THIS WEEK’S TOP MOVIE RELEASES:
“Stoker” is the U.S.-directorial debut of the great South Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy,” “Thirst”) and it’s quite an achievement. What starts out as a dysfunctional family drama spirals into an involving and intriguing mystery-thriller that becomes a modern-day riff on Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” — but without the sheen of mid-1940s innocence. This film is dark, rude and off-kilter through and through, with a cast of characters whose motives and actions just can’t be fathomed — at first. The story line: India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) was not prepared to lose her father (who was also her best friend) (Dermot Mulroney) in a tragic auto accident. She’s an outcast in her own mind and an outcast at school (one who knows how to defend herself when bullied by one of her male schoolmates). The solitude of her woodsy family estate and the unspoken somberness of her home life are suddenly upended by the sudden arrival of her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she never knew existed. When Charlie moves in with her and her emotionally unstable mother Evie (Nicole Kidman, in another of her against-the-grain-casting roles), India thinks the void left by her father’s death is finally being filled by his closest bloodline. But soon after his arrival, India comes to suspect that this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives. Uncle Charlie first makes moves on Evie, then decides he wants to get closer to India. But instead of feeling outrage or horror, the girl becomes increasingly infatuated with him, eventually unraveling a horrible mystery that has soiled the Stoker family’s past. Though it wasn’t a huge boxoffice success, “Stoker” — written by actor Wentworth Miller — is one of the most original and auspicious releases of the year. Blu-ray extras include “An Exclusive Look: A Filmmakers Journey”; deleted scenes; “Behind the Scenes: Mysterious Characters, Designing the Look, Creating the Music”; more.
“Jack the Giant Slayer”: Director Bryan Singer transfers the greenscreen and special effects he used so well in the big screen versions of Marvel Comics’ “X-Men” to a fairy tale — with less illustrious results. Actually, Singer takes the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale and translates it into a myth: Ancient monks, in their effort to literally climb to heaven, plant magic beans that grow into a pathway to a land in the sky unfortunately inhabited by human-eating giants, who travel down the beanstalk to conquer mankind. Fortunately, a brave king creates a magical crown that controls the giants, defeating them and sending them back to their land. Centuries later, the evil advisor to the current king uncovers the ancient monks’ beans and when they unwittingly fall into the hands of a young peasant, Jack, the gateway between Earth and the giants’ lair is reopened, and the fight for the world begins again — forcing Jack into the battle of his life to stop them. The film was a critical and financial failure and for good reason: the acting is bland and artificial, the story line uneventful and predictable. Nicholas Hoult is a whitebread hero as Jack, Stanley Tucci plays his role as Roderick, the evil advisor, with off putting aplomb; the only person really having fun here is Ewan McGregor as head of the king’s army — he must have been tickled pink with the size of his paycheck. Is this the Bryan Singer of “The Usual Suspects”? Co-stars Eleanor Tomlinson, Warwick Davis, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy and Ewen Bremner. Extras include deleted scenes and a gag reel. The Blu-ray version adds a “Become a Giant Slayer” interactive game.
Also due this week: “Quartet,” “Movie 43,” “21 & Over” and “The Last Exorcism Part II.”
“Marketa Lazarova” (1967) In its home country, Frantisek Vlacil’s “Marketa Lazarova” has been hailed as the greatest Czech film ever made; for many U.S. viewers, it will be a revelation. Based on a novel by Vladislav Vancura, in turn based on a centuries-old Czechoslovakian legend, this stirring and poetic depiction of a feud between two rival medieval clans is a fierce, epic, and meticulously designed evocation of the beginning clashes between Christianity and paganism, humankind and nature, love and violence in the Middle Ages. The plot is simple: The two sons of a pagan lord, Kozlik, rob travelers on the road to the capital and, during one robbery, kidnap the son of a German diplomat on his way to the king. In need of support to fend off an imminent attack by the king’s men, Kozlik sends his sons to neighbor lord Lazar to entice him to join him in war. When Lazar refuses, the sons kidnap his daughter, Marketa Lazarova, just when she was ready to join a convent; she’s then deflowered and made to become one of the son’s concubines. The fighting and brutality continue as the Kozlik and Lazar clans fight back and forth and, eventually, the king’s army attacks Kozlik. Despite the film’s title, it’s not really about Marketa Lazarova — she doesn’t even set off any of the film’s main actions — but rather about her epoch, environment and the events that swirl around her; she’s kind of a symbol for paganism slowly giving way to Christianity. Vlacil’s approach was to re-create the textures and mentalities of a long-ago way of life, rather than to make a conventional historical drama, and the result is dazzling. With its inventive widescreen cinematography, editing, and sound design, “Marketa Lazarova” is an experimental action film. It seamlessly moves between dreams, illusions, point-of-view action shots, flashbacks and religious imagery, all set against the backdrop of a winter white pagan world. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film with such ruthless, brutal and amoral characters — but without the gore and gruesomeness that one associates with violence and brutality. This is, after all, the 13th century, a violent, horrible world, and brutality and amorality is the norm. It’s a beautifully fascinating film, one you can’t keep your eyes off. Or, as DVDTalk put it, “‘Marketa Lazarova’ is a dizzying step far back into the mysterious, mystically-minded Middle Ages, but it’s no period piece, nor even a modern-world-aimed allegory like Bergman’s also-medieval ‘Seventh Seal.’ What the film is, indelibly and rapturously, is a visceral, full-blooded (in every sense) immersion in medieval thinking, what the world looked and felt like to our 13th-century forebears.” Another terrific “find” from Criterion.
“Things to Come” (1936) is one of the most overlooked science fiction films of all time, a classic that, perhaps due to its bleakness and lack of science fiction gee-whiz gadgetry or monsters, has largely been ignored in the sci-fi pantheon. The film was a landmark collaboration between writer H. G. Wells (who oversaw the script, based on his 1933 book “The Shape of Things to Come”), producer Alexander Korda and designer and director William Cameron Menzies. Both the book and the film were prescient political works that predicted a century of turmoil and progress, beginning in the late 1930s with the outbreak of a 30-year war that devastates civilization, turning the world into tribal enclaves ruled by warlords. There’s a worldwide disease, The Walking Sickness, and a desolate future that would be mimicked by George Miller in “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.” Eventually a scientist class arises, dubbed Wings Over the World, which brings technology and civilization back to humankind, eventually leading to a utopian (if emotionless) world and the conquest of space. “Things to Come” was one of the most expensive British productions of its day, a triumph of imagination and technical audacity. It wasn’t as well received as the filmmakers had hoped, and the original 108 minute British release was cut to 96 minutes for the states; the film was further cut to 98, 96 and 92 minutes for subsequent British and U.S. releases; the latter length has been the dominant release print from the 1970s to the present. Criterion is releasing a 96 1/2-minute version in a new high-definition digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition. The film stars Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke and Ann Todd. Extras include commentary featuring film historian and writer David Kalat; an interview with writer and cultural historian Christopher Frayling on the film’s design; an audio recording from 1936 of a reading from H. G. Wells’s writing about the “wandering sickness”; a booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien; and more. Highly recommended.
Also from Criterion is “Safety Last!” (1923), featuring the comic genius of silent star Harold Lloyd. While Chaplin was the sweet innocent and Keaton the stoic outsider, Lloyd — the modern guy striving for success — was everyman. Here Lloyd plays a small-town bumpkin trying to make it in the big city, who finds employment as a lowly department-store clerk. He comes up with a wild publicity stunt to draw attention to the store, resulting in an incredible feat of derring-do on his part that gets him started on the climb to success. In a new 2K digital film restoration with a musical score by composer Carl Davis from 1989, synchronized and restored under his supervision and presented in uncompressed stereo on the Blu-ray edition. Extras include commentary featuring film critic Leonard Maltin and director and Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll; “Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius,” a 104-minute documentary from 1989; three newly restored Lloyd shorts: “Take a Chance” (1918), “Young Mr. Jazz” (1919) and “His Royal Slyness” (1920); a booklet featuring an essay by critic Ed Park; and more.
Leaving the world of classics we travel to the surreal wild and wooly world of “Lifeforce” (1985), a cheesy sci-fi thriller from director Tobe Hooper about a naked female vampire from outer space who arrives in London and promptly begins to infect the entire population by feasting on the human energy of her victims, turning the city into a crazy madhouse of vampire/zombie hybrids. Roundly lambasted critically — and flopping at the boxoffice when first released — the film had fallen into obscurity until it was resurrected and restored by the folks at Scream Factory/Shout! Factory for a DVD/Blu-ray combo release (it was also selected by Chicago’s Music Box Theatre to screen as part of its two-week festival of 70mm movies in February, alongside “West Side Story,” ” 2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Vertigo”). It’s definitely time for a re-evaluation. (“Lifeforce” was loosely based on the novel “The Space Vampires” by philosopher Colin Wilson). The film stars Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart, Nicholas Ball and Mathilda May. The Blu-ray Collector’s Edition includes both theatrical and international versions. Extras include commentary with director Tobe Hooper; a new retrospective with cast and crew including star Railsback, Hooper and others; an original vintage “Making-of Lifeforce” featurette; original theatrical trailer; TV spot; still gallery.
Also from Scream Factory/Shout! Factory comes “The Howling Collector’s Edition”
(1981), directed by Joe Dante and starring Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens and Elisabeth Brooks. “The Howling” helped kick off a short werewolf resurrection in the early 1980s, a skein that included “An American Werewolf in London” and culminated with “Teen Wolf.” After a TV newscaster helps police track down a serial killer, she travels to the countryside to clear her head, only to discover that the killer came from a cabal of werewolves living close to her retreat. On DVD and Blu-ray Disc. Extras include commentary with director Joe Dante and actors Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo; “Unleashing the Beast: The Making of the Howling” multi-part documentary; deleted scenes and outtakes; and more.
THIS WEEK’S MOVIE RELEASES:
“Oz the Great and Powerful”: Director Sam Raimi and the folks at Disney obviously struggled long and hard to create a worthy prequel to the masterful 1939 “Wizard of Oz,” and based on the eye-popping visuals (deigned with the 3D process in mind), the CGI and VFX specialists kept up their end of the bargain. But the rest of the crew, including an A-list group of thespians (James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams, all acting here as if they didn’t want to be in the production), writers Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner (who took a clever idea, the backstory to the wizard of Oz himself, and populated it with mediocre dialogue), Raimi (“The Evil Dead,” “Spider-Man”), who had difficulty here with a ponderous script) and composer Danny Elfman, whose scores for fantasy films are starting to all sound alike), weren’t up to the task. Aside from a fairly spectacular special effects ending, this family film is mildly entertaining — the only saving grace being the development of the links between this outing and the transcendent 1939 masterpiece. The story line: Oscar (nicknamed Oz) Diggs (Franco), a small-time circus magician with dubious ethics, escapes in a hot air balloon from an angry crowd at a carnival in dusty Kansas in 1905, landing in the magical Land of Oz, where he’s heralded as the long-awaited Wizard. There he meets three witches: Theodora (Kunis), Evanora (Weisz) and Glinda (Williams), who are not convinced he is the great wizard everyone’s been expecting, and the threesome draw him into the epic problems facing the land and its inhabitants. DVD bonus features include bloopers and a featurette, “Walt Disney and the Road to Oz.” The Blu-ray edition adds “The Magic of Oz the Great and Powerful” immersive Second Screen experience with linking behind-the-scene featurettes, “My Journey in Oz by James Franco,” an interview with composer Danny Elfman, and a couple more making-of documentaries.
Want another remake of a favorite kids tale? “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is another in the growing line of adult makeovers of fairy tales, here with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton starring as the titular heroes who, after defeating a witch as kids, grow up to become bounty hunters, traveling the world to rid towns and villages of their broom-flying crones. But after dispatching a host of monsters, and creating a reputation for themselves, they meet their match in Muriel (Famke Janssen), a rare, shapeshifting witch whose power tests the sibling’s strengths and resolve — and dredges up secrets from their sketchy past. Renner, whose career has had more ups and downs than a witch’s nose, and Bond Girl Arterton, are wasted here, having little more to do than fight witches in front of green screens and look pretty; Janssen holds up much of the film with her nastiness. There’s nothing special here — it’s a pleasing, loud, special-effects-laden adventure that you’ll forget as soon as the DVD stops. Bonus features include three behind-the-scenes featurettes.
In the action-thriller “Snitch,” Dwayne Johnson plays against character and eschews flexing his muscles for exercising his brain power. Here he stars as a successful businessman with a trucking firm who learns his estranged son faces 10 tough years in a Federal prison for drug possession. To get him out, he volunteers to become an undercover informant and infiltrate a ruthless cartel, using his truck to smuggle dope and money across the border into Mexico. But the big guy gets in over his head, and when the cartel comes after him, he has to resort to some outrageous plans to get himself and his family off the hook. The initial pacing is slow for this type of film — mainly to flesh out Johnson’s character and his motivation — but once things get going it becomes enjoyable. Inspired by true events, the film is a nice change of pace for The Rock. And Susan Sarandon continues her skein of playing supporting characters with dubious motives. Extras include commentary, deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.
Though he only made five films before his untimely death at 33, Bruce Lee is an iconic figure in world cinema, single-handedly bringing Gung Fu and Karate into the mainstream of action films. He’s still considered to be the greatest martial arts practitioner on and off the big screen, and his films still resonate to this day. Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940 but was raised in Kowloon. He returned to the states in 1958, studied drama, philosophy and martial arts, then segued to acting by landing a role in the 1966-67 TV series “The Green Hornet,” playing the Green Hornet’s martial-arts sidekick Kato (when the show aired in Hong Kong, it was unofficially referred to as “The Kato Show”). After co-starring in a string of “B” pictures, he returned to Hong Kong, where he starred in Lo Wei’s “The Big Boss” (1971) and “Fist of Fury” (1972). The films were such enormous success that he went on to write, direct and star in “Way of the Dragon (1972) (which introduced Chuck Norris and featured an incredible fight scene in the Colosseum in Rome). In 1973, Warner Bros. tapped Lee to star in “Enter the Dragon,” a martial arts extravaganza that co-starred John Saxon and Jim Kelly and culminated in a spectacular “cast-of-100s” fight on the island of Han. Lee died after filming but before the release of the film, which went on to world-wide success at the boxoffice (grossing approximately $25 million domestically — the equivalent of almost $180 million in today’s boxoffice) and set the stage for generations of kung-fu artists and films (“The Game of Death,” which was incomplete when Lee died, was released in 1978). On the 40th anniversary of the film, Warner Home Video is releasing “Enter The Dragon 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Giftset” on Blu-ray that’s loaded with goodies that includes two discs, collectible art cards, a lenticular card and an embroidered patch. Bonus features include three new featurettes: “No Way As Way” (on the legacy of Bruce Lee), “The Return to Han’s Island” and “Wing Chun: The Art That Introduced Kung Fu to Bruce Lee”; an interview gallery featuring Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Caldwell; vintage pieces “Backyard Workout With Bruce Lee,” “Curse of the Dragon,” “Location: Hong Kong With Enter the Dragon,” “Blood and Steel: The Making of Enter the Dragon,” “Personal Profile Bruce Lee: In His Own Words”; five trailers, seven TV spots. All for $49.99.
“Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder”
(2010) Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the leading light of the Beat literary movement in the 1950s and 1960s, co-founding the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1953 and, two years later, setting up the publishing arm of the store, which published his poetry as well as the works of Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Marie Ponsot, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams and Gregory Corso. In 1956, Ginsberg’s earth-shaking “Howl” was published by City Lights Publishers; subsequently, the book was seized by the S.F. police and Ferlinghetti was were arrested on obscenity charges. His trial was a cause celebre for freedom of speech (and writing) and, in 1957, a judge found “Howl” not obscene and acquitted Ferlinghetti. The landmark case established a key legal precedent for the publication of other controversial literary works with redeeming social importance. Six decades later, Ferlinghetti and City Lights are still going strong. This incisive and entertaining portrait of Ferlinghetti explores his vital role as catalyst for numerous literary careers and for the Beat movement itself. Includes interviews and footage of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Snyder, Dennis Hopper, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, Dave Eggers, Anne Waldman, Obie Award winner Michael McClure, PEN Open Book Award winner Amiri Baraka, Bob Dylan and others. On DVD, $24.95 from First Run Features.
The folks at The Criterion Collection have released the Blu-ray debut of Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” (1957), a treasure from the golden age of art-house cinema and one of the films that catapulted Bergman to international acclaim. Traveling to accept an honorary degree, Professor Isak Borg — masterfully played by veteran director Victor Sjostrom — is forced to face his past, come to terms with his faults, and make peace with the inevitability of his approaching death. Through flashbacks and fantasies, dreams and nightmares, “Wild Strawberries” dramatizes one man’s voyage of self-discovery. In a new high-definition digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
ON THE INDIE FRONT:
As much as we wanted to like “Wrong” (2013), the fourth feature from cinematic surrealist Quentin Dupieux, the director of cult-hit “Rubber,” we just couldn’t get into the film: the acting and directing just misses the mark — it neither clicks into place nor is surrealist enough to get us past the slow-moving scenario (unlike the more recent surrealist tomes such as “Holy Motors,” “Enter the Void” and “Upstream Color”). Though it looks good on paper — Dolph Springer awakens one morning to find he has lost the sole love of his life — his dog, Paul. Desperate to reunite with his best friend and to set things right, Dolph embarks on a journey that spirals into the realm of the absurd, where he meets up with a promiscuous pizza delivery girl, a mentally unstable, jogging-addicted neighbor, an opportunistic French-Mexican gardener, an eccentric pet detective and an enigmatic pony-tailed guru — and it does have some individual moments of brilliance, the whole endeavor ends up a boring, self-indulgent exercise. On DVD and Blu-ray from Drafthouse Films.
Until last week, I had never heard of Recovered Voices, an ambitious program by the L.A. Opera to revive and stage works created by Jewish composers whose lives and work were suppressed by the Nazis. Under the guidance of L.A. Opera music director James Conlon and general director Placido Domingo, the L.A. Opera inaugurated Recovered Voices in the 2006-07 season, exploring works by composers whose careers and lives were cut short by the Third Reich. The first year featured excerpts of suppressed operas by Walter Braunfels, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernst Krenek, Franz Schreker, Erwin Schulhoff and Viktor Ullmann, but it wasn’t until the second season that the program really took off with its first fully staged production: a double bill of one-acts featuring “Der Zwerg” (“The Dwarf”) by Alexander Zemlinsky, who died in obscurity in New York after fleeing the Nazis; and “Der Zerbrochene Krug” (“The Broken Jug”) by Viktor Ullmann, who died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944.
At the heart of the project is a local philanthropist, Marilyn Ziering, who donated $3.5 million and raised a million more from various donors. Ziering and her family usually remain behind the scenes and eschew publicity … until Wednesday, May 29, that is, when Temple Beth Am hosted a gala concert for the Zierings at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, to honor their support of the synagogue, its school, the Pressman Academy, and the greater Los Angeles community. Billed as “Nobody Does It Better,” the concert featured Domingo, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester and Cantor Magda Fishman.
The 1,800-seat theater was packed with friends and supporters of the temple and the family (which supports dozens of worthy causes, including the American Jewish University, Friends of Sheba Medical Center, L.A. Opera, Hillel, Venice Family Clinic, the U.S. Holocaust Museum and many other organizations in the arts, environment, and education sectors); though not a black-tie event, the audience — always polite and appreciative of the proceedings — was casually dressed up — no T-shirts or shorts here. It was a musical — and spiritual event — that we definitely need more of.
By the way, if you haven’t attended an event at the Saban Theatre, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The ex-Fox Wilshire Theatre — designed in 1930 by S. Charles Lee (who also designed the Bruin and the Academy theaters) — was a film venue until 1981 when it was renovated and converted to a stage venue. In 2009 Haim and Cheryl Saban donated $5 million for further restoration. The art deco theater is just incredibly ornate and gorgeous, resplendent in gold and glass with cushy seats and great sight lines.
Two DVDs of work from Recovered Voices (which, unfortunately, is on hiatus) have been released: Zemlinsky’s “The Dwarf”/Ullmann’s “The Broken Jug” and Braunfels’ “Die Vogel,” both on the Arthaus Musik label and available via Amazon.com.
THIS WEEK’S MOVIE RELEASES:
“Warm Bodies”: I’m always thirsty for zombie flicks of all kinds, from the original “Dead” gorefests through “Dead Alive” to the more modern interpretations such as “28 Days Later”; I particularly have a soft spot for zombie comedies such as “Fido,” “Zombieland” and “Shaun of the Dead.” Now comes a zombie romcom, replete with star-crossed lovers, a stubborn, bull-headed father, and hordes of humans, zombies and “skeletons” (zombies who have been reduced to just skin and bone) battling it out — it’s kind of a post-apocalyptic Romeo and Juliet with great special effects, poignancy and laughs. Nicholas Hoult stars as R, a zombie who begins to have memories, learns how to talk, and even has dreams — highly unusual for a living-dead survivor of a zombie epidemic. He encounters Julie (Teresa Palmer), a human survivor, and rescues her from a zombie attack, secreting her to a hiding place where the pair form a special relationship in their struggle for survival. Julie sees that R is different from the other zombies — he’s becoming increasingly more human — and when she returns to safety, she has to persuade the other humans that the zombies are slowly transforming into something closer to themselves. It’s exciting, romantic and transformative — a little love can save the world. Co-stars Rob Corddry as R’s buddy, M, and John Malkovich as Julie’s militaristic dad. Based on the novel by Isaac Marion. Bonus features include a host of behind-the-scenes featurettes, commentaries, and “Zombie Acting Tips With Rob Corddry.”
“Identity Thief” is a meandering slapstick comedy that bases its laughs on the interactions between a very big, brassy woman (Melissa McCarthy) — a thief who lives off a stolen identity — and a smaller, meeker office worker (Jason Bateman), the man who was her mark. When accounts rep Sandy Patterson (Bateman) finds that his identity has been stolen, his credit destroyed and his life threatened by outstanding police warrants, he decides to track down the culprit, the fake Sandy Patterson (McCarthy), and bribe, coax and wrangle her from Florida back to Denver, where he can prove who the real Sandy Patterson is. Along the way there’s car chases, car accidents, gunfights, bounty hunters and all manner of inanity. Co-stars Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Genesis Rodriguez, John Cho, Robert Patrick and Eric Stonestreet. Bonus features include a gag reel, alternate takes, and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Also due this week: “Escape From Planet Earth,” an animated family adventure about an astronaut from the planet Baab who becomes stranded on the “dark planet” (Earth) and must find his way to safety to save the universe; and “A Good Day to Die Hard,” the latest installment in the adventures of John McClane (Bruce Willis), the heroic New York cop with a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time. The latest predicament takes him to Russia to track down his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who has been imprisoned in Moscow as a spy. Aside from a wild vehicle chase on the streets of Moscow, the film is pretty tame, lame and unbelievable. Yippie-Kai-Yay, Fox.
“Perfect Understanding” (1933), starirng Gloria Swanson, Laurence Olivier and John Halliday. Cinema icons Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier made just one film together, and now that rarely seen gem — a 1933 romantic comedy written by an uncredited young Michael Powell — has been recovered and restored for its Blu-ray and DVD debut. Before the Production Code Administration clamp down in 1934, Hollywood and British filmmakers had the luxury to explore romance, sex and crime in candid and straightforward ways, and this film — a kind of combination of “Design for Living” and “Trouble in Paradise” in its treatment of sexuality and “The Rules of the Game” in its satire of the “sophisticated” upper class — was one of the last to flaunt that freedom. It was also a pivotal film for Swanson, who had struggled in the early years of the talkies to maintain the vaunted position she had held as a silent-screen superstar. She produced the film herself, and it was the only one she made in Britain. Unfortunately, she made only two more films after this before her famous comeback in 1950′s “Sunset Blvd.” Judy (Swanson, 34) and Nicholas (Olivier, 26) are a young society couple who marry based on the “perfect understanding” that they will be allowed to enjoy extramarital adventures and never let jealousy come between them. That arrangement is soon put to the test when, during their honeymoon, they go to Cannes to spend time with friends. Though fairly predictable in its story line, director Cyril Gardner (who also was a film editor, writer and actor) keeps the film moving along quickly, adding some nifty flourishes of action in what is pretty much a talk oriented outing — in one scene, for example, Judy and a would-be suitor (the extraordinary John Halliday) stroll around the grounds of a palatial estate discussing the pros and cons of marriage while in the background — in each room they pass — couples are quarrelling and bickering over extramarital affairs and fidelity. It’s all very wonderful stuff. The disc includes two Mack Sennett comedy shorts from 1933: “Husband’s Reunion” and “Dream Stuff.” From the Cohen Film Collection.
“Mad Max Trilogy” BLU-RAY: Here are the films that set the benchmark and template for all post-apocalyptic films in modern cinema: “Mad Max” (1979), “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1982) and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985). Director George Miller — with fledgling actor Mel Gibson (as highway cop Max Rockatansky) — created a post-oil end-of-civilization scenario where gangs of punks with spiked hair, body piercings and violent genes drove all sorts of motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and souped-up cars across the wasteland of Australia in search of ever-dwindling supplies of gasoline, kicks, death and destruction. In “Mad Max” (which Miller made by earning money as an emergency room doctor), Max and his cop buddies still patrol the roads of Australia in a futile effort to uphold what remains of the law. When the evil Toecutter and his band of insane motorcyclists attack his family, Max goes above the law to bring his own brand of justice to the road. In “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior,” civilization has finally crumbled, and Max, wandering alone in the Australian Outback, joins up with a small camp of desert survivors to defend an oil refinery under siege from a ferocious marauding horde of crazies. Both films are noted for their incredible vehicle chases, stunts and crashes. In the weakest of the three, Max travels to Bartertown — an “oasis” of water, food and gasoline run by Tina Turner — and becomes the savior of a tribe of children. Warner has repackaged all three films in a nifty limited premium tin container for $49.99; perfect for Father’s Day. Note: Warner Bros. and Miller are reteaming for “Mad Max Fury Road,” starring Tom Hardy as Max, with Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult and Zoe Kravitz, with a 2014 theatrical release date.
THIS WEEK’S MOVIE RELEASES:
Australian director Cate Shortland’s second feature, “Lore,” takes a grueling journey with a
young German girl as she struggles to survive the punishing conditions of post-World War II Germany, “paying” for her Nazi parents’ support of Hitler and his war. Newcomer Saskia Rosendahl stars as Lore, a 14-year-old girl who is left to fend for herself after her SS father and mother are imprisoned by the victorious Allies at the end of World War II. Lore takes the lead as she and her four siblings set out on a harrowing trip across the devastated country, from Bavaria toward the safety of their grandmother’s house in the North. The children struggle to survive the land’s horrible post-war conditions, and Lore begins to understand the truths and consequences of her parents’ actions and their support of the atrocities of the Holocaust. It’s uplifting and depressing all at once, as Lore slowly grows in her understanding of the reality outside her narrow worldview. Based on the 2001 novel by Rachel Seiffert. In German with English subtitles.
Also out this week: “Dark Skies,” a supernatural thriller that follows a young family living in the suburbs who are bedeviled by unknown forces. Stars Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett and J.K. Simmons.
“Life Is Sweet” (1990), from Mike Leigh, is an intimate, invigorating, and amusing portrait of a working-class family in a suburb just north of London — an irrepressible mum and dad (Alison Steadman and Jim Broadbent) and their night-and-day twins, a bookish good girl and a sneering layabout (Claire Skinner and Jane Horrocks). In it, Leigh and his typically brilliant cast create, with extraordinary sensitivity and craft, a vivid, lived-in story of ordinary existence, in which even modest dreams (such as the father’s desire to open a food truck) carry enormous weight. Perched on the line between humor and melancholy, “Life Is Sweet” is captivating, and it was Leigh’s first international sensation. In a new high-definition digital restoration, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition. From The Criterion Collection.
“Cleopatra” (1963), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, Hume Cronyn, Cesare Danova, Martin Landau and Roddy McDowall, is a two-disc 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition that features the 243-minute premiere version of the film — meticulously restored — with never-before-seen missing footage. A limited edition comes packed in a full-color book featuring rare images from the making of the film. The historical epic shot in 70mm was the highest grossing film of 1963, bringing in more than $24 million in its initial release … but the film cost an unprecedented $42 million to make (equivalent to over $300 million today) and nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. In addition to elaborate sets and costumes, production delays and the relocation of principal filming from London to Rome added to the skyrocketing budget. A very public love affair between Taylor and Burton that blossomed during the three-year production meant that there was as much romance and intrigue off-screen as on-screen. The film later won four Academy Awards, and was nominated for five more, including Best Picture.
I’m a fan of John Cusack’s work — especially when he plays down-and-dirty — and I’m also fascinated by the phenomenon of the shortwave numbers stations, used by the world’s intelligence agencies to transmit secret messages (as popularized by Wilco’s 2001 album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”), so I was looking forward to “The Numbers Station” (2012), starring Cusack, Malin Akerman, Liam Cunningham and Lucy Griffiths. The plot: After his latest mission goes disastrously wrong, veteran CIA black ops agent Emerson Kent (Cusack) is given one last chance to prove he still has what it takes. His new assignment: guarding Katherine (Malin Akerman), a code operator at a top-secret remote CIA numbers station in Great Britain. When an elite team of heavily armed assailants lays siege to the station, Emerson and Katherine suddenly find themselves in a life-or-death struggle against an unknown enemy. While there’s some interesting twists and turns, for the most part the scenario is pretty predictable — though there are some thrilling action sequences. Cusack plays his character so close to the vest that one doesn’t know if he’s just walking through his lines or playing an extremely introverted agent. Fun but forgettable. On DVD and Blu-ray from Image Entertainment
THIS WEEK’S MOVIE RELEASES:
There’s four surprisingly good thrillers hitting the shelves this week, headed up by the sleeper “Side Effects,” directed by the prolific Steven Soderbergh. The film starts out as a prosaic psychological thriller about a young woman, Emily (Rooney Mara), who begins suffering from terrifying anxiety attacks and bouts of sleepwalking after her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from prison. She turns to psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law) for help, but when Banks prescribes an experimental drug, the side effects have chilling and deadly consequences, putting the doctor on the hot seat. From this point on, the film becomes a deluxe mystery-thriller as Banks becomes a detective to uncover the motives behind a conspiracy to discredit his name. There’s plenty of unexpected twists and turns as the film winds down towards its unexpected ending. Also stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as a rival shrink.
Next up is “The Last Stand,” notable for the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the big screen in a starring role, and for the first English-language film by South Korean director Jee-woon Kim, who gave us the nasty but fantastic gore-mystery-thrillers “A Tale of Two Sisters” and “I Saw the Devil” and the unreleased gangster drama “A Bittersweet Life.” Many U.S. debuts for foreign directors aren’t auspicious, and this one falls into that category. It revolves around the escape of a vicious drug kingpin from an FBI prisoner convoy in Las Vegas who — with an army of henchmen packing as much firepower as a small country — heads south to the U.S.-Mexico border. No one can stop him — except for the obstinate Sheriff of the only town that stands between the kingpin and freedom: Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who gathers his small ragtag police force to stop the bad guys, setting the stage for a classic showdown. It’s predictable and fun, but certainly not as stylish as the director’s previous outings. Co-stars Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander, Luis Guzman, Eduardo Noriega, Peter Stormare, Zach Gilford and Genesis Rodriguez.
“Beautiful Creatures” is a supernatural love story set in the South, about two star-crossed lovers: Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), a young man longing to escape his small town, and Lena (Alice Englert), a mysterious new girl who, it turns out, is a “caster” who, on her 16th birthday, either goes over to the good or bad side of witchcraft. Together they uncover the dark secrets of their respective families, their history and their town. It’s gothic-teen-romance along the lines of “The Twilight Saga” but brought to a higher level by a pair of British stalwarts — Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson — who thoroughly enjoy their turns before the camera. Based on the best-selling book (and book series) by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Directed by Richard LaGravenese and also starring Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann and Eileen Atkins.
“Parker” is a by-the-book action-thriller starring Jason Statham as Parker, a professional thief who lives by a personal code of ethics: Don’t steal from people who can’t afford it and don’t hurt people who don’t deserve it. When his crew double crosses him after their latest heist, steals his stash, and leaves him for dead, Parker tracks them to Palm Beach, playground of the rich and famous, where he evens the score. Along the way he takes on an unlikely partner, Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), a savvy insider who’s short on cash, but big on looks, smarts and ambition. It’s pretty predictable but it’s always fun to watch Statham smash heads and Lopez strut her stuff. Based on the novel “Flashfire,” one of the series of bestselling novels by Donald E. Westlake (under the pen name of Richard Stark). Directed by Taylor Hackford and co-starring Nick Nolte, Michael Chiklis, Clifton Collins Jr., Wendell Pierce, Micah Hauptman, Patti LuPone, Emma Booth and Bobby Cannavale.
Also this week: “Stand Up Guys,” a tough but touching action comedy about retired gangsters who reunite for an epic night together after one of them is released from prison for taking a fall for one of his criminal associates. A lot of grit and talk and short on meat. Stars Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin.
THIS WEEK’S BEST BETS:
With Summer on it’s way (Memorial Day weekend is just around the corner), looks like the studios are giving us a plethora of viewing choices to keep us out of the hot, blazing sun. First up is a picture that was hotter off the screen than on: “Cleopatra” (1963), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, Hume Cronyn, Cesare Danova, Martin Landau and Roddy McDowall. This two-disc 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition features the 243-minute premiere version of the film — meticulously restored — with never-before-seen missing footage. A limited edition comes packed in a full-color book featuring rare images from the making of the film. The historical epic shot in 70mm was the highest grossing film of 1963, bringing in more than $24 million in its initial release … but the film cost an unprecedented $42 million to make (equivalent to over $300 million today) and nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. In addition to elaborate sets and costumes, production delays and the relocation of principal filming from London to Rome added to the skyrocketing budget. A very public love affair between Taylor and Burton that blossomed during the three-year production meant that there was as much romance and intrigue off-screen as on-screen. The film later won four Academy Awards, and was nominated for five more, including Best Picture. Extras include “Cleopatra Through The Ages: A Cultural History”; “Cleopatra’s” missing footage; “Fox Movie Channel presents Fox Legacy With Tom Rothman”; commentary with Chris Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, Martin Landau and Jack Brodsky (author of a book “The Cleopatra Papers”); “The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence”; “Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood”; “The Fourth Star of Cleopatra”; Fox Movietone News: archival footage of the New York premiere, archival footage of the Hollywood premiere; trailers. From Fox.
At the other end of the spectrum is “Medium Cool” (1969), famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s take on the counter-cultural and political revolutions of the 1960s. It’s 1968, and with the whole world watching the social upheaval in the U.S., Wexler decided to make a film about what the hell was going on. His debut feature, “Medium Cool,” plunges us into that moment. With its mix of scripted fiction and seat-of-the-pants documentary technique, this story of the working world and romantic life of a television cameraman (Robert Forster) is a visceral, lasting cinematic snapshot of the era, climaxing with an extended sequence shot right in the middle of the riots surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. An inventive commentary on the pleasures and dangers of wielding a camera, “Medium Cool” is as prescient a political film as Hollywood has ever produced. In a new 4K digital restoration, approved by Wexler, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition. Extras include two audio commentaries, one featuring Wexler, actor Marianna Hill, and editor Paul Golding, the other featuring historian Paul Cronin; a new interview with Wexler; “Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!” a 55-minute documentary about the making of “Medium Cool,” produced by Cronin and featuring interviews with Wexler, Golding, actors Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz and Robert Forster, Chicago historian Studs Terkel, and others; excerpts from “Sooner or Later,” a documentary by Cronin about Harold Blankenship, who plays the adolescent Harold in the film; original theatrical trailer; a booklet featuring an essay by film critic and programmer Thomas Beard. From The Criterion Collection.
On the lighter side we have everyone’s favorite vacation comedy, “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983) in a 30th anniversasry Blu-ray edition. Relive the crazy adventures of the Griswald family as they head west to visit the “Walley World” amusement park in Los Angeles, along the way encountering crude relatives, a sexy temptress, a dead aunt, and much, much more. Stars Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Eddie Bracken, Brian Doyle-Murray, James Keach, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Christie Brinkley and Jane Krakowski. Extras include a new A&E Special: “Inside Story: National Lampoon’s Vacation”; an introduction by Chevy Chase, Randy Quaid and Matty Simmons; commentary by Harold Ramis, Chevy Chase, Randy Quaid, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron and Matty Simmons. From Warner. The studio will back that release up with the sequel, “Vegas Vacation” (1997), done 14 years later, older but not wiser (and a lot less funnier that the original. Stars Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Marisol Nichols, Ethan Embry and Randy Quaid. And for kitsch buffs, there’s the Blu-ray debut of “Captain America: Collector’s Edition “ (1990), starring Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty, Darren McGavin, Michael Nouri and Scott Paulin, from Shout! Factory.
And here’s the 800-pound gorilla for the week: Warner Home Video is releasing to Blu-ray the “Ultimate Gangster Collection: Classic,” a five-disc set with four of the greatest gangster films ever, remastered for their Blu-ray debuts. They include “The Public Enemy” and “White Heat” with the legendary performances of James Cagney; “Little Caesar” with Edward G. Robinson as hoodlum Rico Bandello; and “The Petrified Forest” starring Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. The collection includes a feature-length documentary “Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Drama” which explores the development of the crime genre and the rise of Warner stars like Cagney, Bogart and Robinson. Also discussed are directors such as Walsh, Wellman and Curtiz; the films themselves; their influence on filmmakers worldwide; and Warner’s impact in establishing the genre. Includes a 32-page booklet with images and additional information about each film. $49.99. The titles in the Classic Collection will be available individually as well for $19.98. Warner is backing that up with the Blu-ray collection “Ultimate Gangster Collection: Contemporary,” a five-disc set with five modern crime films that include Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” “The Departed” and “Mean Streets”; Michael Mann’s “Heat,” starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer; and Paramount’s “The Untouchables” (directed by Brian De Palma) with Kevin Costner, De Niro and Sean Connery. Also includes a 32-page booklet with images and additional information about each film. $49.99.
“The ABCs of Death” (2013) is a very interesting experiment in programming filmmaking: Twenty-six directors were each assigned a letter of the alphabet and then given free reign in choosing a word to create a story involving death. The result: Twenty-six provocative, funny, shocking and great ways to die (A is for Apocalypse, E is for Exterminate, H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion, K is for Klutz, N is for Nuptials, P is for Pressure, S is for Speed, U is for Unearthed, Z is for Zetsumetsu, etc.) Sone are gruesome and horrible, some are funny and satirical; their brevity makes each one interesting since none are long enough to get bored and, though there are a lot more misses than hits, its all very watchable. On DVD and Blu-ray form Magnolia Home Entertainment … “Nightfall” (2012 — Hong Kong), starring Simon Yam and Nick Cheung, is a grisly thriller that pits a bitter, aging detective against a recently released murderer in a mystery surrounding the killing of a popular opera singer who, it turns out, was a brutal misogynist. What starts out as a clear-cut case of revenge gets murkier and convoluted with the truth becoming harder and harder to uncover as the case progresses. Who is really guilty in the murder? A fast-paced, enjoyable procedural highlighted by swooping visuals and colors. A promising second outing for young director Chow Hin Yeung Roy. On DVD and Blu-ray from Well Go USA
THIS WEEK’S MOVIE RELEASES:
“Texas Chainsaw 3D”: Some things are better left alone — to wit, here we have another Texas Chainsaw Massacre, around the seventh in a long line of sequels-redos-remakes since the original “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” in 1974. This one — a recap and sequel all at once — should have been left on the cutting-room floor (so to speak). The premise — a woman travels to the backwoods of Texas to claim her inheritance, which includes a house and a chainsaw wielding killer — is hackneyed, the suspense is nil, and the slashing by-the-numbers. An attempt to round out and expand the character of Leatherface is the film’s only saving grace, and then only for the most ardent of fans. This one was such a flop at the boxoffice that you’d think the producers would let the franchise die a quiet death — but no, there’s already plans afoot for “Texas Chainsaw 4″ next year. Also do this week: the meandering “Cloud Atlas,” a sci-fi phantasmagoria with a fine cast (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Hugo Weaving, Gotz Otto, Zhu Zhu) and talented directing team (Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski) that tanked at the boxoffice.
You’d be better off this week sitting down with two excellent Delmer Daves’ Westerns (on DVD and Blu-ray) from The Criterion Collection. In “Jubal” (1956), a trio of exceptional performances from Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger form the center of the film, an overlooked Hollywood treasure from the eclectic genre master (also responsible for “Destination Tokyo,” “Dark Passage,” “Demetrius and the Gladiators” and “A Summer Place”). In this Shakespearean tale of jealousy and betrayal, Ford is an honorable itinerant cattleman, befriended and hired by Borgnine’s bighearted ranch owner despite his unwillingness to talk about his past. When the new hand becomes the target of the flirtatious attentions of the owner’s bored wife (Valerie French) and is entrusted by the boss with a foreman’s responsibilities, his presence at the ranch starts to rankle his shifty fellow cowhand, played by Steiger. The resulting emotional showdown imparts unparalleled psychology intensity to this Western, a vivid melodrama featuring expressive location photography in Technicolor and CinemaScope. In the beautifully shot and acted, psychologically complex western “3:10 to Yuma” (1957), Van Heflin plays a mild-mannered cattle rancher who takes on the task of shepherding a captured outlaw, played with cucumber-cool charisma by Glenn Ford, to the train that will take him to prison. This apparently simple plan turns into a nerve-racking cat-and-mouse game that will test each man’s particular brand of honor. Based on a story by Elmore Leonard. Both films get Criterion’s lovingly perfect high-definition digital restorations, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray editions.
THIS WEEK’S MOVIE RELEASES:
“Jack Reacher”: Fans of Lee Child’s wildly popular series of novels about ex-military investigator-turned avenging angel Jack Reacher blanched when they heard that Tom Cruise was going to play the lead in the film adaptation of the author’s “One Shot.” Reacher, after all, is a 6-foot 5-inch 250 pound blond haired bruiser; Cruise is 5-foot 7-inches, dark-haired and pretty-faced. It’ll never work, they said. But, surprisingly, it works: Cruise channels the impulse — if not the physicalness — of Reacher, and comes across as a witty, sharp, intelligent and violent-if-need-be hero in a well-laid out and executed mystery. The film revolves around the shooting of four random people in downtown Pittsburgh by an ex-Army sniper and the arrest of a suspect who, it turns out, may not be the right killer. Beaten almost unconscious on his way to jail, he tells his defense attorney one thing: “Get Reacher for me.” And sure enough, Jack Reacher shows up. He knows this shooter from his days as an MP in Iraq — a trained military sniper who never should have missed a shot (four shots hit their mark, one went astray). Reacher is certain something is not right — and he begins an investigation that quickly escalates in its brutality and concomitant bloodshed. Throw in some wild car chases, a neat guest appearance by Robert Duvall, some hidden agendas, and twists and turns, and you have a fun, exciting thriller (by the way, Reacher makes plenty of mistakes in his pursuit of the truth, a nice touch that makes him human and not just a killing machine). Only weak spot in the film: the delightful Rosamund Pike, here cast as a lame but well-meaning defense attorney. Co-stars David Oyelowo, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog (as a very nasty villain) and Jai Courtney.
Also due this week: “Mama,” a by-the-book supernatural thriller (executive produced by Guillermo del Toro) that tells the tale of two little girls — who disappeared into the woods the day that their parents were killed and lived alone for five years — now rescued and living with their aunt and uncle. Problem is, something or someone took care of them in the woods, and that entity may have followed them back to civilization. Stars Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat, Morgan McGarry and David Fox. And “Safe Haven,” the latest romantic-thriller-tearjerker adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, this one about a mysterious young woman who arrives in a small North Carolina town who, despite her reluctance to join the tight knit community — slowly begins putting down roots — until the dark secrets of her past comes back to haunt her. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and starring Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, Cobie Smulders and David Lyons.
THIS WEEK’S BEST BETS:
One of the year’s most talked about independent films since its award-winning premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, director Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” (2012) has been described as baffling and enigmatic … and that it is. But there’s not enough unknown territory to prevent you from thoroughly enjoying this involving treatise on the search for love, communication and safety between people — especially damaged people (and who isn’t, in one way or another, come to think of it). The sci-fi-mystery-romance revolves around a woman (Amy Seimetz) who is abducted and hypnotized with a “psychedelic” worm by a crook who depletes her life savings and causes her to lose her job and way in life. When she falls for a man (Carruth), the two come to realize he may also have been subjected to the same process, and they search for a way to talk to each other about their wounds and look for safety in each other’s arms. As the barriers between them break down, they uncover the plot that wrecked their lives, which also involves a pig farmer who makes music with found noise and who uses the pigs to keep track of the victims. It’s a lovingly dreamy trip with gorgeous visuals, immersive music, a mesmerizing story line (just don’t try too hard to figure it out) and on-the-edge acting. A must-see. Co-stars Andrew Sensenig and Thiago Martins. Available as a DVD and a Blu-ray/DVD combo in a beautiful package from Cinedigm.
Four years after “Breathless,” Jean-Luc Godard reimagined the gangster film even more radically with “Band of Outsiders” (1964), about two restless young men (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) who enlist the object of both of their fancies (Anna Karina) to help them commit a robbery — in her own home. This audacious and wildly entertaining French New Wave gem is at once sentimental and insouciant, effervescently romantic and melancholy (tropes Godard would soon abandon in his more political and experimental work), and it features some of Godard’s most memorable set pieces, including a headlong race through the Louvre. The Criterion Collection has just released a Blu-ray version of the film from Gaumont’s recent high-definition restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Extras include a visual glossary of references and wordplay found in “Band of Outsiders”; exclusive interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard and actor Anna Karina; excerpts from a 1964 interview with director Jean-Luc Godard, including rare behind-the-scenes footage from the film; a booklet featuring an essay by poet and critic Joshua Clover, Godard’s character descriptions for the film’s 1964 press book, and an interview with the director from the same year.
He’s not a household name today (though his character appears in episodes of “Boardwalk Empire”), but Eddie Cantor was the original renaissance man of the entertainment world in the early 20th century, conquering vaudeville, Broadway, records, Hollywood, radio and TV.
Cantor began in vaudeville in 1907 in New York, moved to the Great White Way in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1917, then starred in such Broadway musical comedies as “Kid Boots” (1923) and “Whoopee!” (1928), as well as recording such hit records as “Makin’ Whoopee,” “If You Knew Susie,” “Ma! He’s Makin’ Eyes at Me,” “Margie” and “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?).” When Hollywood called, he ported over “Kid Boots” (1926) and “Whoopee!” (1930) and starred in “Roman Scandals” (1933) and “Kid Millions” (1934). He went on to have his own radio show in the 1930s and 1940s and had his own TV show in the 1950s. He was one of the participants in a 1919 strike that founded Actors Equity, helped develop The March of Dimes, and stood up against anti-semitism, censorship and segregation. (According to the Wikipedia entry on Cantor, when he was one of the alternating hosts of the television show ‘The Colgate Comedy Hour,’ the show landed Cantor in an unlikely controversy when a young Sammy Davis, Jr. appeared as a guest performer. Cantor embraced Davis and mopped Davis’s brow with his handkerchief after his performance. When worried sponsors led NBC to threaten cancellation of the show; Cantor’s response was to book Davis for two more weeks.”)
Warner Home Video has just released two of Cantor’s early films (via “manufacture on demand”) from the Samuel Goldwyn library, each a perfect example of Cantor’s singing, dancing and acting “shtick.” “Whoopee” (1930) is a two-strip Technicolor musical comedy adapted from Cantor’s smash Broadway show in which he plays a neuroses-laden hypochondriac on vacation in the West who becomes involved with a runaway bride and her warring suitors. The dance numbers are choreographed by a Hollywood newcomer — Busby Berkeley — and the bits include a modicum of risque words and actions (for its time). Be warned: there’s some nasty stereotyping in the film, particularly in the portrayal of Native Americans and blacks (Cantor dons blackface — an entertainment staple at the time that few thought anything about — for a lengthy number). Unfortunately, “Whoopee” didn’t play as well as the distributors had hoped for — some of Cantor’s bits were too Jewish or too risque for middle America — and, in an effort to broaden distribution in the hinterlands, Goldwyn toned down Cantor for “Kid Millions” (1934). Here Cantor depicts a simple Brooklyn boy who finds himself on a collision course with charlatans, connivers, sheiks, and she-devils on the way to inheriting a fortune in Egypt. The film is notable for appearances by Ann Sothern, Ethel Merman, George Murphy, Paul Harvey and Edgar Kennedy –with a surprisingly weird three-strip Technicolor finish. (By the way, this “toning down” became Hollywood’s model for reaching the masses in America).
Both films can be ordered by pointing your browser to WBShop.com.
THIS WEEK’S MOVIE RELEASES:
“Silver Linings Playbook”:
The most interesting and unusual wide-release film of 2012, one that netted a Best Actress Oscar for Jennifer Lawrence (and should have secured a best Supporting Actor nod for Robert DeNiro … and it certainly was a better picture than “Argo,” which was too by-the-book for our tastes). Coming off the successful mainstream award-winning “The Fighter,” director David O. Russell took somewhat of a risk by creating a story line that revolved around characters with a variety of emotional issues. At the heart of the film is bipolar ex-teacher Pat (Bradley Cooper), just out of a mental institution, who’s trying to reunite with his estranged wife; instead, he gets involved with a recovering sex addict, Tiffany (Lawrence), whose husband was killed in an accident, and has to deal with his OCD father (De Niro), who’s totally obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Tiffany offers to help Pat reconnect with his wife, but only if he’ll do something for her in return: dance with her in an upcoming ballroom contest. An unexpected bond begins to form between them as they practice their dance steps and get ready for the ballroom contest, culminating in silver linings in both of their lives.
“Not Fade Away” is an evocative tribute to 1960s rock music, with a great soundtrack supervised by music guru Steven Van Zandt. When the Rolling Stones appeared on television in 1964, three best high-school friends from the suburbs of New Jersey decided to form a rock band to try and make it big. The pals begin to see the world through the intoxicating prism of rock-and-roll, playing at parties, trying to get a record deal, chasing after girls, and smoking a lot of dope. It’s a delightful coming-of-age story that probably played out a thousand times in cities around the country in the wake of the British music invasion and the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s. Nothing much really happens here — the film is kind of a character study of kids from a time that, as they say, changed the world forever. It may not be gritty enough for Millennials but it will strike a reverberant chord amongst Baby Boomers. The cast is composed of young talent — John Magaro, Jack Huston, Will Brill, Bella Heathcote, Dominique McElligott, Brahm Vaccarella — augmented by the likes of Brad Garrett and James Gandolfini. Well worth a viewing.
Also due this week: “Broken City,” a thriller about an ex-cop private detective (Mark Wahlberg) who takes on his toughest case yet: following the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of the city’s hard-nosed mayor (Russell Crowe), who’s convinced she’s cheating on him; the case ends up in deceit, double-crosses and the pursuit of justice by the unstoppable force of Wahlberg … and “The Guilt Trip,” a light comedy about an inventor, played by Seth Rogen, who’s about to embark on a road trip to sell his latest product — an amazing organic cleaner — but makes the mistake of a making a quick visit to his recently-widowed mother (Barbra Streisand) and is guilted into bringing her along for the 3,000 mile ride. Oh vey!
THIS WEEK’S BEST BETS
“Funny Girl” (1968): After conquering the music world in 1963 with her first album and after dominating Broadway in 1964 with the musical “Funny Girl,” Barbra Streisand made the transition to the big screen in William Wyler’s 1968 adaptation of the Bob Merrill-Jule Styne stage production, making an incredible splash and paving the way for an illustrious career that has come to encompass all aspects of the entertainment world, as an actress, singer, director, writer, composer, producer, designer, activist and philanthropist. Here she stars as Fannie Brice — a singer and comedienne who moved from the Jewish slums of New York’s Lower East Side in the early part of the 20th century to forge a career on stage with the Ziegfeld Follies, on record with such hits as “My Man” and “Second Hand Rose,” on radio as Baby Snooks, and briefly in the movies in the 30s and 40s. Streisand more than amply filled Brice’s shoes, portraying the “ugly-duckling’s” life as she rose from obscurity to become a popular Amercian entertainment fixture; the film takes Brice all the way to the height of her career, including her marriage to and divorce from her first husband, Nick Arnstein (Omar Shariff). And, of course, Streisand — who won an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress — belts out “People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “My Man.” Sony’s Blu-ray transfer — just in time for the DVD release of Streisand’s “The Guilt Trip” — includes two vintage featurettes: “Barbra in Movieland” and “This Is Streisand.”
Another Blu-ray tie-in of sorts this week is the release of Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 “Strictly Ballroom,” a kind of “Dirty Dancing” meets “Shall We Dance” about a young dancer (Paul Mercurio) who decides to shake up the staid world of Australian ballroom dancing with new routines, co-starring Gia Carides as his new partner and with great supporting roles by Tara Morice, Bill Hunter and Pat Thomson. Extras include “Strictly Ballroom: From Stage to Screen” featurette, “Samba to Slow Fox Dance” featurette, a deleted scene, a design gallery with narration, and commentary with director Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin and choreographer John “Cha Cha” O’Connell. Jut in time for the theatrical release of Luhrmann’s rendition (May 10) of “The Great Gatsby.” From Lionsgate.
Other Blu-ray debuts this week: “Friends: The Complete First Season” (1994-95) in a two-disc set with 24 episodes, $25.98; “Friends: The Complete Second Season” (1995-96) in a two-disc set with 24 episodes, $25.98. Both from Warner; … “Star Trek: The Next Generation — The Third Season” (1989-90) in a six-disc set with 26 episodes, $130.00; and “Star Trek: The Next Generation — The Best of Both Worlds” (1990), a seamlessly edited, one-part, feature-length presentation of the classic two-part cliffhanger, featuring “Regeneration: Engaging the Borg,” an in-depth exploration into the creation of “The Next Generation’s” most iconic villains, a gag reel, and commentary. Both from CBS Home Entertainment/Paramount … and “The Vampire Lovers” (1970), starring Ingrid Pitt, George Cole, Kate O’Mara and Peter Cushing, an erotic Hammer Films horror outing in which a female vampire with lesbian tendencies ravages the young girls and townsfolk of a peaceful hamlet in 18th century Europe. Extras include commentary with director Roy Ward Baker, writer Tudor Gates and star Ingrid Pitt; excerpts from the novella “Carmilla” that inspired the film, more. From Scream Factory/Shout! Factory.
keep looking »
And, last but not least, Warner has put together an impressive ultimate collector’s Blu-ray edition gift set of the perennial fan favorite and much beloved tearjerker “The Notebook”
(2004), directed by Nick Cassavetes and starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, Gena Rowlands, James Marsden, Kevin Connolly, Sam Shepard and Joan Allen in the Nicholas Sparks’ story that traverses six decades in the lives of two lovers, a rich woman and a poor man. This set includes DVD and Blu-ray copies with Digital and UltraViolet (cloud) versions; a collectible antique golden locket; a postcard set with scenes from the film; and a vintage leather-style blank journal with gold edging and ribbon marker with pages designed with watermarked letters and images from the film; $49.99 from Warner.