PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Class (A)
France; Laurent Cantet, 2008, Sony
Laurent Cantet's schoolroom drama, shot in a documentary-like, lustily improvisatory style, pits a determined combative French teacher, M. Marin (Francois Begaudeau), against a racially and socially diverse, and highly voluble and extroverted, class of inner-city Parisian kids, few of whom are interested in the subject and some of whom are actively hostile. In the tradition of humanistic classroom movies like The Blackboard Jungle or Up the Down Staircase, but far more realistic, this riveting film -- Palme d'Or winner at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival -- becomes a microcosm of current French society, its volatile divisions and surprising common grounds.
As the teacher, Begaudeau gives a nervous, antsy, unsentimental performance; he challenges the students, and they challenge him back. The result is explosive and inspiring: one of the best of the current wave of artistic, socially conscious French cinema. In French with English subtitles. (Extras: Commentary, featurette.)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1980, Criterion Classics
One of the great Kurosawa period action epics, this 16th-century-set saga of a condemned thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) who masquerades as a dead warlord, at the behest of the dead man's wily courtiers, is at once a canny political parable, an engrossing psychological drama and a stunning adventure in the tradition of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Seven Samurai and Ran. It's full of the usual Kurosawa ferocious action and spectacle, and the last battle scene is hair-raising.
Nakadai, a last-minute replacement for Shintaro Katsu (the star of the Zatoichi series), who proved intractable, gives one of his best performances, a portrait of a man elevated to phony grandeur, transformed by his deception, and lost in a world of betrayal and bloodshed. A magnificent later work by one of the greatest world filmmakers, "Kagemusha" shows us life in chaos form the viewpoint of a desperate charlatan, an outlaw accidentally trapped in the halls of power. With Tsutomu Yamasaki, and Kenichi Hagiwara. In Japanese, with English subtitles.
U.S.; John Carpenter, 1984, Sony, Blu-ray
John Carpenter usually plunges us into genre nightmare. Here, he gives us something more humanistic and tender, if often no less scary: The love-on-the-run story of a sweet extraterrestrial (Jeff Bridges, who was nominated for an Oscar for this role), and a lonely widow (Karen Allen) who helps him flee from Wisconsin to Arizona, escaping from government men and other menaces. The catch: This E.T. has assumed the form of the widow's dead husband. One of Carpenter's best movies; he should work in this more Spielbergian key more often.
BOXED SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Simpsons: The Complete 12th Season (A-)
U.S., various directors, 2008-09, 20th Century Fox
Matt Groenig's all- American family strikes again.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT DVD RELEASES
Hannah Montana: The Movie (C)
U.S.; Peter Chelsom, 2009, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
This isn't a very good movie, but that isn't the fault of Disney Channel superstar Hannah, a.k.a. Miley Cyrus. Hamstrung by a ludicrous, cliché-clogged script packed with cornball sentimentality, dubious "real life" parallels and clumsily telegraphed so-called comedy, the show can't sink the bouncy, razzmatazz 16-year-old. She manages to bust loose from the movie malarkey on her musical numbers and -- playing both a surrogate, country gal Miley Stewart as well as her blond bombshell songstress alter-ego Hannah -- bring down the house. Unfortunately, there's a lot of movie in between those rock numbers, and, despite strenuous efforts by director Peter Chelsom (Funny Bones, Town and Country) and the supporting cast, most if it is bad.
Here's a hint for Ms. Cyrus and her executive producer/co-star dad Billy Ray ("Achy Breaky Heart") Cyrus: Pick better scripts. In this painfully predictable and outrageously illogical movie, Miley -- energetically playing those two versions of herself -- is joined by papa Cyrus, playing the movie Miley's dad Bobby Ray. Disappointed by his daughter's L.A.-drenched teen values, her mistreatment of best friend Lilly's (Emily Osment) birthday, and her scandalous fashionista fight with Tyra Banks on Rodeo Drive, Bobby Ray decides to circumvent pushy publicist Vita (Vanessa Williams, wasted) and take Miley/Hannah back to Crowley's Corners, Tenn., for some Hannah detox and syrupy good times time with the folksy Stewart family. Land o' goshen, what a plot! Every bit of rustic tomfoolery you -- or writer Dan Berenson (Cinderella 3 and Twitches Too) -- could imagine is dredged up.
This movie, not counting the musical numbers (of which there are too few) keeps getting strangled by its own comedy (of which there's too much). Almost every time Miley sings, it's fun. Almost every time she and the rest of the cast start pratfalling and yucking it up, it's a country cow-pie. This is the kind of "small town" humor you find scribbled on Malibu restaurant cocktail napkins.
The Last House on the Left (D)
U.S.; Dennis Iliades, 2009, Universal Studios
Once a philosopher, twice a pervert, as Voltaire said -- and as Norman Mailer was fond of quoting.
The auteur of Candide never saw the 1972 The Last House on the Left, of course, or its current slimy sequel. And maybe he hadn't even read the Marquis de Sade, the biggest French philosopher-pervert of them all. But one wonders what Voltaire, not to mention De Sade, might have made of Last House on the Left's violently sicko-perverted plot, adapted by auteur Wes Craven from auteur Ingmar Bergman.
In it, four outlaws on the run kidnap two middle-class teen girls who crave some pot. Then, after murdering and/or raping them, the quartet of psychopaths stumble into the home of one of their victim's parents, who discover the killers' identities and wreak a terrifying vengeance.
This gory little tale, inspired by Bergman's quintessential 1960 Swedish art film The Virgin Spring, was hammered out, with pungent low-budget shockeroo esthetics, by a cadre of future horror movie luminaries -- including writer-director Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street) and producers Sean Cunningham (Friday the 13th) and Steve Miner (House). When it was released back in 1972, it was sold with a brilliant ad campaign that advised audiences to keep from fainting by telling themselves "it's only a movie, it's only a movie...."
With the first Last House, Craven had something new: a frankness about sex, violence and drugs, and a willingness to keep going further. So, when he showed the heroine/victims being tortured and killed (in ways that outraged 1972 feminists and prefigured that nastier and bloodier recent knockoff Chaos), or when they showed the victim's mother biting down hard while fellating one of the killers, or when the dad went nuts at the end with a chainsaw, there was some novelty.
But there's not much novelty in the new House on the Left, and what there is, I would rather have missed. It's the same damned movie all over again, made with more money, more technical polish and less restraint -- and all that higher polish, spiffier editing and atmospheric shooting just makes it seem cheesier, uglier and less intriguing.
New director Dennis Iliadis and his shameless writers, Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, want us to be sure we're in a horror movie (as if the title weren't enough), so they start spilling blood right away. They begin with the psychopaths rather than the straight family, knocking off some cops, and once again, the filmmakers make the four killers a kind of false parody family: evil dad Krug (Garret Dillahunt), sneaky wicked Uncle Francis (Aaron Paul), sexy bi-girl/killer Sadie (Rikki Lindhome) and Krug's pothead son (Spencer Treat Clark), who was Junior in the first movie and Justin here.
Once again, the girls -- dreamy Mari (Sara Paxton) and party girl Paige (Martha MacIsaac) -- are lured by marijuana, abducted and humiliated. Mari's real parents -- Tony Goldwyn as John and Monica Potter as Emma -- are even more rich and generous, an athletic-looking doctor and his compassionate wife, who ultimately show us again how ordinary bourgeois can go homicidal.
They succeed too well. It's a really crappy movie, and if I'd rated it based solely on how I felt when I left the theater, I might have been tempted to blackball and no-star it. This movie was no pleasure. It looked and felt ugly. In this bloody farrago, the woods are grimy, dark and deep. The lake is set for drowning. There are no chainsaws that I remember, but maybe I was blinded by horror. John has lots of other household implements to slice and stab the killers with, and anyway Tobe Hopper took over that franchise long ago. There is no shortage of other Saws slicing away elsewhere.
I'll admit Iliadis (the Greek director of Hardcore) has talent, and that he held my attention for most of the first half. But what the hell does that matter? Last House 2009 began to lose me when the parents started whacking away, in scenes obviously intended to goose up audience cheers (which they did). The original Last House disturbed some reviewers because its horror seemed more plausible, more possible.
The new movie is really a by-the-bloody-numbers affair, repeating the structure of the first Last House while making the villains somewhat slimier, extending the revenge sequences, and tacking on a foul, idiotic, over-the-top ending. That last-gasp murder by microwave oven plays like something dreamed up by a heavily stoned teen team of gory-minded dorks at a gross-out contest: a stupefying topper for which everyone involved should be ashamed. If I were Craven and Iliadis, I'd cut this stinkeroo last blast off the movie for the DVD release, and run it as a deleted ending. Which it should have been.
Dragonball: Evolution (D+)
U.S.; James Wong, 2009, 20th Century Fox
Another snazzy, glossy, high-CGI production, another terrible script. Justin Chatwin is Goku, who has too much Oozaru in him, or maybe vice versa, and backing him up in, a teen war against the eternal forces of Evil, are Emmy Rossum and Chow Yun Fat. At least it keeps them all off the streets. Based on the famed anime manga franchise, which deserves better, especially from Chow.
U.S.; Dean Alioto, 2009 (Anchor Bay)
An okay western, with a weird metaphysical ending, in which James Conners (Justin Ament), the dutiful son of a murdered father and the heroic husband of a dead wife (Marnie Alton), teams up with the Indian tribe that calls him Shadowheart, to wreak vengeance on the vile cad responsible for all this -- a rustic cattle king fiend played by Angus Macfadyen, as if recycling his Orson Welles impersonation from The Cradle Will Rock filtered through Hee Haw. The bizarre ending suggests Touched by an Angel crossbred with High Plains Drifter. Director-writer Dean Alioto appears as Spider, the deadly hired gun, evil mustachioed top sidekick of Macfadyen.