PICKS OF THE WEEK
That Hamilton Woman (A)
U.K.; Alexander Korda, 1941, Criterion
Few historical period dramas carry a greater romantic charge than Alexander Korda's glossy, flag-waving, deeply tragic and plushly erotic bio film on England's iconic naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson (who whipped Napoleon at sea repeatedly) and his legendarily beautiful mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton -- as portrayed by one of the screen's most dazzlingly romantic and beautiful couples, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. It's an addictive film. Winston Churchill saw it over 80 times, and Andrew Sarris over a hundred -- and one can see why here in Criterion's splendidly restored new edition. The sets, by Alex's brilliant painter-designer brother, Vincent Korda, are lush, the sea battles (done in a tank with miniatures) are exciting, the cast is Brit-impeccable.
But towering above all the film's other high attractions is the magnificently arousing joint appearance of the still youthful Olivier and Leigh, who were never more in love on screen, never more electrically conjoined, and never, never hotter, than they were here. Leigh (who's billed first, because of her Gone With the Wind mega-stardom) plays an all-conquering saucy, Scarlett-style flirt, who's had to barter herself in youth to the urbane and cynical British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, Lord Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), and later falls for his guest Nelson on sight.
Nelson, a gloomy idealist and master sailor-warrior undermined by overwhelming passion, falls harder. And as the flamingly ardent couple defy British society and propriety, Nelson's starchy wife (Gladys Cooper), and seemingly all of England itself, to carry on their dangerous love affair -- the nemesis Napoleon keeps plunging France and England into conflict after conflict.
This fiery love and war story is also steeped in melancholy. The romance of Emma and Horatio is told in flashback, book-ended by shadowy, noirish scenes of Emma's tragic destiny, here shown as an eternally bereaved alcoholic street doxy who has only her memories left. (This sorry fate owes more to the Production Code than strict history, but it plays beautifully.) Olivier's sad, brooding, dark performance as Nelson -- against Leigh's impish, gorgeous gaiety as Emma -- coaxes tears and rapture as well.
It's a great-looking film in other ways too. Vincent Korda's sets of aristocratic haunts, modeled on period paintings (including the famous tableau of Nelson's dying moments), surround this great, fascinating screen couple with backdrops fit for the stage and screen monarchs they were -- and are.
That Hamilton Woman (a.k.a. Lady Hamilton in Britain) is blatant wartime propaganda. (Churchill had requested his friend Alex to make it as a wartime spirit-raiser for England and a call to arms for her American allies-to-be). But it's the kind of movie so lush, so well-done, so classy, that it gives propaganda a good name. The extras include an excellent interview with Vincent Korda's writer son Michael, author of the Korda family biography Charmed Lives, in which he reveals that the real-life Emma was fat and Lord Horatio was short), a 1941 radio promo-spot, the theatrical trailer, a commentary by Ian Christie, and a booklet with a fine, feeling essay by Molly Haskell -- but not, sadly, the notable appreciation by Haskell's husband Andrew Sarris, in which he revealed his hopeless Lady Hamilton addiction.
Norway/Germany/France; Bent Hamer, 2008, Sony Pictures
Bent Hamer, whose dryly witty, deadpan Norwegian movie Kitchen Stories mixed wistful comedy with bizarre oddball drama, mines that droll vein again in the Keatonesque, Tatiesque and even slightly Kaurismakiesque and Bergmanesque O'Horten. which is all about a 67-year-old train engineer named Odd (last name Horten), played by Baard (or Bard) Owe. Odd retires after 40 years, and finds his hitherto tightly scheduled life spinning off into a chaos of missed dates, unexpected deaths and, well, odd Oslo encounters -- most notably with a hard-drinking, eloquent and mysterious night wanderer named Trygve (Espen Skjonberg), who likes to chat about African tribal weapons and drive cars blind.
This is a subtler comedy than most American audience are used to, even though it has nudity, sex and toilet gags of its own. It's also a perfect Un Certain Regard Cannes Festival film: smart, off trail, neatly crafted and full of atmosphere -- with fine performances by the somber Owe and the gabby Skjonberg. Like Kitchen Stories, it's sad and funny, dark and light. So, of course, is life. (In Norwegian, with English subtitles.)
Pierrot le Fou (A)
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1965, Criterion, Blu-ray
The wildly experimental Pierrot le Fou, a 1965 French New Wave gem by the great rebel Jean-Luc-Godard, is based on Lionel White's American hard-boiled novel, Obsession. But -- like those earlier Godard fusions of pulp and poetry, Bande a Part and Breathless, it leaves its source far behind. In a way, it's the quintessential nouvelle vague picture and an ultimate love-on-the-run tale, with moody hard guy Jean-Paul Belmondo and Godard's wayward muse Anna Karina on a doomward race in the south of France. But it's also a meditation on Vietnam-era France and its ties to the U.S., on sexual politics and political sex, and, of course, on cinema itself.
Emotion is what Godard gives us in Pierrot: wistful, scary, impudent, drenched with longing and cinephilia. Back in the '60s and '70s. Pierrot le Fou was a required text for radical movie buffs. It still should be. (In French, with English subtitles. Extras.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Paul Newman: The Tribute Collection (A)
U.S.; various directors, 1958-1982, 20th Century Fox
Paul Newman was the Great Good Guy of American movies. He was a film-star prince of middle America, a heartbreaker with a brain, an athlete with a soul.
He became a movie star in the mid-'50s, by the time he was 30, and at first he seemed most famous for his good looks -- for that Grecian profile, that middleweight's body and those legendary blue eyes, as well as the flip, sardonic wisecracks that could issue somewhat surprisingly from his chiseled lips.
But the Newman movie acting (and directing) career that began in 1955, with the rotten Roman epic The Silver Chalice soon shot him to the heights in gritty classics like 1956's Somebody Up There Likes Me (where he played boxing champ Rocky Graziano), and later The Hustler, Hud and Cool Hand Luke. He became one of the quintessential movie stars, an actor so familiar we thought we knew him, a star presence who could always make us happy when he showed up.
Newman, born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, to a Jewish father (a sporting goods store owner) and a Catholic mom, was one of those actors whom everybody loves -- men, women, children and all points in between. Like Jimmy Stewart, another middle American movie icon, he was a small-town guy who made it big, yet never seemed to lose the scuff or the shine on his roots.
After some community theater work in my home town, William Bay, Wis., he had an interesting Broadway career -- he played the hero's best friend (the Cliff Robertson movie role) in the original stage production of William Inge's Picnic and the Humphrey Bogart killer part in Broadway's The Desperate Hours. He also fell in love with a fellow Picnic company member, Joanne Woodward (Kim Stanley's understudy as the play's literarily precocious tomboy). That affair never ended. Newman and Woodward were still married, still in love, a half century after their 1957 marriage, at his death.
He was probably on his way to a solid stage career. (He later originated the stage part of Chance Wayne in Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth directed by Elia Kazan.) But Paul Newman was, it seemed, born for the movies. His great good looks were undercut by his self-kidding humor, his swagger by an impishly seductive charm. (Woodward, who would win an Oscar in 1957, for The Three Faces of Eve, wondered at first about his acting herself, yet always thought he was cute enough to be a big movie star.)
But as much a natural as he later seemed, Newman was also a star with a great work ethic (which also helped him in his secondary careers as race car driver and businessman). Although he made an ignominious (he thought, embarrassing) film debut in The Silver Chalice, he quickly recovered by taking over three plum roles Jimmy Dean left vacant after his 1955 car crash death -- Rocky in Somebody Up There Likes Me, the punch-drunk hobo/fighter in the TV drama of Hemingway's short story The Battler and Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn's Gore Vidal-derived Freudian Western The Left-Handed Gun.
Then he was off to the races, vaulting to the upper ranks of move stardom as Ben Quick (a.k.a. Flem Snopes) in The Long Hot Summer, the film adaptation of one of William Faulkner's Snopes saga stories (for which he won the acting prize at Cannes); as Ari Ben Canaan in Otto Preminger's making-of-Israel epic Exodus; and the role that revved up his legend: cocky, brutalized, then victorious pool shark Fast Eddie in Robert Rossen's great 1961 film noir The Hustler. Hud, Harper, Luke, Butch Cassidy, Henry Gondorff, Sully Sullivan and all the other imperishably Newmanesque characters followed. By the late '60s and early '70s, he was one of the two or three most consistently popular American movie stars.
You could call him our Golden Boy, except that title was later taken by his movie best pal Robert Redford -- Newman's costar in the buddy-buddy classics Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Although Newman was at first dismissed by some critics as a Marlon Brando imitator (so was Jimmy Dean), he had such qualities of instant likeability and unselfish charm that they irradiated all his performances, even when he was doing a "Hud"-caliber villain. Pauline Kael once wrote, with astounding passion, that Newman was an actor who "projects such an air of heroic frankness and sweetness that the audience dotes on (him), seeks to protect (him) from harm or pain."
Kael nailed it. He was the great, good and irreplaceable, movie guy.
There are a number of Newman DVD collections, but this one should be the prize title, even if it's missing his non-Fox classics.
Includes: The Long Hot Summer (Martin Ritt, 1958, B); Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (Leo McCarey, 1958, B); Exodus (Otto Preminger, 1960, A); The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961, A); Adventures of a Young Man (Martin Ritt, 1962, C+); What a Way to Go! (J. Lee Thompson, 1964, C+); Hombre (Ritt, 1967, B); Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969, A); The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974, C+); "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" (Robert Altman, 1976, B); Quintet (Robert Altman, 1979, B); The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982, A).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (C+)
U.S.; Gavin Hood, 2009, 20th Century Fox
The question of the day, in a world beset with war, pandemics, economic collapse, crazed cable news-slingers and other problems up the wazoo: Where did Wolverine -- the sullen, steel-taloned superhero of the X-Men gang played by Hugh Jackman -- come up with his retractable claws, his superpowers and his surly disposition?
Where indeed? If you've been pondering this puzzle, and don't have a big back file of X-Men mags to help solve the mystery, this Marvel Comics movie spectacular should fill in some of the blanks. It's big, fast, jazzy-snazzy and full of violence -- and it has lots of shots of Logan/Wolverine talons shooting in and out of his hands and slashing into bad guys.
It also has some ferocious villains -- topped by Liev Schreiber as Wolverine's equally bad-tempered and dangerous 'bro, Victor Creed/Sabretooth, and Danny Huston as their nefarious military scoundrel/boss commander Stryker. Wolverine shows the horrifically equipped brothers fleeing polite society and their unlucky family during the 19th century, then somehow battling their way through the Civil War, World Wars I and II and Vietnam, and eventually (post-Vietnam) falling into the clutches of Stryker and his elite commando/killer squad, Team X. Their battle buddies include gabby "perfect" sword-slinger Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), blast 'em blobbo Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand) and constantly vanishing and reappearing teleporter John Wraith (Wil.I.Am).
Stryker may be a demanding commander, yet they're a crack team, brothers in arms with weapons sometimes shooting out of their arms. Still, after one massacre too many, Logan has had it. He quits the bunch, to Victor's extreme displeasure, and high-tails it for Canada, the life of a carefree lumberjack, and connubial bliss with fetching schoolmarm Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). This actionless idyll is suddenly broken by the reappearance of Stryker -- who is holed up at Three Mile Island of nuclear accident ill fame, hatching all kinds of evil schemes. One of them: an insane but obviously lucrative plan to make Logan an even deadlier, sharper, better equipped Wolverine. That he does, before Logan escapes again, this time even angrier and in the nude.
Jackman, the Australian music/action/dramatic star and this year's surprise hit Oscar Show host, is a gifted lead with a great glower and squint. From some angles, he looks like a younger Clint Eastwood and he sounds a bit like the younger Mel Gibson. And, as previous X-Men movies, and last year's Baz Luhrmann Down Under epic Australia have demonstrated, Jackman can really hold the screen. Huston and Schreiber are good, nasty, let's-hear-it-for-evil heavies. Also, South African-born filmmaker Gavin Hood, who made the excellent Tsotsi, has a gift for both action and psychology and a flashy visual style. Technically and technologically, on its own terms, Hood's new assignment, this roaring, slashing big-studio big-action adventure-sci-fi-fantasy, has a lot going for it.
But I got a little tired of Wolverine, despite an okay script by David Benioff and Skip Woods. It certainly delivers the goods, but these goods have been delivered all too many times before. The movie could use something different or special, and I don't mean heavy metal talons coming out of Wolverine's ears and bum. Comic book movies, especially Marvel or DC ones, can afford to throw us different curves. They can give us the grand noir style of "The Dark Knight," the psycho-adventure of "Spider-Man," the wit and human feeling of "Iron Man" or the sweep of the first two X-Men. Instead, Wolverine keeps retracting its nails and repackaging the same old super-spectacle, the same old Biff! Bam! Crash! Zowie!
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (C)
U.S.; Mark Waters, 2009, Warner Bros.
This one is just a glossy, giddy, smart-alec misfire. From director Mark Waters and the writers who committed Four Christmases, it's an expensive, showy update of the great Charles Dickens' endlessly remade and recycled Yuletide classic A Christmas Carol -- in which, this time, the Scrooge is a cynical serial seducer and bed-hopping star photographer named Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey).
Connor, after breaking up with three women at once on a conference call, shows up at the wedding mansion as best man for his younger brother Paul's (Breckin Meyer) wedding, and proceeds to hit on everybody in sight, to badmouth monogamy and marriage, to keep falling asleep and having nightmares, and to generally make himself obnoxious to political correctionists and wedding junkies.
Don't fret, though. Thanks to the spirit of Charles Dickens, the ghosts of Connor's girlfriends past, present and future are about to materialize and show this sexist sexual miscreant the off-colorful consequences of his evil ways. They're about to sneak into his dreams and up his bed and recount how he got to be such a super-lech: It's all the fault of swingin' killer-diller playboy Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas) who gives Connor superstud lessons. The ghosts also show how, after youthful disappointments, Connor has made an erotic pig of himself. And finally, they show how he can straighten himself out in time for a "God bless us, everyone!"-style happy ending. (Old girlfriend, lost love and main disappointment Jenny, played by Jennifer Garner, is conveniently around to help out.)
Observe and Report (C)
U.S. Jody Hill, 2009, Warner Home Video
This oddball show, in which Seth Rogen gets fat and psycho-nasty, and Ray Liotta and Anna Faris respectively play his tough cop and trashy babe nemeses, is, no kidding, the Taxi Driver of mall cop comedies, as writer director Jody Hill has already confessed was his intention. And that's a title it will never lose.
But, if Travis Bickle and Paul Blart seem an odd mix of antecedents, be advised that Hill and company never completely work out the kinks in his concept. Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a rotund Dirty Harry wannabe who dreams of being Eastwood or De Niro, but still lives at home with his mom (Celia Weston), an amiable souse who claims she slept with most of his high school friends, and probably did. Meanwhile, his mall is being terrorized by a fat flasher who keeps whipping it out at convenient moments, and burglars who keep looting the place. It's a Ronnie sort of job, but somehow the PD sends over Detective Harrison (Liotta) who thinks Ronnie is a doofus.
The movie is semi-funny all the way through -- and Faris, as a mean little makeup shop slut named Brandi is hilarious -- but it also leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Having your comedy hero be an actual semi-psychotic on a macho trip and vengeance kick is a daring move (though it smacks of Adam Sandler), and so are the pathological depths to which some these characters sink. Cinematically, it's just okay.
Observe and Report is certainly a better movie than the hit Paul Blart -- not a hard contest to win. But in some ways, they aren't all that different: gross-out comedy vehicles for star comics about cop fantasies that turn weirdly real.
Battle for Terra (C+)
U.S.; Aristomenis Tsirbas, 2009, Lionsgate
This beautifully animated 3D science fiction fable is an alien invasion story twisted inside out, a War of the Worlds in which, as Pogo Possum was fond of saying, we have met the enemy and he is us. Here, the monsters from outer space are Earthling cosmonaut/soldiers looking for another planet to colonize and the threatened protagonists are the peace-loving, amphibian-looking Terrians, who have forsworn war, but are ready to pull their weaponry out of mothballs to save their planet from conquest by the little pink men. Trying to bridge the gap between alien species and worlds are plucky little Mala (Evan Rachel Wood), Jim, the Earthling soldier whom she rescues (Luke Wilson), and cute little translator/robot Giddy (David Cross), who looks and acts like a talking cross between R2-D2 and Wall-E.
I was okay with director Tsirbas's affectionately artsy anti-war fantasy -- with its pro-ecology, peacenik themes and seductive other-worldly visuals -- until the explosive, guns-blazing climax: predictable for this kind of anime-influenced show, but a mood-wrecker and message-shredder nonetheless. Still, Battle is often redeemed by its dreamlike visuals, which suggest a fusion of Star Wars with a poetic French hybrid like Fantastic Planet, and the all-star voice cast, which includes Brian Cox as the warmongering General Hammer, along with the great James Garner, Dennis Quaid, Rosanna Arquette, Danny Glover and Star Wars' old Skywalker, Mark Hamill
U.S.; Gary Hustwit, 2009, Plexifilm
Gary Hustwit (Helvetica) interviews modern designers from all over the world, and unearths a multiplicity of approaches, theories and philosophies about the way things should look and be in the 21st century. Some of the interviewees struck me as maddeningly pretentious and full of it; others were more human, eloquent and persuasive. The images are beautiful throughout -- both the shots of the design experts in their environments and their works. The subjects include: Paula Antonelli, Dieter Rams, Chris Bangle, Fiona Ruby and Naoto Fukasawa. (In English, French, Dutch and Japanese, with English subtitles.)
Apres Lui (C+)
France, Gael Morel, 2007, IFC Films
The still ravishing Catherine Deneuve, an ageless movie enchantress, elevates this somewhat corny and pseudo-hip Gallic romance of the forbidden passion between a mother who's lost her son to an auto-crash and the son's equally grief-stricken best friend (Thomas Demerchez). There are more fireworks in That Hamilton Woman, though I've always had a bigger crush on Deneuve than Leigh. (In French with English subtitles.) (Extra: Trailer.)