MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Up, Wings of Desire, The General, Heat, The Ugly Truth, Mamma Mia!, Monsters, Inc. and more…


Up (Four Stars)
U. S.; Pete Docter, 2009

Up, this year’s new Pixar picture, flies us right up into those realms of sky, flight and fantasy that Judy Garland’s Dorothy traveled in her Kansas twister ride to Oz, and to which little Pascal Lamorisse was whisked off by his air armada of Parisian balloons, at the end of his dad Albert‘s The Red Balloon.

Co-written and directed by Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and Bob Peterson, it’s almost a great children‘s movie, and another strong argument that the Pixar cartoon cadre is the strongest creative force operating in mainstream Hollywood right now.

If you have children and don’t take them, you should be ashamed of yourself. If you see it without kids, you should love it anyway. And if you’re a kid, you should be in heaven. For us adults, Up will help bring back all those wondrous, heart-warming, spine-chilling childhood movie experiences, like The Wizard of Oz, The Red Balloon and the early Disney features (Dumbo, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio), all the great rides that once made a kid‘s trip to the movie house so intoxicating and madly enchanting. And adventurous.

Yet, in what might appear a paradox, the hero of Up — albeit with a kid sidekick — is a harsh, isolate, seemingly past-it and mean old man named Carl Fredericksen, voiced with classic gruffness by Ed Asner, whose squashed grizzled features also are replicated in Carl‘s onscreen face. (Asner’s performance makes his Lou Grant seem like an old softie and a sweetie-pie.)

In Up, we see Carl, once a bright and (most important) adventurous lad, with a bright and even more adventurous partner/wife Ellie (Elie Docter), now a retired balloon-seller who lives alone in a shabby but homey old house: one of those hanger-on dwellings once surrounded by other, similar homes, but now alone itself in an area drastically torn down, replaced or modernized during his lifetime, until it (and it seems, he) are simply old relics lost in concrete and construction.

Up seems initially about how the old are sadly abandoned and shunted aside, how they gradually lose their loves and dreams, and are forced to succumb to the world’s cruelty, indifference or smugly ageist bigotry.

All that, and almost all of Carl’s life, are conveyed in the movie‘s sprightly opening sections, covering Carl’s boyhood, his meeting with the plucky little lassie, Ellie (who keeps a diary of adventures and adventures-to-be), their joint admiration for the famous Movietone Newsreel star and daring South American explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer, at his plumiest), leading up to a lyrical five minute sequence, a glorious little montage that becomes one of the most beautiful and bewitchingly sad pieces of cinema I’ve seen this year.

As the score swells and the years pass, we see Carl and Ellie marry, plan their adventures, then painfully discover they can’t have children of their own, reconcile themselves to the impossibility of both family and finally, drop also the long-cherished childhood dream of adventure as well, and then sink into a gradual home-sweet-home but dull routine of passing years and a shifting, crumbling neighborhood that is finally, inevitably invaded by death and impending destruction.

That’s the poetic but real-life-ish story of love, resignation and loss that Docter and Peterson tell us in their mesmerizing five minute ballad of aging and dreams deferred. I loved it, and I very much liked the rest too: the slapstick, soaring, adventure movie escape-hatch that the filmmakers supply for 78-year-old Carl, who, at the last minute, dodges the wrecker‘s ball, opens up and lets loose a buoyant mantle of thousands of gleaming balloons that pull his three-story home up into the air and sail it away — from the courts, their decisions and the construction companies and head toward, as we know it has to, South America! And the jungle mountain haunts of the disgraced explorer, Muntz! Who disappeared decades ago after a rare-bird skeleton scandal! (Night at the Museum, eat your heart out!)

It’s probably the most astonishing emotional movie turnabout, and amazing emotional tone-shift from a tragic portrayal of defeated, lonely old age since…well, since F. W. Murnau tacked on that crazy, drunken, happy ending to the tale of Emil Jannings’s beleaguered ex-head porter in The Last Laugh. Except that this is an ending we definitely want to see.

Accompanying Carl is his own boy wonder, chubby but ever-game 8-year-old wilderness scout Russell (Jordan Agai), who was on the porch –and later clings to it, knocking and screaming for help, when the house takes off. Awaiting them is a truly magical joke-packed flight that ends in Muntz’s South American hangout — near a waterfall that looks like Angel Falls, in a profusely green jungle and towering highland populated by the nice dog Dug (voiced by filmmaker Peterson), nastier dogs Alpha and Beta (Peterson again and Delroy Lindo), and the delightful goofy, brightly-plumed big bird Kevin (no voice) –and, amazingly, by Muntz himself who is not quite what he seemed. But then, how many newsreel heroes are?

I’m not going to tell you what happens next, with a few exceptions — because this is one of the funniest and most exciting of all the Pixar features. You deserve to have the jokes and the action come to you mostly fresh and unspoiled. But, of course, much of the rest of the movie takes place up there in the sky too, in Carl’s balloon house and on Muntz’s spectacular whirlybird super-dirigible-like, propeller- driven sky-ship –and there are chases and wild escapes, and the characters fight and slide all over the skyship’s body and Carl’s porch, in scenes that will either feed your vertigo or kill it dead. “Exhilarating“ is a word that was made for the likes of Up.

It’s exhilarating though for more than mere (Mere!) adventure and spectacle. This is a movie which spiritually delivers a well-earned knockout blow to the rejection, marginalization and sometimes abusive mistreatment that the elderly here — and elsewhere — suffer.

I was glad to see and hear Asner grumble and take off, partly because I’m sick of turning on cable TV news and hearing the cable news yowlers of the right braying or blubbering about how they don’t want their money (or as they deceptively put it, their children‘s money) spent on health care, help for the disadvantaged, and other “non-necessities,” for the old or the otherwise marginalized — who, in their sickeningly selfish and mercenary minds, are also the undeserving.

Our older (and younger) population deserves much better, in the midst of a severe economic crisis, than money-mad, overpaid, whining, phony brats like these, and any tea-party-prone audience ignorant enough to believe them. (I’m thinking now of the plight of my own 94-year-old mother, Edna, a brilliant artist and a wonderful woman now silent forever, and the unnecessary and awful ways she recently suffered and died in the hands of the current care health system: that same flawed, over-expensive insurance-company-parasitical mess to which greed-crazed creeps and media Commies-screamers like Glenn “The Wreck” Beck and Sean “The Sham” Hannity give their barking, yapping aid and comfort.)

That’s the kind of theme and undercurrent that makes Up more than kid stuff. According to Up’s credits, there’s a real-life Carl and Ellie who inspired the film. So the movie has a real-life stimulus, however delightfully impossible it all became on screen. I hope that they’re happy.

I’ll make two mild complaints. Only two. In the midst of all his admittedly preoccupying and hazardous exploits, I thought Russell should have worried more about getting word back home. And, more importantly, there should have been a way, to let Ellie — or the spirit of Ellie –join in Carl’s great adventure. There is a scene that almost any writer would have written for Up that isn’t here: a sequence where Ellie, or his vision of her, comes back for a moment to Carl, perhaps near her long-yearned-for Paradise Falls. (Maybe it was there and I dreamed through it.)

Perhaps that scene wasn’t included because it would have been inserted by almost anyone else and the savvy Pixar guys wanted to avoid cliché or corn, even if that‘s what the audience wanted. But there’s one strict rule about dreams of blissfully happy adventure like Up. In the end, you often should give your customers what they want. And Up mostly does.

Extras: Contains DVD, Blu-Ray and digital copies; Documentaries; Talks with Docter and Peterson; Short “partly Cloudy”; Alternate scenes.

Wings of Desire (2 Discs) (Four Stars)
Germany; Wim Wenders, 1987 (Criterion)

In Wim Wenders’ lyrical film masterpiece of urban fantasy and longing, two angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) wander around Berlin and, like documentary filmmakers, keep their eye on humanity. Silent, sympathetic, both wearing well-worn overcoats and sporting pony-tails, but invisible to the Berliners, they stroll through the streets and into public and private places, observing the people of the city in their everyday routines, their private melancholy or happiness, or their extremes of emotion and crisis — from meditative study in Berlin’s lovely main library to daily work, subway riding, trancelike attendance in a rock club, childbirth, fatal bike accident or suicide.

It is Berlin before the destruction of the Wall and its brightly colored wall paintings, a black-and-white Berlin, almost empty of hubbub or noise, but linked to the city of past cinema, from Walter Ruttmann‘s 1927 Berlin: Symphony of a City to Wenders’ own 1970 Summer in the City to this movie, which was originally called Der Himmel uber Berlin (Heaven Over Berlin). And both angels watch it all without interfering, though occasionally they will drop a sympathetic hand on the shoulders of the suffering, or help a dying person though the last agonizing moments of life.

Finally, one of them, Damiel, decides he must somehow cross over from the world of the passive, voyeuristic angels to the earthly realm of the actively joyous or sorrowful humans — or, as he puts it, the world of Phillip Marlowe and his cat. Watching and becoming obsessed with a beautiful, tawny-haired circus trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin, Wenders’ partner), as she flies above the wowed crowds, strips in her trailer or undulates at a rock club listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Damiel falls quietly but madly in love. Frustrated by the metaphysical barrier between them, he yearns to join her. So he meets another ex-angel, one who became human himself thirty years earlier: the actor Peter Falk, now in Berlin to shoot a World War 2 thriller, and the wry star of Columbo and A Woman under the Influence advises him — until Damiel becomes mortal, and color and humanity suddenly flood into his life.

Wings of Desire belongs loosely to that strain of pop-metaphysical angels-among-us romantic fantasy that includes Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven), Henry Koster’s The Bishop’s Wife (with angel Cary Grant), Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe (with angel Spencer Tracy), Raoul Walsh’s The Horn Blows at Midnight (with angel Jack Benny, who always claimed the role ruined his movie career), Albert Lamorisse’s Circus Angel. and, of course, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait.

But Wings has a different mood and style than any of its angelic predecessors — just as dreamy, but more meditative and somber, befitting a film dedicated to Wenders’ own cinematic angels Yasujiro (Ozu), Francois (Truffaut) and Andrei (Tarkovsky). All three had prodigious talents that made them mainstays of the art film world to which Wenders belongs (maintaining dual citizenship in the rougher country of the Hollywood auteur), and which Wings of Desire exemplifies.

The poetic, often wordless Wings script is by Wenders, with six or so dialogue scenes by the estimable novelist-playwright-filmmaker Peter Handke, and lots of day-to-day improvisation. The incredible, gorgeous cinematography, bathed in light in both color and black-and-white — really one of the finest pieces of monochrome photography in all of the cinema — came from the “genius eye” of Jean Cocteau‘s Beauty and the Beast, then 78-year-old Henri Alekan.

The dissonant arty score is by Jurgen Kneiper. The cast includes, besides Ganz, Sander, Dommartin and Falk, the legendary, then 86-year-old Curt Bois, the pickpocket of Casablanca, playing the film’s old poet Homer. Wenders’ assistant director was the young Claire Denis, who went on to write and direct Chocolat and the recent gem 35 Shots of Rum.

All of these artists and actors and angels achieved a celestial peak with Wings of Desire — a movie that shows us some angels among us and brings down Heaven over Berlin. (In German and English, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Commentary by Wenders and, more briefly, Peter Falk (one of the best commentaries ever put on a DVD release); 2003 documentary “The Angels Among Us,” with interviews with Wenders, Ganz, Falk, Sander, Handke and Kneiper; on-set TV documentary “Wim Wenders Berlin Jan. 1987”; interview with Alekan; featurettes on Alekan and Bois; deleted scenes and outtakes; trailers; booklet with poem by Handke. and essays by Wenders (from the film’s first treatment) and Michael Atkinson.



The General (Ultimate 2 Disc Edition)
U.S.; Buster Keaton/Clyde Bruckman, 1927 (Kino)

From comedian-filmmaker supreme Buster Keaton — of the porkpie hat, unsmiling puss and staggering comic athleticism — comes one of the great silent movie comedies and also one of the great Civil War pictures, shot in beautiful images that are almost eerie replicas of the look of the famous Matthew Brady Civil War battlefield photographs. Through them, Buster, as lovelorn railman Johnny Gray — trying to woo his beloved, soldier-loving Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and then trying to rescue, from Union Army marauders, his equally beloved locomotive “The General” — moves like a sad-faced but furiously alive ghost dancer.

Buster’s masterpiece is based on a real-life train raid episode. But here Keaton manages to surpass both the reality and cinema of warfare to create an exhilarating, violent but bloodless ballet of comic pursuit and battle. Comedies don’t get any better than this. Comedians don’t get funnier than deadpan Buster. And The General — mastered from an 35mm archive print struck from the original negative — has never looked better, or richer, or more epic, or more beautifully sepia and black-and-white. Or more Keatonesque.

Extras: Three separate scores composed, conducted or performed by Carl Davis, Robert Israel and Lee Erwin; video tours, behind-the-scenes home movies, introductions by Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson; montage of Keaton train gags. Silent, with subtitles.

Heat (Blu-Ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Michael Mann, 1995 (Warner)

Michael Mann’s top crime thriller; in fact, Marty Scorsese ranked it as one of the ten best movies of the ‘90s. Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino costar here as a boss L.A. crook and the cop who’s chasing him: two guys on opposite sides of the law, each of whom has traits which seem more fitting for the other: High tech heist man DeNiro is solid, shrewd and dependable, man hunter Pacino a mercurial near-psychopath. Unfortunately, these two great street actors have only one scene together, but it’s a killer. And their supporting cast is one smoking hot crew: Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Diane Venora, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, Tom Sizemore, Tom Noonan, Dennis Haysbert, Mykelti Williamson, Amy Brenneman, Ted Levine, Tone Loc and Jeremy Piven. Hey, maybe it was one of the ’90s’ best.

Extras: Commentary by Mann; content changes by Mann, 11 additional scenes, Five documentares, trailers.



Turner Classic Movies Greatest Classic Films Collection: Holiday (Two Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1938-47 (TCM Warner)

This is a charming little Christmas package, even though TCM’s insistence on calling this continuing series a “Greatest Classic Films Collection” is as thoroughly sabotaged here by the inclusion of the saccharine and silly It Happened on Fifth Avenue, as was one of its recent “Greatest Classics” war movie boxes by picking Duke Wayne’s atrocious Vietnam War fantasy The Green Berets.

The “Holiday” set does have one genuine “great classic,” Lubitsch‘s sublime romantic 1940 comedy The Shop Around the Corner, as well as two bona fide good ones, the 1938 A Christmas Carol and the 1945 Christmas in Connecticut. But It Happened on Fifth Avenue, which might look cute in a less self-applauding package, is to Christmas movies what George W. Bush was to the presidency: a “compassionate conservative” train wreck.
The set is redeemed by the other three movies, and by a very appealing set of vintage Christmas shorts, including Don Siegel’s Oscar-winning Star in the Night.

Includes: A Christmas Carol (U.S.; Edwin L. Marin, 1938). Three Stars. MGM’s typically plush adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Yuletide classic of greed, nightmare and redemption on Christmas Eve was probably initially conceived as a showcase for MGM star Lionel Barrymore, who played the chastened miser/dreamer Ebenezer Scrooge every Christmas on the radio. (It was one of the flamboyant actor’s juiciest and most famous roles.)

But the wheelchair-bound Barrymore ceded the part to stuffy/regal Britisher Reginald Owen, an adequate but uninspiring substitute who specialized in playing Louis XV and also appeared, in forgotten films, as both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Owen was an adequate but uninspiring substitute; Gene Lockhart plays Bob Cratchit. The Alistair Sim version, and even the current Jim Carrey one, are better.

The Shop Around the Corner (U.S.; Ernst Lubitsch, 1940). Four Stars. Ernst Lubitsch once called this the best of all his movies, and I agree. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are Alfred Kralik and Klara Novak, two Budapest gift shop employees who woo each other unknowingly and anonymously by mail, even as they fuss and feud and snipe at each other at the shop (around the corner) run by paternal fussbudget Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Based on Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie, masterfully scripted by Samson Raphaelson and the uncredited Ben Hecht, beautifully acted and filmed on every level, this romantic comedy is (you’ve got to say it) just perfect — as silky and funny as Ninotchka or Trouble in Paradise but warmer, more humane.

Christmas in Connecticut (U.S.; Peter Godfrey, 1945). Three Stars. Barbara Stanwyck, at her sharpest, is a New York magazine writer masquerading as a Martha Stewart type who writes her column form a mythical luxury farm in Connecticut; Dennis Morgan is a war hero granted a Christmas dinner at the farm as a morale booster by imperious publisher Sydney Greenstreet, an aggressive gourmet who invites himself as well. These typical Hollywood deceptions and complications are managed slickly by a lesser known but very competent team: director Peter Godfrey and co-writers Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (U.S.; Roy Del Ruth, 1847) Two Stars. Elegant bum Victor Moore and his pooch spend every Christmas and winter, unknown to the owner, in discontent multi-millionaire Charlie Ruggles‘ unused Fifth Avenue mansion. This year, he‘s joined by returning WW2 vets Don DeFore, Alan Hale, Jr., more wives and buddies, and eventually, unknown to them, by Ruggles, his daughter Gale Storm and his estranged wife Ann Harding, who fool everyone into thinking they’re indigent or footloose. Some people love this bizarre Yule tickler from director Roy Del Ruth and longtime comedy writer Everett Freeman (whose credits slide from Danny Kaye’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to The Maltese Bippy), but, though Ruggles and Moore keep scoring points, I say “Bah! Humbug!”

Extras: Trailers, vintage cartoons, including Hugh Harman’s 1939 anti-war classic “Peace on Earth“ and vintage shorts, including Siegel’s atypical, moving 1946 Oscar-winner “Star in the Night” and a Jackie Cooper birthday party, attended by much of the ‘30s MGM stock company.


The Ugly Truth (Two Stars)
U.S.; Robert Luketic, 2009

This slick but obvious — and somewhat dopey — romantic comedy about the love/hate antics of an uptight Sacramento TV producer (Katherine Heigl) and her unabashedly macho star romance advice TV guy (Gerard Butler), who together combine for an unlikely hit show called, natch, The Ugly Truth, proves once again that the Golden Age of the screwball comedy — and even the heyday of Woody Allen and his imitators — seems behind us. It may be too easy, in the age of Apatow and Farrelly, to just crack a dirty joke and pretend you’re Preston Sturges. And not every dirty joke is funny.

Can’t anyone writer a clever, witty sex comedy any more? (No, I‘m not counting Apatow and his gang — the balls-out bunch who gave Heigl her break with Knocked Up.) In any case, Heigl’s stiff, self-absorbed, politically correct Abby Richter, a blonde with complexes, and Gerard Butler’s let-it-all-hang-out slobbo charmer Mike Chadway, a sexist with attitude, aren’t very believable, either individually or as a couple. And they’re not very funny either — though it’s not the actors’ faults. Both of them, to paraphrase Allen in Play It Again, Sam, try to keep up a level of charm that could bring on a heart attack.

What’s wrong? Well, almost everything. The movie tries to get us to believe that Heigl, a stunning blonde even in her early severe exec outfits, besides making lots of moolah, has trouble attracting guys. Give me a break. Hell, even with a poor personality, Heigl would probably have trouble batting suitors away. (It might have been easier to portray picky Abby as getting lots of unwelcome attention but having trouble keeping the right guy.)

It’s hard to buy Butler as both a brutally truthful throwback type at first and then also the helpful advisor he becomes with Abby. It’s like watching Blimp Rushbomb morphing into Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Shouldn’t Mike have more of a motive for helping Abby out? Like, initially, trying to get rid of her? In broad overall strokes, these characters don’t make much sense, and they don‘t play right in the smaller nuances and details either. They’re just a couple of sex fantasies, written as standard movie star type-roles. By the end, when they’re screaming at each other in a hot air balloon, you’ve had more than enough of them and their writers.

Just as Heigl and Butler are no Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant here, Eric Winter, as Abby’s love object next door Colin, is no Ralph Bellamy. And the writers — Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith — are no Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur or Charles Lederer. (Why not go all the way: director Robert Luketic ain’t no Howard Hawks.) If His Girl Friday is the quintessential American workplace romantic comedy, The Ugly Truth is one more overdressed wanna-be workplace romcom rolling right off the sex-romp cliché program. It‘s the equivalent of a fashion plate TV news presenter prattling off a teleprompter — exactly the kind of vacuous phony-baloney that supposedly straight-talking Mike is supposed to be blasting away.

The movie also lacks funny, or even very interesting, secondary characters, which used to be one of the treasures of good or great American movie romantic comedy writing. I thought that Legally Blonde”– also a collaboration between Lutz, Smith and Luketic — was a pretty cute little movie. But, after watching this, I began to wonder if Reese Witherspoon didn’t blind me to the not-so-ugly truth.

Mamma Mia!: The Movie, Gimme Gimme Gimme More Gift Set (Blu-Ray) (Two and a half stars)
U.S.-U.K.; Phyllida Lloyd, 2008 (Universal)

I wasn’t an ABBA fan in their 1974-82 heyday, when they were one of the world’s biggest pop groups — though as someone with two Swedish-American grandparents, I might have had a little national pride, as I do for Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman and Victor Sjostrom. But they still sound good now. And Mamma Mia! a movie musical composed of their song hits — all originally written by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (and non-member Stig Anderson) and sung at the time by those two, accompanied by their Abba wives, Agneta Feltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad — makes ideal use of that easy-going, irresistible, buoyant pop music.

The ultra-catchy songs are strung around a fragile, amusingly absurd story about a wedding on a Greek island, involving Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), the gorgeous daughter of independent single woman and island resort owner Donna (Meryl Streep). Unbeknownst to her mother, the young bride invites all three of the men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) who were Donna’s lovers and may be her father, in order to find daddy Right. (Neither mom nor dad really know.) Three is the magic number here: Mom has two friends (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters) and so does the daughter — and all of them, and the three guys, get heavily involved in the musical action.

There’s something delightful about the way the ABBA songs summon up all the corny, cock-eyed romanticism that the story kiddingly whips up. The result, full of sunlight, rhythm, dancing and torch songs, didn’t remind me that much of one of the old MGM classics — with their wit and finesse. But it did recall the 20th Century Fox musicals, with their pizzazz, high spirits, gaiety and occasional craziness.

Carmen Miranda and Don Ameche wouldn’t have been out of place here — and neither are Streep, Brosnan, Skarsgard, Baranski and the others. Mamma Mia! has a powerhouse cast, though not necessarily for a musical. But when these dramatic actors start throwing themselves into it and selling these songs, it’s entertaining in a crazy way that plants an almost constant silly smile on your face. Streep, who sang well as the country-western star in Robert Altman’s swan song, Prairie Home Companion and who’s really game, shamelessly belts out her songs (like The Winner Takes it All) with no brakes and lots of passion. And, if you don’t grin at “007” Brosnan, crooning away, your sense of humor is failing.

There’s a fantastic moment under the end credits when Streep, Waters and Baranski in clingy sequined suits, belt out “Dancing Queen.” At the end, Streep steps up and asks us if we want more. My audience loudly did — and the trio obliged them, joined by Brosnan and the guys in similar disco garb, for a roaring rendition of “Waterloo.“ Talk about magic moments. Abba may have been pop in a world the rock critics tended to define as punk. But punk never made you feel this good.

Monsters, Inc. (Four Discs) (Three Stars)
U.S.; Pete Docter, 2001 (Disney)

More good mid-level stuff from Pixar, set in the scream-powered factory of Monstropolis among all the most horrible monsters, notably big, scary Sulley (John Goodman) and witty Winowski (Billy Crystal), who must now cope with their small child invader, Boo (Mary Gibbs). A typical Pixar blend of super toys, super-tech, sentiment and sharp humor, with an Oscar-winning song by Randy Newman (“If I Didn’t Have You“). This release contains regular DVD, Blu-Ray and digital copies of Monsters, Inc.

Extras: Commentary, filmmakers’ round table, Pixar Oscar-winning shorts “For the Birds” and “Mike’s New Car,” featurettes.

Red Heat (Blu-Ray) (Two Stars)
U.S.; Walter Hill, 1988 (Lionsgate)

A fast, violent, often ridiculous and overheated unlikely-buddies cop thriller from the usually reliable Hill (asleep at the fish-out-of-water switch this time), with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a hardcase shark-out-of-water Russian cop trailing a drug dealer to Chicago and to Arnold’s eventual bad-mouthed partner in-crimehunting, Jim Belushi. It’s all Bang Bang male bonding, in a picture that could have used the Blues Brothers. They used to make a movie like this every week or so in the ’80s and damn, were they a chore to watch.

Near Dark (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Kathryn Bigelow, 1987 (Lionsgate)

A hip, violent Southwest vampire movie, horror in an Easy Rider setting, that’s considered a cult film in some quarters — though not by me. With Adrian Pasdar, Lance Henriksen, Jenny Wright and Bill Paxton. Bigelow wastes talent on a blood-drenched script by Eric Red (The Hitcher).

The Singing Fool (Two Stars)
U.S.; Lloyd Bacon, 1928 (Warner Archive)

This Al Jolson follow-up to his trailblazing talkie, The Jazz Singer, was actually a bigger hit. Singing Fool was, in fact, the highest grossing sound picture until Gone With the Wind. And it’s a similar mix of talkie with (far fewer) silent, captioned scenes. But, except for Jolson’s high-voltage numbers, which include his great million-seller tearjerker “Sonny Boy”, It All Depends on You,” and “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World,” all sung in both white and black-face, it’s pretty bad: bald-faced melodrama with Jolson as over-generous patsy singer-songwriter Al Stone, suckered by a scheming Broadway star wife (Josephine Dunn) and plagued with drunkenness and infant mortality.

Van der Valk Mysteries 1 (Two Discs) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.K.; Various Directors, 1972 (Acorn)

Six well-written but not overly well-filmed hour-long films from the Nicholas Freeling Amsterdam-set police mystery-thrillers, starring Barry Foster (the genial “Bob’s your uncle” fruiterer/killer of Hitchcock‘s Frenzy) as sophisticated detective Piet van der Valk. If you like good, quick-witted British mysteries — here the more hard-boiled police-procedural kind — you’ll probably enjoy it.

The Claudette Colbert Collection (Three Discs) (Three Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1933 -1947 (Universal)

No, she‘s not Steve’s mother. Claudette Colbert (born Emilie “Lily” Claudette Chauchoin in Saint-Mande, France), was Hollywood’s ‘30s-‘40s French-American cutie, a chic flirt with little-girl bangs, roguish eyes, and a rich throaty purr of a voice made for sophisticated patter. She reportedly only liked photographers to shoot her left side, she was at her best with men who towered over her (like Gable, Cooper, Joel McCrea and Fred MacMurray), and she was rumored, like Garbo and Dietrich, at times to go Sappho.

Colbert was queen of the Paramount lot after her unprecedented and unrepeated feat of starring in three of the 1934 “Best Picture“ Oscar nominees (all eventual classics), DeMille‘s Cleopatra, John M. Stahl‘s Imitation of Life and, the movie that swept the Oscars that year (including one for Claudette as best actress), Frank Capra‘s It Happened One Night. For Capra, C.C. defined the term “dizzy heiress” (as Lombard and Hepburn did for others), incontrovertibly proving the superiority of her gams to Gable‘s thumbs, and happily watching the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, Hays Code notwithstanding.

Colbert was an expert, silky comedienne, and her best comedies were probably It Happened One Night, Preston Sturges’ screwball masterpiece The Palm Beach Story, and, from spicy Charles Brackett-Billy Wilder scripts, as directed by Mitchell Leisen (whom Wilder hated) the timeless sex comedy Midnight and the more dramatic (and political) Arise, My Love.

I would include with that group, and from this box set, another Colbert-Brackett-Wilder collaboration, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Wife is reputed to be Lubitsch‘s worst movie. We should all have such worst movies. And we should all see a Claudette Colbert or two at our own private Jerichos and our own private midnights.

Includes: Three-Cornered Moon (U.S.; Elliot Nugent, 1933). Two and a Half Stars. A fun but over-stagy, pokey early screwballer, with Colbert the siren of a nutty rich family that includes mama Mary Boland and college boy Wallace Ford, torn between work-phobic writer Hardie Albright and hunk doctor Richard Arlen. Maid of Salem (U.S.; Frank Lloyd, 1937). Three Stars. The Salem Witchcraft trials, with rebel/skeptic Fred MacMurray battling to keep accused witch Claudette alive and safe from the likes of child accuser Bonita Granville, plus Gale Sondergaard, Beulah Bondi, Donald Meek and Sterling Holloway. Basically this is The Crucible with a happy ending and it’s better than you’d think. If the ending were unhappy, Maid of Salem would be considered a classic ahead of its time.

I Met Him in Paris” (U.S.; Wesley Ruggles, 1937). Two and a Half Stars. Claudette in the City of Light, and the snows of Switzerland, romanced by Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young. “I’ve been to Paris, France and I‘ve been to Paris, Paramount,” Lubitsch once said, “And I prefer Paris, Paramount.” Here’s why. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (U.S.; Ernst Lubitsch, 1938). Three and a Half Stars. Claudette and Gary Cooper meet cute over some pajama tops and bottoms in a department store in Cannes, Paramount, and romance beckons, even as Coop‘s mind crumbles. She’s an impoverished aristo, he‘s a rich Yank businessman used to getting his way, and David Niven and Edward Everett Horton (peddling a royal bathtub) are along for the rocky Riviera ride. Written by Brackett and Wilder, and probably Lubitsch’s most acidulous, even cold-hearted movie. But it’s better than its rep, and Ninotchka was only a year away.

No Time for Love (U.S.; Mitchell Leisen, 1943). Two and a Half Stars. Here’s a good example of why Wilder hated Leisen: a chi-chi romantic comedy, with Claudette as an arty fashion photographer, with Macho Fred MacMurray as a testosterone-heavy sandhog CC shoots and inflames. Ersatz sophistication, to which Leisen was prone when he lacked Wilder, Brackett or Preston Sturges. The Egg and I (U.S.; Chester Erskine, 1947). Three Stars. The one Universal show in this mostly Paramount set, and from Betty MacDonald’s best-seller about the travails of mixing marriage with chicken-farming: Claudette and Fred try to find happiness in a farm falling apart, with eggs that won’t sell and neighbors who turn out to be Ma and Pa Kettle (Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, in the movie that famously introduced their unbuttoned hillbilly clan). What can you say? It works.

Extras: Documentary “Claudette Colbert: Queen of the Silver Screen”; trailer.


– Michael Wilmington
November 10, 2009

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~ David Simon