PICKS OF THE WEEK
The City of Your Final Destination (A-)
U.K.-U.S.; James Ivory, 2009, Screen Media
In The City of Your Final Destination -- maybe the last of the lovably old-fashioned, classically constructed, deeply literate and beautifully wrought Merchant Ivory films, in the string that began back in 1963 with The Householder -- we are in Uruguay, in a very-lived-in and sunnily attractive hacienda, a place called Ocho Rios.
It is inhabited by the heirs of deceased novelist Jules Gund, whose family were refugees from Hitler's Europe, and who became the author of a single critically lauded novel called The Gondola -- and then committed suicide while working on the second. Gund's survivors include his tart-tongued wife Caroline (Laura Linney), his gentle mistress Arden Langdon (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her little daughter Alma (Ambar Mallman), his urbane, aging gay brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins) and Adam's much younger Japanese-born lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada).
Invading the premises is a desperate young Iranian-born academic from the University of Colorado, Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), who has to secure permission for a Gund biography from the reluctant family. Also arriving later, to help him, is Omar's domineering girlfriend Dierdre (Alexandra Maria Lara).
To keep his career afloat, Omar must change the minds of Caroline, Arden and Adam -- must, in a way, seduce them all. The basically shy Omar has dropped into the hacienda unannounced, and because they're very civilized and seldom visited people, he intrigues them and they allow him to intrude further and deeper into their little hothouse world of threadbare privilege and shadowy secrets.
What happens is perhaps a little pat at times, but always redeemed by the way these actors and these filmmakers make their story live and pulse and breathe.
It's a movie as chockfull of lush, enticing, literate delights as most of the best of their previous work, and I feel it's been unfairly treated by the majority of the reviewers, many of whom dismissed it as a languid, overly talky bore, or damned it as not up to its model, Chekhov.
The movie has its flaws. Metwally is a bit too bland. But I mostly loved The City of Your Final Destination, a film about the importance of art, of family, of literature, of love, and of the sometimes dubious refuge from a hostile or indifferent world that these solaces provide. It is bewitchingly well photographed, by Javier Aguirresarobe, lit and shot as if through veils of sunlit haze. And I think Hopkin and Linney gave two of the finest performances of 2009, consummately crafted and unjustly ignored. (Extras: "Making of" documentary; Ivory's Comments.)
U.S.; Frank Urson (and, uncredited, Cecil B. DeMille), 1927, Flicker Alley
Maurine Watkins' play Chicago, based on her brief experiences as a Chicago Tribune reporter covering sensational murder cases, is one of the most cynical of all newspaper romantic comedy-dramas. It's acid on wry, bile on toast: the dark, trenchant tale of a faithless wife who kills her lover, tricks her schmo husband and sees her unscrupulous lawyer parley the case into a deluge of Chicago newspaper headlines and hot-mama publicity.
Chicago is a venomous, crackling tale from the Ben Hecht era. And it's the source of the brash 1942 William Wellman-Ginger Rogers movie Roxie Hart, of the 1972 Bob Fosse-Kander-Ebb Tony-winning stage musical Chicago, of the Oscar-winning 2002 movie adaptation of that show, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere -- and of this 1927 silent movie version, starring Phyllis Haver as Roxie, based on the play and produced (and substantially directed) by Cecil B. DeMille. The official director was Frank Urson, a '20s filmmaker and frequent DeMille assistant. However much DeMille did on Chicago, which he had found and purchased and obviously liked, it was a lot -- according to his salary, the work records, and the very look and feel of the film.
DeMille had his cynical side, and he gives it full vent here. Roxie (gorgeously played by Haver, a doll of a blond who married rich, left the movies in 1929, and committed suicide in 1960), exploits and cuckolds her smitten hubby Amos (Victor Varconi) with her pudgy little bully of a lover Casely (irascible fatso Eugene Pallette, for God's sake). Then she shoots and kills Casely when he tries to leave, and an opportunistic prosecutor (Warner Richmond) seizes on the case, along with the local scandal-hungry press, who make Roxie their latest doxy.
Disillusioned but still faithful to Mrs. Hart, Amos hires one of Chicago's top defense lawyers, the endlessly resourceful but cash-flow-obsessed Billy Flynn (Robert Edeson), and the case is on. It was rough stuff in 1926, when Watkins' play played Broadway. It was rough in 1927, when scripter Lenore Coffee adapted it for this movie. It was rough in 2002, when Marshall's Billy, Richard Gere, made a mockery of the law on screen, and the Death Row dollies sang their ode to murder. ("He had it coming.") And it's rough now. (Extras: 1950 documentary The Golden Twenties; 1985 short documentary The Flapper Era 2010 documentary supplement The Real Roxie Hart; booklet with essays by Thomas H. Pauly, Robert S. Birchard and Rodney Sauer.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Presenting Sacha Guitry (A-)
France; Sacha Guitry, 1936-38, Eclipse/Criterion
Sacha Guitry took up movies relatively late in life. The star actor-playwright-stage director, le grande homme of the French theater, and author of over 120 plays, many of which he also acted in and directed, from the early 1900s to his death (at 72) had made a few silent pictures, from 1915 to 1917 (including a documentary with appearances by Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Sarah Bernhardt). Guitry also wrote a screenplay for the 1931 talkie Le Blanc et le Noir, yet the Russian-born stage wizard didn't really start his multi-tasking movie career of directing (and writing and starring in) French feature films until 1935's Pasteur. But he quickly mastered them, with the same effortless fluency and urbane eloquence which had enabled him to conquer the stage as a playwright in his teens. From then on, Guitry was unstoppable on both stage and screen, and his last movies as writer-director (Le Trois font le Paire and the classic Lovers and Thieves) came out in the year of his death, 1957.
Guitry was in his prime, perfectly set in his famous star persona -- the witty boulevardier and charming man of the world with a penchant for history and amour -- in the four films from the mid- to late 30s that Criterion has assembled for this four-disc package. They include two of his official classics, 1936's The Story of a Cheat (Guitry's acknowledged masterpiece) and 1937's The Pearls of the Crown, along with two delightfully stagy (and wondrously cinematic) Guitry plays-turned-films, 1937's Desire and 1938's Quadrille. (Extras: four essays by Michael Koresky.)
The Story of a Cheat (A)
A formerly wealthy, now threadbare, gambler and con artist recounts his colorful life while sipping wine and playing with a watch at an outdoor café. In this classic, Guitry plays the Cheat, narrates (and reads all the other parts) in a kaleidoscopic self-portrait of a charming scoundrel, living the high life as a croupier, gambler and con artist, in Monte Carlo and other sparkling cities.
The unnamed Cheat spares us nothing. So confident is he of his charm that he begins the biography with a grim yet amusing tale of the poisoning of his entire family, which only he survived. Perhaps the most urbane film ever made. With Guitry's sexy wife and stage accomplice, Jacqueline Delubac, as one the Cheat's partners-in-crime. (In French, with English subtitles.)
The Pearls of the Crown (A)
One of the most amazing, and amusing, of all costume drama-comedy-romances: the occasionally factual, often fictitious history of seven perfect pearls given to the girl Catherine de Medici by the wily Pope Clement VII, four of which wind up in the Crown of England, and three of which...well, let Sacha tell it. Over a span of several centuries, the seven pearls pass through the hands and lives of a glittering historical gallery that includes Henry VIII, Mary of Scotland, Elizabeth the Queen, at least two Napoleons, Louis XVI, the Bastille-stormers of the French Revolution, Madame Du Barry, and the Queen of Abyssinia (played by Arletty, the unforgettable femme fatale of Carne and Prevert's Children of Paradise).
Befitting the work of a writer-director who was the godson of Russia's Czar Alexander II, Guitry's view of the monarchy and its wandering crown jewels is irreverent and cynical, comic and unsparing. Like Lubitsch, Guitry portrays royalty with its doors open and its pants down. He also plays four roles, including the narrator/sleuth Jean Martin and Napoleon III; Guitry's fellow cast members include Delubac, the great Jean-Louis Barrault (young Napoleon) and the great Raimu, of the Marcel Pagnol Trilogy. (In French, Italian and English, with English subtitles.)
In this set-bound but very fluid and graceful adaptation of one of his plays, Guitry, at 52, has the nerve to play an irresistible valet named Desire, whose mistresses (including one played by his costar/wife Delubac) keep falling for him. It's a role he was born to play, as movie-lovers were born to watch it. (In French, with English subtitles.)
At the Paris Ritz, a romantic triangle turns quadrangle when a handsome, horny American movie star (George Grey) seduces the wife (Gaby Morlay) of an urbane, witty and seductive Paris-Soir magazine editor (Guitry) who has a thing for his star reporter (Delubac, again). Another Guitry play, setbound but sparkling. And what sexy Hollywood comedies like Libeled Lady or Midnight could have been, if the Hays Office hadn't been around. (In French, with English subtitles.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Last Song (C)
U.S.; Julie Anne Robinson, 2010, Touchstone Pictures
The latest movie from a Nicholas Sparks novel (after Dear John, Message in a Bottle and The Notebook) offers another weepy, lush mix of romance, beaches, horrible misunderstandings, passion, true love and death.
This time, it's Miley Cyrus and Greg Kinnear who do the suffering under the sun. She's a petulant, rebellious daughter, Ronnie Miller, sent by her separated mom Kim (Kelly Preston) to spend the summer with Kinnear as her fragile-looking composer dad Steve Miller. Also around for the summer: Bobby Coleman as precocious little brother Jonah.
Ronnie, scowling as if she wanted us all to forget Hannah Montana forever, is fed up with life, her family and music. And soon, she's prowling around the local beach like an angry, scornful she-wolf looking for someone to bite. Amazingly, the hunkiest guy on the sand, blond volleyball champ and nice-guy/rich-boy Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth) bumps into Ronnie, pursues her, and just won't take no for an answer, a conversation-closer, or even a cue.
Soon we learn of a mysterious church-burning that implicated poor Steve, wounded by the charred episode and now tinkling away on his piano trying to write his last song. (Shall we lay bets on who eventually comes to his musical rescue?) Along with her persistent Will, Ronnie is dogged by psychopath Marcus (Nick Lashaway), runaway Blaze (Carly Chaikin) and Will's volleyball buddy Scott (Hallock Beals), who's hiding something. Then there's the problem of Will's snobbish parents, Susan and Tom, violently offended when the happy couple show up at the mansion covered with mud after a playful dirt-romp. A wedding approaches. A confession. A hospital. Can the piano stay in tune until the last scene?
Miley Cyrus, going for a real change of pace, is not too happy a choice for a sorrow-plagued heroine, I'm afraid -- though she does sing the hell out of the credits song. But Miley has some problems here with looking romantic and vulnerable, rather than just sexy, mad or smiley.
France: Philippe Lioret, 2009, Film Movement
A moving mix of contemporary social themes and romantic melodrama. The protagonists are Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a 17-year-old Kurdish refugee from Iraq desperate to be reunited with his girlfriend in London, and Simon (Vincent Lindon), a soon-to-be-divorced French swimming instructor in Calais. Bilal decides to learn to swim so he can cross the channel to be with his love; Simon, heartbroken by the end of his own marriage, undertakes to teach him. More and more they become enmired in this impossible-seeming quest. More and more, we see Bilal as an almost suicidal romantic, determined to keep love alive, while Simon, too easily, let it slip away. With Audrey Dana, radiant as Simon's lost love.
Lindon, who works often for Claude Lelouch, is a classic earthy French leading man in the Gabin-Raimu-Depardieu mold. Melodrama aside, the film touches you. (In French, with English subtitles. Extras: The short German film The Berlin Wall, about what seems a late attempt by one bereaved old widower to rebuild the Wall.)
The Thorn in the Heart (B)
France; Michel Gondry, 2009, Oscilloscope
Essentially, this is a home movie by Michel Gondry (director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), who focuses on the lives of his indefatigable and much-loved (and widowed and nearly blind) schoolteacher Aunt Suzette, and her family, especially her son (and Michel's cousin) Jean-Yves, a gay model train lover, an outsider, and, for Suzette, "the thorn in her heart." This is a lovely story of how families work together, persevere, laugh, tell stories, and love each other despite everything. It's also a story of how a simple country teacher can make a difference, can be more truly a hero or heroine, than say, all the fictional Uzi-firing movie mercenaries and death-dealers played by all the Stallones, Schwarzeneggers and Willises. God bless you, Suzette. (In French, with English subtitles. Extras, all created or curated by Gondry: featurettes; gallery of drawings by young pupils; Q&A with Gondry; Charlotte Gainsbourg's short Little Monsters; stop-motion animation by Valerie Person.)