Today we’re talking about three deluxe Blu-Ray releases of three highly notable films, each hugely important and influential in their own way. Coincidentally, each film also deals with what happens when European powers decide they’d really like to control a piece of the Islamic and/or Judaic world.
* “Ben Hur”— I finally caught up with this most popular of religious epics many moons ago at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, where it was introduced by it’s then elderly but still fairly hale star, Charlton Heston. Heston might have still been in good shape in the late 1990s or early 2000s, but the 35mm print that was shown on the giant screen, theoretically the best then available, was washed out and wan.
That disappointment is now a thing of the past with a restoration made frame-by-frame from the original 65mm negative that was so painstaking this “50th Anniversary” edition of the 1959 film actually arrives 52 years after the original “Ben Hur” release. At last, the spectacle looks as spectacular as a spectacle should, even if it’s now on relatively small home screens. (My 42 incher is by far the biggest TV I’ve ever had, but it’s obviously not the Cinerama Dome.)
Three major critics groups gave out their awards on Sunday and, while there were differences, the common thread isn’t going to give Facebook boy billionaire Mark Zuckerberg any relief for his PR agita. The awards also have some good news for Best Actress contender Natalie Portman and possible Best Supporting Actor shoo-in Christian Bale. Among the Best Actor possibilities, however, it was a split with between actors portraying Zuckerberg and his fellow real-life guys turned movie characters, Aron Ralston, and King George VI.
Simply because of geography, the Los Angeles Film Critics is probably the most influential group. The awards here, however, were the quirkiest of the three, with a split of sorts between “The Social Network” and this year’s cinephile cause celebre, “Carlos,” which may well be shut out of the Oscars altogether for a number of reasons. Though a shorter cut of the reportedly action-packed-yet-thoughtful multi-lingual French film about the real-life left-wing terrorist of the 1970s has been playing to general plaudits, a 5.5 hour television version of the film by Olivier Assayas has had shorter but successful engagements here at the American Cinematheque and is much on the mind of many of us film geeks (I just blew another chance to watch it all in a theater and I’m not happy about it.)
Assayas and “Network” director David Fincher tied while Fincher’s movie won Best Picture with “Carlos” as the runner up and also the Best Foreign Film winner. Aaron Sorkin won for his “Social” screenplay while Colin Firth won best actor for “The King’s Speech,” the first runner-up in the category was Edgar Rameriz for playing Carlos, yet another real life person. Kim Hye-Ja from the cinephile-approved Korean thriller “Mother” and Niels Arestrup from France’s violent “A Prophet” won in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor categories. While those awards are unlikely to be replicated by the Oscars, Jacki Weaver’s hopes for a possible Oscar nomination and even a win for the Australian critical and festival hit, “Animal Kingdom,” are looking up ever more with another Best Supporting Actress award. The LAFC site has the complete list of winners.
A funny thing happened this decade — the once dying genre of live-action movie musicals seems to have returned to the movie repertoire. As the decade closes, I can think of exactly two major westerns, but I keep remembering musicals that I should consider for this piece (including the mostly well-regarded French musical “Love Songs,” which I forgot to see before writing this, je suis désolé).
As a lifelong fan and a nearly lifelong tough critic of musicals, I love most of these films. However, this list is not so much a traditional “best of” and I’ve included one choice I definitely don’t like. (It won’t be hard to guess which.) These are musicals that I think contributed to the development of this polarizing and hard to pull off genre. They don’t hark back to times gone by or try to recapture a past glory that will never return, but actually take us into the future. That’s important now that musicals seem to have a future.
“Dancer in the Dark” (2000)
Earlier this year, the brilliant but often irritating Danish director Lars von Trier shocked hard-to-shock European festival audiences with graphic sexual violence in “Antichrist.” Back in 2000, all he needed to divide audiences was some really intense melodrama and an approach to making dark musicals partially borrowed from TV creator Dennis Potter (“Pennies from Heaven,” “The Singing Detective”).
Featuring a literally once-in-a-lifetime lead performance by singer-songwriter Björk as a young mother ready to sacrifice everything to save her son’s failing eyesight, “Dancer in the Dark” is maybe the most emotionally potent story of parental love I’ve ever seen. As a musical, it’s strange and arresting.
Like the Potter television shows and movies and “Chicago,” further down the list, the musical numbers take place in the mind of the lead character. In this case, however, it is particularly poignant as our heroine is a fan of musicals who, though she is gradually going blind, is attempting to appear in a community theater production of “The Sound of Music.” Below, she musically confesses her situation to a smitten Peter Stormare (yes, the guy from “Fargo”). Lumberjacks or not, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” sure seems like a long time ago.
Moulin Rouge” (2001)
As the non-musical Pixar films became the dominant template for animation and the musical form lost its last apparent movie bastion, big studios began to experiment with musicals starring humans. Unfortunately for me, the first and still one of the most popular of this decade’s high profile film musicals was Baz Luhrmann’s beautifully shot, amazingly designed, dull-witted, and over-edited “Moulin Rouge.”
Yes, this musical fan is not a fan of the musical that’s been credited with resurrecting the genre. Why? A couple of sequences work, but on the whole I expect the funny parts of a movie to make me laugh and, even more important, I like to see the movies I’m seeing. As far as I can tell, Luhrmann simply doesn’t have the confidence in this film to allow us time to view the arresting images he’s worked so hard to craft, nor does he permit time to actually see the hard work his dancers and actors put in. Editor Jil Bilcock is expected to do all the performing instead.
As for what Luhrmann and his arrangers did with the various classic songs they threw into a musical Cuisinart, the less I say about it the better. At the risk of sounding like a fogey (or a member of an 18th century Austrian court), too many notes. Way, way, way, too many notes. See if you disagree.