#076

Mona Lisa Smile
Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment DVD

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With Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile, what looks like a meticulously re-created ‘50s period piece is actually a sci-fi film in disguise. Julia Roberts, on the surface a West Coast bohemian who travels east to teach art history to the debutante elite of Wellesley College, is in fact a time-traveler from the future.

How else do you explain how out of place Roberts’ character feels among the twin sets and permanent waves worn by Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and the rest of the youthful cast? It’s not just the unusual leeway given major star turns; Roberts acts like she was uninformed of the whole Cold War social reality of returning veterans, expanding markets for consumer goods and political anxiety.

This comes to a head when, stymied by her students’ apparently unshakable desire to make a good marriage and raise families, she rages at the college dean, melts down in front of her love interest, a hunky Italian prof played by Dominic West, and angrily confronts her class with a slide show of quaintly kitsch brassiere and kitchen cleanser ads.

Which only underscores the simple truth that a period film – any period film – is really about the time when it was made, and not the time where they found the costumes, cars and soundtrack music. Ten or twenty years ago, Roberts character would have led a revolt on campus, and transformed the wannabe Stepford Wives into Woman Warriors.

Today, though, her character is confronted with her own intolerance by Julia Stiles, a bright student who Roberts encourages to apply to law school, but who decides that she really does prefer becoming a wife and mother. Newell, to his credit, lets this little confrontation inject a bitter note into the whole of the film’s climax, an equivocal tone that redeems what might have been just another exercise in berating the ‘50s with an unearned sense of contemporary superiority.

The bonus features, on art and college and women in the ‘50s, are more suitable to the movie that Mona Lisa Smile almost became, self-satisfied and a bit preachy.

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Schindler’s List
Universal DVD

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This special edition re-release of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List on DVD is a showcase for Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation, which is dedicated to recording the testimony of Holocaust survivors for posterity. It’s a noble endeavor, and it makes it just that much more difficult to point out the deficiencies of Spielberg’s film, both as movie drama and as a record of this crime against humanity.

At its best, Schindler’s List lays out the economic machinery of the Nazi “final solution” in meticulous detail – the war profiteering, the slave labour, the whole institution of bribery, flattery and graft that came into being when a continent was taken over by the most venal, grasping, greedy sort of people imaginable.

At its worst, Spielberg can’t resist portraying Liam Neeson’s Oscar Schindler as a sort of Han Solo in pinstripes, a cad hero who finds his inner nobility. The real Schindler was a far more compromised, uncertain, yet compelling man, whose real drama is diminished by the tearful redemption Spielberg forces on him.

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The Ten Commandments
Paramount DVD

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It’s been fashionable for decades to make fun of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 biblical epic The Ten Commandments; I’ve even heard Catholic priests crack themselves up imitating lines spoken by Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson and Anne Baxter in the film.

At its clumsiest, you can see how plays and operas still shaped DeMille’s direction, which was at heart a legacy of the silent movie era. Characters make grand entrances down staircases, or move in stilted profile through rooms that feel like stage sets.

But at its best, when the screen is filled with a thousand extras, and the camera settles on a vista designed to look like a huge canvas brought to life, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by DeMille’s sledgehammer storytelling.

Which might explain why The Ten Commandments felt cheesy and overworked in an age when realism and grittiness were the standard, but the film feels utterly at home today, when films like the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, which share so much of DeMille’s overwrought aesthetic, dominate movie screens.

Comes with a new set of “making of” documentaries, newsreel footage of the premiere, and a fascinating period “making of” where DeMille makes a case for his film hewing close to historical “truth” – an argument not too far from Mel Gibson’s explanation of his own biblical epic, and just as doubtful.

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Looney Tunes: Back In Action
Warner Bros. DVD

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With memories of Space Jam still fresh, it was easy to expect Looney Tunes: Back In Action to be thoroughly craptacular, a mix of live-action and much-loved animated characters in the service of an archly overworked action movie plot.

Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman play the humans yoked to Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny as they attempt to foil a world takeover plot by the Acme Corporation, suppliers of giant springs and malfunctioning rockets to Wile E. Coyote.

Thanks to director Joe Dante, whose affection for classic Looney Tunes is obvious, the film has enough in-jokes and brisk pacing to keep fans happy. The idea was fresher with Roger Rabbit, of course, but there are worse ways to satisfy a craving for loud, sarcastic entertainment. Comes with the usual “making of” bonus tracks, and a passable new Looney Tunes cartoon, The Whizzard of Ow.

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Myra Breckinridge
20th Century Fox DVD

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Myra Breckinridge is a famously bad film, and Fox has to be credited for releasing it on DVD in two different versions with two commentary tracks – one by director Michael Sarne and another by star Rachel Welch, neither of whom have anything nice to say about each other or the experience.

Also included is an AMC Backstory featurette on the misbegotten production history of the 1970 film, one of those famous lapses of judgement made by a major studio confronted with a new youth market and the counterculture. The story is simple – and mad – enough. Myra is really Myron, a man (Rex Reed) who becomes a woman (Rachel Welch) in order to destroy the masculinity by taking over a Hollywood acting studio. Just why anyone thought Gore Vidal’s book demanded movie treatment remains a mystery, and in the end even Vidal disowned it, though his name remained over the title.

Even more mysterious is why big names like John Huston and Mae West – who came out of retirement to appear in the film – thought it was a great idea. As both the producers and director admit in the Backstory featurette, there were a lot of drugs going around in those days, and just as many lawyers: a bad mixture in any combination.

©2004 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.