Steve McQueen Collection: The Magnificent Seven (MGM, D: John Sturges, 1960), The Great Escape (MGM, D: Sturges, 1963), The Thomas Crown Affair (MGM, D: Norman Jewison 1968); Junior Bonner (MGM, D: Sam Peckinpah, 1972). Rating: NNNN
Steve McQueen isn't the only prize in this box. He isn't even the biggest one, even though the box holds his very best performance. For much of his career, McQueen was more movie star icon than actual actor. Good looks, piercing blue eyes and tons of charisma made him perfect for top-end actioners like Bullitt (1968). But McQueen was also a fine physical actor, and Sam Peckinpah put that to tremendous use in Junior Bonner, his study of a just-past-his-prime professional rodeo cowboy and his disintegrating family.
As Bonner, McQueen doesn't speak much, but his expressive physical and props work tells us everything he's thinking and feeling. Peckinpah surrounds him with equally fine actors - Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Joe Don Baker - and puts them in a lively, plausible, unmelodramatic story whose emotions come out in action. Simultaneously a celebration and a critique of a man and a way of life, it's also got the best barroom brawl ever put on film.
The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven are only a small step below Junior Bonner. Hollywood veteran John Sturges gives crisp direction to both, with an eye for epic sweep on the one hand and small character moments on the other. Both offer great action, a great score and rising young stars like James Coburn and Charles Bronson, who give McQueen more than a run for his money. Though the Magnificent Seven's Yul Brynner has the iconic gunman shtick down cold, the western gunman really can't carry the mythic resonance of the samurai warrior.
The box's low point is The Thomas Crown Affair. Director Norman Jewison says it's a triumph of style over content. Not quite. Nothing can hide the severe shortage of story and character here. Too much time is spent on the heartless romance with insurance investigator Faye Dunaway, played out over the Oscar-winning dreary theme The Windmills Of Your Mind.
Thomas Crown, the banker who heists his own bank, is presented as a romantic rebel. Today we'd see him as a psychopath, which leads to interesting daydreams about McQueen as Hannibal Lecter - much more fun than Windmills.
The extras here are good, but we learn little about McQueen; everyone concentrates on directors and production stories. Another McQueen box is coming May 31, featuring Papillon, The Getaway and Bullitt, among others. Maybe it'll give one of the top stars of the 60s his due.
Extras The Magnificent Seven: commentary by James Coburn, Eli Wallach and others, making-of, stills, trailers. Wide-screen. English 5.1, English, French, Spanish mono. French and Spanish subtitles. The Great Escape: making-of, trailer. Wide-screen. English, French mono. English, French and Spanish subtitles. The Thomas Crown Affair: director commentary, trailer. Wide-screen and full-screen. English mono. English, French and Spanish subtitles. Junior Bonner: scholars' commentary. Wide-screen. English mono. English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Kinsey (Fox, 2004) D: Bill Condon, w/ Liam Neeson, Laura Linney. Rating: NNN
A biopic about a scholar collecting data and struggling for funding isn't an easy sell. But the scholar is pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and sex is all over this movie. It shapes the dialogue and imagery. It creates the link between Kinsey's personal and professional lives. It ensures humour, character development, education and pure prurient interest. But it never feels like exploitation and never gets in the way of a tight script and outstanding acting that keeps each scene moving and dramatic even when the film succumbs to the biopic's inherent flaw - that most lives aren't building toward a dramatic climax.
Liam Neeson's Kinsey is complex: warm, cold, sensitive, oblivious, poised and terribly gauche. It's an outstanding performance. But he's matched by Laura Linney as his freethinking wife. She has less to work with and seems to be doing less, but she's crafted a character who could easily carry a movie on her own.
A very good feature-length making-of doc and extensive other extras offer more of the real Kinsey's work and re-argue the movie's point. It's a point worth underlining, even at the risk of a little preachiness.
EXTRAS Disc one: director commentary. Wide-screen. English 5.1, French, Spanish surround-sound. English, French and Spanish subtitles. Disc two: making-of, deleted scenes, gag reel, Kinsey Institute display, trailers, interactive sex quiz.
The Sea Inside (Alliance Atlantis, 2004) D: Alejandro Amenábar, w/ Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda. Rating: NNN
conventionally handsome visuals and conventionally solid acting and script make this at first look like a traditional weepie. But one twist changes everything: the happy ending we're rooting for is death, not love. Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardém), rendered quadriplegic in his 20s, has been trying to die for 28 years. But he can't do it alone. He's lined up a lawyer and a death-with-dignity organization, but he can't find anyone to actually do the deed.
Director Alejandro Amenábar keeps this from being dreary through fluid camera work and pacing and by focusing on emotions more than issues. Bardém does a masterful job of making us accept the bitter yet likeable Sampedro's decision to die. No mean feat when all he can do is lie still and talk. The other players, especially Belén Rueda as his lawyer and love interest, are equally skilled.
The film is on Sampedro's side all the way, and in his subtitled commentary Amenábar points out that all his films have been about death in one way or another. Yet there is no feeling of morbidity here, and in the end, no concession to easy sentimentalism. Under its soft, weepie surface, there's an unflinching, strong movie.
EXTRAS Director commentary, making-of, deleted scenes, storyboard, photo and set design galleries, trailer. Wide-screen. Spanish 5.1, French 2.0. English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Charisma (HVE/Morningstar, 1999) D: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, w/ Koji Yakusho. Rating: NNN
Compare the Japanese Ringu and the American remake, The Ring, and you'll notice that much of the effectiveness of Japanese horror lies in its refusal to explain. In 1997's Cure, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa pushed that approach so far that he left viewers baffled - some happily so, some not. He's done it again in Charisma, the tale of a disgraced detective who retreats to the wilderness only to confront a sinister and awe-inspiring tree and the people battling to either destroy or preserve it.
It's a mix of genres built around a clear environmentalist theme. But among the cops, comedy and action, it's the horror that seems strongest, a quiet horror that makes a nice change from the usual CGIdiocy.
Extras Director interview, making-of, trailer. Wide-screen. Japanese and English subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, May 24
The Aviator Two-disc special edition of Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic.
The Detective (Fox, 1968) Solid character-driven thriller featuring one of Frank Sinatra's best performances.
The Phantom Of Liberty (Criterion, 1974) Late-career comedy by leading surrealist master Luis Buñuel.
The Day After Tomorrow (Fox, 2004) Enviro disaster comes to the small screen.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb