Fanny And Alexander
(Criterion/Morningstar, 1984) D: Ingmar Bergman, w/ Pernilla Allwin, Bertil Guve. Rating: NNNNN
Bergman's official valedictory, Fanny And Alexander is an epic of family life in Stockholm circa 1907, following the titular children from the warmth of their theatrical family to the coldness of their mother's second marriage after she is widowed. In the commentary, Bergman scholar Peter Cowie observes that Fanny And Alexander hasn't aged at all in the last 20 years because the film's technique is so straightforward. Nothing identifies it as an early-80s film. (His comparison film is Blade Runner.) It's a magnificently conceived full-blooded melodrama, and those never go out of style.
Sven Nykvist's Oscar-winning cinematography - check the deep reds and vibrant greens in the opening scenes - is awe-inspiring, and Criterion's transfer pristine and rich. After watching both the theatrical version and the television version - I spent the weekend more or less wallowing in this box set - I'm struck by the way the long version doesn't for a second feel padded. Some of the characters no longer seem secondary - Erland Josephson's return in the second half of the TV series seems much less arbitrary and unexpected in the long version, because his character has far more scenes than he does in the theatrical version.
A note on format: There's a two-disc Fanny And Alexander and a five-disc Fanny And Alexander box set. Both formats include the three-hour theatrical cut of the film. The five-disc also has the five-hour television cut of the film, a making-of documentary, a retrospective documentary, extended interviews with Ingmar Bergman and a selection of introductions he did for a Swedish television retrospective of his films. These introductions are the second disc in the two-disc version.
EXTRAS Critical commentary on theatrical version (see above). Swedish with English subtitles.
The Grissom Gang
(MGM, 1971) D: Robert Aldrich w/ Kim Darby, Scott Wilson. Rating: NNNN
On many movie discussion bulletin boards, a recurring theme is movies that couldn't be made today because of political correctness. The Grissom Gang certainly qualifies. Adapted from James Hadley Chase's novel No Orchids For Miss Blandish, it's the story of a society heiress (Kim Darby) who's kidnapped by a family of psychotic redneck criminals and held for ransom; but the family's slightly dim son (Scott Wilson) decides that he's in love with her and acts on his inappropriate impulses. This is a nasty piece of work indeed, in the early-70s mode of vicious redneck crime drama, with nightmarish sexual politics. It's also, despite the radical miscasting of Darby (True Grit) as a Depression-era Arkansas socialite, an excellent thriller from the director of Kiss Me Deadly and The Flight Of The Phoenix, if not on the exalted level of those classics. Wilson (In Cold Blood) is superb. No extras in this catalogue-dump release, which is a shame, since both Wilson and Darby are still around.
(New Line/Alliance Atlantis, 2003) D: Jon Favreau, w/ Will Ferrell, James Caan. Rating: NNN
I can't be the only person who, on seeing the poster of Will Ferrell in a green elf suit, thought, "I really don't want to see this," but ended up being surprisingly charmed by this sentimental Christmas tale. Ferrell's full-bore commitment to his character's innocence is fascinating to watch, less for itself than for the way that the film's "normal" characters respond by seeming to edge away from him in the frame. And Zooey Deschanel remains one of the more underused young actresses in American movies.
The two-disc special edition is a bit of hype - the second disc contains the pan-and-scan version of the film, with the anamorphic wide-screen on the first disc. I'm not a great fan of New Line's InifiniFilm format, which gives you access to bunches of little featurettes and alternate scenes while watching the film. Too often, the "seamless" branching that makes it possible just ain't that seamless. A couple of my DVD players have become very twitchy with the format, though I'll note that my reasonably new Panasonic had no problem with Elf.
EXTRAS Commentaries from both Ferrell and director Jon Favreau, a ton of things in the InifiniFilm format (though I wish you could get access to them when not watching the film, which might be possible, but I haven't figured out how), games, a bunch of little Easter eggs in the menus (look for arrows), DVD-ROM and online content. English and French versions, and subtitles.
(HomeVision/ Morningstar, 1985) D: David Hare, w/ Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson. Rating: NNNN
Wetherby may be David Hare's masterpiece. It's certainly the best film the English playwright's got his name on, in large part because of the quartet of central performances by Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson (a rare instance of mother and daughter playing the same character at different ages), Suzanna Hamilton and Judi Dench. Flashing back and forth between the present and past, triggered by the suicide of Morgan ( Tim McInnerny), a man described by another character as "a central disfiguring blankness" - kind of high-toned language from a cop, even an English cop. The film is at once a condensation of certain elements of the English cinema - in the domestic scenes set in the past, you can smell the rising damp - and a rebellion against them, anchored by the emotional reality of the performances, especially that of the transcendent Redgrave. You look at this sort of acting and despair of finding the language to describe it. Excellent transfer.
Extras Nothing but liner notes from Hare and critic Brian MacFarlane.
Coming Tuesday, November 23
The Terminal (Dreamworks, 2004) Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg's fable of statelessness gets a three-disc special edition.
Seinfeld (Sony, 1990-93) The first three seasons of Seinfeld on DVD. Woohoo.
L'Age D'Or (Kino, 1930) The classic surrealist manifesto from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali - in terms of "long-awaited" DVDs, this is the art house version of Star Wars.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb