CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Into the Wild (2-disc collector's edition) (B+)
U.S.; Sean Penn, 2007, Paramount
A young college graduate from a privileged background chucks it all and heads for the open road, a choice that ultimately leads him to the edge of doom in the wilds of Alaska. If this movie had been set in the '60s, the main character -- the real-life Christopher McCandless, played here by Emile Hirsch -- might have wound up in a hippie commune farm, or just heading north like Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. But this latter-day tale of revolt against civilization is a more solitary, scary affair.
Despite the fact that Chris keeps meeting people on the way who want to help him (even Hal Holbrook as the Oscar-nominated old man who wants to adopt him), Chris keeps plunging on, away from humanity, away from society, into the cold and wild -- where he may not know enough to survive on his own.
This is director/co-writer Sean Penn's best film -- and probably his most self-revealing as well. It's about a rebellion so profound that it has no room for friendship, camaraderie, union with others. Beautifully shot on location, it's an unsentimental, idealistic, spooky look at the call of the wild. (Extras: Documentaries on the film and the real-life story.)
12 Angry Men (A)
U.S.; Sidney Lumet, 1957, MGM
A classic: Twelve men, jurors for a '50s murder trial, gather together in the sweltering heat of a New York City afternoon, in a box-like jury room where the ceiling fans do little good, to decide the fate of a boy from a Puerto Rican family accused of murdering his father.
All of them seem convinced of the defendant's guilt, except Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda), who votes "Not guilty" and asks that they give the accused a chance, talk it out some more, examine the evidence one more time. The other 11 agree, and then, one by one, Juror No. 8 -- a calm, reasonable, unflappable man devoted to justice -- begins to talk them around, even as tempers flare, the heat punishes them, the walls seem to constantly close in and a final collision looms with the one bigoted, furious juror (Lee J. Cobb), who refuses to switch his vote.
Writer Reginald Rose's great courtroom drama (or maybe off-courtroom drama), the moist influential and memorable of its kind ever made, first appeared on TV in the mid-'50s, directed by Franklin Schaffner, with a cast that included Bob Cummings, Franchot Tone and Walter Abel. When Lumet, like Schaffner a major '60s "Golden Age" TV director, brought Men to the screen, he filled the space between his two seemingly immovable antagonists, stalwart Fonda and prejudiced Cobb, with some of the best TV and stage character actors of the day: Jack Warden (as the guy who just wants to get to the big Yankees game), Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, John Fiedler, Joe Sweeney, Edward Binns and Martin Balsam (as the urbane, mediating foreman).
Lumet is a great director of actors, and this is a great actor's show; every single cast member burns his role your memory. It's also a quintessential Fonda role (he also co-produced) and a classic liberal moral drama. We wouldn't have 12 Angry White Men on a jury anymore, especially in an urban drama -- there'd be women and more minorities hashing it out. But 12 Angry Men, amazingly, has never dated. (Extras: Featurettes, commentary by Drew Casper.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Billy Wilder Gift Set (A)
U.S.; Billy Wilder, 1959-66, MGM
Here are four movies from 1959 through the mid-'60s that show the king of the cynical/sentimental American movie comedy, Billy Wilder, at or near his best. Risqué, quick-witted, unfazed by foibles and unfooled by phonies, Wilder and his dead-on co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond, were two Hollywood moviemakers who ripped up the establishment and understood our society to its core, relishing its delights and scorning its hypocrisies.
Wilder's best buddies, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, appear in three (Jack) and one (Walter) of these movies, and neither man ever did better work. Nor, it should be added, did many of their co-stars, including the delectable young Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment. One question, though: Why not also include One, Two, Three (1961), the savage Berlin Wall comedy with Jimmy Cagney that's also from this period?
Some Like It Hot (A)
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, as Joe and Jerry (two guys who remind you a lot of Martin & Lewis), are Prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy band musicians who accidentally witness the St. Valentine's Day massacre (ordered by George Raft as natty gangster Spats Colombo) and have to flee to Miami, disguised as the female sax and bass of Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators, where the band songbird, Sugar, is the Marilyn Monroe of our dreams. No better American sound movie comedy was ever made than Hot, though a (very) few are just as good.
The Apartment (A)
Lemmon is C.C. (Buddy-boy) Baxter -- a rising young corporate employee who loans his apartment key to his bosses on the make (including Fred MacMurray as Sheldrake) -- is infatuated with dreamy elevator girl Fran Kubelik and is about to learn that you can't get a key to the executive washroom with getting your hands dirty. I love this one madly.
Kiss Me Stupid (B)
Reviled in its day, this is an underrated comedy about small-town sex and songwriting -- with a lot of mad erotic high jinks revolving around an insatiably horny Vegas lounge singer named Dino (Dean Martin, natch) -- in a place called Climax, Nevada. The hick tunesmiths trying to lure Dino into hearing and buying their stuff with the help of local hooker Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), are rotund Cliff Osmond and skinny, madly jealous Ray Walston (an unfortunate past-the-last-minute replacement for the original star, mid-film coronary victim Peter Sellers). They're a bit much, but anyone who thinks this movie goes too far doesn't know Vegas or show biz. Or America.
The Fortune Cookie (A)
A hapless TV sports cameraman, Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) is struck down during a runback play in a Cleveland Browns game; his conniving brother-in-law, that immortal ambulance chaser Whiplash Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau), tries to use Harry's injury to score a huge insurance settlement. Lesser known that either Hot or Apartment, it's almost as good. Trust me. (Extras: Interview with Curtis, commentary, featurettes, alternate scenes, photo galleries, trailers.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Alex Kendrick, 2007, Sony
A low-budget Christian redemption drama about a sleazy, deceptive used-car salesman (played by writer-director Kendrick) who finds God, this is an ultimate non-Hollywood indie, produced by a small church movie company in Georgia. Non-pro Kendrick is a very good actor, his supporting cast comes through, and the movie is surprisingly effective. Given its off-industry origins and lofty soul-saving goals, the C- is a compliment; the same team went on to make Facing the Giants. (Extras: Commentary by Alex and Stephen Kendrick, discussion with the Kendricks, documentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, bloopers, TV spots.)
Ice Age (B)
U.S.; Chris Wedge, 2002, 20th Century Fox
The funny, lively Ice Age cartoon comedy about a sloth, a woolly mammoth and a saber-toothed tiger on a trek to aid a human baby. Chill, dude. (Blu-Ray version; Extras: Featurettes.)
Mrs. Doubtfire (Behind the Seams Edition) (C+)
U.S.; Chris Columbus, 1993, 20th Century Fox
Robin Williams in drag, spying on his kids and his ex-wife (Sally Field), while disguised as an outlandishly friendly housekeeper who looks a bit like an effete Marjorie Main. Pierce Brosnan is on the prowl for Sally, and Williams, of course, learns lessons about gender and marriage. I never liked this one much; it's certainly no Hot or Tootsie, and maybe it's not even a Charley's Aunt. But millions disagree. (Extras: Featurettes; a conversation with the great animator Chuck Jones; deleted, alternate and extended scenes; photo gallery; trailers.)
101 Dalmatians (2-disc Platinum Edition) (B)
U.S.; Wolfgang Reitherman/Clyde Geronimi/Hamilton Luske, 1961, Walt Disney
A terminally cute family of London puppies are among the 101 Dalmatians (Count those spots!) kidnapped by the venomous nicotine-freak femme fatale Cruella De Vil; they become targets of a rescue operation that fills the screen with yippy, yawpy, arfy slapstick. Walt Disney himself was very active in 1961, and this feature bears his strong stamp, including all-American Walt's curious propensity for British themes and subjects. Betty Lou Gerson does Cruella's voice, and the other actors include Rod Taylor and J. Pat O'Malley. As for the 1996 live action remake, it belongs in the pound. (Extras: Featurettes, deleted songs, games and activities, pop-up trivia facts, Walt Disney correspondence, music video.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Some catching up this week: The movies in last year's best DVD box set, the phenomenal retrospective Ford at Fox, were also released in a series of smaller sets. We begin covering them this week.
Ford at Fox (A)
John Ford saw himself as essentially a comedy director, and here are six examples of Ford at his most purely -- or impurely -- comic. None ranks among his accepted classics, and the presence of sleepy-voiced African American comedian Stepin Fetchit in two of three Will Rogers comedies makes them culturally suspect today. But the 1934 Judge Priest, from which anti-lynching scenes was excised for fear of bad Southern reaction, is one of Ford's great movies, and Ford liked it well enough to remake it as 1954's The Sun Shines Bright. If you don't have the complete Ford at Fox set, this offshoot is a good offbeat look at an American movie master.
Up the River (C-)
You'd think a John Ford talkie that boasted very early starring appearances by those nonpareil acting rivals and friends Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart might be an undiscovered gem, but Ford considered this oddball prison baseball comedy "one of my mortal sins." He'll be forgiven. The script stinks, but Ford and the actors make it fun.
Dr. Bull (B)
Will Rogers was a box-office giant when Ford had him here, in an adaptation of James Gould Cozzens' The Last Adam, as an unconventional small-town doctor who defies the bluenoses and snobs. The Ford-Rogers movies got better, but it's still one of the homespun superstar's best roles.
Judge Priest (A)
Based on Irvin S. Cobb's Southern comic tales of a witty, gutsy, warm-hearted judge (Rogers), this is an amiable, irresistibly funny gem with a rousing climax (helped by D.W. Griffith's 'Little Colonel," Henry B. Walthall). I prefer it to the remake, The Sun Shines Bright, where Ford restored the censored anti-lynching scene.
Steamboat Round the Bend (B+)
Unfortunately, this one was cut too (Ford claimed a lot of his humor fell victim). But it remains the classic take on the old steamboat-race, burning-up-the-ship theme; probably inspiring the famous '50s Carl Barks "Uncle Scrooge' comic about a similar race. And Rogers is fantastic in his pre-Andy Griffith style.
When Willie Comes Marching Home (C+)
One of Ford's weirdest movies: Impatient soldier Dan Dailey, unable to get overseas during World War II, stuck stateside in his own hometown, becomes an unhailed hero on a secret mission with the French Resistance (and Corinne Calvet).
What Price Glory (B-) 1952
Another movie of the legendarily profane World War I play by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings