Many of Robert Zemeckis’s films derive their energy from a technical challenge: how to combine real people with cartoons (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), how to reconfigure human bodies (Death Becomes Her), how to depict an alien world (Contact), how to make a fictional hero interact with news footage (Forrest Gump), how to put the same actor in the frame twice (Back to the Future Part II, an authentic piece of American weirdness and a movie that deserves better than to be lost in the middle of a popcorn trilogy).
The Age of Innocence (1993) is not the only costume drama or historical picture that Martin Scorsese made but it is his only classical literary adaptation from the filmmaker that, all these years later, we still remember for edgy violence and cinematic energy. But even from the director of The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, and Silence, this film stands out for its grace and nuance in its portrait of social intercourse as formal ritual.
Adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel by Jay Cocks and Scorsese and set in 19th century New York City, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, a respected lawyer and respectable member of elite society who is engaged to the beautiful young May (Winona Ryder) but falls in love with her cousin, the worldly Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). The American-born Ellen has spent the best years of her life in the social straightjacket of the European aristocracy and arrives home a stranger under the shadow of scandal, fleeing a bad marriage to a philandering European Count. At first Newland extends his friendship out of duty to May but soon finds Ellen’s honesty and insight refreshing and exciting. As he observes how his own society marks her as outcast he starts to see his own complicity in a social world just as petty and judgmental as the one Ellen has fled. That very complicity puts him at odds with his passions when he’s instructed to talk Ellen out of divorcing her husband and into returning to a loveless marriage to avoid tarnishing the family name. The same contract that he realizes he too will be entering.
After the 1970s recast film noir in shades of nostalgia (Chinatown, 1974, The Late Show, 1977) and private eye revisionism and cynicism (The Long Goodbye, 1973, Night Moves, 1975), the eighties gave it a burst of color and energy with Neon Noir. John Landis’s Into the Night (1985) doesn’t have the self-consciously chiaroscuro lighting we associate with noir (Landis uses light for clarity, not atmosphere) but otherwise he takes a classic noir story—the middle-class innocent jolted out of his protected but dull existence and plunged into a nightmarish odyssey into the urban underworld—and treats it right. It was a commercial disappointment in its day and tends to be forgotten in the annals of post-noir crime cinema but if anything it looks better today than it did in eighties.
Jeff Goldblum is our married suburban everyman Ed Okin, an aerospace engineer whose dreams of space have been grounded in cubicle land, sleepwalking through his days and unable to sleep at night. “My life is a dead-end,” he tells his carpool coworker (Dan Aykroyd), “I feel like I’m from another planet,” and things don’t improve when he finds his wife having an affair (but slinks away rather than confront her). This isn’t a man bored by his compromises to conformity, but a man unsure why he is so unfulfilled after doing everything right.
Kenneth Branagh brandishes an improbable mustache and suspicious accent in Murder on the Orient Express, but I have no interest in mockery. Surely one reason—not the most exalted reason, maybe, but a reason—to go to the movies is to relish the spectacle of an actor battling outlandish tricks of the trade and making them fun. Branagh understands that kind of make-believe, and he hits it on the button here.
He plays the world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot, and also directs the film. Poirot boards the deluxe Orient Express in Istanbul, little suspecting a passenger will die in the night and an avalanche will strand the train just long enough for the murder to be solved.
Last year I surveyed a number of Blu-ray releases from the Warner Archive, which is predominantly a line of manufacture-on-demand DVD-Rs offering films that otherwise wouldn’t support a traditional DVD release. It also, however, releases a few choice Blu-rays each year. The difference between the formats is that the Blu-ray releases are in fact pressed discs and they feature high-quality transfers as good as any classic released through Warner’s traditionally-marketed Blu-ray line.
Because they are available only by order online (through Warner Archive, Amazon, and other outlets), they don’t get the kind of public profile that commercially released and distributed discs get. So here are some of the highlights of the past few months (or more).
42nd Street (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Released in 1933 by Warner Bros., which specialized in snappy, fast-paced pictures with working class heroes and street smart characters, 42nd Street launched a series of great backstage musicals that featured lavish production numbers in a Broadway culture where the depression was a reality just offstage and the dancers were one flop away from the breadlines. Lloyd Bacon directs the dramatic sequences while dance choreographer Busby Berkeley took this opportunity to completely reimagine the musical production number for the possibilities of cinema. This film is as much Berkeley’s as Bacon’s.
Warner Baxter stars as the Broadway producing legend who lost everything on the market crash and puts everything on the line to create one last hit and Bebe Daniels is the leading lady who hooks a sugar daddy (Guy Kibbee in leering old man mode) to finance the show. Ruby Keeler plays the chorus girl who takes over the leading role on opening night, a showbiz cliché that played out in real life: the film elevated Keeler and Dick Powell, who plays her boy-next-door co-star and love interest, to movie stardom.