PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Thin Red Line (A)
U.S.; Terrence Malick, 1998, Criterion
Let's talk about a great American movie that has been somewhat underrated and neglected, and shouldn't be any more, not after this superb new Criterion two-disc release. The movie is Terry Malick's 1998 film of James Jones' The Thin Red Line. Bravo. Bravo again.
The Thin Red Line was Jones' 1962 novel about the soldiers of C-for-Charlie Army Rifle Company in the U.S. attack on the Japanese fortifications on Guadalcanal in 1943, most of it dealing with the capture, at the cost of many lives, of a fictitious hill. It's a great American war novel: terse, blunt, profane, violent, compassionate, tremendously well-informed and battle-savvy, historically knowing, full of believable characters melding into a convincing whole. Overall, it's a book that paints an unforgettable picture of a crucial military event and of guys that fought it, men who, as we read, live and breathe and die on the page.
The Thin Red Line was made into an okay 1962 movie by director Andrew Marton (he's the peerless second-unit director who made the Ben-Hur chariot race) with Keir Dullea and Jack Warden as Witt and Welsh, the roles played for Marton by Jim Caviezel and Sean Penn.
Malick does an incredible job here, makes an incredible movie. He's a different kind of storyteller than Jones. He's a great poet, where Jones is a great prose reporter and storyteller, and he gives us the poems and the songs that Jones couldn't have sung, just as Jones gives us the narrative stuff that Malick couldn't have experienced or imagined.
Every frame that Malick stages is beautiful, turbulent, and/or hellishly exciting, from the moment we see Witt (Caviezel) relaxing AWOL in a native village, to the scene where Welsh (Penn), his friendly nemesis, finds and arrests him, saves his ass, and gets him on the boat that's taking them all to Guadalcanal. Here's just part of the roster we kibitz on during the story's warfare: Privates Witt, Bell (Ben Chaplin), Doll (Dash Mihok), Tills (Tim Blake Nelson), Dale (Arie Verveen), Tella (Kirk Acevedo), Sico (Robert Roy Hofmo), Beade (Nick Stahl), Ash (Tom Jane) and Train (John Dee Smith); Corporal Fife (Adrien Brody); First Sergeant Welsh (Penn), and Sergeants Keck (Woody Harrelson), Storm (John C. Reilly), and McCron (John Savage); Captains Staros (Elias Koteas), Bosche (George Clooney), Gaff (John Cusack); First Lieutenant Band (Paul Gleeson); Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte); and Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta).
Now, that's a hard group to keep track of in any theater, especially since the movie has a lot of poetic narration and mystical, rapt voice-over -- which is why this DVD is such a godsend. Almost all the characters of Thin Red Line are identified in the subtitles when they first speak, and some later as well, and the booklet has a huge full cast list that should keep you always on top of the story and the roster, of who lives and who dies.
The story is basic. C-for-Charlie, according to the brass, has to take the hill; the Japanese are dug in and firing away. Brig. Gen. Quintard (Travolta) is a peacock-proud cynic and politician who orders the assault. Lt. Col. Tall (Nolte) is a callous bastard who keeps hurling his men into battle sometimes without enough water and supplies or adequate backup, roaring "inspirational" encouragement and patting his "boys" on the back, boyishly desperate himself to win his spurs after a lifetime of being passed over. Capt. Staros (Koteas) is a decent, competent officer who refuses to sacrifice his men needlessly and bravely stands up to the half-nuts Tall; of course, he gets screwed.
Bosche (Clooney) is a smoothie, totally in charge when he gets there. Gaff is a good guy who watches and listens and helps take the hill. Bell (Chaplin) dreams fondly of his wife (Miranda Otto), while death and chaos rage around him; he's in for a shock. Keck (Harrelson) has a death scene that will haunt your dreams for years.
That's the stuff of the story; men fight and die, shoot and climb, lie and survive. But what makes Malick's Thin Red Line great is the astonishing lyrical sensibility which Malick brings to the story. As in Days of Heaven and Badlands, we're entranced, ravished. Those tableaux of Malick's are piercing, heart-stopping. The deep greens of the forest, the blue of the faraway skies, the ocean lapping the beach as men disembark, the waving grasses on that bloody hill, the way a defeated Japanese soldier clutches his comrade's head, the way men see past the sky as they lie dying.
The Thin Red Line, like almost any great movie, is a world you enter, some lives that you share, a skin you slip into for a while. But, like the Iliad or "Blowin' in the Wind," it's also a song you can sing. (Extras: commentary by Toll, Fisk and producer Grant Hill; interviews with Caviezel, Koteas, Pann, Jane and other actors, composer Hans Zimmer, editor Billy Weber and others; interview with James Jones' daughter, author Kaylie Jones; 14 minutes of outtakes; World War II newsreel footage of Guadalcanal and the Salomon Islands; Melanesian chants; booklet with essay by David Sterritt and Saturday Evening Post war movie review piece by James Jones.)
How to Train Your Dragon (B)
U.S.; Dean De Blois/Chris Sanders, 2010, Dreamworks
The visual flash and dash that the Dreamworks animated saga How to Train Your Dragon pours into its panoramic scenes of ferocious Medieval battle and Viking sea quests is so full of giddy, sky-drunk rapture, that you can forgive this movie almost anything. Almost.
There are some things, though, that you kind of have to forgive in this generally impressive adaptation of Cressida Cowell's young people's book series -- despite its exciting tale of a Viking land, besieged by hordes of dragons and by a mysterious queen bee-like monster-in-the-mountain, of the Viking society threatened by them, and of a boy, Hiccup, the more soulful, less warlike son of Viking lord Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), forced unwillingly into soldiering. Hiccup is the lad who discovers the truth behind it all.
I thought the beginning, which takes us to Hiccup's homeland, the dragon-besieged isle of Berk, and immediately subjects us to a horrific dragon assault, was too instantly and incessantly hyperactive and ultra-violent.
And I thought that this movie, or maybe its source material in Cowell's books, could have used a counter-paternal character: a Merlin-Yoda sort of peaceful mentor to teach or suggest to Hiccup the other side of life (maybe also a gentler, more nurturing female character) -- instead of implying that the kid has no real elders and picks it all up by himself, on pure instinct.
Finally, speaking as a descendant of proud Swedes, I have to register a big objection to the thick Scottish accents which the filmmakers have endowed on alleged Vikings Stoick the Vast and Gobber the dragon master (Craig Ferguson), both of whom seem to be trying to out-burr Sean Connery.
Dragon shows its gentler side, however, in a marvelous sequence that finally ratchets down the opening violence: the scene where Hiccup stumbles on Toothless, a purplish Night Fury dragon (Cowell's world is full of dragon-breeds and the movie delineates them all in loving detail) and heals the wound that the strangely puppy-like creature received (from Hiccup) in the battle just previous.
Then, the movie becomes a variation on George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion, where that gentle Shavian Christian-among-the-Romans Androcles won the lion's heart by pulling a thorn from his paw, or on Disney's The Reluctant Dragon, or many another Why-can't-we-all-get-along fable. And the magic kicks in for most of the rest of the movie. Hiccup charms Astrid, uses his dragon-soothing powers to seem to become a star warrior-student, disappoints his dad when Stoick discovers and misinterprets the dragon-bond, is ostracized, and then.... Well, you'll see. It isn't original, but it is satisfying. (Extras: featurettes; deleted scenes; interview with original author Crowell; storyboards.)
The Darjeeling Limited (A-)
U.S.; Wes Anderson, 2007, Criterion
Three rich-kid misfit brothers -- played by Owen Wilson (swathed in bandages), Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman -- make a pilgrimage to their spiritually sequestered mother (Anjelica Huston) on a charmingly old-fangled train, where the conductor serves high tea and becomes angry if snakes are smuggled aboard. This is Anderson's best film since Bottle Rocket and a complete recovery from the arch attempted humor of his tediously oddball The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. You have to be in the mood for it, but I was. (Extras: The short pre-Darjeeling Anderson-Schwartzman-Natalie Portman film Hotel Chevalier; commentary by Anderson, Schwartzmann and cowriter Roman Coppola; documentary; conversation between Anderson and James Ivory; deleted and alternate scenes; on-set footage by Coppola; booklet with essay by Richard Brody.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (D)
U.S.-German; Tom Six, 2009, IFC Films
The Human Centipede represents "Nausea Horror" (a new genre, maybe?) at its sickest. Director-writer Thomas Six's unabashedly sleazy plot starts with two sexy, lively American girls (Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie), on holiday, having a car break-down at night in the woods. The first motorist who finds them starts spouting obscenities and jerking off in his car seat. After the girls run away, they find an isolated house, where a wild-eyed, taciturn German mad scientist (Dieter Laser, trying for the Klaus Kinski glaring lunatic award), feeds them the date rape drug in glasses of water and then ties them to operating tables in his lab. There he plans to use them and a third prisoner, a screaming Japanese businessman (Akihiro Kitamura), for his grand experiment: grafting three human beings together, head to anus, intestine to intestine, so they form one continuous "human centipede."
Why does Doctor Dieter want to do this? Surely he doesn't intend to write it all up in a medical journal. Nor, it seems, would he want to start a freak carnival, or produce TV's most disgusting reality show. Is it out of sheer professional pride? (The movie boasts that its story is "100% medically accurate," which gives you pause).
But graft them all together the bad doctor does, head to ass, creating his very own centipede, or as he coos, "My sweet centipede!" Meanwhile, two truculent German cops (who speak English to him and each other) prowl around his house and pool. In some odd fit of modesty, the mad scientist grafts his victims all together in their underpants, or maybe in their swaddling clothes. The movie, as you might expect, comes to no good end, and neither do the three parts of the centipede. (Extras: commentary by Six; interview with Six; deleted scene; featurette; trailer.
Three Kings (B)
U.S.; David O. Russell, 1999, Warner Home Video
Satiric war comedy, set in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, from writer-director David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey), about four cynical U.S. soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze) on a gold heist. Somehow, for me at least, this doesn't always work as well as it should, but it's funny and exciting, and it's a classic Clooney role. Classic Cube too.
Deep Blue Sea (C)
U.S. Renny Harlin, 1999, Warner Home Video
The Life Aquatic gone haywire: An underwater scientific base springs a leak and start sinking (so does the movie), while intelligent sharks start chasing and devouring dubiously intelligent humans. Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport and LL Cool J all try to stay afloat in this, but the sharks have all the good lines. (Extras: commentary by Harlin; featurette; deleted scenes.
U.S.; Gordon Douglas, 1965, Olive
Jean Harlow was the first archetypal blonde bombshell of the movie's Sound Era, and though time has shown she wasn't in Marilyn Monroe's category, she was a sexy, funny, fun-loving dish, and her best movies are still fun to watch, especially Red Dust, Dinner at Eight, Libeled Lady, and of course, Bombshell.
This movie however, with Carroll Baker in full platinum blonde/low-cut gown regalia and war paint, isn't much fun, even though it was written by Hitchcock's sometimes very witty screenwriter John Michael Hayes (To Catch a Thief). Harlow also seems dubious as both drama and film history, even though it's based on the best-selling biography by Irving Shulman and Arthur Landau, with Landau, Harlow's agent and manager -- who is portrayed in the movie by Red Buttons -- acting as official "adviser." Among the things Landau has advised the moviemakers is that Landau was a saint.
Harlow meanwhile, is shown as a rather serious, ultimately tragic gal, not too interested in sex (until she falls apart at the end), but capable of arousing wild lust in most of the men around her (that part, at least, is true), except for tragic hubby Paul Bern (whimsically played by Peter Lawford) and, of course, the saintly Landau. Also milling around are Harlow's exploited mom (Angela Lansbury), Raf Vallone as her exploitive dad, Martin Balsam as an exploitive studio exec, Mike Connors as an exploitive co-star, and Leslie Nielsen (in his mean, non-comic mode) as an exploitive director. (Mysteriously, Harlow's mom keeps referring to her daughter as Jean, though the star's birth name was Harlean Carpenter.) The whole movie is glossy and dull and has about as much period feel or zip as the 1968 Valley of the Dolls. Gordon Douglas directs, without mucho gusto; tragically, he doesn't exploit the material enough.