Aug 22 2014

‘Pay or Die!’ for TCM

Allied Artists had such success with their 1959 picture Al Capone, starring Rod Steiger as the infamous mobster, that the studio teamed up again with director/producer Richard Wilson for another Italian mobster movie, this one set in early 20th Century New York City. Pay or Die! (1960) is based on the true story of New York Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, an Italian American police detective who earned the respect of the immigrants in Little Italy and formed the Italian Squad of the police department in 1905 to battle the Mafia.

Ernest Borgnine plays Joe as a dedicated officer determined to win over the largely Sicilian immigrant population of his neighborhood, a group that brought its mistrust of the police with them from the old country, where police corruption was rampant. Though 17 years in America, he still speaks in stilted, somewhat broken English, a holdover from his self-taught American education, but he overflows with praise for the melting pot of America. Borgnine spoke fluent Italian and had no trouble with the Italian dialogue, which was peppered through the dialogue with the Little Italy locals.

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Plays on Saturday, August 23 on TCM

Aug 21 2014

Videophiled Classic: Otar Iosseliani’s ‘Favorites of the Moon’

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Favorites of the Moon: 30th Anniversary Edition (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, is a deadpan satire of modern life and social hypocrisy with characters, rich and poor alike, from a lively Paris suburb whose lives criss-cross and tangle with one another.

There’s a pompous police chief who spies on citizens and plays at high society sophistication, a jealous weapons expert who fixes handcuffs for Paris policemen and sells bombs to terrorists when he’s not stalking his girlfriend, a robber teaching his young son the business, a schoolteacher with a streak of anarchy, prostitutes, hobos, and others winding through the stories. Along with the location, the characters are connected by a painting and a set of fine porcelain dishes that were created in the 18th century and are sold, stolen, and otherwise passed around through the comic episodes.

There is no central story. It’s really more of a busy set of actions that wind back around and mirror each other in comic portraits of hypocrisy, and it is practically wordless for most of the running time, with few dialogue scenes and the action playing out as a cheeky silent comedy. It’s directed by Russian ex-patriate filmmaker Otar Iosseliani, who clearly prefers the streetwise criminals to the corrupt rich and middle-class folks, for they at least have no illusions about what they do. Co-writer Gerard Brach was a regular collaborator with Roman Polanski, Jean-Jacques Annaud, and Claude Berri, but this is more reminiscent of the later films of Luis Bunuel: densely-woven, satirical, whimsical, deadpan, and utterly savage in the way it undercuts the pretensions of its characters. The cast is a mix of professionals and non-actors, including the debut of future French screen star Mathieu Amalric.

In French with English subtitles, with commentary by film critic Philip Lopate, who seems to be winging it through the track. Clearly he’s a sharp critic who knows his subject, and he has some interesting insights, but it could have used a little more organization. Also comes with an accompanying booklet with and essay by Giovanni Vimercati.

More classic and cult films on disc at Cinephiled

Aug 21 2014

Rediscovery: Orson Welles’ ‘Too Much Johnson’

Joseph Cotten channels Harold Lloyd in 'Too Much Johnson'

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the slapstick stylings of Orson Welles, the boy wonder of Broadway!

Not exactly how we think of Welles, is it? We know he had a rich career both on radio and on the New York stage before he made Citizen Kane, but the few comedies he made were far outnumbered by the dramas and the thrillers and the literary adaptation. Yet after his first attention-getting success with Voodoo Macbeth for the WPA, Welles took a sharp turn to farce with his follow-up, Horse Eats Hat, which also had the honor of presenting Joseph Cotten in his first starring role.

There is no film record of Horse Eats Hat or any of his stage comedies and, though he had developed a few proposals for screen comedies, no producer ever took him up on them. So apart from a few cheeky supporting roles, a couple of TV appearances and fragments from unfinished projects, the record shows Orson Welles as a grand artist of serious subjects and baroque tastes.

That alone is reason enough to hail the discovery, restoration and presentation of the long-thought-lost Too Much Johnson, a tribute to the silent slapstick shorts of Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. It is an unfinished project in its own right but is nonetheless complete enough in this “The Films Reimagined” form to reveal a side of Welles so rarely exhibited to the public. That it was made three years before Citizen Kane makes it an invaluable find, a glimpse of the artist exploring the new medium of film with a natural affinity for the possibilities inherent in cinema. But that’s a matter of historical scholarship. What matters to the rest of us is that Too Much Johnson is funny, clever, cheeky, inventive and genuinely accomplished, which makes it worth watching on its own modest yet playful merits.

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Aug 19 2014

Videophiled: Jim Jarmusch’s vampire ‘Lovers’ and ‘A Brony Tale’

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Only Lovers Left Alive (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is the richest film that Jim Jarmusch has made in some time. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are the eternal lovers Eve and Adam, vampire soulmates who have become disenchanted with a world that the zombie inhabitants (their word for humans) are blithely poisoning. They are sophisticates, sensualists, artists, beings who find their greatest pleasure in one another, and Jarmusch suggests that they have evolved to a kind of elemental form, pure beings who revere art and beauty and just happen to need to feed on human blood to survive. The problem is that human blood is also being poisoned, which makes the pure “good stuff” a kind of rare wine that is saved and shared sparingly.

Swinton and Hiddleston bring both a grace and ennui to the screen, suggesting centuries of experience by their very presence, yet the joy they give one another enlivens the mournful tone of their nocturnal existence. In contrast to their languorous sensibilities is Eve’s sister, a wild child played by Mia Wasikowska with an insatiable appetite and an instinct for chaos, while John Hurt is the dying elder, poisoned by the world around him. Read the reviews here.

I did not receive a review copy but the discs should have a behind-the-scenes featurette and deleted and extended scenes.

BronyTale

A Brony Tale (Virgil, DVD, Digital VOD) offers a gentle entry into the very real “Brony” phenomenon: adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, a group that is overwhelmingly male, heterosexual and unashamed of their love of a cartoon about pastel-colored talking horses designed for little girls. Our guide through this world is Canadian voice actress and singer Ashleigh Ball, who provides the voices of two little ponies in the current incarnation of the series, Apple Jack and Rainbow Dash. “The pervert alarm, for sure, went off in my head,” she says when she first learned about the subculture, and she takes a tour to investigate the phenomenon on her way to Bronycon 2012 in Manhattan, where she’s been invited as a guest of honor.

If you are expecting some kind of freak show, you’ll be in for a surprise. Director Brent Hodge is a friend of Ball and frames the film through her perspective and experience, which works because she’s a sincere, serious, likable young woman who finds that the Brony phenomenon is far more positive and affirming than surface appearances might suggest. The spokesmen for the Bronies (mostly men, which in this case is representative of the culture at large, though a few women are represented as well) make a fine case for themselves and celebrate the values of the series in their own lives. When we get to the Iraq vet and former artist who was lifted out of his depression and inspired to draw again because of his engagement with the series, you don’t feel like making fun of any of these fans anymore. A Brony Tale isn’t deep or probing but neither is it sarcastic or dismissive.

The DVD features director commentary, the featurette “The Many Voices of Ashleigh Ball” (which basically expands a sequence from the film where Ball performs the voices of her various cartoon gigs), a brief photo-shoot and an acoustic performance by Ball, whose band Hey Ocean! provides the film’s soundtrack.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Aug 18 2014

‘The Spellbinder’ on TCM

Lee Tracy was Hollywood’s specialist for fast talking shysters, con-men, and underhanded newspapermen in the 1930s. With his nasally voice, staccato delivery, wise-guy manner, and diminutive size, he had a knack for comic characters and he was kept busy playing cynical reporters and press agents during the pre-code era. He was also a heavy drinker with a reckless lifestyle off screen, which ended more than one studio contract. By the mid-thirties, Tracy was without a studio and freelancing on smaller films. He made The Spellbinder (1939) for the B-unit of RKO and journeyman director Jack Hively, who rose up from the editing room to the director’s chair.

Jed Marlowe is a classic Tracy role, a silver-tongued lawyer who befuddles witnesses on the stand and manipulates juries with theatrics, but apart from the shenanigans behind the scenes of the first trial (he pays off a small company of actors to play his client’s family in court) there’s no comic twist here. He’s a cynic when it comes to law but a doting, protective single father when it comes to his teenage daughter Janet (Barbara Read). She adores him and plays hooky from finishing school to watch him defend his client Tom Dixon (Patric Knowles) for murder. Knowles was a handsome British import whose poise and confidence landed him a few leading roles but mostly was relegated to supporting parts. He played drama, comedy, and adventure with equal success. For The Spellbinder he played another of his specialties: the charming cad.

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Plays on TCM on Thursday, August 21

Aug 17 2014

‘The Second Time Around’ on TCM

Go west, young widow. That’s the advice that Debbie Reynolds takes in The Second Time Around, a lighthearted family western set in the early days of the 20th century, when New York City was the height of modernity and Arizona was still a territory in the final throes of the wild west. Reynolds is Lucretia “Lu” Rogers, the inspired mother of two young children who wants nothing more than to follow the dream she shared with her late husband: to take their family west and raise them in the wide open spaces of the last American frontier. And so she does, leaving the children in the temporary custody of her mother-in-law and traveling to the town of Charleyville, Arizona, to set up housekeeping so she can bring the children out. When plans don’t work out, she takes a job as a ranch hand on a tiny spread owned by the flinty but soft-hearted Aggie Gates (Thelma Ritter), a tough old bird who takes a maternal interest in Lu.

Steve Forrest co-stars as Dan Jones, the devilishly charming proprietor of the Lucky Devil who takes an instant interest in Lu, and Andy Griffith is the gallant Pat Collins, a rural farmer with a plainspoken decency behind his trademark drawl and rural homespun manner. It’s another man entirely, however, who changes the course of her life: the crooked, bullying sheriff of Charleyville, who so rouses Lu’s ire that she challenges him in the town’s first election after Arizona is admitted as the 48th state in the nation.

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Plays on TCM on Wednesday, August 20

Aug 16 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ on Blu-ray

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Buddy Holly died young, long before he was finished making his creative contribution to the fledgling rock genre and before the movies had a chance to try him out as a screen performer. So instead of Buddy on the big screen, we have Gary Busey playing the musical hipster from the Bible-belt culture of Lubbock, Texas in The Buddy Holly Story (Twilight Time, Blu-ray). This 1978 biopic is almost square in its straightforward storytelling yet utterly engaging and oddly expressive of the creative spirit from an unlikely rebel. This is one of my favorite rock biopics of all time and decades later I still prefer it to the more flamboyant and self-conscious portraits of musical legends that have become the fashion. This is so square that it’s hip!

Busey’s gangly physicality, crooked, toothy smiles, and stage intensity brings Holly to life as both an unlikely rock ‘n’ roll rebel (he was first rock star to wear glasses onstage and in publicity shots) and an original voice in pop music. Off stage he’s the sweet, goofy, slightly odd boy next door with a gift for music, and onstage he turns every performance into an act of creation, as if each song is reborn when played for each new audience. Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith provide solid back-up as bass man Jesse and drummer Ray Bob, fictionalized versions of the original Crickets (the origin of their name may be apocryphal but it is nonetheless a delightful scene) and Conrad Janis (of Mork and Mindy) is another fictional creation loosely inspired by Norman Petty, a record executive who chooses to back the instincts of this young man from Lubbock.

Director Steve Rash stumbled with his next film, the tone-deaf comedy Under the Rainbow, and never really recovered (lately he’s been relegated to direct-to-disc sequels) but on The Buddy Holly Story, which was his debut feature, his instincts and his execution are dead on. He eschews both reverence and show-biz melodrama for a low-key evocation of late-1950s culture and a no-nonsense peek into the workings of the music business and the practical approach that Holly took to creating the distinctive sound of his records. This isn’t genius springing fully formed from the artist like a wellspring but ideas developed and worked over by a professional devoted to his art. It may be the most unaffected biography of a musical great ever made, certainly one of the few that acknowledges the hard work and commitment necessary to creating music. It earned Busey his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actor and reminds us that before he became a celebrity train wreck and reality TV joke, Busey was a fine actor who had at least one brilliant performance in his long career.

The musical recreation of Holly’s hits and sound is superb, from Busey’s Texas twang to the band thumping away behind a driving guitar creating both more sound and more melody than you thought possible from a single electric instrument. The musical adaptation earned the film its only Academy Award and is isolated on separate audio track on the Blu-ray debut, which is a trademark feature of Twilight Time releases put to a slightly different emphasis this time around. It also features commentary by director Steve Rash and star Gary Busey carried over from the old DVD release, the trailer, and an eight-page booklet with a new essay by Julie Kirgo. It is limited to 3000 copies and available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More rock and roll movies on Blu-ray at Cinephiled

Aug 14 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘The Marx Brothers TV Collection’

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Shout Factory has been the greatest home video archivist of classic TV treasures in recent years and The Marx Brothers TV Collection (Shout Factory, DVD) is quite the treasure chest, as long as you understand exactly what this set offers. This is a potpourri of unusual projects and unexpected appearances by Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx on TV from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, from full-length programs to variety show skits to TV commercials, with the aging comedy stars both solo and teamed up (though all three are never together apart from one delicious surprise). And while none of these projects rival their best work on the big screen, there are genuine treats to be had. “The Incredible Jewel Robbery,” for instance, a 1959 episode of the half-hour anthology show General Electric Theater with Chico and Harpo as a heist team in what is essentially a silent movie comedy short for TV with music and sound effects but no dialogue. Harpo guest stars on the premiere episode of “The Red Skelton Hour,” playing a whimsical guardian angel and performing a comic pantomime duet. And Groucho takes his only dramatic TV role in another General Electric Theater episode, “The Hold Out” from 1962, with guest stars Brooke Hayward and Dennis Hopper.

While Groucho tried out different characters and comic personae in his many TV appearances and Chico toned down his screen personality to varying degrees and even broke character to some extent (on the BBC talk show Showtime in 1959 and the specialty show Championship Bridge with Charles Goren in 1960, plus a delicious turn on I’ve Got a Secret), Harpo was always Harpo. He never spoke. He does, however, lost the wig and hat and tooting horn, for “A Silent Panic,” a 1960 episode of The DuPont Show with June Allyson starring Harpo as a mechanical man in a department story window. Among the many other goodies, let me highlight the outtake reel from the final season of You Bet Your Life and the 22-minute collection of family home movies from all three brothers, narrated by Harpo’s son Bill Marx (who is also the executive producer of the set).

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Harpo Marx in 'The Great Jewel Robbery'

It comes with a 40-page booklet with an essay, photos, and an annotated program guide. And if you order directly from Shout Factory, you can get a limited special edition with an additional bonus disc and a poster.

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Aug 14 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘Low Winter Sun’

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Low Winter Sun: The Complete Series (Anchor Bay, DVD) – Some of the most interesting American TV shows are, curiously enough, adapted from European programs. This one is adapted and expanded from a British mini-series starring Mark Strong as a police detective who conspires to kill a corrupt colleague and is then assigned to investigate the murder.

Strong reprises his role in the American version, made for the commercial cable channel AMC, this time as Detective Frank Agnew, a Detroit officer who conspires with the frustrated partner of a brutal detective to kill the bad cop and make it look like suicide. Lennie James is the partner in murder, Detective Joe Geddes, and as the perfect crime unravels they discover that they have their own motives and secrets and they simply do not trust one another, a situation that gets worse when Internal Affairs starts its own investigation. Meanwhile an upstart gang leader (James Ransone) and his wife (Sprague Grayden), a bar-owner who was once married to a Detroit cop, are muscling in on gangster territory with big plans and a small fortune in stolen cocaine.

The contemporary Detroit setting gives the show a desperate environment of poverty and collapse and Ernest Dickerson, who directed episodes of The Wire and Treme, sets a gritty style and grim atmosphere in the first couple of episodes. The show did not get renewed for a second season but it ends with an appropriately cynical closure that satisfactorily wraps up the story. I found it more compelling than I expected, with excellent performances and interesting characters who are trying to hold on to their souls as they get mired deeper in their compromising situations. But there is so much dark drama on TV that it sometimes gets to be too much and this is dark stuff.

10 episodes on three discs on DVD, with promotional featurettes and deleted scenes.

It’s also streaming on Netflix.

More TV on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Aug 13 2014

Larry Fessenden: Taking Genre Seriously

There’s no shortage of independent horror filmmakers but Larry Fessenden is the filmmaker who puts the emphasis on the “indie” part of the equation. As a writer/director, he’s take the classic horror genres and turned them inside out. No Telling was his take on Frankenstein as an environmental drama, Habit, a vampire story set in the drug addict culture of New York City, Wendigo, a monster movie of myth and imagination and The Last Winter, an eco-twist on the ghost story in the culture of big oil. Plus, in addition to his own directorial efforts, Fessenden has produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichardt’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.

'Beneath'

Beneath, Fessenden’s latest, is a fish story: six teens stranded in a rowboat in the middle of the lake without a paddle while a giant man-eating catfish prowls the water waiting to eat his way through the buffet. What begins as a classic horror film, complete with teenagers who do all the dumb, reckless, aggressive things seemingly designed just to get them stuck in the water, transforms into an insidious character piece that strips away all pretense of humanity and lays bare the envy, resentment, spite and animosity they’ve been burying all this time under snarky remarks and dirty looks. Though it was made as a horror film for a cable channel, it plays more like an American indie drama: Mamet in a boat with a teenage cast and a seriously savage portrait of survivalism at all costs. On the occasion of the release of Beneath on Blu-ray and DVD a few months back, I spoke with Fessenden about the film, his career as a director and a producer, his support of independent filmmaking of all genres and why he’s still so committed to making his brand of horror cinema.

Keyframe: Beneath is the first feature you’ve directed that is not from your own script. Why this project and why the cable channel Chiller?

Larry Fessenden: As you know, I am also a producer and I went there to pitch some of my directors and just to get in with the channel. It seemed liked a fun proposition to produce a film through Chiller. They had money and they were ready to make some original features, and I went through some of the projects that I thought were interesting that we had lined up and they said, ‘Well, those sound good but we also have this,’ and they pulled out this script and I read it and I said, ‘Well I want to do this one, because I love the fish genre, I love how contained the story is, and if you guys are willing, I’d like to try my hand at it.’ I’ve never been a snob about how the work is done. I did another TV show written by some dudes. That was called Skin and Bones [for the series Fear Itself] and it’s one of my better pieces. It’s always exciting to take something and adapt it and put your spin on it and see how you come out. Like doing a cover song.

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Aug 12 2014

Videophiled: ‘Locke’ – The measure of a man

Locke

Locke (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), on its surface, sounds like one of the those high-concept / stunt thrillers and horror films that sprouted up like weeds a few years ago: one actor in a car, driving alone in a stretch of freeway at night, talking to the people in his life through phone calls (hands free, of course; the man is nothing if not responsible).

Except that Locke is not a crime drama or a horror film; there are no villains on his trail or masterminds toying with him by phone. Locke is about a man who, in the space of a 90-minute night drive from a construction site in Birmingham to a London hospital, makes a decision that defines his character and changes the course of his life forever. There’s no twist to the narrative, no shocking revelation, but the meaning of his journey is best discovered along the way as Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy)—husband, father, construction manager—explains it to his family and colleagues.

Tom Hardy is in the driver’s seat, literally and figuratively, for the entirety of the film, and there’s nothing showy in his measured, introspective journey. While those on the end of his phone calls–a wife on the verge of hysteria, nervous sons aware that something is wrong, a construction foreman suddenly promoted to take charge of the biggest concrete pour ever attempted in the UK—unravel at the news, Locke remains calming and deliberate while in conversation and struggles to hold himself together in between calls as he confronts the consequences of his decision.

British filmmaker Steven Knight wrote the tough, lean, uncompromising scripts for Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. Locke is just as uncompromising, but what’s at stake here is the measure of a man faced with a difficult decision. Knight finds ways to keep the journey from getting dull or claustrophobic with the camera finding new set-ups within the confined space of the car, watching Locke in reflection or lit up by passing cars and overhead lights; imagery that reminds us of the transience of his situation, a man alone in a river of anonymous travelers. But it’s the personal journey that makes Locke, a terribly human story about one man who refuses to shirk his responsibility no matter what it costs to his career, such and emotionally powerful drama.

Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director / writer Steven Knight and the featurette “Ordinary Unraveling: Making Locke.” Also on Cable VOD.

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

Aug 09 2014

Videophiled Classic: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

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The new Kino Lorber Studio Classics line follows the model that Olive initiated with its releases from the Paramount catalog. Kino’s licensing deal with MGM (the current MGM entity, which is largely made up of United Artists productions; the grand old MGM studio library belongs to Warner) gives them access to the new high-definition masters from a portion of the catalog as well as access to elements to create new HD masters, plus access to select supplements from previous disc releases. Kino has been expanding in the home video market in the last few years, striking releasing deals with Britain’s Redemption and producer Alfred Leone and distribution deals with Raro Video, Palisades Tartan, and Scorpion. This new deal, no surprise, was announced after Frank Tarzi left Olive, where he was the label’s head of acquisitions, and joined Kino. More than 40 releases have been announced through the end of 2014 via their dedicated Facebook page, with eight films rolling out in the first wave. I held my request to five discs and was (for the most part) well pleased with the quality I saw in these.

“Classics” is of course a fungible term, meaning everything from acknowledged masterpiece to practically anything more than 25 or 30 years old. The eight film of the first wave are largely plucked from the fifties and sixties, with a mix of acknowledged classics, award winners, and genre pictures. But for me, the highlights of the debut wave are two by Billy Wilder: Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).

Based on the stage play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) isn’t opened up for the screen so much as it is perked up with witty dialogue and wily characterizations, two strengths of Wilder and writing and producing partner I.A.L. Diamond. Charles Laughton plays the legendary barrister who defies doctor’s order and a heart condition to defend amiable but shiftless American Tyrone Power from a murder charge and Marlene Dietrich plays his German wife, a cool, suspicious character whose testimony seems to doom Power’s chances of acquittal. Of course, it’s a Christie plot so nothing is that simple, especially when incriminating letters are discovered, but the plot and the succession of twists is less interesting than the characters.

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