(Criterion/Morningstar, 1977) D: Robert Altman, w/ Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek. Rating: NNNN
Among the interesting revelations in Robert Altman's commentary on this film, his desert Persona, is that he hadn't seen Carrie when he cast Sissy Spacek, but picked her out of the ensemble in Welcome To L.A., which he produced for Alan Rudolph. Altman's discourse, along with the trailers and teasers, is the only extra on this Criterion disc, but it's one of his best. His commentaries are usually perfunctory accounts of what we're already seeing, but this one is very much about the process through which the film evolved, and that's something we too seldom get from filmmakers of Altman's stature. My favourite remark: "I have no idea how actors work, and I don't want to know."
A Duvall-Spacek commentary would be fascinating.
An identity theft tale poised somewhere between Bergman's Persona and Single White Female, Three Women is about the relationship between two young women, Spacek's Pinky and Duvall's Millie, in an empty stretch of desert near Palm Springs. Cinematographer Charles Rosher Jr. gives the film a dreamy, underwater look, his most remarkable work in an otherwise undistinguished career.
Where most of Altman's great 70s films are freewheeling circuses, this is a sparse, formalist exercise. Duvall, virtually an Altman creation, gives the performance of her life as a girl with delusions of being an ordinary, cheerful person.
EXTRAS Director commentary, theatrical teaser and trailer, TV spots, production gallery, English captions.
The Last Samurai
(Warner, 2003) D: Edward Zwick, w/ Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe. Rating: NNNN
It's too easy to dismiss this tom Cruise vehicle as Dances With Samurai. American soldier survives the Civil War and cures his personal disillusion by getting involved with a very unfamiliar culture to the point of "going native." However, Edward Zwick (The Siege, Glory) is a far more focused and disciplined filmmaker than Kevin Costner. His portrait of the samurai life at the moment westernization is about to destroy it is admittedly idealized, but this is an adventure movie that operates on a grand historical scale, with a good performance by Cruise and a great one by Ken Watanabe, who plays the title character.
The full disc of extras is mostly useless (Tom Cruise: A Warrior's Journey is one of the featurettes) except for the short looks at the production and costume design. The History Channel short is one of those things cooked up when a studio gets the HC to pimp for a picture.
The "discussion" between director and star offers Cruise and Zwick kissing each other's asses. On the positive side, the transfer is first-rate and Zwick's commentary is thoughtful and informative.
EXTRAS Director commentary, theatrical trailer, featurettes on the star, director's video journal, various production featurettes, DVD-ROM content, History Channel "documentary." English and French versions, English, French and Spanish subtitles.
The Missing Gun
(Columbia/TriStar), D: Lu Chuan, w/ Jiang Wen, Ning Jing. Rating: NNN
jiang wen plays a small-town cop who wakes up one morning after a party to find his gun is gone. Then his girlfriend turns up dead. This would be a predictable plot in an American movie. Any of us could write that script. But he's a cop in China, where a small-town cop losing his gun - and its three state-issued bullets - is looked at as an event that could bring down the party and the state. You can't quite call this a thriller. It's also a character study and a piece of sociology.
Director Lu Chuan's jagged, quick-moving way of dealing with characters and situations is quite different from the predominant thriller styles of either the U.S. or Hong Kong, and the treatment of the hero as someone who's either a lot smarter than his superiors think he is or about half as bright as he should be is very unusual.
The DVD issue is utterly bare-bones. I wish Columbia had sprung for someone to explain the socio-legal situation in rural China, just to help us contextualize the story.
EXTRAS Theatrical trailer. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese subtitles.
(Fox Studio Classics, 1957) D: Walter Lang w/ Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy. Rating: NNN
fox studio classics is slipping on the quality of their extras. For Desk Set, which was the last pairing of Hepburn and Tracy until Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?, there's no making-of, and the commentary alternates between a guy who sounds like a parody of an introductory film course and Dina Merrill, the last significant surviving cast member, who mostly talks about her own career. This is not uninteresting, but it has nothing to do with the film at hand. Nora Ephron should have been invited to talk about the movie; Henry and Phoebe Ephron, the screenwriters, were her parents. Adapted from a Broadway play, Desk Set has Tracy as an efficiency expert invading the research department of a TV network with, yes, a computer - all very modern for 1957, and filmed in breathtaking CinemaScope and glorious TechniColor.
It's sort of fun to see what was thought of in the depths of the Eisenhower era as the latest in sophisticated comedy, but Hepburn is straining to seem girlish, not her best quality.
While this isn't on a par with Adam's Rib or Pat And Mike, it's worth seeing. The transfer is excellent, and Hepburn and Tracy are still Hepburn and Tracy.
EXTRAS Critical/cast commentary, Movietone newsreel on the film's costume design, theatrical trailer, stills gallery. English, Spanish versions and subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, May 9
The Fog Of War
(Columbia/TriStar) Errol Morris's fascinating portrait of former U.S. Secretary of Defense and first president of the World Bank Robert McNamara.
A Short Film About Love/A Short Film About Killing
(Kino/Pixi) Krzysztof Kieslowski's two feature-length expansions from The Decalogue.
(Fox) Jim Sheridan's autobiographical film about his family's emigration to New York in the 80s, with Oscar-nominated performances by Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb