PICKS OF THE WEEK
Three Monkeys (A-)
Turkey/France/Italy; Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2008, Zeitgeist Films
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the brilliant Turkish cineaste (Distant, Climates), whose exquisite visual tableaus, minimalist plots and flair for long dramatic silences irresistibly recall the heyday of Michelangelo Antonioni, here offers more plot than usual, in the film that won him the "Best Director" prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
There's so much plot, in fact, that Three Monkeys at times suggests a foreign-language neo-noir, something like Christian Petzold's recent German "Double Indemnity" redo, "Jerichow." Like many a good noir, "Three Monkeys" plunges us, at first, into night -- and then leaves us there, even when the sun rises. Nervous politician Servat (played by Ceylan's co-writer Ercan Kasal), falls asleep at the wheel, and awakens to find he's killed a pedestrian. Desperate, he begs his driver Eyup (Yavuz Bingol) -- who wasn't present at the accident -- to take the blame and go to jail, in return for cash and favors.
But, after Eyup goes through with the deal, his lazy, self-indulgent son Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) wheedles his attractive mother Hacer (Hatice Aslan) to get an advance from Servat, so he can get an expensive car. She does, Servat is smitten -- and disaster obviously looms.
Ceylan may be a great director -- he's certainly the most impressive Turkish movie talent since Yilmaz Guney (the writer of Yol) -- but I wouldn't quite call Monkeys a great film. Maybe, in the balance, it's too melodramatic. But it's a stylistic coup that often knocks your eyes out, and the acting has the spare, unexaggerated power of one of the major European art films. Ceylan, at his best, reminds you not just of Antonioni, but of Herzog, Angelopoulos, Tarkovsky. This is the kind of movie that opens up another world, in this case modern Turkey, before our eyes. (In Turkish, with English subtitles.) (Extras: director's note; Interview with Ceylan; trailers.)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (A)
U. S.; David Hand, 1937, Disney, DVD and Blu-ray
A fairytale movie perfect for children and the grownups who accompany them, this is one of the landmark movies of Hollywood's Golden Age, and the first great animated feature (unless you count Lotte Reiniger's marvelous 1926 silhouette film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed), blessed with still thoroughly charming and thrilling imagery and one of the finest of all cartoon song scores. (Leigh Harline's set includes "Someday My Prince Will Come" and "Heigh Ho" -- and not many cartoon songs wind up getting Miles Davis to cover them). The voice actors include Adriana Caselotti as Snow White, Lucille LaVerne, Pinto "Goofy" Colvig and Billy Gilbert.
It never really ages -- any more than Dopey, Sleepy, Bashful, Grumpy and Doc do. (Extras: commentary by John Canemaker, music video, games, sing-along, original Disney storyboards, and featurettes.)
U.S.; Lance Hammer, 2008, Kino
Lance Hammer's excellent low-budget indie, set in the lower-middle-class contemporary South, marks the debut of a remarkable new American cinematic talent. Hammer, with a sure and poetic hand, shows us the aftermath of a death which separates two friends, black and white: bad feelings, a splintered family, delinquency and violence. The acting is monosyllabic and very spare, the images are realistic and lyrical. It's a European-style film shot on recognizable and indelible American landscapes.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Golden Age of Television (A)
U.S.; various directors, 1953-1958, Criterion
"The Golden Age of Television" usually refers to the remarkable period of live TV drama which dated from the late '40s through the late '50s, with a heyday that really started around 1953, the year when writer Paddy Chayefsky's Marty, debuted to thunderous acclaim on The Goodyear Television Playhouse.
It was a period of extraordinary achievement by often young and stellar new actors (Paul Newman, Rod Steiger, Jack Lemmon, Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, James Dean and many others), skilled directors quickly mastering an entirely new medium, notably Sidney Lumet, Franklin Schaffner, Robert Mulligan, Dan Petrie, Ralph Nelson, Delbert Mann and the Young Turk star of the group, John Frankenheimer), and especially brilliant and daring young writers, able (perhaps because they were answering to only a sponsor rather than a whole entrenched network corporation) to demonstrate a literary and dramatic ambition and an active social conscience that often surpassed the movies of the then-active black list period (among them, Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, James Costigan, and JP Miller).
But it was also a period lost to us for decades, since its only remnants and records were on often mediocre quality and fading old kinescopes: copies of the original programs photographed right off of TV monitors, during the original broadcasts.
This excellent set offers eight "Golden Age" dramas, restored from the original kinescopes, as they were rebroadcast for the 1981 TV anthology series The Golden Age of Television, with the original introductions and interviews. Most of the major and best-known "Golden Age" classics are here, including several that were later made into highly praised or successful movies: Marty, Patterns, No Time for Sergeants, Bang the Drum Slowly, Requiem for a Heavyweight and Days of Wine and Roses.
These live dramas had an excitement and immediacy that can't really be matched in most of the filmed TV dramas today. Despite their minimal sets and seemingly bare-bones black-and-white visual technique, the best of them still sear themselves into your memory. They were laboratories and showcases for some tremendous writing and extraordinary acting. (Extras: commentaries by Frankenheimer, Mann, Nelson and Petrie; interviews with Griffith, Harris, Rooney, Steiger, Hunter, Kiley, Robertson, Laurie and others; booklet with essay and liner notes by Ron Simon.)
Delbert Mann, 1953
Written by Paddy Chayefsky. The famous tale of a lonely Italian American butcher and how he finds unlikely love at a dance hall. Brilliant dialogue and acting (by Steiger as Marty, Esther Minciotti as his mother, Joe Mantell, Nehemiah Persoff and others as his buddies, and Nancy Marchand as Marty's equally lonely opposite number.) Remarkably, this show was a last-minute replacement for another drama that fell though; Chayefsky was still writing it during rehearsal week.
Fielder Cook, 1955
Written by Rod Serling. Richard Kiley is a young executive who undergoes a horrendous baptism by fire: hired to replace a good, decent, veteran industrial relations expert (Ed Begley) by the ruthless and sadistic company head (Everett Sloane). Another legendary show, wired up tight in this live version -- though I dislike the more cynical and pragmatic ending here, changed from Serling's more idealistic original.
No Time for Sergeants (A-)
Alex Segal, 1955
Written by Ira Levin, from Mac Hyman's novel. Andy Griffith in the role that made him a star: as the ever-grinning, heavy drawling Will Stockdale, who makes a mess of the Army. With Robert Emhardt.
A Wind from the South (A-)
Daniel Petrie, 1955
Written by James Costigan. The best TV actress of the whole Golden Age, Julie Harris, plays a working woman looking for romance. With Donald Woods, who says he fell in love with Harris; you will too.
Bang the Drum Slowly (A-)
Daniel Petrie, 1956
Writer Arnold Schulman adapts Mark Harris' novel, about the pathos of fading careers and mortality in baseball. And Paul Newman, in his breakthrough movie year of Somebody Up There Likes Me (the Robert Wise-directed, Ernest Lehman-written Rocky Graziano bio-pic), plays a roughly similar athlete-author role here, just as well: 20-game-winning pitcher and writer Henry Wiggen, who, despite upper-office and managerial cruelty, tries to make the last season of his slow-witted, dying catcher-roommate, Bruce Pearson (Albert Salmi), a happy one. With Rudy Bond and George Peppard.
Requiem for a Heavyweight (A)
Ralph Nelson, 1956
Written by Serling. Jack Palance plays battered heavyweight boxer Mountain McClintock, an aging vet who, like Serling's earlier Andy Sloane, is being pushed out and humiliated, this time by his own scheming manager, Maish (Keenan Wynn). Kim Hunter and Ed Wynn (Keenan's dad) are Grace and Army, Mountain's compassionate social worker and trainer. This is quintessential Serling, the best-regarded TV drama of his pre-Twilight Zone years.
The Comedian (A)
John Frankenheimer, 1957
Written by Serling, from a story by Lehman. A no-holds-barred portrait of a vicious, egomaniacal TV comedian, roughly based on Milton Berle and Texaco Theater, and of the self-centered comic's fast-paced, cynical, spinning-like-a-top show-biz world. Mickey Rooney brilliantly plays Sammy Hogarth, the venomous comedian; Hunter and Edmond O'Brien are Sammy's long-suffering wife and alienated head writer, and jazz singer Mel Torme is Sammy's gentler, kinder brother. Besides offering an amazing gallery of live TV acting -- especially by the incandescent and indefatigable Rooney, but by the others as well -- "The Comedian" is also an incredible feat of live-camera directorial technique by Frankenheimer, whose nonstop control of the piece is awesome.
Days of Wine and Roses (A)
John Frankenheimer, 1958
Written by JP Miller. As we watch, a beautiful young couple descend into alcoholism, lovingly, darkly, painfully, screamingly. Costarring Cliff Robertson, Piper Laurie and Bickford, and directed by Frankenheimer, who would later himself fall into, and escape from, alcoholism. For me, Wine and Roses ranks at the top of the list of all booze dramas, superior to both the more classic The Lost Weekend and the more uncensored and explicit Leaving Las Vegas.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Angels & Demons (B-)
U.S.; Ron Howard, 2009, Sony
For sheer off-the charts looniness, it'll be hard to top the furious plot and addle-brained climax of Angels & Demons, Ron Howard's brisk, spectacular-looking movie of another book by Dan (The Da Vinci Code) Brown -- the Catholic apocalyptic thriller specialist and concocter of the daffiest conspiracy theories this side of Chicken Little.
Church activists have nothing to fear. But Brown has been lucky enough, once more, to have his special brand of unholy foolishness rendered by director Howard and star Tom Hanks -- two filmmakers of such quiet skill and bedrock ordinary-Joe humanity and sensibleness that they are able to ground their author's wildest and goofiest flights of fancy in some kind of tongue-in-cheek, good-humored sanity.
Brown's premise (streamlined by screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp) is truly outlandish: built on what's supposedly a contemporary resurgence of the ancient pro-science, anti-religion cult/secret organization, the Illuminati.
Roaring for revenge, the naughty new Illuminati resurface in modern Rome, assassinate the pope, and, even as the college of cardinals mulls over succession, kidnap four of the preferiti (i.e. top candidates for brand new pope), fixing to slaughter them like ancient martyrs, one by one, after branding them with "earth, fire, air and water" tattoos at four scenic Roman churches, whose locations are tipped off by tell-tale clues in Bernini's religious statues.
Wow! How's that for a high concept? Only one man alive apparently can figure all this out: that sterling agnostic, Harvard symbologist and Da Vinci Code-cracker Professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) -- who has been rushed off to Rome by the Vatican police and hooked up with sex-bomb physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), the two of them gamely diving right into this sacred scavenger hunt with only six hours or so 'til what may be doomsday.
Remember when they made sensible, moving or amusing movies about the Catholic Church? Like Otto Preminger's unfairly damned The Cardinal or Leo McCarey's heart-cockle-warming The Bells of St. Mary's? If God and the Devil made a video game together, it might have looked like Angels and Demons.
Funny People (B)
U.S.; Judd Apatow, 2009
Director-writer Judd Apatow has become a comedy movie powerhouse, so cornering the market on his specialty -- sex comedies about horny nerds, mixing raunchy, excrement-spiced hilarity with sometimes successful attempts at quasi-sensitive drama -- that I wonder if Funny People runs the risk of being dismissed by some as Apatow's, and star Sandler's phony Oscar-mongering "serious" bid.
That wouldn't quite be fair, though the strategy here seems obvious: tell the same smutty jokes about fellatio and flatulence and all the rest that you do in movies like Knocked Up, set up the same kind of sexual power fantasies. But make your lead character -- in this case, Adam Sandler as comedy movie king George Simmons -- a lonely, sad but still indomitably gag-slinging fellow, who's lost his one great love (Leslie Mann as ex-wife Laura), and is apparently dying of a rare blood disease. Then have him watched over, in all his sad affluence and melancholy L. A. hedonism, by young loser-comic Ira (Seth Rogen), whom George impulsively hires as his death-watch go-fer.
Guess what. Funny People works, most of the time, on all of the levels it's trying to hit. It's a funny Apatow sex comedy and a canny dive into the world of L.A. standup comedy -- and it's also a human drama, capable of touching, or at least groping, your heart.
Sandler does an excellent job in a role that's no pushover: an L.A. player/winner who's also sometimes a jerk, and who has to stare for a long time into the abyss. The movie starts with George seeming to make fun of death in a little video. Then, all too soon, he's actually facing it, with a doctor telling him he has a mostly fatal illness, and that the only likely treatment is an experimental regimen with only an 8 % success ratio.
Sobered, George tries to escape his current world of Sandler-like boffo box office big movie bad jokes, blockbusters in which he plays mermen and babies, and revisits his past. He plays comedy clubs again, little places where he can connect with a live audience, who can act as unofficial mass shrinks. At one of those clubs, he runs into Rogen as a young unsuccessful comic named Ira, who amuses him by making fun of the darker speculations in his monologue -- and he hires Ira as his go-fer and sounding board.
Ira isn't exactly the happiest of funny people either. He rooms with an egotistical, successful TV comic actor and sort of comedy babe-magnet, Mark (Jason Schwarzman) and a soon to be successful standup buddy Leo (Jonah Hill), and makes his real living building deli sandwiches. Suddenly, he's plunged into George's world of beach homes and stretch limos, and also, he's privy to George's obsessions, like falsetto balladeering and the pursuit of ex-wife Laura (Mann, who has an influential husband around). Laura is, George has belatedly decided, his one true love.
Sandler underplays George, adopting a relaxed, resigned manner, that helps the jokes and doesn't cornball up his sickness. Rogen plays his specialty, a raunchy smart guy a little over his head. And though his big weeping scene looked as phony as one of Glenn Beck's dry-eyed on-camera crying jags, he's good.
sex, lies and videotape (A-)
U.S.; Steven Soderbergh, 1989, Sony
Steve Soderbergh's modernist romance, with James Spader as an alienated video voyeur, Peter Gallagher as a philandering lawyer, and Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacamo as the women in the lawyer's life and in the voyeur's videos, won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or over Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing -- which spurred a bitter controversy. (Cannes jury president Wim Wenders, who likes alienated voyeurs, is said to have swung the vote.)
Both films became modern classics. Soderbergh's breakthrough film, with its excellent quartet of actors -- including Spader, the ideal smug, mean yuppie of the '80s, here off-type as a moody loner -- has a European feel -- Antonioni crossed with prime-time TV soap opera. And both its mood and (especially) its title were widely influential.
Downhill Racer (B)
U.S.; Michael Ritchie, 1969, Criterion
Downhill Racer, a quintessential '60s-'70s American art film from debuting feature director Michael Ritchie, star-producer Robert Redford, and writer James Salter -- is the moodiest and most visually striking of ski competition movies, with Redford as the callow, reckless, self-centered but supremely gifted young downhill racer Dave Chappellet, rankling and riling his coach (Gene Hackman), challenging his teammates (Jim McMullen), and jealously lashing at his new girlfriend (Camilla Sparv).
One of the nastiest and least sympathetic roles Redford ever played, it's probably the reason this ambitious and very well-executed movie disappointed at the box office. You can have an anti-hero for a star in a popular movie, but he's usually got to be funny too, like Paul Newman's Hud, Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski or Jack Nicholson's Bobby Dupea -- or for that matter, Hackman's Popeye Doyle and Redford's own Sundance Kid. And there are few, if any, laughs in the sparse dialogue by Salter, Jack Kerouac's ex-Horace Mann high school classmate, that comes between Dave's surly scrapes and the thrilling downhill ski scenes.
Downhill Racer is still a surprisingly intellectual, realistic and artistic film for a major Hollywood production, and of course, that's not at all atypical of '60s-'70s Hollywood. The ensemble was smart and stellar, and the whole approach here was empty of shtick, false glamour or cliché. The ski scenes, which include handheld camera work by the downhill-racing skiers themselves, are truly exciting and beautiful, full of white glare, towering slopes and high speed.
It's indicative of the level of ambition here by Redford and the others, that European art house hero and émigré Roman Polanski was originally slated to direct Downhill Racer. (Polanski also once wanted Racer star Redford for his other big project, Rosemary's Baby.) Salter, a well-regarded serious novelist who only wrote a handful of screenplays, was Jack Kerouac's ex-Horace Mann high school classmate, and cinematographer Brian Probyn had worked for the brilliant British realists Ken Loach (Poor Cow and Cathy Come Home) and Peter Watkins (The War Game).
Ritchie, after the high, good years of the '70s, had a spottier career with flashes of brilliance, like "Smile." "Downhill Racer," audience failure or not, shows more than a few flashes. (Extras: featurette; video interviews with Redford, Salter, skier/adviser/stunt double Joe Jay Jalbert, and others; audio AFI interview with Ritchie; trailer; booklet with excellent Todd McCarthy article.