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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Wilmington on DVD: The sun sets on the British Empire
David Lean, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Adams Chronicles
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A DELUGE OF DAVID LEAN

Lawrence of Arabia (Collector's Edition) (A)
U.S.-U.K.; David Lean, 1962, Columbia/TriStar

This classic stars Peter O'Toole as warrior-poet T.E. Lawrence in one of the screen's really magnificent historical adventure epics, so beautifully photographed on Middle Eastern desert locations that it always seems a shame to see it on TV rather than in its original 70 millimeter widescreen theater presentation. It's also brilliantly written (by the credited Robert Bolt and the uncredited Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman) and splendidly acted, by a cast that includes Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tavi ("I am a river to my people!"), Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal, Jack Hawkins as Gen. George Allenby, Arthur Kennedy as newsman Lowell Thomas, Jose Ferrer as the Turkish Bey and, in his starmaking performance as Lawrence's warrior friend Sharif Ali, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.

One of the most impressive things about Lawrence is its physical spectacle. Shot over several years by the nonpareil cinematographers Freddie Young and second unit man Nic Roeg on burning sandy landscapes that remind you of John Ford's Monument Valley, they are probably unrepeatable today. But the film also has riveting dramatic force. Lawrence bares his psychological wounds as provocatively as he flaunts his reckless courage, and O'Toole, in the performance he never surpassed, catches both the majesty and the destructive egoism.

As a teenager in a small town, this was one of the movies I really loved; the others were Vertigo, North by Northwest, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, The Quiet Man and Citizen Kane. It is also the greatest film of the year that, even more than the much-vaunted 1939, strikes me as the world cinema's best: 1962.


The Bridge on the River Kwai (A)
U.S.; David Lean, 1957, Columbia/TriStar

Lean's great World War II epic, from Pierre Boulle's novel about a company of British prisoners of war, under the command of the stiff-upper-lip, unconquerable Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and their Japanese captor, Col, Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who construct a bridge in the Burma jungle even as a squad of commandos, including William Holden and Jack Hawkins, are on their way to blow it up.

Romantic and violent, it was written (without credit) by blacklist victims Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. This movie's famous theme song, "The Colonel Bogey March," has hilariously obscene original lyrics about the sexual endowments of famous Nazis that I can't repeat here -- unless I'm coaxed.


A Passage to India (B)
U.S.-U.K.; David Lean, 1984, Sony
Absent from the screen for years, Lean returned with this precise, stylish adaptation of E.M. Forster's great novel about racial and cultural clashes in the British Empire's India, with Victor Bannerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, Saeed Jaffrey and Lean's touchstone actor, Alec Guinness. It's a good film, though I would have preferred to see Lean's aborted or abandoned versions of The Bounty (eventually done by Roger Donaldson) and Nostromo. Ironically, considering that A Passage to India was obviously the film that the Merchant-Ivory team was born to make, the success of Lean's Passage probably helped the duo finance their 1985 movie of Forster's A Room with a View, which made them star filmmakers.


CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (B+)
U.S.; Sidney Lumet, 2007, ThinkFilm

Two brothers, one seemingly successful, slick and amoral (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, at his best), one a likable failure (Ethan Hawke) try to pull off a heist that involves their own father (Albert Finney) and his strip mall jewelry story. Predictably, it blows up in their faces. What you might not predict though is the extraordinary quality of this little neo-noir, extending from the sharp writing (first-timer Kelly Masterson), through the flawlessly controlled direction by Sidney Lumet, to the super-fine work top to bottom of its exceptional cast, including Rosemary Harris, Amy Ryan, Brian F. O'Byrne and Marisa Tomei.

Lumet, now 83, is the great survivor of his own special '60s TV-to-movies generation, a group that included John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn, Robert Mulligan, Franklin Schaffner and Sam Peckinpah. Lumet was the most prolific of the bunch; now he's proved the most enduring as well. Always a brilliant director of actors and an underrated visual stylist and, from his now-classic 1957 debut 12 Angry Men through Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Pawnbroker, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, and The Verdict to Before the Devil, he's also been a rigorous dramatist of human conflicts, moral dilemmas and the plight of the outsider.

Lumet, right after Elia Kazan, was always the man you wanted on board for superior theater scripts (O'Neill, Williams, Miller, Chekhov, etc.) and no one, not even Scorsese or Spike Lee, is better at New York City scenes. Devil is, deservedly, his most critically successful movie in years, and deserves it, but he's never sloughed off or slackened, even when his material was impossible (1993's Guilty as Sin). If he were a youngster starting off with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, we'd probably all be hailing his promise and predicting a long, splendid career for him. He's already had one, but this bleak, lacerating thriller marks one more medal for a master.


Blast of Silence (B+)
U.S.; Allen Baron, 1961, Criterion
A solemn, almost silent hit man named Frank Bono arrives in New York City -- traveling through a black train tunnel that's compared by the film's narrator to a womb -- to take out a mafia guy. We follow the killer for several days through a bleak urban milieu of cold streets and colder people to an icy climax. It's a terrific little sleeper and a genuine '60s noir that was shot for $28,000 on location and then forgotten.

The director-cowriter, Allen Baron, also played Bono when his first choice, Peter Falk, dropped out to take his eventually Oscar-nominated role in Murder, Inc. Baron later directed three more low-budgeters and spent the rest of his career in series TV, helming shows like Charlie's Angels, The Dukes of Hazzard and (a better match) Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Blast of Silence's narration, unashamedly arty and existential, was written and spoken by two blacklist victims, Waldo Salt and (uncredited) Lionel Stander, and it's a large part of what makes this brainy little thriller so chilling and memorable. If you love noir, don't think twice. Buy or rent this one. (Extras: Documentary Requiem for a Killer, on-set Polaroid shots, booklet with an excellent Terrence Rafferty essay and a graphic novel adaptation of Blast of Silence by Sean Phillips)


BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK

The Adams Chronicles (B+)
U.S.; various directors, 1976, Acorn Media

In its day, this 13-hour PBS series on America's patricians of liberty, the Adams family -- created by series producer Virginia Kassel and broadcast during the American bicentennial -- was hailed as the finest production in the history of public television. It doesn't look that high on the scale today -- the visual style mostly has the flat, taped look of much TV drama from the '50s through the '70s -- but it's still an extraordinarily ambitious and often successful effort.

The 13 episodes, drawn from the Adams families voluminous journals and letters (which often form the drama's narration), carry the clan from their prickly forebear John Adams (George Grizzard) and his hard-pressed but steadfast wife Abigail (Kathryn Walker), through the indomitable president-to-congressman John Quincy Adams (David Birney and William Daniels), through Democracy writer Henry Adams (Peter Brandon) and the two Charles Francis Adamses, ambassador (John Beal) and Union Pacific railway head (Charles Siebert). The directors include Paul Bogart, James Cellan Jones, Anthony Page and Fred Coe; among the writers are Millard Lampell, Tad Mosel, Sam Hall and Anne Howard Bailey.

This is a classy, intelligent drama all the way. And if its occasional sins include the stiff, starched or overly arch performances that often adorn TV history, it makes up for them with the depth of its content and the breadth of its narrative. It's a non-guilty pleasure. (Extras: booklet.)


OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES

Juno (B)
U.S.; Jason Reitman, 2007, Fox
This heavy Oscar contender one was a little overrated, though it's certainly a fine, smart, charming little comedy about a subject often drowned in sermonizing or bathos: teenage pregnancy. Ellen Page beguilingly plays unwed mother Juno, Michael Cera of Superbad is the unwed dad (a peculiar, unimpressive character), and the sometimes bemused grownups include J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney, Jason Bateman and Rainn Wilson. Director Jason Reitman and Oscar-winning writer Diablo Cody make stellar if overpraised contributions too -- and I've got to 'fess that their humorously unblessed event made me fitfully happy.

Bamako (B)
Mali/France; Abderrahmane Sissako, 2006, New Yorker
In a hot African courtyard, the Bank of America is put on trial by some local magistrates for exploiting Africa and damaging her economy. These scenes, often improvised by actual advocates, are surrounded by the lazy, sometimes dangerous ebb and flow of the sultry day. An intelligent, offbeat and subtly handled film; not as good as Ousmane Sembene, but in the same vein. In French and Bambara, with English subtitles. (Extras: interviews with Sissako, producer Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, and others, trailer, clips from New York Film Festival.)


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