CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
Zodiac (2-Disc Director's Cut) (B+)
U.S.; David Fincher, 2007, Paramount
David Fincher's Se7en (1995) was one of the most fanciful and nightmarish of all serial-killer movie thrillers. His Zodiac, on the other hand, is one of the most realistic. Naturally, it wasn't nearly as popular.
Based on the San Francisco Zodiac killings, inspiration for the fictional Scorpio killings in Dirty Harry, this is a real-life detective story that's also an absorbing character study. The focus here is on the detective (Mark) and crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr.) covering the case and the newspaper cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) who idolizes his reckless, alcoholic, crime-writer colleague and takes up the cold case when everyone else seems to have abandoned it. By the end, the movie has pretty much named the killer -- or at least its prime candidate.
Very well acted, especially by Downey in another of his great breakdown roles, and determinedly realistic and low-key, this was one of 2007's best crime thrillers. It's slow, relatively quiet, almost as monotone-naturalistic as Dragnet, and for Fincher, very unsnazzy. But it gets you. Good extras too. (Extras: Commentaries by Fincher, Gyllenhaal, Downey, Zodiac writer James Vanderbilt, producer Brad Fischer and James Ellroy; "making of" documentary; documentaries on the Zodiac killings and the main suspect; featurettes.)
U.S.; Michael Curtiz, 1942, Warner
Play it again...and again. In a Warner Brothers back-lot Casablanca that hums with World War II intrigues, throbs with romance and occasionally explodes in violence, we watch one of the movies' immortal affairs: the fiercely frustrated, tormented but sublime passion of gloomy cabaret owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart, in his most popular role) for Ilse (Ingrid Bergman, in hers), the emotionally torn woman he loves, who left him in Paris, but who now belongs to the idealistic underground leader Laszlo (Paul Henreid).
Around them swirl one of the great Hollywood supporting casts: Claude Rains as the suave and lecherous Vichy police head Renault, Conrad Veidt as the reptilian Nazi commander Strasser, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, Marcel Dalio, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, John Qualen and, of course, that indefatigable piano man Sam (Dooley Wilson.
Casablanca, which expertly melds several key '40s Hollywood modes and genres of the era (drama, comedy, noir, spy thriller, love story) was written by the Epstein brothers (Julius and Philip) and Howard Koch and directed by that sometimes underrated master, Michael Curtiz. A big hit in its day and also a multiple Oscar winner, the movie has never stopped pleasing and rousing audiences -- who always cheer when Rains' Renault snaps "Round up the usual suspects!" and always respond to its wily blend of tough-guy sarcasm and idealistic romance, embodied by Bogart's Rick.
It's one of the inarguable triumphs of the Hollywood Studio system, of Warner Brothers and their Hungarian workhorse Curtiz, and of those two seemingly mismatched but ultimately perfect lovers, Bogey and Bergman.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Free Cinema (B+)
U.K.; various directors, 1952-2006, Facets
This historically invaluable and very satisfying set gathers together the key short films of the famed British Free Cinema, an independent film movement that paralleled France's nouvelle vague -- in time and ambition, if not always in achievement. Short films, mostly documentary, all shot in impressionistic black-and-white (mostly by the later-renowned Walter Lassally), all of which, in some measure, reviving the feel and soul of Britain at the time, in the sometimes somnolent, sometimes edgy '50s.
The guiding spirit of Free Cinema was Lindsay Anderson, the Sequence and Sight and Sound movie critic who became one of the great British filmmakers (This Sporting Life, If... and O Lucky Man!). Anderson and his mates, sponsored by the British Film Institute, put together six independent "Free Cinema" programs, from 1956 to 1959. Their inspirations were various: wartime British documentarian Humphrey Jennings, neorealism, jazz, the Beat Generation and John Ford (Anderson's idol). Their results still hit home today, distilling the poetry of ordinary lives and the beauties and harshness of real life.
This package contains all of the three Free Cinema programs devoted to British films (the foreign packages boasted early work by Francois Truffaut and Roman Polanski). It also has five later shorts made in the spirit of Free Cinema -- including March to Aldermaston, a cooperative film by Anderson, Reisz and others about an early antinuclear war protest -- and a 2006 documentary on the whole movement, Small Is Beautiful (made with heavy participation from survivor Lassally).
Some of the Free Cinema directors became mainstays on the British-Hollywood list: Tony Richardson (Tom Jones), here represented by Momma Don't Allow, a breezy jazz club portrait; and Karel Reisz, co-director of Momma Don't Allow and sole director of one of We Are the Lambeth Boys, the classic about a young people's club. The Free Cinema roster also embraces two later giants of Swiss cinema, Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner, co-directors of the neat Piccadilly Circus nocturne Nice Time (1957). Three of the films are Anderson's. (He was also was the supervising editor on Lorenza Mazzetti's poignant 1956 Together.)
They're all gems: 1952's Wakefield Express, a very Jennings-ish documentary on a small city newspaper syndicate, 1953's melancholy carnival fresco O Dreamland, and the masterpiece of the entire set, Anderson's beautiful 1957 piece on a day at Covent Garden, Every Day Except Christmas. (Extras: Documentary, booklet.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
3:10 to Yuma (B-)
U.S.; James Mangold, 2007, Lionsgate
It's the most popular Western since Eastwood's Unforgiven, but not nearly as good as a movie. Director Mangold (Walk the Line) remakes one of the prime '50s High Noon-style suspense Westerns, adapted in 1957 by director Delmer Daves from a short story by the young Elmore Leonard, about a stalwart rancher (Van Heflin in the original, Christian Bale here) trying to get a mocking gang leader (Glenn Ford in '57, Russell Crowe here) to the 3:10 train to Yuma, while the killer teases him and the gang keeps close behind. 3:10 to Yuma is one of the two Westerns (High Noon was the other) that Howard Hawks responded to (negatively) in Rio Bravo. And while both the '57 and new versions are crisply entertaining, they both are afflicted with pretty ridiculous climaxes. The new one, though, has the added benefit of Crowe, who takes Glenn Ford's sexy, needling gang boss Ben Wade and makes him even more magnetic and good-bad.
Vietnam Long Time Coming (B)
U.S.; Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, Gordon Quinn, 1998; Facets
This very moving documentary follows a band of American and Vietnamese veterans of the war who join together for a bicycle ride across Vietnam. In English and Vietnamese, with English subtitles.
France; Raul Ruiz, 2007, Koch Lorber
John Malkovich plays elegant society painter Gustav Klimt, whose jewel-like eroticism is even more au courant today. Not one of Ruiz's or Malkovich's best, though it does get some whiffs of perfumed decadence. With Saffron Burrows and Stephen Dillane. In French, with English subtitles. (Extras: Featurette, trailer.)
The Golden Door (B+)
Italian; Emanuel Crialese, 2006, Walt Disney
An often moving immigration-to-America romantic epic, this movie starts in Sicily before taking us shipboard to Ellis Island. Presented by Martin Scorsese.
The Real Dirt on Farmer John (C+)
U.S.; Taggart Siegel, 2005, Gaiam
A warm documentary looks at a truly alternative farmer, John Peterson, who, after walking on the wild side in college, progresses from late hippiedom to the new whole-foods ethic.
Personal Best (B+)
U.S.; Robert Towne, 1982, Warner
Ace screenwriter Towne's directorial debut: an erotic and sensitive lesbian sports love story set in a U.S. Olympics training camp and starring Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly as the lover/athletes and Scott Glen as their coach.
U.S.; Daryl Duke, 1972, Warner
A growling, sleazy tour de force from star Rip Torn as a vile country-and-western star on tour anchors this darkly revisionist look -- even meaner than Altman's Nashville -- at the world of heartland pop music.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (C+)
U.S.; Robert Ellis Miller, 1967, Warner
An earnest, sympathetic adpapation of Carson McCullers' stunning first novel about small-town Southern life; Sondra Locke is fetching as the tomboy McCullers-ish protagonist, Alan Arkin her lonely deaf-mute heart mate. Not bad, but it gets little of the McCullers strange wistful poetry -- unlike John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye, released the same year. (Eye was at first mostly a critical flop, and Hunter an undeserved hit.)
Grand Hotel (A)
U.S.; Edmund Goulding, 1932, Warner
The epitome of '30s Hollywood elegance and the first "all-star" movie, this work is based on Vicki Baum's novel about the people who come and go at an ultimately swanky Berlin hotel. The stars (Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and Jean Hersholt) still shine. (Extras: Comedy short, trailer, Movietone News.)
Resident Evil: Extinction (D+)
U.S.; Russell Mulcahy, 2007; Sony
The third movie squeezed from the popular videogame, with Milla Jovovich (looking very good) battling zombies, corrupt officials, horrendous dialogue and a high-tech knockoff of Hitchcock's The Birds. Awful.
Shoot 'Em Up (C-)
U.S.; Michael Davis, 2007; New Line
Clive Owen, munching carrots like Bugs Bunny, mows down bad guys like Bruce Lee crossed with Clint Eastwood and James Bond. (Well, Owen might have been even better than Craig was.) Paul Giamatti plays absolute scum and Monica Bellucci is a hooker saddled with a mysterious baby. Despite endless gunfights, this movie is supposed to be pro-gun control. Flashy direction, but a terrible script; the fact that it's also supposed to be a dark, over-the-top comedy doesn't make it any less ridiculous.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Cary Grant 4-Disc Collector's Set (B-)
U.S.; various directors, 1957-62, Republic
This set presents a quartet of sparkly romantic comedies from Hollywood's suave and impish star/king of the genre, Cary Grant. Unfortunately, early reports on Amazon say that these are the same imperfect transfers Republic has packaged before. Isn't it time to restore them?
Stanley Donen, 1957
Grant and Ingrid Bergman trade seductive bon mots in London.
Operation Petticoat (B+)
Blake Edwards, 1960
The Grass Is Greener (B)
Stanley Donen, 1960
A terrific cast -- Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons -- flirt with adultery in a script that doesn't hit the heights.
That Touch of Mink (C+)
Delbert Mann, 1962
Grant subs for Rock Hudson and Gig Young for Tony Randall, in another of those early '60s virgin-tease comedies.