Monday, 31 Jan. 2005
Disc of the Week: Refer to Lee J. Cobb as an acting giant in youthful company nowadays, and prepare for quizzical stares. To several generations of filmgoers, he's a mildly memorable character actor known for mildly memorable turns in The Exorcist, Twelve Angry Men, or Coogan's Bluff. At best, they may recall him as Johnny Friendly, the mobster whose thug longshoremen kick the crap out of Terry Malloy in the closing moments of On the Waterfront a capable talent, to be sure, but no one to wax hyperbolic over. Which is both fair and an absolute tragedy, considering that Cobb, as the first and best Willy Loman, once inspired Arthur Miller to gasp after a rehearsal of Death of a Salesman that, "He stood up there like a giant moving the Rocky Mountains into position!" This Cobb, bestowed with an innate capacity for projecting authority, menace and, most of all, size, was rarely well-utilized on screen, which makes the DVD arrival of Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway (1949) cause for celebration. Cobb slashes a brutal profile as the broad-shouldered bully Mike Figlia, a San Francisco produce magnate fond of employing particularly savage tactics as a way of maximizing profits through the instilling of mortal fear. Figlia's entrance in the film comes late in the first act, following a substantial build-up that establishes him as a rapacious monster the likes of which no man should trifle. Few men could deliver on such outsized hype, but, then again, few men had the gargantuan, galvanic prowess of Lee J. Cobb.
Up until Cobb's appearance, the film is solidly anchored by the also-underappreciated Richard Conte as Nico Garcos, a globetrotting mechanic whose jubilant return to his parents' home in California is spoiled when he discovers his truck-driver father lost his legs in a suspicious accident up north. The culprit is the crooked Figlia, and Nico is sufficiently enraged to set off on a hazily planned revenge, which initially entails buying back his father's truck from the shady Ed (Millard Mitchell), a fruit hauler who has yet to make a single payment on the rickety auto. Ed promises the money's forthcoming as soon as he reaps the windfall from a delivery of top-dollar golden delicious apples; Nico, whose thoughts are more immediately on vengeance rather than repossession, warily decides to pair up with Ed. They are not an ideal match; Ed is a small-time chiseler favoring the unfair advantage, while Nico's conscience insists that all transactions be on the up and up. Still, despite the man's less-than-honest nature, Ed is a reasonably honorable man, which he proves by saving Nico when he's trapped under his truck while changing a flat. As it turns out, the seemingly worldly Nico could use Ed's no-nonsense help upon his arrival in San Francisco, where the road-weary naïf falls prey to Figlia and his wily stooges. Nico proves especially susceptible to the piece's femme fatale, Rica (Valentina Cortesa), who's constantly luring the engaged fellow into one scrape after another. Ultimately, Figlia has Nico badly over a barrel, which will surely lead to his undoing unless Ed, who's been waylaid with mechanical trouble of his own, can arrive in time to save Nico from his father's fate.
Thieves' Highway would prove to be Dassin's final Hollywood picture before his HUAC-influenced blacklisting forced the filmmaker overseas, and it's a hell of a valedictory. Continuing with the location shooting that enhanced the gritty verisimilitude of The Naked City (1948), Dassin crafts a smart, nasty little noir out of A.I. Bezzerides' pungently observed screenplay (which is based on his novel of the same name). Once again exploiting the trucking milieu for its rampant venality, Bezzerides ends up with a cleaner narrative than his previous They Drive By Night (1940), which Dassin briskly navigates and only compromises once in the film's final moments (on Daryl Zanuck's orders). Though Nico is a sympathetic protagonist, there is something strangely satisfying in watching the somewhat cocky moralist get his hat handed to him before finally compromising enough to confront Figlia as an equal. Dassin was always unafraid of consigning his characters to such depths (in exile, he'd knock them even lower), but one senses he did it out of disappointment with the human condition rather than gleeful cynicism; if Figlia has it coming, so does Nico for being foolishly macho enough to think he can trade body blows with the big fella. And, oh, what a big fella! Actually, at an even six feet, Cobb would be nobody's idea of a hulking presence nowadays, but here, as in On the Waterfront (1954), he used his girth and big, booming voice to stack on an extra six inches or so. Is there any actor working today capable of such illusion? Not of Cobb's magnitude which explains why Arthur Miller, whenever asked why he has never written another Willy Loman-sized character, is nowadays given to confessing with great resignation that he once wrote for giants, and that there are no giants anymore.
The Criterion Collection presents Thieves' Highway in an outstanding full-screen transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with sharp monaural Dolby Digital audio. Extras include a dry but informative feature-length commentary from film noir historian Alain Silver, a nice interview with the 93-year-old Dassin (11 min.), a trailer for The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides (4 min.), which features comments from the 97-year-old author, a new essay from critic Michael Sragow, and the original theatrical trailer. Thieves' Highway: The Criterion Collection is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Robert De Niro returned to the top spot on the box-office chart just a few weeks after he left it Fox's Hide and Seek starring De Niro and Dakota Fanning easily took first place over the weekend with a $22 million debut. Thanks to Universal's Meet the Fockers, which has a $257.9 million gross after six weeks, De Niro currently stars in two top-five releases. The weekend's only other new title, Lions Gate's Alone in the Dark starring Christian Slater and Tara Reid, earned just $2.5 million and failed to chart. Critics gave H&S mostly negative reviews, while Dark was unanimously panned.
In continuing release, Sony's Are We There Yet? starring Ice Cube had a strong second frame, dropping to number two with $39.1 million so far. Warner's Million Dollar Baby from director Clint Eastwood expanded to wide release after six weeks, earning $11.8 million for the frame to land in third. And looking good in fourth place is Paramount's Coach Carter starring Sam Jackson, which has cracked $50 million after three weeks. Oscar nods means Miramax's The Aviator will continue to build on its $68.1 million cume, while Fox Searchlight's Sideways is a solid slow-burn with $40 million after nearly four months. Getting strong word-of-mouth support is Universal's In Good Company with $35.9 million so far. But off to DVD prep is the Fox misfire Elektra starring Jennifer Garner, which will have to do solid business on the cheap screens if it hopes to clear $25 million.
New in 'plexes this Friday is the romantic comedy The Wedding Date starring Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney, as well as the thriller Boogeyman. 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 Grudge, Shall We Dance?, October Sky: Special Edition, Night and the City: The Criterion Collection, Thieves' Highway: The Criterion Collection, Secrets and Lies, Paparazzi, La Commare Secca: The Criterion Collection, and three more from the Warner Gangster Collection, The Roaring Twenties, White Heat, and The Petrified Forest. It's all fresh under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 25 Jan. 2005
On the Street: The folks at Warner lead the street-list this week with six classics from the gangster catalog Angels with Dirty Faces, Little Caesar, The Petrified Forest, The Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties, and White Heat. Also sure to move a few copies on DVD is Paramount's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, as well as the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Fox's Alien vs. Predator is bookended this week with a special-edition reissue of Predator 2, while Universal's double-dipping Backbeat and October Sky and Lions Gate is on the board with a collector's edition of The Crying Game. Another re-dip comes from Columbia TriStar with Charlize Theron's Oscar-winning turn in Monster, while making its debut on disc is the classic thriller Bunny Lake Is Missing. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 24 Jan. 2005
Disc of the Week: In 1938 Warner Brothers took a stand in the nature/nurture debate, pointing the A-list gangster melodrama, Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces, squarely at the poverty, social dysfunction, and ineffectual judicial system that mold and ultimately doom gangland's Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney). It's a random dice-toss of chance a boy from the slums can't run as fast as his best pal on the day it counts most that preordains the boy to come of age in reform schools and prisons, which educate him only in how to become a top-dog hoodlum. Fifteen years later, Rocky is a front-page gangster released from prison when he reunites with his pal, who's now a priest (Pat O'Brien), in their old tenement neighborhood. Angels remains one of the pinnacle achievements from the heyday of Hollywood gangster films. It's part of a great unintended thematic trilogy with his breakthrough Public Enemy and finally The Roaring Twenties that feature charismatic Cagney playing the gangsterdom toughs that sculpted his public image and career until the head-snapping surprise of Yankee Doodle Dandy, also directed by Curtiz. The way Rocky hitches his shoulders throughout the film remains a staple of Cagney impressions. (Cagney took the mannerism, along with Rocky's catch-phrase "Whaddya hear, whaddya say?," from a streetcorner pimp he recalled from his own hard growing-up in Hell's Kitchen.) For Angels Cagney earned the New York Film Critics Award and his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.
When Rocky returns to his old haunts in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, he encounters the new generation of young street thugs, played well by the Dead End Kids. It isn't long before the ruffians take the dapper, famous, and (in their eyes) successful Rocky as a role model. While Rocky enjoys the celebrity, Jerry, who does his best to keep the kids occupied and out of harm's way, cannot approve. Although fate split Rocky and Jerry on their divergent destinies long ago, the kids can still choose which path to take, and nobody sees that better than Father Jerry. Like Cagney himself, Rocky is spirited, often funny, and entirely self-directed. There's nothing false about his cocky swagger and rat-a-tat delivery. His yin/yang equal is Jerry, an activist social reformer who is as savvy and resolute as Rocky, and who's willing to manifest his compassion through a right hook when the occasion calls for it. Meanwhile, Rocky attempts a hard-boiled romance with steely Ann Sheridan (another reunion from the old hood), and catches up with the racketeering gang that he took the fall for years ago. That's when he runs afoul of Humphrey Bogart as the slick, crooked lawyer who owes Rocky a hundred G's in stolen loot. When Bogart's bad-bad guy sets out to bump off Cagney's good-bad guy, we're even more on Rocky's side. However, as the kids trade basketball in the parish church gym for high living with ill-gotten dough and racking 'em up at the pool hall, we see that Father Jerry is correct and Rocky's influence on the vulnerable street kids can make a literally life or death difference. The way Rocky takes care of his former cronies puts the cops on his tail and New York is gripped with gangster panic. A blazing gunfight dovetails smoothly into one of the great Hollywood endings: Rocky's "last mile" walk to the death house and Jerry's appeal to his humanity for the sake of the kids who worship him as a hero. Rocky's final moments before the electric chair's sizzle shot using only shadows and Rocky's final words pumps a climax that's as riveting as it is famously ambiguous.
Angels With Dirty Faces sure has aged well. There's a bowlful of old chestnuts here, but it's saved from the terminal trites by its top-flight cast, ear-pleasing screenplay (Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur contributed without credit), and the gifted hand of director Curtiz, who kept the pace lively and the imagery genre-perfect. (1938 saw four more Curtiz films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood.) Even clichés like the kids' pulp paperback street speech ("I didn't say a woid") and newspaper banner headlines rushing toward the screen feel fresh and appropriate. Angels shows what the old studio system could do in spite of sometimes because of, when restrictions spurred creativity the Thou-Shalt-Nots of the Production Code's killjoy moralizing (the original conformist "PC"). These days, we note wryly that this Depression-era film's "society is to blame" text, and the Code's dictates on how lawmen and criminals must be portrayed, make a perhaps humbling red-state/blue-state unity. The whole "crime doesn't pay" trope has never felt more quaint that it does today, but the way Angels With Dirty Faces balances hard-bitten gangster drama with a warmth and well-managed religiosity gives us a classic that stands as an engaging, entertaining period piece, one which shows that after more than sixty years you still can't go wrong with a Jimmy Cagney movie.
This DVD edition, part of the six-disc Warner Gangsters Collection, comes from a print that's in great shape even though it has not been frame-by-frame restored. The slight scratches and wear aren't bothersome given the quality and solid tones of the black-and-white image. The DD 1.0 audio is full, robust, and fuzz-free. The fine set of extras start with a chatty, packed commentary by author and USC film prof Dana Polan, whose academic but caffeinated lecture covers the film's themes and motifs as well as the usual background on the cast, Curtiz, historical context, and production techniques. The ever-perky Leonard Maltin hosts Warner Night at the Movies 1938, which augments the main feature with trailers, a newsreel (Hitler, Mussolini, and Chamberlain sign the Munich Peace Pact while FDR speaks at the New York World's Fair "World of Tomorrow"), the hooray-for-Hollywood musical short "Out Where the Stars Begin" (19 mins.), and Bob Clampett's Looney Toon cartoon "Porky and Daffy." The best of the new material is a 2005 featurette Angels with Dirty Faces: Whaddya Hear? Whaddya Say? (22 mins.), with historian Rudy Behlmer and others lauding Curtiz and the film's cast, while spotlighting its place in gangsterana and the impact of the Production Code. Cecil B. DeMille himself introduces the keen audio-only extra, Angel's Lux Radio Theater adaptation (59 mins.) starring Cagney, O'Brien, and Gloria Dixon. It comes with the original commercials for Lux Toilet Soup ("protects daintiness") intact. Angels with Dirty Faces is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Baddazz west coast rapper-turned-midlist comedy actor Ice Cube soared to the top of the North American box-office with the debut of Sony's Are We There Yet?, which had an $18.5 million three-day break. The win easily outdistanced Focus Features' Assault on Precinct 13 starring Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, which managed $8.5 million since its Wednesday debut, landing in sixth place. Football playoffs and blizzard conditions across the eastern U.S. contributed to lackluster totals overall. Critics were mixed-to-positive on Precinct 13, while Are We There Yet? was widely dismissed.
In continuing release, Paramount's Coach Carter starring Samuel L. Jackson slipped to second place, adding $11 million to a $43.2 million 10-day cume, while Universal's blockbuster Meet the Fockers is nearing $250 million after five weeks and holds down the third spot. In fourth is Universal's In Good Company with Dennis Quaid, which has $28 million to its credit after one month, and Warner's family comedy Racing Stripes has pegged $27.3 million in just two sessions. Still on a slow burn is Miramax's The Aviator, which likely will add to its $58 million tally after this week's Oscar nods. But getting busted all the way down to tenth is Fox's Elektra starring Jennifer Garner, which managed just $3.8 million over its second weekend. Sideways and Million Dollar Baby are on the charts while still in limited release, and off to DVD prep are the holiday hits Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Ocean's Twelve, and National Treasure.
New in theaters this Friday are Hide and Seek with Robert De Niro and Dakota Fanning, as well as Alone in the Dark starring Christian Slater. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: M.E. Russell has posted an in-depth sneak preview of Paramount's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, while Dawn Taylor recently looked at Columbia TriStar's two-disc The Fifth Element: Ultimate Edition and J. Jordan Burke spun Ken Burns' Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. New stuff this week from the rest of the gang includes Friday Night Lights, The Forgotten, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Little Caesar, Alien vs. Predator, Backbeat: Collector's Edition, Monster: Special Edition, Predator 2: Special Edition, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Stella Street. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 18 Jan. 2005
On the Street: A short street-list is headed up this week by two Criterion releases from director Jacques Becker, 1950's Casque d'Or and 1954's Touchez Pas au Grisbi. Mainstream titles are on the board as well, with Universal's Friday Night Lights starring Billy Bob Thornton, Warner's Catwoman with Halle Berry, Columbia TriStar's The Forgotten starring Julianne Moore, and New Line's Cellular with Kim Basinger and Jason Statham. And lurking a little under the radar are two catalog releases from Paramount, William Wyler's 1952 Carrie starring Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier, and the 1963 romantic comedy A New Kind of Love with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 17 Jan. 2005
Disc of the Week: When speaking of Jacques Becker's career, it's hard not to mention the influence of Jean Renoir. After all, Becker spent eight years providing support for the master humanist, working as the assistant director on some of Renoir's most famous films (including 1937's Grand Illusion). And though Becker's career is mired by obscurity stateside, even in his readily available "genre" work such as 1952's Casque d'or or 1960's Le Trou it's noticeable that all the characters, even the bad ones, have their reasons. Perhaps a bit of Renoir rubbed off; like him, Becker mixed a technical savvy with a deep and abiding interest in people. That's not to suggest he was a sycophant; Jacques Becker has a style all his own, and he was drawn more towards genre pieces than Renior, even though Becker's films rarely played like genre exercises. For instance: Casque d'or. From its plot description, one could read it as a noir (or at least a cousin to the wave of French romantic fatalism epitomized by something like Port of Shadows), since it involves a femme fatale, murder, and an inescapable fate due to smuggled time and forbidden love. And yet (perhaps because of the frisson created by its period setting) the picture feels wholly removed from genre spectacle. Casque d'or exists in a word all its own, though indebted to its influences, to become what is commonly referred to as Becker's zenith as a director.
Set during the Belle Époque, Marie (Simone Signoret), known for her blonde hair hence the title, which translates roughly into "blonde helmet" is a kept woman who's running with criminals. Picnicking with her friends, she runs across George Manda (Serge Reggiani), an ex-con turned carpenter, through their mutual friend Danard (Gaston Modot). George and Marie share a dance, which makes her boyfriend Roland (William Sabatier) jealous. Roland works with Danard under Felix Leca (Claude Dauphin), a dandy criminal boss who also fancies Marie and thinks himself a master manipulator. Though Manda's engaged to another woman, he and Marie have an undeniable attraction, and their ardor leads him into a fatal knife fight with Roland the consequences of which send George running out of town. He finds himself hiding out in the country with Marie, allowing them to behave as though married. But their bliss must come to an end as Danard asks Leca to leave George alone, to which Leca uses to set up Danard as the fall guy for Roland's murder. Put in a position of honor, George accepts his fate and goes to jail to take responsibility, only to learn the reason for his imprisonment was Leca's scheming, while Danard is also stuck in jail because he's considered a co-conspirator. After a prison break, George plans his revenge, but he also has to accept that Marie has been sleeping with Leca though not for the reasons George thinks.
Like the film's turn of the century setting, Casque d'or was a movie out of its time. Upon its initial release, French cinema was in an existential crisis; with the influx of post-war American cinema it was readying itself for the new wave, and not sure what to make of its national directors, as many (including Becker) worked during the occupation. It should be of no surprise then that Becker's film was not met well by Andre Bazin and the Cahiers du Cinema set perhaps those who developed a fondness for America's quick cutting rhythms and the efficiency of its B-pictures couldn't appreciate this film's more subtle charms. And yet there is a marvelous sense of rhythm to all of Becker's work, and he's a master of subtle machinations: Danard warns Leca to stay away from George as George has always been loyal to him. But as Danrad makes his protest he fondles Roland's pocket watch, giving Leca all the pieces (knowing Danard has a dead's man timepiece, knowing George is a loyal and honorable man) he needs to ensnare George. It's marvelous scene that is able to convey so much with so little. Even within the genre tropes, it's the humanist energy that makes Casque d'or so appealing, especially in Simone Signoret's ravishing performance as Marie. Women in pictures like this are often idealized or demonized in either case they often feel one dimensional. But Marie is fully fleshed out; damaged, but still capable of love. Perhaps it's why Bazin later revisited the film and revised his opinion.
The Criterion Collection presents Casque d'or in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and in its original French monaural audio (DD 1.0) with optional English subtitles. Because Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, and Claude Dauphin all did their own English-language dubbing, the dubbed soundtrack also is included. Peter Cowie provides an insightful scene-specific audio commentary that covers the film's thematics and its initial reception, and he provides background on the major and minor players. Also contained is rare behind-the-scenes footage (8 min.) with optional commentary by film historian Phillip Kemp that shows the cast and crew filming the opening dancing sequence. In the "Interviews" section there's a 1963 interview with Simone Signoret (7 min.) and a 1995 interview with Serge Reggiani (6 min.), both of which focus on making the film and working with Becker. There are also two excerpts from the 1967 French television show "Cineastes de Notre Temps," which offers interviews with stars Signoret, Claude Dauphin, editor Marguerite Renoir, Becker aficionado François Truffaut, and others who worked with Becker. The first excerpt focuses on Becker's talent and legacy (14 min.) the second focuses more on Casque d'or(13 min.). Also included is an essay by Kemp. Casque d'Or: The Criterion Collection is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: After a blistering one-month run in North American theaters that has grossed more than $230 million, Universal's Meet the Fockers starring Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro has finally been dumped from its top spot by Samuel L. Jackson. Paramount's Coach Carter starring Jackson earned honors over the weekend with a $23.6 million break, outdistancing other new arrivals such as Warner's Racing Stripes ($14 m) and Fox's Elektra starring Jennifer Garner ($12.5 m), while Universal's In Good Company expanded to wide release with $13.9 million for the frame. Carter and Company have earned good reviews, while critics were mixed on Stripes and gave Elektra a good spanking.
In continuing release, Universal's thriller White Noise starring Michael Keaton was bumped down to sixth place, adding $12.2 million to $41.2 million overall, while Miramax's The Aviator from Martin Scorsese is still on the slow burn, nearing $50 million after five sessions. Paramount's Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events starring Jim Carrey has fared better with $111 million in the bag, while Warner's Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera isn't bringing down the house with just $26.4 million after one month. And off to DVD prep is Pixar's The Incredibles, which will finish well above $250 million.
New in 'plexes this Wednesday is Assault on Precinct 13 starring Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, while Ice Cube turns up on Friday in the comedy Are We There Yet? Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New spins this week from the team include Without a Paddle, Cellular: Platinum Series, Touchez Pas au Grisbi: The Criterion Collection, Carrie (1952), A New Kind of Love, Blind Fury, Casque d'Or: The Criterion Collection, and Omega Doom. 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.
Tuesday, 11 Jan. 2005
On the Street: You asked for 'em, and Warner delivered five catalog classics on the street this morning are a result of Warner Home Video's "DVD Decision 2004" fan poll, and include Ice Station Zebra, Ivanhoe, King Solomon's Mines, The Letter, and Random Harvest. Fresh from Criterion are two new numbers, Fighting Elegy and Youth of the Beast, while Paramount's going for laughs with Without a Paddle, and Buena Vista's got twists and turns with M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. Getting re-issues from Columbia TriStar are two-disc editions of The Fifth Element and Lèon: The Professional, and animation fans will want to look for a quartet of classics from Disney. Also new from PBS is the latest Ken Burns documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 10 Jan. 2005
Disc of the Week: In 1952 MGM gave its epic Technicolor treatment to Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel of knights and chivalric love in the age of King John and Robin Hood. The result was an Ivanhoe that became the year's highest grossing film. It earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, and Best Score. Today it's a favorite title from the era's spate of romantic costume dramas brimming over with bygone MGM grandness. Heroic Saxon knight Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) is determined to ransom England's rightful king, Richard the Lionhearted, from captivity in Austria. Set against him is a Norman conspiracy headed by Richard's oily brother, Prince John (Guy Rolfe), who of course has every intention of keeping the throne. To defeat John's men and obtain the fortune required to buy Richard's freedom, Ivanhoe competes (incognito as a "black knight") in a brutal jousting tournament. And he befriends Isaac, a Jewish moneylender with reason enough to distrust Saxons and Normans alike. Beyond restoring Saxon glory, Ivanhoe's potential rewards include the affection of his estranged father (Finlay Currie), plus the love of either fair Lady Rowena (Joan Fontaine) or Isaac's daughter Rebecca, played by the supernaturally beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, age 20. George Sanders doesn't get enough to do as villainous Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert, and Emlyn Williams is a memorable court fool who becomes Ivanhoe's squire. The plot overlaps the story of Robin Hood, who conscripts his merry men when Ivanhoe needs them most. (Ivanhoe lacks the jaunty vim of 1939's The Adventures of Robin Hood, though together they'd make a rousing double-feature.)
For a 12th-century English champion, Taylor's flat style and American accent were better suited for his cowboy pictures, yet he (with the Hollywoodized script full of "Norman dogs" and other Classics Illustrated dialogue) adds to the old-fashioned charm in a setting chock-full of drawbridges, clashing swords, and suits of armor. While Joan Fontaine was one of MGM's marquee beauties, she must have rued the day that Ivanhoe's other damsel went to Elizabeth Taylor, who steals Fontaine's thunder with her eyes alone. Sounding surprisingly blunt for such a mainstream vintage entertainment, the subplot with Isaac and Rebecca takes a sympathetic stand against prejudices faced by "infidel" Jews. (And when a kangaroo court sentences Rebecca to burning at the stake for witchcraft, the scene suggests a sly ear for extra political resonance in 1952, the height of HUAC's Hollywood ignominy and five years after Taylor himself named names.) Likewise, a castle siege (directed by Yakima Canutt) includes enough nasty deaths to keep anyone from mistaking this for Prince Valiant. Director Richard Thorpe ably kept it all together with an intensity so somber that it almost belies the movie's reputation as a swashbuckler. On location in England, cinematographer Freddie Young, who later shot Lawrence of Arabia, put the English countryside and authentic castles to fine use. Art direction was under Alfred Junge (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus). Miklos Rozsa's lush score remains one of the greats.
Warner's DVD edition of Ivanhoe gives us a clean, colorful print with no significant wear. Rozsa's orchestra and the thunder of lances, axes, and maces against shields are treated well by the strong, clean DD 1.0 monaural audio. Extras begin with the 1952 Tom & Jerry cartoon "Two Mouseketeers." More substantial is the "Swashbuckler Trailer Gallery" holding lengthy previews for Ivanhoe, 1952's Scaramouche ("the hot-blooded adventures of masterly men!"), and 1953's Knights of the Round Table (teaming Robert Taylor and director Thorpe again, it's as much PR for CinemaScope "The World's New Wonder That You See Without Special Glasses!" as for the movie itself). The only thing here worth griping about occurs when you insert the disc, which front-loads unbidden the trailer for 2004's The Aviator (punch your Menu button to skip it). Ivanhoe is on the street tomorrow, along with four more classics from the Warner catalog, The Letter, Ice Station Zebra, Random Harvest, and King Solomon's Mines.
Box Office: A relatively flat box-office helped Universal's surprise hit Meet the Fockers claim the top spot at the North American box-office for the third week in a row, adding $28.5 million to its blockbuster $204.3 million gross. The only new title on the chart, Universal's thriller White Noise starring Michael Keaton, racked up a respectable $24 million, landing in second place, with both releases outdistancing the combined totals of all other movies on the list. However, despite the numbers, critics gave White Noise overwhelmingly negative reviews.
In continuing release, Miramax's The Aviator starring Leonardo DiCaprio held on to third place with $7.6 million for the frame and $42.9 million after one month, while Paramount's one-month cume for Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events starring Jim Carrey is over the century with $105.5 million. Rounding off the top five is Fox's live-action Fat Albert with Bill Cosby, which has taken in a critics-be-damned $41.2 million. Warner's Ocean's Twelve is a certified hit, now with $115.4 million in the bag, as is Buena Vista's National Treasure starring Nicolas Cage, which has racked up $160.7 million during the lucrative holiday season. Doing modest business in semi-limited release is Buena Vista's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou starring Bill Murray with nearly $20 million. And off to DVD prep is Warner's The Polar Express which will finish around $160 million.
New films in theaters this Friday include Coach Carter starring Samuel L. Jackson, the comic-book adaptation Elektra with Jennifer Garner, and the family film Racing Stripes. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New reviews this week from the gang include The Village, Fighting Elegy: The Criterion Collection, Ice Station Zebra, King Solomon's Mines (1950), Meet the Parents: Bonus Collector's Edition, Youth of the Beast: The Criterion Collection, Random Harvest, The Letter, Ivanhoe, Space Ghost Coast to Coast: Vol. 2, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Vol. 3. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 4 Jan. 2005
In the Works: If you thought all of the good movies were already on DVD, we already have 28 bona fide classics arriving in the early months of 2005. Here's the bunch, courtesy of Image Entertainment and DVDPlanet.com, and additional staff reports:
On the Street: The new year kicks off with a short street-list, but there's more on the way later this month. Fresh this week is a quick double-dip of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind from Universal, while New Line's lighting up their target demo with the stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Up from Warner is a two-disc edition of Troy, while catalog items this time around include Beautiful Girls and She's So Lovely, and TV boxes include new sets of CSI Miami, Millennium, and Las Vegas. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 3 Jan. 2005
Disc of the Week: With Turner Classic Movies' Buster Keaton Collection two-disc set, fans of the popular silent-era comedian can at last devote an entire DVD shelf to the full span of Keaton's brilliant career. After single discs and boxed sets celebrating his early films with Fatty Arbuckle, his peak years of the great shorts, as well as his masterpiece feature films such as The General, now we can see what happened when Keaton moved from being an independent innovator to a hired hand at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the premier studio of the era. The highlight here is The Cameraman, the 1928 comedy heralded as the last really good Buster Keaton film. Joining it are two subsequent films that, in their increasing reliance on formula and decreasing interest in Keaton's input, document how the dictatorial MGM film factory straitjacketed consummate improvisers like Keaton. (The studio also pressed the pillow against the faces of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and other free spirits.) When Keaton's long-time producer, Joseph Schenck, pulled the financial rug out from under him, the offer to join MGM's regimented studio system looked like a lifesaver. But Louis B. Mayer's and Irving Thalberg's promises of creative freedom and top-notch scripts quickly evaporated. Years later Keaton judged the move as a professional guillotine, and the new documentary found here on Disc One shows how correct Keaton's 20-20 hindsight was.
In 1928, when Keaton made The Cameraman as his first MGM title, he couldn't have known that this, one of his biggest hits, would be the final time he'd be allowed to make a film the way he knew how to make them. Never mind the irony that this silent comedy would be regarded so highly that MGM used it as a "training film" well into the 1950s; it was the model that the studio's new comedians among them the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton, and Mickey Rooney had to study, and in some cases copy outright. In The Cameraman (75 min.) Keaton plays a hapless tintype photographer who hopes to up his station in life and win the heart of pretty Sally (Marceline Day) by competing with the big boys as a freelance MGM newsreel cameraman. Among other obstacles is a handsome rival cameraman with designs on Sally. Buster bungles his way to accidental success with the help of a newfound sidekick, an organ grinder's monkey. Directed by Edward Sedgwick, The Cameraman packs in reminders of the old Keaton magic. When he arrives at Yankee Stadium to film a ballgame, he discovers that it's an out-of-towner, so he runs the bases by himself before the empty stands. One of Keaton's best daredevil setpieces catches him in a fierce Chinatown tong war. Afterward, MGM never again permitted the stunt-happy star to put himself at risk. Because The Cameraman grossed Keaton's highest returns to date, MGM considered that a validation of the studio's working methods rather than of Keaton's. So it marked the beginning of the end. Still, Keaton himself held it to be one of his best films, and here it's easy to see why.
Keaton didn't hop on the MGM bandwagon without warnings. Charlie Chaplin told him that MGM would ruin him by helping him: "They'll warp your judgment. You'll get tired of arguing for things you know are right." Harold Lloyd said, "It's not your gang. You'll lose." As Keaton told biographer Rudi Blesh, he knew that his colleagues were right. But he was never the self-managing impresario like Chaplin, so, as he put it, "I made a mistake, just like in my comedies when I do just one little thing wrong and from then on I'm in soup up to my neck." The soup started rising with the next film in this set. MGM's ever-tightening control over Keaton's work made 1929's Spite Marriage (75 mins.) a limp romantic comedy. His last silent, it sees Keaton in love with a jilted, and inebriate, stage star (Dorothy Sebastian, who holds her own, and with whom Keaton was having an affair). She marries him to stick it to the boyfriend who married another woman. Although Spite Marriage delivers some funny bits, especially the famous "putting the snockered bride to bed" scene, Keaton's shrinking freedom is apparent. Finally, his first talkie, 1930's Free and Easy (92 mins.) continues the floorward spiral in a plodding backstage musical that replaces Keaton's deadpan eloquence and ingenious instincts with stilted dialogue and a hodgepodge plot, set on MGM's Hollywood lot, devised to show off appearances by MGM headliners Robert Montgomery, Lionel Barrymore, Cecil B. DeMille, and others. Keaton had a good voice for talkies, but no love for puns and other flaccid verbal gags, rather than knife-sharp physical comedy, devised by meddling "experts." At the climax, his "Pagliacci" clown makeup seems like some sort of personal abuse. Today Free and Easy is a relic with more footnote than comedic value. Worse, severe alcoholism that started after his MGM move, and a shattering marriage at home, were taking a debilitating toll on Keaton. (He is obviously drunk in a scene in Free and Easy.) Just three years after his virtuoso masterwork, The General, Keaton was the definition of a has-been. The glory days of Buster Keaton were over. Generations later, his rediscovery has fostered newfound appreciation that's still going strong, thanks in part to DVDs such as this.
Courtesy of Warner Home Video, Turner Classic Movies' new Buster Keaton Collection: TCM Archives presents all three films looking good and sounding fine. The Cameraman arrives remastered with a new score (in DD 2.0 stereo) by former Frank Zappa band member Arthur Barrow. It's a no-risks organ score that ranges from hokey to conservatively inventive. The film's source master shows consistent wear, though contrast and grayscale are quite good. Its long history as an oft-projected training film has left its mark, and some lost footage remains missing, but this edition is a significant improvement over previous home video versions. (After the original negative was lost in a 1960s vault fire, in the 1990s restoration expert David Shepard located a 35mm fine-grain positive master set aside as source material for an MGM highlights film. Whether that's the source print used for this disc isn't noted, though it's a good bet.) The Cameraman's commentary track by film historian and author Glenn Mitchell offers an authoritative, scene-specific appraisal of the film as well as of Keaton's history before, during, and after its production. Spite Marriage is the best-preserved of the three, with DD 1.0 monaural audio from its original 1929 Vitaphone music-and-effects discs. Its commentary track, by authors and Keaton specialists John Bengston and Jeffrey Vance, dishes up info on MGM's influence, the location shooting, and Keaton's troubled interactions with the studio. The Cameraman and Spite Marriage each comes with an optional two-minute introduction by TCM's Robert Osborne. We also get brief video photo montages for the two silent films. Free and Easy looks and sounds (DD 1.0 monaural) okay while faring the worst. The welcome extra here is film historian Kevin Brownlow's poignant 2004 documentary, So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM (39 mins.). Narrated by Keaton's colleague and friend James Karen, this well-crafted retrospective chronicles Keaton's tragic professional and personal decline during his MGM period, with special attention to the three films on tap here. Rare footage includes archival interviews with Keaton, behind-the-scenes with Keaton in Manhattan filming The Cameraman, plus comparisons between Keaton's original MGM gags and how they were copied by Red Skelton and others. The Buster Keaton Collection: TCM Archives is on the street now.
Box Office: No new films arrived in North American cineplexes over the New Year's holiday weekend, leaving the chart largely unchanged from the previous frame. Universal's Meet The Fockers starring Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro held on to the top spot for the second week in a row, and its 12-day run has been blistering, racking up $163.4 million, nearly matching the total gross of its predecessor Meet the Parents. Holding down second place is Paramount's Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events starring Jim Carrey, which took in $14.7 million for the session and has $94.7 million after three weeks. Martin Scorsese's The Aviator starring Leonardo DiCaprio has done modest business so far for Miramax with $31 million, while Fox's live-action Fat Albert with Bill Cosby has managed $33.8 million in two weekends. And rounding off the top five is Warner's Oceans Twelve. which has cleared $106 million after one month.
New in theaters this weekend is White Noise starring Michael Keaton. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New spins this week from the team include Collateral, King Arthur, Shaun of the Dead, Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, The Manchurian Candidate: Special Edition (2004), De-Lovely: Special Edition, Surviving Christmas, Wimbledon, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, Resident Evil: Apocalypse: Special Edition, The Buster Keaton Collection: TCM Archives, and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle: Extreme Unrated Version. It's all fresh under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.