***/**** DVD - Image A Sound A BD - Image A- Sound A+ Extras A- screenplay by Caroline Thompson, based on a poem by Tim Burton (adaptation by Michael McDowell) directed by Henry Selick
by Vincent Suarez You know the feeling: too many movies, too little time. You walk down the corridor of your local multiplex, relishing the titles on the marquees and posters, and you know that many will unfortunately have to be seen on home video. If you're lucky, you'll make wise choices, but, occasionally, your home viewing includes that film you regret not seeing theatrically. For me, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (hereafter Nightmare) is one of those films. Having grown weary of Burton's quirkiness after the disappointing Batman Returns, I passed up Nightmare in favour of movies I now cannot recall; what a shame. Fortunately, Touchstone's optical disc presentations of this magnificent film (the previous LaserDiscs and last year's DVD release) provide more than a glimpse of what was surely a wonderful theatrical experience.
****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B starring Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green directed by Stanley Donen
click any image to enlarge
by Bryant Frazer Not just the best Gene Kelly film, and not just the best movie musical
ever made, Singin' in the Rain is a genuine national treasure--a single
text proving for posterity what a wondrous thing the Hollywood studio system
could be when it was firing on all cylinders. It's the quintessential studio
picture and smart as hell about its own nature. Unpretentious and unabashedly
entertaining, it's a self-reflexive product of the same filmmaking process
it simultaneously documents and lampoons.
*/**** Image A Sound B Extras B-
starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes, Lionel Jeffries, Gert Frobe
screenplay by Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes
directed by Ken Hughes
by Walter Chaw Released the same year as the marginally less excrescent The Love Bug, Ken Hughes's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang helped mark 1968 as not only one of the most tumultuous years in American history, but also one of the most puzzling in regards to its mainstream kidsploitation fare. Why bad entertainment involving anthropomorphized automobiles erupts during corrupt regimes (see also: "My Mother the Car", from LBJ's term (1965), and Reagan's British Trans Am in "Knight Rider" (1982)) is one of those things someone should ponder someday.
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW ***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A- starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O'Brien
screenplay by Jim Sharman and Richard O'Brien
directed by Jim Sharman
SHOCK TREATMENT **½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Jessica Harper, Cliff De Young, Patricia Quinn, Richard O'Brien
screenplay by Richard O'Brien and Jim Sharman
directed by Jim Sharman
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I have never attended an actual theatrical showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and for the longest time, I doubted that I was completely receptive to every significant nuance and intricacy of the film, what with its name dropping of Michael Rennie and the presence of a performer called "Little Nell" who wears Mickey Mouse ears during the "Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me" number. The picture's esoteric quotient has always eluded my radar, preventing me from fully identifying with it, much less condescending to it. This idea of familiarity with extra-textual elements or training in a specific method of watching as essential in the evaluation process is a perennial issue in film criticism for me. My default position is that the two things don't have that much to do with each other: Learning more about a film can deepen an appreciation that was already there, but the initial call of yea or nay is one that every king, scholar, and prole is equally qualified to make. Beautiful idea, I think--it helps me sleep at night and keeps me from being too scared to see and write about films outside my realm of experience. So why is it that I am so intimidated by this movie?
THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR ZERO STARS/**** Image A Sound A Extras D starring Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh screenplay by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar directed by Rob Cohen
WANTED */**** Image A Sound A Extras D starring James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Angelina Jolie screenplay by Michael Brandt & Derek Haas and Chris Morgan, based on the comic books by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones directed by Timur Bekmambetov
MAMMA MIA! ZERO STARS Image B Sound A Extras C- starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Stellan Skarsgård screenplay by Catherine Johnson, based on the songs of ABBA directed by Phyllida Lloyd
by Walter Chaw Fast becoming the post-Welles RKO without a commensurate Val Lewton to grease the transition from art to filthy lucre, today's Universal Pictures finds itself a long, long way from Psycho with a bumper crop of genuinely bad movies reverse-engineered from past box-office champions. Each of them--The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Wanted, and Mamma Mia!--broke the golden 100-million dollar mark, since they were made with just the Benjamins in mind; sadly, only the criticism of flaccid attendance was likely to curb an endless march of identical pictures this year. For the simpleminded, the success of these films despite the near-universal condemnation of them by anyone with a working prefrontal lobe is proof positive that critics are out of touch with the common man. On the contrary, I'd offer that, asked whether he thought the atrocious The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (hereafter The Mummy 3) would be financially successful, the average critic would have said he'd be surprised if it didn't do a hundred-mil in its first three weeks of release. Out of touch is believing that something is good because it makes a lot of money.
*/**** Image B Sound B+ (DTS) B- (DD) Extras C-
starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor
screenplay by Joel Schumacher
directed by Sidney Lumet
by Alex JacksonThe Wizard of Oz is a quintessentially American work that could not possibly have been produced by any other culture. Doing a "blaxploitation" version of the story, then, seems considerably less tacky than doing one of Dracula or Frankenstein. Dorothy is a farm girl from Kansas living with extended family in something beyond the traditional nuclear-family structure. There's a strong sense of community in the film as well: in addition to Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, and the hired hands, Professor Marvel, the inspiration for the Wizard of Oz, is there at Dorothy's bedside when she wakes up. Dealing with themes of solidarity among the working class, The Wizard of Oz isn't a film about the black experience, but with just a little tinkering, it easily could be.
***/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B- starring Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Cesare Danova, William Demarest screenplay by Sally Benson directed by George Sidney
by Bill Chambers First, a word about Richard Attenborough's awesome, heartbreaking Magic. In that 1978 film, Anthony Hopkins plays Corky, a rising star on the ventriloquism circuit--hey, it was the '70s--who beats a hasty retreat to the Catskills to avoid a psychiatric evaluation that would doom his chances of working at NBC. There, he looks up his high-school crush, Peggy Ann Snow (Corky used to recite this sadly desperate/desperately sad rhyme about her: "Peggy Ann Snow, Peggy Ann Snow/Please let me follow, wherever you go"), who really could've been played by any actress of the moment approaching middle age, from Ellen Burstyn to Jill Clayburgh to Marsha Mason to Faye Dunaway. But Attenborough, ingeniously, cast former sex kitten Ann-Margret, so that Corky's nostalgic affection for Peggy isn't an abstract concept. Thereafter, the actress made a cottage industry out of her fading torchdom that reached its inevitable apotheosis when she tackled Blanche Dubois, but in Magic, it provides a crucial point of identification with a main character who can be inscrutable and unlovable that we have a pretty good idea of what Peggy Ann Snow used to be like. We'd pine for her, too.
*½/**** Image B+ Sound A starring Elvis Presley, Joan O'Brien, Gary Lockwood, Vicky Tiu screenplay by Si Rose and Seaman Jacobs directed by Norman Taurog
by Bill Chambers Over the main titles, Elvis sings the jaunty "Beyond the Bend" ("Breeze sing a happy song/This heart of mine is singing right along") from the cockpit of a cropduster. He playfully re-enacts North by Northwest by swooping down to ogle a couple of cuties in a convertible, telling his co-pilot, Danny (Gary Lockwood), that he can have the one in the red dress, 'cause "her ankles are a little thick." It's around this point that Elvis vehicles started to develop a sociopathic streak; Viva Las Vegas's crass reduction of anyone Elvis doesn't need to literal cannon fodder is perhaps in the embryonic stage in these opening moments of It Happened at the World's Fair, or when Mike ducks out on his quasi-daughter and his best friend without saying goodbye, effectively cutting them from the show-stopping, Music Man-ish final number.
***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B starring Richard Egan, Debra Paget, Elvis Presley, Robert Middleton screenplay by Robert Buckner directed by Robert D. Webb
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. As far as drugs go, Love Me Tender is more pot than heroin. It won't curl your toes, but you'll get a smooth, mellow buzz. It's sort of the perfect film to watch on a Sunday morning on TCM while you're eating a bowl of Cap'n Crunch. Love Me Tender doesn't have a lot of urgency and it moves pretty slowly, yet there's never a moment in which it's not compulsively watchable--and at just a shade under ninety minutes, it doesn't wear out its welcome. Director Robert D. Webb keeps the camera pretty still and shoots the outdoor scenes in long shot, the better to encapsulate the sheer enormity of the under-settled frontier. All this space lends the film a distinctly melancholy feel; there's something lonely and isolated about the picture. But bittersweet is a flavour, too (a good one), and melancholy is the right attitude for this story and the right attitude for a film titled after Elvis Presley's tragically romantic hit single "Love Me Tender." This was the only film that ever killed off Elvis--and it earns the right to do so.
***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B- starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero, David Hemmings screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, based on his play and The Once and Future King by T.H. White directed by Joshua Logan
by Jefferson Robbins Joshua Logan's Camelot sucker-punched audiences, I suspect, and did so in slow-motion. Maybe the source musical, by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, did as well. Mention the legend of King Arthur and our first notions are of magic and righteous triumph; we forget the betrayal and Fall. The overall air of the film is stabs of paradise framed by battle and tears, with most of the misery encroaching from offstage. Yet when the King's dream finally dies, it dies viscerally. Find late in Camelot Arthur (Richard Harris) hiding from the collapse of his new social order in the wooded bower where he once studied with his vanished tutor Merlyn. He imagines soaring as a bird, as he did while Merlyn's pupil, but his spirit-animal is interrupted by a hunter. It's Mordred (David Hemmings), the fruit of Arthur's forgotten sins, and his entry with bow and arrow reasserts the brutality that will pull down the kingdom.
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+ starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins directed by Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
by Walter Chaw With apologies to Frank Zappa, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise's West Side Story is dancing about the tumultuous social architecture of Manhattan's west side in the 1950s--a picture as political as it is ephemeral and, consequently, as timeless as it is exhilarating. It is one of those rare pictures that feels like the first time I've seen it every time I see it--renewing itself endlessly through its rare energy and meticulously choreographed nihilism. That it doesn't hold together particularly well as a drama, much of the emotional power of its doomed love affair sapped by Richard Beymer's amazingly bad performance as lead Tony, is secondary to the enduring effectiveness of the Leonard Bernstein score (with Sondheim's amazingly current lyrics and Saul Chapin's bright orchestration); Jerome Robbins's ebullient dance sequences; Rita Moreno and George Chakiris; and the revelatory location work and lighting design.
***/**** starring Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne screenplay by Kumar Dave, Sanjay Dayma, Ashutosh Gowariker directed by Ashutosh Gowariker
by Walter Chaw With the subtitle "Once Upon a Time in India," Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan holds a kinship to Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China in more than just appellation and an abiding dislike of the Colonial British. Other than substituting elaborate musical numbers--as is Bollywood's wont--for Hong Kong's martial arts features, Lagaan is in fact as interested in the sociology of enslavement before the rush of technology (embodied in cameras and firearms) as its farther-Eastern brethren. The rather serious-minded attack of India's own caste system and the ineffectualness of its Raj ruling structure lends additional layers to the picture's surprising depths, yet all the politicized subtext in the world does little to suppress the essential exuberance of the gaudy visceral Bollywood experience.
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras A- starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs screenplay by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais directed by Julie Taymor
by Bryant Frazer Long considered sacrosanct, in recent years the catalogue of music recorded by The Beatles has become fairer game. The success of a 2000 CD reissue of #1 singles may have greased the wheels for Beatles-related projects, including a 2006 Cirque du Soleil extravaganza based around the group's songs and mounted in Las Vegas, a comprehensive four-year-long digital remastering project involving all the original albums, and even a Beatles-only edition of the hit videogame series Rock Band. In this context, Across the Universe feels like a cog in a much bigger marketing machine. To some degree, it's impressive that director Julie Taymor managed to build a period-romance-cum-rock-musical entirely around Beatles songs, although the film never manages to answer the question of why such a project might be worth undertaking in the first place.
**/**** starring Stuart Townsend, Marguerite Moreau, Aaliyah, Vincent Perez screenplay by Scott Abbott and Michael Petroni directed by Michael Rymer
by Walter Chaw The latest big-screen adaptation of an Anne Rice Vampire Chronicle, Queen of the Damned looks great but remains the sad product of Rice's juvenilia and velvet eroticism. Its sweaty mythmaking matched by its thirty-something-decade whining, the film substitutes blood for semen in its kinky puerility (a rose-petal love scene is a classic in scarlet euphemism) and becomes boring and pat when it should've been trashy and unapologetic. The greatest problem with the film isn't as obvious as its bad writing and weak structure: it's that Queen of the Damned tries to make sense where none is to be made.
Peter Shaffer's Amadeus: Director's Cut ***/**** DVD - Image B+ Sound B Extras B+ BD - Image B Sound A Extras A starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Simon Callow screenplay by Peter Shaffer, based on his play directed by Milos Forman
by Walter Chaw Bringing the highbrow to the status-hungry middle in the same way as those "Bach's Greatest Hits" collections and the awful faux-llies of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Milos Forman's bawdy, jittery adaptation of Peter Shaffer's fanciful play "Amadeus" is not so much about Mozart as it is about genius and its burden on the mediocre. Mozart (Tom Hulce) is an adolescent boor touched by the hand of God; Emperor Joseph's (Jeffrey Jones) court composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) becomes obsessed and desperately jealous of Mozart's gift, leading him to the madhouse and confessions of murder. Amadeus works because of Forman's gift for the seedy (and portraying asylums--he directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, after all) and because of Abraham's deeply-felt performance.