The DVD Report #237

We can always find parallels to films of the past from films currently in release. This year, however, I am struck by how many of the films in release at year end are reminiscent of films of the past readily available on DVD.

No less than seven of the films that figure large and small in this year’s Oscar race have links to the great and no-so-great films of the past that you can watch in the comfort of your own home. They are The Artist; The Descendants; War Horse; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; My Week with Marilyn and The Iron Lady.

The days of the Hollywood’s transition from silent film to talkies, as depicted in The Artist was explored with great fun and nostalgia in 1952’s beloved Singin’ in the Rain, long a staple of home video which Warner Bros. has scheduled for a Blu-ray upgrade this year.

The film which was co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, features marvelous performances by Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds and a great one from Oscar nominated Jean Hagen as the great silent screen star who, typical of many of the day, was unable to make a successful transition to talkies due to her squeaky voice, “New Yawk” accent and terrible diction. Her performance in the film within the film is dubbed by Debbie Reynolds, but one of the film’s great conceits is that it’s Hagen who actually dubs her own voice while Reynolds lip syncs to Hagen’s singing of “I Would, Would You”.

While television has over the years given us several popular shows set in modern Hawaii, the big screen has virtually ignored the fiftieth state, but The Descendants is certainly not the first. There have been several over the years. One is 1963’s Diamond Head, directed by Guy Green. Set in 1959, the film features Charlton Heston as a rich pineapple grower wants to become one of the new state’s first senators. The film’s soap opera plot also boasts a number of then popular players including Yvette Mimieux, James Darren, George Chakiris, Fance Nuyen and Aline MacMahon, who takes the film’s acting honors as Darren and Chakiris’ native mother. Ignore the plot and wallow in the gorgeous scenery.

There are so many nostalgic film references in the World War I drama, War Horse, it’s difficult to catch them all. Some of the obvious ones, however are the opening and closing tributes to at least two John Ford masterpieces, How Green Was My Valley and The Searchers. The stern father figure and outspoken but warm-hearted mother figure as well as the comaraderie between the townsfolk as while as the seeping photography evokes the former while the reunion of family members against a beautiful sunset evokes the latter.

The film’s plot has been compared to Au Hasard Balthazar, which was a bout a saintly donkey, and Lassie Come Home which was about a dog that finds its way back to its young master, but it doesn’t really compare to either. The training of the horse, the horse’s hardships through war and great heroism are more reminiscent of Gallant Bess, which was based on a true story about a farm-boy who becomes a soldier and his horse – two horses, actually. A large part of War Horse’s narrative involves two horses.

The 1946 film, directed by Andrew Marton, features Marshall Thompson in his first starring role as the human hero who raises a young horse, only to lose her, and find another in battle.

There, of course, have been many films about World War I itself, and Steven Speilberg has undoubtedly seen them all. The ones he obviously has seen include the silent classic The Big Parade and the early talkie, Journey’s End, neither of which have yet been released on DVD. The film also references two that are, Paths of Glory, which Criterion has recently released on Blu-ray and All Quiet on the Western Front which gets a deluxe Blu-ray upgrade from Universal next month. The Blu-ray features for the first time the silent version of the 1930 Oscar winning film, made at the same time as the early talkie and considered by some film historians to be the superior version.

The scenes in the trenches and the threats to kill deserters bring instant memories of Paths of Glory while the futility of war, the principal theme of All Quiet on the Western Front is most evident in the scenes with the young German deserters. There is also a touch of 1969’s Oh! What a Lovely War as well as 1992’s A Midnight Clear in the climactic scene involving British and German soldiers enjoying a brief comradeship during a cease fire.

If the film has a fault, it’s not that it isn’t good, but that all of the films it reminds us of are better. I recommend you check out as many as you can as soon as you can if you are not already familiar with them.

Documentaries about 9/11 have been plentiful, particularly in the early days following the tragedy, but dramatic films involving fictional characters have been few and far between. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is about the surviving son of a man lost in the attack on the World Trade Center one year later is based on a 2005 novel. There’s Olivier Stone World Trade Center from 2006, but the new film is closer in tone to 2010’s mournful Remember Me which was a box-office flop despite the star wattage of Robert Pattinson as the film’s central character. It’s not a particularly good film, but it’s not a waste of your time either.

John Le Carré’s novels have been a source for major films since 1965’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which earned Richard Burton his fourth Oscar nomination. The character of George Smiley, the hero of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy first appears as a minor character in that film. The character’s name was changed to Charles Dobbs when played by James Mason in 1966’s The Deadly Affair, but resurfaced as Smiley when played by Alec Guinness in the 1979 TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its 1982’s sequel, Smiley’s People. The Guinness version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy might be helpful in filling in the blanks for some viewers left perplexed by the plot lines of the theatrical remake. All of these films as well as well as The Little Drummer Girl; The Russia House; The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener, adapted from the 80-year old author’s works, are films well worth seeking out.

The obvious reference to My Week with Marilyn is The Prince and the Showgirl, the filming of which is the source of the new film. Producer/star Marilyn Monroe comes off better than director/star Laurence Olivier in the 1957 film, but Dame Sybil Thorndike steals the film out from under both of them. That is not the case with the new film in which both Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh shine as Marilyn and Larry while Judi Dench makes a somewhat wan Dame Sybil. Vanessa Redgrave who resembles the tall, regal Thorndike, and whose own rebellious background is more in tune with Thorndike’s than Dench, would have been ideally cast in the role.

Meryl Streep’s impersonation of the reviled British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady recalls Michael Sheen’s deft impersonation of one of her successors, Tony Blair, in The Queen, as well as that of Helem Mirren in her Oscar winning role of the monarch whom both served.

This week’s new DVD releases include Contagion and The Guard.

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