PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (A-)
U.S.-U.K.; Terry Gilliam, 2009, Sony Pictures Classics
I'm generally partial to Terry Gilliam, and this troubled production, beset by catastrophe, during which star Heath Ledger died in mid-shoot, shows just how ingenious, and how wildly imaginative, director Gilliam can be. Ledger, playing Tony, a carnival worker in the seedy, traveling coach Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, at his plumiest and most off-handedly Shakespearean), has been replaced in the unshot scenes by three other stars -- Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who are respectively billed as "Imaginarium Tony 1-3." And it works!
Not only does this seemingly dubious strategy work, Imaginarium seems to me one of the better fantasy movies of last year. Co-written by Gilliam and Charles McKeon (the same team who made Gilliam's 1985 masterpiece, Brazil), it's the tale of a duel-of-wits among Dr. Parnassus (carny magician and the world's oldest man by a thousand years or so), all the incarnations of Tony, and the satanic Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), who will carry off Dr. P's fetching honey-bunny daughter Valentina (super-modelish-looking Lily Cole), unless he's paid off with five souls. Watching all this are carnival associates Percy (Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer, in a super-size performance) and lovelorn Anton (Andrew Garfield).
The Imaginarium is a behind-the-mirror wonderland in Dr. P's show, where Ledger's Tony turns, successively, into Depp's, Law's and Farrell's Tonies -- and all the latter three deserve a triple round of applause for so ably helping to preserve their colleague/brother-at-arms' last role. The Imaginarium is also where Gilliam is able to exploit his wildest, weirdest flights of fancy. If you like him, you'll like this. I did. Huzzah!
In Search of Beethoven (A)
U.K.; Phil Grabsky, 2009, Microcinema
This great movie about the life and music of genius composer Ludwig van Beethoven reworks the strategy of Grabsky's In Search of Mozart, an equally fine documentary on one of Beethoven's few peers. If you love the music of Beethoven and Mozart, and find it essential, as I do, you have to see these movies.
Expertly, they weave the melancholic, tragic life stories of these two great composers, together historical/critical discussions by writers and performers, and powerful excerpts of their great works played by many first-rate musicians and conductors, such as Emmanuel Ax and Claudio Abbado. In Beethoven's case, the soundtrack rages from works as tiny or delicate as "Fur Elise" and "The Moonlight Sonata" to the storms and torrents of The 5th and 6th Symphonies, the 5th or "Emperor" Piano Concerto and the 9th or "Choral" Symphony.
Grabsky's film would be a beautiful and essential addition to any music or film lover's library.
The Saragossa Manuscript (A)
Poland; Wojciech Has, 1965, Facets/PolArt
This brilliant, nightmarish adventure-romance-war epic, set during the Napoleonic Wars and based on the novel by Jan Potocki, was a huge favorite of Luis Buñuel's, and probably a major influence on late historical, episodic, and surreal Buñuel works like The Phantom of Liberty and The Milky Way. Has' hypnotic film is like Dead of Night crossed with The Decameron and Don Quixote. And it also suggests one of those M. C. Escher fool-the-eye drawings where staircases and walls twist in on themselves, lizards become drawings, and all the world is an optical illusion. With Zbigniew Cybulski, the legendary "Polish James Dean" and star of Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds; scripted by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, and with a score by Krzysztof Penderecki. (In Polish, with English subtitles.) (Extras: biographies.)
Out of Africa (25th Anniversary Edition) (A-)
U.S.; Sydney Pollack, 1985, Universal, Blu-ray
Isak Dinesen's lyrical memoir of her life in Africa and her affair with British flier Denys Finch Hatton, beautifully shot, skillfully made and splendidly cast -- with Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, a.k.a., Dinesen and Robert Redford as Denys, won the Best Picture and director Oscars in 1985, during a decade when intelligent, adult films from big-studio Hollywood were increasingly rare and rarely this well done. Its still a fine piece of classical, old-style film-making, one of Pollack's best, and also one of Streep's peaks. With Klaus Maria Brandauer (excellent as Karen's cuckolded husband), Michael Kitchen, Malick Bowens, Joseph Thiaka, Graham Crowden, Leslie Phillips and Michael Gough. Scripted by Kurt Luedtke ("Absence of Malice") and photographed by David Watkin. (Extras: featurettes.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Letters from Fontainhas (A-)
Portugal; Pedro Costa, 1997-2006, Criterion
Pedro Costa, a second-generation Portuguese filmmaker, took his camera, lights, sound equipment and, eventually, a skeletal crew to the Fontainhas area of Lisbon -- a ramshackle neighborhood of immigrants, poor people, mixed races and outsiders of all kinds that was being torn down and demolished even as he filmed there -- and, over a period of more than a decade, made the "Letters from Fontainhas" trilogy: a minimalist triptych of real people having their lives refashioned into drama, a fresco of the impoverished and lost, of heroin addicts and whores, of working people and derelicts, of families and outlaws, all living lives that beggar description.
Here's a prime example of why we're in a Golden Age of DVD production. Costa is a film festival darling whose movies have little commercial appeal; even their impoverished subjects would probably rather watch movie fantasies about the romances of rich people and adventurers. Here, his work gets the attention and presentation that his seriousness and gifts warrant, but that they'd be unlikely to receive in any other previous era or medium.
I will confess Costa is not exactly to my taste. He's a bit too minimalist, too way-past-Bressonian, too monotone and fixed-camera unswerving. But there's no doubt that these films were made utterly without compromise and that Costa has presented as true a portrait of the underbelly of Lisbon life as we're ever likely to see. These films make even some of the masterpieces of neorealism look a bit lush and melodramatic. And the three exceptional and totally offbeat pictures are given superb packaging and treatment. (Portuguese, with English subtitles.)
Extras: two short 2007 films by Pedro Costa, both with Ventura, Tarafal (A) and The Rabbit Hunters (A-); documentary on Costa, All Blossoms Fall; commentary for In Vanda's Room by Costa and Jean-Pierre Gorin (co-director of Godard's Tout va Bien); conversations between Costa and Gorin on Ossos and Colossal Youth; commentary on Colossal Youth by writers Cyril Neyrat and Jacques Ranciere; video essay on Ossos by Jeff Wall; interviews with Costa, critic Joao Bernard da Costa, and cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel; video installation by Costa, "Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female"; trailers; photo galleries; booklet with essays by Neyrat, Ricardo Matos Cabo, Luc Sante, Thom Andersen, Mark Peranson and Bernard Eisenschitz.
Portugal; Pedro Costa, 1997
First of the trilogy. The most fictionalized and the most conventionally shot, it centers around Clotilde (Vanda Duarte), a heroin addict and mother, and her friends and neighbors. The life shown here is pitiful and bleak, and the view will darken as the trilogy progresses.
In Vanda's Room (B)
Vanda Duarte returns, and Costa's style is even more minimal, with few lights (so the working residents won't be disturbed at night), few cuts or camera movements, few exits from this life of pain.
Colossal Youth (A-)
Best of the three, it focuses not on the younger outsiders and losers of the first two films, but on an old man called Ventura, Vanda's father, a once active construction worker and family man, now poor and "retired," who wanders and gabs and plays cards among the new Fontainhas people and the remnants of his past. Since the viewpoint here is from isolated old age, rather than drug-addicted youth, the film seems more universal. Ventura's is a perspective that, like that of the old, evicted pensioner and dog-owner played by Carlo Battisti in "Umberto D," engenders instant sympathy and more fully exposes the lacks of this section of the Portuguese social system.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
It's Complicated (B)
U.S.; Nancy Meyers, Universal Studios, 2009
It's Complicated tries to show that age cannot wither, nor custom stale, even in Santa Barbara, with Meryl Streep making croissants, Alec Baldwin undergoing fertility tests and some funny smoke in the air from Steve Martin. The movie costars Streep as a happy baker who's lived too long unmarried, Baldwin as the jolly, lewd lawyer who divorced her 10 years ago and now falls for her again, and Martin as a shy architect who lights up whenever he and Streep discuss new additions.
It's a romantic comedy about affluent people being naughty. In other words, it's the modern equivalent of that old Hollywood Golden Age glory, the '30s-'40s screwball comedy. It's not hard, in fact, to see chunks of The Awful Truth and The Philadelphia Story swimming around in the glossy baker's bowl that producer-director-writer Nancy Meyers whips into here.
Streep's Jane Adler is a divorcee who lives on a luscious Santa Barbara estate that suggests Jane's bakery-restaurant business has gone global: a bourgeois paradise that cinematographer John Toll has lit and shot so sumptuously, you want to stick around and munch Jane's croissants in the kitchen for a weekend or two. There, in the mansion, Jane has brought up her three children and sent them to college, mostly without Jake, who's now a hot-to-trot attorney with an unkillable smirk and a skinny-bitch young wife (Lake Bell as Agness, with a hiss).
After all that, Jane and Jake reconnect at a fancy New York City hotel, where the kids and family are having a celebration, and he talks her into a room and some post-marital horizontal bop. Martin's Adam, meanwhile, is waiting in the wings: an architect with lots of plans, but also a lot less libido than Jake.
The movie keeps throwing these three (or four) together and pulling them apart, with a chorus of proudly randy gal pals (Rita Wilson and others) cheering Jane on. The trouble with Complicated, though, is that it's a movie that has a wonderful central triangle of actors, but that doesn't really have great lines or great dialogue or great scenes. It simply has great croissants and three great comic actors, squeezing every risqué, hilarious drop out of Meyer's innuendoes and out-you-endos. That's what's right with it. It's Complicated has its flaws, and burps, but this is a movie with a nearly ideal cast, at least at the top.
Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight (B)
U.S.; Wendy Keys, 2009, New Video Group
Occasionally, I've dumped on abstract expressionist painters, and though I was being obviously unfair, I won't take it back, not even for Jackson Pollock. But this week, there's a documentary about another modern artist I find admirable, sympathetic and worthy of the high praise he gets here: LaGuardia Arts and Cooper Union graduate, Push Pin guru, sometime psychedelic designer, early New York magazine cover genius, and I (Heart) NY guy Milton Glaser.
Like many of the better postwar artists of his era (50s to '70s), the still-active Glaser went into commercial art instead of art-patronized or gallery painting, and he accomplished many small and some large miracles along the way. This movie, directed by Wendy Keys, shows a lot of them -- as well as letting us hang around a fascinating man who teaches as well as he draws, who reopened the art world to the riches that modernists and minimalists and abstract expressionists tossed out, who has a social as well as an artistic conscience and who, in the end, reflects his era and his city (New York, New York) -- its jazz, its food, its art, its politics, its marvelous ethnic super-mix -- as well as anybody could.
Australia; Steve Jacobs, 2008, Image Entertainment
John Malkovich, who's a wizard at playing pretentious, arrogant and diffident, is brilliant here again. Working with a finely hewn, very intelligent script, based on South African writer J.M. Coetzee's novel, Malkovich plays a cultivated, erotically inclined Cape Town South African professor of literature (romantic poetry, with an emphasis on Lord Byron), whose affair with a young black female student eventually disgraces him, loses him his job and sends him out to the Eastern Cape farm and dog kennel of his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines, almost as good as Malkovich here) -- where even worse humiliations and more intense suffering await him.
Disgrace is in many ways a model literary adaptation, though it's only the second feature from its talented husband-wife director-producer/screenwriter team, Steve Jacobs and Anna Maria Monticelli. They've done a careful, loving job. The film is lyrically photographed (by Steve Arnold) in Cape Town and in stunning mountain settings, and superbly acted -- by Malkovich and Haines, and by Eriq Ebouaney as Lucy's sly, ambitious neighbor Petrus.
Towering over the movie, though, is Malkovich's Lurie, a selfish, condescending man who receives his comeuppance and goes through such floods of torment that he compels both our belief and our sadness. And our recognition of all the pains and vicissitudes, present and past, of a country where the suffering apparently continues.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (B-)
U.K.; Shekhar Kapur, 2007, Universal
After their splashy 1998 Elizabeth, director Shekhar Kapur and star Blanchett once again take up the seemingly scarlet history of Good Queen Bess, the red hot "Virgin Queen." Here Liz comes into her own, drowned in production values and pizzazz, and making the age really Elizabethan. I think Cate Blanchett is as good as they come (even following in the footsteps of Bette Davis and Flora Robson). But this movie is one Spanish armada too many, too splashy and flashy for its own good. With Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owens, Rhys Ifans, Abbie Cornish and Samantha Morton. (Extras: featurettes.)
Reefer Madness Collector's Edition (D-)
U.S.; Louis Gasnier, 1935, Walking Shadows
One of the great delights of university film society watching in the '60s and '70s was to attend one of the numerous screenings of Reefer Madness, and see (and smell) all the real-life reefers lighting up as soon as the often noisy projector started unspooling this torrid, tragic tale of reckless youth driven into destruction by the evil weed. The movie's main attraction, marijuana, was, we were soon assured and shown by the film, a dread national scourge that led its helpless addicts, and even its newest indulgers, into fits of wild giggling, followed by disorientation and senseless behavior, leading to unleashed sexuality, teenage crime waves, innumerable lectures by stern adults and government experts, and, eventually, to mayhem, mania and murder.
It was at least partly true. Wild giggling and fits of helpless laughter inevitably did follow a viewing of Reefer Madness, if not (always) the rest.
That laughter of course, was not strictly intentional. Reefer Madness, legendary and much seen as it is, isn't much of a movie, and this "collector's edition" DVD has as its showpiece a mediocre public-domain print, retitled Doped Youth (Victims of Marihuana). Yet, in the right ironic or cannabis-stoked company, this movie, I'm sure, still entertains.
Arthur Hoerl wrote it and Louis Gasnier directs, assisted by Ray Nazarro, all working so cheerfully and disconnectedly, you may wonder if they were indulging in a bit of ganja themselves when they shot it. As for the acting, the movie is stolen (if you can call it that) by Dave O'Brien as the maniacally tittering Ralph. There is one cast member here who became eventually famous, the suit-and-tie guy who plays evil pusher Jack: sonorous-voiced Carleton Young. Decades later, Young played, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the persistent newspaper editor who interviews and sternly lectures Jimmy Stewart: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." All too true, for reefer madness, as well as for the Old West.
Extras (a pretty fair bunch): Second feature, the 1936 Marihuana, Sins of Youth, directed by Dwain (Maniac) Esper (F+); the 1936 hi-de-high Betty Boop cartoon "Happy You and Merry Me"; the 1924 pot western The Weed of Death; several featurettes, including Marijuana: Threat or Menace?, The Pusher, The Terrible Truth and a very surprising World War II patriotic short, Hemp for Victory (1942).