PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Mira Nair, 2009
Amelia is an old-fashioned, overly romantic movie, but likably so. It's true that director Mira Nair and writers Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan don't spring many surprises while telling us the story of the famed trailblazing aviatrix Amelia Earhart -- an iconic American figure of the '20s and '30s who vanished over the Pacific while on a record-breaking, gender-smashing, 'round-the-world flight. But I'm not sure I wanted them too.
Still, why not be a little happy that we can still get an adult-oriented movie like this, well and sometimes lovingly crafted and splendidly shot (by Stuart Dryburgh), with fine performances by Hilary Swank as the spunky, expert flier Amelia, Richard Gere as her media-savvy publisher/husband George Putnam, Ewan McGregor as her fellow pilot/aviation teacher/lover Gene Vidal, Christopher Eccleston as her hard-drinking navigator Fred Noonan, Cherry Jones as New Deal first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and most of the rest of a glittering cast.
Nair and the writers give us a typical feminist historical heroine and bathe her in heroine-worship: Swank as the rangy, freckled, ever-smiling Amelia, stoic yet blissed out in the skies, idol of a nation, and torn between two loves.
They also fill their movie with lyrical aerial shots, scored by Gabriel Yared, plus some spotty inspirational narration by Amelia, and lots of lush period detail. It's not the kind of movie Martin Scorsese made out of Howard Hughes' life story in The Aviator. But then Amelia wasn't crazy like Hughes.
The movie mostly covers the years of her 1928-1937 heyday, and it begins with some tense scene around Amelia's last, doomed flight. Then, it flashes back to her Kansas girlhood, her rapt infatuation with the planes and barnstormers soaring above her cornfields, and her quick rise to the top -- thanks to glib, natty charmer and Charles Lindbergh promoter/publisher Putnam, who senses her star quality and puts her aboard a successful transatlantic flight with navigator Noonan, as a "Lady Lindy."
Was Amelia primarily a creation of ballyhoo and public relations gimmickry? Some muckraking reporters thought so at the time, and the movie gives us plenty of period headlines, newsreels and backstage finagling to convey a sense of her stupendous popularity -- and the unease she herself felt at being more passenger than pilot on her grand reputation-making flight.
Swank manages a remarkable physical resemblance to Amelia, especially catching her wide, ultra-charismatic grin and rangy athleticism. We can believe her as a woman at the controls, and we can also accept her as someone who doesn't like it, but gets caught up in her own publicity. Gere is an appealing romantic foil. The director and writers don't do much with McGregor as Vidal. Eccleston has one good pseudo-seduction drunk scene, and he sometimes shows an unsettling facial resemblance to the Spencer Tracy of Test Pilot. The climactic Lockheed Electra sequence, with Amelia and Fred lost in clouds over the Pacific, unable to hear their ground crew's radio, and calmly or nervously headed toward apparent disaster, is really well-done, crisp and thrilling.
Cinematic surprises and subversion are sometimes overrated. But Nair remains a wonderful filmmaker, just as Amelia Earhart was a wondrous fly girl. Both of them show their skills to good advantage, and occasionally soar.
The Wolf Man: Special Edition (A-)
U.S.; George Waggner, 1941, Universal, 2 discs
Lon Chaney Jr. turns wolf in one of the classic Universal horror movies -- soon to be seen, of course, in a new remake with Benicio Del Toro doing the howling. No matter how good (or evil) he is, though, Del Toro will have a hard time supplanting Chaney in our memories.
It was soon after his dramatic triumph in the 1939 Lewis Milestone film of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men-- unforgettably playing the heartbreaking, bone-crushing simpleton Lenny -- that Chaney sealed his fate and his movie career for a while by playing the friendly but tormented Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. the Wolf Man, an unlikely British-Welsh nobleman who goes through more hell than Frankenstein's monster and Dracula combined.
Chaney's Talbot, one of the most sympathetic of all the classic horror movie monsters, succumbs to the dangers of lycanthropy -- a Jekyll-Hyde condition which periodically turns his body furry, makes his face go vulpine (thanks to Universal's painstaking makeup expert Jack Pierce) and gives him an inconvenient and deadly taste for night stalks and human flesh -- after he's bitten by werewolf gypsy Bela Lugosi, and warned of the dangers ahead ("Your road is thorny...") by that lovably portentous old gypsy seer Maria Ouspenskaya. It's a thorny, bloody path indeed, one that will separate him forever from his indulgent father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains, who never chides Larry for his American accent), genial fellow nabob Ralph Bellamy and the beauteous but fickle Evelyn Ankers.
Curt Siodmak was the writer and George Waggner the director on this chiller, which lacks the literary pedigree of Universal classics Dracula and Frankenstein but is fairly literate, and lots of fun, all the same. In the movie, Chaney exploits the same affecting mix of hulking brute strength and gentle demeanor that made his Lenny so touching; here it's at the service of a pulpy, half-campy pop myth that he later mined and repeated over and over, with Larry Talbot, like all Universal monsters, coming back from the dead no matter how often he was killed. He's not dead yet, even if the road is still thorny and the moon is still full. Aaaaaa-ooooo: Werewolves of Zevon! (Extras: commentary by Tom Weaver; documentary Monster by Moonlight, narrated by John Landis; documentary Universal Horror, narrated by Kenneth Branagh; featurettes; trailer gallery; publicity archive.)
The Godfather: Coppola Restoration (A)
U.S.; Francis Coppola, 1972, Warner, Blu-ray
Coppola's personally supervised, restored version of one of the greatest of gangster sagas and American movies: an offer we can't refuse, with a cast that can't be topped: Marlon Brando as Don Corleone, Al Pacino, James Caan and John Cazale as his three sons, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and Morgana King as Corleone family, and Richard Conte, Sterling Hayden, Richard Castellano, Al Lettieri, Lenny Montana and Abe Vigoda as fellow denizens of the dark world of Mafia crooks and crooked cops -- not personal, strictly business.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Evelyn Waugh Collection (A-)
U.K.; various directors, 1987-88, Acorn Media
Writer Evelyn Waugh was one of the sharpest and brightest of the "bright young things" of '20s upper-class Britain society, the shimmering clique that he wrote about in the delightful, wounding satirical novels of his literary youth. And he became the Catholic, conservative elegist of that same class in his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited -- which also became one of the all-time masterpieces of British television in 1981.
These two beautifully mounted, sharply written, often splendidly cast and acted adaptations of Waugh's earlier novels were obviously inspired by the success of Brideshead, and one of them is on the same artistic level: A Handful of Dust, directed and co-written by Brideshead co-writer/co-helmer Charles Sturridge, with a cast that includes Kristin Scott-Thomas, Judi Dench and Alec Guinness. Among the most literate of British TV dramas, they show Waugh as a fresh young wit, before he became an old lion. (Extras: Waugh biography; cast filmography.)
U.K.; Gavin Millar, 1988
William Boot (Michael Maloney) is a young, provincial nature reporter from a fading bourgeois family, when family connections get him an unwise assignment from the dithering editors and powers of his paper, London's Daily Beast, to cover a budding war in the fictitious African country of Ishmaela. What follows is a display of journalistic ineptitude, national chaos and unlikely triumph that makes you wonder if there's a God in Fleet Street. As the hapless Boot, Maloney is a bit too consciously nave, and not quite funny enough. But the supporting cast, which includes Denholm Elliott and Donald Pleasence as the ditherers, as well as Michael Hordern, Herbert Lom and Renee Soutendyjk, would put a shine on any Boot.
A Handful of Dust (A-)
U.K.; Charles Sturridge, 1987
Sturridge, one of the triumphant co-directors of the 1981 Brideshead Revisited (Michael Lindsay-Hogg was the other), triumphs again with this lushly produced, memorable film of Waugh's scathing portrait of an upper-class love affair. In a remarkable performance that made her name, Scott Thomas plays the faithless Brenda Last, the ever-smiling and perfectly packaged wife, mother and effortless seductress who easily deceives her credulous, pathetically nice husband Tony (James Wilby, of Maurice and Howard's End).
Brenda, abetted by her somewhat disapproving friends, takes an awful young lover named Beaver (Rupert Graves), a selfish bastard whose manners and morals are a disgrace to all impoverished lay-abouts and cheats. The adultery we see here reverses the usual dramatic romance: Brenda is a self-indulgent but sweet-faced vixen, lover Beaver a sullen cad and hubby Tony a chuckleheaded nice guy with whom we eventually deeply sympathize. The cast is perfect top to bottom, and the top includes Anjelica Huston as another adultress, Judi Dench as Beaver's scheming mother, and Alec Guinness as the wickedest Charles Dickens fan ever.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Love Happens (C)
U.S.; Brandon Camp, 2009, Universal Studios
Here's a middling romantic comedy with a heavy dose of melancholy and a cockatoo who steals the show. It's about a self-help bestseller writer -- Aaron Eckhart as Burke Ryan -- who opines on how to cope with grief at the loss of loved ones, although he is still secretly shattered and secretive about the death of his own wife in a car accident. In Seattle for a series of lectures and workshops, Burke runs across a fetching florist, Eloise, played by Jennifer Aniston with hair blazing, and he succumbs to her charms -- which include a penchant for long, obscure words and a talent for playing deaf.
The movie, directed and written by Brandon Camp, is divided into the grief workshop scenes, which are schmaltzy (dominated by John Carroll Lynch as a stricken ex-contractor), and the romance, which is schmaltzy and cutesy -- but decorated with lots of gorgeous bouquets from floral purveyor Teleflora.
Aniston and Eckhart hold the camera here, but without much pizzazz. There's one sort of funny performance in the movie: Dan Fogler (whom I unfairly dissed as a Jack Black wanna-be in Fanboys) as Burke's oily, conniving but basically nice-guy manager Lane -- not much of a part, but done with some sass and wit.
So the aforementioned cockatoo really does steal the movie, along with some help at the end from Martin Sheen, playing the mostly thankless role of Burke's upset dad-in-law. Father and son's last tear-drenched encounter, at a public Burke rally, tries vainly to elevate the schmaltz to something bigger. Megaschmaltz? Anyway, you'll probably like the flowers and the cockatoo. And Seattle. And maybe Fogler. Jack Black, watch your back.
New York, I Love You (C+)
U.S./France; various directors, 2009, Vivendi Entertainment
As in his previous multi-part great city of the world valentine, Paris, Je t'Aime, producer Emmanuel Benbihy gives us an all-star-all-the-time look at New York, with 10 prominent international directors (ranging from Mira Nair to Brett Ratner) taking on the challenge of each making a separate eight-minute shortie in two days' shooting time, tops -- all of which are then woven together with Randy Balsmeyer-directed transition scenes, without chapter divisions or episode titles.
The movie is variable, and if you wander into it unawares that it's a 10-part movie and not a Manhattan Crash or Short Cuts, you may get irritated fast. (It would work better with episode titles and breaks; it really needs breathers.) But the good episodes are enjoyable, and the middling ones at least have good actors and New York backdrops: nine in Manhattan and one -- Joshua Marston's compassionate take on an elderly, bickering couple (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman) -- in Brooklyn's Coney Island.
My favorites: Nair's humane and sharp interracial vignette with Irfan Khan and Natalie Portman; Jiang Wen's crackling triangle duel with Randy Garcia, Rachel Bilson and Hayden Christensen; Yvan Attal's surprise double seduction scene with Ethan Hawke, Maggie Q, Chris Cooper and Robin Wright Penn; writer Anthony Minghella's mystical hotel romance with Julie Christie, John Hurt and Shia La Beouf (shot by Shekhar Kapur after Minghella's death) and Fatih Akin's Chinatown love story with Ugur Yurcele and Shu Qui.
Benbihy's melting-pot intentions are obvious. But I'm still surprised he used so many foreign-born directors. The best New York films tend to be from the guys who were raised there, like Sidney Lumet, Spike Lee, Woody Allen and Marty Scorsese.
The House of the Devil (B)
U.S.; Ti West, 2009, Dark Sky Film
If you're tired of horror movies that increasingly just pile on the gore and guts, fling corpses at you from the first few minutes on, and try to turn the audience into a mob of screaming banshees, throwing away their money and howling for blood, Ti West's The House of the Devil is probably as good an alternative as the mass audience can get right now.
That doesn't mean that it's a return to the style, subtlety and sophistication of the high-literate Val Lewton classics of the '40s (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Seventh Victim and The Body Snatcher.) No such luck.
Instead House of the Devil is a different kind of bloody throwback, done in the more restrained attack and mood (compared to today) of the '70s, the era of moody and violent low-budgeters like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween.
It's a retro shocker, with sweet-faced, tight-jeaned Jocelin Donahue as the menaced babysitter Samantha, and Tom Noonan, Marty Woronov, Danielle Noe and AJ Bowen as the Ulman clan that menaces her.
What are these spooky-looking people after? Blood? Sex? Violence? Box office? It's no shock to find out that the villains here may be devil-worshipers; the movie begins with a title about satanic cults. But, like Hitchcock, writer-director-editor West (who made the good, tense human-prey shocker Trigger Man) is more interested in suspense than surprise. Here, he spends a good deal of time just setting the stage -- introducing us to Sam and her sardonic rich-girl buddy Megan (Greta Gerwig), planting a possible red herring in prospective landlady Dee Wallace (a Poltergeist vet beaming sunny goodwill), opening up when Sam spots a babysitter ad on a campus message board that will eventually loose the floodgates to movie hell, and then plunging us into the ultra-creepy Ulman home.
West then spends even more scene-setting time establishing Sam's increasing vulnerability until the inevitable moment he springs the satanic trap. But even then, unlike most modern horror directors, he doesn't give us (comparatively) torrents of bloodshed. It's clear that what most interests him is the buildup, and he's a master at it.
U.S.; Max Mayer, 2009, 20th Century Fox
Hugh Dancy , who played the charming and chatty magazine stud alongside Isla Fisher in Confessions of a Shopaholic, shows real range here by playing Adam, a New York recluse who works sometimes as an electronic engineer, is a planetarium nut, and suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a disease that makes him seem antisocial. Adam also has a big crush on neighbor Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne), whose dad (Peter Gallagher) disapproves; he's a snob, despite his own problems with the law.
This is a perfectly sweet and well-made little movie, but not especially memorable. Kudos to Dancy though.
Get to Know Your Rabbit (C)
U.S.; Brian De Palma, 1972, Warner Archive
Hi, Mom! to the contrary, I've never been very high on Brian De Palma's comedies, which rarely strike me as funny. I like his thrillers and gangster movies, of course, and some of them, like Scarface and Femme Fatale, even make me laugh. ("Say 'Hello' to my little friend!") Rabbit is snazzily directed but it's particularly unfunny, despite a premise that seems at least cute: Tommy Smothers (without Dick) plays a disenchanted corporate guy who quits his job to become a tap-dancing magician, tutored by no less than Orson Welles. But Tom makes the mistake of hiring his old boss (John Astin, with his great, smarmy smile) as a manager, and soon he's an unlikely business success all over again.
Trust me: Even if it sounds funny, it's a losing battle playing a would-be magician simultaneously trying to tap dance and pull a rabbit out of a hat. However much Tommy tries, it just looks silly. And most of the other stuff doesn't work either, though Katharine Ross appears, typecast as "The Terrific Looking Girl." The best performance is by Allen Garfield, in one of his paranoid anger shticks, as an obsessed bra connoisseur. '60s types will be more tolerant of Rabbit than others, mostly because of the way a lot of us remember and admire the Smothers Brothers. But there's no doubt about it: Tap-dancing magicians aren't funny.
Sherlock Holmes Double Feature: "The Spider Woman" and "The Voice of Terror" (B)
U.S.; Roy William Neill & John Rawlins, 1942-44, MPI
None of the many screen acting teams who played master detective Sherlock Holmes and his roommate/chronicler Dr. John Watson ever nailed the parts the way Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce did -- Rathbone, the hawk-faced, eagle-eyed, lean, brilliant and lovably arrogant Holmes; Bruce the chubby, dithering stout-fella sidekick Watson.
One might complain that Bruce was sometimes a little too chubby and dithering. (Did this bumbling, bewildered chap ever really earn a medical decree?) But Bruce was the perfect foil for Rathbone. And there will probably never be another Holmes to match Basil's, or a team to match them both. No, not Robert Downey and Jude Law either, though it's certainly an interesting try, and Downey an unusually ingenious Holmes. And also probably not Billy Wilder's provocative first choices for his Holmes film: Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers.
Rathbone and Bruce appeared together in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Alfred Werker, 1939) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sidney Lanfield, 1939), and they were both model adaptations. Then the two were reunited, starting in 1942, and running through 1946, for a lower-budget series at RKO, all superior B movies, well-written, well-cast and directed, but with one notable flaw.
Those first two Rathbone-Bruces had been period movies, set properly in gaslit, fog-shrouded Victorian London. The later movies, probably in order to let Holmes bring down the curtain with stirring anti-Fascist speeches and tributes to the World War II Grand Alliance, were all set contemporaneously, in the '40s. That makes them anachronistic today, and it's really a shame the studios didn't just continue doing Doyle stories with the perfect pair, in period. But Rathbone and Bruce remain transcendent, whatever the era they're plopped into.
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (B)
U.S.; John Rawlins, 1942
Holmes battles Nazi spies, traitors and the Hitler-loving Voice, the series own version of Lord Haw Haw. First of the RKO series, not based on Doyle, but with a top cast: Reginald Denny, Evelyn Ankers, Henry Daniell, Montague Love and Thomas Gomez.
U.S.; Roy William Neill, 1946
One of the series' best villains, Oscar-winning future black list victim Gale Sondergaard as the smiling, murderous Spider Woman, battles wits and weaponry with Holmes. A good one, with Dennis Hoey as Lestrade.