PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; Roman Polanski, 1974, Paramount
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
Those are the chilling last words of Roman Polanski and Robert Towne's great dark tale of politics, murder, and family secrets in '30s Los Angeles. And no matter what you think of Polanski and his current arrest and extradition problems -- and I bet they're more complex than most of the cut-and-dried "He's persecuted" or "He's a fugitive schmuck" analyses offered by either his friends or foes -- the director's 1974 private eye classic Chinatown is still a masterpiece of film neo-noir.
The movie, one of the big commercial-critical hits of its era, is a career peak for director Polanski, the great screenwriter Towne, and the superb star team of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston.
It's a picture that seems close to perfect of its kind and one of the '70s films I love best. Gorgeous and terrifying, Chinatown tells a romantic/tragic/murder mystery tale of official and private corruption raging around the real-life L.A. water scandal, with private sin and public swindles steadily stripped bare by J.J. Gittes (one of Jack Nicholson's signature roles), a cynical, natty, smart-ass Hammettesque shamus, with a nose for corruption and a trigger temper.
Gittes is an anti-Philip Marlowe detective. He's proud of taking divorce cases, not too queasy about selling out, and much less sexually reticent than Raymond Chandler's knight of the mean streets -- though he cracks just as wise. But Gittes likes his nose, he likes breathing through it, and he finds it increasingly hard to keep it unbloodied and out of rich L.A. people's business as he keeps digging deeper into what starts as a simple infidelity investigation and then broadens to include a vast conspiracy, intertwined with the deadly history of immaculately evil nabob Noah Cross (the devilishly genial Huston) and his desperate, wounded daughter Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) -- a nasty web that includes Polanski himself as the cocky little Cross torpedo who calls Gittes "Kitty-Kat" and slices up his proboscis.
Chinatown -- with splendid Richard Sylbert production design, gleaming John Alonso cinematography and a really haunting Jerry Goldsmith score -- wafts us back to L.A., downtown and Silverlake in the '30s: the era of the Depression and jazzman Bunny Berigan's "I Can't Get Started," and the heyday of the hard-boiled, lean and mean "Black Mask"-style thrillers of Dashiell Hammett and Chandler, which Towne, at his absolute best, pastiches to a fine turn and which Polanski, at his best (the form of Cul-de-Sac and The Pianist) makes come shatteringly alive.
The movie has great dialogue, great acting, great direction, and an unmatchable blend of wised-up savvy and yearning romanticism. The bleak ending (Polanski's idea) cuts you to the heart. Temper-tantrum virtuoso Nicholson also has some of his best blowups. And the supporting cast -- Polanski, Burt Young, Diane Ladd, Perry Lopez, Dick Bakalyan, Roy Jenson, James Hong, Bruce Glover, Joe Mantell and John Hillerman at his smarmiest -- are pretty damned wonderful too. In fact, this is a movie that has no perceptible flaws, a classic you won't forget. And it reminds you that Polanski is a filmmaker who's faced such terror, darkness and despair in his own life, that he can always turn it into art.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (A-)
U.S.; Sacha Gervasi, 2009, VHI Films
This funny, sad, rockin' little documentary is about a band of fiftyish Canadian heavy-metal rockers, who flirted with fame in the early '60s, didn't make it, but have hung on ever since -- especially the group's two founding members, mercurial lead guitarist/singer Steve "Lips" Kudlow and the quieter, calmer drummer Robb Reiner. These are two guys who -- like Mick Jagger and Keith Richard of the Stones or John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison of the Beatles -- have been rocking out together since boyhood or teenhood, who know each other's guitar licks and tricks from Aerosmith to Zeppelin and who have the closest thing to a sexless marriage two staunchly hetero males can consummate.
The movie mostly shows them trying and failing to catch that elusive brass ring that's eluded them all these years, the dissolute glory ride that their old bill-mates Bon Jovi and Whitesnake managed. Before our eyes, Anvil keeps suffering the hammer-blows of pop fate. They still have to keep their Toronto day jobs, as do current bandmates Ivan Herd and G5. Their European tour is botched by a well-meaning but disorganized manager. Their 13th record album, produced by crack music man Chris Tsangarides, fails to impress the company execs. (After all, heavy metal or not, they're 50, and the execs proudly peddle young flesh and newer licks.)
Does all that make the movie a more melancholy real-life version of This is Spinal Tap? Not quite. These guys were maybe never as big as Spinal Tap, though they were good enough to be dubbed the "demigods of Canadian metal." So, when they go to Japan for an a morning gig on a rock fest, and the kids scream "Anvil!" we feel great for them -- and we feel great also because we know this movie, of course, is their break. (If there's anything wrong with Anvil! it's that director/fan Gervasi doesn't include enough music.) The power chords finally ring. How could a fan do better by them?
Hey, if this movie doesn't soften you up, you should hire yourself out as a record company exec.
A Hard Day's Night (A)
U.K.; Richard Lester, 1964, Phantom, Blu-ray
John! Paul! George! Ringo! When A Hard Day's Night exploded onto movie screens in 1964, at the height of early Beatlemania and, in the summer after the Fab Four's pop conquest of America and the record charts, it knocked critics for a loop. Movies starring current rock 'n' roll idols just weren't like this one. They tended to be low-budget "Rock Around the Clock" knock-offs or bland crud foisted by Colonel Parker on Elvis. Instead, director Richard Lester's and writer Alun Owen's Night (based on a Casey-Stengelesque remark of Ringo's) was a bona fide black-and-white art film , an ebullient surreal-comic look at a day in the life of the four pop kings who were just then sitting on top of the world -- and definitely on top of swinging London.
John Lennon is a wise-cracking Groucho rocker, Paul McCartney is a brash pretty boy with a clean old man for a grandpa (Wilfred Brambell), George, whose thoughtful mystic image hadn't coalesced yet, is a sarcastic rebel, and Ringo is a melancholy-mugged, silent comedy clown-style wanderer. And when they get together, on numbers like "Can't Buy Me Love" (whose first rendition in the movie, the song in the field, is the grand-daddy of all rock videos), they blow down the house. Norm Rossington and John Junkin are the boys' handlers, Victor Spinetti is the finicky TV director, and the movie also boasts one of the '60s greatest black-and-white cinematography jobs of all, by Gilbert Taylor, who also shot another 1964 masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove.
As for Buster Keaton aficionado Richard Lester, he became the hottest English-language director on the planet with this film, which is his unbeatable best. Ever since Lester's long directorial silence started, after his McCartney concert film Get Back," I've been hoping the auteur of A Hard Day's Night would get back to where he once belonged, too.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Wolf/Dracula/Frankenstein Trilogy (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1992-94, Sony, Blu-ray
Three bracing modern takes on the classic monster trilogy from 1930s-'40s Universal: Lugosi's Dracula, Karloff's Frankenstein and Lon Chaney Jr.'s The Wolf Man. Of the new trio, only Coppola's Dracula is a classic on its own, but they're all sophisticated, literate, lushly designed and shot, and filled with excellent actors mostly having a monster's ball.
Includes: Wolf (U.S.; Mike Nichols, 1994, B). Werewolves of Manhattan, from the happily reunited team of Mike Nichols and (scripter) Elaine May; with Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader, Christopher Plummer, Kate Nelligan, Richard Jenkins, David Hyde Pierce and David Schwimmer. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (U.S.; Kenneth Branagh, 1994, C+). Shakespearean and method monstering; With Robert De Niro (as the monster) and Kenneth Branagh (as Frankenstein), plus Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm and John Cleese. Bram Stoker's Dracula (U.S.; Francis Ford Coppola, 1992, A). Coppola at his most visually spectacular: a feast of bloody delights; with Gary Oldman (as Dracula), Anthony Hopkins (as Van Helsing), Wynona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Richard E. Grant, Tom Waits and Monica Bellucci.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
My Life in Ruins (C)
U.S.; Donald Petrie, 2009, 20th Century Fox
Nia Vardalos, writer-star of the huge sleeper hit romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) makes it to Greece here, slimmed down, with a bigger budget, a more expensive cast, and a weaker vehicle. (This time, she's not the writer.) She's a discontented tour guide named Georgia with a nasty, overcompetitive fellow guide, and a bus full of passengers that start out unfriendly and undemonstrative. But, after she cracks a few jokes, takes them to the Parthenon and has a romance with hunky, philosophical driver Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis), they lighten up and turn into the lovable kooky band of hip oldsters, fun families and rip-roaring eccentrics we always knew they could be.
Most lovable kook of the bunch is wisecracking, philosophical Irv, played snappily by Richard Dreyfuss, and I'm sorry to say that the filmmakers, including director Donald Petrie, didn't resist the temptation to put him in a hospital. Nor did they forswear cute references to Anthony Quinn and Zorba the Greek, though I guess you can't ask the impossible. The photography is good and so is the Parthenon -- and the Temple of Delphi. As a travelogue, My Life in Ruins has its moments. As a romantic comedy though, it often seems like a Big Fat Greek and American Botch.