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Wilmington on DVD: Remembering Heath Ledger
El Cid, Life of Brian, The Nines, and Val Lewton
<i>Brokeback Mountain</i> is Ledger's career best: as the secretively romantic outsider/Westerner in Lee and Larry McMurtry's film of Annie Proulx's poignant story.
Brokeback Mountain is Ledger's career best: as the secretively romantic outsider/Westerner in Lee and Larry McMurtry's film of Annie Proulx's poignant story.

In Memoriam: Heath Ledger (1979-2008)
Like Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe, he was a hunk from Down Under. Like them, he seemed destined for Hollywood superstardom. But he was less arrogant, dreamier, and willing to take risky roles that exposed more vulnerable depths -- like the gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain. He was in real life, it's said, a loving dad, an introvert, a regular guy. Brokeback costar Michelle Williams was his daughter's mother, Jake Gyllenhaal her godfather. In his next released movie role, he follows Jack Nicholson as The Joker in the new Batman, The Dark Knight.

Here are his career bests:

  1. Monster's Ball
    U.S.; Marc Forster, 2001
    As Billy Bob Thornton's troubled prison guard son.
  2. The Four Feathers
    U.K.; Shekhar Kapur, 2002
    As the disgraced soldier in search of redemption in the classic A.E.W. Mason British Empire swashbuckler remake.
  3. The Brothers Grimm
    U.S.; Terry Gilliam, 2005
    As one of the fairytale-spouting Grimms (Matt Damon is the other) in this richly over-the-top Gilliam spectacular.
  4. Brokeback Mountain
    U.S.; Ang Lee, 2005
    Ledger's career best: as the secretively romantic outsider/Westerner in Lee and Larry McMurtry's film of Annie Proulx's poignant story.
  5. Casanova
    U.S.; Lasse Hallstrom, 2005
    As history and literature's Great (and indiscreet) Lover, in a lush period comic romp.
  6. Candy
    U.S.; Neil Armfeld, 2006
    One of his lesser-known but top roles, as a drug addict.
  7. I'm Not There
    U.S.; Todd Haynes, 2007
    As great, scathing balladeer Bob Dylan, a part he shares with Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett and others.
Like James Dean, Heath Ledger died too soon -- but that also means that, in the eyes of moviegoers, he'll be forever young.


El Cid (A)
U.S.; Anthony Mann, 1961, Miriam Collection/Genius Products

A really sumptuous and spectacular adventure-romance, El Cid co-stars Charlton Heston (as idealist-soldier El Cid) and Sophia Loren (as his tempestuous love), and is wrung from the legendary tale of honor, battle, hatred, romance and death by director Anthony Mann (as much a master of epics as he was of film noirs and westerns), producer Samuel Bronston and writers Philip Yordan and the uncredited blacklist victim Ben Barzman.

Heston, it was said in France, supplied instant heroism; this is a case where that's definitely true. As the reluctant warrior and long-frustrated lover El Cid, his presence and bearing radiate the qualities of Corneille's model knight and DeMille's Moses alike -- and Loren, who reportedly didn't get along with Chuck, is an ideal grand amour. With this eye-popping couple at the center, among a cast that includes Raf Vallome, Genevieve Page (Belle de Jour's madame), Herbert Lom, Hurd Hatfield and Michael Hordern (the narrator of Barry Lyndon), we're drowned in Miklos Rosza music and overwhelming scenic grandeur.

One of Bronston's vast Spanish-shot epics, made in the heyday of the wide-screen road show, this is one of those films, full of gorgeous landscapes, teeming masses and incredible battle scenes that, like Sergei Bondarchuk's Soviet War and Peace, can't and won't be made again -- because of the greater economy of today's CGI effects and their ghost crowds. If you have a large-screen TV, it's a must buy. If you don't, it's a must buy too -- but you'll wish you had a system to match it. (Extras: Commentary by Bill Bronston and Neal M. Rosendorf, booklet with Martin Scorsese essay, radio interviews with Heston and Loren, featurettes, trailer gallery.)

Monty Python's Life of BrianM (A)
U.K.; Terry Jones, 1979, Sony

By sheer laugh count, this is probably the peak of Monty Pythondom: their madly irreverent, irresistibly hilarious send-up of Hollywood biblical spectaculars, centering on a nervous young Nazarene named Brian (Graham Chapman). Brian isn't Our Lord Jesus, but somehow he goes through many of the same experiences and movie set-pieces (the loaves, the moneychangers, the crucifixion) in a somewhat more left-handed way than the DeMilles and Stevenses of cinema imagined them.

Surrounding Chapman, in multiple maniacal roles, are the whole raving Python gang: persnickety John Cleese, elfin cartoonist Terry Gilliam, vacant-eyed Eric Idle, preoccupied jester Michael Palin and drag gnome Terry Jones (who also directs). Christ, it's funny!

The Nines (B-)
U.S.; John August, 2007, Sony

In a slim week, the most interesting new film release (unless you count Los Muertos, below) is probably this little metaphysical fantasy-thriller from director-writer John August, who scripted Tim Burton's Big Fish. It's an intertwisting three-part tale in which the same actors/characters (Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis and Melissa McCarthy) keep reappearing in different roles, and in different worlds, which all prove to be strangely interconnected.

Reynolds, in a Ben Affleckish turn, plays a reckless druggie movie actor under house arrest, a TV writer with a hot pilot caught in corporate claws, and a videogame designer lost in the woods with his family. Davis is the actor's seductive neighbor, the writer's devious executive angel, and a mysterious woodsy passerby. McCarthy is the actor's publicist (brilliant!), the writer's sitcom TV star/old buddy and the video guy's wife. They're all good -- thrice

The Nines is one of those Twilight Zone-ish fables in which the surface "reality" seems to be masking something deadlier and more mysterious -- and where, in this case, the number nine keeps popping up with disturbing regularity. The inside Hollywood atmosphere is sharp and the ending gratifyingly complex and surprising -- though it palls a bit when you mull it over. (Extras: Commentaries with August, Reynolds, McCarthy and others; August's short film God; deleted scenes; altenate ending, featurette.)


The Val Lewton Collection (A)
U.S.; Jacques Tourneur/Mark Robson/Robert Wise, 1942-46, Warner Home Video

Val Lewton, a.k.a. Vladimir Ivan Leventon (1904-1951), was one of the great Hollywood film producers, though his creative heyday was brief (1942-46, the years covered in this collection) and his field seemingly small. He made low-budget but highly literate and well-acted horror movies for RKO, in the post-Citizen Kane years after the studio went cheap and foolishly exiled Orson Welles.

Fixated on the subjects of death, obsession and strange love, Lawton's dark gems were smart and atmospheric. Even though he employed horror icons like Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell and Boris Karloff (who did his best and subtlest work for Lewton), Lewton's moody, delicate movies never went crude or over the top. They provided the career breakthroughs (and enduring highlights) for directors Jacques Tourneur (The Cat People), Mark Robson (The Seventh Victim) and Robert Wise (The Body Snatcher), and they remain among the most intelligent and oddly lyrical genre entertainments in the whole history of Hollywood. Incidentally, though Cat People, Seventh Victim and Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie are often ranked as the series' best, my favorite is The Body Snatcher. Watch them and shiver.

This set matches the earlier Warner releases of the classic Lewton nine, with a Scorsese-Kent Jones documentary added. All films are U. S. releases. (Extras: Documentary on Lewton with Martin Scorsese; commentaries by Robert Wise, William Friedkin & others; interview with Simone Simon, and trailer.)


Cat People (A)
Jacques Tourneur, 1942

I Walked with a Zombie (A)
Jacques Tourneur, 1943

The Leopard Man (B)
Jacques Tourneur, 1943

The Ghost Ship (B-)
Mark Robson, 1943

The Seventh Victim (A-)
Mark Robson, 1943

The Curse of the Cat People (A-)
Gunther von Fritsch/Robert Wise, 1944

Isle of the Dead (B)
Mark Robson, 1945

The Body Snatcher (A)
Robert Wise, 1945

Bedlam (B)
Mark Robson, 1946


The Invasion (C-)
U.S.; James McTeigue/Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2007, Sony
Novelist Jack Finney's alien invasion evergreen Invasion of the Body Snatchers, cinematically revisited. Compared to Don Siegel's 1956 noir classic, Phil Kaufman's more spectacular 1978 remake, and Abel Ferrara's grim 1994 Body Snatchers, it's the weakest of the bunch, overblown, unbalanced and often absurd. Too many hands and directors are working here at cross-purposes; not even stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig can save them from a pod-like fate.

Los Muertos (A-)
Argentina, Lisandro Alonso, 2003, Facets
Both stunning and visually/dramatically minimalist, this poetic tale of a longtime prisoner (Argentino Vargas) who is released and then descends into the jungle, his past, and his own heart of darkness, is a neglected recent masterpiece. Festival wins: the International Critics Prize at Venice, Best Film at Torino and the FIPRESCI Prize at Vienna.

Groundhog Day (B+)
U.S.; Harold Ramis, 1993, Sony
One of Bill Murray's funniest performances: he's the arrogant, egotistical Pittsburgh weatherman, who journeys to the icy sticks for Groundhog Day and learns to shuck off jerkishness and to love producer Andie MacDowell, when he's condemned to relive the same damned day over and over. (It always starts with Sonny and Cher's obnoxious hit "I've Got You, Babe" on the radio.) Writer-director Ramis' central gimmick may have been borrowed from Frederik Pohl's nifty sci-fi tale "The Tunnel Under the World," where it was played much more for nightmare. Here, it becomes a cautionary comedy about reforming yourself and winning your lady (the winsome knockout MacDowell, of course), and Murray's progress from bully to romantic both amuses and charms. (Extras: Commentary with Ramis, deleted scenes, featurette.)

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