Category: Blu-ray

Jun 25 2015

Videophiled: Neil Marshall’s ‘Dog Soldiers: Collector’s Edition’

Dog Soldiers

Scream Factory

Dog Soldiers: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD) – “If we engage the enemy, I expect nothing less than gratuitous violence from the lot of you.” Neil Marshall ransacks and revitalizes every cliché in the book in this howling good reworking of the werewolf tale.

Borrowing liberally from the “survivors under siege” classics Aliens and Night of the Living Dead, Marshall drops his full moon boogie in the deep misty forests of the Scottish Highlands, pits platoon versus wolf pack, and watches the fur fly. Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd are the career soldiers on a weekend war game turned into a primal bloodbath, Emma Cleasby the backwoods naturalist who knows more than she’s saying, and Liam Cunningham the ruthless Special Forces officer with a conspiratorial streak. “There was only supposed to be one…” Cunningham moans when his troops find him at the otherwise deserted base camp, wounded and dazed and surrounded by spots of blood and bits of human organs. Their retreat is only marginally more successful and before you can say “Lucky you came along on this lonely dirt road in the nick of time,” they hitch a ride and hole up in the only house for miles around.

Where so many horror movies coast on such coincidences, Marshall works them into the conspiratorial premise of the piece and dangles clues for observant viewers between the blasts of black humor (Wells’ tug of war with a playful dog over the intestines spilling out of his gut), bloody horror, and action heroics. His muscular attack and display of men-under-fire sacrifice is reminiscent of James Cameron, while the shards of cold illumination that backlight the swirling fog, catch the faces of combatants, and silhouette the towering beasts (apparently the full moon had some help) recall Ridley Scott. Give credit to Marshall for borrowing from the best. Dog Soldiers doesn’t transcend genre, it embraces it, energizes it, and takes big bloody chomp out of it.

Director Neil Marshall posted a note about the restoration on the Scream Factory Facebook page, noting that the original negative is apparently lost and the disc was mastered from existing prints. “Like it or not, when the movie was originally released in the UK in 2002, the blacks were crushed, the contrast was high, the colours were rich and the image was grainy as fuck, because let’s not forget, this movie was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm.” So yes, this is grainy and doesn’t have the detail or clarity of master harvested from the original negative, but it’s a fine edition that the director stands behind.

This edition features both Blu-ray and DVD copies with new supplements, including commentary by Neil Marshall, the hour-long documentary “Werewolves vs. Soldiers: The Making of Dog Soldiers” with new interviews with Marshall, many of his collaborators, and the film’s stars, and a 13-minute featurette on the production design, plus Marshall’s 1999 short film Combat and a couple of photo galleries. The cover features reversible art.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jun 23 2015

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The Bridge’ – Germany confronts the legacy of World War II

Criterion

The Bridge (1959) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is a landmark film of post-war German cinema. Filmmakers (and perhaps audiences as well) were reluctant to confront World War II and its legacy in the years after the surrender to the Allies. Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 film, adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Manfred Gregor (the pen name of journalist Gregor Dorfmeister), was the first major German film to take on the subject directly, and it did so with a searing portrait of young soldiers unprepared for the realities of war thanks to the fantasies of Nazi propaganda.

Set in a rural German town in 1945, in the final days of the war as the Allies were converging on Berlin, it follows the story of seven high school boys who still believe in the German propaganda of duty and sacrifice to the Fatherland. They can’t wait until they are called up and they get their wish and undergo a single day of basic training before the company is called to the front. The boys are Volkststurm, not regular army but a kind of Hitler Youth militia created in the last gasps of German defense, a Hail Mary pass that basically throws unprepared kids into the jaws of war. Utterly unprepared for battle, their commander orders them to “guard” a bridge that is slated to be blown up in the German retreat. It’s an assignment meant to keep them out of combat but they turn into patriotic zealots guided by the “wisdom” gleaned from propaganda films and rousing speeches and dismissive of the experience of veterans who attempt to offer advice.

The Bridge doesn’t debate politics or acknowledge the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity, and that works for this story. While there is no literal condemnation of the Nazis, it’s a bankrupt ideology as far as the citizens are concerned and the sole representative of the party is an opportunist and hypocrite preparing to flee with his mistress and his loot. There are no true believers in the exhausted soldiers retreating from the Allied advancement, merely survivors hoping to survive a little longer.

Director Bernhard Wicki is more interested in the cultural climate of Germany in the final days of the war as seen from the isolated bubble of a Bavarian town where the only men left too old, too young, or medically unfit for combat. The women run the shops and farms and the adults are resigned to Germany’s defeat as the bombs drop ever closer to the city and word of the Allied advance is met with a shrug. There’s no love left for Hitler and an impotent hopelessness hangs over the adult survivors but the teenage boys are still in thrall to the fantasy of German supremacy of Nazi propaganda and believe they can turn the war around and save their country. That makes them arrogant, convinced that their idealism is truer than the experience of the women holding families together, old men who survived World War I, even veteran soldiers with a realistic perspective on the state of the war.

The boys of ‘The Bridge’

None of the kids are particularly distinctive—it’s an ensemble piece and they are have their place in it—but neither are they merely simple types. The chapter leader (Hitler Youth is not actually mentioned but that’s surely what he leads) is a little bullying but never really a bully, the barber’s son is in love with an older woman but is paralyzed by shyness until he throws a tantrum when he finds her with someone else, the son of the Nazi Party politico is disgusted by his father’s hypocrisy and cowardice, and so on. The pecking order of their little society remains as they try to organize themselves on the bridge and slip into playing soldier instead of being soldiers, but the arrival of the first tank shocks them out of their fantasies.

This is a miniature, a portrait of 1945 Germany in microcosm, and Wicki eases us into the horror of combat by first focusing on quiet village life, where the boys are relatively protected from the reality of battle. Even the falling bombs are more of a curiosity than a threat; they race to see how close the last one fell and if it left a crater. They are all bluster and immature impulsiveness, ruled by hormonally-charged emotions and a distorted idea of national service. That’s fine for afterschool games but a bad combination with no military training and only fantasies of war glory as a model of military comportment. Left alone to face the Americans (the chaos of the German retreat ends up killing the sole veteran soldier left behind to watch over the boys), they are no better than kids playing war with live rounds and discovering that there isn’t any glory in dying for your country. Wicki captures a sense of panic and desperation as the boys do their best to act like soldiers in the face of overwhelming forces. It’s a war film in close up, a minor skirmish in the scheme of things over a bridge with no tactical value, and it makes their sacrifice utterly meaningless by any measure.

It also makes an interesting contrast to how East Germany confronted World War II. The communist government immediately produced anti-Nazi dramas that condemned the militarism of the country. The new East Germany, after all, was now part of the socialist ideal, a break with the corrupt values of the old Germany. Communist Germany acknowledged the crimes by distancing itself (the government if not the citizens) from complicity in the war. West Germany didn’t have any such façade of separation and it took years to work up to this kind of direct engagement. As a result, it had a great impact on the next generation of German filmmakers.

In German with English subtitles, on Blu-ray and DVD. The new 2K digital restoration is mastered from the original 35mm negative and a 35mm duplicate negative. It looks superb, a clean, sharp image with strong contrasts and no evident damage. It features a new 22-minute interview with Gregor Dorfmeister, who wrote the original autobiographical novel and discusses his real-life experience and the screen adaptation, and a ten-minute interview with filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff on the film’s impact in Germany, and an archival interview with director Bernhard Wicki discussing the film on a German TV talk show in 1989. Also includes a clip from the 2007 documentary Against the Grain: The Film Legend of Bernhard Wicki directed by Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss (the filmmaker’s widow) and a fold-out insert with an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty.

Basic training

Jun 20 2015

Videophiled: ‘Killer Cop’

KillerCop

Raro Video

Given the title of Killer Cop (Raro / Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) a 1975 poliziotteschi from Italy, you might expect a rogue cop thriller, and ambitious young Commissario Matteo Rolandi (Claudio Cassinelli), a rising officer on a major drug case, certainly has good reason to go rogue. His case gets caught up in a major terrorist bombing and his best friend (Franco Fabrizi), a workaday veteran with a fidgety nature and a streak of bad luck, is murdered for stumbling across the prime suspect. He’s frustrated that he’s been bounced from the case by the Prosecutor General, a serious, stone-faced legend of dogged duty who has the unlikely nickname “Minty” (because he keeps popping breath mints while working a case) and is played by American star Arthur Kennedy (dubbed in Italian of course), so when his drug investigation winds back into the bombing he conducts his own investigation. It turns out the Prosecutor has his reasons for keeping the case close to the vest: the police force, the justice department, the entire political system in Milan is riddled with corruption and he doesn’t know who he can trust.

The northern capital of Milan, the symbol of modernity and progress in the Italian cinema of the 50s and 60s, is the epitome of official corruption and the urban mob in the crime cinema of the 70s. The violence here, however, is no mob war or message from the criminal underworld. It’s not even a terrorist attack, at least not as defined by the traditional “war on terror” yardstick. It’s… well, I’m not really sure, but as the masterminds explain it, “It was only supposed to be a demonstration.” The best I can figure is that it’s a conspiracy rooted in a cabal of industrialists, government officials, and mobsters and it is designed to stir things up. Which pretty much vindicates the fears of both Rolandi and Minty, who keep tripping over each other with a frequency that makes them both suspicious.

Raro has been championing the poliziotteschi—brutal crime thriller and mob dramas from Italy in the 1970s—since its revelatory release of Fernando di Leo’s filmography. Killer Cop is a minor but interesting addition to the library, a low-key film that (unusual for the genre) focuses on honest cops trying to do their job in a culture of corruption and political intimidation. Italian audiences of the day would have recognized the event as a reference to a real-life bombing at Piazza Fontana, which was unsolved, and director Luciano Ercoli suggests a conspiracy that could have come out of the American cinema of the day, like The Parallax View. It’s short on exposition, which is as interesting as it is frustrating—the whole conspiracy remains shadowy and the complicity of the police and justice officials is unclear—but also gives the film an atmosphere of distrust of all official representatives. The bomber himself (Bruno Zanin) is a kind of sad-sack patsy, not even a true believer but a foot soldier getting his orders from phone calls and abandoned by his bosses when the case spins out of their control.

As far as I know, this is Ercoli’s only poliziotteschi but he brings an interesting attitude to the genre.

Blu-ray and DVD, with both Italian and English dub soundtracks (the Italian is preferable, as the English dubbing is sloppy and lazily performed) and optional English subtitles, plus a 20-minute interview with production manager Alessandro Calosci.

More cool and cult releases at Cinephiled

Jun 18 2015

Videophiled: ‘Wild Tales’ from Argentina

WildTales

Sony

Wild Tales (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) delivers on the promise of its title. An anthology of six original short stories from writer / director Damián Szifrón, it is a blackly comic film of modern life churning with frustration, rage, vengeance, and other decidedly civilized impulses. It opens on pure perfection, a darkly hilarious pre-credits revenge vignette that turns on a single joke that is flawlessly teased out, revealed, and executed, right down to the final freeze frame. If the subsequent pieces aren’t as wickedly satisfying, it’s because they are more ambitious and involved: a demolition engineer in a losing battle with bureaucracy (and his own obsessiveness), a savage road rage war that turns poisonously vicious, a disturbing drama of rich privilege that becomes even more disturbing as the price for corruption gets continually renegotiated. It’s all about pushing past the borders of civilized behavior to unleash the primal instincts of the human beast’s worst impulses. Give Szifrón credit for coming out of it with a happy ending—or at least the closest one can come from the wreckage left in the wake of a bride scorned on her wedding day.

It’s easy to see why Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar signed on as producers. Szifrón’s style is more stripped away and his satire more cutting and vicious than the compassion of Almodóvar’s sexy melodramas and colorful personalities, and his direction homes in on dramatic collisions between his characters, bringing out the tensions and the escalation of conflict to reveal the petty cruelties and greed and suppressed anger of the modern world. But the sensibility is similar, as is the satirical perspective. Like Almodóvar, Szifrón is all about emotion over reason. He just doesn’t find much to celebrate about passions unleashed. He does, however, find a mordant humor in it all, and he has the wit to pull it off. It earned the film an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Feature and an armful of awards in Argentina.

Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Wild Shooting: Creating the Film” and a Q&A with filmmaker Damián Szifrón at the Toronto International Film Festival screening. Also on Cable On Demand, Amazon Instant, Vudu, Xbox Video, and CinemaNow.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinemaphiled

Jun 13 2015

Videophiled Classics: Dziga Vertov – ‘The Man with the Movie Camera’

DzigaVertovMan

Flicker Alley

Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) presents four features (and one newsreel short) by the great Soviet filmmaker, all making their American Blu-ray debut. They have been newly scanned from the best sources available and digitally remastered by Lobster Films in France. The collection is a collaboration between Lobster, Film Preservations Associates (and the Blackhawk Films Collection), EYE Film Institute, Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and the Centre National de la Cinématographie and is presented in the U.S. by Flicker Alley.

The Soviet Union’s revolutionary documentarian and film theorist, Dziga Vertov was the head of production and editing of the Kino-Pravda newsreel unit between 1922 and 1925. He put his years of experimentation in weekly newsreels to work in the 1924 feature film with Kino Eye / The Life Unexpected (1924), a continuation of his work on the Kino-Pravda series. The mixture of slice of life observations (often captured with a hidden camera) with documentary studies and playful cinematic tricks was his first attempt to create a new kind of filmmaking celebrating life in the Soviet Union under communism. The episodic film is structured something like a variety show, with the recurring thread of “Young Pioneers,” a youth brigade of Soviet boys and girls dedicated to helping the poor and needy, running through the film as a kind of narrative glue. Nestled between these uplifting sequences are glimpses into taverns and bars, a state home for the mentally ill, and the black market, fanciful documentary investigations into the origins of bread and meat (from the slaughterhouse to the farm), and a scene of kids at play in the water that turns into a gorgeous diving montage that presages Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia by over ten years.

The source for this master was an original 35mm print from the Blackhawk Films Collection

The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) is Vertov’s most famous film, a landmark of Soviet silent cinema and international avant-garde and non-fiction filmmaking—a pretty impressive double play to be celebrated for both capturing and deconstructing reality. Part documentary, part film essay, part cinematic gymnastics, Dziga Vertov’s dazzling masterpiece is a spellbinding piece of cinematic poetry and one of the great non-narrative works of all time. It’s ostensibly a kind of symphony of a city, a day in the life of a big city for the Ukraine, but Vertov shot in multiple cities for his idealized portrait. Using all the ideas and experiments he had explored for years in his newsreel pieces, he created a film essay that celebrated the great Soviet experiment while challenging the very foundations of representation, editing, and narrative with images that dance on the screen. The man with the movie camera and the woman at the editing table are integral parts of a film that is in part about its own making and the possibilities inherent in the cinema. The Alloy Orchestra, guided by suggestions left by director Dziga Vertov, created a score built on their trademark mix of dramatic melody and expressive percussion—which is exactly what Vertov wanted. It’s an exciting, driving score that I now consider the definitive accompaniment. This edition features that score.

It’s also the best looking film on this disc. Previous editions were mastered from compromised prints, missing footage from damage or outright recutting and often duped down many generations for the source. This editions is mastered from a preserved, near-complete 35mm nitrate print struck from the camera negative and preserved in the archives of EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. It preserves the full silent film image area (rather than a sound-era copy with reduced image area) and, though it has wear and some damage due to screenings over the decades, the image is quite strong. Missing footage was replaced from alternate sources and the high-definition digital copy was further cleaned by Lobster films. A detailed history of the film print and the restoration process is included in an accompanying booklet. In short, this edition features a fuller image and footage missing from previous editions.

ManMovie3

‘The Man with the Movie Camera’

Vertov made his sound film debut with Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass (1931), his celebration of the Five Year Plan, which is an unqualified success under his direction. It opens on a woman listening to the news of the Soviet experiment over a radio set the scenes play out as if illustrating what she’s learning over the air. No surprise that Vertov treats sound much the same way he treats images: as pieces to be manipulated, cut and mixes to set a scene or make a point. There’s very little synchronized sound and no dialogue (though there’s a speech or two). Rather, he turns to the sounds of machinery and the cheers of crowds, with punctuations of sound effects providing a heightened percussion. Early on we see a conductor leading an orchestra and you would be forgiven for assuming that the symphony is a musical composition. For Vertov, the symphony is the image and sound, the dramatization of workers increasing production in the mines and foundries and on the farms, the building of ideas and themes to socialism triumphant. “The five year plan has been executed in four years!” and the masses rejoice.

There is damage and wear to the source, and a 35mm original print from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse, but there is a great image beneath it and there is great detail in this HD Blu-ray presentation. There is also a warble to the soundtrack, which was restored in 204, in scenes toward the end.

'Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass'

‘Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass’

Three Songs About Lenin (1934), Vertov’s tribute to the leader who died in 1924, completes the set. It’s a symphony in three movements celebrating the triumph of socialism and the unity of industry and art. Which is not exactly what Stalin had in mind to teach the masses. Like Eisenstein, Vertov faced pressure to make more naturalistic narratives and clearer propaganda. The original cut of no longer survives—the film was reedited in 1938 under order Stalin’s regime, and again in the 1970s, this time to remove images of Stalin—and the film on this disc was mastered from a 35mm edited print preserved at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.

All of the films run under 80 minutes, three of them at around an hour apiece. The disc, however, includes one additional film: Kino-Pravda (1925), aka Kino-Pravda Newsreel 21: Leninist Film Truth, one of the many newsreels created by Vertov that mixed documentary, cinema-verité, and agitprop. Also from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.

All five films are collected on a single Blu-ray disc and the release features an informative booklet with notes on the films and the print sources.

Normally I don’t report on new announcements but if the above release interests you, you’ll likely be interested to know that the newly rediscovered 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette (who made a career playing Sherlock Holmes onstage and was the definitive stage Holmes as far as the public was concerned) will be released on Blu-ray and DVD in October by Flicker Alley. There will be a wealth of bonus material, including three bonus films featuring earlier screen appearances by Sherlock Homes. More information at Flicker Alley.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jun 10 2015

Videophiled: Politics on ice in ‘Red Army’

Red Army

Sony

Red Army (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Director Gabe Polsky, the Chicago-born son of Russian immigrants, dreamed of playing pro hockey and ended up making movies. This documentary, his directorial debut, finds the intersection of sports triumph, political gamesmanship, and personal sacrifice in the story of the powerhouse Soviet national hockey team of the eighties, when it won two Olympic gold medals and seven World Championships.

The story is built around interviews with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, the former team captain, and Polsky begins the film with a scene of Fetisov more engaged with his cell phone than with the interviewer (“It’s business,” he explains) and flipping him the finger when Polsky keeps peppering him with questions. Clearly both Polsky and Fetisov have a sense of humor, which helps move us into the story through Fetisov and his teammates, which is not humorous at all. We learn about the rigorous training regimen that kept the men from their families 11 months out of the year, which drilled into them the distinctive playing style that confounded western teams. The players became national heroes, at least for time, but were essentially prisoners of their success. They were under constant pressure to win as a matter of national dignity and political pride.

The sports story is also our entry into a culture, and this hockey film provides no less than a sideways look into the way that communist USSR controlled its athletes—the Red Army Team players were indeed treated like soldiers whose field of battle was the ice rink—and the dramatic changes that occurred in both the political and social culture of the Soviet Union. From the Cold war climate of the eighties through the introduction of perestroika, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of capitalism and a new kind of political power, the players were pawns in a global PR campaign.

Fetisov is a commanding personality in the film and his story is great true-life drama. In the late 1990s, when Fetisov and his former teammates from the eighties squad were in their mid- to late-thirties, five former Red Army stars were brought together on the Detroit Red Wings squad and, under Coach Scotty Bowman, recreated their unique Soviet style of play in the NHL for two Stanley Cup championships. It’s a happy ending for a turbulent life.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by director Gabe Polsky and executive producer Werner Herzog and Q&A with Polsky from the Toronto International Film Festival screening. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are an extended interview with Coach Scotty Bowman (the winningest coach in NHL history), a Q&A with Polsky and former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and deleted scenes. Also on Cable On Demand and VOD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jun 09 2015

Videophiled: Celebrating Orson Welles in ‘Magician’

Magician

Cohen

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Chuck Workman and released to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Orson Welles, is not in the running for the definitive portrait of the artist. At a brisk, dense 90 minutes, however, it is an excellent introduction the life and work of the Welles with a focus on the creative.

Workman brings elegance and visual musicality to his work (such as the remembrance montages of the Academy Awards ceremonies) and a density to his documentaries, and this is no different. His nearly breathless editing pace sweeps us through a wealth of film clips (many of them rare) and new and archival interviews with the likes of biographer Simon Callow, critics James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, collaborators Norman Lloyd, Charlton Heston, John Houseman, and Jeanne Moreau, and daughters Christopher Welles and Beatrice Welles-Smith. And along with clips of his feature films, we get audio of his radio work, newsreel footage of the “Voodoo” Macbeth stage production, clips from the TV version of King Lear directed by Peter Brook, and scenes from unfinished films Don Quixote, The Deep, and The Merchant of Venice. Die-hard Welles aficionados will likely have seen some (if not all) of these, but to everyone else this is a glimpse into hidden treasures.

Magician-2

Orson Welles

Most importantly, Workman understands that Welles is not a “failed” director—too many ill-informed commentators (and some who should know better) still echo the cliché that Welles never returned to the artistic heights of his debut feature Citizen Kane—but a restless artist who never stopped exploring and engaging with cinema even when the industry turned its back in him. Workman clearly respects Welles and loves his work. At a mere 90 minutes, he can’t delve deeply into the contradictions and complications, but we do get snapshots and quick impressions, with plenty of clips of Welles himself talking about his work and career that give us insight to his personality as a person and an artist. He was a storyteller in all aspects of his life. And we get a glimpse of a career that is full of wonders, too many of them unavailable outside of special screenings and festivals—how frustrating is it to have Simon Callow proclaim Chimes at Midnight Welles’s masterpiece, only to be told it is unavailable because of tangled rights issues?—but all of them so intriguing that it may inspire new fans to seek out these rarities (hint: YouTube and import DVDs).

Features a video interview with director Chuck Workman conducted by film scholar and critic Annette Insdorff and a booklet with stills but no film notes.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jun 03 2015

Videophiled: ‘The Wire: The Complete Series’ on Blu-ray

WireBD

HBO

“Follow the drugs, and you’ll find dealers and users. Follow the money, and you have no idea where the case will take you.” So began the first season of HBO’s compelling tale of cops, crooks, and the social and bureaucratic forces that both divide and bind them, and the begining of an epic series that set the high water mark for television drama. I’m not generally one for sweeping statements, but The Wire is the best original show ever made for television.

Created by David Simon (co-creator of the landmark cop show Homicide: Life on the Street), it’s marked more by the mundane realities of procedure and politics (on both sides of the law), and the intricate details building cases and connecting the dots of evidence, than by drug busts and shoot-outs. The first season follows the single investigation of an inner-city drug dealer and the violence surrounding his ambitious expansion, while the narrative is built around Baltimore police detective McNulty (Dominick West), a hard-drinking divorced cop whose dedication is endangered by a big mouth that gets the better of him when he’s indignant, and D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), the sharp young nephew of West Side drug lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). The structure recalls Richard Price’s novel Clockers (though not the movie) in the way it gives equal time to both worlds, exploring both the intricacies within each and the interaction between the two. (It’s surely no coincidence that Price was drafted to become part of the show’s writing bullpen.) D’Angelo opens his eyes to the street politics when he’s demoted to slinging product from the towers in the slums and the show opens our eyes into both worlds. The deliberate pacing and attention of complex detail marked it off from every other crime show on TV, and Homicide star turned director Clark Johnson can take some of the credit for setting the tone and style in the first two episodes (he did similar honors on the pilot of The Shield).

The second season opens with hard-drinking loose cannon McNulty shuffled off to the harbor patrol (his punishment for bucking the chain of command) and the special squad commander Daniels (Lance Reddick) consigned to the police archive dungeon. Then McNulty fishes a corpse out of the water and starts a whole new investigation rolling. The team is back in business, and this time they leave the drug crimes of the street for human smuggling and corruption on the docks… and it’s all kicked off by a spat between a petty Irish cop and the local dock workers union. The drama brings us into the complexities of organized crime on the docks, the desperate tactics and petty scams run by an underemployed dock workers’s union in a faltering economy, and the victims sacrificed by international crime lords in the human cargo trade, but Simon and company continue to follow the drugs as well. Avon Barksdale’s drug operation is now being managed by Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). His big ambitions sets the foundation for the third season, which pulls the story the task force back into the affairs of Barksdale’s expanding drug operation. But what makes this season so compelling is the doomed, inspired, and utterly unthinkable solution to the drug problem that Simon proposes and then illustrates, with startling frankness, both the pros and cons of his modest proposal.

Wire-the-law-1600

By the fourth season, as Simon and company boldly take on the broken education system, it’s clear that Simon’s ambitions are no less than a complex portrait of the American city (specifically Baltimore) with fictional stories illuminating the social and bureaucratic forces that make our cities work, or just as often, not work. Through the course of thirteen episodes that follow the lives of four friends in the eighth grade, Simon reveals the failure of the school system and the inability of the classroom structure to reach kids raised in a culture that is close to a war zone. These are kids on the killing streets of Baltimore’s drug-filled slums, where the behavior best suited to survival is the type that disrupts classrooms. It’s a devastating story with characters that are knots of complications and contradictions in a world where the internal politics of the system (any system) kills all innovation and stops progress dead in its tracks.

The Wire ended its run by casting a light on how and why the media covers the news. The newsroom of The Baltimore Sun becomes part of the narrative weave of the show, intertwining its challenges with the stories it’s supposed to be covering: crime, politics, the schools and the community as a whole. As with each previous season, the old stories are woven into the new: money earmarked for the police by the Mayor has been drained by the floundering school system, which had been starved and neglected and fallen in debt thanks to previous administrations. So wild card McNulty concocts a crack-brained scheme to pry money out of the city: he invents a big, headline-grabbing serial killer (a complete fiction) and Detective Lester Freaman (Clarke Peters), perhaps the most gifted and brilliant detective in the department, becomes his accomplice and retrofits the evidence to keep the fiction alive. He builds cases and pieces together evidence like a master puzzlemaker, and he and McNulty concoct a lie so big, with such far-reaching implications, that the city can’t risk the truth getting out. Certainly not the ambitious and irresponsible junior reporter (Tom McCarthy) who inadvertently contributes to the conspiracy by adding his own fictional details to the story, suspicious embellishments that glory-hungry editors are willing to let through without scrutiny. “We have to more with less,” proclaims its managing editor. “You don’t do more with less, you do less with less,” complains the newsroom’s voice of reason and bearer of standards, City Editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson, of Simon’s Homicide), and so they do, but with splashier headlines.

Creator David Simon is especially critical of what he sees as the media’s dereliction of responsibility as the community’s watchdog and his insistence comes with a noticeable loss of nuance in that particular story, but the scope of the show remains just as ambitious and rich. The writing is the best on television (including scripts co-written by authors Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George P. Pelecanos), with a novelistic sweep and complexity unprecedented on the small screen and a brilliant symmetry as the show comes to a close. It doesn’t have the neat poetic drama of the “Dickensian” narrative (as the paper’s editors like to call it), merely the satisfying changing of the guard, with irony and poetic justice, rewards and punishments, guilty who go free and innocents who flounder. Yet for all the incompetence and corruption that keeps percolating to the top, there remain good cops, dedicated editors, honorable folks who take the places of those burned out by the system that resisted all efforts to change it. The show ends with a system that perpetuates itself – a system reproduced in microcosm in everything from city politics to the school system to the drug hierarchy of the streets to the newspaper to, of course, the legal system – and people that continue to struggle against it even as others give in. To complete the symmetry, co-star Clark Johnson, who directed the show’s debut episodes, returns to direct the 90-minute series finale, which appropriately enough features a spirited wake.

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There are a lot of “Complete Series” collections out there, but this an essential, not simply because it invites repeat revisits but because of the show’s unity. Each season is like a novel in a self-contained cycle and together they make a complete whole.

The Wire: The Complete Series was released on DVD in 2011 its original broadcast format. Since then, HBO remastered the series in Digital HD, and in the process they changed the aspect ratio from the squarish 4×3 of the old TV standard to the widescreen 16×9 format of the current flatscreen standard. This choice was made against the wishes of creator and producer David Simon.

Simon weighs in on his issues with the transformation in this feature on his blog from 2014, in advance of the launch of the HD version on cable and digital formats: “At the last, I’m satisfied what while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has sufficient merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed.” Sam Adams weighs in on the issue at Indiewire.

Many viewers won’t notice the difference. Even many fans of the show will likely ease into the widescreen without difficulty. But it should be noted that HBO did not give viewers the option for the original version on Blu-ray, so purists will want to hold onto their DVDs.

That said, it’s a handsome image with all the atmosphere of the original broadcasts, but with greater detail and clarity. It presents all 60 episodes of the five seasons of the TV epic, along with all the commentary tracks and featurettes from the earlier DVD box set, including the retrospective featurette “The Wire Odyssey” (a chronicle of the first four seasons), “The Wire: The Last Word” (a reflection on the state of the media today featuring series creator David Simon), and three character “prequels” (little scenes of Prop Joe and Omar and the first meeting of McNulty and Bunk, each running under two minutes).

New to this release is the “The Wire Reunion,” an 85-minute roundtable discussion recorded at the Paley Center for Media in October 2014 and featuring creator David Simon, producer Nina K. Noble, and 11 members of the cast: John Doman, Larry Gilliard, Jr., Seth Gilliam, Jim True-Frost, Jamie Hector, Michael Kenneth Williams, Sonja Sohn, Wendell Pierce, J.D. Williams, Michael Lee, and Bob Wisdom (Dominic West and Idris Elba were unable to attend but are represented by video messages). Also includes an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the entire series.

20 discs in five cases collected in a box set. It’s a simple presentation, which I prefer over the more elaborate boxes, which often look cool on a shelf but are far less convenient when it comes to actually accessing the discs.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

May 27 2015

Videophiled: ‘Man, Pride and Vengeance’

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Blue Underground

Man, Pride and Vengeance (Blue Underground, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – There were hundreds of spaghetti westerns produced by Italian studios in the sixties and early seventies. Only a small percentage of them were particularly good, and fewer still genuinely great. You’d think we’d be running out of discoveries by now but Man, Pride and Vengeance (1967), from director Luigi Bazzoni and star Franco Nero, is a respectable find. Based on the novel Carmen by Prosper Merimee, with Nero as the loyal, straight-arrow soldier José demoted after he’s tricked by gypsy hellion Carmen (Tina Aumont), it’s the rare spaghetti western that is actually set in Spain, where it was shot.

In this take, José is has no fiancée to betray, which perhaps makes him more susceptible to Carmen’s flirtations, and Nero plays him as an affable career man whose equilibrium is completely upset by the surge of emotions—lust, rage, resentment, jealousy—that the wild free spirit brings out in him. Aumont makes a cheeky Carmen, not malicious so much as unapologetically mercenary and sexually independent but with a code of conduct that she follows faithfully. She pays her debts, which complicates José’s life more than he can handle. Soon he’s on the run from a murder charge and joins her criminal gang, where he meets her husband Garcia (Klaus Kinski), fresh out of prison and ready to take charge of the gang and take on anyone he sees as a threat. While José earns the nickname “Preacher” for his insistence on a disciplined plan and a non-violent execution of the stage robbery (both a moral and practical decision; murder brings out the soldiers in force), Garcia is like unstable dynamite pulled from the storage of a long prison sentence and ready to blow at the slightest nudge.

Things take a more savage turn when it leaves the city for the frontier, a dusty, desolate landscape of threatening hills, chalky trails, and sunbaked days that (along with Garcia’s taunting and baiting) eat at the gang as they hide out in primeval caves. But this isn’t about barbarous cutthroats picking off rivals. Bazzoni wrote the screenplay with Suso Cecchi d’Amico, one of the great screenwriters of Italian cinema (Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, Big Deal on Madonna Street, The Leopard, and many others), and they give the characters more complexity. These aren’t the bloodthirsty thugs who feed off of violence and chaos, merely folks born to this way of life, and they have their own moral codes and clan loyalties. In this Darwinian setting they provide an unexpected humanity and a contrast to José, whose own code is swamped by his emotional impulses outside of his military home. And best of all, Aumont’s Carmen is fascinating, a woman who pays her debts and honors her obligations, lives and loves as she chooses, and never apologizes for her choices. Aumont hasn’t the strength to give Carmen much depth but she does instill her with a lively spirit and an fierce way of taking life head on.

The film was also released under the title With Django Comes Death, just another of the scores of movies trying to cash in on the iconic hit. At least it stars the original Django himself, even if the sensibility is as far from the cold justice and pitiless violence of Django as can be.

The film debuts on Blu-ray and DVD in a new High Definition transfer from the original camera negative with both original Italian and English dub soundtracks and optional English, Italian, and French subtitles. Features commentary by Italian western experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke and the 28-minute interview featurette “Luigi, Vittorio & Franco,” featuring new interviews with Franco Nero and Vittorio Storaro (who was the film’s camera operator) talking about their lifelong friendship with one another and director Luigi Bazzoni, begun before any of them had experienced cinema success, and reuniting on this film to make good on their promise to one day all work together. It’s as touching as it is illuminating.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

May 21 2015

Videophiled: Chaplin’s ‘Limelight’

Limelight

Criterion

Limelight (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the final film that Charlie Chaplin made in the U.S., is both a bittersweet sentimental drama and a tribute to the music hall era of entertainment. Chaplin stars as a former vaudeville star now reduced to penury, living in a rundown boarding house and scraping by on occasional booking, and Claire Bloom is the delicate, young ballet dancer he saves from a suicide attempt and nurses back to health. Chaplin casts Buster Keaton for a single scene as his partner in a comic duet, making this film the only time the two silent comedy greats ever worked together, and the scene is wonderful. (Legend has it that Chaplin shortened the scene because Keaton was “too good” and kept drawing attention from him.) Nigel Bruce, Norman Lloyd, and Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) co-star, silent star Snub Pollard has a bit part, and Chaplin’s longtime silent movie co-star Edna Purviance made her final screen appearance in an unbilled role. Just as the film was released, Chaplin was denied re-entry to the United States for suspected Communist leanings (this was the height of red scare hysteria and the Hollywood blacklist) and the film was pulled from release as theaters cancelled screenings. Chaplin’s score won an Academy Award in 1973, after the film’s belated 1972 theatrical release in Los Angeles.

Criterion continues its Chaplin releases with a new 4K digital restoration. New to this edition are the video essay “Chaplin’s Limelight: Its Evolution and Intimacy” by David Robinson, interviews with actor Claire Bloom and Normal Lloyd, and the 1915 Chaplin short A Night in the Show. Carried over from the earlier DVD release are documentary featurette “Chaplin Today: Limelight” directed by Edgardo Cozarinsky for French TV, a four-minute scene deleted by Chaplin after the premiere, two excerpts from the original novel “Footlights” read by Chaplin, and the uncompleted 1919 short The Professor (where Chaplin played a flea-trainer for the first time). The accompanying booklet features an essay by silent movie historian Peter von Bagh and excerpts from a 1952 report from the set by journalist Henry Gris.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinefiled

May 19 2015

Videophiled: Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’

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Waner Home Video

American Sniper (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – For the past couple of decades, one-time screen superstar Clint Eastwood has been more active behind the camera than in front of it, plugging along with his old school filmmaking with a consistency that is hard to match. He’s already won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars twice (for Unforgiven, 1992, and Million Dollar Baby, 2004). And at age 85, he had the biggest hit of his career: American Sniper, based on the memoir by Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle. The real-life Kyle who racked up more confirmed kills during his tour of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq than any other marksman in U.S. Navy history. He was also, as expressed in his memoir, an unrepentant bigot who saw the Iraqis as animals and admitted that he found killing people “fun.”

The movie has more in its mind than exploring Kyle’s psyche, or at least this aspect of it. He’s played by Bradley Cooper, who pumped up for the role and plays the part with unshakable belief and confidence in his mission, and the film is about what inspired him to enlist and the toll of combat on his psyche. Kyle has a sense of duty and honor that is ignited when American embassies are attacked overseas, and as his commitment (and reputation as a marksman) grows, his ability to function stateside as a husband and father diminishes. He’s more comfortable leading combat missions than being there to support his wife Taya (Sienna Miller), who is torn apart every time to re-ups for another tour of duty. Eastwood’s clean, strong storytelling is perfect for the story and his direction of the combat scenes is all the more powerful for its clarity and focus. Kyle has to make life and death decisions in the field. His targets include women and children. He doesn’t want to kill any innocents, but protecting his men is his mission.

Eastwood steers clear of politics—it’s not about questioning the mission, it’s about how this kind of warfare wounds victims and survivors alike and how the skills and temperament necessary to be a good (if not great) soldier in combat are a detriment to living in peacetime. And while conservatives appreciated the film’s valorization of service and the military culture of duty and comradeship, liberals saw the message of how the same military culture that turned them into soldiers fails to retrain them for stateside life. For that, Kyle turns to fellow vets and once again becomes a leader of men.

This film was an unexpected blockbuster, earning over $350 million in the U.S, and it was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper), Best Adapted Screenplay, and it won for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.

Blu-ray and DVD, with the half-hour featurettes “One Soldier’s Story: The Journey of American Sniper” and “The Making of American Sniper” and an Ultraviolet Digital copy of the film. The Blu-ray also features a bonus DVD and Digital HD copy of the film.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinefiled

May 16 2015

Videophiled: Two by Roger Corman with Ray Milland

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Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Vincent Price starred in all of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations but one. Ray Milland took the lead in The Premature Burial (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), playing Guy Carrell, an aristocrat with crippling fear that he will be buried alive due to a family history of catalepsy. Corman brings the fear home in the opening scene: an exhumation of an ancestor who shows every sign of having awoken in his casket. The obsession overtakes his life until the rather elderly newlywed moves into the family crypt, which he outfits as a Batcave of escape hatches, much to the horror of his neglected bride (Hazel Court), who observes that he has already “buried himself alive” and makes him chose the crypt or life with her.

Like most of Corman’s Poe films, the script (this one by Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell) borrows little more than the central idea and the title from Poe. This one owes as debt to Gaslight and Diabolique, and of course leans on the art direction of Daniel Haller (who created a sense of grandeur on a budget) and the widescreen color cinematography of the great Floyd Crosby, who photographed Tabu (1931) and High Noon (1952) and here gives Corman his atmosphere. While Hammer was reviving the classic movies monsters as gothic horrors with lurid edges and color, Corman was creating his own Gothic horror revival with ideas influenced by Freud and Jung. Corman creates his world completely in the studio, including the grounds outside the manor, a veritable haunted forest of dead trees, ever-present mist hugging the boggy ground, and a pair of creepy gravediggers (John Dierkes and Dick Miller) constantly lurking and whistling the folk song “Molly Malone” as a dirge-like threat.

Though Carrell is supposed to be older than his lovely young wife, Milland is aged beyond the role, though he quite valiantly attempts to appear younger while also playing the haunted, sequestered, tortured soul. His bearing and deep, authoritative voice holds the center of every, whether he’s the romantic husband swept up in the promise of a happily ever after or the tormented obsessive spiraling into the madness of obsession. Alan Napier, best known in genre circles for playing Alfred in the sixties TV Batman, has a small but delicious role as the arrogant father of the bride, a medical doctor with little affection and even less sentimentality for his son-in-law.

The colors are good if not quite as strong as some of the previous Corman Poe Blu-rays. Joe Dante discusses the film in the new 9-minute featurette “Buried Alive!” and a video interview with Corman from the 2002 DVD release (where he explains how Milland ended up in the role rather than Price) is included, along with the “Trailers From Hell” presentation with Corman’s commentary.

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Kino Lorber Studio Classics

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) reunites Corman and Milland for a science fiction thriller by way of a Greek tragedy. Milland is Dr. James Xavier, who experiments with a formula that will the human eye to see beyond the wavelength of visible light. “Only the Gods see everything,” cautions a fellow scientist. “I am closing in on the Gods,” responds Xavier with the hubris that is doomed to destroy his over-reaching ambition. Peeping through the clothes of comely women is all good adolescent fun until the gift becomes a nightmare as his sight rages out of control.

Charles Beaumont once again scripts this twist on the tale of a scientist who risks everything to explore the unknown and is finally driven mad by, literally, seeing too much. The possibilities suggested in the hints of addiction and inconsistent bouts of megalomania remain tantalizingly unexplored in the unfocussed script and Corman’s cut-rate special effects are often more hokey than haunting (the “city dissolved in an acid of light” he poetically describes becomes fuzzy photography through a series of color filters). But there is an edge to the B-movie machinations. Don Rickles offers a venal turn as a scheming carnival barker turned blackmailing con man and Diane Van Der Vlis is understanding as a sympathetic scientist who tries to rescue Xavier from his spiral into tortured madness, but in the tradition of Greek tragedy he is doomed to be destroyed by the very gifts he desires.

This release features two commentary tracks—filmmaker Roger Corman’s commentary from the original 2002 DVD release and new commentary by film historian Tim Lucas—plus “Terror Vision!,” an interview featurette with Joe Dante and the “Trailers From Hell” take on the film with Mick Garris providing the commentary.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

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