Married people slept in separate beds and only the wicked had sex outside of marriage in old Hollywood, right? Wrong! There was plenty sex both inside and outside of marriage on screen before the Production Code came into full force in mid-1934, and good and bad people getting away with murder as well.
Where Volume One gave us three examples of movies not possible to make in the Hollywood of the mid 1930s to the mid 1960s, Volume Two generously gives us five plus an astute documentary, Thous Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood.
Volume One gave us Waterloo Bridge (1931), Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Baby Face (1933). Volume Two gives us The Divorcee (1930), A Free Soul (1931), Night Nurse (1931), Three on a Match (1932) and Female (1933).
The Production Code had already been in existence in 1930, but it was winked at, rather than rigorously enforced. Both MGM and Warner Bros., whose films are represented here, flaunted sex and murder as easily as they did glamorous gowns and spiffy new cars.
MGM, already building its reputation for gloss and high style concentrated on the rich, while gritty Warner Bros. gleefully mixed rich and poor in prosaic fashion.
Norma Shearer slithered her way to an Oscar in Robert Z. Leonard's The Divorcee playing the high stepping wife of Chester Morris who, tired of the double standard, openly sleeps with his best friend, Robert Montgomery, leading to divorce and eventual reconciliation. Conrad Nagel and Florence Eldredge co-star.
Shearer goes even further in Clarence Brown's A Free Soul, leaving effete polo playing fiancé Leslie Howard to become the mistress of notorious gangster Clark Gable, lounging wantonly on his bed in a slinky nightgown as her drunken father is dragged into their den of iniquity. She got another Oscar nomination for that, but the one who took home the little gold man that year was Lionel Barrymore in a shameless piece of over-acting as her lawyer father. What's shocking about this film is not the sex, which is extremely tame by modern standards, but the notion that it's OK to kill in cold blood if you're high minded and the person you're killing is a lowlife.
Gable was even more reprehensible in William A. Wellman's Night Nurse in which he plays a chauffer intent on murdering two children under the care of nurse Barbara Stanwyck. He's thwarted by Stanwyck, but not before she and Joan Blondell are in and out of their clothes too many times to count. The film contains some of the funniest risqué dialogue ever written for the screen.
Blondell is back, co-starring with Bette Davis and Ann Dvorak, in Merrvyn LeRoy's Three on a Match with Humphrey Bogart in one of his early villain roles. Clocking in at a fast 63 minutes, this is easily the most absorbing film of the group. Dvorak delivers a really terrific performance as an alcoholic, drug-addicted mother of a six-year-old.
The least remembered film of the lot is Michael Curtiz's Female, which clocks in at an even brisker 59 minutes. Ruth Chatterton is the auto company chief executive who has her way with a number of boy toys until the "right man" comes along. He's played by George Brent, Chatterton's then-real life husband. The supporting cast includes Johnny Mack Brown, Phillip Reed, Ruth Donnelly and Ferdinand Gottschalk.
Having released most of their better known films of the 1930s in Warner Gangsters Collection - Volume 1 and Warner Gangsters Collection - Volume 2, Warner Bros. digs deeper to come up with six lesser known titles in Warner Gangsters Collection - Volume 3, the first three of which also happen to be pre-Code films. The films are Smart Money (1931), Picture Snatcher (1933), The Mayor of Hell (1933), Lady Killer (1933), Black Legion (1937) and Brother Orchid (1940). All include commentaries and various other extras.
The only film in which Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney appeared together, Alfred E. Green's Smart Money was filmed concurrently with William A. Wellman's The Public Enemy but released after that film made Cagney a star. Conceived as a showcase for Robinson in the wake of his success in Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar, he plays a barber-turned-gambler who runs afoul of both the mob and the law. Cagney plays Robinson's live-in sidekick with obvious homoerotic overtones. He hates women, a euphemism for being gay in old Hollywood, especially the blondes Robinson keeps falling for. Margaret Livingston, who plays the last of the blondes, was the mistress of Thomas Ince at the time of his murder aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht as depicted in Peter Bogdanovich's 2001 film, The Cat's Meow. She is best known on screen as the Woman From the City in F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. She became bandleader Paul Whiteman's fourth wife in 1931. They remained happily married until his death in 1967.
Cagney is the whole show in Lloyd Bacon's Picture Snatcher, playing a tabloid photographer in this ripped-from-the-headlines comic melodrama. The plot centers around Cagney's character getting several famous photographs of the day, the most notorious being the one of the woman being executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing. Ralph Bellamy, in one of his earliest roles, plays his editor.
Cagney has one of his best early roles in Archie Mayo's The Mayor of Hell,but he is only in about a third of the film, which is nicely carried by fifteen-year-old Frankie Darro in the title role. Set primarily in a reform school run by nasty Dudley Digges, Cagney plays the deputy commissioner working in concert with saintly nurse Madge Evans to bring innovative changes to the establishment. The film is sort of a grittier version of the later Boys Town, with generous dollops of Angels With Dirty Faces thrown in.
Released late in 1933 just before the Hollywood Production Code came into full force, Roy Del Ruth's Lady Killer is a fast-paced comedy in which Cagney plays a theatre usher-turned-movie star with a criminal past. Re-united with Mae Clarke whom he famously manhandled in The Public Enemy, there's no grapefruit in the kisser for her this time around. Instead he drags her across the floor by her hair. Margaret Lindsay co-stars.
A thinly-disguised expose of the Ku Klux Klan, Archie Mayo's Black Legion presented Humphrey Bogart with one of his earliest starring roles as a factory worker who joins the secret organization after the foreman's job at the factory is given to "foreigner" Henry Brandon. Erin O'Brien Moore, Dick Foran and Ann Sheridan co-star in the film singled out by the National Board of Review as one of the ten best films of its year, not the best as the commentators would have you believe.
A comedy about a gangster in hiding in a monastery, Lloyd Bacon's Brother Orchid presents Edward G. Robinson as the unlikely title character. Ann Southern, Ralph Bellamy, Donald Crisp and Cecil Kellaway co-star in this enjoyable romp.
It seems hard to believe, but the first "modern" gangster movie,1967's Bonnie and Clyde, is now more than forty years old. To commemorate the film's 40th anniversary, Warner Bros. has issued a newly re-mastered two-disc set that includes several documentaries. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director (Arthur Penn), Actor (Warren Beatty), Actress (Faye Dunaway) and two Supporting Actors (Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard), but won only two, for Supporting Actress Estelle Parsons and Cinematography.
With baseball season almost upon us, MGM, through its distribution deal with Fox, is providing us with three spiffed-up re-issues of classic baseball films.
The granddaddy of the bunch is 1942's The Pride of the Yankees, directed by Sam Wood, with Gary Cooper in one of his best-remembered roles as Lou Gehrig and Teresa Wright as Mrs. Gehrig. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay, it won only one for Best Editing. This is the third DVD release of the title. The previous two releases were bare bones. The new release includes six featurettes including one on Lou Gehrig's disease.
Ang Lee's uncompromising look at the 1970s American suburban middle class in 1997's The Ice Storm gets the full Criterion treatment including commentary from Lee and screenwriter James Schamus. Extras include new interviews with stars Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Sigourney Weaver and Elijah Wood. The film was oddly ignored by Oscar, but Weaver won both a Golden Globe and BAFTA nomination for her supporting performance and Lee, Kline, Allen and the film itself were all nominated by the London film Critics.
That's it for the classics. The best new film to be released on DVD this week is Stefan Ruzowitzky's Oscar-winning Austrian film, The Counterfeiters, but it's only available in Region 2. If you live in the U.S. and don't have a region free player, for the time being you'll have to seek it out in theatres where it's still playing.
Just when you think you've heard all the stories from the Nazi death camps comes another one, this one from 90-year-old author Adolph Burger's 2007 book, The Devil's Workshop,about his experiences among an elite group of Jewish prisoners forced to print counterfeit British and American currency. The most fascinating aspect of the entire enterprise is saved for one of the extras, an interview with Burger in which he explains how he alone could tell the forgeries from the real thing after they had fooled the world's experts in 1945.
Though Burger is the moral center of the film, August Diehl who plays him, is the film's second lead. The starring role is played by Karl Markovics as the lead counterfeiter. It's well worth your time.
Critics weren't kind to Mike Newell's Love in the Time of Cholera, most of them saying it made a travesty of the novel. Never having read it, I didn't have that problem with it. It's the kind of film that plays better on DVD where you can stop and re-start it at your leisure rather than having to sit through it in one sitting in the theatre. Javier Bardem, splendid as always, is a heartsick telegraph operator turned shipping mogul who pines for more than fifty years for the woman whose father separated them in their youth. Award winning Italian actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno is equally fine as the woman he waits for and the Colombian locations make for a splendid backdrop. Fernanda Montenegro as Bardem's mother and Hector Elizondo as his uncle and benefactor are fine in support, but the rest of the cast is mostly forgettable except for John Leguizamo whose leering bug-eyed over-acting is so bad you wish you could forget him but may have nightmares instead.
Whether or not you enjoy Kevin Lima's Enchanted depends on your tolerance for bland romantic Disney fairy tales set in post-Giuliani Manhattan and whether or not you're captivated by the charms of the film's star, Amy Adams. Though the film contains three Oscar nominated songs, none of them are particularly distinguished. Others found it beguiling, but I must confess I found it rather insipid.
Coming: separate Warner and Fox collections celebrating Bette Davis' centenary.
-Peter J. Patrick (March 25, 2008)
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Lots of people seem to have trouble with the ending of No Country for Old Men, this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor. I don't get what they don't get. The dreams that Tommy Lee Jones reveals to his wife, Tess Harper, at the end of the film may be open to interpretation, but the message they convey is clear - the new Southwest is no country for old men. There is irony in that. Jones' may be old and tired, and seen too much in his job as a small town sheriff, but he has already lived twenty years longer his father.
The film is filled with little ironies like that. My favorite is the scene in which Jones and a deputy come across a gruesome site where several men have been shot and killed and the deputy winces - "they shot the dog". The film is about violence, but it is not really a violent film. There's a brutal on-screen murder at the beginning, but after that all the killings are off screen.
No Country for Old Men is Joel and Ethan Coen's best film since 1996's Fargo. While I have a personal preference for the earlier film, this year's shower of awards is not undeserved even if I did think that There Will Be Blood was the stronger contender.
None of the major characters in No Country, except for Jones, elicit much sympathy. Josh Brolin, who finally has a strong leading role, is an amoral character who never does the right thing. Javier Bardem, in his Oscar-winning role, is a cold-blooded killer. Not since Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity has an actor had to try so hard to win our admiration while playing nasty with a ridiculous mop of hair.
The film is perfectly paced, moving from one character's point of view to another's, without losing focus of the overall story. The Coens' Oscar for their screenplay from Cormac McCarthy's novel was well earned and Roger Deakins' cinematography is the best of his outstanding work on three 2007 films, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford /em> and In the Valley of Elah, being the other two. He won Oscar nominations for both No Country and Jesse James, losing to Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood.
Switching gears completely, Peter Hedges' Dan in Real Life proved to be one of 2007's comic delights. While this is only the director's second film, he has been charming us for the better part of two decades with his literate screenplays for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, A Map of the World, About a Boy and PPieces of April (his directorial debut).
Like his earlier screenplays, this one has a strong central character surrounded by a group of quirky, idiosyncratic and ultimately lovable secondary ones. Steve Carell, in his best role to date, is the widowed father of three daughters who, on a break from a family reunion, meets a charming woman in a bookstore with whom he becomes immediately infatuated. This being a movie, of course she's going to turn out to be his playboy brother's latest conquest. From there the film provides the usual complications along with some surprising stuff on the way to its inevitable conclusion.
The film's strong cast includes Juliette Binoche as the woman in the book store; Dane Cook and Norbert Leo Butz as Carell's brothers; John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest as his parents; Alison Pill, Brittaney Robertson and Marlene Lawston as his daughters; Amy Ryan as a sister-in-law; Matthew Morrison as the local law enforcement officer; and Emily Blunt as a fun-loving plastic surgeon.
Family figures in two other 2007 films recently released on DVD.
In Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, three brothers, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, journey across India in search of their mother (Anjelica Huston) who, since the death of their father a year earlier, has become a nun and renounced the world, if not them. Complications ensue, and the brothers renew their bond. Sight gags abound, including one involving Bill Murray in a cameo.
Natalie Portman also has a cameo. She and Schwartzman star in a short called Hotel Chevalier, which is actually a prologue to the film, and really part of it. It sets up Schwartzman's character as well as Portman's for the main film.
Kirsten Sheridan won an Oscar nomination for the screenplay she wrote for In America with her father Jim, and sister Naomi. A director for several years now, August Rush is her most accessible film to date. The film is about an 11-year-old child prodigy, played by Freddie Highmore, who has been raised in an orphanage but is convinced that his parents are out there and will come to him through music. Unbeknownst to him, his mother, Keri Russell, is a famed cellist and his father, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, is a rock star. The two had met years earlier, but were broken up by the girl's father who told her that her baby was born dead, and gave him to the orphanage without her knowledge.
Terrence Howard is the kindly manager of the orphanage, Mikelti Williamson is a benevolent minister and Robin Williams is a modern day Fagin who exploits runaway children. The gospel song "Raise It Up" won an Oscar nomination.
It's easy to get caught up in the contrivances of the thriller Awake, but the plot heavy coincidences are so ridiculous you will lose patience with it long before the fadeout. Hayden Christensen is the young billionaire in desperate need of a heart transplant who just happens to secretly marry Jessica Alba against his mother's wishes the night a heart becomes available. He just happens to be "awake" during the operation in which his would-be killers just happen to discuss their plot. Meanwhile one of the plotters just happens to run into someone who recognizes her in the presence of the film's true hero who just happens to have the world's greatest heart transplant specialist on stand-by. Terrence Howard and Arliss Howard are also on board, but the only actor in the film who really makes an impression is Lena Olin as Christensen's mother. Alba won a much-deserved Razzie nomination for Worst Actress, and she and Christensen an equally-well-deserved nomination for worst couple. This was writer/director Joby Harold's first film. Don't be surprised if it's his last.
For a more rewarding experience watching a suspense film, check out one of Fox's newly released films noir.
The oldest film in the collection is 1947's Daisy Kenyon, more of a woman's film than a film noir, but with Otto Preminger at the helm you get much more than you might imagine. Joan Crawford, at the height of her late 1940s comeback, plays a commercial artist torn between unhappily married attorney Dana Andrews and shell-shocked World War II veteran Henry Fonda. The film throws in subjects not usually seen in films of the period such as the psychological problems of veterans, child abuse and racial prejudice. Ruth Warrick is Andrews' neurotic wife; Connie Marshall and Peggy Ann Garner, fresh from her Oscar win in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,are his troubled daughters. Though hard to believe now, Andrews was actually a bigger star than Fonda at the time and received billing over him.
Clocking in at a swift 75 minutes, 1953's Dangerous Crossing, also makes economic use of its sets and costumes. Taking place entirely on an ocean liner, it was filmed on the set Fox built for its 1953 version of Titanic, which was also prominently used in the same year's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Its costumes were also recycled. In one scene supporting actress Marjorie Hoshelle is seen wearing Celeste Holm's party dress from All About Eve. The cat and mouse plot is fairly easy to figure out, but it is played for maximum effect by Jeanne Crain, Michael Rennie, Carl Betz and Mary Anderson at their best. It was directed by Joseph M. Newman, who was twice nominated for Oscars for Best Assistant Director, when that award was given in the mid-1930s, for David Copperfield and San Francisco.
One of the few films directed by writer/producer Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath, The Dirty Dozen), 1954's Black Widow plays like a noir version of All About Eve. Instead of one legendary Broadway star, you get two, Ginger Rogers and Gene Tierney, stalked by predatory Peggy Ann Garner, a long way from Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Van Heflin is Tierney's producer husband, Reginald Gardner is Rogers' writer husband and George Raft is the detective who comes along to trap the murderer at the end. Virginia Leith, Skip Homeier, Otto Kruger, Cathleen Nesbitt and Mabel Albertson are also featured. The film is presented in widescreen for the first time since its initial release.
-Peter J. Patrick (March 18, 2008)
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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn't bestow many career achievement awards. When they do, they're usually reserved for legendary stars like Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Deborah Kerr and Peter O'Toole or directors like Howard Hawks, King Vidor, Blake Edwards and Sidney Lumet who might otherwise not have an Oscar. In recent years, AMPAS has made a concerted effort to spread the wealth to people in other fields of endeavor, such as Jack Cardiff for cinematography and Ernest Lehman for writing. This year they chose to give an honorary award to 98-year-old retired art director and production designer Robert F. Boyle.
Who is Mr. Boyle and what did he do? The short answer is: he was the man responsible for the look of a wide range of films from those of Alfred Hitchcock to those of Norman Jewison. The long answer is this explanation from Wikipedia:
An art director, in the hierarchical structure of a film art department, works directly below the production designer, and above the set designer and set decorator. A large part of their duties include the administrative aspects of the art department. They are responsible for assigning tasks to personnel, keeping track of the art department budget and scheduling, as well as overall quality control. They are often also a liaison to other departments; especially the construction department. In the past, the art director title was used to denote the head of the art department (hence the Academy Award for Best Art Direction). On the movie Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick felt that William Cameron Menzies had such a significant role in the look of the film, that the title Art Director was not sufficient, and so he gave Menzies the title of Production Designer. The title has become more common, and now Production Designer is commonly used as the title for the head of the Art Department, although the title actually implies control over every visual aspect of a film, including costumes.
Boyle was associate art director on such legendary films as The Wolf Man, Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt while alternating as the lead art director on other prestige films along with many B-films of the 1940s. Among his outstanding achievements during this period was his work on Flesh and Fantasy; For the Love of Mary and An Act of Murder.
Striking art direction is the hallmark of Julian Duvivier's tales of the occult featured in 1943's Flesh and Fantasy. The first segment, featuring Robert Cummings and Betty Field, is set in New Orleans at Mardi Gras time; the second with Edward G. Robinson and Thomas Mitchell, based on a story by Oscar Wilde, revolves around a fortune teller; the third set in a circus features Charles Boyer and Barbara Stanwyck. Boyle's eerie sets provide the atmosphere needed to put the film over.
The centerpiece of Freddy De Cordova's For the Love of Mary, Deanna Durbin's 1948 swan song, is an elaborate White House switchboard set. There is also an impressive restaurant set where much of the action of this frothy comedy takes place. Edmond O'Brien, Don Taylor, Jeffrey Lynn, Ray Collins, Harry Davenport and Louise Beavers co-star.
A quaint small town, a courtroom, a mansion, a diner and a long winding road are among the sets Boyle handsomely constructed for Michael Gordon's 1948 film, An Act of Murder. Fredric March stars as the small town judge who may or may not be guilty of mercy killing his terminally ill wife, Florence Eldredge, March's spouse in real life as well. The supporting cast includes Geraldine Brooks and the ubiquitous Edmond O'Brien.
Boyle's 1950s credits as an art director were all on B movies. Having cut his teeth on Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt, it's fitting that he received his first credit as production designer at the end of the decade for Hitchcock's 1959 masterpiece, North by Northwest, the film for which he won the first of his four Oscar nominations.
One of Hitchcock's best, North by Northwest has a literate screenplay, world class actors (Cary Grant, James Mason, Eva Marie Saint, Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll and Jessie Royce Landis), marvelous action sequences (the car, the crop-duster, Mount Rushmore) and the most elaborate sets ever constructed for a Hitchcock film. Boyle outdid himself with mock-ups of the Oak Bar at New York's Plaza Hotel, two big rooms at the United Nations, libraries, courtrooms, police stations, train cars and, of course, Mount Rushmore and its nearby cafeterias and forests.
Boyle's work on Hitchcock's 1963 film The Birds wasn't impressive in the same style. Filmed largely in Northern California's Bodega Bay, the film had lots of natural beauty going for it - along with those thrilling special effects, but Boyle's sets - the pet store, the general store, the house, were quietly impressive in their own way.
Nominated for four 1967 Oscars, Richard Brooks' film of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood captured those honors for direction, screenplay, cinematography and score. It failed to receive two that it should have - Best Picture and Art Direction for Boyle's sparse, but evocative work - the house, the jail, the hangman's pedestal.
Boyle outdid himself with the sets for Norman Jewison's 1969 film Gaily, Gaily for which he finally won his second Oscar nomination after a ten-year wait. The film, based on legendary playwright Ben Hecht's early days as a reporter in teeming 1910 Chicago, begins in a small town, for which Boyle had to construct the typical country sets. As Beau Bridges portraying the young Hecht, renamed Harvey in the film, moves to Chicago, the pace and the construction picks up significantly. Here we find an elaborate train station, bustling city streets with advertising and graffiti applicable to the times, a newspaper office and a lavish whorehouse run by Melina Mercouri.
Boyle worked with Bridges again on Hal Ashby's seminal 1970 film, The Landlord, in which Bridges plays an upwardly mobile white dude initially intent on evicting his building's black tenants in order to gentrify the building in Brooklyn's Park Slope. The film is most notable for its supporting cast including Lee Grant, in an Oscar-nominated performance as Bridges' mom, Pearl Bailey and Diana Sands. Boyle's apartment sets are appropriately run down.
Boyle re-teamed with Norman Jewison on 1971's Fiddler on the Roof, for which his third Oscar nomination was one of the eight the film received. Boyle's work on this film was phenomenal, having designed and built the entire village of Anatevka, as well as the surrounding countryside, along with meticulously constructed interiors. Starring Topol and Norma Crane, and featuring a superb score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, this was one of the more successful transfers of a beloved Broadway musical, due in no small part due to Boyle's contributions.
He designed the modern ranch sets for the 1973 TV movie, The Red Pony, a superior version of the famed novel than the 1949 theatrical film, with superb performances by Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara.
There isn't much to be said for Gene Saks' 1974 film version of Mame, with its hideous lead performance by a lame-footed, tin-eared, croaking Lucille Ball, except for the fabulous art direction, set design and costumes each under Boyle's supervision. Boyle and his team wonderfully recapture the period from the roaring 20s through the more conservative 50s. The film may be torture on the ears, but it's heaven on the eyes.
Boyle won his fourth and final Oscar nomination for invoking the dusty western town of Don Siegel's 1976 film The Shootist. This was a little strange because the thing that most people remember about the film is John Wayne's performance as a man dying of cancer, especially in light of the fact that Wayne himself died of the disease three years later without having made another film. When it came around to year-end awards, however, it was Ron Howard who was singled out by the Golden Globes for his supporting performance and Lauren Bacall who was singled out by BAFTA for a Best Actress nod. Instead of rectifying those wrongs, the Academy gave its only nod to the film to Boyle. Boyle's recognition was not undeserved, but odd that he was nominated while Wayne was not.
His last film was 1991's The Suspended Step of the Stork, a Greek production with an international cast headed by Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau.
Boyle was married to Bess Taffel, Hollywood writer of the 1940s who was blacklisted in 1951. She died in 2000 at the age of 86, the year he was the subject of the 2000 Oscar-nominated documentary The Man on Lincoln's Nose.
-Peter J. Patrick (March 11, 2008)
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I had hoped to review Todd Haynes' I'm Not There and Warner Bros. Fordibben Hollywood, Vol. 2 this week, but I've been told their DVD releases scheduled for today have been postponed, the former to May 6, the latter to March 25. No matter, there are still lots of other new releases to keep us busy during the winter doldrums.
Criterion has released a mammoth four-disc edition of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 Oscar winner The Last Emperor. The first disc contains the film's theatrical cut, the second the expanded edit shown on TV while the remaining discs feature tons of supplements. The richly detailed film itself has never looked better.
Telling the life story of Pu Yi, emperor of China at 3, deposed leader at 6, western playboy, Japanese collaborator, repatriated prisoner and finally tranquil gardener, Bertolucci's sumptuous film elicits a career high performance from John Lone as Pu Yi, with memorable support from Joan Chen and Peter O'Toole among others. The eye-popping film won a clean sweep total of nine Oscars including those for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing, Score, Costume Design and Sound.
A sense of sadness and foreboding runs through Sean Penn's Into the Wild, a beautifully filmed chronicle of the adventures of a young man who disavows the material world in his exploration of the wonders of nature. Emile Hirsch gives an extraordinary performance as the idealistic Christopher McCandless aka Alexander Supertramp who abandons his car, gives away his money and sets off on his own after his college graduation. His travels are peppered with interesting folk on the road that leads him ultimately to the Alaskan wilderness. Chief among them are Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, and Hal Holbrook in a terrific Oscar-nominated performance. That the film itself wasn't nominated for a slew of Oscars as had been expected is one of the award season's most baffling mysteries. The film did start off awards season on a high note with its seven Broadcast Film Critics nods, more than any other film this year, and Hirsch, Holbrook and Keener were all nominated for SAG awards as was the film's ensemble. Only Holbrook and the film's editing garnered Oscar nods.
The two-disc special edition includes two documentaries, one on the source material and one on the making of the film.
Inexplicably meeting with less than enthusiastic reviews from major critics, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution plays like a leisurely paced novel, which may make it a better bet for home DVD viewing than for sitting through in theatres. Tony Leung gives another of his fine performances as a corrupt Chinese politician who rises through the ranks of the country's World War II puppet government in collaboration with the Japanese. As the naïve young spy whose job it is to set him up, Tang Wei gives an impressive, smoldering performance. She and Leung were nominated for Independent Spirit awards, Lee earned a Best Director nod from the Satellites and the film was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Foreign Film, but that was about it for major American awards recognition.
The DVD is available in two versions, the NC-17 theatrical cut with its near-graphic sex scenes intact and the R rated version apparently intended for blue-haired old ladies.
Another film that plays like a leisurely-paced novel is Milos Forman's Goya's Ghosts, another film that the critics were not especially kind to. Granted the story about the great painter's involvement in the waning days of the Spanish Inquisition is not historically accurate, but since when did that stop audiences from enjoying a film? Stellan Skarsgard gives another impeccable performance as Goya, but it's Javier Bardem as a crafty cleric and Natalie Portman in a dual role whose performances earn the film's acting honors. The film's costumes were nominated for a Satellite award and fittingly the film was also nominated for Spain's own Goya awards albeit again in technical categories for costume design, makeup and special effects.
Yet another film to unwind at a leisurely pace, Francois Girard's Silk is a beautifully rendered love story about a 19th Century French merchant turned smuggler whose perilous journeys to Japan in search of silkworm eggs force him to leave behind his beautiful young wife. He becomes increasingly infatuated with a Japanese concubine until a mysterious letter puts an end to the affair. Michael Pitt is a bit wooden in the lead, but Keira Knightley as his ravishingly lovely wife and Alfred Molina as his friend and benefactor are at their best. Sei Ashina as the concubine doesn't have much to do but look beautiful, but acclaimed Japanese actress Miki Nakatami has a pivotal role as the Japanese madam of a French brothel. The film was nominated for five Genies, Canada's Oscars, all in technical categories: cinematography, art direction, costume design, score and sound, winning for costume design.
A very black comedy indeed, Frank Oz's Death at a Funeral is about a dysfunctional family gathered together to say good-bye to the family patriarch. Recreational drugs hidden in a bottle labeled Valium sets off a chain reaction of one farcical event after another. The eclectic cast is led by Matthew MacFayden as the relatively normal son of the dead man, Keeley Hawes his straight-laced wife, Rupert Graves his famous but broke writer brother, Jane Asher his uptight mother, Peter Dinklage his father's secret lover, and Alan Tudyk, hilarious as the supposedly dull lawyer engaged to his pregnant cousin. The film starts off with whimsical title graphics and the wrong body being delivered to the family's ancestral home and doesn't let up from there.
Benicio Del Toro gives one of the year's best performances as a recovering heroin addict in Suzanne Bier's Things We Lost in the Fire opposite Halle Berry as the widow of his best friend who offers him a room in her converted garage until he can get on his feet. That's it, there's no sex, no romance, Del Toro and Berry are just friends, and remain so throughout the film. Subplots involving relapse and confused children are of the kind more typically found in a TV movie these days, not a major theatrical release so maybe it will play better on home screens than it did in theatres. There's really nothing to recommend here other than Del Toro's heartfelt performance. For connoisseurs of fine acting that may be enough.
Based on the 2003 Dutch film by the late Theo van Gogh, Steve Buscemi's Interview is basically a two-character study of a political reporter reduced to doing fluff pieces and the starlet he is forced to interview. It's instant dislike for the two who play an extended game of cat and mouse well into the wee hours of the morning. Sienna Miller was deservedly nominated for an Independent Spirit award for her savvy portrayal of the starlet and Buscemi himself gives another of his fine, understated performances as the reporter.
Comprised of five-minute vignettes by twenty world class directors, Paris, Je T'aime is designed primarily to show off the city. With directors like Alexander Payne, Gus Van Sant, Tom Tykwer, Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuaron and the Coen Brothers, and actors like Juliette Binoche, Gena Rowlands, Fanny Ardant, Miranda Richardson, Nick Nolte, Ben Gazzara, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Elijah Wood, Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi and Natalie Portman, it comes as something of a shock that the sweetest vignette is the one directed by horror master Wes Craven in a cemetery with Emily Mortimer, Rufus Sewell and the aforementioned Alexander Payne as the ghost of Oscar Wilde.
A nicely done little movie about adoption, Martian Child from writer-director Menno Meyjes, tells the story of a science fiction writer, widower John Cusack, seeking to fulfill a promise to his late wife by adopting a child. Kindly orphanage director Sophie Okoneda puts him together with Bobby Coleman, an unwanted child who is convinced he is from Mars. Amanda Peet as Cusack's nominal love interest, Oliver Platt his inevitable comical best friend, Anjelica Huston his demanding publisher and Joan Cusack, (his real life sister) as his sister, help flesh out the story, but it's really all about John Cusack and Coleman getting to know one another.
A slight, but engaging romantic comedy,Scott Hicks' No Reservations, features Catherine Zeta-Jones as a humorless chef doing her best to ignore the romantic overtures of assistant chef Aaron Eckhart while Abigail Breslin as Zeta-Jones' orphaned niece steals the film. Breslin, whose idol is 1940s child star Margaret O'Brien, does her best O'Brien imitation to date complete with several crying scenes. A pleasant time killer, it is eerily reminiscent of the Oscar winning Ratatouille, albeit without the rats or the animation.
In addition to The Last Emperor, two other classic films have received deluxe DVD re-issues.
Fox has added a commentary and two featurettes to Sidney Lumet's 1957 debut film, 12 Angry Men. Included are interviews with Lumet and Jack Klugman, the last living member of the jury that also included Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden and E.G. Marshall among others.
Disney has provided a re-mastered version of 1961's 101 Dalmations complete with loads of extras across two discs.
Out next week: this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture, No Country for Old Men.
-Peter J. Patrick (March 4, 2008)
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