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Several new DVDs beg the question: What makes a movie star?

By tt stern-enzi · July 30th, 2008 · Movies
Since I started teaching film feature and review courses as an adjunct two years ago, first at Xavier University and now with the University of Cincinnati, at least once a quarter I have engaged my students in an increasingly lively debate about the current crop of movie stars. I do so with an eye toward history and the lasting impact of the modern performers. I ask who are the immediate stars, the box-office champs, the actors of note and who, of this group, will audiences look back on fondly 20 to 50 years from now?

It's a bit of a parlor game, an exercise in prognostication that dares to pretend to have roots in the hard analysis of facts and figures -- the facts measured in terms of, say, awards and critical recognition and the figures, of course, being earnings of films featuring said actors. But the bottom line is pure fantasy sports speculation set in the world of film. Who is this generation's John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart or Clint Eastwood? Will Tom Cruise be revered or receive our sneers? Will our boyish idols ever grow up, and who are the ladies in waiting?

And then along comes something like the 20th Century Fox Tyrone Power Matinee Idol Collectionthat draws together 10 movies featuring the old-school heartthrob in an array of roles showcasing his good looks and stage presence, which perfectly matched the mood and tenor of film during the 1930s through the early 1950s. It's easy to wax nostalgic for the days when we assumed that Hollywood wanted nothing more than to entertain us with good and simple stories told with engaging, dynamic figures minus the exploding cars, hyper-realized CGI crowds and dark, violent twists that dominate the multiplexes today.

Power certainly fit the bill. He came from a family of performers and had strikingly expressive features, which made him a natural force in the developing film scene. From the start, in a brief cameo towards the end of Girls' Dormitory, Power commanded attention and found himself alongside the likes of Loretta Young (Cafe Metropole, Love Is News and Second Honeymoon), Gene Tierney (That Wonderful Urge) and Joan Fontaine (This Above All), the romantic leading ladies of the day in zippy comedies where he danced lightly across the screen and into the hearts of audiences.

And this collection -- with five other movies ranging from more romantic whimsy (The Luck of the Irish) to the gangster drama of Johnny Apollo -- captures the nearly unbearable youthfulness of this handsome talent and will lead to even more parlor games in the future.

In Hollywood, thoughts of great and memorable actors lead directly to the characters that stand the test of time and dare filmmakers to re-envision them in new ages and circumstances. So this month, we can swing from Tyrone Power to The Mummy (someday someone will have to explain to me why, when it comes to unforgettable characters in film, most come from the horror or thriller genres) with the greatest of ease thanks to Universal Studios Home Entertainment and their individual collections intent on capitalizing on the new release The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor with a series of special and deluxe editions.

The first goes all the way back to Boris Karloff's original 1932 classic The Mummy, in which he plays Im-Ho-Tep, the Egyptian mummy reawakened after more than 3,000 years. The original is a brisk run through of the mummy's obsessive attempt to reclaim his forbidden love. Director Stephen Sommers updated the tale with special effects aplenty and more story elements than necessary, although Brendan Fraser made an appealingly dashing Indiana Jones knockoff both here and in the sequel The Mummy Returns. Each film, along with the original, gets the two-disc treatment, complete with behind-the-scenes features and audio commentaries.

As a bonus tie-in, the Director's Cut of Jet Li's Fearless gets special treatment, since Li has the featured role as the new mummy in Dragon Emperor. Fearless is less a teaser than simple synergy, but this martial-arts epic certainly deserves a second look, especially in this new expanded edition (35 minutes of additional footage) with both theatrical and unrated versions. These sets should give interested audiences much to unwrap.

From the undead to saving souls, the first season of Saving Grace comes to DVD. Holly Hunter (Best Actress Academy Award winner for the 1993 film The Piano) earned a Golden Globe nomination for her role as Grace Hanadarko, a detective who slips over the line once too often and finds herself in need of saving, which comes in the form of Earl (Leon Rippy), the last-chance angel she shares with a death-row inmate (Bokeem Woodbine). Like a host of new cable programs, Saving Grace treads in darker subject matter and traffics in titillating imagery of a sexual and violent nature, but due to its episodic framework, the show never achieves the powerful impact of a premium cable series like The Sopranos or The Wire. Ultimately, this is too bad because Grace's arc has a strong narrative pull that could evoke modern-day epic literature.

And, finally, speaking of missing the mark in terms of achieving greatness, Wong Kar Wai's first English language film, My Blueberry Nights, arrives as something of a stillborn. Loaded with talent (Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman) and featuring the acting debut of Norah Jones, this decidedly sensual sweet treat is an acquired taste and not simply for those familiar with Wong's moody romanticism (In The Mood For Love).

The main issue here is that the jilted lover at the heart of the proceedings (Jones) is too passive a character to send on an emotional road-trip from New York to Tennessee to Las Vegas and back again. She doesn't discover anything substantial about herself (or even the people she encounters along the way), rather she aimlessly circles back onto herself like a snake and, despite what should be a deep hunger, resolves to simply suck on her tail.

Blueberry Nights should be a dish worth devouring, but this is one you could skip. �



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