The DVD Report #87: December 23, 2008

Every year, DVD distributors make a dent in the long list of films not available on commercial DVD in the U.S., but it's a slow process. This year they finally gave us Fanny and early next year they'll give us Rachel, Rachel. We should be grateful for those, but there is so much more out there that needs to be released. Here are the twenty films that top my wish list of films that cry out for an official DVD release.

A top revival house attraction for more than thirty years now, Leo McCarey's 1937 masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow quickly moves to the top of the list of cherished films for those who are lucky enough to see it. Infrequently shown on TV and available only in poor quality non-commercial editions, the film's heart shines through even the dullest transfer.

In her mid-40s when she made the film, character actress Beulah Bondi beautifully captures the wounded dignity of an unwanted 70 year-old woman who is separated from husband Victor Moore when their home is foreclosed upon. Forced to move in with one middle-aged child while he is forced to live with another, when the couple meets for one last time before he is sent cross-country to live with yet another child, she doesn't let on that she, too, has been displaced and will soon be sent to an old-age home from which she will have nothing to look forward to but the inevitable.

The beauty of the piece is that McCarey never treats any of his characters as monsters, just sadly frustrated people who must do what they must do for their own survival. Thomas Mitchell and Fay Bainter as the son and daughter-in-law for whom Bondi proves too much to handle are equally memorable. With a deep recession if not another full blown depression upon us, the film resonates now as much as it did seventy-one years ago.

Bondi, who somehow managed to be overlooked for an Oscar nomination for her magnificent performance was honored with a nomination the following year for Clarence Brown's Of Human Hearts, the first and best of her seven pairings with James Stewart as her son. Here she is the wife of stern frontier minister Walter Huston and the doting mother of selfish Gene Reynolds who grows into the equally selfish and callow Stewart. After Huston dies and Stewart is conscripted into the Union side during the Civil War, she doesn't hear from him and frantically writes President Lincoln for him to tell her whether her son is dead or alive. A moved Lincoln, played by John Carradine, intervenes and chastises the callow Stewart who finally realizes what he owes his mother. Brown's direction and Bondi's performance keep it from becoming an unabashed tearjerker. Why this film hasn't become a Mother's Day perennial is a mystery. Even more of a mystery is why it isn't on DVD.

For years, the most requested film not on DVD on TCM's website, Frank Borzage's 1940 film The Mortal Storm was one of the first Hollywood films to document the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi party on its own citizens. Frank Morgan, in one of his greatest roles, is the professor whose ideas prove too radical for the Nazis. Margaret Sullavan is his daughter and James Stewart her lover, while Robert Young is the nasty Nazi youth leader who causes Sullavan's brothers Robert Stack and William T. Orr to join the dark side. Maria Ouspenskaya as Stewart's mother and Bonita Granville as his adopted sister are also first rate. Gene Reynolds, who played the younger Stewart in Of Human Hearts, is Sullavan's youngest brother here.

Screen legend Irene Dunne had one of her best roles in Clarence Brown's 1944 film The White Cliffs of Dover. As the American woman who marries into a wealthy British family, losing her husband to World War I and her son to World War II, Dunne is seldom off the screen, giving a glowing performance and remaining upbeat through all her trials and tribulations. Alan Marshall as her husband, Roddy McDowall and later Peter Lawford as her son, Frank Morgan as Dunne's father, Gladys Cooper as Marshall's mother, and Dame May Whitty as a family servant are all marvelous as are C. Aubrey Smith, Van Johnson, Elizabeth Taylor and June Lockhart in smaller roles.

Greer Garson played so many English women that moviegoers forgot she was actually Irish, a fact they were reminded of when she played the Irish born maid in Tay Garnett's 1945 film, The Valley of Decision opposite Gregory Peck as the Pennsylvania steel mill owner's son. Gladys Cooper, luminous as Peck's mother; Donald Crisp, appropriately stern as his father; Lionel Barrymore, way over the top as Garson's union leader father; Preston Foster as Barrymore's number two; Marsha Hunt as Peck's sister; Dan Duryea and Marshall Thompson as his brothers; Dean Stockwell as his son; and Jessica Tandy as his nasty wife all have their moments, but Garson dominates this multi-generational family saga with a surprise ending. Garson won her sixth Oscar nomination for this.

Never released in any home video format, and seldom shown on TV any more, Victor Saville's 1946 film of A.J. Cronin's The Green Years was a remarkably-cast version of the beloved novel. Dean Stockwell is the orphan son of an Irish Catholic mother and Scottish Protestant father who comes to live with his father's family after the death of his parents. The family consists of Hume Cronyn as his miserly grandfather, Selena Royle as his kindly grandmother, Jessica Tandy (his mean mother in The Valley of Decision) as his aunt, Gladys Cooper (his grandmother in The Valley of Decision) as his great-grandmother on his grandfather's side, and Oscar-nominated Charles Coburn as his rascally great-grandfather on his grandmother's side. It's a treat seeing these well-known non-Scottish actors act with thick, but still understandable, Scottish burrs.

Olivia de Havilland gave one of the most accomplished performances ever to win an Oscar, going from young innocent to hardened businesswoman to doting mother of the airman son who is clueless to her identity, in Mitchell Leisen's 1946 film To Each His Own. Lyrics were put to the film's theme music that provided an instant hit song that has proved a favorite through the years. Why then is this not available on DVD? John Lund makes his screen debut in the dual role of de Havilland's World War I lover and her oblivious son, and Roland Culver adds his acerbic wit to the role of de Havilland's influential friend. Keep a box of tissues handy for the film's classic last line.

Almost all of Billy Wilder's films are available on DVD in the U.S. His 1948 comedy classic A Foreign Affair, pitting Jean Arthur against Marlene Dietrich in post-war Berlin, is a rare one that isn't. Arthur is a United States Congresswoman on a fact-finding mission, John Lund is her Army escort and Dietrich is the former Nazi nightclub singer with whom he is having an affair. Filled with Wilder's particular brand of cynicism, Dietrich's songs include "Black Market" and "Ruins of Berlin". Dietrich, in one of her many comebacks, easily steals the film from the aging Arthur whose last romantic role this was.

There have been numerous film and TV versions of The Secret Garden but Fred Wilcox's 1949 version remains for many the definitive version because of the perfect casting of the children played by Margaret O'Brien, Dean Stockwell and Brian Roper. This would be the last major starring role for 12-year-old O'Brien. The older folks are no slouches in the acting department either. Herbert Marshall is the emotionally closed off uncle, Gladys Cooper is the stern housekeeper and Elsa Lancheser is the cheerful maid. Filmed mainly in black-and-white, the final sequence is appropriately in glorious Technicolor.

The largely forgotten Mitchell Leisen provided character actress Thelma Ritter with her first starring role in 1951's The Mating Season as a self-sacrificing mother who poses as a maid in her daughter-in-law's home. Gene Tierney and John Lund received over-the-title billing as the newly married couple and even Miriam Hopkins as Tierney's interfering mother received billing over Ritter, but make no mistake about it, this was her film. She's in practically every scene from the beginning of the film to its highly satisfactory conclusion. She richly deserved the Oscar nomination she got for it, the second of six.

Few actresses have reinvented themselves as successfully as Jane Wyman over the years. Starting out as a chorine, moving into second banana comic roles, eventually leading lady and finally star roles in dramas, comedies and musicals, she entered her most profitable period as a tearjerker star extraordinaire in Curtis Bernhardt's 1951 film The Blue Veil. Playing a wife and mother whose husband is killed in World War I and whose baby dies when less than a day old, she fills the void in her life by becoming a nursemaid to other people's children. Charles Laughton, Joan Blondell, Natalie Wood, Agnes Moorehead and Richard Carlson are among those who drift in and out of her life. Engrossing all the way through, the film's final moments are extremely moving. No wonder she won the Golden Globe and received her third Oscar nomination for her troubles.

Vincente Minnelli's 1956 film of Robert Anderson's semi-autographical play Tea and Sympathy suffers only slightly from the Legion of Decency-imposed coda that was tacked onto the film in order to avoid a condemned rating. Enlightened viewers, however, know the film really ends with its unforgettable seduction scene. Deborah Kerr was never as radiant as she was here as the sensitive wife of macho coach Leif Ericson who forms a kinship with student border John Kerr (no relation). The equally sensitive younger Kerr is called "sister-boy" by classmates due to his inability to fit in leading to a disastrous evening out with local slut Norma Crane. It's up to the elder Kerr to re-instill his confidence. It's beautifully done all the way through.

Another rarely shown gem is Delbert Mann's 1960 film of William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, a lovely film about life in economic hard times. The times here are the 1920s and Robert Preston is a salesman whose opportunities are limited, as are those of his family. It's beautifully acted by Dorothy McGuire as his wife, Eve Arden as his busybody sister-in-law, Angela Lansbury as his sometimes mistress, Shirley Knight as his impressionable daughter, Lee Kinsolving as Knight's suicidal boyfriend, and Richard Eyer as his impressionable son. The cinematography, art direction and costume design beautifully recreate the era.

A major film in its day, Vincent J. Donehue's 1960 film of Dore Schary's Sunrise at Campobello
is difficult to find these days, its subject matter, that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's battle with polio, having been rendered in so many subsequent films. No one, however, has ever quite captured the essence of the man as Ralph Bellamy did, who created the role on stage, and reprised the character in numerous subsequent TV appearances. As the shy Eleanor, only beginning to emerge from her shell, Greer Garson is luminous. While many of numerous great actresses who have since played her, no one has really outdone Garson's interpretation of the future First Lady for which she earned her seventh and final Oscar nomination.

Barely released in 1963, Alex Segal's film of James Agee's All the Way Home has all but been forgotten due to various remakes over the years, some of them renamed A Death in the Family, the title of Agee's original novel. Jean Simmons is at her peak as the young married woman whose husband (Robert Preston) is killed in an automobile accident on his way home from visiting his sick father. The bulk of the film revolves around the reactions of Simmons and her young son (Michael Kearney) to the events following the death of their breadwinner Preston. Aline MacMahon is outstanding, in her last big screen appearance, as Simmons' sympathetic aunt.

A woman is released from prison after a long time and takes a job as nanny to an impressionable teenager in Ronald Neame's 1964 film The Chalk Garden. It might not sound like anything special, but in the hands of Deborah Kerr as the woman, Hayley Mills as the teenager and the incomparable Dame Edith Evans as Mills' haughty grandmother, it is a treat from beginning to end. Hayley Mills' real-life father, John Mills, a major star in his own right, has a featured role as Evans' butler. Evans won the second of her three Oscar nominations for her luminous performance.

Long regarded as the screen's definitive portrayal of old age, Dame Edith Evans stunned the world with her portrayal of the economically depressed old lady who talks to her teapot in Bryan Forbes' The Whisperers. Although the film is heavily plotted with some nonsense about stolen money being hidden in Evans' cupboards, it iss Evans' fascinating portrayal of the lonely old lady that keeps you interested. Eschewing her usual strong, in-charge characterizations, the actress, almost 80 when she made the film, provides a master class in acting that once seen is impossible to forget. It's no wonder she won every major acting award in the world except the Oscar, which went to Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

A fairly faithful stage-to-screen transfer, Ulu Grosbard's 1968 film of Frank D. Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses was about the unsettling homecoming of a World War II veteran, but took on a powerful new meaning for then-returning Vietnam veterans and could easily appeal to Iraq War veterans today. Patricia Neal, in her first film since suffering three near-fatal strokes, is luminous as the mother who doesn't realize she's smothering her son. Jack Albertson as the miserly father and Martin Sheen as the homecoming soldier are equally brilliant. Neal was nominated for an Oscar while Albertson actually won.

Grounded in the New York of Judith Rossner's novel, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Richard Brooks' 1977 film version, suffers from the all-city, no-city mishmash of being filmed partly in San Francisco and partly in Los Angeles. Nothing, however, can detract from Diane Keaton's fine performance as a disaffected schoolteacher spiraling to an early death. Tuesday Weld as her sister, Richard Kiley as her father, and Richard Gere and Tom Berenger as the dangerous men in her life are also first-rate.

Ellen Burstyn has one of her best roles as a woman who experiences an out of body experience in an auto accident that kills her husband in Daniel Petrie's1980 film Resurrection, a powerful film in which Burstyn's character discovers she has magical healing powers that can be applied to saving other people's lives, but at a cost. Sam Shepard as her young lover and stage legend Eva Le Gallienne as her grandmother are outstanding as well. Burstyn and LeGallienne were both Oscar nominated for their performances.

The culmination of his long career, John Huston's 1987 film of James Joyce's The Dead is a masterpiece that any director would be proud to bow out on. The source material is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written and Huston's son Tony's Oscar-nominated screenplay does it full justice. Donal McCann and Anjelica Huston are ideally cast as the middle-aged couple attending a turn-of-the-last-century Christmas dinner at his spinster aunts' home. As the evening progresses and events are recalled the husband has an epiphany as the snow falls on the living and the dead. It's as much a tribute to Huston's beloved Ireland as it is to Joyce's timeless words.

One or two of these are apt to see an official release sometime in 2009. Any guesses as to which ones will make it?

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Top 10 Rentals of the Week

(December 21)
  1. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
  2. The Dark Knight
  3. Mamma Mia!
  4. Wanted
  5. Step Brothers
  6. Traitor
  7. Horton Hears a Who
  8. Hancock
  9. The House Bunny
  10. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Top 10 Sales of the Week

(December 14)
  1. The Dark Knight
  2. Horton Hears a Who
  3. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
  4. WALL-E
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  6. Step Brothers
  7. Kung Fu Panda
  8. Hancock
  9. Lost: The Complete Fourth Season: The Expanded Experience
  10. Iron Man

New Releases

(December 30, 2008)

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The DVD Report #86: December 23, 2008

Ho, Ho, Ho! It's that time of year again. If it's worth saying, it's worth repeating. From November of 2007, here once again are a few of my favorite Christmas films.

Though not a Christmas film in the strictest sense, so much of George Cukor's sublime 1933 version of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women takes place on a Christmas Day during the Civil War that it's one I always think of on that day.

The first and still best talkie version of the beloved classic, it stars Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Jean Parker and Frances Dee as the March sisters, Douglass Montgomery and Paul Lukas as the principal men in their lives, Spring Byington as Marmee, and Edna May Oliver as Aunt March. It's a picture perfect glimpse into the lives, hopes and dreams of perfect young ladies in the America of almost 150 years ago.

MGM's gloss shone at its brightest in the 1938 version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, directed Edwin L. Marin and executive produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose hand is clearly evident in the production. Originally slated to star Lionel Barrymore who had played Scrooge annually on the radio for years, he was replaced by Reginald Owen when Barrymore's rheumatoid arthritis got so bad he had to be confined to a wheelchair. You would never know Owen was a last-minute replacement by the authority he brings to the role. In fact, the entire cast is pretty wonderful, including the Lockharts, Gene, Kathleen and June, as the Cratchits along with Terry Kilburn as Tiny Tim, and Leo G. Carroll as Marley's ghost. Not quite as Dickensian as the 1951 British version with Alastair Sim, but a gem in its own right.

Written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen, 1940's Remember the Night is basically a tale of the redemption of a female thief through the love of a good man and his family. It's a pill easily swallowed when the thief is played by Barbara Stanwyck and the good man by Fred MacMurray. He is the assistant district attorney who takes custody of Stanwyck after she is caught stealing an expensive bracelet and must keep her under wraps until the courts re-open after New Year's. It also helps that MacMurray's mother and aunt are played by two of the screen's best loved character actresses, Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson.

Though it's about more than the holiday season, perhaps the finest moment in Vincente Minnelli's 1944 masterpiece, Meet Me in St. Louis, occurs when Judy Garland sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to despairing kid sister Margaret O'Brien. One of the screen's best original musicals, Garland, O'Brien, Mary Astor, Marjorie Main, Tom Drake, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Harry Davenport and others skip the light fantastic through such marvelous songs as the title tune, "The Boy Next Door" and "The Trolley Song".

Actor-turned-director Peter Godfrey was the helmer behind 1945's Christmas in Connecticut, an only-in-the-movies tale of a Good Housekeeping-style writer who must pass for the real thing when her publisher invites himself and a war hero to spend the holidays at the Connecticut home she doesn't exactly have. Barbara Stanwyck is once again at her best as the writer, surrounded by a delightful cast that includes Dennis Morgan as the affable war hero, Sydney Greenstreet as the blowhard publisher, S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall as the world-class chef Stanwyck entices to do double duty as her cook, and Una O'Connor as a befuddled maid.

A sequel to 1944's Oscar-winning Going My Way only in that Leo Carey once again directs Bing Crosby as crooning priest Father O'Malley, 1945's The Bells of St. Mary's is completely different in tone and style from its predecessor. The focus this time is not on the relationship between Crosby's O'Malley and Barry Fitzgerald's lovable old codger, Father Fitzgibbon, but between O'Malley and the independent Sister Benedict played by Ingrid Bergman at the top of her game. Though the Christmas scenes make up only a portion of the film, the film's message about giving hope as well as presents is very much in the spirit of the season. Bergman is magnificent in what is arguably her finest screen performance.

Modestly successful upon its initial release in 1946, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life became a holiday staple in the 1970s after Capra forgot to renew the copyright and the film fell into public domain where it was snatched up by independent TV stations that showed it incessantly over the holidays. Now of course it is considered both Capra's and star Jimmy Stewart's finest film. As the small town banker who sees through an angel's eyes what the world would have been like without him one Christmas Eve, Stewart hits all the right notes. The wonderful supporting cast includes Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell and Beulah Bondi.

Another film about an angel come down to Earth to help us mere mortals at Christmastime, Henry Koster's 1947 film, The Bishop's Wife, is another perennial. Cary Grant was originally to have played the Episcopal bishop and David Niven the angel, but they switched roles at the last minute to our everlasting delight. Loretta Young has the title role. All three are at their charming best as are such stalwart supporting players as Gladys Cooper, Monty Woolley, James Gleason and Elsa Lanchester.

Also from 1947 is the classic Miracle on 34th Street with Edmund Gwenn a total delight in his Oscar-winning role as Kris Kringle aka Santa Claus. Though it's basically Gwenn's film, there are also charming performances from Maureen O'Hara as a career woman who doesn't believe in Santa, John Payne as a lawyer who does and Natalie Wood as O'Hara's daughter, who may. Memorable in smaller roles are Gene Lockhart as a judge, Jerome Cowan as a prosecutor, Jack Albertson as a postal worker and Thelma Ritter as a flummoxed Macy's customer.

No holiday viewing would be complete without the definitive 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol (released as Scrooge in the U.K.). Brian Desmond-Hurst directs the superb Alastair Sim in the most faithful rendering of Dickens' classic yet mounted. It may sounds like a cliché, but this film really is too good just to be seen at Christmas. To not see at Christmas would be a humbug!

A huge hit in its day, White Christmas is a quasi-remake of Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen singing and dancing to a hit parade of Irving Berlin tunes. Among them are the title song that won an Oscar when Crosby first performed it in the aforementioned Holiday Inn and "Count Your Blessings", the Oscar-nominated song this time around. Michael Curtiz directed a cast that also includes Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes.

The beautifully-wrought All Mine to Give was barely released by RKO at the tail end of 1957, but has enjoyed tremendous popularity as a TV staple over the years and is finally available on DVD. Glynis Johns and Cameron Mitchell are deeply moving as a couple enduring great hardships in 1850s Wisconsin. Two of the best child actors of the era, Rex Thompson ( The King and I) and Patty McCormack ( The Bad Seed), co-star in this very poignant film with a terrific Christmas finish.

If two excellent versions weren't already enough, Leslie Bricusse added music and lyrics to Dickens' timeless Christmas classic, and Ronald Neame directed it. Albert Finney had the title role of Scrooge with a veritable who's who of British actors in support, including Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith and Kay Walsh. The sparkling score includes the jaunty "Thank You Very Much" and Scrooge's 11th hour lament "I'll Begin Again".

Standing out among the myriad of TV dramas about the holiday are two films, one revered as something of a classic, the other not remembered quite as well.

First broadcast in 1977, The Gathering is an Emmy-winning production about a woman who gathers her estranged family together for her husband's last Christmas. Sensitively directed by Randal Kleiser and beautifully acted by Maureen Stapleton, Ed Asner, Stephanie Zimbalist, Gregory Harrison, Bruce Davison and John Randolph among others, it was followed two years later by The Gathering, Part II in which the family comes back together to "protect" their now-widowed mother from the advances of the new man in her life.

Not as well known is 1998's The Christmas Wish in which Neil Patrick Harris stars as a Harvard-educated yuppie who comes back to his old home town when he inherits his grandfather's real estate business. Debbie Reynolds is his grandmother and Naomi Watts the young divorcee with a precocious kid. What sets it apart is the mystery surrounding a diary entry of the grandfather's that uncovers a secret not revealed until the very end. All three stars are excellent with Watts especially fine in a throwaway role.

Finally, Diane Keaton gives one of her finest performances as the mother of a large modern brood in Thomas Bazucha's 2005 film The Family Stone. This dramedy about a family's last Christmas together was poorly marketed as a farce starring Sex and the City's Sarah Jessica Parker. It is not a farce, though it does contain a few farcical moments. Nor is it a Sarah Jessica Parker film as she is but one member of an ensemble that also includes Dermot Mulroney, Claire Danes, Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson, Ty Giordano, Brian White and Craig T. Nelson, all of whom outshine Ms. Parker.

There are many other films I could cite, but these are the essentials in my house.

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Top 10 Rentals of the Week

(December 14)
  1. The Dark Knight
  2. Wanted
  3. Step Brothers
  4. Horton Hears a Who
  5. Hancock
  6. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
  7. The X-Files: I Want to Believe
  8. Tropic Thunder
  9. Fred Claus
  10. WALL-E

Top 10 Sales of the Week

(December 7)
  1. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
  2. Wanted
  3. Step Brothers
  4. Hancock
  5. WALL-E
  6. Kung Fu Panda
  7. Iron Man
  8. The X-Files: I Want to Believe
  9. Indiana Jones and the Kindom of the Crystal Skull
  10. Tropic Thunder

New Releases

(December 23, 2008) (December 27, 2008)

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The DVD Report #85: December 16, 2008

The Fox in Fox's massive new DVD box set, Murnau, Borzage and Fox, is not the studio but William Fox, the titular head of Fox Studios who was fast becoming the most powerful mogul in the business in the late 1920s.

In 1926, Fox had already put into motion plans to catch up with industry leaders Paramount and Loew's/MGM. He made headlines from 1927 through 1929 as he went about buying and building theatres from coast to coast for distribution of his films. Behind the scenes he had technicians working on the first sound on film process, Movietone, which would prove superior to Warner Bros. Vitaphone which synched phonograph recordings with film as opposed to being part of the film. His technicians were also working the first 70mm widescreen process called Fox Grandeur.

Fox also had aspirations of an aesthetic nature. His most visionary coup in that regard was hiring the great German director F.W. Murnau to direct a film at his studio from which his stable of directors including Frank Borzage, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman and others could learn. He made the decision in 1924 after having seen a preview of Murnau's The Last Laugh which he bought and exhibited the day after Murnau signed in early 1925. At this point, Murnau's best known work, Nosferatu, had yet to be seen by U.S. audiences due to rights issues with Bram Stoker's estate. It would not be seen in the U.S. until June 1929.

Fox had to wait until Muranu completed his contractual obligations with Germany's Ufa until he could start work on his first Fox film, Sunrise. In the meantime, Fox contract director Borzage had planned on giving rising star Janet Gaynor her first starring role in his adaptation of the stage success 7th Heaven. However, 7th Heaven had to wait for Gaynor's services as Fox wanted her for Muranu's film and all work at the studio had to be put on hold so the other directors could watch Muranu work on Sunrise, which was filmed first but released later.

The earliest film in the collection is Borzage's 1925 film Lazybones, his fifty-second as a director. Although an excellent film in its own right, its inclusion in the collection is to show the contrast between Borzage's pre-Murnau-influenced method of direction and his more lyrical post-Murnau films. It is also at odds with the later Borzage films in that it emphasizes realism over romanticism. Nevertheless the film does reflect Borzage's legendary mastery of storytelling and pacing.

Buck Jones, best known for his cowboy roles, plays the title character, a man who saves the life of potential suicide, ZaSu Pitts, and then raises her baby daughter. Complications ensue when he falls in love with the now grown girl, played by Madge Bellamy. It's a good film, but not one of Borzage's great ones.

The DVD of Murnau's Sunrise, included here, is not the same as the one previously released. It eschews the documentary 4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film m, which is included on the City Girl DVD in favor a second version of Sunrise. Side A is the Movietone version with music and effects added with newly recorded commentary by several film historians, Side B is the European silent version with orchestral score added.

Filmed with very few title cards as very few words are necessary to convey the film's meaning, Sunrise, subtitled A Song of Two Humans, is a work of uncommon beauty as the camera follows the lives of a young famer and his wife and the "woman from the city" who entices him into killing his wife on a trip to the city. Instead, he falls in love with his wife all over again.

The film won the first and only Academy Award for "Best Unique and Artistic Production" at the 1927/28 awards, an alternative to Best Picture, which went to Wings. It also won Oscars for Cinematography, shared by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, and Best Actress for Janet Gaynor, who won for her work here as well as in 7th Heaven and Street Angel. Both Gaynor and George O'Brien as her husband are superb. Despite all the publicity surrounding the film, however, it was only moderately successful at the box office.

The film's sets, which were built from scratch to Murnau's specifications, were used in many subsequent Fox films, most notably Borzage's 7th Heaven and Ford's Four Sons.

Based on a hit Broadway play, excitement had been building for 7th Heaven, which as previously indicated, had been released earlier than Sunrise and, unlike Sunrise, was a huge box office smash. Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, the film's star, were so beloved by the end that audiences couldn't get enough of them. The 5'1'' actress and the 6' 2'' actor made a total of twelve films between 1927 and 1934.

Like most Borzage films, 7th Heaven is about the redemptive power of selfless love. In it, Farrell plays a Parisian sewer cleaner who rescues Gaynor, a frightened young prostitute, from her abusive older sister. Although the film uses many of Sunrise's exteriors, the set piece here is a seven-story staircase that leads to Farrell's apartment on the seventh floor. The camera follows their initial climb up the stairs in one movement, obviously done with an elevator tracking shot that still causes audiences to sit up and take notice.

The romance between Gaynor and Farrell is interrupted by World War I, with Farrell being conscripted and assigned to the front lines where he is blinded in battle. The film's harrowing war scenes were directed by John Ford as Borzage was a pacifist who refused to direct war scenes. The war scenes in his 1932 film, A Farewell to Arms, were directed by Jean Nugulesco.

Besides Gaynor's Oscar, the film also won for adapted screenplay and for Borzage's direction.

Borzage's follow-up film with Gaynor and Farrell, Street Angel, was another box office smash. In this one, the action moves to Naples but the plot is basically the same as Farrell saves Gaynor from a life of prostitution. The lovers are separated but eventually reunited in a powerful ending that is even more sublime than the one in 7th Heaven. In addition to Gaynor's Oscar, the film was nominated for Art Direction and Cinematography, albeit the latter two the following year, 1928/29, due to a fluke in early Academy voting rules.

Murnau again used the services of Janet Gaynor for his second Fox film, 4 Devils , which is essentially about love, jealousy and murder at the circus. The film was previewed to disastrous results primarily due to its downbeat ending and was put through three more endings, not all of them filmed by Murnau, before the film was released in late 1928.

By the time Murnau began work on his third Fox film, Our Daily Bread, he was growing weary of the interference of studio executives but carried on anyway as he believed in his story about a farmer, his wife from the city, and the boy's tyrannical father finding redemption during a storm threatening the family wheat crop. By the time the film was completed in late 1929, silents were no longer profitable and studios were scrambling to add at least spoken dialogue to their films. Our Daily Bread was taken away from Murnau and several scenes were re-filmed by others to add dialogue. To add insult to injury, Fox released the film as City Girl, taking away even Murnau's title. Murnau, by this time, no longer cared and was on his way to Tahiti to make Tabu, a silent masterpiece that was released a week after his death in a car accident in 1931.

Ironically, the print that survives of City Girl is the original silent version. It's a beautifully filmed work, as one would expect from Murnau, with its sweeping wheat fields and the joyful performances early on of Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan as the newlyweds whose happiness is all but destroyed by mean Ernest Torrence. Future star Anne Shirley, billed as Dawn O'Day, is memorable as Farrell's kid sister.

In the meantime, Borzage's last two silent films, Lucky Star and The River, were released in August and October 1929 respectively.

Though not a box office success, Lucky Star,uniting Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell for the third time, was quintessential Borzage with Farrell as a World War I veteran confined to a wheelchair and Gaynor as an impressionable waif. If their love could withstand blindness and near death in their previous films, it could withstand his not being able to walk in this one.

Farrell and his City Girl co-star Mary Duncan are the lovers in Borzage's The River, a critical and box office smash, only part of which survives. It has been reconstructed using stills and the archived script. Fortunately what survives are the loves scenes including the two most famous ones, the meeting cut scene with a nude Farrell and a clothed Duncan and the climactic scene in which a frozen, believed-to-be-dead Farrell is revived by Duncan covering him with the warmth of her body.

Borzage's first talkie, 1929's They Had to See Paris suffers from the stagnant use of camera placement required to properly pick up dialogue. Will Rogers' natural charm comes through, but he was to make better films over the next few years. Irene Rich makes a stronger impression as his wife.

Borzage's next film, 1930's Song O' My Heart is a slight improvement cinematically, and is presented in two versions, a full-sound version and a music-and-effects version. Both feature the climactic concert performed by the great Irish tenor John McCormack. Maureen O'Sullivan makes a lovely screen debut.

Fritz Lang's 1934 French film version of Molnar's Liliom with Charles Boyer is better known, but Borzage's 1930 Liliom with Charles Farrell is actually the better film.

This was Borzage's first full-fledged talkie in which all the elements came together. The source material for Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel, it is well acted by Farrell as the titled carnival barker, Rose Hobart Julie as the shy girl he loves, Lee Tracy as Buzzard the troublemaker, H.B. Warner as the heavenly magistrate, and Estelle Taylor as the owner of the carousel. Anne Shirley, who was Farrell's sister in City Girl, plays his daughter here.

By 1931, Borzage was as at home with talking films as he had become with silent images. His Bad Girl is a typical Borzage romance in which selfless love conquers all. Sally Eilers is the "bad girl" who must marry boyfriend James Dunn when she becomes pregnant proving herself, of course, to be a "good girl" in the end. The realistic depiction of depression era life was something new, and it helped the film earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination and a second Best Director Oscar for Borzage.

Charles Farrell re-joined Borage for After Tomorrow, this time with Marian Nixon as his long-time fiancé. They work at different jobs in the newly completed Empire State Building, shown to good advantage in the opening scenes, but must wait to get married due to the selfishness of their respective mothers. Nixon's father, William Collier Sr., is in poor health while her mother, Minna Gombell, cheats on him with a boarder, all the while running up bills she can't pay. Farrell's mother, future Oscar winner Josephine Hull (Harvey), is a clinging vine. It all works out in the end.

Tommy Conlon has the lead as a misunderstood juvenile in Borzage's Young America even though top billing went to Spencer Tracy and Doris Kenyon as his eventual foster parents, a drug store owner and his wife. Adapted from a stage play, it's a three-hankie tearjerker featuring fine performances by the leads as well as Ralph Bellamy as a kindly juvenile court judge, Raymond Borzage (Frank's nephew) as Conlon's lone friend, and Beryl Mercer as young Borzage's grandmother. Jane Darwell and Louise Beavers have minor roles. Anne Shirley, still being billed as Dawn O'Day two years before she changed her name to the character she played in Anne of Green Gables, is a stand-out as Conlon and young Borzage's classmate.

Also included in the box set are a documentary on the three men, Murnau, Borzage and Fox, and two pictorial books, one pretty much following the titled documentary and one on Muranu's lost 4 Devils .

Now if only the rights holders of Borzage's Man's Castle, Little Man, What Now, History Is Made at Night, The Mortal Storm and other masterpieces would release them on commercial DVD.

Also new on DVD, as well as Blu-ray, is one of the year's biggest box office successes: Mamma Mia!, the film version of the international stage success based on the music of Abba.

Surprisingly, it's not bad given that the songs pretty much all sound like one another, but the cast performs with such sprightly vitality that you can't help but smile all the way through it.

Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Colin Firth and even Stellan Skarsgard manage to shake a leg and carry a tune without embarrassing themselves. The same can't be said for Pierce Brosnan, but at least he appears to be having fun.

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Top 10 Rentals of the Week

(December 7)
  1. Wanted
  2. Step Brothers
  3. Hancock
  4. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
  5. The X-Files: I Want to Believe
  6. Tropic Thunder
  7. WALL-E
  8. Fred Claus
  9. Kung Fu Panda
  10. Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Top 10 Sales of the Week

(November 30)
  1. Hancock
  2. WALL-E
  3. Kung Fu Panda
  4. Sex and the City
  5. Tropic Thunder
  6. Fred Claus
  7. Sleeping Beauty
  8. The Incredible Hulk
  9. Transformers
  10. Iron Man

New Releases

(December 16, 2008)

Coming Soon

(December 23, 2008) (December 27, 2008) (December 30, 2008) (January 6, 2009) (January 13, 2009)

The DVD Report #84: December 9, 2008

Already the second highest grossing film of all time, Christopher Nolan's new Batman film, The Dark Knight, is a meditation on the dichotomy of good and evil.

Even before the untimely death of co-star Heath Ledger, this was the year's most eagerly anticipated film. Ledger's death gave it free but sad publicity and the knowledge that the actor, who is brilliant as The Joker, died so tragically, simply adds to the sorrow already inherent in the Nolan Brothers' script.

While sadness permeates the film from beginning to end, this is nevertheless an action film for which car chases and gruesome death scenes sell tickets and there are plenty of those to keep the film's customers coming back for more.

Christian Bale, who first donned Batman's tights for Batman Begins, Nolan's 2005 re-imaging of the franchise, is back and better than ever along with Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman who reprise their roles of Alfred, Bruce Wayne/Batman's loyal butler; Lucius Cross, manager of his business interests; and Jim Gordon, the good cop, respectively. This time around Bruce's former girlfriend Rachel is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal instead of Katie Holmes, while Aaron Eckhart joins the cast as Rachel's new beau, who is also Gotham City's rock solid new D.A.

Eric Roberts is the City's chief mobster but he's kind of benign compared to his killer for hire, The Joker, embodied by Ledger in one of the fiercest final performances of any actor. He, Eckhart and Oldman take the film's acting honors.

Both Blu-ray and standard DVD packages come with a host of extras.

The second published book of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, is the second to be filmed by Disney although it is fourth in the series' chronology. Andrew Adamson, who directed the first, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe returns with his young cast, Georgie Hensley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley and Anna Poppelwell as the time-traveling siblings along with the voice of Liam Neesom as the voice of Aslan (the Lion). Joining the cast this time around is the fast rising Ben Barnes as the titled prince in trouble who the siblings help restore to his rightful throne.

Barnes had the lead in last year's Stardust and will return in the title role in next year's Dorian Gray as well as reprise Caspian the next installment of Narnia, called The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Though this installment is well produced, it is pretty much a by-the-numbers telling of the tale that will not make the franchise more successful than either The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter franchises, but is an excellent couple of hours-worth of entertainment for children and young teenagers.

Again, both Blu-ray and standard DVD packages come with a host of extras.

That's it for DVD releases of high profile new films. Fortunately, there are a number of classic films either new to DVD or spiffed up and repackaged for Blu-ray to help us wind down from the hectic activities of this time of year.

Chief among them is Fox's Murnau, Borzage and Fox,the box set of the year and a movie lover's dream come true. Featuring twelve films and two books, plus bits and pieces of two "lost" films, it is a treasure trove of what made movies great in the waning days of silent film and the early days of the talkies. Not to be taken lightly, it deserves its own niche so I will be back next week with reviews of all twelve films, only one of which, Murnau's Sunrise, has been previously released on commercial DVD in the U.S. I'll also review the two books and talk about the snippets of Muranu's lost 4 Devils and Borzage's lost The River.

Also new to DVD is a sparkling new Criterion transfer of Fanfan la Tulipe.

France's top box office star in 1951, Gerard Philipe, was due to start work on Christian-Jacque's swashbuckling farce when he was injured in a stage accident that left him unable to walk for a few days. The actor, who had never ridden a horse or been in a swordfight, had to do both throughout the film. With the aid of a riding coach and a fencing coach he was able to do both with the dexterity of a Douglas Fairbanks or an Errol Flynn. It was said that he was such a good actor that even the horse didn't know he couldn't ride and the stuntmen made him an honorary member of their union after he not only performed all his own swordfights, but falls and rolls and all other manner of derring-do as well.

The film is about a devil-may-care peasant soldier who believes he is destined to marry King Louis XV's daughter after he saves her from bandits despite the love of his sergeant's daughter, Gina Lollobrigida. Taking place during the 18th Century's Seven Years' War, it is lighter than air and a treat both in the original French and the immaculately dubbed English version, both of which are provided in the stunning new Criterion release. A worldwide hit when first released, it rather unfairly became the poster child of the French New Wave for all that was wrong with the French Cinema pre-Truffaut and Godard. There's no telling what Philipe's place would have been in film history after the rise of the New Wave as he died suddenly in 1959 of liver cancer at the age of 36.

One of the most beloved films of all time, Michael Curtiz's Casablanca, was given what was expected to be its definitive DVD release five years ago. What then could possibly be added to a DVD set of the 1943 Oscar winner which gave screen immortality to Humphrey Bogart's Rick, Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa, Claude Rains' Louie and Dooley Wilson's Sam to make it worth an upgrade? Well, if you're upgrading to Blu-ray, the glistening print is the answer. Otherwise if you already have the 2003 DVD release there isn't much point in re-purchasing the standard DVD, which is the same transfer, unless you really have to have replicas of the Casablanca passport holder and luggage tag. But if you don't have it, the new release at the same list price as the old one is the one to get.

Newly re-issued on Blu-ray and standard DVD to coincide with the theatrical release of the current remake, Robert Wise's 1951 masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still is such a perfectly made film that one wonders why they don't just re-release the original in IMAX Theatres or something to bring attention to it instead of remaking it for today's audiences.

Though based on a short story by Harry Bates, it is screenwriter Edmund H. North's (One Night of Love, Patton) expansion of the story that gives it its depth and meaning. Filmed during the Korean War at the outset of the Cold War and the height of the Hollywood's Communist witch-hunts, it cleverly uses science fiction as the means to warn the world of imminent annihilation if it doesn't work together. There is also the Christ-like figure of Klaatu, the visitor from Outer Space, who is killed by the authorities and rises from the dead before ascending into the Heavens in his rocket ship. Amusingly, neither producer Julian Blaustein nor director Wise were aware of the religious connotations until the film was completed. It was only in 1976, twenty-five years later, that an interviewer asked North if the allegory was intentional and he admitted that, of course, it was.

Beyond the brilliance of the script, there is the realistic, almost documentary feel to the production and the eerie, and the other-worldly music of Bernard Hermann that set the standard for science fiction films.

The casting is perfect, with the then-unknown Michael Rennie making a strong impression as Klaatu; Patricia Neal bringing her natural charm to the no-nonsense widow who believes in his cause; Billy Gray, wonderfully naturalistic as her son; and Sam Jaffe at his best as an Albert Einstein stand-in. Jaffe, accusations of Communist sympathizing swirling about him, was kept in the film over the objection of the casting director at the insistence of Wise and Blaustein with the approval of studio head Darryl F. Zanuck.

Two other newly upgraded Blu-rays worth seeking out are The Shawshank Redemption and the original version of Black Christmas.

Although it won seven Oscar nominations, Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption, from a short story by Stephen King, was considered a commercial flop when released in 1994. It has since, of course, become a cult favorite, long having held a position in the Top 5 of the Internet Movie Database's (IMDb) list of the 250 highest rated films by that site's members. It is currently rated No. 1. The story of a man (Tim Robbins at his best) falsely accused of murdering his wife and her lover and sentenced to many years in prison, his bonding with a fellow prisoner (an equally fine Morgan Freeman) over time, and the eventual redemption of both has many twists and turns and is thoroughly absorbing. Is it the greatest movie ever made? Hardly. But the new transfer finally does it full justice on home video.

Bridging the gap between old-fashioned horror films and the newer more explicit ones, Bob Clark's 1974 film Black Christmas was full of menace but devoid of gore. A flop upon its initial release, John Carpenter's Halloween, originally intended as a sequel to Black Christmas but in essence more of a remake, was the one that got the glory, but this is the real deal. Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey are sorority sisters in peril, Keir Dullea and Art Hindle are the men in their lives, and John Saxon is the investigating police officer.

New on the TV front is the standard DVD release of Law & Order - The Sixth Year from 1995-1996. This is the season that introduced Benjamin Bratt as Jerry Orbach's new partner, replacing Chris Noth, while S. Epatha Merkersen continued as their Captain and Sam Waterston and Jill Hennesy continued as Assistant D.A.s under Steven Hill. It was also the season that included a cross-over episode from Homicide - Life on the Street and contained some very compelling episodes, including the first death penalty case after capital punishment was re-established in New York, and the potential double jeopardy caused by the bribing of a judge.

Buy on DVD!
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Top 10 Rentals of the Week

(November 30)
  1. Hancock
  2. Tropic Thunder
  3. WALL-E
  4. Fred Claus
  5. Kung Fu Panda
  6. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  7. Get Smart
  8. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2
  9. Journey to the Center of the Earth
  10. Meet Dave

Top 10 Sales of the Week

(November 23)
  1. WALL-E
  2. Tropic Thunder
  3. Kung Fu Panda
  4. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  5. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2
  6. Iron Man
  7. Tinker Bell
  8. Kung Fu Panda/Secrets of the Furious Five
  9. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  10. Star Wars: The Clone Wars

New Releases

(December 9, 2008)

Coming Soon

(December 16, 2008) (December 23, 2008) (December 27, 2008) (December 30, 2008) (January 6, 2009)

The DVD Report #83: December 2, 2008

The Oscars are 80 years old, soon to be 81.

Hollywood's annual self-indulgent ceremony of patting itself on the back began with the dawn of the sound film era and reached its halfway (to date) point in 1968 when movies and styles were changing. The Motion Picture Production Code which rigidly enforced certain rules since the early 1930s had been slowly dying since 1960 and was finally abandoned in 1968 with the introduction of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system which allowed practically anything to be filmed as long as it was rated in a manner in which audiences were forewarned of potentially offensive content.

Taking a break from my reviews of new DVD releases, the beginning of the holiday shopping season seems the ideal time to reflect on the films of that year, most of which are available on DVD.

We'll begin with my ten favorite films of 1968.

An intense historical drama, Anthony Harvey's The Lion in Winter roared into theatres with the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of 46-year-old Peter O'Toole and 62-year-old Katharine Hepburn as England's Henry II and his French-born wife Eleanor of Aquitane. It's 1183 and Eleanor is invited by Henry to Christmas Court after ten years' imprisonment where he, she and their three sons, Princes Richard (the Lionheart), Geoffrey and John fight, plot and spew wicked dialogue at one another before she is once again locked up for the remainder of Henry's life. Hepburn won the third of her four Oscars for this. It is by far her best Oscar winning performances while O'Toole, who had previously played Henry in Becket, had to be content with the third of his eight fruitless nominations.

The outstanding supporting cast includes Anthony Hopkins as Richard, Timothy Dalton as King Philip of France, John Castle as Geoffrey, Nigel Terry as John, and Jane Merrow as Henry's mistress.

Film versions of the works of Charles Dickens reached their zenith with Carol Reed's film of Lionel Bart's Oliver!, the musical version of Oliver Twist, which took home five Oscars including Best Picture. Beautifully filmed at England's Shepperton Studios, the film was produced near the end of era of big budget musicals that ran roughly from 1955 to 1972, and was undeniably one of the best.

Dickens' characters are brought vividly to life by the likes of Oscar nominee Ron Moody as Fagin, Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes, Shani Wallis as Nancy, Jack Wild, another Oscar nominee, as the Artful Dodger, and Mark Lester as Oliver singing such glorious songs as "Who Will Buy", "Where Is Love", "Consider Yourself" and "As Long as He Needs Me". A highlight of the year's Oscar ceremony was the opening with Moody and Wild in full tattered costumes as their characters from the film.

Paul Newman's directing debut, Rachel, Rachel, was a valentine to his wife Joanne Woodward, who gave the performance of her life as the repressed middle-aged schoolteacher who lives alone with her domineering mother. James Olson is the man who briefly comes into her life, Estelle Parsons is a fellow schoolteacher with problems of her own, Kate Harrington is the demanding mom, and Geraldine Fitzgerald is an evangelist who talks in tongues. Newman won the New York Film Critics Award and the Golden Globe for his direction but failed to pick up an Oscar nomination. Woodward, who won both those awards as well, was recognized by the Academy, along with Parsons and the film itself.

Italian director Franco Zeffirelli breathed new life into William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet by casting it, for the first time, with age-appropriate actors. Teenagers Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were heartbreaking as the star-crossed lovers, and Michael York as Tybalt, John McEnery as Mercutio, Pat Heywood as The Nurse, and Milo O'Shea as Friar Lawrence lent them sturdy support. The film was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Costume Design, winning in the latter two categories. It was oddly not nominated for Nino Rota's unforgettable Score, though the BAFTAs (Britain's answer to the Oscars) nominated it in that category along with its Editing and the performances of McEnery and Heywood, which were also missing from Oscar's honor roll.

One of the screen's scariest and best psychological horror films, Roman Polanski's film of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, was filmed in New York's famed Dakota apartment building, the home of Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein and later John Lennon, among others, giving it an authentic New York feel. It cemented Mia Farrow's reputation as an actress of note as the wife of an actor who sells his soul to the devil for a part in a play. John Cassavetes as the husband, Ruth Gordon as the witch next door, Sidney Blackmer as her warlock husband, Ralph Bellamy as a devil-worshiping doctor, Maurice Evans as Farrow's kindly old friend, and Patsy Kelly as another witch were all terrific, with Gordon especially so in her Oscar-winning role.

Though set in a specific time and place, post-World War II Bronx, N.Y., Ulu Grosbard's film of Frank D. Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses tells the universal tale of a young man coming home to a family with whom he no longer has much in common. Filmed without a screenplay, the dialogue taken directly from the Broadway play, which starred Irene Dailey, Jack Albertson and Martin Sheen, the stage-to-screen transfer is flawless. Patricia Neal, returning to acting after suffering three nearly fatal, paralyzing strokes, seamlessly takes over for Dailey, performing opposite Albertson and Sheen as if the three of them had been together for years. Neal's real-life dilemma adds a haunting quality as she briefly runs away from home to the sorrowful strains of Judy Collins' "Who Knows Where the Time Goes", retuning for the film's combustible climax. Albertson, in his Oscar-winning role and Sheen are equally brilliant.

Carson McCullers was only 22 when she wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a semi-autobiographical novel of her life at 16, yet she was able to show compassion well beyond her years. Focusing on a boarder in her poverty stricken family's home, Heart tells the story of a lonely deaf-mute who, with his kindness and understanding, transforms the lives of those he comes in contact with, but is unable to help himself. Alan Arkin gives the performance of his life as the good-hearted John Singer, a role that won him the New York Film Critics Award and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Sondra Locke is almost as good in her debut as the character based on McCullers, for which she received a Supporting Actress nomination. Equally fine are Percy Rodriguez as a proud black doctor, Cicely Tyson as Rodriguez's conflicted daughter and Stacy Keach as a combative drunk.

Hyped as Luis Bunuel's masterpiece of erotica, thetag line made Belle de Jour the most accessible film of the father of surrealist cinema's career. Catherine Deneuve had perhaps the best role of her long and varied career as the frigid housewife who becomes a prostitute available only between the hours of two and five on weekday afternoons, thus her titular nickname. Filled with the vivid imagery Bunuel was known for, the film slowly recounts the details of Deneuve's life which cause her to be chaste with her handsome loving doctor husband (Jean Sorel) while finding carnal fulfillment with strangers. Michel Piccoli, Genevieve Page and Pierre Clementi co-star.

One of the year's two landmark science fiction films, Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes, was based on a 1953 French novel by Pierre Boulle who also wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai. Set in a future world in which gorillas and chimpanzees are dominant and man is irrelevant, the film is deftly laced with humor and irony as Charlton Heston, an arrogant American astronaut seeks to break out of his captivity in a land in which Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly and others thrive in realistic ape costumes. The unforgettable ending stings on many levels. It was nominated for Oscars for its realistic costumes and for Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score.

The other landmark science fiction film was, of course, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey with a screenplay by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. An intricately detailed film, full of awe and wonder, it originally became a worldwide phenomenon because of its reputation as a film best viewed under the influence of hallucinogens. Nominated for four Oscars and winner of one for Special Effects, the film, which originally received mixed reviews, has since become one of the most respected films of all time in part due to the lack of any serious competition in the realm of science fiction films in which science is deemed more important than fiction. The thrilling classical music soundtrack was initially even more popular than the film itself.

Runners-up to the top ten would have to include Peter Yates' Bullitt with Steve McQueen and those fabulous chase scenes up and down the hills of San Francisco; Francois Truffaut's macabre The Bride Wore Black with Jeanne Moreau as a serial killer bride; Ralph Nelson's Charly, a labor of love for Oscar winner Cliff Robertson as a mentally deficient man who undergoes an operation that temporarily raises his intelligence level; Claude Berri's The Two of Us with Michel Simon as the elderly farmer who develops a bond with the young Jewish boy he hides from the Nazis; George Duning's animated Yellow Submarine with the music of The Beatles informing its tale of good and evil; William Wyler's film of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand singing her heart out on the way to an Oscar as Fanny Brice; Finian's Rainbow in which Burton Lane and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg's marvelous score can't be diminished even by Francis Ford Coppola's heavy direction; Michael Anderson's film of Morris West's The Shoes of the Fisherman in which Anthony Quinn's Pope from behind the Iron Curtain predates world history by a few years; Melville Shavelson's Yours, Mine and Ours in which widowed Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda combine their families totaling 18 children inspiring TV's The Brady Bunch; and Richard Fleischer's intense examination of The Boston Strangler case with Tony Curtis in a career high performance as the real life maniacal killer.

Other films of note included two by Ingmar Bergman, Hour of the Wolf, his only horror film,and Shame, a study of the impact of war on a marriage, both starring Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow; John Cassvetes' talky but well acted Faces in which wife Lynn Carlin gets even with cheating husband John Marley by having an affair with Seymour Cassel; John Frankenheimer's film of Bernard Malamud's The Fixer with Alana Bates in an Oscar nominated performance as an imprisoned Jewish handyman in Czarist Russia; Richard Lester's time shifting Petulia wonderfully acted by George C. Scott, Julie Christie and Shirley Knight; Albert Finney's directorial debut Charlie Bubbles in which Finney is married to BAFTA winner Billie Whitelaw and has an affair with Liza Minnelli (her film debut); Noel Black's quirky Pretty Poison with Anthony Perkins as a disturbed young man and Tuesday Weld as the titled character; Robert Aldrich's black comedy The Killing of Sister George about a lesbian triangle involving Beryl Reid, Coral Browne and Susannah York all at the top of their game; Don Siegel's police procedural Madigan with Richard Widmark in one of his best performances; and Robert Wise's ambitious but ultimately overblown Star! with Julie Andrews nevertheless quite magical as Gertrude Lawrence and Daniel Massey nearly her match as his real life godfather Noel Coward.

Buy on DVD!
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Top 10 Rentals of the Week

(November 23)
  1. Tropic Thunder
  2. WALL-E
  3. Kung Fu Panda
  4. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  5. Get Smart
  6. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2
  7. Journey to the Center of the Earth
  8. The Incredible Hulk
  9. This Christmas
  10. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Top 10 Sales of the Week

(November 16)
  1. Kung Fu Panda
  2. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  3. Kung Fu Panda/Secrets of the Furious Five
  4. Star Wars: The Clone Wars
  5. This Christmas
  6. Get Smart
  7. Tinker Bell
  8. Journey to the Center of the Earth
  9. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  10. Iron Man

New Releases

(December 2, 2008)

Coming Soon

(December 9, 2008) (December 16, 2008) (December 23, 2008) (December 27, 2008) (December 30, 2008)