CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Gone Baby Gone (B)
U.S.; Ben Affleck, 2007, Miramax
Ben Affleck scores with this notable writer-directorial debut: a tough, humane thriller-drama from another Boston crime novel by Dennis Lehane, who wrote the source for Clint Eastwood's terrific Mystic River. Now, this is no Mystic.
The story -- about the kidnapping of a local child, a crime which seems to reveal a rat's nest of cocaine peddling, pedophilia and official and local corruption -- is more sentimental and implausible. I don't buy the ending at all. But Gone has a nice swing and a first-rate cast: Casey Affleck as a neighborhood private eye; Michelle Monaghan as his sleuth partner/main squeeze; Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and John Ashton (of Beverly Hills Cop) as some very convincing cops; and two Amys -- Ryan and Madigan -- as the victim's mom and aunt, plus a lot of effectively sleazy supporting actors, swearing a blue streak in various Boston accents.
It's a good time-passer, well-acted and street-lingo-zingy, not overloaded with phony action set-pieces. But the resolution is strange and mushy, and the theme of children-in-peril isn't as pointed and moving as it was in Mystic. Also, after a while, I began wondering if the reason little brother Casey was able to ball-bust and act so hardcase with everybody -- including both crooks and cops, armed and twice his size, with lots of backup -- was because big brother Ben was behind the camera, calling the shots.
But Gone is a cut above most movies like this. Amy Ryan is as good as she was in Sidney Lumet's ace noir Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Freeman and Harris are as razor-sharp as they always are, though Freeman's got the least juicy of the parts. (Extras: Commentary by Ben Affleck and scenarist Aaron Stockard; deleted scenes, featurettes.)
The Double Life of Veronique (A)
France-Poland; Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991, Home Vision
Irene Jacob plays two Veroniques, one a French music student, one (Weronika) a Polish soprano, two girls whose lives run on parallel tracks, whose paths briefly cross, in what becomes tragic recognition. Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski made his first big American splash with this film, and, even if it's not on a level with his 1988 masterpiece, The Decalogue, it's still a powerful, moving, visually striking work. I still like it, though I don't agree with the then-prevalent opinion that Kieslowski was the new Ingmar Bergman (nor with the backlash against him afterwards).
The fascinating thing about Kieslowski's late French work -- to some extent the art of a man in self-imposed exile -- is that he directed major French art films without being able to speak the language, more proof that film is primarily a visual art. The script was co-written by Kieslowski's usual collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the cast includes Wladyslaw Kowalski (as Weronika's father) and Claude Duneton (as Veronique's). (A more expensive deluxe version of The Double Life of Veronique came out in 2006 on Criterion.)
BOX SET CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Lubitsch Musicals (A)
U.S.; Ernst Lubitsch, 1929-1932, Criterion Collection
Ernst Lubitsch was a master of silent comedy and sound comedy, the man who brought European sophistication and wit to American movies. But he was also, for a brief but exciting period in the early talkie years, Hollywood's reigning master of the screen musical. His usual stars were rakish smiling boulevardier Maurice Chevalier and beauteous songbird Jeanette MacDonald, alone or together in a series of sparkling, melodious delights that climaxed with 1934's The Merry Widow.
Busby Berkeley and the Fred and Ginger RKO unit later took his '30s musical crown, when he moved back to comedies, and there are some who would argue that the greatest "Lubitsch" musical was actually directed by Rouben Mamoulian (the exquisite 1932 Chevalier-MacDonald-Rodgers and Hart Love Me Tonight). But these gems still beguile and delight, still graced with that effervescent Lubitsch Touch. Includes The Love Parade (1929, A), The Smiling Lieutenant (1929, B+), Monte Carlo (1931, A), and One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch and George Cukor, 1932, B+).
Stanley Kramer Film Collection (A-)
U.S.; Stanley Kramer and other directors, 1952-67, Columbia
Stanley Kramer, the favorite target of some auteurists, a pick of the week for this old Hitchcocko-Hawksian? Well, let's be fair, just as the older Francois Truffaut was (not to Kramer, but to Kramer's French equivalents). In fact, the other Stanley K. may have been a variable director -- and often an overrated one, because of his penchant for daring leftist subject matter and all-star casts -- but he was always one of the best producers in Hollywood. This set, which offers three examples of his producer's art and two of his direction, shows his strengths and flaws. The skinny: Kramer consistently assembles his projects with taste and guts, always gets good stories and good people. At his best he produces High Noon, or directs The Defiant Ones.
But his direction can be clunky and too indulgent. (Ironically, one of his best directorial efforts, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, is one of his most indulgent.) Even so, he rarely wastes your time and, as Andrew Sarris admitted, time has proven he is no fake. This set is the quintessence of Hollywood '50s-'60s liberalism. (Extras: Commentaries; featurettes; newsreels; introductions by Karen Kramer and others; photo galleries.)
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (A)
Roy Rowland, 1952
The great Dr. Seuss-scripted children's fantasy-comedy-musical about unhappy music student Tommy Rettig (TV Lassie's first lad) who dreams himself into a nightmare mansion, run by the mad tyrant piano teacher Dr. T (Hans Conried, at his plummiest.) Seuss also influenced the look of the designs and wrote the song lyrics; Marlene Dietrich's composer Fredrick Hollander penned the music. Hey, I love this.
The Member of the Wedding (A-)
Fred Zinnemann, 1953
This is a fine, respectful but slightly overloud adaptation of Carson McCullers' poignant and scintillating novel and play about small-town Southern misfits. It is also blessed by one of American theater's great trio of performances -- Julie Harris as tormented tomboy Frankie, Ethel Waters as God-loving kitchen queen Berenice and little Brandon DeWilde as John Henry.
The Wild One (B+)
Laszlo Benedek, 1953
The Marlon Brando motorcycle movie -- "What are you rebelling against?" "What have you got?" -- is primarily flawed in that it's not dark enough. A surprise: Brando smokes, but Lee Marvin almost steals the picture as wild man Guido.
Ship of Fools (B-)
Stanley Kramer, 1965
Adapted from Katharine Anne Porter's novel about a luxury liner in the Nazi era, this had Kramer at the helm. Among this keen all-star cast -- Vivien Leigh, Oskar Werner, Jose Ferrer, George Segal, Elizabeth Ashley, Michael Dunn -- Marvin almost steals a Kramer movie again, as the washed up ballplayer who "could never hit a curve ball on the outside corner."
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (A-)
Stanley Kramer, 1967
Nobody steals anything from this film's stars: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as two liberal, affluent parents whose lives and politics are suddenly put to the test when their daughter (Katharine Houghton, the movie's weak link) shows up with her fiancée -- Sidney Poitier. (Of course, he's a paragon; that's the point. Would the movie be better with Richard Pryor? Funnier maybe.) College film radicals mocked this movie back in the '60s, but it's held up. These days, if you love movies, it's hard to watch Tracy's big speech without a tear. We know Hepburn couldn't.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Becoming Jane (B-)
U.K.; Julian Jarrold, 2007, Miramax
Having run out of Jane Austen novels to adapt -- or perhaps unwilling to make a theatrical film of Northanger Abbey, the only one left un-movie-ized (though a perfectly fine British TV version is available) -- some otherwise smart moviemakers here have decided to proceed on the peculiar theory that witty writer Jane was actually the heroine in one of her novels, or the stunner in one of the more glamorous big movies made from her books. With Anne Hathaway as Glamour Jane, James McAvoy as her wayward love, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters and James Cromwell. Not bad, but....
(U.S.; Justin Theroux), 2007, Weinstein
This is a so-so urban sex comedy about a children's book writer (Billy Crudup) who loses his self-destructive illustrator (Tom Wilkinson) to death and hooks up with another (Mandy Moore), who plunges him into love pitfalls. With Dianne Wiest, Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Balaban.
Peter's Friends (B)
U.K.; Kenneth Branagh, 1992, MGM
This witty, sharp-as-a-tack ensemble British comedy visits the 10-year reunion of a raffish college musical theater gang. The bright, not-so-young things of the cast include Branagh, Emma Thompson, Rita Rudner (who also co-wrote the script), Syephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
A Zed and Two Naughts (B+)
U.K.; Peter Greenaway, 1985, Fox Lorber
The title stands for "ZOO," and this typically austere, cryptic, visually lovely and ultra-intellectual Greenaway disquisition on animals, accidents, brothers (played by Brian and Eric Deacon) and anthropology (as represented by Planet Earth's David Attenborough) both absorbs and mystifies. A rarefied treat.
The Draughtsman's Contract (A-)
U.K.; Peter Greenaway, 1982, Fox Lorber
Greenaway's first feature: a mix of restoration comedy and experimental cinema, centering on a randy, brilliant, cruel painter (Anthony Higgins), who seduces a rich household, while painting their estate. With Janet Suzman.
U.S.; Robert J. Rosenthal, 1982, MGM
A vacuous teen comedy about a telekinetic teen (Scott Baio) whose psychic powers whip open girls' shirts -- including, for a flash, B-movie queen Jewel Shepard's -- is as dopey as they come.
The Wiz: 30th Anniversary Edition (C+)
U.S.; Sidney Lumet, 1978, Universal
This somewhat oversumptuous and nightmarish African American musical reshaping of The Wizard of Oz is a plucky change of pace for ace New York City filmmaker Sidney Lumet. But unfortunately, this Wizard isn't wonderful, despite an interesting (and sometimes bizarre) cast led by Diana Ross as a too-old Dorothy, Michael Jackson as a fey scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tinman, Richard Pryor as The Wiz, plus Ted Ross, Mabel King and Lena Horne.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Sense and Sensibility/Persuasion (B)
U.K.-U.S.-France; Ang Lee/Roger Michell, 1985, Sony
The two movies, full of wit, sexual tensions and 18th-century British country manor splendor, that established the Jane Austen featire film cult. You still may prefer the 1995 British TV mini-series Pride and Prejudice, with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Includes Sense and Sensibility (U.K.; Ang Lee, 1995, B+) with actress-scenarist Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant, and Persuasion (U.K.-U.S.-France; Roger Michell, 1995, B) with Amanda Root.
Three Men and a Baby/Three Men and a Little Lady (C-)
U.S.; Leonard Nimoy/Emile Ardolino, 1987-1990, Buena Vista
Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson play three bachelor stud roommates, who become (supposedly) amusingly domesticated by the surprising and troublesome intrusion into their lives of a baby from their past. Based on Coline Sereau's French comedy Three Men and a Cradle, the first movie is likable, the second an overcute waste. Includes 3 Men and a Baby (U.S.; Leonard Nimoy, 1987, C+) and Three Men and a Little Lady (U. S.; Emile Ardolino, 1990, C-).