HOW THE WEST WAS FUN: Lee Marvin, James Stewart and John Wayne star in the irresistible Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
ENCHANTED APRIL (1992). Enchanted April is a lovely (dare I say enchanting?) motion picture that proves to be as warm and inviting as its central setting. Two Englishwomen (Miranda Richardson and Josie Lawrence) elect to temporarily escape from their dull lives – and dull husbands (Alfred Molina and Jim Broadbent) – by renting an Italian villa for one month. Financial difficulties force them to take on two more Brits as housemates – a self-absorbed beauty (Polly Walker) and a persnickety widow (Joan Plowright) – and the locale works wonders on each woman's respective outlook on life. The four ladies are all excellent, although it was Richardson who especially enjoyed a banner year in 1992, with solid turns in Damage (for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod), The Crying Game and this refreshing gem. Two years later, director Mike Newell would tackle an even more popular romance, the box office sleeper Four Weddings and a Funeral. Enchanted April earned Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Plowright), Adapted Screenplay (Peter Barnes fashioned his script from Elizabeth von Arnim's novel), and Costume Design.
DVD extras include audio commentary by director Mike Newell and producer Ann Scott; and trailers of other titles.
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) / EL DORADO (1967). Paramount's Centennial Collection line returns with both guns blazing, as the latest entries in the series showcase pieces by America's two finest directors of Westerns. John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a genuine masterpiece, notable for (among other attributes) the immortal line, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." James Stewart plays a civilized tenderfoot trying to hold his own in the Wild West, John Wayne co-stars as the macho gunslinger who helps from time to time, and Lee Marvin provides gritty villainy as the sadistic Liberty Valance. Howard Hawks' El Dorado isn't in the same class, though its greatest flaw is that it too closely echoes Hawks' earlier Rio Bravo, which for my money might be the greatest Western Hollywood has ever produced. Still, El Dorado packs plenty of punch, as a drunken sheriff (Robert Mitchum) is aided in his battle against a murderous land owner (Ed Asner!) by his old friend (Wayne), a crotchety old man (Arthur Hunnicutt) and – shades of The Magnificent Seven – a cowboy (James Caan) more adept with a knife than a pistol.
DVD extras on Liberty Valance include audio commentary by filmmaker and scholar Peter Bogdanovich; archival recordings with Ford, Stewart and Marvin; a 50-minute retrospective documentary; and photo galleries. Extras on El Dorado include audio commentary by Bogdanovich; separate commentary by critic and film historian Richard Schickel; a 42-minute retrospective documentary; and a vintage featurette about the film.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ****
El Dorado: ***
NEW IN TOWN (2009). New in Town opened theatrically right before Valentine's Day, yet given its sheer dreariness, its studio would have doubtless fared as well luring lovebirds with, say, the latest installment in the Saw series. On DVD, it remains absolute rubbish, the sort of inane rom-com drivel that Hollywood recycles on a regular basis. Basically a rip-off of every city-slicker-stuck-in-a-rural-town flick ever made (Baby Boom, Doc Hollywood, The Efficiency Expert, Sweet Home Alabama, and on and on and on), this stars Renee Zellweger as a high-powered Miami executive who's sent by her corporation to evaluate the situation at its Minnesota plant and get started on eliminating half of its work force. Naturally, this well-schooled, well-scrubbed, hot-weather gal has nothing but contempt for the friendly hayseeds dumb enough to live in such a barren land, but after spending a couple of nights with a shaggy union leader (Harry Connick Jr.) and spending half the movie being force-fed tapioca pudding by one of the local Jesus freaks (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), our girl has a change of heart and decides Red State principles are worth fighting for after all. In this age of rampant layoffs, it would seem the right time for a movie to present an inspirational, fairy-tale alternative to the real world, but New in Town is so imbecilic on so many levels that it deserves only derision. It's insulting toward small towns, large cities, Christians, nonbelievers, men, women, and – most of all – film fans of all stripes.
DVD extras include audio commentary by the cast and crew; 12 deleted scenes; an 18-minute making-of featurette; and short pieces on tapioca pudding and scrapbooks (both of which figure in the film's storyline).
TAKEN (2009). Moral ambiguity seems to be the order of the day in most of modern cinema (recent examples include Body of Lies, Traitor, The Dark Knight, and even Gran Torino), but for purely cathartic purposes, there's still something to be said about films – competent ones, mind you – in which the line between Good and Evil is drawn oh-so-clearly in the sand. Take this surprise box office hit, which operates on a very simple premise: Scumbags kidnap Liam Neeson's daughter; Liam Neeson fucks them up good. That's all the plot needed for this lightning-quick (91 minutes, and not a second over) action yarn in which Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative who took early retirement in order to live close to his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Bryan's frosty ex-wife (Famke Janssen) approves of their child traveling unsupervised with a friend (Katie Cassidy) to Paris for a vacation, but the overprotective Bryan doesn't like the idea and only reluctantly signs off on it for the sake of Kim's happiness. But it turns out that father knows best after all: Within hours of their arrival, the two American teens are kidnapped by an Albanian organization that turns young women into prostitutes and sex slaves. Bryan immediately springs into action, jetting off to Paris and employing his ample CIA training to locate his missing daughter. The film's PG-13 rating means that punches are pulled in more ways than one, and the script by Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) disappointingly turns Bryan from an ordinary man with highly specialized skills in the early going into a James Bond knockoff by the third act. But Pierre Morel directs crisply and efficiently, and Neeson delivers a typically compelling performance.
The DVD includes an extended cut of the film as well as the theatrical version, but it's basically a sham, as it runs only two minutes longer. The only extras are theatrical trailers.
VALKYRIE (2008). Ever the stalwart hero, Tom Cruise takes on the Nazis in Valkyrie, but it proves to be a losing effort for the actor, his character and the picture itself. Based on a true event from World War II, this handsome yet emotionally distant film centers on the efforts of a group of proud Germans to assassinate Adolf Hitler and wrest control away from his minions. Chief among these conspirators is Colonel Stauffenberg (Cruise); he initially seems to triumph in his mission impossible, only to ... well, we all know how history turned out. Only marginally involving, Valkyrie is defeated by a thin script that fails to flesh out a single character, instead employing them all as pawns in a chess match in which the deck is already heavily stacked. Worse, the plan as presented in Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander's script doesn't seem especially sound, and Stauffenberg's handling of his assignment makes him come across as a careless bungler. While the denseness of the good guys in no way ennobles the enemy, it does make them seem like the more worthy combatants. For better or worse, then, Valkyrie brings to mind that classic line from The Producers' "Springtime for Hitler" musical number: "Don't be stupid; be a smarty. Come and join the Nazi party!"
DVD extras include audio commentary by Cruise, McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer; separate commentary by McQuarrie and Alexander; a 15-minute making-of piece; and the 42-minute companion documentary The Valkyrie Legacy.
WISE BLOOD (1979). There's something to say – and it's not pretty – about an industry that regularly films the novels of Bret Easton Ellis but goes out of its way to avoid the works of Flannery O'Connor. Then again, that's perhaps for the best, as it would be no easy task bringing this formidable writer's stories to the screen. Yet here's John Huston bucking the odds as he often did over the course of his remarkable career, helming the only major O'Connor screen adaptation to date and making sure it's a twisted beauty. Based on O'Connor's 1952 novel, this stars Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes, a wide-eyed Southern man whose religious upbringing (under a fire-and-brimstone preacher played by Huston himself) has led to all sorts of knotty feelings involving God. Unable to come to grips with his own emotions and disgusted by the crass commercialism of Christianity, he elects to form the Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified. This in turn puts him into contact with all manner of religious posers, including blind street preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), Asa's nymphomaniac daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), guitar-strumming con man Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), and an ill-fated stranger hired by Shoates to serve as a rival prophet (the wonderful William Hickey, who would later be Oscar-nominated for Huston's Prizzi's Honor). Huston, scripters Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald, and a superlative cast don't make a single wrong move with this one-of-a-kind viewing experience.
DVD extras include new interviews with Dourif and the Fitzgeralds; Huston discussing his work on a 1982 episode of Creativity with Bill Moyers; and a 1959 audio recording of O'Connor reading her classic short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."