#038

Once Upon a Time in America
Warner Bros. DVD

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The Right Stuff
Warner Bros. DVD

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The 80s were a pretty dire movie decade, though it’s harder to dismiss the whole ten years as a dismal stretch of clanking blockbusters and insipid teen films when DVD packages like these are released.

Sergio Leone’s 1983 Once Upon a Time in America was a tragic story, the director’s most ambitious project and ultimately his last film, which had an hour trimmed out by a nervous studio, and arrived in the theatres to general dismay. Some critics saw what was obviously a crude butcher job, while others simple dismissed it as an incoherent Godfather rip-off. In either case, the disappointment virtually killed Leone.

Warner’s two-disc reissue finally corrects this injustice, restoring the full, nearly-four hour director’s cut, and consigning to the dustbin the awful, bootleg quality, pan-and-scan version that’s been knocking around the stores for years. Leone’s film is probably the most poetic gangster film every made, an elegiac story full of elegant transitions back and forth over sixty years in the life of a faded gangster played by Robert De Niro. Includes a commentary track with film critic Richard Schickel, and an excerpt on the making of the film from a British documentary on Leone.

Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, released a year after Leone’s film, was almost as long, and just as ambitious. Based on the “true novel” by Tom Wolfe, it told the story of the macho culture of the air force test pilots who pioneered jet flight, and the Mercury astronauts who were the first men in space. It landed in the theatres with a disappointing thud, scuttled by former astronaut John Glenn’s presidential campaign, which politicized the film unfairly, and rather overwhelming expectations from the studio.

It’s hard to believe now, but the cast - which includes Ed Harris (playing Glenn), Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn and Sam Shepard - were virtual unknowns at the time. Even more amazing are the pre-digital special effects, which have mostly weathered the passage of technological time quite well. The two-disc set includes three making-of documentaries, generous commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and a rather stiff PBS documentary on John Glenn.

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Tears of the Sun
Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment DVD

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The ongoing slaughter in the Congo, as well as brutal crackdowns in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, have made Antoine Fuqua’s film about Bruce Willis and a group of U.S. Navy Seals dropped in the midst of an African civil war more timely than when it was released a few months ago.

The film’s austere self-righteousness, as well as an unaccountable skittishness about setting the story in a specific country or time, prevent it from being a really great film, but the sense of mission and outrage that inspired it are abundantly evident in the “making-of” featurette, and a series of interviews with African refugees who worked as extras on the film. While the film is, in the end, little more than a pyrotechnic military thriller with a sense of purpose, what it tries to say about foreign policy and humanitarian intervention might make it an abiding, if inchoate, historical artifact.

click here to read a longer review of this film.

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Miracle Mile
MGM DVD

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Anthony Edwards plays a literally doomed romantic in this 1989 story of a man trying to spend time with a girl he’s just met (Mare Winningham) in the last minutes before World War Three wipes out Los Angeles.

The set-up is simple enough - Edwards accidentally gets a phone call from a soldier in a missile silo, who’s trying to call his parents and warn them that the button’s been pushed, and the ICBMs are on their way. You probably have to have been young in the last days of the Cold War to really get the sense of paranoia and hopelessness that inspire the film; I used to think it was the most romantic film I’d ever seen. A long-overdue reissue that comes without any extras.

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True Patriot Love
Morningstar Entertainment DVD box set

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These three documentaries, spread over seven discs, tell the story of Canada at war in the first half of the last century. From the First World War to Korea, the usual sources - letters, speeches, journalism, photos and film footage - are mixed with tasteful re-enactments to give the Canadian side of a story that most history buffs have heard countless times now.

The big difference between the story told in True Patriot Love and the various American and British versions of the same material is the uniquely Canadian sense of injured pride, an occasional but persistent grumbling about lack of recognition, and a bitter eagerness to point out when we’ve excelled at the unglamourous jobs we’ve been given. at Vimy Ridge, in Holland, and Kap’Yong. The cheap packaging is more than compensated for with generous educational supplements and DVD-ROM features.

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Giant
Warner Bros. DVD

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George Stevens’ epic story of a cattle baron’s family over three decades is well-served by its title, but the least giant thing about it is the sole reason why the film was famous for so many years - it contains the last performance by James Dean.

Stevens’ film, packaged in a suitably generous two-disc set with documentary material, newsreels, and commentary tracks, is a strange but compelling piece of work. It’s a melodrama with masculine bent, a bulging, hyperdramatic story about fathers and sons and rivals told against huge panoramic vistas.

Dean gives the ultimate method performance here, mumbling and staring at his feet for most of the film, seeming to force his lines out through some sort of intestinal blockage. The contrast with the other leads - Rock Hudson as the cattle baron and a dewy, pre-blowsy Liz Taylor as his wife - are remarkable, and Dean inadvertently manages the feat of making Hudson’s natural stiffness seem almost eloquent.

©2003 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.