It's one of the few movies I've seen recently that made me wish I were 12 again.
CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.S.-U.K.; Robert Zemeckis, 2007, Paramount
Remember Classics Illustrated comic books? Here's a supreme example of that mix of kiddie-pulp and art applied to movies: Robert Zemeckis' ultra-thrilling, sturm und drang, two-fisted motion-capture version of one of the great classics of early literature -- the authorless but imperishable saga of the battle of stalwart hero Beowulf and the deadly super-creature Grendel, along with assorted wizards, sorceresses, dragons, royal ale-quaffers and hordes of soldiers waving swords and clinking flagons.
The animation -- based on live-action performances taken a digital action-packed step further -- takes some getting used to. But eventually the sheer Frank Frazetta robustness of it all wins you over. And the cast conquers all: Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie (a swell naked witch), Crispin Glover (as Grendel), Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, John Malkovich and, as Beowulf, Ray Winstone -- a terrific British character actor who specializes in gangsters and may only to get to play a classic movie hero in an animated film like this.
The right way to see Zemeckis' Beowulf is probably in an IMAX large screen theater, preferably in 3-D. But, if you have the home equipment and the stamina, this show will bring down the house in your living room as well -- especially in that last dragon-battle scene. It's one of the few movies I've seen recently that made me wish I were 12 again. (Extras: Deleted scenes, featurettes.)
The Last Emperor (A)
Italy/U.K./China; Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987, Criterion Collection
A classic. Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 Best Picture Oscar winner is about the lush life and long fall of China's last emperor, Pu Yi -- who became just another guy when Mao Zedong's revolution swept away the last vestiges of the old China. And it was, in some ways, the peak of his career. (Others might argue for Last Tango in Paris or The Conformist.) Certainly, it's the most sumptuous and visually scintillating of all his film collaborations with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and it's a glowing masterpiece of production design (Fernando Scarfiotti's) as well.
Shot in the old Forbidden City -- where Chinese royalty and their eunuchs were sequestered for centuries -- and on dazzling sets representing imperial and revolutionary China, it's one of the most ravishing Oscar epics ever, and it was a welcome change from the teen-truckling trash of most '80s movie fare.
It has Bertolucci's signature of high-style perversity -- the scene where Joan Chen's Last Empress Wan Jung chews up a bouquet of white lilies at a fancy-dress ball is one of many steamy touches -- but it's also melancholy and compassionate. Peter O'Toole's stiff-upper-lip expression, as British adviser Reginald Johnston, while troops pursue Pu in his palatial courtyard, speaks volumes about the decline of two empires. And, if, in 1900, Bertolucci celebrated revolution almost unquestioningly, here he casts a colder eye on Red Guards, Marxism and youth vs. age.
This edition of Emperor is the one to get. It contains both the 165-minute theatrical version (which Bertolucci prefers) and the longer TV version (218 minutes), heretofore erroneously known as the Director's Cut. One of the best Criterion releases and as splendid gift for any cinephile. (Extras: Commentary by Bertolucci, co-writer Mark Peploe (The Passenger), co-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and others, several vintage or new documentaries, a video scrapbook by Bertolucci, interviews with co-composer David Byrne and others, and a booklet with essays by Bertolucci, David Thomson and others.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Gangsters: The Ultimate Film Collection (A)
U.S.; Ridley Scott/Brian De Palma/Martin Scorsese, 1983-2007, Universal
Here's a deluxe set of first-class recent American gangster sagas, full of blood, guns and style. These are post-Godfather epics, ranging from ultra-violent -- the notorious hip-hop star fave Scarface (1983), to realist epic (Casino) to mythic (American Gangster). They're all good.
American Gangster (B+)
U.S., Ridley Scott, 2007
Denzel Washington plays rich Harlem gangster kingpin Frank Lucas; Russell Crowe is Richie Roberts, the frowsy middle-class cop hot on his trail. I'm not sure the split story works -- it seems designed mainly to accommodate Crowe's star profile -- but this gaudy, brutal, well-directed gangster epic stays in your mind. With Chiwetel Ojiofor, Josh Brolin, Cuba Gooding Jr. and the great Ruby Dee, who burns up the screen in some short but indelible scenes as mama Lucas. (Extras: Theatrical and extended versions, commentary by Scott and writer Steve Zaillian, futurities, trailers, deleted scenes.)
U.S., Brian De Palma, 1983
De Palma and scripter Oliver Stone's brutal, curse-laden remake of the Howard Hawks-Ben Hecht classic about the rise and fall of a Capone-like Chicago gang boss, became a legend and a hip-hop favorite; at the center is one of Al Pacino's most striking, nerve-rending performances -- as cocaine-crazed hood Tony Montana. Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer, Robert Loggia and F. Murray Abraham co-star.
U.S., Martin Scorsese, 1993
If you count Scorsese's rocking crime classics Mean Streets (1973) and GoodFellas (1980) as the first two parts of an informal gangster trilogy, this is the blistering conclusion, with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci (crazy) and Sharon Stone as the self-destructive trio at the hot center of Las Vegas mob rule.
Carlito's Way (B)
U.S., Brian De Palma, 1993
Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Luis Guzman and John Leguizamo in another explosive De Palma crooks' tale. (Extras: Theatrical and extended versions of American Gangster, commentaries, documentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, collectible book.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Darjeeling Limited (A-)
U.S.; Wes Anderson, 2007, 20th Century Fox
Three rich-kid misfit brothers -- played by Owen Wilson (swathed in bandages), Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman -- make a pilgrimage to their spiritually sequestered mother (Anjelica Huston) on a charmingly old-fangled train, where the conductor serves high tea and becomes angry if snakes are smuggled aboard. This is Anderson's best film since Bottle Rocket and a complete recovery from the arch attempted humor of his Life Aquatic. You have to be in the mood for it, but I was. (Extras: The short pre-Darjeeling Anderson-Schwarzman-Natalie Portman film Hotel Chevalier, documentary.)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (A)
U.S.; Andrew Dominik, 2007, Warner
Here's an excellent Western -- about the tortured James-Ford relationship (portrayed here by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck) -- in a surprisingly good year for Westerns, classic and modern. The cinematography by Roger Deakins (who also shot No Country for Old Men this year) suggests Andrew Wyeth on Remington.
The Brave One (B-)
U.S.; Neil Jordan, 2007, Warner
Neil Jordan, and stars Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard redo Death Wish, and, though there's nothing seriously wrong with this vigilante action movie, I wish they hadn't. Foster goes from radiant Manhattanite to ashen bereaved to gun-slinging terror; Howard is an urbane cop; Jordan, a great director (though not here), keeps it cracking. Despite stellar contributions from these three, I remember that damned Charles Bronson-Michael Winner movie better than this one. That's not a good sign, for me or the movie. (Extras: Featurette.)
The Invasion (C-)
U.S.; Oliver Hirschbiegel (& James McTiegue, unc.), 2007, Warner
The fourth and weakest film adaptation of Jack Finney's blood-freezing '50s sci-fi horror tale about the invasion of the pod people, previously done, in descending order of quality, by Don Siegel (1956), Phil Kaufman (1978) and Abel Ferrara (in 1994, as Body Snatchers). Midway through this movie, director Hirschbiegel (Downfall) was replaced by McTiegue, but the shoot might as well have been taken over by pods. Stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig can't save themselves -- or the movie. (Extras: Documentary, featurette.)
I Want to Go Home (B)
France; Alain Resnais, 1989, Kino/Kimstim
A bizarre collaboration between comic strip artist/playwright/screenwriter Jules Feiffer and comic-lover/art film genius Alain Resnais. It's a close-to-the-bone dramatic comedy about irascible Cleveland comic strip artist Joey Wellman (played, in a peculiar but sometimes touching performance, by Singin' in the Rain co-writer Adolph Green), his long-suffering girlfriend (Linda Lavin), his Francophile, Yank-bashing daughter (Laura Benson) and a goofy melange of French expatriate admirers and interferers who drive Joey crazy (Gerard Depardieu, Micheline Presle, Ludivine Sagnier, Geraldine Chaplin). Winner of the Best Film and Screenplay prizes at the Venice Film Festival, this is a really strange film and not all of it works. But it grows on you. In English and French, with English subtitles. (Extras: Interview with producer Marin Karmitz, trailer.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Rosemary and Thyme (B)
U.K.; various directors, 2003-5, Acorn
The English like both murder mysteries and gardens -- two specialties of Agatha Christie -- and this nine-disc series, produced by vets of the "Hercule Poirot" and "Miss Marple" series, somehow makes its improbable fusion of the two work. It's about two middle-aged friends, plant biologist Rosemary Boxer (Felicity Kendal) and ex-cop Laura Thyme (Pam Ferris), who join together for a gardening/landscaping business that's always being interrupted by flowery murders they have to solve, with least likely suspects that they have to crack. 22 episodes ensue, all well-written, directed and acted, and shot, in rural English and vacation gardens and manors, very prettily indeed. If you think you might like these, you probably will. (Extras: Interview with Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris. Productions and location notes, photo galleries, cast filmographies.)
Lillie (B) U.K.; John Gorrie/Tony Wharmby/Christopher Hodson, 1978, Acorn Media This is an old-fashioned Masterpiece Theatre Upstairs, Downstairs-style production, with plainer trimmings and cinematography than TV gives us today. But it's a good one: writer-creator David Butler's 13-episode saga of the high life of Lillie Langtry, a 19th-century star actress who set pulses racing, all the way from Oscar Wilde and the Prince of Wales to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Judge Roy Bean. The Lillie of this show is a truly raving beauty: Francesca Annis, whom you may remember as the nude Lady Macbeth in Roman Polanski's Macbeth, and who won BAFTA's Best TV Actress prize for this performance. Alas, Annis never became a real movie star -- something that's hard to fathom -- but she was and still is a star of Brit TV, and this series is a jewel in her crown. The supporting cast is spot-on too, especially Anton Rodgers as her much-cuckolded and dissolute husband Edward. (Extras: Essay on Langtry, filmographies.)
Saved from the Flames: 54 Rare and Restored Films (A)
U.S/France/Italy; U.K.; Various directors, 1896-1944, Flicker Alley
For true cinephiles and devotees of film history, this is a really precious gift: three discs full of treats, treasures and curios from cinema's earliest years to World War II. There are three short fiction dramas -- D.W. Griffith's classic 1912 family tearjerker and anti-Coca Cola social fable For His Son (B+), Lois Weber's very Griffith-influenced 1913 lady-in-distress adventure Suspense (B-) and Thomas Ince's surprisingly social-minded 1912 Western (B+). The rest includes contributions from stars Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Jacques Tati, and Michel Simon; directors Georges Melies, the Lumiere Brothers, Mack Sennett, the Fleischer Brothers and Chuck Jones; and onscreen musical performances by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt and Lillian Roth. Bravo! (Extras: a booklet with notes on each film.)
German Expressionism Collection (A-)
Germany; Various directors, 1919-26, Kino
This is not as good a set as the previous Kino foursome box on German Horror, which was also built around The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but a juicily atmospheric, chilling and presciently film noirish set all the while. All the films are German silents, with musical scores and English subtitles.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (A)
Germany, Robert Wiene, 1920
Once regarded in critics' polls as the greatest film ever made, before the eras of Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane, this mesmerizing tale of a mad doctor (Werner Krauss), a somnambulist serial killer (Conrad Veidt) and the young man who tells their evil story, in an insane asylum, is archetypal horror. It's packaged with a shortened version of Wiene's campy thriller about a sexy vampire, Genuine (C+, 1920).
Warning Shadows (B)
Germany, Arthur Robison, 1923
A shadow puppet show at a chateau -- where the master of the house is tormented by jealousy at the presence of his beautiful wife's four smirking lovers -- leads to a night of psychological terror, where truth is revealed in shadows, silhouettes and mirror reflections. One of the most famous of all the expressionist classics, done, like Myrna's The Last Laugh, mostly without intertitles.
The Hands of Orlac (B+)
Germany, Robert Wiene, 1924
A sensitive concert pianist (Veidt), who loses his hands in a horrendous train wreck, has the hands of a convicted, executed murderer grafted onto his arms and starts to go mad with fear that the killer's fingers will lead him and his lovely young wife (Alexandra Sorina) to murder. The movie, based on a Maurice Renard novel, from which Karl Freund's 1935 Mad Love was remade.
Secrets of a Soul (B-)
Germany, G. W. Pabst, 1926
A loving husband (Krauss), tortured by nightmares of killing his wife (Ruth Weyher), seeks psychiatric help. Pabst is the strongest director in this package, but this ambitious attempt to make a truthful film drama about psychoanalysis (Freud turned down a request to act as the film's scientific adviser) is the weakest of the set, afflicted with a Freud complex. (Extras: Featurettes, photo galleries, essays and excerpts, trailer.)