PICKS OF THE WEEK
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (B+)
U.S.; Woody Allen, 2008, Weinstein
From now on, will Woody Allen have to exile himself from his own movies to get great reviews? Just like Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a film with no speaking part for Allen. In fact, if you were a little lazy and he released this one unsigned, you might mistake it for the work of some other director -- maybe a combo of Eric Rohmer and Mike Nichols, or Pedro Almodovar in a more heterosexual mood. Whatever your guess might be, it's still a damned good movie.
Vicky is a quadrangle romantic comedy set in Spain -- and the stars are Javier Bardem as masterly painter/seducer Juan Antonio (the real-life Javier's famous filmmaker-uncle's name); Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson as Vicky and Cristina, two American pals, who fall under the spell of Juan Antonio; and Penelope Cruz as Juan's volatile ex-wife. None of them looks or talks like Woody (or Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow, for that matter) and neither does Chris Messina as Doug, Vicky's slightly doofus good-guy fiancé, who is the most Woody-ish character, with the most Woody-ish lines. Neither does the part that actually seems a no-brainer choice for Allen: the wry omniscient narrator, a role taken here by Christopher Evan Welch with a delivery that suggests John Cusack. Cusack would have been better; Woody better still.
Hall's Vicky and Johansson's Cristina give us a fine contrast of sexuality: wired-tight (Vicky) and easy-going (Cristina). Bardem continues his run of excellent performances. Here, he shows the effortless romantic comedy touch of a Spanish Cary Grant and he should exploit it more often (but only with writers as good as Allen). Cruz, like Bardem, does a flashy bilingual role, alternating fire and honey. As for the production, the settings are sunny and gorgeous, the cinematography, by Almodovar collaborator Javier Aguirresarobe, is luminous. And even if Allen doesn't show up on screen, his writing and direction are fully present, and they're first-rate.
U.S.; Ed Harris, 2008, New Line
Ed Harris' exciting "town-taming" Western Appaloosa is an obviously good movie. Right up to the midway point, though, I thought it had a chance to be a great one. It's lean, smart, simmering with tension. It looks terrific, and the actors -- Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall, et al. -- are top-notch. Unfortunately, Appaloosa doesn't finish great. Yet it's still an honorable effort by a moviemaker who knows his stuff and loves his work -- and who should probably take another crack at the genre some day.
Not to be confused with The Appaloosa -- a pretty good 1966 Marlon Brando Western, directed by Sidney J. Furie -- this film is the story of a bloody, expert gun-for-hire, Sheriff Virgil Cole (Harris), his enigmatic and deadly deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) and the tyrannical and murderous rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a bloody bully whose reign of terror prompts the town fathers to hire Cole and Hitch.
The movie begins superbly, suffers a credibility gap midway, and then gets way too rushed and explanatory toward the end. (Appaloosa also suffers from its own narration.) But somehow, I didn't lose faith in it. It survives, despite those flaws. Next to the current empty crop of Street Westerns, like Death Race, it looks great.
Harris is both a superb movie actor in the tight, tense John Garfield tradition and a good craftsmanlike director -- and he's also someone who likes to share the wealth with his fellow actors, to give them stellar opportunities too. In his previous directorial effort, the fiercely unsentimental artist bio, Pollock, Harris played Jackson Pollock and handed a prize part to his costar Marcia Gay Harden (as Pollock's mate). Here, Harris gives himself a plum role too, as grim gunslinger Cole, and then hands an even better part to his movie partner/deputy Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen, playing a touch of Gary Cooper crossed with Widmark, is the laconic Hitch, who's as deadly as Cole, but more integral and less narcissistic.
These two, obviously descended on some level from the Earp boys and Doc Holliday, face the movie's equivalent of vicious Old Man (or Ike) Clanton -- elegant Brit Jeremy Irons as ruthless cattle rancher Randall Bragg -- and the sexiest, most conniving schoolmarm ever: Renee Zellweger, as the promiscuous badge groupie and avid piano-tinkler Alison French. Harris makes the movie work as both a classic-style and a revisionist piece.
If Appaloosa doesn't measure up to the really great town-tamers like My Darling Clementine, John Ford's 1946 masterpiece about the Earp-Clanton feud, or his late-career revisit to the same themes, 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, if it's even a little shy of Gunfight at the OK Corral
Funny Face (A)
U.S.; Stanley Donen, 1957, Paramount
The last of the great Fred Astaire musicals, released the same year as his rival/peer/admirer Gene Kelly's last great one, Les Girls -- which had director George Cukor and a Cole Porter score; Fred's has Stanley Donen, and the Gershwins at their peak. It's a wonderful, shimmering, fondly sarcastic dream of a movie set in Paris and New York, sometimes via Paramount's soundstages. "I've been to Paris, France, and I've been to Paris, Paramount," Ernst Lubitsch once said. "I prefer Paris, Paramount." Here, we get a healthy helping of both.
Fred is a fashion photographer, modeled after the legendary Richard Avedon (the movie's adviser and the guy really setting up and snapping Fred's shots). And he has a model to die for: everyone's drop-dead super-chic gamin, Audrey Hepburn, here playing an intellectual Greenwich Village bookseller, recruited by Astaire's Vogue-ish editor (the ultra-tart Kay Thompson, creator of Eloise) for a Paris shoot. Audrey lets herself get talked into it, though she thinks fashion is foolish and is a devotee of the existential-ish café philosophy "empathicism"; Fred, on the other hand, thinks all this trendy/French "Being" is "Nothingness," and that empathicism is a lot of Sartry-pants hooey.
He's right. When this irresistible star duo dance to "Funny Face" and "How Long Has this Been Going On," you want it never to stop. Directed by Donen, then at the top of his game. Why didn't some modern producer hire him to direct a movie of the musical based on his buddy Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard? God, we miss him these days! And Fred. And Audrey. And Kay. And the Gershwin bros. And Paris, Paramount.
Le Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV (A)
France/Italy; Robert Rossellini, 1966, Criterion
Le Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV is a look at the world of the young Louis XIV (played by the oddly magnetic nonprofessional, Jean-Marie Patte), in the world of Versailles, where fashion and architecture were matters of political strategy, where the Cardinals were always up to something, and where the "Sun King" shone in all his glory in a palace full of scheming aristocrats and their bejeweled ladies.
This is the most famous of the Rossellini historical dramas released by Criterion this week, though not the best. (See Rossellini's History Films below.) You have to get used to Rossellini's style here -- some will dismiss this movie, and the three below, as stiff, pokey, indifferently acted made-for TV bio-dramas obsessed with pictorialism -- but if you make the adjustment, the rewards are immense.
The great neorealist, maker of the revolutionary classics Rome: Open City and Paisa, here deploys a different kind of realism: His historical dramas rely on serious research and gorgeous shooting on real-life or punctiliously re-created backdrops, staged in deliberately painterly tableaux. (Interestingly, one movie that Rossellini's new style here does recall is Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, minus most of the zooms.)
We see Louis survive the death of his wily mentor Cardinal Mazarin (Silvagni), and watch him get dressed and undressed, eat voluminous dinners and walk -- slowly, slowly -- with his bewigged or begowned retinue though his majestic grounds and packed ballrooms. What a strange, overwhelming life!
Gradually, we get immersed in this world, these clothes, this palace -- and they begin to seem almost mundane, as they would have to the baby-faced, plump, wily Louis. It's a brilliant film, but not an obvious one. (In French, with English subtitles.) Extras: Multi-media essay by Tag Gallagher; video interviews with Rossellini's son and second unit director Renzo and artistic adviser Jean-Dominique de La Rochefoucauld (Yes, from that Rochefoucauld family); booklet with Colin MacCabe essay.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Rossellini's History Films (Renaissance and Enlightenment) (A)
France/Italy; Roberto Rossellini, 1972-74, Criterion
A real revelation. Rossellini spent the last decade and a half of his life shooting historical dramas for European television, and though they've been mostly ignored, these three beautifully restored films -- and Tag Gallagher's admirable defense of them in the notes -- prove that they're a crucial part of Rossellini's filmography.
Indeed, the austere, moving Blaise Pascal about the "thinking reed" Catholic philosopher and Pensees author Pascal (played superbly by one of Resnais' later stock company, the warily sensitive Pierre Arditi ) and the magnificent three-part, five-hour epic The Age of the Medici, whose subject is Cosimo the banker/art-collector instead of the usual, more famous, scheming, sexier Lorenzo -- strike me as neglected masterpieces. Only slightly behind them is Cartesius, a bio-film on the more obnoxious Rene Descartes, whose "I think, therefore I am" becomes the film's equivalent of Dirty Harry's non-Descartean signature line "Go ahead; make my day."
Don't expect the supercharged, super-theatrical period filmmaking of a Luchino Visconti (The Leopard) or a Sergei Bondarchuk (War and Peace) here, though -- or even the more sober, and proudly literate historical re-creations of the average '70s PBS drama in the era of I, Claudius. (The Age of the Medici, astonishingly, was turned down by American public television, though Rossellini had deliberately geared the film toward a U.S. sale by shooting it in English.) These are truly thoughtful dramas about truly thoughtful heroes.
After Rossellini embarked on the historical film cycle that preoccupied him until his death in 1977, he said he now considered himself a scientist and craftsman rather than an artist -- and he also declared "The cinema is dead." "No, Rossellini is dead" was the acid reply of his fellow filmmaker and Ingrid Bergman admirer Alfred Hitchcock.
So, watch all three of these remarkable films, and also Rossellini's Louis XIV, in the spirit in which they were made: of education, exploration and reflection. Rossellini, ever the realist, made his historical films not (or not solely) because his big-screen fiction feature career fell apart, but out of a true sense of vocation. They are, as were Open City and Paisa, windows on the world.
Includes: The Age of the Medici (Italy/France; 1972, A), with Marcello Di Falco as Cosimo de Medici and Virginio Gazzolo as Leon Battista Alberti, in English or in Italian with English subtitles; Blaise Pascal (Italy/France; 1972, A.), with Pierre Arditi as Pascal, in French or Italian with English subtitles; Cartesius (Italy/France; 1974, B+), with Ugo Cardea as Rene Descartes, in Italian with English subtitles.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Brick Lane (B)
U.K.; Sarah Gavron, 2008, Sony
This sensitive and intelligent adultery drama, based on Monica Ali's novel and set in London's Bangladesh community, is full of touching, subtly wrought moments and bustling London atmosphere. Tannishtha Chatterjee is brilliant as the adulteress. (Extras: Commentary and interviews with Gavron and Chatterjee; deleted scenes; featurettes.)
Brideshead Revisited (B)
U.K.; Julian Jarrold, 2008, Miramax
The 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's superb 1945 novel -- a semi-autobiographical account of his years at Oxford and afterward, climaxing in a bleak World War II coda -- puts to shame this current, overrated Brideshead re-revisitation feature by director Julian Jarrold, starring Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain, Ben Whishaw as her doomed son Sebastian and Mathew Goode as Waugh surrogate Charles Ryder. If you like or love British literary film adaptations, the '81 Brideshead is the one to own. But, ironically, if you've seen it recently (as I did), it makes the new movie version seem better too, because, you can fill in all the blanks and correct sometimes unwise changes.
Swing Vote (D+)
U.S.; Joshua Michael Stern, 2008, Touchstone/Disney
Hollywood may be a hotbed of leftism and liberalism, at least to Fox News's fairly unbalanced news-hounds. But this movie proves that sometimes they're just too chickenshit (or too scared of Fox and its ilk) to make good, heartwarming, populist political comedies, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- or 1939's The Great Man Votes, which has a plot closer to the dopey premise here. With visions of Florida, 2000 no doubt dancing in their heads, director-co-writer Joshua Michael Stern and co-writer Jason Richman imagine a presidential election where there's a dead-even tie -- and where the presidency must be decided by one unemployed factory worker (Kevin Costner as Bud Johnson) in Texico, New Mexico, an unshaven, ill-tempered souse whose vote was supposedly mistakenly lost.
Just as in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, this Southwestern backwater becomes a carnival ground for journalists and tourists, including both presidential candidates: Kelsey Grammer as the Republican incumbent and Dennis Hopper as the Democrat. Like John Barrymore in Great Man Votes, Bud has cute family problems -- like holding on to his precocious, adorable daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll) and proving what a good dad and citizen he can be, especially to sexy TV correspondent Kate Madison (Paula Patton). One rub, though: Since he never actually cast the vote and cute little Molly is lying her head off, this is one lousy civics lesson. A host of real-life TV correspondents show up too, but we won't embarrass any of them, except to say "Bill Maher, how could you?"
Four Weddings and a Funeral Deluxe Edition (B+)
U.K.; Mike Newell, 1994, MGM
A witty Richard Curtis script and a terrific cast (Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, Kristin Scott Thomas, Simon Callow) help pitch memorable woo and sling saucy bons mots in this urbane, delightful, much imitated wedding ensemble comedy. Pass the cake.