Wednesday, 15 Dec. 2004
The Year in Review: We're dimming the lights at DVD Journal headquarters for our annual holiday break, but we will be back on Monday, Jan. 3, with a stack of new DVD reviews. Before we go, we offer our top ten DVDs of the past 12 months (that is, the top ten that a lot of folks probably haven't spun yet, and should):
Thanks for dropping by this year, gang. Happy holidays we'll see ya soon.
Tuesday, 14 Dec. 2004
On the Street: We're getting ready for our annual winter break, but before we return tomorrow with our Top Ten DVDs list for 2004, we'd like to note that Warner Home Video has just announced to retailers a new catalog wave on March 1 that will include Bringing Up Baby, Stage Door, Dinner at Eight, To Be or Not To Be, and a two-disc re-issue of The Philadelphia Story. Meanwhile, for those of you still looking for holiday gift ideas, this week's street-list is led by none other than New Line's four-disc The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: Extended Edition, which is sure to top a lot of shopping lists. Up from Paramount is the third and final season of Star Trek: The Original Series, while Fox is on the Board with I, Robot and Paramount has a new Special Edition of Top Gun under wraps. And not to be overlooked is Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 13 Dec. 2004
Disc of the Week: Screenwriter William Goldman ascribes the enduring appeal of George Stevens' Gunga Din (1939) to its consistent and gleeful championing of "stupid courage." It's a phenomenon that's gripped many of the cinema's most beloved heroes from Buster Keaton's solo mission to retrieve his train and his girl in The General to Han Solo going head-to-head with an Imperial Cruiser in The Empire Strikes Back and though its depiction may seem inextricably linked to the American propensity to root for the underdog, its roots in this particular case are planted deep in the rich (and troublingly racist) literature of Rudyard Kipling. In the poem that suggested the film, its titular protagonist, a water boy for a British regiment fighting the not-so-good colonizing fight in India, stirs the admiration of the narrator for not knowing "the use o' fear" (a few lines later, however, he's commended for transcending his low breeding by being "white, clear white inside"). Such senseless bravery is present in much of Kipling's work, reaching a boldly satirical apex in his masterful The Man Who Would Be King, and it's the way Stevens and his several screenwriters, including Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, wisely harness the narrative to this peculiar attribute that helps it overcome its ethnic insensitivity to reach genuinely noble heights.
Interestingly, in Stevens' telling of the story, Din (played by a darkened Sam Jaffe) doesn't receive a proper introduction until a half-hour in. Most of the preceding screen time is spent setting up the trio of adventuring British sergeants whose stupid courage leads them into one pinch after another. Sgt. Tommy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is the almost sensible semi-leader of the group, a dashing operator on the verge of returning to civilian life to marry his sweetheart Emmy (Joan Fontaine). Sgt. Mac MacChesney (Victor McLagen) is the muscle of the threesome, though his rough exterior masks his gentle nature evinced in his doting dealings with the regiment's most beloved pachyderm, Annie. Finally, there's the irresponsible, fortune hunting Sgt. Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant), whose selfish preoccupation with finding a temple of gold lands them all in the tightest of tight spots, one that may very well spell doom for the entire outfit. This occurs when Din busts Cutter out of the brig to lead him to the storied temple, which is currently being used as a place of worship/base of operations for a bloodthirsty, Kali-worshipping cult of Thuggees bent on killing off every last British officer on Indian soil. When Cutter and Din are captured, Mac and Ballantine ride off to rescue them, only to get captured themselves. This, it turns out, is all part of the cult leader's master plan to lure their entire regiment into an ambush, which only these four misfits can halt.
Gunga Din is Hollywood adventure at his highest and most grandly entertaining. Never the most stylish of filmmakers, Stevens was, in his pre-WWII phase, an able wrangler of chaos, a skill put to thrilling effect in the picture's numerous action set-pieces. The first attempted ambush in a deserted village is hardly elegant with its rapid cutting and undercranked fistfights, but Stevens' ability to capture the madness with a clear sense of geography and character puts to shame most multiple-camera action specialists working today. Unsurprisingly, given his tutelage under Hal Roach, Stevens is equally adept in staging the film's comedic moments, though he gets invaluable assists from his peerless company of actors and writers. With Hecht and MacArthur cannibalizing their structure for The Front Page, it's amusing to watch Grant essentially audition for the part of Walter Burns in His Girl Friday (1940). But good as Grant is, the film's emotional core is instilled by Sam Jaffe, who, in his late forties, couldn't have been a more curious choice for an Indian waterboy (even if he had just played the part of High Llama in Capra's Lost Horizon ). Perhaps Stevens was on to something in the way he gradually sneaks Din into the picture; thus, giving the director time to so enthrall the audience with spectacle that they'd even buy a wheelchair-bound FDR in the title role. Whatever his methodology, the casting works, with Jaffe helping matters by avoiding offensive caricature in fleshing out the role of a young boy who yearns to fight alongside the British. This is where, thematically, the story should get sticky, if not downright insulting. But Stevens and his writers have driven out the overt Anglophila and focused the narrative instead on a broader notion of sacrificing for one's friends. Finally, it's not about aspiring to be white or British, but to simply be brave. It may be that "stupid" variant of courage that drags them into their predicament, but, in the film's most unforgettable scene, it's Din's exhibition of the quality in its purest, most selfless state that drives the film to its deeply resonant climax. By the time the poem's final line, "You're a braver man than I am, Gunga Din," is delivered in tribute, the film has transcended the poem's racist origins and fully earned the audience's tears.
Warner Home Video presents Gunga Din in a brilliant full-screen transfer (1.33:1) with muscular Dolby Digital monaural audio. The film's most ardent fans may quibble that the studio did not deem it worthy of the two-disc treatment lavished on many of their other classics, but what's here is top shelf. The featurette "On Location with Gunga Din" (11 min.) is a breezy primer on the picture's rancorous production, the travails of which are elucidated by film historian Rudy Behlmer on a solid feature-length commentary. Also on board is a terrific Looney Tunes short, "The Film Fan," featuring Porky Pig as a dallying youth lured away from his chores by the call of the cinema. Trailers for the initial 1939 theatrical release and later re-release are also included. Gunga Din is on the street now.
Box Office: Both new releases at the North American box-office over the weekend scored a one-two punch on the chart, but the competition between the two wasn't even close Warner's Ocean's Twelve, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt, handily took the top spot with a $40.8 million break, easily besting New Line's Blade: Trinity, which took second place with a $16.1 million weekend and $24.5 million since last Wednesday. Both titles shifted Buena Vista's National Treasure, starring Nicolas Cage, to third place after a three-week run atop the chart, where it's now collected $124.2 million after one month. Critics were mixed-to-positive on Twelve, while Blade earned mixed-to-negative notices.
In continuing release, Warner's The Polar Express is still holding steady after five weeks, holding down a top-five spot with $110 million, while Sony's Christmas with the Kranks is this year's holiday surprise, taking in $54.7 million after three sessions. And Pixar's The Incredibles remains the biggest end-of-year blockbuster with $232.5 million in the bank. Not to be overlooked is Paramount's The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, which has done nearly $75 million so far. But being overlooked by most moviegoers is Oliver Stone's Alexander starring Colin Ferrell, which did a miserable $1.4 million in its third weekend. And off to DVD prep is New Line's After the Sunset, which will finish with less than $30 million.
New films in theaters this Friday include Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events starring Jim Carrey, Spanglish with Adam Sandler, and Flight of the Phoenix with Dennis Quaid. 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 The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: Extended Edition, while new spins this week from the rest of the gang include The Bourne Supremacy, I Robot, Top Gun: Special Edition, Gilmore Girls: Season Two, Star Trek: The Original Series: Season Three, Gunga Din, and George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 7 Dec. 2004
On the Street: If you're still looking for that perfect holiday gift, this week's as good as any to go DVD shopping. Topping our list this time around is Warner's George Stevens Centennial Classics, a seven-disc collection that includes new-to-DVD releases of Gunga Din, I Remember Mama, George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin, and George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey. Criterion also has two new titles on the shelves with Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings and Fritz Lang's cinephile-essential M in a brand-new restored transfer. Lighter fare includes Fox's Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Universal's The Bourne Supremacy, and MGM's Region 1 debut of David Lynch's Wild at Heart is nearly impossible to ignore. Fans of the silents can look for TCM Archives: Buster Keaton. And fans of The Matrix can pick up a 10-disc Ultimate Matrix Collection from Warner, which should conclude Matrix double-dips for at least the next few months. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 6 Dec. 2004
Disc of the Week: When tracking the career of oddball genius David Lynch, one might pinpoint 1990 as a watershed year the period when his particular brand of weirdness came to a cultural boiling point, making him an integral part of the new decade's Zeitgeist. In April of that year, Lynch's television series "Twin Peaks" hit the airwaves, inspiring millions of viewers to obsess over the murder of Laura Palmer, the meaning behind the dancing dwarf, and FBI agent Dale Cooper's love of a good slice of pie. Then in late summer, at the height of "Twin Peaks" mania, he released Wild at Heart a brutal road movie/love story/black comedy that combined violence, sex, Elvis, and The Wizard of Oz, winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes after playing to a crowd that cheered and booed the film in equal measures. It's perhaps the most flat-out Lynchian of all the director's films, both brilliant and deeply self-indulgent, and it certainly wasn't embraced by every critic at the time of its release Roger Ebert (who also famously disliked Blue Velvet) said he felt repulsed and manipulated by the film, and wrote that Lynch "exercises the consistent streak of misogynism" in his work. Indeed, Wild at Heart isn't an easy film to digest, populated by broadly drawn eccentrics with an almost anecdotal plot and occasionally loathsome imagery. But for those with a taste for Lynch's perverse humor, iconoclastic visual sense, and goofy, twisted characters, it stands as one of the two or three most striking pictures in the director's filmography.
Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) loves Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Unfortunately, Lula's rich mama Marietta (Diane Ladd) hates bad-boy Sailor, believing him to know a secret she's long kept hidden, and she wants to see him dead and after Sailor beats Marietta's hitman to death with his bare hands, mama figures that at least she's managed to separate the pair by sending Sailor off to prison. But true love, no matter how freaky, will find a way, and when Sailor's released from jail, Lula's waiting with open arms and open legs, "hotter than Georgia asphalt" for her snakeskin jacket-wearin' love-muffin. Hysterical and vengeful, Marietta sets her private-eye lover (Harry Dean Stanton) on their trail and contracts with a mobster (J.E. Freeman) to have Sailor rubbed out, as the lust-sodden runaway lovers take off across country on a surreal, violent road trip featuring a rich panoply of memorable characters like a club-footed Cajun assassin (Grace Zabriskie), a helium-voiced stranger who talks about diseased pigeons (Freddie Jones), a lovely accident victim with a hole in her skull who won't stop looking for her lost purse (Sherilyn Fenn), and the creepy-funny, foul-toothed hired killer Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). "The whole world's wild at heart and weird on top," Lula tells Sailor and whether the pair will find a place in the world where they can be together becomes less sure as their road trip turns more macabre with each passing day.
Above all else, David Lynch loves to create bizarre characters. At times it feels as if the entire purpose of Wild At Heart is to fabricate a universe that Lynch could populate with freaks and weirdos besides the oddities that Sailor and Lula meet along their journey, there are flashbacks as Lula tells her lover about her past, talking of her father's business partner, Uncle Pooch (Marvin Kaplan), who raped her when she was 13 and, more vividly, of her insane cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), who feared black-gloved aliens, wore a Santa suit year-round, and enjoyed putting cockroaches in his underwear. These oddities are fiercely memorable, and they threaten to draw too much attention away from the artfulness of Lynch's story, which weaves bits of lore from The Wizard of Oz (Marietta's likeness to the Wicked Witch, Lula's clicking together of her red high heels, Sailor's redemption by the Good Witch [Sheryl Lee] at film's end) with a wealth of subtle references to filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Jacques Tati, and Akira Kurosawa, all the while allowing Cage to play Sailor as an Elvis-obsessed romantic and Dern to give full reign to depraved innocence and wild-eyed carnality. Lynch's visual sense in Wild At Heart equals that of his two most celebrated films, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, with an attention to detail and an iconic use of color that's awe-inspiring, as he revisits his own favorite motifs (highway asphalt at night, body parts and grotesque decay) while continually reinforcing images specific to the story blazing fire, lit cigarettes, and car accidents. Wild At Heart is melodramatic, giddily self-aware, painfully stylized, and challenging at every turn filmmaking as provocation, by a director who seemed to know that the fifteen minutes of fame during which he'd be allowed to do whatever he pleased were fleeting, and therefore chose to throw everything he had at the screen without fear, or compromise.
MGM's DVD release of Wild at Heart is as good as one could hope for a new fine-grain positive was struck from the original master of the film, and Lynch himself spent about a year overseeing the color timing and the transfer to high definition. It's simply gorgeous a huge improvement over old video versions of the film (which were horribly murky and muddy looking, especially during darker scenes) and the previous Region 2 disc produced by Universal. The occasional scratch or speck shows up, but frankly they're barely noticeable this simply is a stunning transfer, crystal clear, sharp, and richly saturated, with amazing contrast and detail. The newly mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is very good, balancing Angelo Badalamenti's moody score (as well as Cage's Elvis songs and tunes by artists like Chris Isaak) with dialogue and occasionally boosted sound effects (gunshots most notably). There's also a lovely handful of extras, including an excellent "making-of" featurette, "Love, Death, Elvis and Oz: The Making of Wild At Heart" (30 min.), featuring new interviews with Lynch, Cage, Dern, Dafoe, Ladd and others involved in the production; "David Lynch On the DVD," in which the director discusses the work that went into the new transfer; "Dell's Lunch Counter," a collection of brief interview pieces on subjects like Sailor's jacket, the writing of the original novel, Lynch's attention to background detail, and the premiere at Cannes; another interview featurette, "Specific Spontaneity: Focus on David Lynch" (7 min.) on what it's like to work with the director; a featurette from 1990 that was sent to the media as a promotion; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer and TV spots. Wild at Heart: Special Edition is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Holiday shopping competed with movie-ticket sales over the first weekend of December, leaving the box-office chart virtually unchanged which means Buena Vista's National Treasure starring Nicolas Cage held on to its top spot for the third week running, adding $17.1 million to a $110.1 million gross. Only one new film reached the charts, Sony's Closer, directed by Mike Nichols, which earned $7.7 million in limited release to land in sixth place. Critics were mixed-to-positive on Closer.
In continuing release, Sony's Christmas with the Kranks starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis continues to be the surprise hit of the season, moving up to second place on the list while adding $11.7 million to a solid $45.4 million 10-day cume. Warner's The Polar Express is showing signs of slow-burn potential, also moving up a spot to third, and verging on triple-digits. But dropping from second to fourth was Pixar's The Incredibles although it's a slide with a $226 million landing. Paramount's The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie rounds off the top five with $68.3 million after three weeks, while Warner's big-budget Alexander is looking like this year's Christmas turkey, taking in just $4.7 million in its second weekend. Meanwhile, off to DVD prep is Sony's The Grudge, which will finish near $110 million.
New in theaters this Wednesday is Blade: Trinity starring Wesley Snipes, while arriving on Friday is Ocean's Twelve starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New spins this week from the team include M: The Criterion Collection, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, The King of Kings: The Criterion Collection, Billy Madison: Special Edition, Happy Gilmore: Special Edition, I Remember Mama, George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey, Racing with the Moon, It's All True, Wild at Heart: Special Edition, and The Ultimate Matrix Collection. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow to let you know about this week's street discs.