by Bill Hawk

Universal, 2005, Color, 129 mins.- Universal DVD

Nicole Kidman: "-words and compassion are the better way. Even if it's slower than a gun."

And she should know, having experienced both methods firsthand while living in a troubled African nation that is a thinly-veiled version of Zimbabwe, complete with a formerly-beloved leader who has turned nasty, a rebel movement, and a lot of corpses. When United Nations interpreter Kidman happens to overhear a threat against the leader of "Matabo," Secret Service Agent Sean Penn and his coworkers become a part of her life, whether she likes it or not. Penn is still suffering from the gutpunch of a recent tragedy, but that doesn't prevent him from doing his job, and it ultimately helps him to connect with Kidman, who has gone through the old wringer of misfortune herself. As the clock ticks down to a U.N. visit by the African leader, the Good Guys plan for the worst while trying to bring the Bad Guys to light- a task that is both helped and hindered by Kidman, who seems to be pursuing her own agenda. A terrorist act ramps up the tension, and a series of climactic confrontations in the U.N. building reveals all of the nefarious deeds that have been afoot- but will the final resolution happen with words, or with a gun?

This old-style political thriller from old pro director Sydney Pollack is a mixture of the good and the not so good. On the plus side, you have a polished-looking production, with interesting characters, great locations (including the first-ever use of the actual U.N. building in a movie), some genuine suspense, and the assumption that the audience has a few brain cells to rub together. On the minus side, you have a script that was being rewritten while it was being filmed, and which succumbs to some muddled plotting and some simplistic- even silly- moral and political notions. To be fair, the cynical attitude of Penn's character is a nice counterbalance to Kidman's (and the film's) occasional preachiness, and the two have some nice confrontational exchanges, but the convenient bonding that occurs between the two feels strained and artificial. Still, the performances are good enough to keep things interesting, even when the story's realism goes out the window. And while it is not an action-heavy picture, it does have some good old Hollywood pyrotechnics here and there, so you get some thrills along with your drama. All in all, the picture is sort of a pleasant throwback to an older style of filmmaking, enjoyable even if it's not entirely successful. Extras on the disc include audio commentary by Pollack, featurettes, deleted scenes, and a (thankfully unused) alternate ending.



20 th Century Fox, 1974, Color, 115 mins.- Fox DVD

Art Carney: "Listen, driver, you'd better stop this bus or my cat is gonna do his business on somebody's leg!"

They probably didn't cover that contingency in bus driver's school. Retired New York City teacher Carney has a tendency to break into song and to fulminate in Shakespearean verse, but he's also quite capable of getting his message across in colloquial English when necessary. His trusty- and somewhat spoiled- feline companion, the titular Tonto, weathers Carney's moods without batting a whisker, but it's harder for other humans to put up with the guy when he's in a cranky mood. And he gets really cranky when he is forcibly evicted from his apartment building and has to move in with his eldest son, Phil Bruns, whose strained family life isn't improved by Carney's presence. It doesn't take long for Carney to decide to move on, but a simple flight to Chicago to visit his daughter turns into a cross-country road trip that combines a bittersweet revisiting of the past with a set of new horizons both figurative and literal. After seeing daughter Ellen Burstyn, Carney makes it all the way to Las Vegas and then hits Hollywood, where he visits younger son Larry Hagman. Can an irascible old-timer from NYC find a new place in the sun? Well, if there's one thing Southern California's got, it's sunshine.

Remembered as a comic actor for his role in "The Honeymooners," Carney took a more dramatic turn here, and scored an Oscar for his flawed and very human character. When first seen, Carney's Harry fits right into a community of the old and disheartened, where there is an understandable nostalgia for a neighborhood that has seen better days. And as the story rolls along, we learn more about what he's lost- a wife, solid relationships with his children, a possible career in showbiz, and even a Girl Who Got Away. But he's an intelligent guy who is aware of his own flaws, and because of that he is quite tolerant of the idiosyncrasies of others- a good trait to have while he's trying to reconnect with his family, not to mention while he's interacting with the various oddballs that he runs into on his journey. The further he goes, the more he opens up and enjoys himself- goofing with a cab driver by explaining that he's a traveling cat salesman, downing one too many drinks in a Vegas casino, and even spending some quality time with a glamorous hooker in her convertible. Through it all, Carney's restrained, precise performance anchors the proceedings, which maintain a good balance between the dramatic and the comedic. If you're interested in a nice little flick with good acting, quirky characters, and some 1970s atmosphere, you might get a kick out of this one. The only disc extra of note is an informative audio commentary by director Paul Mazursky.

Swing Time
RKO, 1936, B&W, 104 mins.- Warner Bros. DVD

Ginger Rogers: "You know, if some people saw us like this, they- they might think that we were- that we liked each other."

Well, that was the idea with the characters in the classic Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers teamups- they liked each other, even when they didn't, and if it took a whole bunch of glamorous dancing and singing and comedy for them to figure that out, so much the better for glitz-starved 1930s audiences. In this one, Astaire's a gambling nut who intends to give up his magic act with Victor Moore in order to marry upper-crust lass Betty Furness- until his jealous but well-meaning fellow performers foul things up for him. But Astaire bounces back with a plan to make good with his fiancee's family, by earning a large chunk of "Business" money through his skills at the gaming tables. Moore tags along with Astaire to New York, where they run into dance instructor Rogers- who almost loses her job after Astaire feigns dancing incompetence in order to spend time with her. But when the duo's true talents are revealed, it leads to a nightclub gig with complications from romantic rivals and shady businessmen, and more importantly to an internal tug-of-war for Astaire between the girl he's supposed to marry and the one who's his real match….

This, the sixth of the Astaire and Rogers pictures, is arguably the best of the lot. There is an appealing straightforwardness to the characters and the story in this one, which lacks some of the creakier plot machinations of other entries in the series, and which deglamorizes its stars in an interesting way. Astaire's character has to bum a ride on a freight train at one point, and when he sings "The Way You Look Tonight"- one of the many catchy tunes from songwriters Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields- to Rogers, her hair is covered with (admittedly spiffy-looking) shampoo suds. But most importantly, this film features an excellent integration of music and dancing with story and character. This was a specialty of Astaire's, as was his method of filming the dance sequences- full views, and long takes with little or no cutting, so that you pretty much see everything as it happens in real time. This perfectionism took its toll- Rogers completed the final dance number of this film with bleeding feet- but the results have a timeless appeal. The only potential minus in this one for some viewers might be Astaire's "Bojangles" number, which he performs in blackface- but it's an homage, and a terrifically inventive one at that, so it's pretty easy to forgive. Recommended for musical fans or anybody who's in the market for a little romantic escapism. Disc extras include audio commentary, a short documentary, and some vintage shorts.


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© Melt Magazine 2005