DVD CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Bram Stoker's Dracula (Grade: A-)
U.S.; Francis Coppola, 1992, Sony
Francis Coppola's film of the most durable of all vampire tales, with Gary Oldman as the courtly bloodsucker Count Drac, Winona Ryder as his pale pretty prey Mina Murray, Keanu Reeves as a wholly improbable Jonathan Harker and Anthony Hopkins as the Count's dogged pursuer/ scientist/nemesis Van Helsing -- is a wild, gorgeous, fantastically embellished and lavishly operatic horror romp, with Coppola and his team (including R.W. Fassbinder's cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) shooting the cinematic works. This is Coppola in his go-for-broke Apocalypse NowOne from the Heart-Rumblefish mode: unrestrained, reveling in the sheer magic and possibilities of movies.
Despite the title and fidelity, this is less Bram Stoker's novel than Stoker succumbing to some 20th century post-Bonnie and Clyde revisionism. In James V. Hart's script and Coppola's slant, Oldman-as-Dracula is a more sympathetic, tormented soul: a 15th-century Romanian nobleman seeking love and revenge in the 19th. The novel, by contrast, casts him as pure evil.
Between the shudders, one's heart bleeds a bit for this Dracula even as the throats of the heroines bleed with mad love. There's a big flaw: Keanu Reeves is not exactly the ideal Jonathan Harker or even a plausible Brit. (Wasn't Johnny Depp available?) But, Reeves aside, this movie is more literary, finer and more spectacular than most screen "Draculas." the horrific legend that inspired F.W. Murnau, Tod Browning, Roman Polanski, Werner Herzog and many others gives Coppola all the table setting he needs for a mad, elegant feast of blood and movie artifice.
Funny Face (A)
U.S.; Stanley Donen, 1957, Paramount
One of the great Fred Astaire movies -- and one of the great Audrey Hepburn movies as well. The setting is the chic, cheeky world of New York and Parisian high fashion, with Astaire as a happy-go-lucky fashion photographer (named Richard Avery and modeled on Richard Avedon, the film's visual consultant), Kay Thompson (the writer of Eloise fame) as his Vogue-ish editor Maggie Prescott and Hepburn as winsome Greenwich village bookshop clerk Jo Stockton, recruited as the Mag's new supermodel. (Felicitous Audrey-casting indeed.)
Leonard Gershe's screenplay is sometimes a little too brittle and wisecracky, notably when you compare it to the scripts Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote for Gene Kelly and director Donen (Singin' in the Rain and It's Always Fair Weather), and especially when Gershe tries to send up Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism, with Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair) and "Empathicalism." But Donen's direction is witty and beautifully articulated, and the magnificent score, culled from the songbook of George and Ira Gershwin, supplies one pop masterpiece after another: from "S'Wonderful" to "How Long Has This Been Going On" to the wistfully romantic title song where Astaire rightly declares "I love your funny face."
Visually, the movie is almost a total joy. Hepburn is in her photographic prime and Astaire is still in his dancing prime, hoofing with all the snap and dazzle that bewitched generations of moviegoers. There's just one word for the fruit of their match up: S'Wonderful.
Funny Face is also newly available this week in The Audrey Hepburn 5-Pack (A-), which includes William Wyler's 1953 Roman Holiday (A), Billy Wilder's 1954 Sabrina (A), Blake Edwards' 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany's (A) and Richard Quine's 1964 Paris-When it Sizzles (C-).
BOX SET CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
The War (Overall Grade: A)
U.S.; Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, 2007, PBS Home Video/Paramount
Ken Burns, the master documentarian of liberal Americana, takes a very human, personalized look at World War II -- not from the high view of the presidents, prime ministers, tyrants and generals, but from the squint of the ordinary American soldier, the citizen-warriors who got the job done under hard conditions and ultimately saved the world from Fascism.
Obviously, this marvelous series is the DVD box set release of the week -- or maybe even the year. But what about Planet Earth (below), which strikes me as one of the great documentary TV series of all time, as well -- just as important, just as beautifully wrought. For the moment, we'll leave them in a tie. And we'll return to The War next week, when it will stand alone.
Planet Earth & The Blue Planet (A)
U.K.; Alastair Fothergill, 2001, BBC/Paramount
My favorite movie of any kind so far this year is Planet Earth, the extraordinary BBC TV series from writer-narrator David Attenborough and producer Alastair Fothergill -- now being released in a package with the team's almost equally fine 2001 series The Blue Planet. I realize this choice may seem eccentric or, God help us, middlebrow. Aren't these "just" nature documentaries: pretty in a Discovery Channel way, but lacking artistic or social heft? All I can say is: Watch them on the best TV set you can. See if you aren't bowled over too.
Together, these two series form a truly breathtaking portrait of the surface of our earth and the species that live in its increasingly endangered wilderness terrains and ocean expanses. Attenborough (actor-director Richard's brother), who has been one of the great TV wildlife host/raconteurs since the '50s (Zoo Quest), is also an inspirational filmmaker; Fothergill is an ideal collaborator.
Together, they take us from lofty, icy mountain peaks to the weird monsters on the dark and mysterious ocean floors, from vast parched deserts, to dense and fertile tropical rain forests, examining the animal and marine inhabitants with brilliant intensity. (A note for the squeamish: Be forewarned. This is nature as it really is. There's a lot of sex and violence.)
The cinematography of Planet Earth, by 40 camera teams in over 200 locations, is absolutely staggering, beyond praise. The musical score by George Fenton, eclectic and lyrical, is an ideal match for the incredible images; Bernard Herrmann himself couldn't have done better. But the movies are also masterworks of storytelling, editing and narrative structure. And they're politically meaty as well; Planet Earth and its supplements here make the case for conservation and sensible planet-care as forcefully and gracefully as it can possibly be made.
Finally, Attenborough -- who conceived and masterminded the landmark BBC series Civilisation (cq) and The Ascent of Man when he was a BBC controller and director of programmes -- is the ideal narrator: enthusiastic, urbane, endlessly knowledgeable and eloquent without ever seeming pretentious. It was he who dreamed up Civilisation and chose Kenneth Clark as on-camera writer-narrator and front man, and he's become an even more perfect host himself -- though here, unlike Clark, we never see Attenborough onscreen. (Good thing. With these backgrounds, he might have drowned, fallen off a cliff, or been eaten.) This is a truly wondrous DVD set -- and an essential one, if you love movies and our beleaguered planet.
Planet Earth (A)
U.K.; Alastair Fothergill, 2006
Segments: From Pole to Pole, Mountains, Fresh Water, Caves, Deserts, Ice Worlds, Great Plains, Jungles, Shallow Seas, Seasonal Forests, and Ocean Deep
Extras: The companion series: Planet Earth -- The Future and featurettes
The Blue Planet (A) U.K.; Alastair Fothergill, 2001
Segments: Ocean World, Frozen Seas, Open Ocean, The Deep, Seasonal Seas, Coral Seas, Tidal Seas, Coasts.
Extras: featurettes, interviews with Fothergill and others, photo galleries and trailers.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
Australia; Ray Lawrence, 2006, Sony
Four Australian fishermen-buddies head for the wilds and find both a woman's corpse and a deep moral crisis. The same Raymond Carver story ("So Much Water So Close to Home") that Robert Altman did in Short Cuts with Robert Downey and Chris Penn -- here made with less dark humor. With Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne.
Misery (The Collector's Edition) (B)
U.S.; Rob Reiner, 1990, MGM
Jimmy Caan is a famous bestselling novelist bedridden after a car crash; Kathy Bates (who won the Oscar for this role) is his adoring, ultimately terrifying fan. Director Reiner (Stand By Me) has a real feel for King's homey horror that many shriek specialists lack. This story works scarily well.
Caligula (Three-disc Imperial Edition) (C-)
U.S.; Tinto Brass, 1980, Image
Roman History from the genital perspective: the decline and fall of its maddest emperor observed between the sheets. Once known as Gore Vidal's Caligula at the insistence of its auteur theory-hating screenwriter -- but the movie, directed by Euro-trash specialist Tinto Brass, became so drenched in lurid sex and sadism that Vidal begged off the possessive credit. Good cast, though: Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud and Malcolm McDowell (as Caligula) eloquently surround sex bomb Teresa Ann Savoy. The production is by Bob (Penthouse) Guccione; it often resembles one of his nudie layouts come to life.
The Jungle Book (B-)
U.S.; Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967, Walt Disney Video
Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli stories kitschified, with a very congenial voice cast headed by Dixie crooner Phil Harris as Baloo the Bear, along with George Sanders, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima and Sterling Holloway. The last cartoon feature personally prepared by Disney, it closes that era on a jolly, antic note.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (B)
U.K.; Anthony Asquith, 1929, Kino
Romantic jealousies and hatred at a London hairdressing salon -- a brooding hairdresser (Uno Henning) obsessed with a prim manicurist (Norah Baring) -- erupt into a shadowy, murderous climax on the moors. In 1929, director Asquith, who later specialized in polished literary dramas and comedies (The Browning Version, The Winslow Boy and The Importance of Being Earnest) was regarded as Alfred Hitchcock's equal as a master of silent movie suspense. This unjustly neglected film, which has stylish pre-noir cinematography and a terrific movie-house sequence, shows why.
Extras: The feature documentary Silent Britain (U.S.; David Thompson, 2007). C+. Critic/historian Matthew Sweet gives us a tour of British silents, vehemently arguing against the notion that "Britain" and "cinema" are antagonistic terms. A good background piece for Dartmoor.
Valentino: Rediscovering an Icon of Silent Film (Overall rating: B)
U.S.; Various directors, 1918-1922, Flicker Alley
When Rudolph Valentino prowled and snaked across the screen in the smoky tango of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, he drove '20s women crazy and exasperated some of their men. "Rudolph Vaselino" was what my sarcastic Uncle Roy (a schoolkid in Rudy's time) called him, but the ridicule couldn't stick. Valentino was the screen's first great male sex symbol, despite a career that was brief (he died at age 31) and controversial (his sexuality was often in question, and one yellow journalist called him a pink powder puff).
But he had genuine power and style. His signature role, the exotic seducer, has rarely been as memorably assayed. Whether tangoing, besting bad guys or staring deeply and dangerously into a swooning heroine's eyes, Valentino holds the screen like few before him, and this collection of four silents from his superstar and pre-star periods (two of which were long thought lost) plus scads of extras, reconfirms it.
One complaint: Why not the classic that first made his legend: Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? (It's overdue for DVD revival.) But the package is another labor of love from connoisseur's art film label Flicker Alley, loaded with extras, including an audio interview with the famous Valentino graveyard visitor "The Lady in Black" (here identified as Ditra Flame), candid photos by Valentino's longtime friend Paul Ivano and a documentary on his spectacular funeral. Other extras: featurettes, vintage shorts, slide shows, biographies, digital scrapbooks, Hollywood maps and booklet.
A Society Sensation (C+)
U.S.; Paul Powell, 1918.
Class-crossing romance, with Carmel Myers and ZaSu Pitts.
Stolen Moments (C+)
U.S.; James Vincent, 1920
One of the "lost" films: a three-reel cut of the six-reel melodrama, with Marguerite Namara and Rudy as a lecherous author-villain.
Moran of the Lady Letty U.S.; George Melford, 1922
Centerpiece of the set: a restored print, with a Bob Israel score, of this salty tale, from a Frank ("McTeague") Norris novel, of a society playboy (Rudy) finding fulfillment after being shanghaied on a tramp steamer, with tough gal Moran (Dorothy Dalton).
The Young Rajah
U.S.; Phil Rosen, 1922
The other "lost" film: a reconstruction, with recovered footage and production stills, of another melodrama with Rudy as a smoldering transplanted maharaja with bedroom eyes and second sight.