Video Event of the Week: Might Fox's just released and latest (still not in 3D, but with an optional soundtrack without the swearwords) DVD version of Worst Movie Ever Made™ Avatar be what we're talking about, perchance? Is it conceivable that Paramount's Blu-ray of The Last Airbender, the latest mishegass from increasingly preposterous fantasy/horror auteur M. Night Shyamalan, could actually get the nod? Or is it even remotely credible that Disney's various new disc versions of the Robert Zemeckis/Jim Carrey adaptation of A Christmas Carol are, by some strange quirk of fate, The One(s)?
Well, anything is possible, I suppose, but for my money -- and in times like these, that's a loaded phrase, isn't it? -- it's pretty much got to be the glorious new remastered Criterion Collection version of Charlie Chaplin's 1936 Modern Times.
Modern Times is, of course, Chaplin's farewell to his Little Tramp character -- although if you want to be picky, you could he say he sort of brought the Tramp back in his 1940 The Great Dictator, but of course that's because he was pissed that Hitler had stolen his mustache. Modern Times is also his farewell -- reluctantly, and with some trepidation, apparently -- to the silent era that had made the character the most famous and recognizable screen icon in the world; although it features music (Chaplin's own, including the now classic standard "Smile"), sound effects and occasional snippets of dialogue, it is mostly a silent film, and it is of course, a rather lovely irony that a film whose theme is modernity should be made in a style that had been rendered hopelessly passe by the advances of technology. In any case, putting The Tramp -- the world's most famous homeless person -- into a story set in the depths of the Great Depression was the perfect way for him to bow out, and to say Chaplin as filmmaker rises to the occasion would be an understatement along the lines of calling the Grand Canyon a very large rut. Slyly satirical (often about then contemporary politics, something that landed Chaplin in hot water not too many years later) and with a level of comic invention that almost takes your breath away, Modern Times is, for me anyway, his masterpiece, although I'll admit that the fact it was the first Chaplin feature I ever saw -- in a real theatre, incidentally, when it was re-released in 1956 -- may have something to do with that judgement. Certainly, I remember being utterly awed at the time by Chaplin's physical grace and delicacy -- the famous blindfolded rollerskating scene comes to mind -- and to this day, perhaps the most perceptive comment anybody has ever made about the nature of his artistry came from a frankly jealous W.C. Fields, who came out of one of Chaplin's earlier films and snorted "He's a goddamn ballet dancer."
In any case, here's a trailer -- from a more recent reissue -- to give you an idea.
Okay, a great and passionately funny film, obviously; it is thus a pleasure to report that it's impeccably served by Criterion's new two disc edition, beginning with an ultra-crisp looking new high-def transfer from an original negative. The set also includes the by now de rigueur plethora of bonuses. Disc one (along with the film itself) has an interview with legendary composer David Raksin, whose first Hollywood gig was doing Chaplin's orchestrations for MT and has a lot of interesting insights about Chaplin as musician, plus a nine minute excerpt from the score (minus the sound effects) and a couple of making of docs, including a fascinating one on the effects (visual and sound) by ILM alumni Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. Disc two, which I recommend setting an afternoon aside to watch (seriously) has (among other cool stuff) Chaplin's 1916 two-reeler The Rink, a 1933 home movie by Alistair Cooke(!) featuring Chaplin and Godard, and a new interview with Cooke's daughter (who, as they say, was dere, Charlie).
Bottom line: You can, and I would say should, order the Criterion edition of Modern Times over here. Immediately would be good.
And that out of the way, and because as per usual, it's going to be dark around here until Monday, here's a possibly fun little project to help us wile away the idle hours, or forget the dull aching void so many of are experiencing now that those bastards over at AMC have cancelled Rubicon:
American or Foreign Feature Film That, For Good or Ill, Would Be Most Unthinkable Without Its Iconic Musical Score or Theme Song!!!
And my totally top of my head Top Five is:
5. Titanic (Composer: James Horner, 1997)
Wow. Just what the movie needed -- Celine Dion singing an ode to low cholesterol heart-healthy snacks.
4. Alexander Nevsky (Composer: Sergei Prokofiev, 1938)
One of the greatest scores of all time, and ripped off subsequently by more action and sci-fi flicks than you've had hot meals. The irony is that the original 1938 music track was horrendously recorded, even by the less than stellar standards of Russian technology at the time. In 1995, RCA released a new edition of the film on VHS and LaserDisc -- struck from a near pristine rediscovered negative -- with Prokofiev's music newly re-recorded in digital stereo by a Russian orchestra, although the dialogue and foley work from the original soundtrack were left intact; the clip of the famous Battle on the Ice sequence above is excerpted from that version. Alas, it's yet to appear on DVD or Blu-ray; I've still got the LaserDisc, however, and if you buy me a pizza, I could probably be persuaded to screen it for you.
3. The Natural (Composer: Randy Newman, 1984)
I don't care if it's Randy recycling Aaron Copland -- this is one of the most gorgeous film scores ever. Without it, Levinson's adaptation of the Malamud baseball fable would have been little more than Major League without the jokes.
2. The High and the Mighty (Composer: Dimitri Tiomkin, 1954)
The first of the modern day disaster movies (the Airport series owes a lot to this) but most people remember it because star John Wayne whistled Dimitri Tiomkin's hauting theme song throughout. The single version of the tune -- featuring professional whistler Fred Lowery in his finest moment -- was all over the damn radio in 1954, or so people have told me; I was barely even a zygote at the time.
And the Numero Uno if-music-be-the-food-of-love-then-let's-pig-out flick of them all quite clearly is...
1. Manos: The Hands of Fate (Composers: Ross Huddleston and Robert Smith Jr, 1966)
Ah yes, the haunting "Torgo's Theme." Composers (if that is the precise word) Huddleston and Smith Jr., made Zager and Evans look like Gilbert and Sullivan by comparison. Or something. In any case, little else is known about them, perhaps mercifully.
Alrighty then -- what would YOUR choices be?