(Alliance Atlantis, 2006) D: Guillermo del Toro, w/ Ivana Baquero, Sergi López. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNNN
An unhappy little girl wanders into a stone labyrinth and discovers that she can take her rightful place as a fairy princess provided she fulfills three tasks set for her by a not entirely trustworthy faun.
Since her real life sucks - she's in the grip of a fascist stepfather - it's easy to see the fairy tale as being all in her mind. But the fantasy world begins to penetrate the real one, and it starts to seem that Guillermo del Toro has a more complex vision of fairy tales than schematic psychology and the simple depiction of wonders and marvels.
His fairy world, based on golds and greens and circles, is alive with mystery, purpose and symbols that find their echoes in the cold blues and straight lines of the mundane world. Both scenarios provide solid, sombre drama without a trace of either condescension or cuteness.
The performances stay just this side of larger-than-life. Sergi López, as the rigid, control-freak stepfather, and Maribel Verdú, the housekeeper who opposes him, keep it restrained, while Doug Jones brings sinister theatricality to his fine mix of prosthetics and performance.
Del Toro fills his commentary and the extras disc with ideas from his lifelong study of fairy tales, happy to explain his sources and his approach to visual storytelling, to point out resonant details and to expound on his sense of the value of fairy tales in general and this one in particular.
It's the meaning of his choices he wants to communicate, not the mechanics, which raises this well above the usual run of behind-the-scenes material. His notebook pages and the DVD comics are fun, too.
Extras Disc one: director commentary. Wide-screen. Spanish and French audio. English, French and Spanish subtitles. Disc two: del Toro discusses fairy tales; making-of docs on prosthetics, visual design, set design, music; director's notebooks with insert del Toro commentary; del Toro and other Mexican directors interviewed on The Charlie Rose Show; DVD comic book prequel stories. Wide-screen. Spanish and English audio. Spanish and English subtitles.
(MPI, 1964) D: Peter Glenville, w/ Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton. Rating: NNNN; DVD package: NNNN
Henry II names his best friend, Thomas à Becket, chancellor of the exchequer and then Archbishop of Canterbury. Bad move: wenching and drinking Becket turns pious and pro-Saxon, but Henry's a Norman. He may have to have his best friend killed.
Jean Anouilh turned this bit of history into a hugely successful play, and Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton made it an outstanding actors' movie. They're both at the peak of their careers and the top of their form. O'Toole uses his tendency toward the grandiose to convey his hatreds and insecurity, while Burton's broodiness becomes thoughtfulness. And they've both got loads of lovely dialogue to chew on. Very tasty.
Donald Wolfit and John Gielgud, themselves both leading actors, play supporting roles here. The former was an important influence on O'Toole, the latter on Burton, O'Toole tells us in his lively, witty and highly articulate commentary. The late Burton, interviewed by Kenneth Tynan, is likewise informative and insightful.
Director Peter Glenville picked up an Oscar nomination for his work, but really it's pretty straightforward, though his slightly low-key approach to spectacle has kept the film from looking badly dated.
Extras O'Toole commentary, editor Anne Coates and composer Laurence Rosenthal interviews, two archival Burton interviews. Wide-screen. English, Spanish and French audio. English subtitles.
Vengeance Is Mine
(Criterion, 1979) D: Shohei Imamura, w/ Ken Ogata, Mayumi Ogama. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
Iconoclast director Shoehei Ima Mura, best known for his 1983 Cannes winner The Ballad Of Narayama, had spent nine years making documentaries before returning to features with this bleak, funny look at lust, greed and repression in the Japanese working class.
Truck driver Iwao Enokizu murders his co-workers and goes on a killing spree that lasts 78 days before he's finally turned in by one of the countless hookers he screws. But, unlike American true crime movies, this isn't played for sordid shock and horror. The killings often take place offscreen.
Instead, Imamura leaps back and forth in time to focus on family and sexual relationships. Often, they're one and the same.
Enokizu's wife and his hyper-Catholic father have something weird going, and the innkeeper's mother is diligently pimping her to a local businessman. There's sharp social criticism here, but no condemnation. Imamura clearly loves all his characters, though it's a colder love than you'll find in, say, Kurosawa.
The actors deliver naturalistic performances that let the humour and horror emerge on their own. Ken Ogata is compelling as the remorseless killer, but Nijiko Kiyokawa steals the show as the venal, voyeuristic innkeeper's mother.
EXTRAS A bit thin by Criterion standards: no commentary track, but good film and print interviews with the director and a nice critical appreciation by Michael Atkinson.
(Sony, 2006) D: David Von Ancken, w/ Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan. Rating: NN; DVD package: NN
Somewhere in the otherwise mediocre extras, director David Von Ancken inadvertently tells us exactly where he went wrong. "Put good actors outdoors and they become mythic," he says. Not quite. Your actors still need something to act about, some kind of mythically resonant story.
In its place, there's over an hour of Liam Neeson and his bounty hunters pursuing Pierce Brosnan through mountain and desert without rhyme or reason, save that it's clear that Neeson is hard on the post-Civil War vengeance trail. Nothing wrong with mindless thrills, but in Von Ancken's hands (he also co-wrote) they come up a little repetitive and contrived. How many times can Brosnan lose one horse and gain another before we stop caring? Later on there's talk of God, and Anjelica Huston shows up as a character Von Ancken fondly believes is the devil, but by then it's too little and too late.
Brosnan, Neeson and the supporting cast give it a good shot and provide some solid moments, most of them involving Brosnan suffering and Neeson demonstrating the depth of his hatred.
The film looks wonderful, thanks to DOP John Toll, who picked up Oscars for Braveheart and Legends Of The Fall. He makes the New Mexico desert look every bit as mythic as John Ford's Monument Valley.
In the commentaries, Von Ancken and Brosnan offer a few mildly interesting production stories, but the director sounds annoyingly nervous and the actor projects a weary boredom.
Extras Director, Brosnan and production designer Michael Hanan commentary, making-of doc. Wide-screen. English audio. English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, May 22
(Alliance Atlantis, 2005)
A choice role for Peter O'Toole as an aging actor smitten with a friend's niece.
Peter Sellers: MGM Movie Legends Collection
Three out of four ain't bad: What's New, Pussycat (1965), The Pink Panther (63) and The Party (68) are among comic genius Sellers's very best and highlights of 60s comedy. Casino Royale (67), on the other hand, is a highlight of 60s excess - funny, but what a mess.
Mel Gibson's epic of action/adventure among the ancient Mayans.
Letters From Iwo Jima
Clint Eastwood copped three Oscar nominations and a win for his take on one of the most mythologized moments of the second world war.