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Published: Thursday, 9/29/2005

Bowie's big-screen debut joins Criterion's classics

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth.
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Roger Ebert?

The New York Times?

Who says a film is a classic?

There's no yardstick, no Hall of Fame, no board of governors, only a rough assemblage of opinions from a handful of important critics, which we measure against public opinion and leave to marinate for decades. If, years later, we still feel like watching it, you've got a classic.

There's that way, and there's this: Pay attention to the three or four movies the Criterion Collection adds each month to its selective library of foreign films, studio pictures, landmarks, rarities, obscurities, documentaries, and cult favorites. In a day when every other DVD is a "special edition" or "gold edition," this is a true collection by serious collectors - as defined by what it includes as by what it ignores.

Lately it's added a number of important foreign films, Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning, Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis; next month brings a quartet of unappreciated samurai flicks from the '60s.

But by far the most interesting selections from Criterion are not the foreign classics, but the relatively modern films its chooses to enshrine alongside the Kurosawas and the Godards - the films it bets will hold their own. This month that means David Bowie's 1976 acting debut, The Man Who Fell to Earth ($29.98), and the strongest picture in Mike Leigh's long career, 1993's Naked ($39.95), with David Thewlis as a violent drifter who wanders across England muttering to himself, shouting, and looking for a place to rest, not at home anywhere. This two-disc set is a treat: Leigh, in a commentary track, sheds a lot of light on his unique way of making movies; basically, his casts create a script through improvisation and discussion. Playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute records a lovely little valentine to the picture; though his own movies lack the empathy that's second nature to Leigh, who made Topsy Turvy and last year's Vera Drake.

The inclusion of Leigh, often considered England's best director, is not a shock. What's more surprising is Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth. His certified classic, Walkabout (also in the Criterion Collection), is as accessible as the Bowie picture seems detached and, well, spacey. It feels, even more now than 30 years ago, like pieces of a great picture that lack the connecting tissue. Bowie plays an alien from an arid planet who lands on Earth to find water. On the commentary track from Roeg and Bowie, they don't seem to know what the film is trying to say, either, but like a great song, they don't mind. I didn't either, not having seen it in 25 years. There's a great satire here: Bowie becomes vastly wealthy, but turns to booze and drugs and forgets to save his planet from certain destruction.

A nice space oddity, indeed.

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BIBBIDI-BOBBIDI-BOO: My vote for the strangest DVD extra of the year, so far, goes to a feature on Disney's Cinderella: Special Platinum Edition (Buena Vista, $29.99). It's an ESPN-produced feature on Cinderella Stories in sports, from the 1969 New York Jets (led by Joe Namath) to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Little Janey should love it.

But that's quibbling: Disney's Platinum Edition series remains as strong as ever, an archival wonder. ESPN tie-ins are sort of unnecessary. Aside for a strikingly clear transfer of the 1948 classic, there are salutes to animator Mary Blair, the "Nine Old Men" who dominated Disney cartoons for decades, and nine unreleased songs - two illustrated (but not animated) through a mountain of old concept paintings and sketches. My favorite is a weird old promo that features Perry Como explaining the entire plot.

And you thought movie previews give away too much, now.

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ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? WHAT, AM I A CLOWN? AM I FUNNY? DO I AMUSE YOU?: The new Gladiator: Extended Edition (DreamWorks, $39.99) is modest in one way: its name. Somehow "Extended Edition" doesn't do justice to a three-disc set boasting both the 2 1/2 and three-hour cuts of this Oscar winner, commentary tracks from Russell Crowe (his first) and Ridley Scott, a 3 1/2-hour documentary on its making (with a moving tribute to Oliver Reed, who died during filming), storyboards, costume featurettes, and, I believe, a copy of Mr. Crowe's birth certificate.

Without question, it's the most ambitious package DreamWorks home video has attempted, and it's expected: The original Gladiator disc, released in 2000, was one of the first blockbusters for the fledgling format. Actually, the only thing this set doesn't address is why other directors have failed so miserably lately with their own ancient battlefields - including Scott, whose Kingdom of Heaven tried to do for the Crusades what Gladiator did for Rome. Here's my attempt at an answer: That 17 minutes of new footage (mostly unneeded) bring Gladiator dangerously close to losing the simplicity of Scott's storyline and becoming as flaky as a Troy or Alexander.

When this genre resonates (and it does in fits and starts) it's not in its lessons or characters but the way it reduces a shelf of history tomes to a man's sweat.

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SOUL MEN: John Belushi movies are some of the saddest movies we have. The Blues Brothers: The 25th Anniversary Edition (Universal, $22.98) - with its charming backstage footage and brief, fond remembrance from Belushi's partner, Dan Aykroyd - is no obvious indication: From its contagious musical numbers (with Ray Charles, among others), to the sheer enthusiasm with which it demolishes a fleet of Chicago police cruisers, to the cameo from Steven Spielberg (who probably meant to make this when he made 1941), John Landis' picture is a salute to excess.

This edition doesn't necessarily look or sound any better than previous editions. But that it comes at a time when Bill Murray is giving another refined, touching performance in a small movie, Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, is poignant. Belushi, who overdosed 23 years ago, was forever compared (half-seriously) with Brando for sheer physicality and explosiveness. Murray, at that time, was as one-note a performer as David Spade. And because he grew, his older, sillier films are no more complicated than they were in 1979. And because Belushi died, his seem far wiser than he was.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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