Friday, February 8, 2013

DVD Review: 'Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Best Pictures'

Hey, did you know that this is the 90th anniversary of Warner Bros.? To celebrate the nine-tenths of a century mark the studio is releasing a handful of “Best Of” collections from their long, distinguished history.

“Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Best Pictures” is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. This is an anthology, one that contains 20 films from the Warner archives, all of which walked off with the Best Picture Academy Award. Crazy, huh? Arranged chronologically, and split into three historical epochs, the films run from early “talkies” to modern crime dramas. There is a little bit of everything, including musicals, war stories, historical dramas, westerns, and epic adventures in various eras and realms.

1926-1942: A New Era

“The Broadway Melody” (1929)

The New York City musical scene is the backdrop for the story of a vaudeville sister act come to Broadway to leave their mark. Full of musical numbers and a comically combative pair of siblings, “The Broadway Melody” was the first sound picture to win the Best Picture Academy Award. The back and forth between Anita Page and Bessie Love is sharp and tight, not to mention funny, and holds up well for a movie more than eight decades old.

“Grand Hotel” (1932)

An adaptation of a stage play, “Grand Hotel” is the intertwining story of various guests and residents of a luxurious Berlin hotel and how their lives overlap. Think of it as a way different “Four Rooms”, except not nearly as entertaining. Though the film has certain charms, and a cast that includes Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and more, this left me wanting something different.

“Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935)

Sometimes I think Clark Gable should only have been allowed to be in movies where he appears on a boat. His cocky rogue charm seems at home on the deck of a rigged ship like nowhere else. “Mutiny on the Bounty” is the story of HMS Bounty and her brutal Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton), and her crew, driven to open rebellion by his tyrannical ways, and the consequences of their revolt.

“The Life of Emile Zola” (1937)

Emile Zola was a famously verbose French writer. Seriously, in his novel “The Belly of Paris”, he goes on for page after page about various cheeses in the window of a shop. Fortunately for everyone involved, the biopic “The Life of Emile Zola” doe not go on in such a manner, following the author as he battles injustice and political scandal.

“Gone With the Wind” (1939)

I’ve never liked “Gone With the Wind”. Sweeping and beautiful, Clark Gable is a total suave badass, as always, but when I watched the film for the first time in junior high, my first reaction was “Scarlett’s a bitch.” With subsequent viewings, little has changed in my opinion. Scarlett can suck it.

“Casablanca” (1942)

From “Play it again, Sam” to “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” “Casablanca” and its story of impossible love and noble sacrifice for a greater good is a pure classic top to bottom. A movie I’ve owned on nearly every format (excluding Betamax and Laserdisc), I maintain this has one of the best endings in Hollywood history, often imitated, never duplicated, as it goes.

1946-1959: The Golden Years

“Mrs. Miniver” (1942)

A wartime melodrama, William Wyler’s “Mrs. Miniver” follows a proper London family during chaotic air raids and family tragedy in World War II. I’m sure this is a fine film in many regards, but something about the stoic Britishness of it all misses the mark for me. JD Salinger does give the movie an oblique mention it in one of his stories, however, so there’s that.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1948)

Director William Wyler’s post-war drama “The Best Years of Our Lives” follows a trio of soldiers returning from World War II, trying to figure out how to fit back into American society. After the trauma they’ve experienced, and the mundane lives they’ve come home to, adjustment is difficult to say the least. If this isn’t a story that resonates in our current world, I don’t know what is.

“An American in Paris” (1951)

The City of Light and musicals go well together. Sure it was filmed in Hollywood, but that’s a moot point. Throw Gene Kelley into the mix, add a 16-minute dance number and music by the Gershwins, and you’ve got “An American in Paris”. The film doesn’t hold up as well as some of its compatriots, like “Singin’ in the Rain”, but it has charms all its own, even with a well-worn story.

“Around the World in 80 Days” (1956)

“Around the World in 80s Days” signifies childhood daydreams of adventure and fantastic deeds. David Nivens’ classic English gent Phileas Fogg and his globe trotting escapades are the perfect fodder for young fantasy. This was also my first exposure to Cantinflas, better known as the Mexican Charlie Chaplin, as well as the writing of Jules Verne.

“Gigi” (1958)

A young courtesan in training and a world-weary Parisian playboy form an unlikely friendship, one that doesn’t stay platonic for long, in “Gigi”. Light, fluffy, and escapist, this is diversionary musical filmmaking at its finest. While it won’t rock your world, it’s a fun little romp with a few catchy ditties thrown in for good measure.

“Ben-Hur” (1959)

When you think Hollywood epic, it’s hard not to immediately call to mind Charlton Heston tear-assing around in that chariot. As insane as action scenes have become these days with lightning fast, seizure inducing edits and overused computer effects, this is still an iconic piece of action cinema history, and one of the best chase scenes you’re liable to find.

1975-2006: The New Classics

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Based on Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is all about Jack Nicholson’s Randle Patrick McMurhpy. The character is such an explosion of life and enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to feel the infection seep into you while watching this. His earnest passion makes bearing witness to his ultimate fate at the hands of Nurse Ratchet (Louise Fletcher) that much more tragic. Nicholson’s performance alone is enough to make you overlook any flaws you might find here.

“Chariots of Fire” (1981)

When most of us think of the act of running it’s a chore, or an exercise, not a way to battle prejudice or give glory to our creator. That, however, is exactly why the two athletes in “Chariots of Fire” do their thing. Like most historically based movies, the story plays fast and loose with the facts, but this ain’t history we’re talking about, this is Hollywood. And if that anthemic theme by Vangelis isn’t pumping in your head right now, consider yourself lucky.

“Amadeus: Director’s Cut” (1984/2002)

It must suck to go through life as “the patron saint of mediocrity,” but that’s the fate heaped upon Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) in Milos Forman’s “Amadeus”. He’s forced to sit back and watch the manic young genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) crank out hit after hit, knowing deep down in his heart that he’ll never even come close to one of the rock star prodigy’s masterpieces. No wonder he winds up in the loony bin, that’s enough to drive a man to drink. The version in this collection includes more than 20 minutes of footage originally cut from Milos Foreman’s film, because, as he says, who wants to sit through a three-hour period piece about a classical composer.

“Driving Miss Daisy” (1989)

I was twelve when “Driving Miss Daisy” came out, and I remember thinking, how dull it would be to watch a movie about some guy driving around an old lady. This is a lovely, well-made, marvelously acted story about friendship against the odds, tolerance, and the bonds people form over a lifetime. It is, however, boring as shit, and I stand by my twelve-year-old self’s review.

“Unforgiven” (1992)

Outside of the “Man With No Name” trilogy and the “Dirty Harry” movies, “Unforgiven” is my favorite Clint Eastwood movie. The story of a aging gunslinger picking up his irons for one more go round ranks up there with the westerns of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. A bleak world of moral ambiguity, this is the kind of film where the line between hero and villain is fuzzy to say the least, and Eastwood is at the top of his game in front of the camera as well as behind.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003)

While not my personal favorite of the trilogy, “Return of the King” certainly is epic in scope and scale. Hell, most of the film is taken up by massive battle sequences. “The Two Towers” is my personal favorite of J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga, but Oscar and I have been known to disagree from time to time, and the third chapter in the “Lord of the Rings” is pretty damn awesome.

“Million Dollar Baby” (2004)

Clint Eastwood doesn’t train girls, but they sure won him another Oscar with “Million Dollar Baby”. All of the promotional lead up to the Hillary Swank starring film made it look like a female-centric take on the “Rocky” story, and many of us were taken aback when we discovered it was really a passionate argument for assisted suicide.

“The Departed” (2006)

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the Hong Kong film “Internal Affairs” is a tough one. While I like the intricate tale of cops and crooks, and the performances are great across the board, it was never even close to my favorite movie of 2006. Still, it’s a badass crime thriller about corrupt cops, and even more corrupt Boston mobsters. By the time you get to Dignam’s (Mark Wahlberg) brutal, poetic revenge, you’ve arrived at one of the ends in recent cinema.

While the collection is a nice bunch of movies in one place—for both an established movie nerd, as well as being a good starting place to explore some film history—overall it does feel a bit slapped together. The selection is strong, and the packaging looks great, but each disc is obviously from previous releases. There’s no aesthetic continuity, some have extra features, others don’t, and some are even parts of a previous set—a few let you now that this is the one of multiple discs. For example, “Return of the King” is definitely not the extended version, it’s the original theatrical cut; and the “Amadeus” director’s cut is “disc B” of a set. You can imagine that “disc A” may be the cut shown in theaters. All in all, this feels hurried, like one of those collections of random public domain horror films you buy for six dollars at the checkout stand of the supermarket around Halloween.

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