Best DVDs of 2007 and more on Berlin Alexanderplatz

My list of the Best DVD releases of 2007 went up on MSN today.

If there is one glaring omission, it is due to the fact that my deadline arrived before the new “Blade Runner” box set did. Based on the little I have seen, it likely would have placed quite high on the list.

My top pick? Do you have to ask?

1. “Ford at Fox
Wipe the drool away, movie geeks. Fox is bucking for DVD sainthood with this astounding release…. Has there ever been a DVD release with such commitment to rescuing and showcasing both established classics and rarities and forgotten works (both major and minor) of a Hollywood master? In a word: No. Essential for Ford fanatics, classic film buffs and DVD completists alike.

And for TV:

1. “Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition
David Lynch’s cult TV show had previously been available in incomplete chunks, and until now the pieces never added up to the entire run. Paramount finally cleared the complicated rights imbroglio surrounding the missing elements of the series, notably the original feature-length pilot (for so long available only as an import), and has pulled it together into a single set — including the home video debut of both the broadcast pilot and the extended European cut (complete with its alternate ending).

I have ten picks in movies and movie-related releases, five picks in TV, and honorable mentions. Here are some of the those mentions that, on other days, would have found their way onto the list:

Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934

Image

The third collection of the brilliant “Treasures From American Film Archives,” which showcases 48 rarities made between the years 1900 to 1934, is loosely organized around themes of social issues and engagement and reveals a side of early cinema forgotten in the popularity of the comedy legends and silent screen heartthrobs. The four features are the highlights, but the totality celebrates the diversity of cinematic forms in early cinema: 30-second “actualities,” newsreels, cartoons, political tracts, documentary exposés, and more. It sprawls across genres, it tackles everything from prohibition to women’s voting rights, worker safety to unionism, police corruption to organized crime, and it showcases slices of our cinematic history that just don’t get seen outside of film archives and “educational” screenings. It turns out that they can be damnably entertaining. The four-disc box set also comes with a 200-page illustrated guide to the treasures within.

Cinema 16: European Short Films

Cinema 16

Cinema 16’s two-disc collection of some the best of short cinema from Europe is the most well-curated and compelling short film compilation I’ve seen on DVD. This set pays more attention to superior work than to familiar names and showcases some of the most inventive, powerful and provocative films you’ll see in the three-minute to half-hour format, including Roy Andersson’s brilliant and disturbing 1991 “World of Glory,” Virgil Widrich pitch-perfect high concept twist on Xerox art “Copyshop,” and Andrea Arnold’s searing piece of social realism, the Oscar-winning Wasp,” as well as early films by Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, and Lars Von Trier. Features sixteen shorts on all, with commentary on all but three of the shorts.

The Jazz Singer: 80th Anniversary 3-Disc Collector’s Edition

Warner

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” This newly restored version of the legendary hybrid silent film, the absurdly maudlin melodrama starring Al Jolson as a cantor’s son who mugs and shimmies his way through songs like “Toot-Toot-Tootsie Goodbye” and “Blue Skies,” is remastered from earliest surviving nitrate film elements and original Vitaphone sound-on-disc recordings. But the three-disc set as an entirety is a lavish tribute to the birth of sound and the early Vitaphone shorts (many of them featuring the kinds of acts that killed vaudeville). A true work of cinema archeology.

New at Turner Classic Movies:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fifteen-hour-plus adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s novel, one of the most revered classics of German literature, is the German auteur’s most lavish and complex production ever. It’s also his most personal, a dream project with roots that reach back to Fassbinder’s youth, when he read the novel for the first time at age 14. Fassbinder, grappling with his own identity and his emerging homosexuality, saw himself in the character of Franz Biberkopf, the trusting, emotionally naïve, almost childlike hero who begins the novel wandering an alienated Berlin plunged into depression and enters into a destructive relationship with a cruel thug. Five years later he re-read the novel and “it became clearer and clearer to me that a huge part of myself, my behavior, my reactions, many things I had considered a part of me, were nothing other than things described by Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz,” he wrote in 1980. “I had, quite simply, without realizing it, made Döblin’s fantasy into my life.”

Berlin Alexanderplatz became Fassbinder’s touchstone throughout his career. He named the protagonist of Fox and His Friends, which he portrayed on screen himself, Franz Biberkopf, while the central characters of many other films were named Franz (including those played by himself in his first feature Love Is Colder Than Death and in The American Soldier). His own pseudonym used for editing credit, Franz Walsh, is a mesh of Döblin and the American director Raoul Walsh. Even the plots of two early films (Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague) have their roots in Döblin’s novel.

Read the complete piece on the film, its production, and the Criterion DVD at Turner Classic Movies.

‘Scarface’: Blasting to the Top

scarface_titlecard.jpg‘Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it’

The original Scarface, loosely but boldly based on the notorious life and legend of Al Capone, didn’t invent the modern American gangster film. It blew it up. It reinvigorated and redefined the nascent genre, thanks to the rat-a-tat direction of Howard Hawks and scrappy performance of Paul Muni, a pug of an actor who packs his firecracker frame with dynamite.

The movie transformed the story of an insolent immigrant hood who blasts his way to the top spot of the Chicago crime world into a perverted twist in the American dream (“The World Is Yours,” flashes an advertisement outside the gangster’s new, bullet-proofed digs, a tease as much as a promise). And the film cast Tony Camonte, a scrappy street mutt of a gangland soldier with big ideas, bad taste and a dangerous lack of inhibitions, as its Horatio Alger.

Films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar had whetted the American moviegoing appetite for crime movies that delivered a vicarious thrill before delivering a sentence of poetic justice. Scarface delivered something more dynamic and insidious, so much so that censors pressured producer Howard Hughes to cut out the more audacious elements. Hughes hired lesser hands to add sanctimonious lectures denouncing the criminal scourge, flat scenes that have all the impact of blanks in the film’s barrage of live ammunition.

scarface.jpg
Paul Muni as Scarface with his latest toy

What’s amazing is how much escaped the censors’ scissors: the incestuous attraction between Tony and his party-girl sister (Ann Dvorak); the real-life gangland events “ripped from the headlines” and referenced in Tony’s bloody climb to the top (Hawks brilliantly re-creates the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in an evocative scene of shadows and sound effects); the brutal montage of drive-by machine-gun hits in the mob war, with thrilling high-speed car chases and careening getaways through the rain-soaked streets of Chicago city sets, victims crumpling like paper in their wake.

The way Hawks marks Camonte’s victims with the shadow of an “X” (echoing the scar marking Camonte’s cheek) is still effective, and his inventive touches, from the death of Boris Karloff’s mob boss suggested in the falling of a bowling pin to a machine gun blasting away falling leaves of calendar pages, evoke the brutality of Camonte’s bloody reign without showing a single murder. In these days of blood-soaked gangster operas, this incendiary masterpiece still packs firepower.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Love and Bullets: ‘Prizzi’s Honor’

prizzis_honor_poster.jpgKathleen Turner shoots cool and true in Prizzi’s Honor.

The movies are full of girls with guns: sexy slingers who can strike a pose with a firearm in hand and blow away the bad guys with all the lethal intent of a sex kitten vogueing for a pinup. Kathleen Turner’s Irene Walker, the “talent from out of town” in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, is anything but a kitten. She’s a jungle cat who prowls the underbelly of society. A cool and cagey pro, Irene wields a gun like a precision tool and never leaves an assignment unfinished.

A blackly comic and insidiously sly love story in the unforgiving underworld of mob families and freelance criminals, Prizzi’s Honor plays like The Godfather stripped of its Shakespearean dimensions of underworld royalty and tragedy. Adapted by Richard Condon from his own novel and directed by John Huston with a bemused cynicism and clear-eyed acknowledgment of human nature in matters of greed, love and loyalty, it stars Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna, devoted hit man to Brooklyn’s Prizzi crime family and adopted grandson of the wizened old Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey, in a career-defining performance).

Nicholson may look a bit dopey, with his pursed lips and brows permanently furrowed in puzzled intent, but he’s a sharp cookie when it comes to handling the family business. It’s only women who confuse him.

Irene is a hothouse flower Charley finds blooming in a garden-variety greenhouse. He falls head over heels for this poised, confident beauty long before he finds out she’s in the same business.

Turner, who reincarnated the classic film noir femme fatale in a sleek, modern edition of “Body Heat,” couldn’t have been better cast as Irene, a woman just as fatale but far more earthy and, in a strange way, authentic. She may be a hustler at heart, but her lies are just what Charley wants to hear. Irene’s love may be the only genuine thing about her — apart from her skill as a freelance assassin, that is.

When we finally watch Irene in action, she’s a model of cool homicidal efficiency: no wasted motion, no hesitation, no regrets, at least not until the unforgiving rules of blood and honor demand a hard sacrifice. When you’re in the human disposal business, you always hurt the one you love.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

‘The Maltese Falcon’ – The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

If there is a cooler, tougher, more shrewd and self-sufficient private detective in the movies than Humphrey Bogart’s incarnation of Sam Spade in John Huston’s note-perfect adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, I’ve yet to meet him.

The classic 1941 movie wasn’t the first screen version of Hammett’s iconic novel, but it was the first one to get the hard-boiled toughness of the story and the utterly amoral universe of double-crossing characters right. Huston, who made his directorial debut with this production, reportedly blocked passages of the book directly into script form, but getting Hammett’s dialogue and attitude right was only part of the challenge. He had to cast an actor who could back up those words.

Enter Humphrey Bogart, a veteran character actor who was just breaking out of a career playing villains and supporting parts. His lisp, the result of an injury to his lip, added a distinctive edge to his gravelly voice, and his weathered gravitas gave Spade the look and feel of a man schooled in hard knocks.

This Spade is no stranger to the guile of shady clients and colorful suspects, and there isn’t a more iconic cast of characters in the movies than the rogues’ gallery he encounters here. And I do mean characters. This cast of unusual suspects is distinctive and quirky, and brought to life by actors who fill out those eccentricities and mannerisms with gusto.

One-time Hollywood nice girl Mary Astor goes blonde, brazen and absolutely ruthless as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a soulless siren and the first great femme fatale of film noir. Peter Lorre makes the quietly mannered and impeccably attired Joel Cairo a mercenary dandy. Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman, aka “the Fat Man,” rumbles with charming menace as he spews a stream of pulp philosophy (“I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk”). And don’t forget Elisha Cook Jr.’s rat-faced gunsel Wilmer.

They make for a vivid vipers’ nest of double-dealing thugs and con artists on the trail of a treasure. What they get is the sour twist of a cosmic joke, and Spade is the only one smiling. One of the greatest creations of the Hollywood dream factory, “The Maltese Falcon” really is the stuff dreams are made of.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

‘Airplane!’ – Terminal Hilarity

airplane.jpg

Airplane! crash lands the disaster film with irresistible farce

Airplane!, the directorial debut of the writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams (who apprenticed on the screenplay of Kentucky Fried Movie), has my vote for the funniest film ever made.

Ostensibly a spoof of the barely remembered 1957 aviation thriller Zero Hour! by way of the Airport disaster franchise, it’s a lively collision of old school vaudeville and anything-goes comic absurdity delivered with crackpot creativity and the juvenile glee of Mad magazine on speed. They lob gags at everyone in the audience from 7 to 70 and don’t bother waiting for anyone to catch up.

The plot — with shell-shocked fighter pilot (Robert Hays) plucked from his passenger seat to fly an airliner when food poisoning lays the crew low — is the cinematic equivalent of a bull’s-eye mark. The writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams unleashes madcap sight gags and demented dialogue with a machine-gun delivery — fast and sloppy and unrelenting — and sees what hits the target. Nothing is too much or too absurd (“When Kramer hears about this, the shit is really going to hit the fan!”).

But it’s the deadpan delivery of ridiculous non sequiturs by the likes of Peter Graves (“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”), Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen and Leave It to Beaver mom Barbara Billingsley (who, luckily for us, speaks jive) and the stone-faced intensity of Robert Stack, who delivers his lines like he’s chewing rocks and spitting out gravel, that sends the comedy into bizarro nirvana. It’s as if the Looney Tunes gang broke into the drama unit sometime in the ’50s and doodled over the studio’s latest humorless thriller.

Stephen Stucker almost steals the film as the dotty air-control prankster whose goofball antics and arbitrary outbursts (“And Leon is getting laaaaarrrrrger!”) seem to boomerang in from the Twilight Zone, but no one else mugs for a laugh here (take note, Leslie Nielsen; you’ve apparently forgotten that it’s funnier when you keep a straight face). Even the score by Elmer Bernstein plays it straight, pounding out a state of high tension that the directors deflate with every giggle.

Is it the best comedy ever made? I don’t know, but it surely is the funniest. I stand by that. And don’t call me Shirley.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.