CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
A Mighty Heart (Grade B+)
U.S.; Michael Winterbottom, 2007, Paramount
Moving, engrossing, sometimes almost breathlessly exciting, Michael Winterbottom's fact-based film drama is about what happened behind the scenes of the desperate hunt for Daniel Pearl (Daniel Futterman), the Wall Street Journal reporter abducted in Pakistan by terrorists.
Most of the focus is on Pearl's pregnant French journalist wife Mariane, played by Angelina Jolie, who uses her considerable charisma to fashion a performance of transfixing, held-back anxiety and grief. (The real-life Mariane Pearl's book was the movie's primary source here.) But the other characters register strongly as well: Will Patton as a wily American consulate official, and Irrfan Khan as the quiet, dogged Pakistani police captain (who isn't above a little torture).
Screenwriter John Orloff and director Winterbottom (The Road to Guantanamo, Welcome to Sarajevo) follow these people through a barrage of street scenes, and rapid-fire events, drenching us in the sights and sounds of a contemporary Third World city in the grip of modern international terror.
Winterbottom is a humanist liberal whose heart is always with the victim and whose ideals are progressive and nonviolent; he excels at this type of story. Jolie, who rarely betrays any emotion here, lets it tear out in two scenes whose ferocity may shatter you. This is a very fine movie, one that makes you feel more connected to the sometimes dangerous world it reveals.
Extras: "Making Of" documentary, public service announcement.
The Jazz Singer (B)
U.S.; Alan Crosland, 1927, Warner Home Video
"You ain't heard nothin' yet!" Al Jolson cried from the smoky jazz club stage in Warner Brothers' legendary 1927 "first talkie" The Jazz Singer -- here given deluxe 80th anniversary treatment by its studio -- and audiences everywhere were electrified.
Widely regarded as the birth film of the cinema sound era, The Jazz Singer changed the face (especially the mouth) of the movie industry, though it was still a hybrid. Most of the picture is an old-fashioned '20s silent movie drama, with Jolson as Jakie Rabinowitz (a.k.a. Jack Robin), the cantor's son, who wants to sing Irving Berlin while his dad wants him to sing at the synagogue. (The background story with its sympathetically observed, if hokey, Jewish urban background, was unusual in its time, even more interesting today.) Jerking the old-style tears were Eugenie Besserer as Jakie's mother, and Warner Oland (later Fox's Charlie Chan) as his cantor dad.
But the stuff that made The Jazz Singer a cultural-technological landmark and a mammoth hit were the tacked-on sound scenes: a few dialogue sequences and Jolson's explosive numbers. It's not a great movie, but it's a great event, a key turning point in film history -- and Jolson's mesmerizing performances (of "Blue Skies," "My Mammy," "Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Goodbye" and others) are all great, show-stopping star turns that can still bring the house down.
The original play and story were by Samson Raphaelson, the suave, witty creator who later became Ernst Lubitsch's most congenial collaborator (on Trouble in Paradise and others); director Alan Crosland, who also made John Barrymore's 1926 Don Juan, was, ironically, one of those silent movie giants whose careers (while, in his case, still prolific) diminished in the sound era he had helped inaugurate.
Extras: Many vintage sound shorts, documentary, vintage Al Jolson shorts, radio adaptation, cartoon.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Carlos Saura Flamenco Trilogy (A-)
Spain; Carlos Saura, Criterion Collection
Antonio Gades dances with fierce control, artistry and seeming abandon; Carlos Saura films with elegance, heart and grace. This lyrical collaboration -- which you could reasonably compare to the ones between dancers Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and their great directors Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli -- produced these three superb dance films, one of them (Carmen) the biggest hit of Spanish master Saura's long career.
Gades, whose face and body have a hawklike sharpness and speed and who whirls and struts like a human tiger, choreographed all three: Blood Wedding, Alfredo Manas' ballet of fate and death based on Federico García Lorca's play, co-starring Gades and his brilliant partner Cristina Hoyos; Carmen, with its backstage plot about a dance production of Bizet's opera, thrown into turmoil by Gades' younger co-star, the stunning Laura del Sol, and El Amor Brujo, based on Manuel deFalla ballet, again with Gades, Hoyos and del Sol.
Blood Wedding (B+)
Spain, Saura, 1981
Spain, Saura, 1983
El Amor Brujo (A)
Spain, Saura, 1986
OTHER NEW RELEASES
The Hoax (B-)
U.S.; Lasse Hallstrom, 2007, Miramax
A compelling true crime drama. Richard Gere plays Clifford Irving, who nearly pulled off one of the great outrageous scams: the phony Howard Hughes autobiography. Alfred Molina is Irving's shaky confederate, French belle de jour Julie Delpy is muse Nina Van Pallandt. It's a movie about a consummate liar/seducer (deftly played by Gere), whose world will crumble around him. For another look, try Orson Welles' witty 1974 half-mockumentary F for Fake -- whose central figure was Irving's other "legit" book subject, art forger Elmyr de Hory.
Hollow Man (Director's Cut) (C)
U.S.; Paul Verhoeven, 2000, Sony
Modern day "Invisible Man" horror variation, with Kevin Bacon as a transparent prankster whose invisibility goes to his head; Elisabeth Shue is one of his (thankfully) visible victims. This is the kind of move that drove Verhoeven back to the Netherlands and to The Black Book. But this is the director's cut.
Crazy Love (C-)
U.S.; Dan Klores, 2007Magnolia
Depends on your taste. This story of a brilliant crazy lawyer who falls wildly in love and then torments, assaults and disfigures his fiancé, before wooing her back again, is interesting and urbanely told enough -- and the ending is a comic shocker. But this guy is a creep, even a creep-of-creeps, his lover-target is a sad victim, and their story, while amusing, is a little sickening.
Jingle All the Way (D+)
U.S.; Brian Levant, 1996, 20th Century Fox
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a desperate dad, in frantic pursuit of a Turbo Man toy (not a Transformer) for his son's Christmas. As a comedian, Schwarzenegger makes a better governor, and here's the proof. With Sinbad, Phil Hartman and Rita Wilson, all of whom seem visibly distressed.
Robin of Sherwood (B)
U.K.; Robert Young, Gerry Mills, Ben Bolt, 1985, Acorn Media
The well-regarded British TV series, with Jason Connery (Sean's son), Ray Winstone and others. More on target than the old Richard Greene TV show or the elephantine Kevin Costner movie.
White Christmas (B) U.S.; Michael Curtiz, 1954, Paramount I think it's sometimes sappy and mechanical, but this refashioning of the Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire-Irving Berlin hit Holiday Inn was the big hit and enduring classic of Michael (Casablanca) Curtiz's later career -- and audiences still watch it happily every Yuletide. (No word on what Curtiz admirer R.W. Fassbinder thought.) Crosby and Danny Kaye are song and dancemen/WW2 vets, helping out their old commander (Dean Jagger) with holiday stage shows; Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen are romantic interest musical gals. What can you say? It works.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
MGM Holiday Classics (B)
U.S.; Various directors, 1934-61, MGM
Three Christmas evergreens: well-deserved holiday favorites, in shiny new DVD trappings.
The Bishop's Wife (B+)
U.S.; Henry Koster, 1947
Angelic Cary Grant (playing a real one) wins B's W. Loretta Young's pretty heart while giving celestial aid to her bishop hubby (David Niven). A polished charmer.
The March of the Wooden Soldiers (Babes in Toyland) (B)
U.S.; Gus Miens & Charles R. Rogers, 1934
One of the top Laurel & Hardy features: their antic version of Victor Herbert's Christmas operetta.
Pocketful of Miracles (B-)
U.S.; Frank Capra, 1961
Capra's variable remake of his way under seen 1933 Damon Runyon-derived Lady for a Day, has Bette Davis in the old May Robson role of Manhattan street lady Apple Annie, who gets to be dowager for a day, Glenn Ford in the part, slick warm-hearted gambler Dave the Dude for which Capra wanted Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin -- and Hope Lange in a Texas Guinan-type role that would have been better for Shirley MacLaine. Capra's last movie sadly doesn't jell, but there's a terrific Capra supporting cast; Ann-Margret, Peter Falk, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Everett Horton, Sheldon Leonard, and many others.
American Silent Horror Collection (B)
U.S.; Various directors, 1920-28, Kino
Four horrific silent features and one bizarre documentary take us back to the heyday of '20s silent Hollywood horror: a simpler, more elegantly scary time when the sets were darkly lit and nightmarish, the stories thrillingly Victorian or Gothic and the acting (especially by the great Lon Chaney and John Barrymore), blood-chillingly unrestrained.
None of these four is a first-rank classic, save possibly The Man Who Laughs. But Barrymore's majestically loony portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is certainly a classic of movie acting, and so is Chaney's tortured miming as the amputee gangster Blizzard in The Penalty.
They're all wonderfully creepy entertainments, though, done with literacy and high spirits. All were made under the shadows of the classic German Expressionist film nightmare The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine, 1919), which, in the early '20s, was often then called the greatest film ever made. All are influenced by it -- especially Man Who Laughs, whose title role is filled by one of Caligari's stars (as the somnambulist), Conrad Veidt. Kino, like Flicker Alley, is a paradise for silent movie lovers; this is a wondrous, fearsome set.
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (B)
U.S.; John Robertson, 1920
Robert Louis Stevenson's literary gem of split-personality terror, is one of moviedom's most oft-filmed stories, and stars from Spencer Tracy to Jerry Lewis (The Nutty Professor) have played the good-and-evil double part. But Barrymore's is justifiably the mark everyone shoots at and misses. This amazing, transcendently hammy actor is truly fantastic here; he does the transformations with some makeup and effects, but mostly with sheer, bravura acting, elevating the mediocrity of most of the rest of the film to near-greatness.
The Penalty (B)
U.S.; Wallace Worsley, 1920
One of Chaney's tormented portrayals of moral and physical grotesquerie. He's the vengeful amputee gangster Blizzard, pursing the doctor he blames, though the surgeon's beauteous daughter (Claire Adams) and he slays us.
The Cat and the Canary (B-)
U.S.; Paul Leni, 1927
One of the quintessential "Old Dark House" murder mystery thrillers -- along, of course, with The Old Dark House. Later remade as a Bob Hope comedy, Cat was based on John Willard's play, with Laura La Plante, Tully Marshall and others going through the shivery night together. Directed by the stylish German émigré Paul Leni (Waxworks).
The Man Who Laughs (B+)
U.S.; Leni, 1928
They're all enjoyable, but this is the gem of the bunch. A high-style adaptation of Victor Hugo's fiercely romantic novel, about the hero (Veidt), whose face has been carved into a hideous smile and who is torn between a true-hearted blind girl (Mary Philbin) and a false aristocrat (Olga Baclanova).
Kingdom of Shadows (C-)
U.S.; Bret Wood, 1998
From Kino's resident DVD producer, Wood, an over-the-top documentary on the old horror era, filled with ghostly clips, narrated, with graveyard ghoulishness, by Rod Steiger.
Extras: Documentaries, vintage shorts and excerpts including footage from Chaney's The Miracle Man and his short western The Sun's Rays, essays, video tours, Stan Laurel's short comedy parody Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride, photo galleries and trailers.