Slacker Uprising (C+)
U.S.; Michael Moore, 2008
Premiering on DVD and screens as a conscious political gesture -- to try and influence the upcoming Obama vs. McCain election -- Slacker Uprising is probably director/comedian/agitator Michael Moore's weakest movie in recent years, mostly because it's mostly a straight-out concert doc. The event is fascinating -- his 62-city tour calculated to bring out the youth vote, attracting its audience with guest stars (Eddie Vedder, Joan Baez and Viggo Mortensen) as well as free Ramen noodles and new underwear -- joke gifts that actually attracted an official bribery protest from the Republicans. (Lighten up, G.O.P. dudes. After all, nobody complains when you actually do offer bribes -- or as you call them, tax cuts -- and steal elections.)
Apparently it worked. John Kerry got the youth vote. My Boom-Boom generation went for the Bushman. (Shame, shame.) But Moore has chosen (wrongly, I think) not to give the movie a lot of narration, which is the thing all his films depend on. (They're about this big, fat, funny guy taking the stage from greedy tycoons and inept politicos.) Without the narration, there's not enough Moore, not enough viewpoint and not enough politics. And there's not enough singing either, though we do hear Baez and Vedder doing a Cat Stevens tune. Better luck next time, Mike. And where are my Ramen noodles?
By the way, vote for Obama. (Extras: Noodlegate, My Pet Goat and George W. Bueller's Day Off featurettes; The O'Reilly Factor for Kids; other, more serious featurettes, including Joan Baez singing "America the Beautiful.")
PICKS OF THE WEEK
Le Deuxieme Souffle (A)
France; Jean-Pierre Melville, 1966, Criterion
Melville's great film noir Le Deuxieme Souffle (Second Wind,/i>), one of the pinnacles of the French crime movie, is based on an icily knowing novel and script by ex-Death Row inmate Jose Giovanni, the writer of the noir classics Classe Tous Risques and Le Trou. It stars that magnificently dour, Bogartesque hard guy Lino Ventura as Gustav "Gu" Minda, a famous (in the underworld and among the flics), hard-bitten career criminal who escapes from jail and gets entangled in a doomed heist.
The movie is beautifully shot in crisp, gloomy black and white by cinematographer Marcel Combes, and the supporting cast includes Paul Meurisse of Jean Renoir's Picnic on the Grass (as the bemused inspector Blot), Raymond Pellegrin (as fellow crook Paul Ricci) and The French Connection's assassin-on-the-El, Marcel Bozzufi (as the other, badder Ricci brother Jo), and blond anti-femme fatale Christine Fabrega as Gu's good angel Manouche.
Le Deuxieme Souffle was greatly influenced by Robert Wise's moody, jazzy 1959 American heist thriller Odds Against Tomorrow, which was one of Melville's three favorite films (the others are John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle and William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives). Melville's veneration for Wise's picture extends even to his duplicating the wallpaper here from Robert Ryan's apartment -- but what he captures more than anything is that mesmerizing, fatalistic, anti-heroic quality of the great American noirs, that sense that crooks and cops are ensnared together in a web of fate that will not release them until the end of the road. Certainly this is what happens to Gu, the most tragic of all Melville's gangsters, a man without a country in a world without a moral compass.
Le Doulos (A)
France; Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962, Criterion
Also out this week on Criterion: Melville's classic 1962 noir Le Doulos (Four Stars) with Jean-Paul Belmondo as the Doulos (the "hat" or stoolie) and Serge Reggiani as a crook and killer who was once his friend. More of a city film, it's as powerful and well-acted as Deuxieme Souffle but less visually impressive. Both are masterpieces of the French cinema, nonpareil noir, in glorious black and white. In French, with English subtitles. (Extras: Commentary by Ginette Vincendeau and Geoff Andrew; archive interviews with Melville, Ventura, Belmondo and Reggiani and new ones by one-time Melville assistants Bertrand Tavernier and Volker Schlondorff; trailers; booklets.)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (B+)
U.S.; Nathan Juran/Ray Harryhausen, 1959, Sony Pictures
Sinbad is Hollywood middle-budget fantasy at its grandest, chockful of kitsch, color and thrills. Against gorgeous Spanish pseudo-Arabian backgrounds and terrific Ray Harryhausen puppet animation effects, the brave and stolid Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews of Janesville, who really knows how to look at creatures who aren't there) copes with an evil magician (Torin Thatcher), a tiny princess (the Incredible Shrinking Kathryn Grant), mutinous sailors and a Harryhausen-style cyclops, roc, dragon and dueling skeleton in this Dynamation masterpiece, scored by the great Bernard Herrmann.
Probably the best Harryhausen movie (he directed all the animation sequences) and certainly the most influential: a who's who of special-effects masters appear in the accompanying featurette to affirm that it was Harryhausen's Sinbad, and especially the first cyclops sequence that made them want to grow up to work movie magic. (Extras: Commentary by Harryhausen and others; featurettes, music video; Harryhausen interview by John Landis.)
Paranoid Park (B+)
U.S.; Gus Van Sant, 2008, IFC
Like Elephant, this is another of Van Sant's moody teen noir pieces, set in the world of Portland skateboarding -- where a skater named Alex (Gabe Nevins) falls into a whirlpool of guilt after a tragic accident. Based on Blake Nelson's novel, this is top-grade Van Sant: memorably sad and edgy.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Johan van der Keuken: The Complete Collection (B+)
Netherlands/France; Johan van der Keuken, 1960-76, Facets
One of the great, neglected 20th-century documentary filmmakers is Johan van der Keuken of the Netherlands, a master of both lyrical impressionism and hard-edged but compassionate political films, and an artist whose work shines a light on the gap between rich and poor, the marginalized world of childhood, artists, and the disabled, and that magnetic cinematic subject: the landscape of the city. Van der Keuken, revered in Europe, is so little known in America that this set -- the third in Facets' comprehensive series on the director -- should come as a revelation to casual viewers and cognoscenti alike.
This set includes three discs and 16 films. Most of them are shorts -- but the box does have van der Keuken's evocative "North-South" trilogy, a feature film triptych, including the films Diary (1972), The White Castle (1973) and The New Ice Age (1974), juxtaposing advanced and developing nations and cultures, and shot in Cameroon, Morocco, Lima and Spain, as well as Holland and Columbus, Ohio.
The other highlights include the delightful street-girl portrait Beppie (1965), Blind Child (1964) and Blind Child 2 (1966), on the world of the sightless, the superb jazz documentary on expatriate trumpeter Ben Webster, Big Ben (1967) and Velocity (1970), van der Keuken's elliptical film on World War II and Auschwitz. These films are in the great tradition of the poetic social documentary, and the time for their neglect and obscurity should be past. Rent the films first, then decide if you want a keeper. In Dutch, French and English, with English subtitles. (Extra: Booklet on van der Keuken.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Visitor (C+)
U. S.; Tom McCarthy, 2008
Tom McCarthy's sophomore film after his likable, much-praised The Station Agent begins very well, with Richard Jenkins pumping in quiet reality as taciturn college economics professor Walter Vale. Taking a conference break in Manhattan. Walter accidentally becomes entangled with the troubles of an illegal immigrant couple squatting on his premises: likable Syrian djembe-playing musician Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his suspicious Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira).
As matters grow knottier and the post-9/11 dilemmas grow worse, Tarek's self-sacrificing and very attractive Palestinian mother Mouna (played by the stunning Hiam Abbass) shows up; the gruff prof becomes believably, if unsurprisingly humanized. It's nice seeing that ever-reliable, ever-glowering star character actor Jenkins in such a substantial role. But (and I'm in the minority here, since the movie is a critical hit), I thought The Visitor lost its rhythm when Tarek was arrested. The last act and final resolution are preachy and predictable -- even if the very last scene makes for a terrific poster. Why...? Well, maybe you'll see what I mean.
You Don't Mess With the Zohan (D+)
U.S.; Dennis Dugan, 2008, Sony/Columbia
In You Don't Mess With the Zohan, a movie I didn't find very funny, Adam Sandler plays an ace Israeli antiterrorist commando who yearns to escape his world of endless martial arts and James Bond action, his long-running feud with super-terrorist The Phantom (John Turturro) and his constant effortless affairs with bodacious beach babes to be a hairstylist for old ladies in America. What a mensch!
This is the kind of movie that casts pop singles champ Mariah Carey, and then wastes her. And there is a special cameo for the Zohan's codpiece, an immense supporting player/appendage that seems calculated to make Borat weep with envy. Director Dennis Dugan has guided Sandler to other profitable misadventures (like Happy Gilmore). And one of Sandler's co-writers here is Judd Apatow, a guy now engaged in a one-man campaign to out-Farrelly the Farrelly brothers. If anyone can tame Sandler, it should have been his ex-roommate Apatow -- who has recently given interviews about Sandler's gift for instant masturbation, something the Zohan spares us here. (We aren't spared much else.)
I didn't laugh much at this movie. But I do approve of its message. Israelis and Palestinians should end the bloodshed and unite in peace and understanding -- even if it's only to make bad movies together. Eat your heart out, Borat.
Sleeping Beauty 50th Anniversary Edition (B+)
U.S.; Clyde Geronimi, 1959, Walt Disney
After Fantasia, this was the most artistically ambitious cartoon feature of Walt Disney's lifetime -- and though it's a tad pretentious, this special edition puts it all in perspective. It's part of an unofficial fairytale heroine trilogy, with the big hits Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, and it's the only one with a Tchaikovsky score and without major funny animal supporting characters.
Instead we have the comical fairy godmothers Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, and these three and the bad black-clad witch, Maleficent, save the movie. But the backgrounds -- some modeled on De Berry's Book of Hours, are spectacular, And if it wasn't for Walt's vaulting ambition, we wouldn't have Disneyland. Or Fantasia. (Extras: Alternate opening; deleted songs; featurettes; games; Sleeping Beauty Castle digital walkthrough.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
The Busby Berkeley Collection, Volume Two (B)
U.S.; Busby Berkeley & Others, 1936-38, Warner
It's a much weaker set than the first Busby box, with the classics 42nd Street and Footlight Parade. Only two of the four movies here are above par, Gold Diggers of 1937 and the lesser-known Hollywood Hotel (a sleeper which has the great 1937 Benny Goodman Band, with drummer Krupa, playing "Sing! Sing! Sing!"). But the musical routines by Berkeley, including the famed whimsically militaristic "Love and War" number in Gold Diggers of 1937, are fabulous.
Includes: Gold Diggers of 1937 (Lloyd Bacon/Busby Berkeley, 1936, C+) with Dick Powell, Joan Blondell and Victor Moore; Hollywood Hotel (Busby Berkeley; 1937, B) with Dick Powell, the Lane Sisters and Benny Goodman and his band; Varsity Show (William Keighley/Busby Berkeley, 1937, C+) with Dick Powell, The Lane Sisters and Buck and Bubbles; and Gold Diggers of Paris (Ray Enright, 1938, C) with Rudy Vallee, Hugh ("Woo-Woo") Herbert and, believe it or not, the Schnickelfritz Band. (Extras: Vintage music and comedy shorts, including Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy; musical excerpts; trailers.)