PICKS OF THE WEEK
Toy Story 3 (A)
U.S.; Lee Unkrich, 2010, Disney Pixar
Toy Story 3 is just what we've come to expect from Pixar: a brilliantly conceived and immaculately animated knockout of a family show, witty and scrumptious, moving and marvelous, and something that parents can enjoy every bit as much as their children undoubtedly will.
Directed and co-written by longtime Pixar hand Lee Unkrich; co-produced and written by Pixar head John Lasseter, who started it all; with a script by Little Miss Sunshine's Michael Arndt, another batch of super-nifty songs by Randy Newman, and another great unimprovable cast, this movie deserves every "hurray" and "kai-yai-yippie" it can field.
Toy Story 3 ties up the tale of youngster Andy's faithful toys: that beguiling bunch led by indomitable cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), and stalwart sidekick-spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). It ends the three-part saga in ways that are both powerfully entertaining and eminently, emotionally satisfying. I laughed and smiled all the way through it, and brushed away some tears at the end, and I bid these old friends a fond farewell. Just as the Pixar gang wanted me to
Many of the Toy Story 1 and 2 bunch are back for the farewell party, including courageous cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), the finicky Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), jolly dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn), frugal piggy bank Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and the resourceful Slinky Dog (Blake Clark). And there are plenty of new arrivals, including a fancy clothes horse of a Ken Doll (Michael Keaton), who's a patented mate for Andy's sister's blond fashionista Barbie Doll (Jodi Benson), as well as a terrific new villain: a pink, squeezable, folksy tyrant, who looks like an ursine Barney, smells of strawberries, and is named Lotso Huggin' Bear (voiced with perfect genial scariness by Ned Beatty). There's even a terrific enforcer for bad Lotso, the silent, but infinitely menacing Big Baby.
Toy Story 3 shows us what happens to them all when college-bound Andy finally packs to leave home.
Of course, you can pretty much predict what happens -- though you may be a little surprised by the dark psychological roots of Lotso Huggin' Bear's evil, which are rendered in flashback. But so what? Great fairy tales or children's stories are usually a bit predictable, which is part of why they work so well.
House (Hausu) (A-)
Japan; Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977, Criterion
This gorgeously crazy, madly inventive, absolutely off-the-wall Japanese horror movie is like nothing you've ever seen -- or at least like nothing I've seen.
Writer-director Nobuhiko Obayashi, who was making his first feature after years of experimental films and TV commercials, fills this far-out genre piece to the eye-popping, mind-boggling brim. It's a typical tale, atypically done: Seven Japanese schoolgirls -- teen knockout Gorgeous (the well-cast Kimiko Ikugami), super-athlete Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), dreamy Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), studious Prof (Ai Matsubara), foodaholic Mac (Mieko Sato), piano-playing Melody (Eriko Tanaka) and adorable Sweet (Misayo Miyako) -- trek out to the country for a little fun-time vacation with Gorgeous' smiling Auntie (Yoko Minamida).
Bad plan. Gorgeous wants to get away because she's jealous of her dad's (Saho Sasazawa) beautiful new bride-to-be. Her chums are faithful, staunch gal-pals, ready for hikes, high jinks, gal-chatter and adventures. But the first guy they run into is an insanely chubby watermelon-vendor who seems to be hiding darker secrets than gluttony or cobbing watermelons. He points them to Auntie's place, a spooky old house on a hill, where smiling, wheelchair-riding Auntie, recovering from heartbreak ever since World War II, greets them with an amiability that seems, ah, suspicious -- especially since Auntie later proves capable of flying, shape-changing, and vanishing into the refrigerator.
The house has more surprises in store, including a grand piano that eats fingers, a mob of maniacal mattresses, a well that chomps off heads, all kinds of FX weirdness, and the God-damnedest, cutest, scariest little fat white cat you've ever seen. There's also a sweetly unnerving music score, and eerily catchy songs by the pop group Godeigo.
This is one of the most playful and entertaining horror movies ever. And it suggests that playfulness and horror -- as Alfred Hitchcock well knew -- mix and match better than you'd imagine. In Japanese, with English subtitles. (Extras: Obayashi's 1966 experimental film Emotion; Constructing a House, a video piece with interviews with Obayashi, daughter Chigumi and screenwriter Katsura; video appreciation by director Ti West; trailer; booklet with terrific Chuck Stephens essay.)
Paths of Glory (A)
U.S.; Stanley Kubrick, 1957, Criterion
In 1957, Stanley Kubrick, still in his 20s, made one of the greatest of all anti-war movies, even though he'd never been near a battlefield: his grim, stylish and incredibly moving adaptation of Humphrey Cobb's World War I novel, Paths of Glory.
It's a nightmare movie, based on a real-life episode, shot in black-and-white -- and set in the French trenches where the infantry eats and sleeps in dirt, and then charges forth to die, and in the elegant chateaux where aristocratic or ambitious generals plot the insane strategies that will get their men killed. There, in the chateaux, in expensive wine-soaked luxury, the barmy and incompetent general Mireau (George Macready) is talked into an ill-conceived assault on a nearly impregnable position, by the cynical General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou). Mireau sends his men out to be slaughtered, watches the inevitable failure of the stupid battle plan, and then throws a tantrum, ordering the execution of 100 of his own soldiers for cowardice.
The raving Mireau is argued down to "only" three defendants -- all to be tried, found guilty and executed as "examples." One, Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), is a brave soldier picked by his craven superior, Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris), to cover up Roget's own cowardice and murderous mistakes. One, Private Arnaud (Joseph Turkel), is an average guy and a good soldier, completely innocent, picked by lot. The last, Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) is a sociopath and petty criminal, innocent also but picked by his superior officer because he is a "social undesirable."
Defending them is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), the trio's own courageous and idealistic commanding officer, who bravely led the ridiculous charge, saw his men uselessly die, became outraged by the insane injustice of Mireau's and Broulard's trumped-up court-martial, and argues eloquently and fearlessly for the lives of those three hapless, guiltless men.
What a great movie this is! It's a film to see when you're young and innocent and maybe scared, like the three soldiers. And then to see again when you're stronger, more mature and full of fiery ideals, like Dax. And finally to see yet again when you're older and you've seen a lifetime of the awful compromises and hideous injustices that Paths of Glory paints with such crystalline clarity, such absolute lucidity, such deadly, driving narrative force -- when you know how inevitable they are, how much of this nightmare could be replicated, again and again, in history and in reality.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker Collection (A)
U.S.; Douglas Sirk, 1951-58, TCM/Universal
Douglas Sirk's career, like Max Ophuls' and Fritz Lang's, is one of the best arguments for international melting pot cinema.
Sirk was born Claus Detlev Sirk in Denmark in 1900. He emigrated to Germany for college, changing his name to Detlef Hans Sierck, and eventually became a successful theater director there in the '20s, and a film director in the '30s. But Sirk was a leftist, his wife was Jewish, and he finally left for America, where he changed his name again, to Douglas Sirk, and debuted as a Hollywood director in 1943 with a movie called Hitler's Madman, starring John Carradine as Nazi "hangman" Reinhard Heydrich.
Eventually, Sirk wound up as a contract director at Universal, one of Hollywood's cornier studios in the '50s, and, often working for producer Ross Hunter, he specialized in melodramas, "soapers" or women's pictures, along with an occasional thriller, Western, or -- the kind of movie he really wanted to make most -- a rare prestigious literary adaptation. Sirk's 1944 Summer Storm was from an Anton Chekhov novelette, his 1958 A Time to Love and a Time to Die was from an Erich Maria Remarque novel, and his 1958 The Tarnished Angels was based on William Faulkner's novel about barnstorming fliers, Pylon.
Those were the kind of authors he wanted to film. Instead, with a style and taste Andrew Sarris called "exquisite," Sirk adapted bestsellers by Lloyd C. Douglas (the wacko-inspirational Magnificent Obsession), Robert Wilder (the magnificently lurid Written on the Wind) and Fannie Hurst (the over-the-top heart-tugger Imitation of Life).
B-western maestro Budd Boetticher (The Tall T and Seven Men from Now) was another Universal '50s contract director, and he once told me that he and Sirk used to bump into each other on the lot. Boetticher used to say, "Hey, Doug, what are you doing today?" and Sirk would reply "Oh, just another soap opera. What are you doing today, Budd?" And Boetticher would answer: "Oh, just another Western."
The irony is that the day would come when Sirk's "soap operas," just like Boetticher's Westerns, would be regarded as true cinematic art, when these seemingly kitschy but immensely popular Sirk movies -- eight of them with Rock Hudson, whom Sirk nurtured to stardom just as he did Zarah Leander -- would be seen as piercing critiques of American middle- and upper-class society, masterpieces of transformative cinematic style. (Extras: Robert Osborne TCM introductions; essays on all four films; photo galleries.)
Thunder on the Hill (B)
U.S.; 1951, Universal
Claudette Colbert and Gladys Cooper are among the nuns trapped in a Canadian convent/hospital during a storm and flood. Ann Blyth is a convicted murderess trapped there as well, and due to be transported and hanged in the morning -- except that Sister Bonaventure (Colbert) is as convinced of Blyth's innocence, as she is of God's mercy and justice. A fine murder mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie or Christiana Brand, beautifully shot by William Daniels (who also shot Greed and Garbo).
Taza, Son of Cochise (C)
Sirk not only liked Boetticher. He also liked Westerns. And Sirk sometimes named as one of his favorites among his own work his only venture in the genre, Taza, Son of Cochise -- which is about the warring sons (Hudson as Taza and Bart Roberts, a.k.a. Rex Reason, as Naiche), progeny of Broken Arrow's co-hero Cochise, played in an uncredited cameo by Broken Arrow costar Jeff Chandler.
I disagree. I think Taza is a well-shot but lousy Western and that star Rock Hudson makes an absurd American Indian -- especially when, as part of the tribal police, opposed to the bad-tempered radical Geronimo (Ian McDonald), he dons a cavalryman outfit, and his Taza headkerchief peeks out under the soldier hat like a weird head bandage. Barbara Rush, as Indian maiden Oona, is nearly raped by Taza's brother Naiche (who then tries to kill Taza) in the film's opening minutes -- and she looks uncomfortable too. Who can blame her? But the visual style is robust, and it's too bad Sirk never shot another one.
Captain Lightfoot (A-)
Set in Ireland, and shot on location in Cinemascope and color, this is a wonderful movie, high-spirited and full of adventure and romance, castles, greensward, and that fine, drizzly Irish rain. Hudson, playing a rebel with relish, is roguish Captain Lightfoot, and Rush is his contentious ladylove, daughter of the legendary bandit, Captain Thunderbolt, played by Jeff Morrow. Hudson and Rush are a far happier pair as Irish hero and heroine than they were as Taza and Oona. (This movie, by the way, is where Michael Cimino got the names for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, his 1974 Clint Eastwood-Jeff Bridges actioner.)
The Tarnished Angels (A)
Sirk's favorite Sirk, and mine too neck-and-neck with Written on the Wind, which was also written by George Zuckerman. The source is Faulkner's Pylon, the setting is New Orleans in Mardi Gras time, and three of the stars of Wind return: Robert Stack as heroic but near-penniless barnstorming pilot Roger Schuman, Dorothy Malone as his daredevil wife Laverne, the blond everybody wants, and Rock Hudson as Burke Devlin, a drunken newspaper reporter at the Times-Picayune, who becomes enamored of them both. (Faulkner based Devlin on himself, and Roger on his pilot brother Gene.) The fourth main part is Jiggs, the lovelorn mechanic, played by Jack Carson in one of his rare non-smartass roles. Tarnished Angels focuses on life's fringes and the ironies of heroism with compassion and high style, and, as brilliantly shot by Irving Glassberg, it's one of the best-looking black-and-white/widescreen movies of its era, a dark gem of near noir style. The one flaw is Hudson's mostly undrunk Devlin. But it's not his fault; Hudson began the movie playing Devlin as soused, and Universal, fearful of harm to their big property/s image, ordered him to play it sober. The film is a classic anyway. And William Faulkner preferred it to all the other movies made from his work, even that acknowledged classic Intruder in the Dust. Faulkner, no stranger to booze himself, even liked Hudson's Devlin.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.K.; Neil Marshall, 2010, Magnolia Home Entertainment
Michael Fassbender (no relation to R.W.), as Centurion Quintus Dias, wanders around a pre-Christian, pre-Beatles Britain (Scotland, actually), swallowed in murk and gloom, and echoing with the din of battle axes and random decapitations. Also around, trapped in the bloody havoc and the boggy mire, are Andreas Wizniewski as Commander Gratus, Dave Legend as Vortix and Dominic West as General Titus Virilus (these names are not jokes). Axele Carolyn and Olga Kurylenko provide unusual love interest as a homicidal psychopath and a friendly witch.
The only really good thing about Centurion is that it's not Centurion II.
The Wiz (C+)
U.S.; Sidney Lumet, 1978, Universal
A misfiring film of the modern musical Afro-American stage version of The Wizard of Oz; one of the few times director Sidney Lumet and a New York City backdrop (albeit a fantasized one) don't mesh. Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross and Lena Horne are fine as the Tin Man, The Lion and Glinda, but Diana Ross is way miscast as Dorothy, and Michael Jackson's Scarecrow has become something with which to frighten small children. Richard Pryor is The Wiz -- and he'd probably rather be in Peoria.
Evening Primrose (A-)
U.S.; Paul Bogart, 1966, e one
A neglected gem from the TV '60s, from Stage 67, an ambitious attempt to bring back the quality of the '50s TV Golden Age -- a show killed mostly by sponsor disinterest, and partly by neglect by crucial critics, notably like The New York Times' Jack Gold. Based on John Collier's classic tale about a young poet fleeing from the world, trapped in a community of eccentric people who secretly dwell in a posh New York City department store and disguise themselves as mannequins, it's been turned into a strange and lyrical musical drama by writer James Goldman (The Lion in Winter) and the great composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who's at his best.
Anthony Perkins (the poet) sings well and acts better. Singing even better is Charmian Carr, the ingénue of The Sound of Music, as the store-community girl Perkins wants to rescue. It's actually one of Sondheim's finest scores, and it includes the beautiful I Remember and the haunting Take Me to the World. It really should be made again some day, maybe even expanded to regular film or play length. This is an hour-long black-and-white kinescope of the lost color original. (Extras: video interviews with director Bogart and Charmian Carr; booklet with piece by Sondheim.)
White Christmas (B)
U.S.; Michael Curtiz, 1954, Paramount
It's sometimes sappy and mechanical, but this refashioning of the Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire-Irving Berlin hit Holiday Inn was the big hit and enduring classic of Michael (Casablanca) Curtiz's later career -- and audiences still watch it happily every Yuletide. Crosby and Danny Kaye are song and dancemen/World War II vets, helping out their old commander (Dean Jagger) with holiday stage shows; Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen are romantic interest musical gals. What can you say? It works.
<That Certain Woman (B-)
U.S.: Edmund Goulding, 1937, Warner Archive
A gangster's widow (Bette Davis) falls in love with a rich weakling (Henry Fonda) under the thumb of his millionaire dad (Donald Crisp), while her urbane lawyer protector (Ian Hunter) yearns for her. There's also a baby and a near-fatal car accident. This was Davis' first film with Edmund Goulding, who became one of her favorite directors. He helms well again. Unfortunately, Goulding's script, based on his Gloria Swanson movie The Trespasser, turns into a crock of soap. Davis looks great, though; it's one of her more glamorous outings. (Warner Archive DVDs are made on demand via warnerarchive.com.)