PICKS OF THE WEEK
Il Divo (A)
Italy; Paolo Sorrentino, 2008, MPI Home Video
Veteran Italian actor Toni Servillo's craggy wise-hood face -- as impassive and immobile as a dentist staring into your mouth or a panther regarding its prey -- is at the center of a jaw-dropping whirlpool of bloody events and political crime, portrayed or exposed in Il Divo, subtitled The Extraordinary Life of Giulio Andreotti. Paolo Sorrentino's amazingly audacious and stylish bio-drama about seven-time Christian Democrat Italian prime minister and center right icon Andreotti, charts his alleged involvement in official corruption, Mafia co-projects and, disturbingly, a number of mysterious deaths. Included in that whack-list, the film suggests, are at least some moral culpability for the murder of his predecessor and political rival Aldo Moro by Italy's Red Brigade in the '70s, and some responsibility in a string of hits and assassinations that conveniently eliminated other Andreotti rivals or nemeses.
The real-life Andreotti is the inspiration for a great scary, deadpan performance by Servillo, who also appeared in that other recent scorcher of an Italian true-life crime saga, Gomorrah. Il Divo packs the same kind of charge; it's a jolting, beautifully made, sardonic shockwave of a movie.
Sorrentino doesn't make any bones about his own political sympathies or his opinions about Andreotti and his guilt or innocence. (The P.M. was convicted of numerous crimes, then acquitted by a higher court.) Sorrentino, Servillo and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi slam the ex-prime minister with one sphinx-like, dead-eyed close-up and damning torrent of facts after another.
The whole film, concentrating on Andreotti's seventh and last ruling term (1991-92), is shot in a dynamic and visually stunning moving camera style that irresistibly recalls Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Oliver Stone's early political exposes. Il Divo also has the lay-it-on the-line feel of that devastating, cheeky title credit in Costa Gavras' Z, when the director, and writer Jorge Semprun, announced to the world that any similarity to real life people or events wasn't coincidental, but intentional.
Sorrentino goes further. He has Servillo's Andreotti confess on camera, and he closes with a chilling scene -- another virtuoso long-take tracking shot, following Andreotti into the courtroom and ending on a close-up (sliding into monochrome) of his face -- while the narrator ruminates on the politician's capacity for evil.
This is the kind of audacity that would get a Stone or a Michael Moore indicted for irresponsible cine-journalism. Andreotti was, after all, finally acquitted of the many charges against him, albeit suspiciously, and he still sits in the Italian senate as a life member. But Il Divo (the title, which denotes a male "diva," comes from one of Andreotti's many nicknames) isn't journalism. It's historical/political drama with a near-Shakespearean ambition and density and Scorsese/Coppola voltage and lyricism.
Sorrentino gives us a cascade of famous names and horrific events -- most of which should be familiar to educated Italian audiences if not to movie-going Americans -- and then he sweeps us relentlessly through the action with great bravura style, keeping us hip to the characters and their exalted positions, with lively, colorful name-titles. He barely pauses to explain anything. But he doesn't have to. Bigazzi's camera constantly pulling forward and back or focusing intently on Servillo's heavily lined face and basilisk gaze, a mask that never cracks, gives us an instant emotional/moral context that helps "explain" everything that happens. When Servillo's Andreotti makes his confession, we're not surprised, except maybe at Sorrentino's sheer audacity.
France; Costa-Gavras, 1970, Criterion
Back in 1969 and 1970, Costa-Gavras's Z looked like the hippest, fastest, gutsiest political thriller you could possibly make. This explosive movie, which present's Gavras and writer Jorge Semprun's view of the Lambrakis assassination, and the ascension to power of the tyrannical Greek Colonels, was both an impudent, in-your-face docudrama and a blistering thriller -- and it was exhilarating on both levels. I happen to love Gavras' earlier forgotten comic film noir The Sleeping Car Murders, and his later Missing, but he never made a better movie than Z. And he probably never will.
Z, based on a roman à clef by Vassilis Vassilikos, is daringly written, excitingly shot and brilliantly acted. Yves Montand (a Sleeping Car vet) and Irene Papas radiate integrity as the victim and his widow, producer Jacques Perrin and Jean Louis Trintingant (two more Sleeping Car Murders alumni) are the intrepid reporter and incorruptible prosecutor (based on a real-life prosecutor who eventually became Greece's president) and Renato Salvatore and Marcel Bozzufi are among the gargoylish, malevolent gang of high-level and low-life villains. Z, as Pauline Kael wrote, "damned near...blasts you out of your seat" -- and it's as much from its sheer political audacity as from its gut-punching thrills and shocks. Daring too is its final coda, which reveals how justice can be transgressed even when the truth will out. Sadly, colonels of one kind or another are always with us. But Z suggests that at least they can be indicted in the tribunal of the movies. (Extras: Commentary by Peter Cowie; interviews with Costa-Gavras and cinematographer Raoul Coutard; archival interviews with Costa-Gavras, Jacques Perrin, Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Pierre Dux, and Vassilis Vassilikos; trailer; booklet with Armond White essay and credits.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Samuel Fuller Collection (A)
U.S.; Sam Fuller & Others, 1937-1961, Columbia
Sam Fuller, celebrated in this invaluable little anthology of all his Columbia studio writer and directorial credits, was quite a guy. He was a master of the crime thriller, film noir, war movie, Western and newspaper drama, and a "King of the B's" (and A's as well) in the "Cahier du Cinema"-fueled heyday of the Hollywood auteur. He was also a genuine character: a cigar-chewing, straight-shooting, cheerfully cynical ex-newsman and World War II vet -- from the famous First Division, the subject of his 1980 masterpiece (still unrestored) The Big Red One. And he was an absolutely ace craftsman, a natural storyteller, and a subversive maverick who could easily hop both sides of any fence, explode movie clichés from the inside, and compel your attention with the fervid eloquence of a carny hustler and the street smarts of a wised-up cop. Fuller's writer-directorial style, packed with salty dialogue, full-blooded acting, elegant long takes, brutal shock cuts, and canny eruptions of violence and sexuality, was a film technique vigorous, riveting, sometimes ferocious -- and unmistakably his own.
This box set contains five movies to which Fuller contributed the original story, the novel source, or which he wrote or co-wrote the script (Shockproof and It Happened in Hollywood), plus two raw, straight-up Fuller-to-the-bone classics, in which he directed his own screenplay (the cop thriller and interracial romance The Crimson Kimono and the ultra-hard-boiled gangster saga Underworld, U.S.A.). Two of the better movies here join Sam with two other American directorial auteurs and film noir masters, the elegant Douglas Sirk (Shockproof) and hard-hitting Phil Karlson.
Sam was a great storyteller, a great reporter and a soldier who never quit -- and all of those qualities simmer through his best movies. This set, a must for true-blue movie-lovers, is a fitting tribute for a tough-guy genius. Wherever he is, we hope the presses are running, the scripts are tight, the studio execs are out of his hair, and the cigars are scrumptious. Go get 'em, Sam. (Extras: Presentations by Tim Robbins, Curtis Hanson, on The Crimson Kimono; and Martin Scorsese, on Underworld, U.S.A.; documentary Samuel Fuller, Storyteller, containing interviews with Scorsese, Hanson, Robbins, Wim Wenders, and Christa and Sam Fuller
It Happened in Hollywood (B)
U.S.; Harry Lachman, 1937
Richard Dix plays a Tom Mix-like silent movie cowboy who suffers from the advent of talkies, but whose heart and aim stay true. Very sentimental, but fun, and lushly shot by a neglected B-level director I like: Harry Lachman who has a real visual style. (His paintings hang in the Prado and the Chicago Art Institute.) With Fay Wray and some amazing movie star doubles for the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Victor McLaglen, Mae West, Greta Garbo and many others.
Adventure in Sahara (C+)
U.S.; D. Ross Lederman, 1938
A poor man's Beau Geste with Paul Kelly as a French Foreign Legionnaire looking for revenge and C. Henry Gordon as his sadistic commandant.
Power of the Press (C+)
U.S.; Lew Landers, 1943
Trim anti-fascist newspaper melodrama, with rustic but honest publisher Guy Kibbee taking over a big metropolitan daily run by anti-FDR crook/killer Otto Kruger, and edited by the original stage Front Page Hildy Johnson, Lee Tracy.
U.S.; Douglas Sirk, 1949
Cornel Wilde is a straight-arrow L.A. parole officer crazy about his knockout parolee (Patricia Knight); eventually, they're forced into love-on-the-run. Co-writer Fuller and director Sirk may seem an odd couple. But, despite an outlandish happy ending (Shockproof's last scene should have been cut), this is a high-grade '40s noir.
Scandal Sheet (A-)
U.S.; Phil Karlson, 1952
Broderick Crawford is a high-powered big-city tabloid editor hiding his past, who accidentally kills his ex-wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and then has to put his star crime reporter (John Derek) on the story, assisted by smart sob sister Donna Reed. Another high-grade ('50s this time) noir with a Big Clock twist and another questionable but happily unsentimental ending. Adapted, from Fuller's newspaper novel, The Dark Page, by Karlson and co-writer James Poe (who later scripted Sydney Pollack's terrific movie of Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?).
The Crimson Kimono (A-)
U.S.; Sam Fuller, 1959
Two best-buddy Korean War vet L.A. cops (Caucasian Glenn Corbett and Japanese-American James Shigeta), fall out when both fall for a sexy artist (Victoria Shaw), who's involved in their homicide case: the murder of a striptease dancer. This black-and-white wide-screen noir is characteristic Fuller, and as good as the better-regarded Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. With Anna Lee, off-type as a salty-tongued drunken painter, and lots of L.A. Little Tokyo street color.
Underworld, U.S.A. (A)
U.S.; Sam Fuller, 1961
Cliff Robertson is Tolly Devlin, a cynical safecracker, who's out to kill the four criminals whom, as a kid, he saw beating and murdering his dad, three of whom later rose to the top of the crime syndicate. (This was the '60s, when The Untouchables was attacked by anti-defamation groups for its Italian gangsters, so none of the mob here are Sicilian or Italian.) This is Fuller in his prime, at his best and roughest, as noir as Pickup on South Street, as crazy as Shock Corridor.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (C+)
U.S.; Carlos Saldanha, Mike Thurmeier, 2009, 20th Century Fox
Watching Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, you can feel the original premise, novelty and fun of the first 2002 Ice Age movie -- which I thought was enjoyable and dynamic in a '50s Looney Tunes-Chuck Jones-ish sort of way -- all begin to stretch to the snapping point. The creators, especially the writers, don't have many fresh ideas, except to pop in a feisty little swashbuckling weasel named Buck (Simon Pegg voicing) modeled on Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean -- and to have John Leguizamo's spazzy sloth Sid go papa-mama-mad at the parenthood of woolly mammoths Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen). Sid then runs paternally amok, eggnapping three T. rex eggs, with predictably dire-dino results.
Family fever drenches the entire plot. Even the series' unfailing scene and credits stealer, acorn-craving squirrelly Scrat (voiced by original co-director Chris Wedge) has a Scratte (Karen Disher) to ring his bells.
Ice Age doesn't suffer from the usual malady of big-hit movie franchise sequels. New funny animals picked up in Ice Age 2: The Meltdown -- Josh Peck and Seann William Scott as Eddie and Crash, the daffiest possums this side of Pogo's drunken uncle Poo-goo -- show up and change a little too.
And of course the dinosaurs crash in and begin wreaking havoc, though what these dino-dudes are doing in or on the fringes of the Ice Age is anybody's guess.
I don't mean to imply that an animated feature about prehistoric beasts should have the historical verisimilitude of a Discovery Channel documentary. But Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs often feels too domesticated and suburbanized for its own good.
Whatever Works (A-)
U.S.; Woody Allen, 2009, Sony Pictures
In Allen's latest movie, Whatever Works, the Nobel Prize is used as a running gag. The film's main character, Boris Yellnikov (who isn't played by Woody, but by Wood-alike Larry David) -- a misbegotten soul whose oddball romance with Mississippi-born homeless gal Melody St. Ann Celestine (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is the main plot -- keeps being described as a string physics specialist who "almost won the Nobel Prize."
I didn't really buy the idea that this pop culture-fluent wisecracker was a star physicist. And he didn't convince me that he was up for the Nobel Prize. But I did buy David as the best Woody-surrogate ever: an utterly disenchanted New Yorker with a bad, funny mouth, who loves Fred Astaire and Beethoven, always sings "Happy Birthday" in the toilet, dismisses the children whom he teaches chess as "cretins," and obviously suffers from extreme anaerobia. (That's the condition of disaffection from happiness, and also the original title of Annie Hall.)
In the movie, Boris leaves his upscale life and wife after a failed suicide attempt, relocates himself as a Chinatown dropout scraping along teaching kids chess, and spends some of his free time talking to the audience, like Alvy Singer in Annie Hall. (Here, the other characters sometimes hear him and think he's nuts.) Finally, he finds Melody on his doorstep. Charming but lightly learned, she's his perfect opposite number, a mix of Holly Golightly, Liza Doolittle, Iris from Taxi Driver and Daisy Mae Yokum.
And soon, she's dragged some more transplanted Mississippians to Manhattan: her seemingly straight-arrow, Christian-right-wing parents Marietta and John (played wittily by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.). Naughty Marietta becomes an avant garde photographer living in a ménage a trois (with two of Boris' buddies), and homophobic NRA gun-lover John discovers he's been a secret Paul Lynde all along.
Get the picture? It's no wonder Woody, dodging suspicions of another November-May fantasy, has Melody blossom under Boris' bilious tutelage, and eventually find a younger suitor (Henry Cavill as the absurdly good-looking actor, Randy James), setting up a New Year's Eve ending that suggested an irresistible lower-rent, alternative-lifestyle variation on the happy climax on one of Allen's best-loved movies, Hannah and Her Sisters.
Just to prove he isn't a softie, Allen, through David, takes a shot at that other crowd-pleaser, It's a Wonderful Life just before the end -- without naming the movie. (Or hitting it.)
I liked Whatever Works. It was funny. It reimagines and rescales the terrain Allen already gave us in Manhattan, Hannah, Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Deconstructing Harry and Husbands and Wives. And you know something? We should be happy that it does. What should we expect from an artist in his 70s? Faust? We should be glad that he' s still working, still writing and directing, still prolific, still dreaming up one-liners and even still having romantic fantasies, even if they're not complete with fantasy roles for himself any more.
Nothing Like the Holidays (C+)
U.S.; Alfredo De Villa, 2008, Anchor Bay
A good cast -- including Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Pena, Freddy Rodriguez, John Leguizamo, Luis Guzman, Debra Messing, and Vanessa Ferlito -- has been assembled for this Latino community Humboldt Park variation on the kind of Christmas family ensemble comedy-drama we've seen many times before, and that Arnaud Desplechin handled so beautifully this year in the French A Christmas Tale. Every scene is lively. Every performance is sharp. And, as the angry mama, Elizabeth Pena has never been better.
But, toward party's end, the script gets too, um, obvious. Reality suffers, and, despite the good will Holidays builds up, so does the movie. Feliz Navidad to this whole cast, though.
U.S.; Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009, Warner Home Video
Orphan is a shrieker that tries to have a soul, but just winds up with another batch of frozen, bloody dead bodies sliced and diced to order. It's a horror movie about an outwardly smiling but inwardly sinister adopted little girl who wreaks havoc in an affluent family with a tragic past. And the moviemakers, with middling success, try to graft the dark mood and surly styles of family shockers The Stepfather and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle onto the evil-little-girl plot of The Bad Seed.
But though Orphan boasts some strong acting, especially by Vera Farmiga and (more erratically) Peter Sarsgaard as the troubled parents Kate and John Coleman (she's suspicious; he's susceptible) and by adorable little Aryana Engineer as good little girl Max -- as well as an incredible young villainess turn by Isabelle Fuhrman as bad little Esther, the orphan from hell, and a genuine blood-chilling shockeroo surprise toward the end -- I didn't like it much.
The scenario, by scriptwriter David Leslie Johnson and Alex Mace, is fairly predictable, until the writer and director pull their terrific toward-the-end twist; then disappointingly, it gets predictable again. As we watch, in supposed paranoid, paralyzed fright, Little Orphan Lizzie is plucked from the adoption lists by skittish Kate and obtuse John. Liz soon proves cold consolation; beneath her angel face, she's manipulative, sneaky, deceptive and murderous.
As Max and older brother Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) discover more and more that's dangerously awry about Elizabeth, and as Kate investigates her by Internet and John fatuously denies everything, things get more and more out of hand, until all Last House on the Left hell breaks loose in the last act.
It's a classy movie in some ways (the roster of producers includes both Joel Silver and Leonardo DiCaprio), with better actors and acting than we usually get in shows like this. But for most of its length, director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax) gives it an ugly, creepy look that doesn't feel right, as if we'd gotten somehow trapped in the bad little girl's head instead of her feisty but fearful mom's.
It's hard to overpraise Fuhrman. She has an incredibly hard assignment, and brings it off almost spotlessly well. But, if they'd really wound us up tight in their gory story, I wouldn't have felt that she, and we, were being sort of exploited.