BEN-HUR (1959). For over a half-century, this mammoth production has held the record for the most Oscar wins with 11, a feat tied in recent years by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. While it may be depressing to interpret that as meaning the Academy believes these to be the three greatest films of all time (um, hardly), such a skewed viewpoint shouldn't be held against the movies themselves, all of which get the job done. From a technical standpoint, Ben-Hur is the most impressive of the bunch: While the newer pictures relied heavily on CGI work, this Biblical epic had to do it the old-fashioned way, with blood, sweat and that proverbial cast of thousands. MGM rolled the dice on this one, investing a wad of dough as the studio teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. But the movie proved to be a resounding success worldwide — even its hefty 222-minute running time didn't deter audiences from reveling in its widescreen splendor. As the Jew whose skirmishes with the Roman conquerors fuel his anger until his soul is saved by Christ, Oscar-winning Charlton Heston wavers between stiff indignity and genuine pathos — more consistent is Stephen Boyd, whose underrated turn provides the right measure of suave sadism as Ben-Hur's antagonist Messala. And yes, the obvious homosexual vibe between Ben-Hur and Messala was largely intended: Boyd, director William Wyler and co-scripter Gore Vidal all discussed it before shooting, though they didn't tell Heston for fear he would freak out! One of the best of the 50s glut of Biblical epics — and far superior to Heston's other gargantuan religious flick, 1956's The Ten Commandments — Ben-Hur is an impressive undertaking anchored by that incredible chariot race.
Warner Bros. (which now owns the film) has understandably given Ben-Hur its deluxe treatment, with three Blu-rays — two containing the film (looking fabulous, I might add), the third housing the bonus features — served up inside an oversized, Limited Edition package. Extras include the new 78-minute documentary Charlton Heston & Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey; two hour-long features, 1994's Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic and 2005's Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema; the acclaimed 1925 silent version, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ; screen tests of actors who didn't get cast (including The Naked Gun's Leslie Nielsen as Messala); and footage of the film kicking ass at the 1960 Academy Awards ceremony. The set also includes a 64-page hardcover book full of photos and facts, as well as an invaluable, 128-page replica of the diary that Heston kept while making the movie.
DUMBO (1941). It often seems as if Blu-ray was created primarily as a showcase for animated features, and here comes Dumbo to again prove this point. This genuine classic may be 70 years old, but the clarity and colors explode anew in this format, making for an eye-popping experience. As for the picture itself, it was reportedly Walt Disney's favorite of his own output, doubtless part of the reason being that its success saved the studio as it struggled from the soft performances of Pinocchio and Fantasia (both 1940). Running a scant 64 minutes, this story of alienation, acceptance and personal achievement centers on the little elephant with the big ears, a trusting soul who's treated poorly by everyone except his doting mother Mrs. Jumbo, the rambunctious Timothy Q. Mouse and, late in the game, several cheerful crows. The imagination that went into conceptualizing each segment is astounding, with the drunken "pink elephants" sequence a particular highlight. And forget about Bambi's mom getting blown away: The moment when lonely Dumbo is comforted by his imprisoned mom through the cell bars is the real heartbreaker in the Disney canon. An Academy Award winner for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, this also earned a Best Original Song nomination for "Baby Mine," although truth be told, the other tunes (including "When I See an Elephant Fly" and "Elephants on Parade") are just as exemplary.
Blu-ray extras include the Cine-Explore option (picture-in-picture interviews); a deleted scene and a deleted song (both starring Timothy Q. Mouse); a 28-minute making-of featurette; a 15-minute piece in which various people (including Roy Disney and Leonard Maltin) discuss the movie's appeal; an absolutely fascinating segment (excerpted from the 1941 behind-the-Disney-scenes film The Reluctant Dragon) showing how the sound effects were created for the Dumbo character Casey Junior (the train); two vintage cartoon shorts (Elmer Elephant and The Flying Mouse); and two interactive children's games.
INCENDIES (2010). Of the four 2010 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees that I've seen (the MIA: Algeria's Outside the Law), Canada's Incendies ranks as the only one remotely worthy of the prize (the actual winner was Denmark's so-so In a Better World). Moving back and forth in time, the movie initially focuses on twin siblings Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) as they attend the reading of their mother's will. In a letter given to their lawyer and family friend (Remy Girard), the late Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) writes of shameful secrets in her past and instructs her children to journey from Canada to the Middle East to locate the father they thought had died and the brother they never knew they had. A bitter Simon opts to stay put, so Jeanne heads out on her own, piecing together a horrific family history (shown in ample flashbacks) replete with murder, rape and religious intolerance. Narratively propulsive and visually explosive — it's hard to believe this was once a stage play — Incendies is a disturbing picture that piles on the tragedies like layers on a wedding cake, and the final twist will prove to be too much for many viewers. But the examination of the absurdity behind faith-based conflicts should strike a chord with all audiences, and Azabal's excellent performance remains honest even when the picture around her occasionally takes a few baby steps toward contrivance.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director Denis Villeneuve, and a 44-minute making-of piece.
MASTER OF THE WORLD (1961) / THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN (1977). Two recent Manufacturing-on-Demand titles from MGM offer engaging premises, but only one manages to get off the ground. That would be Master of the World, which finds renowned horror/sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Night Stalker) mashing together two Jules Verne novels to produce an entertaining tale that often plays like a "B" version of Disney's Verne adaptation 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Vincent Price stars as the Nemo-like Robur, who commands a massive airship from which he orders the countries of the world to cease their warmongering ways or else face his wrath. He holds four prisoners aboard his vessel, one of them (Charles Bronson) a U.S. government agent determined to stop Robur from dropping any more bombs. Master of the World isn't a complete success, but it's perfect Saturday-afternoon couch fare, and it's nice to see Bronson in an atypical role as a hero willing to bend the rules of civility to bring down his target. The Incredible Melting Man, meanwhile, is so bad that it's been honored with its very own Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode. Brave viewers wanting to check out the picture straight up, without Mike Nelson and Co. there to ease the pain, can plunge right into this edition: A tacky terror tale, it finds astronaut Steve West (Alex Rebar) surviving a botched space odyssey and returning to earth as a murderous glob of jello. An embarrassment in terms of its dialogue, performances and direction, it finds its only redemption in the excellent makeup effects created by seven-time Oscar winner Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Men in Black).
The only extras on the DVDs are the original theatrical trailers.
Master of the World: ***
The Incredible Melting Man: *1/2
MIMIC (1997). Based on the short story by Donald A. Wollheim, this earlier effort from Pan's Labyrinth writer-director Guillermo del Toro finds Mira Sorvino (not long after her Mighty Aphrodite Oscar win) cast as a scientist who creates a new strain of insect to help combat a deadly disease that's being spread by cockroaches across New York City. The ploy initially works, but three years down the line, she's shocked to learn that the new breed has rushed through countless generations of development and now lives in the bowels of the New York subway system. The script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins — and, based on the advance material at the time, Steven Soderbergh and John Sayles in uncredited assists — manages to cleverly incorporate elements from mad-scientist movies, giant-insect flicks and traditional monster-on-the-loose tales, and the mere thought of roach-like critters the size of Sylvester Stallone will unnerve anyone with even a hint of a bug phobia. The fact that these creatures have the ability to "mimic" their prey (i.e. look superficially human) only adds to the discomfort, and viewers will be forgiven for wanting to rush next door and douse their neighbor with RAID.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray release features the never-before-seen Mimic: The Director's Cut, with seven minutes of restored footage (del Toro was never happy with the theatrical version, imposed by Miramax head Harvey Weinstein). All-new extras include audio commentary by del Toro; a video prologue with del Toro; two deleted scenes; an alternate ending; a 5-minute making-of short; a 15-minute interview with del Toro as he discusses the film's troubled history; and a 10-minute look at the creature effects.
THE OTHERS (2001). Few haunted-house sagas from the last quarter-century beg comparison to such long-established classics as The Innocents, The Uninvited and The Haunting, but The Others instantly vaulted toward the top of the standings. Set on an island off the British coast at the close of World War II, this stars Nicole Kidman as a woman living in a large estate with her two children (Alakina Mann and James Bentley), both of whom suffer from a peculiar — and potentially lethal — allergy that makes them incapable of withstanding bright light. The three spend every waking moment confined within the mansion walls, an undesirable situation once evidence mounts that the house may be haunted. Written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar, this critical and commercial sleeper is the sort of muted horror yarn that rarely gets made anymore: Creepy rather than scary, it builds upon an overriding sense of dread that's made tangible through Javier Aguirresarobe's shadowy cinematography, an excellent music score (by Amenabar himself), and a superb performance by Kidman (whose Oscar nomination that year should have been for this, not Moulin Rouge).
Blu-ray extras include a 22-minute behind-the-scenes documentary; eight minutes of footage of Amenabar directing on the set; a 4-minute feature on the visual effects; and, most interestingly, the 9-minute Xeroderma Pigmentosum, a short piece on the real-life disease that afflicts the kids in the movie.