The Warner Gangsters Collection Little Caesar (1931) D: Mervyn LeRoy, w/ Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; The Public Enemy (1931) D: William Wellman, w/ James Cagney, Jean Harlow; The Petrified Forest (1936) D: Archie Mayo, w/ Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis; Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) D: Michael Curtiz, w/ Cagney, Bogart; The Roaring Twenties (1939) D: Raoul Walsh, w/ Cagney, Bogart; White Heat (1949) D: Walsh, w/ Cagney, Virginia Mayo. Rating: NNNNN
This would be a great box with the movies alone - high-energy A-pictures crafted in Hollywood at its peak, with some of the greatest-ever movie stars doing their best work.
But commentary tracks and making-of/meaning-of docs push it over the top. They give detailed background on the directors, stars and studio, with info on the genre, gangsters and the public fascination with them, plus side trips into censorship and Freud.
The Warner Night At The Movies structure of each disc adds context, with a cartoon, newsreel and couple of live-action shorts replicating a picture show of the time.
Though Leonard Maltin's gee-whizzery gets irritating, his intros provide valuable details, making this overall a very good course in a box.
Four of the six movies star James Cagney, who's riveting. Humphrey Bogart mostly has supporting roles just before his rise to leading-man status, but he still gives precise, energetic performances. In The Petrified Forest, he's all fear and brooding worry as Duke Mantee, the hunted killer who takes a desert diner's patrons hostage.
The studio system made everyone work continuously. Director Michael Curtiz, best known for Casablanca, had over 100 films under his belt by the time he came to Angels With Dirty Faces. He had full command of crowds, action, intimate moments and the array of light and shadow.
So did Raoul Walsh, whose White Heat, directed in the more location-based naturalistic style of the late 40s, at first looks like a lesser movie than his 1939 Roaring Twenties. But it's only a matter of style. His eye is as sharp as ever, and the performances may be even better.
The transfers, here in their original aspect ratio, have caught all the fine detail, and the soundtracks are likewise crisp and clear.
These movies are available individually ($22.48, or $66.69 for the box), so if you want more than three, the box is cheaper.
Extras Film historians' and scholars' commentaries, making-of/meaning-of featurettes, theatrical trailers, Warner Night At The Movies (newsreel, cartoon, trailers, two live-action shorts), radio drama versions of Angels With Dirty Faces and The Petrified Forest; 1954 re-release forward on The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Sky Captain And The World of Tomorrow Special Collector's Edition (Paramount, 2004) D: Kerry Conran, w/ Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie. Rating: NNN
The first 40 minutes of Sky Captain are a great exercise in neo-noir retro-future. From the opening shot of the Hindenburg III docking atop the Empire State Building through the attack of the giant robots, we're in the world of 1939, as contemporary artists imagine 1935 pulp magazine cover illustrators would see it: the present's vision of the past's vision of the future. There's not a realistic frame in the movie, and action's non-stop.
But when the setting shifts to Nepal, the style slips a notch or two, while the over-familiar plot sags. Angelina Jolie's hard-boiled naval officer and her amazing flying aircraft carrier give the film a kick, but it never fully recovers its momentum.
Still, Gwyneth Paltrow as the plucky girl reporter and Jude Law as the square-jawed hero bicker and battle their way through peril, clearly having the time of their lives.
What's amazing is that the whole thing was shot using a blue screen. Everything is false but works beautifully. The CGI is only rarely detectable, and the look is pure comic book, closer than any of the big-budget Spider-Mans and Hulks have come.
The making-of tells the story: a lone film-school grad making a movie on his computer lures a pro producer, who then attracts the big-name stars who love the six-minute short (included in the extras) the film is based on. Unfortunately, writer/director Kerry Conran, concerned with visuals, pulled his content from the standard bag of adventure pulp thrills and paid little attention to character.
Pulp needs imagination. Conran's got a visual one and a great method. Maybe he or someone else will carry the ball farther.
Extras Producer John Avnet and director and FX team commentaries, making-of, artwork doc, deleted scenes, gag reel, original short. English 5.1, French 2.1, English, Spanish subtitles.
AVP: Alien Vs. Predator (Fox, 2004) D: Paul W. S. Anderson, w/ Sanaa Lathan, Lance Henriksen. Rating: NN
AVP is not your ordinary cynical corporate cash grab. It's a heartfelt, geek-fuelled cynical corporate cash grab, the product of years of fanboy determination by all manner of creators. They tell you about it in the commentary track and extras, where you'll find, among other nifties, an AVP comic book. AVP delivers: Alien creatures fight Predator creatures. A lot.
And competently. We'd hoped for thrillingly, but corporate bottom-line thinking seems to have made its way onto the set. Director Paul W.S. Anderson wisely opts for men in costumes, puppets and miniatures over CGI, but infuses the action with a good dose of energy and atmosphere on a modest budget.
There isn't much here we haven't seen in the other movies, but the giant pyramid under the Antarctic ice provides the show with a fresh atmosphere and novel gimmick. Sadly, we don't get enough of Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting), the only cast member who seems to be enjoying himself.
The rest, except for Sanaa Lathan in the lead, are merely competent. She's supposed to be a wilderness guide, a tough-as-nails outdoors type, but comes off as an actress from an after-school special.
Extras Director and actors commentary, FX guys commentary, deleted scenes, making-of featurette, AVP comic book cover gallery; CD-ROM features. English, French versions, Spanish versions with English, Spanish subtitles, anamorphic transfer, 5.1 Dolby sound.
Anna Lucasta (MGM, 1959) D: Arnold Laven, w/ Eartha Kitt, Sammy Davis Jr. Rating: NNN
This isn't a great movie, or even a good one, but it's a wonderful opportunity to see a couple of great talents giving their all before they descended into self-parody, Eartha Kitt via Catwoman on the Batman series and Sammy Davis Jr. in minor roles in Rat Pack wankfests.
Anna Lucasta offers Kitt as a hooker tossed out of her lower middle-class family's home, then brought back to marry a hayseed so her venal relations can get their hands on his money. She's a bit nervous and clumsy, but she burns in the close-ups and understands her character's every nuance.
The actors bang out their dialogue far too fast, as though under explicit instructions to cram the two-and-a-half-hour stage play into 97 minutes. Only Davis, who already has his star persona in place, seems comfortable. He uses the pace to bring an unspoken menace to his good-time party boy. His performance is in stark contrast to his lackadaisical Peter Lawford duets, Salt And Pepper and One More Time.
No one expects an all-black movie from MGM in 1959 and no one expects one that isn't explicitly about race. But this is both. Political correctness fans might object to some of the venality and ignorance, but change a couple of lines and an all-white cast could deliver the same movie.
God bless MGM for its release-everything policy. God curse them for not putting a thought or a penny into extras.
Coming Tuesday, February 3
Shall We Dance? (Disney, 2004) Romance with Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon.
The Grudge (Sony, 2004) Sarah Michelle Gellar remakes a Japanese horror flick.
Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years (Columbia/TriStar) Great stop-motion monsters from the master of the form.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb