CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
It's a Wonderful Life (Two-Disc Collector's Set) (A)
U.S.; Frank Capra, 1946, Paramount
It's one of those movies that almost all moviegoers know, many love and a few pooh-pooh. But Frank Capras's populist masterpiece deserves its primal place in our pop culture and our Christmas memories. It's a jarring, stirring exhilarating mix of Norman Rockwell and film noir, angelic fantasy, small town comedy, and political fable: the tale of a man who sacrifices himself all his life to help his family and neighbors and then finds himself on the brink of suicide when his bread seems to sink in the waters.
As that man, small town savings and loan idealist, this movie offers the finest performance of one of America's premiere movie actors: James Stewart as George Bailey, who, one Christmas Eve, plunges into Hell and then comes back.
It had a raft of wonderful writers: Albert Hackett and Frances Hackett among the credited and Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets and the famously acerbic Dorothy Parker (you heard me right) among the ones who weren't.
And you couldn't find anywhere better actors for the parts they wrote: Donna Reed as George's truly good and beautiful wife Mary, Lionel Barrymore (a right-winger in real life joyously travestying his fellow Republicans) as the evil banker Potter, Beulah Bondi as George's mom, Gloria Grahame as the town vamp Violet, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as the Muppet-inspiring cop and cabbie team of Bert and Ernie, Thomas Mitchell as mad Uncle Billy, H. B. Warner as the drunken pharmacist Mr. Gower, Sheldon Leonard as Nick, the tough bartender who passes out wings, and Henry Travers as Clarence, the whimsical angel who wins his.
Most of all, Life has Frank Capra, a directorial magician who could mix comedy and drama, move audiences and make them laugh like almost no one else in Hollywood history. Capra thought this was his best movie, even though the original 1946 audiences and critics were mixed, and the film's receipts failed to support the new company -- Liberty Films -- the director was trying to set up with his friends George Stevens, William Wyler and John Huston.
But Capra was right. It was his best movie. Every Christmas, it always makes me laugh and cry. Hey, if you've never been moved, even slightly, when George's younger sibling Harry toasts his big brother -- "the richest man in town" -- well, the hell with you.
Extras: Both original black-and-white and new colorized versions; documentary; Frank Capra Jr. tribute.
Paris je t'Aime (A-)
France; various directors, 2007, First Look
Eighteen of the world's best and most personal filmmakers, younger auteurs and festival titans from France, America, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, train their eyes and cameras on Paris, the city of light, from a variety of angles, but one universal affirmation. Of course, it's inconsistent, and you'll like some episodes more than others.
But what can you expect? My favorite was Alexander Payne's e 2 Arrondissement. But you'll find many corners and streets -- and people (from Gena Rowlands to Gerard Depardieu) to treasure in this film, just as you'll always want to return to the city it captures and loves.
Extras: 18 "behind the scenes" featurettes, versions in English, as well as French, Arabic and German, with English subtitles.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Berlin Alexanderplatz (A)
Germany; Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1983, Criterion Collection
Here is one of the greatest movies of all time -- easily. Yet probably only a handful of you have seen it.
In 1983, near the end of his career, (which ended with his premature death at 36), the brilliant German cinematic bad boy, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, adapted his favorite novel Alfred Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz for TV. He did it right, in 12 episodes that ran a total of fifteen hours, and ending with an incredible three hour fantasia that is as much about his emotions while reading Doblin as it is about the story.
Günter Lamprecht plays Franz Biberkopf, a pudgy lumpenproletariat adrift in the Alexanderplatz (a working class district), lost among social upheavals and among companions who are sometimes kind sometimes venal, sometimes provocative. He has an evil nemesis (Gottfried John) and a number of dark muses (Hanna Schygulla, Barbara Sukowa, Elisabeth Trissenaar) and as his story progresses, his life disintegrates. This is a cruel tough, sometimes nearly unbearable story -- a German film noir if there ever was one -- and Fassbinder brings it perfectly to life.
The package extras include some real treasures, including another film version of the novel --Phil Jutzi's 1931 movie (which has a script by Doblin himself). But Fassbinder's achievement here stands alone, perverse and majestic: a true masterpiece.
Extras: Documentaries; interviews with cast, crew, scholar; the first film of Berlin Alexanderplatz; in German with English subtitles.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Shrek the Third (C-)
U.S.; Chris Miller, 2007, DreamWorks
The third chapter in an animated series that keeps diminishing: DreamWorks' initially wry fairytale about a jocular ogre (Mike Myers), his princess/ladylove (Cameron Diaz), his motor mouth donkey sidekick (Eddie Murphy) and his fairytale world, constantly subject to bizarre reversals. The series should have ended after the first Shrek, with its brilliant "happy ending." But they keep bringing it back -- here to exploit Prince Charming and a bevy of famous villains. Even ogres deserve a rest.
Ocean's 13 (B-)
U.S.; Steven Soderbergh, 2007, Warner Home Video
George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and the boys crack some more casinos and outwit some more bad guys (notably, this time, Al Pacino). Another series that's gone on too long.
La Vie en Rose (Extended version) (B)
France; Olivier Dahan, 2007, HBO
A fantastic performance by Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf -- as good as Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles -- anchors this Piaf bio, a film often as feverishly colorful, emotional and lyrical as Piaf herself. The movie takes us from Piaf's deprived childhood through her glory years to her sad finish, and it never loses its rhythm and pitch. (Extras: Featurettes, extended footage; in French with English subtitles.)
Pride & Prejudice (Two disc special edition) (B)
United Kingdom; Joe Wright, 2005, Universal
Director Joe Wright's youthful, energetic, sometimes frenetic, always high style version of Jane Austen's most famous novel of 18th century British manners, morals and country manor romance. With Keira Knightley as witty Elizabeth Bennett and Matthew Macfadyen as a too-young Darcy. The BBC serial with Colin Firth is better. (Extras: Commentary by Wright, cast interviews, family tree, interactive map.)
The Princess Bride (20th Anniversary Edition) (B)
U.S.; Rob Reiner, 1987, MGM
Rob Reiner's very likable move of the William Goldman fairytale romance adventure, a swashbuckling romp with Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin and Billy Crystal. (Extras: Featurettes.)
The Devil (B)
Poland; Andrzej Zulawski, 1972, Facets
Zulawski was one of the Eastern European "wild men" of the '60s and '70s, and this lush, compelling, crazy period drama/horror movie is as wild and eye-catching as they come, full of sex, violence and incredible tracking shots. It's about a young 18th century Polish nobleman (Leszek Teleszynski) goaded by a devilish stranger (Wojciech Pszoniak) who turns him into a revolutionary serial killer. (Extras: Director and cast biographies.)
Golden Boy (C+)
U.S.; Rouben Mamoulian, 1939, Columbia
Clifford Odets' sentimental left-wing social drama is a Group Theatre special about the working class violinist, Joe Bonaparte (William Holden) who wants to be a violinist, the family who love him (Lee J. Cobb, Sam Levene), and the boxing pros who seduce or drag him down (Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Joseph Calleia and Edward Brophy). The film doesn't quite work, and not just because of the material. Mamoulian, a specialist in musicals (Love Me Tonight, Silk Stockings and the stage Oklahoma!) was the wrong director for Golden Boy, too theatrical and mannered for its proletariat poetics. But the cast is good. (Extras: Vintage cartoon, comedy short and newsreel, and a 1956 Ford Theatre episode with Stanwyck.)
Be Yourself (C-)
U.S.; Thornton Freeland, 1930, Kino
When we think of Fanny Brice, most of us just remember Barbra Streisand and Funny Girl. But she was a remarkable performer on stage and radio, a Jewish comedienne, infant imitator (Baby Snooks) and torch singer of great self-effacing earthiness, chutzpah and humanity. This movie, from Freeland, the writer-director of the first Astaire-Rogers musical Flying Down to Rio, is a clichéd backstage romantic comedy with Robert "King Kong" Armstrong as her dopey boxer love. It's less than mediocre, except when Brice is on, clowning and singing some Billy Rose songs (including "When a Woman Loves a Man.") You'll want to see her though -- and you can see more in that great 1946 MGM anthology musical, Ziegfeld Follies.
NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
The Shrek Trilogy (Overall grade: B-)
U.S.; Various directors, 2001-2007, DreamWorks
The first Shrek, which was actually an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival, was a terrific movie, a fairytale spoof full of wit and pizzazz. There was no reason except money to make the others, and money is all they really made.
Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson, 2001
Shrek 2 (B-)
Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon, 2004
Shrek the Third (C-)
Chris Miller, 2007
Extras: Featurettes, lost scenes, games, big green goofs.
The Ocean's Trilogy (B-)
U.S; Steven Soderbergh, 2001-2007, Warner
The original Ocean's Eleven -- with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and The Clan -- was overrated, except as a movie gathering spot for that congenial Ring-a-Ding-Ding super-talented crew. Much the same is true of the Clooney-Pitt-Damon-Roberts remake. And the sequels aren't as good.
Ocean's Eleven (B)
Steven Soderbergh, 2001
Ocean's Twelve (C)
Steven Soderbergh, 2004
Ocean's Thirteen (C+)
Steven Soderbergh, 2007
Perry Mason ( Season 2, Volume 2) (B-)
U.S.; Various directors, 1959, Paramount
Raymond Burr as the unflappable, ingenious defense attorney in one of the best '50s-early '60s mystery series and courtroom dramas. The tricky, hard-boiled scripts often came from the original Erle Stanley Gardner novels and the cast, including Burr were all aces and film noir veterans: Barbara Hale as Gal Friday Della Street, William Hopper as private eye Paul Drake, Mercury Player Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg and William Talman as that luckless, winless D. A. Hamilton Burger.
Burt Lancaster Signature Collection (B-)
U.S.; Various directors, 1950-73, Warner
Lancaster is actually one of my favorite Golden Age superstars, an ambitious and often underrated actor, a first-rate swashbuckler (often better, and more athletic, than those more legendary movie swordsmen Doug Fairbanks and Errol Flynn) and one of the world's great grinners. This set though, doesn't show him at his best, except for the two breezy adventures The Flame and the Arrow and His Majesty O'Keefe. For the rest, there's his okay Jim Thorpe sports bio, a crude goofy service comedy and Executive Action, a JFK assassination speculative drama so plodding it almost makes a conspiracy seem implausible.
The Flame and the Arrow (B+)
U.S.; Jacques Tourneur, 1950
Jim Thorpe - All-American (B-)
U.S.; Michael Curtiz, 1951
His Majesty O'Keefe (B)
U.S.; Byron Haskin, 1953
South Sea Woman (C+)
U.S.; Arthur Lubin, 1953
Executive Action (C-)
U.S.; David Miller, 1973