PICKS OF THE WEEK
A Serious Man (A)
U.S.; Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009, Universal
The Coen brothers' typically dark, typically wry look at a Jewish boyhood (and fatherhood) in the late '60s in suburban Minnesota -- where the youthful Coens grew up, at a time when the brand-new counterculture of the Vietnam riots and the Summer of Love hadn't yet fully penetrated the old Jewish neighborhood culture of bar mitzvahs, Torahs and legends of the Dybbuk, and when the sounds of Jefferson Airplane and the Rolling Stones had just begun to infiltrate the Hebrew studies classes.
The central character is Larry Gopnik (played with memorable angst by Michael Stuhlbarg), a local college physics professor whose life begins to fall apart on all levels and whose seemingly endless sufferings are deliberately paralleled with those of the Bible's Job. Larry is cursed with an emotionally damaged brother (Richard Kind) who seems permanently camped out on his couch; a cold, bullying faithless wife (Jessica McManus) who's cheating on him with his maddeningly genial friend Sy Abelman (wonderfully played by Fred Melamed); Danny, a son who'd rather listen to Gracie Slick than study the Talmud (Aaron Wolf); and a blond next-door neighbor (Amy Landecker) who tempts him with nude sun-bathing and marijuana.
When great directors make a major career breakthrough, their next film is often very personal, and daring: the kind of project they've never been able to make before. That's the case with A Serious Man, which immediately followed the Coens' big critical hit and Best Picture-Director-and-Writer Oscar winner No Country for Old Men, and is the Coen brothers film where they explore and have fun with their Jewish roots. It's a gem, a darkly comic look at an America, where the '60s cultural/political explosions had already begun, but hadn't yet hit the suburbs full-force.
But something is rotten in the state of Minnesota, and Joel and Ethan remember it well, right up to the gathering storm in A Serious Man's brooding last shot. The Coens' lesser-known but right-on cast is perfect, the writing is full of flavor, odd affection and irony, the cultural re-creation uncannily good. This was one of last year's very best American films. (Extras: two "making of" featurettes; Hebrew and Jewish lexicon for goys.)
The Departed (A)
U.S.; Martin Scorsese, 2006, Warner, Blu-ray
No one opens up meaner streets or makes better neo-noir crime movies than Martin Scorsese, a Little Italy-bred cineaste who has the maps to many of America's hells right beside his camera. This Americanization of the blistering Andrew Lau-Alan Mak Hong Kong thriller Internal Affairs (with Tony Leung), by Scorsese and writer William (Kingdom of Heaven) Monahan -- though perhaps not the esthetic equal of Mean Streets or GoodFellas -- shows Scorsese at the top of his audacious game.
Here's the job. Two spies -- Leonardo Di Caprio as an undercover cop who's infiltrated mob boss Jack Nicholson's inner circle, and Matt Damon as a crook and Nicholson protégé who's worked his way into the upper reaches of the Boston police anti-mob squad -- cross paths, violently. The air is cloudy with profanity and blood. The streets are like concrete arenas of death. We're left with a cheat, a double-cross, one hit after another. Sin, sadism and fear pour down these faces like sweat before the last shot.
Monahan's script is as good as one of Ben Hecht's; there is no higher praise for a crime movie. Scorsese's great, convincingly streetwise cast also includes Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone and Vera Farmiga. They're all aces. The Departed is a stunner. (Extras: featurettes.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
TCM Greatest Classics: Romance (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1942-61, Turner Classic Movies
A perfect movie buff gift for Valentine's Day.
Four marvelous or sizzling Hollywood romances, starring four classic couples (Bette Davis-Paul Henreid, Gary Cooper-Audrey Hepburn and Warren Beatty-Natalie Wood) and one unforgettable triangle (Clark Gable-Ava Gardner-Grace Kelly), directed by a roster of auteurs that includes Billy Wilder, John Ford and Elia Kazan (along with notable non-auteur Irving Rapper), with first-rate studio-style scripting by Wilder and Diamond, Casey Robinson, John Lee Mahin, and William Inge.
In some ways, the more constrained, pre-censored and repressed era of the old Production Code, which covers the period of these films almost up to Splendor in the Grass, sometimes helped the smarter filmmakers create the unique ambience and erotic tension of the great Golden Age Hollywood romance movies. The fact that moviemakers couldn't show their lovers in bed (even in the 1961 Splendor, which is about the psychic perils of sexual repression) made them work that much harder to heat up the screen, and it often helped make the movie couples sexier and more attractive, the love scenes more subtly suggestive or smoky-hot, the partings more poignant.
Now, Voyager (A-)
U.S.; Irving Rapper, 1942
From Olive Higgins Prouty's paradigmatic woman's novel, with Bette Davis in one of her best-loved roles, as the old maid/wallflower who blossoms, Paul Henreid as the cigarette-puffing dreamboat who opens her heart and Claude Rains as the kindly psychiatrist who knows the Freudian way to true love. "Who needs the moon, when we have the stars?" Irving Rapper's masterpiece -- though that's not saying much, it is saying something -- and a Bette-lover's bonanza.
U.S.; John Ford, 1953
Clark Gable, after two decades, ignites the screen once more in one of his saltiest and sexiest roles (the one that made him a star), as the lady-killer Carson from director/buddy Victor Fleming's bawdy and delightful 1932 Red Dust, with Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly taking the old Jean Harlow and Mary Astor hot vamp and haughty lady roles -- and the setting switched from an MGM soundstage-Chinese rubber plantation to wild animal hunts on location in Africa. John Lee Mahin, who scripted many of Gable's best scenes and lines, wrote both Red Dust and Mogambo. And though it's atypical Ford, it's very entertaining.
Love in the Afternoon (A-)
U.S.; Billy Wilder, 1957
Gary Cooper is an aging American roué in Paris who woos his conquests with the help of lots of dough, elegant hotel rooms and a traveling string quartet who play "Fascination." Audrey Hepburn is a still innocent but very saucy gamin beauty who tricks her way into Cooper's heart by pretending to be a seasoned seductress and man killer. And Maurice Chevalier -- in the Hollywood return he should have made in An American in Paris -- is Cooper's worldly private detective, and also Hepburn's proud but increasingly wary papa. Wilder wanted to make a sprightly, sophisticated, smart romance in the style of his late mentor Ernst Lubitsch -- and with the help of co-writer I.A.L. Diamond (in the first of his many Wilder collaborations), he does.
Splendor in the Grass (A-)
U.S.; Elia Kazan, 1961
Elia Kazan had a rare gift for generating sexual and romantic tension on screen, never more than in his stage and film direction of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire -- and here, in playwright/screenwriter William Inge's classic small-town romance about a pair of passionate but frustrated high school lovers (Natalie Wood's sweet-girlish Deanie Loomis and Warren Beatty's town golden boy Bud Stamper), two hotties who come from the lower and upper classes and are kept apart by Bud's bullying, yelling, back-slapping oil driller dad Ace (Pat Hingle, in a Burl Ives-style role and the finest performance of his career), who wrecks his son's life and drives Deanie to madness. Kazan and Inge potently re-create the dizzy, overheated, reckless pace and atmosphere of America before the Great Crash and the Depression, and the burnt-out nostalgia afterwards.
There are few depictions of Midwestern small town life that can match or surpass Splendor. And this movie's last scene, when the recovered Deanie visits the now-fallen, now-married Bud at his farm, on a quiet day with a golden, autumnal tinge, is one of the most beautiful of Kazan's entire career. Every lost love and romantic regret we've all had is captured and summed up in those heartfelt, precious five minutes.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Time Traveler's Wife (C+)
U.S.; Robert Schwentke, 2009, New Line
Time travel movie romances, like the locus classicus Somewhere in Time, are usually about the transience of love and desire, the bittersweet impossibility of reclaiming the past. That's the theme of The Time Traveler's Wife, based on Audrey Niffenegger's novel and written by Bruce Joel Rubin of Ghost. The two central time-crossed lovers, played by Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, a movie couple with a genuine glow on screen, are Clare, who keeps meeting her lover in and out of time sequence, beginning when she's a little girl in a sunny field, and Henry, who's afflicted with fits of involuntarily time travel that send him hopping in and out of chronology -- and in an out of Clare's life.
Their story is like that of the lady in love with the sailor, who can't resist the pull of the sea, or, to get more modern, like the predicament of the wife of a big movie star who keeps zipping off to one new location after another. The ending is, of course, wet-handkerchief sad and wannabe redemptive -- and since Henry keeps disappearing in swatches, like a melting ice cream cone, you get clued into his vanishings and Clare's super-tolerance for them.
I didn't think the story made much sense, and the writers are especially loose with their planted idea that time travelers can't change the future or the past, no matter how much they may want to -- something that doesn't seem to hold here for pregnancies, financial windfalls and lots of other stuff.
Couples Retreat (C)
U.S.; Peter Billingsley, 2009, Universal
Ever since Swingers, Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau have make a pretty fair buddy-buddy comedy team, But in Couple's Retreat, co-written by the chums, they're way better than their material. As two of the male members in a four-couple bunch that go off together to a Caribbean resort called "Eden" -- it has one island for couples and one for singles, and the guys keep trying to cross over -- they provide some laughs, if not much illumination. The rest of the eightsome includes Jason Bateman and Faizon Love as the other guys, and Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis, Malin Akerman, Tasha Smith and Kali Hawk as four wives and a mistress. I laughed some at them, and at Peter Serafinowicz and Carlos Ponce as the most obnoxious of the Eden resort employees.
And I liked the song score. But I felt bad about it in the morning.
The Song of Sparrows (A-)
Iran; Majid Majidi, 2008, EI Entertainment
A wonderful little movie from Majid Majidi, the superb Iranian writer-director whose finely wrought, crowd-pleasing, touchingly humanistic work I first encountered back in 1997, when I was on the Montreal Film Festival jury that awarded the Grand Prize to Majidi's equally wonderful The Children of Heaven.
The movie, beautifully shot and bursting with life, stars Majidi regular and Heaven vet Reza Naji, who won the Berlin Film Festival acting prize for his role here as Karim: an ostrich farm worker living in the Iranian countryside, who loses one of his ostriches and his job, and then, in an attempt to earn the money for his daughter's lost hearing aid, plunges into the hurly-burly of Teheran. There, he makes a surprising success on his motorcycle as a freelance taxi driver.
Soon, though, Karim gets trapped in a gas-guzzling routine of materialism and acquisition -- as he fills his family's home and courtyard with junk and stuff, and his children try to strike it rich themselves, by clearing a well of pond scum and using it to breed goldfish. In the movie, which contrasts the spacious Pampas-like beauty of the ostrich country with the noisy, dirty bustle of Teheran, Majidi undercuts the rigidity of current Iranian mores and politics. He effectively critiques the perils of modernity and celebrates the joys off family life -- but not in an unconvincing, rote, phony way.
Iranian cinema is hamstrung by censorship, largely anti-sexual and anti-feminist, but, given this stacked deck, its filmmakers have often, like Majidi, Jafar Panahi or Abbas Kiarostami, excelled at simple humanistic films, often about children and poor people. Here Majidi, surrounding the excellent Naji with an all-amateur cast, triumphs again. This film, like many of the Iranian classics, shows the influence of Italian neo-realism, Vittorio De Sica and Bicycle Thieves. But it's also lively and buoyant. Naji is marvelous. So is the movie, which, like all Majidi's films, opens your eyes and warms your heart. (In Farsi, with English subtitles.)
Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (C+)
Thailand; Tony Jaa/Panna Rittikra, 2009, Magnolia
Martial arts movie sensation Tony Jaa, of the smash hit Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior -- who like Jackie Chan in his prime, does all his own stunts -- returns in a period movie that gets almost monotonously exciting. It's Jaa's first film as director, though writer Rittikra helped out noticeably when Jaa took an unplanned vacation. There are lots of amazing fight scenes and stunts, like the elephant herd run, with Jaa on top, hopping from elephant to elephant. Wow! You'll never see that in a Shia LaBeouf movie. (In Thai, with English subtitles.)
U.K.; Stephen Woolley, 2005, Screen Media
Stephen Woolley, who produced some of Neil Jordan's and Julian Temple's best films, tells the tortured tale of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones -- who founded the Stones, played on most of their '60s hits, dominates the jacket of High Tide and Green Grass (first Stones album I ever bought), had a lot of sex, a lot of dope, got fired for drugginess and unreliability by Mick Jagger (Luke de Woolfson) and Keith Richards (Ben Whishaw) after Keith stole Brian's girlfriend, Anita Wallenberg (Monet Mazur), probably inspired the character Turner, played by Mick in Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's masterpiece "Performance" (which seems to have inspired much of this movie), and finally drowned in the swimming pool on his own estate, which was once the domicile of A.A. Milne, beloved writer of Winnie the Pooh.
According to this movie, it was murder, or at least second-degree murder, committed by Brian's bodyguard/drug buddy Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine) -- who, according to various sources, probably inspired Chas, the gangster character played in Performance by James Fox.
Well, I can buy that. According to Variety, there's supposedly a death bed confession. But what I can't buy is trying to make a biographical movie about the Rolling Stones, with no Rolling Stones songs, instead replacing them with public domain Robert Johnson songs. Those are great songs, and the Stones sometimes sang the hell out of them. But, as a wise man once said: Are you fucking kidding me? There are other problems here, but that one's a deal-killer. All this film's in vain.