The Threepenny Opera
(Criterion, 1931) D: G.W. Pabst, w/ Rudolf Forster, Lotte Lenya. Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNNNN
Among the wonderful things about the Threepenny Opera is its continuing relevance. It's easy to read Mackie Messer, career criminal with upwardly mobile aspirations, as convicted felon Conrad Black, while his rival, Peachum, King of the Beggars, is as corporately cunning as any trans-national CEO you'd care to name.
Kurt Weill's music still stings, even through 1931 sound quality. Beside the original Moritat, Bobby Darin's Mack The Knife is purest pap. Lotte Lenya's rendition of The Cannon Song still chills the blood.
Sadly, less than half the music from Bertolt Brecht's original stage play is in the movie. But the movie is not exactly the stage show. Brecht turned in a heavy rewrite. The producers were annoyed. Lawsuits ensued. Criterion does it's usual fine job of detailing this in its extensive and well-researched extras.
Meanwhile, G.W. Pabst, who'd been directing since 1923, went ahead and, with moving camera, strange framing and moody lighting, converted a great play into a great movie while still retaining its studied artificiality.
Actually, two movies. The French version is here, too, shot by Pabst back to back, scene by scene, with the German film. The difference is incredible, partly because of the casting. Rudolf Forster's glowering Mackie blows Albert Préjean's lightweight pop singer off the screen.
Extras Disc one: German version, Brecht and Pabst scholars' commentary, Brecht vs. Pabst doc, 1956 intro. Full-frame, b&w. German audio. English subtitles. Critical essay. Disc two: French version, scholar's comparison of French and German versions, Fritz Rasp interview, Hans Casparius photos, production sketches. Full-frame, b&w. French audio. English subtitles.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2007) D: Mikael H&229:fström, w/ John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson. Rating: NNNN; DVD package: NN
The package for 1408 isn't worth $42.95 list (or $30.07 at amazon.ca).
Yes, it's got both versions of the movie. The director's cut, which the director himself refers to as "so- called" in his commentary, is eight minutes longer than the theatrical version and exactly that much better, simply because it's a good flick, so a bit more is welcome. But unless you're a fanatic Stephen King collector or a version hound, you don't need both.
The extras do little to justify the price either. The making-of docs do a decent job of pointing out the production strengths: acting, pratical special effects and production design, but the commentary is only so-so, thanks to a pair of smug writers, and the webisodes are merely ads for the film.
The movie itself is terrific. John Cusack is Mike Enslin, who writes about haunted houses but doesn't believe in ghosts. When he checks into the titular hotel room, all hell breaks loose. He spends a lot of time alone in front of the camera, creating a character all by himself and convincing us that he's terrified.
That's a tough job and a great showcase. Cusack brings it off without a hitch. Samuel Jackson likewise shines in a very restrained performance that takes the cliché right out of the hoary "Don't go in the house" speech.
A lot of time is spent in that one hotel room, and Mikael Håfström, who's been making scary movies in Sweden since 1989, has to do a lot with a little in terms of pacing, camera movement and composition. He handles it beautifully without resorting to the usual horror clichés.
What makes it more than empty technique is that the horror is about character. What happens to Enslin has to do with who he is. That gives the movie a deeper impact than the mere 70s-revival splatterfests currently filling screens.
Extras Disc one: theatrical cut, two trailers for the Web. Disc two: director's cut, director and writers commentary, four-part making-of doc, deleted scenes with optional director commentary. Both discs: wide-screen. English, French audio. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
The Prisoner: Or How I Planned To Kill Tony Blair
(Mongrel Media, 2006) D: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker. Rating: NNN; DVD package: n/a
The los straitjackets-style guitar theme and occasional comic-book-style illustrations suggest that we can expect some kind of absurdist humour in the story of a Baghdad journalist arrested by American forces in 2003 and sent to Abu Ghraib prison. But the only absurdism is the reason behind it all: the Americans thought he was part of a plot to blow up Tony Blair.
Yunis Khatayer Abbas finds it very funny now, but he delivers his account, illustrated with his home movies and clips that appear to be U.S. military or journalistic footage of his arrest, in a flat, unsensationalistic style. That's appropriate to the ordinary indifference and abuse he was subjected to before being let go with an apology.
Fantastic 4: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
(Fox, 2007) D: Tim Story, w/ Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba. Rating: NN; DVD package: NNN
Every so often, a schlock movie pulls off a moment of genuine beauty, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the musical kids in School Of Rock. The Silver Surfer is one of those. Check out the scene where he sticks his head through Sue Storm's force field, or his final battle. The Surfer is an impossibly graceful figure who, for just those moments, brings a real sense of wonder to the movie.
All hail the physical acting of Doug Jones, the voice of Laurence Fishburne and the CG talents who created the image. A big hand, too, to the folks who put together the comic book history of the Silver Surfer, a detailed look at a very interesting character.
The rest of the movie suffers by comparison, and it's not much to begin with. Chris Evans is having fun as Johnny Storm, self-centred hipster; likewise Julian McMahon as Doctor Doom, self-centred evil genius. The rest of the cast is hopelessly unconvincing. Jessica Alba, in particular, seems able to move only one facial muscle at a time.
The story takes far too long to get started and is preposterous anyway. Not because there's anything inherently silly about the imminent arrival of a planet-devouring demi-god from outer space, but because the Fantastic Four themselves are lifeless characters with laughable powers, so everything about them seems hopelessly contrived.
How hard everybody worked to make those contrivances appear logical is evident in director Tim Story's commentary. They really agonized over this gibberish. The producer and writer's commentary opens a window on how filmmaking by committee works, and suggests things about failed shots and unworkable ideas. So, overall, the extras add up to an interesting portrait of a dud movie.
Extras Disc one: director commentary; producer, writer, editor commentary. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish audio. English, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: two-part production journal, interactive FantasticCar feature, FantasticCar, Silver Surfer production and comic book history , character design, music docs. Wide-screen.
Coming Tuesday, October 9
28 Weeks Later (Fox, 2007)
High-energy sequel sees homicidal plague victims on the loose in a depopulated London.
Sid And Nancy (MGM, 1986)
Alex Cox's punk love story, with Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb.
Stargate SG-1: The Complete Series (MGM, 1997)
All 10 seasons of the acclaimed series.
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (Image, 1923)
Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in a lavish version of the classic tale.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb