THE CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD
Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years (B+)
U.S.; various directors, 1955-65, Warner
Frank Sinatra was, along with Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley, our greatest pop singer: alternately romantic and cynical, tenderly sensitive and ring-a-ding-ding. But he could act up a storm at times too, and his dramatic prime came in the years including and following his Oscar-winning turn as Maggio in From Here to Eternity.
This collection spans those years, but it's a little too heavy on the drama; only his fantastic title number on The Tender Trap represents the musical Frank. Some Came Running and The Man With the Golden Arm are among his very best dramas, but this set should really have included High Society (even though it's also available on the MGM Cole Porter set) and ditched the awful Marriage on the Rocks. Even so, it's a gasser.
The Man With the Golden Arm (A-)
Otto Preminger, 1955
Sinatra's top dramatic performance, as dealer/junkie Frankie Machine, from the Nelson Algren novel. With Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker and Darren McGavin.
The Tender Trap (B-)
Charles Walters, 1955
A lewd romantic comedy about a swinger (Sinatra) and his comeuppance (Debbie Reynolds). With David Wayne and Celeste Holm.
Some Came Running (A)
Vincente Minnelli, 1959
From James Jones' novel about a war vet/novelist coming home, this film features with Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine in two of their all-time best roles: Dean as Bama, the gambler who never takes off his hat, and Shirley as Ginny, the hooker who breaks your heart.
None But the Brave (C-)
Frank Sinatra, 1965
Sinatra's only directorial effort: an antiwar drama about U.S. and Japanese World War II companies trapped on an island together. He's not a bad helmsman at all, though Tommy Sands really hurts this movie in a key role. So does the script.
Marriage on the Rocks (D+)
Jack Donohue, 1965
A terrible comedy about divorce, mis-starring Frankie, Dino and Deborah Kerr. They're all old enough to know better.
Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection (B+)
U.S.; George Sidney/Busby Berkeley/Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1945-48-49, Warner
Here is the cream of Frank's '40s musical crop: his three wonderful collaborations with dancing pal Gene Kelly. They're usually sailors, sometimes ballplayers. But they're always on pitch and in step, and on the road to singing and dancing paradise.
Gene's ex-buddy Stanley Donen is with them here, too, choreographing the first two films and co-directing (with Kelly) the masterpiece On the Town. You can quibble. The plots are corny. On the Town should have kept more Leonard Bernstein songs and stayed in the streets. Esther Williams in a pool? And who is Jules Munshin, anyhow? But MGM-wise, this is the lion's roar. As the sailors say, "New York, New York, it's a wonderful town!"
Anchors Aweigh (B+)
George Sidney, 1945
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (B)
Busby Berkeley, 1948
On the Town (A)
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1949
CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Great Debaters (B)
U.S.; Denzel Washington, 2007, Weinstein/Genius Products
This is a likably old-fashioned and genuinely inspirational story of how future African American leader James Farmer Jr. (played by young Denzel Whitaker) learned how to debate, becoming a member of a legendary college team, told with feeling and nonshowy clarity by director-actor Denzel Washington (he's the teacher-coach), with a cast that includes the younger Denzel's dad, Forest Whitaker (he's James Farmer Sr.). Full of power and feeling, this is the best kind of popular bio-drama and message movie. The message: Yes, we can.
Youth Without Youth (B)
U.S.-Romania; Francis Ford Coppola, 2007, Sony
Adapted from a mystical, romantic novella by Romanian writer Mircea Eliade, this critically savaged film is nevertheless the kind of movie you'd expect the maker of earlier pictures like The Rain People and The Conversation: something bizarre, experimental, risky and way out of the ordinary.
It's the story, starting in 1938 and looping around Phil Dickishly through several decades, of a linguistics professor in his 70s named Dominic (bitingly acted by Tim Roth), whose age goes into reverse after he's struck by lightning (or something) in the street. This changes his appearance to 40 and sends him on a curious road involving magical roses, doppelgangers, vicious good doctors (played by Bruno Ganz, an angel in Wings of Desire and Hitler in The Downfall), Nazi doctors, temptresses with swastika leg garters, and his own long-lost love Veronica/Laura (played by Alexandria Maria Lara, who was Hitler's secretary in Downfall).
The DVD missed a good bet by not assembling Coppola's original cut, which was an hour longer and involved a now abandoned subplot about the student radical movement in the '30s. But I'm glad Coppola is back, that he's still blazing away, trying something different, defying convention. He should always be working. (Extras: Commentary by Coppola; featurettes.)
The Fire Within (Le Feu Follet) (A)
France; Louis Malle, 1963, Criterion Collection
Except for 1974's Lacombe, Lucien, Louis Malle was never better than he was with Le Feu Follet, the great, somber adaptation of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's roman a clef about his surrealist poet buddy Jacques Rigout and the last days of Rigout's life before suicide. Drieu la Rochelle, a Vichy collaborator, later also killed himself in 1945.
The movie, updated to the contemporary '60s, has a legendary performance by Maurice Ronet (Purple Noon, The Cousins) as Alain Leroy, the Rigaut character. A recovered alcoholic released from a sanitarium, wandering around Paris and the sites of his late debaucheries, meeting friends who adore but can't save him, Ronet's Alain is one of the great, doomed characters of the cinema -- all sad eyes, spare phrases and soft, perishable flesh.
The beautifully controlled black-and-white cinematography is by Ghislain Cloquet, the perfectly appropriate score is drawn from Erik Satie's solo piano pieces, and Malle's one-time lover Jeanne Moreau has an unforgettable cameo as Alain's drug addict ex-amour Jeanne. It's a stunning film. (In French, with English subtitles. Extras: Interviews with Malle and Ronet; documentary, featurette; booklet with essays by Michel Ciment & Peter Cowie.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Indiana Jones: the Adventure Collection (A)
U.S.; Steven Spielberg, 1981-89, Paramount
These are three movies that almost need no introduction, though Temple of Doom could perhaps stand some rehabilitation. All are marvels of big studio Hollywood super-technology: blockbuster-making at its best, created by those raiders of the lost arts, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, with Indy Jones, a.k.a. star Harry Ford (with whom I once acted in summer stock at the Belfry Theatre in Williams Bay, Wis.) cracking that whip, pulling that gun, dodging Raiders' opening Uncle Scrooge booby-trap and showing definitively why Antonioni should have given him a bigger part in Zabriskie Point.
It's Saturday afternoon serial storytelling, done with a technique of high tech and molten fire. Nobody, except possibly Bob Zemeckis, is better at this kind of moviemaking than Lucas and Spielberg. And while we're at it, let's also tip our hats to ace composer Johnny Williams, ace editor Michael Kahn, that incredible genius deep-focus cinematographer Dougie Slocombe and to Lawrence Kasdan, who gave Raiders the script that makes it the trilogy's peak.
Includes: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indy vs. Nazis, with Karen Allen, Denholm Elliott and Alfred Molina; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indy in India, with Kate Capshaw (Mrs. Spielberg) and Roshan Seth; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Indy and the Holy Grail, with Sean Connery, River Phoenix and Elliott. (Extras: Commentaries; featurettes.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Gregory Hoblit, 2007, Sony
The Internet and home video gone mad. Awful thriller. Awful premise. Trust me. I refuse to name the cast out of respect for their talent.
Germany, Pale Mother (B+)
West Germany; Helma Sanders-Brahms, 1980, Facets
This is an immensely disturbing feminist classic, based on Sanders-Brahms' own World War II experiences. A little girl and her mother, left alone while the father fights a war he doesn't want, traverse the nightmare landscape of wartime Germany, where real life horrors echo the ones in the bloody Grimm Brothers fairytale the mother keeps telling her daughter. Eva Mattes is brilliant as the slowly disintegrating mother; Ernst Jacobi moving as the gentle, displaced father. (In German, with English subtitles.)
La Chinoise (A-)
France; Jean-Luc Godard, 1968, Madman
Godard examines the young student radicals of '60s Paris, fighting in the streets and watching Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar. His style is austere, his subject volatile and strangely poetic. Like many, Godard romanticized the revolution that never happened. With Anne Wiazemsky and Jean-Pierre Leaud. (In French, with English subtitles.)
Day of the Outlaw (B)
U.S.; Andre De Toth, 1959, MGM
A bleak western noir, about a town hostage to a gang boss (Burl Ives), with Robert Ryan as his enigmatic combatant, stunner Tina Louise, Nehemiah Persoff and Elisha Cook.
Man of the West (A-)
U.S.; Anthony Mann, 1958, United Artists
One of Mann's best westerns, though with Gary Cooper this time rather than the usual James Stewart. It's a Shakespearean saga of an outlaw-patriarch (Lee J. Cobb) in love with the ex-bandit (Cooper) who must destroy him, with Julie London (in her famous unwilling strip-tease), Jack Lord and Royal Danu. Screenplay by Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men).
The Lovers (B+)
France; Louis Malle, 1958, Criterion Collection
An erotic sensation in its day, this is Malle's ironic tale of the bourgeoisie torn apart by sex. The story suggests Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Jeanne Moreau plays the neglected wife of spiteful husband Alain Cuny; she takes one lover who's a polo-playing fool (Jose Luis de Villalonga), then clicks with a contemptuous outsider (Jean-Marc Bory). The sex scenes still simmer, but the movie now seems more sweet and romantic than taboo-shattering. The music is by Brahms. (In French, with English subtitles. Extras: interviews with Malle, Moreau, others; booklet with essay by Ginette Vincendeau.)
High Society (A-)
U.S.; Charles Walters, 1956, Warner
I can't give this one the highest grade, but I love it just the same: the sparkling, sizzling MGM musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, with Cole Porter writing the songs, and three of the best popular singers of all time (in their prime) singing them: Frank Sinatra in the old Jimmy Stewart role, Bing Crosby in Cary Grant's, and Louis Armstrong as a trumpet-blowing jazzbo Greek chorus. Grace Kelly, in Kate Hepburn's old Tracy Lord role, has a feline grace and dangerous charm, and also on hand are Celeste Holm, Louis Calhern, John Lund and Sidney Blackmer. Walters isn't a bad director at all -- this movie and Lili are his best). But why couldn't Cukor or Minnelli have done it? Ah well.... Even so, American movie musicals have produced few singing numbers that top or come close to Crosby and Sinatra on the elegant, swell-egant "Well Did You Evah?" or Crosby and Satchmo on that unbelievable ultra-hip gone masterpiece "Now You has Jazz." ("Hey, Pops, you wanna grab a little of what's left here?" "Yeah, daddy, yeah!" "Here we go....")
The Westerner (A)
U.S.; William Wyler, 1940, MGM
Another Gary Cooper western, this one is a range-war classic that pits the laconic Coop against Walter Brennan in his great, salty Oscar-winning performance as Judge Roy Bean. With Dana Andrews, Forrest Tucker and Chill Wills.