Tuesday, 27 April 2004
On the Street: Topping our list on this street Tuesday is Tim Burton's Big Fish starring Ewan McGregor, out in a special edition release from Columbia TriStar. Also sure to get some attention is Lions Gate's The Cooler starring William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin. Sherlock Holmes devotees can pick up two classics from MPI, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, while catalog items from Paramount include Fat Man and Little Boy and The Molly Maguires. Mainstream fare can be had with Universal's Love Actually and Fox's Stuck on You, and Hammer horror fans can pick from Warner's Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and Taste the Blood of Dracula. And finally, MGM's release of the Afghani film Osama deserves to find a wider audience after its success on the festival circuit. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 26 April 2004
Disc of the Week: Like Peter Jackson's film interpretations of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, cinematic adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon are vulnerable to an extra lens of critical analysis. The legions of fans, aficionados, devotees, and armchair scholars of a book-to-film's original source material must, like skeptical clerics studying the Shroud of Turin, hold up every foot and frame of the filmmaker's work to the light of the hallowed author's words and pages. And we all know what the first four letters of the word analysis are. Is the film version faithful to its revered source? Does "faithful" mean dogmatic word-for-word translation from one medium to another, or are creative and practical allowances excusable? Like Tolkien's fantasy epic, Doyle's beloved Victorian detective stories evoke an idealized time and place that never existed except between our ears, so any attempt to visualize them onscreen is inevitably judged through filters found, as Holmes authority Vincent Starrett put it, "in a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgic country of the mind, where it is always 1895." The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most-filmed tale of Doyle's revered Great Detective. For hardcore Sherlockians (not to mention less temperamentally scrutinizing film-lovers) the 20th Century-Fox 1939 version remains the truest screen treatment of Holmes' encounter with the supernatural hellhound. The film, which inaugurated Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in their career-defining roles as steely Holmes and trusty Watson, ranks up there with Jackson's opus as a glossy, respectful interpretation that bends and condenses the sacred text yet remains faithful to its atmosphere and spirit.
When Sir Charles Baskerville is killed outside of Baskerville Hall, his friend Dr. Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) finds evidence that the centuries-old family curse, a death-dealing spectral hound, has struck once again. Before Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene) arrives in London to claim his inheritance, Mortimer enlists the aid of Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) lest yet another Baskerville succumb to the horror stalking the desolate ancestral moors. Mortimer brings Sir Henry to 221b Baker Street and expresses his fear for the young heir's life. Baskerville learns that along with the grand family mansion comes the too-real legend of a phantom killer canine, a secretive butler (John Carradine, one year before his memorable Casy in The Grapes of Wrath), and colorful neighbors, including the boyishly affable Dr. Stapleton (Morton Lowry), who collects ancient skulls from the Neolithic ruins nearby, Mrs. Mortimer (Beryl Mercer), whose séances conjure up ghostly howls, and Stapleton's lovely stepsister (Wendy Barrie, goddaughter of J.M. "Peter Pan" Barrie), who is quite fetching indeed in her riding togs fit for a baroness. Holmes, pressed with "other business," sends Dr. Watson (Bruce) to accompany Sir Henry to the dreary estate and keep a watchful eye for the mysterious goings-on Holmes anticipates. Of course, with danger afoot, Sherlock Holmes may not be so far from the scene as he lets on.
Doyle's short novel has always been difficult to bring to the screen. Not only must Holmes' brilliant yet talky intellectual detective work be combined with Gothic horror genre trappings, but Holmes himself is absent for the entire middle third of the story. This most famous version streamlines Doyle's plot and removes some of its twists and complications, then adds more red herrings than you can shake a deerstalker at. Director Sidney Lanfield cut his teeth on musicals and light entertainments, so he wasn't entirely up to the challenges The Hound of the Baskervilles presented. Nonetheless, he served the material well, and his sets and photography positively overflow with fogbound atmospherics. Even while avoiding the visual difficulties of Doyle's phosphorous-coated beast, Lanfield's climactic Hound attack has yet to be bested. Especially nowadays, the movie strikes us as stagy and theatrical, as much a product of the thirties as of the dry-ice blowers. Yet this Hound ably shows that the miasmic Devonshire moors should be shot in naught but spooky black-and-white with plenty of deep shadows and craggy rocks. Purists can fault the screenplay for downplaying Holmes' clockwork scientific deductions for action-thriller plot-padding. Other embellishments are an effective séance scene and a rewrite of Wendy Barrie's role from a knowing accomplice to a wholesome romantic interest. Creative license aside, this film triumphs because of one point it belongs enduringly to Basil Rathbone. Already an established star (he was the villain in the previous year's The Adventures of Robin Hood), his perfect Holmes profile and snappy characterization stamped him irrevocably into the public's image of Doyle's detective. The two Holmes films he made in '39 (the other being The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) are regarded as the best of his 14 screen pairings with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. Here Bruce's Watson is not quite the blustery comic-relief boob he became later in the series, an image that subsequent Watsons (such as James Mason) have tried hard to yank back to Doyle's reliable ex-army surgeon and narrator. The chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce energizes one of the great Hollywood team-ups. So sure-footed is this Hound's casting, another version wasn't attempted until England's Hammer Films' twenty years later, and Rathbone's only serious competition for the definitive screen Sherlock wouldn't arrive for almost fifty years with Jeremy Brett.
MPI's DVD release of the 1939 Rathbone-Bruce Hound gives us a print that's almost too good to be true. The black-and-white imagery is beautiful, with deep blacks and spot-on graytones. Signs of age are infrequent and insignificant. For an unrestored print, this is a model vintage film edition. The DD 2.0 monaural audio is also in good shape, although expect some hiss and the occasional pop. The big extra is an informative and entertaining audio commentary track by David Stuart Davies, author of Holmes of the Movies and editor of Sherlock magazine. A slipsheet insert offers a thorough five-page essay by Richard Valley, the publisher of Scarlet Street magazine. Also here is a routine gallery of publicity photos and poster art, and a compilation of trailers for other films in the series. The Hound of the Baskervilles is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: It was a photo-finish between two debut films at the North American box-office over the weekend, but Fox's Man on Fire, directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington, took the top spot with a $23 million break. However, right on its heels was Sony's 13 Going on 30 starring Jennifer Garner, which took in $22 million. 13 Going eared mixed-to-positive reviews from critics, while Man on Fire skewed mixed-to-negative.
In continuing release, Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2 slipped from last week's win to third place, adding $10.4 million to a $42.9 million tally, while Lions Gate's The Punisher landed in the fourth spot with $6.1 million for the frame and $24 million overall. Rounding off the top five was Disney's animated Home on the Range, which has logged $42.4 million in one month. Still doing profitable business is Fox Searchlight's Johnson Family Vacation, which has a $25 million cume, while Sony's Hellboy has cleared the $50 million mark. But making an embarrassing exit is Buena Vista's The Alamo, which has managed a mere $19.6 million against a reported $100 million budget. And off to the cheap theaters is Warner's The Whole Ten Yards, which will finish around $15 million.
Five new films reach the cineplexes this Friday Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius starring James Caviezel, Envy with Jack Black and Ben Stiller, Godsend with Greg Kinnear and Robert De Niro, Laws of Attraction starring Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan, and Mean Girls with Lindsay Lohan. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Dawn Taylor has posted a sneak-preview of Columbia TriStar's Big Fish, while new spins this week from the rest of the team include Stuck on You, Osama, Fool for Love, The King of New York: Special Edition, Fat Man and Little Boy, Dopamine, Vice Versa, Love Finds Andy Hardy, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the Hammer horrors Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and Taste the Blood of Dracula. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 20 April 2004
On the Street: There's plenty of stuff to sort through on this week's street list, starting with Fox's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which arrives in both widescreen and pan-and-scan editions, as well as a two-disc collector's box. New from Columbia TriStar is a special edition of A League of Their Own, as well as a re-issue of the camp thriller Wild Things. Family fun can be found in Buena Vista's The Haunted Mansion starring Eddie Murphy. Criterion collectors have two more to look for, Robert Altman's 3 Women and Yasujiro Ozu's double feature A Story of Floating Weeds. And the catalog stuff is deep this time around, with MGM releasing their The Ingmar Bergman Collection as well as Fool for Love and Man of La Mancha, while Fox is on the board with high-seas chestnuts such as A High Wind in Jamaica and Pirates of Tortuga, and out from Warner are Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Helter Skelter, and The Last of Sheila. Rom-com fans can look for Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!, new from DreamWorks. And fans of, um, April 20 (or simply 420), can pick up Fox's "Special Addiction" of Reefer Madness. Gaze through the haze at this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 19 April 2004
Disc of the Week: Somewhere right around the middle of Tom Hanks' filmography, an interesting transformation takes place. Rather abruptly, the erstwhile Bosom Buddy left the broadly comic days of movies like Bachelor Party, Splash, and The Money Pit behind him in favor of darker, more complicated comedies like Punchline and Joe Versus the Volcano, as well as flat-out dramas like Bonfire of the Vanities. Unfortunately, most of them tanked at the box office (Bonfire was a particularly painful flop), and hard as it is to believe, considering his current status as America's favorite Everyman Hanks' reputation took a hit, too. Which might explain why he went after the role of Jimmy Dugan in Penny Marshall's "girls' baseball" film, A League of Their Own (1992). Scruffy and world-weary, Dugan is a faded sports hero who's seen better days; his rehabilitation and redemption on-screen in Marshall's movie offered Hanks a similar opportunity to add some fresh sparkle to his own star. (And it worked he followed League with Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Forrest Gump and hasn't looked back yet )
Of course, as interesting as Hanks' story on- and off-screen is, A League of Their Own isn't really about Jimmy Dugan: It's about the women of the All-American Girls Baseball League, which was started in 1943 as a way to entertain baseball fans while the male players were off fighting in World War II. Mixing plenty of fact with its dramatic fiction, League focuses on sisters Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty), who leave their Oregon dairy farm behind to hit the road with the Rockford Peaches. Their teammates include shy Marla (Megan Cavanagh), mouthy Doris (Rosie O'Donnell), promiscuous Mae (Madonna), and an outfield's worth of other funny, talented women (look for Tea Leoni in a blink-and-you'll-miss-her part as a player on a rival team). Drunk, bitter Dugan joins the team as manager after owner/candy bar magnate Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall) offers it to him as a last-chance position; thanks to the influence of level-headed Dottie, Dugan eventually starts to clean up his act. Meanwhile, Dottie and Kit have sibling rivalry issues to deal with, the league faces shutdown due to lack of interest, and the war rages on, occasionally intruding on the Peaches' halcyon nine-inning days.
More than just an interesting look at a story that might otherwise have been forgotten as a historical footnote, A League of Their Own is a smart, funny movie that continues to entertain with every new viewing. Thankfully, it's because director Marshall and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (City Slickers, Splash) took the time to create memorable, fleshed-out characters and cast them well. Most of the principal actors turn in career-highlight performances, from Davis as Dottie, who seems perfect on the outside but is really just as confused and scared as anyone else, to Hanks' Dugan, a character who perfectly combines the actor's talents at both drama and comedy (Dugan gets several of the film's best one-liners). Petty does a good job capturing a little sister's hopeless jealousy of her older, prettier, more talented sibling, and Madonna and O'Donnell are both excellent interestingly, O'Donnell's part was rewritten to suit her after Marshall decided that the comedienne had to be in the movie. Thanks to Marshall's insistence that all her actresses attend a rigorous baseball camp before filming began, the action scenes are just as convincing as the dramatic ones these ladies can really play. It's the kind of enthusiasm and commitment that often helps distinguish a memorable movie from one that's merely entertaining.
After a previous bare-bones release, Columbia TriStar steps up to the plate with a two-disc special edition of A League of Their Own. Disc One, which is two-sided, offers the film in both anamorphic (2.35:1) and pan-and-scan transfers; both are strong and clear. Audio options include Dolby 4.0 Surround and French 2.0 Surround, plus English subtitles. Disc One also offers a new audio commentary in which Marshall, Petty, Cavanagh, and Tracy Reiner (Marshall's daughter, who played Rockford Peach Betty "Spaghetti" Horn) wax reminiscent about the film. A slightly more dynamic approach to the same material is found on Disc Two, which offers the new 52-minute "making-of" documentary "Nine Memorable Innings," as well as trailers, the music video for Madonna's "This Used to Be My Playground," cast and crew filmographies, and 15 deleted scenes with optional introductions by Marshall (most of them, in a rare exception to the deleted-scenes rule, are actually quite good and were cut only for length). A League of Their Own: Special Edition is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2 easily conquered the North American box-office over the weekend the second half of Q.T.'s revenge saga starring Uma Thurman took in $25.5 million, beating the first installment's debut by $3 million and giving Miramax its largest three-day opening. Arriving in second place was Lions Gate's The Punisher, which managed $14 million, while the comedy Connie and Carla starring Nia Vardalos and Toni Collette only generated $3.3 million and failed to reach the top 12. Critics loved Kill Bill, while Connie and Carla earned mixed notices and The Punisher was mixed-to-negative.
In continuing release, Fox Searchlight's Johnson Family Vacation had the strongest return, holding on to third place with $6.4 million for the frame and $21.4 million in just 10 days. By contrast, Buena Vista's The Alamo dropped to tenth place, adding $4 million to a $16.3 million cume and putting it far off track of recouping its reported $100 million budget. Sony's Hellboy has broken $50 million after three weekends, while Disney's Home on the Range rounds off the top five with $37.6 million in chicken feed. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is on the way out, but its $360.9 million total after two months assures its place in the history books. And despite some good reviews, Fox's The Girl Next Door is already headed to the cheap theaters, failing to break $10 million so far.
New films arriving on screens this Friday include 13 Going on 30 starring Jennifer Garner and Man on Fire with Denzel Washington. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mr. Beaks has posted his sneak-preview of Fox's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, while the rest of the gang chips in this week with Timeline, Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!, 3 Women: The Criterion Collection, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, A High Wind in Jamaica, The Osterman Weekend, For Me and My Gal, Casa de los Babys, A Story of Floating Weeds/Floating Weeds: The Criterion Collection, The Third Wheel, A Good Night To Die, Star!, Pirates of Tortuga, Phase IV, A League of Their Own: Special Edition, and Reefer Madness: Special Addiction. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 13 April 2004
On the Street: Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 1 is under shrinkwrap this morning, just in time for this weekend's theatrical debut of Kill Bill Volume 2 and it looks like a lot of other DVD releases have cleared the way. However, there are a few other items to consider this week, including Columbia TriStar's Tokyo Godfathers, Eating Raoul, and Booty Call: The Bootiest Edition, as well as Warner's Babylon 5: Season Five box-set. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 12 April 2004
Disc of the Week: Why abandon cel animation? That's the question one wants to ask of Hollywood. With the recent middling reaction to such classically animated films as Home on the Range, Sinbad, and Brother Bear, and the out-of-the-park success of the Pixar films and Shrek, Hollywood animation is going through a paradigm shift that may find Disney abandoning the process that made the company in the first place. They're already shutting down much of their cel animation departments (while bolstering their computer animation teams), and it may takes years for American cel animation to resurge, or as the industry shifts into a more digital-based medium it may die completely. But the reason why such appears to be a mistake is the same reason why so many of Disney's and DreamWorks' traditionally animated films have failed. It isn't because people prefer computer animation, but because the studios have viewed these films as more product than art. Recently, Disney has pumped out two animated films per year to continually diminishing returns, while mediocre writing and formulaic plotting becomes more and more transparent. Though these efforts are passable, the lack of care shows especially in comparison to the tightly constructed Pixar efforts which is perhaps why, in part, the Disney logo has grown tarnished. Foreign filmmakers seem to be the only artists looking to keep cel animation alive. And as long as the product is as good as Satoshi Kon's Tokyo Godfathers (2003), all is not lost.
Tokyo Godfathers begins on Christmas Eve, following a trio of homeless people who have come together to form a de facto family. The father is Gin (voiced by Toru Emari), an alcoholic louse who's resorted to living on the streets because of the financial problems that destroyed his family. The "mother" is Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) a transvestite also referred to as "Uncle Bag," who has little to no control of her emotions, and went homeless after losing her job and then her man. The child is Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a girl who ran away from home after an incident where she stabbed her father. On an evening scavenger hunt for food, the trio stumbles across a baby left in the trash. Taking the infant to the police seems to be the most pragmatic solution, but Hana wants to confront the child's mother, in part to feel better about herself (she too was abandoned). This leads the three on a quest, spurred on by a locker-key found with the baby (whom the group names Kiyoko). The locker holds a photo of the parents, and through the landscape visible in the background the vagabonds figure they can find them. However, this requires running all over Tokyo with the baby in tow. After freeing a Mafioso accidentally stuck under his car, the group end up at his wedding party where they find that one of the crook's assistants knows the baby's mother. But the assistant was the man who cheated Gin, and Gin wants his revenge.
Loosely drawn from John Ford's 1948 film Three Godfathers, Tokyo Godfathers is meant to be a touching family drama about redemption and the power of friendship. And it works. Writer/director Satoshi Kon (best known for Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue) knows how to get the right emotional pitch out of the story: There's obviously going to be some sweetness when a baby's involved, but all three characters retain their rough edges, and their reasons for hitting the streets are never cheapened for sentiment. One also understands why these three people are clinging on the baby, since all of them (whether they recognize it or not) wish to redeem themselves. For Han, it's seeing his daughter; for Miyuki, it's patching things up with her family. Kon displays a wonderfully light touch by establishing Gin's character through having him interact with numerous doppelgangers: the assassin who shoots the man he was about to strike, the old bum who wants to die drunk, and the deadbeat husband who loves the gambling that's ruined his family. But though the film is more grounded than the average anime, Kon also understands that the pleasures of watching something animated is the fun of watching the laws of physics be broken. There are some spectacular moments of visual poetry, especially toward the end when the three end up chasing a woman who's kidnapped the baby. It's notable that Kon does with Tokyo Godfathers what the Mouse House has forgotten how to: He involves the audience, and he makes us care.
Columbia TriStar presents Tokyo Godfathers in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with the original Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Thankfully, there is no dub track, though subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The main extra is a "making-of" spot that offers interviews with the director and three stars (also presented in Japanese with subtitles, 22 min.). Because it was produced overseas, it's a bit more entertaining to watch than a standard American-built EPK, if only because it feels foreign. Also included is the original theatrical trailer and bonus trailers for other anime titles. Tokyo Godfathers is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Newmarket's The Passion of the Christ expanded to more than 3,000 screens for the Easter weekend and reclaimed the top spot at the North American box-office seven weeks after its debut. The $17 million win gave director/producer Mel Gibson a $354 million gross to date, putting The Passion on track to reach $400 million domestically. Meanwhile, the five debut films for the frame were disappointments. Buena Vista's costly epic The Alamo starring Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton managed just $9.2 million, arriving in third place where it tied with Fox Searchlight's low-budget Johnson Family Vacation starring Cedric the Entertainer. Arriving in eighth place was Warner's The Whole Ten Yards with Bruce Willis and Matthew Perry, which scraped up $6.7 million, while Miramax's Ella Enchanted dropped in at ninth place with $6.1 million, and Fox's The Girl Next Door rounded out the top ten with an even $6 million. Oddly, Girl Next Door scored best with critics, earned mixed-to-positive notices, while reviewers were mixed-to-negative on Enchanted and The Alamo. Ten Yards and Family Vacation were widely panned.
In continuing release, last week's winner Hellboy slipped to second place with $11 million for the session and $41 million after 10 days. The Rock kept a top-five standing in his second weekend with MGM's Walking Tall. And Buena Vista's animated Home on the Range holds down sixth place with $27 million so far. $62 million for Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed means a Scooby 3 is all but assured. And off to DVD prep is Warner's Starsky & Hutch, which easily cleared $80 million.
New films arriving in cineplexes this Friday include Q. Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 2, Connie and Carla starring Nia Vardalos and Toni Collette, and the Marvel Comics adaptation The Punisher. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Damon Houx has posted a sneak-preview of Miramax's Kill Bill Volume 1, while Clarence Beaks recently dug through MGM's The Pink Panther Collection. New reviews this week from the rest of the team include Babylon 5: Season Five, Eating Raoul, In the Good Old Summertime, In Living Color: Season One, Tokyo Godfathers, and Booty Call: The Bootiest Edition. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 6 April 2004
On the Street: Break out the credit cards it's one of the biggest street-weeks of the year to date. Warner leads our list with five Judy Garland musicals, including For Me and My Gal, In the Good Old Summertime, Love Finds Andy Hardy, Ziegfeld Girl, and a two-disc special edition of Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis. Also new from Warner is the final installment in the Matrix trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, and a paddy-wagon full of Police Academy flicks. Criterion has re-released Stanley Donen's Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, Fox's latest "Studio Classics" title is John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, and Paramount has the 1952 Oscar-winner The Greatest Show on Earth under shrink-wrap. Folks looking for laughs can check out Fox's remake of Cheaper by the Dozen starring Steve Martin, and MGM's Pink Panther series can be collected in a six-disc sleeve. More reissues can be found with BBC Video's A Room with a View and KochVision's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And TV boxes on the shelves include Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series, Friends: Season Seven, and In Living Color: Season One. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 5 April 2004
Disc of the Week: Critics tend to take Meet Me in St. Louis at face value. Arguably the best movie musical ever made, and one of the few great musicals developed originally for the screen, this Vincente Minnelli-Arthur Freed film from 1944 is accepted for what it is by most commentators. While the domestic melodramas of Douglas Sirk are probed for an underlying critique of middle-class life, the films of Max Ophuls are celebrated for their sympathy toward their daring heroines and films of Fritz Lang are loved for their sardonic misanthropy, Minnelli's films, and especially Meet Me in St. Louis, are toasted as exquisite but unambiguous exercises in style and decor. Such reviewers hesitate to grope for evidence that Minnelli was undermining or commenting on the very bucolic setting that he appeared on the surface to be celebrating. But Minnelli was a complex filmmaker indeed, and over a long career much superior to the director he is most often compared to, the terribly overrated George Cukor.
Adapted from a series of short roman à cléfs by Susan Benson published in the New Yorker and later gathered into a book, Meet Me in St. Louis takes place over the course of one year in the lives of the Smith family: befuddled patriarch Lon (Leon Ames), quietly commanding matriarch Anna (Mary Astor), and kids Esther (Judy Garland), Rose (Lucille Bremer), Agnes (Joan Carroll), and Tootie (Margaret O'Brien). There is also a son, Lonnie (Henry H. Daniels), but no one cares about him. Not much ostensibly happens in the course of the film. Esther gets a crush on the boy literally next door; Rose expects a proposal; the family eagerly anticipates the St. Louis World Fair of 1904; and Lon announces that the whole family is moving to New York City at the end of the year. The "drama" of this musical, such as it is, revolves around the family's coping with this crisis (it's worth noting that in the original stories, the family in fact does move to New York).
Minnelli's third film (and first in color) celebrates American suburban life here as he does in several films to follow, but not without an awareness of the ambiguities and tensions to be found there. What attracted Minnelli most to the material, in a film that celebrates the color bounty of the seasons, was the Hallowe'en sequence. There, Tootie, who has a morbid sense of humor, has to bravely "kill" a scary neighbor by throwing flour in his face. Minnelli and the screenwriters here beautifully capture the way in which childhood fixations and fears loom larger and can define a personality. But Tootie and sister Agnes, with whom she shares this almost shocking morbidity, allow some critics, such as James Naremore in his book The Films of Vincente Minnelli, and Robin Wood, in his anthology of essays on horror films, The American Nightmare, to buck convention and find complexities and subversively explored contradictions in Meet Me in St. Louis. For Naremore, this wonderful sequence "momentarily inverts the patriarchal and heterosexual values of the film," while for Wood it anticipates the horror films of the 1970s that would find the American family imploding when it wasn't exploding and plagued by terrors that exposed the fragility and / or corruption of "family values."
Consumers wondering why Warner Home Entertainment is releasing an MGM movie on DVD when there already is an MGM Home Entertainment should know that all MGM films made before a certain time period are owned by Time Warner, thanks to Ted Turner buying the MGM library in 1986. This fine two-disc set assembles some materials derived from the 1994 Laserdisc with newer material to celebrate the film's 60th anniversary. The image is a superb, vivid full frame transfer (1.33:1) with adequate Dolby Digital 5.1 and monaural audio, with subtitles in English, French and Spanish. The first disc contains a fine, edited audio commentary by Garland biographer John Fricke, with additional comments from Margaret O'Brien, composer Hugh Martin, writer Irving Brecher, and Barbara Freed-Saltzman. Also on the first disc is a selection of seven trailers for Minnelli films, plus the 1955 reissued trailer for Meet Me in St. Louis. Disc Two has nine items. First off is an informative "making-of" doc narrated by Roddy McDowall and made in 1994 for the film's 50th anniversary (30:45). It should be pointed out, though, that in the audio track Fricke says that source-writer Benson is represented by Agnes on the screen while the 50th anniversary "making-of" says it is Tootie. Second is "Hollywood: The Dream Factory," a celebration of movie musicals narrated by Dick Cavett (50:24), which also is broken up into chapters. This is followed by a Turner Classic Movies original production, Becoming Attractions, about the trailers for Judy Garland's movies and how they attempted to shape her image (45:57). Next up is the pilot for a television sitcom based on the movie, which bears all the ills of a poorly conceived laugh-track-enriched low-budget set-poor show (26:27). "Bubbles" is a Warner Bros. short from 1930 that may be the earliest surviving footage of Garland on screen (7:05), while "Skip to My Lou" is a "music video" version of the song later used in the film and sung by the St. Louis's composers, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (3:11). The short was made by the Soundies Corporation in 1941. In sound only, the disc also has the Lux Radio Theater version of the movie, broadcast in 1946 with Garland and O'Brien, plus the Rogers and Hammerstein song "Boys and Girls Like you and Me," sung by Garland but cut from the film, here illustrated with stills. Finally, there is an animated stills gallery (11:04). Meet Me in St. Louis: Special Edition is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: It ain't summer yet, but this week's box-office chart makes it look closer than ever. Sony's comic-book adaptation Hellboy claimed top honors at the cineplexes, taking in $23.5 million to beat out The Rock, whose remake of the drive-in classic Walking Tall generated $15.3 million for MGM. Two other debuts this week also cracked the top five, with Disney's animated Home on the Range banking $14 million, while Paramount's rom-com The Prince and Me starring Julia Stiles was good for an even $10 million. Critics mostly liked Hellboy, were mixed on Range, and mixed-to-negative on Tall and Prince.
In continuing release, last week's winner Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed slipped to third place, adding $15 million to a 10-day gross of $50 million, while Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is now out of the top five, but not after a solid six-week run that's generated $330 million so far. The Coen Brothers The Ladykillers is looking like a modest success for the filmmaking pair and star Tom Hanks, although it's dropped to seventh place after two weekends with $23.4 million in the bag. Faring much better is Universal's remake of Dawn of the Dead, which has hurdled the $50 million mark after three frames. Meanwhile, off to the cheap theaters is Sony's 50 First Dates, which will finish around $120 million.
New films arriving on screens this week include The Alamo starring Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid, the comedies The Whole Ten Yards and Johnson Family Vacation, and the teen flicks Ella Enchanted and The Girl Next Door. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Damon Houx has posted a sneak-preview of Warner's two-disc The Matrix Revolutions, while D.K. Holm recently looked at Lions Gate's Shattered Glass. New spins this week from the rest of the team include Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), House and Sand and Fog, Charade: The Criterion Collection, The Grapes of Wrath: Fox Studio Classics, The Dresser, Stargate SG-1: Season Six, Time Without Pity, Ziegfeld Girl, Meet Me in St. Louis: Special Edition, and Charley Bowers: The Rediscovery of an American Comic Genius. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow to let you know about this week's street discs.