Monday, 28 Feb. 2005
Disc of the Week: If, quoth Fitzgerald, the rich are different from you and me, then in The Philadelphia Story that's because they're wittier, better-looking, and screwed up in more entertaining ways. This 1940 comedy of high society and its discontents remains funny and romantic and charming, secure in its status as one of the rewatchable Hollywood classics. Of course, you could hardly go wrong with Golden Age MGM blue-chip polish and George Cukor masterly directing Donald Ogden Stewart's irresistibly quotable screenplay that adapted the Broadway hit by Philip Barry. Even so, it's the cast that really makes The Philadelphia Story one of the essentials. Every time Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart connect in a scene, we hear the happy ding! of quality champagne crystal. There's something of The Taming of the Shrew in this sharp-tongued farce set among the fashionable elites and sophisticates. The film's playful spin on class and sexual politics reveals attitudes growing dustier with each generation, and Shakespeare would have added dirtier jokes, but we can imagine him nodding approvingly at the film's Hamlet-like epiphany, "We all go haywire at times, and if we don't maybe we ought to."
Hepburn is haughty ivory-tower divorcée Tracy Lord, a "rich, rapacious, American female." She's due to marry nouveau riche stick-in-the-mud George Kittredge (John Howard), who sums up her frigid persona by praising how "cool and fine" she is, "like a statue." (Later on, the statuesque Ms. Hepburn's subsequent film image is synopsized when Tracy hears that she has "everything it takes to make a lovely woman except the one essential: an understanding heart, and without that you might just as well be made of bronze." Naturally, it'll take a man or two in this case to thaw the ice, preluding her upcoming comedies with Spencer Tracy.) Trouble arrives with her first husband, millionaire dipsomaniac C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). He slips two tabloid reporters, sardonic Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Connor's patient girlfriend Liz (Ruth Hussey), into the Lord estate to scandal-rag the wedding and get revenge on the ex-wife who kicked him out. But Stewart's boozy writer is soon love-struck and rapturously woos Tracy, which trods the toes of Grant's reforming cynic who refuses to pass the torch he's still carrying. Alcohol being the great leveler, what finally melts Tracy's aristo shell is a passionate premarital bender with soulful working-class Connor (providing one of the great Hollywood romantic drunk scenes), followed by her eye-opening morning-after. A parenthetical subplot involving a blackmail scheme, Tracy's philandering father, and Connor's boss is all but superfluous. Noblesse oblige being what it is, by the time the "kiss me, Kate!" ending arrives we've raised our highball glass when Stewart declares, "The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges."
In 1938, after being stamped "box office poison" by a star chamber of movie-theater owners, Hepburn took a hiatus from filmdom. During that break came her Broadway triumph in the stage play, The Philadelphia Story. Barry created Tracy Lord with Hepburn in mind, tailoring Tracy to Hepburn's real-life strengths and brassiness. (Said Life magazine of the movie, "when Katharine Hepburn sets out to play Katharine Hepburn, she is a sight to behold.") With that stage hit in her pocket along with, thanks to her former lover Howard Hughes, the play's movie rights she took charge of a comeback as precision engineered as the Chrysler Building. Hepburn chose the film version's director (Cukor had directed her several times before and always brought out the best in her) and her two co-stars. It says something about her in-control savvy that the film ended up better than the typical vanity project. Its popping dialogue shifts easily between Wildean pith and only-in-Hollywood romantic hooey (e.g., Stewart's swooning ode to Tracy's "fires banked below, hearthfires and holocausts"), with a dermis of worldly cynicism you don't find in its more "screwball" cousins such as Bringing Up Baby. The film is a temple to comic timing, effortlessly handled by Cukor and a dream cast giving career-peak performances. The three stars work together like gin, vermouth, and double entendres. Because Hepburn is so good and so beautiful in her thoroughbred power-androgyny way, we overlook how Tracy Lord is reshaping her screen image so calculatedly we can see the algorithms at work. Grant, as ever, is so handsome and charismatic that its Archie Leach who's the fiction. This is the only time that Grant and Stewart shared the screen, and in their moments together (especially when Stewart is stewed to the gills) they play against each other's types wonderfully. The second-tier cast is also on-target, namely Virginia Weidler, Roland Young, and Mary Nash. Everything clicked. The Philadelphia Story was a smash hit. Hepburn earned her third Academy Award nomination. Stewart won his only Oscar for Best Actor. More importantly, Hepburn gained an MGM contract and was a bankable film star for two generations thereafter.
True to form, Warner Home Video's two-disc Special Edition lovingly restores The Philadelphia Story with a great print and a newly remastered transfer. The black-and-white tones look sharp and solid (though there's some minor flicker now and then). The audio likewise prompts no complaints in hearty DD 2.0 monaural. Bonus goodies begin with a tepid but informative commentary track from film historian Jeannine Basinger. She's reading from lecture notes, but the material is good if you're a fan of the movie. Two worthwhile documentaries start with a 1993 TV retrospective produced for TNT, Katharine Hepburn: All About Me (70 mins.), with Hepburn herself as the narrator and on-camera host. It's a "self-portrait," part autobiography, part filmography. Mighty spry at age 86, she's a warmly congenial hostess whose reminiscences on bygone Hollywood days, affection for the co-stars and other men in her life, and ample film clips and private footage make for a pleasant if not deep survey. More film-schoolish is the documentary on director George Cukor, which comes from Richard Schickel's 1973 series, The Men Who Made the Movies (57 mins.). Sydney Pollack narrates and Cukor looks back at his work, his reputation as an actor's director, and the actors and writers he collaborated with. We also get a 1940 short subject, "That Inferior Feeling" (9 mins.), starring Algonquin Round Table raconteur Robert Benchley, and the 1940 Rudolf Ising cartoon, "The Homeless Flea." An audio-only bonus preserves two radio theater adaptations of The Philadelphia Story. The Victory Theater version from July 1942 (57 mins.) stars Hepburn, Grant, "Lt. James Stewart," and Hussy. This wartime broadcast is introduced by Cecil B. DeMille "speaking for the United States government." The three leads return again in the Lady Esther Screen Guild Playhouse condensed version from March '47 (29 mins.). Finally there's a gallery of five George Cukor movie trailers. The Philadelphia Story: Special Edition is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Nobody expected next year's Oscar nominees to arrive in theaters over the Oscar weekend, but that didn't mean it was predictable Lions Gate's Diary of a Mad Black Woman starring Tyler Perry (who also wrote and produced) found its way to the top of the chart within a $22.7 million break, besting two other new arrivals, both of which debuted in far more locations. Dimension's Cursed starring Christina Ricci opened in fourth place with $9.5 million, while Revolution's Man of the House starring Tommy Lee Jones took the fifth slot with an even $9 million. All three films earned mostly negative reviews from the critics' gallery.
In continuing release, Sony's Hitch starring Will Smith dropped to second place after a two-week run at the top, where it added $21 million to a boffo three-week cume of $122 million, while Warner's Constantine starring Keanu Reeves held down third with $11.8 million for the frame and $50.7 million overall. Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby co-starring Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman is solid in sixth, and it's been good for $64.7 million over 11 weeks, while Fox's Because of Winn-Dixie notched down to seventh with $22.2 million in ten days. Sony's Are We There Yet? hasn't gone anywhere for the last six sessions, clearing the $75 million mark. But off to the cheap screens is Universal's midlist rom-com The Wedding Date, which will clear $25 million.
New films on screens this Friday include Be Cool with John Travolta, The Jacket starring Adrien Brody, and The Pacifier with Vin Diesel. 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 River: The Criterion Collection, while new stuff from the rest of the team this week includes Bringing Up Baby: Special Edition, My Own Private Idaho: The Criterion Collection, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Bambi: Platinum Edition, Exorcist: The Beginning, Stage Door, Libeled Lady, Incident at Loch Ness, Get Shorty: Special Edition, The Philadelphia Story: Special Edition, and South Park: Season Five. 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.
Tuesday, 22 Feb. 2005
On the Street: Modern and archive classics fill out this week's street-list, starting with Warner's splendid two-disc edition of Michael Mann's Heat, while Fox is on deck with a two-disc release of I Heart Huckabees and MGM goes double-wide with a new release of Get Shorty. Also new from Fox are "Studio Classics" releases of Leave Her to Heaven, A Letter To Three Wives, and Return to Peyton Place, while Columbia TriStar is on deck with Behold a Pale Horse, Bitter Victory, Twentieth Century, and We Were Strangers. And up for TV fans is the Season Three box of The Shield. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 21 Feb. 2005
Disc of the Week: Here, then, is where it all began and it's not surprising that we can thank Howard Hawks for it. While some film historians may argue over what actually constitutes the first 1940s film noir, there is far less debate surrounding another popular genre that saw its greatest successes a decade earlier: Screwball. Its masterpieces are well known and roll off the cineaste's tongue. Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve all arrived before America's entrance into World War II essentially halted the genre in its tracks, only to be replaced by noir a few years later, dark urban myths that postwar audiences craved as much as Depression-era audiences delighted to Cary Grant's artless buffoonery and artful deceptions. But why the screwball comedy came about requires a far more complex answer than when few dispute that Twentieth Century (1934), Howard Hawks' raucous tale of star-crossed, train-bound theatrical lovers, gave moviegoers their first glimpse of what would become Hollywood's grand, romantic madhouse.
John Barrymore stars as Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, a svengali with a winning streak as long as the Great White Way itself, which means he considers himself infallible when it comes to uncovering new talent. This time, it's Mildred Plotke (Carole Lombard), who's slated to star in Jaffe's latest play, a creaky Old South melodrama. Director Max Jacobs (Charles Lane) is convinced Ms. Plotke doesn't have what it takes, but Jaffe who's re-christened his new discovery "Lily Garland" practically browbeats her in rehearsal until he makes her a star. A romance blossoms over the next three years (and several hit plays), but Jaffe's pathological jealousy drives Lily to Hollywood, where she finds even more success in motion pictures while Jaffe's subsequent productions bomb. Thus, when he finds himself on the Twentieth Century Limited with ex-lover Lily, Jaffe wastes little time. With the help of cohorts Walter (Oliver Webb) and Roscoe (Owen O'Malley), there are few measures he won't resort to if it means getting his shining star's name on a new contract before the train reaches New York.
It may contain the genetic code of all screwball comedies that followed, but Twentieth Century does not necessarily adhere every last one of the genre's supposed tenants. For starters, a key element of screwball insists that as opposed to a melodrama or a shameless sex comedy it is the woman who is the sexual aggressor, and a great deal of the humor arises from the fact that she pursues the man through all manner of awkward situations. Such is true in basic templates such as The Lady Eve and Bringing Up Baby. And yet, what Twentieth Century underscores is something far more central to the comedy of 1930s moviehouses: the idea of sexual equality. The mere fact that a great Broadway producer such as Oscar Jaffe has been condemned to a string of box-office fiascoes after his star Lily Garland runs off to California doesn't merely reveal that his plays require a popular star. Rather, her presence (or lack thereof) in his life is powerful enough to undermine his own talent, and the fact that he desperately wants her before the footlights again makes it perfectly clear that he regards her as his equal, even if he can't bear to say as much. As for Lily, while she may not be sexually aggressive, there is little doubt that she is sexually liberated the initial breakdown of her three-year relationship with Jaffe centers around the fact that she wants to have a night on the town in a slinky new dress, which is something her svengali won't stand for. Those familiar with the Production Code will quickly note that Twentieth Century was shot before the Hayes Office took power: Lombard appears early on in a slinky bra and shorts, while in two other scenes she clearly isn't wearing a bra at all a curious overlap, since the institution of the Code arguably contributed to the screwball genre's calculated sexual banter. That it came from the prolific Howard Hawks' is not as astonishing in retrospect, since the director had already redefined the gangster genre with 1932's Scarface and would prove himself equally adept over his long career with comedies, action films, noir, and westerns. And thanks to the acrid screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (with uncredited assistance from Preston Sturges), the fact that nobody on screen is all that likable doesn't matter all that much. There would be better screwballs, but not many. And all would owe a debt to this one.
Columbia TriStar presents Twentieth Century in a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a black-and-white source-print that shows a limited amount of collateral wear and solid low-contrast details, while the monaural audio (DD 2.0) is clear and intelligible with barely a hint of ambient noise. Regrettably, the only supplements are bonus trailers. Twentieth Century is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Three new titles arrived in North American theaters over the weekend, but none could edge out Sony's Hitch the Will Smith comedy remained on top of the box-office chart for a second week, adding $31.8 million to a $90.1 million 10-day gross. Arriving in second place was Warner's Constantine starring Keanu Reeves, which narrowly missed the top spot with a $30.5 million debut. Fox's Because of Winn-Dixie landed in third with $10.8 million, while New Line's Son of the Mask took fourth with $7.6 million. Constantine and Winn-Dixie earned mixed reviews, while Mask was widely panned.
In continuing release, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby remains the top draw on the Oscar list, holding down fifth place with $54.6 million so far, while The Aviator ($88.1 m) and Sideways ($58.1 m) continue their slow burns further down the chart. Sony's surprise hit Boogeyman stumbled from second to seventh place, but with a $41.1 million cume that's nearly six times its production budget. However, Disney's Pooh's Heffalump Movie isn't making headway with family ticketbuyers, earning just $11.6 million in two frames. Heading out the door in a hurry is Fox's Hide and Seek, which is bearing down on $50 million. But Robert De Niro's other recent release, Meet the Fockers, goes to DVD prep with $270 million and change.
New films in theaters this Friday include Cursed starring Christina Ricci, Man of the House with Tommy Lee Jones, and Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: D.K. Holm has posted a sneak-preview of Warner's new two-disc Heat: Special Edition, while new spins from the rest of the gang today include I Heart Huckabees, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, She Hate Me, Chariots of Fire: Special Edition, Fandango, Behold a Pale Horse, A Letter To Three Wives, The Shield: Season Three, Body and Soul, Bitter Victory, We Were Strangers, Leave Her to Heaven, Twentieth Century, and The Ice Pirates. It's all under our New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 15 Feb. 2005
On the Street: There's plenty of this-and-that to pick from on this week's street list, including two of our favorites this time around, Merchant & Ivory's Howard's End in a new two-disc edition from Home Vision Entertainment and The Criterion Collection, and Jean-Luc Godard's Tout Va Bien under the Criterion folio. Universal has the well-recieved The Motorcycle Diaries under wraps, as well as a "Fully Baked" double-rip of Half-Baked. Lions Gate is going for chills with the horror flick Saw, while New Line has Hilary Duff in Raise Your Voice and Robert Altman's Kansas City. Fans of Donnie Darko can find a new "Director's Cut" from Fox, Columbia TriStar has Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, and Warner's comedy catalog features the road-movie classic Fandango with Kevin Costner, Sam Robards, and Judd Nelson. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 14 Feb. 2005
Disc of the Week: To American audiences, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory are best known for their trio of E.M. Forster adaptations which is unfortunate for careers spanning 40 years and nearly 30 films together to date (almost all with writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), making their Forster output roughly ten percent of their oeuvre. But then again, the names "Merchant and Ivory" are a sort of cinematic shorthand used to denote Anglo films, in particular literary works set at the turn of the century that depict the British class system in all of its repressive reputation, making it impossible for anyone to express their true feelings. To be fair, M&I's Forster adaptations have been their most successful entries, with both A Room with a View (1985) and Howard's End (1992) receiving multiple Oscar nominations and playing for long runs at American art houses. And yet for all of their supposed refinement, Merchant and Ivory have long struggled to find financing, working almost exclusively outside of the Hollywood and British film industries. In short, they are mavericks. It's rarely a first impression but then again, Ivory was born in California and Merchant in India, making them both outsiders in their own country. Perhaps such is why their Forster adaptations are so revered: Foreign to the culture they're famous for depicting, they seek the heart of the drama within alien landscapes.
Howard's End concerns itself with two families, the Wilcoxes, headed up by Henry (Anthony Hopkins) and Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), and the Schlegels, a family that consists mostly of sisters Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter). The families first interact when Helen falls for Paul Wilcox at Howard's End, but their romance is temporary, and not marriage material. This summer fling sends Helen in a tizzy, and she's still upset months later when Paul's brother Charles Wilcox (James Wilby) gets married and rents a flat next door to the Schlegels. But their proximity allows Margaret and Ruth to become friends, and the two plan on going to Howard's End, yet cannot when Ruth's health begins failing. In a fit before her death, Ruth writes a note leaving Howard's End to Margaret, but Henry and the rest of the family agree to ignore it as the scribbling of a dying woman. The Schelgel women also are invested in helping the underclass Leonard Bast (Samuel West), but it seems everything they do for him hurts him at work, or in his marriage to Jacky (Nicola Duffett). Looking for a new place to live, Margaret strikes up a friendship with Henry that leads to marriage. But it's Henry's daughter Evie's nuptials that bring the Basts to the Wilcox family; Leonard is now out of work, and Helen drags the Basts to the wedding party, where it's revealed that Henry knows Jacky intimately. Helen finds herself invested personally and romantically with Leonard, and it's their relationship that sends the film toward the tragic conclusion that finally puts Howard's End in Margaret's hands.
The most common (and shallow) critiques heard about Merchant & Ivory productions, and British period films in general, are that they seem stodgy, stilted, and slow. And yet such complaints are lodged at the very genre itself; it'd be like complaining about the singing in a musical, or the fact that horror films have unseen monsters. Howard's End is about people, and it's a masterful work because it creates sympathy with, and urgency in, everyone's plights (not surprising, since Merchant and Ivory were profoundly influenced by both Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray). And yet, for what is a period piece, the picture moves briskly and is shot beautifully (by Tony-Pierce Roberts); writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala understands how to mine the narrative seam from Forster's text, while James Ivory gets great performances out of his cast. Here is to be found the archetypal Helena Bonham Carter role: a bit tomboyish, bullheaded, and funny, but deeply human. But it's no surprise that it was Emma Thompson who won an Academy Award for Best Actress this year; the verbose Margaret holds the film together, and through her we see how she deals with working within the system to struggle to get what she wants. Meanwhile, Anthony Hopkins only a year after chewing the scenery is The Silence of the Lambs warmly inhabits his role as the turn-of-the-century patriarch. Among his great touches, he covers his face away from Margaret when he feels emotional, which says everything we need to know about the character and his culture. It's through these few people we see a great and multifaceted story unfold as a touching portrait of two families struggling with the end of an era, and one of the crown jewels of Merchant & Ivory's career.
Home Vision Entertainment presents Howard's End as a part of their ongoing Merchant & Ivory collection in a two-disc Special Edition. The feature film is presented on Disc One in a new and sparkling anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Disc Two features "Building Howard's End," a 43 min. "making-of" documentary covering the development, shooting, and complicated release of the film (it was originally owned in the U.S. by Orion Classics, which went bankrupt after filming), as well as its eventual success. Included are interviews with James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, Helena Bonham Carter, costume designer Jenny Beavan, and production designer Luciana Arrighi. "The Design of Howard's End" focuses on Arrighi's and Beavan's work on the film, while "The Wandering Company" (50 min.) is a 1984 documentary on the work of Ivory, Merchant, Jhabvala, and their then-20-year partnership. It shows the struggles they faced trying to make movies on shoestring budgets, while suffering the occasional prima donnas. Also included are the 1992 featurette (5 min.) and the original theatrical trailer. Howard's End is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Valentine's Day Weekend brought a surprise at the North American box-office Sony's Hitch starring Will Smith shot to the top of the chart with a $45.3 million break. The win gave the film the best opening of any romantic comedy, beating out the $40 million debut of 50 First Dates. Also new this week was Disney's animated Pooh's Heffalump Movie, which landed in fifth place with $6 million. Critics gave both new movies generally positive reviews.
In continuing release, Sony scored a rare "trifecta" by claiming the top three spots on the chart the first time a studio has done so in 16 years. Last week's winner, the low-budget thriller Boogeyman notched down to second place, adding $10.8 million to $33.3 million in 10 days, while Are We There Yet? starring Ice Cube didn't budge from third place, where it's a certified hit after one month with $61.5 million in the tank. Clint Eastwood's Oscar-nominated Million Dollar Baby continues to do strong business in wide release with $45 million, while fellow Oscar contenders Sideways ($53 m) and The Aviator ($82.2 m) are still on the chart. Universal's Meet the Fockers is on the slip after two months, but it'll clear $270 million before it's through. And off to DVD prep is Universal's In Good Company, which will finish with better than $40 million.
New in theaters this Friday is Constantine starring Keanu Reeves, as well as Because of Winn-Dixie and Son of the Mask. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Mr. Beaks has posted a look at MGM's new Raging Bull: Special Edition, while new spins this week from the rest of the team include The Motorcycle Diaries, Taxi, Donnie Darko: Director's Cut, Bright Young Things, School Daze: Special Edition, Kansas City, The Broadway Melody, Tout Va Bien: The Criterion Collection, Body and Soul, The Three Faces of Eve: Fox Studio Classics, Into the Sun, Howard's End, and Half-Baked: Fully Baked Edition. 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, 8 Feb. 2005
On the Street: Up from MGM this week is a new "Martin Scorsese Film Collection," which includes a long-overdue two-disc re-release of the director's classic 1980 Raging Bull starring Robert De Niro, as well as the DVD debut of New York, New York. Other boxing titles on the street from The Lion include two versions of Body and Soul, Dempsey, and Rocky Marciano. Warner observes Black History Month with a new two-disc edition of Spike Lee's Malcolm X, while New Line has The Notebook and Bright Young Things on the shelves. Fresh from DreamWorks is the animated hit Shark Tale. And Universal has the critically praised The Celebration under wraps. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 7 Feb. 2005
Disc of the Week: "Many will say turn away from this man, for he is not a man, but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man and we will smile." Those were but a few of the many eloquent words spoken by a forward-looking Ossie Davis as he eulogized Malcolm X in the winter of 1965. Even then, caught up in the tumult of the civil rights movement, Davis and others knew that Malcolm's complex legacy one of painful evolution from petty criminal to fiery demagogue to conscientious leader would struggle against the simplification of American history. However, what they could not have predicted was that, 20 years later, this hugely important man would be completely excised from black history curricula in predominantly white communities that favored the inclusive, inspiring, but safely anodyne message of Martin Luther King, Jr. A combination of educators blanching at the thought of rending the scabs of past upheaval, as well as the rigors of dealing with nuance in a society that has traditionally been unable to concurrently hold two radically opposed ideas in its collective mind, Malcolm X was reduced to a rumor hidden in the Biography section of local libraries where white children would never know to look for it. Then came 1989, and Public Enemy, and KRS-One peering out a window armed with an Uzi, and, most importantly, Do the Right Thing, its intentionally contradictory epilogue sending curious white teenagers scrambling for the slain black leader's fascinating autobiography, which their parents had to allow since it was dictated to that nice man who wrote Roots. Suddenly, Malcolm X, the man who terrified a nation, had returned with a vengeance to seduce the children of willfully forgetful Baby Boomers.
As with all pop-cultural phenomena, all eyes naturally turned towards Hollywood, whence a cash-in was surely forthcoming. Cleverly, (and, in the face of a black filmmaking renaissance, insensitively), Warner Brothers handed off the property to the uncontroversial Norman Jewison, raising hackles among everyone who knew the film of Malcolm's life was fated to be directed by the man who helped reintroduce him American audiences: Spike Lee, who subsequently strong-armed the well-intentioned liberal off the project and claimed it as his own. Audaciously, and against the efforts of a bond company that did everything to truncate and shut down the production, Lee emerged with a three-hour magnum opus powered by a legendary performance from Denzel Washington as the divisive Black Muslim leader. Examining to a surprisingly unvarnished degree the aforementioned three stages of Malcolm's life, Lee avoided hero worship and crafted a lively, masterfully paced epic of personal transformation that captures the spirit of the autobiography while unavoidably remaining something of a thumbnail sketch of Haley's magnificent work. Beginning in Boston, where a young Malcolm honed his cocky, conk-haired "Detroit Red" persona lindy-hopping to the stomping rhythms of Lionel Hampton's big band, Lee imbues the film with the glorious music of the period, which helps propel it through its first hour with a necessary fleetness. The going gets heavy once Malcolm is consigned to prison, where he's slowly converted to Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam movement by a composite dramatic creation named Baines (Albert Hall). Upon his release, Malcolm begins his rapid ascent to favorite-son status under an encouraging Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.) but splits from his mentor when he is exposed to his hypocritical predilection for spreading his seed amongst his female parishioners. This initiates the third stage of Malcolm's life the enlightenment which begins with his hajj to Mecca and concludes with his assassination in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom.
An artist of broad strokes, Spike Lee commits a multitude of fouls throughout Malcolm X (e.g. leaden foreshadowing with shotgun sound cues, incongruous nods to the events of the early '90s, and stunt cameos), but he invests the work with a depth of feeling frequently absent in major studio biopics. Lee easily could have been paralyzed by the weight of obligation, the need to tell the story cleanly rather than elegantly, but while he does stage the most infamous episodes in Malcolm's life with a jarring triple forte emphasis, he still lets the work breathe with a musical fluidity that's the brilliant stuff of a natural filmmaker. This is in part owing to Terence Blanchard's rich score incendiary, mournful, and delicately hopeful, and trading off seamlessly with Lee's expertly selected pop standards. In many ways, the music really does make the film, particularly in Malcolm's final 24 hours, which swing from a wild paranoia exacerbated by Junior Walker's roaring "Shotgun" to the leader's slow, ethereal trip to the Audubon under the calm benediction of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," the latter representing one of the most unforgettably haunting passages in film history. And speaking of film history, there would be no movie without Washington's effortlessly modulated central performance, which is so astonishing as to be ineffable. In many ways, Washington deserves as much credit as Lee for the film's artistic success, but the director, in toning down his worst rhetorical tendencies, undergoes a transformation himself, delivering a masterpiece more accessible than Do the Right Thing, and, in three transporting hours, giving American viewers a fuller sense of a man too easily derided as a hatemonger. "Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm?" asked Ossie Davis. For those unwilling to read his autobiography, this is probably the closest they'll ever get to communing with the man. They mustn't turn away.
Warner presents Malcolm: Special Edition in a disappointing anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that is not only struck from a less than pristine print, but also butchers Lee's framing in many key instances (e.g., Washington all but disappears out of the left portion of the frame whilst staring down Peter Boyle as he disperses his fellow Black Muslims). The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, on the other hand, is fine. And extras on the two-disc SE are terrific, including an informative feature-length commentary with Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and costume designer Ruth Carter. For those with limited time on their hands, "By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X" is a nice overview of the turbulent production that doesn't sugarcoat the picture's eventual box-office disappointment. Also worth checking out are the nine deleted scenes, all of which are introduced by Lee. However, the best extra of all is the inclusion of Arnold Perl's excellent 1972 documentary Malcolm X, a more emotionally reserved, if still affectionate portrait that fills in some of the gaps left by Lee's film. Malcolm X: Special Edition is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Superbowl Sunday often haunts the box-office numbers, but one new film scared up a surprise or two Sony's horror flick Boogeyman, which cost $7 million and was not screened in advance for critics, shot to the top of the list with a $19.5 million break. Meanwhile, in full counter-programming mode was Universal's The Wedding Date starring Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney, which also exceeded expectations by landing in second place with a respectable $11 million. Nonetheless, critics widely panned both new titles.
In continuing release, last week's winner Hide and Seek with Robert De Niro and Dakota Fanning slipped to fourth place, adding $8.9 million to $35.7 million overall, while Sony's Are We There Yet starring Ice Cube is running on more than fumes, holding down third place and crossing the $50 million mark after three frames. Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby co-starring Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman rounds off the top five with $34.6 million so far, while not far behind is Martin Scorsese's fellow Oscar bid The Aviator starring Leonardo Di Caprio, which has cleared $75 million over two months. Also picking up steam is Fox Searchlight's Sideways with $46.8 million so far, while Warner's family title Racing Stripes has counterprogrammed the Oscar fare for $40.5 million. But off to DVD prep in a hurry is Lions Gate's Assault on Precinct 13, which barely cleared $15 million in wide release.
New on screens this Friday is the comedy Hitch starring Will Smith, as well as the animated Pooh's Heffalump Movie. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: J. Jordan Burke has posted a review of Universal's two-disc Ray: Limited Edition, while new spins this week from the rest of the gang include Mr. 3000, The Notebook: Platinum Series, Vanity Fair, Lèon: The Professional: Deluxe Edition, The Public Enemy, New York New York, Oscar & Lucinda, Malcolm X: Special Edition, and the original Japanese Shall We Dance. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 1 Feb. 2005
On the Street: Criterion kicks off our Tuesday list once again with three classics from the vault, Bernardo Bertolucci's La Commare Secca and a pair from Jules Dassin, Night and the City and Thieves' Highway. Warner's Oscar tributes this week include a new two-disc special edition of Chariots of Fire, as well as The Broadway Melody and The Life of Emile Zola, while 1992's The Bodyguard starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston gets a double-dip as well. Up from Universal is Best Picture nominee Ray starring Jamie Foxx, Vanity Fair with Reese Witherspoon, and a classic catalog item, Preston Sturges's 1942 The Palm Beach Story. Columbia TriStar has thrills in store with The Grudge, as well as two Spike Lee joints, She Hate Me and School Daze. Buena Vista's got Bernie Mac in the baseball comedy Mr. 3000 and Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez in Shall We Dance (as well as the 1996 Japanese original). And Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies is now on DVD from Fox. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment: