The Wizard Of Oz
Three-disc collector's edition (MGM, 1939) D: Victor Fleming, w/ Judy Garland, Bert Lahr. Rating: NNNNN
That five-N rating comes without a single article of baggage. I'm not one of those people who fetishize Oz because they grew up watching it every year on TV. In fact, I'd never seen it until this week. Everybody has gaps in their education. That's one of mine, now happily filled. Very happily, because despite a couple of shaky effects and some slightly overblown performance moments more suited to stage than screen, the film is a pure delight.
The picture made Judy Garland a star, and she makes the film with an unpolished but totally sincere performance that reaches its highest moment when she sings Over The Rainbow. It's short, simple to the point of being stark, and devastating in its low-key, unforced emotion.
Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr and Margaret Hamilton are brilliant as the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Wicked Witch. Bolger's comic dancing defies gravity. He seems in perpetual free fall, totally off-balance, even as he executes invisibly slick counter-moves. Lahr's line delivery, with its improbable stretches and sudden snaps, is hilarious and somehow matches his dead-on kitten impersonation. Hamilton is pure malevolence with a wicked cackle. Simply perfect.
Among the numerous other joys, the tornado stands out as a scary marvel. But the matte paintings take pride of place: they're beautiful, unique and seamlessly integrated into the action. More than that, they set the tone that makes the rest of it work.
The two discs of extras spare no effort to give us the detailed anatomy of everything from the composition and performance of Over The Rainbow to the remarkable restoration that creates a clearer Oz than ever before. Thanks to archival footage, the performers are all over the extras and commentary, though Garland's contribution is disappointingly small.
Deleted scenes give us much more of Bolger's dancing. Only the persistent rumour of Munchkin orgies is left unaddressed. There are hints and indirect references, but nothing definitive. On the other hand, nobody directly denies it. And they would if it weren't true, wouldn't they?
Disc three is devoted to L. Frank Baum, creator of Oz and, along with a decent half-hour biography, contains real treasures: four silent Oz films, some made by Baum himself, from 1910 to a 1925 version with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodsman. All of them are remarkably consistent with the Garland version and valuable glimpses into the silent era.
Extras: Disc 1: commentary with historian and archival clips, optional music-and-effects soundtrack, optional original mono soundtrack, storybook with original illustrations, restoration doc, thumbnail performer bios. Theatrical ratio. English, French soundtrack. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Disc 2: four making-of docs, historical impact doc, composer Harold Arlen's home movies, outtakes and deleted scenes, Chuck Jones animated Oz segments (1967), historical shorts, tornado test footage, 1950 radio Wizard Of Oz starring Judy Garland, other radio programs, stills galleries. Full frame.
Disc 3: L. Frank Baum biography, The Wizard Of Oz (1910), The Magic Cloak Of Oz (1914), His Majesty The Scarecrow Of Oz (1914), The Wizard Of Oz (1925). Full frame.
(Fox, 2004) D: Danny Boyle, w/ Alexander Nathan Etel, Lewis Owen McGibbon. Rating: NNN
Gentle satire with a sentimental, spiritual bent isn't quite what you'd expect from the director of Trainspotting (1996) and 28 Days Later (2002). But Danny Boyle uses his trademark dark humour and visual flourishes to keep everything lively and almost sugar-free. A large bag of stolen cash falls on a small boy who talks to saints. He wants to give it to the poor, but his older brother wants to spend it. The thief wants it back. Both boys are grieving for their dead mother, though they're not above using that to get treats and favours.
Liberal use of animation, fast cutting and odd angles carry us easily through the opening act. But it's not pointless flash. Boyle's ability to see beauty in things like bicycling constables serves to set us up for a world where maybe saints do visit small Manchester boys.
Young Damian, played with unself-conscious sincerity by eight-year-old newcomer Alexander Etel, isn't certain himself whether he's hallucinating or not. Either way, his moral certainty sustains him in the face of everyone else's ambiguities and lets Boyle poke gentle fun at our love of money.
Extras: Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce commentary, making-of docs, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, Spanish soundtrack. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Melinda And Melinda
(Fox, 2004) D: Woody Allen, w/ Radha Mitchell, Wallace Shawn. Rating: NN
This comes without extras, which is really a shame, because about 30 minutes into it, what you really want to know is "What was he thinking?" The idea, stated upfront by a couple of playwrights arguing in a restaurant, seems sensible: take one story and write it as both a tragedy and a comedy. But it's not really the same story, it's just the same premise: a woman arrives unexpectedly at a dinner party, moves in with the hosts and catalyzes their marital collapse.
There's not much difference between the two versions. The comedy features a bit more neurotic babble; the tragedy leans toward mawkish self-revelation. But mostly the two scenarios play the same, namely as standard-brand Woody Allen naturalistic drama.
Worse, the stories alternate scene by scene, forcing you to reorient yourself every five minutes or so and pretty much stomping all over any empathy you may be trying to feel. Comedy can be enjoyed coldly (though it helps if it's actually funny), but tragedy needs your emotional investment.
The reward in all this lies mostly in watching Allen, as writer, manipulate the same elements to create two different stories. A major point in one becomes a minor detail relating to a different character in the other. Fascinating if you're into story construction, nothing special if you're not.
Extras: Wide-screen and full-screen versions. English, French, Spanish soundtracks. English, Spanish subtitles.
House Of Wax
(WB, 2005) D: Jaume Collet-Serra, w/ Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray. Rating: NN
There's a whole generation for whom the phrase "We'll always have Paris" means Paris Hilton and not Bogart and Bergman in Casasblanca. The damn woman simply will not go away. But now you can make her go away. Just cue your DVD to scene 22, 71 minutes in, and watch Hilton get it in the head from a masked psycho hurling a jagged piece of pipe. You can watch her die again and again in your twisted revenge fantasy on the culture that made this untalented woman a celebrity. Of course, only a sadistic lunatic would suggest such a course. Not a responsible journalist like me. So don't do that. Really.
The rest of the movie is paint-by-numbers psycho slasher meets snotty teens. The best thing in it by far is the set.
Extras: B-roll and bloopers cast commentary, making-of docs, gag reel, bloopers, alternate opening. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish soundtrack. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, November 8
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory
(WB, 2005) Two-disc deluxe edition of the theatrical hit with Johnny Depp.
The White Hell Of Pitz Palu
(Kino, 1929) Before she became Adolf Hitler's favourite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl was a movie star. This is one of her best.
(Criterion, 1953) Japanese classic about two peasants who set out to make their fortune in the midst of civil war.
(Columbia, 2004) Joan Allen in Sally Potter's drama about an illicit affair.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb