THIS WEEK’S THEATRICAL RELEASES:
After helming one giga-budget film after another (the first two “Iron Man” outings and the bomb “Cowboys & Aliens”) writer-director-producer Jon Favreau returned to his indie roots (“Made,” “Swingers”) with “Chef,” the surprise indie hit of 2014. The low-budget film (but with a cast of A-list actors — Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Robert Downey Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Amy Sedaris, Garry Shandling) centers around a top-tier Los Angeles chef (Favreau) who loses his restaurant job and starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative juices, while piecing back together his estranged family. The gentle film is loaded with laughs and tantalizing food (the centerpiece Cubano sandwiches that put the chief back in the spotlights as he travels from Miami to Los Angeles with his best friend and estranged son) and a wonderful Latin Jazz soundtrack. Extras include commentary with writer-director Jon Favreau and chef/co-producer Roy Choi (the Los Angeles food truck pioneer who served as technical advisor for the film). From Universal.
Not being a big fan of films spun off from comic books or toys, I was pleasantly surprised with “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” the next chapter in the never-ending Michael Bay special effects franchise. This one picks up five years after “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” with Autobots and Decepticons all but vanished from the face of the planet … but not for long. Spurred on by an intergalactic Transformer bounty hunter and one of the original Decepticons, a secret agency is hunting down and killing the Autobots. When a Texas small-time mechanic and inventor (Mark Wahlberg) saves Optimus Prime, he teams with his daughter, her boyfriend and the Autobots to rescue the world from destruction. The appealing nature of Wahlberg (can he do no wrong?) and the spectacular special effects make up for a bumbling and basically lame storyline riddled with silly dialogue and weak supporting actors. Extras include a bevy of behind-the-scenes featurettes and an in-depth interview with Bay. From Paramount.
THIS WEEK’S HIGHLIGHTS:
Hollywood is rife with horror tales of producers and studios yanking a film from a director’s hands and destroying it; the 1980s seemed to be a decade in which top directors saw their heartfelt projects edited into oblivion (though some were quickly resurrected). Among them: Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) and Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985). One of the most egregious hack jobs was the U.S. theatrical release of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America in 1984. Leone’s original cut ran some 4 and a half hours; it premiered at Cannes that May in a trimmed 3 hours-49 minute version. When it was released in the U.S., the film was cut to 139 minutes — almost two hours shorter than Leone’s original cut and 90 minutes short than the Cannes version. Not only that, but the flashback format of the film was edited away so that the story was told in chronological order, destroying the impact of the film. Since then, of course, restored versions have been shown on the big screen and ported to home video, but until now, the director’s original vision has not been available on DVD. Warner has remedied that with the release of “Once Upon a Time in America Extended Edition,” a 251-minute cut — with 22-minutes of restored footage — funded by The Film Foundation, the film preservation organization founded by Martin Scorsese, and its partner Gucci. The film — which starred Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe and Darlanne Fluegel — will also be available on DVD. The Blu-ray extras include a new 32-page book with rare photos and insightful notes that chronicle the movie’s production history; the book also includes a letter written by Martin Scorsese. Other special features (available on all the editions) include commentary by film historian and critic Richard Schickel, and a making-of documentary “Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone.”
There’s two spectacular releases from The Criterion Collection this week: First is the Blu-ray debut of “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974) in which the wildly prolific German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder paid homage to his cinematic hero Douglas Sirk with an “update” of that filmmaker’s 1955 “All That Heaven Allows.” A lonely widow (Brigitte Mira) meets a much younger Arab worker (El Hedi ben Salem) in a bar during a rainstorm. They fall in love, to their own surprise — and to the outright shock of their families, colleagues, and drinking buddies. In “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” Fassbinder expertly uses the emotional power of classic Hollywood melodrama to expose the racial tensions underlying contemporary German culture. In a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Next up is “Sundays and Cybele” (1962), a provocative Academy Award winner from French director Serge Bourguignon. A psychologically damaged war veteran and a neglected child begin a startlingly intimate friendship — one that ultimately ignites the suspicion and anger of his friends and neighbors in suburban Paris. Bourguignon’s film makes thoughtful, humane drama out of potentially incendiary subject matter, and with the help of the sensitive cinematography of Henri Decae and a delicate score by Maurice Jarre, “Sundays and Cybele” becomes a stirring contemplation of an alliance between two troubled souls. New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray.
Seems like every couple of years Warner Home Video trots out a “newer” version of classic films in their library (“Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz”) with extra added features and packaging aimed at enticing you to buy the film “one more time.” It was only five years ago that Warners gave us a 70th anniversary Blu-ray edition of “Gone With the Wind” (David O. Selznick’s monumental 1939 production of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book) and now they’ve released “Gone With the Wind 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition” which, thankfully, is well-worth the price ($49.99). Not only do you get a high-def version of the film, you also get new memorabilia and new special features that include a replica of Rhett Butler’s handkerchief and a music box paperweight playing Tara’s theme with an image on top of the Rhett-Scarlett kiss. Also included is a 36-page companion booklet featuring a look at the immortal style of “Gone with the Wind,” written by New York fashion designer and “Project Runway” finalist Austin Scarlett. New special features include footage of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh attending the original movie premiere in Atlanta and “Old South/New South,” a journey through today’s South, revisiting the real-life locations depicted to see how the world of the Old South continues to inform life in the New South’s cosmopolitan world. The set is limited and numbered, with new collectible packaging.
Warner also has on hand this week the “Audrey Hepburn Blu-ray Collection,” a nifty set with three of Hepburn’s most endearing films on Blu-ray for the first time: “Funny Face,” “Sabrina” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The latter two account for two of Hepburn’s five Best Actress Academy Award nominations (The other Best Actress nominations were “Wait Until Dark,” “The Nun’s Story,” and “Roman Holiday,” for which she took home the statue. She was also honored posthumously by the Academy with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993). Born in 1929 in Brussels, Hepburn spent part of her youth at an English boarding school and studied at The Netherlands’ Arnhem Conservatory. After World War II, she studied ballet in Amsterdam and London and made her stage debut in 1948 in the chorus of “High Button Shoes.” Additional small parts on the British stage were followed by appearances in English films, including the Alec Guinness classic “The Lavender Hill Mob.” Soon after, she came to America to take on the title role in the Broadway production “Gigi” and her career took off. All three discs are loaded with bonus features. $29.99.
Another impressive set is “Motown 25: Yesterday — Today — Forever” (2014). “Motown 25” was an iconic TV concert event — airing on NBC on May 16, 1983 — for so many reasons: It celebrated one of the most influential labels in music history, put all of its biggest stars — from Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye to Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and many more — on a single stage for one incredible night and introduced the world to the moonwalk in six seconds that would change the world. It was a true water cooler event in the era before social media. “Motown 25” was taped before a live audience and showcased virtually every Motown artist from the company’s inception, including Jackson, Gaye, Robinson, Wonder, Ross, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, The Miracles, The Temptations, Four Tops and many others. The show also featured many guests outside the Motown Records sphere who had been influenced by Motown artists, including Linda Ronstadt, who performed a memorable duet with Smokey Robinson, Billy Dee Williams, Jose Feliciano and British new wave star Adam Ant, who was riding a wave of popularity from MTV exposure. As an added highlight, the historic evening was hosted by Richard Pryor, who was arguably the hottest comedian in the world at the time. A seminal event in pop culture history, this concert event would establish the gold standard for all future televised concert events and go on to provide the backstory for the Tony-nominated Broadway play, “Motown the Musical.” There are three configurations for the release: A deluxe six-DVD Set ($79.95) featuring the Extended version of the original broadcast with new 5.1 surround sound and hours of bonuses including nine specially-produced featurettes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder’s rehearsal footage, a “Motown 25” performers roundtable, interviews with Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, Otis Williams and many more, an exclusive collector’s book and a copy of the “Motown 25” program; available direct from MOTOWN25DVDS.COM. Also available at retail on September 30 will be a three-DVD set ($39.95) and a single ($19.95). From StarVista Entertainment/Time Life.