PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.; John Patrick Shanley, 2008, Miramax
Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a gorgon nun and a progressive priest, battling in a Bronx parochial school in 1964, stage a classic actor's duel in Doubt -- director-writer John Patrick Shanley's tense, humane adaptation of his Tony-winning play.
And they made it an obvious but deserving candidate for 2008's prestigious film acting prizes.
Streep plays, to a fare-thee-well, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the old-fashioned and relentless principal of St. Nicholas grade school, and Hoffman matches her scene for scene as the parish priest, Father Brendan Flynn -- a young liberal with a jokey and tolerant manner, a flair for coaching and a teasing smile that Sister Aloysius finds suspicious.
She finds it even more damning when young and earnest Sister James (Amy Adams) reports an incident involving a young black student and altar boy, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), who drank some altar wine and had an encounter of some kind with Father Flynn. Abuse, thinks Sister Aloysius, who's so old school, she doesn't even like ballpoint pens, much less the church's new path under John XXIII. She's a woman with a low prosecutorial voice and a basilisk eye, and she probably rooted out many a randy priest before. Flynn, for all his Bible-slanted blarney, is guilty in her eyes of molestation in the house of the Lord. Of that, she has no doubt.
But Sister Aloysius has a worthy, and wordy, foe/debater in Father Flynn, who will not go quietly into the sexual/sacred hell she's prepared for him. And he has surprising aid, and support, from the boy's mother, the long-suffering and worldly-wise Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis, in a scorching scene with Streep) and eventually from Sister James herself. That's the drama, and it is a drama. You may think you have Doubt all figured out, but you're probably wrong. Even after the climax, doubts will linger. And they should. That's the conflict -- and Doubt has genuine moral and spiritual conflict, with formidable performances by great actors.
It also has the feeling of a real story taken from a real place and time. I attended a Chicago parochial school for one year as a non-Catholic student -- at St. Thomas Aquinas in Hyde Park -- and many scenes and images here brought back a rush of remembrance. And I liked my second-grade teacher nun, Sister Roberta Theresa. I also liked this movie. All the acting is excellent and, under Shanley's compassionate yet scarily precise hand, it makes for a provocative and prize-worthy film.
No doubt about it.
Russia; Aleksandr Sokurov, 2008, New Yorker
I select Alexandra in remembrance of New Yorker Films and Video, Dan Talbot's magnificent Manhattan conduit for foreign and art films, which died last February after 44 years of bringing us experiences and movies like Godard's Breathless, Ozu's Tokyo Story, Bresson's Pickpocket, Vigo's L'Atalante, Kusturica's Underground and Angelopoulos' Landscape in the Mist. Talbot's superb catalogue of 400 or more titles, which he assembled over four decades, was put up as collateral for a loan by New Yorker's new owner, and, like many another dubious financial deal of the era, it went bust.
Alexandra, a New Yorker title, is another lyrical antiwar piece by the masterful director of Russian Ark. It's my last fond nod to Talbot and his wondrous legacy -- and a last angry shake of the fist toward George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Blimp Rushbomb, Sean "The Sham" Hammity and the rest of the trickle-down idiots who helped make such a hash of our economy and such a bad joke of our culture. Up yours, you worthless assholes. Bravo, Dan Talbot. Please Mr. T., buy some more films, and play it again. (In Russian, with English subtitles.)
The Last Metro (A)
France; Francois Truffaut, 1980, Criterion Collection
Francois Truffaut's highly popular and moving star vehicle for Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, The Last Metro, is set during the war years in Nazi-occupied France. As always, Truffaut finds something to be nostalgic about, something to celebrate, something to suggest another movie, something to deplore.
Deneuve, maddeningly beautiful as ever, plays Marion Steiner, the star and boss of a beleaguered theater troupe beset by political intrigues, war turmoil, and fascist critics (Jean-Louis Richard, who actually resembles a few editors I've had). Depardieu is her amorously persistent but magnetic co-star; and Heinz Bennett plays Lucas Steiner, her husband and renowned playwright/director, whom she's trying to smuggle out of the country.
A big hit and prize-winner, this is Truffaut's theatrical variant on his love poem to the cinema Day for Night -- and it's also his Casablanca. (Here's looking at you, Catherine.) It reveals again what a warm-hearted guy -- and what a great filmmaker -- he was. In French with English subtitles. (Extras: Commentaries by Depardieu, Annette Insdorf, Serge Toubiana and others; deleted scene; TV and video interviews with Truffaut, Deneuve, Depardieu and Jean Poiret; Nestor Almendros; the 1958 short Une Histoire d'Eau, by Truffaut and his youthful movie-loving buddy Jean-Luc Godard; trailer; a booklet with an excellent essay by Armond White.)
Fallen Angels (A)
Hong Kong; Wong Kar-Wai, 1995, Kino
My favorite Wong: Fallen Angels is an absolutely incredible movie that's kind of a continuation of Chungking Express. (It was originally intended as the third interlocking episode of that film.) In it, Wong gives us not only a wildly romantic neo-noir about an alienated hit man (Leon Lai Ming) and his sexy, dangerous manager (Michele Reis), but a second rapturous pop romance involving a poetic mute (Takeshi Kaneshiro) on motorcycle. Done at the feverish height of Wong's sardonic, unashamedly emotional, go-for-broke style.
I loved this to pieces, and I also loved the credits song, which I'd never heard before but played seven times in a row afterwards: Flying Pickets' U.K. number one hit a cappella cover of Clarke Vincent's sweetly infectious "Only You." Wow! I don't care if it was Margaret Thatcher's favorite record; it's still a honey of a pop love ballad. So is Fallen Angels. In Cantonese, with English subtitles. (Extras: Featurettes; interview with cinematographer Chris Doyle; trailers; stills gallery.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Day the Earth Stood Still (C)
U.S.; Scott Derrickson, 20th Century Fox, 2008
Remaking a movie classic can be like destroying a planet. Sometimes you should think twice about it.
The new movie version of The Day the Earth Stood Still -- based on director Robert Wise's 1951 science fiction classic about an extraterrestrial named Klaatu who is sent to warn the Earth's inhabitants of impending nuclear disaster, and who hangs out with an earthling family to see if we're worth saving -- is a good-hearted but pretty shallow special-effects extravaganza. It's a movie that keeps throwing in scraps of the old movie to try to make up for the fact that its new ideas are mostly lousy.
"Klaatu barada nikto" is the 1951 movie's famous alien catchphrase, the activating message for Gort the robot. But this show couldn't klaatu a barada if its nikto depended on it. Part sci-fi chase thriller, part disaster epic, part family trauma drama, and part global warming cautionary tale, the new Earth sends Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, Jennifer Connelly as astrophysicist Helen Benson and Jaden Smith as her ill-behaved tyke Jacob (counterparts to the roles played in the original by Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal and Billy Gray) on a race with catastrophe, in which we're often just as worried about Jacob's incredibly bad manners as whether the world will end.
The '51 original was a great message genre movie, a sci-fi sermon against the nuclear arms race that still packs a punch -- and that was just '50s-hokey enough in its visual effects (a flying saucer, a robot named Gort) to become a charming period piece. The new movie -- directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and written by David Scarpa -- may become a period piece. But its charm is mostly invisible, even though its effects summon up everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to The Good Earth.
Even its premise now seems faulty. Why will the planet be saved by unleashing hordes of rampaging metal insects who look as if they might, locust-like, devour everything? And can the good example of the Bensons really change Klaatu's mind when such a bad example is being set by the president, his know-it-all Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) and the military? Can Jennifer Connelly and John Cleese (as Nobel Prize-winning Prof. Barnhardt, who specializes in altruism) tip the balance for humanity?
One thing the new Earth does have is a lead actor who really looks and acts like a man from outer space. The original had Rennie, an Englishman educated at Cambridge, whose advantage was that he seemed more sophisticated and civilized than that film's earthlings, especially gee-whiz little Billy Gray (Father Knows Best). Reeves, with his opaque dark eyes, chiseled features and strange humorless delivery (something like an anchorman from The Twilight Zone) often sounds as if he came from several worlds away, here more than usual.
Actually Connelly does look as if she could redeem humanity. But poor Kathy Bates, always great in the right roles, has been saddled with one of the worst parts of her career: Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson, who looks and acts like a cross between Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Nurse Ratched. Holy klaatu barada nikto! (This three disc special edition also contains Robert Wise's 1951 original version.)
Bedtime Stories (C)
U.S.; Adam Shankman, 2008, Walt Disney Pictures
Adam Sandler plays Skeeter Bronson, a put-upon but infallibly good-natured hotel handyman whose dad (Jonathan Pryce) once ran the place and who keeps telling bedtime stories to his niece and nephew, stories derived from movies, which later (sort of) come true, or suggest something true. Richard Griffiths blurps around as the new owner, who has grandiose plans. The usually reliable Guy Pearce makes an ass of himself trying to be a mean boyfriend/rival. Courteney Cox is Skeeter's sister, and Keri Russell (Waitress) is his socially progressive heartthrob. Anyway, this is a truly bad idea for a movie, and the fancy-schmancy production doesn't help it a bit.
Yes Man (C)
U.S.; Peyton Reed, 2008, Warner Brothers
Jim Carrey is the best physical comedian around right now. Has been for a while. So why did he say aye to a high-concept would-be verbal comedy like Yes Man -- especially since it's a malfunctioning concept that doesn't work right? Was he conned?
Say Yes. Carrey plays Carl Allen, a lonely withdrawn guy avoiding life and living in video stores, whose pattern changes when a buddy drags him to guru Terrence Bundley's psycho-babble cult, a self-help con in which you start saying "Yes" to everything. Neat idea. Unfortunately, Carrey is a banker, a loan guy, which means that he's saying "yes" to propositions that would have terrified Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac and that definitely give this movie a weird topicality now. So, is this movie less funny than the current administration?
I can think of lots of "No"-proof questions that would have been great setups for Carrey gags and humor. "Why don't you insult everybody in the room, and set fire to the drapes?" "Why don't you challenge Sacha Baron Cohen to a nude wrestling match?" "Why don't you strike a match on a cake of soap?" "Why don't you stick your head up your ass?" But nobody asked. And the movie lost me when Carrey's Carl rode with Zooey Deschanel's Allison on her bike and she asks him if she's going too fast -- and they didn't make a routine out of it. (Nor did he say "Yes.") An ideal setup for an Abbott and Costello "Who's on First?" cross-talk routine, but the writers pass it up. I guess they said "Yes" to too many guys. So did Carrey. But are most of you going to watch this movie anyway?
U.S.; Patrick Creadon, 2008, PBS Direct
I.O.U.S.A. is another intellectual/historical disaster movie in the Inconvenient Truth mold -- one that substitutes charts and talking heads for natural or manmade catastrophes. But it's no less a portrayal of a cataclysm: the descent of the United States into mind-boggling national debt and looming financial meltdown. (It's also become five times as topical since its release last year.)
Among the witnesses here: Comptroller General David Walker, Concord Coalition exec Bob Bixby, moneyman Warren Buffet, ex-treasury secretary Paul O'Neill and others. The revelation: another fine mess that Bush and his GOP macho-creepo cronies have gotten us into -- partly though their obsession with tax cuts and trickle-down, partly through Iraq spending sprees and partly through sheer economic imbecility. They're not the only culprits, however. And it seems obvious here that, as with climate change, something has to be done about it soon. Not as entertaining a film as director Creadon's crossword doc Wordplay, but a crucial one. We should have paid attention to these ideas and warning signs years ago.