PICKS OF THE WEEK
Italy; Marco Bellocchio, 2009, IFC Independent Film
Marco Bellocchio's Vincere ("Victory") is grandly ambitious and often stunningly beautiful: a lushly visualized and brilliantly stylish operatic bio-drama about an edgy, difficult subject: the unlikely tragedy of Benito Mussolini's spurned lover/maybe wife Ida Dalzer, his neglected, rejected son, Benito Albino Mussolini, and the brutal Il Duce's barbarous neglect and mistreatment of them both.
It's an often extraordinary film. Bellocchio, now 71, has been writing and directing movies since his notable debut at 27 with his 1966 radical political shocker Fist in His Pocket. This may be the best film of his entire career, a visual aural and dramatic knockout from a creator not afraid to assume his audience's maturity, intelligence, breadth of interests and adventurous spirit.
The story, new to me, comes from the book The Secret Son of Il Duce: The Story of Albino Mussolini and his Mother, Ida Dalzer. Mussolini -- the fascist dictator to be, who starts in the pre-World War I era as a radical fiercely telling a crowd that he'd like to use the "guts of the last pope" to "strangle the last king," meets Ida in 1907, becomes her lover and uses her ample family money to finance his radical anti-clerical paper Avanti, besides impregnating her.
Ida falls madly in love, surrenders her sumptuous body in scenes both lyrical and chilling. But when testosterone-heavy Benito returns from the war, wounded, Ida discovers in the hospital that he has another very contentious wife, and other children. When she violently objects, he has her forcibly removed, the beginning of a savage campaign of exclusion in which he keeps screening her and their son away, and where finally Ida's sad, determined attempts to reestablish what she thought was her family, ends with exiled mother and son dying in mental hospitals, Ida at 57 and Albino at 26. Il Duce, of course, would die violently, hung upside down with his mistress, at the hands of Italian partisans, as the Nazi Army fled, and the allied armies overran Italy.
Ida is superbly played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno, the beautiful star of Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia. And both Benito Mussolini and his son Albino, are played, in a major tour-de-force, by Filippo Timi. Timi's Mussolini is a believable early version of the scowling, screaming real-life dictator we see in the film's plentiful newsreel footage. And Timi's Albino is a much different, but recognizably related figure. When the son rants and howls in imitation of his fathers harangues and speeches, he looks and sounds like a spoiled boy actor imitating a pater familias who is also a mad, angry ape.
The style of the film is florid and brilliant. Bellocchio (the name means "Beautiful Eye," as his admirer, Pauline Kael, once noted) contrasts the newsreels of Mussolini and the fascist or gullible throngs with silent movies (Eisenstein and others) shown in recurring movie theater scenes or simply cut into the flow of images. The real scenes are richly colored, composed like romantic or surrealist paintings, and shot like ballets or operas. The score, by Carlo Crivelli, is hypnotic, suggesting Herrmann over Morricone over Verdi. Each scene, almost every frame, delivers something stunning, entrancing, or horrifying. One of the finest films of the year, winner of four prizes at the Chicago Film Festival, Vincere shows us, indelibly, that grand ambitions, however much they might have destroyed Mussolini and blighted the lives of his first wife and son, still have their place in the cinema. In Italian and German, with English subtitles. (Extra: trailer.)
The Red Shoes (A)
U.K.; Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948, Criterion
The Red Shoes is the best-loved film of the Archers -- the British director-writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who also made the eccentric but beautiful '40s classics A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It's the magical tale of a fatal triangle among young prima ballerina Vicky Page (played by Moira Shearer, who was second to the young Margot Fonteyn in Britain's Royal Ballet), her discoverer and Diaghilev-like impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook, in one of the greatest performances of the British cinema), and the fiery young composer who becomes Vicky's lover, Julian Craster (Marius Goring). All three become principal creators of The Red Shoes, a ballet conceived by Lermontov, based on Hans Christian Andersen's poignant fairytale of the young dancer who puts on a pair of magical red shoes given her by a demonic shoemaker (the great dancer Leonide Massine), and proceeds to dance without ceasing, through a world and life that too swiftly races past her, dance her past happiness and love, dance her finally to death.
In the movie, the ballet is tragically echoed in real life, leading to conflict and destruction. The Red Shoes (based on an idea of Alexander Korda's on which Pressburger labored for years) became one of the screen's greatest celebrations of dance, with the Red Shoes ballet (music by Brian Easdale and choreography by Shearer's fellow dancers Robert Helpmann and Massine) the spectacular 20-minute-long piece de resistance that inspired Gene Kelly's American in Paris number and all the other extended movie musical showcase ballets of the '5os.
None of the others is as dramatically powerful as this one. As we watch Shearer's red-headed Vicky whirling to Easdale's wistful, exalting, chilling music, she becomes both prisoner and queen of the dance, and the movie's dark, scary climax becomes an overwhelming final curtain. The Red Shoes, with its extravagant sets by Hein Heckroth and ravishing cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff, with its great cast (including saucy ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina, Albert Basserman and Esmond Knight) and its extraordinary teamwork by Powell, Pressburger and their whole company, is a work of art that celebrates the whole process of collaborative art, its joys, its terrors. (Extras: commentary by critic Ian Christie, with Shearer, Goring, Cardiff, Easdale and Red Shoes admirer Martin Scorsese; restoration demo by Scorsese; "making of" documentary; interviews with Powell and his wife -- and Scorsese's editor -- Thelma Schoonmaker; photos and memorabilia; audio recordings of Jeremy Irons reading Andersen's fairytale and excerpts from the Powell-Pressburger novelization of the film; an animated film taken from Heckroth's storyboards; trailer; booklet with essays by David Ehrenstein and Robert Gitt.
Black Narcissus (A-)
U.K.; Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947, Criterion
The most visually beautiful and stylistically remarkable of all the Archers films: the stunning Powell-Pressburger adaptation of Rumer Godden's novel of temptation, love and madness in an Indian convent for British Catholic nuns, in an ex-brothel called the Palace built on a towering Himalayan mountaintop.
Deborah Kerr, a red-headed knockout at 26, is the youthful Mother Superior, Sister Clodagh. David Farrar is the impudent and sexy agent-helper Mr. Dean. Kathleen Byron is the showcase part, Sister Ruth, the nun driven mad by desire, Sabu the young Indian general who owns the convent, Jean Simmons the seductive young servant and Flora Robson the dedicated nun who succumbs to the mad winds of the mountaintop, planting flowers instead of needed vegetables. The sets by Alfred Junge (the film was almost entirely studio-shot) and the incredible cinematography by Jack Cardiff both won Oscars and are landmarks in British film history. The memorable music is by Brian (The Red Shoes) Easdale. Author Rumer Godden, by the way, hated the film, probably for its wild melodrama; as an adaptation of her work, she much preferred Jean Renoir's The River. Trust the tale, not the teller. (Extras: commentary by Powell and Martin Scorsese; introduction and video essay by Bertrand Tavernier; "making of " documentary; "Painting with Light," a documentary on Cardiff's photography; booklet with essay by Kent Jones.
Ride with the Devil (A-)
U.S.; Ang Lee, 1999, Criterion
A good Civil War dramatic Western, set in Bloody Kansas and Missouri, following three young recruits (Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and Jeffrey Wright) in Quantrill's murderous Raiders. The Raiders, led by the fanatic and brutal William Clarke Quantrill (played by John Ales) were a colorful band of Confederate guerrillas who fought with the Rebel-sympathizing Jayhawkers against the Union-favoring Bushwhackers, and gradually turned into a mercenary, kill-crazy gang that perpetrated one of the war's worst massacres, in Lawrence, Kan.
The movie is based by Lee and his frequent writer-producer colleague James Schamus, very faithfully, on Daniel Woodrell's fine but little-known novel Woe to Live On. Maguire plays Jake "Dutchy" Roedel, the good-hearted but deluded protagonist who gradually develops a moral conscience. Skeet Ulrich is Jake's dashing best friend, a mini-Rhett named Jack Bull Chiles, who leads him to war. And Wright daringly takes the film's most fascinating and enigmatic role: freed black slave Daniel Holt, who rides with Quantrill, because of a longtime friendship with his ex-master and fellow Raider George Clyde (Simon Baker).
Also riding with Quantrill are two memorable killer-villains, the sadistic Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who looks like a desiccated remnant of John Carradine's gallant Confederate outlaw Hatfield in Stagecoach, and the equally deadly Black Jack Ambrose, played by Jim Caviezel, whom Mel Gibson later cast as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. Further enriching the saga are singer-songwriter-novelist Jewel as Jack's lover Sue, Tom Wilkinson as Jake's and Daniel's host and safe-harbored Orton Brown and Mark Ruffalo in a terrifying bit as Jake's ex-friend turned avowed enemy.
If Merchant and Ivory had ever made a western, it might have looked, for good or ill, much like Ride With the Devil. (Extras: two commentaries, one with Lee and Schamus, one with Elmes and other technicians and designers; interview with Wright; booklet with essays by film critic Godfrey Cheshire and historian Edward E. Leslie.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Elvis: That's the Way It Is (A)
U.S.; Denis Sanders and Rick Schmidlin, 1970 and 2001, Warner
The best Elvis Presley movie is not Jailhouse Rock, King Creole or Viva Las Vegas, or even his classic 1968 TV comeback concert. The best Elvis movie has always been Elvis: That's the Way It Is, a concert film/documentary made of his Las Vegas concert act by director Denis Sanders in 1970, and then considerably reedited, with many outtakes and new musical numbers added, in 2001, by Rick Schmidlin (the restorer of both Touch of Evil and Greed).
Presley was at the peak of his talent when he shot the original footage, and both films (the second is superior) give you a blend of canny offstage observation and exciting onstage performance pyrotechnics that engage and enthrall you.
There's lots of music: gorgeous, spellbinding rock-the-house singing and rocking from the star, and also inspired stage foolery and ad-libbing from Elvis that show definitively how he could take charge of his audiences and his stage (and his musicians in the rehearsals), and just why he was called "The King." Over and over again he keeps slipping in mischievous little jokes; at one point, Elvis actually flubs a line from his cover of the Righteous Brothers classic "You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'" -- almost repeating the first line of the first verse, then recovering immediately and singing it so powerfully that he wipes out any memory of the miscue. Along with the penultimate "Suspicious Minds," it's his top performance of the entire set.
Give The King his due. He was the greatest front man in the history of rock 'n' roll. (Michael Jackson wasn't even close.) He was a pop singer who could grab an audience like nobody else, not even his greatest colleagues like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Ray Charles. Among rockers he was unique. His voice was as beautiful as Roy Orbison's, his hard-rocking intensity topped Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and his dramatic clarity and bite surpassed Mick Jagger and was the equal of Charles. (Extras: The complete first 1970 version of Elvis: That's the Way It Is, along with the re-edited 2001 cut; restoration featurette Patch It Up; a dozen outtake songs; outtake non-musical sequences; biographies; trailers.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Cop Out (D+)
U.S.; Kevin Smith, 2010, Warner
Cop Out is one movie where you can tell what went wrong just by looking at the trailer. The casting. Hiring 30 Rock's Tracy Morgan to play a veteran L.A. cop who's been partnered for nine years with Bruce Willis's Jimmy Monroe, a grizzled, two-fisted police-buddy now relentlessly battling the local Mexican drug gang, seems a bit like casting the Jonas brothers as the Baldwin brothers. Why torture a good actor like that?
Morgan is very funny and engagingly screw-loose on 30 Rock. But Tina Fey might have done a better job, and gotten more laughs, in this part: the role of Paul Hodges, hysteria-prone, jealous, weird-ass, drooling cop -- who spits and blubbers and whines like a 12-year-old throughout the most of the movie, while trying to handle dialogue so clogged with movie allusions and four-letter words, it sounds like a 12-year-old's take on Scorsese. Morgan doesn't look or sound as if he's been a cop for nine weeks.
The idea behind Cop Out is dicey to begin with. Partner-buddies Paul and Jimmy screw up a stakeout and get a snitch killed in an operation in which Paul was dressed up as a giant cell-phone. Then they're suspended by their chief (Sean Cullen). This puts Jimmy's ass in a financial crack, since his daughter is getting married, and his ex-wife's nasty new husband Roy (Jason Lee) wants pay for it all and make Jimmy look bad.
So, to finance the nuptials and stick it to Roy, Jimmy decides to sell his extremely rare Andy Pafko baseball card, a priceless artifact that gets unfortunately stolen by Seann William Scott as a druggie street thief, and winds up in the hands of tantrum-throwing mucho-macho Mexican drug lord Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz), who's maybe been watching tapes of the Al Pacino Scarface.
Morgan seems licked before he starts. He no more looks or acts like a veteran cop here than Cop Out looks or acts like a real movie.
The Losers (C)
U.S.; Sylvain White, 2010, Warner
Bam! Crash! Pow! Clunk! Here we have another comic book movie, about five CIA ops who get double-crossed in Bolivia by their rat of a boss, a maniac who blows up a helicopter and kills 25 cute kids before their horrified eyes. Ostracized but enraged, the Losers, now angry outcasts, chase this fiend all the way from Bolivia through Texas and L.A. to Miami -- where all cliché hell breaks loose.
The fearsome fivesome are played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as lead honcho Clay, Idris Elba as Roque the troublemaker, Chris Evans as Jensen the jock, Columbus Short as Pooch the driver, and Oscar Jaenada as Cougar the sniper -- and they're assisted by svelte and deadly femme fatale Aisha (Zoe Saldana), the self-professed killer-cutie and ear collector. Aisha is some hot mama. She picks up Clay in a bar, goes back to his room and then beats the shit out of him and sets his room on fire.
Pretty soon Aisha has all the gang -- including grousing malcontent Roque -- on the trail of their duplicitous boss Max (Jason Patric, the best thing in the movie). Max is so crazy he kills people just for laughs, including the girl who carries his umbrella on the beach. And he's gotten his hands on some honest-to-God weapons of mass destruction, which makes him even more dangerous. What if Mad Max takes a dislike to some poor defenseless little city like Brussels? Or Dubuque? Or Santa Monica?
I'm not going to tell you anything more. But don't worry. No matter how hard you try, you can't possibly not guess what happens.
The Runaways (C)
U.S.; Floria Sigismondi, 2010, Sony
The Runaways struck me as a bummer, and it's a movie I guess I should have liked.
So, why didn't it slay me? Doesn't Runaways have all the right, rebellious stuff? An unvarnished, unwaxed, nitty-gritty-cinny-look at a famous girl-group rock 'n' roll crash-up of the '70s? Based on the story of the real-life Runaways, whose lead singer/front girl was Cherie Currie (later Jodie Foster's costar in Foxes) and whose guitarist/composer was none other than Joan Jett? Done in raw, on-the-edge, balls-out Cassavetes-verite style by Floria Sigismondi, a praised and very influential artist and rock video director (for David Bowie, Christine Aguilera and Marilyn Manson, among others)?
What else does it have? Real-life sex-drugs-and-rock 'n' roll fireworks. First-rate actors playing potentially meaty roles (including Kristen Stewart as rocker/guitar goddess Jett, Dakota Fanning as front-girl and later movie star Cherie Currie, and Michael Shannon as macho pig manager Kim Fowley). Knowingly skuzzy-looking art direction. Lots of Jett's and the band's scorching music, well-sung and well-performed by a mix of the actresses and Runaways tapes. Shouldn't this be a surefire winner?
Not with this script. Sigismondi and her cast get the look and some of the (musical) sound of the period, but not the feel, not the heart. She shows the Runaways as a talented bunch thrown together as would-be jail-bait rock icons by the trash-mouthed, dictatorial Fowley (a fiercely good performance by Shannon), and then shows them falling apart, as Cherie mostly ignores her dying alcoholic father (Brent Cullen) and overmatched mother (Tatum O'Neal), and takes a dive onto those omnipresent rock world demons: drugs, booze, orgies, egomania and bad management. Burnout City straight ahead. But the movie doesn't dig deep enough. It's a show that promises more than it delivers.
South Korea; Joon-Ho Bong, 2008, Image Entertainment
An excellent, highly praised murder mystery by Joon-Ho Bong, South Korean director of the equally excellent monster movie The Host. The superb lead performance is by Hye-Ja Kim as the mother of the title -- an underprivileged, poor but indomitable woman who mounts a determined crusade to exonerate her mentally challenged son, Yoon Do-Joon (Bin Wan), after he is accused and convicted of the murder of the city belle. It's another shocker, as good and gripping and sharply atmospheric as the current The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and possessed of a more deadly plausibility. You will not soon forget actress Kim as this movie's mother. And you shouldn't. In Korean, with English subtitles.