Film Noir on Blu-ray: ‘Moonrise,’ ‘Gun Crazy,’ ‘No Orchids,’ and the restored ‘Man Who Cheated Himself’

The Man Who Cheated Himself (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD)
Moonrise (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Gun Crazy (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)
No Orchids for Miss Blandish (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)

Flicker Alley

Lee J. Cobb takes the lead as Lt. Ed Cullen, a veteran Homicide detective in a secret affair with socialite Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt) while she’s in the midst of a divorce, in The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), an independently-made film noir shot on location in San Francisco. When she shoots her soon-to-be-ex-husband (in self-defense), Ed looks over the incriminating evidence and decides that a cover-up is in her best interest. When he’s assigned the case, all looks good, except that his rookie partner—his newlywed and newly promoted younger brother Andy (John Dall)—digs into the evidence and uncovers contradictions in the case, despite Ed’s efforts to nudge him in other directions. It’s a classic good cop gone bad set-up but Ed isn’t greedy or corrupt, merely protective of the woman he loves, which gets complicated because he’s equally protective of his kid brother determined to pull at every loose thread. Wyatt is an unlikely femme fatale, less cold-blooded than practical, but Cobb is excellent as the tough mug of a cop swayed by love and the two deliver a beautifully understated coda that sums up their relationship without a word, merely glances and body language that suggests a tenderness that still exists between them. Dall is the opposite as the bright and energetic rookie on the trail of his first big case, with wide grins and a twinkle in his eye.

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Blu-ray Animation: Deluxe ‘Totoro’ and the complete ‘Batman’

My Neighbor Totoro: 30th Anniversary Edition (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)
Batman: The Complete Animated Series (Warner Bros., Blu-ray)

Photo credit: GKids/Shout! Factory
GKids/Shout! Factory

Hayao Miyazaki is one of Japan’s living treasures, a beloved filmmaker whose animated films number among the most beautiful and most enchanting productions ever drawn by hand. In this day of CGI productions, the aging artists still personally draws his key frames and defining characters, with a love and craft that comes through every frame. They may seem old fashioned and perhaps too sweet for American audiences—his films, while loved by many, have never found the huge audiences that flock to the more knowing and culturally savvy Pixar films and Shrek sequels—but the lovely fables, epic adventures, ecologically-minded dramas and modern fairy tales are all treasures.

My Neighbor Totoro (Japan, 1988) was Miyazaki’s first genuine masterpiece and perhaps my favorite of Miyazaki’s films.

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Noir Now Playing: 1983

The title of 1983, a murder mystery turned conspiracy thriller from writer/creator Joshua Long, is more than an oblique reference to George Orwell’s 1984. Set in a parallel 2003 where the Berlin Wall never fell and the Communist Party has a chokehold on Poland, this alternate history opens on the 20th anniversary of devastating terrorist attacks. The national myth of martyred victims murdered by resistance groups and the necessary guidance of a benevolent government is trotted out in ceremonies celebrating Polish resilience. Katejan (Maciej Musial), a fresh-faced law student orphaned by the attacks and raised on such propaganda, is jolted from his complacency after his mentor, a beloved judge with deep Party ties, posits an unexpected question in his oral exams: what if the attacks didn’t backfire at all? What if they accomplished exactly what they were supposed to? When the professor is murdered by one of his students, Katejan starts to question everything he believes.

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Blu-ray: Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ on Criterion

The Magnificent Ambersons (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

How did it take so long for the sophomore feature from Orson Welles to finally get its Blu-ray debut?

I don’t need an answer, I’m just thrilled that it’s finally here, and in such a beautiful edition.

The Criterion Collection

The magnificence of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is apparent from the first frames of the film. Welles sketches a vivid, idealized portrait of American life in the late 19th century in a brilliant montage that sets the time, the place, and the culture in a series of postcard images and comic snapshots. While Welles narrates (in his glorious authorial voice with an understated warmth and familiarity) the changes in fashion through the years,the images introduce hopeful suitor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten in his star-making performance) and disappointed heiress Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) and Welles effortlessly segues from exposition to story. The mix of silent movie-like compositions and imagery, striking montage, and radio drama narrative that introduces the world eases into a graceful, glorious long take that sweeps us into the “now” of the story: a ball at the Amberson Mansion, a place frozen in the past of those opening scenes, where social convention and grandeur are upheld for no reason other than tradition. It is beautiful, a portrait of wealth and culture out of touch with the world outside, and unconcerned with it. At its peril. Just as the fashions and conventions of society constantly evolved in those early montage sequences, so does industry and culture and life itself in the upheaval of progress in the 20th century.

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What to stream: ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ on VOD, ‘First Reformed’ on Amazon, ‘Sorry to Bother You’ on Hulu

Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, FilmStruck, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …

A Chinese-American professor (Constance Wu) collides with the culture of the ultra-rich in Singapore when she meets her boyfriend’s family in Crazy Rich Asians (2018, PG-13), the hit romantic comedy based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Kevin Kwan. Henry Golding, Awkwafina, and Michelle Yeoh co-star. Now on Cable On Demand and VOD, also on DVD and at Redbox.

Ethan Hawke is a priest facing a spiritual crisis in the provocative First Reformed (2018, R), a personal drama from filmmaker Paul Schrader. Reviewed on Stream On Demand hereNow streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Sorry to Bother You (2018, R), the feature debut of hip-hop artist turned filmmaker Boots Riley, is a social satire as comic fantasy starring Lakeith Stanfield as a telemarketer who finds the secret to sales success and rises up the ladder of a soulless corporation. Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, and Armie Hammer co-star. Streaming on Hulu.

The British miniseries version of the classic Little Women, starring Emily Watson as the mother of four sisters, originally played on PBS in the U.S. and is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

For something a little less serious, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet offers more cheesy films for Jonah Ray and the bots on the Satellite of Love to heckle. Six new episodes on Netflix.

FilmStruck, the premiere streaming service for American and international classic movies, ends its service after two years on Thursday, November 29. Criterion has announced a plan to restart its own service in Spring 2019 and Warner Media (parent company of Turner Classic Movies) promises to bring back its classics in a new streaming service in a year, but until then this is the end. If you’re a subscriber, time to see those films on your watchlist or browse through the catalog one last chance to stream some of the greatest films ever made.

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What to stream: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and ‘Kominsky Method’ on Netflix, ‘The Children Act’ on Amazon

Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, FilmStruck, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …

Netflix broke with its policy for the release of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018, R), the American frontier comedy from the Coen Brothers. Initially planned as a six-part series featuring the likes of James Franco, Liam Neeson, and Tim Blake Nelson, it was reworked as an anthology film and released to theaters a week before the streaming debut.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one of the darkest movies by Joel and Ethan Coen, and also among the silliest,” observes New York Times film critic A.O. Scott. “It swerves from goofy to ghastly so deftly and so often that you can’t always tell which is which.

Streaming on Netflix.

Emma Thompson is superb as a judge facing a conflict between the professional and personal in The Children Act (2017, R), a powerful drama adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel. Reviewed on Stream On Demand hereStreaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Michael Douglas is a has-been actor who reinvents himself as a Hollywood acting coach in The Kominsky Method: Season 1. Alan Arkin co-stars in the Netflix Original comedy from creator Chuck Lorre.

Two new British co-productions explore fluid sexuality in the modern world. The Hulu Original series The Bisexual: Season 1 stars creator Desiree Akhavan as a lesbian New Yorker in London struggling to come out at bisexual. All six episodes now streaming on Hulu.

The cheeky British comedy Sally4Ever: Season 1 from creator Julia Davis, who stars as a seductive free spirit who tempts a suburban woman into a wild affair, begins on HBO with new episodes each Sunday.

Megan Griffiths’ Sadie (2018, not rated), an independent drama about an angry teenager (Sophia Mitri Schloss) who sabotages the romantic prospects of her single mother (Melanie Lynskey) while her soldier father is overseas, is now on VOD. Shot in Washington State, the film co-stars John Gallagher Jr.

Classic picks: Sidney Lumet directs the Oscar-winning satire Network (1976, R) with Faye Dunaway and William Holden and robbery-gone-wrong classic Dog Day Afternoon (1975, R) with Al Pacino and John Cazale.

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What to stream: Chris Pine is ‘Outlaw King’ on Netflix, ‘Incredibles 2’ and ‘BlacKkKlansman’ on VOD

Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, FilmStruck, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …

Chris Pine stars in Outlaw King (2018, R) as Robert the Bruce, the 14th century Scottish nobleman who claimed the crown of Scotland and rallied his country to battle the occupying British army of King Edward I. It’s directed by David Mackenzie, who previously collaborated with Pine on Hell or High Water, and shot entirely on location in Scotland. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Florence Pugh co-star.

Outlaw King tells a story that is both old and old-fashioned but does it in a decidedly modern way,” writes Kenneth Turan for Los Angeles Times, who suggests “it gives hope to moviegoers who value venerable action genres and will be pleased to see them showing signs of life.”

Manohla Dargis has a dissenting view: “At least in old Hollywood, filmmakers would also try to entertain you amid the clashes and post-combat huddles, giving you something more to watch and ponder than this movie’s oceans of mud, truckloads of guts and misty, unconsidered nationalism.”

It made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in select theaters the same day it debuts on Netflix.

Pixar’s inventive superhero adventure/comedy Incredibles 2 (2018, PG) celebrates courage, family, and the challenges of raising a baby that can teleport, catch fire, and shoot lasers from his eyes with lots of zippy action and goofy gags. On Cable On Demand and VOD, also on DVD and at Redbox.

Spike Lee returns to form in BlacKkKlansman (2018, R), a savvy take on the true story of a black police officer (John David Washington) who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado. It’s provocative, satirical, angry, irreverent, outraged, and very timely. Cable On Demand, VOD, DVD, Redbox.

John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons (2018), a recording of the actor’s one-man Broadway show, distills 3,000 years of Latino history into a 95-minute comic monologue. On Netflix.

Classic pick: Sean Connery and Michael Caine are British soldiers of fortune in The Man Who Would Be King (1975, PG), John Huston’s grand adaptation of the sweeping Rudyard Kipling adventure. Reviewed on Stream on Demand hereStreaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Foreign language pick: Jean Vigo’s anarchic gem Zero for Conduct (France, 1933, with subtitles) celebrates the rebellious spirit of adolescent boys captivated by magic tricks and word games. Set in a strict boy’s school run by creaky, cranky petty tyrants, it’s a strange and wonderful film full of unbridled imagination, flights of fantasy, and delirious images. The first masterpiece of pre-pubescent self-actualization. On Prime Video.

Holiday essential: Every time you watch It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) an angel gets its wings. Prime Video also offers a colorized version but please watch it in the original black and white.

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Blu-ray: Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection

Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection (Universal, Blu-ray)

Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy have traversed the trail from horror icon to camp figure and back again and sparked the imaginations of readers and moviegoers for decades. Yet call forth the images nestled in the public consciousness and you’ll find that the figures created by Universal Studios, the home of Hollywood nightmares during the great gothic horror cycle of the 1930s and 1940s, have becomes the definitive versions of the great horror movie monsters.


Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Universal has been upgrading and repackaging its library of classic monster movies and the franchises they launched through the 1930s-1950s on disc for almost 20 years. This new collection is the ultimate compilation. Previously released on DVD, it offers 4K restorations of all 30 films for Blu-ray, some for the first time. That means not just the bona fide Gothic horror masterpieces and monster movie landmarks previously on Blu-ray individually or in the “Legacy Collection” sets—Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy(1932), and The Bride of Frankenstein(1935) with Boris Karloff, The Invisible Man (1933) with Claude Rains, The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr., the Technicolor Phantom of the Opera(1943) with Claude Rains, and the post-Gothic, atomic-era Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) in standard and 3D versions, plus the Spanish language Dracula (1931)—but stand-out sequels such as Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), the pre-Wolf Man The Werewolf of London(1935), Vincent Price in The Invisible Man Returns (1940), the mad monster parties Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945), and the surprisingly creepy horror comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) among others, with all the commentary tracks, featurettes, and other supplements from earlier DVD and Blu-ray releases.

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Review: A Simple Favor

Stephanie Smothers, a suburban overachiever played by Anna Kendrick with spunky energy and self-effacing deflection, is the widowed mother of a son in elementary school. Into her life steps Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a sleek urban professional with no maternal instincts––like a high- society shark forcibly moved from her hunting ground to a tranquil aquarium tank. Their odd relationship is the core of A Simple Favor, a neo-noir of suburban pep and middle-class warmth meeting cool sophistication. Playdates, cocktails, and dark secrets are shared.

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Review: First Reformed

Anyone who has followed the career of Paul Schrader could fall into the trap of simply cataloguing the ways in which First Reformed (2018) is a summation of his themes and inspirations. Imagine the promotional possibilities: “From the author of “Transcendental Cinema” and “Notes on Film Noir” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ.” First Reformed leans on the former but, as so many of his past films, he puts his search for grace in an American context where violence is too often an answer, or at least an impulse.

Lionsgate

A gaunt and drawn Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former Army Chaplain who has found his place as the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, an historical landmark with a dwindling congregation about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. In denial of an unnamed, possibly fatal affliction and spiking his spare meals with splash or two of whiskey, Toller could be an American answer to the idealistic cleric of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (he even keeps a handwritten journal), embracing the simplicity of faith and the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a loyal congregant, asks Toller to counsel her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ecological activist giving in to despair and desperations. When Mary discovers explosives hidden in their garage, seeds of violent action take root in Toller’s mind as he obsesses over images of our polluted and poisoned planet.

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Blu-ray: ‘Dragon Inn’ / ‘Legend of the Mountain’ – King Hu on Criterion and Kino

Dragon Inn (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Legend of the Mountain (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)

After the success of Come Drink With Me, the pioneering wuxia pian (“martial chivalry”) adventure that mixed martial arts, romance, comic action, and historical settings, Hong Kong director King Hu went to Taiwan for the opportunity to make films with greater freedom. Dragon Inn (also known as Dragon Gate Inn, Taiwan, 1967), his first film in Taiwan, pits a group of enigmatic strangers against soldiers sent by a power-hungry Eunuch in the court of the Chinese Emperor to murder the children of a popular government official. They all converge on a the lonely inn of the title, an isolated, windscoured building in the middle of the desert near the Dragon Gate military outpost, where they play out games of social civility between sneak attacks and martial arts skirmishes that build from clever little displays of skill within the inn to sweeping battles against the rocky backdrop of the desert and the lush mountain forests and peaks nearby.

Criterion Collection

Shih Chun, Hu’s favorite leading man, is the wily, grinning loner who swats aside arrows without spilling a drop of wine and catches daggers with chopsticks, and Shangkuan Ling-fung is a warrior woman traveling in the guise of a young man, and they team up to protect the children from the hordes of soldiers sent by the villainous eunuch (Bai Ying under a flamboyant head of white hair). Given his large cast of characters, he effectively gives the primary players distinctive (if broadly drawn) personalities and body language, making them stand out even in busy battle scenes, and his impeccable compositions keeps the film centered on our heroes even in the heat of battle.

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Criterion Blu-ray: Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood

Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

At the dawn of the sound era, as German movie star Emil Jannings left Hollywood to return to Germany, the actor invited Austrian-born/American-raised director Josef von Sternberg (who directed Jannings in The Last Command, 1928) to Universum Film A.G. to direct him in that studio’s first sound film, The Blue Angel (1930). It was a worldwide smash and von Sternberg returned to Hollywood with an international hit and a new star: Marlene Dietrich. Not exactly what Jannings had in mind, but then how could he know that the theatrical thickness of his gesture-laden theatrics would come across as simply old-fashioned next to the brash, lazy, sensual quality of Dietrich’s easy screen presence and modern performance.

Criterion Collection

Von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together on six more films for Paramount Pictures through the early 1930s, all lavish, lush productions that bring Hollywood art and craft to stories of sexuality and power with exotic overtones and fetishistic undercurrents. Until Criterion’s long-awaited box set Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, none of them had ever been on Blu-ray and two had never even been released to DVD. They have all been remastered in either 4K or 2K for this amazing collection, easily one of the essential home video releases of 2018.

Dietrich made her American debut opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930), a French Foreign Legion melodrama that casts the exotic Dietrich as a sultry cabaret singer. Hollywood star Cooper got top billing and his brawny male beauty gets its own glamour treatment from von Sternberg’s camera but the director made Dietrich the most memorable scenes—notably an entrance wearing a man’s tuxedo and kissing a female a patron on the lips (an early suggestion of lesbian chic)—and the final image as she trudges through the desert after a departing soldier.

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