PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Wrestler (A-)
U.S.; Darren Aronofsky, 2008, Twentieth Century Fox
So the French were crazy for liking Mickey Rourke, huh? Just take a look at this blast-you-to-the-walls Rourke performance, as over-the-hill pro wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson -- one of the top acting jobs in a year that also boasts Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Frank Langella as The Old Prankster Wicked Dickie, Meryl Streep as a nun you don't mess with and a mamma mia, and, for auld lang syne, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Clint. I'm not sure Rourke isn't the best of them all. Certainly he seems to be suffering the most for his art here -- very convincingly, and with physical and emotional courage, giving us the very image of an over-the-hill wrestler, desperately trying to hang on and come back.
It's a typical sort of pro-fighter-on-skids story. Even if we'd never seen the reverse ravages of Rocky Balboa (with Stallone twisting the legend), we've been watching other old fighters fail since Jack Palance and Tony Quinn took it on the chin as Mountain in Requiem for a Heavyweight -- hell, even earlier, when Wallace Beery tried to show us and Jackie Cooper that he was still the Champ. I'll bet there's a washed up boxer muttering "I coulda been a contender" somewhere in the back files of Melies, Lumiere and Edison.
But The Wrestler juices up the old plot by ushering us into the grandly, sleazily phony fight theater of pro wrestling, where old buddy/colleagues bash and jump on each other and take a staple gun in the torso, where the stars have names like Tommy Rotten, Lex Lethal, The Ayatollah and Randy the Ram. Evan Rachel Wood plays the Ram's alienated daughter, Marisa Tomei is right on as a world-weary stripper/working mom/squeeze, and Rourke -- well he's something else. I thought he did a great job in Sin City as the monster of vengeance. Here he's even greater, a monster of fatherhood and loneliness. He nails this part right through your heart.
U.S.; Ron Howard, 2008, Imagine Entertainment
Taken from Peter Morgan's stage play -- which also starred the spot-on Frank Langella as dark, fallen Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as his breezy Brit TV interlocutor David Frost -- Frost/Nixon is an actor's showcase of an especially grand and luscious kind. Langella may not smile enough, and he may be a little too secretly suave for Tricky Dick. But he does a great job anyway, catching with exquisite calibrations and irony the Old Prankster's dark resentments, inner sentimentality and fierce Machiavellian urges. And Sheen gets Frost without apologies: his hedonistic swagger and on-camera savvy.
The two costars relish their roles. They dig playing against each other, obviously understanding fully every overtone and under-cranny of the script, and they execute their parts so well that they provide a great arena for the terrific supporting actors, all of whom give top performances as well -- Sam Rockwell as morose leftie James Reston Jr., Kevin Bacon as Nixon's glowering Jack Brennan, Rebecca Hall as Frost's companion Caroline, and Toby Jones as a gnomish Swifty Lazar.
My one big complaint about this show, on which Ron Howard has lavished all his gifts of technique and compassion, is personal. Following The Old Prankster for years as a sometime political reporter and frequent sneaky commentator/movie reviewer for my college paper, The Daily Cardinal at UW-Madison, I just never thought the climax here, Nixon's on-camera apology, is as important as Morgan does.
What if Tricky Dick hadn't 'fessed up? Would we really care? For that matter, would we give a damn if George W. Bush came forward and apologized for being such a clown for eight agonizing years? Would it really mean anything? Robert Altman's hallucinatory Secret Honor, with Phil Baker Hall, remains the great Nixon movie: dark, smoldering, tragic, hilarious, a portrait of madness and power that goes, along with its Old Prankster, right over the edge. But Frost/Nixon, which sticks far closer to the amazing facts, is pretty damned good.
In the Realm of the Senses (A)
Japan; Nagisa Oshima, 1976, Criterion
In 1976, Nagisa Oshima, one of Japan's most radical filmmakers, wedded art film esthetics to hard-core pornography -- using full frontal nudity and on-screen sexual intercourse to tell the famous story of Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), a '30s house-servant whose lovemaking and perverse sex games with her married lover and boss Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji) in a nearby inn become more and more violent and strange until they go over the edge. Oshima's movie created a worldwide sensation, but it was banned in Japan, and the uncensored version has yet to be shown there. Arguably, it even damaged Oshima's later Japanese career; he was much less prolific after Realm, and many of his assignments were from foreign companies. (Realm was made by French producer Anatole Dauman.)
It remains a true shocker. In images of burning austerity, Oshima and his actors plunge us into a feverish hothouse world of obsessive, endless sexuality, in which all bourgeois constraints are thrown away, until the last deadly consummation hits us like a silk-bound hammer-blow.
I've never found Realm especially erotic, despite all its on-screen sex, but it is obsessively watchable. And it's also one of the most truly radical and "outside" movies ever made by a famous world director. In Japanese, with English subtitles. (Extras: Commentary by Tony Rayns; interviews with Oshima and co-stars Matsuda and Fuji; deleted footage; U.S. trailer; booklet with Donald Richie essay and second Oshima interview.)
Assault on Precinct 13 (A-)
U.S.; John Carpenter, 1976, Image
On the last day and night before the L.A. Precinct 13 police outpost closes forever, the station -- now manned by a skeleton crew and an unhappy but highly skilled new commander (Austin Stoker) -- is suddenly besieged by a murderous multiracial street gang. Seeking vengeance for a bloody police raid, and also chasing a distraught father who killed one of their "warriors" in retribution for the shooting of his daughter, the psychopathic gang surrounds the building, cuts the wires and electricity, and begins killing off the people inside: the police and office contingent and three convicts in mid-transport to another prison, including the notorious killer Napoleon (Darwin Joston).
The outside community hears some of the (silenced) shots but has no idea what is going on. Neither do the outside cops. It's like an Old West jail shootout in the middle of modern L.A. -- and as the night deepens, death keeps coming closer to the trapped cops and killers inside.
Made for a paltry $100,000 by the young John Carpenter, inspired by Howard Hawks' classic Western Rio Bravo (Carpenter uses the John Wayn-ish pseudonym "John T. Chance" for his editing job here), cast mostly with unknowns -- Laura Zimmer as the love interest, Tony Burton as another prisoner, Charles Cypher and Henry Brandon (Scar in John Ford's The Searchers) as cops -- this is one of the best of all low-budget actioners, and far superior to the multimillion-dollar 2005 remake with Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne.
The shooting is beautifully terse and economical. The mood is hard-bitten, ironic and edgy; the suspense is relentless. If you've ever wondered why Carpenter is such a favorite of "Cahiers du Cinema" and French cinephiles, take a hard look at Assault on Precinct 13. (Extras: Commentary by Carpenter; Egyptian Theatre interview with Carpenter and Stoker; radio spots; trailed; isolated score.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Nickelodeon/The Last Picture Show (Two-pack) (A)
U.S.; Peter Bogdanovich, 1971-1976, Columbia/Sony
Two movies by Peter Bogdanovich, both about memory, youth, loss and (to a degree) the movies and the ways we interact with them. The Last Picture Show -- adapted by Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry on McMurtry's excellent novel about high school friends in a changing '50s small-town Texas world, is of course, regarded as a modern classic -- and it shines through again here. The great breakthrough cast includes Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepherd, Oscar winner Ben Johnson, Oscar winner Cloris Leachman, Randy Quaid, Ellen Burstyn, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, Eileen Brennan and Oscar winners Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman.
But the surprise here is Nickelodeon, long regarded as a Bogdanovich flop or disappointment. Based on the reminiscences of directors Raoul Walsh, Allan Dwan, Leo McCarey, John Ford and others, this rambunctious, funny-sad tale of the "Patent Wars" and the early days of silent moviemaking (with the L. A. premiere of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation as the moving climax), is shown here in both the Technicolor release version and the black-and-white restored cut that Bogdanovich prefers.
It's a genuine revelation! Still somewhat flawed, but boasting a fine cast that includes Ryan O'Neal (the director), Burt Reynolds (the star), Tatum O'Neal (the driver), Brian Keith (the mini-mogul), Stella Stevens (the bombshell), Jane Hitchcock (the ingenue) and John Ritter (the cameraman), plus superb Laszlo Kovacs monochrome cinematography, the black-and-white Nickelodeon turns out to be a really wonderful movie, visually beautiful and full of fun and feeling. You can tell why Ingmar Bergman liked it. And so, perhaps to your surprise, will a lot of you. (Extras: Commentaries and discussion by Bogdanovich; featurettes; trailer.)
The Wages of Fear (A)
France; Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1954, Criterion, Blu-Ray
One of the greatest of all suspense films, The Wages of Fear is Clouzot's nerve-rending account of four drivers trying to escape a horrible little South American backwater by driving two truckloads of dynamite over deadly mountain roads. It's tenser and scarier than Clouzot's more famous Diabolique. An incredible script (by Clouzot and Jerome Geronimi, from Georges Arnaud's novel; a fantastic cast (Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter Van Eyck, Folco Lulli, Daniel Gelin and Vera Clouzot); amazing camerawork; razor-sharp technique. A real movie masterpiece.
"You sit there, waiting for the theater to explode!" boasted the 1954 ads, and they weren't far wrong. William Friedkin's 1977 remake Sorcerer, though underrated, pales by comparison. (Extras: Documentary; interviews with Montand and others; booklet with essay by novelist Dennis Lehane.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT DVD RELEASES
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts (A-)
U.S.; Scott Hicks, 2008, Koch Lorber
Excellent documentary on the prolific modern composer, a minimalist master, by the director of Shine.
The Hit (A-)
U.K.; Stephen Frears, 1984, Criterion
First-class neo-noir about a British gang supergrass (informer), played with eerie serenity by Terence Stamp, kidnapped in Spain by two deadly hit men (John Hurt and Tim Roth), who also acquire a ferocious femme fatale (Laura Del Sol of Carlos Saura's Carmen) when they have to kill her sugar daddy (Bill Hunter). The cast is top-notch, Frears' direction classy, moody and tense.