Tuesday, 25 May 2004
On the Street: New Line's two-disc The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King leads a sizable street-list this week, but with an upcoming holiday weekend, and Father's Day not too far off, the studios are unloading plenty of catalog stuff. MGM's Bubba Ho-Tep is not to be missed by fans of Bruce Campbell, but their western series this morning includes Duel in the Sun, Junior Bonner, and Guns of the Magnificent Seven. Fox's war films have a submarine theme with Crash Dive, The Enemy Below, The Hunters, and the splendid Morituri. DreamWorks is on the board with a new "Commemorative Edition" of Saving Private Ryan, and Paramount's The Winds of War streets across six discs. There's two new titles for Criterion collectors, Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night and Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog. And TV titles this morning include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cheers, Fraiser, and the beloved Northern Exposure. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 24 May 2004
Disc of the Week: As an antidote for any movie starring Julia Roberts' teeth, The Great Escape sure fills the guy-stuff checklist. This 1963 adventure showcases an all-star cast as Allied prisoners conniving to bust out of an escape-proof prison camp in the heart of Hitler's Germany. Top-billed Steve McQueen is at his image-making and motorcycle-zooming peak, the most handsome component in an ensemble cast that includes Charles Bronson, James Garner, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, David McCallum, and Donald Pleasance. But lest we're mistaken into thinking that this is just another Rambo-ized thud and blunder affair, what we have instead is one of the best "guy movies" that doesn't include the hero being propelled toward the camera by a screen-filling fireball. This almost quaint actioner gradually pulls its bow strings taut during its nearly three-hour running time, and shares a zodiacal sign with caper films like Ocean's Eleven rather than Saving Private Ryan. It didn't get much love from the critics in its day, but The Great Escape has endured to become an all-time favorite war picture from the years before Vietnam took the fun out of the genre and replaced it with broody self-reflection.
Based on an historical account, The Great Escape dramatizes the largest attempted Allied escape from a German POW camp during World War II. The Nazis, frustrated by the number of escapes from their prisons by a crack league of Allied officers, place "all the rotten eggs in one basket," the über-impervious Stalag Luft III. Naturally, the accumulated skills and brainpower now housed together will test the Third Reich's mettle. Their British mastermind (Attenborough) plots to free not just a handful of his fellow prisoners, but 250. So begins an ingenious strategy to engineer the jailbreak while keeping the Germans off their scent. Up to the task are a wily procurer (Garner), a Polish tunneler (Bronson), the ace forger (Pleasance), and an Aussie (Coburn, miscast and underused). McQueen is American loner Virgil Hilts, whose near-escapes keep landing him in a solitary-confinement cell. Watching the resourceful band come together, formulate the intricacies of the operation (three tunnels, re-tailored clothing, fake ID's, the works), and set it ticking like a Swiss watch is one of The Great Escape's rewatchable pleasures. The high adventure slams into gear once the break begins, as we follow escapees taking trains, planes, boats, and one famous motorcycle to slip out of occupied Europe with thousands of Gestapo soldiers on their tail.
Three years after John Sturges handed Hollywood a Western classic with The Magnificent Seven, he directed The Great Escape as if the studio bosses had begged "Please do that again." Reuniting with Magnificent vets McQueen, Bronson, and Coburn, he made good with another large-scale, slickly crafted drama punctuated by scenes of gung-ho heroics. This time both sides of the Atlantic are so well represented that The Great Escape is a favorite weekend TV staple in the U.S. and a bank-holiday standard in the U.K. The screenplay (co-written by James Clavell) Hollywoodized a memoir by Paul Brickhill, a Luft III detainee involved in the real escape. Numerous true-life participants were compressed into each vividly beveled character we root for, and the events were refined for onscreen impact. (It was motorcycle-enthusiast McQueen who insisted on adding the cross-country chase that's now the film's best-remembered sequence.) But it hews to the facts with rousing fidelity. Remaining faithful to history also prevented an unequivocally happy ending. To say that not all of our never-say-die freedom-fighters get away puts it gently. What keeps it all shooting forward is the immensely likable bravado the cast bring to their roles. While none of this feels egregiously prefabricated, Sturges' unpretentious directing, plus moments of paint-by-numbers scripting, make The Great Escape a blockbuster that's a little too made to order. Nonetheless, the plot's episodes of mainspring tension, accented by Elmer Bernstein's bracing theme, click the pieces together to drive the well-oiled tragedies and triumphs. It's as blow-dried as McQueen looks even on a bad day, but The Great Escape's mix of suspense, humor, and old-fashioned derring-do pitched by a dream-team cast is so enjoyable that only a lout would complain about it.
MGM's Special Edition treatment of The Great Escape offers an excellent picture in its original 2.35:1 (anamorphic) ratio. It's clean and sharp with good color; however, expect moments of dodgy saturation. The DD 5.1 soundtrack is clean with fine dynamics for this vintage, though the "5.1" comes across more as hearty 2.0 stereo with nominal rear support. Outstanding fluff-free bonus features begin with a first-rate audio commentary by author and mega-fan Steven Jay Rubin, who emcees a well-produced assemblage of archive interview clips from Sturges, cast members (some now deceased), and production personnel. We get actors Coburn, Garner, McCallum, Pleasance, and Judd Taylor, as well as assistant director Robert Relyea, art director Fernando Carrere, McQueen's manager Hilly Elkins, and stunt rider Bud Ekins. Rubin links the informative and gossipy clips with his encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm. A separate pop-up video Trivia Track augments the audio commentary. On Disc Two, Burt Reynolds narrates a handsome four-part documentary (totaling 47 minutes) that chronicles the production from its development to the location shooting in Bavaria to the reaction of real POWs when they saw it. Its best segments spend quality time comparing/contrasting the film with the actual incident and people, enhanced by input from Luft III ex-detainees who lived it. A British TV docudrama from 2001, Great Escape: The Untold Story (50:41), features interviews with survivors of the camp and recounts England's post-war prosecution of German soldiers involved in the resulting war crimes. Equally fascinating are interviews shot for Untold Story but not used (9:35). The American who inspired McQueen's character gets his own spotlight in 2002's The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones (24:50). Cast members and others return for Rubin's 1993 retrospective, Return to The Great Escape (24:08). We also get an exhaustive annotated Photo Gallery, the original theatrical trailer (minus its narration), and an eight-page insert. The Great Escape: Special Edition is on the street now.
Box Office: There's a big giant green ogre sitting atop this week's box-office list, and nobody's terribly surprised even with a record-shattering performance. DreamWorks' animation sensation Shrek 2 took in $104.3 million from Friday to Monday, and a grand total of $125.3 million since its debut last Wednesday, giving it the highest-grossing debut ever for an animated film. It also marked the second-largest three-day weekend, right behind Spider-Man's $114 million, and Saturday's $44.8 million haul was the highest one-day gross for any film, evah. As expected, critics lavished Shrek 2 with praise.
In continuing release, the big ogre knocked Warner's epic Troy on its keister, and while it added $23.8 million to a 10-day total of $85.8 million, it's still performing short of expectations. Universal's Van Helsing starring Hugh Jackman slipped to third place, but its $10.1 million was good enough to push its cume into triple digits (yes, there certainly will be a Van Helsing II). Counter-programming the summer spectacles is Paramount's Mean Girls starring Lindsay Lohan, which finishes up its first month with $64.6 million. And Fox's Man on Fire starring Denzel Washington also remains in the top five after five frames with nearly $70 million. Looking good is Sony's 13 Going on 30, a midlist rom-com that's now cleared $50 million. Looking a little less sharp is Warner's New York Minute with Mary-Kate and Ashley, which grossed just $1.1 million in its third session. And off to DVD prep is Lions Gate's Godsend, which will finish up around $15 million.
New films arriving on screens this Friday include The Day After Tomorrow with Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal, Raising Helen starring Kate Hudson, and the comedy Soul Plane. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Damon Houx has posted a sneak-preview of New Line's two-disc The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, while Mr. Beaks recently dug through MGM's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Extended Version Collector's Set. New spins this week from the rest of the gang include Bubba Ho-Tep, Underworld: Unrated Extended Cut, Club Dread, Smiles of a Summer Night: The Criterion Collection, Duel in the Sun, Stray Dog: The Criterion Collection, Junior Bonner, Morituri, Wizards, The Enemy Below, Too Late the Hero, The Great Escape: Special Edition, and You Were Never Lovelier. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with news on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 18 May 2004
On the Street: We're looking at a street-week that could break the bank, particularly with competing special editions of cinema classics. MGM has new releases of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and The Great Escape on shelves this morning, while up from Warner are new editions of Around the World in 80 Days, Enter the Dragon, and Wyatt Earp. Criterion collectors also have a pair to look for with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and The Tin Drum. Several mainstream releases also dot the list today, including Miracle, Paycheck, Torque, and You Got Served, while catalog items include the '80s TV event The Day After and a new release of Alan Parker's Angel Heart. Disney fans will want to snap up four new limited edition sets. And TV picks this time around include Sex and the City, Smallville, Star Trek: Voyager, and The West Wing. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 17 May 2004
Disc of the Week: There are a lot of superheroes. But the king of all superheroes the superhero "It Boy" for all time is Superman. Created in 1933 by a pair of Cleveland teenagers, Superman began his career battling the forces of oppression as Hitler rose to power. Sent to Earth by his dying parents as his home planet of Krypton was destroyed, he was raised as an American by a pair of childless Kansas farmers. Superman was invulnerable to everything but Kryptonian ore and obsessively dedicated to saving the good from the wicked throughout World War II he crushed Nazi tanks and sunk Japanese submarines. More than just the star of a crackerjack line of adventure tales, Superman represented hope to European immigrants who felt, in many ways, as alien as Clark Kent but lacked any power of their own to help their families and friends back home. In the decades since, Superman's fights have moved from the political to the intergalactic and back again as his story's lived on through daily comic strips, a radio show, live-action serials, a wildly successful 1950s TV series (and a semi-successful 1990s reworking), plus live-action motion pictures and animated cartoons ultimately becoming a worldwide icon as recognizable as a bottle of Coca-Cola. Our fascination with the Superman mythos is seemingly endless, as evidenced by the continuing sales of comics, a new big-budget movie franchise, and the runaway success of WB's TV series Smallville, a reinvention of the Superman tale that examines the young Clark Kent coming to terms with his powers while struggling through teen angst in his small Kansas town.
In Smallville, Clark Kent (Tom Welling) is a strapping young farmboy struggling with the pressure of keeping his mysterious strength and speed a secret while even bigger, better powers none-to-subtly coming to him at the peak of adolescence start to emerge. Clark gets plenty of opportunities to try out his new abilities it seems that his plummet to Earth as a baby salted the land with shards of Kryptonite, and exposure to the glowing green stuff causes any number of bizarre reactions in the local citizens, like pyrokinesis, telepathy, superhuman strength, and grotesque physical mutation usually accompanied by some form of psychosis. Almost always put in peril by these manifestations is the girl Clark loves, Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), although everyone else in Clark's small world sees their share of life-threatening jeopardy too. His parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (John Schneider and Annette O'Toole) are tirelessly supportive, despite the constant threats to their lives, home, and cattle not only by Clark's awkward use of his powers but by the crazy, Kryptonite-induced violence that erupts around them on a weekly basis. One person who notices the unusual amount of strange activity in this seemingly quiet farming community is Clark's friend Chloe (Allison Mack), editor of the high school newspaper and curator of the "Wall of Weird," an ever-growing collection of clippings on local strangeness. Another is Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), the wayward son of a billionaire industrialist who's been banished to his father's enormous mansion on the outskirts of Smallville. When Clark saves Lex's life by saving his sportscar from plunging off a bridge, Lex isn't quite sure what happened but his determination to understand that incident and discover his new friend's secrets begins the chain of events that we know will, eventually, lead to their one day becoming arch-enemies.
Given how well-versed even the least comic-savvy American is in the lore of Superman, it's common for questions to arise about what it must be like to grow up able to fly, see through walls, and run faster than a locomotive. Back in 1971, science fiction author Larry Niven wrote a definitive, tongue-in-cheek essay entitled "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex," in which he discussed the physiological difficulties that the unhumanly strong Kal-El would have mating with a human female. However, Smallville doesn't delve into Niven's humorous details, focusing more on Clark's psychological journey into adulthood and intertwining monster-of-the-week adventures with a larger arcs about fathers, sons, and destiny. Complementing Clark's quest to discover his true identity while still honoring his Earth-bound family is the equally compelling dynamic between Lex and his wealthy father, Lionel Luthor (John Glover). Having survived a supremely screwed-up adolescence of his own, Lex is determined to become a good man and to gain his emotionally distant father's respect. Powerful and ruthless, Lionel will do anything to get what he wants, and when he starts to sniff out that there's a nigh-invulnerable, immortal humanoid living in Smallville, he immediately figures what his army of scientists could do with such a find. Torn between his father's machinations and his genuine love for Clark, determined to be an ethical man as he tries to live up to the demands of his immoral father, Lex is both user and used, supremely vulnerable and yet hard as nails. Knowing as we do that Lex's destiny is to become Superman's nemesis, watching his character growth is, at times, heart-breaking. And this is where the true strength of Smallville lies beginning as a sort of "Superman, 90210" focusing on Clark's crush on Lana and the origins of his heroic persona, the show quickly, but subtly, introduced deeper and more complicated ideas with each episode. Soon it wasn't just a story of a teenager with a zany secret saving his school friends from Kryptonite-enhanced freaks it became the story of two young men coming to terms with their family legacies.
Warner's new DVD release of Smallville: The Complete Second Season offers 23 episodes, all in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1). The video transfer is very clean and bright, with rich, warm colors and great contrast. The Dolby 2.0 audio is impressive complex with good separation, presenting music, sound effects, and dialogue to great effect. Extras include commentary by producers Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, and Greg Beeman, plus cast members Welling, Rosenbaum, and Kreuk on two episodes ("Red" and "Rosetta"), the featurette "Christopher Reeve: Man of Steel," detailing the actor's involvement with the show (10 min.), an excellent featurette on the creation of the special effects (11 min.), "The Chloe Chronicles," a lengthy video diary/investigative journal showing the character's view of Smallville's weirdness (15 min.), a handful of mostly unexceptional deleted scenes (although one sweaty, mostly nekkid 49-second sequence with Lex and his gal-pal making love on a wine cellar floor is pretty hot), and a gag reel with the usual bloopers and outtakes a couple of them, like Welling breaking a prop "pipe" then continuing to use it to beat on his opponent, and Rosenbaum entering his private jet like Austin Powers, are genuinely funny. Smallville: Season Two is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: The summer movie season is building steam, and last weekend's winner was no surprise Warner's Troy, directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Brad Pitt, easily took the top spot with a $45.6 million debut, handily sending the previous top-ticket, Universal's Van Helsing, to second place, where it added $20.1 million to a 10-day total of $84.5 million. Arriving in fourth place was Sony's Breakin' All the Rules starring Jamie Foxx, which generated just $5.1 million. And with the top three titles accounting for 75% of all tickets sold for the frame, independent films Super Size Me and A Day Without a Mexican managed to chart with modest figures. Critics were mixed on Troy, while Rules earned mixed-to-negative reviews.
In continuing release, Paramount's Mean Girls starring Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey added another $10.1 million to a $55.3 million cume, easily holding down third place, while Fox's Man on Fire starring Denzel Washington rounds off the top five with a one-month total of $64.3 million. Sony's 13 Going on 30 starring Jennifer Garner is now flirting with $50 million, but the Olsen Twins' New York Minute looks like it won't match studio expectations, taking in just $10.7 million after two weekends. Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2 is still hanging around with $60.8 million. And headed for the cheap screens is Warner's Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, which cleared $80 million with ease.
New in cineplexes this Wednesday is Shrek 2. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mark Bourne has posted a sneak-preview of Criterion's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, while new reviews this week from the rest of the gang include Miracle, Paycheck, Torque, Angel Heart: Special Edition, Suddenly, Smallville: Season Two, and You Got Served. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 11 May 2004
On the Street: It's a light street-week this time around, but there are still a few titles that make it on our spin-list. New from Columbia TriStar is Errol Morris's Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War as well as the Australian festival-favorite Japanese Story starring Toni Collette. Up from Fox is Jim Sheridan's In America, along with a new "Limited Edition" release of Independence Day. Buena Vista's looking for laughs with Scary Movie 3, while DreamWorks has Shrek 3-D on shelves to clear the way for Shrek 2's theatrical release. Fresh from Paramount is a re-issue of The Godfather as well as Anthony Mann's classic western The Tin Star starring Henry Fonda and the comedy Rustler's Rhapsody with Tom Beringer. And new TV titles under wrap include Survivor, The X-Files, and Friends: The Series Finale. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 10 May 2004
Disc of the Week: Sentimentality is a blunt instrument normally favored by the talentless and/or soulless director, used to bludgeon the audience with counterfeit epiphanies tearfully arrived at to the strains of lush strings and a lone soprano (worst case scenario: Bette Midler) belting out syrupy lyrics or "ah"-ing the melody as a beloved character achieves some hard-won objective (often with their last dying breath). That audiences the world over welcome such shamelessly empty manipulation suggests ours is a planet of emotional cripples, but this popularity has also hardened more discerning moviegoers to a genre and style of storytelling with deep cultural roots. Particularly endangered by this resistance to anything approaching schmaltz is the Irish tendency toward magic realism, which is best indulged in with heart proudly and floridly embroidered on its sleeve. Entering the world of Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical In America (2002) without an appreciation for this tradition, and a healthy resistance to its residual, free-flowing sap, could prove fatal. And that would be a shame. Expertly directed, written and performed, it's as confident and genuine a piece of feel-good entertainment to emerge since 9/11, an event it tangentially references by being set in a timeless New York City of disarming eccentrics who, even at their most desperate, emit a conspiratorial kindness seemingly inspired by some unspoken collective tragedy.
There are also personal losses haunting the denizens of Sheridan's world. For the Irish immigrant family at its center, it's the death of Frankie, the young son of Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton). They've recently arrived to America with their daughters Christy and Ariel (played by real life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) so that Johnny can pursue his dream as an actor on the New York City stage. Living in an enormous, dilapidated Hell's Kitchen slum apartment (as outsized as the film's heart), the clan is at first faced with the obstacles thrown in the way of all new Manhattan-ites (crime, humidity, and the city's unrelenting mass of humanity); their income provided by Johnny slugging it out as a cab driver and Sarah working in an ice cream parlor across the street. The girls, meanwhile, live a friendless, if cheerful, existence until the meet "The Man Who Screams," aka their downstairs neighbor Mateo, a tortured artist who rages at the canvas as, it is later revealed, an outlet for the grief and frustration fueled by a terminal sickness. As Mateo strikes up a warm relationship with the girls, he engenders increasing resentment from Johnny, who suddenly begins to feel obsolete in his own family. This results in his becoming even more emotionally closed off, which not only casts a chill over his relationship with Sarah, but also stunts his growth as an actor. When Sarah becomes pregnant again, Johnny is less joyful than despairing, and while there's little doubt that the family will be ferried across these choppy waters on the poignantly broad shoulders of its emotional center, it's unclear how Johnny will make peace with his paralyzing guilt over the death of his son.
A work full of genuine humanity, In America which was co-written by Sheridan with his grown daughters, Naomi and Kirsten deftly navigates a minefield of clichés and false sentiment with remarkably few missteps. There are moments of uncomfortable familiarity the family's jubilant Times Square arrival into the city, a stairwell mugging, and Mateo semi-collapsing in a moment of frivolity which often make the film feel like an emotional mugging, but one's attachment to the characters is so strong, it would take a staggering feat of cynicism to detach. A large portion of the credit for this is due to the masterful performances of all five principals, who form an ensemble as convincing as any close-knit off-screen brood. Considine convincingly dons a mask of repressed grief that grows more pained throughout, enlivening the picture with a Method angst that favorably recalls Sheridan's best collaborations with Daniel Day-Lewis. Meanwhile, Samantha Morton is tremendously affecting as the long-suffering Sarah, who frequently seems every bit the child Christy and Ariel are. Or maybe it's just that Sarah and Emma Bolger are so preternaturally mature in their depictions of these curious, fiercely intelligent sisters. Absent the grating ostentation of the worst child actors, the Bolgers are absolute finds; kids who are too busy playing to bother with the doldrums of performance. Clearly, Sheridan was lucky in casting, but he's got such a sterling reputation as an actor's director that their brilliance is his triumph, too. That he even gets away with utilizing the exotic African-American trope (turned into a full-blooded character by Djimon Honsou in his best work to date) only confirms the sincerity of his art.
Fox presents In America in excellent anamorphic (1.85:1) and full-frame (1.33:1) transfers with very good Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include an enjoyable feature length commentary from Sheridan that is every bit as reflective and honest as the film itself. He fills in the factual background that served as the script's impetus (it was the death of his brother that dogged the director for so long), while eloquently discussing its readily apparent theme of abandoning death culture, which, for him, is both a reaction to 9/11 and "The Troubles" back home in Ireland. There are also nine deleted scenes and an alternate ending (all with optional commentary from Sheridan), which, as is the case with any good film, appear to have been wise cuts in retrospect. Also on board is a brief "making-of" featurette. In America is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: The early summer movie season got started with a bang over the weekend Universal's monster-mash Van Helsing starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale easily reached the top of the chart with a $54.2 million debut, while simultaneous openings worldwide gave it an international 3-day total of $107 million. And that's no small change, considering that Universal's total production and marketing costs for the Stephen Sommers E-ticket are reported to be $210 million. The only other new film over the weekend was Warner's New York Minute starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, which underperformed with just $6.2 million, landing in fourth place. Both Helsing and Minute earned mixed-to-negative reviews.
In continuing release, Paramount's Mean Girls starring Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey slipped to second place, adding $14 million to its $42.3 million total, while Fox's Man on Fire starring Denzel Washington is in third with $56 million after three weeks. And rounding off the top five is Sony's 13 Going on 30 starring Jennifer Garner, which has been good for $42.5 million so far. Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2 has banked $57.7 million after one month, but debuts from last week like Laws of Attraction, Godsend, and Envy are falling fast. And on the way to DVD prep this time around is Sony's Hellboy, which will wrap up with nearly $60 million.
New films arriving on screens this Friday include Troy starring Brad Pitt, and Breakin' All the Rules with Jamie Foxx. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New spins this week from the review team include The Fog of War, Scary Movie 3, Japanese Story, Rustler's Rhapsody, A Night in Casablanca, The Tin Star, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Torch Song Trilogy, Mr. Klein, Prince Valiant, Down to Earth, In America, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: The Videos. It's all fresh under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 4 May 2004
On the Street: The street-list is deeper than it looks this week with a fun mix of old and new that's sure to put a dent in your credit cards. Warner leads the way with a "Marx Brothers Collection" that includes such classics as A Day at the Races, A Night at the Opera, and A Night in Casablanca, while Fox has the attention of Hepburn & Tracy fans with a new "Studio Classics" release of 1957's Desk Set. Mainstream fare this week includes Warner's The Last Samurai and Chasing Liberty, while Buena Vista's Calendar Girls will win some fans, and Gus Van Sant's Elephant is new from HBO. Lions Gate has Girl with a Pearl Earring on the shelves, The Triplets of Belleville is fresh from Columbia TriStar, and New Line's Love! Valour! Compassion! and Torch Song Trilogy hope to reach new audiences. And the TV boxes are stacked high with Gilmore Girls, Party of Five, and plenty more ready to spin. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 3 May 2004
Disc of the Week: They met in 1941. She was a lanky, sharp-tongued East Coast type, born to wealth and privilege. He was a barrel-chested, working class Irishman with a penchant for heavy drinking and deep depression. As the oft-told story goes, they first met on the MGM lot either in the commissary or outside the Thalberg building, depending on who's telling the story. Katherine Hepburn took a look at Spencer Tracy, her new leading man, and commented on his short stature, wondering if perhaps she was too tall for him. Tracy reportedly growled back, "Don't worry I'll cut you down to size," kicking off a legendary pairing, both on-screen and off, that would last until Tracy's death in 1967. Their real-life love affair has been chronicled as a world-class romance of epic proportions and, alternately, an abusive battle between two bigger-than-life personalities, fueled by Tracy's alcoholism and Hepburn's aggressive ego. Most likely it was an explosive combination of both, with their mutual devotion holding them together for over two decades. On screen, their chemistry was pure magic through a total of nine films, starting with 1942's Woman of the Year and ending with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, completed just weeks before Tracy's death. The duo's penultimate film, Desk Set (1957), offers some of their very best work together sparkling dialogue, a clever story, and a pair of veteran actors who play off each other with almost supernatural ease.
As head researcher for the Federal Broadcasting Company television network, Bunny Watson (Hepburn) operates her department like a well-oiled machine. Fielding phone calls on everything from the names of the Seven Dwarves to questions about whether the king of the Watusis drives a car (answer yes, he received one as a gift from the producers of King Solomon's Mines), Bunny and her staff played by Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, and Neva Patterson know their research library inside and out. Enter "efficiency expert" Richard Sumner (Tracy), assigned to install a room-sized computer called E.M.I.R.A.C., but warned by the head of the network that he's not supposed to tell the workers exactly what he's doing there. Although she has misgivings about Sumner, Bunny finds herself attracted to him despite her long-standing relationship with caddish FBC exec Mike Cutler (Gig Young), who's yet to pop the question. As it becomes apparent what Sumner's doing in their midst, the employees become concerned that they may lose their jobs but the clueless Sumner just plows forward, unaware of their dismay as he woos Bunny in his own distracted, off-hand manner.
Based on the play by William Marchant, Phoebe and Henry Ephron's screenplay for Desk Set is one of the very first to address the new corporate America of the late '50s computers were on the horizon, efficiency and profits were deemed more important that people, and workers were concerned about the future of their jobs. Desk Set's end-of-film message computers are here to help us, not replace us! was a classic happy ending, but the story itself played on a growing fear that rapid advances in technology would soon make the human worker obsolete. To the modern computer user, the Cinerama-wide E.M.I.R.A.C. is about as realistic as Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot, all whirring tape drives and tooting whistles and flashing lights, with a big red lever to pull in case anything goes wrong. But it brilliantly embodies the cartoonish idea of the "Electronic Brain" that so worried office workers in the late '50s, a device that ostensibly would do the thinking of ten men and cost less to operate. Hepburn's Bunny is an old-school brain her scene with Tracy as he asks her a number of I.Q.-type questions and reels at her intricate logic patterns is hilarious with a wild, out-of-control philodendron wending it's way around her office and a mind faster than any machine. That Sumner, the efficiency expert, would be attracted to her is only natural she's the physical embodiment of the computer he obsesses over. What Bunny sees in Sumner, however, is less clear, with the film relying heavily on our knowledge of the real-life Tracy-Hepburn romance to fill in the gaps. But no matter Desk Set is a jaunty, spirited romantic comedy with a pair of mature leads (Tracy was 57, Hepburn 50) who light up the screen with their mutual attraction. It's an underrated entry in the pair's filmography.
Fox's new Desk Set DVD release part of their "Studio Classics" imprint offers a new anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) besides being the first time that most viewers will have ever seen this CinemaScope classic in its correct ratio, its also a spectacular transfer from a source-print that's exceptionally bright with optimum color saturation and deep, rich blacks. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (offered in mono or stereo) is clear the original mono track translates to stereo nicely. Extras include an odd, disjointed commentary by Dina Merrill and John Lee (the packaging says that it's Merrill and Neva Patterson, but it's not) in which Merrill offers lightweight, anecdotal remembrances, filled in by a deep-voiced Lee reciting diligently researched, non-scene specific info about the film and the actors. Also on board are a Movietone newsreel about fashions inspired by the film, the theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and trailers for other Fox classics. Desk Set: Fox Studio Classics is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Four new films arrived in theaters over the weekend, but only one proved to be a contender Buena Vista's Mean Girls starring Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey shot to the top of the chart with a $25 million debut, handily beating last week's winner, Fox's Man on Fire starring Denzel Washington, which slipped to second place with $15.2 million for the frame and $44.4 million overall. Coming in at fourth place with $7 million was New Line's romantic comedy Laws of Attraction starring Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore, while Lions Gate's Godsend starring Robert De Niro took fifth place with $6.9 million, and DreamWorks' Envy with Ben Stiller and Jack Black wound up in sixth with $6.1 million. Failing to make the chart was Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius starring Jim Caviezel, which was good for just $1.3 million. Critics lavished Mean Girls with praise and were mixed-to-negative on Attraction and Jones. Both Godsend and Envy were unanimously panned.
In continuing release, Sony's 13 Going on 30 starring Jennifer Garner dropped a spot to third place, adding $10 million to a $35.1 million gross. Down in seventh was Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2, which is now over the half-century with $52.6 million in three weekends. And Lions Gate's The Punisher has been good for nearly $30 million to date. On the way to the cheap screens is Sony's Hellboy, which has scared up $57.4 million. And off to DVD prep is The Passion of The Christ, which takes its leave with nearly $370 million.
New films arriving in theaters this Friday include Van Helsing starring Hugh Jackman, and New York Minute with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mr. Beaks has posted a sneak-preview of Warner's two-disc The Last Samurai, while new spins from the rest of the gang this week include Love Actually, The Triplets of Belleville, The Cooler, Chasing Liberty, Gilmore Girls: Season One, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Party of Five: Season One, A Day at the Races, A Night at the Opera, Samurai Jack: Season One, The Molly Maguires, Desk Set: Fox Studio Classics, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.