Nov 26 2014

Videophiled: Joe Sarno’s ‘Dirty Movie’ and ‘What is Cinema?’

LifeDirtyMovies

Film Movement

A Life in Dirty Movies (Film Movement, DVD) – The work of Joe Sarno is little known outside of cinephile and cult cinema circles, and not widely seen even among cineastes. That’s because he, with the support and collaboration of his wife Peggy, made his low-budget explorations of adult sexuality within the confines of the sexploitation industry, where they played in grindhouse theaters under such titles as Sin in the Suburbs (1964) and The Love Merchant (1966). His films, however, were handsomely made, carefully composed and lit, and focused on the odysseys of women exploring their sexuality and their desires in a society stumbling through the sexual revolution. In a cinematic culture that focused on men getting their rocks off and women taking their clothes off, Sarno made women the active protagonists of his films. And while he satisfied the requirements of nudity and sexual spectacle (within the conventions and limits of the pre-X-rated era), his idea of a money shot was a close-up of a woman’s face as she reached climax. That sensitivity to women’s experiences and his lovely black and white photography earned him the nickname “The Bergman of 42nd Street.” In fact, he found more respect in Europe and even made films in Sweden, such as Inga (1968) and Young Playthings (1972), which played in the U.S. as foreign imports and earned Sarno a kind of critical respect his American films never received.

A Life in Dirty Movies gives viewers an overview of his career and its decline, when X-rated films displaced the softcore culture and Sarno was no longer able to make his kind of movies, but director Wiktor Ericsson is more interested in the couple themselves, together and still in love after more than 40 years, and on Joe’s doomed attempt at a comeback at the age of 88. Peggy actively encourages him and provides constructive criticism but confesses to the camera that Joe is hopelessly out of step with the times. His health was clearly declining while this documentary was being shot (he died in 2010, soon after production wrapped), and Ericsson finds his story in Peggy’s protectiveness and support of Joe in his decline, still defending her husband to her disapproving parents. Ericsson includes illuminating film clips but only a general overview of his career and he completely ignores 15 years when Sarno made X-rated films under a number of pseudonyms. The most interesting story is their long partnership, Sarno’s drive to keep making films, and Peggy’s determination to support his dreams even though she knows he’ll never make another film. Features bonus interview clips and two cut scenes.

WhatIsCInema

Cohen

What Is Cinema? (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) isn’t so much a lesson in film history and aesthetics as a survey of the breadth of cinematic possibilities. Filmmaker Chuck Workman (most famous for his short films and clip montages at the Oscars) throws a wide net and gives documentary, avant-garde, and experimental filmmaking an equal footing with Hollywood classics, independent film, and foreign cinema. Among his commentators are David Lynch, Mike Leigh, Costas-Gavras, Kelly Reichardt, and Jonas Mekas, all sharing their cinema loves (Leigh basically talks about his own method), and the gamut of featured filmmakers run from Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson and Robert Altman to Abbas Kairostami and Chantel Akerman and Bill Viola. It’s not so much about defining cinema as exploring the possible, a celebration more than a history illustrated with clips from 100 films. Workman is a wizard with clips and you can lose yourself in the montage of images and the enthusiasm of filmmakers talking about the films that inspire them. But it does feel more like you’re wandering through a film museum than getting a guided tour with a point of view.

Features 10 bonus experimental shorts glimpsed in the documentary, including three films commissioned by Workman.

More new releases at Cinephiled

Nov 25 2014

Videophiled: Mohammad Rasoulof’s ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’

ManuscriptsBurn

Kino Lorber

What’s most startling about Mohammad Rasoulof’s 2013 Iranian thriller Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Kino Lorber, DVD, Netflix) is its audacity. Iranian filmmakers have a history of couching its criticisms of life in Iran in metaphor. This film puts its portrait of authoritarian oppression out in the open.

We open on a contract murder that plays like an American gangster picture dropped into dusty slums outside Tehran, then take a circuitous route through the workings of a totalitarian state that intimidates and terrorizes its intellectuals and dissident writers. Along with the web of writers connected by censored and suppressed works, we follow the thugs doing the dirty work for the vindictive minister of the security services, including a man whose motivation is simply money to pay for his son’s operation (it’s not a corny as it sounds). He’s constantly stopping along the route to see if the money has reached his account, interruptions that keep the political horror story firmly framed within the banalities and anxieties of everyday life.

The script is complicated and a little confusing, stirring in characters who appear without introduction, and it gets a little repetitive in the second act, but it seems churlish to complain that such a provocative, covertly-made portrait of the Iranian government as a brutally repressive regime could “use a little cutting.” The confusion sorts itself out as the intimidation turns into outright terrorism, 1984 by way of The Godfather, while an inspired formal twist puts the whole ordeal on continuous loop, a cycle of never-ending despotism. There are echoes of The Lives of Others in the routine surveillance of citizens but this is more confrontational and brutal and Rasoulof hasn’t the safe distance of exploring a fallen regime. His targets are current and he puts a target on his chest for his efforts. For that reason, he’s the only artist on the film who takes credit; the other names are hidden for fear of reprisals (we assume the actors are expatriates safely out of country). The film was, of course, banned in Iran and Rasoulof (against the advice of friends) returned home to Iran after premiering the film at Cannes (where it won the FIPRESCI Prize), where a prison sentence hangs over his head. His passport has been revoked and he is unable to see his family, whom he has already moved out of country. That’s some sacrifice.

In Persian with English subtitles. No supplements. Also available to stream on Netflix.

More new releases at Cinephiled

Nov 23 2014

Restorations, Revelations and Debuts of 2014

Film history discovered and rediscovered on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats.

We never stop recovering our film history. In 2014 alone we found a 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes starring the legendary stage actor William Gillette (the only known footage of the man considered the definitive Holmes of his era in character) and an unfinished orphan film shot in 1913 starring black Broadway star Bert Williams.

The digital tools have given filmmakers, producers, studios and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods and the transition from film prints to theatrical digital formats for repertory and revival showings has created new incentives to restore and remaster classic films for new theatrical screenings. (There’s plenty of controversy over this shift, with many partisans arguing that movies shot and originally shown in celluloid should be preserved and only screened that way.)

But it’s still a specialized audience and film lovers outside of major metropolitan areas often have no opportunities to see these restorations and revivals on the screen. At least until they are made available to home video formats. For instance, while the new restoration of the original Todd AO version of Oklahoma! premiered at the Turner Classic Movies festival in April, it has yet to reach audiences outside of specialty theaters and the China Film Archive restoration of the 1934 Chinese classic The Goddess has only shown in film festivals.

‘Too Much Johnson’

So this list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks and restorations of great films and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers at home in 2014. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers now have a chance to see regardless of where they live, as long as they have a web connection and a Blu-ray player.

Too Much Johnson (1938) (Fandor, streaming)
The home video event of 2014 is not a disc debut or a Blu-ray special edition but a piece of lost film history found, restored and streamed on the web. Shot by Orson Welles in 1938 (two years before he went to Hollywood and began production on Citizen Kane) as a kind of experiment to accompany a stage production of the theater farce Too Much Johnson, the film was never finished by Welles beyond a continuity work print that was thought to have been destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970. The 35mm nitrate work print was found in 2013 in a warehouse in Italy (in Pordenone, as it happens, home to the greatest silent film festival in the world) and restored in an international effort. After a series of special screenings, the film (in both the original 66-minute work print and a 34-minute “reimagined” version, with outtakes and duplicate shots removed and footage edited into an “educated guess” of how it would have played in finished form) was made available to audiences the world over for free via the National Film Preservation Foundation website and in an HD edition through Fandor. I celebrated the film and its discovery for Keyframe earlier this year.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Nov 22 2014

That’s not Art, that’s Smut!

Sex sells, as the saying goes, and movie producers, distributors and exhibitors have known this since pictures began to move.

In That’s Sexploitation, filmmaker Frank Henenlotter and exploitation legend David Friedman celebrate the freewheeling culture of sexploitation, the sensationalistic underground of independent filmmakers and studios who cashed in on promises of carnal thrills and forbidden spectacle, specifically naked flesh (mostly female). These are the films that sprung up between the cracks of the production code and studio restrictions and, as the moniker suggests, they aimed straight for the lurid and the tawdry.

But not all films that sold themselves with the promise of erotic thrills and taboo-busting presentations of sexuality were a matter of pure exploitation. American movies started taking on adults themes once again in the fifties while films from the more permissive Europe blurred the lines between art and erotica as they explored sexuality with both a maturity and a more graphic explicitness. In other words, people got naked and shared bed right on the screen. “That’s not smut, that’s art,” was the implicit argument, even if it was the sex that the exhibitors marketed.

Here are ten films from the heady days of the sexual revolution to the present that smudge the line between art and exploitation. Sex may be the subject, the subtext, or the motivation, but promise of steamy spectacle and erotic delights was used attract patrons that normally might not otherwise attend such fare and give them the cinematic equivalent to the time-honored justification for purchasing Playboy magazine: “I get it for the articles.”

‘Contempt’

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
Here are two examples of marketing skin to attract audiences to challenging films from European intellectual filmmakers. Contempt (1963) is an unlikely meeting between nouvelle vague legend Jean-Luc Godard’s anti-Hollywood sensibility and the showman aesthetic of (uncredited) producer Joseph E. Levine in an international co-production about the clash between art and commerce, the politics of artistic integrity and compromise and the dissolution of love. To meet his producer’s demands, Godard added an opening bedroom scene and inserted pin-up style nude shots of star Brigitte Bardot. Wouldn’t you know he actually makes them work as a comment on the very process of filmmaking compromise? Blow-Up (1966), the English-language debut of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, is an existential murder mystery starring David Hemmings as a jaded fashion photographer who may have taken a picture of murder and Vanessa Redgrave as the mystery woman of his photograph. Set in swinging London, full of mod fashions, free love, a score by Herbie Hancock and an appearance by the Yardbirds, it’s a timepiece by way of Antonioni’s brand of contemporary alienation and it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was also the first mainstream movie to show female pubic hair (however fleetingly) and that was a bigger selling point for a lot of the patrons.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Nov 20 2014

Videophiled Classics: Otto Preminger’s ‘Bunny Lake is Missing’

Twilight Time

Bunny Lake Is Missing (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – In the late 1950s and early 1960s, no American director melded classic Hollywood style and cool modern European elegance better than producer/director Otto Preminger. His handsome films are celebrations of introspection and stylistic remove and his best work defined not by heroes and villains but complex, flawed, achingly sympathetic characters. On the surface, this 1965 mystery is no more than a smartly done, intelligently written thriller but Preminger’s fierce cinematic intelligence guides a fluid camera that effortlessly tracks, glides, and reframes characters as they shift through scenes, shifting our perspective along the way.

Carol Lynley is an American single mother who has just moved to London with her brother (Keir Dullea) and her young daughter Bunny, who we never actually see before she suddenly goes missing. Laurence Olivier delivers one of his best performances as a police inspector full of blank smiles, putting on a mask of practiced civility while investigating the disappearance of a child that no one can remember seeing. Lynley is another of Preminger’s lithe, lovely heroines who finds herself isolated and alienated, a stranger in a culture that feels just slightly off (Noel Coward is particularly unsettling as a landlord with questionable motivations), while devoted brother Dullea supports her through the ordeal. While Lynley’s panic tips into paranoia and makes us question her grasp on reality—does Bunny even exist?—Dullea’s glazed cool and dazed smiles make him a little questionable as well. Like Olivier, Preminger conceals his feelings, wielding the camera like a microscope examining the layers of his characters while setting in motion with a choreographer’s grace.

Please note, however, that the prominent billing of the British rock group The Zombies refers only to a rather contrived appearance on a TV screen in the background of one shot and a song playing on a transistor radio in another. They make no actual appearance in the film as such, yet I can’t help but grudgingly respect Preminger’s purely commercial movie. He made films his way, but as his own producer, he was savvy enough to play the promoter.

It’s a gorgeous CinemaScope movie and Twilight Time does the film up nicely, with a strong transfer of a good-looking HD master from Columbia Pictures, a studio with a superb record of preserving, restoring, and making high-quality digital transfers of their catalog. It’s a reminder that black and white films offer a whole new dimension on good-quality Blu-ray releases, not just added sharpness and clarity but a greater depth of gray scale and shading.

The original Twilight Time model was to provide high-quality releases of films from studio vaults in limited edition runs with minimal supplements beyond an isolated score track and a booklet with an essay by house writer Julie Kirgo. Since their launch, however, they have started including featurettes and other supplements from previous DVD releases where possible, and providing original commentary tracks on select releases. This release offers commentary by film historian Lem Dobbs with in-house historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman (who also founded the label), a trio that has done more than a few commentary tracks together, and their ease gives the track an easy-going quality as they dig into the film and offer historical and critical perspective. Also includes three trailers.

More classics on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Nov 19 2014

‘Scarecrow’ on TCM

“A mixture of Midnight Cowboy and Of Mice and Men” is how Gene Hackman described Scarecrow (1973), a meandering road movie about two misfit drifters who meet up on a stretch of country highway winding through northern California. Hackman is Max, a quick-tempered fellow just out of prison after serving six years of assault, and Al Pacino is the gentle jester Francis, a sailor back home from the sea and ready to face the girlfriend that he abandoned with their child five years before. Max renames his new pal Lion (“I have a problem with Francis”) and makes him a partner in his deluxe car wash, a business he is determined to open once he gets to Pittsburg, where his saving await him. They hitchhike, ride the rails, and walk the open roads when they have to, taking detours to visit a friend in Denver and Francis’ child (he doesn’t know if it’s a boy or a girl) in Detroit. They make an odd couple, Max pushing every slight or argument with a stranger into a fight while Francis attempts to defuse tensions with jokes and clownish antics.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Friday, November 21

Nov 18 2014

Videophiled: ‘The Wind Rises’ for Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song

Disney Home Video

The Wind Rises (Disney, Blu-ray, VOD) – Hayao Miyazaki is a national treasure in Japan, the director of beloved animated features and a filmmaker dedicated to preserving the art of hand-drawn animation. The Wind Rises, which was released in 2013 and earned an Oscar nomination as Best Animated Feature, was a passion project for the director and a fitting swan song. The grand old man of Japanese animation has retired and this film, not a fantasy or mythical adventure but a delicate biographical drama about an idealistic engineer devoted to making “beautiful airplanes” for a country he knows will use them as instruments of war, is his final feature. Jiro comes of age in 1920s Japan and through him we experience the 1923 earthquake, the great Tokyo fire, and the crippling depression, as well as the growing militarism that takes hold of the country and the culture; at one point, the pacifist Jiro comes close to becoming a victim of Japan’s version of the communist witch-hunt.

The film was both celebrated and criticized in Japan, where some accused the film of whitewashing the militarism that sent the country into occupying Manchuria and then into World War II. Perhaps they felt that Miyazaki wasn’t more strident in his condemnation of that culture but he does surely confront and criticize it, albeit with a tone of regret and resignation. Jiro, who works in the aviation division of Mitsubishi, is an artist who dreams of flight (his eyesight prevents him from becoming a pilot) and channels his love into creating the next generation of airplanes, but is trapped in a military culture that demands he design a fighter plane. Somehow he never loses his idealism and his humanism.

Is Jiro complicit in the war because he designed one of Japan’s most effective war machines? Is he so driven to become part of the evolution of aviation that he ignores the use to which his designs will be used? Does the beauty of his creation (and Miyazaki does indeed express the beauty of flight that Jiro feels in his imagery) justify the compromises he has made? And are they indeed compromises in a time of war, or are they duty, regardless of one’s personal feelings? These questions hang in the air, suggested but never actually stated or answered. Perhaps he leaves that us to imagine as Jiro surveys the destruction in the aftermath of the war.

‘The Wind Rises’

There’s a love story here too and it is beautiful and tragic. The beauty who will become his wife is already ill with tuberculosis as they court and their romance is almost disconnected from the world around Jiro, taking him (and us) out of the city to the bucolic, sunny countryside, removed from the politics driving Japan to the destruction of war. The entire film is beautiful—could this be the last masterpiece of old-school hand-drawn animation? I sure hope not—and Miyazake applies his visual imagination to a realistic drama, giving it the romanticized imagery of Jiro’s hopeful perspective with the shadows of war and death around the edges. It has the feeling of remembrance, of memory elevating the experience to romantic ideal and shuttling the rest aside. And when we take flight the experience is exhilarating. Miyazaki is a master of both the delicate and the awesome and applies both to this lovely work.

Features the original Japanese soundtrack and a well-produced English language version featuring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, and William H. Macy, plus the short featurette “The Wind Rises: Behind the Microphone,” Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), press conference footage of the announcement of the completed film, and Japanese trailers and TV spots.

Disney Home Video

Along with the American debut of The Wind Rises, Disney releases two of Miyazaki’s best on Blu-ray for the first time. Princess Mononoke (Disney, Blu-ray) was the film that introduced most American viewers to Miyazaki when Disney (prompted by Pixar’s John Lasseter, a devoted Miyazaki fan) struck a deal to distribute Studio Ghibli films in the U.S. and create new English language versions to widen the audience. Mononoke was the first film to receive wide distribution and in retrospect it may have been the perfect introduction, at least for the adult audience: an environmentalist epic as and blood and thunder fantasy adventure on an apocalyptic scale. Set in the era of Japan’s Iron Age, it’s a time when the foundries first start to poison the forests and rivers around them and the weapons they produce—from fine samurai swords to primitive cannons and guns—give humans the advantage in conquering the natural world. Grounded in a rich and complex animist mythology, it is painted not as absolutes of good and evil but in moral shades of gray, a yin and yang within both man and nature. His figurehead is Mononoke herself, a wolf child as original eco-warrior leading the charge against her blood kin, the humans, in an elemental world of animal tribes and spirits and Gods imagined as magnificent giants and enchanting imps. Every frame is filled with an awesome sense of wonder and magic, and for all that is lost, he instills the ending with hope and healing.

Features original Japanese and the excellent American dub soundtracks (featuring Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Billy Bob Thornton, and translated script penned by Neil Gaiman), plus storyboards, two featurettes, and original Japanese trailers.

Disney Home Video

Kiki’s Delivery Service (Disney, Blu-ray), which takes place in a magical variation of our own world, is aimed at a younger audience. Strong, plucky young heroine Kiki has turned thirteen, the age when witches leave the nest for a year of solo training. She’s ready to take on the world with her broomstick and her best friend Jiji, a cautious but supportive black cat (a tiny wisp of a feline) if she can only get her flying under control. Miyazaki’s gentle rhythm and meandering narrative capture the easy pulse of real life and Kiki and her flight obsessed pal Tombo are marvelous models of courage, drive and self-confidence. Their adventures have as much to do with real world situations, such as fear of failure and blows to her self-esteem, as with the lyrical flights among the birds and over the forests and city streets. It is a wonder to look at and a joy to experience and it doesn’t speak down to kids or up to adults.

Features original Japanese and American dub soundtracks (with Kirsten Dunst, Janeane Garofalo, and Phil Hartman), an introduction by Pixar director and English language producer John Lasseter, a short “Behind the Microphone” featurette on the voice cast, Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), and original Japanese trailers.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD at Cinephiled

Nov 15 2014

Interview: Jonathan Romney on ‘L’assenza’

Jonathan Romney is a film critic for The Independent and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Screen International and other publications. He’s also a filmmaker and most recently he wrote and directed L’assenza, a twenty-minute short about an everyday guy named Martin (Stephen Mangan) who watches an obscure Italian film (called, of course, L’assenza—“The Absence”) and spots an extra who bears a remarkable resemblance to him. He laughs it off with a joke but curiosity becomes obsession and as he watches the film again and again, the ill-at-ease extra seems to become aware of Martin’s observations.

L’assenza applies a very low-key wit to the cinema of doubles and doppelgängers and drops it into the world of cinephilia, which adds a new angle on the themes of voyeurism and obsession. And Romney’s fake Italian movie, shot in creamy black and white and set to a jazz score plucked right out of the culture of pretentious elegance, is such a spot-on recreation of the cinema of sophisticated people and empty lives you’d swear it’s the real thing. “It sounds like it should be the Antonioni movie that got away,” remarked Romney in our long-distance conversation.

‘L’assenza’ – the film within a film

L’assenza made its world premiere at the 2013 New York Film Festival, played in festivals around the world, and was a nominee in the Short Film category for the 2013 British Independent Film Awards. I spoke with Jonathan Romney by phone (late night for him, early afternoon for me, thanks to the time difference between England and America’s West Coast) and communicated with producer Carey Born via email conversations.

Sean Axmaker: Filmmakers usually make short films when they can’t get a feature going or to show their talent, like a resume of sorts. What inspired you to make a short film?

Jonathan Romney: Everyone starts by making short films before they make features. And if you have an idea that is the right idea and self-contained and has its own logic, you may as well make it. I’m working on a feature at the moment but I’ve been saying to people, ‘There’s also this other short that I want to make.’ People are saying, ‘Do you really need to make a short at the moment? Shouldn’t you be working on a feature?’ But this other short had been nagging at me. Short ideas do have a way of coming to your consciousness fully formed and they demand to get out. I’d wanted to do this particular story for some time.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Nov 14 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘Fedora’ – Billy Wilder’s memorial for old Hollywood

Fedora (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) opens with a moment right out of Anna Karenina: a woman throws herself in front of an oncoming train, a steam engine puffing out white clouds against the night sky. A grand, glorious, powerfully melodramatic suicide right out of a glamorous tragic Hollywood romance. It’s a fitting in many ways, but especially because the woman, a reclusive Greta Garbo-esque Hollywood legend by the name of Fedora, has just been offered the lead in a new screen version of the Tolstoy classic, a comeback opportunity that her watchers—a gargoyle-ish group reminiscent of the waxworks that kept company with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.—turn down for her. So this actress appropriates the role for her exit. It turns out she’s all about role playing, to the point that she no longer can tell the difference between who she is and who she plays.

The penultimate film from Billy Wilder and a more fitting wrap to his career than his final feature Buddy, Buddy, Fedora (1978) recalls and plays off of Sunset Blvd. in numerous ways, from the premise of a retired Hollywood legend living in self-imposed exile (here it is in an isolated villa in Corfu) to William Holden in the lead, playing an out-of-fashion Hollywood producer named Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler, a former assistant director who worked his way through the ranks (and who could be Joe Gillis in 25 years had he survived his first brush with a Hollywood legend). He tracks Fedora (Marthe Keller), who walked off the set of her last film 15 years before and never returned, to an island villa owned by the aging Countess Fedora Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef). She looks like she hasn’t aged since the forties, which is attributed to the controversial work of once-famous plastic surgeon Doctor Vando (José Ferrer), who is now in his own kind of exile thanks to controversial treatments and scandalous failures, but she’s also paranoid and fragile. The villa could be an asylum or a fairy tale prison and the “companions” either her tough-love caretakers or jailers. In fact, appearances are deceiving in every way, and as Barry attempts to get his new script to the retired actress (with whom he had a brief fling back in his Hollywood apprenticeship), he discovers the truth behind the legend of the Fedora and her sudden disappearance years before.

Read more »

Nov 11 2014

Videophiled: Monty Python’s Swan Song (or, if you prefer, Dead Parrot) and Shirley Clarke’s ‘Portrait of Jason’

MontyPythonLiveMostly

Eagle Rock

Monty Python Live (Mostly) – One Down, Five to Go (Eagle Rock, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital) puts to disc the stage performance that was previously shown via satellite in select theaters around the world for one night only earlier in 2014. The first live show sold out with 30 seconds of the moment tickets went on sale and more shows were added, but they capped it at ten performances at the O2 in London. They say that this is the last time the group will perform together, and there’s no reason to doubt it; the last time they entire group performed together was 30 years ago, when Graham Chapman was still alive.

The title says it all: the five remaining Pythons (plus their favorite guest performer, Carol Cleveland) reunite for an encore, with Gilliam getting a little more involved than usual and a featured chorus member periodically joining in. You could say that Chapman is as much as a presence as could be hoped for, considering he died 25 years ago, but in fact he’s featured more than you would think possible, from the title of the show to classic film and video clips that bring him back into the ensemble (including some clips that showed in their first concert film, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl) or make him a link between live segments, as if he was still interacting with the old gang.

This isn’t a master class, it’s a reunion and we’ve been invited to watch the old gang fall back into old patterns. Between revivals of their greatest hits (with a few wink wink nudge nudge updates) are big song-and-dance production numbers out of an overblown Broadway revue, with young dancers and singers taking over to kick up the energy and provide the production value. The rest is nostalgia. They are nowhere near the top of their game but they are clearly having fun (they are just as funny when they forget their lines or lose their place, which happens a couple of time) and so is the audience. Everyone there seems to know the skits by heart and get a kick out of seeing these senior citizens revive their standards for one last go round.

There are a few supplements, notably behind-the-scenes clips from the initial reunion meeting, the official announcement, and highlights from the 10 shows (including all the guest star appearances), plus the raw footage that the Pythons shot for intermission breaks and other video screen announcements.

PortraitJason

Milestone

Portrait of Jason (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), Shirley Clarke’s stream of consciousness character study of Jason Holliday, aka Aaron Payne, is a landmark of non-fiction filmmaking and LGBT cinema. Ostensibly part of the cinema verité movement, it straddles the line between documentary and performance art piece. Clarke shot her portrait of the gay black hustler as an all-night extemporaneous monologue and gave voice to a man who would otherwise never be heard in any media form in 1967. In his round coke-bottle glasses and collegiate blazer, Jason plays to the camera and skeleton crew (heard just off camera throughout but never seen), telling stories and doing impressions over the 12 hour session, which Clarke edited to just under two hours. It is an act, all performance and outsized personality, with Jason playing the raconteur and would-be nightclub headliner, and it’s not clear how much is true and how much flight of fancy and projection. But between his paroxysms of laughter, puffs of a joint, and endless glasses of vodka, he offers a glimpse of how one grows up and survives as a flamboyant queer in sixties America.

It’s a scruffy, raw film that got scuffed up over the decades and had never been released on home video in the U.S. until Milestone undertook “Project Shirley.” Portrait of Jason is officially “Project Shirley, Volume 2? but the first in the series to be released to Blu-ray and DVD. This restoration, built on materials found in worldwide search, recovers lost footage and visual detail but leaves the roughness of the 16mm shoot intact because Clarke treasured that gritty texture. And as with all of Milestone’s archival presentations, the discs are packed with invaluable historical bonus material, from outtakes to archival interviews with Clarke to the audio-only “The Jason Holliday Comedy Album,” a rarity that makes an astounding companion piece to the film.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD at Cinephiled

Nov 10 2014

The Dialectics of Humor: Russian Silent Comedy

Let’s face it, Soviet silent cinema isn’t renowned for its sense of humor. And that’s a shame.

Most of us were introduced to the silent era of Russian film through the dialectic exercises of Sergei Eisenstein, who combined the intellectual and the visceral in such films as Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) or the dazzling montage symphony that is Dziga Vertov‘s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). They are thrilling works with serious themes and a rigorous aesthetic and intellectual approach. But for all their celebration of the proletariat as the collective hero of the great Soviet experiment, the working men and women of the Soviet Union really just wanted to have fun at the movies and the most popular Russian films were indeed light entertainment and energetic comedies. They’ve merely been harder to find than the rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories, films elevated as standard bearers of the era of Soviet Formalism and the editing revolution, at least until recently. In fact, for a long time, the only widely seen example of Soviet comedy was Chess Fever (1925), a comic short spoofing the real-life chess obsession that swept Russia during the 1925 chess tournament in Moscow.

‘Chess Fever’

Co-director Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of Soviet cinema’s intellectual heavyweights, a theorist who apprenticed under filmmaking pioneer Lev Kuleshov and helped develop the theories of montage that guided formalist filmmaking in the twenties. He actually applies some of those ideas to this funny and clever short comedy about a chess addict who risks losing his fiancée in his chess obsession. Pudovkin went on to make such serious features as Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927) but Chess Fever is all lighthearted fun, a lark rather than a lesson. And it showed that Pudovkin’s brand of montage was also effective when it came to humor: the perfect cut was just as effective in delivering a punchline as pounding home a political point.

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Nov 06 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘The Sopranos: The Complete Series’ on Blu-ray

SopranosBDThe Sopranos: The Complete Series (HBO, Blu-ray+Digital HD) – It’s been on DVD already but until the arrival of this set, only seasons 1 and 6 have been released on Blu-ray. Now the entire run of cable series that became a cultural phenomenon (the first time from a pay cable channel) and broadened the possibilities of TV drama is available in the high definition home video format.

More than simply “The Godfather Sees a Shrink,” the brilliant made-for-cable drama The Sopranos gave “family crisis” a whole new meaning and television drama a new sophistication. Emmy winner James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, a blue collar guy in an upper-middle class neighborhood, battles panic attacks and assassination attempts as he juggles two families: his wife (Emmy winner Edie Falco), kids, and bitter, emasculating mother (a brilliant Nancy Marchand, who died after the filming the second season), and the New Jersey mob. Lorraine Bracco is the therapist who tries to helps Tony balance a middle class existence and a violent criminal lifestyle and ends up uneasy about her relationship to Tony as she finally understands the depth of his criminal activity.

The first season turned into a cultural phenomenon and the highest rated HBO original series ever. The second season introduced David Provall as Ritchie Apprio, the angry, unstable mobster who bristles under Tony’s leadership and clashes with the family in his rogue activities. After the melodramatic rollercoaster of the second season, season three simmers with troubled allegiances, complicated relationships, and the devastating effects of the family business on the conflicted emotions of the Soprano children and mob wife Carmella (Emmy winner Edie Falco), who struggles with her inherent complicity in Tony’s job. By the end of the six-season run, Tony and the New Jersey mob goes to war with Phil Leotardo and the New York mob in the wake of a leadership vacuum, wife Carmella comes to terms with the realities of being a mob wife, Tony’s nephew and heir-apparent Christopher (Michael Imperioli) makes a dramatic exit, and creator David Chase ends it all on a finale that evocatively proclaims that the mob life will never afford the Soprano family closure. The end thrilled, impressed, frustrated, and enraged viewers. American couldn’t stop talking about it and parodies sprouted across the media spectrum, not the least of which was a Hillary Clinton campaign spot!

Written with a marvelous ear for language and a sharp sense of character, The Sopranos made full use of the no holds barred opportunities of cable with shocking violence, casual sex, and epithet laced gangster-speak. But more importantly, it dropped the gangster drama into the modern world with intelligence and insight: these are mobsters whose lore is informed by the movies as much as by history. This series didn’t so much change the face of television as it showed what was possible. Shows as disparate as The Shield, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, and Breaking Bad owe their existence to the creative energy and cultural embrace of The Sopranos and for that alone the show earns its place in the pantheon of American television landmarks.

The last episode

The complete 86-episode series, from the panic attack that opens the show to the abrupt ending, is collected on 28 discs in seven cases (one for each season, with Season 6 split into two parts, as it was originally released on Blu-ray) plus an eighth slimcase with a disc of substantial interview features originally presented in the DVD edition of The Complete Series: “Defining a Television Landmark,” a roundtable discussion with creator David Chase, executive producer Brad Grey, producer Ilene Landress, filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and Andrew Dominick, actor/writer Michael Imperioli, critics Elvis Mitchell, Dorothy Rabinowitz and David Bianculli, and professor Paul Levinson; two sessions of “Supper with The Sopranos,” with Chase discussing the show over a meal with (in part one) producer / writer (and future Boardwalk Empire creator) Terence Winter, director Allen Coulter, and actors Dominic Chianese, Rober Iler, and Aida Turturro, and (in part two) executive producer / writer (and future Mad Men creator) Matthew Weiner, producer Ilene Landress, director Alan Taylor, actor / music advisor Steven Van Zandt, and star Edie Falco; and “An Interview with David Chase,” a one-on-one conversation with Alec Baldwin, who desperately wanted Chase to create a role for him on the show.

The supplements from previous Blu-ray and DVD releases of the seasons are also all intact, including Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with Chase, a discussion of the music with Chase, Steven Van Zandt, and Dominic Chianese, and commentary on 25 episodes by various members of the cast and crew.

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