Saturday, Jul 30, 2016
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Gangsters & astronauts

Have we lost the long movie? Not the long-long movie - the special-effects thriller that stretches past two hours - or the Oscar-beckoning drama that, out of self importance, nudges up against three. But movies like Sergio Leone's abused 1984 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America ($26.99), that has the patience to let the incessant bliiiing-bliiiing of a telephone ring stretch across entire sequences, which themselves stretch across decades, becoming an ominous tolling bell. Or Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff ($26.99), another mid-1980s masterpiece, that uses its 193-minute running time to tell not just the history of the Mercury astronauts, but an exciting, bitingly funny look at what it means to be a hero.

Both arrive - along with George Stevens' 202-minute Texas soap, Giant ($26.99) - in new two-DVD special editions from Warner Home Video that could go a long way to re-establishing them as two of the finest films of the past quarter-century. For Leone, it's a bittersweet, posthumous victory: This is the original 227-minute cut of his last film, the one European audiences swooned over, not the two hour-plus debacle that Warner Bros. released here. American moviegoers saw the filmmaker's time-flipping gangster epic re-edited into a linear tale that made no sense and felt longer. This special edition disc is weak on extras: just a rambling commentary track from Time film critic Richard Schickel and a documentary excerpt. But the restored cut is profound - the first 45 minutes felt more like 10.

Likewise, watching The Right Stuff again, for the first time in years, I didn't want it to end: Can you believe this thing was a flop?

Kaufman seems to have started with a typically Important Movie, then scene by scene, performance by performance, removed the pretense. The 1983 drama hasn't aged a bit; the extras are generous and fun, including a two-hour PBS biography of Ohio's John Glenn. Why not re-release a 20th anniversary print to theaters?

Beside these, Stevens' Giant (1956) feels its age, and length: James Dean's performance is self-conscious; Rock Hudson is stiff. Stevens seems to be perfecting the bloated Oscar winner. It's those long empty Texas landscapes you remember. That, and Elizabeth Taylor as an East Coast blue blood not about to be tamed. As for the disc, the transfer is amazing, and the extras alone are worthwhile: a breezy interview segment with filmmakers (Warren Beatty, Frank Capra, etc.) who knew Stevens, commentary from his son, a 30-minute vintage telecast of the New York premiere, and most thoughtful of all: a trip back to Marfa, Texas, where the film was shot, to talk with the locals about the time Hollywood came to town.

On occasion, Stan Brakhage made movies without a movie camera. He would scratch out an image on the film emulsion. Or paint a picture on each frame of a reel. Before he died earlier this year, Brakhage, always far from a household name, expanded the idea of what a film (and a TV commercial) could be, arguably further than any other filmmaker. It's impossible to imagine MTV, for starters, without a Stan Brakhage first. He made more than 300 shorts, with a camera and without. Criterion's fantastic By Brakhage: An Anthology (available Tuesday, $39.95) hit the video release schedule long before he died, but its timing only adds more poignancy to this 26-film, two-disc survey of his most influential narrative-free movies. You may not know what is going on, but you'll find it hard to look away.

Two Very Different Sleepers You Might Have Missed: Considering how low expectations were, Old School (DreamWorks, $19.95) only looked like a sleeper. Will Farrell, Luke Wilson, and Vince Vaughn regress back to their fraternity days and we finally get a funny, raunchy comedy that is not sappy. Available in rated and unrated versions, the disc is pretty fun, too. Extras include the usual deleted scenes and actor commentary (everyone is on board), as well as Farrell doing his great impression of Inside the Actor's Studio host James Lipton - interviewing himself.

Frida (Buena Vista, $29.99) is the Julie Taymor-directed, Salma Hayek-produced story of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The film is too tasteful to truly sing - somewhat timid, considering that we're dealing with a lesbian communist artist - but Hayek is good, Alfred Molina is terrific as Diego Rivera, and the film has the magical feel of an elaborate puppet show. This two-disc set is quite comprehensive, too. Included are documentaries on the design, the music, and the artist herself; commentaries from Hayek and Taymor; a Bill Moyers interview with the star, and most fascinating, a brief look at stop-motion animation legends the Brothers Quay, who did the film's inventive Mexican Day of the Dead dream sequences.

NEW ON VIDEO: Die Another Day (James Bond gets help from Halle Berry and they sip a mojito in Havana and, and ... sorry, for the life of me, I can barely remember this 20th installment of the 007 franchise. Something about an ice palace and North Korea, maybe); Tears of the Sun (Bruce Willis squints off into the distance, again; two hours and many fireballs later, generations of African genocide is solved); They (are “spider-like thingys,” or so say the young meat slabs in this relatively modest attempt at atmospheric horror).

NEW ON VIDEO, NEVER PLAYED TOLEDO: Invincible (Not one of German master Werner Herzog's most inspired movies, but perhaps his most accessible: the somewhat true story of a stage hypnotist and a Polish strongman who reveals himself to be a Jew just as the Germans seize control of 1930s Europe. Slow, moody, and at times, mesmerizing).

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