The Band Wagon (WB, 1953) D: Vincente Minnelli, w/ Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse. Rating: NNNNN
This may be the best hollywood musical ever made. It's fast, witty, sophisticated and packed with terrific songs and dance numbers so beautifully arranged and choreographed that nothing feels dated. Every detail in the film flows like music, and the new digital transfer makes it look fresh from the lab. The wafer-thin story - the show's in trouble and the stars detest each other - is an excuse for the numbers, and they're classics. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse are pure romantic poetry in Dancing In The Dark, and the private-eye jazz ballet, The Girl Hunt, is 10 minutes of non-stop brilliant invention.
The making-of doc and Liza Minnelli's giddy-with-delight contributions to the commentary track add richness. She's adept at pointing out illuminating details, not only in the music and dance, which you'd expect, but also in the colour, lighting, costume and camera work. The doc adds more detail and nicely shows how the onscreen froth emerged from a genuine sense of joy despite the harsher reality of its production.
Extras Disc one: Liza Minnelli and Michael Feinstein commentary, Astaire trailer gallery. Disc two: making-of doc, Vincente Minnelli career doc, musical short. English 5.1 and original mono sound. English, Spanish and French subtitles.
Alfie (Paramount, 2004) D: Charles Shyer, w/ Jude Law, Marisa Tomei. Rating: NNN
It doesn't take much to turn a great movie into an OK one, and in this remake of the 60s classic, producer/director/writer Charles Shyer and producer/co-writer Elaine Pope tell you exactly how they did it. The original Alfie was about a cockney lothario who gets a taste of suffering and, bit by bit, begins to think life has meaning beyond getting laid. It was an international hit and made an international star of the then unknown Michael Caine for three reasons: it was about sex in an era when not many movies were; it brought its character hard up against some tough realities; and Michael Caine underplayed the part, doing as little to sell himself to the audience as his Alfie did to sell himself to the women he bedded.
Jude Law's Alfie is trying too hard from frame one, and it works against him. He comes off at first as a manipulative little con man who may be psychopathic. Sympathy creeps in when he starts hitting the reversals, but never fully takes hold.
He also never shuts up, constantly addressing the camera directly or in voice-over. Shyer and Pope are proud of this, telling us in their commentary that they somehow have more freedom to do this than was possible in the 60s. Nonsense. Addressing the camera goes back at least to 1932's Horse Feathers.
Shyer and Pope flee from freedom when it comes to Alfie's hard knocks. They skip the scene, prominent in the original, where Alfie is confronted with an illicitly aborted fetus. They ditch the original Alfie's casual cruelty toward women and soften his confrontation with his own mortality - in the original a tuberculosis scare, here a lump on his penis (cancer is never mentioned) that he thinks is worse than death.
What's left are lots of funny lines and the women. Marisa Tomei, Nia Long, Jane Krakowski and Susan Sarandon all have good, long scenes and make the most of them, virtually turning Law into a supporting player. There's also a good Dave Stewart/Mick Jagger score that's nicely explored in the extras section and that adds to the gratuitous-but-fun faux 60s style.
Watch both versions and compare for yourself. It's good film school in a box.
Extras Shyer, Pope commentary; Shyer, editor Padraic McKinley commentary; making-of docs; deleted scenes; script, production and storyboard galleries; trailer. Wide-screen. English 5.1 and 2.0, French 5.1. English and Spanish subtitles.
Dead Birds (Sony, 2004) D: Alex Turner, w/ Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit. Rating: NNN
It takes work and imagination to turn potential schlock into an engaging horror movie, and first-time director Alex Turner did it on a skimpy $1.8 million budget and a skimpier 21-day shooting schedule. Check out the commentary and he'll tell you how. A group of bank robbers hiding in an isolated house are beset by demons trying to break through from the world beyond. It sounds like an Evil Dead rip-off, but the robbers are Confederate soldiers and the scene is 1863 Alabama.
That changes everything. We lose the stock teen characters, stock reactions, stock dialogue, stock rock and/or rap score and stock overwrought acting by inexperienced actors.
These characters aren't prone to screaming, which radically alters the horror movie dynamic. Among the restrained performances by experienced players, Mark Boone Jr.'s is a standout. The very good atmosphere is created purely from camera and sound work. (Turner's commentary is very detailed about the importance of sound, right down to the value of room tone.)
Half the picture is slow buildup. Turner claims he was going for old-style horror, and mostly he gets it, but his buildup's a bit too long and the characters slightly underwritten. The nasty bits work in context, but don't expect outstanding effects.
Extras Director commentary; director, cast, writer, composer commentary; making-of doc; deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English 5.1, French 2.0. Chinese, English, French, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai subtitles.
Call Northside 777 (Fox, 1948) D: Henry Hathaway, w/ James Stewart, Richard Conte. Rating: NNN
This isn't not necessarily a movie for everybody, but it's a key transition film for anyone interested in star James Stewart and the thriller genre. Stewart, who wanted to discard his boyish image after the commercial flop of It's A Wonderful Life, found an ideal role in the cynical reporter reluctantly working to undo a wrongful murder conviction. At the same time, the thriller was moving away from back-lot gangsters and private eyes and onto real locations with more realistic stories.
You can still see traces of the boyish Stewart and his older acting style. But he's moving surely toward his mature performances in 50s films like Vertigo, helped along by a very naturalistic cast.
In the same way, the film mixes studio scenes full of shadowy expressionism with naturally lit location work and actual documentary footage. The mix isn't entirely successful, especially when Stewart comes to believe in the convict's innocence and starts making impassioned speeches, but it's interesting and points the way forward.
The historical commentary fills all this in very well, and, a nice bonus, takes pains to point out where the movie strays from its factual origins.
Extras Critical commentary, newsreel, theatrical trailer. B&w. English stereo and mono sound, French mono. English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, March 22
The Final Cut (Lions Gate, 2004) Odd, dark science fiction with Robin Williams and Mira Sorvino.
Mango Yellow (First Run, 2002) A lively Brazilian comedy-drama on the varieties of love, from religious fervour to necrophilia.
Kojak, Season One (Universal, 1973-74) With the Ving Rhames version due this year, it might be fun to recall the original chrome-dome sleuth.
Electra Glide In Blue (MGM, 1973) Interesting time to release a movie starring Robert Blake as a cop losing his ideals.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb