two-disc special edition (WB, 2004) D: Oliver Stone, w/ Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie. Rating: NNNN
An outstanding commentary track and making-of docs transform Oliver Stone's Alexander from a confusing spear-and-sandal epic with great spectacle and less great acting into a decent biopic whose major flaw is Stone's tendency to cram in too much significant detail without pausing to highlight or explain. As a result, scenes and characters get lost in the general hubbub.
You might say that Stone trusts his audience too much, surely a forgivable failing. Or you might say he suffers from hubris, like Alexander (356-323 BCE), who conquered the world by 25 and was dead by 33.
Whatever his sins, Stone atones fully on one of the best director commentaries going. He and his historical adviser, Oxford scholar Robin Lane Fox, explain the significance of characters, events and physical details. It makes the film much more enjoyable the second time through, and Fox is so entertaining and lucid that I went out and bought his biography of Alexander.
Stone doesn't waste time on tedious production stories, but the hour's worth of making-of docs offer a refreshingly unsanitized look at the process and at Stone. Hard work and grumpiness figure strongly, notably in the comments of costume designer Jenny Beavan, who has 10,000 outfits to deal with. Stars Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer talk like they've escaped their PR handlers.
Alexander's spectacle elements work very well on the small screen. The battles are amazingly shot and rich in outstanding stunt work. The shot of Alexander on horseback squaring off against a rearing elephant is one of the most awe-inspiring moments ever put on film.
EXTRAS Stone and Fox commentary, four making-of docs. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Kung Fu Hustle
(Sony, 2004) D: Stephen Chow, w/ Chow, Wah Yuen. Rating: NNNN
This high-energy, highly hilarious kung fu comedy gracefully mixes hard action and violence with broad comedy and soft sentimentalism, and the whole affair becomes a seamless whole because it's all treated like a Tex Avery cartoon. Writer/director/producer/star Stephen Chow doesn't just drop somebody out of a third-storey window, he caps it with a blatantly cheery potted plant to the bean.
As director and performer, Chow has a razor-sharp sense of timing and a deadpan approach that lets the gags sell themselves. Yuen Woo-Ping (The Matrix) and Sammo Hung (Pedicab Driver) give the action original twists, notably a midpoint fantasy fight with creatures that escalate from creepy shadows into full-blown CGI spectres, and wraps with some comic tai chi.
The cartoon sensibility and a bit of dialogue are the only real concessions to a North American audience. Chow, a Hong Kong native, was raised on traditional kung fu movies, and this is his tribute. The plot is an antique classic - vicious triad with an exotic super-killer preys on poor neighbourhood until unlikely hero arises. The cast is packed with kung fu stars of yesterday. Wah Yuen and Qiu Yuen are standouts as the landlord and landlady from hell.
Sadly, neither the commentary nor Rik Meyers's interview with the director sheds much light on the history or the filmmaking process. The former offers Chow and a couple of cast members yukking it up in subtitled Cantonese, while the latter exposes Chow's limitations in English and Meyers's limitations as an interviewer.
EXTRAS Director and cast commentary, making-of doc, director interview, deleted scenes, bloopers. Chinese, English, French soundtracks. English, French subtitles.
Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte
(Fox, 1964) D: Robert Aldrich, w/ Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland. Rating: NNN
Director Robert Aldrich's follow-up to his 1962 smash, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, isn't quite the orgy of psychosexual anguish and abuse its predecessor was, but it's still a decent horror mystery with plenty of great acting and great overacting from all concerned.
Bette Davis gets the best moments as Charlotte, the over-the-hill Southern belle who's been half-mad since her lover got hacked with a meat cleaver 40 years ago. She ranges from a whisper to a scream, from trembling helplessness to embittered fury, often in a single shot.
Agnes Moorhead almost matches her for dottiness as the hillbilly maid, earning her one of the film's seven Oscar nominations. Olivia De Havilland, the nice - maybe too nice - cousin, and Joseph Cotten, the local doctor, have quieter roles, but they get their moments and know how to milk them.
Aldrich, best known for guyocentric actioners like The Dirty Dozen, loads on the Southern gothic atmosphere and pulls off some good near-wordless set pieces and graphic (for its day) brutality. The script doesn't make much sense, but that's often the case in the best horror movies.
Commentator Glenn Erickson does a solid job with biographies and production history, including the famed Davis-Joan Crawford feud that arose in Baby Jane. But he's at his best when he lays out the history of the genre, labelling it "Grand Dame Guignol" or "hag horror," and delves into the fear of aging that supplies its power.
EXTRAS Commentary. Wide-screen, b&w. English, Spanish subtitles.
Ham & Cheese
(Kaboom, 2004) D: Warren Sonoda, w/ Jason Jones, Mike Beaver. Rating: NNN
This should be required viewing for every would-be actor, the way Spinal Tap is for every would-be rocker.
With no money and tons of talent, writer/stars Jason Jones and Mike Beaver, with director Warren Sonoda, have crafted a hard-edged and very funny satire that rips apart the vanities and incompetence of struggling actors. It also tears a healthy strip off the cruelty and stupidity of the business they're in.
Jones is Barry Goodson, talentless, vain, stupid, utterly self-centred and perpetually selling himself. He destroys his marriage and his pampered life in pursuit of an empty dream. Beaver is Richard Wolanski, the big, dumb innocent who thinks acting would be cool and has no idea what it entails. Jones and Beaver have been through the mill themselves. Their portrayals and their takes on auditions, rehearsals and performances are deadly accurate.
Among the extras is a strange feature that allows you to edit the movie so you follow only one of these characters. You can safely skip it - the two need each other for balance, even though they meet only once.
The rest of the cast is equally spot-on, notably Dave Foley as a fake acting teacher who's making it up as he goes along; Jennifer Baxter, who's perfected the art of denying that she's screwing her way into a career; and Rob Tinkler, who does the theatre director as cheesy Byronic hero.
The film suffers from a lack of forward motion until about 50 minutes in. But the scenes are sharp, and veteran video director Sonoda keeps things moving nicely so the plot shortage doesn't kill the movie.
EXTRAS Jones and Beaver commentary, Sonoda commentary, 25 deleted scenes with commentary, cast and crew bios, actor interview, edit feature. Wide-screen. No subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, August 16
(Alliance, 2005) Comic book noir destined to become a classic.
The Brown Bunny
(Sony, 2003) Vincent Gallo's controversial sexual drama.
Born Into Brothels
(Think, 2004) Oscar-winning documentary portrait of the children of Calcutta slum prostitutes.
Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol. 1
(Turner, 1935-49) Five classic musicals: Top Hat, Swing Time, Follow The Fleet, Shall We Dance, The Barkleys Of Broadway.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb