THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954) / ISLAND IN THE SKY (1953). Wow, what a treat for movie lovers -- the long-awaited rediscovery of a decades-old classic. The High and the Mighty was a huge hit in its day, yet after a few TV airings and an extremely limited home video release (both more than 20 years ago), the film had never resurfaced, kept under wraps by John Wayne's estate and recently enmeshed in a legal scuffle between studios. But matters have been straightened out, and the result is a two-disc Special Collector's Edition that's been burning up Amazon.com's daily Top Sellers list (where it's been alternating between the top two slots). Paramount has established a new line called "The John Wayne Collection," repackaging past DVD titles such as Hatari! and Rio Lobo and offering new-to-DVD films like The High and the Mighty and Island In the Sky, another movie that hasn't seen the light of day in quite some time.
Based on Ernest K. Gann's bestseller (with Gann also penning the script), The High and the Mighty can be viewed as the forerunner to the disaster flicks that dominated screens during the 70s, with Wayne cast as a flyer who's haunted by a tragedy from his recent past. He signs on as co-pilot on a commercial flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, but halfway over the ocean, the airplane experiences difficulties, and it's up to the Duke to keep the pilot (Robert Stack) from cracking and the passengers from panicking. Under William A. Wellman's expert direction, this lavish production, beautifully filmed in CinemaScope, moves easily between comedy and drama, with the emphasis as much on the characters' personal lives as on their shared trauma aboard the plane.
Dimitri Tiomkin's famous score earned an Oscar, with the film picking up additional nods for Wellman's direction, Ralph Dawson's editing, the supporting turns by Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling as fading beauties, and Tiomkin's title song. Interestingly, the song isn't actually heard during the movie: Despite its success on the radio, it was removed from the film before release and only later was reinserted into a single print so that it could qualify for the Oscars. DVD extras include an introduction by Leonard Maltin, audio commentary by Maltin, Wellman's son and surviving cast members, short pieces on Wellman, Tiomkin and Batjac and much more.
Island In the Sky, an earlier Wayne-Wellman-Gann production, doesn't pack the punch of The High and the Mighty, though it's fairly gripping on its own terms. Wayne plays another pilot, this time forced to crash-land his supply plane in the frozen Canadian wilderness. As he and his crew cope with starvation and the brutal weather, other pilots (including one played by a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness) frantically conduct aerial searches for their fallen comrades. DVD extras include a Maltin introduction, audio commentary by Maltin and others, a making-of feature and Wayne's TV promo for Gunsmoke.
The High and the Mighty: 1/2
Island In the Sky: 1/22
THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (2005). It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while, along with the usual compendium of inept slasher flicks and nauseating kids' films that I purposely skip, I'll miss a movie I actually meant to catch during its theatrical run. The recent Crash is one such film; The Upside of Anger is another. Crash won't hit DVD until September 6, but in the meantime, here's The Upside of Anger, a movie so lovely that I'm thankful for the second chance home entertainment has provided me. Joan Allen delivers a smashing performance -- yes, another one -- as Terry Wolfmeyer, a wife and mother who falls apart once it appears that her husband has run off to Sweden with his secretary. Keeping herself perpetually boozed up and painting her every utterance with bitterness and sarcasm, she wallows in self-pity while abhorring the person she's become. Her four lovely daughters, played by a Who's Who of hot young actresses (Traffic's Erika Christensen, Felicity's Keri Russell, Thirteen's Evan Rachel Wood and Urban Legend's Alicia Witt), roll with her punches while coping with their own problems, but it's Terry's neighbor and fellow alcoholic, a former baseball player named Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), who proves to be the catalyst in her life. Both Costner's character and performance merit comparison to Jack Nicholson's Oscar-winning portrayal of a gone-to-seed astronaut in Terms of Endearment -- let's hope this underrated actor starts landing meaty roles again -- while writer-director Mike Binder (who appears as Denny's sleazy pal Shep) deserves a three-picture deal so he can continue to make disarming movies about ordinary people trying to avoid life's blows. The twist ending is especially memorable, a cinematic sleight of hand that forces audiences to reevaluate everything they've just seen. DVD extras include audio commentary with Allen and Binder, deleted scenes and a making-of feature.