Tuesday, 29 March 2005
On the Street: The street-list is worth a look this time around, starting with Criterion's two-disc release of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha, while mainstream platters on the board include New Line's After the Sunset and Vera Drake, as well as Columbia TriStar's Closer. Fans of Ron Howard will be picking up Universal's "10th Anniversary" re-release of Apollo 13, although we suspect more than a few folks will be looking for Trey Parker's Orgazmo: Unrated Special Edition (also from Universal), as well as Troma's The Toxic Avenger: 21st Anniversary Edition. Out of the vault from Paramount are Blue Chips and Lady in a Cage, while conspiracy-minded TV watchers can inspect Fox's The Lone Gunmen: The Complete Series and Image's The Twilight Zone: Season Two. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 28 March 2005
Disc of the Week: Riding high on his international status as one of cinema's greatest directors, in the late 1970s Akira Kurosawa was nonetheless having trouble getting financing in his home country. Following box-office failures most notably 1970's Dodes'ka-den , which was scathingly denounced by critics to the point that the director attempted suicide Kurosawa was considered so unbankable that he made 1974's Dersu Urzala in Soviet Russia. Figuring he might never be able to tell the story of Kagemusha (1980) on film, he then picked up a brush and, using his skilled talents as an artist, told the tale through a series of paintings. Partly on the basis of these works, the 70-year-old Kurosawa secured two financial backers who knew a little something about the difficulties of producing epic movies longtime Kurosawa fans Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. However, in typical Hollywood fashion, once their idol had completed his film, the two American directors then told Kurosawa that he had to cut 20 minutes, claiming that Western audiences would find it too unwieldy. Kagemusha turned out to be a commercial success although that was only of limited help to the director, who still had to go to French investors to fund his next picture, Ran.
In Kagemusha, the director returned to feudal Japan in the late 1500s and the world of the samurai, telling the story of a powerful warlord, Shingen, head of the Takeda clan, who's killed in battle. His dying wish is that his dynasty and his drive to unify Japan continue so a thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) who bears a remarkable resemblance to the warlord is brought in to impersonate him. The "kagemusha" his "double" or "shadow" will serve as Shingen's stand-in for three years, much to the displeasure of the warlord's son, Katsuyori (Hagiwara Kenichi). After fulfilling his role intermittently, the kagemusha learns of the warlord's death and refuses to go on with the ruse, saying that his promise was only to Shingen, not to his retainers. But, after some thought, he changes his mind and slowly becomes the man he's impersonating, leading his clan against their enemies and eventually fulfilling his, and his lord's, destiny.
Having been so painstakingly imagined in paintings years earlier, Kagemusha is gloriously, meticulously shot, with a highly stylized visual sense that makes the film seem almost to be a dress rehearsal for Ran. Battle scenes are enormous, colorful, and awe-inspiring in their scope, while the more intimate, personal scenes are occasionally claustrophobic in their intensity as with Ran, Kurosawa's King Lear adaptation, there's a Shakespearean element to the complex drawing-room political machinations behind the scenes. Having made samurai pictures for much of his career, it's an older, wiser Kurosawa who returns to the theme in Kagemusha, exploring the validity of the samurai code and the belief systems that drive men to seek power and go to war. The power of Shingen's dynasty can only be held together by an illusion; if the kagemusha fails in his task and is unmasked, then all will become chaos. But is a man standing in for a warlord, fulfilling the warlord's wishes, the same thing? At 70, unable to gain respect in his home country and having once tried to kill himself, it's possible that the film's cynical view of power and illusion reflects Kurosawa's feelings about his own career at that point but despite any concerns he may have had about the public's reception to it, the director's love of filmmaking is still apparent here. Kagemusha is an epic work with breathtaking cinematography, gorgeous art direction, and huge, exciting battles. Although perhaps not quite as magnificent as Ran, it's still one of the master's finest works.
Finally presented to Western audiences in its complete, three-hour running time, the Criterion Collection's two-disc Kagemusha DVD release is stunning. Presented in a solid anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), the new, restored high-def digital transfer is virtually flawless sharp, amazingly clean, with rich, bright colors and seemingly perfect contrast. It looks phenomenal, even better than many new releases of current films. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (in Japanese, with newly translated English subtitles) is equally good, whether capturing the quiet tones of hushed conversation or the thundering hoofbeats of riders on horseback. Disc One features an interesting, info-packed commentary track by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, which offers a wealth of information on the making of the film and observations on Kurosawa's entire body of work, plus the American and Japanese theatrical trailers. Disc Two offers three featurettes "Helping a Master: Coppola, Lucas, and Kagemusha," which is a new video interview with Lucas and Coppola (19 min.); "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create," a "making-of" television documentary from the Toho Masterworks Series focusing primarily on Kurosawa's later films (41 min.); and "Image: Kurosawa's Continuity," a fascinating video showing the process that brought Kurosawa's paintings and sketches to the screen (43 min.). There's also a storyboard-to-film feature, three commercials shot for Suntory Whiskey on the Kagemusha set featuring Kurosawa and Coppola, and an extensive booklet featuring paintings from the film plus essays by Darrell Davis and Peter Grilli. Kagemusha: The Criterion Collection is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Two new arrivals at the weekend box-office took the top two spots on the chart, with Bernie Mac the big winner. Mac and costar Ashton Kutcher landed in the top spot with Sony's Guess Who, an update of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, which racked up $21 million. The win easily beat out Warner's Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous starring Sandra Bullock, which was good for $17.6 million since its Thursday debut. Guess Who earned mixed reviews from critics, while Congeniality was widely dismissed.
In continuing release, last week's winner The Ring Two notched down to third place, where it added $13.8 million to a solid 10-day gross of $58 million. Fox's Robots is faring just as well, with $13 million for the frame and $87.3 million after three sessions. And Disney's The Pacifier starring Vin Diesel is starting to look sequel-bound, now with $86.2 million in the bag after one month. Sony's Hitch starring Will Smith continues its juggernaut, holding down sixth place after seven weeks and $166.5 million so far, but Disney's Ice Princess will have to reach a lot of its tween audience on home video, taking in just $3.7 million in its second weekend. MGM's Be Cool has slipped past the $50 million mark. And off to the small screens is Lions Gate's Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which will clear $50 before it's done.
New on screens this Wednesday is Beauty Shop starring Queen Latifah, while Friday sees the debut of Sin City with Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New spins this week from the team include Closer, After the Sunset: Platinum Series, Orgazmo: Unrated Special Edition, Fat Albert, High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story, Union Square, Kagemusha: The Criterion Collection, and Lady in a Cage. 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, 22 March 2005
On the Street: New and old titles fill out the street-list this week including Oscar contenders Finding Neverland from Buena Vista/Miramax and Being Julia from Columbia TriStar, while new from Universal is Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Fox is fresh with Bill Cosby's live-action Fat Albert. But some catalog items are not to be missed this time around, including MGM's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Electra Glide in Blue, Columbia's Stand By Me: Deluxe Edition, and Image Entertainment's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead in a two-disc set with new interviews. And for those looking for small-screen fun, it's hard to beat Fox's The Pretender: Season One and Star Wars: Clone Wars: Vol. 1. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 21 March 2005
Disc of the Week: Director Sam Peckinpah was fascinated by machismo, and everything that surrounds it the codes of honor, the sexuality, the violence. And, like the work of a lot of great artists, his films aren't willing to make compromises. Peckinpah's cinema causes such visceral reactions that some don't want to intellectualize it or can't think about it without reducing the director to the level of a filthy voyeur. The lynchpin scene of this "Peckinpah as pig" thesis can be seen in his 1974 film Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. In it, Bennie (Warren Oates) and Elita (Isela Vega) stop to camp for a night when two armed motorcyclists decide to take them prisoners of their whims. The leader, Paco (Kris Kristopherson), takes Elita away to have his way with her in a protracted sequence featuring slapping and the threat of rape. But the sticky wicket for many is that Paco gives pause to his notions of rape only to have Elita walk over to him, say "please don't," and then kisses him. There are many ways to take the scene: maybe she's turned on, maybe she's doing it to survive even the DVD commentators aren't sure of how to read it but the bottom line with all of Peckinpah's art is that he reveals grays where many viewers would be more comfortable seeing black and white. And yet it's not an artist's obligation to hold the audience's hand; Peckinpah was a provocateur, and the important distinction to make is that he's an observer of human nature who enjoys not necessarily the thing itself, but dealing with moments of violence that provoke complicated emotions (for the characters and audience). But this element was damning for him because it was his second sequence that dealt with uneasy sexual assaults (following 1971's Straw Dogs), and he was branded a misogynist. If one can watch controversial content without judging the author as someone who enjoys it, then Peckinpah leaves a lot to chew on. And though Alfredo Garcia might not be Peckinpah's best film, it's surely his most personal, and most revealing.
Garcia's machinations begin when El Jefe (Emilo Fernadez, best know as Gen. Mapache in The Wild Bunch) screams "Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" when it's revealed that Garcia got his daughter pregnant. With many men in Mexico on the hunt for him, two contract hitmen (Gig Young and Robert Webber) run into Bennie at the hole-in-the-wall bar where he plays piano. Bennie plays big shot and says he knows where to find Garcia, and he's told that all that's wanted is the uppermost element of his dead body. Taking the hitmen's deal, Bennie actually does know where to find Alfredo his girlfriend Elita recently spent three days with Garcia and shortly thereafter got into a fatal car accident. Thus begins Bennie's quest to find Garcia's body and to remove the head to get the money he thinks will keep him and Elita in the high life. The two hit the road, and at first their trip is peaceful and romantic as both talk about settling down and getting married. But it goes sour when they are accosted by the bikers, which leads to a violent showdown. It gets even worse when they finally get to the body, where at the moment of victory Bennie is knocked out and Elita is killed by bounty hunters. Born again from Alfredo's grave, Bennie becomes a suicidal avenging angel mowing down anyone who keeps him from his reward. Now carrying Garcia's severed head who becomes his traveling companion and confidant in the end even the reward money loses its meaning.
In many of Peckinpah's films there's the sense of gunslinger qua filmmaker, a put-upon individual attempting to retain his identity while asked to whore himself out, trying to compromise as little as possible, but knowing that his final goal is, and will be, compromised. Here, Warren Oates's Bennie is the most nakedly modeled on the director, and he's the quintessential Peckinpah lead, besides being one of the great character actors in cinema. With his beaten down face and rough physique, he looks as though he smells of cheap booze and unfiltered cigarettes a perfect Peckinpah surrogate. But for a director's alter-ego, there is no romanticism for the character or his actions, and Bennie is put through the ringer. In Peckinpah's deconstruction of machismo and violence, one of the most important elements is the role of (and fear of) impotence. Garcia, his victim, is also his doppelganger they shared the same woman, and their fates are intertwined. One senses that his desire to get the head has to do with one-upping the man who slept with his fiancée (and gave them both crabs), but once he is finally able to prove his manliness through violence, it seals his fate; this desire ultimately leads to the destruction of his relationship and his life. Unfortunately, Alfredo Garcia was Peckinpah's last "complete" film (everything after was recut or compromised), and the loss is felt. The director spent the next decade struggling to work and losing his battle with alcohol and drug addiction, dying of a stroke in 1984. But when Peckinpah was on, he was one of the greatest filmmakers to ever wield a camera. This was his great last gasp of greatness.
MGM presents Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in a stunning remastered anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) with monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. The film was shot by Alex Phillips Jr. (who also shot 1984's Romancing the Stone) and has never looked better, including the well done day-for-night photography. Because the opening sequence features Spanish with English subtitles, there are four subtitle tracks (along with English, French and Spanish). Extras are limited to an audio commentary and the trailer. The commentary is by Peckinpah scholars Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons (who appears in the film), and David Weddle, and it's moderated by Nick Redman, all of whom appeared on the commentaries for Junior Bonner and The Osterman Weekend. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: To nobody's surprise, DreamWorks' The Ring Two conquered the North American box-office over the weekend the sequel to the hit horror flick, starring Naomi Watts and directed by Hideo Nakata, racked up $36 million, far outdistancing the original's $15 million debut. The weekend's only other new arrival, Disney's Ice Princess starring Michelle Trachtenberg, found its way into fourth place with $7 million worth of tween ticket-sales, falling short of expectations. Princess earned mixed reviews, while Ring Two skewed mixed-to-negative with critics.
In continuing release, Fox's Robots notched down to second place, adding $21.8 million to a strong $66.8 million 10-day gross, while Disney's The Pacifier marked three family films in the top five, with $12.5 million for the frame and $72.2 million overall. And still racking up numbers is Sony's comedy hit Hitch starring Will Smith, which has been good for nearly $160 million after six weekends. MGM's Be Cool starring John Travolta and Uma Thurman hasn't done quite as well, but its $47.2 million cume after three weeks is solid, while Miramax's Hostage starring Bruce Willis is already on the fade in seventh place with $19.3 million in two sessions. Still getting the numbers is Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winner Million Dollar Baby, which looks to clear triple-digits before it's done. And off to DVD prep is Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, which has now topped $100 million.
New on screens this Thursday is Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous starring Sandra Bullock, while the comedy Guess Who with Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher rolls out on Friday. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Dawn Taylor has posted a sneak-preview of Buena Vista/Miramax's Finding Neverland, while Mark Bourne recently spun Image Entertainment's two-disc Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. New reviews this week from the rest of the gang include Being Julia, Stand By Me: Deluxe Edition, Star Wars: Clone Wars: Vol. 1, The Pretender: Season One, La Femme Nikita: Season Two, Come and Get It, Art Heist, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 15 March 2005
On the Street: The street-list is chock-full of good stuff this morning, which means we think more than a few folks will getting out a credit card before the day's through. Up from Warner is yet another spectacular genre collection, "Broadway to Hollywood: Classic Musicals," which includes The Band Wagon, Bells Are Ringing, Brigadoon, Easter Parade, and Finian's Rainbow. Not about to be left behind, Fox debuts three new "Fox Film Noir" titles this week with Call Northside 777, Laura, and Panic in the Streets. And Criterion has a trio under wraps today as well with L'Eclisse, Sword of Doom, and Young Törless. Paramount's ongoing saga of two-disc Trek releases continues with a Special Edition of Star Trek: First Contact, while Jude Law can be seen in last year's remake of Alfie. Also on deck are Warner's Miss Congeniality: Deluxe Edition, Fox's What the Bleep Do We Know!?, and Rhino's End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones. Sound like enough to choose from? Don't forget a little movie called The Incredibles from an out-of-the-way studio called Pixar. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 14 March 2005
Disc of the Week: On top of being one of the best musicals ever made, 1953's The Band Wagon has the benefit of appearing prescient. In it, a Broadway musical is taken over by famous actor-director-producer Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who turns the original pitch of a silly little musical revue staring Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) into a fire-and-brimstone musical staging of Faust. As shown in a three-shot still montage of the show's premiere (one of the film's many famous sequences), this very serious approach lays a goose egg. Around the time of the picture's release, the musical genre was evolving, and though director Vincent Minnelli would have a hand in some of the more serious genre efforts including his Oscar-winning An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958) shortly after Wagon began the run of widescreen Rodgers & Hammerstein adaptations that led to a string of expensive and disastrous late-'60s musicals that killed the genre. These movies eschewed dance numbers for stars like Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin pathetically warbling their way through tepid ballads (fortunately, some performers were redubbed). Pretense and portentousness drove audiences away, and that's the exact sort of serious-mindedness that almost ruins the production in The Band Wagon. Those larger efforts though some have their merits abandon the simple pleasure of watching song-and-dance hoofers do their thing, and that's exactly what this classic offers in spades. When it mattered most, it's too bad that Hollywood didn't look at The Band Wagon a bit more closely.
The movie follows Fred Astaire as Tony Martin a character loosely based on Astaire himself who comes to New York to be in a Broadway show after losing his way in Hollywood. The play is by his friends Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Faberay, modeled on screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green), who then take the script to Jeffrey Cordova (Buchanan, fashioned on Jose Ferrer, but with a dash of the film's director). His brilliant plan is to hire ballet dancer Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse, whose singing voice was dubbed by India Allen) and her boyfriend-choreographer Paul Byrd (James Mitchell). Of course Cordova's meddling turns the production into a disaster, and Tony then takes the helm to rein it back to its fun slight self. Such leads to classic numbers like "Triplets," wherein Astaire, Buchanan, and Fabray perform as babies (and dance on their knees), and to the final big number, "Girl Hunt," the long-revered musical mystery noir ballet. And, of course, the initially bickering pair of Tony and Gabrielle find they are attracted to each other when Paul leaves the show after their initial failure, temptation ensues.
Few filmmakers understood how to shoot a musical number as well as Vincent Minnelli. In the opening song-and-dance number "Shoeshine," Astaire walks into a set-bound street arcade where the act of getting a shoeshine leads him into an impromptu number around the nickel attractions. Minnelli's camera sweeps about and lets Astaire display his boundless talent without unnecessary edits. By keeping the camera active and involved, but never hiding the grace and agility that made Astaire a star, Minnelli captures an elegance of movement that's been lost to time (especially when compared to the modern antecedents). Though the pairing of Astaire with Ginger Rogers is more renowned in film history, Cyd Charisse was an equally capable partner (they also worked together in Silk Stockings four years later), and her dancing skills are just as exquisite. But with her dark hair and Amazonian appeal, Charisse had a more tempting sexuality than Rogers ever did. Nonetheless, their partnership elicited questions; much is made of Tony Hunter's fears that she's too tall for him, and this joke was based on Astaire's off-screen concerns (it turns out they were of about equal height). Yet this blending in of real life sets the tone for the whole story, which plays things loose and funny something easy to do with a comic ace like Oscar Levant. In its lightness, The Band Wagon is a classic. Perhaps it's because the genre was often (at its best) lighthearted and ebullient, but it's also because the picture understands that, in making a great musical, the production should have as little pretense as possible. And after all, this is the movie that made the song "That's Entertainment" famous.
Warner Home Video presents The Band Wagon in a two-disc Special Edition with a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (for purists, the original 1.0 soundtrack also is included). A stunning Technicolor production, the film has been restored, and it now looks better than it ever has on home video. The first disc comes with an amusing commentary track with the director's daughter Liza Minnelli, joined by her friend and film scholar Michael Feinstein. Also included on the first disc is a Fred Astaire trailer gallery offering selections for The Band Wagon and seven other titles. Supplements on Disc Two include "Get Aboard!: The Band Wagon" (37 min.), which features Liza Minnelli, Nanette Fabray, Jonathan Schwartz, (son of songwriter Arthur Schwartz), Cyd Charisse, James Mitchell, Ava Astaire McKenzie (Fred's daughter), and vintage interviews with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and choreographer Michael Kidd. "The Men Who Make the Movies: Vincent Minnelli" (58 min.) is a 1973 documentary on Minnelli directed by Richard Schickel that features an on-camera interview with the director, and it's narrated by Cliff Robertson. Also included is the Vitaphone short "Jack Buchanan with The Glee Quartet" (6 min.), the deleted number "Two Faced Woman" (4 min.), and a selection of dailies (8 min.) that mostly cover the "Two Faced Woman" number. The Band Wagon: Special Edition is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Fox's animated Robots soared to the top of the pre-spring break box-office chart, racking up $36.5 million and easily outdistancing the week's other new debut, Hostage starring Bruce Willis. The Miramax release found its way into fourth place with a $9.8 million break. Critics were mixed-to-positive on Robots, while reviews for Hostage skewed mixed-to-negative.
In continuing release, Disney's The Pacifier starring Vin Diesel notched down to second place, adding a better-than-expected $18 million to a 10-day cume of $54.3m million. Meanwhile, MGM's Be Cool with John Travolta and Uma Thurman dropped into third, where it's now racked up $38.4 million. Sony's Hitch starring Will Smith is on track to becoming one of the highest-grossing comedies of the year, just now cresting the $150 million mark, while Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby has been steady in the midlist for several weeks, now with $83 million to its credit. Warner's Constantine starring Keanu Reeves isn't the mega-smash they were hoping for, although it's managed $66.3 million in its first month. And already off to DVD prep is Fox Searchlight's Sideways, which will finish around $70 million.
New films on screens this Friday include The Ring 2 starring Naomi Watts, as well as the teen drama Ice Princess. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New spins this week from the team include The Incredibles, Star Trek: First Contact: Special Edition, Alfie, Easter Parade: Special Edition, Lightning in a Bottle, Sword of Doom: The Criterion Collection, L'Eclisse: The Criterion Collection, Brigadoon, Panic in the Streets, Laura, Bells Are Ringing, Finian's Rainbow, Call Northside 777, The Rutles 2: Can't Buy Me Lunch, The Band Wagon: Special Edition, and What the Bleep Do We Know!?. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 8 March 2005
On the Street: After a busy couple of months, we actually have a short shopping list this week Buena Vista has Ladder 49 starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta on the shelves, while MGM is rolling out a new Collector's Edition of Hoosiers as well as catalog titles Charly and Stella Dallas. Besides that, there's lots of TV to choose from, including new collections of Friends, Felicity, Popular, and Columbo. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 7 March 2005
Disc of the Week: It happens twice in Ernst Lubitsch's Nazi-mocking burlesque, To Be or Not to Be. Carole Lombard playing a Polish stage actress plotting against the Gestapo amid the rubble of occupied Warsaw puts a comic spin on a line of dialogue by lilting her delivery up as if her voice was preparing to pop a champagne cork, then with a smile she stops and says pop! "Goodbye!" Conversation ended. Surprised, we blink, then laugh as if our bubbly came served in a dribble glass. For such a throwaway bit, it's a marvelous dollop of performance and timing, a jazzy grace note from a pro having a good time. Being Carole Lombard, she can't help but be lovely and sexy. Her character, in fact, depends on it to keep the Nazis from crushing the underground Polish resistance. But from her first pop! she's also disarming and approachable in a way that helps us believe that Mrs. Clark Gable is, in the film, married to Jack Benny. No one could have known during production that her jaunty "Goodbye" would imbue To Be or Not to Be with extra poignancy. Three weeks after production wrapped, while returning home from a war-bond sales tour, her plane crashed into a mountain near Las Vegas, killing everyone on board. That her death added a tragic subtext to Lubitsch's farcical comedy seems appropriate (mordantly so, granted). When To Be or Not to Be premiered in 1942, the great German ex-patriate director was lambasted for the "bad taste" of framing a knockabout lampoon within the deadly serious tragedy of the Nazis' invasion of Poland. "To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case ... one has the strange feeling that Mr. Lubitsch is a Nero, fiddling while Rome burns," said Crowther in The New York Times. Like Chaplin before him in The Great Dictator, Lubitsch aimed a wet raspberry in Der Führer's face. This time, though, America had finally joined the war, and the public mood helped audiences miss the point of Lubitsch's "fiddling."
Casting Jack Benny as Polish prima donna Josef Tura must have felt like typecasting to the film's original audiences. Benny worked for decades off his refined reputation as a ham, and one of Lubitsch's jokes has a German officer setting the tone early by declaring, "What he did to Shakespeare we are doing to Poland." Tura and his wife Maria (Lombard) were the stars of Warsaw's preeminent theater troupe before the tanks blasted in and closed down their anti-Nazi play, Gestapo. Now they perform safe Shakespeare, with Tura obsessing over a young man who, night after night, sees their Hamlet but walks out every time Tura begins the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. The man is a handsome Polish bomber flyboy (Robert Stack) in love with Maria. She's swooning in return as well ("What a husband doesn't know won't hurt his wife"), and his nightly exit is to meet her in her dressing room, where he impresses her with the size of his bombing load. Because he's also working for the underground, his lovestruck delusions pull Maria, and then Josef, into a spy-thriller scheme. So that she can prevent the names of the local resistance fighters from being delivered to the Gestapo, Maria must allow herself to be seduced by traitorous Prof. Siletsky (Stanley Ridges). And even though Tura wonders if his wife is slicing off an extra portion of Polish sausage on the side, he sees where his larger priorities lie and employs his, and his troupe's, acting skills to impersonate the nasty Nazis and intercept the documents that could crush the resistance beneath a thousand jackboots.
To Be or Not to Be has some points of contact with Casablanca, which came out the same year. Here the chief Nazi antagonist goes to Sig Rumann, whose hapless colonel trying to ferret out the underground leaders is a boob even less threatening than the Nazi mug he later mustache-twirled against the Marx Brothers. But for all its freedom-fighting similarities, Lubitsch's film has at least as much in common with Warner Brothers' anti-Nazi propaganda cartoons that started in '42 with "The Ducktators." Lubitsch's Nazis are straight out of the newspaper caricatures, hilariously snapping to "Heil Hitler!" at the drop of any potentially misconstrued remark. If "the Lubitsch touch" can be defined as his ability to harmonize different emotional pitches with an apparently effortless style and wit, we can see it here, for example, when the comedy doesn't pull back from the plight of its Jewish characters. Now only a spear-carrier, Greenberg (Felix Bressart) dreams of playing Shylock, and ultimately gives literally the performance of his life by stalling a squad of Nazi goons with the "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech. One of his Jewish colleagues, meanwhile, finally gets to do his impersonation of Hitler, "just a man with a little mustache," to outwit the brown-shirts. The screenplay, or else the editing, is missing some connective tissue, presumably in favor of pacing, so the film is pretty ragged and uneven. But the dialogue bubbles nicely Siletsky: "Shall we drink to a blitzkrieg?" Maria: "I prefer a slow encirclement" and today comes with an extra snap in our era when "controversy" gets focus-grouped out of major studio comedies. (Siletsky: "You're quite famous in London, Colonel. They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt." Tura, in disguise: "Yes, yes. We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.") Benny and especially Lombard are delightful, and are surrounded by first-rate second-tier plays. Today, hindsight supports To Be or Not to Be as one of Lubitsch's best films, even if for the rest of his career he remembered the critical and commercial thumping that greeted his seltzer-bottle mockery. It's not The Shop Around the Corner or Trouble in Paradise, perhaps, but it's a Lubitsch film and it's about something. It still works as a rip-the-Reich comedy unmatched in its audacity until Mel Brooks' The Producers, which captured its spirit better than Brooks' own remake in '83. And while it's also remembered as Lombard's last film, it's good to know that she considered it the happiest experience of her career.
For 20 years Lubitsch was one of Hollywood's most popular and admired producer-directors. Because he is criminally underappreciated these days, any new release of a Lubitsch film is worth some celebration. So it's a shame that To Be or Not to Be is treated as the awkward stepchild in Warner Home Video’s "Classic Comedy Collection," where it did not receive the red-carpet treatment given to its more well-known box mates. The image quality is good enough, meaning that it arrives with a low-contrast, somewhat too-bright, slightly faded source print. Overall the print is clean; just expect visible wear to mar a few scenes. The DD 1.0 audio is perfectly okay. For extras, we get a couple of pieces of marginalia not directly related to the film. Buy Savings Bonds: A Patriotic Drama (1:33) stars Benny and child star Carolyn Lee in a "buy bonds" promo that plays on Benny's skin-flint rep. More substantial is the 1930 MGM comedy short starring Benny, The Rounder (20 mins.), which does little more than warm over old vaudeville drunk acts, although it's good to see Benny in a role other than his familiar TV and radio persona. To Be or Not To Be is on the street now.
Box Office: In the battle between Hollywood tough guys, Vin Diesel edged out John Travolta and he was babysitting. Disney's The Pacifier starring the former xXx star and a pack of kids took first place at the North American box office over the weekend with a $30.2 million break, edging out Travolta in the Get Shorty sequel Be Cool, which collared the second spot with $23.5 million. Arriving in tenth place was Sundance picture The Jacket starring Adrien Brody and Keira Knightley, which took in $2.7 million in semi-limited release. Jacket earned mixed reviews, while critics were mixed-to-negative on Pacifier and Cool.
In continuing release, last week's winner Diary of a Mad Black Woman notched into fourth place, adding $12 million to a solid $38 million 10-day cume, but Sony's Hitch starring Will Smith has better legs, holding down the third spot after one month with $138.3 million in the bag. The big winner at last week's Oscars, Warner's Million Dollar Baby, didn't get the expected post-ceremony boost, but it held steady with $8.5 million for the frame to round out the top five. Fellow Oscar contenders The Aviator and Sideways slipped out of the top ten with little fanfare, but with solid overall grosses. Meanwhile, Warner's Constantine starring Keanu Reeves has cleared $60 million after three sessions and Fox's Because of Winn-Dixie is bearing down on $30 million. Meanwhile, off to DVD prep in a hurry is another tough-guy babysitter flick, Are We There Yet? starring Ice Cube, which got the bump from Vin after racking up $75 million.
New films on screens this Friday include Hostage starring Bruce Willis and the animated feature Robots. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New spins this week from the team include Flight of the Phoenix, Ladder 49, Hoosiers: Collector's Edition, Dinner at Eight, Stella Dallas, Raise Your Voice, To Be or Not To Be, and The Greatest American Hero: Season One. It's all fresh under the New Reviews menu here on the front page, or use our search engine to scan our entire DVD reviews database.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 1 March 2005
On the Street: The beat goes on at Warner Home Video, and this week they've got classics to spare making its DVD debut is the long-awaited release of Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby, while George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story returns in a special-edition package. Also new in the "Classic Comedies Collection" are Dinner at Eight, Libeled Lady, Stage Door, and To Be or Not To Be. Up from Criterion are Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho and Jean Renoir's The River, while Fox has Flight of the Phoenix and Incident at Loch Ness on the board, and Paramount's going for laughs with The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and South Park: Season Five. However, the week's top-seller is likely to be another classic, Disney's Bambi, which goes digital for the first time this week. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of DVDPlanet.com and Image Entertainment: