Blu-ray / DVD: Satyajit Ray’s ‘The Apu Trology’

ApuTrilogyThe Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali / Aparajito / Apur Sansar (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – In 1955 Satyajit Ray, a young graphic artist in the advertising industry, released his debut feature, a labor of love made independently over the course of two and a half years. Pather Panchali (aka Song of the Little Road, 1955), a portrait of life in a small, impoverished village in rural India, has texture and grace of a painting. Seen through the eyes of young Apu, it’s really about three generations of women in his home: elder Auntie, protective Mother, and bright-eyed older sister Durga. It was India’s answer to Italy’s neo-realism, in part out of inspiration but also because it was made under similar conditions: little money, non-professional actors, a first-time director trying to capture a world that hadn’t been seen on screens.

Its portrait of rural poverty was something western audiences could relate to more than India’s distinctive urban culture and the customs, clothes, and score—Ravi Shankar on the sitar—suitably exotic color to a story that critics liked to call universal. That in part explains why this film was embraced internationally while other films from India failed to break through. Maybe it helped that it affirmed western perceptions of a country and culture that was little understood. But Pather Panchali is also an astounding debut of great power and poetry that is undiminished today. Ray put his passion into the film and created a nuanced and delicate film. Ray brings their environment alive in breathtaking scenes, especially Apu’s magical encounter with a train, billowing smoke in its wake like a mythical creature driving through his forest home. And he creates full, complex characters. While we see them through the wide-eyes of Apu, we do not get a simplified or reductive portrait.

It was followed by Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1957), which takes the now teenage Apu and his parents to the city of Benares, and, after a break making two unrelated films (including the magnificent The Music Room), Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), a powerful story of love and tragedy that follows the adult Apu’s loss and rebirth. Over the course of the three films (adapted from two novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay) we see Ray evolve as a filmmaker. As Apu grows (he’s played by a different actor in each film) his perspective becomes more complex and he endures hardships until he faces a loss that upends the optimism that kept him going, and Ray introduces us to the bustle of city life (where poverty is just as prevalent but has a different face). The screenwriting offers more naturalistic dialogue with more subtle revelations of character and his scenes unfold with a naturalism that allows us to forget the careful compositions. The trains that promise a better life in the modern world elsewhere in Pather Panchali are no longer the majestic creatures of promise in Apur Sansar but ghosts that whistle outside the windows, unseen but intrusive reminders of the past and of the poverty on his apartment by the tracks. And in the midst of all this, Ray offers one of the great love stories in the cinema in Apur Sansar, an impulsive marriage that blossoms into a beautiful relationship. Together, they heralded the arrival of one of the great humanist directors of modern cinema, and for decades these films represented classic East Indian cinema in retrospectives and campus programs.

The original negatives of these film, which were shipped to London for restoration and a rerelease of his key films, were damaged beyond repair in a fire twenty years ago. These new restorations, which premiered at Cannes in May, were a collaboration between Criterion, Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna and in part created from the negative elements that survived the fire. Somewhere around half of Pather Panchali and Aparajito were salvaged, though the elements were brittle and terribly fragile, and Apur Sansar was too damaged to salvage. Duplicate negatives and fine-grain 35mm masters were used where the original negative was missing or unusable and extensive digital restoration followed the physical repairs and 4K digital mastering. An extensive accounting of the process is included in the booklet. The upshot is that these are beautiful editions that preserve the delicate imagery and textures of Ray’s original film.

The three-disc set present each film on a separate disc and an individual paperboard case collected in a sturdy slipsleeve with a booklet. Newly produced for the edition are video interviews with actors Soumitra Chatterjee, Shampa Srivastava, and Sharmila Tagore, camera assistant Soumendu Roy, and film writer Ujjal Chakraborty, a video essay by Ray biographer Andrew Robinson on the trilogy’s evolution and production, and the featurette “The Apu Trilogy: A Closer Look” from filmmaker, producer, and teacher Mamoun Hassan, plus a short featurette on the restorations by filmmaker :: kogonada. Archival supplements include the 2003 documentary “The Song of the Little Road” featuring composer Ravi Shankar; the 1967 half-hour documentary “The Creative Person: Satyajit Ray” featuring interviews with Ray, several of his actors, and members of his creative team; and footage of Ray receiving an honorary Oscar in 1992.

The booklet also features original essays by film critics and scholars Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu and reproductions of Ray’s original storyboards for Pather Panchali.

Copyright © 2015 by Sean Axmaker

‘Pather Panchali’

Blu-ray: F.W. Murnau’s ‘Faust’

Faust (Kino Classics, Blu-ray+DVD), the final German production by director F.W. Murnau before he left for Hollywood, remains one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. The new Blu-ray reminds us just how beautiful, adventurous, and powerful it is after all these years.

Adapted from Goethe’s classic play by Carl Mayer (with uncredited rewrites by Thea von Harbou), it reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil. Faust (Gösta Ekman) becomes a kind of modern day Job tempted by Mephisto (Emil Jannings) in a wager with the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Siegfried with feathery wings), who is apparently unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure just to win a bet with the Devil.

Faust has had a rocky reputation over the years. Murnau suffers from a pair of romantic leads (Ekman and Camilla Horn as Gretchen, Murnau’s answer to Lillian Gish) with no chemistry and little screen dynamism. Emil Jannings looks born to dress up as a demonic beast with leathery wings that could (and do) swallow a small village whole, but Murnau has a tendency to let him off the leash for comic relief; his actorly overindulgence gets awfully distracting.

Yet it’s the most breathtakingly beautiful of Murnau’s German films, a tragedy drawn in epic images like paintings in light and shadow on a scale that spans the world. The imagery of Mephisto and the Archangel is operatic and grandiose, yet delicately textured and intricately lit. Lucifer takes Faust on a magic carpet ride around the world, looking down on jagged mountainscapes and fairy-tale kingdoms of opulence and decadence in a spectacle of expressionistically exaggerated miniatures and trick photography. An innocent staked to a pyre to burn for her sins becomes a scene of transcendence, at once harrowing and spiritual. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Gretchen, abandoned by her lover and rejected by the pious townspeople for her sins, crawls pathetically through the snow while clutching her infant, gripped in a hallucination of sanctuary in the storm with tragic consequences. The townsfolk may not be big on charity, but they are very quick to capture and punish the wicked. The Devil couldn’t have orchestrated her torture better… and in fact, the Devil did.

The film ostensibly takes the position of man’s essential goodness in the face of temptation in the debate between the Archangel and Mephisto, but as the drama plays out, Murnau seems to favor the Devil’s position. When the death and doom of the plague first descends on Faust’s village, the citizens slip into a bacchanal and turns their little town into a Sodom. The so-called Christians pass judgment on Faust and Gretchen with such intolerance and lack of compassion that they close their doors and their charity on the victimized Gretchen as she suffers and starves with a dying infant. How easy it is for Mephisto to tap into the greed and lust of man, Murnau seems to be saying, to dig beneath pious poses of religious morality and reveal a vicious vindictiveness. A final act of sacrifice may save the souls of our tortured sinners (and what a stunning scene it is), but it seems to me that Faust lost his wager only because they never took into account the actions of the rest of humanity, only this one seduced soul.

Murnau shot separate negatives for different territories: seven distinct versions are known to exist, each composed of different takes (some barely noticeable, others marked by different framing and editing choices, still others put together with outtakes and otherwise discarded takes). According to historian Luciano Berriatua, who also supervised this restoration, this was a rare instance where the American cut was actually Murnau’s definitive version. Murnau saw his future in Hollywood (where he would make his next film, Sunrise) and, after editing his German version, took the negatives to the U.S. to personally prepare the American version of the film. That German cut was re-edited in his absence and subsequently lost. Kino previously released a version from the Ufa vaults that was prepared in 1930 from the Danish masters. This newly remastered version is a reconstruction of his original German cut using the materials from the American version (with supplementary footage from other negatives and surviving prints where necessary) and the intertitle cards that Murnau had originally prepared for the German version (but were subsequently discarded by producer Hand Neumann). The hand-painted cards feature text over an abstract background of bold black strokes on a white background that suggests a stormy struggle between the forces of dark and light.

The quality is astounding, a beautiful print with rich tones and clear images and the finest the film has ever looked (at least in the past seventy years or so). The new restoration also features two scores—a compilation score of “historic photoplay music” by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (recorded in 5.1 Stereo Surround) and a piano score adapted from the original 1926 orchestral arrangement—and the 53-minute documentary The Language of Shadows: Faust by Luciano Berriatua (which compares many of the different versions and reveals many of the outtakes used in alternate negatives), lost screen test footage of Lubitsch’s abandoned 1923 production “Marguerite and Faust” and galleries of set designs and stills.

Also features a bonus DVD with the previously released 1930 Ufa version of the film, produced for DVD by David Shepard and featuring a moody orchestral score by Timothy Brock performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra.

Camilla Horn as Gretchen

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘The Man for U.N.C.L.E.’ revived and ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” extended

ManFromUncleThe Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD), Guy Ritchie’s big screen revival of the sixties secret agent series, is an origin story of sorts—think “When Napoleon met Illya”—with the two agents in a wary partnership. Otherwise it doesn’t bother much with backstories or motivations beyond setting the scene, which in this case is Europe in the cold war culture of the 1960s, from the ominous night behind the Iron Curtain to the sunny playground of the Mediterranean

Henry Cavill, who was a stiff as Superman, is quite charming in a cocky, calculating way as Napoleon Solo, a former thief pressed into service as America’s best dressed agent. His mission is to get Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), an East German mechanic whose uncle happens to be a literal rocket scientist, over the wall to help stop some vague master criminal plot to unleash a nuclear bomb. Armie Hammer, dressed in funky proletariat chic so retro it’s cool, is stony Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin, who is after the same girl. So the rival nations decide to pair up their favorite cold warriors to stop the new international criminal threat, leading to a picture-postcard globe-hopping tour and a funky fashion show of sixties style. Oh yes, there’s also Hugh Grant getting in on the fun with his bemused dry wit. It won’t take fans of the TV show long to figure out his place in the scheme of things.

The plot is disposable at best —there’s an elegant mastermind (Elizabeth Debicki) who lives in the decadence of sleek sixties modernism with plans to destabilize the world for fun and profit—but Ritchie goes all out in reviving the Cold War sixties spy movie style and attitude, recalling Connery’s Bond movie with tongue firmly in cheek. The rival agents keep up their macho competitiveness and Vikander’s Gaby rolls her eyes at their juvenile antics, but in between we get elaborate set-pieces: foot chases and car races and physical stunts with real humans and physical objects rather than the manipulated pixels of CGI. Ritchie directs with an affection for sixties gimmickry both in terms of spy technology and filmmaking flourishes, splashing the film with multi-panel split screens (done digitally but evoking optical effects), zooms and whip pans, and the kind of splashy color that reminds us it’s all a fantasy.

It wasn’t particularly well-reviewed upon release and was not a summer hit—don’t expect a franchise to follow—but I found it refreshing and fun. Especially for a film where our two heroes are revealed to be borderline psychotics who have found their true calling in national service.

Blu-ray and DVD, with the supplements on the Blu-ray only: with five short featurettes and one collection of micro-featurettes, fun but a little slim for such a big production. The longest of the supplements—”Spy Vision: Recreating 60’s Cool” on designing the film and “A Higher Class of Hero” on creating the action sequences—are under 10 minutes apiece and the rest under five minutes each: a piece on the creator of the motorcycles in the film and portraits of the two stars and the director. “U.N.C.L.E.: On-Set Spy” collects four little pieces that run just over a minute apiece. Also includes bonus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.

HobbitBattleThe Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies – Extended Edition (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD), the final chapter in Peter Jackson’s epically-expanded adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s adventure fantasy, once again offer a longer version of his theatrical film for the home video experience. Opening with the death of Smaug the dragon and concluding with a battle that takes up about half of the film’s running time, this is the darkest of the films. It turns on the transformation of dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) under the spell of the treasure and delivers The Battle of the Five Armies, an event only sketched out by Tolkien in the novel. Jackson turns the battle into the biggest set piece he’s ever made, showing off his flair for spectacle on a mammoth scale and his gift for creating clarity in sprawling action scenes with multiple stories and central characters to keep track of.

I’m still not thrilled with the ret-con job on the classic story but this chapter is the best of the three, more focused on a central narrative spine to build the spectacle upon and featuring a solid foundation of character and conflict. It also benefits from the extended edition, which adds 20 minutes to the running time, most of it extended conversations and character scenes.

As with his previous five Tolkien films, Jackson saved his grand menu of supplements for the “Extended Edition,” a deluxe three-disc set on Blu-ray and five-disc set for the Blu-ray 3D and DVD editions. There’s commentary by filmmaker Peter Jackson and co-writer/co-producer Philippa Boyens and “New Zealand: Home to Middle-Earth Part 3” on disc one, and nearly ten hours of documentaries on the bonus discs. “The Gathering Storm: The Chronicles of the Hobbit Part 3” is a making-of documentary that runs just short of five hours and “Here at Journey’s End” (aka “The Appendices Part 12”) goes into detail on aspects of the production and pulls out to see the film in the context of the entire Tolkien story told in the six films. If you’ve seen any of the previous “Appendices” you know the kind of access and depth these productions have. A couple of bonus supplements fills out the final disc.

Blu-ray Debuts: Two by Rohmer, ‘Tenderness of the Wolves,’ and Ford’s ‘Hurricane’

MarquiseThe Marquise of O (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD) – After Eric Rohmer completed his “Six Moral Tales,” and before launching into the “Comedies and Proverbs,” he tackled two projects very different than anything else in career. The first of these, The Marquise of O (1976), based on the novel by Heinrich von Kleist, leaves the young intellectuals of Paris for Italy of the late 18th century Napoleonic wars. During the Russian invasion the beautiful young Marquise (Edith Clever) is saved from certain assault the handsome and dashing Count (Bruno Ganz). She spends the night guarded by her chivalrous savior, who returns months later to rather insistently court her. Only when he leaves does she discover that she is, unaccountably, pregnant. Rohmer’s style is both more lush (shot in rich colors by Nestor Almendros) and less intimate than his previous romantic comedies, directed in painterly compositions from a removed distance. Unlike the self-obsessed young adults of his modern films, the Count and the Marquise act out of moral duty and social responsibility, and their actions reverberate through family and community.

Yet this is still a Rohmer film, filled with carefully tooled dialogue (spoken in German) and informed by irony. The story of innocence and corruption, and the shades that lay within even the best of men, ends on a note of delicate forgiveness and understanding. Rohmer followed this with an even more unexpected stylistic experiment, the beautiful and beguiling Perceval, which I hope is in consideration by Film Movement.

With archival interviews with director Eric Rohmer and star Bruno Ganz and a new essay by David Thomson.

FullMoonFull Moon in Paris (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD), the fourth of Rohmer’s six “Comedies and Proverbs,” stars Pascale Ogier as Louise, a restless designer bored with sleepy suburban life outside of Paris, lives with her lover Remy (Tcheky Karyo), a stable architect happy with a calm home life and a long-term relationship. The independent minded Louise decides to move back into her old Paris apartment during the week, losing herself in the bustle of dinner parties and nightclubs and single men, while spending her weekends back with Remy. Like an inversion of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” Louise becomes briefly entangled with another man, a spontaneous musician who is the opposite of Remy, but in a neat twist on the formula Remy himself drifts to another – at the suggestion of Louise herself.

This is the most ironic and, in many ways, judgmental of Rohmer’s films. Willowy Ogier’s kittenish sexuality and zest for life are wrapped in a self-absorbed determination that borders on indifference, but for the most part this is another wryly witty look at modern love from the master of the sophisticated romantic comedy. Fabrice Luchini plays Louise’s best friend and conniving confidante Octave and Laszlo Szabo appears as a café patron who pontificates on the magical effects of the full moon. Ogier, who died shortly after the film’s release, designed many of the handsome sets.

With an archival interview with actress Pascale Ogier and a new essay by David Thomson.

TendernessTenderness of the Wolves (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), based on the same true story that inspired Fritz Lang’s M, is a stylish and visually striking but narratively confusing and unpleasantly explicit thriller starring Kurt Raab as murderer, black marketeer and police informant Fritz Haarman, a pedophile who used his position to sweep the train stations and pick up young runaway boys.

Living well in the depression of post-World War I Germany, Haarman lured the boys to his attic apartment with the promise of a warm meal and bed, only to emerge alone the next morning with second hand clothes and black market “pork.” Director Ulli Lommel melds images from M and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu with the elegant camerawork, evocative sets and tableaux-style direction associated with the films of New German cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who produced the film and appears in a small role. Screenwriter/star Kurt Raab suggests Peter Lorre by way of the vampire Nosferatu with his shaved head, child-like smile and hunched walk, an insidiously beguiling boy-man who turns feral to strangle and feast on the blood of his innocent young victims. Fassbinder’s inspiration is all over the elegant camerawork, handsome design, and tableaux-style direction and the film is well performed by cast made up of Fassbinder’s regular troupe. But it gets muddled in the middle, tangling the many threads before finally winding them together in a bold, baroque climax. Though lacking in the rich irony of Fassbinder’s works, it’s a striking, often startling film dominated by Raab’s unsettling performance.

In German with English subtitles. Newly restored and remastered by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, the Blu-ray debut (the release is a Blu-ray+DVD Combo) features commentary by director Ulli Lommel with moderator Uwe Huber, an introduction by Lommel, new video interviews with Lommel, director of photography Jurgen Jurges, and actor Rainer Will, and an appreciation by European horror expert Stephen Thrower, plus a booklet with art and essays.

HurricaneThe Hurricane (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is frankly speaking one of John Ford’s weaker films. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (authors of “Mutiny on the Bounty”) and directed for high-rolling independent producer Samuel Goldwyn in 1937, it’s a drama of western civilization colliding with native culture in the South Seas, the same theme as Murnau’s Tabu but with more focus on the European characters and without the poetry or the power.

Jon Hall is the young Polynesian hero Terangi, a Tahiti native with a foot in both worlds, beloved by the islanders and the respected first mate of an American ship, and Dorothy Lamour his innocent Tahitian bride. They get top billing and it is ostensibly their story but the film spends a lot of time with the Caucasian characters in paradise debating culture, morality, and justice: the alcoholic doctor with a philosophical take on Tahitian life (Thomas Mitchell), the priest devoted to the islanders (C. Aubrey Smith), and the new island Governor (Raymond Massey), a strict, stiff martinet whose devotion to the letter of the Napoleonic code makes no room for justice or compassion, let alone the moral code of the local culture. Mary Astor is both his wife and his conscience, and he refuses to listen to either when he sentences Terangi to six months hard labor for punching a racist white man, and then extends his sentence by years for his failed escape attempts. This is paradise invaded by civilization, which casts judgement and punishes accordingly.

It’s clear that Ford’s heart isn’t in this one. Ever the professional, he delivers a handsome drama, but this kind of exotic romanticism is a poor fit for America’s film poet. The characters of the script (written by Dudley Nichols) are more debate positions than developed personalities, the natives are holy innocents, and the film is shot largely in the studio, which does no service to the tropical setting. Ford signed on because of the opportunity to shoot on location in the South Pacific and apparently lost interest when the production was relocated to the studio, with Catalina Island standing in for Tahiti in the film’s few outdoor scenes.

The title of the film arrives in the final act, whipping up a deadly storm while Terangi struggles to get home, and it’s quite the spectacle even if it was created in the studio, but it is also a confused metaphor for a film that sets up Terangi as a kind of Christ figure and the storm as the wrath of God. If this is Old Testament punishment, it’s taking it out on the wrong folks: the hurricane destroys the church and kills the innocent islanders (who are no better than extras in the drama) while sparing the westerner interlopers. If this is all just a lesson in compassion and multicultural respect for the Governor, there’s a lot of collateral damage. Still, it was a big commercial hit for Ford and Goldwyn. It was also the last film Ford made for Goldwyn.

It looks great, a good quality transfer with no evidence of damage. No supplements.

DevilsDIn The Devil’s Disciple (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play of the American Revolution, friends and frequent co-stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas teamed up for the third time. It’s an odd kind of American-British co-production: produced by Lancaster’s production company and directed by British filmmaker Guy Hamilton (who replaced Alexander Mackendrick, director of Lancaster’s “Sweet Smell of Success”), it is written by Brits, set in revolutionary America, and shot on England.

Lancaster is the idealistic, soft-spoken parish priest whose faith mother England is destroyed by the cruelty of British soldiers and Douglas is wanted criminal turned rabble rouser and revolutionary guerilla Richard Dudgeon, a nemesis who becomes a compatriot in a complicated triangle that involves the priest’s younger wife. Kirk is rather old for the role but a good match for the rebellious nature of the character and Lancaster is still and subdued as the priest, at least until the final act. Both are shown up by Laurence Olivier, the very model of cool, calm authority as a savvy British officer surrounded by thickheaded underlings.

What could have been turned into a swashbuckling revolutionary war adventure with witty characters remains largely stagebound. It’s shot largely on studio sets from a script that remains grounded in conversations and debates. The witty dialogue and energetic performances keep the film moving along but it never seems to break out of its constraints. There is also a creative and clever use of cut-out figures and 3D stop-motion animation to stand in for expensive battle scenes.

Strong image, crisp focus, excellent source material. No supplements.

Film Detective is a new company releasing public domain films on Blu-ray. It’s an idea that has been done right by Kino Classics, which partnered with George Eastman House, Library of Congress, and UCLA Film Archive to find the best quality materials from which to master their editions, and has been done wrong by companies like HD Cinema Classics, which tried to overcome damaged and inferior source prints with the digital scrubbing of digital noise reduction (DNR), which removes the blemishes and smoothes over the image. Film Detective looks to be following Kino’s model in two of its first releases, though it doesn’t quite meet the bar set by Kino.

BeatDevi;Beat the Devil (Film Detective, Blu-ray) is a cult film with an incredible pedigree. Directed by John Huston from a screenplay written on the fly by Truman Capote and starring Huston’s buddy Humphrey Bogart with Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, and Peter Lorre, it’s something of an anti-“The Maltese Falcon” with Bogart as a down-on-his-luck businessman fronting a group of swindlers attempting to take control of a uranium mind in Africa. Heavy with irony and black humor, the shaggy dog tale was a flop with audiences but it found admirers years later for the games of lies and flirtations played by the stars and the dry wit of the script and wry attitude injected by Huston’s direction. It feels much more modern than many films of its era, but because it fell into the public domain it has been victim to poor home video editions since the days of VHS.

The image on the Film Detective release is a little soft but it’s clean and detailed and in the proper aspect ratio and does not appear to be scrubbed with DNR tools. It’s an acceptable Blu-ray and superior to other public domain labels. No supplements.

SaltEarthSalt of the Earth (Film Detective, Blu-ray), the only American film ever to be blacklisted in the U.S., is an independently produced 1954 drama inspired by a real life strike in New Mexico by Mexican-American mineworkers. The cast is comprised largely of non-professionals (many of them participants in the real strike) and the film was financed by the mineworkers union and produced by socially-motivated artists that had been blacklisted from Hollywood, including producer Paul Jarrico, director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson, and actor Will Geer (who plays the cruel sheriff that protects the strikebreakers).

It takes on issues of racial prejudice, social injustice, and economic inequity, often with a didactic approach, and delivers a message of collective action to improve working conditions and receive a fair wage. Remarkably it is built on the ordeal of the Mexican-American characters and there is no white movie star to save the day. But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the film was the recognition of the participation and strength of the women, who rise to positions of leadership in the community and demand the same respect from their tradition-bound husbands and fathers that the men have been demanding from their bosses. This was all at the height of the Red Scare and the film was branded communist propaganda. It’s a remarkable portrait for its time, a landmark production that is still a powerful film. It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992.

The Blu-ray debut comes from a worn print and looks pretty scuffed up, but the transfer also presents a reasonably sharp image. A restoration is called for but until then this is an acceptable substitute. No supplements.

Blu-ray / DVD: The raunch of ‘Trainwreck’ and the melancholy of ‘Mr. Holmes’

TrainwreckTrainwreck (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – I don’t think I laughed as hard at any movie comedy this year as I did with Amy Schumer’s big screen debut feature as writer / star. Abetted by the direction of Judd Apatow, who has been moving from male-centric comedies to more inclusive stories, she brings her raunchy style of social commentary and self-effacing humor to the big screen in film that plays with familiar conventions while Apatow gives it that loose, easy-going quality that brings the chemistry.

Schumer plays a version of her stand-up persona so no surprise she keeps her name. Amy is a commitment-phobic magazine editor and writer with a policy of one-night stands and a habit of binge-drinking. Her philosophy of dating—pretty much her entire life, in fact—is the unfortunate product of a misanthropic, irresponsible father (Colin Quinn), who had her and sister chant his motto “Monogamy isn’t realistic” from an impressionable age. Thanks dad. Her sister (Brie Larson in an underwritten role) apparently overcame the conditioning but Amy is living the dream, looking out for her own pleasure and cutting off any possibility of messy emotional complications by sneaking out once she’s sated her sexual needs.

She’s assigned to profile of sports surgeon Bill Hader, a sweetly nerdish guy who asks her out despite all the red flags her unfiltered interview sends out. They make a strangely cute couple, which creates a crisis for Amy, who has managed to keep commitment and emotional entanglement out of her life. Commitment is scary and that calls for another drink.

You could say Schumer upends the expectations of the traditional sex comedy, taking the role usually reserved for the crude, sex-obsessed guy whose cruel wit and pose of brutal honesty is just an excuse for self-absorbed insensitivity, but that undervalues her work. It’s not simply a matter of showing us that women can be just as glib and shallow and raunchy as men. She’s confident and brazen, a power professional with an unapologetic sexual appetite and an arrested emotional development, perhaps not an original but certainly someone we haven’t seen quite like this on the screen.

Schumer is the center of it all but she’s generous with the laughs, spreading it around the entire cast, and Apatow brings the chemistry out of the cast, from the guy talks between Hader’s doc and friend and former patient LeBron James to the strained date between Amy and boy toy John Cena, a personal trainer who fails hilariously when asked to talk dirty during sex and manages to make trash talk threats sound weirdly homoerotic. I credit Apatow and Schumer for making Cena authentically funny. It’s a little too generous at times, by which I mean overlong, a common issue with Apatow’s films, but on home video that’s less of an issue. And Schumer also makes the film’s one serious tearjerker of a scene completely authentic, a nakedly honest display of unconditional love for someone who never earned it. Mostly though it’s funny, a mix of filthy and sweet that makes it all work.

The film was released in an R-rated version to the theaters but there’s also a longer unrated version (about four minutes longer) for home video. Both versions are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with commentary by Apatow and Schumer with associate producer Kim Caramele, the usual collection of deleted scenes, a gage reel, and the Apatow disc staple “Line-O-Rama,” which offers montages of improvisations from select scenes.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a “Behind the scenes” collection of a dozen short featurettes, the featurette “Directing Athletes: A Blood Sport” featuring the athletes who appear in the film, all the clips from the unbearably pretentious fake film within the film “The Dogwalker,” video and audio clips from the film’s promotional tour, extended scenes, and more deleted scenes, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of film.

MrHolmesMr. Holmes (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Behind a beak of a nose and a face dotted with liver spots, Ian McKellen doesn’t just look old. His 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes quavers with tremors, his face droops like melted wax, and at times the glint in his eyes glazes over like he’s momentarily checked out, dull and absent. As he forgets even the names of his closest companions, the worst fears of a man defined by his mental acuity are realized.

Directed by Bill Condon (who first collaborated with McKellan on Gods and Monsters), this post-Doyle Holmes mystery is ostensibly the secret of the forgotten last case that prompted the great detective’s retirement, but it’s really about all those human experiences Holmes is least equipped to confront: friendship, compassion, human connection, the reasons to continue living as his sharp intellect loses its edge. It’s fitting that his best friend is a spirited and curious schoolboy (Milo Parker), the son of his widowed housekeeper (Laura Linney, whose light Scottish lilt comes and goes), and he’s most alive while they’re up to mischief.

McKellan is touching as Holmes at 93, a man losing his memories and at times his ability to focus, and his frustration with his own fragility is all too real. He also plays the middle-aged Holmes in flashbacks, piecing together a case that he doesn’t recognize from Watson’s description and tries to reconstruct from clues found in an old cabinet. It’s all very low key and understated, refreshing after Condon’s time in the Twilight universe, and rooted in the complications of character and the culture of post-war England (an field growing green over the fading wreckage of a downed war plane and a visit to the ashen hillside of Hiroshima are reminders of both how close and how far away the war is in 1947). And it rather neatly plays with the idea of Holmes as both a real person and a fictional creation adored by readers of the stories, with the real Holmes bemusedly ticking off the fictional flourishes that Watson provided.

It’s all a bit tidy for a film that challenges Holmes’s belief that explanations are solutions with the unpredictable messiness of real life, but I guess even Holmes deserves a happy ending.

Blu-ray and DVD with two featurettes and bonus Ultraviolet Digital copies of the film.

Blu-ray: William Gillette is the original ‘Sherlock Holmes’


Flicker Alley

Sherlock Holmes (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – The 1916 Sherlock Holmes was not the first film based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective but it is by all accounts the first Holmes feature and in many ways it remains the most important Holmes film ever made. It’s an adaptation of the popular stage play written and produced by William Gillette, who drew his script from a collection of Holmes tales with the blessing of Doyle. Gillette toured England and the U.S. in the title role for years before hanging it up but revived the play one final time 1915. It was a smash on Broadway and Gillette took it on tour, ending up in Chicago where the Essanay Film Company struck a deal to bring the stage play to the big screen and bring Gillette’s signature performance before the cameras in a cast featuring both his roadshow actors and members of the Essanay stock company.

We’re not talking resurrected masterpiece here, mind you, but it is a fine piece of filmmaking and an entertaining feature from an era when features were still finding their form. More importantly, it is the sole film performance of William Gillette, a stage legend in his own right and the first definitive Sherlock Holmes, as conferred upon him by both audiences and the author Doyle himself. His interpretation not only informed the performances that followed but the screen mythology itself. Gillette elevated Moriarty (played in the film by French actor and Essanay company regular Ernest Maupain) from minor Doyle character to defining nemesis (and in some ways anticipated Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), gave Holmes his signature curved pipe, and added the term “elementary” to his repertoire. In other ways his version is unlike the Holmes of the page or later screen versions. He’s a cultivated patrician in elegant evening clothes and dressing robes before donning the signature deerstalker cap and familiar tools of the trade, he falls in love, and he even marries (with Doyle’s blessing).

Continue reading

Blu-ray / DVD: Pixar’s ‘Inside Out,’ Buckley and Vidal are ‘Best of Enemies,’ plus ‘Rebels’ and ‘Croupier’

I took a week off the usual new release pattern for Halloween so I’m catching up on two weeks of disc releases. There’s a lot here, too much to do justice to it all, but here are the highlights of what I received for review.



Inside Out (Disney, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) – In the 15th feature from Pixar, feelings are not just the focus of the story. They are the main characters. The primary emotions of preteen girl Riley get a workout when she’s uprooted from friends and activities in Minnesota, where she’s a devoted member of a hockey team, and dropped into San Francisco, where she doesn’t know a soul and none of her things have arrived to ease the transition. Joy, a pixie of a character voiced as a whirlwind of enthusiasm supercharged on sugar and caffeine by Amy Pohler, tries to focus on the positive and the possibilities but it’s a difficult adjustment. The blue frump Sadness (Phyllis Smith of The Office in a delivery pitched like a non-stop sigh), the outcast of the otherwise hyperactive team, keeps tripping up her increasingly desperate attempts to put a happy face on everything. The internal tug-of-war of the emotional turmoil lands them deep in Riley’s subconscious, along with Riley’s core memories, which they need to save before they’re lost to the graveyard of the forgotten past.

So it’s a journey film—the framework of many a Pixar classic—with two seemingly incompatible characters who learn to appreciate one another along the way. But it’s also a sharply insightful exploration of the complicated feelings of kids, a cartoon brainscan or an extended dream that turns the mind into an epic theme park run from a starship control center by five dominant emotions. Disgust, a green, judgmental mean girl voiced by Mindy Kaling, Fear, a skittish praying mantis of a figure (Bill Hader), and Anger, a literal hothead of a burning ember in a middle-management suit (perfectly pitched on the edge of outrage by Lewis Black), fill out the control room crew and end up panicking when left in charge. The confusion and unchecked impulses lead to some bad decisions.

Director and co-writer Pete Docter has been a part of the Pixar’s brain trust and talent chest since the beginning. He co-wrote Toy Story and Wall-E and directed the Oscar-winning Up, a film that shows just how well he knows his way around emotions. For this film Docter is as much concerned father as master filmmaker. He worked with psychiatrists to understand the inner workings of the emotional world of the growing child (he was inspired by the changed in his own adolescent daughter) and create visual metaphors for the abstract process and theoretical ideas. And what finally came up with is clever and funny and sweet and sad, an ingeniously physical interpretation of the ephemeral that acknowledges the competing impulses driving the growing child (not to mention older kids, adults, and by the coda, even dogs and cats).

There’s nothing Pollyanish about this portrait, even with the hyper upbeat Joy trying to micromanage every situation to a happy ending and banish Sadness to the margins. As she learns, suppressing your emotions doesn’t work. You have move through them. Inside Out reminds us that emotions are very real experiences and they have all have a place in our lives. It’s clever and it’s funny and it’s sweet, and it tells kids that, as Rosie Grier sang decades ago in Free to Be You and Me, it’s all right to cry because it might make you feel better.

Blu-ray and DVD with optional filmmaker commentary (director Pete Docter and co-director Ronnie Del Carmen, with a special guest or two along the way) and the bonus animated short film Lava, which played in front of the film in theaters.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the original Riley’s First Date?, a snappy little short which spends even more time in the heads of Riley’s parents, and all the featurettes. “Mixed Emotions” (7 mins) looks as the design and development of the emotion characters, “Mapping the Mind” (8 mins) looks into the design of the visual film, “Into the Unknown: The Sound of Inside Out” (7 mins) explores the sound design, “The Misunderstood Art of Animation Film Editing” (4 mins) is self-explanatory, and “Paths to Pixar: The Women of Inside Out” (11 mins) looks at the personal stories of the women of the production. There’s also “Our Dads, The Filmmakers” (7 mins), the compilation reel “Mind Candy” (14 mins), and four deleted scenes with introductions from Docter, plus bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.

Best of Enemies


Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – In 1968, William F. Buckley was the face of the new Conservative movement: editor of The National Review, host of the public television show Firing Line, a conservative media celebrity with a cool intellect and sharp tongue. Gore Vidal, born and raised as a member of the East Coast American political aristocracy, was a respected novelist, essayist, and outspoken liberal commentator who used his wit to provoke and satirize. The despised one another as much as they hated what the other stood for. ABC, the distant third of three networks going into the political conventions of the election season, hired these men to debate the events of the respective Republican and Democratic conventions over ten nights of network coverage. What they got in those brief minutes at the end of each program was less debate than verbal sparring matches between two erudite intellectuals attacking the political philosophy and public record of the other and they were out for blood. As Christopher Hitchens puts it, “There’s nothing feigned about their mutual animosity. They really do despise each other.”

Best of Enemies presents a contrast of two very public intellectuals along with its portrait of an unlikely and unique television event in 1968, an approach to political coverage that ultimately changed the face of political discourse on TV from reporting to punditry and competing voices. Yet there is nothing on contemporary cable news that resembles what these two men gave viewers in 1968. These men took great pride in their vocabulary, their erudition, their intellect, and they dueled with words and ideas and wicked insults in cultivated, patrician mid-Atlantic accents. This was a time when “intellectual” was not an insult but a badge of pride and these men elevated the language of discourse even while engaging in a verbal street brawl.

Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville anchor their documentary with extended clips from their debates, which are unaccountably entertaining in their own right, with backstory and commentary in between. Buckley passed away in 2008, Gore Vidal in 2012, and their respective legacies are in danger of being forgotten. This documentary reminds us of their public presence and their cultural import, but what carries the film is the sheer spectacle of their verbal bloodsport on a national stage. You’ll never see this level of political discourse in the fractured world of cable TV news playing to partisan constituents and punditry reduced to sound bites and shouting matches. The personal hatred that fanned the flames of their duel only makes the spectacle that much more riveting.

Blu-ray and DVD, with a seven-minute interview with the directors and over an hour of additional interviews with the featured commentators, including Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, and James Wolcott, presented as a series short sound bite-sized clips. Also on VOD.


Big World Pictures

Rebels of the Neon God (Big World Pictures, DVD), the debut feature by Taiwan filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang is a study in urban alienation in the overcrowded city of Tapei. Sad faced, soft-featured young actor Lee Kang-sheng stars as a disconnected Taiwan youth studying to get into college who becomes obsessed with a petty hood (Chen Chao-jung) he witnesses vandalizing his father’s cab. There is very little dialogue in the film and Tsai uses long takes with minimal camera movement to emphasize the boredom and unhappiness of the characters. They seem to be going through the motions of life, especially the student who simply quits his studies, gets a motor bike, and stalks the young thief as he robs and vandalizes his days away.

The 1992 film played in film festivals but did not get a theatrical release in the U.S. until 2015, long after Tsai had made his reputation with films such as The River andGoodbye Dragon Inn, which also explore inchoate longing and human disconnection in the urban world. While his later films are more accomplished, Tsai is very much in command of his art and captures the inarticulate frustrations not just of the young but everyone living in this impersonal, overwhelming city. And for a film that keeps its audience at a distance, he shows a compassion for his characters, especially the confused young protagonist. Lee went on to become Tsai’s onscreen alter ego and the star of all of his subsequent films. A well-mastered disc, no supplements, in Mandarin with English subtitles.


Hen’s Tooth

Croupier (Hen’s Tooth, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1998 film that helped elevate the career of Clive Owen, is a low-key drama with Owen as a would-be writer and a gambling addict in denial who takes a high paying job at a casino. “He was a writer looking down on his subject,” he narrates in voice-over. “A detached voyeur.” Soaking in the atmosphere of card sharps and petty thievery and scams, he pours out his observations in a novel about “Jake,” a self-obsessed misanthrope who thrives on the misery of others. Pretty soon honest dealer Jack can’t tell himself apart from the corrupt Jake and takes a payoff in return for playing a part in a planned heist. It’s a mannered performance in a film that blurs fantasy and reality until you’re not sure what exactly you’re seeing, in sharp contrast to Gina McKee, who is so alive she seems to come from another film. Alex Kingston makes an impression in a supporting role. Directed by Mike Hodges, who made the original Get Carter and directed Owen again in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.

I’m not really fond of this film—I find it a little precious—but it has its fans and the Blu-ray debut looks fine indeed. No supplements.

More new releases on disc and digital formats this week at Cinephiled

Halloween Blu-ray Sets: the indie horrors of Larry Fessenden, son of vintage giant creature features, and the ultimate ‘Army of Darkness’

LarryFessendenLarry Fessenden isn’t the most well-known of indie-horror filmmakers but he should be. As a writer / director, he’s taken the classic horror genres and turned them inside out, and he’s produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichert’s Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, through Glass Eye Pix, his own production shingle. He’s been a cheerleader, in his own words, for other independent filmmakers with a passion for horror, and his encouragement has made the genre much richer in the past couple of decades.

Scream Factory, the horror imprint of the Shout! Factory label, collects Fessenden’s first four directorial features and releases them on Blu-ray for the first time in The Larry Fessenden Collection (Scream Factory, Blu-ray). All four films are all newly mastered in HD transfers approved by the director and presented in separate discs with new and archival supplements.

No Telling (1991), Fessenden’s first feature as a director, takes on Frankenstein through the story of a research scientist who starts poaching animals from the nearby forest to experiment on while ostensibly on a summer vacation with his wife. Meanwhile a proponent of organic farming tries to get the local farmers to give up pesticides for the good of the land. It’s eco-horror in the modern age. The disc includes new commentary by Fessenden, a featurette, the short film White Trash (1997), and deleted scenes.

Fessenden’s breakthrough film was Habit (1997), in which he also starred as an alcoholic confronted with evidence that his new, insatiable lover is a bloodsucker: Is she a vampire or is he delusional? While the question remains in the air the film is compelling (if overlong), a neat little study in urban alienation. Shaggy and shabby with his broken tooth smile, Fessenden is oddly a charming lead as a pathetic drunk who is no rush to change his life, making him the perfect victim. He again provides a new commentary track and the disc includes a making of featurette, the original short film version of Habit (1982), his short film N is for Nexus from The ABCs of Death 2, and two music videos.

“Just because people don’t believe in them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there” says an Indian mystic in Wendigo (2002), Fessenden’s thoughtful attempt to pull myth and legend into the real world through the eyes of a young boy. A little murky and overly obsessed with righteous vengeance, it’s also moving and mysterious, with solid performances by Jake Weber (as the dad) and Erik Per Sullivan (Malcolm in the Middle) as the wide-eyed boy whose belief just may bring the beast to life. This one has two new commentary tracks—one by Fessenden, the other by actors Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, and John Speredakos—plus the half-hour featurette “Searching For the Wendigo,” an archival interview with Fessenden, and the short film Santa Claws (2008).


The Last Winter

The Last Winter (2007), an eco-twist on the ghost story set in the isolation of an Arctic oil company outpost, is Fessenden’s most accomplished and evocative film to date. The atmosphere evokes John Carpenter’s The Thing, a team surrounded by a frozen desert where storms whip up out of nowhere and something seemingly alien is out there trying to get to them. “The corpses of animals and plants from millions of years ago,” is how environmental scientist James LeGros describes oil. He may also have pegged the source of the angry spirits of the Earth rising to stop the destruction.

Ron Perlman is excellent as the company man who is both invested in the culture of oil and dedicated to protecting all the people on his team as they come under assault or simply drift into madness. It’s Fessenden’s biggest and most visually evocative production and the marriage of environmentalist and animist themes that makes for a resonant – and still timely – horror film. Connie Britton, Zach Gilford and Kevin Corrigan co-star.

The commentary by Fessenden and the feature-length “The Making of The Last Winter,” a rather impressionistic survey of the production, are carried over from the earlier DVD release. This release also includes archival footage, an interview with journalist Adam Nayman, and promo films that Fessenden made for Stake Land, which he produced.

Fessenden contributes new introductions to many of the supplements on all four discs, there are “sizzle reels” from Glass Eye, and the set is accompanied by a booklet with liner notes, stills, storyboards, and sketches.

SpecialEffectsSpecial Effects Collection (Warner, Blu-ray), a generic title for a pretty impressive set, presents the Blu-ray debuts of four vintage giant monster movies: Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Them!

Son of Kong (1933), the sequel to the original King Kong, was rushed into production to cash in on Kong-mania. Made by the same team (director Ernest B. Schoedsack, producer Merian C. Cooper, stop motion effects by Willis O’Brien) but on a much smaller scale, it takes showman Robert Armstrong back to Kong Island in search of treasure, where he finds Kong’s offspring, a sweet-tempered white ape. It has none of the sweep and grandeur of the original, but as a miniature it has undeniable charms, due largely to the work of O’Brien. He makes Junior a delightful, playful character and creates even more inventive prehistoric creatures for the heroes to battle. Helen Mack takes damsel in distress duties this time around. It’s a fine restoration by Warner of a film that was not well preserved by RKO and there are no supplements apart from a trailer.

Willis O’Brien won finally won his much deserved Oscar for Mighty Joe Young (1949), creating yet another ape, this one the humongous playmate of a young woman Terry Moore who was raised in Africa. Robert Armstrong is once again a showman entrepreneur who brings the ape to civilization (as a nightclub attraction this time) with disastrous consequences, but this time he pitches in with his right-hand man (Ben Johnson) to rescue the ape from his concrete prison and get him back to the jungle. Joe is a marvelous creation and the climax, where he risks his own safety to rescue children trapped in an orphanage fire, is a magnificent set piece that is as touching as it is thrilling. Ernest B. Schoedsack directs and Cooper produces with partner John Ford.

This disc, like all in the set, carries over the extras from the earlier DVD release. This has commentary by stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen, special effects veteran Kan Ralston, and actress Terry Moore, the featurettes “Ray Harryhausen and Mighty Joe Young” and “A Conversation with Ray Harryhausen and the Chiodo Brothers” (contemporary special effects artists inspired by Harryhausen who kept the art of physical effects alive in their films), and the trailer

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) is not only one of the essentials of the giant monster on the rampage genre of the nuclear 1950s, it’s perhaps the only one of the decade that isn’t actually an atomic mutation. This one is a slumbering prehistoric giant (a Rhedosauras to be specific) awakened from its icy suspended animation by nuclear tests. Apparently cranky about its wake-up call, it stumbles through New York and lays waste to Coney Island before meeting its inevitable end. The first solo creature feature work by the legendary Ray Harryhausen (he was an assistant on Mighty Joe Young) highlights this clunky but endearing piece of B-movie pulp, directed by Eugene Lourie (formerly the production designer for Jean Renoir – what a transition!). The script was “inspired” by Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Foghorn” and familiar genre stalwarts Kenneth Tobey and Lee Van Cleef co-star. The film was an inspiration for Japan’s Godzilla.

It includes the two featurettes originally produced for the DVD release, “The Rhedosaurus and the Rollercoaster: Making the Beast” with Ray Harryhausen and “Harryhausen and Bradbury: An Unfathomable Friendship,” which presents Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury in conversation from 2003, when they were interviewed for the film’s 50th Anniversary. Also includes Harryhausen on “Armatures” and the trailer.


‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’

Them! (1954) is arguably the most famous giant insect movie of the classic era and certainly the most serious of the 1950s atomic creature features. Ants the size of tanks swarm the desert and it takes an alliance of cops (James Whitmore), scientists (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon), the armed forces (Onslow Stevens), and the FBI (James Arness) to beat back the hungry hordes. This inspired dozens of similar giant insect and atomic mutation films, but most of the imitators were cheap knock-offs. This one is intelligently scripted, with adult characters and at least a modicum of research into ant sociology, a budget to match its ambition, and a director (Gordon Douglas) game enough to really stoke up the drama. And in contrast to the three previous films in the set, these ants aren’t miniatures but full-sized constructs created via puppetry, allowing the actors to interact directly with them. It’s no more or less convincing than the beautiful work of O’Brien and Harryhausen, simply different, and it gives the ants an indelible presence on the screen.

This is the restoration that has the home video boards abuzz. The original DVD, released over a decade ago, was presented in 1.33:1 Academy Ratio, the same format most people who originally saw it on TV in the pre-flat screen era are familiar with. But it was made during the transition to widescreen and was, according to documents of the era, produced to be shown in the 1.75:1 aspect ratio (protected for both 1.85:1 and 1.33:1). This is presented in 1.77:1, with the top and bottom masked off and slightly more information on the sides. It took me some getting used to but it always looked well-framed, and for a film with scenes in tunnels and giant honeycombed hives, appropriately claustrophobic in those sequences. Some reviewers claim that the image is stretched compared to the old DVD, but it’s more likely that the old DVD was a little squeezed. If you look at the circles in the film, they are not stretched but round. The other issue is that this HD master looks softer than the DVD edition in direct comparison, which is true, but that may be a matter of digital sharpening that was more common in the early days of DVD restorations. Today the studios are much more conscious to be accurate to both the source material and to the original presentation and there is less artificial sweetening. All in all, I give the nod to the Blu-ray, which presents a more accurate edition of the original film.

Also features “Ants,” which is a three-minute collection of outtakes showing the ant puppets in shots that didn’t pass muster, and the trailer.

ArmyofDarknessArmy of Darkness: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), Sam Raimi’s campy sequel to Evil Dead 2, is more of a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen than a horror film. Bruce Campbell’s Ash lands in some medieval land with a chainsaw strapped on one hand, a shotgun in the other (“This is my boomstick!”), and a ’73 Oldmobile for a chariot, and he organizes the peasants to battle with the Deadites: an army of animated skeletons that could have walked out of a Harryhausen Sinbad movie (albeit one with an absurdist sensibility). Sure the mix of Three Stooges slapstick, anachronistic glibness (“Gimme some sugar, baby!” he croaks out to Dark Ages beauty Embeth Davidtz), and cult film homages in a medieval adventure wears a little thin, but it’s always clever and the shaggy special effects are a funky treat for all their inconsistencies. Note that Bridget Fonda has a cameo, recreating scenes from Evil Dead 2 as Ash’s girlfriend, in the opening sequence with Ash as an S-Mart clerk relating his adventures to his fellow employees. Shop smart. Shop S-Mart.

This is one of those cult films that gets a new edition every few years. This is not the first time on Blu-ray but it is the first Blu-ray special edition and Shout! Factory packs this three-disc set with goodies, including four different cuts of the film: the original theatrical version (81 minutes), which is an improvement over Universal’s earlier bare-bones Blu-ray; the longer director’s cut (96 min) which features Raimi’s original ending; the international cut (88 min), which is from a new 4K scan from the interpositive; and the 90-minute TV cut, which is presented in the lo-fi glory of standard definition fullscreen 1.33:1.

New to this edition is the feature-length documentary “Medieval Times: The Making of Army of Darkness” featuring Bruce Campbell and more than 20 members of the cast and crew but not Raimi, who apparently is now a little too big for this kind of thing. Raimi is, however, in the terrific commentary track to the Director’s Cut that he recorded years ago with Campbell and co-writer Ivan Raimi, a real party track that is a lot of fun. Everything else is vintage: 50 minutes of behind the scenes footage from KNB Effects, the featurettes “Creating the Deadites” and “The Men Behind the Army,” plus deleted scenes, additional behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, galleries of stills, TV spots and trailers. The only significant vintage supplement that’s missing, as far as I can tell, is the storyboard video track.

More home video releases at Cinephiled

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The Brood,’ John Carpenter’s ‘Vampires,’ ‘Kwaidan,’ and ‘Rocky Horror’ at 40

BroodThe Brood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – I’d seen David Cronenberg’s The Brood before watching the terrific new Criterion edition but it never really registered the way it did this time. Perhaps the quality of the presentation (newly remastered from a 2K master supervised by Cronenberg) helped me connect this time—Mark Irwin’s cinematography not only establishes the chilly tenor of the film, it belies the low budget with such strong, controlled images—but I think it’s more a matter of time and appreciation. I love the raw, primal imagery of Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid but here that primal body horror erupts from an environment of normalcy (albeit one of social disconnection), a seemingly stable world where the suppressed horrors are no longer held in check.

The beauty and the power of Cronenberg’s body horror—of flesh invaded, transforming, rebelling—has always been how they are completely visceral experiences that grab the viewers on a biological level and evocative metaphors at the same time. In The Brood the metaphor is both on the surface—the emotionally damaged Nola (Samantha Eggar) transforms her most powerful emotional impulses into biological incarnations of her darkest desires—and underneath it. Cronenberg quite famously explained that the film was “my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, only more realistic,” and he had the emotional bruises of a painful divorce of his own to inspire him. But what came home to me on this viewing was not the jealousies and feelings of betrayal behind divorce but the scars of child abuse that take root in the victim. Nola is a survivor of abuse and when she becomes the willing guinea pig in the radical experimental “psychoplasmic therapy” (a term right out of the zeitgeist of sixties and seventies fads) of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), she quite literally gives birth to those psychic wounds. Her mutant children are rage babies, born of her most intense, unresolved emotional storms, and they enact the vengeance she desires (perhaps without her even knowing or understanding).

Art Hindle’s Frank Carveth, the estranged husband of Nola and father of their daughter Candace (Cindy Hinds), is ostensibly the film’s hero. He’s trying to save Candy from the abuse he believes she suffered at Nola’s hands during her last visit to mommy at the private institute, gathering evidence against Raglan from the former patients left damaged and diseased by his experimental therapy, victims whose bodies are now in a kind of rebellion. Hindle is something of an emotional blank and it seems that Cindy Hinds, the little girl who plays Candace, is as well. At least at first. It becomes a lot more like shock as the film develops, the portrait of an abused child blocking out the incidents of violence, shutting down in the face of horrific images, refusing to talk about it like she’s afraid to lose her parents if she admits it. She hides the violence perpetrated on her and suppresses the terror of her mother’s mutant brood. As Cronenberg so clearly shows us, those emotions and traumas don’t go away. They erupt in terrible ways.


‘The Brood’

Criterion’s superb edition features the original half-hour documentary “Birth Pains” about the development and production of The Brood and Cronenberg’s early films featuring (among others) actress Samantha Eggar and cinematographer Mark Irwin, plus recent interviews with Cronenberg (from 2011) and actors Art Hindle and Cindy Hinds (from 2013), both conducted by Fangoria magazine editor Chris Alexander, an almost surreal clip from The Merv Griffin Show from 1980 featuring Oliver Reed, Orson Welles, and Charo (they never actually discuss the movie but the banter is interesting), and a fold-out leaflet with a new essay by Carrie Rickey.

The most exciting supplement, however, is a new 4K restoration of Cronenberg’s second feature Crimes of the Future (1970), which looks forward to themes in The Brood. The mutations and diseases discovered by our detached narrator, radical dermatologist Adrian Tripod, are quintessential Cronenberg inventions, from “creative cancer” (which develops new organs in one patient’s body) to “Metaphysical Import Export.” Cronenberg creates an eerie futuristic ghost-town with his weirdly empty public spaces and the alienated halls of the “House of Skin.” It was shot without synch sound, and the antiseptic soundtrack, dominated by a dry narrator, only makes the film more unsettling.

JohnCarpentersVampires_BDJohn Carpenter’s Vampires (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is not just the first and only vampire film from the great American horror director, it’s the closest he’s gotten to directing an actual western. It’s not simply the dusty, dusky New Mexico setting or the Ry Cooder-esque electric country blues score. He and screenwriter Don Jakoby transform John Steakley’s novel “Vampire$” into a perverse remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo by way of Sergio Leone, with James Woods as a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, whore-mongering John Wayne leading a wild bunch of hard-edged vampire hunters. It’s machismo run amuck and Carpenter loves it.

The film kicks off with an attack on a vampire nest, a SWAT team-like operation turned gory spectacle punctuated by the fiery explosions of bloodsuckers yanked into the light of day (the only other sure way to kill a vampire is a stake through the heart, which is not as easy as it sounds in the midst of hand-to-fang combat). But as Crow’s Vatican sponsored team celebrates victory with hookers and booze, retribution visits in the form of Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith and his imposing 6’5” frame), a powerful vampire master who takes prostitute Katrina (Sheryl Lee) as his next lady of the night in one of the most outrageously sexually suggestive scenes to get by in an R film and slices and dices the rest of the partygoers with his Ginsu fingernails. Crow and his sole surviving team member Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) grab Katrina, whose fresh blood ties have established a psychic link to Valek, and get the hell out of Dodge to regroup. Team Crow inherits a rookie priest (Tim Guinee) who provides clues to Valek’s master plan and the motley crew plans their attack, and after a shaky start proves a quick study, not so much by natural talent as by sheer commitment to the work no matter the danger to him.

This is Carpenter in prime form. Easily his most violent film, it features iconoclast heroes with a streak of misogyny and unrepentant machismo, which provides a perverse comic book irony. These guys are emissaries of the Vatican, with Woods playing Jack Crow with the glee of a choir boy gone bad. He’s great in the role, sardonic and snappy, raised by the Catholic church into a man who knows that there’s a God and battles the supernatural on a daily basis but hasn’t any sentimentality for priests, who he sometimes treats as bureaucrats with misplaced priorities. He’s not above beating the shit out of a priest to get information and their treatment of Katrina during her transformation is almost inhuman, though Montoya softens enough to show a little tenderness and concern for the woman he tied naked on a bed (you can’t be too careful with a vampire in the throes of rebirth).

The vampires themselves are a terrific creation, a mix of Catholic lore and primordial roots born of a black prayer and wedded to the night, but sustained by blood and earth. There are no coffins for these creatures reduced to animal instincts. They gather in nests hidden in abandoned houses and, in one of the film’s most memorable images, they climb directly out of the desert soil.

From the opening shots of the New Mexico desert, which Carpenter captures with his trademark Panavision frame at sunrise, the plains covered in long shadows and blood-red hues, his sleek, stark images and stripped down, no-holds-barred action deliver pure pulp glory.

The Blu-ray debut features the commentary track recorded by Carpenter for the original DVD release and the vintage promotional featurette “The Making of John Carpenter’s Vampires,” plus the trademark isolated score audio track and booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.

This Twilight Time release is limited to 5,000 units, which is almost twice the number of the usual 3,000 unit run.

KwaidanKwaidan (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 quartet of ancient ghost stories, may not be strictly speaking a horror film. It’s not scary or particularly unsettling apart for a few exquisitely created images. It is, however, breathtakingly lovely, visually composed like a painting, scored and sound designed by Toru Takemitsu with a spareness that leans on silence, and suffused in sadness, regret, and loss. The four stories play out with a deliberate direction that emphasizes the stillness and the film runs just over three hours in this new restoration, which is 20 minutes longer than the version previously released on film and disc in the U.S.

The story is made up of four classic Japanese folktales adapted from the work of Lafcadio Hearn. “The Black Hair” follows a samurai who abandons his devoted wife for better prospects with a rich wife and a new master and then returns to find… what he finds. “The Woman of the Snow” is a forest spirit that spares a woodcutter so long as he keeps a promise. “Hoichi the Earless,” the longest of the chapters at more than an hour, begins with a stylized sea battle created in a studio tank and then resurrects the ghosts of battle to hear the epic song histories of a blind musician. “In a Cup of Tea,” based on an unfinished story, plays with the idea of a story without closure and then merges story with storyteller.

This film is directed with a total control that would make Josef von Sternberg jealous. Kobayashi shot the film entirely in a studio built in an airplane hanger with painted backdrops (in “The Woman in the Snow,” the clouds of the hand-painted sky become eyes watching the woodcutter) and sets pared to their essence, like an ancient scroll painting. There’s not a natural image in the film.

This is a beloved film, embraced for its beauty and the haunting quality cast by its unreal sound design and painstaking direction. I confess I’m not one entranced by its spell—I find the film remote, a meditation upon stories and storytelling rather than a story told—but I appreciate the craft and the atmosphere, not to mention the amazing quality of the restoration. This disc is so vivid both visually and aurally. And in some sequences, the film does indeed manage to hold me in its thrall.

The 2K restoration was mastered from Kobayashi’s original cut of the film and presented in Japanese mono with a new English subtitle translation. It features new commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, new interviews with assistant director and restoration supervisor Kiyoshi Ogasawara and literary scholar Christopher Benfey, who discusses Lafcadio Hearn’s stories, and a 1993 discussion between Kobayashi and fellow filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda, plus trailers and a fold-out insert with a new essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.

StrangeInvaders_BDStrange Invaders (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Part offbeat horror film, part UFO conspiracy, and part tribute to 1950s alien invasion pictures, this good-natured comic sci-fi film stars Paul Le Mat as a college professor who goes in search of his ex-wife and finds a time-warped town that shouldn’t exist populated by bug-eyed monsters that shoot lasers. With the help of a ditzy tabloid reporter he digs into a plot that involves a small army of ET’s cousins in human faces (marching into modern day New York dressed like they’ve stepped out of Happy Days), a lonely man in an insane asylum who may not be crazy after all, and the US government. The film hasn’t looked this good since it was first released. Finally restored to full CinemaScope dimensions, it’s a gorgeous looking disc, so much better than the old video and laserdisc presentations. The colors (a mixture of the candy colors of golden age fantasy cinema and the muted hues of nostalgia) are lush and the hazy scenes of the stuck-in-fifties small town feel like some misty-eyed time warp with a few weird twists. Co-writer William Condon may be better known as Bill Condon, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and outstanding director in his own right.

It carries over the commentary by director Michael Laughlin and co-writer Condon recorded years ago, plus the trailer, trademark isolated score audio track, and booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.

RockyHorrorThe Rocky Horror Picture Show: 40th Anniversary (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – Let’s do the time-warp again! The cabaret musical created by Richard O’Brien, channeling old Hollywood horror and science fiction movies through rock and roll and sexual liberation, was originally a flop when it was turned into a bright, high-energy movie but it audiences revived the film as a midnight movie sensation when they redefined it as an audience participation event, dressing up as characters from the movie, calling back to the screen and even reenacting scenes on stage in tandem with the film. Oddly enough, without all the audience chants and flying toast, there’s a surprisingly entertaining film behind the party participation. Tim Curry’s swaggering camp vamp unleashes the libidos of virginal sweethearts Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick to a score of fifties-style rock ‘n’ roll tunes numbers when they take refuge in his castle on a dark and stormy night. This kind of loving lampoon rarely works, but the reference-riddled script (full of loopy puns and clever gags), energetic direction and excessive performances capture the right mix of gee whiz and come hither.

Features both the American and British versions of the film, commentary track by creator/actor Richard O’Brien and co-star Patricia Quinn, an audience participation picture-in-picture track with a live version of the show and a “callback” subtitle track that cues viewers to classic audience responses, featurettes, two deleted musical scenes, outtakes, alternate opening and ending, and other celebrations of the culture of “Rocky Horror.”

Also new and notable:

ScreamAndScreamAgainScream and Scream Again (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), a better film than its title would suggest, chalks up a 1960s horror hat-trick with Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing together in a film about a cold-blooded scientist who tries to create an emotionless breed of humans through surgery, and winds up creating a homicidal maniac. Gordon Hessler directs. Features commentary by film historians David Del Valle and Tim Sullivan, an interview with Uta Levka, and a featurette on director Gordon Hessler, along with the trademark isolated score audio track, and booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.

The Oblong Box (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is also from Hessler, his shot at Edgar Allan Poe (it’s actually loosely based on “The Premature Burial”), with Corman regular Vincent Price hiding his cursed brother away in a British manor house, while doctor Christopher Lee helps him plot his escape… and ends up getting him buried alive! Vengeance ensues. Hessler took over the film after the original director, Michael Reeves (The Conqueror Worm), died.

OblongBoxHouse of the Long Shadows (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Pete Walker, stars Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing, along with John Carradine and Desi Arnaz Jr., and the disc features separate commentary tracks by director Pete Walker and film historian David Del Valle and an interview with Walker.

Count Yorga, Vampire (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), directed by Bob Kelljan, stars Robert Quarry as the elegant vampire Count Yorga, who settles into 1970s Los Angeles to prey on bored housewives. This edition has commentary by film historians David Del Valle and Tim Sullivan, who also deliver a reading of a print interview with Robert Quarry, plus stills, a radio tribute to Robert Quarry, isolated score audio track, and booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.

CountYorgaVampireThe sequel The Return of Count Yorga (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), which reunites director Bob Kelljan and star Robert Quarry, comes from another label and features commentary by film historian Steve Haberman and actor Rudy De Luca.

Wes Craven’s Shocker: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) stars Mitch Pileggi (before The X-Files made him a minor cult actor) as a condemned killer becomes a free floating spirit inhabiting bodies at will when his electrocution goes wrong. Michael Murphy, Peter Berg, Heather Langenkamp, and Ted Raimi co-star in the 1989 film. Features

The Sentinel (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), a 1977 gothic chiller from Michael Winner, stars Chris Sarandon and Cristina Raines and features old hands Martin Balsam, John Carradine, José Ferrer, Ava Gardner, Arthur Kennedy, Burgess Meredith, and Sylvia Miles. This one has three commentary tracks: one by Michael Winner, one by writer / producer Jeffrey Konvitch, and one by actress Cristina Raines, plus an interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton.

The Legacy (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), directed by Richard Marquand from a story by Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster, stars Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott. The disc includes an interview with special effects artist Robin Grantham.

More disc releases as Cinephiled

Gift Sets: ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘Die Hard,’ W.C. Fields, and the American Avant-Garde

BackFuture30Back to the Future: 30th Anniversary Trilogy (Universal, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD) – “The future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”

October 21, 2015, is a date foretold… in Back to the Future II! That’s right, it’s not just the 30th anniversary of the original Back to the Future, it’s the day that Marty travels to in the second installment of the time-traveling trilogy.

Of course there’s a new 30th Anniversary special edition trilogy edition on Blu-ray and DVD to mark the occasion, and for the entire month of October, Amazon Prime members can stream all three films as part of their subscription.

Michael J. Fox goes backwards, forwards, and sideways through time as Marty McFly in a souped-up DeLorean for the first time in Back to the Future (1985), where he jaunts back to 1955, meets his parents (Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson), and finds a younger (but just as crazy) Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), the genius inventor who builds the time travel device and has to concoct a way to get Marty back to 1985. The film’s hopped-up energy, action movie slapstick and tongue-in-cheek cheek social commentary spoofing helped turn it into a blockbuster hit and a pop-culture sensation so director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer / producer Bob Gale came back with two sequels.

Back to the Future Part II (1989) sends Marty ahead in time and then back to play in the margins of the first film. Glover bowed out of the sequel and Elizabeth Shue took over the role created in the first film by Claudia Wells. Back to the Future Part III (1990) takes on another era: it’s the old west of 1885 and Mary Steenburgen is a schoolmarm who is sweet on Sheriff Brown.

None of the films have been remastered for this new edition and the individual discs include the commentary tracks, featurettes, behind-the-scenes shorts, and other supplements from the previous releases, including the six-part retrospective documentary “Tales of the Future,” an exhaustive and entertaining look back at the origins, production and reception of all three films (it’s divvied up over the three discs) and “Looking Back to the Future,” a 45-minute look into the production and reception of the original film, which is on the bonus disc.

Exclusive to this release is a new introduction from Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown, who also appears in the 9-minute original short “Doc Brown Save the World” (which explains who all those inventions seen in Part II don’t exist in our reality), and the featurette “OUTATIME: Restoring the DeLorean,” plus two episodes of the Back to the Future animated series and two commercials from the movie’s version of 2015: a trailer for Jaws 19 and a hoverboard commercial.

Nakatoni Plaza Die Hard Collection (Fox, Blu-ray) is a gift set with a gimmick and this gimmick is pretty darn cool: a 16-inch tall scale model of the skyscraper featured in the original Die Hard. And in the base of this altar to the franchise is a collection of all five films.


The original Die Hard (1988) is still a touchstone for action movie fans, the film that turned wisecracking lug Bruce Willis an action hero and set the tone and attitude of adrenaline-driven crime thrillers for decades to come. The film drops New York cop John McClane in a Los Angeles skyscraper to match wits with terrorist Alan Rickman and his ruthless crew when they lock down the building on Christmas Eve. It’s another Christmas and another crisis for McClane when he battles terrorists (led by William Sadler) at a snow-bound airport in Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), the film that launched Renny Harlin’s short reign as a Hollywood action king. McTiernan is back for Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) and Samuel Jackson becomes Willis’ reluctant ally when criminal mastermind Jeremy Iron puts them through a lethal game of Simon Says. It was more than ten years before the fourth film and Willis is older, balder, and a lot more banged in Live Free or Die Hard (2007), helped by smart-ass hacker Justin Long to take on 21st century supergenius Timothy Olyphant and the biggest cyber-crime theft in history. Len Wiseman directs this one, using ever bigger set pieces to distract from the script’s shortcomings. The franchise is running out of ideas and fuel by A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), which sends Willis to Moscow to bail his estranged son out of jail. Of course he ends up in yet another mad genius criminal conspiracy. What makes them all work (well, the earlier ones anyway) is Willis as the banged up veteran held together by his scar tissue, roused to action because he’s the guy in the place to do it, and kept sane by his sardonic sense of humor. Yippee Ki Kay!

The films have not been remastered since their last Blu-ray release and the discs features all the supplements from previews disc releases—filmmaker commentary on each film (Willis joins the party on the fourth film only), featurettes, interviews, and other goodies—and a bonus disc with the terrific seven-part Decoding Die Hard, which explores the series through all five features (it was originally included in the 25th Anniversary collection). The Live Free and Good Day discs both feature original theatrical and extended unrated versions of the films. There’s also a booklet with stills and trivia and postcards featuring the villains of all five films.

But it’s really notable for its distinctive packaging. The discs themselves are held in an easy to access booklet-style case with sleeves for each disc, but the case is in the base of a startlingly large plastic model of Nakatoni Plaza, the skyscraper setting of the original Die Hard. You can pull the disc case out and put on the shelf with the rest of your collection and put that shrine to Willis and the Die Hard legacy in a place befitting a holy relic. It’s something only a fan could love, but boy, what love it will bring them.

WCFieldsW.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection (Universal, DVD) – W.C. Fields movies more often resemble vaudeville acts than narrative films, strings of gags held together by the loosest of plots and Fields’ own bellicose nature. He’s tyrannized victim as often as insolent bully, often in the same film, and Universal pays tribute to the merry misanthrope in this generous collection. Packed efficiently in a compact disc case, doesn’t bother with extras. It’s all about packing in the movies and there are 18 features in this five-disc set. Most (though not all) have been on disc before. I can’t begin to review them all, so here are a few highlights from the collection.

The anthology comedy If I Had a Million (1932) makes its official (aka legitimate) DVD debut in this set, practically buried in the bunch. This was a high-concept comedy from Paramount in that its made up of eight separate stories, each helmed by a different director, all connected by a single act: a dying millionaire splits his fortune between eight strangers. Fields stars in one of the tales, using his windfall to take his revenge on the frustrations of modern life in the era of the automobile. Other recipients of the windfall include Charles Ruggles, Gary Cooper, May Robson, Gene Raymond, and in the shortest, most perfectly-pitched episode (directed by Ernst Lubitsch), Charles Laughton as a clerk emboldened by his newfound freedom.

It’s A Gift (1934) is a W.C. Fields masterpiece. He’s a bumbling, long-suffering small town storekeeper, henpecked at home, tormented by nightmarish customers on the job (the disaster-prone blind man in glass ware is a classic bit), and suckered into selling it all to buy a California orange grove, sight unseen. The road trip only offers more indignities from his ever-complaining wife, narcissistic daughter, and possessed toddler son. His plodding perseverance is a victory in itself.

He’s the owner of a fleabag circus in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), where he finds a worthy sparring partner in Charlie McCarthy and eludes creditors with bravado and bluster. In every instance Fields mutters and sputters while he doggedly endures one situation after another as a hard-bitten but ultimately soft-hearted underdog. He finds another worthy screen partner in Mae West with My Little Chickadee (1940), a crazed western written by the two iconic stars in their first and only film together. Joseph Calleia, Dick Foran, Ruth Donnelly and Margaret Hamilton star. The Bank Dick (1940) was his last great film (which he scripted under the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves), the slim story of a small town drunkard and put-upon family man enlivened by delicious situations (an inebriated Fields directs a movie and turns a car chase into a slapstick tangle) and drawled bon mots. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) stars Fields as both a caricature of himself pitching a madcap script to a long-suffering movie producer (Franklin Pangborn) and the hapless hero of his absurd globetrotting odyssey. The nonsensical farce was Fields’ final starring role and Gloria Jean, Leon Errol, and the indefatigable foil Margaret Dumont co-star.

Million Dollar Legs (1932), an unsung classic, features Fields as the genial president of a dotty European duchy that would give the Marx Bros.’ Freedonia a run for its lunacy. You’re Telling Me! (1934) gives the dog his day and Fields rises to the occasion as an eccentric inventor who doesn’t let universal rejection stop him from wreaking havoc on the lives of his family and friend with his madcap creations. The Old Fashioned Way (1934) features Fields as scheming theatrical manager The Great McGonigle and Baby LeRoy is back as his devilish infant nemesis. Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) stars with Fields in tyrannized victim mode as the henpecked husband whose one harmless rebellion brings down the vengeance of his incensed boss and his overbearing in-laws. The musical comedy Poppy (1936) is a remake of the silent film Sally of the Sawdust with Fields again playing small-time con man Professor Eustace P. McGargle, the role that originally made him a star on stage and screen.

Fields isn’t the star of Alice in Wonderland (1933), Paramount’s all-star take on Lewis Carroll’s books, but he certainly makes an impression griping and quipping as Humpty Dumpty, which is a giant costume that the actor may or may not actually be inside. He’s joined by Cary Grant (voicing the Mock Turtle), Gary Cooper (bumbling through as the White Knight) Edward Everett Horton, Edna May Oliver, Ned Sparks and a roll call of character actors whose faces and voices are more familiar than their names. And he teams up with George Burns and Gracie Allen in International House (1933), an early “television” comedy which is less a Fields film than a comedy revue, and they share the screen with Peggy Hopkins, Bela Lugosi, Rudy Vallee, and Cab Calloway.

Filling out the set are Tillie and Gus (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934), Mississippi (1935), and The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938). Also includes the vintage 1965 program Wayne & Schuster Take an Affectionate Look at W.C. Fields, originally made for Canadian TV.

Be assured that the age of the flipper disc is over. Each of the five discs is single-sided, with three to four movies squeezed onto each disc. Since so many of Fields’ comedies are around an hour long, that’s not as tight a fit as it might appear on the surface.

MasterworksAvant-gardeMasterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970 (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) presents 37 classics of avant-garde and experimental filmmaking from the 1920s through the 1970s, curated by Bruce Posner and produced by David Shepard.

They are not all American films despite the title—Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mechanique (1923) and Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1926), which both play with the graphic elements of film, are both from France—but otherwise the selection offers some of the most influential experimental films of the fifty-year period and a journey through the changing modes of expression over the decades. The early Manhatta (1920), a lovely portrait of New York City (newly restored in 2K and absolutely gorgeous on the screen), and A Bronx Morning (1931) emphasize the poetry and beauty of it images. These are like tone poems and offer an American answer to the “Symphony of a City” movies of Europe.

Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mechanique (1924) also gets a 2K restoration. It’s a film of rhythms, a succession of images edited into a kind of visual music, and features a delightful cut-out animation recreation of Charlie Chaplin. It’s accompanied by the score composed for its premiere by George Antheil for 16 player pianos and percussion.

I have a fondness for The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra (1928), a playful little black comedy from Robert Florey and editing legend Slavko Vorkapich that uses animation, inexpensive special effects, and a mix of German Expressionist and Russian Formalist techniques for thoroughly American experiment in storytelling.

Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), a landmark among landmarks, is still one of them most provocative works of avant-garde filmmaking, using symbolism and dream imagery to express anxieties and desires not seen on the screen.

Animation is used for its abstract possibilities in An Optical Poem (1937) and Tarantella (1940), while the abstractions of modern art inform Evolution (1954) and Hurry, Hurry! (1957). Also includes films from prolific avant-garde filmmakers Bruce Baillie, Jonas Mekas, Lawrence Jordan, and Stan Brakhage. Nine of the featured films are on the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

There have been many fine anthologies of experimental and avant-garde films released in the last ten years or so. The major difference that this collection offers, apart from variations in the particular titles chosen, is HD transfers of all 37 films (including two newly restored editions mastered in 2K) on both Blu-ray and DVD. Film texture is an essential element of many of these film, especially those from the later years as filmmakers played with film stocks, optical effects, mixed media techniques, and other manipulations to the photographic image and, in some cases, directly to the celluloid materials. These HD transfers get us closer to the texture of the films as seen on the screen.

This fine collection also features newly-composed and/or recorded scores to many of the silent films, plus a booklet with credits and notes on the films and filmmakers. The set features the complete collection on both two DVDs and two Blu-rays.

Early Silent Documentaries: Real-life Adventure Cinema

Since the dawn of cinema, cameras have been taken around the world to capture unique and exotic sights previously available to audiences only in still photographs.

Motion picture pioneers the Lumiere brothers sent their cameras to get scenic shots of foreign landscapes and cultures, and rivals (such as Britain’s Mitchell and Kenyon) followed suit, creating programs that took audiences to faraway places. Mitchell and Kenyon narrated their presentations, turning the shows into events, while on the lecture circuit, explorers started using movie cameras to supplement their slide shows with moving picture footage.

These pre-documentary forays inspired filmmakers and explorers to take their cameras into more remote and inhospitable locations.

‘The Epic of Everest’

Herbert Ponting accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his 1911 expedition to the Antarctic with two moving picture cameras. Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, also brought a movie camera. Captain John Noel, gripped by fascination with the Himalayas, documented the third British ascent of Everest in 1924. Photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis went to the coast of British Columbia to recreate the lost culture of the Pacific Northwest tribes. Robert Flaherty, still celebrated as the father of documentary filmmaking, took his cameras to the Arctic to capture the culture of the Inuit, and to Samoa to document South Seas life. And before they made King Kong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hauled their cameras through the mountains and plains of Iraq and the jungles of Thailand to explore the rigors of life in worlds far from our own.

Continue reading at Independent Lens

Blu-ray/DVD: Lon Chaney is ‘The Phantom of the Opera’

PhantomBDLon Chaney became a star for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) but it was the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) that confirmed his stardom and his talent.

The first version of many versions of the Gaston Leroux novel is still considered the definitive, thanks to Chaney’s committed performance (right down to enduring painful make-up that he himself designed to give him a death’s head look and a horrifying rictus grin) and magnificent sets for the grand Paris Opera and the underground labyrinth of tunnels and canals and secret rooms. This lavishly executed production threatens to slip into hoary melodrama with a magnificent backdrop but for Chaney’s performance.

Chaney, however, creates both a monstrous and a tortured villain, part shunned mastermind, part proto-Frankenstein monster smitten with a young beauty His backstory is left blank, which allows the viewers to fill in their own from his aristocratic bearing, his maniacal pounding on a pipe organ in his underground dungeon lair and his obsessive pursuit of the comely young understudy Christine (Mary Philbin), whose stardom he engineers via secret coaching and threats to the opera company owners. Chaney is both tender and terrible, wooing Christine from behind a mask, a mystery lover who dedicates his heart and soul to her success, then turns vindictive when she spurns him.

This was a troubled production, full reshoots and drastic re-edits that dragged on for two years and a few directors, finally released in 1925 with original director Rupert Julian’s name listed as director (reshoots were by Edward Sedgewick and others), and edited down again for a 1929 reissue with a synchronized soundtrack. And yet moments of beauty and terror survive the creative struggles and production upheavals: The grand chandelier crashing down to the floor of the opera house, The Phantom taking Christine through the underground canals like a fairy tale gondola poled by a demonic boatman through a literal underworld; the furious Phantom perched like a gargoyle on the roof of the opera house in a terrible storm listening to the object of his obsession betray her promise to him. Most dazzling and haunting is the costume ball sequence. A number of scenes were shot in the primitive and unstable two-color Technicolor process but this is the only color scene to survive and it is astounding: the revelry and merriment stops dead when The Phantom, costumed up as the Red Death complete with a grinning skull mask, marches down the staircase and through the frozen crowd.

Lon Chaney as the Red Death in the restored color sequence

Lon Chaney as the Red Death in the restored color sequence

Kino’s two-disc Blu-ray features the same editions previously released on a single Blu-ray by Image: three versions of the film with four different scores. I can’t see a visual difference between the editions but the Kino edition looks superb and, spread across two discs, allows for less compression and a higher bit-rate. The best surviving materials are from the 1929 reissue, which is mastered from archival 35mm elements with color tints and presented in two versions: at standard sound speed of 24 frames per second, or fps, with a new score by the Alloy Orchestra and an archival 1974 theater organ score by Gaylord Carter, and at 20 fps with a superb orchestral score composed by Gabriel Thibaudeau and performed by I Musici de Montreal. The 24 fps master is visually stronger but the 20 fps version is looks more accurate and appropriate in terms of movement on the screen. Both feature the color sequence and appropriate tints through the B&W scenes. The original (and longer) 1925 cut is taken from a surviving 8mm reduction print (without the color sequence) and presented with a piano score by Dr. Frederick Hodges. The drop in image quality is significant, due to the source (a worn and fuzzy print, probably a few generations removed from the negative), which is unrestored and presented in 1080i.

The commentary by film historian Jon C. Mirsalis, also carried over from the Image release, is on the 1929 reissue at 24fps, and accessed through the audio options available on that version. There’s also an interview with composer Gabriel Thibaudeau, the original screenplay, and the trailer.

New to this edition is nearly an hour of excerpts from the 1930 sound reissue with a synchronized soundtrack and some new dialogue scenes added. Only nine minutes of the sound version exists on film but the entire audio survives and the disc presents a mix of audio only, silent footage synchronized to the discs, and the surviving sound film footage.

Also new are two archival shorts showing Paris in 1925: Paris From a Motor and A Trip on the Seine.

Lon Chaney as The Phantom