THE DVD SHELF: Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game," Plus "Design for Living" and "The Help"

The DVD Shelf   THE DVD SHELF: Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game," Plus "Design for Living" and "The Help" Screening Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris"; Jean Renoir's classic "The Rules of the Game"; Ernst Lubitsch and Ben Hecht's overhaul of Noel Coward's Design for Living; and Viola Davis in "The Help."

Cover art for
Cover art for "Midnight in Paris"

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Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris [Sony Pictures Classics] begins with a three-minute travelogue of Paris today, 60 glorious shots filmed by cinematographer Darius Khondji in full and radiant color. Once the clock strikes the telltale hour, though, we get Paris of the past. And Woody Allen of the past, too: the Woody Allen who regularly turned out films like "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan." For viewers who have over the years grown so accustomed to Allen's films that they don't feel the need to actually see them, "Midnight in Paris" comes as a delightful surprise. Woody's back, and Paris has got 'im.

Hemingway's got 'im, more specifically. In an earlier life, Allen's muse was good ol' Humphrey Bogart. Namely in the 1969 comedy Play It Again, Sam, in which Woody — live on stage at the Broadhurst — communed with the spirit of the great Bogey. (The play was made into a 1972 film which was not quite so refreshingly bright.) Sam established the idea of Woody — the characters Woody wrote for himself — communing with his iconic heroes; but your heroes at 34 are not necessarily your heroes at 76.

In Paris, Woody's stand-in — played by Owen Wilson, who doesn't look or act much like Allen but whose line-readings are uncannily like that of the director/author — communes with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Dali, the Fitzgeralds and more. Plenty more, as it turns out; this is not merely a stunt or a Parisien photo op, but rather a satirical look at culture, cultural icons, and more. Very funny, too, with Allen offering a mix of intellectual, absurdist and belly laughs. Noted with delight is an uproarious gag at the end of the film which takes you all the way back to "Sleeper."

Wilson is joined by one of those large, eclectic casts that Juliet Taylor has been assembling for Allen since "Love and Death" in 1975. Interesting performances come from Kathy Bates (as Stein), Adrien Brody (as Dali), Marion Coutillard (as Picasso's model), Michael Sheen (as a pedantic American), Mimi Kennedy (as a prospective mother-in-law) and Alison Pill (as Zelda with a Z). Also on hand — as Sheen's wife — is Broadway's new favorite Nina Arianda, who didn't rate star billing then but sure does now.

Cover art for "The Rules of the Game"

While we're in France, here comes "La regle du jeu," better known on these shores as The Rules of the Game [Criterion]. Jean Renoir saw his masterpiece as "an exact description of the bourgeoisie of our time"; the time being 1939, this was a shot at the French upper class at the very moment that it was about to be obliterated by the World War rolling towards the border. Renoir's vision was too close for comfort; the film was hooted and jeered, with offending sections almost immediately cut, and it was soon withdrawn. It didn't help — at a time when Hitler was already on the march — that Renoir's aristocratic Frenchman at the center of the film was Jewish, with an Austrian wife, and that his upper class characters were thorough fools. Renoir, in his 1974 autobiography "My Life and My Films," records that the 1939 Paris reaction was one of loathing; audiences found the film "too demoralizing."

History has treated "Rules of the Game" far better — it is frequently ranked high in the top ten on lists of the world's best movies. The original negative was destroyed during the War, but the film was restored — with Renoir's participation — in 1959. This full 106-minute version was remastered by Criterion for their stunning 2003 DVD release; this has been further enhanced for the new Blu-ray. As usual, Criterion's bonus material and the excellent booklet provide extra hours of analysis and interpretation of this most provocative film.

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Cover art for "Design for Living"

More Paris — or at least movie studio Paris — comes from Criterion with Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living. You note that I do not say Noel's Coward's "Design for Living." While the film shares the theme of Coward's 1933 menage a trois play, Lubitsch determined that the chemistry of the Coward-Lunt-Fontanne menage — in some ways reflecting their real-life relationship — was not quite replicable on screen. Thus the already celebrated director, with his celebrated touch, called in the already celebrated Ben Hecht to do a total rewrite. Coward's dialogue was jettisoned, as were the original characterizations.

Lubitsch and Hecht came up with a scintillatingly sophisticated romp, the sort of thing that convinced American puritans to come up with the Hays Code in 1934, effectively censored Hollywood movies. Design for Living — Coward's first play written specifically for Broadway — opened in late January 1933. Given Noel's lack of interest in performing an extended run and the Lunts' lack of interest in playing it with anyone other than Noel, it closed in May. (Even in the depths of the Depression, this brief engagement was a goldmine of Hugh Jackman proportions.) The curtailed-in-advance run allowed Paramount to rush the film into production, opening on Dec. 29 — just 11 months after the Broadway opening. The different approach can be seen in the cast. Gilda was played by the glamorous Marion Hopkins, in place of the not-so-glamorous Fontanne. Otto, the painter, is now George, in the person of Gary Cooper; Leo, the playwright, is Tom, played by Fredric March (who had just won his first Oscar, in 1932, as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.") Also on hand was Edward Everett Horton, in the built-up role of Max, the advertising executive; formerly Ernest, the art dealer.

Lubitsch agreed to film "Design for Living" on the understanding that he could make it into something vastly different from the play; thus, the two aren't comparable. I find the second considerably more entertaining than the first, which I think was hemmed in by Coward's necessity to write equally juicy roles and speeches for Lynn, Alfred and himself. For viewers who insist on comparing the two, the Criterion bonuses include a 1964 TV production from the ITV Play of the Week series. Introduced by Coward himself. Jill Bennett plays Gilda, with Leo in the hands of Daniel Massey, just back from the New York run of She Loves Me; and Otto played by John Wood, just prior to his journey to Broadway as Tom Stoppard's Guildenstern. Which does sound worth watching, eh?

Cover art for "The Help"

The pleasures are many in Tate Taylor's The Help [Touchstone Dreamworks], starting in the acting and writing departments. This is an intelligent and moving film, based on Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestseller set in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi, about the ladies of the house and their maids in the kitchen. Powerful stuff, well told.

The multiple stories woven through the film are in every instance enhanced by the actors. Viola Davis heads the cast; we've thought her unparalleled since her riveting monologue in August Wilson's King Hedley II in 2001 — for which she received her first Tony Award — and her equally astonishing performance in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel in 2004. Movie audiences discovered her opposite Meryl Streep in the 2008 "Doubt"; as Aibileen in "The Help," Davis carries a film — a very fine film — on her own.

She is in fine company, with Emma Stone as Skeeter, the author of the novel-within-the-film; Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, the racist among the genteelfolk; and Sissy Spacek, as Hilly's tart mother. There are no less than three standouts among standouts: Cicely Tyson as an aged retainer who is brusquely fired; Allison Janney, as the writer's cancer-riddled mother; and a remarkable turn from Octavia Spencer as Minny, a "difficult" maid who causes much of the trouble. Mrs. Lovett had meat pies; Minny bakes chocolate cake.

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From an altogether different genre comes The Taking of Pelham One Two Three [MGM], one of those crash-and-burn hostage-taking hijacking tales, the twist in this case being that it happens underground. In the New York City subway, that is. This 1974 film is something of a potboiler, but the entertainment value is high. (Do not confuse this "Pelham" with the lousy 2009 remake starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta.) Walter Matthau gives one of his prime mid-career performances, crusty and gruff but likable and almost heroic. Robert Shaw, is the brilliant mastermind behind the scheme. Shaw would become widely known the following year by virtue of his role as the mad shark hunter Quint in "Jaws." He had already attained a Broadway presence, as author of the 1968 hit drama The Man in the Glass Booth; star of Harold Pinter's Old Times; and as the title character in the one-night musical flop, Gantry. The pair are equaled by Martin Balsam, in yet another in his string of colorful character roles.

For those of you who have repeatedly heard that New York City in the 1970s was a harsh and grungy place where you didn't feel safe on the streets, let alone in the subway, the shot-on-location "Taking of Pelham One Two Three" serves as documentary proof. Watching this film all these years later, you can virtually smell the trash (and worse) in the streets and trains.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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