PICKS OF THE WEEKA Christmas Tale (A)
France; Arnaud Desplechin, 2008, Criterion
The Vuillards -- the central family and focal point of Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale -- are a bourgeois French clan, boisterous and lively on the surface but seething underneath with dark secrets, resentments and little tragedies. Their Christmas gathering this year, in Desplechin's radiant, smart, lovely ensemble film, is probably the most emotionally dangerous they've ever had.
Mama Junon (played by Catherine Deneuve, still a knockout at 65), is suffering from leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant, perhaps from one of her family. It's the same strain of leukemia that, decades ago, killed her first son, Joseph, as a child and started a chain of family guilts, grievings and angers that lasts to this day. Papa Abel (played by Jean-Paul Roussillon) is a factory owner much older than his dazzling wife, an earthy old soul who seems almost out of place in his chic family.
Henri (played by the prolific Mathieu Amalric, star of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is a scapegrace theater guy, drunk and womanizer, despised by his elder sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny). Elizabeth has won a court decision to keep Henri away from her and therefore most of the family; Henri has managed to wangle an invitation this year, partly because his blood type matches his mother and he's a plausible transplant candidate.
Henri is also attending with his fiercely proud Jewish girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), who avoids Christmas like Scrooge. Elizabeth's husband, Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) hates Henri too, and their breakdown-prone son Paul (Emile Berling) complicates matters because he also happens to match medically with Grand'Mere Junon.
The youngest son, Ivan (Melvil Popaud) is a free spirit whose wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, in real life the daughter of Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni) is about to make an eye-opening discovery about her marriage and about Ivan's pal, moody cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). The revelation comes courtesy of Rosaimee (Francoise Bertin), connected to the family because she was Abel's wife's lover. As for Basile and Baptiste (Thomas and Clement Obled), they're a pair of cherubic twins, the innocents in this lost Eden.
Many of these actors are Desplechin regulars and among the leading lights of contemporary French cinema. In any case, this is a great cast and ensemble, and Desplechin and fellow writer Emmanuel Boride, have given them great roles to play, while the camera of cinematographer Eric Gautier prowls and captures them at will.
There's a striking similarity between Tale and Jonathan Demme's and Jenny Lumet's Rachel Getting Married. But I actually prefer Desplechin's film. The beauty of A Christmas Tale lies in the fact that it sees its characters and their problems with such a clear eye, but still manages to love them. (In French, with English subtitles.) (Extras: Booklet with essay; interviews.)
Gimme Shelter (A)
U.S.; Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970, Criterion, Blu-ray
The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band, in the world's greatest rock 'n' roll documentary. Altamount. "Love in Vain." "Under My Thumb." "Sympathy for the Devil." The death of the '60s. "Brothers and sisters, cool yourselves out...." Cinema verite at its peak. 'Nuff said. (Extras: Commentary by Albert Maysles, Zwerin and Stanley Goldstein; more stones performances; excerpts; outtakes; trailer; booklet with essay.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Zorro: The Complete First Season 1957-58 and Zorro: The Complete Second Season 1958-59 (B)
U.S.; various directors, 1957-59, Disney, 6 discs each
"Out of the night/ When the full moon is bright/Comes a horseman known as Zorro!" One of the more iconic and addictive of '50s TV shows was Walt Disney's half-hour series Zorro, based on the dashing masked Spanish California avenger (whose real-life identity was his feigned persona of "foppish" Don Diego de la Vega), a Batman-like crimefighter originally created (before "Superman" or "Batman") by pulp writer Johnston McCulley and incarnated on screen by Doug Fairbanks, Sr., and Tyrone Power. Disney's Zorro was Guy Williams, a handsome, mustached, athletic chap, assisted in his revolutionary struggles by his mute servant Bernardo (Gene Sheldon), a resourceful silent clown who helped his boss wage war against the oppressors, bedevil various villains and josh his rotund friendly enemy Sgt. Garcia (weightily played by Henry Calvin, who got his BVD's slashed with a "Z" before every episode).
Back in 1958, as a 12-year-old, I loved Zorro so much I actually insisted on having a bottle of the product of one of the two sponsors always in my hand while I watched it: fizzy lemon-lime 7Up, represented by the brash cartoon rooster "Fresh-Up Freddy," who always began his pitches with a lusty "Right now, you are probably asking yourself…!" Talk about product loyalty! (Luckily I never insisted on having the other rotating sponsor's product on hand: AC spark plugs.)
The show holds up; the best of its episodes tend to be directed (and sometimes written) by old Orson Welles associate Norman Foster (Journey into Fear), who also helmed Disney's smash hit Davy Crockett Show. But Zorro only lasted two seasons, not because of flagging audiences, but because of squabbles with parent network ABC over color and other matters. (The original show was in black-and-white, and I actually prefer it that way.)
This deluxe set contains all 78 regular episodes, plus the hour long Zorro shows that played on Disney's Sunday show. Williams, Sheldon and Calvin are an ingratiating trio, and the guest stars include the great Ricardo Montalban, Rita Moreno, Gilbert Roland, and big Zorro (and Guy Williams) fan, Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. (Extras: Intros by Leonard Maltin, featurettes, Disney Zorro tie-in shows; booklets.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Terminator Salvation (C)
U.S.; McG, 2009, Warner, also Director's Cut and Blu-ray
It's back. In a way. Terminator Salvation -- a big, roaring, burn-down-the-planet sequel to the Terminator trilogy set in the future -- tries to be a new super-apocalyptic nightmare worthy of its Terminating predecessors: a cine-techno-bloodbath where man battles machine, cyborg battles mini-copter, robot battles android, rebels battles mechano-tyrant, bombshell commando battles robo-snake, guerrillas battle the future, CG whizzes battle scriptwriters, and everything possible gets blown to techno-hell.
For two frantic, futuristic hours, all these combatants rage through a fancy but poisonous-looking landscape of dusty waste and devastation, where the worst fears of global warning prophets seem to have combined with the direst fantasies of cyber-haters and survivalists to create a Road Warrior-gone-mad landscape that not even poor little Wall-E could sweeten or enliven.
In the original Terminator, one of the great sci-fi horror movies of the '80s, Arnold Schwarzenegger played a cyborg from the future, whose mission was to find and kill the mother (Linda Hamilton) of the boy (later played by Edward Furlong in T2) who will grow up to be John Connor, the legendary Resistance leader.
In this movie, Connor (Christian Bale) has grown to adulthood, the planet is a bloody mess, and Connor and bellicose human military leader General Ashdown (Michael Ironside) -- who acts as if his role models were Generals Jack D. Ripper and Buck Turgidson of Dr. Strangelove -- are set to attack the machine armies.
Terminator Salvation is exciting, but I wouldn't call it a good time. Directed by the razzly-dazzly video-maker McG of Charlie's Angels movie ill-fame, and written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, the team who worked on Terminator 3 and David Fincher's The Game, and also committed Catwoman, it's dark and horrific-looking, set in a wasteland full of blood, carnage and gadgetry, slicked up with all the virtuosic ugliness that modern movie technology can muster.
To tell the truth, I couldn't wait for Terminator Salvation to be over. Yet it is exactly the kind of movie that the modern American studio system is geared and programmed to make these days. That's not a very consoling thought.
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (B-)
U.S.; Shawn Levy, 2009, 20th Century Fox
Not content with running amok and bringing to life the exhibits in New York City's Museum of Natural History, in the strange 2006 comedy hit, from Milan Trenc's book, Night at the Museum -- a gallery of living relics including Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, Owen Wilson as cowpoke Jedediah, Steve Coogan as Roman hotshot Octavius, Rami Malek as felonious Pharaoh Akhmenrah and a rampaging dinosaur skeleton -- ex-night guard-turned-gadgeteer Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is now on his way to Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian. There, some of his old, beloved exhibits have been sent by nasty Dr. McPhee (an oddly unfunny Ricky Gervais), replaced by virtual "statues" that don't have the pizzazz of the old bunch.
But surprises await in the nether regions of the Smithsonian. There is a suddenly hyperactive Lincoln Memorial. There's nervous Gen. Custer (Bill Hader) who doesn't want to make his last stand yet. There are Napoleon, Al Capone and Ivan the Terrible (Alain Chabat, Jon Bernthal and Chris Guest), who have hooked up with Akhmenrah's even eviler brother Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), and are set to wreak all kinds of nocturnal museum-ish havoc.
There's the beauteous, feisty Amelia Earhart, played by the beauteous, feisty Amy Adams, as adorable an aeronaut as ever wafted over the Pacific and disappeared (and more comfortable in the role than Hilary Swank was). And there's Jonah Hill as the Smithsonian's night guard, doing a routine with Stiller that conclusively proves you can't have two wise guys in one comedy team, unless you're the Marx Brothers.
For my taste, there weren't enough laughs in this comedy. And too many relics. But it sure looks good. Especially when Adams is on screen.
Flame and Citron (B)
Denmark; Ole Christian Madsen, 2008, 101 Distribution
Ole Christian Madsen wrote and directed this gripping, smart Danish World War II neo-noir anti-Nazi resistance drama, based on fact but fictionalized, about a crack assassin named Bent, a.k.a. Flame (Thurl Lindhardt), and his ace driver Citron, a.k.a. Jorgen (Mads Mikkelsen). Also in the mix are a waiting wife named Bodil (Mille Hofmeyer Lehfeldt) and sex bomb spy Ketty (Stine Stengade), and a horde of shady-looking characters and arrogant Nazis, all crossing and double-crossing each other.
The movie is often as dark and cynical as one of Jean-Pierre Melville's resistance movies. Jorgen Johansson's cinematography is ultra-bleak, as if the lens is about to frost. The ending, jaw-droppingly, moves into Where Eagles Dare or Peckinpah-cum-Tarantino balls-out massacre territory, which makes you wonder about the truth under the fiction, the citron under the flame. But it doesn't matter. This movie should get under your skin.
Four Christmases (D+)
U.S.; Seth Gordon, 2008, New Line
As far as I'm concerned, that's four Christmases too many. Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn -- whose families have split up, creating a frantic Yuletide schedule and this movie's frantic plot -- learn that life isn't wonderful, that George Bailey is dead and that Rudolph doesn't have a red nose. Yes, Virginia, your little friends are wrong; there is a Jon Favreau. Guys, I feel for you, but take this movie back to the dead-elves morgue.
The Way of the Gun (C)
U.S.; Lewis Teague, 2000, Lions Gate
Ryan Philippe and Benicio Del Toro are dumb kidnappers who create their own guns-blazing charnel house; Juliette Lewis is their pregnant victim. Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects, has a smart line or two, but he over-relies on violence to solve all his problems.
Cujo 25th Anniversary Edition(B)
U.S.; Lewis Teague, 1983, Lions Gate
Stephen King and his movie adaptors unleash a rabid Saint Bernard on Dee Wallace and son. Scary stuff.
A Walk in the Sun (A-)
U.S.; Lewis Milestone, 1945, VCI Entertainment
Milestone's great anti-war movie was the original All Quiet on the Western Front, a film triumph that he never surpassed. Here is his best pro-war movie, with Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, Lloyd Bridges, John Ireland and Sterling Holloway heading, with some character and realism, toward a Nazi shootout down the road in Italy. Scripted by Robert Rossen. (Extras: Featurette, interview with cast member Norman Lloyd.)