RIP Dino De Laurentiis

Another link to cinema’s past has left us with the passing of the legendary Italian and eventually American producer at age 91. A truly old school style movie mogul with all the good and bad that went with that, creatively speaking, Dino De Laurentiis was instrumental in launching the worldwide vogue for European cinema, particularly in his partnership with fellow powerhouse producer Carlo Ponti and ultimate Italian auteur Federico Fellini.

During a period I personally consider Fellini’s creative prime, De Laurentiis co-produced two of the director’s most powerful films, the classic tearjerker “La Strada” with Anthony Quinn and the great Giulietta Masina, and “Nights of Cabiria” also with Masina, a great tragicomedy and a huge personal favorite of mine. He also produced two now somewhat obscure adaptations, a version of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” with Audrey Hepburn and “Ulysses.” Fortunately, the latter was not an adaptation of the James Joyce stream-of-consciousness meganovel, but Homer’s “The Odyssey,” and starred Kirk Douglas in the heroic title role.

No snob, De Laurentiis had a gift for commingling arthouse fare, quality middlebrow entertainment, and complete schlock — some of it fun, some it merely schlocky. Geeks cried foul when he eschewed stop-motion for an unworkable animatronic monstrosity and, mostly, Rick Baker in a monkey suit for his silly mega-blockbuster remake attempt, “King Kong,” but that movie was a classic when compared to something like the hugely regrettable killer-whale flick “Orca.”

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Essential Art House Vol. II

The second collection of past Criterion releases – stripped of their DVD extras (and more than half their cost) – presents an even better, more accessible collection of films from the cinephile-sanctified vaults of legendary distributor Janus Films than the prior volume. This boxed set (the titles are also sold separately) is highlighted by three of the most entertaining and emotionally open films by three of the mid-20th century’s most revered filmmaking powerhouses: François Truffaut’s innovative 1959 coming-of-age drama, “The 400 Blows”, starring a 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, set the pattern for the genre worldwide, while also launching France’s iconoclastic New Wave of the 1960s; Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 “Ikiru” is a deeply moving and gently humorous film about a milquetoast bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura, the fish-faced badass leader of “The Seven Samurai”) facing certain death from stomach cancer without benefit of a billionaire buddy or bucket list; and 1954’s “La Strada” is a wondrous surefire tearjerker by the great Federico Fellini and starring his wife, the even greater Giulietta Masina, as a Chaplinesque waif, and America’s own Anthony Quinn as a very mean muscleman. England’s 1944 “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” starring Roger Livesay and Anton Walbrook – two great actors, too little remembered – and featuring an astonishing film debut by gorgeous 24-year-old A-lister-to-be, Deborah Kerr, is from the still-not-legendary-enough team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It’s one of the most enjoyable comedy-dramas ever made, as well as an eye-opening, Technicolor, quasi-wartime propaganda epic, and my current unofficial “all-time favorite movie,” if you really want me to name one.

Definitely worthwhile, but not anyway near the same category, is another British entry, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Co-directed by star Leslie Howard (“Gone with the Wind”) and stage-to-screen specialist Anthony Asquith, and with Wendy Hiller as the definitive Eliza Doolittle, it’s a solid but sometimes slow adaptation of the Shaw play, which you may know as “My Fair Lady,” but without the music or sentiment, or “Pretty Woman,” but without hookers and with actual wit. Finally, we have 1959’s “Black Orpheus”, Marcel Camus’ retelling of the myth of Orpheus, samba style. It’s a beautiful but slow ride that has millions of fans – just not me. All in all, there’s no faulting this collection. However, the absence of DVD extras makes a strong case for curious viewers to simply join Netflix and rent the original Criterion releases, great bonus features and all.

Click to buy “Essential Art House Vol. II”

  

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