Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (MGM, 1974) D: Sam Peckinpah, w/ Warren Oates, Isela Vega. Rating: NNNN
Sam Peckinpah was at the peak of his career with a string of hits - The Wild Bunch, The Getaway and Straw Dogs - when Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia hit the screen to howls of dismay. Audiences and critics were unwilling to accept its grim story, even grimmer view of humanity and wrenching emotional violence. In particular, the rape scene at midpoint evoked baffled outrage and unfairly cemented Peckinpah's reputation as a misogynist. Unfairly because even the Peckinpah scholars assembled for the commentary track cannot, individually or as a group, come close to pinning down the scene's ultimate meaning. They agree on its centrality to Peckinpah's view of women, but not on what that view is.
They also agree that Alfredo Garcia is the most autobiographical of Peckinpah's films, seemingly a strange take on a gaudy and gruesome revenge tragedy about a seedy musician risking love, sanity and life to deliver the head and collect the big reward. But the scholars - Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle - make a good case and along the way draw interesting parallels to, among other things, Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and Malcolm Lowry's Under The Volcano. They bring more to the party with insightful remarks on the film's style, theme, acting and making-of.
Even without the commentary, this is a fascinating film. Warren Oates and Isela Vega give powerful, nuanced performances, the script is loaded with surprising turns and black humour, and Peckinpah's visual and kinetic sense presents a Mexico unlike anything ever seen before.
Extras Scholar commentary, trailer. Wide-screen. English mono. English, French and Spanish subtitles, English captions.
Sword Of Doom (Criterion/Morningstar, 1965) D: Kihachi Okamoto, w/ Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai. Rating: NNN
This grim tale of a wandering samurai who descends into homicidal mania under a burden of shame and guilt - or who may just be a psycho - fully deserves the care Criterion has taken with its high-definition transfer, cleaned-up sound and new, improved English subtitles. It's a bare-bones disc with no extras except a brief critical essay by Geoffrey O'Brien, who provides a solid historical context for both the film and the character. It's a definite help in light of the film's episodic nature, but unless you're already familiar with samurai films and the period background, some of the nuances will still be lost.
Even so, the great performances, visual elegance, strong soundtrack and very good pacing create a tense, sinister movie with an eerie sense of stillness that's a key to the protagonist's character and even persists through the frequent and well-staged swordfights.
Extras Critical essay. Wide-screen, black-and-white. Japanese mono, English subtitles.
Being Julia (Alliance Atlantis/Think Film, 2004) D: István Szabó, w/ Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons. Rating: NNN
Annette Bening shines as Julia Lambert, a London stage star who takes a young lover as a cure for feeling stale, then wreaks creative vengeance on him when the affair turns sour. It's the kind of role that lets an actor display enormous range, from the tiniest interior pang of jealousy to the broadest hammy rage. Of course, there's the question of the authenticity of those emotions. Does Julia really suffer, or is she an actor offstage as well as on? The story doesn't answer that question, though it does offer a subtle and ambiguous hint or two. But its climax does offer a startling and original use of the interplay of real and feigned emotion.
Until that moment, Being Julia is a conventionally good-looking period movie (1938) with lots of glamorous costumes, glamorous sets and glamorous lighting. It's all a bit Masterpiece Theatre, though not in a bad way, and slightly draggy in spots. But then there's the acting. Bening is surrounded by great players doing great work. Juliet Stevenson and Michael Gambon steal every scene they're in, and director Szabó gives everyone lots of time, lots of moments and loving close-ups.
Szabó, Bening and Jeremy Irons take their time warming to their task on the commentary, but when they do, they've got interesting things to say about acting for stage and screen. The making-of docs are worse than mediocre: grabbed footage of cast and crew at work in one, and actors describing the movie we've just seen in the other.
Extras Szabó, Bening, Irons commentary, making-of docs, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English and French 5.1.
Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason (Universal, 2004) D: Beeban Kidron, w/ Renée Zellweger, Hugh Grant. Rating: NN
The true test of a sequel is whether it makes you want to see the original if you haven't already. This one doesn't. Partly, it fails on its own merits, but director Beeban Kidron's commentary doesn't help. The big knickers, the smoking, the fight scene - they're all back. In fact, it seems the only difference lies on the plot level. Jones starts this film with a boyfriend. Will she keep him? Do we care?
Jones might be an interesting character, a comically confused everywoman, and Renée Zellweger plays her well. She and Hugh Grant have great chemistry, but it's too little too late, and the rest of the film is just flaccid.
If the movie itself doesn't give you enough Jonesian inanity, Kidron will. In an overenthusiastic bray, she takes pains to point out the sequel's numerous similarities to the original, all the while assuring us, or maybe herself, that it's not really imitation. At about the one-hour mark, she reveals herself as a deeply deluded woman when she describes her fear of a certain plot turn lest it make Bridget look stupid.
Of course, we're not supposed to think Bridget is stupid - just a complete idiot. Otherwise, she wouldn't be funny. But not a complete idiot, either. Otherwise, she wouldn't be romantic. Which suggests that to enjoy this Bridget Jones you have to think like Bridget Jones. Sort of like Rambo saying, "To defeat war, you must become war."
Extras Director commentary, deleted scenes, quiz, fight scene doc, animation scene doc, character Jones interviews actor Colin Firth, Zellweger and Firth discuss characters. Wide-screen. English, French and Spanish 5.1. French and Spanish
subtitles, English captions.
Coming Tuesday, March 29
>Vera Drake (Alliance Atlantis, 2004) Low-key intensity in Mike Leigh's study of an abortionist in 1950s England.
Kagemusha, The Shadow Warrior (Criterion/Morningstar) Akira Kurosawa's astounding medieval epic in a two-disc set loaded with extras.
Closer (Columbia, 2004) Mike Nichols's Oscar-nominated drama of love and sex features fine acting from Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen.
The Lone Gunmen: The Complete Series (Fox, 2001-02) A lovable mutt of a series about lovable mutts bumbling through the X-Files universe.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb