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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Wilmington on DVD: Date Night, James and the Giant Peach, Kim Novak, The Joneses
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PICKS OF THE WEEK

Date Night (B)
U.S.; Shawn Levy, 2010, 20th Century Fox

Steve Carell and Tina Fey make a great movie comedy couple in Date Night -- even though they're handicapped by the movie's often trivial formula script. Playing a nice suburban hubby-and-wife accidentally set loose in a wild and crazy urban underworld, they're loose and sharp and totally in command. Carell and Fey, a primo pair, engage our sympathies, make us smile and laugh. They do everything we'd expect from the stars of two smart shows like The Office and 30 Rock.

But the movie itself -- a slick and quick but often shallow and silly mix of North by Northwest and the 1970 The Out-of Towners, from director Shawn (Night at the Museum) Levy -- keeps letting them down, shoving clichés and car chases down our throats.

At the end, when the moviemakers put some outtakes under the credits -- and Carell and Fey get to play around with funny accents and different comic personas -- we get a glimpse of what Date Night could have been, if Levy had really set them loose, and if they all weren't partly hamstrung by Josh Klausner's thin, obvious fish-out-of-water scenario.

Say what you want, though: This movie gets its laughs. Carell and Fey play Phil and Blaire Foster, a good-hearted, very likeable, fairly hip suburban couple, trying to light a fire under their now boring and routine marriage, by turning their regular date night into something special: eschewing the usual Friday night at the movies, heading off to an ultra-chic Manhattan restaurant and shooting the works. Of course they end up with more than they bargained for, but not more than you could expect from Levy.

Soon, in fact, the works are shooting back at them. After the Fosters recklessly jump ahead in line at the trendy eatery Phil picks, by claiming to be the no-show Tripplehorns (a mythical couple named after the actress in Basic Instinct, who've been paged, just like the mythical George Kaplan was at the start of North by Northwest), bad things start to happen. They're pulled from their table by two thugs, Armstrong and Collins (Jimmi Simpson and Common), whom they mistake for restaurant security, but who prove to be gunmen in the pay of the local wise-guy gangster boss (Ray Liotta, mysteriously unbilled).

The Fosters escape, the thugs on their tail, and are soon involved in everything from shoot-outs to sex clubs to slapstick high-speed chases. And since Armstrong and Collins prove to be crooked cops, the fugitive Fosters, amazingly plucky and resourceful through all their misadventures, can't even get police help in Rudy Giuliani's city.

One of the remarkable things about Date Night is what a smashing cast Levy has assembled for this over-obvious, not-too-swift script. Besides Carell, Fey and the others above, there are middling to brief star turns by Mark Wahlberg as Holbrooke, a shirtless stud of a security guy who helps the Fosters out, James Franco and Mila Kunis, terrific as the real Tripplehorns, Taraji P. Henson as good cop Det. Arroyo, William Fichtner as the D.A., Leighton Meester as the Foster's babysitter, and, most surprisingly, Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig -- who have almost nothing to do as the troubled New Jersey suburban couple next door, but do it very well.

Fey and Carell make it all mesh and click. He's playing a good-hearted, super-organized, breadwinner: a guy who wants to show his wife he can be not just a regular Joe, but a take-charge stud as well.

Fey's Claire is a perfect nice-to-the-bone, super-organized housewife. She manages to be both sexy and funny -- and even sweet -- as well.

What these two genuinely crowd-pleasing co-stars prove here is they can carry a movie, even a movie that might be limping without them.


James and the Giant Peach (A-)
U.S.; Henry Selick, 1996, Walt Disney

British writer Roald Dahl started out was a specialist in the adult and macabre, crafting witty little literary gems of crime, sex and suspense for class markets. (Playboy often ran them, and Alfred Hitchcock often adapted them for his TV show.) Then he switched to children's stories, jettisoning the sex, adding more whimsy and fantasy to the suspense, and coming up with modern classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and this juicy little tale of voyage and adventure, filmed by Tim Burton (the producer) and Henry Selick, the team behind The Nightmare Before Christmas.

It's an odd, sophisticated, beguilingly weird and somewhat creepy tale of an orphan boy named James (Paul Terry) who escapes from his two awful aunts, Sponge and Spiker (Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley), when a giant peach shows up, and grows up, on their coastal hillside home, filled with genial giant talking bugs, and then sails off toward New York City, land of James's dreams.

The film, done in Selick's sprightly stop-motion animation style, begins somewhat murkily and nightmarishly, then really takes off when the boy and the bugs sail away. The look is bewitching, and the cast is swell: including Susan Sarandon as the seductive Spider, Simon Callow as the posh-voiced Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as the streetwise Centipede, Jane Leeves as the matronly Ladybug, and David Thewlis as the Naked earthworm. Dahl's stories are for children of course. But, like Edward Gorey's, they probably have their strongest admirers among adults. (Extras: Featurettes.)


BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK

The Kim Novak Collection (A-)
U.S.: various directors, 1955-59, Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures

My favorite Kim Novak line comes in Pal Joey, Columbia's dubiously altered, shamefully bowdlerized but still entertaining adaptation of the great cynical/lyrical O'Hara, Rodgers & Hart stage musical classic, in which Kim's Linda English says to Frank Sinatra's cabaret Casanova Joey Evans, in a girlish, amused, deliberately nonprovocative voice, with no Mae West intonations or hints at all, "You're right. I do have a great shape. Confidentially, I'm stacked."

Pretty Kim, born in 1933, was a Chicago railroad worker's daughter and a natural beauty with haunting eyes and a vulnerable air, who became a movie star in her early 20s with 1954's noir Pushover, directed by her lover Richard Quine, and then a megastar with 1955's Picnic, directed by the explosive Joshua Logan.

The great years of her stardom, the mid-to-late '50s, are well-covered here. These movies give you the classic Novak image: a gorgeous fair-haired girl who's a little troubled by her own long-legged, statuesque beauty, a bit hesitant about pushing herself forward, both slinky and self-conscious, sometimes suspicious of men, a traffic-stopping but vulnerable glamour girl with brains and surprising sensitivity. (Extras: interviews and commentaries with Kim Novak and Stephen Rebello; featurettes; trailers.)

Includes:

Picnic (A-)
U.S.; Joshua Logan, 1955
William Inge's great Broadway dramatic hit about the way sex steams up in a small Kansas town at the annual picnic, with Kim as the town siren, William Holden as the drifter who steals her from his best friend (Cliff Robertson in the role the young Paul Newman played on Broadway), Betty Field as Kim's mother and Susan Strasberg as her brainy little sister, who loves Carson McCullers, Rosalind Russell as the busybody schoolteacher whose aging beau, Arthur O'Connell, is marriage-shy. The stage play, which was also directed by Josh Logan, had a great ensemble cast -- Janice Rule, Ralph Meeker, Eileen Heckart, Kim Stanley (understudied by Newman's gal, Joanne Woodward), and O'Connell. But there's something iconic about this movie, and something iconic and ultra-'50s-ish about Kim.

Jeanne Eagels (B-)
U.S.; George Sidney, 1957
Kim plays the reckless, self-destructive '20s stage and screen beauty and superstar Jeanne Eagels, who made an onstage hurricane as Sadie Thompson in the Maugham play Rain -- a drama-goddess who drank and screwed and missed so many performances she was banned by Actors' Equity, and who finally died of a heroin overdose. It's a tough part and not one of Novak's real successes. But the girl had guts even trying to play this brilliant talent and no-brakes bad girl.

Jeff Chandler is her Coney Island mentor/lover, Agnes Moorehead is her haughty teacher, and Murray Hamilton is the sleazy guy who helps push her over the edge. Sidney and cinematographer Robert Planck make it brassy and glamorous, and there's an allusion in one backstage scene to one of Eagels' directors, the great romantic Frank Borzage. A great trio of writers worked on the script: prolific Oscar-winner Sonya Levien (Quo Vadis, Drums Along the Mohawk) and those two excellent novelists-turned-scenarists, Daniel Fuchs (Low Company) and John Fante (Ask the Dust).

Pal Joey (B)
U.S.; George Sidney, 1957
Gene Kelly became a Broadway star when he played to a T the amoral, lady-killing show-biz heel and kept man Joey Evans in the great musical play by writer John O'Hara and the supreme song-writing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Later Kelly was promised the movie role, with Rita Hayworth as his costar by Columbia boss Harry Cohn. But when the movie was finally made, it was Gene's pal Frank Sinatra who got the movie call for Joey.

This is actually one of Frank's quintessential movie roles, full of Sinatra-isms like "gasser," and "ring-a-ding," with added songs/standards by Rodgers and Hart, and with orchestrations by the unbeatable Nelson Riddle. Frank spins a real gasser on "Lady Was a Tramp" (it's worth the whole movie), and he also kills us on "I Could Write a Book," and "There's a Small Hotel," while the dubbed Rita Hayworth as socialite Vera, who's keeping Joey, delivers "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and true love/non-stripper Kim's dubber sings that poignant gem "My Funny Valentine."

Bell, Book and Candle (B)
U.S.; Richard Quine, 1958
Kim rejoins Jimmy Stewart in the same year as Vertigo, playing Gillian Holroyd, lady witch and classy Greenwich Village shop-owner who has a cat named Pyewackett, and who utterly bewitches, bothers and bewilders Manhattan publisher Shep Henderson (Jimmy) in this swanky adaptation of playwright John van Druten's spooky romantic comedy. Kim's fellow witches include those sometimes macabre, sometimes playful weird sisters Elsa Lanchester (Queenie) and Hermione Gingold (Bianca). Ernie Kovacs is a great drunken writer named Sidney Redlitch, Janice Rule is Shep's luckless, insinuating fiancée Merle, and Jack Lemmon, no less, is a grinning delight as Gillian's impish brother, the bongo-playing hipster warlock Nicky.

Witchcraft here is obviously a code or analogue for '50s Bohemianism and the Greenwich Village bi- and homosexual counterculture, and the witches all hang out with Nicky in a hip club called the Zodiac. Bell has some of the look and feel, if not the richness and impact of a classic.

Middle of the Night (B)
U.S.; Delbert Mann, 1959
Kim in her prime often had good screenwriters or sources, and here she has the best script (excepting Vertigo) she was ever given: Paddy Chayefsky's April-December romance Middle of the Night

Fredric March is the affluent garment maker/widower who takes a good look at his secretary (Novak) one day and stumbles into heaven and hell. The script, like Marty, is both crackling and compassionate, and the supporting cast includes Lee Grant (as Kim's savvy friend), Albert Dekker (as March's girl-chasing partner), Glenda Farrell (as Kim's skeptical mother) and Martin Balsam (as March's sympathetic son-in-law). The movie has that great '50s-'60s look: New York City in black-and-white. But it didn't work with audiences, and it's a shame.


OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES

The Joneses (D+)
U.S.; Derrick Borte, 2010, 20th Century Fox

Here's a genuinely awful movie, disguised as a luscious satire on consumerism. Using a script of his own that deserves exile, first time director-writer Derrick Borte asks us to keep up with his Joneses -- a phony family with a phony name played by Demi Moore and David Duchovny as the comely parents, and Amber Heard and Ben Hollingswirth as their pretty offspring.

The Joneses, none of them related, have been recruited by Lauren Hutton as the nefarious KC, hired to mingle with their fellow suburbanites, gain their trust and adulation, and push products. But since all their neighbors seem just as pretty, phony and improbable as the Joneses are, one wonders why they needed to be hired at all. Wouldn't a few TV ads have sufficed? Or a Tupperware Party?

The entire cast deserves our sympathy. At the end, the movie asks us to forgive all its sins with a few author's messages on coming out, being yourself and rejecting phoniness. All I can say is, "Physician, heal thyself." These are no Joneses to keep up with.


Dogora (B)
France; Patrice Leconte, 2004, Severin

From the unusually versatile cineaste Patrice Leconte (Ridicule, The Hairdresser's Husband): A beautifully photographed semi-travelogue documentary, in which Leconte's camera wanders around without narration in Cambodia -- catching views of boats, people, waving grain, motorcycle riders, shabby or neon-lit city streets and relics of the past -- while a very western and catchy orchestral/choral score by Etienne Perruchon gives the whole thing a Koyaaniqatsi feel.

I would have liked a little narration, or an identifying title or two, but Leconte has his perverse side. In the accompanying interview, he tells of a high school critic/interviewer who finally found a connecting thread in Leconte's variegated oeuvre -- his films mostly deal with an encounter between strangers and are all set in enclosed worlds -- and proceeds here to offer a film that utterly contradicts it. (No dialogue or subtitles.) (Extras: interview with Leconte; trailer.)


Part Time Work of a Domestic Slave (A-)
Germany; Alexander Kluge, 1973, Facets Video

Director-writer Alexander Kluge and his star actress/sister Alexandra Kluge re-team for a movie that's similar to their great 1966 Venice Film Festival German New Wave breakthrough Yesterday Girl and just as provocative. It's a radical, feminist, but not predictable look at marriage, sexism and labor unions, a Godardian mix of drama/melodrama and semi-documentary verite with Alexandra as Roswitha the activist wife of a student/ worker (Bion Steinborn). His factory is slated for a secret closure and relocation to Portugal by its unscrupulous bosses. She decides to fight. The movie splits neatly in two, and right-to-lifers will be disturbed by it. In the first part, Alexandra works part-time as an illegal abortionist's assistant and the graphic abortion scenes will make many cringe. In German, with English subtitles. (Extras: Kluge's short documentary on education, Teachers in Transition.)


Crack in the World (D)
U.S.; Andrew Marton, 1965, Olive

Andrew Marton's zenith as a filmmaker was undoubtedly his brilliant action direction of the chariot race in the William Wyler-Charlton Heston Ben-Hur. Here is what I hope is his nadir: a completely idiotic disaster movie, with passable effects and a ludicrous script, in which mortally ill and furiously obsessed scientist Dana Andrews fires a missile at the earth's core so that we can pipe out the magma for fuel. Bad idea.

Unfortunately, our rash scientist opens up a huge crack, which travels whip-fast around the planet, leaving earthquakes, volcanoes and other disasters in its wake -- but not too fast for Andrews' fleet-of-foot scientific colleague and romantic rival Kieron Moore, who keeps chasing the damage, and trying to fix things. With Janette Scott, as Andrews's steadfast wife, who stands by her man even as the world seems on the verge of ending because of his stupidity.


Appointment with Danger (C-)
U.S.; Lewis Allen, 1951, Olive

Brusque and hardcase postal inspector Alan Ladd goes undercover to investigate a murder that may be the key to a huge impending postal truck robbery. Phyllis Calvert is a nun who witnessed the murderers: that sterling noir pair Jack Webb and Harry Morgan (of the later Dragnet). Paul Stewart is the robbery boss, and Jan Sterling does another moll. This is pretty entertaining in a T-Men sort of way, but not half as stylish.

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