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Opening the Box 

With the holidays come opportunities to explore DVD gift sets of some of cinema's masters. Here's a look at three examples.

How strange that the most un-Hitchcock film would make this mammoth, 10-disc set so compelling a collection to acquire. There's no question that Alfred Hitchcock's place in history is set firmly in place. But as some of the more cynical film critics and historians are eager to point out -- David Thomson comes quickly to mind -- not all of The Master of Suspense's works were automatic classics. This top-heavy collection is a perfect example of this, because when viewed consecutively, the wrinkles of the not-so-great begin to emerge.

(Note: Because North by Northwest has previously been released, it was not included in the set I received, which is unfortunate as it's by far my favorite Hitchcock film. But we'll soldier on regardless.)

Certainly, viewed together they show a skilled technician joyfully at work, playing with notions of identity, guilt and innocence. If nothing else, Hitchcock was truly a master of making the viewer wonder just how incredibly difficult it was to get away with it ("it" usually being murder, of course). But this brings me to my original point: Sometimes Hitchcock could over-play his hand, making the novelty of the plot so "what if?" that everything else paled in comparison. So you had to find the strengths elsewhere. This is why, for my money, the star of this set isn't the hilarious if overblown Strangers on a Train (here presented in a features-laden, two-disc edition) but the completely subdued The Wrong Man (1956).

The latter film stars Henry Fonda in a fact-based story of Christopher Ballestrero, an Italian-American jazz musician who is struggling to support his wife and two children but nevertheless believes in the American Dream. That faith is tested when he is arrested and charged for a crime he didn't commit. Clearly inspired by the Italian neorealism that had formed such a key part of film noir (but which had heretofore eluded Hitchcock's own noir works), Hitchcock threw away his old playbook and sought to make the film look as real and somber as possible. Gone are the "look at me" high camera angles; even frequent composer Bernard Herrmann takes the emotionalism down several notches to the mournful tones that accentuated the episode's impact on Ballestrero's marriage to his wife, Rose (a brilliant Vera Miles). Hitchcock had never been so heartfelt in his work, and, curiously, never approached it afterward.

While Strangers on a Train (1951) is acknowledged as one of Hitchcock's better works, it also falls short of "classic" status for a number of reasons. There's no doubting his ability here to create suspense, although some of it is built out of pure frustration. How can Farley Granger's tennis pro shake this stalker of a murderer in Robert Walker? There's clearly a homoerotic subtext to this story that Walker plays to the hilt, but for all of Hitchcock's wizardry you can't help but wonder if he cast the amateurish Granger on purpose. So often the villain is the one to watch in Hitchcock films, but here he's clearly stacking the deck against Granger, who rarely was more than a pretty face in Hollywood. As the only two-disc film, Strangers features commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and others, as well as an assortment of documentaries.

The rest of this collection is a surprising mixed bag, no matter how many times you might hear the word "underrated" associated with any of them. But when it comes right down to it, I Confess (1953) cannot transcend the novelty of a priest (Montgomery Clift, rarely more wooden) hearing a confession about a murder from one of his parishioners and then becoming a prime suspect along the way. Similarly, Stage Fright (1949) is a frightful bore, barely held together by Marlene Dietrich's energetic apathy as a popular stage actress suspected of murder. As popular as Dial M for Murder (1954) may be considered, repeated viewing suggests that once again Hitchcock tries to get by more on the charm of his actors (Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and cheeky John Williams.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) is Hitchcock's lone attempt at a screwball comedy, and despite a fairly promising beginning, fueled by a kinetic energy between such genre pros as Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery, the story appears to go nowhere. I remember reading somewhere that Hitchock could be heard snoozing behind the camera, and I doubt it matters whether it's an exaggeration. So bizarre, isn't it, that Hitchcock could be at his funniest when at his most frightening (see Psycho) but then appear ill-equipped when the laughs are telegraphed.

Perhaps a better example of this ability is with another jewel, 1941's Suspicion, in which shy heiress Joan Fontaine lives in constant fear of her caddish husband Cary Grant ­ she suspects him of plotting to murder her. Fontaine, fresh off her Best Actress Oscar nomination for the previous year's Rebecca (which won for Best Picture), won the statuette with this performance. It's a nervy combination of fear, sophistication, naivete and steely strength -- though it's a bit of a shame it overshadowed Grant's delicious attempt to play somewhat against type. And yes, the glowing glass of mild -- courtesy a light bulb -- is one of Hitch's great suspense touches.

The Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection shows Hitchcock at the top and, shall we concede, middle of his game -- reinforcing his legendary status yet again while also showing that, like all the greats, he could mail one in every now and then. -- Simmons

The Wong Kar-Wai Collection: As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together A-

In the English dictionaries under the word "cool" should be the very Chinese face of Wong Kar-Wai. For as all-meaning and elusive as the word might be to define by most people, all it takes is one look at a Wong Kar-Wai film and you just know what it means. One definition, posed by a beatnik and recaptured on that fabulous Rhino compilation The Beat Generation, cool means knowing the exact appropriate behavior for any given situation.

Wong Kar-Wai knows this all too well, but he also knows that the coolest in cinema -- from James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause to Robert De Niro in Mean Streets -- are alienated, misunderstood, frustrated square pegs. And time almost always is running out on them if something doesn't happen soon. That is why Kar-Wai's film don't just have such a photographic elegance to them; there's an sense of urgency that is alternately unnerving and liberating. His characters feel as if they're simply going to explode, even when they're moving in slow motion.

This set features all of Kar-Wai's early works with the noted exception of his lone martial-arts epic, 1992's Ashes of Time. Interestingly, his frustration at completing this monster of a movie inspired Kar-Wai to write the more typical work, Chungking Express, which he would release after completing Ashes. We learn this from the extras included on Chungking Express, which Quentin Tarantino selected as the first in his Rolling Thunder Pictures series of films he admired. Anyway, the films lead the viewer all the way from Kar-Wai's beginnings and stopping with 1997's Happy Together, which earned him the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. (Local movie-goers may recognize his subsequent release, 2000's In the Mood for Love.)

Called "the most romantic filmmaker in the world" by Time's Richard Corliss (the quote graces the cover of this five-disc collection), Kar-Wai understands that love always comes at a heavy price, and not all of us are willing to pay. So many of his lovers can't quite connect in the end, if at all.

Kar-Wai loves to work with saturated colors, high-, low- and off-kilter angles and often pushes his wide-angle lens to its fish-eyed conclusion of distorted imagery. Love, after all, pulls us apart, and that's how he often likes to make us feel. So it's no wonder he got his start in graphic design and photography studying such legends as the recently departed Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon. He received his early tutelage working in TV and as a screenwriter, all which built up to his smashing directorial debut, 1988's As Tears Go By. Lifted liberally from Martin Scorsese's own debut, 1973's Mean Streets, As Tears Go By was unlike anything else Hong Kong had seen by more traditional action directors as John Woo. Kar-Wai tucked street violence around the romance between Wah (Andy Lau) and his ailing cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung, herself a Honk Kong action star at the time) and Wah's frustrated efforts to tame his volatile young protege, Fly (Jacky Cheung, who won a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor).

Clearly influenced by Jean-Luc Godard and the rest of the French New Wave school of hand-held camerawork, literary imagery and non-linear narrative, Kar-Wai also has a little Michael Mann in him. As Tears Go By is reminiscent of Mann's 1980s output (including TV's Miami Vice) with its bold, primary colors, brooding acting and synthesizer-driven music score. It's noir at its most colorful, but with the same predictable end.

The film would also set in motion Kar-Wai's favorite themes of alienation and missed connections, starting with Days of Being Wild. Set in the rumba-drenched days of 1960 Hong Kong, Kar-Wai's homage to La Ronde features matinee idol Luddy (Leslie Cheung, who committed suicide last year) tormenting concession worker Su Lizen (Maggie Cheung, again) with his early seduction and subsequent abandonment. He has issues, after all, never knowing his mother and raised by his aunt. Su Lizen confesses her woes to a policeman (Tony Leung), who reluctantly then falls for her.

With Tarantino's help, Chungking Express gained Kar-Wai his largest Western audience to date. And for good reason; his characters wage war with their alienation with even higher stakes, with Kar-Wai's formalist sensibilities taking over. He's clearly more interested in mood than plot (something that can try a viewer's patience at times), and so he tells the seemingly unconnected stories of two cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) and the effect that women (Brigitte Lin and Faye Wang) have on them and vice-versa. With its allusions to Godard and Cassevetes (Lin's blonde wig is apparently a nod to Gena Rowlands in Gloria), Chungking Express will help you listen to "California Dreamin'" and the Cranberries' "Dreams." The latter song is covered by Wang, who was China's Madonna at the time and makes her acting debut here, stopping time with a montage sequence that is as sensual as all get-out despite the action: cleaning an apartment.

As equally daring as his next work, 1995's Fallen Angels, was with its parallel storylines, Happy Together is a much more cohesive work in its dead-on portrayal of a gay couple (Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung) who cannot decide whether they love or hate each other. It's alienation on its most intimate level, and will strike a nerve with anyone who's found it impossible to get out of a relationship. Leung, who has played more than his share of stoic characters, walks through the film in constant near-boil; only his sympathy for his more volatile mate keeps him from exploding. And Cheung has never appeared more vulnerable, an Asian Sal Mineo who can't contain any of his passions.

Of all of Kar-Wai's visuals in these films, my favorite is the waterfall that the couple keeps trying (and failing) to visit together but we see anyway. It's a perpetual flow into a foggy abyss that would consume anyone -- so why, then, is it so beautiful?

Because it's love, which, no matter how painful, is still pretty cool. -- Simmons

The Ultimate Oliver Stone Collection: Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, Heaven and Earth, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, U-Turn, Any Given Sunday A

Actors love Oliver Stone. Angelina Jolie has called him the god of chaos (a serious compliment coming from her unruly highness). On Inside the Actors' Studio, Kevin Costner spoke of him with obvious professional affection and great personal concern. The Doors' Val Kilmer might have fought him the first go-round but made nice in time for Alexander. James Woods and Tommy Lee Jones return to the insanity and intensity of his sets again and again. So what do these actors know? Something the October-released Ultimate Oliver Stone Collection confirms: This Oliver Stone guy is worth the trouble.

It's obvious listening to Stone's commentaries and the eight or so documentary features sprinkled throughout the DVD set that he prides himself on seeing a bigger picture, both literally and figuratively. His films can be monsters -- the director's cut of Nixon runs about three and a half hours, and JFK is an encyclopedic record of assassination conspiracy theories, a magnificent marathon of images and information all moving faster than a speeding bullet.

But it's never bigness for the sole sake of bigness; more so than almost any of his contemporaries, Stone is driven by ideas, theories, possibilities, subtext. His visual unpredictability is the perfect conduit for his intellectual combustibility, a marriage that makes him probably the most interesting moviemaker of his time. Yes, his oeuvre is imperfect -- sometimes he goes a bit too far (Natural Born Killers); sometimes he falls just short (U-Turn). But who else can make eye candy so smart your brain hurts (JFK)? And who else makes technically brilliant movies that ping-pong so perfectly around the screen (Any Given Sunday)?

The director's cut of JFK serves as this collection's spiritual and literal centerpiece. In the commentary, Stone refers to the 1991 film as his Godfather, and he couldn't be more right. The opening sequence alone is masterful, combining John Williams' amazing score, Martin Sheen's contextualizing voiceover and Oliver Stone's flawless visual sense. He feels no need to establish flow in the usual sense, creating small snapshots instead and weaving them together in an impressionistic triumph. As shots ring out (don't believe anyone who tells you they know from where), pigeons fly from their rooftop roost on a downtown Dallas building -- a simple, violent movement that perfectly captures the mayhem of the moment yet circumnavigates the physical gore of the assassination, which will be introduced later. (It also happens to be an immaculate visual metaphor for the myriad threads of conspiracies that raced from Dealey Plaza that day.)

JFK is just one example of how Stone's mastery of his medium frequently gets overshadowed by the provocative nature of his messages or the excesses of his personality; the film's radioactivity grew from questions about its historicity and Stone's creative condensations. Cultural arbiters -- media, audiences, critics -- mistakenly believed Stone thought he was providing answers when really he was just raising questions. And suddenly the conversation shifted from Oliver Stone as filmmaker and artist to Oliver Stone as paranoiac and historical revisionist. (In much the same way, the upset surrounding 1994's Natural Born Killers ignored the fact that it was a film once novelist John Grisham had spun it as a murder weapon.)

Placing all of his films next to each other, though, makes it impossible to ignore Stone's prowess behind the camera. Perhaps Wall Street wears thin (although it does still claim a few great greed-is-good moments), but even the diarrheic verbosity of Talk Radio continues to play interestingly if not necessarily well. JFK and Platoon stand as the masterpieces that they are. Nixon remains a fascinating experiment. (To Stone as well, apparently, who provides not one but two separate commentary tracks for the film.) U-Turn and Natural Born Killers (glory hallelujah, Stone at long last gets a chance to explain those blasted slo-mo bunnies at the end) are frenetic, nihilistic crazy trains. The woefully overlooked, elegant and elegiac Heaven and Earth finally assumes its rightful place as one of Stone's most beautifully filmed works.

And then there are the extras. Oliver Stone's America is a nearly hour-long sit-down with the man himself for a wide-ranging conversation about his life and his work; the disc also includes his haunting black-and-white, French-language student film Last Year in Viet Nam. Looking for Fidel and Persona Non Grata are documentaries produced for HBO about Cuba and Israel, respectively. Neither redefine the genre; both are absolutely mesmerizing accounts of the filmmaker's encounters with world leaders.

Aside from a chance to see Stone's almost-entire directorial body of work together (minus The Hand, whose absence disappoints this diehard), the collection's greatest gifts are the commentaries; Stone speaks at length about every movie except Talk Radio, and to hear his passion for the layered themes of JFK is to rediscover him as an artist. This is a man who understands the literature of film and teaches us well. If there's a common theme that emerges from diving into The Ultimate Oliver Stone Collection and all its toys, it's that Stone -- ever the artist, ever the provocateur -- makes it his business to throw things at the wall and just see what sticks. Lucky for us, his wall happens to be our movie screen. -- Carlson

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