Spike Lee fails math

Despite all the flashy actors, 25th Hour doesn't add up


Rating: NNNNN


25th Hour (Touchstone, 2002) D: Spike Lee w/ Edward Norton, Bryan Cox. Rating: NNN

edward norton stars in 25th hour as a successful drug dealer who’s putting his affairs in order before heading off for a seven-year term in federal prison. Ignore the obvious logic flaw: if he only had a few hours, wouldn’t he spend them having sex with girlfriend Rosario Dawson? Or would he be out with his oldest friends drinking and worrying about being raped in prison?

Although 25th Hour wants to be a portrait of post-9/11 New York, it isn’t, despite the stunning credit sequence. It also attempts to be a generational portrait, with Norton as the guy who took the easy money, Barry Pepper as his buddy who became a Wall Street shark and Philip Seymour Hoffman as their droopy pal who became a teacher.

It’s not successful as narrative, and, as the Hughes brothers noted, Spike really needs to go to ending school, but it does give us an extravaganza of flashy young actors like Norton, Pepper and Hoffman, but also includes Anna Paquin and Brian Cox, who never met a piece of scenery he couldn’t chew, as Norton’s dad. Great scenes and performances, but it all adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Good transfer, strong extras.

DVD Extras Director commentary, a really interesting commentary by screenwriter/novelist David Benioff, The Glory Of Spike featurette (sorry, The Evolution Of An American Filmmaker featurette), French-language track, French and English subtitles.

Windtalkers: Director’s Edition (MGM, 2002) D: John Woo, w/ Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach. Three discs. Rating: NNN

Objective, Burma! (Warner Home Video, 1945) D: Raoul Walsh w/ Errol Flynn, George Tobias. Rating: NNNN

The Battle Of Britain (MGM, 1969) D: Guy Hamilton, w/ Christopher Plummer, Susannah York. Rating: NN

The Blue Max (Fox War Classics, 1966) D: John Guillermin w/ George Peppard. Rating: NNN

what’s with all the war movies? Fox has been reissuing a lot of its catalogue war films in bunches of five or six. The current flight includes James Mason’s superb performance as Rommel in The Desert Fox. Now MGM and Warner have joined in with a variety of films.MGM’s sortie seems completely indiscriminate (War Hunt? Mosquito Squadron?) while sneaking a classic into the mix – Robert Aldrich’s searing infantry drama, Attack! Warner is bringing out at least one classic title in Raoul Walsh’s Objective, Burma!. Anyone else have the sneaking suspicion that the movie companies were hoping for a more protracted conflict in the Gulf?

Let’s begin with the big one. For reasons known only to the suits, MGM felt we needed a three-disc SE for John Woo’s Windtalkers, an exquisitely made flop that failed commercially and critically. The wide-screen transfer is magnificent, better than in the bare-bones issue of the film late last year. Three commentaries, including one with Cage and Slater that has the benefit of being a little goofy, fill out disc one.

The second disc has barely 40 minutes of promotional material. The third consists of multi-angle examinations of some of the battle scenes, on-set featurettes – that sort of thing. If you’re really interested in Woo’s working methods on a gigantic budget, this is worth having. If you only want the best transfer of the movie, you’ll pay or wait for it to turn up in the second-hand shops.

The problem with the film itself is that Woo is a genre stylist, and he’s stuck with a “serious” story, the historical function of the Navajo “codetalkers” in the second world war. Which means that when stuff is blowing up Windtalkers is a great picture with monumental battle scenes, but when it starts dealing with racial prejudice it goes all solemn and dull.

In contrast, Raoul Walsh is a genre stylist working on completely contemporary material in Objective, Burma! and his country was in the middle of a war, so the patriotic tone of the film – a “lost patrol” movie about a company of American paratroopers commanded by Errol Flynn who get stuck behind enemy lines and have to walk out – feels tensely of the moment.

Walsh (High Sierra), like Anthony Mann, has a great feeling for the confrontations of men with difficult geography, and in the last 20 minutes of the film he creates an almost unbearable tension.

Objective, Burma! has most of the clichés of the WWII action drama, but it’s one of the movies that invented those clichés. Warner has done a very good transfer. There wasn’t much to be done with the stock footage, but the material Walsh shot has a strikingly documentary feel and looks good, though there’s a bit of obvious edge enhancement in a couple of shots. Two great extras, short wartime propaganda pieces done for the war department by Warner Brothers.

The Blue Max and The Battle Of Britain were the Top Guns of their day, the ultimate for connoisseurs of aerial combat footage. Coming back to them, I’m struck by how stodgy a film The Battle Of Britain is. It’s got every British actor who ever played a stiff-upper-lip officer, including Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson it’s got a troubled marriage (Plummer and York) and it’s got a lot of not terribly coherent aerial footage. Standards have changed.

What it lacks is an ounce of cinematic interest. Having been made 25 years after the fact, it’s dreadfully fair and intelligent, and the drama is drained by the fact that every situation derives from another war movie.

The Blue Max, set amid the seething class tensions of a company of German fighter pilots in the first world war, has no extras but a terrific transfer. If the performances are slices of heavily glazed ham (did George Peppard have an expression that didn’t look like it was about to become a smirk?), they sort of work in the context of the story. Great, great flying sequences and, though this may seem small praise, some of the best process shots I’ve ever seen. And the price is right – Fox’s War Classics series is priced to move at under $20.

Miller’s Crossing (20th Century Fox, 1990) D: Joel Coen, w/ Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney. Rating: NNNNN

Barton Fink (20th Century Fox, 1991) D: Joel Coen, w/ John Turturro, Judy Davis. Rating: NNNN

miller’s crossing has been on my want list since the day I got my DVD player, and now it’s arrived. Barton Fink is the last piece of the Coen brothers’ filmography to reach digital. These are not special editions or collector’s editions. There are no commentaries and the extras are pretty light, but the Coens tend to concentrate on their films, not their DVDs, and this pair catches them at a crucial moment in their development.

All their films up to and including Miller’s Crossing were shot by Barry Sonnenfeld, who became a director. All their films since Barton Fink have been shot by Roger Deakins, whose camera is less dynamic but whose visual palette is far more subtle.

This is also the start of the Coens as festival darlings. Miller’s Crossing opened the New York Film Festival, and Barton Fink won the Palme d’Or, best director and best actor at Cannes, a unique configuration that so upset the “every one is deserving” mindset of Cannes that the Barton Fink rule was instituted to prevent another film from so dominating the awards in the future.

Miller’s Crossing is a superbly structured re-imagining of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, with Byrne as the chief adviser to Albert Finney’s mobster, both of them in love with Marcia Gay Harden’s Verna.

Barton Fink is their most studiedly peculiar film, Polanski’s The Tenant as it might have been written by Nathaniel West. No accident that Polanski was jury president at Cannes that year.

Littered with flamboyant performances – Jon Polito’s rival Mob boss, J.E. Freeman as the lethal Eddie Dane, John Turturro’s vicious bookmaker in Miller’s Crossing John Mahoney’s drunken Southern screenwriter, Tony Shalhoub’s fast-talking studio executive in Barton Fink – these are enormously clever films, and highly entertaining, unless you belong to the critical school that believes “the Coens are too smart for their own good.” .

DVD EXTRAS Miller’s Crossing: cast interview clips, Barry Sonnenfeld featurette, trailers. Barton Fink: eight alternate scenes (the box says “deleted,” but versions of most of these survive in the film), stills gallery, trailers (the same trailers as on Miller’s Crossing). English-, French- and Spanish-language tracks, English and Spanish subtitles.

Also this week

THE PIANIST (Lions Gate) Roman Polanski’s triple Oscar winner (director, adapted screenplay, actor Adrien Brody) arrives in a three-disc Special Edition, the third being a soundtrack CD.

TALK TO HER (Columbia) Pedro Almodóvar won an Oscar for the original screenplay of this film about two men in love with women in comas.

THRONE OF BLOOD (Criterion/Morningstar) Akira Kurosawa’s samurai Macbeth, with Toshiro Mifune as the man whose wife wants him to be king.

HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET – COMPLETE SEASONS 1 & 2 (A&E) Shakycam heaven in the Barry Levinson/Tom Fontana series about cops in Baltimore. Four discs.

= Critics’ Pick

NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact

NNNN = very good

NNN = worth a peek

NN = Mediocre

N = Bomb

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