K-19 The Widowmaker
When the Cold War ended, nobody probably imagined that Hollywood would end up making the kind of movies, like K-19, that Russia seems unable, or unwilling, to make. Based on the true story of a near-meltdown on a Soviet nuclear missile sub in 1961, at the height of Cold War tensions, it’s the kind of war film that celebrates duty and heroism and sacrifice, the kind of film that, after Apocalypse Now, we thought no one would ever make again.
Which is probably why K-19 feels familiar - too familiar to be truly exciting, and too high-minded to allow for the kind of critical outrage that fuelled very different, Cold War-era films like Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe. It’s the same kind of hagiographic movie history that accounts for other recent films like We Were Soldiers, where heroism has become the story, and not the politics behind it all.
Harrison Ford burrows deep into himself to create the stoic, bitterly dutiful captain of the boat - so far, in fact, that he never comes out to give a really winning performance. Liam Neeson does better as his second-in-command, relieved of captaining the K-19 when he complained about the rush to get the boat into the water. The only real note of criticism is reserved for the Soviet system, which couldn’t supply decent parts or radiation suits for the doomed boat, which considering the eventual fate of the USSR, is a terribly hollow kind of outrage to draw upon. Bonus features include director’s commentary, and a handful of “making-of” featurettes.
The Quiet Man
If John Wayne has atrophied into a drawling, side-sauntering cartoon of Golden Age Hollywood maleness, it might be nice to see John Ford’s The Quiet Man, if only to be reminded of the actor’s immense appeal and overwhelming physicality once again.
Wayne plays a prizefighter returning to his Irish birthplace after accidentally killing a man in the ring. He falls in love with a local lass played by Maureen O’Hara, and puts himself on a collision course with her arrogant bully of a brother, played by by Victor McLaglen. From the first moment they meet, it’s obvious that the film will end with a full-on brawl, and it’s waiting for it to happen that gives Ford’s film most of its drama.
The townfolk in the film are stock Irish types - jolly and inefficient, bound by custom and church and pub. You’ll find yourself shaking your head at the shamelessness of it all, but remember that most of the cast and crew, including Ford, were happy conspirators in this act of national caricature. Comes with bonus documentaries on the film and the country.
War and Peace
An enormous film that, at twice its length, still wouldn’t have done justice to the Tolstoy novel on which it’s based. Once you accept all-American Henry Fonda as a dissipate Russian aristocrat, it’s easy to get sucked into this overstuffed epic melodrama. Audrey Hepburn as a willful and luckless young girl is both charming and maddening - the kind of character you want to slap for her foolishness. The scenes of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, however, are big-budget epic moviemaking at its finest.
Calling Sunset Boulevard a classic cheapens the film’s real importance. Not only is the story a classic, but its context - the imminent demise of the studio system - is so profoundly bound up into the film that it’s unlikely that anyone who really loves classic Hollywood should be without a copy.
William Holden plays a down-at-heels screenwriter who ends up being kept by Gloria Swanson’s faded, unstable silent film star. Swanson’s performance is riveting - a wildly overdrawn but perfect depiction of star psychosis, gone terminal. When anyone ever complains about how ridiculous Hollywood has become, and how inane celebrity is by nature, they’re probably just echoing the diatribe director Billy Wilder was making with this film, which along with Alexander Mackendrick's The Sweet Smell of Success makes for the most complete diagnosis of fame’s poisonous nature you’ll ever need to see. Includes a commentary track by Wilder biographer Ed Sikov, a “making of” short, a map of Hollywood locations, photo galleries and short documentaries on the film’s music and costumes - a real bargain.