PICKS OF THE WEEK
Winter's Bone (A-)
U.S.; Debra Granik, 2010, Lionsgate
Set in the backwoods, adapted by writer director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone) from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, this is the harsh-edged, heartfelt story of a 17-year-old girl, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who sees her fragile family begin to crumble when her dad disappears, forfeiting the bond pledged for his court appearance. This may mean the sacrifice of the home where Ree Dolly lives with her mom and two younger siblings -- where she's had to become head of the house by default. The world around her, which she begins exploring further in search of her dad or his corpse, is scary at hell but totally convincing, run by drug-cookers and dealers who've seemingly slipped into the shoes of the old bootleggers.
This is exactly the kind of film more American moviemakers should be trying to make: low-to-medium budget, on location, well-written, well-acted, and a mirror of the world around it. Winter's Bone is in the vein of last year's excellent regional indie Ballast. The photography (Michael McDonough) is chilly and evocative. The acting (John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Shelly Waggener, Valerie Richards and the rest) is near-flawless. The music and songs weep.
I'd call this movie a masterpiece but the ending seems to me a slight letdown -- even though it's what I wanted to see. I don't have any doubt though that Granik will make great films some day, and that maybe Lawrence will act in them.
The Maltese Falcon (A)
U.S.; John Huston, 1941, Warner Bros., Blu-ray
Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon was one of the first detective novels to be regarded as literature by serious critics. And the book's terse hard-bitten, coolly realistic portrait of a working private eye, Hammett's immortal hard-boiled Frisco sleuth Sam Spade, set the mold and the standard for years to come.
But The Maltese Falcon seemed to defy all attempts at cinematic adaptation until it finally found a writer-director, 35-year-old John Huston, who treated Hammett's writing as literature and the book as a classic-to-be. The result: an inarguable movie milestone and one of the great detective films of all time.
Huston, a playwright, reporter, fiction writer and first-rate screenwriter himself, was one cineaste who respected good writing. So he basically filmed the book, keeping the story and the dialogue as is, while devising (with cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who'd shot most of Doug Fairbanks Sr.'s movies, and also Sergeant York, and later, Casablanca) a visual approach and design that fit Hammett and Spade to a dark "T."
Taking their cues from Hammett's hard-edged prose, Huston and Edeson created an onscreen shadowy world of shamus' offices, dark streets with accumulating corpses, bare sinister hotel rooms full of gumshoes and gunsels, fat men and femme fatales, effeminate Levantines and bullying cops, of viewpoints tilted and askew and drenched in shadows and darkness, and of bad, immoral people or dubious characters (see all the above) poking their heads into the frame to eyeball each other, trying to sniff out the whereabouts of the jewel-encrusted, murderously valuable Maltese Falcon.
Huston cast the film perfectly, picking all the right actors for all those "wrong" people. Mary Astor oozes nervous pulchritude ("She's a knockout," says Spade's savvy secretary Effie), phony innocence, lying bitchery and utter heartlessness as Brigid O'Shaugnessy, the bad noir gal who hires Spade and sets the trap in motion. Peter Lorre, the great madman of Fritz Lang's M, swishes evilly, creepily and often hysterically as the perfumed, cane-wielding little rat Joel Cairo.
Find me two better flatfeet, the good cop and the bad cop, than Ward Bond's Polhaus and Barton MacLane's Dundy. Find me a better sleazy weasel of a partner for Spade than Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer. Or a better sex-crazed, weepy wife for Miles than Gladys George's Iva. Or a better Girl Friday secretary for Spade than Lee Patrick's expert Effie. Or a spookier, more boyishly pathetic gunsel than that top-of-the-line little hard guy Wilmer Cook, as incarnated by that other Cook: Elisha, Jr.
And if you think the actor ever lived who could have topped Sydney Greenstreet (making his film debut) as the Falcon's indefatigable, jovial, relentless pursuer, that compulsive talker and book-reader, the fat man, Caspar Gutman -- if you think that anyone living or dead could have conjured up a better sinister smile, or captured quite that quiet baleful-eyed once-over he gives Spade, or that wicked hiccuping laugh, or those chubby cheeks and cold eyes, or spewed more genially malevolent chit chat ("By gad, sir, you're the man for me... I'm a man who likes to talk to a man who likes to talk!") Well, all I can say is: You're dreaming, my friend, dreaming.
Bogart's Sam Spade is one of the all-time great Hollywood lead acting jobs: perfectly shaped, articulated and executed. With that vicious grin, that mean twitch of a lip, that sullen stare, and those matchlessly insolent wisecracks, all punch-lined by Max Steiner's smashing, crashing score, Bogart's Spade is the ultimate good bad guy, or bad good guy.
Spade, modeled by Hammett on his own career as a Pinkerton detective, is totally believable as a first-tier shamus, a smart aleck supreme, and a walker on the mean streets. And when he clutches the phony falcon to his chest and tells Ward Bond that it's "the stuff that dreams are made of," he opens up the door to the high-style movie world of bad dreams and great shots, the world of noir. Nobody can ever close it. (Extras: commentary by Eric Lax; featurettes: Warners 1941 blooper reel; three radio versions, two of The Maltese Falcon, two with Bogie, one with Edward G. Robinson; 1941 trailers; makeup tests; Warner Night at the Movies, with 1941 newsreel, musical short, two Looney Tunes, and trailers for all three movie versions of The Maltese Falcon.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Sex and the City: The Complete Collection (A-)
U.S.; Michael Patrick King, 2010, HBO Home Video
Hit TV shows take on a life of their own, and that's certainly true of Sex and the City. The single-girls-in-Manhattan sex-comedy series starring Sarah Jessica Parker and her three pals (Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon), is a show that, in six years on HBO (1998-2004), became a national TV fixture, a primo contemporary New York City fairytale and a fashionista's paradise. This lush, luscious, snappy set gives you all of it.
The series, which originated when creator-producer Darren Star, of Melrose Place, decided to adapt Candace Bushnell's autobiographical New York Observer columns about an unattached female's urban fun-life, belongs in a time-honored sexy movie tradition, the girls-on-a-spree film. But one of the new wrinkles in the TV Sex was the fact that this show not only gave us ladies who talked about man-hunting and sex, but also occasionally showed them doing it -- besides shooting on location and using all kinds of snazzy details, new clothes and contemporary references to keep things funny and au courant.
Sex's huge national audience followed tell-all writer Carrie Bradshaw (Parker), lusty good-time gal Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), prim and preppy Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and often-angry lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), though six years of career triumphs, epic fashion-shopping sprees and romantic adventures and misadventures. And we left them, in the 2004 finale ("An American Girl in Paris, Parts Une et Deux"), with the four men who finally outlasted everybody else in the race: Samantha's studly movie star client Smith Jerrod (Jason Lewis), Charlotte's jolly divorce lawyer hubby Harry (Evan Handler), Miranda's nice guy mate Steve Brady (David Eigenberg) and Carrie's somewhat tarnished and hard-to-nail-down Prince Charming, Mr. Big (Chris Noth).
It was fun while it lasted. If you've got a girlfriend or a galpal who loves the show -- and chances are you do -- this may be a perfect Christmas present. At least, it'll save you the pain of watching the newest Sex and the City movie.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Sex and the City 2 (D+)
U.S.; Michael Patrick King, 2010, New Line Home Video
Even for long-term fans of the long-running classic TV show about four smart, sexy, rising gal pals in Manhattan, the latest reunion of Sarah Jessica Parker's hip writer and fashionista Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), and her front row friends, lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), good wife Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and ever-horny publicist Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) -- may seem sheer perversity.
So why all the brickbats? After all, it's just another look at Carrie's latest problems with her elusive now-husband Mr. Big (Chris Noth), Miranda's career troubles, Charlotte's motherhood issues, and the now fifty-something Samantha's propensity for pulling off her panties (or ignoring them altogether) at the drop of a zipper -- climaxing in the quartet's improbable all-gal-pals vacation in the emirate of Abu Dhabi in $22,000-a-day suites.
It's a sequel that's a modern attempt at a glamour-drenched screwball comedy, mixed with tartly realistic observations on female friendship. It has some bubbly comic scenes and snappy byplay among the longtime cast-mates. I've seen worse. Much worse. But I've seen better. Much, much better.
The post-crash era is not as kind to the delights of conspicuous consumption as the pre-crash Clinton-Bush years, when Sex and Carrie thrived. To celebrate so swooningly the dreamy world of upper-class Manhattan chic and the delights of the shop-aholic world, in the face of economic disaster and hard times, seems increasingly callous.
Unlike the TV show, the movie is explicit in a forced way. There's lots of female cleavage, it's true. But it has so much leering beefcake, so many prancing hunks, and so many shots of bulging erections, that you keep wondering where the Carrie squad's fantasies leave off and where (the absent) Stanford and Anthony's may begin. (After all, the story would make more sense if it were four gay male friends in their 40s and 50s going to Abu Dahbi rather than four women, three of whom are married.)
Political correctness takes a hit in the portrayal of the repressive Arab culture -- though in fact, the treatment of women in countries like the emirate is bad, worthy of even comical criticism. Even so, having the quartet blast out an karaoke version of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" at an Abu Dahbi club, to the wild applause of the belly dancers, isn't as empowering as it may have seemed on paper.
Knock on Wood (B)
U.S.; Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, 1954, Olive
Danny Kaye, supported by Bob Hope team writer-directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, plus patter-songs and romantic ballads by his then-wife, Sylvia Fine, plays star entertainer/ventriloquist Jerry Morgan, whose acid-tongued dummy Clarence keeps messing up his love life. While performing in London, and losing another fiancé to his alter-ego's wise-cracks and insults, Danny gets involved with competing teams of spies, both after some microfilm defense plans which end up in two versions of his dummy, Clarence and Terrence. Chaos and nonsense, with both Clarence and Terrence, ensue, and soon Jerry (or Danny) has spies dropping dead all around him.
Mai Zetterling, a Swedish Ingmar Bergman actress, and later an art-film director herself, plays the woman analyst who turns Danny into a prat-falling, gibbering, seat-belt-entangled fool. That excellent but little-used (in movies) actor David Burns is Danny's Jewish mother of a manager. And Torin Thatcher is the most snobbishly satanic of the spies.
This is a good comedy with a few terrific scenes (Danny and Mai tangled up on the plane, the scene where Danny gets trapped onstage in a classical Russian ballet). But it has the seed of something great.
Toward the end of the movie, Danny spouts a little of his usual nonsense patter about the various criss-crossing spies, going (I think): "There was Gromeck and Brodnik and Shostic and Papinek. When Gromeck met Papinek...." It's not much, but the next time Panama, Frank and Kaye got together, in 1956's The Court Jester, the star and writers let their imaginations run wild in the same direction and devised that classic tongue-twister "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle." (Or the flagon with a dragon.)