THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... (1953). Max Ophuls' adaptation of the book by Louise de Vilmorin has long been championed as one of the screen's great "women's pictures," though such a limiting tag seems a disservice to a film as thematically far-reaching as this one. Danielle Darrieux stars as Countess Louise de... (her last name is never revealed throughout the film, always cut off in one manner or another), a frivolous society woman who, in order to pay off some debts, pawns off the earrings her husband, General Andre de... (Charles Boyer), gave her years earlier as a wedding present. The general learns of her deceit, and, amused, offers them to his departing mistress. Eventually, the baubles find their way into the hands of Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), who, as fate would have it, ends up as the Countess' lover. And guess what he gives her a present? The cyclical nature of chance and coincidence takes on epic proportions here, as Ophuls masterfully transforms what initially seems like a borderline bedroom farce into a full-blown tragedy, with the earrings shedding various coats of symbolism as they journey through this hard-hitting melodrama. The picture is notable for a number of staggering sequences, including the opening tracking shot, a ballroom dance between the Countess and the Baron that expertly denotes the passage of time, and the lovely moment when pieces of a torn-up love letter are smoothly replaced by falling snowflakes. All three leads are superb, though I was especially taken by Boyer's portrayal of General de..., whose amusement at his wife's antics fades as he comes to grasp not only the level of his love for her but also the bracing fact that she doesn't love him – his description that their marriage is "only superficially superficial" is achingly poignant.
DVD extras include audio commentary by film scholars Susan White and Gaylyn Studlar; audio commentary on select scenes by There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson; a visual analysis of the film by film scholar Tag Gallagher; and a vintage interview with de Vilmorin. The set also contains a booklet that includes the source story.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008). Is it just me, or is anyone else hankering to go out and rent a handful of episodes from the old TV series The Incredible Hulk? Sure, every show pretty much resembled the others, but Bill Bixby was a smart choice to play the smart scientist, and in retrospect, it was downright comforting to have his rampaging alter ego played by an oversized actor spray-painted in green. In this age, moviemakers have opted to keep Dr. Jekyll but do away with Mr. Hyde, replacing him with a CGI creation. The results were disastrous in Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk: A dull flick was made even less appealing by a green giant who looked like a video game blip most of the time and Gumby on steroids the rest of the time. This attempt to save the franchise (new director, new writer, new cast) is clearly a superior follow-up, even if the computers still can't quite capture the misunderstood monster on film. The Hulk looks better here than in the '03 model, but there's still a plasticity about him that removes the behemoth – and, consequently, our rooting interest – from whatever action is occurring on screen. That's a shame, because Edward Norton does his part by providing Bruce Banner with the requisite sense of torn humanity, and the film is filled with imaginative asides for fans of the comic book and/or TV series. The Incredible Hulk is a more-than-serviceable fantasy flick, lacking in the sort of existential angst that propelled the Spider-Man trilogy and Superman Returns but filled with frenetic action that should satisfy the Marvel faithful. But on the scale of superhero flicks, it falls a bit short. In other words, don't expect Iron Man or Batman to be green with envy.
Extras in the three-disc Special Edition include audio commentary by director Louis Leterrier and co-star Tim Roth; over 40 minutes of deleted scenes; an alternate opening; various making-of featurettes; and a digital copy of the film. And speaking of the aforementioned TV series from the late seventies/early eighties, Universal Studios Home Entertainment has just released the DVD box set of the fifth and final season.
KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL (2008). For its first two-thirds, this motion picture, based on the both the popular doll line and the equally successful book series, is an unexpected delight, precisely because what could have been a rehash of last year's painful Nancy Drew adaptation instead registers as a mature and intelligent drama – in this case, the G rating stands for Grown-ups as much as it stands for General Audiences. It's just a shame that the movie loses its bearings and turns into a Home Alone clone during the final stretch, though even here, I suppose the filmmakers can be partly excused for finally remembering to add some slapstick elements that serve as catnip to the kids. The film is set in Cincinnati during the height of the Great Depression, and preteen Kit (Abigail Breslin) watches as her father (Chris O'Donnell) has to move away to Chicago to look for work and her mother (Julia Ormond) is forced to rent out rooms to boarders. Still, kids will be kids, and although she has to take on more than her share of adult responsibilities, Kit also finds time to dream about becoming a published writer and to make some new friends, including a pair of young hobos (Max Thierot and Willow Smith) who help out around the place. The various plights of the Kittredges, their struggling neighbors, and members of the hobo community add a bracing topicality to the piece: As wealthy conservatives untouched by the Depression rail against (and refuse to help) everyone who's been financially decimated, it's hard not to view this community as a microcosm of today's United States of America, a place where the haves work feverishly to further separate themselves from the have-nots. The weighty themes remain throughout the picture, though they decidedly end up taking a back seat to the buffoonish antics of Joan Cusack (as a clumsy librarian) and a tepid subplot involving a string of burglaries.
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