by Bill Hawk


Columbia, 2003, Color, 125 mins.- Columbia DVD

Albert Finney: “See, most men, they’ll tell you their stories straight through-it won’t be complicated, but won’t be interestin’ either.”

And interestin’ stories are what Finney is all about, as he’s been unashamedly embroidering his biography for so long that nobody is sure where fact ends and fiction begins. But as Finney’s final hour grows near, his news reporter son, who has a somewhat different relationship to the truth, attempts to reconcile the old man’s tall tales with plain old objective reality. Which is easier said than done when the young father- played by Ewan McGregor- claims to have spent some time with a giant to end all giants, a town straight out of “The Twilight Zone,” a circus run by the oddly-sinister Danny DeVito, a woman who can stop time dead in its tracks, and a set of singing Siamese twins willing to help a soldier on a secret mission in exchange for some solid bookings in the US. Crudup’s factual world and Finney’s fantastical one are at odds throughout the story, but the literal truth is ultimately less important than the rocky relationship between the two men, who don’t have a lot of time left in which to reach an accommodation with each other.

Director Tim Burton, an old hand at bringing offbeat visions to the screen, revisits elements of some of his previous work in this adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s popular novel. The story speaks to the importance of maintaining a sense of wonder, and the vignettes of Finney’s life have a folktale-ish appeal, with the sort of intriguing production design that you expect from a Burton picture. To be honest, the thoughts that the film thinks, so to speak, are not all that deep, and its quirkiness sometimes struggles with its sentimentality. But if you’re willing to just sit back and let it all wash over you, like one of McGregor’s bedtime stories to his young son, you’ll find it an amusing and affecting experience. Extras include audio commentary and featurettes.

Fox, 1953, B&W, 80 mins.- Criterion DVD

Thelma Ritter: “Whatsamatter with you? Playing footsies with the Commies!?”

Career pickpocket Richard Widmark, fresh out of stir and itching to get back into the game, fishes his nimble fingers into the purse of sultry Jean Peters and winds up with quite a catch- some microfilm with a secret government formula on it. Peters, you see, has been doing a carrier pigeon routine for her old boyfriend, Richard Kiley, not realizing that he’s in bed with Those Dirty Reds. When Widmark sees what he’s got, the flashing dollar signs in his head override all other considerations, in particular his patriotism, to which the authorities make a rather ineffective appeal. Peters makes her own appeal to Widmark, on more than one level, and he dances an odd attraction/repulsion jig with her while simultaneously dodging the cops, the FBI, and the murderous Kiley. Through it all, Widmark keeps his eyes on the prize- but when the Bad Guys mess with fellow underworld denizen Ritter and with the gutsy-but-foolish Peters, Our Flawed Hero might just wind up doing the right thing......for his own reasons, of course.

This hard-boiled story bears the stamp of director Samuel Fuller, a leading exponent of the “Grab ‘em by the neck” school of filmmaking. It has a crude energy that, combined with its tangential look at the Cold War, makes for some solid B-Movie fun. Widmark’s personal code- the code of the New York crook- obviously fascinates Fuller, and it provides a unique slant on things. In combination with the punchy dialogue, surprising plot twists and character interactions, and a take on screen violence that is effective without being graphic, the oscillations of Widmark’s moral compass make for interesting viewing. Recommended for film noir devotees or anybody who’s nostalgic for the days when there was a Commie Spy hiding under every bed. Extras on the typically-good Criterion disc include an interview with Fuller, stills, and trailers.

MGM, 1935, B&W, 91 mins.- Warner Bros. DVD

Groucho Marx: “Hey, you, I told you to slow that nag down- on account of you, I almost heard the opera.”

Aah, typical Groucho, contemptuous of any institution that would be foolish enough to let him run a scam on it. And scam it he does, by brokering a deal between rich dowager Margaret Dumont and the head of a New York opera company, and then cutting his own deal on the side with what he thinks is a top opera star. Of course, another Groucho characteristic is that he isn’t quite as smart as he thinks he is, and before long he’s plotting with fellow hangers-on Chico and Harpo Marx to boost the careers of young singers Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones......

and to deliver a big kick in the pants to those stuffy opera types.

There’s not much to say about the plot here, as it’s just a framework upon which to hang the vaudeville-style comic routines and general craziness of the Marx Brothers. Their antics remain some of the finest examples of sheer chaos ever committed to film, and their trademark screen personas are put to good use here as they take aim at some targets that particularly deserve it. And some that don’t, necessarily, for the Marxes were nothing if not anarchic- a key factor in their cultish appeal. Highlights include Groucho and Chico’s method of contract negotiation, a textbook example of overcrowding aboard a steamship, and the dizzying climax during a performance at the opera house. Arguable low points are some songs that might make you share Groucho’s disdain for opera-style singers, although the musical interludes with Chico and Harpo are much easier to take. In short, if you’re a classic comedy buff, this is a must-see. Extras include audio commentary, some period shorts and a documentary.

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© Melt Magazine 2004