PICKS OF THE WEEK
Magnificent Obsession (A)
U.S.; Douglas Sirk, 1954, Criterion
Douglas Sirk is famous for his impeccably stylish, inwardly mad '50s domestic melodramas, mostly made for Universal and producer Ross Hunter. And none of them is madder or more stylish than Magnificent Obsession, a remake of the 1935 Universal hit based on the 1929 Lloyd C. Douglas novel, and directed by John M. Stahl. Starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson as Helen Phillips and Bob Merrick, the roles originally played by Irene Dunne (as "Helen Hudson") and Robert Taylor, this is one high-style Hollywood woman's movie that cannot be synopsized with a straight face, though Sirk manages to direct it (seemingly) with one.
It's about woman-chasing playboy Merrick (played, in a stretch, by the closeted Hudson) who is rescued from a drunken boat accident by a beloved doctor's resuscitator, unfortunately tying this life-saving machine up at the same time that the stricken, dying doctor desperately needs it. Later, meeting and pursuing the doctor's beauteous widow Helen (Wyman), dashing Bob clumsily causes another accident in which Helen is blinded.
But wait! Bob has been previously informed, by sage, pipe-smoking artist Randolph (Otto Kruger) of Dr. Phillips' secret faith, which revolves around frequent, anonymous charity and scientific-sounding homilies. And when Helen's blindness seems incurable and she flees him after a Swiss mountain idyll in which both pledge their love, devoted Bob becomes determined to study hard and become a world-famous eye surgeon to rescue her from the darkness he himself has caused....
Much of this loony tale comes from the '35 Sarah Y. Mason-Victor Heerman script, which Douglas (a minister/novelist who also wrote The Robe) disliked. But the role of sinner-to-saint Bob Merrick, flabbergasting as it may sound, made stars of both Taylor and Hudson, and generations of four-handkerchief-prone moviegoers have adored both movies. Sirk's, though, is also admired by heavy-duty academics, filmmakers, scholars and cinephiles, for reasons Criterion's new print will reveal. Also in this excellent package: Stahl's '35 version and a fine documentary-interview with Sirk.
Other features include: Magnificent Obsession (U.S.; John M. Stahl, 1935, C+); From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers (Germany; Eckhardt Schmidt, 1991, B). Extras: Commentary; interviews with filmmakers Allison Anders & Kathryn Bigelow; trailer; booklet, with Geoffrey O'Brien essay.
George Wallace (A-)
U.S.; John Frankenheimer, 1997, Warner
George Wallace, populist demagogue, governor of Alabama, U.S. presidential candidate and race baiter extraordinaire is a fascinating subject for political drama. And the movie bio George Wallace from Marshall Frady's book, written by Frady and Paul Monash, starring Gary Sinise as Wallace and directed, superbly, by John Frankenheimer, realizes much of the historical mother lode.
Frankenheimer and the writers show us Wallace's forgotten liberal beginnings, his tutelage by the charmingly 'Bama cynical boss/politico Big Jim Folsom (Joe Don Baker), his tangled relationships with wives Lurleen (Mare Winningham) and Cornelia (Angelina Jolie), his opportunistic conversion to a public and politically driven racism that he may never really have believed himself, his shooting by an assassin, and his late-life attempts at redemption. Even the fictitious additions -- a supposed lifelong friendship with African American servant Archie (Clarence Williams III), that is supposed to convey Wallace's true racial feelings -- are illuminating.
Frankenheimer had his first great movie heyday in the l960s, with The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, Seconds, Grand Prix and The Fixer. But he had a second less-recognized Golden Age in the 1990s, not so much for his sometimes campy, mostly action-oriented theatrical movies (The Fourth War, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Ronin), as for his often magnificent, much-Emmied work on TV: Andersonville, The Burning Season, Against the Wall and this movie, an inside-view political drama to rank with All the King's Men, The Candidate or The Best Man.
The Children of Huang Shi (B)
U.S.; Roger Spottiswoode, 2008, Sony
This sober, intelligent, well-done real-life drama about British journalist Gorge Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a onetime Elvis) and his long march and rescue of a group of threatened Chinese orphans during the Japanese occupation in 1937 China, is much better than its mixed notices would suggest.
True, the love story between Hogg and Australian nurse Lee (Radha Mitchell) doesn't really sizzle. But it's questionable whether that's crucial to the movie: an epic of social conscience in wartime that has a compassion, visual sweep and humanity that many films of this kind miss. It also has fine, full performances by Chow Yun Fat (as a resistance leader), Michelle Yeoh (as a kindly official) and the orphanage kids, as well as astonishingly beautiful and evocative cinematography by Xiaoding Zhao. Zhang Yimou's great collaborator on House of the Flying Daggers and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Zhao outdoes himself here. His images of the trek through the mainland and mountains are stunners that justify the whole movie. And the credit sequence interviews with some still-living orphans from the trek, end the film on a moving note. (Extra: Featurette.)
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Michael Powell Double Feature (A-)
U.K.; Michael Powell, 1946-69, Sony
This double feature presents films by a maverick British master, Michael Powell. Stairway to Heaven is one from the great middle section of his career, the years of The Archers (with Emeric Pressburger), and The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and Colonel Blimp, and the other, Age of Consent, is from his neglected later years. Powell is an incandescent artist, and his flair for fiery poetry and juicy high-style visuals shines through regardless.
Stairway to Heaven (A Matter of Life and Death) (A)
U.K.; Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1946
This is an incredible, gorgeous fantasy about an RAF pilot (David Niven) hovering between life and death, and the vast trial in Heaven called to decide his fate. With Kim Hunter, Raymond Massey, Roger Livesey and Marius Goring as the Messenger ("One cannot live without Technicolor!").
Age of Consent (B+)
Australia; Michael Powell, 1969
A delightful idyll set on the Great Barrier Reef. James Mason is an old painter ready to be revived, based on Norman Lindsay (also the subject of Sirens); the young Helen Mirren is a very uninhibited nude model. With Jack MacGowran and Frank Thring.
The Last Detective: Complete Collection (B+)
U.K.; various directors, 2001-2006, Acorn
From the novels by Leslie Thomas right on to the popular British TV show The Last Detective based on them, London's "Dangerous" Davies (played spot on by Peter Davison) is a detective for the common man: somewhat dowdy and hangdog, and definitely a henpecked husband (thanks to Emma Amos), but one hell of a detective and a dogged, relentless, never-say-die cop. If John Nettles' Tom Barnaby (of Midsummer Murders) is something of a provincial gentleman, Davies is a big-city prole-up-from-the-ranks, and his clumsiness, which is not a deliberate ploy as it is for Peter Falk's Columbo, makes him more endearing, and therefore more dangerous.
These are very good British mystery shows, with lots of North London atmosphere, good dialogue and top supporting casts (Roger Daltrey of the Who as a stooge gangster, for example). This set includes all extant Davies, 17 shows beginning with the humdinger pilot, plus the 1980 Val Guest movie, based on the same Leslie Thomas novel as the pilot, with Bernard Cribbins (who was the nasty, jealous bar manager in Hitchcock's Frenzy) as Dangerous.
Of course, neither of these guys is as lovable a detective, even when she's in her cups, as Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. But they'll do. All films, except Guest's 1980 Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective, are U.K. productions, from 2001 to 2006. The directors include Nick Laughland, David Tucker, Douglas Mackinnon, Sandy Johnson, and Martyn Friend. (Extras: Interview with Davison, Leslie Thomas bio and booklist, photo galleries, cast filmographies.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Max Payne (D+)
U.S.; John Moore, 2009, 20th Century Fox
This dour but gaudy neo-noir thriller, adapted from the popular Max Payne video game franchise, stars Mark Wahlberg as vengeful, heart-broken, killing-machine cop Max, whom we see roaming through a dark and snowy New York City, battling the bizarre corporate drug-crime conspiracy that may have killed his wife, child and ex-partner-cop. All the while, Max keeps running into mythical winged monsters, bad cops, frame-ups, an Internal Affairs investigation run by Ludacris (as slick cop Jim Bravura), bad drugs, bad weather, bad living conditions, bad dialogue, a good-bad heroine (Mila Kunis), a good (or maybe bad-good) ex-boss named B.B. (played by Beau Bridges) -- and an occasional good-good angel.
The movie, in case you were wondering, is pretty bad too, though the film noir design (by Daniel T. Dorrance) and the urban nightmare cinematography (by Jonathan Sela) are good enough. Wahlberg might have been okay too if he had half a chance -- he was sensational as another hardcase cop in The Departed. But the script won't let him. The story is hackneyed, the dialogue is unspeakable (or to be more precise, not worth speaking), the plot is sometimes dull, and the structure often incoherent. (We don't get the crucial revenge-spurring murder scene until more than halfway through). The snow is incessant and the actors, except for genial B.B., look as if they were in a state of hopeless confusion, burning anger or deep depression.
I don't blame them. Once again, Max Payne demonstrates the danger of adapting big-budget movies from video games. Why not adapt them from dog food or vacation cruise commercials? Or the classified ads? Adding to the torpor is the sometimes funereal pace of the non-action scenes. Not a good strategy. When you have dialogue like this, it's best not to linger over it.
The Express (B-)
U.S.; Gary Fleder, 2008, Universal
When I was a sports-loving small-town kid, this movie, which stars Rob Brown as storied Syracuse University running back Ernie Davis and Dennis Quaid as his famed coach, Ben Schwartzalder, might have knocked me out. It still gives me a nostalgic kick today. Following Davis from his hardscrabble working-class Pennsylvania schoolboy days, and, very briefly through an incredible high school career -- during which he won four baseball letters and three all-conference citations for basketball in addition to his football exploits -- The Express mostly showcases Davis' barrier-smashing career at Syracuse and its poignant climax.
There, despite following another legendary Syracuse running back, the great Jim Brown, and despite a troubling backdrop of '50s-style racism and clashes with the hard-as-nails Southerner Schwartzalder, Davis eventually helped take a national championship as a sophomore. He also won two all-American berths, and in 1961, was named college football's first black Heisman Trophy winner. The movie recaps that career. And it finishes with the heartbreaking close to Davis' story -- what happened after he was drafted by Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell (Saul Rubinek) for a dream backfield with Brown (Darren DeWitt Henson), "The Boys from Syracuse."
The Express gets the human side of the drama: the ways Davis, a low-key type whose quiet generosity was a contrast to his more rebellious mentor Brown -- coped with '50s racism and old Deep South mores, as in the movie's heart-pumping re-creation of his performance, before a vicious crowd, at the 1959 national championship game with Texas at the Cotton Bowl.
Though the story has been fictionalized a bit, the filmmaking team -- which includes producer John Davis (The Firm), director Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury), and writer Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) -- has done its homework. Brown and Quaid are good; so are the rest of the cast, notably Omar Benson Miller (the cheerful giant in Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna) as Davis' teammate/buddy Jack Buckley, Charles S. Dutton as his believably nurturing grandpa "Pops," and Sarah Ward as his radiant fiancée Nicole, shine as well. All the football scenes, cast and staged by second-unit director Allan Graf (who did similar duty on Any Given Sunday and Friday Night Lights) have a bone-crushing veracity, which reaches its peak in the Cotton Bowl sequence.
City of Ember (B-)
U.S.; Gil Kenan, 2008, 20th Century Fox
City of Ember is a children's science fiction fantasy about social and technological collapse and the possible end of the world. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House), writer Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands), original author Jeanne Duprau and production designer Martin Laing (who deserves special praise), concoct a futuristic, falling-apart world, where, as in Terry Gilliam's Brazil, society seems to have gone into reverse. The outer surface of the planet has become inhabitable and humanity has fled into a deep underground city, called Ember, in which all light comes from an increasingly failing and sputtering electrical system, food is running out and the so-called government is run by a fat, duplicitous mayor named Cole (Bill Murray, looking like a bloated Bush after a long toot) and his evil henchman Barton Snode (Toby Jones, looking like a tinier Karl Rove, a tot hatching plots).
The key to the problem lies in a mysterious box that had been passed from mayor to mayor since the downward exodus, that was lost decades ago (when a mayor unexpectedly died) and that now falls into the hands of two recently graduated kids: Saoirse Ronan (the little liar of Atonement) as Lina, a messenger (there are no phones in Ember) and Harry Treadaway as Doon Harrow, a pipe worker, who toils down in the rotting sub-Metropolis network of pipes and generators beside the aged worker Sol (Martin Landau). Doon and Lina are our hero and heroine, and when they open the box and start to decipher its messages, they become dangerous rebels in the eyes of the King Cole establishment, and the film becomes a series of breathless chases through the gloriously decaying city -- called Ember, maybe because it's almost in ashes.
City of Ember is such a literate, artistic, well-mounted job that it reminds you how good movie adaptations of fantasy adventure, children's bestsellers and classics have become. (Would that more adult classics and non-fantasies were treated as well.) I'd rate it higher, in fact, except for a puzzling letdown at the end. But Ronan and Treadaway are a beguiling pair. Landau, Jones, Tim Robbins, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Mary Kay Place are wonderfully dysfunctional. And Bill Murray is as fine a pig of a politician as ever oinked his way though a movie.
Henry Poole Is Here (C-)
U.S.; Mark Pellington, 2008, Anchor Bay
Director Mark Pellington, hitherto a specialist in post-modern neo-noir and horror (The Mothman Prophecies, Arlington Road), tackles the big issue of whether a messy-looking stain on the outside stucco wall of fatally ill malcontent Henry Poole's (Luke Wilson) house, is actually the face of Jesus Christ. (Personally I thought it was either Robert Downey Jr. or Jack Black, but what do I know?)
Eventually, Poole -- whose relationship to Hal Hartley's Henry Fool is one of the big mysteries here -- is drawn into a Lourdes-like miracle religious crusade that involves his blissed-out neighbor Esperanza (Adriana Barraza, who's fine) and the bombshell-mom-next door, Dawn (Radha Mitchell). All this leads to a surprisingly paltry gathering of seekers after miracles and the haunting question of whether the face, whosever it is, has curative powers, and whether the dying Poole shouldn't give it a shot. (Why the hell not?)
Pellington's skill with actors makes the movie look somewhat sensible, and it's not. It's as preachy and unlikely as Swing Vote. Or Red Planet Mars. The ending is ridiculous. I'm not being hard of heart here; I like religious movies by Robert Bresson or Carl Dreyer -- or, for that matter, Frank Capra and Leo McCarey. But I guess you have to take these things on faith. (Extras: Commentary with Pellington and writer Albert Torres; featurettes; music videos, trailer.)