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BY John Lilly
Empire Strikes Back: PICK
The Jedi: PICK
sci-fi combat sequences; some scary and menacing images. A few mildly risqué
images in Return of the Jedi. All three could be too intense for young
Two weeks ago, the Lord of the Rings trilogy came to DVD in
new multi-edition sets offering each film in its original theatrical cut and
the special extended cut. Now, from Sept. 12 to Dec. 31, the original Star Wars trilogy is available in a
multi-edition release offering not only the revisionist, much tinkered-with
“special editions,” but also the long-suppressed original theatrical versions.
For Star Wars fans who’ve complained
about the revisionism of the special editions, this seems a dream come true.
No more Greedo
shooting first at Han Solo in the Mos Eisley cantina in Star
Wars, a lame bit of whitewashing that looked silly and made no sense. No
more dubbed Boba Fett
speaking in Jango Fett’s
voice in The Empire Strikes Back. No
more Hayden Christensen as young Anakin appearing to Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi — now once again
Sebastian Shaw’s dignified old Anakin gives the scene the gravitas it should
Ah, but there are catches. The
fact is, Lucas resents these original editions and didn’t want them released at
all. Illegal bootleg editions are popular, though, and Lucas has compromised —
up to a point. Unlike most DVD editions of older films, the Star Wars films haven’t gotten a
brand-new restoration and digital transfer. Instead, Lucas simply slapped a
13-year-old transfer originally made for a 1993 laserdisc edition onto DVD.
This means that the original editions aren’t anamorphic — they won’t work right
on widescreen televisions — and visually they won’t be up to today’s standards
for DVD quality. As an added disincentive, you still have to buy the special
editions along with the original versions.
Lucas has pontificated about the
importance of “our national heritage,” expressing concern that “the films that
I watched when I was young and the films that I watched throughout my life are
preserved, so that my children can see them.” Why has he treated the “heritage”
of his own films — in the version that many of us saw in theaters when we were
young — so shabbily? In spite of the allure of the original editions, these new
releases probably aren’t worth paying retail prices. Rent them instead, enjoy
the original cuts and hope for a worthy restored DVD release in the future.
Still, in any edition or version,
the original Star Wars films remain
an important landmark in American culture and are very much worth watching, if
not necessarily owning in every possible permutation. Along with Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.,
Star Wars helped turn Hollywood away from the
jaded, gritty sophistication of the Easy
Rider generation back to old-fashioned good-vs.-evil storytelling.
As The Wizard of Oz is the quintessential American fairy tale, Star Wars is the quintessential American
mythology. It’s a Hollywood take on King Arthur and Tolkien,
dressed in Buck Rogers space-opera trappings and
festooned with nostalgic Hollywood influences:
serial-adventure swashbuckling, WWII movie dogfights, movie-Nazi villains,
gave us one of the screen’s most indelible icons of evil, Darth Vader. It also
gave us space-age chivalry, knights and swordsmanship combined with laser
In a mythic genre in which female
characters are too often passive prizes to be won or rescued, it gave us one of
the genre’s spunkiest heroines. And in the Force, it gave us a potent symbol of
mystery and transcendence over the anti-religious Imperial culture and the
cynical skepticism of Han Solo.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005): PICK
THE GREAT RAID: PICK
MUPPET MOVIES: KERMIT'S 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITIONS: PICK
CONTENT ADVISORY: The Exorcism of Emily Rose contains intense disturbing phenomena and imagery. The Great Raid contains intense war violence, including torture and execution, and objectionable language, including profanity, crass language and sexual references. Both films are mature viewing. The Muppet movies are generally fine family viewing.
Do the voices whispering in someone's head come from his own subconscious, or from somewhere else? Does a patient's aversion to religious objects point to satanic influence, or is it merely obsessive-compulsive behavior with a religious bent? Writer-director Scott Derrickson raises questions rather than supplying answers. Inspired by a true story of Anneliese Michel, a Bavarian girl who died in the 1970s after almost a year of exorcism, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a study in opposing worldviews. It doesn't so much affirm the existence of God or the devil as insist on the importance of the question whether God (and the devil) exist.
This confrontation of worldviews takes the form of a courtroom drama structured around the trial of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), who administered the failed exorcism. The drama of the philosophical divide is heightened by the juxtaposition of a reluctant, skeptical defense attorney and a determined, churchgoing prosecutor. The courtroom drama offers some good moments and Emily's story, though limited to flashbacks, is genuinely chilling. The film is aided by effective performances from most of the principals. Unfortunately, it also makes some mistakes, such as reducing the DA to a one-note jerk.
Emily Rose is a worthwhile story for the issues it explores, though I find it ultimately tragic rather than inspiring. The exorcism failed. The girl died. The priest was indicted. Perhaps there is a moral triumph here somewhere, but it doesn't help me. Alas, life is like that sometimes.
Also based on a true story — and perhaps a more unambiguously inspiring one — John Dahl's unabashedly patriotic war movie The Great Raid celebrates the story of one of the most successful rescue missions of all time. Late in World War II, the Japanese war ministry issued a “kill all” policy for prisoners in POW camps, intending to eradicate evidence of atrocities before the arrival of Allied forces in the Philippines. This directive was tragically carried out on the 150 Allied POWs in the Palawan camp, who were doused in gasoline and burned alive.
However, things went differently for the more than 500 prisoners in the Cabanatuan camp near Manila, where, in January 1945, a small force of Rangers and Alamo scouts, together with Filipino resistance fighters, went 30 miles behind Japanese lines to attack the camp and rescue the prisoners. To call the raid a brilliant success would be an understatement. The film tells the story of the raid more or less as it actually happened, in a low-key style that's as much a throwback to the WWII films of the 1940s as a tribute to the soldiers it honors.
The screenplay makes some pedestrian choices — a clichéd love affair does little credit to the real-life heroism of an American war widow who helped smuggle medicine and information to Allied POWs — but unshowy performances feel true to the businesslike heroism of Greatest Generation warriors.
Finally, in honor of 50 years of Kermit the Frog, new DVD editions of four of the best Muppet movies — The Muppet Movie and sequels The Great Muppet Caper, Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppet Christmas Carol — are worth picking up. (Avoid inferior recent Muppet sequels, including A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.)
BY Steven D. Greydanus
THE ISLAND: PASS
THE KING KONG COLLECTION: KING KONG: PICK (1933). SON OF KONG (1933), MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)
CONTENT ADVISORY: The Island contains much strong action violence, some profane, obscene and crude language, fleeting pin-up images, a disturbing childbirth scene, an on-screen sexual encounter, a couple of toilet scenes (all non-explicit), and a couple of theologically confused remarks. Mature viewing only, if at all. King Kong contains some relatively strong violence, numerous fatalities and ethnographic stereotyping. Could be too much for younger kids. Son of Kong contains stylized violence and Mighty Joe Young contains stylized violence and drunkenness. Both Kong sequels are decent family viewing.
A sci-fi parable about human cloning, The Island is the first from Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys) in which ideas actually sort of matter. Even better, its ideas regarding clone-and-kill technology and human dignity are more or less in the right direction. Any film that depicts a sinister biotech company officially denying that the products of its human cloning technology (created to provide custom-tailored donor organs) are sentient beings when in fact it is murdering cloned humans while the wealthy and powerful look the other way is a film I can't entirely pan.
Unfortunately, The Island is also a typically over-the-top Baysian schlockfest with exploitative violence and trashy sexuality. Besides a PG-13 sex scene, there's a gratuitous go-go bar shot, a sleazy character (Steve Buscemi) into whose sex life the film goes way further than necessary, and yet another tiresome variation of the exhausted “comic” scenario in which two quarreling male characters are mistaken by bystanders for gay lovers. There's also lots of smashing of heads and faces with crowbars and so forth, a hand transfixed to a door by a nail gun, people shot with harpoon guns, massive loss of life and property damage, etc.
In short, it's a classic example of what happens when a decent story idea is sabotaged by the predictably offensive accessorizing directors employ when they want a film to be seen as “edgy.”
Meanwhile, here it is at last on DVD, just in time to tie in to Peter Jackson's latest December three-hour special-effects extravaganza: The King Kong Collection, featuring the original King Kong, cheapie sequel Son of Kong and the later Mighty Joe Young, all from the same creative team.
Of these, the original and still the best is the 1933 King Kong, the father of all cinematic giant monster movies — from Godzilla and his Japanese ilk, to Hollywood's 1950s’ giant bug movies like Them! and Tarantula, to more recent features like Aliens and Jurassic Park.
Of all his non-gorilla progeny, though, only Kong emerges as an expressive, evocative character capable of tragedy and pathos as well as ferocity. Although Godzilla was a hero in some of his films, no actor in a rubber suit could convey the range of feeling and emotion of Willis O’Brien's 18-inch model. Made only half a dozen years into the sound era, King Kong still has something of the unearthly magic of the silent era about it.
Rushed into production in the wake of King Kong's success, Son of Kong is a less ambitious sequel, oddly made on the cheap compared to the original, that relies more on comedy and human characters than drama or spectacle in a story about the pale-hued Kong Jr. Sixteen years later, the filmmakers went back to the well for Mighty Joe Young.
The apes, and the pictures, got smaller with each film, but they all have heart.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
THE NINTH DAY: PICK
CINDERELLA MAN: PICK
FANTASTIC FOUR: PASS
CONTENT ADVISORY: The Ninth Day is subtitled, and contains horrific but restrained depictions of concentration-camp atrocities, some crude language and mixed perspectives on the role of Pius XII during WWII. It might be suitable for mature teens. Cinderella Man contains much brutal pugilism violence, recurring profanity, mild sensuality, and a couple of sleazy taunts. It, too, might be suitable for mature teens. Fantastic Four contains stylized violence, some sexually themed humor and innuendo, and at least one instance of profanity. Tolerable for teens and up.
One of the best films of the year, Volker Schlondorff's The Ninth Day, new this week on DVD, is a haunting moral drama inspired by the Dachau concentration camp diary of a Catholic priest who was strangely given a nine-day reprieve from imprisonment. Not a rah-rah apologetic for the role of Catholic leaders during WWII, if that would even be appropriate, the film dares to dig beyond rote charges and counter-arguments regarding ecclesiastical complicity with Nazism to explore various levels of resistance and protest — and their consequences.
The film pits wary, weary Abbé Kremer (Ulrich Matthes) against fresh-faced Nazi officer Gebhardt (August Diehl) in a battle not of wits but of moral strength. Their cautious interactions, which could easily have degenerated into mere philosophical chess matches, are saved from doing so solely by Kremer's refusal to play by Gebhardt's rules.
Another Dachau survivor, Viktor Frankl, went on to argue in Man's Search for Meaning that man's most basic drive is not for pleasure, as Freud thought, but significance. The concentration camps, Frankl felt, showcased humanity at its worst and most depraved, but also at its purest and most profoundly human. Few films illustrate Frankl's thesis as profoundly as The Ninth Day.
Another edifying new DVD release based on a true story, Ron Howard's Cinderella Man celebrates the rags-to-riches life of Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe). Refreshingly, unlike the stereotyped movie boxer, a morally checkered, socially alienated single man with a history of extracurricular violence and troubling relationship issues (Rocky, Raging Bull, The Boxer), Braddock is a wholly decent, self-controlled, devoted family man. He's not only Cinderella, he's Prince Charming, too.
It's too bad the film can't celebrate Braddock's virtues without demonizing his final opponent, heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko), as a scowling, swaggering creep who provokes Braddock before and during the fight with indecent taunts involving his wife. Even so, this is one Cinderella story that goes the distance without turning into a pumpkin, and earns its happily-ever-after ending.
How bad is Fantastic Four, also new on DVD? So bad, execs have resorted to spinning it as a “funny family action film.” It's the Kangaroo Jack strategy: When your dumb, trashy film isn't good enough for teens and adults, reposition it as a kiddie flick. Our kids deserve better than Hollywood's garbage. Despite reaction shots from Dalmatians and whipped-cream-in-the-face gags, Fantastic Four is no more appropriate for youngsters than the dark, scary Batman Begins. The relentlessly one-note portrayal of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, as a randy, insufferably egocentric tomcat and glory hound makes sure of that.
If none of the other characters is quite as insufferable as the Torch, none is much more interesting, either. Even Dr. Doom, on the printed page a towering Vader-esque iconic figure in cape and armor, is here reduced to a younger, duller Donald Trump, with ill-defined super powers. Had the filmmakers deliberately set out to insult, demean and trample upon Lee and Kirby's legacy, they could hardly have done a more efficient job.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
THE HAROLD LLOYD COMEDY COLLECTION: PICK
MARCH OF THE PENGUINS: PICK
SKY HIGH: PICK
For fans of silent comedy, it's the DVD event of the decade: Harold Lloyd, the “Third Genius” of silent comedy (Chaplin and Keaton being the other two), until now almost totally unavailable on DVD, at last enters the modern home-video age in grand style with The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection. The three-volume, six-disc set (with a bonus disc available with the full set) features all the comedian's greatest and best-known films, and then some.
Finally, movie buffs who know Lloyd only from the famous image of the bespectacled star dangling perilously from the hands of a giant clock 12 stories above the streets of Los Angeles can enjoy Lloyd's entire nerve-wracking skyscraper climb in Safety Last!, found in Volume 1. Volume 2 features two of Lloyd's best films, college football spoof The Freshman and Lloyd's all-time masterpiece, The Kid Brother, a frontier thrill comedy with Lloyd pitted against his loutish older brothers, a bullying neighbor, and medicine-show hucksters. Volume 3 includes Speedy, Lloyd's last silent masterpiece, shot in various New York City locations and featuring a spectacular trolley-car chase scene and a cameo by Babe Ruth.
Lloyd's films make wonderful family viewing. Last night I watched Safety Last! with my three older kids, and they laughed hysterically throughout. They're also great fans of The Kid Brother, and enjoyed Grandma's Boy and a number of shorts available in a previous DVD edition. I'm looking forward to introducing them to Speedy, The Freshman and others in coming weeks.
New on DVD this week, March of the Penguins was the surprise hit of the summer, another French nature documentary in the tradition of — though not quite the same league as — Winged Migration, Microcosmos and Atlantis. Narrated by the ubiquitous Morgan Freeman, the crowd-pleasing film documents a year in the love life of emperor penguins. This involves a laborious cross-country trek, grueling endurance and a delicately timed sharing of incubation and chick-rearing duties in which any mistake can mean death.
Though frank about the harsh realities of penguin life (eggs roll onto the ice and freeze, chicks die, and a mother bird is eaten by a hungry seal), the film is a rewarding portrait of the tenacity of life in even the harshest conditions.
Also new this week is Disney's Sky High. Set in an airborne high school for the children of superheroes, the story blends two genres. It takes the now-familiar family-film premise of otherwise ordinary families inhabiting a world of colorful comic-book adventure (The Incredibles, Spy Kids) and weds it to the venerable clichés of the John Hughes-style high-school coming of age films today's parents grew up with.
It's hardly inspired, but it's competent, wholly inoffensive and mildly entertaining throughout. The fusion of the two sets of conventions manages to hold together for an hour and a half or so, and the film knows better than to outstay its welcome. Measured against the summer's other family fare, Sky High, starring Kurt Russell, registers somewhere between the superior March of the Penguins and the lackluster Herbie: Fully Loaded; it's neither as visionary nor as maddening as Tim Burton's schizophrenic, inspired/self-indulgent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
CONTENT ADVISORY: This week's picks are all generally fine family viewing. Slapstick, action violence and mild menace are common in the films of The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, and occasionally a particular film may be less suitable for children than others. The March of the Penguins contains documentary frankness about the harsh realities of penguin life, and Sky High contains recurring stylized menace and romantic complications.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
WAR OF THER WORLDS: PASS
THE POLAR EXPRESS: PASS
Who would dare to remake a film from the Master of Suspense? Seven years ago Gus Van Sant drew jeers for his shot-for-shot recreation of Hitchcock's Psycho. Now a young Catholic filmmaker named Jonathan Meyers makes his writing-directing debut with Confession, a loose, direct-to-DVD remake of I Confess, a wrong-man crime drama about a priest suspected of murder who is prevented from implicating the real killer by the seal of confession.
Reverent, smartly directed and well acted by a respectable cast, Confession's weakness is also its promotional gimmick: Meyers directed the film at 24, but wrote the screenplay 10 years earlier as a freshman in a Catholic boarding school.
Unsurprisingly, the screenplay makes all the mistakes you would expect from a 14-year-old. The characters are flat and act out of character or make implausible decisions as required. The priest's dilemma is undermined by inconsistent treatment of what he can or can't reveal about the confessions he heard. Most seriously, the killer rather than the priest has become the protagonist, undermining the wrong-man dilemma central to the original film.
That said, as a collaboration across time between Meyers the 24-year-old director and Meyers the 14-year-old high-school freshman, Confession is an intriguing record of the development of a promising talent. Catholics interested in positive portrayals of the Church in film may find it worth their while.
Confession isn't this week's only DVD release of a loose 2005 remake that weakens the logic of the classic film it's based on. Hollywood giant Steven Spielberg does the same on a vastly huger scale in War of the Worlds, an alien-invasion story that finds the aliens coming a lot farther, working a lot harder and being a lot better prepared than their counterparts from the 1953 film and the H.G. Wells original story — all of which makes their downfall less plausible.
Like James Cameron's Titanic, War of the Worlds highlights the ugly side of human nature under pressure, largely ignoring man's capacity for heroism. Nor is there any room in this relentless story for any spiritual searching or reflection. Spielberg's efficient, assured direction makes for consistently gripping, even riveting excitement. Yet it's grim, joyless excitement, not satisfying in the end.
Like current theatrical release Zathura and 1995 hit Jumanji, Robert Zemekis’ computer-animated The Polar Express is based on the work of writer-illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Like all Van Allsburg's books, The Polar Express is long on imagination and imagery, but short on plot and characterization. The film version, too, is long on eye candy but short on heart and wonder. Santa's home is neither magical nor picturesque, only a quaint European-style city with cobblestone streets and canned Christmas muzak. (Alas, even at the North Pole, where everyone celebrates Christmas, only “inoffensive” secular tunes are allowed.)
The sentiment is at the level of a Hallmark card. It probably won't do youngsters any great harm, but platitudes like, “It doesn't matter where the train is going; the important thing is to get on board” and, “The meaning of Christmas is in your heart” aren't lessons I care to reinforce for my children.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Confession contains brief murderous violence and gunplay and brief objectionable language, and is fine for teens and up. War of the Worlds contains intense sci-fi mayhem and carnage, violence and menace, an offscreen killing, and some profanity and crude language, and is mature viewing. The Polar Express contains mild action peril and brief unnerving imagery, and is okay for kids.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
THE SOUND OF MUSIC 40TH ANN. EDITION: PICK
OKLAHOMA! — 50TH ANN. EDITION: PICK
OLD YELLER/SAVAGE SAM: PASS
Three old classics are new again on DVD racks in a week of tepid new releases. Spectacular new anniversary editions of the two best cinematic Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, make previous editions obsolete. Classic childhood tearjerker Old Yeller is also back in an unnecessary pairing with its inferior sequel, Savage Sam.
Other than The Wizard of Oz, no Hollywood musical is as familiar, reassuring, and beloved of all ages as The Sound of Music. The new 40th-anniversary edition boasts an improved transfer that makes those mountain landscapes and shooting locations in Germany and Austria more beautiful than ever, as well as commentaries by director Robert Wise and stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, new documentary and reunion material, and much more.
The loosely fact-based story has its earliest origins in the memoirs of Baroness Maria von Trapp, and was turned into a stage musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein in their final collaboration (and their only joint effort to rival their first collaboration, Oklahoma!). Julie Andrews is the quintessential Maria — radiantly joyful, earnest and energetic, clear of diction and powerful in song. Her performance anchors the film: Any flicker of condescension or insincerity on her part, and the whole thing would have collapsed into treacle and camp. But cynics will search her face in vain: Her sincerity is absolute, and she sells the role and the film.
Oklahoma! was the first of Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical collaborations, and it changed the face of musical theater. Breaking from both traditional musical comedies and Gilbert & Sullivan style operettas — in which show-stopping production numbers and comedy came first and character and story were secondary — Oklahoma! for the first time placed lyrics and dance at the service of character and story development. With this inversion, Rodgers & Hammerstein created a distinctively modern dramatic form, the musical play.
Many of the songs are worthy classics, including “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and “Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City.” A couple of omitted songs were less savory and aren't missed, and a few lyrics have been sanitized as well. Leads Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones (in her first role) bring ample charm as well as strong singing to the story's depiction of frontier romance as a battle of the sexes with plenty of fraternizing with the “enemy.” Rod Steiger makes menacing Jud Fry more human, and therefore creepier, than he's often portrayed; the film effectively debunks his creepy antisocial isolation and fantasy fixations, extolling instead healthy social engagement.
Robert Stevenson's Old Yeller occupies a unique place in our cultural heritage. “It's not just a dog story; it's a rite of passage for American children,” writes Annie Dingus in Texas Monthly. If you don't remember the sequel, Savage Sam, you're not alone; this inferior film has largely been forgotten, and justifiably so. If this two-fer were the only available DVD edition of Old Yeller, it would be worth it just for the one film. However, the Disney Vault edition of Old Yeller— without Savagex Sam— is still available at a lower price, making this repackaging unnecessary.
CONTENT ADVISORY: The Sound of Music contains nothing objectionable. Oklahoma! contains romantic complications, a few suggestive lyrics and references; some menace; content relating to the antagonist's licentiousness, and is appropriate for teens and up. Old Yeller contains menacing situations and a wrenching climax that may be hard on young viewers. Savage Sam contains much menace to children and sometimes deadly violence.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY: PICK
CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS: PASS
New on DVD this week, Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is enough to make any fan of Roald Dahl's most beloved novel cry with delight at all the film gets so magically right, and with frustration that the film is still nearly ruined by Burton's obsessions and a spectacularly miscalculated performance by Johnny Depp.
Only Burton could have nailed Dahl's blend of whimsical fantasy and withering comeuppance, or the Dickensian glee of its morality-play tableau, with poverty and decency lavishly rewarded, and excess and decadence mercilessly punished. And only Burton could have thought it would be a good idea to give candy-maker extraordinaire Willy Wonka (Depp) unresolved issues from childhood stemming from a traumatic relationship with his father.
Yet take out Wonka, and what's left is little short of brilliant. From young Charlie Bucket (Freddy Highmore) — along with his extended family and their crazy ramshackle house — to the wonders of Wonka's factory, to the over-the-top rottenness of the other four children, this Charlie is both faithful and inspired. It has the makings of the dark childhood fantasy classic that all the Harry Potter films and Lemony Snicket are trying to be. That's good enough to warrant gritting one's teeth and looking past Depp.
Also new this week is Christmas With the Kranks, yet another alleged holiday comedy from one-man holiday-season lousy-movie machine Tim Allen (the Santa Clause movies, Joe Somebody). The premise: A suburban couple decides to abandon their empty nest and go on a cruise in lieu of the usual Christmas hoo-hah. Naturally, they must be punished.
Allen's so cranky he wants to “boycott” all Christmas activities — even charitable donations, despite the fact that the cruise is cheaper than typical seasonal expenditures. The neighbors are worse, browbeating the Kranks into submission before coming together in a heartwarming display of how communities support erring members after pummeling them into the ground. The film's big mistake is making the Allen character's obsession an almost valid protest against ugly enforced conformity — then giving the neighbors the moral high ground over Allen's character. Instead of the Kranks skipping Christmas, can't Allen skip future Christmas movies? Please?
Finally, long out of print in VHS, Robert Bresson's celebrated, confounding Pickpocket comes to DVD from the Criterion Collection, which already includes Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and others. Inspired by Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Pickpocket brings Bresson's stylistic rigor to a meditation on a bland, disaffected young intellectual named Michel (Martin La Salle) who takes up stealing, theorizing that ordinary rules don't apply to an elite class of supermen and that morality and final judgment are absurd concepts.
Bresson examines actions but doesn't clarify motives, perhaps suggesting that the protagonist's actions are a mystery to him, his theories only rationalizations. The subject matter, like Man Escaped, offers an ideal case for Bresson's insistence on naked actions devoid of acting, since for Michel visible emotion would be fatal. Redemption, as always in Bresson, is enigmatic but evocative. What changes for Michel at that critical moment when another hand meets his? Why is his relationship with Jeanne transformed by his ultimate circumstances? Bresson asks but never tells.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory contains unsettling images, mild menace to children, and an instance of minor profanity, and might be a bit much for sensitive kids. Christmas With the Kranks contains crude language, suggestive humor, and slapstick violence, and could be watched by teens. Pickpocket contains skeptical discussion of morality as well as much petty theft, and could make provocative viewing for thoughtful teens.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith: PICK
WAR OF THE WORLDS: PICK
New this week on DVD, Revenge of the Sith finally taps into the inspiration of the Star Wars original trilogy. The film opens with a rescue sequence climaxing with Anakin piloting a spaceship out of orbit for a crash-landing, like Lucifer falling from the heavens. By the finale, Anakin's descent is complete as he falls in battle with Obi-Wan amid the hellish glow of a volcano planet, a veritable lake of fire.
Sounding intriguingly like a modernist theologian, the evil future emperor tells Anakin that those who seek true mastery in the Force must take “a broader view” than the “narrow, dogmatic views of the Jedi.” Unfortunately, the Jedi “orthodoxy” never finds an equally articulate spokesman. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” Obi-Wan insists, rather absolutely. And Yoda's speech on Jedi detachment goes beyond Christian freedom from excessive attachment into Buddhist impassiveness.
Ironically, such extreme detachment is contrary to the humanism with which the whole story ends in Return of the Jedi, where human attachments — filial loyalty, paternal bonds — save the galaxy, destroy the Sith and the empire, and redeem Anakin's lost soul. The grimmest and darkest of the films, Revenge may be too harsh for youngsters. For the moment, the dark side is triumphant — but “new hope” will dawn again.
Danny Boyle's Millions is an unusual film about an unusual young boy — a pious, scrupulous English Catholic lad named Damien who knows the lives of the saints like other boys know stats on their favorite footballers. In fact, the saints appear to him: Francis and Clare, Charles Lwanga, even Peter. Are these heavenly visions, or figments of Damien's imagination? The viewer can decide for himself.
What Damien has to decide is what to do with a duffel bag full of money that fell out of the sky on his cardboard-box hideout. Damien wants to give it to the poor, but that's easier said than done — and other people have other ideas about the money, including a dodgy-looking character who shows up one day.
Damien's saints don't say much particularly profound (apart from a low-key bit from Clare rhapsodizing about the infinitude of heaven) or particularly annoying (apart from an unfortunate speech by Peter endorsing the demythologized version of the feeding of the 5,000). A moral parable rather than a morality tale, Millions is a story of Christmas hope and faith in something more than Santa, which is not to say that St. Nicholas doesn't show up. But when he pops on a bishop's miter rather than the familiar Santa hat, it's clear we're not in Hollywood movieland.
Also new to DVD is Byron Haskin's War of the Worlds, loosely based on the classic H. G. Wells story. The father of all alien-invasion movies, the film offers a worst-case-scenario alternative to the idealistic visions of films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Often viewed as an allegory of Cold War fears, the film's overtly religious themes, emphasized by Catholic producer George Pal, become the defining framework in a story about divine providence and salvation for helpless humanity.
Content advisory: Revenge of the Sith contains strong, mostly bloodless sci-fi combat violence, and is appropriate for teens and up. Millions contains fleeting but clear implication of a non-marital affair, brief depiction of juvenile curiosity in online lingerie ads; recurring strong menace; some mildly objectionable language, and could be okay for discerning older kids. War of the Worlds contains much menace and large-scale sci-fi battle violence, but is okay for older kids.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
(Special; edition 1997)
A NIGHT TO REMEMBER: PICK
THE WIZARD OF OZ: PICK
(Special & Collector's Edition)
This week, two of the most popular films in history return in three new DVD editions. James Cameron's stunningly successful Titanic gets a special edition loaded with extras, while one the most enduring of Hollywood Golden Age classics, The Wizard of Oz, has been newly restored and comes in two new DVD editions.
Give Cameron his due: Whatever else can be said, and rightly said, against his bloated, pandering, at times contemptible magnum opus, Titanic, the director knows how to play his target audience like a Stradivarius, and he does so here like nowhere else and no one else.
A masterful exercise in manipulation, Titanic's celebration of forbidden love bringing liberation from social constraints resonated profoundly with a generation of young film-going romantics.
With its populist dichotomies — repressive, arrogant, rich upper-class British vs. free-spirited, oppressed poor non-British; arrogant, contemptible or at best ridiculous men versus victimized and repressed women — Titanic is ideally attuned to contemporary cultural attitudes regarding the politics of privilege, victimization, gender and the evils of historic Western culture.
As crises often do, the Titanic disaster exemplifies both the best and the worst in human nature. Alas, Cameron's film revels in exposing cowardice and hypocrisy while robbing heroism of its nobility.
The nobility of first-class men willingly remaining behind while second- and third-class women and children got into lifeboats is almost entirely subverted. (Fewer than a third of first-class men survived, compared with nearly half of third-class women.) Even in depicting gentlemen in eveningwear calmly resigned to going down with the ship, Cameron makes them ridiculous rather than noble.
The heroic picture of the band playing on deck to help maintain calm is also sullied; Cameron depicts the musicians concluding that no one is listening to them anyway, but playing nonetheless.
For a far better portrayal of the Titanic disaster, the 1958 docudrama A Night to Remember, based on the 1955 bestseller by Walter Lord, remains the film to watch.
Though it omits the striking fact, vividly captured in Cameron's film, of the ship breaking in two as it starts to sink (an event disputed by eyewitnesses but confirmed in 1985), A Night to Remember is much clearer than Cameron's opening-act CGI “post mortem” about why this supposedly “unsinkable” ship sank, and why the bulkheads were thought to be high enough but weren't. It's also a far classier, more plausible depiction of how people in 1912 faced life and death in the fabled disaster.
Fans of The Wizard of Oz rejoice: Not only has the Vatican pick been treated to an “ultra-restoration,” but it also comes in two new DVD editions: a two-disc special edition and a three-disc collector's edition. I'll be picking up the latter, which includes the long-neglected 1925 silent feature version starring Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodman.
Like all fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz has suffered countless attempts by critics and commentators to explain its meaning and power, from almost every conceivable angle: political, economic, religious, Freudian. But is there any “explaining” this story? Baum himself professed that his story was intended “solely to pleasure children of today.”
That it does, and will for generations to come.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Titanic includes much objectionable language, partial frontal nudity, an offscreen sexual encounter, a suicide, and much disaster violence; it is not recommended. A Night to Remember is a restrained depiction of large-scale tragedy, and makes for fine family viewing. The Wizard of Oz contains some menace and frightening images, and offers fine family viewing.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
BATMAN BEGINS: PICK
THE MASK OF ZORRO SPECIAL EDITION: PICK
This week, caped crusaders rule the DVD racks. Summer smash Batman Begins comes to home video, along with new editions of every other Batman movie in the last quarter century, including the 1989 Tim Burton film that started it all. Meanwhile, the imminent theatrical release of The Legend of Zorro— the much-anticipated, long-delayed sequel to the 1998 hit The Mask of Zorro— warrants a new special-edition release for its predecessor.
Along with Superman and Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins is one of the best comic-book films, avoiding the campiness of the Superman films and the cartoonish psychology and relationships of the Spider-Man films, and achieving a more operatic, mythic, larger-than-life feel than the X-Men movies. Above all, it succeeds where the earlier run of Batman films by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher failed: It creates a compelling, complex personality behind the cowl, a hero who is more than a figurehead in his own film, overshadowed by colorful adversaries. At last, the Dark Knight has a soul.
Lacking super-powers, Batman depends on fear and stealth. Yet he fights for justice rather than revenge, and would even risk his life to save an opponent.
“Your compassion is a weakness your enemies won't share,” warns an enigmatic mentor known as Ducard. “That's why it's so important,” counters Bruce. “It's what separates us from them.”
Ducard is connected with the mysterious League of Shadows, dedicated to combating decadence — but its methods are murder, fear and, ultimately, weapons of mass destruction. In an ambitious showdown, Batman wages a literal war on terror against this al Quaeda-like adversary.
Among earlier Batman movies getting new DVD editions this week, the best regarded remains Burton's 1989 Batman, starring Michael Keaton as the caped crusader and Jack Nicholson as the Joker.
Critics adored the film's gothic set design and Nicholson's showy performance, while comic-book fans credited Burton with rescuing the Dark Knight from the over-the-top camp comedy of the 1960s series and making him suitably dark and brooding.
But, really, it isn't that good. The plot's a mess. Keaton's a cipher, with or without the mask. And, in that stiff rubber suit, he seems less a lithe super hero than a semi-mobile action figure. Nicholson dominates the film, which should have been called Joker instead of Batman, but his ballyhooed performance, while menacing, is lacking in whimsy and conviction. Like much of Burton's oeuvre, Batman is long on style and short on story and characterization.
The Mask of Zorro was one of the best surprises of 1998, a rousing, witty, morally redemptive tale of two Zorros — one the familiar Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins), aging champion of the oppressed, and the other a scruffy rogue (Antonio Bandaras) with a grudge against the villains. The latter must learn the meaning, as well as the methods, of heroism. Moral themes such as family, honor and defending the poor are integral to the story. Catholic priests, who aid both Zorros in their missions, are depicted as part of the suffering oppressed, not the evil establishment.
Content advisory: Batman Begins contains recurring menace and frightening imagery, much stylized action violence, a scene of strong-arm interrogation tactics, at least one instance of profanity and some minor profanity and crass language. The Mask of Zorro contains much stylized violence, one gross-out scene with a decapitated head, mild sexual innuendo and sensuality, and fleeting rear nudity. Batman (1989) contains some gruesome images and violence and an implied sexual encounter. All three films are best suited to teens and up.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN: PASS
THE PIPPI LONGSTOCKING COLLECTION: PICK
PIPPI LONGSTOCKING: PICK
Ridley Scott's ambitious Crusade-era epic KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, new this week on DVD, idealizes the 12th-century Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem as a nexus of uneasy but briefly successful coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land.
The kingdom is ruled in its final years by Baldwin IV, the Leper King, a moderate who wishes to maintain peace with Saladin. The peace is threatened, however, by “fanatics of every denomination [sic],” i.e., Christian and Muslim. (What about Jews? They're irrelevant here.)
Despite mention of “fanatics” on both sides, Scott devotes far less time to developing the Muslim side of things. There are no Muslim clerics, good or bad, and certainly no Muslim equivalent to the mustache-twirling villainy of the Templars or the hypocrisy of the patriarch of Jerusalem. Apparently Saladin is more successful at restraining fanatical Muslim elements than Baldwin is fanatical Christian elements.
In fact, the story could largely be described as the failure of moderate Christians to restrain fanatical Christians from oppressing innocent Muslims, thereby provoking justifiable Muslim retaliation against the Christians, both fanatics and otherwise.
Kingdom of Heaven makes an uneven effort at even-handedness in its religious portrayals, but its perspective is ultimately anti-religious, if not anti-God or anti-faith, elevating ethics above theology and commending a sort of religious indifferentism as the antidote to religious strife.
Inger Nilsson is Astrid Lindgren's irrepressible heroine Pippi Longstocking in the four-disc boxed edition THE PIPPI LONGSTOCKING COLLECTION, just released on DVD. Originally in Swedish, these four films are most familiar to American audiences in poorly dubbed English versions — and that's the version presented here (distributor Hen's Tooth was apparently unable to get U.S. rights for the Swedish-language soundtrack).
Unquestionably, the lack of the Swedish track (or a decent English dub) is a major drawback, but the standard English dub, as clumsy as it is, has a strange nostalgic charm of its own — not entirely unlike the appeal of the films themselves, which a have a sweet naïveté in spite of being somewhat crudely made and not really capturing the witty, whimsical spirit of the books.
The first film, Pippi Longstocking, opens with Pippi's arrival at Villa Villekula, her first meeting with Tommy (Pär Sundberg) and Annika (Maria Persson), and her various run-ins with local busybodies, a pair of bumbling crooks, and another pair of bumbling policemen.
The story continues in Pippi Goes on Board, which is actually mostly about Pippi not going on board, but carrying on much as she did in the first film. In Pippi in the South Seas, Pippi sets off with Tommy and Annika to rescue her long-absent father from pirates. And finally in Pippi on the Run Pippi accompanies Tommy and Annika as they run away from home.
For even more Pippi-ness, check out the 1997 animated PIPPI LONGSTOCKING, which does a better job than the live-action films at evoking the whimsy and absurdism of Lindgren's stories. The animation, while not Disney quality, is more than serviceable, and the music is better than average for this sort of thing.
Like Peter Pan, Pippi is a magical child, free from every sort of constraint (she's super-strong, rich, has no parents, no manners, etc.), and young viewers get a kick out of her topsy-turvy world.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Kingdom of Heaven contains strong graphic combat and battlefield, religious complications, and an adulterous encounter (nothing explicit), and is not recommended. The Pippi Longstocking Collection contains some scenes of mild menace from pirates and other assorted dangers, and some dubious frivolity involving guns and other dangers. The 1997 Pippi Longstocking contains nothing objectionable.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
Beyond the Gates of Splendor: PICK
The Interpreter: PASS
The documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor, debuting this week on DVD, takes its title from the 1957 mission-field account Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot, widow of martyred Protestant missionary Jim Elliot and sister of prominent Catholic convert and writer Thomas Howard.
In 1956, the world was shocked by the news that five Protestant missionaries in Ecuador had been murdered by the notoriously deadly Huaorani Indians. Though the missionaries had guns and could have defended themselves, they were resolved not to do so (“We're ready for heaven, and they're not”).
Even more stunning, however, was what happened afterwards. Widow Elliot and the sister of one of the other men continued their mission work in Ecuador, later making contact with and ultimately converting the same Huaorani Indians who murdered their family members.
The women even moved their families into Huaorani territory; the children of the martyred missionaries became friends with the children of their killers. Most remarkably, the Huaorani culture was completely transformed to one of nonviolence.
The documentary tells not so much the story of a tribe of heathens accepting the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but of a murderous culture being transformed by an encounter with a lived message of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Also new this week on DVD is Sidney Pollack's The Interpreter, starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, noted for being the first film to receive permission to film in the United Nations (permission denied to Alfred Hitchcock for the U.N. sequences in North by Northwest). Although not exactly an infomercial for the United Nations in the way that, say, Top Gun was for the Air Force, The Interpreter does turn on a touching belief in the international body's ongoing effectiveness and relevance.
The premise requires one to accept that a murderous African dictator would be sufficiently worried about the possibility of being indicted by the United Nations for genocide that he would come to New York City to defend himself — and that the United Nations might indeed uncompromisingly come down against ethnic cleansing in Africa.
Though slick and professional, The Interpreter falls between stools, too inplausible to work as a thriller and too muddled to make a political statement.
And finally, after a 10-year hiatus from home video, Disney's Cinderella returns in an extra-laden special edition. After the greatness of their early films from Snow White to Bambi, Disney's Cinderella represents the early stages of Disney-itis, with less-than-classic tunes and cute animal sidekicks overstepping their bounds into the main plot. But the fairy tale remains compelling, and the animation is rich and satisfying.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Beyond the Gates of Splendor contains a good deal of graphic violent language and non-explicit archival footage of the discovery of the slain missionaries, and is suitable for teens and up. The Interpreter contains a few sequences of brutal violence and mayhem, some profanity and crude language, and a strip-club scene with a pair of barely clad “exotic” dancers. Cinderella contains nothing problematic.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
A Knight's Tale (Extended Cut): PASS
We're No Angels: PICK
Chris Wedge and his cohorts at Blue Sky Studios learned a lot making their first film, Ice Age — and it shows in their superior sophomore film, Robots, new this week on DVD.
Robots combines the visionary world-building of Monsters, Inc. and the toybox nostalgia of Toy Story. There's also sly social commentary aimed at insecurity advertising, the corporate stratagem of instilling inadequacy in order to make some product indispensable.
Once-benevolent Bigweld Industries, which historically proclaimed the inspirational message, “You can shine no matter what you're made of!” now raises the demoralizing question “Why be YOU when you can be … NEW?” There's even a pro-life resonance in the film's depiction of the sinister plot to scrap obsolete members of society who've outlived their usefulness and are beginning to fall apart.
There are two main drawbacks. Wedge leans too much on crude humor, especially Shrek-style flatulence humor, and an almost British preoccupation with bottom jokes.
More seriously, the Blue Sky team (like rivals DreamWorks) still can't hold a candle to Pixar when it comes to crafting interesting, layered characters and emotionally complex narratives. Despite a few somewhat touching moments, it comes off clever rather than heartfelt. Still, it's a high grade of clever, and I enjoyed it a lot.
Also new this week is A Knight's Tale (Extended Cut), an unnecessary repackaging of a silly, feel-good popcorn movie that's enjoyable enough in its original form, but certainly doesn't need to be 12 minutes longer. In fact, the original cut is already too long, and three “restored” scenes, available on earlier DVD editions as supplements, were rightly deleted.
Even in its theatrical cut, A Knight's Tale isn't quite a masterpiece. Hero Heath Ledger is upstaged by sidekick Paul Bettany, love-interest Shannyn Sossamon is less appealing than female sidekick Laura Fraser, characters act out of character for no reason, and the story is an unbroken string of clichés and anachronisms.
Yet it has a winning gung-ho enthusiasm, confidence and will to entertain. It's funny, especially Bettany's long-winded, improvised introductions of Ledger at tournaments. The thundering horses, glinting armor and shattering lances are fun to watch in slow motion.
Ledger is engaging as a squire longing to be a knight, and there's something refreshing about an action film in which the hero seeks no further satisfaction against the villain than knocking him flat on his back. But there's no reason not to find the original 2001 version of the film.
Also debuting this week on DVD is Michael Curtiz's slightly macabre but good-hearted 1955 comedy We're No Angels (not to be confused with the loose 1989 remake).
Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray star as escaped convicts, who plan to rob a local mom and pop, then have a change of heart. Before long the thugs are pitching in — but when Basil Rathbone shows up as the shop's villainous owner, the convicts must take matters into their own hands. Adolphe, a poisonous pet snake who lives in Ray's pocket, plays a key role in the darkly comic resolution, in which everyone gets what they deserve.
Bogey's deadpan performance delivers the comic goods, and Rathbone is delightfully nasty. An unconventional Christmas treat.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Robots contains mild innunedo, some crass humor, and much animated excitement. A Knight's Tale contains tournament violence, fleeting rear nudity, some sex-related dialogue and crude language, and a brief anticlerical depiction, and is okay for teens and up. We're No Angels contains mild innuendo, menace and offscreen deaths and might be okay for older kids.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
Wallace & Gromit in Three Amazing Adventures: PICK
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: PASS
Born Into Brothels [Calcutta's Red Light Kids]: PICK
This week on DVD, the British are coming. The absurdist sci-fi world of English humorist Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker's empire makes the jump to feature film, with mixed results. British photojournalist Zana Briski's inspiring, devastating documentary Born Into Brothels [Calcutta's Red Light Kids] offers hope and heartbreak. And with dotty English inventor Wallace and his loyal but dubious dog Gromit finally coming to the big screen in October in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, of course we need another DVD release of their original, classic shorts.
Directed by Garth Jenning, the new Hitchhiker's film gets the whimsical look and absurdist feel of Adams’ universe right, but lacks the subversive commentary, the razor-edged deconstruction of human foibles.
Adams was a convinced atheist and, in his stories, a nihilistic sense of cosmic absurdity — along with satiric barbs at religion — jostles with an intriguing preoccupation with the notion of meaning and ultimate answers. The movie ventures a broadly satiric poke at religion, and goes through the motions of the quest for the ultimate answer of life, the universe and everything. But it's too interested in its “mostly harmless” status to have teeth.
What could have been a bitingly Gilliamesque Men in Black comes off as a hit-and-miss Britcom Galaxy Quest. That may be adequate for moderate Adams fans (like myself) who know enough to get the jokes but aren't emotionally invested enough to be outraged by the film's shortcomings. For most viewers, though, the film falls between two stools, neither satisfying diehard fans nor engaging newcomers.
Zana Briski visited and finally moved into Calcutta's red light district, intending to make a film about brothel life before finding herself and the children who lived there mutually drawn to one another.
If Born Into Brothels merely recorded the marginal lives of these beautiful, all-but-doomed children, it would probably be nearly unbearable, though potentially still worthwhile. But Briski, who has a master's in theology and religious studies, did more than document the kids’ milieu: She empowered them to document it themselves, giving them cameras and teaching them to use them.
As seen in the film, the results are arresting. The kids love photography and, while their work isn't always inspired, some of it has real power and verve (visit kids-with-cameras.org to peruse — or purchase — samples).
Photography offers Briski's voiceless, powerless students the power to speak across oceans and language barriers. There are gallery shows, a Sotheby's auction — proceeds from which could pay for education, the only hope for escaping the cycle of destitution and dissolution. Born into Brothels is one of the most constructive, inspiring takes on the power of art and artists to make a difference that I've ever seen. Next to Briski's enacted prayers, what prayers I might offer for these children half a world away seem woefully inadequate.
Jam-packed with dazzlingly inventive sight gags and quintessentially eccentric British humor, the classic Wallace & Gromit shorts deserve a place on every film lover's shelf. Compared to previous DVD editions, Three Amazing Adventures lacks commentary by director Nick Park, but boasts the previously unavailable “Cracking Contraptions,” 10 mini-shorts featuring Wallace's latest inventions.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Hitchhiker's Guide contains slapstick violence, mild crude language and a brief sequence of broad religious satire. Born into Brothels contains documentary depiction of brothel life (nothing explicit), including drug abuse and a few strong obscenities, and might be acceptable for mature teens. The Wallace & Gromit shorts contain some comic menace and are fine family viewing.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ: PICK
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ: PICK
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ: PICK
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, General Lew Wallace's sprawling, red-blooded, reverent 1880 historical novel of a first-century Jewish prince's changing fortunes and chance encounters with Jesus Christ, was a runaway bestseller in its day, for decades outselling every other American novel — until the 1936 release of Gone With the Wind.
According to Wikipedia, the novel spawned a number of stage adaptations — including one that replicated the famous chariot race with live horses, full-size chariots and a series of treadmills. But it was the newer medium of cinema that would best dramatize Wallace's novel, perpetuating its blend of spectacle, melodrama, and piety to later generations after the original work's length and archaic style would make it all but inaccessible.
This week, two of those adaptations come to DVD in a new four-disc set boasting superior digital transfers and numerous extras. The top-billed version, of course, is William Wyler's classic 1959 version starring Charlton Heston, which won an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards and is the only American film honored for religious significance on the 1995 Vatican film list.
The other version is less familiar, but all the more noteworthy for it: the equally spectacular — perhaps even superior — 1925 silent version directed by Fred Niblo (The Mark of Zorro) and starring silent screen heartthrob Ramon Novarro. At nearly 2½ hours long, the silent version is still an hour shorter than the 1959 version, yet the story is essentially the same, and the scale similarly astounding.
The set piece everyone remembers from the 1959 version, of course, is the chariot race. The 1925 version is at least comparable here — but it excels in the story's other key action sequence, the epic sea battle in which the title character escapes his fate as a galley slave.
Both versions bring the same reverent reticence to depicting Christ, never showing his face (or, in the sound version, making his voice audible). The silent version additionally uses two-strip Technicolor for the religious scenes, as Cecil B. DeMille did his resurrection sequence in the silent 1927 King of Kings, giving these scenes a special aura of significance.
While this hyper-reverent approach would never work for a whole biblical film, the style of melodramatic spectacle Hollywood cheerfully applied to such biblical subjects as The Ten Commandments is also problematic, and certainly neither approach would do for a life of Christ film. Ben-Hur gets around this dilemma by keeping the Gospel story in the background and making another more appropriate tale the subject of its melodrama.
One other version of Ben-Hur is worth mentioning. In 2003, Charlton Heston reprised his greatest role, if in voice only, in an animated made-for-TV version from the director and producers of the “Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible” series.
Though no classic, the animated Ben-Hur easily outclasses the “Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible” series (as well as the comparable “Animated Passion” trilogy directed by Richard Rich), simply because the drama is so strong and is less dependent on the story adaptation. (The absence of cheesy songs is also a major plus.)
The animated Ben-Hur is a great way to introduce even the youngest, who might not be ready for the epic length or action violence of the live-action versions, to this classic tale of adversity, heroism, forgiveness, and redemption.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Both live-action versions of Ben-Hur on the four-disc set contain action violence and battle scenes. The silent version also contains brief partial nudity. The animated version contains no problematic content.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
Toy Story: PICK
(1995: 10th anniversary DVD)
The Exorcist: PASS
To Kill a Mockingbird: PASS
(1962: special DVD)
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE comes to theaters almost on the five-year anniversary of the 2000 reworking of The Exorcist, a box-office smash of nearly unprecedented levels in 1973, still widely considered one of the scariest movies ever made.
Even jaded, sophisticated 1970s audiences were rattled by the film's stark, horrifying vision of absolute evil in all its obscenity and banality — and its unapologetic context of institutional religion, in the form of the Catholic Church, as the framework in which to understand and combat evil.
Catholic writer E. Michael Jones has connected the fascination of horror to the debunking of Enlightenment rationalism, and The Exorcist certainly supports his case. Modern areligiosity, the decline of marriage, casual dabbling in such occult phenomena as Ouija boards and the therapeutic culture are all indicted in this horrifying tale of a bubbly, increasingly troubled young girl whose single mother turns for help to doctors, tests and prescriptions.
“You just take your pills and you'll be fine, really,” Mom promises, but pills aren't the answer to everything, and faith and religion may have answers science doesn't.
Very strong obscene and profane language and imagery make The Exorcist a shocking, harrowing experience, but arguably the film's most damning factor is the lack of true redemption in the twist ending, which resolves the demon possession without allowing the Church to triumph over evil.
In Terence Fisher's Hammer horror films in the '50s and '60s, the power of the cross or holy water over satanic powers was absolute. Not here: The demon isn't ultimately expelled by God's power, but induced into departing. Christian novelist Stephen Lawhead argues that the film depicts evil as powerful, but good as merely “lucky,” winning by a “surprise tactic.” That's not good enough.
Another film celebrating an anniversary — with a new 10th-anniversary DVD this week — is the original Toy Story, the first all-CGI animated film and Pixar's first masterpiece. It's a breathtakingly perfect blend of wide-eyed childhood wonder and wry adult humor, yesteryear nostalgia and eye-popping novelty, rollicking storytelling and touchingly honest emotion.
First-time feature director John Lasseter brings a sure hand to a tale that takes us back to a time when playthings seemed as real to us as other people, and a beloved teddy bear, doll or stuffed dog was almost as important a fixture in our world as our parents or siblings.
For young Andy, the sun rises and sets on his lanky Sheriff Woody doll. And Andy is just as important to Woody (Tom Hanks). But the status quo is upset by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), a flashy new action figure who doesn't realize he's a toy.
Also debuting this week in a special-edition DVD is the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Mulligan's faithful adaptation of Harper Lee's semi-autobigraphical, Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of life in the rural South. Gregory Peck gives his signature performance as Atticus Finch, a deeply principled, widowed attorney and father of two young children whose decision to defend a black man against the accusations of a white woman makes him a target of epithets and potentially violence.
CONTENT ADVISORY: The Exorcist contains very strong obscene and profane language and imagery, and is not recommended. Toy Story contains some scenes of menace and mildly scary imagery, and is fine for kids and up. To Kill a Mockingbird contains courtroom references to sexual assault, attempted seduction and domestic abuse, and is fine for teens and up.