Life and romance plays out like a series of videogame challenges by way of a comic book fantasy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal), which I review at MSN. It’s based on a series of graphic novels and director Edgar Wright, whose love of popular culture bounces through his films and TV projects with creative abandon, celebrates the graphic qualities of the comic book origins in a playfully cinematic manner. Also new is Neil Marshall’s Romans-versus-Barbarians warrior epic Centurion (Magnolia), a survival thriller of a lost Roman legion in 2nd Century Britain that I reviewed as part of my SIFF coverage here, and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (Criterion), which I review on my blog here.
The Battle Of The River Plate (aka The Pursuit of the Graf Spee) (Hen’s Tooth) – The penultimate collaboration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the filmmaking team known as The Archers, is a World War II military drama with an unusual approach. The British campaign to stop German pocket battleship Graf Spee, a fast, well-armed ship wreaking havoc on British transports in the South Atlantic, was the first major British victory of the war. The Archers frame the conflict as a battle of wits between two brilliant naval minds (Peter Finch commanding the Graf Spee, Anthony Quayle conducting the British ships).
The miniature work is excellent and physical production impressive even as the filmmakers constantly deny the spectacle of battle to focus on the people, using their commentary to paint a picture of the action and the diplomatic maneuvering that takes over the second half of the film. It’s an admirable idea for a drama more cerebral than spectacular. Restricting our perspective gives is a sense of the British experience (sort of like playing “Battleship” for real) but the distinction between the characters and ships blur as Powell cuts from one bridge crew to another. Powell’s creative solutions to avoid war movie clichés are certainly clever but not always dramatically compelling, and while the dialogue has the marvelous bounce of British spirit and individualist personalities that all Pressberger scripts enjoy, it’s not always enough to drive a war film that refuses to show the battles.
It is, however, a handsomely-produced film and a gorgeous color production (cinematographer also shot the ravishing The Tales of Hoffman) and the Hen’s Tooth disc, taken from a restored British master, is a superb edition and easily the best release I’ve seen from the label. The disc also features the 24-minute British featurette “Profile Of Battle Of The River Plate,” an archival piece with production manager John Brabourne, director of photography Christopher Challis and co-star Christopher Lee discussing their experiences and Powell historian Ian Christie offering historical perspective and commentary.
I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (Oscilloscope) – John Cazale only appeared in five films—each of them an Oscar nominee for Best Picture—and never received a single Oscar nomination. He’s a forgotten man for many contemporary filmgoers but to anyone with a passion of American cinema of the seventies he is a beloved enigma: a brilliant actor who brought to life one of the most perfectly, powerfully and profoundly sculpted and performed characters in American cinema—Fredo in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II—before passing away from lung cancer in 1978. Richard Shepard profiles this actor’s actor, a New York stage veteran who worked with and earned the respect of some of the greatest actors of his generation, among them Gene Hackman, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino (who said Cazale that him more about acting than any other actor).
For the record, the other films on his resume are The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter, and he almost didn’t appear in the latter: already diagnosed with cancer, he was considered uninsurable by the studio and only cast after DeNiro arranged to personally put up a bond for the actor. (DeNiro is endearingly modest when his generosity is acknowledged.) His last film was also the sole time he acted on screen with his fiancée: Meryl Streep. That this funny-looking method actor won the heart of Streep (who becomes so gentle and fragile and human as she talks about Cazale) is yet another reason to revere this man. The documentary only runs 40 minutes and really is no more than a sketch of his career, but interviews with Hackman, DeNiro, Pacino, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet and playwright Israel Horowitz offer a great appreciation for his screen work and approach and introduces us to his long stage career. The disc includes extended interviews with Al Pacino (which overflows with love and friendship) and playwright Israel Horowitz and two short films Cazale made in the sixties: “The America Way” (1962) and “The Box” (1969).
Superman / Shazam: The Return of Black Adam (Warner) – The animated original Superman / Shazam: The Return of Black Adam is not a feature but short film making its home video debut along with three previously-released animated from the recent direct-to-DVD releases. The 22-minute production is a revisionist origin story of the golden-age hero Captain Marvel, brought up to date and rejiggered to include Superman in the tale. This Billy Batson is no lame newsboy but a plucky slum orphan with a generous spirit and a unflagging courage chosen by The Wizard (James Garner) to carry on the legacy that has been corrupted by Black Adam, who has flown across the galaxy to kill his heir apparent. It’s a fine film, if a little stunted in scope for such a significant story, with the same high level of production values seen in earlier animated shorts release by Warner, and in fact they are all included on the disc: extended versions of the DC Showcase productions The Spectre (appropriately dark and gruesome), Jonah Hex (slim but appropriately adult with gallows humor) and Green Arrow (a modest but energetic and enjoyable piece). I can’t say these extended versions are enough to justify this purchase—only The Spectre really stands out from this collection as a stand-alone short to begin with—but fans will at least want to rent the disc to see the Shazam! piece. The disc also features bonus episodes of animated shows that showcase the second-tier heroes featured on this disc. The Blu-ray release also features writer commentary on each short.
Keeping with the DC superhero theme, here are a couple of other releases of interest: Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics (Warner) is a new feature-length documentary on the history of the comic book company that introduced Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and most of the great Golden Age superheroes, while Legends of the Superheroes (Warner Archive) is a kitschy shot-on-video TV special (or rather, two TV specials) from producer Joseph Barbera, who spoofs the comic book cartoon heroes of the animation side of his business for an adult audience. Adam West, Burt Ward and Frank Gorshin (as The Riddler) reprise their roles from the “Batman” TV series, playing out a silly adventure in the first half and getting “roasted” by the supervillains in the even more absurd second half (with Ed McMahon hosting the absurdities). The latter is a DVD-R available exclusively via the Warner Archive.
With the latest Harry Potter film about to be released, Warner returns to the catalogue for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Ultimate Edition and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Ultimate Edition, which tosses in books, collectible cards and a downloadable digital copy of the film, along with the supplements of the previous releases and a brand new chapter in the original documentary series “Creating the World of Harry Potter” produced for these editions, in a hefty gift box. Yes, the gift-giving season is upon us.
Also new this week: Grown Ups (Sony), the Adam Sandler buddy reunion film that is also one of the worst reviewed pictures of the year, Charlie St. Cloud (Universal) with Zac Ephron, Love Ranch (E1) with Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci, Lovely, Still (Monterey) with Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, the early sixties samurai drama Shinsengumi Chronicles: I Want to Die a Samurai! (AnimEigo) and Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XIX (Shout! Factory), which sets the characters on Robot Monster, Bride of the Monster, Devil Doll and Devil Fish and is available in a limited-edition set with a figurine of Gypsy.