MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Tell No One, A Grin Without a Cat, Max Fleischer’s Superman and more…

PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

Tell No One (Three Stars)
France; Guillaume Canet, 2006 (Music Box Films/MPI)

A provincial French pediatrician named Beck (Francois Cluzet) — still tormented by the shocking murder by an idyllic lake, eight years earlier, of his lovely wife (Marie-Josee Croze) — suddenly begins receiving emails that seem to be coming from the murdered woman. When Beck investigates, questioning or re-contacting the police (Francois Berleand), her father (Andre Dussolier), her friends and others involved (Nathalie Baye, Jean Rochefort), he increasingly discovers a dark morass of guilt, lies, scandal and cover-up beneath the surface of the long-ago crime. And he also finds himself the target of a reopened police investigation — fleeing the law and some truly mean killers, while he desperately tries to uncover the truth.

A major Cesar (French Oscar) winner, for Best Actor and Director, this stellar adaptation of Harlan Coben’s American suspense novel was one of the big foreign language art house hits of 2008, a crisply fast, suspenseful and penetrating psychological mystery/shocker, with a terrific near-all star cast of French acting luminaries, including that sublime English expatriate Kristin Scott Thomas. (Director-co-writer Canet, himself a star French actor, plays one of the nastier suspects.)

Tell No One suggests, surely not without intention, one of Alfred Hitchcock‘s “wrong man” thrillers, as well as his classic tale of the living and the dead, Vertigo. Canet is a real talent: The full-throttle suspense, headlong pace, Chabrolian atmosphere of bourgeois corruption and twisty, devious puzzle-plot all hook you, and so does the potent theme of yearning, undying love-beyond the grave. In French, with English subtitles.

Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes.

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CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS

A Grin Without a Cat (Four Stars)
France; Chris Marker, 1977 (updated 1993) (Icarus Films)

Chris Marker’s epic documentary on the history of the New Left in France in the 1960s and 1970s — which begins with a stirring montage of images from French newsreels and documentary footage intercut with Sergei Eisenstein‘s revolutionary film masterpiece Battleship Potemkin (mostly the Odessa Steps sequence) — is a cultural/political film landmark that distills decades of incendiary modern history into a provocative, engrossing, sometimes lyrical memoir. Marker (La Jetee) is a poet of memory, and here he examines a volatile past as it replays before us with a breathless contemporary air and tempo.

The cast of archive figures or influences is large and historically resonant: Fidel Castro, Chairman Mao, Regis Debray, Che Guevara, student leader “Danny the Red” Cohn-Bendit, Salvador Allende and many others. The narrators or voices include Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Jim Broadbent, Robert Kramer, and Jorge Semprun.

And the often amazing historic footage shot mostly by passionately committed filmmakers like Francois Reichenbach, Pierre Lhomme, William Klein, Marker himself and many others, makes this, as much as D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (in Woodrow Wilson’s famous words) “history told by lightning.” But it’s a different kind of history than Griffith‘s or Eisenstein‘s explosive silent/dramatic dramatizations of Civil War battles or the massacre on the Odessa Steps.

It‘s the world as it happened, caught in images of stunning reality that keep unwinding or igniting before our eyes, bringing back a vanished era with incredible force. If you lived in places like Madison, Wisconsin during those years (as I did), Marker’s movie is a highly charged experience: exciting, revelatory and nostalgically bittersweet. In French, English, Spanish and other languages, with English subtitles.

Extra: Booklet with Chris Marker essay.

Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1942 (2 discs) (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Dave Fleischer and various other directors, 1941-42 (Warner Brothers)

Here, shortly after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman for the comics, is one of the purest movie versions of the adventures of The Man of Steel, The Max Fleischer Paramount cartoon series, directed by brother Dave and other “Popeye” hands.

Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings with a single bound! Disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan daily which still uses newsprint and broadsheets! (The Metropolis Daily Planet, which, last I heard, had become an Internet blog run by Jimmy Olsen‘s grandson), this is the Superman of the nation’s younger days.

Those were the days! The time when a man could walk or fly around the city streets, wearing a red cape, a big red scarlet letter and red underpants on the outside of his blue pants and not get hassled by tough guys. Here, we get to see Supe mopping up the floor with a series of mad scientists, arch-criminals, Superman impersonators, giant robots, the Japanese Army, and even a mini-King Kong, going berserk at the circus. (The Supergent’s Supervoice and Clark‘s wimpy, mild-mannered utterances are courtesy of later To Tell the Truth TV game show host Bud Collyer.)

For the time, this is trail-blazing animation and it’s still fun to watch: mini-adventures which give us milquetoast Clark, nosey-brave Lois Lane — who often ends up flying under one Super-arm with an arch-villain under the other. They‘re ideal World War II era entertainment: tales of a super-hero devoted to truth and justice, who faces any seemingly insurmountable problem with fortitude, super-strength, and X-ray vision. (Wow! How many kids do you think wanted just that one superpower?)

Siegel and Shuster created one of the great archetypal American stories and the Fleischer brothers thrillingly put it on celluloid — though this set of 17 Supermans, includes five made after the Fleischers were forced out of their studio. (I would have liked to see a joint cartoon bop-a-thon appearance of Superman and Popeye, Lois, Olive, costarring Bluto and Luthor. But it was never to be.)

Time out for some nostalgia. I first encountered the super-guy back in 1952, when I got me first Superman Comic, soon followed, thanks to my tolerant mother, an artist who could draw a damn good Superman herself, by a vast cache of Batmans, Superboys, Action, Adventure, Detective, and World’s Finest Comics (and even better, the Carl Barks Uncle Scrooges) — which were all, alas, lost along the way.

But I still pick up a D.C. book and leaf through it now and then, even though I became in college, more of a Marvel guy. And Superman himself is still around, in movies and elsewhere. Indeed, like rock n’ roll, he’ll probably never die. Neither will his mild-mannered journalistic alter-ego. So let’s hear it for Max Fleischer’s Superman. Confusion to Kryptonite! Hail, Jerry, Joe, Max and Dave: four super-Jewish guys who, in the words of Archie Leach a.k.a. Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, would have stuck Hitler on the funny page.

Extras: Featurettes.

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CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: BOX SET

TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Broadway Musicals (Two discs) (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; George Sidney & Stanley Donen, 1950-54 (TCM/Warner)

As far as I know, neither Warners nor MGM never put out a Howard Keel signature edition. But this TCM set proves it might have flown: four Keel starrers that are all pretty damned good, and one of which (the exuberant barn-burner Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) is pretty damned great.

Befitting the box set title, three of these shows are adaptations of three classic Broadway musicals (by songwriters Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein), all directed by the likeably garish and upbeat George Sidney — the Ann-Margret-enhancing auteur of Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas — at his likeably garish best.

The shows are all first-rate, though you might argue about Berlin‘s Annie Get Your Gun (which here stars Keel and frantic hepcat Betty Hutton (not the originally cast, but canned, Judy Garland, a big loss) as Buffalo Bill Wild West Show sharp-shooter Frank Butler and sharper shooter Annie Oakley, who can’t get a man with a gun, but doesn’t really need to.

No arguments about Kern and Hammerstein‘s classic Show Boat, done better, but not as colorfully in 1936 by director James Whale, Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan and Charles Winninger, who are here replaced, successively, by Kathryn Grayson, Keel, William Warfield (“Old Man River”), Ava Gardner and Joe E. Brown. (Well, nobody‘s perfect.) Or about Porter’s very best show, with his very best score, Kiss Me Kate, here graced tamingly by Keel, shrewishly by Grayson, and razzmatazz-ily by Ann Miller, Keenan Wynn, James Whitmore, Bobby Van and others, including, as a hip, shakin’ chorus boy, the young Bob Fosse, who also knocks off some steps for his Pajama Game, Steam Heat muse Carol Haney.

And there’s no arguments at all about the greatest movie musical ever made about snowbound mass sexual abstinence (Gov. Palin, take note), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers — with its snowed-in mountain lovers and brides-to-be, its smart Johnny Mercer-DePaul songs, it leaps and stomps by choreographer Michael Kidd, its lusty, gusty and occasionally busty hillbilly-hillmilly cast headed by Keel, Jane Powell, Russ Tamblyn, and its sprightly, shining direction by Stanley Donen. (The movie became a Broadway musical later on, like The Lion King.)

No sobbin’ for these women! They just don’t write em like Porter, Kern, Hammerstein, Berlin and Mercer anymore. Or dance them like Donen. Or keel-haul them like Howard Keel.

Included: Show Boat (U. S.; George Sidney, 1950) Three Stars. Annie Get Your Gun (U.S.; Sidney, 1951) Two Stars. Kiss Me Kate (U. S.; Sidney, 1953). Three-and-a-Half Stars. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (U. S.; Stanley Donen, 1954) Four Stars.

Extras: Commentary by Donen, featurettes, shorts, outtake musical numbers (including two by Garland), intro by Susan Lucci, trailers.

Alexander Korda’s Private Lives (Four discs) (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. K.; Alexander Korda/Paul Czinner; 1933-36

One of the masters of the film historical drama and the man who almost single-handedly established the British cinematic “tradition of quality” during the 1930s, was the Hungarian Jewish film director/producer/mogul Alexander Korda, who is amply celebrated in this excellent, historically invaluable boxed set from Criterion/Eclipse.

Korda, who became world famous with the earliest film in this set, 1933‘s spicy The Private Life of Henry VIII (starring Charles Laughton is his great Oscar winning turn as the lusty, amoral, multiple queen-abusing, chicken chomping monarch) escaped Nazi Germany along with his filmmaking brothers Vincent ( supreme art director) and Zoltan (another first-class director, and the maker of The Four Feathers, Sahara The Macomber Affair)).

Together the three Kordas, in various combinations, collaborated with others on an extraordinary string of movies. Based on prime, fascinating historical and cultural subjects, these movies were intelligent, stylish, literate, well-researched historically and visually, lushly produced and cast with the cream of British stage and film dramatic acting royalty. Many of them became classics. Together with the brilliant young London-born suspense director Alfred Hitchcock, Alex Korda put British filmmaking on the international map in the ‘30s — both as director himself and as producer for others ( including Zoltan, Paul Czinner in this set, Michael Powell in The Thief of Baghdad and later, in the ’40s, Carol Reed and Graham Greene in The Fallen Idol and The Third Man).

Korda, like Ernst Lubitsch, had an urbane, witty and sexually knowing take on royalty and power. He was aware of the naughty, scandalous, unjust, corrupt, and deeply human bits that other filmmakers usually left out of their historical films, and he and his scriptwriters (including Lajos Biro, Arthur Wimperis and Carl Zuckmayer) made sure to keep them in — or at least imply them.

He also had a flair for sumptuous settings and grand personalities — like the great Laughton, tossing partly-eaten chicken legs over his shoulder as the magnificently boorish Henry VIII, or tearing our heart as the poignant, impoverished, beaten-down old Rembrandt, ignored by the world and the foolish or bigoted patrons of the day but still an unchallenged monarch of his art.

These are wonderful films, dramatically moving and visually splendid. (All four were designed by brother Vincent and shot by the peerless French cinematographer Georges Perinal.) Even the so-called “failures,“ like The Private Life of Don Juan, the notorious 1934 flop that was Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.‘s movie swan song, are interesting and entertaining today.

I have only one serious complaint. This set definitely should have included director-producer Korda’s other historical masterpiece, the 1941 Lady Hamilton (a.k.a. That Hamilton Woman), starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, in their glorious youth, as the tragic Emma Hamilton and her lover Admiral Nelson. It was, after all, the favorite film of both a young American movie critic named Andrew Sarris and an old British warrior and statesman named Winston Churchill.

Extras: Notes by Michael Koresky.

Included: The Private Life of Henry VIII (U.K.; Alexander Korda 1933) Three-and-a-Half Stars. With Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Merle Oberon and Elsa Lanchester. The Rise of Catherine the Great (U. K.; Paul Czinner, 1934) Three Stars. With Elisabeth Bergner, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Flora Robson and Gerald du Maurier. The Private Life of Don Juan (U. K.; Korda, 1934) Three Stars. Rembrandt (U. K.; Korda, 1936) Four Stars. With Charles Laughton, Gertrude Lawrence, Elsa Lanchester and Roger Livesey.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: Blu-ray

Star Trek Original Motion Picture Collection (Seven Discs) (Blu-Ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1979-91 (Paramount)

A sextet of movies to live long and prosper by: The first six Star Trek theatrical features, all with Shatner as Kirk, Nimoy as Spock, and the original Enterprise crew. The even-numbered movies are all better here, though I think Wise’s Number One has been underrated. And nobody since has topped the late Ricardo Montalban’s wrath as Khan.

Included: Star Trek–the Motion Picture (Robert Weise, 1979) Three Stars. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982) Four Stars. Star Trek III: the Search for Spock (Leonard Nimoy; 1984) Three Stars. Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home(Nimoy, 1986) Three-and-a-Half Stars. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (William Shatner, 1989) Two-and-a-Half Stars. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country Three Stars.

Extras: Featurettes.

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OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVDS

Chandni Chowk to China (Two Stars)
China/India; Vikhil Aduani (2008) (Warner)

A wildly over the top Bollywood/comedy/kung fu romp, starring bolly-superstar Akshay Kuhar as an idiot turned choppy-socky mega-hero, along with bolly-bombshell Deepika Padukone as the heroine and Gordon Liu as the bolly-heavy. Has to be seen to be believed, and even then you‘ll have trouble.

Notorious Nobodies (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
Czechoslovakia/France; Stanislas Stanojevic, 1984 (Facets)

An incredible little multi-episode film, reminiscent in structure of the later Babel, which is shot in many languages and set simultaneously in Prague, Paris, Montevideo, Munich and other cities. The themes are freedom and tyranny and the final effect very powerful. In French, German, Czech, African and other languages.

Tarkovsky Rediscovered (Two discs) (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
Russia, Italy; Andrei Tarkovsky, 1960-1983 (Facets)

One of the world‘s greatest filmmakers, Andrei Tarkovsky, joins forces with his two best screenwriters, Andrei Konchalovsky and (later) Tonino Guerra, in two lesser-seen, short but still impressive smaller works. One is his film school diploma film, The Steamroller and the Violin, Tarkovsky’s most accessible movie and a beauty. The other is a documentary/journal about Guerra, Tarkovsky, landscapes and cinema. Both are testaments of a major artist and a spirit breaking chains.

Included: The Steamroller and the Violin (Russia: Tarkovsky, 1960) Three-and-a-Half Stars. A boy violinist, ridiculed by street kids, strikes up a friendship with a good-hearted steamroller operator. This poetic little gem, filled with imagery of water, reflections, the sky and the city, has a mood reminiscent of Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon. Co-scripted by Konchalovsky. In Russian, with English subtitles.

Voyage in Time (Italy; Tarkovsky, 1983) Three Stars. Against stunning exteriors and interior shots, Tarkovsky and Guerra (also a frequent screenwriter for Antonioni and Angelopoulos), talk together about life, movies and art. Fittingly, since this is an Italian film made (around the time of Nostalghia) in the land of neo-realism and Post-Synch, Tarkovsky is dubbed. In Italian. In Italian, with English subtitles.

– Michael Wilmington
May 12, 2009

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