PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Lincoln Lawyer (B)
U.S.: Brad Furman, 2011, Lionsgate
Los Angeles as the city on wheels -- as a supreme car community, with a highly mobile and highly motorized citizenry -- gets the lawyer that it probably deserves in Matthew McConaughey's Mick Haller, star mouthpiece of director Brad Furman's classy, okay neo-noir The Lincoln Lawyer. Haller, the best part McConaughey has had in quite a while, and in the best movie he's had recently as well, is a cynical, smartly dressed defense attorney with a fashion-model profile and a gift of gab, whose only office is a swanky chauffeur-driven black Lincoln Continental, with a roomy back seat where he prepares cases, as his streetwise driver, Earl (Laurence Mason), rushes him from one courtroom to another.
Most of his clients are probably guilty, something that doesn't bother Haller overly much -- perhaps since his ex-wife Maggie McPherson (Marisa Tomei) is a sharp prosecuting attorney who evens up the odds. And none seem guiltier than Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a narcissistic, bad-tempered Beverly Hills playboy with a very tolerant socialite mother (Frances Fisher). Roulet is a spoiled psycho who's been accused of assault and attempted rape, by a victim whom he may well have terrorized and battered.
But there's another of Louis' possible victims capable of throwing even more of a worry or a scruple into the tough-hided Haller, and that's the dead woman for whose murder another Haller client (Michael Pena) now rots in jail. Meanwhile, as Mick's shaggy best buddy, p.i. Frank (William H. Macy), tries to dig up the facts, and Earl tries to keep his boss/rider on schedule, Haller spars with bail bondsman Val Valenzuela (John Leguizamo) and prosecutor Ted Minton (Josh Lucas) and a bevy of tough-talking cops.
That's the kicker -- the moral quandary, and what it does to you to keep defending the probably guilty and maybe the truly heinous (and perhaps even putting them on the street to commit heinous atrocities again) -- that animates novelist (and ex-L.A. Times crime reporter) Michael Connelly's story. It's been sharply adapted by John Romano, and very sharply and atmospherically directed by Furman (The Take), and it keeps posing the kind of moral questions that were common in the classic noirs of Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Thompson or Higgins, but aren't always as satisfactorily handled in today's movies and TV shows, just as moral questions can be pretty well ignored in real life today by psychopaths, their lawyers, and, of course, by politicians.
It's a tough story, hard-nosed and audience-savvy: a neo-noir in settings both glamorous and salty, and a movie that gives you a tingling shot of L.A. style, plus a very good cast having a lot of fun playing deeper-than-usual roles that suggest real, or at least interesting, people. Especially McConaughey. He's been good at courtroom thrillers before, especially in the Grisham-based 1995 A Time to Kill, but Mick Haller, based on a real-life lawyer Connelly met at a Dodgers game, is a character you could stand seeing a few more times, in a few more neo-noirs. (Extras: featurettes.)
The Makioka Sisters (A)
Japan: Kon Ichikawa, 1983, Criterion Collection
Kon Ichikawa's 1983 film of the famous '40s novel by Junichiro Tanizaki -- with its subtle and exquisite dramatization of a crucial period in the lives of four beautiful, upper-class sisters living in Osaka -- is one of the great Japanese films, and one of the finest, most memorable and most visually bewitching of all cinematic renderings of an Asian literary classic.
Like Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, which The Makioka Sisters resembles in theme and mood, Ichikawa's movie -- set in Osaka, a bustling Japanese river city and commercial center -- is suffused with an ironic nostalgia for a vanished time. It throbs with regret for the vanished beauties which the authors (Booth Tarkington and Tanizaki) and their adaptor/filmmakers (Welles and Ichikawa) summon up with their films' witty scripts, accurate décor, expert camerawork and flawless casts -- but which they also show as perhaps inevitable.
Just as Welles knew the American Midwest -- which is where the Indiana-born Tarkington set his sad, knowing tale of the fall of the once proud upper-class Ambersons -- Ichikawa and Tanizaki, both Osaka natives, knew very well the city and milieu they depict here. We see Osaka, where the Makioka family once ran the city's most celebrated and exclusive kimono factory/shop -- mostly in a series of beautiful interior shots, almost wholly placed inside the feminine world of household and family that the four sisters inhabit. (Two of the sisters are married, and two are unmarried, which is the source of almost all the film's conflicts.)
Just as in an Ozu film, the home-life conflicts and crises engender both amusement and great sadness, as the now vanished world of the Makiokas and their real-life counterparts inspire the film's lush pictorialization of time and place, 1938 Japan. We see this world through the eyes of the sisters and (less so) of their husbands, during the beginning of one of the major turning points in Japanese history, the onset of World War II, before the world conflict had utterly consumed the country and its culture.
Yet we actually see and hear relatively little of the outside world and populace of Osaka, or of the gathering storms of war, perhaps because the sisters themselves take so little note of it. They are too preoccupied with their family problems -- mostly the dilemma of marrying off the last two younger Makioka sisters -- to notice or comment here on the fact that their whole exquisite world may someday soon be gone.
The Makioka sisters are, going from eldest to youngest: first sister and opinionated family leader Tsuruku (Keiko Kishi), second sister and more malleable second-in-command Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), third sister, the quiet, sensitive and hard-to-marry Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) and fourth sister, the rebellious, artistic and high-spirited Keiko (Yuko Kategawa). In 1983, when The Makioka Sisters was released, Kishi, Sakuma and Yoshinaga were all big stars; Kategawa was a newcomer. Rarely though, have four more beautiful actresses appeared together in a movie, in four juicier dramatic roles. And, when Ichikawa, at the end, reprises stunning group and individual shots of the luminous quartet walking through the hills together, surrounded by massive clouds of new cherry blossoms, smiling, dressed in their inimitable finery (kimonos from their father's famous shop), we realize, so strongly that it hurts, how special they were, how lovely they all were together.
But we also can see that their ties and bonds are now irreversibly sundered, that they will never, as a group, be together in that way again, that, just as their country will never be the same after the war that their government has so foolishly instigated, neither will they. It's heartbreaking. And like too many family and national tragedies, it seemed inevitable.
Like Ozu, Ichikawa portrays the Makiokas with such intimacy and clear-eyed sympathy that their problems never seem trivial. The Makiokas, luminous as a group, are also strongly individualized. Tsuruku, custodian of the family code and pride, is something of a smiling dictator, and is married to Tatsuo, a stern, taciturn, bossy banker (played by Juzo Itami, the much-awarded actor-director of Tampopo and The Funeral).
Sachiko, more overtly humane and generous than her elder sister, is the wife of Teinosuke (Koji Inasaki), who is the family's great diplomat, also a susceptible romantic, and a man probably in love with his sister-in-law Yukiko. (It is Teinoskue who has that shimmering, shattering cherry blossom vision at the end.) Both husbands, in recognition of the prominence of their wives' prestigious family, and of the difficulties besetting such a family if they lack a male heir, have taken the Makioka name for their own -- an example, among many, of the balance of family power, which will shift.
What Ichikawa gives us in The Makioka Sisters is a brief look at the family at its peak, and then a longer look its inevitable decline. Like The Magnificent Ambersons, it's a sad story, but Tanizaki's book, according to Audio Bock, is even sadder than the movie, darker in portraying that decline. Even so, the film's most sublime moment -- the last shots of the lovelorn Teinosuke sipping sake in a dark room and recalling the sisters at their zenith, in their lovely kimonos and that great pink and white cloud of cherry blossoms -- is Ichikawa's invention. It has no counterpart in the novel, where Teinosuke's possible infatuation is never suggested.
In both book and movie, the Makioka sisters' decline is also obviously a microcosm of the decay of Japan's upper classes during and after the war. Perhaps I've suggested that Tanizaki's book and Ichikawa's film ignore the social context around the family. But, in a way, that's not true. In the film, we sense the presence outside the walls, of the oncoming war and the changes to come, even if they aren't shown. And Tanizaki saw the original publication of his book, begun as a serial in 1943, disrupted by a long government ban, as "prejudicial to national discipline." He didn't publish it publicly until after the war and Japan's defeat; it came out, in three parts, in 1946, 1947 and 1948. Like some of the greatest Japanese filmmakers -- Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi among them -- Tanizaki perhaps sensed the tragedies to come. It was only after the full national catastrophe that he was able to share his masterpiece, and the Makiokas, with his countrymen.
Ichikawa's The Makioka Sisters was released by its studio Toho, in 1983, in a special "50th Toho Anniversary" prestige presentation. Ironically, it was Toho, and its legendary cheapness, that was probably responsible for the film's few flaws, mainly the sense of claustrophobia engendered by the heavy reliance on studio-shot interiors (especially in the first half). The Makioka Sisters, as Bock persuasively suggests, was a possible Japanese equivalent to Gone With the Wind, which Ichikawa was forced to shoot on an unreasonably low budget.
But Ichikawa, like Keiko, was an artist. He was resourceful, brilliant and seemingly tireless, even though he was 68 (and a recent widower) while he prepared the film. Still, he was able to surmount most of the difficulties, and he made one of the masterpieces of his career -- a career that included such gems as Fires on the Plain, The Burmese Harp, Enjo, Odd Obsession (or The Key, also adapted from a Tanizaki novel), Being Two Isn't Easy, An Actor's Revenge, Alone on the Pacific, Tokyo Olympiad, The Devil's Ballad, Ohan, I Am a Cat, The Inugami Family, Princess of the Moon, and The 47 Ronin. It was an incredible career that lasted until very recently -- Ichikawa released his last film, The Inugamis, in 2006, at the age of 89, and he died, in 2008, at 92. The Makioka Sisters was one of its highest points.
In 1983, at 68, Ichikawa was still in his prime, if indeed, he ever left it. And in the gorgeous, moving classic he made from Tanizaki's great novel, Ichikawa painted a vision of the Makioka sisters, in all their radiance, foolishness, happiness and sorrow, that becomes an unforgettable portrait of the evanescence of both family ties and of life's beauties. In Japanese, with English subtitles. (Extras: booklet with essay by Japaese film critic/historian Audie Bock.)
Vera Cruz (A-)
U.S.: Robert Aldrich, 1954, MGM/ 20th Century Fox
This Gary Cooper-Burt Lancaster Western by Robert Aldrich looks a lot like Leone, whose classic spaghetti Westerns, especially The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, may have been strongly influenced by it. The setting is a scorching pre-Peckinpah Mexico ("Bloody Sam" may have taken Vera Cruz as a model too, especially for parts of The Wild Bunch.) Cooper is Southern Civil War veteran Ben Trane, a mercenary with principles, and Lancaster is Joe Erin, a black-clad mercenary without any -- but with the widest, most sharkish, most voracious grin this side of Alfonso Bedoya. The two stars join forces to transport gold and a beautiful countess (Denise Darcel) to Maximilian; the Juaristas are around to tug at Coop's conscience. Also around dispensing villainy or love interest: Ernest Borgnine, Cesar Romero, George Macready, Charles Bronson and Sarita Montiel.
It's another Borden Chase-style good-and-bad-buddy/antagonist quest Western, like Bend of the River -- though Chase only wrote the story here. (James Webb and Roland Kibbee collaborated on the script.) Vera Cruz, a big 1954 hit, was directed with lots of patented Aldrich punch. It helped establish Aldrich's big-time Hollywood career, and it also helped establish him strongly with the auteurist critics in France, along with 1954's Apache (also with Lancaster), 1955's Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife, and 1956's Attack! and Autumn Leaves. Arguably, Aldrich was never better than he was during that great three-year-run -- except of course for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Dirty Dozen.
Vera Cruz, like Apache, was a Hecht-Lancaster production, made by Lancaster's film company. James Hill, the duo's later third partner, is the producer here -- and the next year they all teamed up with Paddy Chayefsky and Vera Cruz villain Borgnine to make the 1955 best picture Oscar-winner Marty.
Lancaster makes a great villain himself, as he also would as J.J. Hunsecker in the quintessential Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production, Sweet Smell of Success. But it's most fascinating to see Cooper, four years after his quintessential good-lonely-marshal "Coop" role in High Noon, inhabiting this morally dangerous Aldrichesque, Leone-esque world, rubbing noses with this particularly wild bunch, and even displaying some seemingly un-Cooperesque traits of cynicism and lust. And you'll never, never forget that last Cooper-Lancaster showdown and Burt's final gun-twirl and grin.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.: Jason Winer, 2011, Warner Bros.
Rarely has the time seemed less right for a movie than it does for the Russell Brand remake of Arthur -- that 1981 comedy semi-classic starring Dudley Moore in his career peak, as the drunken Manhattan heir to millions. The Moore Arthur was a fancy swiller of whiskey, and a boozy wooer of waitresses (Liza Minnelli), a likable souse who defied his family's mercenary badness and dullness by making a life out of drunken revels, playing a zany P.G. Wodehouse-ian Bertie Wooster to John Gielgud's Jeeves-ish tart butler, Hobson, while trying to avoid a forced marriage to a family of rich boring snobs.
Coming at the start of the 1980s, when money ruled and greed was good, the Moore Arthur seemed to have hitched a ride on the zeitgeist to come. But do we want movie now where the romantic hero is a billionaire's son who's never worked and doesn't want to: a rich, slaphappy, childish drunk who throws away money on mad whims -- like renting Grand Central Station, emptying it for a dinner date with a new heartthrob, and hiring an acrobatic troupe to provide entertainment? (Of course, love changes him. Doesn't it always?)
But the silliness just keeps coming. The Brand Arthur is a film that one seriously suspects of sneaking out to the lobby and getting smashed on Marker's Mark, when it isn't staggering back up on the screen and making an utter ass of itself.
By comparison, the Moore Arthur -- written and directed by Steve Gordon, who also wrote the well-regarded '70s TV series "The Practice," for Danny Thomas, and the movie The One and Only, for Henry Winkler -- was a nice, witty attempt, mostly successful, to revive the bittersweet hilarious fizz and sparkle of the best 1930s-'40s screwball comedies. Those were movies often very familiar with alcohol, like My Man Godfrey (where William Powell was both the rich romantic hero and the butler), and the George Cukor-directed classics Holiday and The Philadelphia Story (both of which swam in playwright and drinker Philip Barry's rich boozer jokes), or other screwball masterpiece like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve, and Midnight.
The original Arthur was funny. Tipsy-funny. For Moore, coming after his star-maker movie Blake Edwards' Ten, where he played a part that George Segal had passed on, it was as good as it would get. Arthur was Moore's film peak. (Gordon's too. He died the next year, at 42, never getting the chance to confirm or deny the promise of his first feature.) Moore played Arthur with a winning, offhand mix of weirdly childlike innocence and deliciously sly, self-kidding charm. In the new movie, it's hard to accept the Brand Arthur as a hero of anything except kink. It's even hard to find him a likable (or funny) funnyman, as he's been often before. He plays the role with an obnoxious nasal squeak of a voice that I got tired of almost as soon as I heard it.
Brand isn't the only culprit. Lay a place in flubbo hell for DGA award-winning director Jason Winer and writer Peter Baynham (Borat and the famous Pot Noodle TV commercials), who, one hopes, didn't completely lead Brand astray. (Maybe he led them astray.) The whole movie is misguided: a reeling, staggering, massively unamusing botch of a remake, made by a lot of obviously talented people who were obviously dragged into the wrong bar.
Late in the film, the Brand Arthur even decides to hedge its bets and give us a temperance lecture, to add a scene where Arthur disrupts an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and to play it not as something comic or dramatic, but as a demonstration, I guess, of what not to do at A.A. meetings. The preachments pall. The Brand Arthur's politics often seem that somewhat dull movie variant: the correctly incorrect. The Moore Arthur, at least had the dignity of its own debauchery. In the end, I do think the new Arthur could have worked, whether the time was right or not. It's not bad timing. It's just a bad film.
Promised Lands (A-)
U.S./France: Susan Sontag, 1974, Kimstim/Zeitgeist
Novelist, critic and occasional filmmaker Susan Sontag's documentary about philosophical and cultural tensions and conflicts in Israel, was shot there at the end and aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. The film, banned in Israel, is intellectual, provocative, Godardian and very '70s. Much of Promised Lands consists of views of the land and people, without narration, along with long interviews with two controversial Israeli figures, writer Yorum Kaniuk and physicist Yuval Ne-eman, speaking for the Palestinians (Kaniuk) and against Arab anti-Semitism (Ne-eman).
Though more common in Europe (where Andre Malraux, Curzio Malaparte, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras all wrote and directed films), it's not often that a respected American writer/intellectual like Sontag got behind the camera on a feature movie. (Norman Mailer was one of the few other U.S. exceptions.) The results are intriguing and still relevant; Stanley Kauffman called Promised Lands "Hegelian," and Sontag said it was her most personal film. In English, Hebrew and Arabic, with English subtitles. (Extras: booklet with Susan Sontag's Vogue essay on Promised Lands, and a note by Ed Halter; poster art.)