mildred pierce (Warner Home Video, 1945) D: Michael Curtiz, w/ Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth. Rating: NNNN
when mildred pierce came along, Joan Crawford hadn't made a picture in almost two years. Oscar-winning director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) was insulted at having to work with a has-been, and the role had been turned down by the notoriously picky Bette Davis. Next thing you know, the film got six Academy Award nominations, Crawford won best actress, and it turned into a classic in the small but potent subgenre of domestic film noir. It was adapted from James M. Cain's study of the nastier edges of the American class wars.
Warner has done a really superb transfer; Ernest Haller's Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography gets the deluxe treatment. If this is what they can pull from the vaults, I salivate at the thought of some of the unreleased treasures. The Sea Hawk and High Sierra come to mind.
DVD EXTRAS: Strangely, nothing on the front cover indicates that this is anything but a catalogue release. You have to check the small print on the back to discover that it includes the excellent 90-minute TCM documentary Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star and a gallery of Crawford's Warner Brothers trailers.
six feet under (Warner/HBO Home Video, 2001) produced by Alan Ball, w/ Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall. Four discs. Rating: NNNNN
entertainment weekly called tv on DVD the video phenomenon of the year, and it's very strange to see the boxes sitting on my shelf. Twenty-two episodes of The Simpsons, with commentaries, promos and various bonus materials in a package barely 25 per cent larger than a single VHS tape.
They're insanely convenient fetish objects, and by far the most convenient way to watch TV: no commercials, no promos distorting the end credits, no worry that the episode you're watching in syndication is missing a minute snipped for extra commercials, and of course, no worry that you've inadvertently taped over your favourite episode of The X-Files.
Owning the whole first season of Good Times is a private perversion. But you can display The Civil War or an HBO series (well, not Arli$$) on your coffee table as a badge of good taste.
Of course, Six Feet Under is one of the weirdest cultural phenomena. The Sopranos, a working-class version of The Godfather, achieved its standing through persistent dramatic quality rather than genre-bending innovation. I'd missed Six Feet Under on TV and so was unprepared for Alan Ball's more daring achievement -- the eerie morphing of Bergman into sitcom.
"My dad's dead, my mom's a whore, my brother wants to kill me and my sister's smoking crack." So begins the series, as Nate (Peter Krause) arrives home to find that his father's died on his way to pick him up at the airport and take him back into his wildly dysfunctional family and its business -- a mortuary.
The cast is tremendous: Krause and Michael C. Hall as brothers who've barely spoken in a decade; Frances Conroy as their mother, the queen of denial; Lauren Ambrose as their younger sister, a furious ball of speed-fuelled adolescent rage; and Richard Jenkins as Dad, who may be dead but lives on in his sons' heads. With them, Ball and the series's writers and directors (including The Good Girl's Miguel Arteta, Toronto's Jeremy Podesawa and Oscar-winning actor Kathy Bates) give us one of the truest portraits of family life in television -- four people who have no idea how to relate to each other, trapped forever in the same leaky lifeboat.
DVD EXTRAS: Alan Ball commentary on first and last episodes, title creation featurette, series indices, each episode's "Previously on" and "Next on" intro and extro, behind-the-scenes featurette, DVD-ROM material. French and Spanish dubbed versions. (On a collectible note, the box is mislabelled, claiming that Episode Four is on Disc One, when it's on Disc Two.)
the complete musketeers: the three musketeers; the four musketeers (Anchor Bay, 1973-74) D: Richard Lester, w/ Michael York, Faye Dunaway. Two discs. Rating: NNNN
This is the proper packaging for Richard Lester's classic adaptation of Alexandre Dumas's novel. The two films were planned and shot as a single exceedingly long picture, and the actors and their agents were dismayed when they discovered producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind's plans to release them as two.
Filmed in Spain, The Three and Four Musketeers showcase an astonishing cast. Michael York's youthfully combative D'Artagnan and Oliver Reed's demonic Athos are the best performances in each actor's filmography, and the rest of the cast is very fine -- from Charlton Heston's devious Richelieu and Christopher Lee's lethal Rochefort to the small comic gems contributed by Spike Milligan and Roy Kinnear. In the new making-of documentary, Lee asserts that these films contain some of the best sword fights in movie history, particularly the final exhausting confrontation between Rochefort and D'Artagnan -- and he's in two of them.
My only complaint is about the sound, the fault not of the DVD but of the original film, which suffers from the problems of early-70s Euro productions, where there's so much post-synching that a lot of the sound seems to come from no recognizable place. But Lester's visual invention never flags, and these two films remain remarkable entertainments.
DVD EXTRAS: New 50-minute making-of, contemporary making-of, theatrical trailers and TV spots, stills gallery.
sweet home alabama (Touchstone, 2002) D: Andy Tennant, w/ Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas. Rating: NN
It's a measure of Reese Witherspoon's burgeoning star power that she could make this a hit and position herself as the new Meg Ryan. It's also a shame, because Witherspoon's career so far indicates that she can be far more than that. But then, Ryan's performances in Flesh And Bone and Courage Under Fire indicate that she could have been far more, too.
Witherspoon plays a hot New York designer who, in order to marry the mayor's son (Patrick Dempsey), has to return home to get a divorce from Josh Lucas, her good-ole-boy first husband. Then the media get involved and wacky mix-ups ensue. There's really nothing to recommend Sweet Home Alabama aside from its star and a brief supporting turn by Jean Smart. It's vaguely interesting to see the film condescend to its Southern stereotypes while condemning Witherspoon's character for turning her back on her roots.
DVD EXTRAS: Director commentary, deleted scenes, alternate ending, SHeDaisy video. French-language version.
an affair to remember (20th Century-Fox, 1957) D: Leo McCarey, w/ Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr. Rating: Nnn
this is the uber-chick flick, of course: unrequited romance, foreign affairs, referenced in Sleepless In Seattle as a movie that "men don't get." (After Sleepless In Seattle, An Affair To Remember sold 2 million copies on VHS.) I'd managed to go decades without seeing it, or its original version, Love Affair, or the Warren Beatty-Annette Bening remake, also called Love Affair. It's a very strange film -- not because of the love story, which is very touching and worthy of its reputation, but because of the way director Leo McCarey keeps digressing into unmotivated musical numbers even though the film itself is not a musical.
It's part of Fox's Studio Classics series, so it's a beautiful transfer -- very good colour and the letterboxing makes you aware of how elegant an eye McCarey had for CinemaScope composition. The most interesting extra is the two-headed commentary divided between scholar Joseph McBride, who also did commentary for Fox's How Green Was My Valley, and legendary voice double Marni Nixon, who discusses her relationship with Kerr and the peculiar ethics of being a dubber in the Hollywood studio system.
DVD EXTRAS: Commentary, newsreel footage of the premiere, AMC Backstory episode, trailer gallery. English, French and Spanish dubs, English and Spanish titles.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb
No rating indicates no screening copy