It’s time for another look at (relatively) recent Blu-Rays and DVDs aimed at the hardcore movie lover — though more casual viewers looking for something beyond Hollywood’s latest mass-market offerings are certainly allowed to kibitz at the Corner as well. Today’s selections are from Hollywood, off-Hollywood, England, and France and were made mostly in the 1930s or the 1970s, though we will be looking at one from 1998 — only yesterday!
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.)
Some sad news from the world theatrical anime. Details are still sketchy at this point and I suppose its possible it could turn out to be incorrect, but it appears that the director of “Millennium Actress,” “Paprika,” “Perfect Blue,” and “Tokyo Godfathers” has died at the age of 47.
Probably the most critically acclaimed director in his field next to Hiyao Miyazaki, Kon was unusual among anime directors in that his films, while not completely devoid of fantastical genre elements, had a sensibility that seemed closer to live-action art film and traditional cinema than to the heavy-on-narrative pop-art tropes of Japanese animation. The comedic “Tokyo Godfathers” borrowed a sentimental plotline previously employed by William Wyler in “Hell’s Heroes” and John Ford in “Three Godfathers.” Kon’s “Millennium Actress” was a strongly stylized and somewhat arty take on traditional biographical romantic melodrama with a nod to “Citizen Kane.” Below is the opening.
UPDATE: Details remain sketchy though most seem to agree that this is not just a sick rumor. MUBI/David Hudson has more on Kon’s work and legacy.
There’s no doubt that Alex Gibney is on a historic roll as a documentarian. Within only a few years, he’s been involved with probably the largest number of popular and influential documentaries of any single human being not named Michael Moore. Those works would include the outstanding “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and the equally strong, and Oscar winning, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about American use of torture in the “war on terror.” Gibney has also made his share of more historically themed documentaries, including “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” He was also involved as a producer in two of the other most important and controversial documentaries of recent years, the Iraq-war expose, “No End in Sight” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”
If Gibney’s past output is hugely impressive, however, his upcoming list of films is dizzying. At the recently wrapped Tribeca Film Festival in New York, he premiered as a “work in progress,” a new and apparently very revealing, look at former New York state governor, attorney general, and Wall Street watchdog Eliot Spitzer and the sex scandal that drove him from office. He also has a segment in the upcoming film version of the super-hot bestseller, Freakonomics, as well as new films about two very different cultural legends: bicyclist Lance Armstrong and author/super-hippie Ken Kesey of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Merry Pranksters fame.
There’s also the recently completed “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” and the film Gibney was promoting at his publicist’s L.A. office one recent afternoon, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” It’s a work of amazing journalistic detail that also works very hard to be lively and accessible.
Even if I felt that Gibney didn’t quite master that “accessible and lively” aspect too consistently this time around, his “Casino Jack” reviews so far have been great overall. He’s certainly a filmmaker to be reckoned with and one with an outstanding body of work behind him and much, much more to come. Not my idea of a lazy person.
If things had gone a bit differently, she might well have been as huge a superstar as such contemporaries as Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Wood — she certainly had the talent and screen presence to do so. However, as I’m reminded by her New York Times obituary, an ugly situation involving a sexual proposition the married actress got from Howard Hughes may have prevented Jean Simmons from reaching the super-stardom she deserved as much as anyone. The vindictive aviation and filmmaking magnate may have deliberately put her in films he thought were inferior and refused to allow his film studio to lend her out for the lead in “Roman Holiday,” the role that deservedly made Audrey Hepburn a more or less instant star.
Nevertheless, Ms. Simmons, who sadly passed on yesterday at age 80 from lung cancer, outlasted her Hughes contract and gave witty and altogether enchanting performances in numerous and diverse films, ranging from break-out teenage performances as the young Estella in David Lean’s still-definitive 1946 version of “Great Expectations” (she’d eventually play Mrs. Havisham in a TV production) and as Ophelia in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 “Hamlet.” As a puckishly beautiful adult actress who pretty much owned the word “luminous,” she had no problem quietly stealing scenes on an epic scale from the likes of Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus,” Burt Lancaster in “Elmer Gantry,” Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s underrated “The Big Country,” and, most famously these days, Marlon Brando in her only musical appearance, “Guys and Dolls.” Brando was easy to outshine musically though she was also easily his acting equal or superior, but here she shows she would have had to chops to almost hold her own musically with with costar Frank Sinatra, if only the script had called for it. What she lacks in polish, she more than makes up for in sheer commitment.
An admitted survivor of alcoholism, Simmons was a class act on every level who famously complimented Hepburn on her great “Roman Holiday” performance, as painful as it must have been to watch and even though it’s not clear that she wouldn’t have been just as good in the role. She kept working through most of her life — her last significant role was her voice work in the English-language version of “Howl’s Moving Castle” — and her loss to the world of entertainment is not a small one. She was often low-key, but she was never dull.