PICKS OF THE WEEK
Poland; Andrzej Wajda, 2007, Koch Lorber Films
War is hell, or at least purgatory. Few filmmakers have shown that as clearly as the 83-year-old Polish master Andrzej Wajda. Wajda, a sometime cinematic genius, is one of the last members left of the great international cinema generation that included Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni and Satyajit Ray, and he's also perhaps the very best of all Polish filmmakers, living or dead. (That's not counting émigré Roman Polanski, who was once one of Wajda's young actors, a superior visual stylist who sometimes lacks Wajda's depth or humanity.)
Wajda's first three features, the trilogy of A Generation (1954), Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958), are all World War II classics. So is his 1990 Korczak. And so is his most recent film, the Oscar nominee Katyn -- one of this year's American-release foreign movie masterpieces.
Katyn is a deeply human, scarringly personal story. In 1940, 15,000 Polish Army officers were systematically and brutally massacred -- by either the Nazis (who were initially blamed) or the Russians (a dicier choice, especially after Poland went Communist after the war). One of the victims was Wajda's father, and two of the characters in this kaleidoscopic look at the massacre, the characters caught up in it, and its aftermath, are based on Wajda's parents: missing Polish officer Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski) and his desperate wife Anna (Maja Ostaszewska).
There are many other characters also in the movie, a complex ensemble piece with a truly superb cast, and we are plunged into their problems, one by one, before Wajda finally shows the massacre and identifies the true culprits. (It's not springing any spoilers to finger the Soviets, something the Polish audience who made "Katyn" a smash hit, already largely knew.)
When the flashback to the slaughter finally comes, after we've already seen the long development of pain, shame and darkness left in its wake, it's so murderously effective that it surpasses the alleged shocks of most current horror movies. It's also a stronger anti-war war movie than "The Hurt Locker," though perhaps it's unfair to compare them. "Katyn" is a both a portrayal of national tragedy and a personal testament of burning clarity and intensity. It's a front rank late work by one of the greatest of all 20th and 21st century filmmakers, the master Andrzej Wajda. (In Polish, with English subtitles.)
Bye-Bye Braverman (A-)
U.S.; Sidney Lumet, 1967, Warner Archive
There are some movies, not especially critical or audience favorites, that stick in your mind, rifle your affections and wind up becoming eccentric personal favorites. For me, one such not-so-guilty pleasure is Sidney Lumet's 1967 Bye Bye Braverman, an ebullient and picaresque comedy drama, about four old neighborhood and school friends: Jewish intellectuals, traveling in a little red Volkswagen across New York, from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Coney Island, to the funeral of their deceased pal and fellow scholar/writer Leslie Braverman.
The source is a novel by Wallace Markfield called To an Early Grave. And Braverman's four friends are cannily, beautifully played by Jack Warden (as gruff D.H. Lawrence scholar and Randolph Scott fan Barnet Weinstein), Sorrell Booke (as Holly Levine, a bald little Wally Shawn type of guy who owns the Volkswagen and who's just done a critique of Lumet favorite John Ford), Joseph Wiseman (as the unreconstructed radical and one-time Norman Thomas speechifier Felix Ottensteen) and George Segal (as lead character and likable nebbish Morroe Rieff, who keeps having daydreams about rabbis and cemeteries and his own death).
Lumet never put more of his fabled knack for New York City atmospherics into any movie than this one. Delightfully, he keeps showing the little red Beetle blithely traversing Manhattan and Brooklyn, while a sprightly little waltz tune, "Have You Seen Braverman Dancing?" keeps playing, and as the talkative, sometimes boozing quartet bicker, search for food and proceed from one goofy mishap to another -- including debates about the propriety of Jews driving Volkswagens, a collision with a black taxi driver who proves to be a converted Jew (Godfrey Cambridge) and their accidental attendance at the wrong funeral (with Alan King as the pop kvetcher of a rabbi). They also josh each other and ramble on about politics, pop culture and the old neighborhood -- almost everything, it seems, but the late Leslie Braverman and their feelings about him, something the stern scold Felix keeps castigating them for.
Lumet doesn't make many comedies, and he didn't get high marks for this one from '60s critics. But I think Braverman is very, very funny, in the way a lot of '80s Woody Allen is funny. Wild as the events may become here, the conversations and characters ring true. When Barnet talks about Hitchcock and his older, good (British) movies, it's exactly what a literary intellectual circa the '60s would say. Just as right are the little games the four play with each other on radio characters and old movies. In fact, for a few of us, whizzing around with this voluble, well-versed foursome, will be as enjoyable as encountering old friends, if not driving to a funeral with them.
U.S.; Doug Liman, 1999, Sony, Blu-ray
Another good ensemble comedy drama, this time with a mismatched bunch of young L.A. revelers racing through the night. The mood is superficial but razor-sharp, the snappy script is by John August, and the lively young cast includes Sarah Polley, Taye Diggs, Katie Holmes and Timothy Olyphant. (Extras: Commentary by Liman; featurette; deleted scenes and music videos.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Agatha Christie's Marple, Series 4 (B)
U.K.; various Directors, 2009, Acorn Media
Agatha Christie was my favorite author when I was 11, and I've never been more in tune with public taste. To this day, Christie -- the grand mistress of the British village or country manor murder mystery, and the queen of surprise endings, triple-reverse twists, dark secrets and least likely susects -- also remains the most popular of all world novelists. She's also author of the world's longest-running play (The Mousetrap) and, by now, along with William Shakespeare, one of the most frequently adapted of all fiction writers, especially on British TV.
Here's another round of Jane Marple mysteries, starring Julia McKenzie as the secretly wise and deceptively nave-looking spinster seuth. McKenzie is a little dowdier and seemingly maiden-auntish than her predecessor, the estimable Geraldine McEwan (who also played the mean Mother Superior in The Magdalene Sisters) -- and she incarnates just as well Christie's deviously amiable killer-catcher, who keeps knitting, kibitzing and asking innocent-sounding zinger questions, as corpses accumulate around her, and until the murderer is finally revealed in one of Christie's relentless last acts.
Christie was a huge favorite of the great Japanese director Kon Ichikawa (Odd Obsession, Tokyo Olympiad). She is nonpareil at dialogue, at characters (of an admittedly old-fashioned but very engaging type), and at mystery plots, at which she is truly peerless. The plots here are all tricky yet eminently fair, the productions and cinematography are sparkling and rich, the casts top-notch, and Marple, as much as Agatha's other main detective, that gray-cells-juggling Belgian fussbudget Hercule Poirot, an unfailingly brilliant unraveler. (Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, by the way, my favorite of this bunch, was not originally a Marple tale.) If you like British murder mysteries, you obviously can't do much better than this. Here's to the least likely suspects!
Includes: Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (U.K.; Nicholas Renton, 2009, B), with Julia McKenzie, Samantha Bond and Rafe Spall. A Pocket Full of Rye (U.K.; Charles Palmer, 2009, B), with McKenzie, Matthew Macfadyen, Rupert Graves, Prunella Scales. Murder Is Easy (U.K.; Hettie MacDonald, 2009, B), with McKenzie, Shirley Henderson, Benedict Cumberbach, Sylvia Syms and Jemma Redgrave. They Do It With Mirrors (U.K.; Andy Wilson, 2009, B), with McKenzie, Joan Collins, Brian Cox and Tom Payne.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
I Love You, Man (B)
U.S.; John Hamburg, 2009, Paramount Home Video
I Love You, Man is a buddy-buddy comedy with flawless central casting: two near-perfectly mismatched buddies -- played by Paul Rudd and Jason Segel as nervous, sensitive real estate agent Peter Klaven and Sydney Fife, his slobbo, over-direct, appealingly macho bud. It also has a lot of canny, clever insights into the psychosexual links between close male friends from director-writer John Hamburg and co-writer Larry Levin, as well as the actors.
It's a movie that surprised me. It started off so stupidly, and with such a misbegotten opening premise that I almost gave up on it after 10 minutes. But then Segel's Sydney showed up and suddenly, I Love You, Man righted itself and started getting very funny and smart, eventually moving almost into the Sideways-Odd Couple territory of male bonding, mismatched buddies humor.
The bad premise is the goofy notion that Rudd's Peter, a punctilious, intelligent chap who's never had a male best buddy, but gets along fabulously with women, would decide -- in the waning weeks before his marriage to fabulously understanding fiancée Zooey (Rashida Jones, very good too) -- to begin a concerted campaign to find or recruit a best bud. So we get dopey scenes where Peter, advertising for "friendship" in a match.com style-webby way, goes out on "man dates," which apparently haven't been screened to prevent embarrassment and leave him open for obvious gay gags. The daffy forced undercurrents here are heightened by another character, Peter's studly homosexual brother Robbie (Andy Samberg), who also tries to set him up, with feeble results.
Luckily, Segel's Sydney shows up at one of Peter's open houses -- to sell Lou (The Incredible Hulk) Ferrigno's old mansion. (Ferrigno amusingly parodies himself.) Peter and Sydney, who has a preternatural insight into open-house behavior and the etiquette of farting, hit it off almost instantly, and the movie recovers itself and stays on course until the end. The sense of psychology and comic pitch, which go so awry in the lame-o trolling-for-a-buddy section (which I still think should have been dropped, laughs or not), suddenly kicks back in.
Sydney is exactly the sort of shaggy-man guy -- a seemingly happy bachelor, let-it-all-hang-out smart-jock type, clever observer and Rush fan, with raffish Venice Beach digs and a talent for embarrassing candor, to whom a bright, repressed, good-guy type like Peter would be drawn (and who would be drawn to him in return). And the problems and disruptions Sydney causes -- in Peter's engagement and in his life -- are both believable and often hilarious.
17 Again (D+)
U.S.; Burr Steers, 2009, Warner Home Video
What would you so if you had a chance to be reborn as your old 17-year-old self -- and that self happened to be Zac Efron?
Nuts! Sucker! You may think the world will be your high school oyster. But you'll only wind up as the star of another bad Zac Efron movie, in a world where money talks, hunkie-boys strut and tweeners scream. Yeccchh.
One thing you can say about this movie is that it's slightly better than High School Musical 3. (On the other hand, Plan Nine From Outer Space is better than High School Musical 3. Much better.) As imagined by director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) and writer Jason Filardi, this is the tangled tale of Mike O'Donnell, whom we first see as a star point guard at 17 (played by Efron), walking off the court, deserting the big game and sacrificing a college basketball career to stand by his pregnant girlfriend Scarlet (Allison Miller).
After that heart-tugger, we see middle-aged Mike (played by Matt Perry, who looks like he needs a friend) who's been kicked out by his wife, older Scarlet (Leslie Mann), put up by his lifelong chum and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings geek Ned (Thomas Lennon), and given a second chance by a strange, angelic old janitor (Brian Doyle Murray). This oddball cherub turns him back into young Mike. Only instead of getting shown the permutations of a Back to the Future or an It's a Wonderful Life, Older Mike-turned-Young-Mike gets to see how the world will react if Zac Efron shows up again.
So, instead of going back to the Past, Older Mike-as-Young-Mike is propelled into the world of today -- which makes for some pretty salty encounters with his wife Scarlet (Leslie Mann) and daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and a strange mentoring of his son, whom he helpfully tries to devirginize. All these family affairs are -- to adopt some older tween lingo -- kind of icky-creepy. So is the movie, which also tries to get every phallic-symbol inch out of a pair of laser swords.
As for Efron, I'm willing to admit that he may be the new Rob Lowe, but I won't go any further than that. He sure isn't the new Brad Pitt. But this movie shows that he can act, if not pick scripts.
U.S.; Matt Aselton, 2008, Vivendi Entertainment
Jeez, another one! Will movie adolescents and twenty-somethings just never stop coming of age all around us?
Here, wise-guy loner Brian Weathersby (Paul Dano) is a big-city mattress salesman, Harriet Lolly (Zooey Deschanel) is a rich girl who falls asleep on his mattress and wins Brian's heart; John Goodman (in the only performance here I liked) is Harriet's brash bully of a dad Al; and Ed Asner is Brian's tolerant pop -- solidly behind his son's curious life ambition to adopt a Chinese child -- something that bothers Harriett and intrigues Al. Land o' goshen, what a plot!
What happened to most of the old funny romantic comedies? This movie, thanks to writer-director Matt Aselton, has some sharp, intelligent dialogue. But except for Goodman, it's mostly delivered too obviously: enthusiastically by the adults and in a desultory monotonous, too hip-for-Manhattan-hip style by the lovers.
Paris 36 (Fauborg 36) (C+)
France; Christophe Barratier, 2008, Sony Pictures
Christophe Barratier warmed a lot of art house audience hearts with his 2004 Les Choristes, starring Gerard Jugnot as the music teacher who wins over his reformatory boys (as successfully as Father Bing Crosby won over the street kids of Going My Way) and Maxence Perrin as a prize student. And if you were susceptible to that one (it got to me a bit) Barratier, Jugnot and Perrin are back for Paris 36.
Deliberately shot in the style of the earthy but artificial '30s French film classics (Carnival in Flanders and the movies of Renoir, Carne, Feyder and Duvivier), it's about a little French variety music hall, Chansonia, which falls on bad times during the Leon Blum Popular Front era, and has to be rescued by its sturdy stage manager (Jugnot again) and the gung ho theater workers, a hot-tempered leftist technician/entertainer (Clovis Cornillac), a hammy clown/impersonator named Jacky (Kad Merad) check, and a gorgeous young chanteuse named Douce (the Audrey Tautou-ish Nora Amezeder). (Perrin plays Jugnot's accordion prodigy son Jojo.) The villainous capitalist/entrepreneur Galapiat bedeviling them all, especially Douce, is Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, the pale-eyed heavy who memorably buried us all in the original French-Dutch The Vanishing. He's no nicer here.
For the first half hour or so I loved this. Vive the Popular Front! Vive Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf! Vive Douce! Vive Renoir's Le Crime de M. Lange, which obviously lies behind this movie. Then things started to get a little ridiculous, and they stayed that way until the end, which was both ridiculous and sappy. Barratier, who really should have rewritten this script again before shooting it, proves that he's neither Renoir, Duvivier, nor Stanley Donen. But Fauborg 36 has its moments. Just not enough of them. Rent or buy M. Lange if you have a chance, and you'll see how this movie should have made us feel. Vive Arizona Jim! (In French, with English subtitles.)
Tarzan's Peril (C+)
U.S.; Byron Haskin, 1951, Warner Archive
Lex Barker replaced Johnny Weissmuller for five '50s Tarzan outings from RKO, and this may be the best of them. There's a fine creepy trio of villains in George Macready (at his Macreadiest), Douglas Fowley and the ineffable, sweating Glenn Anders (George Grisby of Welles' The Lady from Shanghai), plus a terrific (if sadly underused) jungle princess in Dorothy Dandridge. Barker himself wasn't a bad Tarzan: a better-looking ape man than Weissmuller, if not as good a swimmer or yodeler -- good enough, in fact to be cast by Federico Fellini as a dissolute expatriate movie star and Anita Ekberg's boyfriend in Fellini's masterpiece La Dolce Vita. Barker was perfect in that part, if not this one.