PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Pete Docter, 2009, Pixar
Pixar's Up flies us right up into those magical realms of sky, flight and fantasy that Judy garland's Dorothy traveled, in her Kansas twister ride to Oz, and that little Pascal Lamorisse was whisked off to by his air force of Parisian balloons at the end of The Red Balloon. Co-written and directed by Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and Bob Peterson, it's almost a great children's movie, and another strong argument that the Pixar cartoon cadre is the strongest creative force operating in mainstream Hollywood right now.
The hero of Up is a harsh, isolated, mean old man named Carl Frederickson, voiced with classic gruffness by Ed Asner.
Carl, once a bright and adventurous lad, with a bright and even more adventurous partner/wife Ellie (Elie Docter), is a retired balloon-seller who lives alone in a shabby but homey old house: one of those hanger-on dwellings once surrounded by other, similar homes, but now alone itself in an area drastically torn down, replaced or modernized during his lifetime, until it (and it seems, he) are simply old relics lost in concrete and construction.
Up seems initially about how the old are sadly abandoned and shunted aside, how they gradually lose their loves and dreams, and are forced to succumb to the world's cruelty, indifference or smugly ageist bigotry.
All that, and almost all of Carl's life, are conveyed in the movie's sprightly opening sections, covering Carl's boyhood, his meeting with the plucky Ellie, their joint admiration for the famous Movietone Newsreel star and daring South American explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer, at his plumiest), leading up to a lyrical five-minute sequence, a glorious little montage that becomes the most beautiful and bewitchingly sad pieces of cinema I've seen this year.
I loved it, and I very much liked the rest too: the slapstick, soaring, adventure movie escape hatch that the filmmakers supply for 78-year-old Carl, who, at the last minute, dodges the wrecker's ball, when he opens up and lets loose a buoyant mantle of thousands of gleaming balloons that pull his three-story home up into the air and sail it away.
Accompanying Carl is his own boy wonder, chubby but ever-game 8-year-old wilderness scout Russell (Jordan Agai), who was on the porch --and later clings to it, knocking and screaming for help, when the house took off. Awaiting them is a truly magical joke-packed flight that ends in Muntz's South American hangout -- near a waterfall that looks like Angel Falls, in a profusely green jungle and towering highland populated by the nice dog Dug (voiced by filmmaker Peterson), nastier dogs Alpha and Beta (Peterson again and Delroy Lindo), and the delightful goofy, brightly-plumed big bird Kevin (no voice) -- and, amazingly, by Muntz himself, who is not quite what he seemed. But then, how many newsreel heroes are?
Up is more than kid's stuff. According to Up's credits, there's a real-life Carl and Ellie who inspired the film. So the movie has a real-life stimulus, however delightfully impossible it all became. I hope that they're happy.
Wings of Desire (A)
Germany; Wim Wenders, 1987, Criterion
In Wim Wenders' lyrical film masterpiece of urban fantasy and longing, two angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) wander around Berlin and, like documentary filmmakers, keep their eye on humanity. Silent, sympathetic, both wearing well-worn overcoats and sporting ponytails, but invisible to the Berliners, they stroll through the streets and into the public and private places, observing the people of the city in their everyday routines, their private melancholy or happiness, or their extremes of emotion and crisis, from meditative study in Berlin's lovely main library to daily work, subway riding, trancelike attendance in a rock club, childbirth, fatal bike accident or suicide.
It is Berlin before the destruction of the Wall and its brightly colored wall paintings, a black-and-white Berlin, almost empty of hubbub or noise, but linked to the Berlin of past cinema, from Walter Ruttmann's 1927 Berlin: Symphony of a City to Wenders' own 1970 Summer in the City to this movie, which was originally called Der Himmel uber Berlin ("Heaven Over Berlin"). And both angels watch it all without interfering, though occasionally they will drop a sympathetic hand on the shoulders of the suffering, or help a dying person through the last agonizing moments of life.
Finally, one of them, Damiel, decides he must somehow cross over from the world of the passive, voyeuristic angels to the earthly realm of the actively joyous or sorrowful humans. Watching and becoming obsessed with a beautiful, tawny-haired circus trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin, Wenders' partner), as she flies above the wowed crowds or strips in her trailer or undulates at a rock club listening to Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Damiel falls quietly but madly in love. Frustrated by the metaphysical barrier between them, he yearns to join her. So he meets another ex-angel, one who became human himself 30 years earlier: the actor Peter Falk, now in Berlin to shoot a World War II thriller, who advises him, until Damiel becomes mortal, and color and humanity flood into his life.
Wings of Desire belongs loosely to that strain of pop-metaphysical angels-among-us romantic fantasy that includes Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death, Henry Koster's The Bishop's Wife (with angel Cary Grant), Victor Fleming's A Guy Named Joe (with angel Spencer Tracy), Raoul Walsh's The Horn Blows at Midnight (with angel Jack Benny, who always claimed the role ruined his movie career), Albert Lamorisse's Circus Angel, and, of course, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, and Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait.
But Wings has a different mood and style than any of its angelic predecessors -- just as dreamy, but more meditative and somber.
The often wordless script is by Wenders, with six or so scenes by the estimable novelist-playwright-filmmaker Peter Handke, and lots of day-to-day improvisation. The incredible, gorgeous cinematography, bathed in light in both color and black-and-white -- and really one of the finest pieces of monochrome photography in all of the cinema -- was by the "genius eye" of Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, 78-year-old Henri Alekan. The dissonant arty music is by Jurgen Kneiper. The cast includes the legendary Curt Bois, the pickpocket of Casablanca, playing the film's poet Homer. And Wenders' assistant director was the young Claire Denis, who went on to write and direct Chocolat and the recent gem 35 Shots of Rum.
All of these artists and actors and angels achieved a celestial peak with Wings of Desire -- a movie that brings down Heaven over Berlin. (In German and English, with English subtitles.) (Extras: Commentary by Wenders and, more briefly, Peter Falk (one of the best commentaries ever put on a DVD release); 2003 documentary "The Angels Among Us," with interviews with Wenders, Ganz, Falk, Sander, Handke and Kneiper; on-set TV documentary "Wim Wenders Berlin Jan. 1987"; interview with Alekan; featurettes on Alekan and Bois; deleted scenes and outtakes; trailers; booklet with poem by Handke; and essays by Wenders and Michael Atkinson.
The General (A)
U.S.; Buster Keaton/Clyde Bruckman, 1927, Kino, Blu-ray
From comedian-filmmaker supreme Buster Keaton -- of the porkpie hat, unsmiling puss and staggering comic athleticism -- comes one of the great silent movie comedies and also one of the great Civil War pictures, shot in beautiful images that are almost eerie replicas of the look of the famous Matthew Brady Civil War battlefield photographs. Through them, Buster, as lovelorn railman Johnny Gray -- trying to woo his beloved, soldier-loving Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and then trying to rescue, from Union Army marauders, his equally beloved locomotive "The General" -- moves like a sad-faced but furiously alive ghost dancer.
Buster's masterpiece is based on a real-life train raid episode. But here Keaton manages to surpass both the reality and cinema of warfare to create an exhilarating, violent but bloodless ballet of comic pursuit and battle. Comedies don't get any better than this. Comedians don't get funnier than deadpan Buster. And in this two-disc edition, The General -- mastered from a 35mm archive print struck from the original negative -- has never looked better, or richer, or more epic, or more beautifully sepia and black-and-white. Or more Keatonesque. (Silent, with subtitles.) (Extras: Three separate scores composed, conducted or performed by Carl Davis, Robert Israel and Lee Erwin; video tours, behind-the-scenes home movies, introductions by Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson; montage of Keaton train gags.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Turner Classic Movies Greatest Classic Films Collection: Holiday (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1938-47, TCM Warner
This two-disc collection is a charming little Christmas package, even though TCM's insistence on calling the series a "Greatest Classic Films Collection" is sabotaged by the inclusion of the saccharine and silly It Happened on Fifth Avenue.
The Holiday set does have one genuine "great classic," Lubitsch's sublime romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner, as well as two bona fide good ones, the 1938 Christmas Carol and the 1945 Christmas in Connecticut, and a very appealing set of vintage Christmas shorts, including Don Siegel's Oscar-winning Star in the Night.
A Christmas Carol (B)
U.S.; Edwin L. Marin, 1938
MGM's typically plush adaptation of Charles Dickens' Yuletide classic of greed, nightmare and redemption on Christmas Eve was probably initially conceived as a showcase for MGM star Lionel Barrymore, who played the chastened miser/dreamer Ebenezer Scrooge every Christmas on the radio. (It was one of the flamboyant actor's juiciest and most famous roles.) But the wheelchair-bound Barrymore ceded the part to stuffy/regal Britisher Reginald Owen, an adequate but uninspiring substitute who specialized in playing Louis XV and also appeared, in forgotten films, as both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Gene Lockhart plays Bob Cratchit. The Alistair Sim version, and even the current Jim Carrey one, are better.
The Shop Around the Corner (A)
U.S.; Ernst Lubitsch, 1940
Ernst Lubitsch once called this the best of all his movies, and I agree. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are Alfred Kralik and Klara Novak, two Budapest gift shop employees who woo each other unknowingly and anonymously by mail, even as they fuss and feud and snipe at each other at the shop (around the corner) run by paternal fussbudget Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Based on Miklos Laszlo's play Parfumerie, masterfully scripted by Samson Raphaelson and the uncredited Ben Hecht, beautifully acted and filmed on every level, this romantic comedy is just perfect.
Christmas in Connecticut (B)
U.S.; Peter Godfrey, 1945
Barbara Stanwyck, at her sharpest, is a New York magazine writer masquerading as a Martha Stewart type who writes her column for a mythical luxury farm in Connecticut; Dennis Morgan is a war hero granted a Christmas dinner at the farm as a morale booster by imperious publisher Sydney Greenstreet, an aggressive gourmand who invites himself as well. These typical Hollywood deceptions and complications are managed slickly by a lesser known but very competent team: director Peter Godfrey and co-writers Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini.
It Happened on Fifth Avenue (C)
U.S.; Roy Del Ruth, 1847
Elegant bum Victor Moore and his pooch spend every Christmas and winter, unknown to the owner, in discontent multi-millionaire Charlie Ruggles' unused Fifth Avenue mansion. This year, he's joined by returning World War II vets Don DeFore, Alan Hale Jr., more wives and buddies, and eventually, unknown to them, by Ruggles, his daughter Gale Storm and his estranged wife Ann Harding, who fool everyone into thinking they're indigent or footloose. Some people love this bizarre Yule tickler from director Roy Del Ruth and longtime comedy writer Everett Freeman (whose credits slide from Danny Kaye's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to The Maltese Bippy), but, though Ruggles and Moore keep scoring points, I say "Bah! Humbug!"
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Ugly Truth (C)
U.S.; Robert Luketic, 2009
This slick but obvious -- and somewhat dopey -- romantic comedy about the love/hate antics of an uptight Sacramento TV producer (Katherine Heigl) and her unabashedly macho star romance advice TV guy (Gerard Butler), who together combine for an unlikely hit show called, natch, The Ugly Truth, proves once again that the Golden Age of the screwball comedy -- and even the heyday of Woody Allen and his imitators -- seems behind us. It may be too easy, in the age of Apatow and Farrelly, to just crack a dirty joke and pretend you're Preston Sturges. And not every dirty joke is funny.
Can't anyone write a clever, witty sex comedy any more? Heigl's stiff, self-absorbed, politically correct Abby Richter, a blond with complexes, and Gerard Butler's let-it-all-hang-out slobbo charmer Mike Chadway, a sexist with attitude, aren't very believable, either individually or as a couple. And they're not very funny either -- though it's not the actors' faults.
What's wrong? Well, almost everything. The movie tries to get us to believe that Heigl, a stunning blond even in her early severe exec outfits, besides making lots of moolah, has trouble attracting guys. Give me a break. Hell, even with a poor personality, Heigl would probably have trouble batting suitors away.
It's hard to buy Butler as both a brutally truthful throwback type at first and then also the helpful adviser he becomes with Abby. Shouldn't Mike have more of a motive for helping Abby out? Like, initially, trying to get rid of her? In broad overall strokes, these characters don't make much sense, and they don't play right in the smaller nuances and details either. They're just a couple of sex fantasies, written as standard movie star-type roles. By the end, when they're screaming at each other in a hot air balloon, you've had more than enough of them and their writers.
Mamma Mia! The Movie, Gimme Gimme Gimme More Gift Set (C+)
U.S.-U.K.; Phyllida Lloyd, 2008, Universal, Blu-ray
I wasn't an ABBA fan in their 1974-82 heyday, though as someone with two Swedish-American grandparents, I might have had a little national pride, as I do for Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman and Victor Sjostrom. But they still sound good now. And Mamma Mia!, a movie musical composed of their song hits -- all originally written by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (and non-member Stig Anderson) and sung at the time by those two, accompanied by their Abba wives, Agneta Feltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad -- makes ideal use of that easy-going, irresistible, buoyant pop music.
The ultra-catchy songs are strung around a fragile, amusingly absurd story about a wedding on a Greek island, involving Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), the gorgeous daughter of independent single woman and island resort owner Donna (Meryl Streep). Unbeknownst to her mother, the young bride invites all three of the men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) who were Donna's lovers and may be her father, in order to find daddy Right. (Neither mom nor dad really know.) Three is the magic number here: Mom has two friends (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters) and so does the daughter -- and all of them, and the three guys, get heavily involved in the musical action.
There's something delightful about the way the ABBA songs summon up all the corny, cock-eyed romanticism that the story kiddingly whips up. The result, full of sunlight, rhythm, dancing and torch songs, didn't remind me that much of one of the old MGM classics -- with their wit and finesse. But it did recall the 20th Century Fox musicals, with their pizzazz, high spirits, gaiety and occasional craziness.
Mamma Mia has a powerhouse cast, though not necessarily for a musical. But when these dramatic actors start throwing themselves into it and selling these songs, it's entertaining in a crazy way that plants an almost constant silly smile on your face. Streep, who sang well as the country-western star in Robert Altman's swan song, Prairie Home Companion, and who's really game, shamelessly belts out her songs (like "The Winner Takes It All") with no brakes and lots of passion. And, if you don't grin at "007" Brosnan, crooning away, your sense of humor is failing.
Notes on Marie Menken (C+)
Austria; Martina Kudlacek, 2006 (Icarus)
Marie Menken was an abstract artist and experimental filmmaker who initially never intended to publicly show her movies -- which were often hand-held, sped-up views of lyrical subjects like gardens, art works or beach scenes. Eventually, though, she became a famous underground director and '60s figure, and a big influence on other American avant garde cineastes like Stan Brakhage. Menken was also, it says here and elsewhere, the original model for Edward Albee's Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- just as her bisexual artist/filmmaker husband, Willard Maas, was the model for George, and their legendary drunken arguments the inspiration for Albee's play.
Kudlacek's passively adoring portrait has valuable old footage of Menken, Maas and cohorts like Andy Warhol, who is shown in a bizarre rooftop Bolex camera duel with Menken. (She later became a star of sorts herself, as the chunky harridan of Warhol's Chelsea Girls.) There are also interviews with Jonas Mekas, Gerard Malanga (who becomes, in a way, the star of this movie), Kenneth Anger, Peter Kubelka, Alfred Leslie and others.
Like Menken's films, this one is somewhat off-the-cuff and off-putting. I am not a fan of most abstract art. But ironically, the best things in the package are the three complete short Menken films included: Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945), Glimpse of the Garden (1957) and Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1958-61). (Other Menken films are excerpted in Kudlacek's movie.) Except for Garden, a jittery floral orgy drenched in birdsong, they're not as good as Brakhage thinks. But they swing.
The Singing Fool (C)
U.S.; Lloyd Bacon, 1928 (Warner Archive)
This Al Jolson follow-up to his trailblazing talkie The Jazz Singer was actually a bigger hit. Singing Fool was, in fact, the highest-grossing sound picture until Gone With the Wind. And it's a similar mix of talkie with (far fewer) silent, captioned scenes. But, except for Jolson's high-voltage numbers, which include his great million-seller tearjerker "Sonny Boy," "It All Depends on You," and "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World," all sung in both white- and black-face, it's pretty bad: bald-faced melodrama with Jolson as over-generous patsy singer-songwriter Al Stone, suckered by a scheming Broadway star wife (Josephine Dunn) and plagued with drunkenness and infant mortality.