The Rules Of The Game (Criterion/Morningstar, 1939) D: Jean Renoir, w/ Nora Gregor, Marcel Dalio. Rating: NNNNN
Finally, on dvd in a deluxe two-disc set, comes the greatest film ever made. I suppose I should justify that statement. One proof of its greatness is that so many really good directors have tried to make their own version of it: Woody Allen in Hannah And Her Sisters; Robert Altman about five times, most directly in Gosford Park but also in Nashville and A Wedding; Denys Arcand in Le Déclin De L'Empire Américain. And that's just the A-list.
The Rules Of The Game works the upstairs/downstairs dynamic during a weekend at a country house, and the romantic complications have fatal implications. It comes out of the tradition of the French romantic comedy, particularly that of Marivaux and Musset, but offers so many contradictory angles at once that it becomes a genre paradox.
It's a political commentary in which politics are never mentioned. It's an intricately constructed piece of dramatic machinery that was largely improvised by the cast from Renoir's notes. It's a slapstick tragedy.
In the film's astonishing third act, when the Marquis turns to his head butler, Corneille (named for one of the greatest French tragedians) and demands that he put an end to the farce, Corneille can only ask, "Which one?"
It's casual yet implacable, and anchored by a core of great performances, from Marcel Dalio as the insecure Marquis, Julien Carette as the poacher Marceau, and Paulette Dubost as the maid Lisette, to Renoir himself as Octave, the failed musician and fifth business, who's in the film's world only to realize he's not of it.
Renoir's performance is so good, it's a wonder he only acted twice after this film, and in much smaller roles.
Criterion's presentation is superb. I've been looking at The Rules Of The Game for three decades, in 35mm, 16mm, VHS (I once spent a week with the film on a Steenbeck editing table trying to figure out how it was edited), and this is the best print of it I've ever seen, an achievement when you consider that the Nazis destroyed the negative. Alexander Sesonske's commentary, read by Peter Bogdanovich, is one of the most scholarly on disc, and the documentary material is excellent.
There are now nine spots available on my top 10 DVDs of 2004 list.
EXTRAS Critical commentary, BBC documentary on Renoir, Jacques Rivette interviews with Renoir from Rivette's Cinema De Notres Temps (1966), new interviews with art director Max Douy, actor Mila Parely and Renoir's son, Alain. Documentary material on the film's history and reconstruction, booklet essays.
Thirteen (20th Century Fox, 2003) D: Catherine Hardwicke, w/ Evan Rachel Wood, Nikki Reed. Rating: NNNN
the curse of memory is that you often look at this year's sensation and realize you saw pretty much the same film come out to pretty much the same reaction 20 years ago. Thirteen may be based on 14-year- old co-star Nikki Reed's experiences as a middle school bad girl, but it's also a structural remake of Adrian Lyne's Foxes. The difference is that the girls, instead of being 17, are now 13. Or perhaps it's a safer version of Larry Clark's Kids. It's a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of having children.
First-time director Hardwicke, the art director on Vanilla Sky and Laurel Canyon, taps the tremendous jittery energy of the young cast, but the film's great asset is Holly Hunter as Wood's mom. Watching Hunter is like watching a raw nerve.
It's a well put-together DVD, though the format is annoying. It's a flipper, with the wide-screen on one side and the full-screen on the other, and different extras on each side - deleted scenes on one side, trailer and making-of on the other.
EXTRAS A director/actor commentary that's half commentary, half slumber party; deleted scenes with optional commentary; theatrical trailer; making-of featurette. English, French, Spanish versions and subtitles.
Friends: The Complete Sixth Season (Warner, 1999-2000) w/ Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry. Rating: NNN
season six is where friends starts to jump the shark. The focus is on the Monica-Chandler relationship, and I can't be the only one who keeps thinking, "Doesn't he realize she's insane?" The main secondary stories are all Ross, first in the post-Vegas wedding story with Rachel, then dating a student, which leads to the stunt casting of Bruce Willis as said student's father.
That said, there are plenty of good episodes in Season Six, including the tremendous two-parter with Reese Witherspoon as Rachel's sister, The One With The Apothecary Table and The One Where Phoebe Runs. Since she has no storyline, this is a great season for fans of Lisa Kudrow, who becomes the go-to person for comedy. The DVD is of a piece with earlier instalments in the series, though it's a little thin on extras.
EXTRAS Producer commentary on three episodes, gag reel, trivia game. English, French and Spanish subtitles.
The Critic: The Complete Series (Columbia TriStar, 1994-95), created by Mike Reiss, Al Jean, w/ Jon Lovitz. Rating: NNN
looking at the critic, the short-lived series created by Simpsons veterans Mike Reiss and Al Jean, it's easy to see why it never really caught on. As with Fox's series Action!, a lot of the humour is very inside; there's a slightly slack feeling to a lot of the episodes, which never achieve the comic density of The Simpsons or Futurama; and Jon Lovitz, who's great in short bursts, tends to wear over the long haul, even in animated form. The closer the show stays to the work environment, the better it is. Lovitz's Jay Sherman is a TV movie reviewer forced to deal with an insane Ted Turner-like boss (wonderfully voiced by Charles Napier) and his humiliating status as "New York's third-most-popular cable TV movie critic." Some of the most topical references have aged dramatically in a decade, but the movie parodies and inside gags are still very funny.
EXTRAS Eight episode commentaries, clip compilations, new webisodes, making-of featurettes.
Coming Tuesday, February 3
Ed Wood (Disney, 1994) D: Tim Burton, w/ Johnny Depp, Martin Landau. ed wood. or wouldn't. disney's long-promised special edition of Tim Burton's Ed Wood has been delayed again, no new date announced.
Lost In Translation (Alliance Atlantis, 2003) Sofia Coppola's study of romantic anomie in a big Tokyo hotel, with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.
American Splendor (Warner, 2003) Paul Giamatti stars as Harvey Pekar in this Modernist adaptation of Pekar's grouchily autobiographical comics.
Grand Hotel, Mrs. Miniver, Mutiny On The Bounty, Gaslight, The Great Ziegfeld (Warner, 1932-1944) More treats from the Warner archives, with extras like the original 1940 English Gaslight and a 1933 Vitaphone spoof of Grand Hotel.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb