by Bill Hawk

Focus Features, 2003, Color, 102 mins.- Universal DVD

  Bill Murray: "Hey, what's with the straight face?"

Well, if there's one place where Murray's often-deadpan mug might run into some serious competition, it's Tokyo, where the Hollywood star is collecting an easy $2 million for endorsing a whiskey. And that whiskey comes in handy, as Murray's middle-aged dissatisfaction is compounded by the alienation that kicks in when he faces everything from the language barrier to the too-low shower nozzle in his bathroom. At the same time, fellow hotel guest Scarlett Johansson is in a similar slump, albeit at a much earlier point in her life. Their age difference doesn't prevent these two from meeting and forging a bond, however- one that proves to be cathartic for both of them. But a ticking clock hangs over the friendship, as their interlude will soon be over......

Writer/director Sofia Coppola won an Oscar for her script, which was written with Murray in mind- and he really takes the ball and runs with it, riffing on his familiar comic persona and adding layers of emotional shading that bring his character into stark relief. He is ably supported by Johansson, and by the other major character- the city of Tokyo itself, a neon-lit megalopolis that is both exciting and foreign in every sense of the word. As the two leads go gallivanting around town, both they and the viewer can forget about their unhappiness- not that Murray can't be amusing even when he's miserable, mind you- and the film is frequently quite funny. Having said that, you must bear in mind that this is not a plot-driven piece- it's very much in the independent film mode, taking you on a journey that illustrates just how big little things can be. Cynics may scoff at these people and their problems, but everybody else will enjoy this somewhat sad but ultimately hopeful story. Extras on the disc include deleted scenes and a documentary.

London Films, 1955, Color, 158 mins.- Criterion DVD

  Laurence Olivier: "A black day will it be- to somebody."

Actually, there are plenty of black days for quite a number of people in this tale from that truly "Old school" purveyor of pulp fiction, William Shakespeare. Reprising the character with which he made a big splash on the London stage, actor/director Olivier is a sight to behold here, as a man whose physical flaws are matched only by his twisted character. Setting his sights on the crown of 15th century England, the high-born Olivier employs every dirty trick in the book to remove the obstacles in his way. He sows seeds of dissension, has immediate family members falsely imprisoned and dispatched in innovative ways, and balks not at the prospect of eliminating even very young heirs to the throne. And just for variety, he seduces the widow of a man that he himself murdered, using a technique that would shame the sleaziest nightclubbing playboy. But rest assured, his day of reckoning will come, for even a King can't afford to piss too many people off.

Stripped of centuries of interpretation and veneration, this story is a pure potboiler. Shakespeare was first and foremost an entertainer, and he really gave the audience what it wanted with this one. A hissable but wisecracking villain, political machinations, the abuse of power, ample violence, some touches of the supernatural, and a big battle in the end. Of course, to watch it all you have to run the antiquated dialogue and situations through a mental filter, which is easier for some people than others. But if you make the effort you'll be rewarded with some wickedly amusing stuff, as a cast of veteran Shakespearean actors happily sink their teeth into the material under Olivier's expert guidance. And it is interesting to see early examples of dramatic elements that have been used so many times over the years. Avoid it if the very mention of The Bard gives you unpleasant flashbacks to your school days- otherwise it's actually kind of fun. Extras on this two-disc set include audio commentary, behind-the-scenes footage and stills.

Universal, 1944, B&W, 74 mins.- MPI DVD

  Basil Rathbone: "Consider, Watson, the irony, the tragic irony. To have accepted a commission from the victim to find her murderer. For the first time, we've been retained by a corpse."

When you're one of the most enduring fictional characters ever created, you wind up doing everything at least once. In scenic Canada for a conference on the supernatural, Holmes and Watson- in the familiar forms of Rathbone and Nigel Bruce- answer a written request for help from that corpse, and find themselves facing an apparition that does more than just go bump in the night. Following clues that lead him from a foggy, moonlit moor to a house where a man lives in crippling fear, Rathbone uncovers a murderous plot that hinges on two pieces of historical unpleasantness- one factual and one legendary. Along the way, more lives will be lost, and our intellectual hero will find himself looking down the barrels of multiple guns. Will he come out on top in a contest with a ruthless and talented opponent? Well, we are talking about Sherlock Holmes here.

One of the best of the beloved Rathbone series, this entry takes place in what was then contemporary times, but the distance from Holmes' classic Victorian milieu is minimized by setting most of the action in a small village. Not that the historical details are so important when you have Rathbone, the actor who was the definitive filmic Holmes for generations of fans. Rathbone's appearance and manner are perfect for the character, and you can believe that he is capable of either outwitting a villain or sending him flying with a judo throw. Bruce's Watson strays from his literary counterpart, being played mostly for comic relief, but his relationship with Holmes humanizes the great detective. This entry is very reminiscent of the studio's horror pictures, with atmosphere to spare, some relatively tasteful violence, and a title that turns out to be a sick joke of sorts. A nicely-restored disc that is recommended for all Holmes aficionados.

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© Melt Magazine 2004