PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Ilisa Barbash, 2010, Cinemas Guild
In Sweetgrass, named for the lushly beautiful Montana country in which it takes place, we see the last summer pasturing of the vast sheep herd that once belonged to the Allested ranch in Big Timber -- thousands of sheep blanketing the mountain slopes and valleys, bleating, baa-ing and clanging their cowbells like some grand atonal choir, ranging freely over the green grass and past the rushing rivers and under the high blue sky, surging like some white snowy river itself, with that entire tumbling, rippling, slowly moving mass of animal life itself cared for and guided by just two lone sheepmen in cowboy hats on horseback, with their alert and tireless sheepdogs loping alongside.
This stunning event was recorded by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, a husband-wife ethnographic filmmaking team then resident in Boulder, Colo. It was the last of its kind, because the Allested Ranch closed down in 2006, when Bush administration bureaucrats canceled the public land grazing permit that the Allesteds and other independent ranchers had used for more than a century to feed their herds.
So what we see, though it isn't explained until the end titles, is the end of a way of life -- another wondrous American ritual and tradition, largely lost to the contemporary world.
There is no voice-over or narration. There's precious little talk at all, and most of it comes from sheepmen John Ahern and Pat Connolly, who plan their work and gab laconically, or cuss something fierce, as they ride, or as they sip coffee and chew bacon, or just laze around and ruminate, in their camp chairs or by the fire.
At the end, crusty John Ahern, riding in a truck cab, is asked by his boss Allested what he'll do next, and he replies that he "ain't going to worry about it for a week or two." You think: Well, that's okay, get some shut-eye. You earned it. Goodbye, sheep. Adios, amigos.
A Prophet (A-)
France; Jacques Audiard, 2009, Sony Pictures Classics
The Grand Prize winner at the last Cannes Film Festival, this brutal, unsparing prison picture, about the rise of a young Muslim convict who becomes the favorite of the prison's Corsican mob boss, has been widely hailed as a great foreign language film and a great crime movie.
Whoa. Not quite, says me. It's certainly a riveting show, and it has an undeniably great performance by Nils Arestrup as the Corsican mobster Cesar Luciani (the kind of dour gangster role for which Lino Ventura once held the patent), and a magnetic one by newcomer Tahar Rahim as the rising Muslim assistant crook Malik El Djebena.
Director-co-writer Jacques Audiard, here and in A Self Made Hero (with Mathieu Kassovitz) and The Beat that My Heart Skipped (with Romain Duris), seems to have a soft spot for psychopathic anti-heroes, or maybe to him, psychopathic heroes, as long as they're cute, intense star material.
That doesn't invalidate the film, or Audiard's grim vision, or Rahim's often incredible performance. But it makes the movie less powerful and satisfying than those two recent fact-based movies about Italian organized crime, Il Divo and Gomorrah.
But A Prophet, whatever my cavils, gets you on the hook and keeps you there. It summons up a prison and criminal world that, up until the end, I found grimly plausible, fiercely exciting. (In French, with English subtitles.)
The Ghost Writer (B)
U.S.-U.K.; Roman Polanski, 2009, Summit Entertainment
"Shutter Island" is a movie Roman Polanski probably should have made, just as, for different reasons, Schindler's List was. But Island is even more his kind of movie than Scorsese's: a descent into subjective terror that fits Polanski's eye-level nightmare style perfectly, a movie that might even be described as a mix of the elements of his masterpieces Repulsion (the crazy killer), Cul-de-Sac (the island) and Chinatown (the detective and the scandal).
The Ghost Writer is the movie Polanski did make: an adaptation of Robert Harris' prize-winning thriller The Ghost about an opportunistic (and nameless) young writer (Ewan McGregor) brought to an isolated retreat on Martha's Vineyard, and hired to ghost-write the autobiography of a retired Tony Blair-like British prime minister named Adam Lang (played with 007-like machismo and insouciance by Pierce Brosnan), while trying to fathom what's up with Lang's wife (Olivia Williams), his assistant (Kim Cattrall), a mysterious political rival named Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) and a gabby old man (Eli Wallach).
The film is a good one. But it didn't seize my imagination or chill my blood as I wanted it too -- even though I was primed for it, and even though Polanski directs it beautifully, visualizing each scene with an edgy, icy-gray or chilly-blue bleak atmosphere and a sense of underlying evil and panic.
But though the actors are good, none of the characters (not even the usually movie-stealing Wilkinson's) is very memorable. And it's hard to empathize with a character in a thriller, like McGregor's Ghost, who shows so little fear, with so much danger and enigma around.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Lost Keaton (B)
U.S.; various directors, 1934-37, Kino, 2 discs
The great unsmiling genius Buster Keaton was and remains a silent movie comedy legend. But the onset of sound movies definitely hurt him, as it hurt his great contemporary Harold Lloyd and other gifted colleagues like Harry Langdon and Charley Chase -- almost everybody, in fact, but Charlie Chaplin, who seemed invincible, and Laurel and Hardy, who were irrepressible.
By 1934, Keaton had signed with a poverty row studio named Educational Pictures to make comedy shorts. ("The Spice of the Program" was their motto.) He made 16 comedies at Educational and left in 1937. The studio collapsed several years later. And when Keaton returned to larger companies and features in the '40s, he was no longer a major star, though he kept working (often brilliantly) to the end of his life.
It's generally assumed that the Educational pictures are flops that helped further erode Keaton's career. Commercially, that may have been true. But it's quite a pleasure to see the 16 here and see how funny they are, how talented, energetic and full of comic ideas Buster still was. These shorts have static dialogue scenes of course. But they also have plenty of ingenious Keaton sight gags, and the best of them, 1935's "One Run Elmer" (a gagfest about Buster's favorite game, baseball), looks like one of his silent shorts, and ranks with the middle-level ones.
Switch off the sound track and you may be surprised at how much like the silent Keatons most of them appear. Of course, Buster probably had a hand in some of the direction. These movies suggest his visual style and rigorous rhythms more than they do that of the self-effacing nominal director of most of them, Universal comedy wheel-horse Charles Lamont, who later specialized in late Abbott and Costello and Ma and Pa Kettle movies.
Keaton and Lamont were obviously a sympathetic pair, and the deadpan star also works well here with two other silent movie vets: Al Christie ("The Chemist," which plays like a Three Stooges short without sadism) and the King of Keystone, Mack Sennett himself ("The Timid Young Man"). (Extras: featurette "Why They Call Him Buster"; notes on all the films by David Macleod.)
Includes: "The Gold Ghost" (Charles Lamont, 1934), "Allez Oop" (Lamont, 1935), "Palooka from Paducah" (Lamont, 1935), "One Run Elmer" (Lamont, 1935), "Hayseed Romance" (Lamont, 1935), "Tars and Stripes" (Lamont, 1935), "The E-Flat Man" (Lamont, 1935), "The Timid Young Man" (Mack Sennett, 1935), "Three on a Limb" (Lamont, 1936), "Grand Slam Opera" (Lamont, 1936), "Blue Blazes" (Raymond Kane, 1936), "The Chemist" (Al Christie, 1936), "Mixed Magic" (Kane, 1936), "Jail Bait" (Lamont, 1937), "Ditto" (Lamont, 1937), "Love Nest on Wheels" (Lamont, 1937).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Matthew Vaughn, 2010, Lionsgate
Kick-Ass is a movie made from a comic book about a wish-fulfilling teen geek who plays at being a super-hero named Kick-Ass, and then runs into some real heroes (including a wildly talented purple-haired 11-year-old nicknamed Hit Girl, and her death-dealing pa, Big Daddy) and some real villains (including a vicious mob boss and his spoiled-rotten son). Though it may sound as if Farrelly brothers or Judd Apatow wannabes had taken over the latest action-comic picture epic, it's better than we might have expected: at its best, expertly done and full of snazzy, kick-ass, wish-fulfilling fun.
Director Matthew Vaughn, Guy Richie's ex-producer (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and helmer of the British neo-noir Layer Cake, shows the same mix of slam-bang action and a genial light touch that director Jon Favreau brought to Iron Man. Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman (adapting the comic by Mark Millar), know what their basic audience wants to see. But they also know what audiences not usually attracted to this kind of movie may want to see as well: something witty and light and self-kidding, with the humor counterbalancing the carnage.
Of course, the carnage needs to be counterbalanced. Kick-Ass is funny. But it's also so violent, and sometimes so convincingly bloody and savage, in its half-comic over-the-top action scenes -- which include the kind of one-against-a-bunch climactic wholesale slaughter-fest usually administered by a Bruce Lee or a Sonny Chiba, but here dealt out by that 11-year-old girl -- that, at times, this movie becomes genuinely disturbing. (Parents should heed that "R" rating.)
And here, when high school geek Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) goes on his first costumed Kick-Ass expedition, and gets stomped by gang-bangers (well and half-realistically played by Johnny Hopkins and Ohene Cornelius) and run over by a car -- winding up with nerve damage for the rest of the movie -- it reminds us that violence hurts, that the world is full of pain, which is something that big action movies often leave out. That hurt gives more edge to the movie's action, and also to its humor and satire.
The fact that Kick-Ass starts life as a media-friendly geek-imagined fake, that the real super-heroine here is a cute little girl named Mindy Macready (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), incredibly well-versed in martial arts and gunplay by her action-hero dad Damon ("Big Daddy") Macready (Nicolas Cage), makes the movie more fantastic, less half-real.
Revenge fantasies are popular partly because they blow away our frustrations, and because the real world actually is full of bad guys and gang-bangers who really do hurt people. Crime boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), and his squad of torpedoes led by wise guy Big Joe (Michael Rispoli), are heavies with a touch of real-life viciousness (or at least reality filtered through other mob movies and TV shows) -- and when some of those heavies go down like video-game targets, it's hard to mind, especially when the vanquishing kick-asses are a nerd in a super-hero suit and a little girl with purple hair and lots of energy.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (C+)
U.S.; Thor Freudenthal, 2010, 20th Century Fox
This one is better than it first looks -- and it initially looks pretty silly, despite the source.
That source: "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," a best-selling children's book by Jeff Kinney, written in the form of a diary by a supposedly actual wimpy kid, Greg Heffley (Zach Gordon), who's suffering through the torments of middle school.
This wimpy kid is the Job of junior high. He's picked on by classmates and older thugs, dissed by his teachers, shut out of a seat at the cafeteria, abandoned by his friend, pestered by guys even dorkier and wimpier than he, teased by the school paper editor, joshed by his parents, bullied by his gym teacher, out-wrestled by a female nemesis and ignored by the prettier girls. To top it all off, he's a bit of a jerk himself: an unreliable friend and a little liar.
What saves all this school-kid angst, done in high-Spielbergian exaggerated style by Thor Freudenthal (who made the visually inventive but mostly awful Hotel for Dogs)? The actors, mostly. Gordon as the "wimpy kid" diarist Greg and Robert Capron as his plump, sweet-tempered best friend Rowley Jefferson, are so cute, so easy and adept, and so consistently funny, that they redeem a lot of the movie's sprightly, but over-cute and over-obvious comedy.
U.S.; Agnieszka Wostowicz-Vosloo, 2009, Starz/Anchor Bay
Christina Ricci, as car-crash victim Anna Taylor, spends most of this movie nude, or in a red slip, and lying on a table at the funeral home. Liam Neeson, as funeral home manager/departures specialist Eliot Deacon, spends much of it staring down at her and speaking softly, trying to get Anna to accept her fate.
No, this is not the breakthrough in necrophiliac movie romance we're all not waiting for. It's a sophisticated, scary horror film in which Deacon proves to have a wild talent, albeit one very helpful in his profession. Deacon can speak to the dead, before their interment -- although here, he spends most of his time jawboning with Anna, and ignoring the others, who aren't as pretty and don't have red slips. Anna's guilt-tripping boyfriend Paul (Justin Long), who would like to talk to her too, gets mysterious calls from the funeral home, and is very suspicious of both Deacon and his business and home, into which he keeps trying to break. And little Jack (Chandler Canterbury) can hear and see Anna, though that may simply mean he's a potential departures expert.
Neeson, underplaying beautifully, shows that he could have played Hannibal Lecter, or any of Peter Cushing's old Hammer roles, and done a first-rate job. It's hard, though, to imagine how Deacon is able to take care of a thriving funeral business in a huge house with a mortuary and an accompanying graveyard, and do it all, even the grave digging, all by himself -- besides carrying on long conversations with corpses and making sure they don't escape.
Ricci is a fine damsel in grisly distress. Long, also the Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, is suitably perturbed, especially when he gets his ghostly calls or takes a roll in the cemetery.
I think that Wostowicz-Vosloo shows a lot of talent here, but that her subject matter is a shade too grisly and a little too lacking in real dark humor. (Extras: commentary by Agnieszka Wostowicz-Vosloo; documentary.)
The Girl by the Lake (B)
Italy; Andrea Molaioli, 2007, IFC
This cool, melancholy Italian detective thriller, about the murder of a town beauty, whose death throws her community into reverie and remorse, is adapted and transplanted from the Norwegian murder mystery by Karin Fossum. And it won no less than 10 2007 David di Donatello awards (the Italian Oscar equivalent), including Best Film, Script (Sandro Petraglia), Direction (Andrea Molaioli) and, notably, Best Actor. That prize was won by Toni Servillo, of those excellent later Italian noirs Gomorra and Il Divo. Here, the dour-looking, sad-eyed Servillo underplays the role of a somber, hard-bitten, inwardly despairing cop who investigates this case (in a town near his larger city) even as his own family life seems to be falling apart.
This is definitely a good murder mystery at a time when good European movie detective thrillers (a la Steig Larsson's) are a growth industry. In Italian, with English subtitles. (Extras: trailer.)
Union Station (B)
U.S.; Rudolph Mate, 1950, Olive
The same year that William Holden and Nancy Olson appeared together as star-crossed studio lovebirds in Billy Wilder's great film noir Sunset Boulevard, they also appeared in this lesser, if still good, little noir, from a Thomas Walsh story and a Sydney Boehm script, about a kidnapping plot staged in, around and even under Los Angeles' picturesque Union Station, where all the trains come in. It's an eye-catching backdrop, well-exploited, draped in noirish shadows and filled with '50s atmosphere and passenger buzz. And Rudolph Mate the man who photographed Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and who directed (that same year) the classic noir D.O.A., turns it into a tense little tale -- though I question the wisdom of offing so many gang members before the last scene. The baddies include cold-blooded mastermind Lyle Bettger and warm-hearted moll Jan Sterling. The movie could really use Sunset Boulevard gothic diva Gloria Swanson to hector Holden and Olson again, though, as the cop from Chicago, Barry Fitzgerald (of Naked City and Going My Way) is a nice consolation prize.
Dark City (C+)
U.S.; William Dieterle, 1950, Olive
Charlton Heston's Hollywood feature film debut came in this 1950 noir, playing a sexy gambler, beloved of both saloon gal Lizabeth Scott and gambling victim Don DeFore's widow Viveca Lindfors, and hunted down, along with shady confreres Ed Begley, Jack Warden and Henry (Harry) Morgan, by the victim's mysterious and murderous brother. Dean Jagger and Mike Mazurki are also around.
Heston, whom one French critic said was an "axiom" of "heroism," was quite good at these kind of ruthless, sexy, semi-heel roles. (See The Big Country.) And, like Bob Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, he might have made a great occasional villain if he'd had more opportunities. (Dick Lester later gave him a good one, casting Heston as Cardinal Richelieu in his Three Musketeers movies). Dieterle, the director of The Life of Emile Zola and Portrait of Jennie should have had more opportunities for noir as well, but he wound up on a semi- Black List for part of the '50s. The poker-faced duo of Webb and Morgan later re-teamed for another Paramount noir, Appointment With Danger, and eventually reunited more substantially as the terse L.A. cops of Dragnet 1968. Lizabeth Scott sings too much; otherwise it's good dark stuff.
El Circo (C+)
Mexico; Miguel M. Delgado, 1943, Sony
Cantinflas, whom most of us know best for one of his least typical performances (as David Niven's hapless manservant Passepartout in Around the World in 80 Days), was the Mexican film super-comedian of his day, and this is his variation on Charlie Chaplin's classic silent movie The Circus. But here, he's less a lovelorn little fellow drenched in pathos like Chaplin, than a smart-assing, lucky, flippant little conman, with a gigolo's mustache and a gift of gab, albeit with a dash of pathos is his kitbag. Cantinflas was one of the most popular movie comedians in the world, and Chaplin himself thought him a master. But I need to see a little more of him before making up my mind. Sony is obliging by releasing a bunch of Cantinflas. In Spanish, with English subtitles.