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Wilmington on DVD: One goddamn helluva show
There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen


There Will Be Blood (A)
U.S.; Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007, Paramount/Miramax

This is a great American film about the oil industry, set from the late 1890s to the 1920s -- at the dawn of the fossil-fuel era that now seems to be spinning us hell-bent toward world conflict and catastrophe. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson removes most of the second-generation radicalism (and a paean to Soviet Communism) from Sinclair Lewis' powerful but preachy '20 novel Oil! -- a pretty astonishing read itself -- fashioning a neo-Western masterpiece about a driven and unscrupulous oil magnate. The anti-hero/villain: driller/speculator Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the false father who creates a world and destroys it.

There Will be Blood plays like the darker side of that romantic liberal oil-industry epic that George Stevens made from novelist Edna Ferber's Giant -- part of which was shot near the same Texas town as There Will Be Blood. It's more sinister and cynical, though (thanks largely to production designer Jack Fisk and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit) almost as lyrical.

There Will be Blood is a movie of hypnotic power and flow, and Day-Lewis' Plainview is an absolutely stunning and brilliant performance, one of the best-deserved best actor Oscar winners in Academy history. With a voice that reminds you of Walter and John Huston's epicurean drawls and a face that seems solitary, wolfish and full of pinched rage and secret evil, Day-Lewis conquers the audience even as he drowns in oil. (Extras: Featurette, trailers, additional sequences, Silent industrial education film: The Story of Petroleum (1923), with a new Jonny Greenwood score.)

Sweeney Todd (B+)
U.S.; Tim Burton, 2007 (Warners/DreamWorks)

From Stephen Sondheim's scintillating Broadway noir show: A horror musical par excellence. Based on the 19th-century penny dreadful saga of the evil London barber Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) -- who kills customers with a straight razor and a murderous revolving chair, and has his lover-cohort-cook, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) bake them into meat pies -- it sometimes hits you like a combination of Vincente Minnelli and Mario Bava.

Flaws? The singing could be better. With director Tim Burton, in all but a few cases, hiring top-notch actors rather than high-quality voices -- including ex-rocker Depp, first-time singer Carter, Alan Rickman as a fiendish judge, Timothy Spall as his rat-faced minion and Sacha Baron Cohen as a mountebank Italianate barber -- it sometimes seems like a cast full of Rex Harrisons with no Julie Andrews. But mostly, the horrific images and stellar performances do their own singing. This Sweeney Todd is delicious and terrifying -- and sometimes sweetly sad as well. (Extras: Featurette.)

By the way, if you'd like to sample an earlier film version of Todd's tonsorial antics, there's an oddball version available: the likeably cheesy Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (U.K.; George King, 1936) (C-), starring that leering, cackling British Boris Karloff wannabe, Tod Slaughter. (He giggles a lot.) It's available on the micro-budget Double Feature label, and I got it for a buck. The more serious recent non-musical TV version, with Ray Winstone cutting hair and throats, is on Acorn.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (A-)
U.S.; Terry Gilliam, 1987, Allied

A classic. During the often brain-dead movie '80s, Terry Gilliam co-wrote and directed three amazing movie fantasy masterpieces, Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985) and this Baron Munchausen -- which is, in many ways, the most spectacular of them all. Longtime Shakespearean actor John Neville plays the truth-impeded Baron, spinning his last yarns in a town under siege.

His ultra-spiffy supporting cast includes Oliver Reed, Robin Williams, fellow Pythonite Eric Idle and the young Uma Thurman and Sarah Polley. Gilliam is one of the few modern moviemakers whose style, daring and rebelliousness (and his sometimes troubled production record) remind you of Orson Welles. Here, Terry G. and the prevaricating Munchausen are at their peaks. (Extras: Featurettes.)

The Night of the Shooting Stars (A)
Italy: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, 1982, Koch Lorber

A classic masterpiece in a different vein, from the Taviani Brothers, modern neorealists with a gift for leftist humanism. It's an ensemble piece with a motley band of Tuscan villagers wandering a World War II-blighted but still lyrical provincial landscape in the days before liberation. The cast includes Omero Antonutti, Margarita Lozano and Claudio Bigagil. The film is beautiful, funny and moving -- a worthy successor to the tradition of The Bicycle Thieves, La Terra Trema and Open City. (In Italian, with English subtitles.)


Among the female superstars of Hollywood's Golden Age, Bette Davis was the number-one independent gal: a matchless virago, a stalwart heroine and a sometimes feisty bad girl. She was impudent, saucy, challenging, smart -- and it seems fitting that, in the 40s, while Humphrey Bogart was the king of the Warners lot, she was the queen.

This is the third Warners Davis box, and the first from her '50s studio Fox, both released for her centenary. And they still have lots of good material to choose from -- prime Warners, prime Fox and, most of all, prime Bette (with prime extras all through the Warners set). All the films are U.S. productions, except where noted.

Bette Davis Collection, Vol. 3 (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1939-46, Warners
The set includes: The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding, 1939, B+); All This, and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak, 1940, B); The Great Lie (Goulding, 1941, B+); In This Our Life (John Huston, 1941, B); Watch on the Rhine (Herman Shumlin, 1943, B); Deception (Irving Rapper, 1946, B+). (Extras: Commentaries by Foster Hirsch (Deception), Jeanine Basinger (In This Our Life), others; vintage newsreels, shorts and cartoons; radio broadcasts; trailers.)

Bette Davis Centennial Celebration Collection (B)
U.S.-U.K.; Various directors, 1950-65, Fox
This set includes: All About Eve (2-disc collector's edition) (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1950) (A); Phone Call from a Stranger (Jean Negulesco, 1952) (B-); The Virgin Queen (Henry Koster, 1955); Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Robert Aldrich, 1964) (B), The Nanny (U.K.; Seth Holt, 1965) (B). (Extras: Commentaries by Joseph and Chris Mankiewicz (Joe's son) others; isolated score; vintage newsreels and Oscar broadcast; Bruce Dern interview; AMC Backstory; documentaries, featurettes, trailers.)


The 11th Hour (C+)
U.S.; Nadia Conners, Leslie Conners Petersen, 2007, Warner
Disaster-minded producer/co-writer/narrator Leonardo DiCaprio takes us on another tour of one of the great threats to humankind today, global warming. It's a very important subject, often trivialized by right-wing blowhards but well-handled here. The speakers include Mikhail Gorbachev and Stephen Hawking -- but not, unfortunately, the likable dope (George W. Bush) and malicious vice-bully (Dick Cheney) who've been ignoring or downplaying this stuff for seven years.

Reservation Road (C)
U.S.; Terry George, 2007, Universal
Two suburban fathers (Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo), unknown to each other, are involved in a car-van accident that kills the son of one of them. It's a very unlikely, but well-acted and sometimes touching melodrama from the director of Hotel Rwanda and a novel by John Burnham Schwartz. Also in the cast: Jennifer Connelly.

Fog City Mavericks (C)
U.S.; Gary Leva, 2007, Anchor Bay/Starz
Here's a ikable but unexceptional documentary on the great '60s and post-'60s San Francisco moviemaking generations (Coppola, Lucas, Phil Kaufman, John Lasseter, Saul Zaentz). At its worst, in the adulatory Zaentz sections, it begins to resemble a chamber of commerce show. (Shouldn't John Fogerty get equal time?)

Lions for Lambs (C-)
U.S.; Robert Redford, 2007, United Artists
Three part anti-Iraq war story/argument from director-star Redford. Michael Pena and Derek Luke are beleaguered soldiers; Tom Cruise is a snappy Republican senator lecturing reporter Meryl Streep; Redford is a lefty prof trying to light a fire under blasé student Andrew Garfield. The script is the culprit; it comes off way too preachy and self-convinced, and I happen to agree with Redford.

Fireworks Wednesday (B+)
Iran, Asghar FarhadI, 2006, Facets
It's often hard to reconcile Iran's bellicose leaders and political stances with the humanistic Iranian film industry; they seem to hail from different countries. Here's another fine example of Iranian social realism: the finely shaped and acted story, set during day and night on the Iranian New Year festival of fire, of pretty young maid Rouhi (played by the charmingly wide-eyed Taraneh Alidousti), who, quietly and with increasing unease, watches her upper-middle-class employers' marriage fall apart. Tellingly, this is not the drama of a battle between good and evil, but, in the director's words, "between two forms of good." (In Farsi, with ringside subtitles.)

Lost Highway (A)
U.S.; David Lynch, 1997, Universal
Another nonpareil nightmare from David Lynch. It begins with the aftermath of what may have been a murder, then continues toward Death Row by plunging us into what may be the disintegrating psyche and bad dreams of the murderer. Lynch never explains too much, which is one reason the film is so supremely disturbing. The cast -- Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Giovanni Ribisi, Gary Busey and the very scary Robert Blake -- are a really eerie night gallery.

The Ice Storm (A-)
U.S.; Ang Lee, 1997, Criterion Collection
Lee's outwardly icy, inwardly warm-hearted drama, based on Rick Moody's novel, looks at sex and generational gaps in a Connecticut suburb, during Thanksgiving and the Watergate TV hearings in the early '70s. A finely done, very intelligent film -- Bill Krohn calls it the best American move of the '90s in the accompanying booklet -- with a wonderful cast: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver and Joan Allen among the parents; Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood and Katie Holmes among the kids. (Extras: Commentary by Lee and producer-scenarist James Schamus, documentary with cast and crew interviews; video interview with Moody, featurettes, booklet with Krohn essay, others.)

Kaos (B+)
Italy; Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, 1984, Koch Lorber More good Taviani: a multi-part look at Sicily, from Luigi Pirandello stories. (In Italian, with English subtitles.)

The Dragon Painter (B)
U.S.; William Worthington, 1919, Milestone
Sessue Hayakawa, whom most of us remember best as the gruff Japanese Colonel Saito, Alec Guinness' jailer-boss in The Bridge on the River Kwai, was also a genuine star of silent American movies. But if the supreme Cecil B. De Mille sexual melodrama, The Cheat (1919) is the only one much revived or available on DVD, this historically invaluable package from Milestone gives us more than a hunt at the rest. Delicately etched, subtle and painterly, they're evocation of Japanese culture that still resonate today. The Dragon Painter, from Hayakawa's own company, costarring his wife, Tsuru Aoki, is a shimmering psychological romance about of a mad painter (Hayakawa) and his ideal woman/subject (Aoki), filled with lovely visuals and backed with a haunting new Mark Izu score. Packaged with it is a film, in some ways, even better, though less beautifully restored: film legend Thomas Ince's 1914 The Wrath of the Gods (B). It's a more blatant, fierier melodrama, co-directed by Ince and Reginald Barker (Civilization), costarring Hayakawa and Aoki, in a stormy drama of star-crossed love and cultural conflict. (Extras: 1921 comedy short, Screen Snapshots (C-) with Hayakawa, Fatty Arbuckle and others; stills gallery, DVD Rom package that includes the original script and Mart McNeil Fenollosa's original novel The Dragon Painter.)

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