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View From The Couch

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GANGSTERS COLLECTION (1930-1949). Back during the golden age of Hollywood, MGM famously boasted that it had more stars than there were in heaven. Maybe so, but the studio whose lineup was truly celestial was Warner Bros., whose stable merely included the likes of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis. All four luminaries turn up in the six films that make up the Gangsters Collection, a superb boxed set showcasing the genre that largely proved to be the studio's bread and butter during the 30s and 40s. The lineup kicks off with Little Caesar (1930), in which an Al Capone-styled gangster named Caesar Enrico Bandello rises through the ranks of the mob underworld with alarming speed and plummets almost as quickly. Mervyn LeRoy's creaky direction makes this early talkie seem even more dated, but Robinson's sensational performance in his star-making role has never lost any of its power. The formula was repeated with The Public Enemy (1931), which similarly earned a bundle of money and likewise shot its leading man into the cinematic stratosphere. Here, it's James Cagney, whose charismatic turn as violent criminal Tom Powers perfectly lines up with William A. Wellman's inventive direction and a risqué, pre-Production Code script that includes Cagney's famous smackdown of Mae Clarke with a grapefruit in the kisser. The Petrified Forest (1936) is the atypical film of the bunch. Based on Robert E. Sherwood's stage hit, it casts Leslie Howard as a philosophical writer who stumbles across a desolate Arizona eatery and proceeds to alternately debate and woo waitress Bette Davis. Plenty of screen time passes before Bogart's murderous Duke Mantee even shows up at the café and takes everyone hostage, but the two dissimilar parts of the film coalesce nicely to form a riveting whole. Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) is the best of the many movies Cagney made with real-life pal Pat O'Brien, as well as the finest of the many movies about two childhood friends who take different paths in life. Cagney (earning his first Oscar nomination) plays tough guy Rocky Sullivan, busy keeping an eye on his duplicitous cohorts (Bogart and George Bancroft), while O'Brien co-stars as Father Connolly, the concerned priest who's trying to keep the neighborhood kids (played by the Dead End Kids) from following in Rocky's footsteps. The Roaring Twenties (1939) isn't as celebrated as its counterparts, but it's still top-flight entertainment, with Cagney as a World War I vet whose lack of job prospects upon his return forces him to earn a living as a bootlegger. He quickly emerges as a leading crime lord, though he ends up losing his girl (Priscilla Lane) and his empire to his two buddies from the trenches (Jeffrey Lynn and Bogart, respectively). White Heat (1949) is the pinnacle of the pack, with Cagney delivering his best performance this side of Yankee Doodle Dandy as Cody Jarrett, the psychotic killer plagued by crippling headaches, burdened with a scheming wife (Virginia Mayo), and loved by a elderly mom (Margaret Wycherly) who can be just as ruthless as her baby boy. The explosive "Top of the world, Ma!" climax has long been an acknowledged classic. Each movie in this collection arrives complete with an incisive feature detailing the history of the film (Martin Scorsese is among the knowledgeable talking heads), as well as Leonard Maltin hosting "Warner Night at the Movies," which (emulating the moviegoing experience from decades past) includes a newsreel, a short film, a cartoon and a theatrical trailer before the main attraction.
Little Caesar:
The Public Enemy: 1/2
The Petrified Forest: 1/2
Angels With Dirty Faces: 1/2
The Roaring Twenties:
White Heat:
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THE NOTEBOOK (2004). Jamie Foxx may have earned twin Oscar bids for Ray and Collateral, but let's not overlook the similarly double-barreled assault by Rachel McAdams, who was effective as the meanest of the Mean Girls and nothing short of revelatory in this adaptation of Carolina writer Nicholas Sparks' best-selling weepie. The story is fairly standard stuff: She's young, beautiful and rich, he's young, handsome and poor, and they're forced to contend with obstacles both personal (her disapproving mom) and public (WWII) in order to keep their love alive. Nick Cassavetes is too demure a director to make this pulsate with the proper degree of overriding passion -- as the son of minimalist indie filmmaker John Cassavetes, such instincts probably don't come naturally to him -- and except for a powerful finale that will move anyone who's ever lost someone to Alzheimer's (raising my hand here), the modern-day sequences featuring James Garner and Gena Rowlands feel less like organic storytelling and more like a gimmick. Yet the reason to consider catching this is to watch the terrific performance by McAdams, whose luminescent work was curiously missing from year-end contention. McAdams is so vibrant, in fact, that it's easy to overlook the contributions of Ryan Gosling as her soft-spoken sweetheart -- until you realize that he first made a name for himself as the neo-Nazi skinhead in The Believer. DVD extras include audio commentaries by Sparks and Cassavetes, 30 minutes of deleted scenes, features on Sparks, Cassavetes and the South Carolina location shooting, and McAdams' screen test.
Movie: 1/2

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