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GRINDHOUSE — I could nitpick about this three-hour-and-twelve-minute film, but I don’t want to, because I had such a good time watching it. Grindhouse offers audiences a moviegoing experience—and that’s rare these days.

I’m old enough to remember the days of double features; I don’t know if I could sit through those programs today without an intermission, but they sure were fun...and so is this homage. The biggest difference is that the faux preview trailers that separate these two movies are not to be missed. No bathroom breaks permitted!

In fact, Quentin Tarantino has admitted that the trailers tender the sleaze factor that’s missing from the films he and Robert Rodriguez made. Kudos go to Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth for creating virtual replicas of “coming attractions” for 1970s drive-in fare. (Even the one-sheet is wonderfully reminiscent of period posters.)

As for the two feature films, Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is a squishy salute to zombie movies, so overboard that you can’t help but enjoy it. It also includes an image that is bound to become iconic involving leading lady Rose McGowan and one of her appendages.

Tarantino’s Death Proof is less cohesive, consisting of two separate sections, each one serving up an overabundance of “chick” dialogue before getting to the action scenes we’re all waiting for. But that’s Tarantino: he loves dialogue and creates characters who like to talk. (He also gives the worst performance in Grindhouse, as a salacious soldier in Rodriguez’s film.)

The reason I cut him and his moviemaking compadre so much slack is that they’re trying to make it fun to go to the movies. That ingredient has been missing in far too many films, including the ones that purport to be “pure entertainment.” My biggest complaint about Grindhouse is that it inspired me to consume so many refreshments during the three-hour sit!

 

THE LOOKOUT — What a treat to discover a modest-scale movie that clicks in every way. The Lookout marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report), who first wrote this piece ten years ago, then reworked it for several directors who were attached to the project. When David Fincher bowed out (to direct Zodiac instead) Frank decided that, having lived with the material so long, he would be the right person to bring it to life on screen. What’s more, his backers at Spyglass Entertainment allowed him to cast the actors he wanted without regard to box-office clout.

That explains why every part is so well played, beginning with the gifted Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a one-time high-school hero whose life changed in a tragic accident. But it’s a credit to Frank that every character in the film, major or minor—even the wife of a local cop, who appears in just one shot, sans dialogue—is so well defined that he or she makes an impression on us.

On the surface, The Lookout is a crime thriller, and it works quite well as such...but in truth it’s a character study of a young man who has had to rebuild his life. Jeff Daniels is terrific, as usual, as Gordon-Levitt’s roommate, a self-reliant blind man with a sardonic sense of humor. Sexy Isla Fisher plays a woman who leads on our hero and helps draw him into a gang, led by Matthew Goode, that’s planning to use him in a bank- robbery scheme. (Fisher is an Aussie, Goode is a Brit, and they’re both playing American, which is par for the course these days.) Carla Gugino, Bruce McGill, and Alberta Watson make the most of their small but significant supporting roles.

The Lookout is smart and original, the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

 

AFTER THE WEDDING — Danish writer-director Susanne Bier made my favorite film of 2004, Brothers, an incredibly powerful drama about family dynamics which has yet to find the audience it deserves here in America; it’s available on DVD and I can’t say enough about it. After the Wedding represents another collaboration with co-writer Thomas Anders Jensen, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film this year. It’s less intense than Brothers but shares a seriousness of intent, and a fascination with peeling away the layers of each character we meet, bit by bit.

Danish star Mads Mikkelsen, who played the villain with a slit through his eyelid in Casino Royale, plays a dedicated social worker who runs an orphanage in rural India. One day his superior tells him he’s been summoned home to Copenhagen to meet the man who wants to underwrite all his charitable projects. Mikkelsen doesn’t want to leave, even for a few days, but reluctantly makes the trip, and soon learns that his potential benefactor (Swedish actor Rolf Lassgård) is a wealthy industrialist who’s used to getting his own way. He’s also about to marry off his daughter, and invites Mikkelsen to the wedding... where he unexpectedly comes face to face with a figure from his past, Lassgård’s wife (subtly played by the beautiful Sidse Babett Knudsen).

After the Wedding doesn’t build up to an explosive conclusion; instead, its story deepens and darkens as those layers get peeled away. It may not be the powerhouse that Brothers was but it’s a compelling and provocative drama, and well worth seeing. I can’t wait to see how Bier fares with her first American endeavor (the upcoming What We Lost in the Fire, with Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro, and David Duchovny).

 

ZODIAC — As one can plainly see from the current listings, this is not the time of year one can expect to find exceptional movies being released. All the more reason to cheer for Zodiac, the first great film of 2007.

I approached this film with great trepidation, recalling the almost unbearable tension of David Fincher’s Se7en...but Zodiac isn’t so much about a serial killer as the hunt for a serial killer. There are still some potent scenes of violence in the early part of the story, but the lion’s share of the story is about the reporters and detectives who doggedly pursue every avenue to find their man.

Here again I lucked out, as I didn’t have clear memories of the real-life case that plagued the San Francisco area in the late 1960s, and I’d read nothing about this film before screening it.

Zodiac presents the most unusual—and riveting—movie manhunt in recent memory, even more amazing because it’s true. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the killer, and whose books about the case inspired James Vanderbilt’s screenplay. His fine performance is matched by costars Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Edwards, each one completely inhabiting his character. The technical aspects of the film are flawless, capturing the look and feel of the period as well as its major settings—a newspaper city room, police departments, file morgues, and the like. Zodiac is long but gripping, from start to finish.

 

DAYS OF GLORY (INDIGENES) — I don’t think filmmakers will ever run out of stories to tell from the years of World War II. This portrait of North African soldiers who fought (and died) for France but couldn’t overcome their prejudice is both great drama and great history. Apparently it has already stirred citizens and leaders of France to attempt to undo some of the injustices heaped upon these veterans.

Fortunately, director and co-screenwriter Rachid Bouchareb knew better than to make a didactic film. Days of Glory is powerful and moving because it is first and foremost a great story, focusing on a group of Algerians as they eagerly head off to war and following them from their experiences as raw recruits to their years of struggle as hardened veterans of battle.

The American distributor perhaps wisely chose to rename the film, as Indigents wouldn’t have much meaning here, although it does in France. Days of Glory comes from the lyrics of “La Marseillaise” and perfectly suits the picture. I’m sorry it had such strong competition in the Foreign Language film category at this year’s Oscars; it’s an outstanding piece of work.

 

THE LIVES OF OTHERS — This year’s Oscar winner as Best Foreign Language Film isn’t sentimental or life-affirming, like so many recent awardees. It’s a fascinating, clear-eyed look at life in East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) in the early 1980s, when prominent artists and intellectuals were the subjects of constant surveillance. In fact, the film is about the culture of surveillance in the GDR and the toll it takes, not only on its intended victims but on one of the country’s leading secret service agents, subtly—and brilliantly—played by Ulrich Müehe.

It’s astonishing to learn what life was like on the other side of the Berlin Wall a little more than twenty years ago. Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who’s in his 30s, is too young to have many memories of that period, but he’s done his homework well, and based most of the key characters in his screenplay on real people.

The Lives of Others is a true-life thriller of the highest order, and a must-see.

 

BREAKING AND ENTERING — Anthony Minghella’s latest film has received many scathing reviews, but I can’t join that chorus. I was delighted to encounter a film for and about adults that sought to engage my intellect as well as my emotions.

Jude Law is perfectly cast as an architect whose marriage (to Robin Wright Penn) is fragile, and whose business is even more vulnerable, having opened its new headquarters in a dicey area of London. After a series of break-ins, Law decides to take matters into his own hands and follows one of the young hoodlums home, then finds an excuse to speak to his mother (Juliette Binoche), an Eastern European immigrant trying to make her way in a foreign land.

I won’t reveal any more except to say that the characters are multi-layered, and the screenplay challenges us to think about our accepted notions of right and wrong in today’s world. I found it exhilarating.

 

PAN’S LABYRINTH — Guillermo del Toro is a unique talent among the current generation of filmmakers. His knowledge of popular culture is vast, his skill as a film craftsman is peerless, and his passion for dark fairy tales is unique. Pan’s Labyrinth is a fable set in Spain in 1944, as Franco’s military attempts to flush out resistance fighters who still dot the countryside. The heroine is a little girl whose father has died and whose pregnant mother has married a supposed protector, a monstrous Fascist Captain (played to precision by comic actor Sergi Lopez).

The girl has an overactive fantasy life, but her visions of fairies and monsters provide a welcome escape from the very real terrors that surround her as she and her mother move into the Captain’s headquarters, an old mill in the countryside. A violent man of brutal self-discipline, he intends to wipe out the resistance, but doesn’t count on sympathizers in his midst helping the soldiers survive on a day-to-day basis.

I shouldn’t reveal much more about the story or the fantastic elements of the film; suffice it to say that the parallel universes meld as the movie progresses. Del Toro’s eye for detail is apparent in every frame of film and every nuance of the soundtrack.

He reminds people that European fairy tales were often dark and bloody; it’s only in the 20 th century that a sanitizing process began. He has called upon the spirit of the originals, and his own vivid imagination, to create an astonishing world on screen and use it to comment on parallels in recent history. (If you’ve never seen del Toro’s brilliant film The Devil’s Backbone, set during the Spanish Civil War, I urge you to seek it out on DVD.)

Pan’s Labyrinth is a rare film that invites repeated viewings to absorb everything del Toro has put into it. It’s a brilliant achievement that is truly one-of-a-kind.

 

CHILDREN OF MEN — This futuristic thriller, set in the year 2027, paints the kind of bleak picture we’ve come to expect from such stories—but that’s about the only predictable ingredient here. Life in England has become violent and chaotic, while women have gone sterile; no babies have been born on the planet for eighteen years.

With such a concept (from mystery novelist P.D. James) director Alfonso Cuarón could have made a cerebral film, but he chose a different path: this is one of the most visceral movies in recent memory. It builds in intensity from one sequence to the next, climaxing in a lengthy, tour-de-force set-piece (filmed by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) that will have film buffs and students buzzing for some time to come.

If this were merely a bit of cinematic razzle-dazzle, it wouldn’t have much meaning, but the way the climax is filmed intensifies the dramatic impact of the story, a perfect marriage of form and content.

It also helps that Clive Owen plays the leading role. I think he’s terrific: a perfect anti-hero everyman for us to identify with as we venture into a strange and unfriendly world. Michael Caine adds a welcome light touch as an aging hippie who is Owen’s one true ally.

Children of Men creates a unique environment and gives us a reason to care about what happens to its characters. Having a strong star performance at its center is icing on the cake.

 

NOTES ON A SCANDAL — Every now and then a film comes along that gets everything right: this is such an endeavor. The story is compelling and unpredictable, the characters flawed and believable, and the performances couldn’t be better. Cate Blanchett, who has established herself as one of the finest actresses on the planet, portrays a schoolteacher who’s also a wife and mother. Her vulnerability causes her to make a bad choice—becoming sexually involved with a student—but the problem is intensified because of her “friendship” with an older colleague, played by the great Judi Dench. To reveal more details would be inappropriate.

The drama fairly crackles from the first scene to the last. Playwright Patrick Marber (who wrote Closer) has crafted a first-rate adaptation of Zoe Heller’s novel, and theater director Richard Eyre has wrung every drop of emotion out of the material, even in the moments that don’t involve High Drama. I shouldn’t fail to mention the finely-tuned performance of Bill Nighy as Blanchett’s husband. He is every bit as good as his female costars. Notes on a Scandal is a knockout.

 

DREAMGIRLS — Entertainment comes in all shapes and sizes. Dreamgirls is a big, splashy Hollywood musical—a rare bird nowadays—and I can’t imagine any audience that wouldn’t respond to it. Bill Condon’s adaptation of the Broadway hit of the early 1980s has many attributes. For one thing, it provides Eddie Murphy with the best part he’s had in years, and he makes the most of it. The staging, editing, production and costume design are exceptionally good. Best of all, it affords us an opportunity to witness the birth of a star in the person of Jennifer Hudson.

I expected Hudson to score in her show-stopping musical moments, but I never anticipated that this newcomer would have such extraordinary screen presence. Her electrifying performance is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Beyoncé Knowles does a good job, too, but I found her climactic number—which wasn’t in the original show—too obvious as a “star” moment, intended to balance the scales after Hudson’s soaring solos.

Dreamgirls isn’t a perfect movie. Its energy dips after what is clearly a first-act “curtain” moment, and it goes on too long. Condon’s attempt to integrate actuality footage of the Detroit riots into his gaudy bauble of a movie doesn’t work. But Dreamgirls offers so much entertainment I’m loath to nitpick. It’s the kind of movie that could inspire young people to want to make musicals again.

 

SWEET LAND — It’s the time of year when even the so-called independent movies seem to have major backing as they campaign for awards and critical attention. In the midst of this onslaught a genuine indie product like SweetLand may have a difficult time staking its rightful place in the consciousness of the public, but it’s as deserving as any film this year. I’m especially happy to see that it has received two nominations in the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards, including one for Elizabeth Reaser as Best Actress.

First time feature writer-director Ali Selim has painted a rich, subtly textured portrait of one woman’s experience as an immigrant coming to Minnesota in the days following World War One. In a mix-up one can well imagine occurring back then, this mail-order bride is not Scandinavian, as promised, but German, which not only causes embarrassment to her would-be husband, a simple farmer, but ostracizes both of them from their community. Neither the priest nor the local magistrate will perform a marriage ceremony, forcing the man and woman to navigate their own, challenging path.

There is nothing hackneyed or familiar about Sweet Land, in its screenplay or in the way it’s presented. Selim and his gifted actors use nuance and silence as much as dialogue and music to tell their story. Reaser, who’s been working for some time, is a revelation here, and she is matched by Tim Guinee as the would-be husband who’s not much on conversation but who ultimately knows what he wants and what he’s willing to stand up for. Alan Cumming, John Heard, Ned Beatty, and Lois Smith add their considerable talent to the ensemble.

Most of the big Hollywood movies will be around for a while; SweetLand may not, unless you support it while it’s playing in theaters. It offers a fresh and invigorating experience.

 

CASINO ROYALE — How fitting that an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel should be the vehicle for the character’s renaissance on screen. Daniel Craig may not be classically handsome, but he is a fine actor and he steps into the role of 007 with confidence and panache. This elaborate film incorporates all of the ingredients we have come to associate with the series: pulse-pounding action and stunt sequences, exotic locations, sexy women, and colorful villains.

When Dr. No debuted some forty-five years ago no one had ever seen anything quite like it. The early Bond movies were made before the lifting of the Production Code, yet they managed to push the envelope in terms of sex and violence, and established themselves as the coolest movies ever made. By the 1980s and 90s, the Bond movies had lost some of their luster because they existed in a sea of sexy, violent movies with big action and stunt set-pieces.

Although it’s set in the present, Casino Royale wisely turns back the clock to reinvent the character by introducing him at the outset of his career with British Intelligence. This is very much a 21 st century film: his boss is a woman (which would have been unthinkable, I suspect, to author Fleming) and his sexual partner this time around is an assertive woman who can dish out provocative dialogue as well as 007. Judi Dench and the gorgeous Eva Green fill those roles to perfection, as does Danish actor Mads Mikkelson, as the major villain of the piece. (Jeffrey Wright is wasted in a throwaway role as Felix Leiter.)

Casino Royale is great fun to watch. It maintains certain Bond traditions, including a very stylish main-title sequence (by Daniel Kleinman), and at the very end of the credits it declares, “James Bond Will Return.” I, for one, can’t wait.

 

BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN — If you’ve seen Sacha Baron Cohen in his ubiquitous television appearances during the past two weeks to promote his movie, you already have some sense of his character, clueless Kazakhstani television reporter Borat Sagdiyev. But even the excerpts they’ve given away on TV can’t fully prepare you for his brilliant and insidious movie.

At a time when most popular screen comedies try to push the envelope of crudity and outrageousness, this one tops them all, guaranteeing a built-in audience. Little do they know that Cohen has a hidden agenda, to expose racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia wherever he finds it on his journey through America. Borat has a way of provoking people with his guilelessness, and that’s the key to most of the movie’s best sequences.

Cohen and company (including director Larry Charles) have made a sidesplittingly funny film, but as often as not, your jaw is dropping not from the audacious nature of their hidden-camera pranks but the stupefying candor of the people they depict. One is left to wonder how they got away with some of their stunts without being jailed, sued, or simply strung up.

Borat is without question the funniest film of the year, but it’s also the cleverest, in more ways than one.

 

VOLVER — Pedro Almodóvar made his reputation on the international film scene for creating outrageous movies like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! In recent years his work has become more sober, mature, and deeply emotional, although he’s never lost his ability to raise an eyebrow. Volver ranks among his best films, as it draws on the particularity of Spanish culture to explore a matriarchal society in which death is simply a fact of life, and ghosts are not uncommon.

He has also fashioned a vehicle for Penelope Cruz that gives her the best starring role of her career, in a role Almodóvar admits is patterned after Sophia Loren in her early earth-mother period. As a wife, mother, daughter, and dutiful niece, Cruz’s character takes on great responsibility—and is willing to do whatever is necessary to protect the people she loves.

I fell in love with this movie from its opening shot, depicting the women of Madrid routinely cleaning headstones at the local graveyard. It’s the kind of image you’ll find only in an Almodovar film, but it’s firmly connected to the heart of his story, an exploration of family secrets and the presence of mysticism in Spanish life as he sees it. Volver is one of the richest and most satisfying films of the year.

 

THE DEPARTED — I’d stop short of calling The Departed a great movie, but that’s not to damn it with faint praise. It’s highly entertaining and a spectacular showcase for an impressive array of actors, beginning with the inimitable Jack Nicholson. It feels as if everyone else in the cast strove to come up to his level, because Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Mark Wahlberg have never been better. Even the talented Alec Baldwin, in a juicy supporting role, outdoes himself.

I suspect every actor wants to do his best for director Martin Scorsese, but they also had material they could sink their teeth into with William Monahan’s script. Although it is officially based on the Hong Kong police drama Infernal Affairs, this Americanized version is largely reinvented—especially as it draws so specifically on ethnic tensions in Boston between the Irish mob and the cops, in particular the State Police, known as “Staties.”

The key characters played by Damon and DiCaprio find themselves in a moral crisis of major proportions, and Scorsese wrings every bit of drama and tension out of their dilemma. A subplot involving a police psychiatrist, played by Vera Farmiga, is one of the movie’s weaker links, although it does help to illustrate the parallels of the men’s situation.

The director allows Nicholson to approach his colorful character—a longtime underworld kingpin—with no holds barred, even permitting some “Jack”-like moments because, I suppose, he knows we all enjoy them. That’s not to say that the actor is simply repeating himself; this is a rich characterization that doesn’t resemble any of his other roles. Still, that Nicholson bravado has a flavor all its own.

With its mobster-driven violence and Catholic underpinnings, it would be easy to compare The Departed to earlier Scorsese triumphs like Goodfellas but I think the similarities are largely superficial. Certainly Scorsese understands the many facets of a Catholic life—including the rituals surrounding death—and he’s a past master at dramatizing violence. Those strengths help make The Departed a superior piece of entertainment.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the film goes on too long, and that some of its story threads are less distinctive than others. A climactic gun battle has a slightly shopworn feel to it.

Overall, I’d call those minor quibbles in a film that delivers so much excitement, and so many stellar performances. The Departed may not be a great movie, strictly speaking, but it does provide a great moviegoing experience.

 

THE QUEEN — From the opening closeup shot of Helen Mirren, made up as Queen Elizabeth II, you can tell The Queen is going to be good. She is completely persuasive in this role, and the entire film has the unmistakable ring of truth.

At first, I felt as if I was prying into the royal family’s private life. I’m just old-fashioned enough to feel hesitant about dramatic speculation regarding people who are still alive and well. But The Queen won me over because it feels so genuine and because it’s executed with such finesse.

Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair once before, in writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears’ British TV movie The Deal, is just as believable as Mirren, which levels the playing field as these two forceful characters face off in the earliest days of Blair’s term as Prime Minister. The entire ensemble is first-rate; I especially enjoyed watching James Cromwell as an emotionally detached Prince Philip.

Stephen Frears has always felt his role as director is to serve the material, and that’s just what he does here: no fancy camera moves or show-off montages, just a classicist’s approach to a great screenplay. What I like best about The Queen is that it portrays all of its subjects as human beings, capable of both good and bad behavior. Writer Morgan may find the pomp and tradition of the monarchy to be anachronistic and even silly but he never makes fun of the people themselves.

As for Helen Mirren, she is one of the world’s finest actresses, and this is nothing short of a world-class performance: subdued and beautifully modulated, as befits the woman she is playing. Mirren knows how to make the most out of the tiniest gestures and facial expressions.

The Queen is one of the best films of the year, a great achievement on every level, and Helen Mirren is the likeliest Oscar candidate I’ve seen to date.

 

LITTLE CHILDRENLittle Children is the best film I’ve seen all year. I felt an emotional connection to the characters right away—even though I don’t share their midlife malaise—and I found the unfolding drama to be absolutely electrifying.

The story reveals itself in layers, just like a good book; that’s because a novel (by Tom Perrotta) is the source material for director Todd Field’s screenplay. He even uses a narrator, a device many filmmakers avoid...but since the film deals so much with its characters’ interior lives it’s used here to great effect.

Kate Winslet has always projected intelligence in her work, and that serves her well in her portrayal of a suburban wife and mother who isn’t comfortable in either role. Patrick Wilson, who’s one of the best actors around (if not the most famous), gives another outstanding performance as a house-husband and father who isn’t ready to embrace the responsibility of adulthood and a career. When Winslet and Wilson cross paths in a neighborhood park they immediately set off sparks, because they see in each other a fantasy of escape from the lives in which they feel trapped.

There are other forces at work here, including a tension-filled subplot involving a child molester (played to creepy perfection by former child actor Jackie Earle Haley) who’s just moved back into town, and an impulsive ex-cop (Noah Emmerich) who is obsessed with hounding the pederast off the map.

The film’s title involves irony and double-meaning, but let me be clear: it’s a very adult movie, which is one more reason I find it so powerful. Kudos to Todd Field for crafting such a finely-wrought drama. It’s been five years since he made his mark as the writer-director of In the Bedroom, but if this is the standard of quality he has set for himself, I’ll gladly wait another five years to see a movie this good.

 

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND — Actors don’t give performances to win Oscars; the good ones simply do the best job they can. But I can’t think of Forest Whitaker’s performance as Ugandan leader Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland without thinking of the Academy Award, because it is such a rich, powerful, and transformative piece of work.

The film, like Amin, is powerful, even brutal at times, but it has a constant ring of truth. James McAvoy plays a young, naïve Scotsman who’s just earned his medical degree and yearns to break free from his stifling parents. He ventures to Uganda to try to do some good, but instead falls under the sway of Amin, who becomes his unlikely father figure in a strange new land.

The Last King of Scotland is a fictional story based on actual incidents involving Amin and several of his associates and confidants. The screenplay credit is shared by two of England’s top film writers, Peter Morgan (whose next film, The Queen, comes out next month) and Jeremy Brock (whose first effort as both writer and director, Driving Lessons, also opens in a few weeks). This marks the first fictional work for documentary director Kevin Macdonald, who extracts all the colors from a densely-packed screenplay, and makes excellent use of his authentic locations in Uganda.

This would be a must-see if only for Forest Whitaker’s performance, but that is merely the centerpiece of a potent and evocative film about one of the 20 th century’s most colorful—and dangerous—men.

 


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THE NAKED CITY (Criterion)
available March 20
— As screenwriter Malvin Wald points out in his commentary track, Mark Hellinger’s production The Naked City (1948) was ground-breaking in more ways than one. Most people think of it as a milestone for its use of New York City locations, but Wald contends that it was the first Hollywood movie to show how most crimes are solved—not by super-sleuths like Sherlock Holmes or Charlie Chan, or even by wily private eyes, but by dogged, day-to-day police work. Forget Law & Order; this film even predates Jack Webb’s Dragnet radio series!

That’s not to minimize the impact of its many and varied locations all over the borough of Manhattan and even Queens. Louis de Rochemont’s production of The House on 92nd St. came first, but the notion of filming in actual New York neighborhoods instead of on studio back lots was still a novelty.

In an incisive and eloquent interview, James Sanders (author of Celluloid Skyline) discusses The Naked City’s use of the City—its breakthroughs, methodology, and impact. NYU professor Dana Polan expounds on the social context of this post-World War II drama and how it reflects the sensibilities of our society at that precise moment in time.

Although the Criterion producers apologize for its poor picture and sound quality, Bruce Goldstein’s interview with director Jules Dassin at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2004 is worth its weight in gold. (And the picture is fine; it’s only the sound that’s overmodulated.) Dassin is articulate and charming, and his recollections of filming in the city are vivid. The conversation ventures beyond this specific project and provides a welcome snapshot of the director’s far-flung career.

All of that said, I wish The Naked City held up better as a piece of entertainment. Its position in film history is unassailable, but as drama it is hopelessly dated after nearly sixty years of police procedurals. That’s why it’s vital to appreciate the film in its proper context, which this impeccable Criterion disc provides.

(Incidentally, I have a feeling that one of the movie’s early shots, inside a New York subway train, was filmed in Hollywood. A young Kathleen Freeman is easily recognizable as one of the passengers; why would they have brought a day-player all the way across the country for a fleeting moment on screen?)

 

I LOVE LUCY: SEASONS 7, 8 &9 (CBS/Paramount) — I don’t normally cover television shows on DVD, but this is an exceptional release in every way, from picture and sound quality to bonus features. The “seasons” noted in the title of the set actually refer to a series of one-hour specials, after the weekly I Love Lucy half-hour ceased production. Desi Arnaz conceived of these as mini-musicals, and hired songwriter Arthur Hamilton to create original songs for almost every episode. (He even mentions the young tunesmith’s name after Harry James asks who wrote the number his wife Betty Grable has just performed in one of the shows.) Many of the shows were shot more like movies than TV episodes, with extensive second-unit and stunt work and location filming, although they still focused on Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred Mertz and (of course) Little Ricky.

One of the main draws of this four-disc set is the complete 75-minute version of Lucy Takes a Cruise to Havana that kicked off the specials in 1957. Long unseen, it was unearthed by film editor Dann Cahn several years ago and donated to the Museum of Television and Radio. Now CBS has located original 35mm elements for the show, as well as Desi’s original greeting and goodbye which aired just once when the show premiered on the network and cut into Alcoa Theatre’s time-slot by 15 minutes. A separate DVD segment shows how neatly the program was edited for subsequent reruns with before-and-after demonstrations of scenes from both versions.

Another knockout is some recently-discovered color home-movie footage taken on the set of I Love Lucy in 1951, cleverly edited into finished footage from the show for presentation here. It’s exciting to see Lucy and Desi in Kodachrome, and to get an idea of how the show looked from an audience member’s point of view.

Best of all, there is a 40-minute film made for Westinghouse appliance dealers when that company agreed to sponsor the Desilu Playhouse in 1958. Never intended to be shown to the public, it’s a fascinating look behind the scenes of Desilu that’s meant to entertain its audience as well as pass along information. This is a slick piece of work with comedy bits for Lucy, Desi, William Frawley, and Vivian Vance...and even a laugh track. If you love shots of vintage Hollywood and its studios, your eyes will grow wide (as mine did) when Desi embarks on a helicopter tour of all three Desilu facilities: the Gower Street studio that was formerly home to RKO (and is now part of Paramount), the Cahuenga Boulevard soundstages (now known as Ren-Mar), and the Culver City facility that was home to RKO-Pathé and, most famously, David O. Selznick. We even get a glimpse of Lucy’s dressing room door alongside a patch of green that’s known to this day as Lucy Park at Paramount.

The shows themselves are a grand vehicle for Lucille Ball and company, along with such guest stars as Tallulah Bankhead, Maurice Chevalier, Red Skelton, Fred MacMurray and June Haver, and Ann Sothern (who has the single funniest line in Lucy Takes a Cruise to Havana, which, we’re told in production notes, was originally an ad-lib during rehearsals. It’s during the drunken jailhouse scene, and you can’t miss it.)

If only every vintage television series received this kind of TLC there would be a lot of happy baby boomers and nostalgia fans.

 

49th PARALLEL (Criterion) — If you are among the many film buffs who worship at the shrine of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, you’ll be happy to learn that even after its sterling releases of such classics as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the folks at Criterion still have more goodies to share with us about the writing and directing duo known as The Archers.

First and foremost, I’m grateful to them for releasing such a beautiful copy of 49th Parallel, a superb World War II film that earned Pressburger an Oscar for Best Story. Eric Portman plays a Nazi U-boat commander whose ship sinks, forcing him and his crew to survive undercover in Canada. Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey (a genuine Canadian), Anton Walbrook, Niall MacGinnis, the wonderful Finlay Currie, and a young Glynis Johns also star in this well-written, suspenseful drama.

The first added attraction on this two-disc set is The Volunteer, a 1943 featurette starring Ralph Richardson. As you would expect, Powell and Pressburger’s cinematic version of a World War II recruiting-poster doesn’t play like anyone else’s, taking a charmingly oblique approach to its subject. Richardson plays himself and narrates a lighthearted look at his well-intentioned but fumbling dresser who winds up serving his country. There’s even a brief but amusing cameo appearance by Laurence Olivier during a behind-the-scenes moment at Denham Studios.

The second bonus feature is a BBC documentary from the early 1980s called A Pretty British Affair, a first-rate profile of the two creative spirits who somehow melded as a team and produced a string of memorable movies. We see them interacting at a London club and then meet them separately, Pressburger at his country home, and Powell as he walks to work at what was then Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studio in Hollywood, where the elder was serving as a consultant and working on his autobiography. (Raw tape of Powell dictating his memoir appear as an audio feature on the disc.)

Bruce Eder’s informative commentary on 49th Parallel is reprised from the original Criterion laserdisc release of this excellent film, which ought to be better known today. The accompanying booklet includes a transcript of a speech Powell delivered at the picture’s 1941 premiere in London. In it, the filmmaker discusses the genesis of the wartime story set in Canada and the state of the British film industry. He then goes on to thank his colleagues, including “Fred Young, whose photography is the last word in imaginative realism...David Lean, whose magnificent editing has been the greatest single contribution to our success... Glynis Johns, whose charm and ability will make you hate Emeric Pressburger for not writing her a bigger part in his screenplay...” and finally his partner, of whom he says, “I don’t know a better writer, and I don’t wish to know a better writer, and I hope I never shall.”

 

MOVE OVER, DARLING (20th Century Fox) — Normally I wouldn’t be spotlighting a middling 1963 comedy, but I am so impressed with Fox’s extra features on this and two other Doris Day films (Do Not Disturb, Caprice) that I feel they are worthy of mention. Fox has been working hard to devise mini-documentaries for most of its vintage-movie releases (the recent Alice Faye collection, Volume 2 of Mr. Moto, and the upcoming Michael Shayne series), and while I might quarrel with some of their choices of experts to use on and off-camera, I applaud the overall results.

Move Over, Darling began life as a Marilyn Monroe-Dean Martin comedy called Something’s Got to Give, so naturally the primary featurette on this disc is a history of that troubled production, including footage from the unfinished feature and comparisons of scenes from both movies—with interesting changes in cast. (Wally Cox as a Milquetoast of a shoe salesman with Marilyn, Don Knotts doing the same scene with Doris Day; John McGiver as an impatient judge in the first incarnation of the movie, Edgar Buchanan in the next.) It’s too bad Fox couldn’t clear usage of the 1940 RKO movie My Favorite Wife to round out the comparison.

The story of a man who remarries after his wife is believed dead—only to have her reappear—originated as an epic poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson called Enoch Arden, and Fox even includes all surviving footage of the 1911 film version directed by D.W. Griffith.(The print quality, from the Library of Congress, is quite good.)

Finally, there is a candid conversation with Polly Bergen, who plays the second wife in Move Over, Darling. She explains how she was reluctant to take the second lead in a movie featuring America’s favorite female star, but wound up loving her part—and Doris Day, too.

A rather broad, arbitrary comparison of Monroe and Day is the only feature I could live without, but that’s a minor quibble considering the wealth of informative and entertaining content provided on this disc.

 

BICYCLE THIEVES (Criterion) — I’m sorry if it seems redundant to praise so many releases from the Criterion Collection, but there’s a good reason this independent company is considered the Gold Standard in the world of DVDs. Once again they have taken a landmark in world cinema and given it the treatment it deserves in a new two-disc edition, with a hefty booklet included in the package. What’s more, they have caused me (and many others, I’m sure) to revise our listings of the Vittorio De Sica classic, which for years has been referred to by its U.S. release title The Bicycle Thief when in fact, its Italian name (Ladri di Biciclette) is plural and doesn’t include an article of speech.

As usual, Criterion has taken the best preprint material and produced an immaculate video master with newly-translated subtitles. In essence, they have brought De Sica’s beautiful film back to life, in more ways than one.

Disc Two includes three worthwhile documentaries: Working with De Sica incorporates interviews with Suso Cecchi d’Amico (one of a corps of writers who collaborated on the screenplay), film scholar Callisto Cosulich, and Enzo Staiola, who achieved immortality as the little boy in this timeless film. Life As It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy is a clear-eyed, comprehensive survey of this influential period of filmmaking presented by film scholar Mark Shiel.

Finally, a 2003 documentary by Carlo Lizzani focuses on the protean writer, artist, and social commentator Cesare Zavattini, De Sica’s longtime partner, with revealing interview footage and contemporary comments by such admirers as Bernardo Bertolucci and Roberto Benigni, who knew him well.

All of these features serve to enhance one’s enjoyment and appreciation of Bicycle Thieves. It also whets one’s appetite to see more of De Sica’s and Zavattini’s work—and soon.

 

THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK BOX SET (Lionsgate) — When I first set eyes on this impressive-looking DVD set, I sighed and figured I would find inside the same dreary public-domain copies of his early films that have circulated for decades. Then I noticed the copyright notices for StudioCanal, which owns international rights to the films, and my mood brightened.

In point of fact, this collection offers Hitchcock buffs the best copies I’ve ever seen of his late-silent and early-talkie films The Ring, The Manxman, Murder!, The Skin Game, and Rich and Strange. Picture quality is first-rate, for the most part, and the silents are accompanied by adequate if uninspired piano scores. (Rich and Strange is presented in a different aspect ratio than the others, for some reason, more closely resembling a modern film.)

Best of all, there is a first-rate 15-minute documentary called Pure Cinema: The Birth of the Hitchcock Style that places these films into the larger context of Hitchcock’s career, with thoughtful comments from Pat Hitchcock, Pat Stone (her daughter), Peter Bogdanovich, Dr. Drew Casper (who has taught a Hitchcock course for many years at USC), Steve Haberman, and Bruce Dern. This featurette serves as a perfect introduction to the collection, especially for someone who’s never delved into Hitch’s early works before.

The films, of course, are a mixed bag, with storylines involving dreary romance and melodrama the director would have rejected out of hand in later years. But even in a feature as early as The Ring (1927) there is so much visual imagination at work that the story becomes secondary to the presentation.

The Alfred Hitchcock Box Set is a valuable—and welcome—release for film buffs and scholars everywhere.

 

HENRI LANGLOIS: PHANTOM OF THE CINEMATHÈQUE (Kino Video) — It’s taken me a long time to catch up with Jacques Richard’s epic documentary about the notorious and celebrated movie lover who created and nurtured the Cinemathèque Française. An obvious labor of love, it follows the history of this institution from its earliest days as an underground meeting-place through the years of World War II, when Langlois had to hide his precious prints from the Nazis, to the 1950s and 60s when a generation of budding filmmakers (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol, and so many others) found inspiration by immersing themselves in the history of cinema—and the messianic teachings of Langlois.

The story comes to a tumultuous climax in 1968 when Truffaut, Godard and others led young people in the streets of Paris to protest the ouster of Langlois by a nearsighted government... but that’s hardly the end of the saga.

If you don’t know about Langlois and the Cinemathèque, you owe it to yourself to see this candid, eye-opening documentary, and if you have any acquaintance with this colorful chronicle, Richard’s film will bring back memories and answer questions. In either case, it’s a joyous and bittersweet celebration of a man who lived for cinema, and a generation that benefited beyond measure from his passion.

For information on ordering, visit the Kino website.

 

MONARCH OF THE MOON — Several years ago I chanced to see Destination Mars!, Richard and Tor Lowry’s black & white sendup of tacky 1950s sci-fi movies. I’m not a huge fan of genre parodies but this was executed with such panache—and affection for the original films—that I simply couldn’t resist. Now they’ve returned with a spoof of vintage movie serials that, if anything, is even better.

Monarch of the Moon is a surprisingly elaborate enterprise set during World War Two. Its hero is called The Yellowjacket, and he wears a winged backpack contraption that enables him to fly through the air; he can also summon a swarm of stinging insects to attack designated bad guys on command. He has a pretty girl Friday, a hero-worshipping young sidekick, and a boozy pal who’s rarin’ for action. His nemesis is an exotic villainess known as Dragonfly.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in this globe-trotting six-chapter serial is that is was filmed in color. I was puzzled at first, but then came to like it, because the use of color is so stylized: it’s wildly oversaturated to the point where almost everything glows. It may not be authentic to 1940s serials but it’s appealingly off-kilter. (You can also choose to watch the film in b&w if you prefer.)

Monarch of the Moon benefits from computer technology that gives the filmmakers the ability to execute ambitious (and often hilarious) special effects as if they had the Lydecker Brothers on their team. Fortunately, the Lawrys know how and when to utilize these tools and haven’t forgotten such serial basics as fistfights and patriotic dialogue.

The new DVD from Dark Horse and Image Entertainment offers a commentary track by the filmmakers, and as a bonus their little-seen debut feature Destination Mars!

Monarch of the Moon is the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow wanted to be. That film had all the production design and star-power money could buy, but it was dramatically inert. This engaging parody had me smiling appreciatively from start to finish—and even laughing out loud.

 

THE POET LAUREATE OF RADIO (Anthracite Films) — Earlier this year a half-hour short subject, A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin won an Academy Award. As good as it is, it only scratches the surface of this extraordinary man’s life and career, which continues to this day, past Norman’s 96 th birthday. Two years ago, filmmaker Michael James Kacey sat down with a video camera to review Corwin’s work in the medium that made his reputation and gave him his greatest opportunities: radio. Now Kacey has made his interview available on DVD.

This is a no-frills enterprise; it consists of Norman sitting in front of a backdrop and talking about his experiences. Believe me, that’s enough. Corwin’s career is the stuff of legend, and to have this chronicle in his own words is priceless.

Norman Corwin is one of my heroes, personally and professionally. If you don’t know his work, I urge you to seek out recordings of his radio plays, especially the celebrated On a Note of Triumph. Or perhaps you should begin your journey with this interview; Corwin’s eloquence and passion may well inspire you. You can purchase a CD from the Lodestone catalog site.

 


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DRAWING THE LINE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE ANIMATION UNIONS FROM BOSKO TO BART SIMPSON by Tom Sito (University Press of Kentucky) — Here is a unique perspective on the history of American animation, written by an artist and director who’s also played a key role in his industry’s labor movement. Sito admits that he had no knowledge of, or interest in, unions when he started out in animation, but the more he learned about the cavalier treatment of his fellow artists, the more he became a believer. He wound up serving as president of his union.

Sito has been gathering information for this volume for years, and the result is a lively and informative history that breaks new ground in its portraits of cartoon producers, from Leon Schlesinger to George Pal, and studios, from the golden age to the present day. The stories he tells are alternately heartbreaking and hilarious, infused with the irreverence that’s always characterized this field. His accounts of the two most famous strikes in animation history—against Max Fleischer and Walt Disney—are especially rich in detail and anecdotes.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in the world of animation should consider this book a must-read.

 

WALT DISNEY’S SILLY SYMPHONIES; A COMPANION TO THE CLASSIC CARTOON SERIES By Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman (Le Cineteca del Fruili/Indiana University Press) — With perfect timing, Indiana University Press has taken on distribution of this valuable (and beautifully-printed) book, just as the second volume of Disney’s Silly Symphonies cartoons has become available on DVD as part of my Walt Disney Treasures series. In truth, Merritt and Kaufman have been working on this definitive compendium for years... but it was well worth the wait.

This is no mere recitation of facts, but an interpretive history by two of the most knowledgeable and perceptive scholars in the world of animation. In their overview chapters on the creation and flowering of this unique cartoon series, and in their exhaustive entries on each individual short-subject, they present illuminating ideas as well as details. I can’t imagine how much time the authors spent in the Walt Disney Archives, or how many times they examined each cartoon.

Every short is exhaustively chronicled, with information you will find nowhere else: when it went into production, who animated each individual shot, how much it cost to produce, where it debuted, and much, much more. No detail has gone unexplored.

What’s more, the book is beautifully designed and filled with rare illustrations in both black & white and color. Produced by the Cineteca del Fruili in Italy, it is distributed here in the U.S. by Indiana University Press. You can purchase a copy at their website.

 

ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE MASTER OF SUSPENSE: A POP-UP BOOK by Kees Moerbeek (Little Simon/Simon & Schuster) — Film books come in all shapes and sizes, but I can’t recall an homage to a major filmmaker quite like this: an extraordinarily detailed series of pop-up dioramas devoted to classic Alfred Hitchcock thrillers. Any true film buff will beam with admiration (and awe) for Kees Moerbeek’s inventive creations, which utilize photos, artwork, poster images, and frame enlargements to capture the iconic imagery of Saboteur, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, and Frenzy. There is some text, but I don’t know how many people will take the time to read it; they’ll be too busy exploring the intricate paper engineering and imaginative design of the pop-ups. (Incidentally, there is a small book-flap opening in each diorama that reveals Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in the given film.)

 

FILMADELPHIA: A CELEBRATION OF A CITY’S MOVIES By Irv Slifkin (Middle Atlantic Press) — Few people are as qualified to write about movies in general—or Philadelphia movies in particular—as Irv Slifkin, who’s known in those parts as Movie Irv, and whose work has filled the Movies Unlimited video catalog for many years. This highly browseable book offers alphabetical entries on dozens of movies filmed in whole or in part in the City of Brotherly Love, even those made many years “B.R.” (Before Rocky, as Slifkin puts it). Titles range from John Sayles’ Baby, It’s You to M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, with such odds and ends along the way as Kitty Foyle with Ginger Rogers, which does incorporate some authentic Philly footage into its backlot version of the city, Paul Wendkos’ 1957 crime caper The Burglar, Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, and the Al Pacino sleeper Two Bits.

Slifkin cleverly peppers the book with sidebars on silent-film pioneer Sig “Pop” Lubin, the legendary W.C. Fields, and various contemporary actors and filmmakers who call the city their home. He also offers capsule biographies of celebrated locals, including a number from the Jersey shore.

Combining lively prose and opinions with solid research, this is one reference guide that’s also fun to browse.

 

A WOMAN AT WAR: MARLENE DIETRICH REMEMBERED By J. David Riva (Wayne State University Press) The grandson of Marlene Dietrich has compiled a series of newly-minted interviews with people who knew and/or admired her, with a particular emphasis on her activities during World War Two—not just entertaining Allied troops but spreading anti-German propaganda for the O.S.S. Her tireless efforts during the war are the fodder for many interesting stories told by former servicemen, officers, intelligence officials and historians.

Others interviewed include Nicholas von Sternberg, son of the director who shaped Marlene’s screen career, Paramount mainstay A.C. Lyles, German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff, composer Burt Bacharach (who was Dietrich’s accompanist and musical director for many years), longtime friend Rosemary Clooney, and Dietrich protégé Hildegard Knef. The author’s mother, Maria Riva, also speaks.

Some of the interviews are redundant and longwinded, and cry out for editing (not to mention fact-checking and proofreading—it’s Josef, not Joseph, von Sternberg). Even so, the wide variety of voices create a fascinating mosaic of Dietrich the woman—not the world icon of glamour. Perhaps the most unexpected conversation is with Cher, who turns out to be an ardent fan, quite articulate about the qualities she admires about the way Dietrich managed her career.

The text is accompanied by genuinely rare photos and artifacts, including Jean Gabin’s letter ending their affair in the 1940s! Anyone with more than casual interest in Marlene Dietrich should consider this book a must.

 

STILL MOVING: THE FILM AND MEDIA COLLECTIONS AT THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART By Steven Higgins (Museum of Modern Art) This large, handsome printed volume celebrates the various holdings, accumulated over the past seventy years, that combine to make MoMA one of the world’s foremost film archives. In its early days MoMA was fortunate enough to acquire the Thomas Edison, Biograph, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks collections, which alone would comprise a world-class museum. Accordingly, I find these to be the most interesting and valuable sections of the book, as knowledgeable Museum curator Higgins tells us about the contents of each cache and their significance. The accompanying illustrations are vivid and rare.

Since those early years the Museum has added so many titles to its library that the book becomes a glossy survey of movie history, which isn’t nearly as compelling. It’s nice to see a beautiful still of Buster Keaton in The General or Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, but these familiar shots appear in other general histories. (Nor are there examples of unique film-related materials in the Museum collection, such as art director’s production designs or paper ephemera, like an original copy of the United Artists charter, which I once saw on display there.) Later chapters on the Joseph Cornell and Andy Warhol collections again return to specifics and give the volume a sharper focus. It’s also interesting to learn which more recent films the Museum has deemed worthy of acquisition.

Still Moving is a handsome coffee-table book that’s enjoyable to browse, but its greatest value is in describing the cornerstones of MoMA’s famous film library.

 

THE ART OF BOND By Laurent Bouzereau (Abrams) It’s refreshing to find a handsome book filled with colorful illustrations that also boasts a text that is both entertaining and informative. Bouzereau, a pioneer in the production of “making-of” featurettes for laserdiscs and DVDs, has gathered a cavalcade of memories, observations, and critiques of the James Bond films from a wide variety of sources—not just participants in the series but other filmmakers who admire (and have been influenced by) them, including Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Peter Jackson.

This lavishly illustrated, well-designed volume takes us behind the scenes to learn about the sets, the stunts, the gadgets, the women and the villains we associate with 007. There are set designs, storyboards, costume sketches, and much, much more.

To cite just one example, legendary production designer Ken Adam recalls, “We kept building and having to destroy all those great sets. When I worked on The Spy Who Loved Me, I decided to find a way to build a structure that we could use again. There was a tank at Pinewood and by building a stage over it we were able to keep is afterwards. And that’s how the 007 stage came about. What interested me specifically on The Spy Who Loved Me was that I used the structural elements of the stage as a part of the set. In other words, I covered the structure with sheets of metal and it became the inside of a super tanker. It could house three nuclear submarines; each were about 420 feet long and two traveled on rails. It was really quite amazing.” Adams’ recollection is accompanied by color photos that illustrate exactly what he describes.

I can’t imagine a James Bond fan—either casual or ardent—who wouldn’t enjoy this book.

 

WALT DISNEY: THE TRIUMPH OF THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION By Neal Gabler (Knopf) — If you thought you knew everything there was to know about Walt Disney, or assumed that you understood the many phases and facets of his career, Neal Gabler is about to change your mind. In this perceptive, well-written and even-handed biography, Gabler manages to dig deeper than anyone has before to understand the man and what drove him.

He goes over seemingly familiar turf and, by uncovering more details than anyone else—the specific amounts of Walt and brother Roy’s meager paychecks during their early days, just to cite one example—broadens our appreciation of the many hurdles and triumphs in Disney’s career. Even the saga of the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is richer, deeper, and more detailed than previous accounts.

Gabler doesn’t portray Walt as a saint—far from it—but his book is never mean-spirited. Some passages may alarm Disney fans because they picture a man with faults, including pride and even hubris at times, but I don’t think Gabler is so much contradicting the more familiar depictions as he is expanding them. (Some readers will be surprised to learn the extent of Walt’s disengagement from his movie and television productions of the 1950s and 60s, and I think Gabler may overstate this a bit, based on what I’ve heard over the years.)

What he captures, most of all, is Walt Disney’s restless spirit and drive for perfectionism. He was never satisfied with the status quo, and never really happy unless he was engaged in a new project with new challenges. These qualities may have made him difficult to live with at times, and while there are hints of friction in his long and successful marriage because of this, we’ll probably never have a chance to know him more intimately.

Like any great figure, Disney was a man of contradictions: humble and plain-spoken yet cocky and ambitious, generous in some regards and selfish in others. Gabler’s is just one interpretation, but it’s an intelligent and persuasive one, backed up by seven years of intensive research.

 

THE STORY OF HOLLYWOOD: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY By Gregory Paul Williams (BL Press LLC) — Other books have traced the history of moviemaking in Los Angeles and the cultural history of Hollywood, but this ambitious and handsome new volume is the most thorough examination of the town itself I’ve ever seen. Author Williams is an active member of Hollywood Heritage, the organization that fights the Good Fight to preserve the landmarks and the spirit of the city, and he’s done his homework well. He deals with the early history of the area, the development of Hollywood, and its first leading citizens. Every page is dotted with rare photographs, postcards, advertisements and ephemera, while sidebars give us background stories on some of the most colorful figures in the history of the town.

Hollywood Boulevard warrants a great deal of space, as does the Vine Street corridor which played home to both NBC and CBS radio in the heyday of network broadcasting. Many of the wonderful photos featuring stars of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s are new to me. You may have read about various restaurants and nightspots; now you can see what they looked like, both inside and out.

Williams doesn’t shy away from discussing the decline of Hollywood , but he also charts the victories won by preservationists in recent years, and spells out the challenges that still face this multifaceted community. This rich historical account gets my highest recommendation. To learn more about the book, go to the website.

 

LOUISE BROOKS: LULU FOREVER by Peter Cowie (Rizzoli) — Place this book on your coffee table and I guarantee that any visitor who opens it will be entranced. Barely a star during her heyday in Hollywood during the late 1920s, she was later rediscovered in a trio of European films, particularly G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, in which she plays the seductive Lulu. Her penetrating gaze, Dutch-boy haircut, exquisite features and lithe body have transcended her short-lived movie stardom and made her a pop culture icon.

She lived her final years in relative seclusion in Rochester, New York, but achieved latter-day fame when she began writing eloquent essays about her experiences which were later collected in the book Lulu in Hollywood. She was strong-minded—dogmatic might be the better word—but she was passionate in her opinions of everyone from Lillian Gish to John Wayne.

Prolific film-book author and scholar Cowie was lucky enough to get to know Brooks in the early 1970s, and he draws on his own memories and observations as well as other sources to chronicle her life in intelligent but highly readable prose. (Journalist Jack Garner, who was based in Rochester, also became a friend and confidante, and provides an equally interesting Foreword.)

But I suspect even Cowie might admit that it’s the photographs that are this book’s main attraction. There are more than two hundred of them, exquisitely presented; many fill an entire page, and they are absolutely mesmerizing.

 

SHIRLEY TEMPLE: A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST CHILD STAR
by Rita Dubas (Applause) — If you’re a fan of Shirley Temple, I daresay you’ll find this book irresistible. Longtime Temple fan and collector Rita Dubas has assembled a dazzling array of previously unpublished photos, props (like the diaper pins Shirley wore in the Baby Burlesks shorts!), costumes, dolls, and collectibles that trace Shirley’s career but also bear witness to her unprecedented popularity.

Every page yields a discovery. Dubas provides a copy of Temple’s seven-year contract with Fox to refute the publicity story that the actress was too young to sign her name so she made an X mark instead. Yet here is the document itself with Shirley’s “signature”—her name spelled out in capital letters.

Speaking of handwriting, you’ll even find examples of Shirley’s homework. And you’ll see rare photos of the moppet in the company of such notables as Ronald Colman, Harpo Marx, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Newspaper ads, movie standees, poster art, sheet music covers, paper dolls, advertising signs, chinaware, valentines...the variety is endless and astonishing. What a delightful book to browse or absorb from cover to cover.

 

DUDLEY MURPHY, HOLLYWOOD WILD CARD by Susan Delson (University of Minnesota Press) — What a pleasant surprise to find a book about someone who has always intrigued me, a shadowy figure in film history whose name is attached to a handful of wildly different but significant movies, from Ballet Mécanique to Bessie Smith’s St. Louis Blues to The Emperor Jones. From those credits alone one could surmise that Murphy was bright, enlightened in his view of black culture, and most likely a cosmopolitan. Luckily for us, and for posterity, Susan Delson has done an impeccable job of research to tell his story and tie the loose ends of his improbable career together.

Murphy was the son of artists and lived what I suppose he felt he was entitled to, a privileged existence, except when money ran out, which happened on a regular basis. While he remained on the periphery of both the art world and the movie business he was more than a mere dilettante. He had an artist’s sensibilities and brought them to a variety of projects over the years, without ever gaining an ounce of understanding about commerce.

Still, this is a man who worked and played with some of the leading lights of the 20 th century: Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Ezra Pound, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Robert Benchley, Eugene O’Neill, and Paul Robeson, to name just a few. For more information about this book and its author, go to www.susandelson.com.

Delson was fortunate enough to make contact with Murphy’s children and gain access to the manuscript of a would-be autobiography he penned in the 1960s. She also scoured libraries, archives and special collections to locate correspondence relating to his various endeavors and associations over the years. The result is a brief but interesting, intelligent, and well-written book about a longtime mystery man who—in spite of a greater concern for carousing than career-building—made his mark on the world of cinema.

 

THE OFFICIAL DISNEY ENCYLOPEDIA A TO Z by Dave Smith (Disney Editions) — The previous edition of this book, published six years ago, is one of my most-used reference volumes, as I produce and host a series of Disney DVDs and try to fact-check myself as I go along. One of the pleasures of using this book is the knowledge that it is absolutely, unfailingly accurate. Dave Smith founded the Walt Disney studio archive in 1970 and has been the guru of Disney information ever since.

The new volume is 130 pages longer than the last (at 763 pages!) and boasts nearly one thousand new entries, with more than 1,250 changes to existing material. Dave (in the spirit of Disney, no ones calls him Mr. Smith) covers movies, educational films, television shows, theme park attractions, and Disney events, among other categories. If you

look up Jane, you’ll find that she is a character in Tarzan, the daughter of Professor Potter, voiced by Minnie Driver. If you check Bob Gurr, who became a Disney Legend in 2004, you’ll get a capsule summary of his career as an Imagineer. Under Disney Outfitters you’ll learn that this shop on Discovery Island at Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened on April 22, 1998, underwent a name change from 1999 to 2001, then reverted to its original moniker in 2002.

Dave subscribes to the Jack Webb school of giving “just the facts,” without editorializing, although he occasionally breaks or bends his own rule. The entry for Keenan Wynn, for instance, is dry and factual, but the writeup for his father Ed Wynn notes that he was “a Disney favorite.”

No single volume could cover everything the Disney company has touched in great detail, but for easy and reliable reference, this book has no equal.

 

SILENT TRACES: DISCOVERING EARLY HOLLYWOOD THROUGH THE FILMS OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN By John Bengtson (Santa Monica Press) — Amateur archeologist and sleuth John Bengtson has done it again. This sequel to Silent Echoes, which traced locations for Buster Keaton’s silent comedies, is even more impressive—and exhaustive. He has not only identified an enormous amount of previously undocumented “living history” in Los Angeles, but placed many of Chaplin’s films in the larger context of silent comedy. It’s amusing to see how many street locations used by Chaplin were adopted by other comics, from Keaton and Lloyd to a number of lesser journeymen.

Using frame enlargements, aerial photos, ancient maps and postcards, and a formidable eye for detail, Bengtson and several compatriots have gone on the movie-era equivalent of an archeological dig. How else can one describe the discovery that a brick wall on Los Angeles’ historic Olvera Street, now obscured by vendors and colorful decoration, was a backdrop used by Chaplin in both Easy Street and The Kid. Remember the scene in which Charlie rescues Jackie Coogan from the clutches of social workers on the back of an open truck? Some distinctive windows and brickwork provide a “make” for this spot, which the author generously credits to Gerald Smith, Bonnie McCourt, and David Totheroh, who “found this location, in part from clues revealed during a 19564 family interview with David’s grandfather,” Chaplin cameraman Rollie Totheroh. (Those folks also ventured to Truckee in Northern California to find the spot where Totheroh shot the snowy opening scenes of The Gold Rush!)

Some people might be tempted to dismiss this as minutiae, but in the hands of John Bengtson, it becomes part of a historical mosaic, showing how the earliest filmmakers learned to use every nook and cranny of Southern California to their advantage, without having to construct sets or go out of town. And, as Kevin Brownlow points out in his eloquent foreword, many of Chaplin’s favorite locations in downtown Los Angeles and the original Chinatown area were chosen because they were reminiscent of the London streets where Charlie grew up.

Silent Echoes is an altogether extraordinary achievement.

 

CARTOON MODERN: STYLE AND DESIGN IN FIFTIES ANIMATION by Amid Amidi (Chronicle Books) — Animation, which for years was the least chronicled aspect of motion pictures, now inspires a vast parade of books every year. Some of them focus on specific films or careers, while others rehash the same historical turf that’s been amply covered before.

Amid Amidi has followed his own path, based on a passion for the modern, graphic styling of American cartoons of the 1950s. He’s uncovered a mother lode of beautiful, expressive artwork to accompany a well-informed text about the artists who effected real change in the way even “mainstream” cartoons looked during that watershed decade. The forward-thinking UPA studio led the way with great cartoons like Gerald McBoing Boing, but in time even Disney and Warner Bros. adopted some of their visual ideas.

I devoured every page of this book, reveling in the illustrations and learning new things about many artists and designers whose work I’ve admired for years, from John Hubley to Ernie Pintoff.

Fifties modernism has been in vogue for some time now—what some architecture buffs call “mid-century modern”—and it’s high time someone recognized the contribution that the animation world made to that bold art movement.

 

NICOLE KIDMAN by David Thomson (Alfred A. Knopf) — Only someone as respected as David Thomson could get away with what he’s attempted here: a combination fan-boy paean to and erudite exploration of a contemporary movie star.

On one level, Thomson is candid enough to admit that, like every other moviegoer, he is attracted and even sexually engaged by movie stars. (Many other critics and commentators try to pretend that they are above such basic human responses.) Kidman, he says, is just one of many actresses he’s admired over the years.

At the same time, he takes up the challenge of trying to understand the relationship we, as spectators, have with those idols on the screen, especially in our media-driven age when we can’t help but know all sorts of details about their private life as well as their screen personas.

All of this comes out in a kind of stream-of-consciousness manner that’s both conversational and self-aware. Thomson’s impeccable credentials presumably shield him from being accused of tabloid journalism as he speculates about Tom Cruise’s relationship with his first wife, Mimi Rogers, and how he and Nicole adapted to each other’s public and private psyches.

Some of this makes me uncomfortable, but even I can’t deny being caught up in our celebrity culture. I picked up this book to browse the first few pages and before I knew it had plowed through a hundred pages! Thomson’s heady mixture of fan worship and scholarly musing is hard to resist.

 

 

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TOM AND JERRY AND TEX AVERY TOO! Volume 1 – The 1950s (Film Score Golden Age Classics) — Virtually ignored during his lifetime, Carl Stalling has been celebrated—indeed, lionized—during the past twenty years for his amazing output as musical director of the Warner Bros. cartoons. Scott Bradley, his counterpart at the MGM cartoon department, hasn’t enjoyed the same degree of attention, but he was certainly Stalling’s equal when it came to creating inventive, musically diverse soundtracks on a deadline. This welcome compilation is one building block toward a fuller appreciation of his work.

Daniel Goldmark, the erudite author of Toons for Tunes, co-produced the disc with Film Score Monthly’s stalwart Lukas Kendall, and provides knowledgeable liner notes in a handsome booklet filled with rare illustrations and ephemera.

Kendall and Goldmark decided to begin their exploration of Bradley’s twenty-year career at MGM with its final phase because surviving source material for the 1950s is so superior. These scores, especially nine selections taken from three-track 35mm magnetic film, sound absolutely magnificent.

As to the music itself, the frenetic chase music and gag-related effects—including piano and xylophone runs, violin plunks and drum breaks—naturally evoke memories of the Tom & Jerry and Tex Avery cartoons they accompanied so well. They also attest to Bradley’s versatility as he tackles everything from trad jazz for Dixieland Droopy to Italian melodies (complete with concertina) for Neapolitan Mouse. One also comes away with great regard for the MGM studio musicians who executed this challenging, lightning-paced music with such precision and aplomb.

You can purchase this CD at the Film Score Monthly website....and I for one can’t wait for Volume Two.

 

LET’S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE (Swing Out Records) — Banu Gibson is a talented New Orleans-based singer and bandleader with a thousand-watt personality. She has great taste in music and musicians; the members of her working band, The Hot Jazz, are first-class all the way, with special kudos going to protean pianist and arranger David Boeddinghaus. Gibson’s latest album is a labor of love saluting the songs of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s. One might be forgiven for expecting a pleasant retread of familiar songs, but this CD is no such thing. With Banu’s vibrant vocals and her band’s fresh arrangements, this is a highly enjoyable parade of timeless songs by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern. Banu’s choices aren’t always the obvious: not everyone would tackle “Bojangles of Harlem,” but it suits her to a T.

As you can tell, I’m a fan. Full disclosure impels me to say that I also provided the liner notes for this CD because I’m so enthusiastic about Banu and her music. You can learn more about her and purchase a copy of the CD at her website.

 

THE RAZOR’S EDGE (Screen Archives Entertainment) — Producer Ray Faiola continues to fly the flag for Alfred Newman (following his superb soundtrack CDs for The Black Swan and Captain from Castile) with this equally valuable restoration of Newman’s score for Darryl F. Zanuck’s ambitious 1947 production. Because the W. Somerset Maugham story deals with a man’s spiritual journey it presented the composer with a particular challenges, which he met, of course, with great skill. The main title is especially stirring, and becomes a motif for Tyrone Power’s character throughout the story. It’s followed by genteel and highly listenable renditions of popular 1920s songs like “April Showers” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”

I look forward to each new entry in this series not just for the glorious music but for the accompanying booklets, which are filled with artwork from the film and behind-the-scenes photos. Rudy Behlmer traces the history of the production, quoting from internal 20 th Century Fox memos, while Jon Burlingame examines the music and places it in the context of Newman’s other work. Sidebar essays discuss the hiring of Norman Rockwell to paint the artwork used in the movie’s advertising campaign and director Edmund Goulding’s hobby of songwriting, which gave this score a hit tune, “Mam’selle.”

Because Faiola discovered dual-angle tracks in the Fox vault, he is able to present this music in genuine (not artificial) stereophonic sound, which makes it a particular pleasure to hear. To order, go to their website. To learn more about Ray Faiola’s upcoming soundtrack projects, go to the Chelsea Rialto website.

 

RANDOM HARVEST/THE YEARLING (Film Score Golden Age Classics) — No composer had a more profound impact on the sound of MGM movies of the 1930s and 40s than Herbert Stothart, and while one achievement (The Wizard of Oz) will keep his name alive forever, he has become a neglected figure in most writing about film music. That makes this new release from Film Score and Turner Classic Movies Music especially welcome, all the more so because it features liner notes by Marilee Bradford, a major Stothart advocate who has been archiving his papers and effects for UCLA.

Random Harvest is a perfect score for that richly romantic film starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson, and Stothart (no music snob, despite his classical training) draws on everything from the British music hall to traditional church music, with a 70-voice choir. He is no less skillful in conveying the emotions inherent in The Yearling, incorporating variations on passages from Delius’ “ Appalachia” into his sensitive evocation of Americana.

The beautiful music on this CD provides enjoyable listening quite apart from the films, but more importantly, they remind us of a talent who deserves a greater share of the limelight for his contribution to movie scoring. To read more, or order a copy, go to the Screen Archives- Film Score Monthly website.

 

DARK VICTORY (Brigham Young University Film Music Archives) — The latest entry in BYU’s film music series draws again on its Max Steiner collection with felicitous results. Steiner’s score for Dark Victory (1939) is one of his best, and he seems to have been as inspired by the story as its star, Bette Davis, who always teased him about not “peaking” in the final scene before she did. There is no bombast here, no overstatement; it’s a lyrical and supportive score that’s also quite listenable.

But music is only part of the reason I enjoy these BYU releases so much. I look forward to reading the accompanying booklets because I know I’ll learn about the film’s production (as I did this time from historian extraordinaire Rudy Behlmer) and the score itself (from CD producer Ray Faiola). What’s more, BYU archivist James D’Arc provides an entertaining essay about the notations one finds on Steiner’s original music sketches. These spontaneous pencil markings reveal how much the composer relied on his favorite orchestrator, Hugo Friedhofer, at this point in his career, and also provide a glimpse of his sense of humor. (He signs one note “Kornsteiner.”) I highly recommend this latest BYU release, for the music and the accoutrements. For information on how to purchase the disc, click here.

 

THE PAGE CAVANAUGH TRIO: RETURN TO ELEGANCE (Moon Over Leg) — My idea of a great night is hearing Page Cavanaugh play and sing in person. He’s been a Hollywood fixture for decades, and while he’s been taken for granted in years past I think people now appreciate what he represents. A gifted pianist and consummate performer, Page isn’t looking back to the golden age of American pop music: he’s living it, just as he always has.

His new CD, produced by his longtime bassist Phil Mallory, is a joy from start to finish. The opening track, “Memories of You,” features some of Page’s most beautiful playing and shows how he can seamlessly segue from a romantic style to an upbeat jazz tempo. His ability to swing seems absolutely effortless.

Page’s singing voice is light and whispery. He’s not trying to compete with Sinatra, but he does know how to capture the mood of a song and do justice to its lyrics.

It may not seem possible that the man who appears on screen in A Song is Born and Romance on the High Seas in 1948 is still making music—and wonderful music—in 2006, but it’s true. If you’d like to hear samples from the new CD, purchase a copy, or learn more about Page, click here.

 


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