New Releases 08/27/13

Top Hits
The Great Gatsby (literary drama, Leonardo DiCaprio. Rotten Tomatoes: 49%. Metacritic: 55. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The best way to enjoy Baz Luhrmann’s big and noisy new version of The Great Gatsby — and despite what you may have heard, it is an eminently enjoyable movie — is to put aside whatever literary agenda you are tempted to bring with you. I grant that this is not so easily done. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slender, charming third novel has accumulated a heavier burden of cultural significance than it can easily bear.” Read more…)

Pain & Gain (action, Mark Wahlberg. Rotten Tomatoes: 46%. Metacritic: 44. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “To describe Pain & Gain as a Michael Bay movie on steroids would be accurate but also redundant and a little misleading. Pumped-up, aggressive, muscle-headed entertainment is Mr. Bay’s specialty, after all, and while this grisly true-crime drama is partly about performance-enhancing drugs and the bulky men who love them, it is also, compared with Armageddon or the Transformers series, a stripped-down, modest enterprise in which no major American city is reduced to rubble.” Read more…)

Kon-Tiki (action/adventure, Anders Baasmo Christiansen. Rotten Tomatoes: 83%. Metacritic: 63. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Directed by Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg, with a script by Petter Skavlan, Kon-Tiki is instead a stolidly old-fashioned and manly hair-in-the-wind entertainment of the sort that could have filled out the bottom of a studio double bill. The men are handsome, the sea is pretty and if the sharks look as rubbery as last week’s chicken, at least they add some drama — and buckets of sloshing blood and guts — to what otherwise proves a dull affair.” Read more…)

At Any Price (drama, Dennis Quaid. Rotten Tomatoes: 51%. Metacritic: 60. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “‘Expand or die.’ That ominous motto of Henry Whipple, a successful Iowa farmer in Ramin Bahrani’s new film, At Any Price, distills the business philosophy of a man driven by ambition. Henry, who farms more than 3,000 acres, is an aggressive, unscrupulous salesman for a company that markets genetically modified seeds. With a too-wide grin that threatens to crack the corners of his mouth and a backslapping friendliness that verges on obsequiousness, Henry is portrayed by Dennis Quaid as a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype: the down-to-earth family man in the heartland with his feet firmly planted in the soil.” Read more…)

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (drama, Riz Ahmed. Rotten Tomatoes: 54%. Metacritic: 54. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “In his slim 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the Pakistan-born writer Mohsin Hamid takes these two words and rubs them together until they throw off intellectual sparks. Written as a monologue, it is a somewhat claustrophobic blurt of a book that, given world events, continues to feel eerily timely. The monologue is delivered by Changez — a young Pakistani university lecturer grievously, possibly violently disenchanted with the United States — to an unnamed American who may be some kind of United States operative… Comparing books to the movies made of them isn’t always necessary or productive, but it’s instructive when the results are as thuddingly crude as Mira Nair’s take on The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Blunt where the novel is subtle, it follows its source in outline, with Changez [a fine Riz Ahmed] narrating his tale to the stranger, here a journalist with a preposterous name, Bobby Lincoln [Liev Schreiber], and a fairly clear-cut relationship with the American government.” Read more…)

The Painting (animated feature, Kamali Minter [voice]. Rotten Tomatoes: 76%. Metacritic: 70. From Anita Gates New York Times review: “Ramo loves Claire, but he is an Alldunn, and she is a Halfie, and their romance is forbidden in the world of Le Tableau, a French animated film now released in English as The Painting… This is a sweet adventure story for children. [Surely, American parents can deal with the bare breasts of one talking painting.] For adults it is short on narrative sophistication but visually a true objet d’art.” Read more…)

DC Universe: Superman Unbound (PG-13 animated feature)
The Dragon Pearl (fantasy/adventure, Sam Neill)

New Blu-Ray
The Great Gatsby

New Classic DVDs (pre-1960)
To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch-directed political satire, Carole Lombard. Rotten Tomatoes: 97%. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Bosley Crowther’s 1942 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy was a positive declaration when compared to the jangled moods and baffling humors of Ernst Lubitsch’s new film, To Be or Not to Be, which opened yesterday at the Rivoli under delicate circumstances at best. For not only was this the last picture in which the late Carole Lombard played—and on which was therefore imposed an obligation of uncommon tact—but it happens to be upon a subject which is far from the realm of fun. And yet, in a spirit of levity, contused by frequent doses of shock, Mr. Lubitsch has set his actors to performing a spy-thriller of fantastic design amid the ruins and frightful oppressions of Nazi-invaded Warsaw. To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case.” Read more…)

New TV
The Walking Dead: Season 3
Sons of Anarchy: Season 5

New Documentaries
Koch (bio, politics, Ed Koch. Rotten Tomatoes: 89%. Metacritic: 71. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “In the film [former New York City Mayor Edward] Koch himself, who dies at 88 on Friday, seems to have mellowed very little. New York may be a safer, cleaner and less argumentative place than it was in the 1980s, but the Ed Koch of 2010 appears as contentious, as mischievous and at times as inflammatory as ever. We see him campaigning for Andrew Cuomo, whose father, Mario, was Mr. Koch’s rival in a bitter Democratic primary in 1977 and in the gubernatorial race five years later. We also hear him call the younger Cuomo ‘a schmuck’ on election night and speak disparagingly of another Democrat, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.” Read more…)

Iceberg Slim: Portrait Of A Pimp (bio, culture, literature. Rotten Tomatoes: 62%. Metacritic: 56. From Miriam Bale’s New York Times review: “The monikers Ice-T and Ice Cube nod to the influence of Iceberg Slim, the pimp turned author whose real name was Robert Beck, on the ethos and style of gangster rap. In further homage, Ice-T has produced Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, a documentary told through talking-head admirers including Chris Rock and Snoop Dogg. The film was directed by Ice-T’s manager, Jorge Hinojosa, a first-time director who credits reading Mr. Beck’s first book, Pimp: The Story of My Life [1967], at Ice-T’s suggestion, with teaching him everything he needed to know about ‘the game’ of managing a rap star with larger ambitions.” Read more…)

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s (fashion, Giorgio Armani. Rotten Tomatoes: 50%. Metacritic: 55. From Andy Webster’s New York Times review: “It’s clear that top fashion designers aspire to a presence at Bergdorf Goodman, the high-end Manhattan department store, given the numbingly relentless litany of encomiums in Matthew Miele’s documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s.In this glossy, fawning valentine to conspicuous consumption [the title derives from a Victoria Roberts cartoon in The New Yorker], the stars — Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, the Olsen twins, Marc Jacobs, Manolo Blahnik, Michael Kors and others — dutifully pay tribute. Thank heaven for a bubble-popping Joan Rivers, who blithely observes, ‘People who take fashion seriously are idiots.'” Read more…)

New Children’s DVDs
The Painting (animated feature, Kamali Minter [voice], in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 76%. Metacritic: 70. From Anita Gates New York Times review: “Ramo loves Claire, but he is an Alldunn, and she is a Halfie, and their romance is forbidden in the world of Le Tableau, a French animated film now released in English as The Painting… This is a sweet adventure story for children. [Surely, American parents can deal with the bare breasts of one talking painting.] For adults it is short on narrative sophistication but visually a true objet d’art.” Read more…)

The Dragon Pearl (fantasy/adventure, Sam Neill, in Top Hits)

Rob Harmon’s recommendations 08/27/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksTO BE OR NOT TO BE (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)

Midway through the 1942 war-time dark comedy To Be or Not to Be Col. Ehrhardt of the Nazi Gestapo (Sig Ruman) calmly refers to a past performance of Polish ham actor Joseph Tura’s (Jack Benny) by saying, “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland”: If Tura’s on-stage butchery of the Bard is any indication then this is pretty bad, indeed!

Welcome to the artistry of Ernst Lubitsch, who throughout a career that saw him rise to prominence in Germany before emigrating to Hollywood, so became associated with the subtle interweaving of visual wit, innuendo, sophisticated dialogue and use of sound, and a winking, continental sensibility toward sex that it became his trademark and calling card: the Lubitsch Touch.  His bedroom farces and musicals were the champagne of Hollywood throughout the 20s, 30s, and into the 40s, (he died in 1947) and he won the admiration of many, including a young Billy Wilder, whom he both collaborated with and acted as a mentor for.

In To Be or Not to Be, he faced one of his greatest challenges: a dark comedy about Nazi Germany’s invasion of Europe, made extra difficult due to the fact that it went into production before the United States had even entered the war. As a German Jewish émigré, Lubitsch had reason enough to tackle this project with relish, but, beyond that, the culture of fascism itself was all that his worldview was not: stilted, tyrannical, prudish, ham-fisted, unsophisticated, obsessed with power and national and racial superiority… frankly, pretty dull stuff! Think of this as one filmmaker’s creative response to the threat of National Socialism: In Lubitsch’s world, anyway, the Nazis are out-manned, out-gunned, and, generally, out-smarted.

The action is set in Warsaw and begins just before the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland: Joseph Tura is the preening lead in a prominent acting company while his beautiful wife Maria (Carole Lombard), the lead actress, is neglected and forced to endure his colossal ego. During a performance of Hamlet one evening she receives a bouquet of flowers in her dressing room. They have been sent by a handsome young airman, Lieut. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), whom she agrees to meet, telling him to step out of the theater as soon as her husband has uttered the line of the movie’s title—the beginning of a lengthy soliloquy which will guarantee their safety from discovery. The sight of an audience member rising to his feet at the most dramatically crucial moment of the play so wounds Tura that he never considers for a moment that his marriage is in danger, thinking only of his prestige as an actor!

The Nazis invade Poland, abruptly interrupting Maria and Stanislav’s affair, and the remainder of the plot concerns Stanislav, who has fled to England and joined the Royal Air Force, secretly re-entering Poland in order to intercept a list of names of sympathizers to the resistance before it can be passed on to the Gestapo. The acting troupe is called into action and all manner of hijinks ensue as the thespians do battle with the fascists, using their skills to outwit the enemy.

The genius of this film is its multi-layered approach to a difficult subject, where Lubitsch’s subtle lampoon of the world of theater and cheap theatrics helps to underscore his overall disdain for fascism. In the end, it is no accident that the Nazis are fooled by a ruse which any child could spot. The breezy romantic triangle at the heart of the film helps to cover over the life-or-death moments which might otherwise drag the picture down into gloom. The Lubitsch Touch was always about life and in To Be or Not to Be it is employed in a literal opposition of life-over-death.  Though controversial upon its release, To Be or Not to Be is widely and justly hailed today as a masterpiece, as evidenced by Criterion’s new re-release of the film.

The screenplay is by playwright Edwin Justus Mayer and an uncredited Lubitsch, adapting a story by Melchior Lengyel. The supporting cast is excellent, including Stack, Ruman, Lionel Atwill, Tom Dugan, and especially Felix Bressart—a Lubitsch favorite—who here plays low-rung actor Greenberg, desperate for his chance to utter Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue. Benny is perfectly cast as the ham-of-all-hams Tura: this is his one great film role. Lombard worked her way up in Hollywood, playing mostly-undistinguished leads in silents and early talkies until her breakthrough in Howard Hawks’ TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934), which in turn led to further screwball gold in films such as MY MAN GODFREY (1936) and NOTHING SACRED (1937). She is at her dotty, overwhelmed best here as Maria: an actress who knows how to turn up the charm when lives are on the line. Tragically, Lombard would die before To Be or Not to Be’s release at the age of 33, killed in an airplane crash with her mother and 20 others on the way back from a war bond rally in her home state of Indiana.

Ernst Lubitsch, who so adored crafting the make-believe world of film that he famously once said that Paramount’s version of Paris was more “Parisian” than the real Paris, here gave us a peak at a tantalizing new configuration for comedy: as a fantasy antiseptic, and philosophical salvo, against dark happenings in the real world.

If you cannot get enough of the Lubitsch Touch from To Be or Not to Be many more classic films, such as NINOTHCHKA, TROUBLE IN PARADISE, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT, BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE, THE SMILING LIEUTENANT and ONE HOUR WITH YOU, are available for rental in our Ernst Lubitsch section.