PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Reader (B)
U.K.; Stephen Daldry, 2008, The Weinstein Co.
Some movies are quintessential Oscar-nominee candidates, and so is The Reader, which helped deliver the 2008 "Best Actress" statuette to Kate Winslet. Not that she didn't deserve it, but it's a very obvious choice: Winslet plays Hanna, a tragic German anti-heroine who experiences ecstasy and agony during a forbidden romance with a younger Jewish boy, all set against a Holocaust background.
David Kross and Ralph Fiennes play the boy Michael and the man he becomes. He's a literary type. She likes to have him read to her, for reasons she doesn't want to reveal, She's also bent on hiding her past and keeping all her emotions opaque...and unreadable. She does, until a sensational trial brings everything out, and radically alters both their lives.
Taken from Bernhard Schlink's novel, Reader is very intelligently executed by writer David Hare (Plenty), director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) and a strong supporting cast. But, speaking as someone who lost a few relatives in the Holocaust, I had a problem: As characters and people, I just didn't like young or old Michael, or the choices he made about Hanna. (Surprisingly, I did feel intense sympathy for her, not solely due to Winslet's luminous, shattered performance.) And though those reactions -- admittedly highly personal -- don't always make moral or dramatic sense, it made for a troubling resolution.
Overall the movie is well done, but somewhat unsatisfying. It's certainly worth seeing for Winslet, and Lena Olin, has a great cameo here as another survivor.
Pete Seeger: Live in Australia 1963 (A-)
U.S/Australia; producers David Peck, Phillip Galloway, Tom Gulotta, 2009, Acorn/Reelin' in the Years
What can you say about a guy who -- despite being slammed and persecuted unfairly by his own government for decades -- still keeps strumming his guitar, plucking his banjo and singing "If I Had a Hammer" with such natural swing and boundless enthusiasm that he can invariably get entire audiences of thousands, singing to and with him?
Pete Seeger, skinny, energetic and indomitable, one of the great folk singers of the '50s-'60s folk revival, isn't heard as much as he should be -- largely because even after he'd had number one records on the pop music charts ("Goodnight, Irene," with his classic folk quartet the Weavers) and become a model and top song source for a whole generation who hit the charts after him (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Phil Ochs), the blacklist kept him from performing and recording in many places in America and the world.
Not Australia, though. And that's the site of this genuinely thrilling live TV concert in Melbourne's Town Hall -- so packed that much of the audience had to sit behind Pete on the stage. After a U.S. court victory that won him back his passport (think about that!), Pete was singing Down Under, while on a tour of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, as part of a 10-month, 22-country world tour, partly organized by his wife, Toshi.
It's a typical Seeger concert. He opens with a song everybody knows, or knew then: the buoyant kids' tune "Skip to My Lou." Then he poured out an eclectic feast of folk music that included his own numbers ("If I Had a Hammer"), those of his mentor Woody Guthrie ("Union Maid") (his other spiritual father, Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, gets a tribute in the bonus section), some more songs from the younger '60s folk generation, like Tom Paxton ("What Did You Learn in School Today?") and Bob Dylan ("A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"), some Seeger discoveries ("Michael Row the Boat Ashore"), some venerable ballads ("I Never Will Marry"), gospel ("Down by the Riverside" -- during which Pete spins an exalted mood on the lines "I ain't gonna study war no more"), loving sidesteps into Bach ("Jesu, Joy of Man Desiring") and Beethoven (the allegretto from "Symphony No. 7"), and goofy little sports like "I Know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly" -- the number which supplies his encore.
Throughout, he sings and plays with a lusty joy and soaring spirits that never slow, never falter. He gladdens your heart.
Seeger was a fine singer and a fine player. But he was a great performer and a great communicator, which is probably why he was on the blacklist so long. He wore his heart proudly on his sleeve -- with "Kum Ba Ya," which has become the standard "youthful political idealism" joke punch line -- and that's why he was never even remotely hip. It doesn't matter. Not many people can do or could ever do what Pete Seeger did up on that stage at Melbourne. See, and hear, for yourself. (Extras: Shorts with more Seeger performances; interviews with Seeger; Seeger's 1963 tribute Two Links of a Chain: the Story of Lead Belly (including three incredible filmed Lead Belly performances); and Pete and Toshi Seeger's 1963 tribute to the Australian folk singer Duke Tritton.)
Happy Together (A-)
Hong Kong; Wong Kar-Wai, 1997, Kino
Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love) and Leslie Cheung (Farewell My Concubine) were two of Hong Kong's biggest male movie stars when Wong Kar-Wai cast them as bickering lovers, adrift in Buenos Aires, in this intense examination of desire, alienation, self-destruction and betrayal -- winner of the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Wong, and now something of a modern classic. It's sad and romantic and scary, and Wong shoots it like a film noir, with many scenes in black-and-white. Cheung, who later came out and committed suicide, plays the older, more vulnerable, lover. Leung is his younger, more reckless and callous boyfriend. The movie is brilliant at catching the evanescent twists and turns of their relationship, as it plummets from dreams of the Iguazu Falls to bloody street encounters.
Wong is a movie romantic, and he isn't any less so when dealing with this volatile pair. The movie surrounds the hell-bent lovers with a world of tango bars and highway quarrels. Wong is always terrific with pop backgrounds, and here, of course, the reference is to the Turtles' great ecstatic anthem "So Happy Together," with its chorus "I can't see me lovin' nobody but you, for all my life...." Here the memory of words and music really sting. (In Cantonese, with English subtitles.) (Extras: documentary Buenos Aires Zero Degrees; interview with Wong, introduced by Ang Lee; trailer.
Pillow Talk (B)
U.S.; Michael Gordon, 1959, Universal
This huge, lewd, sparkly 1959 hit --the first in the Rock Hudson-Doris Day series -- has fun with serial seduction, sex mania, telephone party lines, bedroom and bathroom gags on split screens, and other American erotic peculiarities. It's well done -- co-written by Stanley Shapiro and Blake Edwards Pink Panther series cohort Maurice Richlin and directed by Michael Gordon, a blacklist victim who had directed Jose Ferrer to an Oscar in Cyrano de Bergerac.
Rock and Doris did make fine fizzy chemistry together. She was a swinging doll pop songstress and a blond, bubbly mix of sexy, warm-hearted pixie and plucky virgin. He was a big, hunky guy whose homosexuality can be read under his extreme baritone charades of masculinity. (Tony Randall, the third member of the trio, supplies a fussy counterpoint to Rock.) 1959 Audiences went as crazy for Pillow Talk as they did for a much better movie sex farce, the great Some Like It Hot, and Talk has held up as a sort of classic, and the best of the Rock and Doris movies. But you can never take it straight anymore -- assuming we ever could. With salty Thelma Ritter, nervy Nick Adams and the great French actor Marcel Dalio. (The Coen Brothers once named Pillow Talk as their favorite movie. Sure.) (Extras: Commentary; featurettes; trailer.)
U.S.; Cecil B. DeMille, 1934, Universal
One of the most typical and entertaining of all the DeMille historical spectacles, this opulent, crazy saga has Claudette Colbert as the dazzling empress/boudoir acrobat Cleopatra, wrapped in veils, revealing bras and innuendoes; Warren William as a Julius Caesar who acts like a Wall Street shark and looks like a lounge lizard; and Henry Wilcoxon as a stolid, muscular Marc Antony, all set to fall at the sight and touch of the irrepressible Cleo.
Three decades later, when 20th Century Fox hired Liz Taylor and Richard Burton for the 1963 remake of Cleopatra, they obviously wanted to match or surpass the sheer pomp and horniness of DeMille's wild historical sex melodrama. Actually, coming at the end of the pre-Code period, this is a much, much sexier movie. (The Taylor-Burton-Joseph Mankiewicz remake is more serious historically.) Colbert plays Cleopatra as a sneaky-smart little hotpants French sex kitten, steamy with seductive wiles. We know William's Caesar and Wilcoxon's Antony don't have a chance against her, whatever the other characters say.
The production is classic DeMille: lush, plush and over the top -- and one scene where the shot perspective makes it look like the hand of a musician, strumming a harp, is groping Cleo's semi-nude bod, is pure hard-core DeMille. It also suggests he did have a sense of humor. (Extras: an excellent feature commentary by F.X. Feeney; featurettes on Colbert, DeMille and the Production Code.
Winged Migration (A)
France/Germany/Italy/Spain/Switzerland; Jacques Perrin & Jacques Cluzaud, 2000, Sony, Blu-Ray
One of the most beautiful and stunningly photographed of all wildlife documentaries, this fascinating film follows flocks of migrating birds all over the world, not from the earth below, where we always see them, but at eye-level, wing-level, flying alongside them as they traverse countries and continents through the air on their regular seasonal migratory flights. Special cameras and devices were devised for the flight shoots; what they record is so amazing that, even without a conventional narrative thread, the experience of the film becomes hypnotic, exalting.
Co-directed by Jacques Perrin, the producer of Microcosmos, and the young actor who played the intrepid reporter in Z. If you haven't seen his Winged Migration, your life is poorer and more earthbound. (Extras: Featurette.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Pre-Code Hollywood Collection (B)
U.S.; various directors, 1931-34, Universal
Six salty items from the pre-Production Code enforcement era, all happily hot-footing it where movies, for the next two and a half decades, would dare not go: into the real-life world of drunken parties, adultery, miscegenation, perversion, nudity or quasi-nudity, and even a hot song-and-dance number touting the joys and dangers of marijuana -- piece de resistance on the legendary Murder at the Vanities, which the notes here claim "violated almost every section of the Code."
These aren't great movies, and a few of them aren't even good. But Murder at the Vanities is a genuine camp classic, The Cheat is weirdly provocative, Merrily We Go to Hell is another of Dorothy Arzner's slyly feminist soapers, and Hot Saturday is a bona fide neglected sleeper.
All of them are fun of a raunchy, gamy, the-hell-with-proprieties kind, which is exactly what Depression audiences were looking for and what the Catholic Church's bluenose Legion of Decency didn't want them to see -- but which, of course, they did and do and always will, despite the campaigns of daffy prelates and perverse Code-fanciers like the madly censorious and madly gay Cardinal Francis Spellman. All these films are U.S. productions.
The Cheat (C+)
George Abbott, 1931
Remade by legendary Broadway stage director Abbott from DeMille's 1913 classic about miscegenation and branding, this time starring playgirl Tallulah Bankhead and, as her would-be rapist, Irving Pichel. When you see Pichel here, you'll never look at John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, which he beautifully narrates, in quite the same way.
Merrily We Go To Hell (C+)
Dorothy Arzner, 1932
Sylvia Sidney is the perfect adoring wife, Fredric March is her drunken wastrel newspaperman/playwright of a husband, and this movie has so many alcoholic parties and binges, you may feel soused just watching it. The ending is an amazing paean to dysfunctional marriage.
Hot Saturday (B)
William Seiter, 1932
A surprisingly savvy small-town scandal-romance starring the red hot trio of Nancy Carroll and real-life best buddies and housemates Cary Grant and Randolph Scott. As a surprisingly gallant lady-killer and playboy, Grant gives (I'm not kidding) one of his best performances.
Torch Singer (B)
Alexander Hall/George Somnes, 1933
Colbert, as sexy as she was in Cleopatra, plays a '30s radio singer who had to give up her out-of-wedlock daughter. Like some strange mix of To Each His Own and Blues in the Night, this movie is a hymn to jazzy chanteuses and angelic mothers.
Murder at the Vanities (B)
Mitchell Leisen, 1934
An absolutely crazy movie which entertains by virtue of its sheer lascivious senselessness. There's a killer running loose backstage during the opening night performance of "Earl Carroll's Vanities," a show packed with barely dressed lovelies and temperamental stars, and boss Jack Oakie has to keep incredibly lecherous police inspector Victor McLaglen from fondling the talent and closing down the show, even as the corpses accumulate. With Carl Brisson, a hopeless German leading man, and a pre-Night at the Opera Kitty Carlisle -- with Duke Ellington and his orchestra at one of their many peaks.
Search for Beauty (C)
Erle Kenton, 1934
Abbott and Costello mainstay Kenton (Who Done It?) tires his hand at farcical smut. King Kong nemesis Robert Armstrong and Jimmy Gleason hire swimming champs Buster Crabbe and young Ida Lupino as fronts/directors for their health-and-beauty magazine, when what they really want is bare skin and quasi-porno. Not while Flash Gordon is around! The only real turkey in this bunch -- the end credits are actually printed over Gleason's ass -- though the box notes weirdly describe it as "the most irreverent, raunchy, and visually clever film of the pre-Code era." (Extra: Documentary.)
OTHER NEW OR RECENT RELEASES
The Spirit (D+)
U.S.; Frank Miller, 2008, Lionsgate
Who would have figured that an action movie based on the peerless Will Eisner's brilliantly funny and atmospheric noir comic the Spirit, all about a black-masked wise-cracking Bogartesque crimefighter (Gabriel Macht) -- written and directed by crime comics genius Frank Miller, co-director of the stylishly pulpy gem Sin City -- could wind up an almost terminally unengaging and confused botch? Even with Samuel Jackson as the primo villain?
Well, take a look. This is one of those cases where almost everyone involved should hang their head -- except, of course, Will Eisner. What's the explanation? Is this a case where an excellent writer should stick to his métier (unless he's a tandem act with somebody like Robert Rodriguez)? Did Miller get so excited after he signed both Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson that he lost all perspective? Whatever the screw-up, this is a spiritless Spirit, and that's a crime-ridden shame.
Not Easily Broken (C)
U.S.; Bill Duke, 2008, Sony Pictures
A Christian-themed domestic drama about marital strife and interracial seduction, based on a book by superstar evangelist T.D. Jakes -- and a better-acted, more effective movie than you might expect, thanks mostly to director Bill Duke (whose work I've missed since his powerful The Killing Floor) and a fine cast headed by Morris Chestnut and Taraji Henson (Benjamin Button) as a troubled couple whose lives are thrown into turmoil by an accident, Jenifer Lewis as a mouthy mother-in-law, Kevin Hart and Eddie Cibrian as Chestnut's ball-playing chums, and Maeve Quinlan as a physical therapist with hanky-panky on her mind.
It's nothing new, but Jakes knows how to disguise a sermon and make it engaging.
Germany; Doris Dorrie, 1985, Televista
A sharp, funny German feminist comedy that trains a laser eye on the vagaries of men.
Tales of Ordinary Madness (B)
U.S./Italy; Marco Ferreri, 1981, Koch Lorber
Ben Gazzara, Ornella Muti and Susan Tyrell in one of the first (and best) films adapted from the pungent lowlife works of American novelist Charles Bukowski. Gazzara, as the Bukowski surrogate, has one of his most pungent and memorable roles outside of Cassavetes. In English.
La Grande Bouffe (A)
Italy/France; Marco Ferreri, 1973, Koch Lorber
One of the holy terrors of '60s and '70s Italian cinema, the ferocious satirist and unbuttoned comic cineaste Marco Ferreri hit his peak with this outrageous classic: a robust dark comedy in which four hedonistic pals played by four great actors -- Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, Michel Piccoli and Ugo Tognazzi -- carry bourgeois excess to a deadly extreme. They eat, swill and fornicate themselves to death. Salo, with laughs. In French, with English subtitles.
A Song Is Born (B)
U.S.; Howard Hawks, 1948, MGM
A remake of Howard Hawks's and Brackett and Wilder's Ball of Fire -- the one about the shy professor-encyclopedists and their run-in with gangsters and a great moll -- starring frantic patter-meister Danny Kaye in Gary Cooper's old part, and noir mainstays Virginia Mayo and Steve Cochran (a year before White Heat) subbing for Barbara Stanwyck and Dana Andrews. Usually regarded as one of Howard Hawks' worst movies, but I like it. (I also like Red Line 7000.) The professors are now musicologists, an excuse for lots of great '40s pop music and musicians -- including Benny Goodman (who also has a major supporting prof part), Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, and Buck and Bubbles.