PICKS OF THE WEEK
Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music -- The Director's Cut (A)
U.S.; Michael Wadleigh, 1970-1994, Warner
Both a great rock concert movie and a superb documentary on youth culture in the Vietnam War Years, Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock -- shot at the legendary 1969 Aquarian gathering at Max Yasgur's farm at Bethel, N.Y. (not the nearby Woodstock) -- brings back the era and all its pot-fumed tenderness, horror, humor, beauty, ugliness, and glorious absurdities, as few other movies can.
Caught by the virtuoso wide-angle cameraman Wadleigh (along with many others) in amazing handheld widescreen images full of scope and seething with energy, and cut by editor/assistant director Martin Scorsese (and others) in vividly atmospheric sequences and evocative, witty, split-screen juxtapositions, the movie overwhelms you
The original three-day concert -- which wound up being one of rock history's great freebies, when the crowds, measuring a half million-plus, overflowed the ability to count or charge them ticket money -- is rendered with shocking, lyrical immediacy. Woodstock records both the amazing social extravaganza surrounding the music -- the gargantuan sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll community that descended on Yasgur's green farm fields, the bad trips and free food, the marijuana, nude romps and ubiquitous flashing peace signs, the ocean of communal feeling and occasional bummers -- and, of course, the memorable music itself.
David Gates' dyspeptic Time magazine anniversary cover story to the contrary, it was a terrific concert. (Gates seems angry not only at '60s youth culture in general, but that acts like Merle Haggard weren't on the bill. But you wouldn't expect the bard of "Okie from Muskogee" to have shown up in 1969 at Bethel, even if today, Haggard cheerfully will share a show with peacenik Bob Dylan.)
The original roster of acts in the 1970 movie included Crosby, Stills and Nash (ladling out, among others, Steve Stills' honeyed lyric to Judy Collins, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," plus, under the closing credits, Joni Mitchell's soaring anthem "Woodstock"), along with Jefferson Airplane, The Who ("See Me, Feel Me," the mesmerizing capper from Tommy), Richie Havens (the heartbreaking ballad "Motherless Child"), Joan Baez ( a hushed, reverent "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"), Santana (the fever-drenched "Black Magic Woman"), Sly & the Family Stone (Taking us higher, if possible), Joe Cocker (tearing out his classic version of "A Little Help from My Friends") and, as a blazing climax, guitar god Jimi Hendrix, with his legendary variations on "The Star Spangled Banner" (complete with sonic Hendrix booms on "rockets red glare" and "bombs bursting in air."
Over the years, the movie has picked up even more initially deleted musical high points, some not used in the original cut because of lesser picture quality (shot at night), like blues lady Janis Joplin's frenzied "Work Me, Lord") and, in the extras here, three performances by Creedence Clearwater Revival (including "Born on the Bayou") and one by the Grateful Dead ("Turn on Your Love Light"). (Extras: Deleted performances by Baez, Country Joe & the Fish, Santana, The Who, Joe Cocker, Mountain, Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield, and Sha Na Na, along with 15 featurettes and a documentary.)
Waltz with Bashir (A)
Israel/France; Ari Folman, 2008, Sony
Israeli director Ari Folman's incredible blend of memoir, animation and documentary, recalling Folman's real-life experience of the first Lebanon war, in cold-sweat, dreamlike images, a macabre and finally revelatory fantasy/detective story of marauding wolves, war, death and screaming victims.
Absolutely unique and unforgettable. Winner of the National Society of Film Critics' "best picture" award, and probably a contemporary classic. In Hebrew and English, with English subtitles. (Extras: Commentary by Folman; interview with Folman; featurettes.)
Last Year at Marienbad (A)
France; Alain Resnais, 1961, Criterion Collection
It begins with sonorous, trancelike, seemingly endless narration, laid over stunning black-and-white Vierny cinematography of a palatial hotel, whose seemingly endless corridors and baroque décor provide the narrator with his subject. Then it becomes briefly a highly stylized play put on in the hotel's ballroom and watched by the guests. Then begins an hour-and-a-half-long seduction in which a suave, relentless fashion plate called X (Giorgio Albertazzi) keeps trying to persuade the elegant wife, called A (Delphine Seyrig), of a saturnine, skeletal-faced rich guest named M (Sacha Pitoeff) that they met last year in Marienbad (or Frederiksbad, or wherever), and had an affair, and that now they should run off together. A doesn't remember, or says she doesn't, though the persistent X keeps pursuing her and repeating his tale, while the husband M keeps playing an addictive game in which rows of cards or matchsticks are laid on a table in four rows of 1, 3, 5 and 7 pieces, and the players each pick as many as they want from only one row, the objective being to avoid pulling the last match or card. The husband always wins. X, we suspect, will win at love.
I'm no fan of French nouveau roman novelist, Marienbad screenwriter and later filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet's writing -- which often seems to me fancy, empty and bloodlessly pretentious. But this movie, director Alain Resnais' second feature after the great Hiroshima, Mon Amour, still strikes me as some strange kind of masterpiece. It takes place in a spectacular German palace/spa, whose magnificent decor (recalling scenery from Kane's Xanadu grounds in Citizen Kane), shot by Sacha Vierny at three different hotels, provides a rich backdrop for the seduction. (Or is it really a reunion?). And the action, accompanied by classical-style organ chords, composed by actress Seyrig's brother Francis, when Olivier Messian turned down Resnais' first request), keeps unfolding like a recurring dream of romantic obsession. (Last Year at Marienbad was heavily influenced by Hitchcock's Vertigo, and Resnais even includes a parody of a Hitch cameo.)
The movie never even remotely seems real, except, oddly, when the characters are playing M's game. (It works by a simple numerical trick.) At one point, writer Robbe-Grillet insisted that X was lying to A, while director Resnais avowed that he was telling the truth. But, after all these decades, Marienbad -- which won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival -- retains its old hypnotic power, visual beauty and fascinating rhythms. (M - A = A + X.) And the secret of M's game? Well.... In French, with English subtitles. (Extras: two fine short documentaries by Resnais, Tout la Memoire du Monde and Le Chant du Styrene; documentary; audio interview with Resnais, video interview with Ginette Vincendeau; and booklet with Mark Polizzotti and Robbe-Grillet essays.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Jack Lemmon Film Collection (B)
U.S.; various directors, 1954-64, Columbia
He was such a nice guy his Hollywood nickname was "Saint Jack." He was such a great movie actor, that his knack for quicksilver emotions, and inimitable, rapid-fire, stammering delivery could make you laugh or cry. Whenever he started a scene, he always said off-camera, as an invocation, the phrase "Magic Time!" which was also the catch-phrase his classic alcoholic role Joe Gillis used when he raised a glass of liquor in Days of Wine and Roses. He never lost the knack, his audience or the magic: the incomparable farceur and irreplaceable tragedian Jack Lemmon.
Lemmon became one of the American movies' great star acting experts in either comedy (as the cross-dressing schmo of Some Like it Hot or the key-wise rising executive schmuck in The Apartment) and drama (as the tragic souse of Wine and Roses and the desperate American dad abroad of Missing). But he started as a comedy specialist, and this nifty Columbia collection, whose historical treasures belie the sometime mediocrity of the movies, lucidly records his rise from his first movie year (1954, the annum of Phffft! and of his first film, It Should Happen to You, which also should have been here), to the year he became the American movies' number one box-office draw (1964, which marked the release of his unlikely smash Good Neighbor Sam).
The directors here include the steady Val Lewton unit graduate Mark Robson, Lemmon's comedy buddy and wedding best man Richard Quine (who later committed suicide) and the mysterious David Swift, who rose from young phenom creating TV's Mr. Peepers and masterminding two Walt Disney Studio-Hayley Mills hits, Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, to guiding Lemmon to box office glory in the cheerfully lewd sex comedies Under the Yum Yum Tree, and Good Neighbor Sam, to all but vanishing.
But it doesn't matter who directed Lemmon, whether Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, Costa-Gavras or the smart group here. When Saint Jack was on screen, in darkness or in light, it was always "Magic Time!" (Extras: TV "Ford All-Star Theater" play Marriageable Male, an okay TV comedy, costarring Ida Lupino and directed by Ted Post; the documentary, Jack Lemmon, The Man Behind the Magic, narrated by son Chris Lemmon--the Jack-Clint Eastwood golf anecdote, is worth the admission; photo gallery; trailers.
U.S.; Mark Robson, 1954
A bright, sarcastic romantic comedy from sharp-witted writer George Axelrod, who unfortunately didn't get either Lemmon or (Wilder's first choice) Walter Matthau as the nebbish day-dreamer of an on-the-loose hubby for the movie of his big Broadway hit The Seven Year Itch (Broadway star Tom Ewell repeated his role), but gets both Lemmon and the great Judy Holliday here (plus Kim Novak at her sexiest and Jack Carson in a Carson-ish, Matthau-ish role) for this divorce romp. It's no The Awful Truth, but then, nothing is.
Operation Mad Ball (b)
U.S.; Richard Quine, 1957
Post-World War II European-based Yank soldiers execute the "maddest mad ball ever," under the nose of their stuffy superior (Ernie Kovacs). Lemmon is the main ball operator Hogan, Dick York (Bewitched) is his right hand, Mickey Rooney is a jazzbo impresario, Kathryn Grant is Hogan's would-be honey. Somehow, this is almost perfect of its kind, though its kind is tipsy-minded and slight. Co-written by Blake Edwards.
The Notorious Landlady (C+)
U.S.; Richard Quine, 1962
Quine and co-writers Edwards and Larry Gelbart try to pull off a Hitchcockian suspense comedy -- with Lemmon as a smitten American junior diplomatic guy, Fred Astaire as his exasperated superior, and Novak as his bombshell landlady, who may have murdered her missing husband. It's all trivial but likable, though the last seaside chase scene has a loony, intoxicated exuberance.
Under the Yum Yum Tree (C+)
U.S.; David Swift, 1963
Lemmon shows his lecherous side as yet another Hogan (was Hogan of Hogan's Heroes modeled on him?) in this bouncy adaptation of Lawrence Roman's leering sex comedy play about a notorious landlord and his bevy of sexy tenants, including academic ex Edie Adams and bossy student wife-to-be Carol Lynley, a persuasive beauty who persuades boyfriend Dean Jones to try sexless cohabitation as co-tenants. Unfortunately, their apartment is owned by Lemmon's sex-crazed Hogan, keeper of the keys and the idol of pricelessly swishy and leering maintenance man Paul Lynde and his prudish wife Imogene Coca.
Good Neighbor Sam (C+)
U.S.; David Swift, 1964
One of Lemmon's biggest '60s hits, now almost forgotten, is this romantic comedy about a straight arrow suburban advertising graphics family man chosen to head up a key campaign, because the client (Edward G. Robinson) is another prude, and Lemmon's Sam has to pretend that his wife's (Dorothy Provine) best friend next door (Romy Schneider at the peak of her European stardom) is actually his wife and that Romy's separated husband (Mike Connors) is Dorothy's spouse. Fun, ridiculous and very '60s TV-ish. (The gags include a parody of the old Hertz "Put you in the driver's seat" ads, complete with the Hi Los.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Confessions of a Shopaholic (C+)
U.S.; P.J. Hogan, 2009, Touchstone Home Entertainment
Shopaholic is all about a shop-crazy young writer-on-the-make named Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher). The writers (Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth and Kayla Albert, adapting Sophie Kinsella) have recognizable senses of humor. The whole thing, thanks probably to producer Jerry "Boom Boom" Bruckheimer, is really -- here's that word again -- slick. And fast. And often gorgeous. Most of all, Isla Fisher is some kind of screwball comedy heroine. Hubba-hubba-hubba. A sexy redhead with one of those warm, inviting smiles that tear you up (or tore me up) in the seventh grade, she's also really funny. She can be as loonily abandoned as Carole Lombard or Lucille Ball after a Jack Daniel's, and here she makes even the stupid gags work.
Fisher's Rebecca, courtesy of Kinsella's book (which was set in England), is a shopping addict who's also obsessed with getting a gig on Vogue-ish fashion magazine Alette, named for Queen of Chic Alette Naylor (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, sporting the French accent you usually only hear in her French films). Settling for a job on Successful Saving, edited by Luke Brandon, Becky becomes famous as the savings-savvy columnist "The Girl in the Green Scarf," while being pursued for credit card debt by the relentless nerd Derek Smeath (Robert Stanton).
There's a wedding, and a maid-of-honor crisis that's mercifully shorter than those ditzy Plaza nuptials in Bride Wars. And there are roles for John Goodman and Joan Cusack as Becky's parents, and John Lithgow as the magazine emperor. The whole movie isn't bad, but it whizzes by a little too fast. While you can't imagine a slow Jerry Bruckheimer film, a great (or very good) comedy luxuriates in its scenes more. IMDB says Isla Fisher is Sacha Baron Cohen's girlfriend. That may explain why she's so funny. In self-defense.
U.K.; Iain Softley, 2009, New Line
A movie for bookworms -- a group to which I'm proud to belong. This time the source is Cornelia Funke's bestselling German series: Another elaborate children's fantasy spectacular literary adaptation, in the Harry Potter mode. The show gives us nervous scholar Mortimer Folchart (Brendan Fraser), his adventurous young daughter Meggie (Elizabeth Hope Bennett), library-loving, acid-tongued Elinor (Helen Mirren), dotty author Jim Broadbent and a raft of characters who come out of Broadbent's book, including arch-villain Capricorn (Andy Serkis) and hysterical Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), who all came pouring out of a book that Mo had the misfortune to read 10 years ago. Explanation: Mo is a Silvertongue, which means that when he reads a book, he can unintentionally bring the characters to life. (Hollywood could use him.) He can also unintentionally send real people into the books, the unfortunate fate of his wife.
Iain Softley was better with the Beatles (Backbeat) and Henry James (The Wings of the Dove) than he is with Funke. But, since the movie has been given a full Brit all-star treatment, it's an okay classy entertainment. If you want to see a non-trollish Serkis delivering lizard-cold villainy, Inkheart is the place to go.
The Pink Panther 2 (C)
U.S.; Harald Zwart, 2009, MGM
Peter Sellers is dead -- and The Pink Panther 2 doesn't dig him up. I'm not sure why Steve Martin wants to revive Sellers' great buffoon Inspector Jacques Clouseau so badly, but this movie is no better than his first Pink Panther remake.
The director is Harald Zwart, the Norwegian soccer enthusiast who also made One Night at McCool's, but this isn't his plate of lutefisk. The cast is wasted. Jean Reno is back as sidekick Ponton. Emily Mortimer is back as Clouseau's adorer Nicole, and Lily Tomlin tosses in a few smirks as Mrs. Berenger. Jeremy Irons, looking for a Brideshead to revisit, is the mournful-looking heavy Avellanado, involved in Pink Panther diamond chicanery. Clouseau's rival detectives and experts -- all hired to find the missing Panther -- include Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, and the Bollywood Bombshell, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Kevin Kline has deserted the role of Chief Inspector Dreyfus, and he's been replaced by John Cleese. (Not bad, but what about Richard Dreyfuss? Imagine his double-takes whenever anybody calls for "Inspector Dreyfus.")
The problem with Martin's take on Clouseau is that Martin's a much nicer guy, not as much of a pretentious fool, and he doesn't get that look of insane preoccupation on his face that Sellers got so perfectly. Nor does he have enough idiotic catch-phrases and outrageous mispronunciations. How about: "I am Clouseau! I am here to find my jewels and seize the malefactors! Beware, criminals and cretines, you have met your matches!" Blake Edwards, come home.