PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Princess and the Frog (B)
U.S.; John Musker & Ron Clements, 2009, three-disc combo pack
Where have John Musker and Ron Clements been all these years? I've enjoyed few feature cartoons in the current, resurgent animation era as much as I did Musker and Clements' The Little Mermaid (1989), with its buoyant ocean-floor showstopper "Under the Sea," and "Aladdin" (1992), with its take-no-prisoners comic turn, as the genie, by a blazing Robin Williams. Both those movies also (mostly) had ultra-catchy Howard Ashman-Alan Menken song scores. (We forget how dominant that pair was in movie original song prizes until Ashman's death.)
Since then, Musker and Clements have done a couple of so-so films, Hercules and Treasure Planet. But they've been relatively low-profile, even as the form they revived and mastered in Little Mermaid has become more and more passed by. The old-fashioned 2D animation style, complete with an original "Snow White"-style song score, has been increasingly replaced by computer animation, with minimal or no songs.
Now comes The Princess and the Frog, which I really enjoyed. Musker and Clements co-write (with others), as well as co-direct their movies, and that's what make the best of them snap, crackle. They have real comic/verbal style. The characters are pungent. The dialogue is crisp, fast, funny. And the old-style flat animation doesn't jazz you up or wear out your eyes the way non-Pixar computer stuff often seems to.
This is a good show, alive in all areas, including Randy Newman's unjustly dissed score. If Ashman and Menken were the Cole Porters, or the Rodgers and Harts, of feature cartoon songwriters, Newman is the Johnny Mercer.
Of course, the movie also gets a big plus, because, without condescension or fuss, it puts a black heroine and her family at the center of the story. It also opens itself up to "political correctness" attacks, which here seem especially benighted. In the show, plucky Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), who wants to run a post-World War I New Orleans restaurant in remembrance of her late gumbo virtuoso dad, kisses a frog in order to turn the pesky amphibian into her benefactor, Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos).
Bad move, Tiana. The Catch-22 is that Naveen has been hoodooed by the perfidious Dr. Facilier (Keith David, smoking), and Naveen doesn't turn back into a prince. She turns into a frog. And that throws her and Naveen into a swampy odyssey where they run across trumpet-blowing alligator Louis (Michael Leon Wooley, who makes up for the absence of either Louis Armstrong or Louis Prima), dreamy little firefly Ray (Jim Cummings) and witchy Mama Odey (Jennifer Lewis). All these characters have more life and sass than the average live-action movie gives you, and better dialogue and songs to boot.
I found the opening scenes of The Princess and the Frog a little sappy and frenetic. But then it took off, specially when Keith David, a great actor and a great voice man, takes over as the elegantly sinister hex-master Facilier. Musker and Clements, welcome back. Randy Newman, step on the gas. And you snobby old Jiminy critics, you leave my frogs and my alligator and my fireflies alone. You hear? (Extras: DVD, Blu-Ray and digital versions; commentary by filmmakers; featurettes; deleted scenes; music videos, games.
Fallen Angels (A)
Hong Kong; Wong Kar-Wai, 1995, Kino
My favorite Wong: an incredible movie that's kind of a continuation of Chungking Express. (It was originally intended as the third interlocking episode of that film.) In Angels, Wong gives us not only a wildly romantic neo-noir about an alienated hit man (Leon Lai Ming) and his sexy, dangerous manager (Michele Reis), but a second rapturous pop romance involving a poetic mute (Takeshi Kaneshiro) on motorcycle.
Done at the feverish height of Wong's sardonic, unashamedly emotional, go-for-broke style, the movie seduces and slays you. I loved it to pieces, and I also loved the credits song, which I'd never heard before but went home and played seven times in a row afterwards: Flying Pickets' U.K. number-one hit a cappella cover of Clarke Vincent's sweetly infectious "Only You." Wow! I don't care if "Only You" was Margaret Thatcher's favorite record; it's still a honey of a pop love ballad. So is Fallen Angels. (In Cantonese, with English subtitles.)(Extras: featurettes; interview with cinematographer Chris Doyle; trailers; stills gallery.)
Miss Mend (A-)
Russia/U.S.S.R.; Boris Barnet/Feodor Ozep, 1926, Flicker Alley/TCM, two discs
While the great Russian silent films of the 1920s -- Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Strike, Alexandre Dovzhenko's Arsenal and V.I. Pudovkin's Mother -- were revolutionizing the esthetics of cinema, the masses themselves, in Moscow and elsewhere, were flocking to see Miss Mend, a fascinating three-part, four-and-a-half-hour homegrown comedy-adventure serial, one of the major Russian-produced national hits of the entire silent era.
Long neglected and virtually unknown in the U.S. It's a movie set mostly in a playfully exaggerated, not unadmiring Russian version of America, with Soviet actors playing U.S. heroes, heroines and villains, and lots of chases, fights, fiendish plots, horny bad guys and hairs-breadth rescues, all made very successfully in emulation of the American comedies of Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd, the social melodramas of D. W. Griffith, and, especially, of the swashbucklers and thrill-comedies of Douglas Fairbanks and the cliffhanger serials of Pearl ("The Perils of Pauline") White.
Filmed with breathless action, tongue-in-cheek satire and real comic punch by two highly talented young moviemakers, director-writer Fedor Ozep and director-costar Boris Barnet, it's a Russky humdinger. The Russian crowds loved it, and it's still great fun today. The title character and heroine, Vivian Mend (Natalie Glen) is quite a gal: a typist, working mother, amateur sleuth, adventuress and labor union stalwart, and also a dark-eyed beauty, with whom everyone falls in love, practically at first sight. Especially enamored are three rollicking Yank musketeers: intrepid reporter Barnet (played by co-director Barnet), his daring partner Vogel (Vladimir Fogel) and tireless comic sidekick Tom Hopkins (Igor Ilyinski).
The villains include the creepy head gangster, Tchi-Tchi (Sergei Komarov), forever hatching nefarious plots for an international anti-Soviet crusade. And for nearly five exciting hours, Miss Mend and her legion of admirers, good guys and bad, race all over the film's imitation big-city streets and Yank landscapes, lost in intrigues worthy of Boris and Natasha, until finally they all decamp in style on a luxury liner for Leningrad, where head heavy Tchi-Tchi plans to unleash a plague. Curses! Foiled again!
All this is based on a 1924 Russian pulp-novel equivalent called Mess-Mend, or Yankees in Petrograd written by Marietta Shaginian. The novel sounds racy and playful, and the movie certainly is. As for Ozep and Barnet, they later had fairly distinguished careers, though both suffered from Soviet censorship. Ozep later fled to the West, and worked in Germany and France and even in America (1944's Three Russian Girls). Barnet stayed in Russia and became a prolific specialist in light entertainment (When Moscow Laughs). In the '50s, he was discovered in France, and hailed as an auteur for his 1957 movie The Poet, The Wrestler and the Clown. Eight years later, in 1965, he killed himself, saying that his inability to make good movies had robbed him of the will to live.
It's too bad he couldn't have rescued Miss Mend one last time -- for us Yanks as well as the Russian masses. (Silent film, with English intertitles and original orchestral score by Robert Israel.) (Extras: documentaries Miss Mend: A Whirlwind Vision of an Imagined America and Miss Mend: The Invisible Orchestra; booklet with essay by Ana Olenina and Maxim Pozdorovkin.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Leonard Bernstein Omnibus (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1954-58, EI Entertainment, four discs
In the 1950s, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein -- a short, handsome, multi-talented and very eloquent chap of seemingly unquenchable chutzpah and charm -- was on a national cultural roll. The head conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein also, during that decade, wrote the classic show Candide and the great Broadway hit "West Side Story," as well as the score for On the Waterfront. He recorded, on Columbia, one best-selling classical album after another, from Beethoven and Mozart to Bartok and Copland, and he became the most celebrated of all classical music/television hosts during his series of programs for Omnibus, and his long string of "Young People's Concerts."
With his encyclopedic knowledge and ready wit, Bernstein could convey the mechanics of music and musicianship -- and its sheer joy, complexity and excitement -- better than anyone who preceded or followed him. These DVD programs on EI are all classics of their kind, truly edifying, and entertaining -- though the ones on classical music (on the greatness of Bach, on grand opera, and on the art of conducting, with an especially good one on modern music from Schoenberg on), look slightly better today than the popular music specials (on jazz and musical comedy) -- even if the latter, ironically, are a big part of what made Bernstein so popular with TV audiences.
The classical musical shows still seem to me wonderful. Bernstein, like Rod Serling, had a voice that was made for television: a mellifluous, mellow, welcoming and ironic talking style, and a flair for writing and words ideal for communicating and explicating sometimes weighty subjects like classical music -- which, in his hands, became accessible and joyous. (Extras: bonus edited performance of Handel's "Messiah"; booklet with John Rockwell essay.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (C+)
U.S.; Chris Weitz, 2009, Summit Entertainment
Mopey, gloomy, drenched with romantic longing and erotic terror (from vampire chic to werewolf beefcake), The Twilight Saga: New Moon continues the teen vamp series based on Stephenie Meyer's books, this time with more polish and visual lyricism, and less slam-bang action. Like its heroine, Kristen Stewart -- once again playing tormented, horror-smitten high school outsider Bella Swan -- the new Twilight is moody and pretty, and in the throes of a wild supernatural crush. But I didn't like it much.
A sense of loss and lament for mortality, of course, is part of the appeal of these Twilight books and movies, which show typical teen high school romances -- Bella with the melancholy, sensuous-lipped rich kid Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) or Bella with the hunky Native American jock Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) -- that here become suffused with the eternal, when Edward's vampirism or Jacob's werewolf world kick in. It's not just a teenage crush. It's forever. And you don't have to worry it may be gone by the end of summer. It never dies.
That's also why movie vampires over the years have evolved from the scary, nauseous, murderous Bram Stoker-inspired monsters originally played by Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and the supremely creepy Max Schreck (Nosferatu), to the high school dreamboat of the Twilight tales. So we watch Bella mooning away for sad-eyed Edward and flirting with ever-smiley Jacob, until the inevitable clashes come -- both romantic and supernatural.
Every so often there's a supernatural battle, usually in the forest, involving marauding bloodsuckers or rampaging wolves, to remind us of the story's horror-icon roots -- leading to an Italian palazzo sequence where Dakota Fanning does a vampy cameo, and Michael Sheen pops up as the leering Aro, deftly displaying the playful, witty, knowing tone the whole movie needed.
Kristen Stewart is a real camera-catcher, refreshingly unglamorous and emotional, and New Moon revolves around her -- just as the camera revolves around Stewart in the "collapsing time" camera pan we see swiveling around distraught, silent Bella, with our sad heroine gazing out the window as the seasons swiftly pass, in a gaudy shot that suggests the eerie, rapt camera revolution circling around yearning Jimmy Stewart and his re-created love Kim Novak in Vertigo.
But it seems to me a big flaw in the movie, and in the Melissa Rosenberg script -- and, for all I know, Stephenie Meyer's novel -- that so little is given us to show Bella's taste and sensitivity and brains, the qualities that would have helped win her other-worldly beaux. Instead she just keeps mooning and surviving menace, like a Jane Eyre who never reads, never dreams. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, in their low-budget RKO horror classics of the '40s, did romantic horror better, with more poetic heartfelt spookiness.
Did You Hear About the Morgans? (D+)
U.S. Marc Lawrence, 2009, Sony
Believe me, you don't want to hear. I hate to say it again, but we need more adult gab -- and more good jokes -- in our romantic comedies, at least the ones intended for adults. Did You Hear About the Morgans?, from writer-director Marc Lawrence, is another would-be screwball comedy that's hotter on wardrobes than on witty talk or keen characterizations.
Remember when the old screwballers worked their magic, which often involved sharp topical humor, on a few Hollywood stages and a handful of exteriors? Here, writer-director Marc Lawrence dreams up an affluent, glammy Big Apple divorced couple, star real estate agent Sarah Jessica Parker and star lawyer Hugh Grant, and then maneuvers them into witnessing a murder and getting forced into witness protection together, so he can race them all over New York City and points west, without giving either of them a single funny joke. But we do get author's messages. The well-dressed, feuding pair learn to be tolerant of each other and of their Western hosts, Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen -- who don't get any good jokes either.
The usually suave and chipper Grant has been unwisely encouraged to haul out a Brit silly snob act that wouldn't have worked even if John Cleese were around to goose it up. Parker, with a sometime attack of the cutes, seems to be auditioning for a rework of Friends or something similarly pert and perky. Nothing much in the picture makes sense, and I began to root for the killer (Michael Kelly) chasing Hugh and Sarah simply to get the show over and done with. The movie climaxes with a doltish rodeo scene, with Sarah and Hugh doubling up in a clown-horse outfit. And, dammit, the horses don't get any good jokes either.
Ninja Assassin (D)
U.S.; James McTeigue, 2009, Warner Home Video
Ninja assassin Raizo (Rain) battles the murderous denizens of the city of night; meanwhile Kung Fu-style flashbacks show us how he got to be the man he is today. Naomie Harris is the love interest Mika. Randall Duk Kim, early American Players Theatre actor, oddly shows up as the venerable tattoo master.
There is more high-grade, high-priced talent involved here -- including Kim, director McTeigue (of V for Vendetta, a movie I'm now glad I missed), cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub and producers Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers. But they're all wasting their time and ours. The results are awful. Pace, drama, comedy, neo-noir aspirations, martial arts, logic, street cred, sense: everything is sacrificed to fancy action. And you get more and better action in Red Cliff. Hell, you get better action in The Princess and the Frog.
The Fourth Kind (C)
U.S.; Olatunde Osunsamni, 2009, Universal Studios
The Fourth Kind (the title refers to Close Encounters) is an attempt at a genre-busting horror sci-fi movie, a mix of mockumentary and psycho-terror tale, that pretty much falls on its shrieking face.
Director/co-writer Olatunde Osunsamni starts his little jape by having Milla Jovovich come on and explain that she's an actress playing a real-life woman psychiatrist in Nome, Alaska, named Abigail Tyler, who actually went though the experiences we see dramatized here -- which include seeing her patients go crazy, scream, levitate and commit murders. Abigail is also harassed by mysterious white owls and a nervous sheriff (Will Patton), and she has her audiotapes sabotaged by what seems to be demon with throat problems speaking in Sumerian. To top it off, her child is apparently kidnapped by extraterrestrials.
If we're not inclined to believe poor Milla (a hard chore in any case) -- Osunsamni gives us very scrappy-looking videotapes of alleged "interviews" conducted by the real Abigail Tyler with her unfortunate clients and a somewhat less degraded TV interview supposedly conducted by Osunsamni himself, with the "real" Tyler. To further confuse us, no actress is listed in the credits as playing Abigail, and "Abigail Tyler" is instead listed as one of Milla's and Will's costars.
Osunsamni screws with us further by splitting his frame, sometimes in two and sometimes in four images, three or one of which are dramatized sequences done in his over-flashy style, with Jovovich, Patton and fellow psychiatrist Elias Koteas battling owls and bad lines, one of which is the supposedly real-life footage, while the others seem to have been written and directed by that angry Sumerian.
U.S.; Todd Graff, 2009, Summit Entertainment
Todd Graff (Camp) tries to give us a Disney-fied popteen musical orgy, with a coming-of-age outsider triangle romance tied in. Nice try -- as nerdy music expert Will (Gaelan Connell) teams up with school rock band and prospective "Bandslam" contest competitor Glory Dogs, whose lead singer is school blondie glamour doll and ex-cheerleader Charlotte (Aly Michalka), with a waiting-in-the-wings keyboard stylist named Sa5m (the "5" is silent), played by High School Musical refugee Vanessa Hudgens, this film's idea of a maverick. The movie and the band are supposed to be smarter than the norm -- and they are -- but they're still trapped in the same pop-teen formulas, even if they pull a switcheroo ending
You know the moviemakers are stretching too hard here when they have the kids rename the band, Samuel Beckett-esquely, I Can't Go on, I'll Go On. And the plot line suggests many of the movie's "Let's put a show" progenitors from the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney Babes in Arms forward. Rock on? I'd rather read Samuel Beckett.
Dillinger Is Dead (A-)
Italy; Marco Ferreri, 1966, Criterion
Michel Piccoli, as a gas mask manufacturer with a snooze-happy wife (Anita Pallenberg) and a hottie maid (Annie Girardot), spends much of this movie on one night, quietly cooking, playing pop records, and bouncing between bedrooms, all the while fiddling around with what may be John Dillinger's gun. This once notorious film, unavailable for years, is one of Ferreri's more subversive and legendary movies, and the end is still a double shocker.
Dillinger Is Dead is really savage, deliberately abrasive, and almost dialogue-free. But the movie still grips and disturbs, and Piccoli, who later ate and schtupped himself to death in Ferreri's best film La Grande Bouffe, proves himself equally handy here with pot, skillet, snake or gangster's rod. (In Italian, with English subtitles.) (Extras: video interviews with Piccoli and critic Adriano Apra; panel discussions with Ferreri, Bernardo Bertolucci, Francesco Rosi and others; trailer; booklet with essay by Michael Joshua Rowin and interviews with Ferreri.)
The Brothers Warner (B)
U.S.; Cass Warner Sperling, 2008, Warner Brothers
This is not at all the standard puff-piece about the great old Golden Age you'd expect from a Warner Brothers DVD on the brothers Warner -- their family, their studio. Instead it's a pretty powerful dramatic tale with an agenda. The writer-director is Cass Warner Sperling, brother Harry Warner's granddaughter. Cass feels Harry has gotten a raw deal from film history, that he got horribly screwed over by his more famous younger brother, Jack -- the man we all know because his name was on the WB insignia on all those great '40s Warners movies.
Cass, without getting too rough on her grand-uncle, wants to settle the score, to show what a great guy Harry was, and also what a bastard Jack could be. She does. There were four immigrant brothers from a Polish family: Harry (b. 1881), Albert (b. 1884), Sam (b. 1888) and Jack (b. 1892). Their name wasn't really Warner. They were poor Jews who had to hustle, and elder brother Harry, who became the patriarch, took them into the nickelodeon business. They all stuck together. That was their credo, Harry's credo. If we stick together, stay together, we four brothers can whip the world.
Harry was the head guy, Al was the business man, Sam was the innovations expert, and Jack was originally the "chaser," the boy soprano who stood up to sing at the end of the movie, and drove all the customers out, to get a new house. Later Jack's voice changed and he became a playboy. Then he became executive producer.
Sam died, after saving the company by taking them into the talkie era with The Jazz Singer. Al kept them afloat with his economic smarts. Harry was the boss and the social conscience. He fought anti-Semitism and Hitlerism. Harry was a mensch. Harry believed in taking care of his family, his people. Jack believed in good times. He was the guy with the dyed mustache, who chased women, told bad jokes (Jack Benny said Jack Warner would rather tell a bad joke than make a good movie), and who stole that Casablanca Oscar from Hal Wallis.
Hollywood got meaner, glad-handing Jack got meaner. His son Jack Jr. was loved at the studio. Jack fired him. Harry was loved by everyone. Jack persuaded Harry and Al to sell all their WB stock to a bank (he sold his too), and then the next day, Jack bought it all back and left them out in the cold. What a bastard. Harry never talked to his youngest brother again. And when Harry had a stroke and couldn't talk at all and Jack came into his room, smiling, Harry just shut his eyes. Harry was the oldest brother. He was the one who took care of the family, took care of his studio. The mensch. Jack took care of Number One. He finally turned Warner Brothers into Warner Brother.
Cass is not vindictive. She lets us know how hard-working Smilin' Jack was. She gives him credit for fighting to make Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She shows his sad end. She shows herself, taking flowers to Jack's grave. But still, all you can think is: What a mensch, Harry. What a bastard, Jack.
Oh, and the family name? Wonskolaser. The Brothers Wonskolaser. It has a ring to it. (Extras: outtakes; deleted scenes; Harold Arlen's home movies; stills and trailer galleries; recording sessions; radio shows.