CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Thief of Bagdad (A)
U.K.; Michael Powell/Tim Whelan/Ludwig Berger, 1940, Criterion Collection
The always excellent Criterion outdoes itself with this one: a beautifully remastered print of Thief -- the fantasy masterpiece of producer Alexander Korda, co-director Michael Powell, and stars Sabu, Conrad Veidt and Rex Ingram -- in a two-disc package with one of the best sets of extras around.
The Thief of Bagdad was a wartime production -- in fact the production was interrupted by the war and displaced to Hollywood at one point with Powell and Korda shooting the flag-waving The Lion has Wings in the interim -- but it's still one of the greatest pieces of pure escapism the movies have ever given us. Based on the great 1924 Doug Fairbanks silent, with 15-year-old Sabu taking the Fairbanks thief part (here, he's called Abu), John Justin and June Duprez handling the romance, and Veidt the villainy, it's quite a different kind of movie. The movie is full of gorgeous Technicolor landscapes and cityscapes, incredible William Cameron Menzies sets, lusty performances (they don't come any lustier than Ingram's laughing genie) and one eye-popping, jaw-dropping set piece after another, in an age when CGI magic was unknown. The flying carpet! The flying genie! The eye of the idol! The sorcerer's Pegasus! Wow!
Powell shared the direction with Whelan and Berger, but his wild-eyed Archer's stamp seems to be on most of it. It remains a marvelous, splendor-filled flight of fancy and an almost sure-fire entertainment.
The DVD package has been lovingly assembled too; you'll especially like the commentary on Thief by Powell fans Francis Coppola and Marty Scorsese. (Extras: The Lion Has Wings (U. K.; Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst/Adrian Brunel, 1940, C+); two commentaries, one by Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and one by Bruce Eder; interviews with Powell and composer Miklos Rosza (audio only); documentary; trailer; stills gallery; and booklet with essays by Andrew Moor and Ian Christie.)
Children of Men (A)
U.S.-U.K.; Alfonso Cuaron, 2006, Universal
Children of Men, stunningly directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is a first-rated example of the dystopian science fiction tale -- a story which, like 1984, Brave New World or I Am Legend, imagines a future world gone horrible awry. In this case, novelist P. D. James (better known for her razor-sharp murder mysteries) envisions a world without children: an increasingly desperate and disintegrating society where the youngest alive are 18 and one of them has just died.
Into this world, also plagued by racism and dictatorship -- with England become a fortress society, viciously isolating and persecuting its immigrants and lower classes, and a place where violent revolution is about to break out -- a young black woman named Kee is about to have a baby, watched over by a group of untrustworthy provincial rebels on the run. Who will save her and the baby? Clive Owens (never more like his spiritual granddad Humphrey Bogart) is a cynical government worker pulled into the fray by his ex-lover Julianne Moore and her ambivalent, dangerous cohort Chiwetel Ejiofor; Michael Caine, at his most lovable and sad, is Clive's pot smoking mentor.
Cuaron paints a future urban and rural society that's both convincing and casually terrifying. The entire world has gone to hell, yet somehow people have adjusted, even to mass slaughter. Like his two buddies in the famous Mexican Three Amigos -- fellow genius directors Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (Babel) -- Cuaron can be a technical whizbang as well as a great director. Here, he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki pull off some of the most exciting long take, moving-camera shots ever. The movie itself is bleak and sorrowful and horrifically exciting: as far as I'm concerned, an instant classic. (Extras: Documentary by Cuaron, featurettes, interviews, deleted scenes.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Dario Argento Box Set (B)
Italy; Dario Argento, 1982-2005, Anchor Bay
Dario Argento has been a cult Italian horror movie ("giello") director since his early features, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1968 and Four Flies on Grey Velvet in 1972. He'll probably always remain one, simply because his outlandish, derivative, gory scripts -- often about young women in awful peril, or serial killers running amok -- are so over-the-top and half-crazy, that they belie his often astonishingly stylish execution of them. The five Argento movies here are not, except for Phenomena, the best Argento (that's Deep Red and Suspiria) but they're among his most typical. (Actually though, almost all his movies are typical Argento. He's one director you can spot within three scenes or so.)
Hitchcock always poked fun at critics who nit-picked his movies as "The Plausibles." And The Plausibles will always also be on the case of Argento, one of the most fervent Hitchcock disciples ever. (Witness Do You Like Hitchcock?, which constantly references Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window and Strangers on a Train.) But if you can stomach films full of psychopaths, monsters, knives, blood, corpses, decay, and lots of creepy bugs, his movies are a hell of a lot of fun.
The movies are Italian, but the language is English. Includes: Tenebre (1982, B), Phenomena (1984, B+), Trauma (2002, B-), The Card Player (B-), Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005, B). (Extras: Documentaries, featurettes, commentaries.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Mad Money (D+)
U.S.; Callie Khouri, 2007, Anchor Bay-ITN
A horrible heist comedy, this misuses Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes (as a druggie hipster) playing three U. D. Treasury workers who've figured out how to steal the old, discardable bills. Based, believe it or not, on British fact and a better British movie and directed, to her shame, by the screenwriter of the modern classic Thelma and Louise, Callie Khouri. And yes, Jim Kramer does do a cameo. (Extras: Commentary by Khouri, featurette, trailer.)
South Korea; Kwang Kyung-taek, 2006, Genius Products
A North Korean psycho called Sin (Jang Kun-Dong) hates both Koreas and wants to nuke them all. The heroic Gang (Lee Jeong-jae) is assigned to stop him. Rough weather lies ahead, for director Kwang Kyung-taek and us. This is most expensive Korean production ever -- which is an insult to real movie geniuses like Im Kwon-taek (Chunhyang) and Chan-wook Park (Old Boy).
The British Empire in Color (B+)
U.K.; Series producer Lucy Carter, 2002, Acorn Media
This wondorus incredible British TV history series uses color movie footage assembled from all over the world dating back to the 1910s, to tell the complex story of the fall of the British Empire. The viewpoint is anti-imperialist, but nostalgic; the results are amazing. (Extras: Documentary.)
U. S.; Ron Howard, 1991, Universal
Truly spectacular flames, a fine cast and a nicely melodramatic plot involving feuding brother firefighters (Kurt Russell and William Baldwin) keep this Chicago fire blazing. With Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Donald Sutherland.
U.S.; Bette Gordon, 1983, Kino
This is a well-regarded but pokey feminist drama about a woman (a quite good Sandy McLeod) who becomes liberated while selling tickets at a seedy New York porn theater and stalking one of its better-dressed patrons. Not bad, but…Luis Guzman and Will Patton make strong early-career appearances. (Extras; production stills, essay by Gordon.)
Harry Langdon: Three's a Crowd & The Chaser (B)
U.S.; Harry Langdon, 1927-28, Kino
Harry Langdon was the fourth of the great silent movie clowns anointed by James Agee in his famous Life article. (The others were Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd -- and he should have included both Laurel and Hardy). Harry is the least known, however, mostly because his career collapsed after he made these two movies, his first features as writer-director. Looking at them now, we can see why: studio politics, of course, and the onset of the talkie era. But little Harry -- the most effeminate and childlike of all silent comedians (and a favorite of Samuel Beckett as well as Agee) wanted to win Chaplinesque pathos and lyricism as much as the knockabout comedy he got with his previous co-writer-director Frank Capra. He wound up getting not quite enough of either. Three's a Crowd (1927), full of memorable images of snowy poverty, is Langdon's The Kid, except here Harry harbors both a mother and baby. The Chaser (1928) has Harry condemned by a divorce judge to wear drag and act the woman's part; he revolts on the golf course. They're strange, but they're sweet. The film is silent, with organ scores by Lee Erwin.
OHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Rambo: The Complete Collector's Set (C+)
U.S.; Various directors, 1982-2008, Lionsgate
First Blood, set in the U. S. northwest, with Sly Stallone as John Rambo, a brooding Vietnam vet /commando who clashes with a small-town bully/cop (Brian Dennehy, perfect) and goes on a rampage, was the best: an action thriller that really rocked. The second movie, set in Cambodia, was like some wildly inflated psychotic nightmare that the first Rambo was having while he recovered from his wounds in the first movie. The third movie -- an atrocity set in Afghanistan -- was like an even more psychotic nightmare that Rambo was having while he ran around in the second movie in Cambodia killing dozens of people. In the fourth film he wakes up; it's a return to basics, but not to good sense. So does that make Sly a surrealist? Not unless Schwarzenegger is Cocteau. Includes: First Blood (U.S.-Can.; Ted Kotcheff, 1982, B+); Rambo: First Blood Part II (U.S.; George Pan Cosmatos, 1985, C); Rambo III (U.S.; Peter Macdonald, 1988, D+); and Rambo (U,.S.; Sylvester Stallone, 2008, C+). (Extras: Commentaries by Stallone, Cosmatos and Macdonald; featurettes, deleted scenes, alternate ending and trailers.)
Intelligence (Season 1) (B)
Canada; Various directors, 2005-2006, Acorn Media
From Mr. Vancouver Noir, TV creator-producer-writer Chris Haddock (Da Vinci's Inquest), comes one of the best cop series ever. Here is a maze of police informers and gang treachery that sharply mines the twin themes of Scorsese's The Departed. Trust me: It's as good as Law and Order. The four-disc set includes 14 episodes.
The Three Stooges Collection, Volume Two 1937-39 (B)
U.S.; Various directors, 1937-39, Columbia/Sony
Larry! Curly! Moe! 'Nuff said. Stupidity's finest hour, or at least its finest fifteen minutes. Nyock-nyock-nyock. By the way, did you know that these guys were only 5'4" - 5'5"' tall? And that Moe was a financial wizard? The set includes 24 short comedies, with Larry Fine, and Curly and Moe Howard. Oh, Yeah? Yeah!