PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Adjustment Bureau (B-)
U.S.: George Nolfi, 2011, Universal
A rising young liberal congressman named David Norris (Matt Damon), running for the U.S. Senate and on a fast track to the White House, blows his chances when The New York Post publishes photos of his butt-bearing college high jinks days. At the concession, irrepressible David goes to the posh men's restroom and runs into a sexy ballerina, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), who's hiding in a stall. Soon he's making out with her, in fact, falling in love with her. But "others" don't want them to be together.
Unfortunately, the "others" aren't just the usual political buttinskys. They're a group of seemingly supernatural beings called "adjustors" (from the Adjustment Bureau, natch) in matching '50s suits and fedoras who basically run the world, who can travel all over New York City at lightning speeds through dimensional wormholes, and who are bent on reorganizing David's life, and, especially keeping him away from Elise. Why? Precisely because he is prime presidential timber and his eventual successful presidency is fervently desired by someone (God?) who is running this shebang.
There's a double catch, all explained to David by friendly adjustors Richardson (John Slattery of Mad Men) and Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie). One: David has to give up Elise, who apparently will ruin his chances somehow. And if he ever tells anybody about the Adjustment Bureau, his memory will be scrubbed. To guarantee his cooperation, top Adjustment Bureau exec Mr. Thompson (Terence Stamp) will soon take over everything.
All of this, which frankly strikes me as nonsensical, has been scripted and directed by newcomer George Nolfi, the scenarist of two other Matt Damon movies, Oceans Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum, based on a story by the great science fiction writer and chronicler of paranoia-taking-over, Philip K. Dick.
But I have to say that, while this script is a perfectly competent, good-hearted job, and I would probably be happy to vote for Nolfi for the U.S. Congress, even if The New York Post has compromising photos of him. But I still insist that moviemakers should be adapting Dick's novels, like The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time Slip, Ubik, Eye in the Sky, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Time Out of Joint and not repeatedly taking his early, less richly imagined and embellished short stories. After all, it was Blade Runner, based on one of Dick's best novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that started the whole Dick deluge.
It's a nice movie though. Well shot. Manhattan looks fine. Damon and Blunt are a keen couple, Stamp an icy villain. Boo. Yay.
The Eagle (B)
U.S.-U.K.: Kevin Macdonald, 2011, Focus Features
The Eagle is one of the more enjoyable adventure movies I've seen recently. Set in the wilds of ancient Britain in the second century, it's an old-fashioned, well-crafted, exciting movie, adapted by director Kevin Macdonald and writer Jeremy Brock from Rosemary Sutcliff's famous young-adult novel The Eagle of the Ninth. It's full of action, emotion, personality and eye-catching scenery -- just the kind of things we want in an adventure movie, whether it's a Western, a tall ship tale, a swashbuckler or, like this one, a sword-and-sandals Roman empire epic, in the Spartacus/Gladiator tradition.
Macdonald's movie also boasts a couple of heroes that actually engage your attention and sympathy (or at least mine): tormented Roman ex-General Marcus Aquila (played by Channing Tatum), and his plucky British slave, Esca (played by Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot).
Tatum's Marcus is a noble warrior and a photogenic brooder, retired from command in his youth after a nasty battle with the Picts, and he's obsessed with solving the mystery (a real historical one) of the Roman Ninth Legion, which was defeated by British tribes and vanished in Caledonia (now Scotland) in A.D. 140. Incidentally, he also wants to clear the name of his late father, the Ninth's commander, as well as to recover the golden eagle that was the Ninth's standard.
Aquila's slave Esca, irreverent and indomitable despite his slight stature, owes his life to his master, who saved him from thumbs-down death at the hands of a gladiator in the Games, and now wants Esca to accompany him on his journey into the dangerous northern land above Hadrian's Wall -- then so forbidding that the wall was called the End of the World.
It's a volatile situation. Esca is a native Briton, unafraid and defiant, who didn't flinch or move when a gladiator laid his sword on his skin in the arena. And we keep wondering throughout much of the movie, which side he'll ultimately choose: that of the man who was so impressed by his courage and who rescued him, or that of the people of his blood and birth, still fighting the Roman armies and leaders who want to enslave them all.
United uneasily, these two plunge into the wilderness above the wall, the habitat of fierce tribes and deadly warriors and perhaps of the descendants of the legion that disappeared -- an uncharted realm of glowering skies, craggy mountains, rushing rivers, forests and caves that swallow you up (all shot with ravishing detail and bleak grandeur by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, of 127 Hours), along with villages and camps seething with dangerous combatants -- like the blue-painted Seal People, led by the ferocious Seal Prince (played by Tahar Rahim of the rough, bloody French prison movie A Prophet).
In some ways The Eagle is formula-bound, exaggerated and even, from some perspectives, a little silly. But it's not the kind of formula that annoys me. I enjoyed the results much more than I did the recent Centurion, which was also inspired by the disappearance of the Ninth -- but was played with surpassing grimness, grotesquerie and deadening brutality, like a period horror movie.
Zazie dans le Metro (A-)
France: Louis Malle, 1960, Criterion
An impish little girl named Zazie, with pre-Beatles bangs, an unusually profane vocabulary and a seemingly endless sense of adventure, travels to Paris on the train with her mother (Odette Piquet). As soon as they hit Paris, her maman departs with her lover and leaves Zazie, a 12-year-old French gamine (played by the delightfully brash little Catherine Demongeot), to spend the day with the girl's's obliging, free-spirited Uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret). Zazie, tiny but indomitable, has a startling lack of reliance on adults, and that's probably all to the good, since, as a babysitter, Gabriel seems initially a big fat fish out of water.
Mon Oncle Gabriel, in fact, is a drag entertainer whose Playtime is at a local restaurant-cabaret, where his size and manner recall that classic description of Oliver Hardy: "elephant on tippy-toe." Zazie keeps calling her uncle a "hormosessual," even though the tart-tongued Gabriel is married to a loving wife named Albertine (Carla Marlier), who has the sweetest of dispositions and the looks of a movie star. But apparently, a "hormosessual" he is.
With or without Gabriel, Zazie has one big wish for her Parisian trip: She wants to take a ride on the Paris Metro. But the metro is on strike, and the subway gates are locked, so Zazie has to be content, for a while, with zipping around town in a taxicab with Gabriel and an exuberant driver (Antoine Roblot), who cheerfully misidentify landmarks (the Church of St. Vincent de Paul becomes the Pantheon) and keep getting caught in the traffic jams that the metro strike has caused.
Zazie dans le Metro was the movie that made Philippe Noiret a star -- beginning a brilliant half-century film career and striking a blow for all those great movie actors who don't look like Alain Delon. The film didn't ultimately make a star of Catherine Demongeot. She only acted in three more films, and one of them was a cameo as Zazie, for Godard's A Woman Is a Woman. But it gave her something more precious: It made her immortal.
Malle too, maybe -- along with his more conventional masterpieces Le Feu Follet, Lacombe, Lucien and Au Revoir, les Enfants. The wacky Zazie dans le Metro was his third feature film -- the fourth, if you include his co-directing chores on Jacques Cousteau's Oscar and Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or-winning underwater documentary The Silent World (1956). And, with it's effervescent mob of screwball characters, its deliberately frenetic style, and its gorgeous vistas of Paris on the run, Zazie was a complete departure, and an exhilarating one, from the more somber, fear-drenched world of the films above, and of Malle's two 1958 black-and-white films with Jeanne Moreau: the noir thriller Elevator to the Gallows and the erotic drama The Lovers.
Zazie contains one of the most terrifying movie scenes that I can recall in any non-thriller: the long, breath-taking romp on and up the Eiffel Tower, which we see (the real tower, no tricks, no CGI), back-dropped by all of Paris in vertiginous deep focus -- from the open-air spiral staircase as Zazie's gang dizzyingly race up it, or right near the edges of the floors, where Gabriel seems to be skittering right up to and almost over the edge. In French, with English subtitles. (Extras: Interviews with Malle, Queneau, Rappeneau, William Klein and Demongeot; 2005 video piece Le Paris du Zazie; trailer; booklet with essay by Ginette Vincendeau.)
Pale Flower (A-)
Japan: Masahiro Shinoda, 1964, Criterion
One of the artiest and most visually stunning neo-noirs ever, and a high spot of the '60s Japanese New Wave, this doom-soaked tale of a taciturn yakuza ex-con named Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), who falls madly in love with beautiful gambling addict Saeko (Mariko Kaga), and sinks with her into a silken hell, is shot by director/co-writer Masahiro Shinoda and cinematographer Masao Kosugi in black-and-white images of a lush, seedy Yokohama underworld of gambling dens and dark streets that should knock your eyes out. And it's acted out by the terrific-looking, iconic stars Ikebe and Kaga to one of the great film composer Toru Takemitsu's best early, nerve-jangling scores.
In 1969, Shinoda would have an international breakthrough with an even artier film, the prize-winning tragic romance Double Suicide. But some buffs regard Pale Flower as his best film, or at least his best black-and-white film. Unlike that other arty, offbeat, more-for-your-money '60s crime thriller expert Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill), Shinoda doesn't try to blast you out of your seat with angle shots and violence. This is the kind of subtle, understated psychological crime drama that a Sidney Lumet or a Jean-Pierre Melville might make. High praise, but the movie deserves it. In Japanese, with subtitles. (Extras: interview with Shinoda; selected scene commentary by Takemitsu music expert Peter Grilli; original trailer; booklet with fine Chuck Stephens essay.)
U.S.-U.K.: Nicolas Roeg, 1985, Criterion
Everyone has his time. Nic Roeg's best films tended to come in the '70s (Performance, Walkabout, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth), when his anti-establishment politics and experimental aesthetics were in sync with at least part of the movie industry. Roeg -- a great cinematographer (he shot The Caretaker, Petulia, and second unit on Lawrence of Arabia) who became a great director -- had a harder time of it afterwards.
In Insignificance, though, he's still able to fight the good fight. It's a super-theatrical, very political piece about the power and perils of celebrity, based by scriptwriter Terry Johnson on his play. The excellent cast plays four juicy unnamed characters who are obviously modeled on Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey) and Sen. Joe McCarthy (Tony Curtis).
Russell looks and acts sensational; she has Monroe's baby-talk and movie mannerisms down pat. Emil (Henry Jaglom's brother and occasional movie star) seems perfect casting, as Einsteinian as E=MC2. Busey nails DiMaggio's star athlete bravura and husbandly anguish. And Curtis' Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy suggests a wearier Sidney Falco, without a Hunsecker to bully him. Most of the movie takes place in the Professor's hotel room, with his notes strewn on the furniture and a Picasso painting of Mother and Child on the wall -- and Will Sampson, the chief of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is an elevator men who keeps ferrying the characters up and down, like Chiron.
But, if the cast is first-rate, I don't think the play is all that good. It's certainly provocative and intelligent. But, to me, the artifice and archness of the writing (never mind the casual sense of history) blunts and sabotages its potential power.
Compared to Roeg's best, richest work, Insignificance seems light -- while Performance (co-directed and written by Donald Cammell) and Roeg's other '70s classics look more and more impressive as the years pass. It must have been hard to get even projects like this together in the greed-crazed, ultra-conventional '80s. But though I don't think Insignificance is good enough material to unleash Roeg's special genius, all the actors are at their best. The show also has a charming opener (Russell's Marilyn doing the Seven Year Itch subway grating, blowing white dress scene), and it has a real Roeg mind-bender of an ending. (Extras: interviews with Roeg, producer Jeremy Thomas and editor Tony Lawson; "Making of" documentary; original trailer; booklet with a good Chuck Stephens essay and a conversation between Roeg and Johnson.
The Long Riders (B)
U.S.: Walter Hill, 1980, MGM/Fox
In one of the all-time great pieces of family movie casting, writer-director Walter Hill retells the oft-filmed tale of Jesse James and the James Gang with four bands of real-life movie actor brothers playing the various outlaw siblings of the story. James and Stacey Keach are Jesse and Frank James (the Keaches also co-wrote the script and co-executive-produced); David, Keith and Robert Carradine are Cole Younger and his brothers Jim and Bob; Randy and Dennis Quaid are Clell and Ed Miller; and Nicholas and Christopher Guest are Robert Ford and his brother Charlie.
The Carradines alone are worth the price of admission and/or the DVD, and all the other brothers do a hell of a job, too. Jeff and Beau Bridges probably couldn't have done better -- though I would have liked to see them try.
It's a pretty good movie too. It looks even better when you remember the long dry spell of American movie Westerns, off and on, up to the recent semi-renaissance of True Grit and Meek's Cutoff. (Extras: trailer.)