March 29, 2011

Topsy-turvy take on Gilbert and Sullivan

Sorry theatre snobs, Mike Leigh’s lavish look behind the curtain of Gilbert and Sullivan is just as much fun for us plebs

Also this week: Inferno, The Ten Commandments, Happiness is a Warm Blanket

Looking back at the Best Picture nominees for the 1999 Academy Awards, one thing remains obvious: Topsy-Turvy (Criterion) should’ve been a contender. Heck, it should’ve won.

When Victorian librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan launched 1885’s comic opera “The Mikado,” critics and audiences were pleasantly baffled by the collaborators’ withdrawal from their typical fare that often involved potions, curses and other cases of topsy-turvydom. Inspired by Gilbert’s visit to a Japanese exhibit in London, the opera was a massive success that even now continues to see the light of stage. 

Known for making scrappy dramas about Britain’s working-class, director Mike Leigh threw a similar curveball over a century later when he opted to make a near-three-hour historical biopic about the legendary theatre duo (with Leigh regulars Jim Broadbent and Allen Corduner as the quarreling Gilbert and Sullivan) and the backstage hurdles that went along with mounting “The Mikado.” 

The film cost less than $15 million, a surprising sum considering its impressive production values and painstaking attention to detail (it did manage to earn Oscars for both costume and makeup). 

As if the parallel career trajectories of Leigh and his subjects weren’t meta enough, look for the simultaneously released 1939 film adaptation of the famed opera. Filmed in lush Technicolor, The Mikado (Criterion) looks rather stunning in high or standard-def. As for Leigh’s film, it hasn’t looked this dazzling since the day it was released.   

Extras for Topsy-Turvy are top-shelf: it comes with a vintage director’s commentary and making-of, plus an amusing 1992 short written by Broadbent — as directed by Leigh — in which he plays an embittered earl giving a tour of his estate. On tap for both releases are interviews, deleted scenes and more good stuff. 

Also Available 
One of Italian horror-maestro Dario Argento’s most stylish and incoherent gems, Inferno (Blue Underground) never fared well on home video. But that’s changed thanks to this wonderfully restored DVD and Blu-ray re-issue. Best known as the second chapter in Argento’s “Three Mothers Trilogy” that began with 1977’s sensational Suspiria and ended with 2007’s sucky The Mother of Tears, Inferno boasts incredible art design courtesy of Mario Bava, an unusual synth score, atrocious dialogue and plenty of icky gore. In other words, it’s Argento in peak form. Extras are light, but significant: we get two new interviews with stars Leigh McCloskey and Irene Miracle, a vintage interview with the director and his assistant, Lamberto Bava (Mario’s son), and an intro from Argento himself.

It’s that time of year. Time for the family to plop down and re-watch Cecil B. Demille’s three-and-a-half-hour sweeping tale starring Charlton Heston as the dude who leads the children of Israel out of Egypt. The Ten Commandments (Paramount) is a bona fide classic that’s been released on more DVD editions than there were plagues. So how does the Blu-ray stack up? Extras are nothing new (commentary, newsreel), but it looks and sounds appropriately epic. And if you need more Moses, there’s an even holier edition containing a third disc full of featurettes and the 1923 silent original, housed between two stone tablets.I’m not even kidding. 

Charlie, Snoopy and the gang are back on the small screen in the new — if admirably nostalgic —Happiness is a Warm Blanket (Warner). Rather than dishing out the typical CGI crud that often comes with old-school franchise revamps, this one does a nice, humble job at emulating what older generations came to love back in the day: wonky animation, stilted dialogue and off-beat shenanigans. Based on a legit Charles M. Schulz comic strip, the story deals with Linus’ addiction to his beloved blanket. Though nothing can replace the classics, the voice cast sounds eerily similar, while the visuals only feature a few fancy flourishes. Extras include featurettes on strip-to-screenplay, voice casting, animation and a deleted scene.