PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Wizard of Oz (A)
U. S.; Victor Fleming, King Vidor (Unc.), 1939, Warner
Some movies appeal to just about everybody -- like the heart-stoppingly entertaining and wonderful 1939 musical that MGM made out of L. Frank Baum's American fairy tale, The Wizard of Oz, now released in a deluxe 70th anniversary DVD edition by Warner.
It's a movie most of us saw for the first time in childhood and then grew up with through the years. I was 10 when CBS televised it nationally for the first time (in '56), and I still remember the shock of joy that came over me as I watched it in the living room on Parkhurst Place, in Williams Bay, Wis., with my Grampa Axel, Gramma Marie and Mother Edna -- all of whom were already very familiar with it -- especially when Judy Garland, as Dorothy Gale, stared at the sky above her Hollywood-Kansas barnyard backdrop, let loose those incredible 16-year-old pipes and brought down the house once again with Harold Arlen's and E.Y. Harburg's hair-raising ballad "Over the Rainbow."
What a song! What a singer! What pure, shattering emotion wrapped in rapturous show-biz kitsch and MGM bliss!
Then there was her fantastic supporting trio: Ray Bolger as the flopsie-mopsie, always-resourceful Scarecrow ("I would not be just a nuffin', my head all full of stuffin'...), Jack Haley, Jr. as the metal-bod, sentimental Tin Man ("I hear a beat! How sweet!"), and Bert Lahr as the boisterous scaredy-cat Cowardly Lion ("Oh, it's sad, believe me missy, when you're born to be a sissy..."). Meeting Dorothy one by one, singing the three parts of another Arlen-Harburg masterpiece -- "If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/the Nerve" -- followed by the lusty chorus of "We're off to see the Wizard!" -- the four grand companions instantly became the most appealing quartet of adventurous buddies since the Three Musketeers and D'Artagnan.
You'd also be stumped to find a better nasty, evil witch with a more memorable creepy cackle than Margaret Hamilton's supremely malicious Wicked Witch of the West, a.k.a. Miss Gulch, or a shinier good witch than Billie Burke's winningly sweetie-pie Glinda. Or a more spectacular piece of Midwestern humbuggery and medicine show eloquence than Frank Morgan as Professor Miracle and the Wizard himself (and three other parts).
Judy Garland, just plain great as Dorothy, beat out the most popular child star in America when she took the role away from Shirley Temple. And she makes the movie; it's really one of the all-time best movie musical performances (and part of Garland's own career top three, with Meet Me in St. Louis and the 1954 A Star is Born). Judy's Dorothy is a perfect centerpiece and beating heart for Oz, because she plays it with a stunning conviction, and sparkling sincerity that sets off perfectly the glorious "Smith's Premium Ham" clowning and vaudeville of her three fellow travelers.
The Wizard of Oz was directed by two big studio movie masters: Victor Fleming (the Oz scenes) and the uncredited King Vidor (the Kansas prelude and coda). Their styles are not really similar -- Vidor was more of a populist poet, Fleming more of a robust yarn-spinner -- yet here, they fuse perfectly.
Fleming and Vidor together presided over one of the most charmed and charming movie ensembles ever -- transforming Noel Langley's, Florence Ryerson's and Edgar Allan Woolf's marvelously playful and witty script and Arlen and Harburg's fantastic songs -- along with that peerless cast -- into the stuff of movie magic. I loved it when I was 10, watching it with my childhood family. I loved it last night, watching it in my incredibly brave 94-year-old Mother Edna's hospital room with her, on a computer on her food table. I love The Wizard of Oz still, and I'm not alone. (Extras: commentary by Oz-Garland scholar John Fricke; TV specials "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic" and "Memories of Oz"; featurettes; video storybook; profiles; sing-along feature; outtakes; deleted scenes; Harold Arlen's home movies; stills and trailer galleries; recording sessions; radio shows.)
Monsters vs. Aliens (B)
U.S.; Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon, 2009, Paramount
Monsters vs. Aliens seemed a little better to me while I was watching it than it does in retrospect. But it's still a pretty nifty show: a fast-paced parody horror sci-fi comedy extravaganza with an all-star cast and lots of gaudy 3D effects. If you see it in 3D (and you should), it looks great -- the kind of movie where the ingenious technology takes on an added measure of delight because it's handled so skillfully and playfully.
Monsters is also a love letter to some of the most entertainingly cheesy horror movies of the '50s and early '60s, with specific references to the Attacking 50-Foot Woman (who becomes voice actress Reese Witherspoon's Ginormica/Susan Murphy), the Fly (who becomes Hugh Laurie's fiendishly laughing Dr. Cockroach), the Blob (who becomes Seth Rogen in the role he was born to play, laid-back, Jell-O-bodied, ultra-blobby B.O.B.), Mothra/Godzilla (who becomes Insectosaurus, a behemoth who never speaks and, I guess, the Gill Man/Creature from the Black Lagoon or maybe Eeegah! (who becomes Will Arnett as the Missing Link).
A formidable lineup indeed. There are good-enough jokes about s.f. icons Steven Spielberg ("Close Encounters With an E. T."), George Lucas (it takes place in Modesto) and Stanley Kubrick (Kiefer Sutherland as Gen. W.R. Monger apes George C. Scott's sublime Gen. Buck Turgidson, and there's a Strangelovian war room for President Stephen Colbert).
The plot is wickedly ingenious and ingeniously wicked. Susan, a Modesto TV gal about to be married to her preposterously vain news anchor fiancée Derek (Paul Rudd), is plunged into a meteorite shower, swollen to near 50-foot proportions, dumped by disgraceful Derek, and then hurled by Gen. Monger into the secret subterranean hideout that is home to the rest of the Monster Mob.
The fearsome fivesome's life-or-death mission: to battle and destroy the unstoppable extraterrestrial invasion of a gigantic robot and his maniacal employer, four-eyed Gallaxhar (played to nasty perfection by Rainn Wilson). Gallaxhar, like Chuck Jones' Marvin the Martian in the Duck Dodgers cartoons, is loaded with gadgets and doesn't go down easy. The robot utterly ignores President Colbert's touching grand gesture of intergalactic peace and love, a spirited rendition of the Close Encounters theme, segueing right into the equally throbbing theme from Beverly Hills Cop. Perhaps the next number in this thrilling Colbertian medley was "Can't Stop the Music." But we'll never know; the robot rudely marches off to tear down the Golden Gate Bridge, without even a nod to Ray Harryhausen.
If you have blood in your veins and popcorn in your mitts, how could you not enjoy something like that? Especially when the filmmakers -- directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and writers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky -- immediately flex their 3D muscles by hurling meteors at us and bopping a paddleball, House of Wax-style, right in our faces? How could you not be utterly entranced by a 50-foot-tall cartoon Reese Witherspoon, in 3D yet? And how refreshing it is to see a current movie where Paul Rudd doesn't get the girl -- or the guy.
Kids be damned. I had a good time at M.V.A., and sometimes you're lucky to get even that.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (A)
U.S.; D.A. Pennebaker and other directors, 1967-1997, Criterion, Blu-ray
Rock and roll will never die. Neither will the '60s. Here's the proof: all three D.A. Pennebaker and co. docs on the Monterey Pop festival, plus all the outtakes. Jimi, Janis, and Otis live! Did you ever doubt it?
Includes: Monterey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, Richard Leacock, others, 1967, A), with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Ravi Shankar, the Mamas & the Papas, Otis Redding. Jimi at Monterey (Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, 1986, A), with Hendrix. Shake! Otis at Monterey (Pennebaker, 1989, A). The Outtakes (Pennebaker, 1997).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Away We Go (C+)
U.S.; Sam Mendes, 2009, Focus
Away We Go is the sort of smart, nicely made, and personally felt movie I should have gone for in a big way: a realistic contemporary comedy written by novelists/husband-wife screenwriting team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, and directed by the estimable Sam Mendes, about an offbeat but sweet unmarried couple, amiable doofussy Burt and earthy Verona, played by John Krasinski of The Office and Saturday Night Live's Maya Rudolph). As these two wander around the country in search of at least a temporary home, we see them gently coping with impending parenthood and a group of sometimes alarmingly atypical relatives and friends, some of whom want their bods.
The movie is well-directed, well-acted, and well-written (in a way). And it has a number of beguilingly candid, well-observed scenes between Burt and Verona, that put to shame the notions of romantic love and parenting floated our way often in the average Hollywood domestic romance/comedy.
Away We Go becomes a sophisticated road movie with blackouts, as the odd-duck couple travel from friend to relative to place to city, from Colorado to Phoenix, Tucson to Madison, Montreal to Miami -- in search of not only a haven, but some kind of contentment or a clue to their up-in-the-air future.
Along the way, they interact with Burt's laughing, irresponsible parents, Jerry and Gloria (those admirable comedians Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara), robust flirt Lily (Allison Janney in a piece of "overacting" I liked), Carmen Ejogo as Verona's savvy sister Grace, Maggie Gyllenhaal suckling her kids as Burt's old school pal Ellen (a.k.a. LN), Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey as the welcoming but troubled Tom and Munch, and Paul Schneider as a dumped hubby in Miami.
Yet, despite my appreciation for the talent involved here, I didn't much like Away We Go.
Why? Actually, it's a type of '70s movie toward which I developed a mild resistance (after having a schoolboy crush on some examples): the "You and Me Against the World, Babe" romantic comedy. Here's how this kind of movie works: We meet a funny, attractive often quirky couple -- usually on their first encounter, though sometimes, as with Away We Go, after they've hooked up -- and discover their superiority in brains, mores, cuteness, and so on, to almost every other character in the movie, who basically become comic butts. The model twosome weather storms and wins out. Curtain.
There's often a self-congratulating smugness to all this -- and though I'm aware you could apply the same general outline to many of the great screwball comedies that are among the gems of the old studio system, what makes the "You and Me Against the World, Babe" sub-genre different is its pretension to realism. We know that a screwball comedy is a concoction and a confection, and that the authors and actors are charmingly stacking the deck for our delight.
But the "Babe" comedies of the '60s, '70s and later, like The Graduate, Morgan! or even some Woody Allen, were allegedly a window on reality, as Away We Go obviously purports to be. Indeed, many of Away's best moments are its little humane observations, like Verona's quiet clinch with Grace. And its most annoying are screwball-influenced antic japes like the scene allegedly set in Madison with Maggie Gyllenhall as a creepy academic sex fiend.
Mendes is a very imaginative director who obviously has a somewhat dyspeptic view of American suburban life, which he also trashes in both American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. (Road is a "You and Me Against the World" romantic non-comedy that goes sour.) He's very good with actors, and the performance level here is high. This should have been a very good movie -- and maybe it would have been if the writers weren't so locked into a sarcasm that seems to me unsimple payback.
U.S.; Jonas Pate, 2009, Lionsgate
Kevin Spacey plays an emotionally ragged, scruffy and mega-tormented Beverly Hills psychiatrist named Henry Carter, a role that seems almost too right for him. But the movie isn't right, even though Robin Williams shows up as one of Henry's A-list clients, a sexaholic star actor named Jack. (Coppola allusion or Nicholson allusion?) Good as Spacey and Williams always are, maybe this would have been better with Spacey, in his goombah mode, playing Jack and Williams doing one of his imporov shpritzes, inserted throughout the movie at odd intervals. (This is a movie with a lot of odd intervals.)
But then again, why stick Kingsley -- or Spacey or Williams -- in another sub-par, sub-bad and sub-beautiful "Inside Hollywood" flick, whatever Short Cuts or Crash ensemble pretensions it might have?
Carter's client list also includes Dallas Roberts as a wired-up agent, Saffron Burrows as a mellowing bombshell, and assorted other Hollywood stereotypes, some of whom look as if they couldn't get past the Brett Easton Ellis club bouncer, and none of whom have been handed any surprises by screenwriter Thomas Moffett. There's even a scene by the Hollywood sign, which deserves better.
The Girlfriend Experience (C)
U.S.; Steven Soderbergh, 2009, Magnolia
Steven Soderbergh flirts with hard core in this somewhat chic-pretentious look at an intellectual hooker (played by porn star Sasha Grey) who takes her job to a new level, playing "girlfriend" as well as "whore." A James Toback sort of movie, without much juice. It's no Oceans 12.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (20th Anniversary edition) (A-)
U.S.; John McNaughton, 1986-90, MPI Home Video, Blu-ray
A low-budget blood-and-guts dark-side classic: McNaughton's bone-chilling look at blue-collar American pathology and murder, starring Michael Rooker as the cold-blooded Henry.