CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
High Noon (Ultimate Edition) (A)
U.S.; Fred Zinnemann, 1952, Lionsgate
On his wedding day, retiring western marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper, in his archetypal performance) faces a deadly countdown. As clock after clock keeps ticking away, he awaits the noon train arrival of Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), the man sworn to kill him, while a town full of "friends" keeps vanishing away and refusing to help.
Howard Hawks so disliked this movie that he made the tougher, funnier Rio Bravo in reply. But High Noon is still a classic: a suspense Western of relentless pace and impact that ties you in knots, with a great showdown and a memorable cast: Cooper, Grace Kelly (as bride Amy, the darling who may forsake him), Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr., Harry Morgan, Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and many others -- all but one of whom let good citizen Kane down or can't cut it. It's Bill Clinton's favorite movie, so he says -- and a genuinely great Western, whatever we Hawks fans may once have thought.
The Ballad of Narayama (A)
Japan; Shohei Imamura, 1983, Animeigo
Imamura's great remake of another classic, Keisuke Kinoshita's 1958 Ballad of Narayama, this film is about the isolated mountain town that harshly leaves its elderly to die in the snow, because it can't feed them. With Ken Ogata, it's a quietly annihilating film. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
Funny Games (B)
U.S.; Michael Haneke, 2008, Warner
Michael Haneke's ironic and coldly unsentimental rethink of The Desperate Hours, this film finds two affably mean, preppy-looking punks terrorizing a previously complacent upper-middle-class family in their vacation home. It plays better in the English-language version, largely because that one has a slightly better cast -- Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as the increasingly horror-stricken parents; Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet as the smiling killers. I hate the gag with the remote, by the way. (Extras: Both widescreen and full-screen versions.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Ford at Fox (The Grapes of Wrath set) (A)
U.S.; John Ford, Allan Dwan, Nick Redman, 1939-2007, Twentieth Century Fox
Last year's nonpareil massive re-issue of John Ford's films for Twentieth Century Fox comes in several ways: In the huge 25-film Ford at Fox package, and in several smaller sets. Here is an essential one, if you're not getting the big box, and most people, of course, aren't. The Grapes of Wrath set includes four supreme classics, a feature documentary on Ford, and an earlier version, by "Last Pioneer" Allan Dwan, of the Wyatt Earp tale Ford told in My Darling Clementine.
Drums Along the Mohawk (A-)
Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert are the appealing young couple coping with marital crises, crops and a pretty severe outside conflict, the Revolutionary War, in this film. A robust and lyrical historical romance-adventure, it's based on Walter Edmonds' novel; with Edna May Oliver, Ward Bond and John Carradine.
The Grapes of Wrath (A)
Ford's great social family drama, this classic is based on John Steinbeck's novel about the Okies and the pilgrimage of the Joad family (Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Charley Grapewin) from their ruined land to the "paradise" of California. A masterpiece, it's shot by Gregg Toland in documentary-like images that sear themselves into your mind.
How Green Was My Valley (A)
Here's the movie that beat out Citizen Kane for the 1941 Best Picture Oscar -- and it's almost as good. Ford adapts Richard Llewellyn's autobiographical story of a Welsh boyhood, the dissolution of a family and the labor struggles over the coal mines. With Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O'Hara, Donald Crisp, Sara Allgood, Anna Lee, Barry Fitzgerald, Rhys Williams, Arthur Shields, Irving Pichel as the narrator, and, in one of the all-time-great child movie performances, Roddy McDowall as Huw, it's nothing but beautiful. I can never watch this movie without crying when they bring up Donald Crisp's body from the mines.
My Darling Clementine (A)
Ford's great town-taming Western is presented in both his and Darryl Zanuck's cuts; the latter's was the release version, but the former's is better. The cast is nonpareil too, with Henry Fonda, Ward Bond and Tim Holt as the Earp boys, Walter Brennan (a wonderful villain) as Old Man Clanton, and Victor Mature as Doc Holliday. The exciting O.K. Corral gunfight was modeled on Wyatt Earp's own recollections (as told to Ford), and there are few more lyrical scenes in movies than Wyatt's and Clementine's (Cathy Downs) walk through town and dance at the church-raising.
Becoming John Ford (B)
This fine, sympathetic bio-documentary includes Ford's short World War II documentaries The Battle of Midway (1942 Oscar winner), Torpedo Squadron (1942 too) and December 7 (1943 Oscar winner).
Frontier Marshall (B)
Allan Dwan, 1940
Also included is Dwan's earlier version of the Earp-Clanton saga, based on Stuart Lake's biography. It's a good movie, close to its successor in story and command, but not in pictorialism or drama. It stars Randolph Scott as Wyatt and Cesar Romero as Doc Holliday.
OTHER NEW OR RECENT RELEASES
The Bucket List (B-)
U.S.; Rob Reiner, 2007, Warner
The first half of this likable big-star movie, in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play a couple of cancer patients, one fabulously wealthy grouch (Nicholson) and one autodidact mechanic (Freeman), who meet and befriend each other in a hospital, is excellent. It's a fine acting match up between two consummate pros and great guys. The second half, in which Nicholson takes Freeman sky-diving and reveling on a wildly glamorous international adventure-trip to help fulfill their "kick-the-bucket" wish lists, is overglossy and over-the-top. If writer Justin Zackham and director Rob Reiner had kept their arena more modest, just let their superstars stay in that cancer ward with maybe a few reasonable side trips, instead of having them go Hollywood, this could have been a classic. Instead, it won't make any bucket lists itself. (Extras: Featurette, music video.)Jumper (B-)
U.S.; Doug Liman, 2007, Fox
It's a good science fiction idea: freelance teleporters who can whiz off instantly to anywhere in the world, but find themselves Slan-like outsiders pursued by the secret teleport police. Hayden Christensen is the main "jumper," Samuel L. Jackson his main pursuer, and the cast also includes Diane Lane and Michael Rooker. There are lots of snappy effects, but this action hit didn't engage me that much in the theater or on DVD. (Extras: Commentary by Liman, documentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, animated graphic novel.)
The Other Boleyn Girl (C+)
U.K.; Justin Chadwick, 2008, Sony
This revisionist, murkily shot British historical romantic drama about sexual scandal, based on the Philippa Gregory book, didn't ring my bell. Natalie Portman is the much-filmed, star-crossed Anne Boleyn, ad Scarlett Johansson is her lesser-filmed sister. They're both good, but Eric Bana is highly dubious casting for Henry VIII -- more admirably rendered in past times and movies by Charles Laughton, Emil Jannings and Robert Shaw. Jack Black would have been better.
The Grand (C-)
U.S.; Zak Penn, 2006, Anchor Bay
Am I alone in thinking that high-stakes TV poker tournaments are not some cinematic goldmine? The Deal didn't score, and neither does this 2006 comedy, made with an improvising Chris Guest company-style cast by Penn -- who writes big-time action movies like The Incredible Hulk, and directs experimental indies like this and Incident at Loch Ness. Woody Harrelson plays an airhead gambler who makes the finals; his fellow poker-faced improvisers include Dennis Farina, Ray Romano, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Michael McKean, Jason Alexander, and, believe it or not, German filmmaker Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo), signing on for his second Penn bash. It may be a good thing R.W. Fassbinder wasn't alive for this. (Extras: Commentary with Penn, Harrelson, Romano and others; featurettes; alternate endings; deleted scenes; player profiles.)
When the Moors Ruled in Europe (B+)
U.K.; Timothy Copestake, 2005, Acorn Media
Shot all over Spain and presented/narrated by scholar Bettany Hughes, this superb documentary tries to restore a centuries-long period of Spanish history (700s-1400s) that's been largely erased. It captures the flourishing culture, high civilization and religious tolerance of the Islamic sections of Spain, before Ferdinand, Isabella and others drove out the "infidels" with ethnic cleansing campaigns that included the Inquisition. This is a real eye-opener, and the photography by Colin Clarke of the Alhambra, old Toledo mansions and other Muslim-era marvels, is beautiful. Hughes herself is one of the sexiest onscreen BBC narrators since Civilisation's Kenneth Clark. Truly wonderful.
Human Resources (B)
France; Laurent Cantet, 2000, Kimstim/Kino
This first feature by Laurent Cantet (Time Out) is a coolly observed drama about a provincial factory conflict and strike. The action is precipitated when the business school-educated son (Jalil Lespert) of a longtime assembly line worker returns and gets a managerial job in Human Resources, dividing his loyalties and leading to both familial and labor strife. Intelligent and restrained; the held-back emotions run strongly below. (In French, with English subtitles.)
The Thomas Crown Affair Double Take (B-)
U.S.; Norman Jewison, John McTiernan, 1968-1999, MGM
Two versions of the heist-romantic thriller are packaged here, starting with the snazzy 1968 version staring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. This film had inventive split-screen effects from director Jewison, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and editor Hal Ashby. The reboot, with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in the Steve-Faye roles, is just a spectacular-as-usual. Includes: The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968, B) and The Thomas Crown Affair (John McTiernan, 1999, C+).
Natural Born Killers (A-)
U.S.; Oliver Stone, 1994, Warner, Blu-Ray
Quentin Tarantino didn't like what Oliver Stone did with his script about killer-lovers Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) on the run. But it's definitely Stone's most experimental and wildly inventive film, and for me, a weirdo peak of '90s moviemaking. M. & M., a deranged modern version of Bonne and Clyde and the couple in Badlands, go on a robbing and killing spree that starts with her dad (Rodney Dangerfield) and eventually become national media stars, then rebel jailbirds thanks to irresponsible TV hounds like Robert Downey Jr.'s Aussie tabloid screamer. The movie, which is about American violence on all levels, keeps leaping and lunging from one crazy burst of carnage, flipped-out media satire and bloody fantasy to another; the cast includes Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Russell Means, Arliss Howard and many others. Note: This edition includes some key deleted scenes, including Stone's original ("alternate") ending. That ending -- bleak, horrific and total noir -- is the one he should have used, instead of the compromised cut he made for release.
The Professionals (B+)
U.S.; Richard Brooks, 1966, Sony, Blu-Ray
This terrific '60s Western finds mercenaries Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode hired by rich rat Ralph Bellamy to go after his wife Claudia Cardinale and her lover Jack Palance. Marvin claimed he didn't play Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch (for which he was Peckinpah's first choice), because it was too close to The Professionals. A mistake by Marvin, but it's still a crackerjack movie -- and a great favorite of my late friend, Don "Sluggo" Carlson.
OTHER NEW OR RECENT BOX SETS
The Grand (Complete Collection) (B)
U.K.; various directors; written by Russell T Davies, 1997-9, Acorn Media
A classy, sparkling British TV serial in the Upstairs, Downstairs tradition but more risqué, The Grand is about a luxury hotel in Manchester rife with intrigues, conflicts and dangerous liaisons. The episodes in this six disc, 18-episode set follows the family who own the hotel; the staff, headed by a plucky manager (Tim Healy); and the guests, including Susan Hampshire as an ageless, elegant courtesan-in-residence. It was created, and very wittily written, by Russell T. Davies of Queer as Folk.