Oh yes, it’s that time of year again! So, if you’re seeking fresh ideas or hoping for inspiration – or some tantalising recommendations – then you’re in the right place, as here’s our handy Critical Popcorn Christmas Gift Guide 2021!
Only last year, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released their impressive, award-winning, Volume 1 collection of the Columbia Classics, and now they’re debuting 6 more celebrated and treasured films from their archive, and I’ve been taking a closer look. This collection stands out because they’re on 4K Ultra HD discs for the first time, and this is exclusively within the Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection Volume 2, which contains the Anatomy of a Murder, Oliver!, Taxi Driver, Stripes, Sense and Sensibility and The Social Network.
As well as the 4K UHD, this limited-edition collector’s set also includes a lovely hardbound 80-page book which features sections that dive inside the ‘Making Of…’ each film, alongside 6 all-new essays from writers Julie Kirgo, John Kenrick, Glenn Kenny, Michael G. McDunnah, Kayti Burt and Nev Pierce. You also get a bonus disc with 20 short films from the Columbia Pictures library, which covers a wealth of creativity in both live action and animation. And now… the main features!
Anatomy of a Murder
With timeless title graphics from Saul Bass, and a smart score from Duke Ellington, Anatomy of a Murder is a perfect way to start this boxset because it’s still as strong as it was in 1959. Produced and directed by Otto Preminger, AOAM is a compelling courtroom drama with a profoundly serious crime at its centre, as well as terrific performances from the ensemble cast.
James Stewart excellently plays small-town lawyer Paul Biegler, who is approached by Lee Remick’s Laura Manion, after her husband Lt. Frederick ‘Manny’ Manion (Ben Gazzara) is arrested for the murder of a bar owner named Barney Quill. Now, the twist here is that Manny doesn’t deny the murder and claims that he did it because Quill raped his wife. Despite his evident reasoning for the crime, it seems that there’s no way Manny would get away with a premeditated murder but as he claims that he also has no memory of the killing, they look to approach his case as ‘temporary insanity.’
Now, this case could find pace in the courtroom, but unfortunately Biegler is up against the local district attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West), and he’s assisted by another savvy prosecutor in Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). While from the outside it seems as if Biegler and Manny might not have enough legal knowhow, he does have a penchant for knowing his audience, which includes both the jury and the judge so here’s the key question: Can Stewart’s small-time lawyer beat the big boys and find a solid case for dismissal? The game is afoot, dear reader….
Like any older movie, sometimes events can take a while to get to the point, but Anatomy of a Murder is pretty tight in its narrative. It’s quite modern in its intentions for equality and intelligence. There are suggestions of secrets dotted around every scene and story, and early on you’re not sure of what actually happened, or who to believe. It’s got a real classic thriller vibe, with a smart script, rather than something film noir, but Jimmy Stewart’s lawyer still has the edge of a Detective, using those around him to weed out information for the hope of finding the right story amongst the truth and lies.
While the 4K UHD initially has a few sound issues, I felt this was more from the original – so when some characters are further away in a room, it’s literally quieter, but this is only for a second and levels out quickly in its courtroom, office and prison cell setting. Despite that small issue, Anatomy of a Murder really is a classic piece of cinema, it’s full of drama and intrigue and keeps you right there up to the finale, and it’s worth every moment.
Sense and Sensibility
It’s interesting because upon re-visiting Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, I realised how much I’d seen the various versions of Pride and Prejudice, more than this from Jane Austen, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting, as we watch the characters playing the games of the time. If anything, it’s a reminder that this is a lot darker in its story than P&P and contains special performances from the classic British cast that give it that deserved classic status.
Based on Austen’s classic novel, Sense and Sensibility tells the tale of the Dashwood sisters, the practical Elinor (Emma Thompson) and the more openly enthusiastic Marianne (Kate Winslet). Seeing these two again, and only in 1995 but oh so young, is a welcome return and reminder that their talent have never ebbed at all. Rising to their roles and the story, Thompson and Winslet offer you every belief in their setup, following the desperate fear of never being married, after their family suddenly loses their fortune.
As you’d expect from Austen, this is a social tale with wit and acumen, that also stars the stellar Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant and Greg Wise as suitors who are also trapped into their own strict rules of society, whatever their more honest desires, well, desire! If you love anything in the period drama world and have somehow never enjoyed the world of Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, well, this is another perfect film for this new release – If you need any more convincing, it was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and Best Film at the 1996 BAFTA Awards.
Could there be a more iconic role in Robert De Niro’s outstanding filmography as there is in Taxi Driver? While it’s obviously difficult to pick out a complete favourite from his films over the years – for me though, it might still be Heat – Travis Bickle is the one that people quote and visualise. You also need to see this if you liked the recent Joker, from Todd Philips and starring an excellent Joaquin Phoenix, as it emulates this in both style and the substance, as we slip into the grime and reality of a solitary insomniac Taxi Driver in New York City.
There are so many stories at play, they feel natural amongst the bustle of the city, yet it all lingers in the darkness and remains captivating. You’ve got Cybill Shepherd’s ‘angel’ and his obsession with her, you see the likes of Brie Larson and Emily Blunt in her today, there’s a young Albert Brooks, and then Jodie Foster, even at 12-years old (like Natalie Portman in Leon), showing her wealth as an actor who has gone on from strength to strength.
Taxi Driver is elegantly, naturally shot, so atmospheric and those colours pulse and pull you out of the grime, and especially vivid in 4K. And, as you’d hope and expect from Martin Scorsese, there’s something that drags you in, somehow you feel the character are you’re taken in and it’s not going to let you go until a captivating conclusion.
Stripes is very much of the era is came out, sitting cinemas originally back into 1981. Directed by Ghostbusters’ original aficionado Ivan Reitman, it follows slacker John Winger (played by Bill Murray) who loses his apartment, girlfriend and job all in one day, and so with no other plans – and on the edge of sanity – does what any flag-lovin’ American would do: joins the US Army even though he’s clearly not the right fit, and nearly kicks off World War III.
I’ll be honest, I thought I’d get more into Stripes with a cast that includes Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, John Candy, and eighties icon Judge Reinhold, but the comedy isn’t as good as other big hitters of that era and is far too ‘Carry On’ for my tastes. While I’m a huge fan of the likes of Airplane! and such, this is quite dated despite fitting that era of comedy and a good cast. If you like the silliness, and some of that old school sexism, you might enjoy this one but when even Murray isn’t always that likeable, it’s a tough nut to crack – And that’s the fact, Jack!
Oliver! Is an interesting one, obviously a classic title – and it looks great here, but it’s also one of those that people often forget is very dark at its heart and melancholic. Our orphan Oliver (Mark Lester) escapes the orphanage and makes friends with a group of kids who are managed by a criminal to nick things. Sure, there are (now) famous songs and reflection, but even when he’s nearly saved, he’s obviously under threat to be taken back. Would this get made today? Despite its book status, I think it’s unlikely but that doesn’t take away anything from its classic status, and quite favourably all that murkiness is what makes it so unique.
And, of course, the film isn’t really just about Oliver, it’s the characters and the world that grows around it, which is why Charles Dickens remains such a part of our fictional heritage, it’s timeless in that sense. There’s Fagin (Ron Moody), the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), Nancy (Shani Wallis) and Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), and my word catchy songs that remain in the brain indefinitely. When I was at school, I worked behind-the-scenes for a production on the sound and light and these tunes have stayed in my head forever.
Winner of 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, this adaptation of Lionel Bart’s stage musical is part of film history. Love deep in this nostalgia with the whole family, Oliver! is one of those.
The Social Network
It’s funny how differently I’ve viewed The Social Network over the years, while Fincher’s insight into the insane world of Facebook’s beginnings, I think we all have a slight sour taste over how much power it holds across the Globe, and no longer in a positive way. That being said, it’s a fascinating, crazy and modern story – isn’t it? Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast as a much-more likeable, even in his dislikable behaviour, and more human than Mark Zuckerberg has ever felt in recent years (just).
Because it’s directed by David Fincher, it also looks superb and especially in 4K UHD. His use of the camera, the style and setups are superb. When you throw in a stylish, complex script from Aaron Sorkin, one that’s quick, sharp and packed with information that matters, you’ve got a captivating modern tale of obsession, passion and probably never quite understanding what you’re creating. Which is the human story over everything, right?
The Social Network, you see, isn’t just the story of Facebook, it marks one of the biggest changes in our culture and society, it’s a shift in our history, a power so great that no-one can really control it. Brutally emotional and unexpectedly dark and funny (with that score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor), these accidental billionaires are as fascinating as anyone in the past one hundred years because it’s now, and we get to live through it – even when it’s not all positive in terms of recent outcomes.
Also starring Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Rooney Mara, Rashida Jones, Dakota Johnson, Brenda Song, Max Minghella and more, The Social Network was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Pictures, and really does witness the beginning of an idea that’s now part of our every day.