The Sergio Leone Anthology
(MGM) Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNNN
A Fistful Of Dollars
(1964) D: Sergio Leone, w/ Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonté. Rating: NNNN; DVD package: NNNNN
For A Few Dollars More
(1965) D: Leone, w/ Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef. Rating: NNNN, DVD package: NNNN
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
(1966) D: Leone, w/ Eastwood, Eli Wallach. Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNNN
Duck, You Sucker
(1971) D: Leone, w/ Rod Steiger, James Coburn. Rating: NNNN; DVD package: NNNN
In the process of revitalizing the western, Sergio Leone invented a new genre: the spaghetti western. He wasn't the first Italian to shoot a western, but he was the first to do it in a specifically Italian way. He also invented the modern western hero, the taciturn, stubble-jawed, amoral loner who's with us to this day.
Leone biographer Christopher Frayling lays out this and every other aspect of Leone's work in outstandingly informed and organized commentaries on three of the four movies. Beside Frayling, Richard Schickel, an okay historian who covers The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, sounds like an amateur.
The movies themselves remain as watchable as the day they were released, high-action westerns composed of epic vistas and intimate close-ups, leavened with sly humour, brutality, imaginative soundscapes, visual jokes and two of the 11 greatest scores in movie history. Leone and Clint Eastwood get better as they go, and the movies grow more complex and grander in scope.
The big prize is a fully restored version of Duck, You Sucker, a movie that's been badly mangled in its North American release. It's Leone's transition out of the western. Set in 1913, it centres on the friendship of a Mexican peasant bandit (Rod Steiger) and an Irish revolutionary (James Coburn). It is Leone's biggest, most complex and most emotionally rich movie.
Extras A Fistful Of Dollars, disc one: commentary. Wide-screen. English, Spanish audio. English, French, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: academic/historical analysis of Eastwood character, Eastwood reminisces, producer, writer, dubbing director reminisce, added prologue for U.S. TV with discussion by director Monte Hellman. Wide-screen.
For A Few Dollars More, disc one: commentary. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish audio. English, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: academic/historical discussion of Leone style, Eastwood reminisces, producer, writer, dubbing director reminisce, original and U.S. version comparison. Widescreen.
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, disc one: commentary. Wide-screen. English, Italian audio. English, French, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin subtitles. Disc two: making-of doc, Leone style doc, composer Ennio Morricone doc plus audio-only Morricone doc, deleted scenes, reconstruction doc, Civil War doc. Wide-screen.
Duck, You Sucker, disc one: commentary. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish audio. English, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: scholarly/historical discussion of Leone's maturing style, writer reminisces, versions doc, restoration doc, Leone exhibit doc. Wide-screen.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2006) D: Marc Evans, w/ Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver and Carrie-Anne Moss deliver outstanding, understated performances in this straightforward sentimental drama of an Englishman (Rickman) who develops relationships with Linda, an adult autistic woman (Weaver), and her neighbour (Moss).
Rickman and Weaver play beautifully together. She handles Linda's emotions and rigid obsessions with fully believable honesty, while Rickman keeps his reactions small and neutral, letting the audience find its own way.
Sadly, director Marc Evans overuses the solemn pace and sentimental music. But the story, unforced humour and performances overcome those drawbacks.
The electronic press kit interviews are extensive and free of the usual hype. A doc on autism would've been welcome, though Weaver touches on the subject when she discusses her preparation.
Extras Director and cast interviews, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, French audio. English, French subtitles.
(Hollywood, 2007) D: Michael Katleman, w/ Dominic Purcell, Brooke Langton. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
Big, scary animals aren't really monsters. They're passed off as monsters these days, but real monsters need a streak of the uncanny if they're to play on any richer emotion than the sensible fear of becoming lunch. Trust me, nobody's going to be writing the kind of books about Anaconda that they do about Godzilla.
So it's cheering when filmmakers give their big, scary animals a little metaphorical weight. Basic story: 30-foot crocodile eating locals in the African bush. American reporters sent in to get the story and capture the beast. Lunch ensues. The kicker: it's all happening in the middle of a long-running civil war. The metaphoric link between the croc and the local warlord is explicit, and the Americans are reduced to helpless incomprehension in a world where nature and humanity are equally hostile and alien.
This adds a good layer of unease to the visceral terror of the CG croc, which works just fine in its own right.
Extras Director and effects supervisor commentary, CG croc doc, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, Spanish audio. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Ghost Rider: Two-Disc Extended Cut
(Columbia, 2007) D: Mark Steven Johnson, w/ Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes. Rating: NN; DVD package: NN
Sure, we all want to see nicolas Cage's head on fire, especially after his wretchedness in The Wicker Man. But that alone can't sustain this terrific-looking but profoundly vapid exercise in studied blandness.
Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson and producer Gary Foster, both of Daredevil infamy, are upfront in their separate commentaries about the reasons they cut the violence and horror to nothing. Trouble is, according to the not bad history of the comic on disc two, that's what everybody likes about the character. That and the motorcycle-riding flaming skull.
By the way, Foster's commentary and the comic's history are the extras package highlights. The former offers good insight into how a producer thinks, the latter cool graphics.
Which is the other basic problem here: the Ghost Rider is less a character than a cool graphic. He just goes around using his premise to fight evil.
That premise (sold his soul to the Devil, got powers, fights evil) ultimately defeats Johnson as writer. Since he can't deal with the only story that really works here, namely tricking the Devil and getting his soul back, he's forced to cobble up some nonsense about stopping the Devil's son from creating hell on earth.
Kill the darkness, kill the story, then screw it up further. The romance, meant to replace the darkness, never gets off the ground, and Johnson has his villains, without rhyme or reason, simply walk away from a couple of choice opportunities for evil.
What's left are great visuals. You can stop the movie in any number of places to just groove on the super compositions and their beautifully eerie cowboy gothic atmosphere. Or you can run little snippets back and forth to watch the supernatural elements emerge and disappear. Highly effective and big fun.
Oh yeah, the cast isn't bad either. In fact, it's one of Cage's better recent performances. Maybe it's Johnson whose head should be set on fire.
Extras Disc one: director and effects supervisor commentary, producer commentary. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish audio. English, French, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: three-part making-of doc, Ghost Rider comic history, animatic sequences. Wide-screen. Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Korean, Chinese subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, June 19
Picket Fences: Season One
Small-town life as seen by Ally McBeal creator David Kelley.
Bridge To Terabithia
Kids' fantasy directed by Rugrats creator Gabor Csupo.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2006)
Sweet period piece with Ewan McGregor romancing Renée Zelwegger as the famed children's book author.
Lindsay Anderson's allegory of revolution in a boys' school launched Malcolm McDowell's career.