'Night Flight' still soars over today's movies

Clarence Brown filled his cast with many of MGM's top stars for the 1933 drama of early aviation, "Night Flight," being widely seen for the first time in seven decades thanks to Warner Home Video.
Clarence Brown filled his cast with many of MGM's top stars for the 1933 drama of early aviation, "Night Flight," being widely seen for the first time in seven decades thanks to Warner Home Video. (Courtesy of Warner Home Video)

Vintage Hollywood movies were often belittled for taking liberties with history and glazing over the facts in their biographical dramas. But where are the upholders of truth when it comes to the current crop of American films?

Movies by top-rank directors like James Cameron, David Fincher, Robert Rodriquez, Robert Zemeckis, Quentin Tarantino and Zack Snyder are not only less attuned to world history, they are frequently dismissive of reality.


Contrasts don't come any more marked than in this month's new releases of a 1933 rediscovered gem titled "Night Flight" and 2011's big-budget, music-video free-for-all, "Sucker Punch."

"Night Flight" (Warner Home Video, not rated, $19.98), making its DVD bow after being out of circulation for some 75 years, is an American movie all the way, produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Clarence Brown for MGM. But it sought only to entertain audiences and send them away singing the praises of a handful of aviation pioneers who made overnight mail deliveries possible — and not in America, either, but across the rugged, unstable expanses of South America.


The barnstorming pilots played here by Robert Montgomery and Clark Gable are seen as working-class heroes; if one of them is lost in the course of his mission, he is not written off as a mere pawn of greedy corporate interests. The field command offices are also manned by people dedicated to conquering the skies so that a hospital on some distant coast can get the supplies it needs to ease the suffering of a sick child.

The script was adapted from an eyewitness account by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French author of "The Little Prince" and a lifelong pilot himself. In fact, he disappeared forever at age 44 while flying reconnaissance for the Allies in World War II. Like the heroes of his novel, he saw a job that needed doing and took to the air to get it done, whatever the cost.

Much of "Night Flight" plays today with the gritty urgency of a documentary, conveying Saint-Exupéry's exuberance about flight itself. There's a sequence, for instance, when the imperiled plane flown by Clark Gable breaks free of the storm clouds long enough for him to whip off his goggles and stare up in awe and amazement at the majesty of the firmament.

Selznick made sure to balance the story's more didactic tendencies with the glamour of MGM stars like John Barrymore, Helen Hayes andMyrna Loy.

None of them, though, could keep the film from being a disappointment at the box office.

Its scenes feel sketchy and tentative at times, tending too much toward melodrama. But what it succeeds in conveying about the early years of commercial flight make it of lasting value, even to audiences today.

"Night Flight" has been well served by Warner technicians, who get good contrasts from the picture and rescue the soundtrack from most of its vintage hiss. The DVD includes a Harman-Ising cartoon from the era, and a one-reel Pete Smith "specialty" short that captures the Flying Cordonas trapeze act from some truly amazing camera angles.

One-two 'Sucker Punch'

"Sucker Punch" also impresses, in its own way, though it's highly unlikely that Zack Snyder's CGI martial-arts fever-dream will ever mean as much as "Night Flight" to anyone. It had a brief run in theaters last March, and comes to DVD and Blu-ray on June 28 as "Sucker Punch" Extended Cut (Warner Home Video, rated R, DVD $28.98; Blu-ray Disc combo pack $35.99; it will also be available for download from iTunes and Amazon, and via subscriptions on July 26).

Today's Hollywood doesn't want anything to do with Saint-Exupéry's brand of real-world heroics. It prefers cartoon anti-heroes and flawed weaklings who can become our surrogates in vicarious empowerment fantasies.

"Sucker Punch" belongs loosely in the latter category. Like previous Snyder projects, "300" and "Watchmen," primarily, his latest effort has a distinctive, graphic-novel quality to its design, although its sheer ambitiousness gets away from him at times. The story — broadly about the warped imagination of a teen girl trying to free herself from a darker reality — might appeal to "Donnie Darko" fans and others who want to read a lot into incoherence.

It starts off with a pretty compelling set-up about a teen girl, called only Babydoll (Emily Browning), flipping out and possibly shooting her young sister. She is whisked off to a foreboding mental asylum where the female "inmates" are expected to scrub floors, dress like sluts, put on stage shows and service male patrons.


That's probably all there is to say, except that Snyder structures his script like a dark musical — only just when you expect it to break into a big musical performance, it breaks into a Ninja-sci-fi-action-music-video instead. You won't believe your eyes, which is a good thing. Trouble is, you also won't believe a minute of anything else about "Sucker Punch."

The Blu-ray, which is really the best way to appreciate the film's visual gifts, has an extended director's cut with over 17 minutes of added footage. It also contains a two-hour behind-the-scenes tour hosted by Snyder himself.

Also new on DVD

"Elektra Luxx" (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, rated R, DVD $24.96). There's very little that's funny about this supposed comedy, which is really just a loosely assembled series of off-color skits about a former porn actress muddling through a self-inflicted midlife crisis. Carla Gugino as the actress proves herself to be a good sport in a script that veers wildly from deadpan, avant-garde sarcasm to warmed-over Robert Rodriguez-style melodrama. A framing narrative device featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of many unnecessary elements that keep anything of interest from developing.

"The Mechanic" (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, rated R, DVD $28.95; Blu-ray Disc $34.95). All that any action film producer needs these days is Jason Statham, a satchel of cash and a getaway route. Statham plays his part to the hilt here as an elite assassin who turns the tables on the bad guys who killed his mentor, even as he becomes a lethal mentor himself to young Ben Foster. It's nothing you haven't seen before, but if you were left longing for more, here it is in a very loud return envelope. The disc includes lots of bonus supplements, if you have more time to kill.

"Unknown" (Warner Home Video, rated PG-13, DVD $28.98; Blu-ray Disc $35.99). Liam Neeson brings much needed depth to sketchy action roles, and here he turns a Hitchcockian head-scratcher into something quite watchable — at least until the cat is let out of the bag, so to speak. Neeson plays an American arriving in Berlin for a conference when he suffers a head blow and awakes to find others leading his life, with the documents to prove they are who they say they are. January Jones is also on hand as the cool blonde mystery lady planted to reinforce the Hitchcock vibe.

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