Leighton Meester (Gossip Girls) plays (and sings) Chiles Stanton, a self-conscious beauty queen prone to stage freeze-ups, who's trying to start a C&W career, and who becomes James' protégé and mistress.
All four of them wind up on the comeback tour, where three of them sing, sparks fly, concerts are canceled, and hearts are, well, put on sleeves.
Director-writer Shana Feste -- who also made the 2010 domestic drama The Greatest -- probably couldn't have asked for a better cast. Unfortunately, I mostly didn't believe a word of this movie, or at least most of the words. I didn't believe the relationships, the affairs, the crises, the instant reactions of the crowd to the two newcomers, didn't believe the final resolution. I didn't believe Kelly's loving husband and friends and interested co-workers would leave Kelly alone so often, at such crucial moments. I didn't even believe I was in Texas. (I wasn't; the movie was shot in Nashville.)
I should say though that Country Strong has one great scene. In that scene, Kelly goes to an elementary school on a "Make a Wish" visit and sings to a little boy who has leukemia. The boy is quiet and frail-looking, but still feisty. She lifts him in her arms, dances with him, sings sweetly. It may sound a little forced, sound like obvious heart-tugging, my problem with the rest. But it works. I believed it.
And you know, I believed Hank Williams. I believed Patsy Cline. I believed Johnny Cash. I believed Waylon Jennings. I believe Willie Nelson. I believed Tammy Wynette. I believe Merle Haggard. I believe k.d. lang. I believe Kris Kristofferson. Hell, when the lights are low, and the beer spills a little, and the jukebox is playing a real sad song with a slide guitar, I want to believe 'em all. As Hank said, "The silence of a falling star lights up the purple sky. And, as I wonder where you are, I'm so lonesome I could cry." (Extras: music videos; extended performance; original ending; deleted scenes.
Birdemic Shock and Terror (D+)
U.S.: James Nguyen, 2008, MPI
A parody of Hitchcock's The Birds that tries to be deliberately bad, and succeeds. Hailed as a "cult hit," a "worldwide midnight movie sensation," and "the best worst movie all time" (on CBS Sunday Morning), but it must work better when you're out at night, in a theater, surrounded by a lot of people laughing at and ridiculing it. I saw it all by myself, and it was deadly.
"Schlock and Error" is more like it. With Whitney Moore as the threatened heroine (she's not bad, which must have been a chore), Alan Bagh as the threatened hero, a lot of floppy props and inept effects as the malevolent feathered friends, and a cameo by original Birds star Tippi Hedren, who deserves much better. Tech credits are all appalling, which is, of course, intentional. See it, if you must see it, with the rowdiest friends, or casual acquaintances, you can find. (Extras: commentaries by director James Nguyen, and actors Moore and Bagh; deleted scenes; featurettes; trailers; electronic press kit.)
U.S.: Edward Dmytryk, 1965, Universal
Mirage, a good show that you may have missed, begins in a Manhattan skyscraper blackout where a famous world peace advocate plunges to a sidewalk-splattering death and we meet, in the shadows, a very puzzled accountant named David Stillwell (played with stoic confusion by Gregory Peck), who seems to have blacked out on most of his recent life.
Peck is immediately thrust into a turbulent trackdown of his vanished past, involving that suicide/fall/maybe-homicide victim (Walter Abel), friends that maybe aren't friends (Kevin McCarthy), deadly pursuits by determined or smarmy thugs (including George Kennedy and Jack Weston), a mysterious mastermind called the Major (Leif Erickson), an unfriendly psychiatrist (Robert J. Harris), and repeated "accidental" tete-a-tetes with a mystery woman (Diane Baker) seemingly miffed because Peck has forgotten all about her.
Mirage is an intriguing, entertaining, well-acted black-and-white film noir -- or maybe it classifies as a neo-noir, because it's from the mid-60s -- sharply written by Peter Stone (Charade) and tautly directed by Edward Dmytryk (HUAC guts-spiller but also the maker of those noir classics Murder My Sweet, Crossfire and The Sniper and that terrific psychological Western, Warlock). Mirage runs lots of twists and riffs on the classic amnesia thriller format (as in Joseph Mankiewicz's 1946 Somewhere in the Night), and grips us most of the way toward a slightly too obvious ending. Adapted from the novel Fallen Angel by leftist writer Howard (Spartacus) Fast, the picture has politics too.
And the movie, to its eternal credit, has Walter Matthau, a year before the great Hollywood sourpuss won an Oscar (appropriate name) for his peerlessly crooked performance as Jack Lemmon's sharpie shyster brother-in-law Whiplash Willie Gingrich, in Billy Wilder's somewhat underrated comedy masterpiece The Fortune Cookie. Here Matthau, at his dour-faced best, is another sharpie pro: underemployed streetwise private eye Ted Caselle, whom Peck's Stillwell hires to try to figure out what's going on. It's one of those tangy, memorable, pungent supporting performances that are one of the joys of a good Hollywood genre movie, which Mirage definitely is.