I haven't given out any A+ grades since the column started. But I was sorely tempted this week by the release of Ford at Fox, a wonderful, comprehensive package of John Ford's films for 20th Century Fox, a great box set that includes both famous masterpieces (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine) and delightful obscurities hitherto unavailable.
Now, I've written about Ford at length elsewhere (sometimes with ex-Madisonian Joe McBride who contributes some strong commentaries here), and I'd like to keep adding reviews of this set's contents in subsequent columns -- as I catch up on the ones I've missed (the movies below now marked "Unscreened" or "U").
Anyway, the box set list is so loaded this week, that the Ford tops two other sets, on Ingmar Bergman and Ernst Lubitsch, that are also inarguable must-sees.
BOX SET CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Ford at Fox (A)
U.S.: John Ford (also Allan Dwan & Nick Redman), 1920-2007, 20th Century Fox
John Ford was a surly, rebellious East Coast Irish-American who became, in the opinion of many, the greatest American filmmaker: the cinematic poet of the American past, the nonpareil maker of movie Westerns, and the maverick master of the Hollywood studio system in its controversial but glorious Golden Age. For a lot of that time he was a contract director at 20th Century Fox -- even though many of his greatest works were independent productions or made elsewhere.
This astonishing box set gathers together most of his Fox films: his early silent and sound movies (which sometimes seemed to be journeyman stuff) and the increasingly masterful and more personal work from his magnificent 1939-41 period (which also included Stagecoach and The Long Voyage Home).
Ingmar Bergman (see below) once called Ford the greatest living filmmaker. Others among many colleagues who ranked him at the top included Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet and Japan's Akira Kurosawa (who so idolized Ford that he wore dark glasses to emulate him). This set shows you the vast, incredible range of his work: both the workaday Ford and Ford at his very best. All films, except where noted, are U.S. productions directed by John Ford.
Just Pals (unscreened)
The Iron Horse (A-)
Three Bad Men (A-)
Hangman's House (unscreened)
Four Sons (unscreened)
Up the River (unscreened)
Born Reckless (unscreened)
The Seas Beneath (unscreened)
Dr. Bull (B)
The World Moves On (unscreened)
Judge Priest (A)
Steamboat 'Round the Bend (A)
The Prisoner of Shark Island (B+)
Wee Willie Winkie (B)
Four Men and a Prayer (unscreened)
Frontier Marshall (unscreened)
Allan Dwan, 1939
Drums Along the Mohawk (B+)
Young Mr. Lincoln (A)
The Grapes of Wrath (A)
Tobacco Road (B)
How Green Was My Valley (A)
My Darling Clementine (A)
1946, two versions
When Willie Comes Marching Home (B-)
What Price Glory? (B-)
Becoming John Ford (unscreened)
Nick Redman, 2007
Extras: Commentaries and featurettes. On 21 discs.
Ingmar Bergman: Four Masterworks (A)
Sweden; Ingmar Bergman, 1955-60, Criterion Collection
Bergman is another director I truly love, perhaps even more than Ford. And this set offers the three films -- the first three gems below -- that made him internationally famous: the reigning champ of the world's movie art houses. Smiles shows him in his rare comedy mode; the medieval mini-epic Seventh Seal is one of his most characteristic works (and his personal favorite), and Wild Strawberries is a masterpiece that provided a grad valedictory for the great Swedish actor-director Victor Sjostrom -- and that also made me fall in love with Bibi Andersson. (She's also in Seal and, very briefly, in Smiles.) The Virgin Spring was a movie Bergman himself dismissed as "a lousy touristic imitation of Kurosawa," but he's too rough on the film, his first Oscar-winner and another genuine gem.
The casts of this wondrous quartet include many Bergman regulars, who also worked for him at his theater in Malmo: Bibi, Max Von Sydow (the knight who plays chess with Death in Seventh Seal), Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Gunnel Lindblom, Allan Edwall. Bergman, one of the supreme directors, and screenwriters in film history, is at his best and most vital here. The four films below are all great classics, and he would go on to make many more. All films are directed by Ingmar Bergman, in Swedish, with English subtitles.
Smiles of a Summer Night
The Seventh Seal
The Virgin Spring
CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Arctic Tale (B+)
U.S.; Adam Ravetch & Sarah Robertson, 2007, Paramount
Directors Ravetch and Robertson spent 15 years making this film, which weaves documentary footage of polar bear and walrus families into a story of two young animals growing up and surviving in the Arctic -- an area that the filmmakers make clear is a wilderness vanishing because of environmental damage and global warming. That makes Arctic a film to draw the knuckleheaded ire of the idiot media right (including apoplectic Glenn Beck) and every "expert" chasing after oil money. In a way, perhaps, the movie could be called too cute by half, and Queen Latifah's narration gives it a storybook quality that some will object to. They shouldn't. Arctic Tale is a magnificent achievement and a movie whose heart is really in the right place.
It also inspired my mother, Edna Wilmington, 92 and an artist who is going blind, to call it one of the most beautiful films she's ever seen. (Her other favorites include Lola Montes, Citizen Kane and Singin' in the Rain.)
12 Angry Men (Decades Collection with CD) (A)
U.S.; Sidney Lumet, 1957, MGM
Henry Fonda, as Juror No. 8 -- the lone holdout in a murder trial where all his fellow jurors are convinced of the defendant's guilt -- tries to convince a group that includes bigoted Lee J. Cobb, cynical sports fan Jack Warden, smoothie Martin Balsam, nervous Jack Klugman, adman Robert Webber and punctilious E.G. Marshall.
It's a hot, hot day. We're only out of the jury room for a few minutes at the beginning and end, and director Lumet (in his Oscar-nominated feature debut) actually makes the walls slowly close in on the angry 12 as they argue, vivisect the facts and expose their own prejudices. One by one, calm, liberal, idealistic Juror No. 8 turns them around.
Though Reginald Rose's famous script -- which was earlier broadcast on TV with a cast that included Bob and Franchot Tone -- is certainly dominated by a schematic concept, making Men the kind of likably old-fashioned message drama that usually doesn't age well, you'd have to be tone-deaf cinematically to argue that this move isn't a terrific job and doesn't punch across its themes and characters with formidable skill. It's Lumet at his peak, a tremendous actors' showcase. And it's actually gotten stronger over the years.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Pirates of the Caribbean, At World's End (B)
U.S.; Gore Verbinski, 2007, Walt Disney
The Pirates trilogy ends with a wildly exciting, over-the-top fantasy-adventure that seemed overpacked to some. Perhaps it is. But how can you be mad at a movie that includes in the cast the rocker whom Johnny Depp said was his main influence for Captain Jack: Rolling Stone coconut man Keith Richards? The critics overall were too rough on this; its less playful than Pirates 2, but it's certainly fun to watch. With Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush and Bill Nighy. (Extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes with Verbinski commentary, blooper reel.)
U.S.; Greg Mottola, 2007, Sony
Seth Rogen topped off his breakthrough likable-boor role in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up with this screenwriter outing in a movie that suggests an American Graffiti knockoff with climactic homoerotic undertones. Critics conversely were maybe too kind to this, but it's fun. Rogen shows up as a pot-loving cop.
The Nanny Diaries (C-)
U.S.; Shari Stringer Berman & Bill Pulcini, 2007, Weinstein Company
American Splendor's director team and a good cast (star Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti) are undone by this way-too-arch comedy about an eloquent narrator nanny (Johansson) for a rich Upper East Side Manhattan family.
Lady Chatterley (B)
France; Pascale Ferran, 2006, Kino
Adapting D.H. Lawrence's classic , this French multiple Cesar (or French Oscar) winner looks like Masterpiece Theatre with sex scenes. Marina Hands and Jean-Louis Coulloch play the lovers, but though it's a genuinely passionate film, it doesn't really continue the great French film tradition, as some suggest. It just suggests Masterpiece Theatre would be more popular with nudity. (In French with English subtitles.)
The Girl Next Door (C+)
U.S.; Gregory Wilson, 2004, Anchor Bay/Starz
Based on Jack Ketcham's novel -- from a horrendous true-life criminal case, the basement torture of a poor young girl by suburban neighborhood boys under the direction of a deranged single mom (Blanche Baker, who's terrific in a repulsive role) -- this movie certainly makes you nervous. (It carries an endorsement from Stephen King.) But it also may make you queasy and morally angry. In any case, you won't forget it. (Extras: Commentaries by Wilson, Ketcham and others. Featurettes.)
Wallace & Gromit in 3 Amazing Adventures (A)
U.S.: Nick Park, 1989-95, Dreamworks Animated
The three Wallace & Gromit short classics A Grand Day Out (1989), A Close Shave (1995) and that incredible claymation masterpiece The Wrong Trousers (1993), show the cinema's most amazing man-dog detective team in absolutely top form, with Nick Park's old-fashioned cartoonery and puppetry at its hilarious zenith. (Extras: commentaries with Park, featurettes.)
New York, New York (B+)
U.S.; Martin Scorsese, 1977, MGM
Liza Minnelli, Bobby De Niro and the song that put Sinatra back on the charts. A strange neorealistic/film noir musical that looks better with the passing years. For Scorsese fans, it's a must. (Extras: Commentary by Scorsese, featurettes.)
The Doll (B+)
Germany; Ernst Lubitsch, 1919, Kino
Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin (C+)
Germany, Robert Fischer, 2007, Transit Film
The Doll is a real find. Ernst Lubitsch was a comic genius in two languages, but most of us are only really familiar with his silky Hollywood classics (Ninotchka, Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner).
Lubitsch's silent-era German stuff, made mostly after he'd established himself as a rowdy Jewish slapstick comedian, is closer in spirit to his odd-classic-out To Be or Not to Be, that great anti-Nazi farce with Jack Benny, Carole Lombard and Sig Ruman ("So they call me Concentration Camp Erhard!"). To Be struck 1942 critics as tasteless. Perhaps Doll will too; it's unabashed sex farce starring the sparkly blond comedienne Ossie Oswalda as a doll maker's daughter who masquerades as a life-size doll bought by a shy, probably gay hero as a fake wife. Politically incorrect? Possibly. But it's a really funny piece, and it's drenched with Lubitsch's early mastery.
The Doll and Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin are also available in a new box set, also called Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin (B+), which includes several other Kino films. All are directed by Lubitsch, in German, with English subtitles.
The Oyster Princess (A)
I Don't Want to Be a Man (B)
Anna Boleyn (B+)
The Wildcat (A)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Rocky: The Complete Saga Collection (C)
U.S.; Sylvester Stallone, John Avildsen, 1977-2007, MGM
One of the most curious series of all, this "saga" of the ring legend Rocky Balboa (Stallone, of course) starts off with a rousing spirit-raiser (the first sleeper hit Rocky), then keeps degenerating as the story gradually swells into gigantic nonsense, with Rocky battling ever more amazing foes. Rocky V vainly tries to return to the dream's roots. Finally the series closer Rocky Balboa, though preposterous as well, generates some genuine emotion for the old never-say-die slugger. This set, though, is barren of extras; wait for some other package that doesn't play it so cheap.
John Avildsen, 1976
Rocky II (C-)
Sylvester Stallone, 1979
Rocky III (C)
Sylvester Stallone, 1982
Rocky IV (D+)
Sylvester Stallone, 1985
Rocky V (C-)
John Avildsen, 1990
Rocky Balboa (B-)
Sylvester Stallone, 2007
Bob Hope MGM Movie Legends Collection (C-) U.S.; Various directors, 1943-66, MGM
Bob Hope didn't become a legend because of these movies -- except for the very funny comic swashbuckler Princess and the Pirate and in a way, The Road to Hong Kong, last of the Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies, with a juicy supporting part for Joan Collins, a funny scene for Peter Sellers, a fleeting cameo for Dorothy Lamour and a boozy climactic turn for Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, or the Twig and the Grape, as the Road guys call them. Of the other flicks, only Jesse James is worth a look. The last two are pathetic.
They Got Me Covered (C)
David Butler, 1943
The Princess and the Pirate (B+)
David Butler, 1944
Alias Jesse James (B-)
Norman McLeod, 1959
The Road to Hong Kong (B-)
Norman Panama, 1962
I'll Take Sweden (D)
Fred de Cordova, 1965
Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (D)
George Marshall, 1966