PICKS OF THE WEEK
When You're Strange (A-)
U.S.; Tom DiCillo, 2010, Eagle Rock Entertainment
The Doors' story -- keying on Morrison's sad, indulgent rise and fall -- is one of the great show-biz cautionary chronicles, and it's very well-told here. This is one of the best of all rock movies -- a mix of wonderful songs and performances ("Light My Fire," "Break on Through," "L.A. Woman," "The Crystal Ship," "When the Music's Over," "The End" "Five to One" and many others), with incredible concert and backstage footage, plus a good chunk of an "Easy Rider" style experimental fiction film starring Morrison, mostly shot by Morrison's UCLA filmmaking friend Paul Ferrara, and all of it narrated by Doors admirer Johnny Depp.
This movie rocks. Among other things, it convinced me that Morrison's infamous "indecent exposure" at the Miami concert probably never happened and that his alleged feigned onstage fellatio on band mate Robby Krieger was a crock too. Though Morrison did kneel down in the show before his blazing lead guitarist, he's clearly looking spellbound at Krieger's hot guitar licks, not trying to theatrically fake a blow job. If you see something else, it's probably wishful thinking.
The three surviving Doors -- keyboardist-composer Ray Manzarek, guitarist-composer Krieger and drummer John Densmore -- obviously didn't want to make a conventional archival/talking heads concert doc and they've made the decision (mistakenly I think) to include no new footage or interviews. Wrong as I think that choice was -- I want to know what they all have to say now and I'm sure lots of others do too -- it does give the movie more of a time-capsule feel.
The movie beguiles and scares you, just as The Doors did when "Light My Fire" appeared on jukeboxes and radio in 1967.
Iran; Abbas Kiarostami, 1990, Criterion
The modern movie classics of Iran pose a fascinating problem. How can a country suffering under a dictatorship and theocracy, run by a regime seemingly hellbent on becoming a nuclear power and repressing its own citizens, and with a government censorious and hostile to some of its finest film artists, also be the site of one of the great humanist cinema traditions in today's international film scene?
Two names help supply the answer: Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf are two cineastes who have won multiple prizes and massive praise on the international film festival circuit for superb works like And Life Goes on, Under the Cherry Tree and The Wind Will carry Us (all Kiariostami) and Gabbeh, Marriage of the Blessed and Kandahar (Makhmalbaf). They are also, respectively, the director and one of the main subjects of Close-Up, a film universally regarded as one of the masterworks of Iranian cinema, and also selected by a world critics' poll in the major Iranian cinema journal Film International as the greatest Iranian film ever made.
Close-Up came about when Kiarostami read an article about a young man, Hossein Abzian, a poor printshop worker who bore a slight resemblance to Makhmalbaf, and who had been arrested for impersonating the filmmaker to an affluent Tehran family, the Ahankhahs. Abzian had persuaded the family that he wanted to use them in his next film project, and visited them on several occasions, preparing his "film." But the father, Abolfanzi Ahaknhah, had become suspicious, and called in the police and a magazine reporter, Hassan Farazmand, who knew Makhmalbaf. Farazmand fingered Anzian as an impostor.
Remarkably, Kiarostami then persuaded the Ahankhahs, Sabzian, Sabzian's mother, Farazmand, and Makhmalbaf all to play themselves in the movie he eventually called Close-Up -- and he also convinced the judge at Sabzian's hearing to cooperate with the filming, even to allowing Kiarostami himself to interrogate the accused on camera. So, part of Close-Up is a conventional (or semi-conventional) documentary, with Kiarostami photographing and recording the trial and other contemporary events in real time. And part of it is a re-creation of the earlier events, with all of the principals playing themselves and repeating for the camera what they actually did in life.
Four things emerge almost immediately from Close-Up's bizarre yet poetic restaging of the case. One: However it was created, Kiarostami's movie becomes a powerful slice of life and a wounding portrayal of the perversions and injustices of society and class, even though the Ahankhahs are essentially decent people, the judge a compassionate man, and Sabzian, at least on some level, a con artist.
Two: Sabzian himself is a great camera subject and natural film actor whose melancholy visage and quiet eloquence hold Kiarostami's camera lens like a vise -- something that makes all the sadder Sabzian's eventual fate, which we learn on one of this DVD's extras, a 1996 documentary called Close-Up Long Shot. The original movie ends more happily -- as happily, in fact, as Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf could contrive it.
Three: Art can be a great solace, especially for the underprivileged. At one point, Sabzian compares himself to the protagonist of Kiarostami's 1974 classic, The Traveler -- a young boy desperately trying, by hook or crook, to get to a Tehran soccer match. But it can also be a trap.
Four: We should always be wary of media and alert to its viewpoints and biases, something Kiarostami signals in the very first scene, when reporter Farazmand deliberately plays himself as an opportunist out for his own career. We should be aware of media's shortcomings too, something driven home when Kiarostami's sound equipment fails as Sabzian hops a morotrcyle ride, and the director lets the camera run.
This movie, the direct opposite of the blockbuster major studio cinema that now dominates America, is both transfixing and haunting -- as real-looking as a home movie, as humane as an Italian neorealist classic, as artful as a classic Dutch painting, as complex as a maze. Watching it, we know why the Iranian government became so fearful or angry at Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (a protegee and ex-cameraman of Kiarostami's) that they recently locked him up, and why the world cinema community became so disturbed and so united by this vile action, that they were able to help get Panahi freed. There is life and there is cinema, and Abbas Kiarostami, along with Mohsen Machmalbaf -- and even in their way, Sabzian and the Ahankhahs -- beautifully fuse the two. (In Persian with English subtitles.) (Extras: Kiarostami's 1974 film The Traveler; Commentary on Close-Up by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed Vafa; video interview with Kiarostami; documentary Close-Up Long Shot on Sabzian; documentary A Walk with Kiarostami by Jahrnsheed Akrami; booklet with Godfrey Cheshire essay.
Everlasting Moments (A)
Sweden; Jan Troell, 2008, Image Entertainment
If you're discouraged about the kind of movies most readily available in the theaters and video stores, if you think the pickings look pretty lean for something good and adult and intelligent -- and they often are -- you should be advised that there's one definite four-star movie this week: Jan Troell's beautiful Swedish period film, Everlasting Moments. Based on Troell's wife's family history, it's about a working-class woman named Maria in 1900s Sweden, who, despite a troubled home life, shows improbable brilliance as a photographer.
Troell, the director of the great epic two-part film about Swedish immigration to the American Midwest in the 1900s, The Emigrants and The New Land), with Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann) is a strong admirer of both Ingmar Bergman and John Ford, and he's worthy of them both in Everlasting Moments. The acting is superb (especially by Maria Heiskanen as namesake Maria, Mikhail Persbrandt as her genial but abusive husband, and Jesper Christensen as her kind but reticent photographer/mentor). The direction and cinematography (both by Troell) are magnificent, and the story is deeply moving.
Moments is a great film from a great filmmaker. Some of the new releases this week make you wonder how movies could sink so low; this one makes you fell joyous that they can rise so high.
Red Desert (A)
Italy; Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964, Criterion
Michelangelo Antonioni's first feature in color, a landmark of '60s Italian cinema, is a hypnotic portrait of a neurotic woman, Guiliana (played by the director's then muse/lover, Monica Vitti), whose psyche begins to disintegrate in the bleak terrain of the petrochemical plant where her husband is the manager, even as she tries to care for her mysteriously ill little son and also takes a lover, Corrado (Richard Harris). That plant, Antonioni insists, is a thing of beauty. (It was shot in Northern Italy in Ravenna, Antonioni's childhood hometown.) But it's also symbol of a modernist age that drives sensitive souls like Guilinana toward breakdown.
Red Desert, like the four great black-and white Antonioni films that preceded it, Il Grido (1957), L'Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L'Eclisse (1962), and the three English-language color movies that followed it, Blowup (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970) and The Passenger (1975), is visually stunning and dramatically somewhat terse and cryptic. The cool, precise compositions were influenced by the early color films of Godard and Resnais, and somewhat by contemporary abstract painting by artists like Rothko and Newman. The score balances nerve-jangling electronic music and achingly pure soprano arias by Giovanni Fusco. The acting alternates the poker-faced (Harris) with the anguished (Vitti). The film is a modernist classic about the danghers of modernism.
The movie, like all the best Antonioni, compels the eye, and disturbs the mind while delicately fraying the nerves. The showpiece scenes are a not-quite-orgy (an echo of the more unbuttoned orgies in Fellini's La Dolce Vita) in a fogbound shack near the lake, with Guiliana, her husband, her lover-to-be and their friends, and a lyrical dream/child's story sequence set on a private island with a gorgeous beach. Interestingly, Antonioni manipulated the colors (even to painting the grass and trees) in the factory scenes, while the dream island sequence is the only one in the movie done with all natural colors. The film fills you with beautiful unease and cold poetry. (In Italian, with English subtitles.) (Extras: Antonioni's two short documentaries, 1947's "People of the Po" and 1948's "N.U."; commentary by David Forgacs; interviews with Antonioni and Vitti; dailies from Red Desert; trailer; booklet with essay by Mark Le Fanu, writings by Antonioni, and a 1964 interview with Antonioni by Jean-Luc Godard.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (B-)
U.S.; Chris Columbus, 2009, 20th Century Fox
Based on a popular children's literature series, Rick Riordan's tales of the old Olympian gods of The Iliad and The Odyssey, mixing it in with modern kids -- the tortuously titled Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is filmed by old Potter-maker Chris Columbus with lots of great effects.
Columbus also has three cute stars -- Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, and Alexandra Daddario -- as Percy Jackson and his buddies, goat-footed Grover and Athena-daughter Annabeth. They're three star students and/or guards at the local mythological-heroes-and-heroines school (cheaper-looking than Hogwarts, which shows, I guess, that wizards and witches outrank gods). One of the school's major attractions: a horse's hindquarters sticking out of Pierce Brosnan, who takes on another possible franchise role as Chiron the Centaur, mythological hero-beast, with a license to trot.
Percy, the product of inter-human-and-deity sex between his mom Sally (Catherine Keener) and the watery gent Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), has been falsely accused of lightning thievery from Dr. Zeus (Sean Bean). And Sally has been kidnapped by Hades, after being so pissed off at her mistreatment by absent god Poseidon that she took up instead, unwisely, with Joe Pantoliano as Gabe Ulgliano, more proof that Memento remains Joe P.'s best role.
Now, Perseus/Percy has to travel cross country and into Hell itself, without a Southwest Airlines ticket, but with the invaluable aid of Grover and Alexandra, and with a magical shield Percy got from a sneaky-looking fellow god-bastard: Jake Abel as Luke, said to be the son of that old devil Hades, but looking more like the clone of Hugh Grant and James Spader. The mythical teen trio embark on their quest to save the world from Hades (played hellishly by Steve Coogan). Lurking around are Medusa (played with an icy stare and snaky locks by Uma "Puma" Thurman), Persephone (Rosario Dawson in a wicked mood) and other mythological all-stars, including the Lotus Eaters of Las Vegas. Will they save the world? Wasn't that settled in 2012?
Hot Tub Time Machine (C)
U.S.; Steve Pink, 2009, MGM
Hot Tub Time Machine -- a silly title for a movie that often lives up to it -- is a blowzy, bathroom-minded sci-fi sex comedy about three discontented buddies, sick of their current 2010 lives, who are suddenly reminded of mortality by the near-suicide of one of their number, who then try to cure his blues and relive their '80s youth by going on an old-fashioned horny, boozy, orgiastic ski lodge vacation together. Fate, a hot tub and Chevy Chase all intervene. And instead, they accidentally go back in time to a crucial weekend in 1986, where they get a chance to mess up all over again.
It's a sometimes funny show with a good cast and a bad high concept. As wish fulfillment, I thought it was a bust. Who wants to go back to the '80s, a lousy decade for movies, for pop music, and for politics? And especially if, as happens here for a while, the guys are supposed to do everything exactly the same way they did it the first time around, in order to keep from screwing up their chances to get back.
Who gets nostalgic for the '80s? Well, somebody who was young in the '80s, natch -- like star-co-producer John Cusack (Say Anything...), or supporting actor Crispin Glover, who was Michael J. Fox's dad in Back to the Future. The hot tubbers are played by a talented trio, headed by Cusack as would-be writer turned frustrated insurance salesman Adam (he gets off a good, nasty anti-insurance gag line), Craig Robinson as would-be rocker turned henpecked hubby Nick, and Rob Corddry as Lou, would-be party guy turned lonely self-destructive wreck.
This movie -- directed by Steve Pink (who wrote one of Cusack's best movies, Grosse Point Blank) and co-scripted by Sean Anders and John Morris (who wrote Sex Drive and She's Out of Your League) -- has some funny moments. Moments, I said. Too often, the jokes are sloppily done, swimming in lazy shtick, and slimed over with the kind of calculated bad taste comedy that gives bathroom humor a bad name.
Everything that happens in Hot Tub, in the past, present, or (probably) future, is pretty damned dumb. I'll give the movie one thing, though. It's better than Hollywood Hot Tubs, which was a real '80s movie.
The Crazies (D+)
U.S.; Breck Eisner, 2010, Overture Films/Anchor Bay Entertainment
Halfway through The Crazies, a remake of George Romero' 1973 horror move about a town running amok after their water supply is poisoned by an insanity-inducing virus, I made a little mental note to myself : "Mention that this movie would have been much better if they had just rehired Romero, and given him even half the budget."
Unfortunately, as the credits eventually informed me, Romero himself is the executive producer of the new Crazies, and thus bears part of the blame for this gory, pointless, sometimes dumbly exciting movie. The premise seems like it should work: Midwestern farmers and townspeople go homicidal, while the U.S. government shuts down their town, guards wander around in anti-contamination suits, and sheriff Dave and his doctor wife Judy (Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell) and faithful deputy Russ (Joe Anderson) try to escape and make it to Cedar Rapids before a bomb drops.
This movie gave me no pleasure. Defying expectations, I wasn't even scared much, except maybe when Johnny Cash started singing that Dr. Strangelove end-of-the-world anthem, "We'll Meet Again" ("Don't know where, don't know when"). I can't fathom Romero's creative involvement here, unless the functions of an executive producer have now devolved to be no more important than the guy who brings the coffee, or the person responsible for the bad lighting, pustule-placement and pitchfork impalement insurance. Romero certainly seems to have let director Breck Eisner mess it up pretty well on his own.
The Eclipse (B-)
U.K.; Conor McPherson, 2009, Treasure Entertainment
The Eclipse is another high-end, brainier-than-usual erotic thriller, this time with supernatural undercurrents: better-written than Chloe (by prize-winning playwright Conor McPherson), almost as well acted, but not as well directed (by McPherson again). The setting is quite unusual and very well done: a book festival on ocean-whipped Cobb, Ireland, with Ciaran Hinds as Michael Farr, a bookish man and father whose life is becoming oddly haunted, and who works as a driver for the festival author-guests.
Aidan Quinn and Iben Hjejle play two of his riders, successful authors confused and unsettled in their lives, ex-lovers who perhaps don't love literature as much as their driver. They're all good, and Quinn seems to revel in the nastier, crueler, more selfish-than-usual aspects of his role. He makes us hate Nicholas Holden, and he's right on.
The Maid (B)
Chile; 2009, Sebastian Silva, Oscilloscope
This deservedly well-praised thriller/family drama from Chile, about long-faithful live-in maid Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), now fortyish and ill, who begins to go bonkers when her well-meaning employers bring in new servants to help her -- won two prizes at Sundance, and seems a dead cinch for a well-meaning American remake.
But I bet it won't work. Reasons: though I'm sure Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon are floating around in some well-meaning employers' minds, they're unlikely to get as perfect a cast as this one (Saavedra, Claudia Celadon as employer Pilar, Mariana Loyola as the new girl). And modern U.S. moviemakers are often weak on class-saturated stories, which they seem to think should either be Cinderella, Mean Streets or Revenge of the Nerds." Stick with this one, which you'll enjoy, and let the writers create good original locally inspired stuff for Streep or Sarandon. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.) (Extras: featurettes; photos by Silva.)