#072

Intolerable Cruelty
Universal DVD

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The Coen Brothers’ first shot at a nearly conventional romantic comedy is, by their own admission, an offhanded jab at the mainstream. If only all middle-of-the-road audience sops were as good.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, the world’s greatest divorce lawyer, and author of the legally airtight Massey Pre-Nup. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Marylin, the most beautiful gold-digger in Los Angeles, who Miles falls for when he successfully represents her husband in court, leaving Marylin penniless after what should have been a sucker job.

She plots her revenge, taunting him by marrying up with a tedious oil billionaire - Billy Ray Thornton, just one of a gallery of priceless character turns that includes Cedric The Entertainer and Geoffrey Rush. It’s a courtship by humiliation, in the spirit of classic screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby, but refined for more litigious times.

It’s Coen-lite, no Fargo or Miller’s Crossing (and – thank God – no Barton Fink or Hudsucker Proxy), but thoroughly enjoyable for Coen fans. Includes a pretty standard “making of”, a feature on the wardrobe (Clooney’s suits and Zeta-Jones’ dresses in particular), and a truly perverse outtake reel.

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Lost In Translation
Alliance Atlantis DVD

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The film that won’t win best picture Oscar or give the Coppola family another best director statuette deserves both, alas.

It would be nice to think that some respectable majority of Academy voters walk away from the battering experience of the Rings trilogy with some sense of the difference between assault and seduction, but it won’t happen. For the rest of us, Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation on DVD is a chance to privately savor the only really subtle film made in Hollywood’s orbit this year.

In retrospect, Groundhog Day and Rushmore should have been clues that Bill Murray – Bill Murray for heaven’s sake! – was about to become a really watchable leading man. As an action movie star gliding gracefully into has-been status shilling whiskey in Japan, he plays his trademark sarcasm and hangdog demeanor like a vintage violin, getting more nuance out of bemused self-pity that should be decent.

Most importantly, he makes a convincing case for why a smart, pretty young woman would fall for such a gilded sad sack.

As the young woman, Scarlett Johansson’s job isn’t much more than embodying the sort of young woman that a lonely man would fall for – much less of a challenge, but even in today’s crowded field of ingénues, she does it better than anyone else imaginable.

Comes with a decent slate of extras, including Coppola’s (soon to be ex-) husband Spike Jonze’ handicam behind-the-scenes featurette.

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American Splendor
HBO DVD

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A film biopic is one thing, a biopic where the subject and the actor who plays him appear together is another, so it’s hard not to applaud Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s audacity with their film about comic creator and professional misfit Harvey Pekar.

But that audacity is also the film’s downfall, as Paul Giamatti’s misanthropic, self-hating Harvey (what a combination!) is nowhere near as overbearing as the real Pekar, seen onscreen commenting on the conceit of the film itself. Comes with a group commentary track that includes Pekar, and Pekar’s comic book memoir of the production.

click here for a longer review of this film

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The Sidney Poitier DVD Collection
MGM DVD

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It’s interesting that, when the time finally came, America seemed to hunger to see Sidney Poitier onscreen, calling a white man “boy” and slapping a white bigot in the face. In politics, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X might have the point men for the overdue Civil Rights revolution, but onscreen it was Poitier’s battle all the way.

Nothing in this five-disc box set matches the taut atmosphere of Norman Jewison’s 1967 In The Heat Of The Night, with Poitier as a homicide detective stranded in a small Mississippi town trying to solve a murder that he was almost framed for. Certainly the two sub-standard sequels featuring Poitier’s righteously seething Virgil Tibbs character – They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! and The Organization – look like much more than second rate 70s cop flicks.

Lilies Of The Field, a 1963 Oscar winner for Poitier, is a much gentler piece of work, about an itinerant handyman who helps a group of German nuns build a chapel in the Southwest desert. For The Love Of Ivy is a stylish but flat star vehicle with Poitier as a hustler who falls for the maid he’s supposed to con.

Except for a commentary track on In The Heat Of The Night – featuring almost every principal except Poitier – the discs are bare bones releases.

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Grand Hotel
Warner Bros. DVD

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The Great Ziegfeld
Warner Bros. DVD

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Warner’s careful reissues of its black and white classics continues with two 30s Oscar winners, both of them great overstuffed armchairs in film form.

Grand Hotel, a vaguely risqué pre-Code blockbuster about the goings-on in a swank Berlin hotel, was the most star-studded drama of its time, and featured Greta Garbo’s myth-making utterance of the line “I vant to be ALONE.” Garbo is the weakest link in this otherwise fascinating picture, her thunder stolen (with visible relish) by Joan Crawford. Comes with newsreel footage of the premiere, a “making of”, and a fascinating cheapie Vitaphone short parodying the film.

The Great Ziegfeld, from 1936, is three-hour sugar-coated cream puff biopic of the great Broadway producer. William Powell plays the great man with typical charm, abetted by his Thin Man co-star Myrna Loy as his last wife, but the film virtually stands still for the hallucinogenic musical number “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody”, the sort of madly over-designed satin-lined fever dream that made Technicolor unnecessary. Also comes with a new “making of” and newsreel premiere footage.

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The Lion King 1 ½
Disney DVD

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If you wanted, say, to make a “prequel” to Star Wars from the point of view of the droids, you’d spend millions on re-creating sets and digitally re-drawing actors and scenes. Animation presents no such problem, as a stack of drawings or a digital file only has to be pulled out again, as with this re-make of The Lion King from the perspective of its comic relief, Timon the meercat and Pumbaa the warthog.

There’s already been a straight-to-video Lion King sequel called Simba’s Pride, but you have to assume that Disney is catering to parents already driven half-mad by the same version of “The Circle Of Life” played three times daily. Comes with the usual collection of “outtakes” and time-buying interactive games for the kids.

©2004 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.