Feb 28 2015

Videophiled: ‘The Wild Angels’ and ‘Psych-Out’

WildAngels

Olive

Before Easy Rider there was The Wild Angels (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Roger Corman and starring Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a California chapter of Hell’s Angles. This is a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.

The 1966 film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.

They are truly rebels without a cause but Corman takes their outlaw culture into nervy, nihilistic territory. They’re not a club, they’re a tribe and they devolve into primitive savagery after the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill. “We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded!”

The empty eulogy becomes an epigraph for a defiant anti-establishment rebellion fallen into decadence and anarchy and Heavenly Blues proceeds to preside over the desecration of a church and the systematic trampling of every boundary of decency that Corman could push past censors in 1966. The Wild Angels became a portrait of emptiness and hostility, a social revolution spiraling into narcissism and self-destruction. The film was released before the ratings system was in effect but later given an R-rating for drug use and the HD master looks very good, especially considering its production history. Corman shot quick and dirty when necessary and a few shots stick out as soft or out-of-focus, quite likely a matter Corman making due and moving on to the next set-up.

PsychOut

Olive

Psych-Out (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) from 1968 belongs to another genre of youth exploitation cinema, one that put hippies and flower-power and counterculture imagery on the screen with a cautionary warning about the dangers of drugs and the hedonistic rock and roll lifestyle. This one, however, came from music mogul Dick Clark, and for all the drug culture stereotypes and free love displays, it’s at least more open to the positive aspects of San Francisco hippie culture than most counterculture portraits. Part of that is surely due to director Richard Rush, who explored counterculture protest movement with greater insight and intelligence in the underrated Getting Straight and direct the Oscar-nominated The Stunt Man, as well as a cast of ambitious youth movie veterans, many of them on the cusp of becoming major stars.

Jenny Davis (Susan Strasberg) is a deaf girl who arrives in San Francisco from a straight suburban home in search of her brother (Bruce Dern), an artist who tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. Jack Nicholson is Stoney, the callous hippie leader of a jam band who helps her dodge the cops and invites her to stay in his communal home (where there’s always a party going on) and his bed, and Dean Stockwell is band drop-out turned self-styled guru Dave, who lends his connections to her search and his patience to her pain.

This is the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power scene of hippie communes, free love, bad trips (future filmmaker Henry Jaglom sees dead people), and rock happenings, and while it tends to confirm the clichés of the era it’s more critical of the mainstream culture that dismisses and even persecutes the hippies. I’m not really sure why there’s a blue collar gang of tough guys out to get Jenny’s blissed-out, freaked-out brother, who lives in the city dump and is known as “the Seeker”—is there some Jesus allegory that got lost in the rewrites?—but it sure paints the straights as an intolerant, bigoted bunch. And Rush appreciates the energy and the idealism of the culture at its best while acknowledging contradictions in the individuals within. Nicholson’s Stoney can be a groovy guy but he’s also a little self-absorbed and certainly ambitious, trying to get his band out of the one-night-stands and into big venues and a recording contract. There’s something calculating about his embrace of the culture and insincere in his relationship with Jenny, who is more of a curiosity than a commitment. When he’s bored of the novelty his attentions wander to the blond groupie turned band tambourine player (Linda Gaye Scott) and Jenny loses her moorings in the unfamiliar party scene.

Susan Strasberg and Jack Nicholson

The music from Nicholson’s band is shamelessly derivative (their signature tune is reversal of a familiar Hendrix riff) but the film also features The Strawberry Alarm Clock performing their hit “Incense and Peppermint” in front of the liquid lightshow and Sky Saxon (of The Seeds) leading a funky funeral march. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (who went on to shoot Easy Rider) brings a vivid, psychedelic look to the film that are nicely preserved on this disc. And watch for future TV producer and film director Garry Marshall as a plainclothes cop searching for Jenny in the first scene, sticking out of the coffeehouse scene like he’s Sgt. Joe Friday at a peace rally. Unfortunately this disc does not include the featurette from the DVD release.

More Blu-ray and DVD releases from Olive at Cinephiled

Feb 24 2015

Videophiled: Oscar winners ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Big Hero 6′ on disc and VOD

Two freshly-anointed Oscar winners arrive on home video this week: Whiplash, which won awards for Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons and for editing, and sound mixing, and Big Hero 6, this year’s Best Animated Feature, debut on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

Sony

In Whiplash (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), music competition is a bloodsport and J.K. Simmons’ instructor is as feared as he is respected. His Fletcher is the drill sergeant of Full Metal Jacket in a simple black t-shirt and slacks and head shaved to a hard sheen and his boot camp is the school’s competition stage band: the best of the best. He bullies his students into total obedience and fear and they are desperate to win his approval while he browbeats, humiliates, and even physically assaults them, none more so than the intense and driven Buddy Rich disciple Andrew (Miles Teller). Teller is as fearless as Simmons, giving us an obsessive who is intense, driven, and at times insufferably arrogant and self-absorbed. He’s not very likable, at least not when he puts his drumming ahead of everything else, but he is compelling, taking the sports ethos of pushing past the pain to reach perfection. He literally bleeds for his art. Fletcher demands more through his hyena smile. He may actually believe that such tactics make better musicians (that which doesn’t kill only makes you a stronger player?) but he clearly enjoys the mind-games and emotional warfare. Simmons gives him life by playing it with cagey calculation, as if the very act of teaching is a competitive event.

This is as much psychological thriller as musical drama and it turns on the increasingly toxic chemistry between two clearly damaged people, to the exclusion of pretty much anyone else in the film. The other members of the band fade away as bystanders, object lessons, or seat-fillers and Andrew’s fleeting attempts at romance are all about how Fletcher’s influence infects him with the same emotional brutality. We never really get to know girl left wounded by his insensitivity. Such oversights allow the film to slip out of the real world and into a stylized arena of musical warfare but it works in the scheme of things. Writer / director Damien Chazelle has basically created a two-hander and that collision of ruthless ambition and ferocious control is riveting. The jazz band pieces, especially the title song “Whiplash,” give the film a brittle edge; these tunes aren’t played to express musical joy, they are designed to showcase musical precision, and the percussion-heavy element puts the film on edge as successfully as the drum solos in Birdman define the nervous tension of that film.

Blu-ray and DVD both feature commentary by filmmaker Damien Chazelle and co-star J.K. Simmons and a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival screening with Chazelle, Simmons, and Miles Teller. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the original short film Chazelle shot with Simmons to help fund the film (Simmons’ son plays the role that Teller essays in the feature), the 40-minute drumming documentary “Timekeepers,” and a deleted scene, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also on Digital HD and cable and web VOD.

Disney

Big Hero 6 (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is an adaptation of a Marvel Comics title but the filmmakers thoroughly transform it into a Disney feature, complete with issues of loss and family at the center of the creation of a student superhero team, with the spark of Pixar in its visual invention and knowing wit. The comic book was set in Tokyo but this plays out in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo, where adolescent robotics prodigy Hiro discovers that his science fair invention has been turned into a weapon and then transforms his engineer brother’s plush medical bot, Baymax, into the cuddliest, sweetest, most protective crimefighter the world has ever seen. Together with his brother’s best friends and fellow engineering students, they form a team of what you might call science heroes, turning their inventions into superhero accessories.

In a stronger year Big Hero 6 might not have won the Oscar—it doesn’t have the timelessness or universality of the best Pixar movies or the elemental fairy tale resonance of Disney’s best—but there is no denying the art and heart of the film. Scott Adsit (of 30 Rock) voices the robot Baymax as a gentle nanny turned inflatable transformer, like a giant plush doll with the instinct of a caregiver and the mind of an overprotective child, a little slow on the uptake but utterly benevolent. That level of compassion is comforting amidst the flashy chaos of a superhero spectacle.

This disc actually offers two Oscar winners: Best Animated Short Feast, which played in front of the film in theaters, is included as a supplement. It also offers two featurettes—”The Origin Story of Big Hero 6: Hiro’s Journey,” which follows the process of adaptation process from comic book to animate feature, and “Big Animator 6: The Characters Behind the Characters,” with the animators discussing the evolution of the characters on the screen—deleted scenes (in rough form, as they were removed in early stages of production; you can see one of them at the end of the post), and Easter Eggs for the kids to hunt for. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Feb 20 2015

Film Review: McFarland, USA

Carlos Pratts and Kevin Costner

Disney has really carved out a genre for itself: the underdog sports story as cultural melting pot, complete with the Middle American white coach/scout/father figure whose preconceptions are overturned by scrappy kids who overcome every hurdle with heart and hard work. That guy was Jon Hamm in Million Dollar Arm and Josh Lucas in Glory Road. In McFarland, USA, also inspired by a true story, he’s a high-school football coach whose temper has landed him at an underfunded school in a largely Mexican-American town in the California desert. “Are we in Mexico?,” his daughter asks, as they drive past sad little homes of cracked stucco and sun-parched dirt yards. It gets a laugh, but makes a point: This is a Third World neighborhood within our borders. For that I give the film some credit. It gives a big-screen face to an American culture generally relegated to the margins of mainstream movies. Too bad it belabors as many stereotypes as it challenges.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Feb 20 2015

Videophiled: Twilight Time’s bloody ‘Valentine’

StValentines

Twilight Time

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) gave Roger Corman the biggest budget of his career to date. After more than 40 films, most of them for the budget-challenged AIP, he was hired by 20th Century Fox and given the resources of their studio, casting department, and backlot for his recreation of 1929 Chicago and the most famous gangland slaying in American history.

Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as the stocky Al Capone—he was originally cast as rival mob boss “Bugs” Moran but Corman’s first choice for Capone, Orson Welles, was nixed by the studio as being “too difficult” and Robards simply promoted to the leading role—but he certainly captures the savagery, the emotional explosiveness, and the media-savvy persona that Capone puts on when talking to reporters. His tit-for-tat battles with Northside gangster Moran (Ralph Meeker) turn into a full-scale war when Chicago’s Mafia Don (and Capone’s boss) is knocked off in a power play. Corman directs from a script by Howard Browne, who was a reporter in Chicago when the real event occurred, that takes in the big picture and charts the stories and trajectories of over a dozen characters tangled in the plot to kill Moran. George Segal gets the biggest role as Peter Gusenberg, a ruthless Moran gunman in a tempestuous affair with a showgirl (Jean Hale), and Clint Ritchie is Capone’s favored lieutenant Jack McGurn, a young, ambitious guy with matinee idol looks and an initiative that earns him the job of planning and executing the Moran hit. The whole thing is structured with documentary-like narration by Paul Frees (which also echoes the TV series The Untouchables) that identifies the players and keeps the timeline of the complicated plan straight.

Corman gets a good cast of venerable characters, among them Frank Silvera, Joseph Campanella, Richard Bakalyan, Harold J. Stone, Joe Turkel, John Agar, Reed Hadley, Alex Rocco, and Leo Gordon, and adds in a few of his favorites, including Bruce Dern in a sympathetic role as an earnest mechanic just trying to support his family and unbilled appearances by Dick Miller and Jack Nicholson. Corman is adept at creating human moments between the plot points, reminding us of the little guys caught up in the war and the human cost of the violence, while the narration provides the death dates of each character in their respective introductions. Nobody gets out of this life alive. Some just survive it a little longer.

It’s a superb-looking transfer of the CinemaScope production and shows Corman’s talent for repurposing standing sets and stretching resources to make a low-budget look far more expensive. The colors are bright and vibrant and the image is so sharp and detailed that you can just make out the tips of California palm trees behind the Chicago backlot set in one scene. The new interview featurette “Roger Corman Remembers” is brief, barely three minutes, but Corman is always a good interview and he packs in a lot of information (all of it also found in earlier interviews and Corman bios), and the archival Fox Movietone News section includes clips from three newsreel reports on Capone, including a raid on one of his distilleries.

More Twilight Time Blu-rays at Cinephiled

Feb 19 2015

Videophiled: ‘The Tale of The Princess Kaguya’

Universal

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), nominated in the Animated Feature Film category, is probably not considered a “major” nominee by the mainstream press but this production by Studio Ghibli co-founder and “Grave of the Fireflies” filmmaker Isao Takahata takes an artisanal approach to animation. It’s a 10th-century fairy tale of a magical princess who is born of a bamboo stalk and, raised by a modest old woodcutter and his wife, sprouts to adulthood just as fast as one. As the bamboo grove gives forth with fine clothes and the riches of a royal, her adoptive father takes her from her natural paradise to a palace in the city where she grudgingly masters the arts and social graces of titled society.

Takahata embraces the sketchy, impressionistic, painterly qualities of animation being displaced by CGI. His hand-drawn imagery evokes both the watercolor and ink artworks of ancient Japanese parchment and the charcoal and pastel quality of storybook illustrations and Joe Hisashi’s score has a lyrical simplicity to match. Takahata takes time to play out his ancient fairy tale, getting sidetracked in entertaining yet ultimately inconsequential tales of royal suitors attempting to win the princess. It’s strongest when he celebrates the simple pleasures of her life, working in a modest garden set off from the palace, running through the forest, entranced by the cherry blossoms of the young spring. And the final act is heartbreakingly lovely, a magical spectacle that whisks us through the air with a thrilling rush. With Studio Ghibli ceasing operations as an active producer of animated features (it will continue to license properties and handle the catalog), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is their final gift, a handmade storybook of a film from a filmmaker who is as entranced with the texture of a brushstroke as with character and story.

kaguya_1.0

A princess is born

 

Blu-ray and DVD, with original Japanese language and English dub versions (Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, and Lucy Liu are among the voice performers of the English language cast) and the feature-length documentary Isao Takahata and His Tale of The Princess Kaguya, plus a news clip of the announcement of the completion of the film and Japanese and U.S. trailers. Also available via cable VOD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 17 2015

Videophiled: Tommy Lee Jones is ‘The Homesman’

Homesman

Lionsgate

The Homesman (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), one of my favorite films of the year, was overlooked by critics in the rush to praise more conventional and less resonant films. It deserves a second look. Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes, and stars in the film as George Briggs, a drifter saved from a lynching by Mary Bee (Hilary Swank), a tough, capable settler who has tamed her harsh Nebraska homestead and now sets out on an odyssey. She trades his life for help in transporting three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) driven mad by life on the frontier to a town hundreds of miles away, where they have been offered care and sanctuary. It’s a western, sure, but certainly not in any traditional way. Adapted from the novel by Glendon Swarthout (who also wrote, among others, “The Shootist”), this story presents the West as a hard place that creates hard people and destroys the rest.

Jones is marvelous as the no-account whose word is secured through his greed but also rises to the occasion when necessary, but Hilary Swank dominates the film as Mary. She has carved out a successful spread but remains single and terribly lonely; she’s “too bossy,” says one of the few bachelors available on this vast sea of grass, scrub, and rolling hills. Her performance as a tough, driven, commanding woman cuts through the film like a knife. She was robbed of an Oscar nomination.

The film offers a landscape to match the emotional isolation; this land is as empty and lonely and unforgiving as it is lovely. There have been a lot of films about the costs and hardships faced by the first American settlers of the West, but they’ve all focused on the physical—violence, weather, shelter, food, the hardships of carving a home out of the wilderness. The Homesman looks at the toll on the heart and the soul and the psyche in a homestead miles from the nearest neighbor. It is a powerful film of elemental emotions and instincts, filled with eccentric and unusual episodes that straddle the fine line between humor and tragedy.

Blu-ray and DVD with three behind-the-scenes featurettes. The Blu-ray also features a bonus UltraViolet digital copy of the film. Also available on cable and digital VOD (through iTunes, Amazon, Xbox and others).

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 16 2015

The ‘Alt’ Oscars: The Silent Years

The Academy Awards were born in 1927, the brainchild of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, a studio head whose original idea for an organization to negotiate labor disputes and industry conflicts evolved into the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The awards themselves were an afterthought and initially more public relations gimmick than egalitarian celebration of the arts. Every member of the Academy (then as now an exclusive organization where membership is by invitation only) was involved in nominations but a committee of five judges picked the winners and Mayer, of course, oversaw it all. If he didn’t actually handpick the winners, be surely put his thumb on the scales. By 1929, Academy members were voting on the final ballots themselves and in 1934 the ceremony moved from November to March. Additional categories were added and other refinements made over the years (Foreign Language Film got its own statue in 1957) but otherwise the Academy Awards as we know them today were born: a glitzy event that brought the stars out and handed out trophies.

That leaves practically the entire silent movie era out of Oscar history. Hollywood had reached a zenith in terms of craftsmanship, glamor and ambition when The Jazz Singer was released before the first awards were handed out. It was. By its second year, sound films dominated the awards.

‘Metropolis’

Let’s imagine an alternate history where the Academy Awards had been born earlier and (as long as we’re dreaming) with a more egalitarian purpose from the outset. What kind of winners might you have in an era when movies were more international and there was no such thing as a “foreign language film” when credits and intertitles were easily replaced for each region? What landmarks leading up to that first ceremony, where the twin peaks of populist blockbuster and artistic triumph—Wings and Sunrise—represented the Best of Hollywood, might have been chosen in the golden age of twenties cinema, or the birth of the feature film in the teens, or even the wild days of experimentation and rapid evolution in the decades previous?

Here are my picks for a few key awards in the imaginary Oscar history.

1928: Metropolis
Best Picture, Cinematography, Production Design
Released in January of 1927 in Germany and two months later in the U.S., this landmark was just too early for consideration in the inaugural awards (handed out in May, 1929). So I’m giving this early 1927 release a clear playing field with its own Oscar year: Academy Awards Year Zero. Sure, science fiction isn’t a big player with the Academy, but otherwise it has all the hallmarks of an Oscar favorite: epic canvas, astounding sets, visionary visual design and the timely theme of man struggling to find his place in the rapid spread of technology and machinery, all under the firm control of filmmaker Fritz Lang. Hollywood had never seen anything like it before. The film was soon edited down for and the original cut was lost for decades. The 2010 restoration restores scenes, characters and story lines unseen since opening night and confirms just how grand Lang’s vision was.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Feb 15 2015

Videophiled: Jacques Rivette’s Paris in ‘Le Pont du Nord’

Kino Lorber

Making its stateside home video debut on Tuesday, February 17, is Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD), a dark sister film to his more buoyant and whimsical Celine and Julie Go Boating. Longtime collaborator Bulle Ogier stars with her daughter, Pascale Ogier, and they co-wrote the film with Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman, which gives the characters and their journeys a decidedly female perspective, a hallmark of many of Rivette’s films. It also channels his love of puzzles, games, fantasy, and conspiracy with a story that tosses the two women together in Paris and sends them on an odyssey through the city, following clues and hopping through neighborhoods like they are squares in a massive boardgame with fatal stakes.

Marie (Bulle Ogier) arrives in the back of a pick-up truck—she’s spent the last few years in prison—with the intention of tracking down her old lover. Baptiste (Pascale Ogier) rides in on a moped, challenging a motorcycle rider like a kid playing matador and stepping off to slash the eyes from posters and placards. Marie is older, experienced, practical, disillusioned yet still hopeful, and she’s afflicted by a crippling claustrophobia that prevents her from even stepping inside stores. Baptiste is young, dreamy, a believer in fate and magic, and possibly unstable (her reflexive defacing of public imagery seems more compulsion than artistic statement). She’s also unfailingly loyal. When Baptiste sees that Marie’s criminal boyfriend Julien (Pierre Clémenti) is involved in shady business dealings, she appoints herself Marie’s guardian and takes the lead in investigating the contents of Julien’s briefcase, which includes newspaper clippings of political assassinations and of Marie’s criminal past. What’s the connection?

That’s for you to decide. Rivette doesn’t connect the dots so much as he follows the path of the game board, jumping from one square to another to make sense of the clues. The women discover that there are deadly stakes to this game but Rivette mixes fantasy with the fatalities and whimsy with the seriousness. Marie’s past connects her with the revolutionary spirit of the late-1960s that no longer exists by 1981, where the rich and powerful play games with lives. Baptiste’s idealism is less political than personal, perhaps a kind of chivalry. Her moped as much steed as machine and in the final act she takes on an amusement park slide in the design of a fire-breathing dragon like she’s a 20th century Don Quixote with tai chi moves. When a rival player attacks her, he puts her to sleep like a fairy tale princess, going so far to use a piece of stage craft to cocoon her in a literal web. Marie’s story is less whimsical, as her devotion to her criminal lover drags her into a criminal plot to which she remains willingly blind. Not that Baptiste understands it any better, but her drive to attack the eyes of the posters and artworks in the city echo with fears of surveillance. Who exactly is watching them?

Pascale Ogier with gun, Bulle Ogier in phone booth

Le Pont du Nord is shot on location on the streets and in empty lots of Paris where buildings in various staged of demolition and construction suggest the skeleton behind the city. The scenes were worked out with the performers and then partially improvised and have a playful, meandering quality held together by Rivette’s dashes of humor and visual punning and the bond created between the two women. But this is a dark bookend to the cycle of films he began with his 1971 epic Out 1 and continued with Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and Duelle (1976).

Features the 13-minute video essay “Composites,” an experimental rumination on the film that I found uninformative, and the more useful but fairly inert 11-minute “Mapping Le Pont du Nord,” an image essay that goes through the film chronologically and identifies the locations of each scene.

More new classics on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Feb 15 2015

Videophiled: Jean Renoir takes ‘A Day in the Country’

DayCountry

Criterion

A Day in the Country (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Jean Renoir has long been called the cinematic successor to the French Impressionists—he is, after all, the son of Auguste Renoir, and his generosity and humanism and interest in the lives of working class folks is in the spirit of the movement. But while his style helped define French poetic realism of the 1930s, his films were also rooted in politics, class, and social commentary, both satirical (Boudu Saved from Drowning) and tragic (The Lower Depths, The Rules of the Game).

With A Day in the Country (1936), however, a short film adapted from a short story by Guy du Maupassant (a contemporary of his father), Renoir pays tribute to the French Impressionists in general and his father in particular. It’s set in 1860 at a bucolic riverside country inn on the Seine where a petit-bourgeois Paris family arrives (in a borrowed milk cart) for an escape from the city and a pair of brash men set their sights on seducing the giggly wife and the svelte, comely daughter of the easily-distracted husband.

It’s a bucolic little film with a wisp of a story that builds great emotional resonance from what appears to be a slight, meaningless dalliance. Like the Impressionists, there is great deal of life suggested behind those initial sketches, at least for some of the characters. Shots of this group having a picnic on the grass, women on swings, and couples rowing skiffs up the river, among others, evoke specific paintings of Pere Renoir while Jean’s gentle direction of his two leading actors create characters that are both familiar cultural types and unique individuals who are moved beyond all expectations by their brief encounter. It’s a portrait in the spirit of the paintings. Sylvia Bataille is especially luminous as the daughter, who is expected to marry her father’s dull-witted assistant but finds more excitement with the amorous country gentleman. Renoir himself plays the innkeeper and his lover and editor Marguerite Houlle Renoir is the waitress.

‘A Day in the Country’

Renoir was unable to finish the film because of production delays caused by weather (it was an unseasonably rainy spring) and a prior commitment to feature film he was obligated to begin shooting, but the principle photography was mostly complete and a few additional location scenes were shot by assistant Jacques Becker (future cinema legend Luchino Visconti and photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson were also assistants on the production). The film was finally assembled a decade later by Marguerite Houlle Renoir (though they never married, she took his name) and Marinette Cadix, while Renoir was in the United States, with a couple of explanatory notes to cover city scenes that were never shot. In the simplicity of this film, they seem unnecessary.

The disc is gorgeous, mastered in 2k from a composite fine-grain 35mm print, with excellent detail and depth of image. The image is clean and vivid, which is remarkable for film of such vintage and difficult production history. Details of the production history are explained by Renoir historian Christopher Faulkner in the informative 24-minute interview featurette “The Road to A Day in the Country,” which was conducted for this disc. Also original to this disc is the video essay “Renoir at Work” by Faulkner.

In 1994, on the centenary of Renoir’s birth, outtakes from the production were assembled into an 89-minute showcase Un tournage a la campagne, which is most interesting for the insight to Renoir’s shooting methods. That rarity is also included in this set, along with an archival interview with producer Pierre Braunberger from 1979 and an introduction to the film that Renoir shot for French TV in 1962.

More new classics on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Feb 12 2015

Videophiled: Facing ‘Force Majeure’

ForceM

Magnolia

Force Majeure (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD) – One of the surprises in the Oscar nominations this year was that this film, Sweden’s official entry for the foreign language film category and a Cannes film festival winner, did not place among the five nominated films. Director Ruben Östlund gives us a family on vacation and what appears to be the inciting event of a disaster film, but in fact the killer avalanche is merely an illusion (though one so dramatic it gets your adrenaline flowing). The real drama is the panicked response of the husband (Johannes Kuhnke) and the fallout through the rest of the vacation, which Östlund explores with a dark sense of humor.

The resentment of his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is topped only by her indignation over his denial, which leads to a kind of public shaming, a scene of social awkwardness spiked with discomforting laughs. Even funnier is his attempt to evoke sympathy with an emotional display that is utterly, shamelessly contrived. Just like his instinctive flight from danger, he doesn’t seem able to muster the proper response of a caring, protective husband and father. But is insincere? Östlund doesn’t judge. He’s more interested in questioning the expectations and obligations and starting a discussion that audiences can carry on after the film ends.

The soundtrack is largely in Swedish with some English and French dialogue, with English subtitles. Blu-ray and DVD with video interviews with director Ruben Östlund and actor Johannes Kuhnke and a promotional featurette. Also on Digital HD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 11 2015

Videophiled: Time-traveling through ‘Predestination’

Predest

Sony

Predestination (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) is kind of a generic title for a perversely clever time travel tale, but you can understand why The Spierig Brothers, the screen credit for filmmaking team Michael and Peter Spierig who adapted Robert Heinlein’s short story to the screen, didn’t go with Heinlein’s title. “—All You Zombies—” would give audiences the wrong idea. There are no zombies in the story. What we get is much weirder, the story of an agent (Ethan Hawke) for the Bureau of Time Travel on the trail of a deadly bomber and a sad young man who calls himself “The Unwed Mother” and offers a life story of tragic, soul-crushing loss, betrayal, and loneliness. Australian actress Sarah Snook plays the young man, who was born and raised a girl and underwent a change of sex because… well, unless you’ve already read the story, the revelation of each dramatic turn is best experienced. Meanwhile, as his / her story unfolds in linear fashion at first, the film starts looping back to reveal a complicated patter of a life lived in overlapping eras, crossing paths in ways that send our tragic figure down that path as if fated.

For a faithful adaptation of a short story, the film is packed with plot twists and narrative surprises and the challenge faced by the Spierig Brothers is obscuring details that would give away the twists without making it obvious. On that front they are fairly successful—it can be a little distracting when a face is purposely hidden from view, but the story is so strange and the personal ordeal so emotionally crushing that it kept my focus. While one side of my brain worked at sifting through clues and trying to pieces together the grand design, the other side was caught up in the personal odyssey. It could have become something of a sideshow gimmick but Snook makes it work with an affecting portrait of torment and isolation. Sure, the young man who first enters the bar seems a little “off” in our first meeting (something the film is able to leverage into initial tension), but as the film unfolds, what seems weird simply becomes sad. It’s terribly clever with a densely-woven plot (all of it there in the blueprint of the story), but the human drama and the slow revelation of kinship shared by these two strangers in the bar gives the film its bruised heart and its lost, isolated figure of tragedy a sense of purpose and reason to go on.

Blu-ray and DVD with a featurette and bloopers. The Blu-ray includes an exclusive 75-minute documentary “All You Zombies: Bringing Predestination to Life.” Also available on Digital HD and VOD.

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Feb 10 2015

Videophiled: Jake Gyllenhaal – ‘Nightcrawler’

Nightcrawler

Universal

Nightcrawler (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) earned an Oscar nomination for director Dan Gilroy’s screenplay, a wicked satire of the tabloid news television that chases sensationalistic stories for ratings (the cliché “if it bleeds, it leads” is the guiding philosophy). It should also have earned a nomination for Jake Gyllenhaal, whose Louis Bloom is a twisted Horatio Alger with the focus, drive, and heartless conniving of a sociopath. He’s a petty thief and hustler who fancies himself a self-made entrepreneur in search of a break and he finds his niche in the world of freelance video journalists, the guys who rush to crime scenes and accidents to capture the freshest, goriest, most intimate footage and sell it to the highest bidder on the local TV stations. He’s Weegee with a video camera and he’s a quick study, a master of marketing and negotiations and a ruthless competitor who isn’t above eliminating competitors and obstacles.

It takes place almost entirely at night and director of photography Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for There Will Be Blood) carves out a marvelous neo-noir atmosphere of Los Angeles at night with his razor-sharp photography of the streets after dark, lit by pools of street lamps, sweeps of headlights, and the cold, harsh glare of Louis’ portable spotlight. To Louis the streets are just conduits to the next hot spot and locations in which to stage his next scoop. Night may be a shroud but Louis doesn’t hide in the shadows. He’s brazen enough to do it the open and part of the crispness of Gilroy’s direction is the exacting detail of Louis’ methods.

Critics have complained that its portrait of the sensationalistic news philosophy lacks depth but that really no more than the backdrop for the real story. Louis is a superbly written character and Gyllenhaal sells every dimension of him, from his unctuous surface manner to the dead eyes and cold calculation behind his blank smiles. It’s as precise as Louis’ dialogue, a practiced line of ingratiating small talk and self-help platitudes that apes the manner of the ambitious young man eager to show his potential. Underneath, he’s plotting how to get the next scoop and leverage it into a business opportunity. Crimes are merely opportunities and victims merely the raw material for his camera. He’s not above manipulating a crime scene for dramatic effect.

Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director / writer Dan Gilroy with producer Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy (like the film, it’s a family affair) and the featurette “If It Bleeds, It Leads: Making Nightcrawler.” The Blu-ray also includes a bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also on Digital HD and VOD.

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