The greatness of the movie, though -- and it's one of the year's best -- comes from the way Cronenberg immerses us in this world, stripping away layers of good and evil.
CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Eastern Promises (A)
U.S.; David Cronenberg, 2007, Universal
Gangster movies and film noir are two of the choicest and most durable movie genres, and Eastern Promises, from that master of cinematic dread, David Cronenberg, is a great post-post-modern example of both -- a mob romance set in the Russian Mafia, in a London that's unfoggy, clear and sharp as a razor at your throat. Like Coppola's Godfather films, it's elegant and brutal.
The cast is wonderful. Viggo Mortensen is Nikolai, the gunman/driver/outsider who, like many noir (anti-) heroes plays his bloody cards close to his vest; Vincent Cassel is Kirill, the psychopathic mob bossman's son who adores Nikolai; Naomi Watts is Anna, a motorcycle-driving nurse who stumbles into their murderous milieu when a 14-year-old girl, pregnant, dies in childbirth at her hospital, and Armin Mueller-Stahl, who's beyond brilliant in the role, is the boss of that world: Semyon, who's almost as courtly and whispery as Brando's Don Corleone, and far more evil.
Promises comes from a script by Steve Knight, who showed equal gritty street artistry writing Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things. The actors are perfectly cast despite some of their wildly un-Russian backgrounds: Mueller-Stahl is German, Cassek is French, Mortensen Danish American, and Jerzy Skolimowski, the Czech auteur, plays Anna's Russky father.
The greatness of the movie, though -- and it's one of the year's best -- comes from the way Cronenberg immerses us in this world, stripping away layers of good and evil. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, trying to trash the movie, compared it to late Dickens -- unaware, perhaps, that Dickens, late or early, is his country's most stone-brilliant, fecund, natural-born novelist. But though the compliment was unintended, you can almost buy it. The movie, beneath its deceptively cold Cronenbergian surface, boils and burns with Dickensian creative fury, going past thrills to the real kill. And there's a nifty nude Turkish bath fight scene. (Extras: Commentary, featurettes.)
The Battleship Potemkin (A+)
U.S.S.R.; Sergei Eisenstein, 1925, Kino
Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin -- a film I watched over and over again in my college years -- is a portrayal of revolution, communal fervor and solidarity that has survived the collapse of the ideals and the nation (the U.S.S.R.) that it was intended to celebrate. In a way, that fine for Eisenstein, who was, after all, another of Stalin's victims.
Now the Russian film genius of montage and beyond doesn't have to be justified by his politics for some or enjoyed despite them for others. Frankly, his party card doesn't matter a damn any more, and he can be loved instead for his peerless cinematic invention and ingenuity. Shot after shot after Eduard Tisse-rendered shot flashes and explodes on screen: the waves crashing on Potemkin's hull, the maggoty meat and exploiters, the tidal wave of humanity and bloodshed on the Odessa Steps. Harry Truman's "Good Old Joe" Stalin may have stolen and despoiled the revolution, but part of it still lives in Potemkin's last hurrah.
The sensational news here, though -- and another reason I'm catching up with Potemkin now after missing its release in October (the screener got to me late) -- is that this is the real article. Potemkin, like many another Russian jewel or artwork in the Communist era, was revised and tinkered with over the years, but this is the restored version that opened in Moscow and Berlin, with the original German premiere score by Edmund Meisel.
Now, it's odd to realize that film history is subject to mutilations and accidents, that the version we mostly knew through the 20th century of Dreyer's sublime Passion of Joan of Arc was composed of outtakes assembled after the real original print burned -- until another copy of it was rediscovered recently in an asylum. This Potemkin is as vital a find: the art of film come to blazing life. (Extras: Two versions, with English and Russian intertitles; documentary; the original 1926 Edmund Meisel score.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Harry Langdon Collection: Lost and Found (A)
U.S.: Harry Edwards, Roy Del Ruth, others, 1924-42, Facets
Harry Langdon, one of America's great clowns, was a little man with a strange pixie face who made his living in vaudeville playing hesitant doofusses, and then, in middle age became a silent movie comedian. He was the oddest of odd screen birds, so tiny and unaggressive he appeared to have crawled out of babydom into an adulthood he neither understood nor really achieved. He had the slowest timing and the most disconnected stares and takes of any of his ilk: a baby-man who never seems quite all there -- but whose sublime dysfunctionality, as with all great comics, reaches sheer giddy perfection.
Very early in his movie career, he was recognized as not just another Ben Turpin or Eddie Quillan but, according to James Agee and Walter Kerr, one of the four greats, on the plateau of laughter with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Hard for us to judge Harry, though, because most of what we know of him is what we see in his three best features, Tramp, Tramp Tramp (1926), directed by Harry Edwards and co-written by Frank Capra and Arthur Ripley, and The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), both directed by Capra -- who was too unkind later in apportioning credit for their collaborations to Langdon, who had fired him.
Now comes this wondrous collection from Facets. No silent movie aficionado should miss it, any more than they should pass on the new Potemkin.
There are two semi-features, the 44-minute His First Flame (shot in 1925, released in 1927) and the 31-minute cut-down Soldier Man -- both somewhat misshapen but full of delights (including Harry's oddball transmutation of "The Prisoner of Zenda" in Soldier. There are 16 silent shorts from his glory years (1924-27), mostly directed by Edwards (and written by Ripley and, later, Capra), and a host of extras that includes variant versions, and a complete short with Langdon copycat Quillan.
There are numerous appearances by Langdon foil and best buddy Vernon Dent, who could have been the Hardy to Harry's Laurel. Indeed, Harry's good friend Stan Laurel seems clearly to have gotten a lot of his ineffectual, ditzy Stanley from watching Harry's Harry. There are also vintage shorts, and even a Langdon home movie -- plus new scores for the films and fine rowdy commentaries from the Langdon lovers and critics assembled for both the box set and its accompanying booklet.
Harry, like Buster, to a lesser degree Harold, and to even less, Charlie, was hurt by sound. His fall, like Buster's, was precipitate, but not at all deserved. This truly lovable collection restores the little man to his rightful weirdo place. (Extras: Commentaries, vintage shorts, alternative versions, booklet, photo galleries, Langdon home movies.)
OTHER NEW AND CURRENT RELEASES
The Kingdom (C)
U.S.; Peter Berg, 2007
Jamie Fox, Chris Cooper and Jennifer Garner are part of an FBI contingent investigating a terrorist slaughter in Saudi Arabia. What we get: quick cuts, lots of gunfire, and lots of phony tough-guy patter and terse badinage that wouldn't have been out of place in an '80s Schwarzenegger or Stallone blowout. A bigger canvas for director Peter Berg after his jazzy small-town sports drama, Friday Night Lights, but not as good a movie, despite one ferocious gunfight and a dark, dark climax. (Extras: Commentary by Berg, featurettes, deleted scenes, interactive timeline.)
The Heartbreak Kid (C)
U.S.; the Farrelly Brothers, 2007
The original 1972 Heartbreak Kid -- written by Neil Simon, directed by Elaine May and starring Charles Grodin, Cybill Shepherd and the viciously paternal Eddie Albert -- was a terrific comedy from one of the really great years for American movies. This Ben Stiller-Bobby and Peter Farrelly rehash, with Stiller wooing one lady while on honeymoon with another -- is just plain hapless, a broad empty comedy about a ineffectual doofus, a guy (Stiller) who would be better off celibate. It's one case where the brothers went barking up the wrong sleaze. (Commentary by the Farrelly Brothers, featurettes, deleted scenes, gag reel.)
The Devil Came on Horseback (B)
U.S.; Annie Sundberg & Rikki Stern, 2007, Docurama
Here is a film that bears witness in the best way, using modern fast cinema news and documentary techniques as they should be used. It takes a quiet, despairing look at the horrendous genocide perpetrated by Sudanese officials and militia against the African villagers of Darfur. The movie follows 22-year-old Marine Captain Brian Steidle on his increasingly nightmarish investigations into the genocide he observed in Darfur, and the photographs he took of it -- and his attempts to get a shockingly unresponsive U.S. and U.N. to do something. (Extras: Featurette.)
Los Muertos (B+)
Argentina; Lisandro Alonso, 2003, Facets
A cinematic poem about an old convict (Argentino Vargas) released after many years in prison, who beautifully travels upriver from the towns into the jungle. Is he seeking civilization or heading toward another heart of darkness? The movie never forces a judgment on us, but keeps us delicately caught in its flow of rapt, engrossing images. (In Portuguese, with English titles.)
Kaspar Hauser (B)
Germany; Peter Sehr, 1993, Kino
The same true "enigmatic" story -- of a man-child raised in isolation and then set loose on the silky, horny, epicene courts of Baden -- that inspired Werner Herzog's 1975 The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser: Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Here, it's done in a style miles away from Herzog's: lush, highly decorated, richly colored, sardonic and sexy. This Kaspar collected the main German Oscars that year: Best Film, Director and Actor (for Andre Eisermann, who's a prettier, more boyish and angelic Kaspar than Herzog's Bruno S.), and Sehr went on to direct Adrien Brody in the noirish American street romance Love the Hard Way. But Herzog still rules this turf.