PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 2008, Universal
Changeling is another fine late-career movie from director Clint Eastwood: a scary, blood-chillingly clear look at the real-life noir side of old Los Angeles. In 1928, Christine Collins, a single working mother and telephone company supervisor (played convincingly by the super-beautiful Angelina Jolie), arrived home late one day (not her fault) to find that her nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) had vanished. Distraught, she turned to the police -- then unfortunately in the grip of citywide corruption and venal police chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore). After doing little at first, the cops suddenly informed her, after pressure and bad publicity, that they'd found Walter in Dekalb, Illinois.
But the boy the police bring to Christine isn't Walter -- even though, amidst mucho hoopla at the train station, he claims to be. And when she tries to convey this simple fact to the head of the investigation, Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) -- a natty chap with a phony line of smooth patter -- Jones becomes testy, then enraged, and then finally has her committed to the L. A. psychopathic ward, where she is told by the head doctor that she has to sign a statement affirming the false child as Walter, or stay in the psych ward and face possible electro-shock "therapy."
That's just the beginning of this fact-based chronicle of persecution, ineptitude, public crime and private depravity, a story that screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski dug out of the L.A. files just before they were slated for burning. Eastwood, who also produced and wrote the music, tells it like a horror story, in grim, stark, unsunny images (by cinematographer Tom Stern and designer James J. Murakami) that almost suggest that other changeling-child shocker, The Exorcist.
Before the tale is done, we've also been introduced to the fiery anti-Davis crusading minister Gustav Breigleb (John Malkovich), shown many levels of the deeply entrenched '20s-'30s L.A. corruption, and met one of the scariest boyish movie serial killers since Tony Perkins' murderous man-child Norman Bates in Psycho -- Jason Butler Harner as the genial, maniacal "chicken coop man" Gordon Northcott.
As in Mystic River, Eastwood uses the theme of child-abduction (and probably both sexual and physical assault) -- to throw into sharper relief his frequent themes of corruption, outsiders and personal and societal morality. There's always been a seeming irony about the ways liberal critics, including this one, have championed the more conservative Eastwood especially throughout his later career. One of the reasons: Many of us come from a '60s anti-war generation almost as suspicious of government and its motives as the old Barry Goldwater right.
I feel right at home in an Eastwood movie when one of his outsiders stands alone against a sadistic mob, where one of his solitary mavericks is surrounded by corruption and has to fight improbably back. Like Christine. That's a sometime conservative theme, but it can also be a leftist one. Indeed, it often is, as in 12 Angry Men, and in Bill Clinton's favorite movie, High Noon, directed by the liberal Fred Zinnemann and written by the blacklisted Carl Foreman.
After his great 2006 World War II duo of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling shows Eastwood again at the top of his directorial form. The cast and his regular company, including cinematographer Stern and editor Joel Cox, are also at the top of theirs. This is a portrayal of governmental despotism and private rottenness that should rouse anger, terror and pity. It's a noir exposé, a sad dark story to remember. And it's more prime stuff from Clint.
I Served the King of England (A)
Czech Republic, Jiri Menzel, 2006, Sony
Jiri Menzel, the nonpareil Czech director-writer-actor who won the foreign-language film Oscar for his first feature, 1966's Closely Watched Trains, is, like the Orson Welles of Citizen Kane, a filmmaker who began his career with great good fortune and extraordinary achievement, only to experience later rough times, hardship and opposition. Menzel's hassles with the Czech Communist government may not have been as severe as Welles' hamstringing by the Hollywood establishment, but, after the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, they often hampered at least part of his 43-year career.
Yet in his new film, the deliciously witty I Served the King of England, we see Menzel returning once more to the high terrain of his youthful triumphs in the legendary Czech New Wave -- and returning also to the work of his late, great collaborator, novelist Bohumil Hrabal, who also wrote the whimsical and compassionate novel that became Closely Watched Trains.
I Served the King of England, based on another later Hrabal novel, is a colorful, scrumptious feast of a movie that shows both Menzel and Hrabal in top form. It's about the irresistible rise of a plucky but somewhat amoral young provincial waiter named Jan Dite to the top of the hotel and restaurant business in Czechoslovakia before and during World War II -- followed by his calamitous fall after the postwar Communist takeover.
Menzel, now 70 (68 when he made King of England) has a great light comic touch and a flawless eye for the pain that can lie beneath life's joys and humors. In Jan, he -- along with Hrabal and the actors -- has created a genuinely Chaplinesque figure, a capering opportunist endowed with light-footed grace and nimble deviltry, played as a young man by the boyish blond Ivan Barnev and in old age by the quieter, wearier, gray-haired Oldrich Kaiser. His story is told in flashback as the older Jan, released near the end of a 15-year postwar prison sentence, is relocated to an abandoned pub in the Sudetenland. We see his youthful rise, his championing by a series of mentors -- especially the magnificent maitre d', Skrivanek (Martin Huba) who proudly boasts "I served the King of England!"
Through most of the later stages of Jan's improbable ascent, he avoids problems with the then-burgeoning Nazi threat and the final German invasion, because of his own naively apolitical nature and with the help of his staunchly Nazi Sudetenland German wife Liza (Julia Jentsch) -- a devoted helpmate so entranced with the Fuehrer, that she stares longingly at a painting of Adolf while getting it on with Jan.
Politics, though, can't be avoided forever -- which is also the theme of Trains. When Jan achieves his dream of becoming a millionaire hotel owner, the Communist takeover and his life's latter, darker chapters are just around the corner. Barnev, a tiny man whose elfin features shine with both wariness and amusement has the perfect face and form -- and talent -- for Jan. And, like Chaplin with The Great Dictator and Lubitsch with To Be or Not to Be, Menzel makes a powerfully humanist, anti-fascist (and anti-Communist) statement without losing any of his film's silky grace or buoyant humor. The movie, like Menzel's other early comedies, Trains, Capricious Summer and the long banned Larks on a String (also from a Hrabal novel) -- is absolutely gorgeous as well, as ripe-looking as fresh fruit on a silver tray, in a world aflame with color.
This movie -- funny/sad, blithe and tragic -- is a masterpiece of shifting moods, transporting us swiftly and lucidly through its dizzying backdrop of elegant Art Nouveau hotels, busy brothels and threadbare pubs. Along the way, aided by a superb cast and excellent technical comrades, Menzel takes King of England all the way from the giddy effervescent comedy mode of a Charlie Chaplin to the darker vision of an Ingmar Bergman and the radiant humanism of a Jean Renoir. It's a wonderful film, a luscious banquet of life, love and tragicomedy, served with impish grace and a soupcon of sadness and delight. (In Czech, German and English, with English subtitles.)
U.S.; John Cassavetes, 1968, Criterion Collection
Laughs, boozing, sexual desire, humiliation, deceit and terrifying sadness: This is some of what we see flickering across the extraordinary "Faces" inside John Cassavetes' low-budget independent classic. Here they are: a hard-edged Hollywood businessman named Dickie Forst (John Marley), a sweet-tempered prostitute named Jeannie Rapp (Gena Rowlands), her two drunken johns Freddie and Jim (Fred Draper and Val Avery), Dickie's quietly despairing wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) and her good-natured, young Whiskey-a-Go-Go "one-night stand" Chet (Seymour Cassel). It's a gallery of laughter, wasted affluence, anger and pain, starting with Dickie at the end of a business day in a screening room, when the night of booze, revelry and sex is just about to start, and ending up at his home on the morning after -- as Dickie returns from his boozy whoring after Chet tries to save Maria from a suicide attempt.
Cassavetes used the same improvisatory, cast-participation techniques in he'd pioneered in the 1959 and 1961 versions of his revolutionary debut film Shadows -- and to stunning, powerful effect. Cassavetes' actors, a ferociously candid ensemble of friends and frequent co-workers (including The Godfather's Marley and John's wife and longtime partner Gena), helped write the script in rehearsal, workshop-style, after the director set up the situations. But Faces -- though shot in black-and-white partly at the director's own home, the rough hand-held cinema verite camera style that often drives Cassavetes detractors nuts -- was one of his major critical and box-office successes, and one of the most widely admired and influential independent U.S. film dramas of the '60s.
The characters do what we expect in a Cassavetes film: They laugh, they drink, they yell at each other, and they face rude awakenings that shock them right out of their temporary illusions. Faces is an American film masterpiece about '60s malaise, by a maverick genius filmmaker revered in both European and American filmmaking circles: John Cassavetes, an unbuttoned, angry, loving guy who knew how the hell people ticked. (Extras: Documentary Making Faces; alternate opening scene; 1968 episode on Cassavetes from French TV series Cineastes de notre temps; featurette on Faces' lighting by cinematographer/associate producer Al Ruban; booklet with Stuart Klawans essay.)
Hobson's Choice (B+)
U.K.; David Lean, 1954, Criterion Collection
Charles Laughton got one of the juiciest, most memorable parts of his career when David Lean cast him as the alcoholic, tyrannical boot maker and father Henry Hobson in Lean's 1954 film of the well-worn Harold Brighouse comic play Hobson's Choice. Laughton's Hobson, who would rather carouse in the local pub than mess with work in his successful bootery, leaves the business to his hard-working, bold-as-brass eldest daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), and the craft to his shy, little genius boot maker Will Mossop (John Mills), while he waits for the two younger Hobson daughters Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales) to find themselves husbands -- and they'll be no settlements from him, mind you! In Hobson's bootery, his word is law, and his bellow and his belly rule all.
Maggie, however, has other ideas, and we soon learn that, once her mind is made up, there's no stopping her. She's set on the seemingly mousey Will as a husband, and as her partner in a new bootery that will rob her recalcitrant dad of much of his high-class trade -- much of them Mossop fans whether they know it or not -- unless he agrees to treat them as they deserve (which he won't, not while breath is in his body and blood and booze flow in his veins). So, while Hobson rages against the perfidy of a world that's changing too fast and feet that are too fickle, Maggie is making a man of meek Will, and both of them are creating a sensation in the world of boots. All of this climaxes in a showdown at boot hill, where Hobson has to make his choice.
Hobson's Choice is a comedy about a family revolution, and a blistering comic assault on machismo and paternalism. But it's also one of the most delightful comic tributes to enlightened capitalism that the movies ever gave us. Laughton is truly splendid, whether he's chasing the moon in the puddles outside the pubs or roaring for order in his coming-apart-at-the-seams household -- so wonderfully arch, explosive, sly and blustering that he takes hamminess to a whole different level. Mills is great too, and the tiny actor's triumphant worm-turning, thanks to the indomitable De Banzie, touches your heart. This was also Lean's last black-and-white film, shot by Jack Hildyard in Manchester and on gorgeous Wilfred Shingleton sets, and it's just bloomin' beautiful. (Extras: Documentary on Laughton; commentary with film noir and Lean experts Alain Silver and James Ursini; trailer; booklet with Armond White essay.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Clint Eastwood American Icon Collection (A)
U.S.; Clint Eastwood & Don Siegel, 1968-1975, Universal
If Changeling shows us Clint Eastwood-the-director at his best, Clint-the-actor shines brightly in four Universal movies from his immediate post-Leone period though the mid-'70s in this three-disc collection. Two are directed by Eastwood and two by his good buddy and crafty mentor, Don Siegel (or "Il Padrone," as Sam Peckinpah used to call him). You can't go wrong with this set, though Eiger Sanction, despite its spectacular mountain shots and stunts, isn't up to the other three.
Don Siegel, 1968
One of my favorite Eastwood films and performances: C.E. is a sarcastic, insolent, cool-cat, tough-guy ladies' man of an Arizona cop named Coogan, on the loose in New York City, chasing an extradited killer who got away (Don Stroud), under the disapproving eyes of head cop Lee J. Cobb. Coogan is just as hard as Harry, and just as dirty, but more charming and less inwardly tormented, and I often wish he'd gotten as many sequels. (The movie did, supposedly, inspire the Dennis Weaver TV series McCloud.) Coogan's Bluff also has a great Clint crack that never caught on. Holding a broken bottle on an obstreperous heavy in a rock-bar, Coogan tells the thug to cool out and spill or "You're not gonna believe what happens next, not even while it's happening."
The Beguiled (B+)
Don Siegel, 1970
C.E. is a wounded, lecherous and bedridden Civil War soldier who wants to put his bed to good use, in a Southern mansion full of repressed and possibly dangerous females, led by domineering Geraldine Page and including the pale and approachable Elizabeth Hartman. An unusual piece for Siegel and Eastwood: a moody Gothic period shocker, whose themes of emasculation and sexual fear bleed into Play Misty for Me and Dirty Harry.
Play Misty for Me (B+)
Clint Eastwood, 1971
C.E. is an egotistical, lady-killing jazz disc jockey who kills one too many. Jessica Walter is his biggest fan, a lady who likes sexual exercise, faithful men and pianist Erroll Garner's rendition of his "Misty." An erotic thriller a little before its vogue, and 16 years before the similar Fatal Attraction, Misty kicked off Eastwood's directorial career with (pardon the double entendre) a bang. With Donna Mills, Siegel, Johnny Otis, the Cannonball Adderly Quintet and, on the soundtrack, Roberta Flack crooning "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."
The Eiger Sanction (C+)
Clint Eastwood, 1975
James Bondish spy action, from the Trevanian novel, with hair-raising mountain climbing scenes and stunts (C.E. does his own) and a peculiar, dark plot of betrayal, gay malice (Jack Cassidy's campy heavy) and pathology. With George Kennedy and Vonetta McGee.
OTHER NEW OR RECENT DVD RELEASES
Body of Lies (B)
U.S.; Ridley Scott, 2008, Warner
In Ridley Scott's Iraq-and-Jordan-set CIA thriller Body of Lies, Leonardo DiCaprio plays the (eventually) good spook and Russell Crowe the bad one -- and they work together and clash in one of those anti-heroic spy thrillers in which The Company and its international counterparts and terrorist foes play familiar dirty games in high-tech style. It's an exciting movie, done in the flashy, breath-catching hyper-visual mode we expect from Scott. But in the end, it gets bogged down: trapped in the kind of schmaltzy, preachy, predictable climax we don't expect from scriptwriter William Monahan (of The Departed and Scott's underrated Kingdom of Heaven).
Monahan's source is a David Ignatius' novel, which carries on its sleeve a blurb from ex-CIA head and Iraq patsy George Tenent, and the movie does have of a feeling of authenticity, at least in its physical details. It also has a great visual gimmick: repeated overhead black-and-white CIA surveillance shots that cover the action scenes, turn the world into a maze and act as a metaphor for both the omnipresence of international spying and the godlike temptations of its tools.
The actors and dialogue give Lies a sometime feeling of truth too -- not just DiCaprio and Crowe in their archetypal roles of fast-talking, wise-guy field agent Roger Ferris and his malevolent fat schlep stateside boss Ed Hoffman, but the actors in the lesser parts too -- especially Mark Strong as the suave Jordanian spymaster Hani, but also Golshiftei Farahani as Aisha, Roger's beauteous Jordanian medico love interest, Oscar Isaac as Ferris' go-to guy Bassam and Alon Abutbul as murderous terrorist Al Saleem, a bin Laden stand-in.
There's a lot of potential in one of the script's ideas: the juxtaposition of Ferris and Hoffman's modern technological world and the low-tech, deliberately primitive methods of the terrorists, who don't even use cell phones. But Body of Lies gets outrageously corny -- thanks to a kidnapping-lovey-dovey plot with Aisha, but also to a premise I found as nutty as the Bush Doctrine: Farris' devious scheme to draw Al Saleem out by manufacturing a phony terrorist leader with the aid of a computer geek.
Thanks to its high-talent pro lineup, though, Body of Lies passes the time pretty well, even if it doesn't necessarily enrich it. The actors keep pumping sarcasm and professionalism into the movie, DiCaprio makes us believe in his Spy Who Came in From the Hot character, and Scott (with new cinematographer Alexander Witt) makes the spy games look incandescent -- even if he and Monahan can't really sell us this particular body of lies.
Flash of Genius (B)
U.S.; Marc Abraham, 2008, Universal
Flash of Genius has a great story, conventionally told -- but in this case, the importance and suggestiveness of the tale trumps the blander telling. Based on John Seabrook's New Yorker article, the movie details the 13-year court battle of teacher/inventor Robert Kearns (played with total lack of vanity by Greg Kinnear) to gain recognition for his patented invention, intermittent windshield wipers, which he conceived in a "flash of genius" (Wipers should work like blinking eyelids!) and brought to the Ford Motor Company -- and which Ford executives first accepted, then dropped, and later stole and claimed for their own. Apparently it was all in the day's work for these sleazy execs. They simply broke off negotiations with Kearns, put out the product without telling him, threw him out of a showroom when he discovered the truth, and pitched their high-priced battery of lawyers and mean-as-hell legal hardcases at him when he took them to court.
Fighting back was no easy task for Kearns. Along the way, he lost his wife (Lauren Graham), his family, his job, his reputation and the lawyers who, years before the finish, brokered him a small settlement. (That team includes Alan Alda as exasperated legal-eagle Greg Lawson, the movie's best performance). Against these constant travails and the offhanded, brutal display of smug corporate power, Kearns acts as his own lawyer -- and one of the movie's decidedly unguilty pleasures is watching him face off against Ford's shrewd, suave, tricky lawyers in court, in scenes that apparently come straight from the record.
Kinnear and the movie don't play for easy sympathy. Their Kearns is an obsessed, driven, often maddening man -- but the movie shows that he almost has to be, in order to keep pursuing this seemingly endless case. To dismiss either the film or Kearns as boring or unsympathetic is, in a way, to play the corporate cutie-pie game that deprived the real-life Kearns of his rights. And it's somewhat wrong to compare this movie to other typical David-and-Goliath shows, because the main strength of Flash of Genius lies in the facts it discloses. Producer-turned-first-time-feature-director Marc Abraham worked on the film for years, and he should be praised and thanked simply for forcing the project to completion.
To me, it's a very important story that strikes a personal chord. Here's why. When I was a preschooler, I watched my mother, Edna Wilmington, spend happy days in our basement apartment in Chicago designing and executing some beautiful little finger puppets that she wanted to sell to a shredded wheat cereal company to pack with the partitions in their boxes. A wonderful painter, sculptor and cum laude master of arts graduate from the University of Wisconsin, she brought her idea and her lovely designs -- which included a fairytale Alice in Wonderland and a cute little African native boy -- to the cereal company, and talked to an enthusiastic representative about making and packing them for the shredded wheat cereal biscuit boxes.
She never heard from him again. Months later, we were walking through a local grocery store, when we noticed new packages of Nabisco Shredded Wheat that contained little finger puppets -- not her delightful designs, but a slick, vapid, very ordinary-looking little cowboy. Upset, she went to her original contact. He greeted her smiling, apparently under the delusion that the bosses had called her -- and that the puppets in the boxes were hers. When she told him what had happened, she says now, he turned "pale and ashen." My mother was a working single parent, with no child support from my father, and she couldn't hire a lawyer, like Kearns did, or spend years of her life sacrificing everything to battle the people who stole her idea, messed it up, and then lacked the guts, decency or manhood to recompense or even inform her. She was crushed. My attitude ever since: The hell with Nabisco. I won't buy their damned shredded wheat.
So I don't think the story of Robert Kearns, with its greater financial and legal implications, is boring or unimportant. Even if Marc Abraham is, right now, a stronger producer than director, both he and his "unlikable" subject Kearns deserve all credit and praise -- for sticking to their guns and going head-to-head against excessive, arrogant corporate power.
U.S.; Clark Gregg, 2008, ATO pictures
Choke is another punchy, irreverent Chuck (Fight Club) Palahniuk novel about male pathology, turned into another punchy, irreverent movie. Sam Rockwell plays a sex addict who works in a colonial American theme park; Anjelica Huston is his dotty, institutionalized mother. Or is she? Unfortunately, this one lacks the style and punch of Fight Club. And despite that good cast (including Paz de la Huerta, Joel Grey and director Clark Gregg himself), it has a frowsy, forced feel. I didn't like it much, though I respected its smarts and iconoclasm. And Rockwell makes a good satyr.
High School Musical 3: Senior Year (D+)
U.S.; Kenny Ortega, 2008, Borden and Rosenbush Entertaiment
I haven't seen the first two movies in the Disney Channel-derived franchise. But this frenzied, witless, awful hit show about high school hunks, hunkettes and little Bobbie Fosses all cavorting together in their last shot at a high school musical together is so bad you can hardly believe your eyes -- and I say that in full knowledge of the fact that it grossed 42 million dollars in its opening week and has tons of youthful fans putting their money where their mouth and brains aren't.
Anything good about it? The songs (David Lawrence) are catchy and the performances energetic. But the writing (Peter Barsocchino) reeks -- even on the preteen level on which this thing is pitched. And the acting -- by an enthusiastic and musically okay young cast that includes Zac Efron (the basketball bombshell), Vanessa Hudgens (the girl who almost gets away), Ashley Tisdale (the nasty blond bimbo called, I swear, Sharpay), and Lucas Grabeel (the choreographer with a Fosse-hat) -- hits a peak of jaw-dropping, senselessly confident awfulness. Eccccchhh!
Maybe it ain't their fault. After all, they're kids, and they can be led astray. (Unfortunately, poor habits amply rewarded may become lasting examples.) But every single scene is bad, even before some of them turn into mediocre musical numbers. The cinematography looks greased. (Not Greased.) Parents flutter around, trying to justify their presence by aiding the kids in their assignations.
The coup de grace is the final show -- apparently lacking a script but attended, we are assured, by talent scouts from Juilliard -- a weird theatrical enterprise that unfolds like some demented nightmare. The star vanishes and says he might arrive by the second act -- which he does, dragging onstage the ex-leading lady. Understudies wander on, changing the routines or actually competing with their counterparts. All of a sudden, the director changes the finale into commencement. The past glories or absurdities of Busby Berkeley and Stanley Donen (Royal Wedding) are travestied and stomped on. And all the while, those Juilliard scouts smile like idiots and clap their heads off.
Is all this schlock surrealism? At least the success of this musical turkey (directed by Kenny Ortega, whose Newsies I actually liked), might spur more movie musicals. But where are Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney when we really need them? For that matter, where are the original Mouseketeers? (I don't mean the more recent Britney Spears-Justin Timberlake-Christina Aguilera mouse pack.) Ave Annette. And Jimmie Dodd still rules!