PICKS OF THE WEEK
The White Ribbon (A)
Germany: Michael Haneke, 2009, Sony Pictures Classics
In The White Ribbon, this year's Palme d'Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, we're taken to a small village in Northern Germany, before the onslaught of World War I and the modern age. A mysterious crime wave breaks out in the seemingly staid, church-going, God-fearing community -- and it's punctiliously described and narrated to us years later by the local schoolteacher (played by Christian Friedel, with the older voice-over by Ernst Jacobi). The village doctor breaks his arm when his horse is deliberately tripped by a wire. A baron's son is abducted and tortured. Acts of vandalism and brutality abound.
Who is responsible? The inquisitive, integral teacher thinks he knows -- thinks he sees the moral crack in the peaceful faade of the town ruled, supposedly with Christian principles, by the condescending baron (Ulrich Tukur), the stern pastor (Burghart Klaussner) and the selfish doctor. But can even the perceptive, well-meaning teacher really fathom the evil at work here, comprehend the amorality that may climax two decades later, when the town's children will have grown, the parents will be old, and fascism and the Holocaust will have taken over Germany?
No contemporary international filmmaker trains a cooler eye on evil, and opens up a more insightful intelligence on the flaws, brutalities and follies of humankind than the Austrian writer-director Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Cache, Funny Games, 24 Fragments in a Chronology of Chance.) His style is classic. Here, evocative period sets and gorgeous black-and-white photography (by Christian Berger) are added to Haneke's usual repertoire of long takes, studied compositions and rigorous acting. His subject matter is seemingly cruel, unsparing, empty of solace. Haneke gives us humanity at its most outwardly bourgeois and inwardly bad. He has taken the measure of evil, and, like that other Austrian "cynic," Billy Wilder, he will not let it hide. (In German, with English subtitles.)
A Single Man (A-)
U.S.; Tom Ford, 2009, Sony
Christopher Isherwood's novel about a grief-stricken gay man in a sunny, oppressive Santa Monica ocean-side landscape, trying to cope with the recent loss of his longtime partner here becomes a sensitive, well-acted, beautifully shot drama -- not a great film, perhaps, but an extremely good one, with a very moving central performance by Colin Firth (the great Darcy of the BBC Pride and Prejudice) as the widower. The frames are impeccable, the cast (including Julianne Moore) mostly top-notch, the mood sad and withering.
My one cavil: Isherwood, the author of the famously autobiographical Berlin Stories was not weaving an autobiographical or even semi-autobiographical story here, but the main character here is certainly very self-derived. I knew Isherwood slightly and interviewed him once onstage at Los Angeles' Nuart Theatre -- he was a tremendous movie buff and frequently showed up at classic movie revivals, especially the ones that the late Ron Haver programmed for years at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And fine as Firth is, there's something missing in his characterization, a delicacy, a wistfulness. John Hurt, or a younger Hurt, would have been a better match for the part. And if Hurt had played it, he might even have won the 2009 Best Actor Oscar that the deserving nominee Firth lost to Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. That's a minor point. It's a major movie.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (A)
U.S.; Charles F. Reisner (and, uncredited, Buster Keaton), 1928, Kino
Buster Keaton -- he of the sad, grave eyes, the unsmiling countenance and the omnipresent pork-pie hat -- had undoubtedly the world's most engaging poker-face. He also had a body born for slam-bang slapstick, and an absolute genius for complex mechanical gags that leave you agape. Keaton was a treasure. And one of the real cinema mother lodes available to us all is the Kino Keaton library, as collected by Kino International: the great Buster Keaton silent features and shorts of the 1920s, from Cops, The Playhouse and The Boat, to The General, Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator. If you haven't seen them, or don't own them, your life is poorer, your world less bright and happy, your laughter less.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. is one of Keaton's slaphappy masterpieces, the last of his independent productions, before he unwisely went to MGM, who signed him and screwed him. You can tell it is Buster's, as both star and creator. You can discern his eye and hand from the rip-roaring gags and the impeccable visual style, even though the movie is signed by only one director, Charles F. Reisner -- and even though Reisner was a gifted comedy specialist.
Reisner is good. But "Bill, Jr." is pure Buster, pure delight. As often, he plays a sissy or misfit who has to rise to athletic/heroic heights -- and does so spectacularly and hilariously. He's the dandified incompetent William Canfield, Jr. arriving from an Eastern education where he's apparently earned a doctorate in foppery, to re-team with his disgusted dad, the burly and rough-hewn Mississippi steamboat Captain Bill, Sr., played with a formidable glower and immense physical presence by that quintessential silent movie villain, Ernest Torrence.
There Buster also tries to woo the beauteous gal Kitty King (Marion Byron) away from her rich bully-snob of a dad, and Bill Sr.'s chief riverboat rival, John James King (Tom McGuire). There's a boat race of course: and it's the granddaddy and main model of the other classic riverboat races in John Ford's Steamboat Round the Bend and Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge. And there are those innumerable small physical gags that Keaton does with such flawless expertise -- whether he's trying to break his old man out of jail, or trying on new hats, or pratfalling into the Mississippi.
But there's an even greater, more fantastic, more intimidatingly intricate and wonderful comic set-piece in Steamboat Bill, Jr.: the cyclone. Wow! When this nightmarishly playful windstorm hits the town, scattering buildings and people and conveyances hither and yon (not to mention Bill, Jr. himself), we're seeing one of Keaton's ultimate gag sequences and one of the all-time great silent movie comedy scenes -- done with no CGI, no in-camera special effects, no editing tricks. When an entire wall tears loose and comes almost crashing down on the seemingly oblivious Buster, missing him by inches only because he's standing where the doorway will land, it's really a wall, really a doorway, really a fall, really a crash. And it really does...Miss. Him. By. Inches. (Extras: The complete, and completely different, alternate Raymond Rohauer version of Steamboat Bill, Jr., constructed from alternate takes; three music scores on different tracks, by the Biograph Players, Lee Erwin (organ) and William Perry (piano); "Making of" documentary; Short Why They Call Him Buster; stills gallery; two recordings of the folk song "Steamboat Bill."
Mystery Train (A-)
U.S.; Jim Jarmusch, 1989 (Criterion)
Jarmusch's grimly funny, deadpan-poetic triptych about three groups of travelers or fugitives in Elvisland, or Memphis, Tenn. -- two Japanese Sun Records devotees and lover/tourists (glum Masatoshi Nagase and the delightful Youki Kudoh), a sweet-tempered Italian widow and a madly over-talkative runaway wife (Nicoletta Braschi and Elizabeth Bracco), and three nebbishes packing guns and booze (the Clash's Joe Strummer, plus Rick Aviles and Steve Buscemi) -- who all end up in the same seedy hotel, where they hear the same gunshot and the same DJ playing Presley's version of "Blue Moon" (Tom Waits), and maybe see the ghost of Elvis.
At the hotel, desk clerk Screamin' Jay Hawkins (in an unforgettable behind-the-beat performance) and bellhop Cinque Lee (Spike's brother) are manning the desk, which seems to be drifting in some David Lynchian, Coen brothers-ish nightmare of screw-ups, screwballs and rockabilly oldies. (The bellhop's tears keep flowin'; the desk clerk's dressed in black.) Tom Noonan shoots the shit as a creep with an Elvis story. Rockets Redglare shoots pool. Robby Muller shoots.
By the way, supposedly reflecting Jarmusch's own views, Nagase's Jun keeps sullenly arguing with Youki's Mitzuko that Carl Perkins is a better rocker than Elvis. Well, give me a fuckin' break. A better songwriter maybe. (Extras: Q&A with Jarmusch; excerpts from 2001 documentary Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me; documentary on Memphis; photo gallery; booklet with essays by Dennis Lim and Peter Guralnick.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Bounty Hunter (D+)
U.S.; Andy Tennant, 2010, Sony
Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler team up here for a love-on-the-run comedy so loud and over-physical and dumb it often seems to have been cobbled together from old rejected "Three Stooges" screenplays -- with Aniston playing Moe and Butler playing Curly -- and the rest of the cast alternating as Larry.
The idea here seems to be to combine the bounty hunter chase plot of the 1988 Robert De Niro-Charles Grodin skip tracer comedy Midnight Run,with the erotic sparks and badinage of the 1937 Cary Grant-Irene Dunne divorce comedy The Awful Truth on wheels. Result: A slick-looking botch. Butler plays Milo Boyd, an ex-cop who boozed his way out of a marriage with slick New York Daily News reporter Nicole Hurley, and now finds himself assigned to arrest and hold Nicole her after she forfeits her bond by failing to show up in court for a traffic charge. The reason: She had to hurry off to meet a snitch who has story info on a drug-dealing cop.
There are so many bad ideas in writer Sarah (Twisted) Thorp's screenplay, so ham-handedly realized by director Andy Tennant, that the movie keeps blowing up in your face.
U.S.; Atom Egoyan, 2009, Sony Pictures Classics
There's some great acting in Chloe, mostly by Julianne Moore as Catherine, a loving, but neglected academic wife who suspects her seductive, neglectful musicologist husband (Liam Neeson) of cheating, and hires a beautiful prostitute (Amanda Seyfried) to find out the truth.
Moore has one of those ideal, transparent faces that registers every emotion so cleanly, with such effortless naturalism, that almost nothing she does seems forced or calculated, even when her movies, as here, take wild dives into melodrama. Moore is also well supported by Neeson, Seyfried (in a noir baby doll femme fatale role) and by Max Thierot as Catherine's obnoxiously self-absorbed piano prodigy son. Neeson is similarly skilled at making it real. And as for Seyfried, well, what can I say? She may be from Allentown, Penn., but she looks Swedish to me.
Moore's playing of the wounded, suspicious wife, Catherine Stewart, wins sympathy for a character who might otherwise seem pathetic, sinking into a film noir whirlpool with the enigmatic Chloe. And that sympathy is crucial, because of the self-flagellating misery of the character, the undertow of ruinous eroticism, and the nightmarish plunges Chloe keeps encouraging and Catherine keeps taking. (Extras: commentary with Egoyan, Seyfried, and Wilson; "Making Of" documentary; deleted Scenes.)
Our Family Wedding (C)
U.S.; Rick Famuyiwa, 2010, Fox
As a wedding ensemble comedy, Our Family Wedding isn't up to Monsoon Wedding, or even Wedding Crashers. It's a howling embarrassment.
The premise: an affluent black family, the Boyds, including hot-tempered L.A. deejay dad Brad (Forest Whitaker), is united to a middle-class Latino family, the Ramirezes, including hot-tempered city tow-away man Miguel (played by Carlos Mencia, a good actor who kept absurdly reminding me of Chazz Palminteri). The reason? Smitten Columbia med student Marcus Boyd (Lance Gross) has decided to tie the knot with lovesick ex-Columbia law student Lucia Ramirez (America Ferrera). Good cast. Bad movie.
The happy couple have been hiding their happy coupling from their parents, and on the very day Marcus and Lucia announce their nuptials, the fun -- to use the word loosely -- starts. Brad's meter runs out, and when Brad comes to unpark his car, he finds Miguel towing it away. They scream at each other. Later that day their kids announce their wedding plans, and the papas meet again and scream some more. And Lucia's grandma takes one look at the groom and faints.
It's supposed to be a comedy, so we keep meeting people who make funny faces and act silly. The couple breaks up, then reunites. There are many rancorous debates about what kind of wedding to have, salsa or soul, traditional or modern -- and many, many food fights involving wedding cakes.
What's the moral of all this? You got me. Maybe it's that people are just people, that weddings are beautiful, and you should try to love your neighbor as yourself, unless he won't stop screaming and trying to smash a hunk of wedding cake on your head. Or: Even if you hire Forest Whitaker and America Ferrera it's no guarantee you won't get a stinker of a movie.
The Greatest (C-)
U.S.; Shana Feste, 2009, National Entertainment Media
The Greatest, which is also the title of the 1977 Muhammad Ali bio-drama, is a good, decent moviemaking feature debut for writer-director Shana Feste. It's a sometimes moving Ordinary People-style romance and domestic drama, in which a jolting tragedy happens in the first few minutes, and we get the whole romance in flashback. Aaron Johnson is the title character, Bennett Brewer, a high school BMOC and heart-throb infatuated with pixie-cut/brainy classmate Rose (Carey Mulligan, who shouldn't get typed in too many more heart-ache roles). Pierce Brosnan gets to cry, one of those tearless Glenn Beck-style tearless crying jags, as Bennett's math prof dad Alton. Susan Sarandon is Bennett's possessive mom. And Johnny Simmons steals a lot of scenes as Bennett's screw-up younger brother Ryan.
All these actors are good, and the production is smooth. But to tell the truth, The Greatest" began to dissolve away as soon as it ended. And, unlike Brosnan, I didn't cry, real of faked.
Terribly Happy (B)
Denmark; Henrik Ruben Genz, 2008, Oscilloscope
Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren), a troubled cop with a dark secret, travels from Copenhagen to a small Danish town, where the citizens at the local bar tend to be sarcastic and vaguely menacing, and the local drunken doctor, Zerleng (Lars Brygman) keeps hinting at something awful. A local looker, Ingelise Buhl (Lene Maria Christensen), seems to be promoting an affair with Robert, even while her abusive hubby, Jorgen, keeps wandering over from the bicycle shop, knocking loudly and looking tough, dangerous and ready to explode. Meanwhile, people keep throwing things, including corpses, into the local bog.
So, what have we got here? A Lars von Trier-style Bad Day at Black Rock? A Danish take on Shutter Island? No. It turns out that this movie, scripted by Erling Jepsen and directed by Henrik Ruben Genz, is a full-blown Danish Coen brothers-style neo-noir thriller homage, as reminiscent of the Coens' work (and especially of Blood Simple), as Barton Fink was of Roman Polanski's oeuvre. (In Danish, with English subtitles.) (Extras: commentary by Genz and producer Thomas Gammeltoft; featurette; TV "showdown" and botched interview with Genz and Jepsen; essay by Foster Hirsch.)