Category: Blu-ray

Nov 26 2014

Videophiled: Joe Sarno’s ‘Dirty Movie’ and ‘What is Cinema?’

LifeDirtyMovies

Film Movement

A Life in Dirty Movies (Film Movement, DVD) – The work of Joe Sarno is little known outside of cinephile and cult cinema circles, and not widely seen even among cineastes. That’s because he, with the support and collaboration of his wife Peggy, made his low-budget explorations of adult sexuality within the confines of the sexploitation industry, where they played in grindhouse theaters under such titles as Sin in the Suburbs (1964) and The Love Merchant (1966). His films, however, were handsomely made, carefully composed and lit, and focused on the odysseys of women exploring their sexuality and their desires in a society stumbling through the sexual revolution. In a cinematic culture that focused on men getting their rocks off and women taking their clothes off, Sarno made women the active protagonists of his films. And while he satisfied the requirements of nudity and sexual spectacle (within the conventions and limits of the pre-X-rated era), his idea of a money shot was a close-up of a woman’s face as she reached climax. That sensitivity to women’s experiences and his lovely black and white photography earned him the nickname “The Bergman of 42nd Street.” In fact, he found more respect in Europe and even made films in Sweden, such as Inga (1968) and Young Playthings (1972), which played in the U.S. as foreign imports and earned Sarno a kind of critical respect his American films never received.

A Life in Dirty Movies gives viewers an overview of his career and its decline, when X-rated films displaced the softcore culture and Sarno was no longer able to make his kind of movies, but director Wiktor Ericsson is more interested in the couple themselves, together and still in love after more than 40 years, and on Joe’s doomed attempt at a comeback at the age of 88. Peggy actively encourages him and provides constructive criticism but confesses to the camera that Joe is hopelessly out of step with the times. His health was clearly declining while this documentary was being shot (he died in 2010, soon after production wrapped), and Ericsson finds his story in Peggy’s protectiveness and support of Joe in his decline, still defending her husband to her disapproving parents. Ericsson includes illuminating film clips but only a general overview of his career and he completely ignores 15 years when Sarno made X-rated films under a number of pseudonyms. The most interesting story is their long partnership, Sarno’s drive to keep making films, and Peggy’s determination to support his dreams even though she knows he’ll never make another film. Features bonus interview clips and two cut scenes.

WhatIsCInema

Cohen

What Is Cinema? (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) isn’t so much a lesson in film history and aesthetics as a survey of the breadth of cinematic possibilities. Filmmaker Chuck Workman (most famous for his short films and clip montages at the Oscars) throws a wide net and gives documentary, avant-garde, and experimental filmmaking an equal footing with Hollywood classics, independent film, and foreign cinema. Among his commentators are David Lynch, Mike Leigh, Costas-Gavras, Kelly Reichardt, and Jonas Mekas, all sharing their cinema loves (Leigh basically talks about his own method), and the gamut of featured filmmakers run from Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson and Robert Altman to Abbas Kairostami and Chantel Akerman and Bill Viola. It’s not so much about defining cinema as exploring the possible, a celebration more than a history illustrated with clips from 100 films. Workman is a wizard with clips and you can lose yourself in the montage of images and the enthusiasm of filmmakers talking about the films that inspire them. But it does feel more like you’re wandering through a film museum than getting a guided tour with a point of view.

Features 10 bonus experimental shorts glimpsed in the documentary, including three films commissioned by Workman.

More new releases at Cinephiled

Nov 23 2014

Restorations, Revelations and Debuts of 2014

Film history discovered and rediscovered on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats.

We never stop recovering our film history. In 2014 alone we found a 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes starring the legendary stage actor William Gillette (the only known footage of the man considered the definitive Holmes of his era in character) and an unfinished orphan film shot in 1913 starring black Broadway star Bert Williams.

The digital tools have given filmmakers, producers, studios and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods and the transition from film prints to theatrical digital formats for repertory and revival showings has created new incentives to restore and remaster classic films for new theatrical screenings. (There’s plenty of controversy over this shift, with many partisans arguing that movies shot and originally shown in celluloid should be preserved and only screened that way.)

But it’s still a specialized audience and film lovers outside of major metropolitan areas often have no opportunities to see these restorations and revivals on the screen. At least until they are made available to home video formats. For instance, while the new restoration of the original Todd AO version of Oklahoma! premiered at the Turner Classic Movies festival in April, it has yet to reach audiences outside of specialty theaters and the China Film Archive restoration of the 1934 Chinese classic The Goddess has only shown in film festivals.

‘Too Much Johnson’

So this list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks and restorations of great films and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers at home in 2014. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers now have a chance to see regardless of where they live, as long as they have a web connection and a Blu-ray player.

Too Much Johnson (1938) (Fandor, streaming)
The home video event of 2014 is not a disc debut or a Blu-ray special edition but a piece of lost film history found, restored and streamed on the web. Shot by Orson Welles in 1938 (two years before he went to Hollywood and began production on Citizen Kane) as a kind of experiment to accompany a stage production of the theater farce Too Much Johnson, the film was never finished by Welles beyond a continuity work print that was thought to have been destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970. The 35mm nitrate work print was found in 2013 in a warehouse in Italy (in Pordenone, as it happens, home to the greatest silent film festival in the world) and restored in an international effort. After a series of special screenings, the film (in both the original 66-minute work print and a 34-minute “reimagined” version, with outtakes and duplicate shots removed and footage edited into an “educated guess” of how it would have played in finished form) was made available to audiences the world over for free via the National Film Preservation Foundation website and in an HD edition through Fandor. I celebrated the film and its discovery for Keyframe earlier this year.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Nov 20 2014

Videophiled Classics: Otto Preminger’s ‘Bunny Lake is Missing’

Twilight Time

Bunny Lake Is Missing (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – In the late 1950s and early 1960s, no American director melded classic Hollywood style and cool modern European elegance better than producer/director Otto Preminger. His handsome films are celebrations of introspection and stylistic remove and his best work defined not by heroes and villains but complex, flawed, achingly sympathetic characters. On the surface, this 1965 mystery is no more than a smartly done, intelligently written thriller but Preminger’s fierce cinematic intelligence guides a fluid camera that effortlessly tracks, glides, and reframes characters as they shift through scenes, shifting our perspective along the way.

Carol Lynley is an American single mother who has just moved to London with her brother (Keir Dullea) and her young daughter Bunny, who we never actually see before she suddenly goes missing. Laurence Olivier delivers one of his best performances as a police inspector full of blank smiles, putting on a mask of practiced civility while investigating the disappearance of a child that no one can remember seeing. Lynley is another of Preminger’s lithe, lovely heroines who finds herself isolated and alienated, a stranger in a culture that feels just slightly off (Noel Coward is particularly unsettling as a landlord with questionable motivations), while devoted brother Dullea supports her through the ordeal. While Lynley’s panic tips into paranoia and makes us question her grasp on reality—does Bunny even exist?—Dullea’s glazed cool and dazed smiles make him a little questionable as well. Like Olivier, Preminger conceals his feelings, wielding the camera like a microscope examining the layers of his characters while setting in motion with a choreographer’s grace.

Please note, however, that the prominent billing of the British rock group The Zombies refers only to a rather contrived appearance on a TV screen in the background of one shot and a song playing on a transistor radio in another. They make no actual appearance in the film as such, yet I can’t help but grudgingly respect Preminger’s purely commercial movie. He made films his way, but as his own producer, he was savvy enough to play the promoter.

It’s a gorgeous CinemaScope movie and Twilight Time does the film up nicely, with a strong transfer of a good-looking HD master from Columbia Pictures, a studio with a superb record of preserving, restoring, and making high-quality digital transfers of their catalog. It’s a reminder that black and white films offer a whole new dimension on good-quality Blu-ray releases, not just added sharpness and clarity but a greater depth of gray scale and shading.

The original Twilight Time model was to provide high-quality releases of films from studio vaults in limited edition runs with minimal supplements beyond an isolated score track and a booklet with an essay by house writer Julie Kirgo. Since their launch, however, they have started including featurettes and other supplements from previous DVD releases where possible, and providing original commentary tracks on select releases. This release offers commentary by film historian Lem Dobbs with in-house historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman (who also founded the label), a trio that has done more than a few commentary tracks together, and their ease gives the track an easy-going quality as they dig into the film and offer historical and critical perspective. Also includes three trailers.

More classics on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Nov 18 2014

Videophiled: ‘The Wind Rises’ for Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song

Disney Home Video

The Wind Rises (Disney, Blu-ray, VOD) – Hayao Miyazaki is a national treasure in Japan, the director of beloved animated features and a filmmaker dedicated to preserving the art of hand-drawn animation. The Wind Rises, which was released in 2013 and earned an Oscar nomination as Best Animated Feature, was a passion project for the director and a fitting swan song. The grand old man of Japanese animation has retired and this film, not a fantasy or mythical adventure but a delicate biographical drama about an idealistic engineer devoted to making “beautiful airplanes” for a country he knows will use them as instruments of war, is his final feature. Jiro comes of age in 1920s Japan and through him we experience the 1923 earthquake, the great Tokyo fire, and the crippling depression, as well as the growing militarism that takes hold of the country and the culture; at one point, the pacifist Jiro comes close to becoming a victim of Japan’s version of the communist witch-hunt.

The film was both celebrated and criticized in Japan, where some accused the film of whitewashing the militarism that sent the country into occupying Manchuria and then into World War II. Perhaps they felt that Miyazaki wasn’t more strident in his condemnation of that culture but he does surely confront and criticize it, albeit with a tone of regret and resignation. Jiro, who works in the aviation division of Mitsubishi, is an artist who dreams of flight (his eyesight prevents him from becoming a pilot) and channels his love into creating the next generation of airplanes, but is trapped in a military culture that demands he design a fighter plane. Somehow he never loses his idealism and his humanism.

Is Jiro complicit in the war because he designed one of Japan’s most effective war machines? Is he so driven to become part of the evolution of aviation that he ignores the use to which his designs will be used? Does the beauty of his creation (and Miyazaki does indeed express the beauty of flight that Jiro feels in his imagery) justify the compromises he has made? And are they indeed compromises in a time of war, or are they duty, regardless of one’s personal feelings? These questions hang in the air, suggested but never actually stated or answered. Perhaps he leaves that us to imagine as Jiro surveys the destruction in the aftermath of the war.

‘The Wind Rises’

There’s a love story here too and it is beautiful and tragic. The beauty who will become his wife is already ill with tuberculosis as they court and their romance is almost disconnected from the world around Jiro, taking him (and us) out of the city to the bucolic, sunny countryside, removed from the politics driving Japan to the destruction of war. The entire film is beautiful—could this be the last masterpiece of old-school hand-drawn animation? I sure hope not—and Miyazake applies his visual imagination to a realistic drama, giving it the romanticized imagery of Jiro’s hopeful perspective with the shadows of war and death around the edges. It has the feeling of remembrance, of memory elevating the experience to romantic ideal and shuttling the rest aside. And when we take flight the experience is exhilarating. Miyazaki is a master of both the delicate and the awesome and applies both to this lovely work.

Features the original Japanese soundtrack and a well-produced English language version featuring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, and William H. Macy, plus the short featurette “The Wind Rises: Behind the Microphone,” Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), press conference footage of the announcement of the completed film, and Japanese trailers and TV spots.

Disney Home Video

Along with the American debut of The Wind Rises, Disney releases two of Miyazaki’s best on Blu-ray for the first time. Princess Mononoke (Disney, Blu-ray) was the film that introduced most American viewers to Miyazaki when Disney (prompted by Pixar’s John Lasseter, a devoted Miyazaki fan) struck a deal to distribute Studio Ghibli films in the U.S. and create new English language versions to widen the audience. Mononoke was the first film to receive wide distribution and in retrospect it may have been the perfect introduction, at least for the adult audience: an environmentalist epic as and blood and thunder fantasy adventure on an apocalyptic scale. Set in the era of Japan’s Iron Age, it’s a time when the foundries first start to poison the forests and rivers around them and the weapons they produce—from fine samurai swords to primitive cannons and guns—give humans the advantage in conquering the natural world. Grounded in a rich and complex animist mythology, it is painted not as absolutes of good and evil but in moral shades of gray, a yin and yang within both man and nature. His figurehead is Mononoke herself, a wolf child as original eco-warrior leading the charge against her blood kin, the humans, in an elemental world of animal tribes and spirits and Gods imagined as magnificent giants and enchanting imps. Every frame is filled with an awesome sense of wonder and magic, and for all that is lost, he instills the ending with hope and healing.

Features original Japanese and the excellent American dub soundtracks (featuring Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Billy Bob Thornton, and translated script penned by Neil Gaiman), plus storyboards, two featurettes, and original Japanese trailers.

Disney Home Video

Kiki’s Delivery Service (Disney, Blu-ray), which takes place in a magical variation of our own world, is aimed at a younger audience. Strong, plucky young heroine Kiki has turned thirteen, the age when witches leave the nest for a year of solo training. She’s ready to take on the world with her broomstick and her best friend Jiji, a cautious but supportive black cat (a tiny wisp of a feline) if she can only get her flying under control. Miyazaki’s gentle rhythm and meandering narrative capture the easy pulse of real life and Kiki and her flight obsessed pal Tombo are marvelous models of courage, drive and self-confidence. Their adventures have as much to do with real world situations, such as fear of failure and blows to her self-esteem, as with the lyrical flights among the birds and over the forests and city streets. It is a wonder to look at and a joy to experience and it doesn’t speak down to kids or up to adults.

Features original Japanese and American dub soundtracks (with Kirsten Dunst, Janeane Garofalo, and Phil Hartman), an introduction by Pixar director and English language producer John Lasseter, a short “Behind the Microphone” featurette on the voice cast, Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), and original Japanese trailers.

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

Nov 14 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘Fedora’ – Billy Wilder’s memorial for old Hollywood

Fedora (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) opens with a moment right out of Anna Karenina: a woman throws herself in front of an oncoming train, a steam engine puffing out white clouds against the night sky. A grand, glorious, powerfully melodramatic suicide right out of a glamorous tragic Hollywood romance. It’s a fitting in many ways, but especially because the woman, a reclusive Greta Garbo-esque Hollywood legend by the name of Fedora, has just been offered the lead in a new screen version of the Tolstoy classic, a comeback opportunity that her watchers—a gargoyle-ish group reminiscent of the waxworks that kept company with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.—turn down for her. So this actress appropriates the role for her exit. It turns out she’s all about role playing, to the point that she no longer can tell the difference between who she is and who she plays.

The penultimate film from Billy Wilder and a more fitting wrap to his career than his final feature Buddy, Buddy, Fedora (1978) recalls and plays off of Sunset Blvd. in numerous ways, from the premise of a retired Hollywood legend living in self-imposed exile (here it is in an isolated villa in Corfu) to William Holden in the lead, playing an out-of-fashion Hollywood producer named Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler, a former assistant director who worked his way through the ranks (and who could be Joe Gillis in 25 years had he survived his first brush with a Hollywood legend). He tracks Fedora (Marthe Keller), who walked off the set of her last film 15 years before and never returned, to an island villa owned by the aging Countess Fedora Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef). She looks like she hasn’t aged since the forties, which is attributed to the controversial work of once-famous plastic surgeon Doctor Vando (José Ferrer), who is now in his own kind of exile thanks to controversial treatments and scandalous failures, but she’s also paranoid and fragile. The villa could be an asylum or a fairy tale prison and the “companions” either her tough-love caretakers or jailers. In fact, appearances are deceiving in every way, and as Barry attempts to get his new script to the retired actress (with whom he had a brief fling back in his Hollywood apprenticeship), he discovers the truth behind the legend of the Fedora and her sudden disappearance years before.

Read more »

Nov 11 2014

Videophiled: Monty Python’s Swan Song (or, if you prefer, Dead Parrot) and Shirley Clarke’s ‘Portrait of Jason’

MontyPythonLiveMostly

Eagle Rock

Monty Python Live (Mostly) – One Down, Five to Go (Eagle Rock, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital) puts to disc the stage performance that was previously shown via satellite in select theaters around the world for one night only earlier in 2014. The first live show sold out with 30 seconds of the moment tickets went on sale and more shows were added, but they capped it at ten performances at the O2 in London. They say that this is the last time the group will perform together, and there’s no reason to doubt it; the last time they entire group performed together was 30 years ago, when Graham Chapman was still alive.

The title says it all: the five remaining Pythons (plus their favorite guest performer, Carol Cleveland) reunite for an encore, with Gilliam getting a little more involved than usual and a featured chorus member periodically joining in. You could say that Chapman is as much as a presence as could be hoped for, considering he died 25 years ago, but in fact he’s featured more than you would think possible, from the title of the show to classic film and video clips that bring him back into the ensemble (including some clips that showed in their first concert film, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl) or make him a link between live segments, as if he was still interacting with the old gang.

This isn’t a master class, it’s a reunion and we’ve been invited to watch the old gang fall back into old patterns. Between revivals of their greatest hits (with a few wink wink nudge nudge updates) are big song-and-dance production numbers out of an overblown Broadway revue, with young dancers and singers taking over to kick up the energy and provide the production value. The rest is nostalgia. They are nowhere near the top of their game but they are clearly having fun (they are just as funny when they forget their lines or lose their place, which happens a couple of time) and so is the audience. Everyone there seems to know the skits by heart and get a kick out of seeing these senior citizens revive their standards for one last go round.

There are a few supplements, notably behind-the-scenes clips from the initial reunion meeting, the official announcement, and highlights from the 10 shows (including all the guest star appearances), plus the raw footage that the Pythons shot for intermission breaks and other video screen announcements.

PortraitJason

Milestone

Portrait of Jason (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), Shirley Clarke’s stream of consciousness character study of Jason Holliday, aka Aaron Payne, is a landmark of non-fiction filmmaking and LGBT cinema. Ostensibly part of the cinema verité movement, it straddles the line between documentary and performance art piece. Clarke shot her portrait of the gay black hustler as an all-night extemporaneous monologue and gave voice to a man who would otherwise never be heard in any media form in 1967. In his round coke-bottle glasses and collegiate blazer, Jason plays to the camera and skeleton crew (heard just off camera throughout but never seen), telling stories and doing impressions over the 12 hour session, which Clarke edited to just under two hours. It is an act, all performance and outsized personality, with Jason playing the raconteur and would-be nightclub headliner, and it’s not clear how much is true and how much flight of fancy and projection. But between his paroxysms of laughter, puffs of a joint, and endless glasses of vodka, he offers a glimpse of how one grows up and survives as a flamboyant queer in sixties America.

It’s a scruffy, raw film that got scuffed up over the decades and had never been released on home video in the U.S. until Milestone undertook “Project Shirley.” Portrait of Jason is officially “Project Shirley, Volume 2? but the first in the series to be released to Blu-ray and DVD. This restoration, built on materials found in worldwide search, recovers lost footage and visual detail but leaves the roughness of the 16mm shoot intact because Clarke treasured that gritty texture. And as with all of Milestone’s archival presentations, the discs are packed with invaluable historical bonus material, from outtakes to archival interviews with Clarke to the audio-only “The Jason Holliday Comedy Album,” a rarity that makes an astounding companion piece to the film.

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

Nov 06 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘The Sopranos: The Complete Series’ on Blu-ray

SopranosBDThe Sopranos: The Complete Series (HBO, Blu-ray+Digital HD) – It’s been on DVD already but until the arrival of this set, only seasons 1 and 6 have been released on Blu-ray. Now the entire run of cable series that became a cultural phenomenon (the first time from a pay cable channel) and broadened the possibilities of TV drama is available in the high definition home video format.

More than simply “The Godfather Sees a Shrink,” the brilliant made-for-cable drama The Sopranos gave “family crisis” a whole new meaning and television drama a new sophistication. Emmy winner James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, a blue collar guy in an upper-middle class neighborhood, battles panic attacks and assassination attempts as he juggles two families: his wife (Emmy winner Edie Falco), kids, and bitter, emasculating mother (a brilliant Nancy Marchand, who died after the filming the second season), and the New Jersey mob. Lorraine Bracco is the therapist who tries to helps Tony balance a middle class existence and a violent criminal lifestyle and ends up uneasy about her relationship to Tony as she finally understands the depth of his criminal activity.

The first season turned into a cultural phenomenon and the highest rated HBO original series ever. The second season introduced David Provall as Ritchie Apprio, the angry, unstable mobster who bristles under Tony’s leadership and clashes with the family in his rogue activities. After the melodramatic rollercoaster of the second season, season three simmers with troubled allegiances, complicated relationships, and the devastating effects of the family business on the conflicted emotions of the Soprano children and mob wife Carmella (Emmy winner Edie Falco), who struggles with her inherent complicity in Tony’s job. By the end of the six-season run, Tony and the New Jersey mob goes to war with Phil Leotardo and the New York mob in the wake of a leadership vacuum, wife Carmella comes to terms with the realities of being a mob wife, Tony’s nephew and heir-apparent Christopher (Michael Imperioli) makes a dramatic exit, and creator David Chase ends it all on a finale that evocatively proclaims that the mob life will never afford the Soprano family closure. The end thrilled, impressed, frustrated, and enraged viewers. American couldn’t stop talking about it and parodies sprouted across the media spectrum, not the least of which was a Hillary Clinton campaign spot!

Written with a marvelous ear for language and a sharp sense of character, The Sopranos made full use of the no holds barred opportunities of cable with shocking violence, casual sex, and epithet laced gangster-speak. But more importantly, it dropped the gangster drama into the modern world with intelligence and insight: these are mobsters whose lore is informed by the movies as much as by history. This series didn’t so much change the face of television as it showed what was possible. Shows as disparate as The Shield, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, and Breaking Bad owe their existence to the creative energy and cultural embrace of The Sopranos and for that alone the show earns its place in the pantheon of American television landmarks.

The last episode

The complete 86-episode series, from the panic attack that opens the show to the abrupt ending, is collected on 28 discs in seven cases (one for each season, with Season 6 split into two parts, as it was originally released on Blu-ray) plus an eighth slimcase with a disc of substantial interview features originally presented in the DVD edition of The Complete Series: “Defining a Television Landmark,” a roundtable discussion with creator David Chase, executive producer Brad Grey, producer Ilene Landress, filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and Andrew Dominick, actor/writer Michael Imperioli, critics Elvis Mitchell, Dorothy Rabinowitz and David Bianculli, and professor Paul Levinson; two sessions of “Supper with The Sopranos,” with Chase discussing the show over a meal with (in part one) producer / writer (and future Boardwalk Empire creator) Terence Winter, director Allen Coulter, and actors Dominic Chianese, Rober Iler, and Aida Turturro, and (in part two) executive producer / writer (and future Mad Men creator) Matthew Weiner, producer Ilene Landress, director Alan Taylor, actor / music advisor Steven Van Zandt, and star Edie Falco; and “An Interview with David Chase,” a one-on-one conversation with Alec Baldwin, who desperately wanted Chase to create a role for him on the show.

The supplements from previous Blu-ray and DVD releases of the seasons are also all intact, including Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with Chase, a discussion of the music with Chase, Steven Van Zandt, and Dominic Chianese, and commentary on 25 episodes by various members of the cast and crew.

More TV box set reviews at Cinefiled

Nov 04 2014

Videophiled: Angelina Jolie is ‘Maleficent’ and Philip Seymour Hoffman is ‘A Most Wanted Man’

Malifecent

Disney Home Video

Maleficent (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD) does sort of a “Wicked” number on the story of Sleeping Beauty’s evil sorceress, casting her as the tragic figure of a dark fantasy (but not too dark for children—barely) of a revisionist fairy tale. Angelina Jolie plays the adult Maleficent, a fairy who watches over and defends the natural and supernatural wilds from human assault. With her magnificent leathery wings and curled horns, she has the look of a beautiful demon (even her cheekbones are sharpened to an edge that look like they could cut an unwary lover to ribbons) but is at heart an innocent, a primeval force whose emotions are pure and motives without guile. Her betrayal, at the hands of a human (Sharlto Copley) who was once a friend and lover, is an assault so personal and intimate and disfiguring that children can’t help but feel the transgression as a terrible, horrible wrong while adults see it as a form of rape. It is as powerful a dramatic moment you will see in an American film, let alone a mainstream spectacle, and coupled with Jolie’s committed performance (ripples of personality and conflicted emotions, as well as a playful sense of humor, play under even her iciest moments), it gives the film a power beyond the CGIed-to-monotony fantasy designs and magical creatures.

Not to slight Elle Fanning, who plays the princess Aurora as another innocent whose purity gets under Maleficent’s vengeful shell. Fanning has the ability to radiate pure joy and wonder and does so, but Jolie shows us that the potential for love is still within her, merely buried under rage and hatred and vengeance. It is a righteous revenge film, but with a feminist twist and a redemptive journey. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz: “The movie is a mess, but it’s a rich mess. It has weight. It matters.”

The five featurettes are quite brief (the longest, “From Fairy Tale to Feature Film,” runs only eight minutes) and there are five deleted scenes. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Disney Anywhere Digital HD copies.

Mostwanted

Lionsgate

A Most Wanted Man (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) will stand as the final film completed by Philip Seymour Hoffman before his untimely death in February and that alone is reason enough to see the film, adapted from the post 9/11 novel by John le Carré and directed by Anton Corbijn, a music video veteran who becomes more accomplished with each feature. Hoffman has the ability to lose himself in his roles and as Günther Bachmann, the leader of covert German intelligence agency that monitors potential terrorist activity, he seems to pare down a performance to give us a man who betrays nothing of what he’s thinking or feeling yet radiates a gentle warmth for his team (made up of superb German actors Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, and Franz Hartwig). All we really know is his loyalty to his country and to his crew, and they return that loyalty in spades.

Günther and his team, working outside the traditional government structure (which clearly frustrates the official, traditional intelligence officials), follow the appearance of a tortured Chechen refugee to a possible financier of terrorism and battle bureaucratic interference to stay on mission. This is le Carré’s world of competing agencies within the same country who prize power over efficiency and interests outside the structure working their own interests; support from an American intelligence agent (Robin Wright) raises all sorts of alarms, not the least of which is: what is her endgame? There is idealism at the center (not just Hoffman but also Rachel McAdams as a human rights lawyer) surrounded by realpolitik pressure and compromise. Hoffman’s gift is to communicate the gravity of the stakes, in human and moral as well as in political terms, by the mere force of his commitment. It’s superb.

With two featurettes. The Blu-ray edition also includes an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

DormantBeauty

Kino Lorber

Dormant Beauty (Kino Lorber, DVD, Netflix), directed by Marco Bellocchio in a return form (or near enough), is a sober look at the collision of politics, religion, and pious protest based on a real life controversy from 2009 in Italy (with echoes our own Terri Schiavo ordeal). A family chooses to remove a woman from life-support after 17 years in coma. The Catholics rise up in protest and Berlusconi (who remains offscreen) orders his party to vote in sympathy with protesters (because it’ll play well in the media, not out of any conviction), which doesn’t sit well with a newly-elected Senator (Toni Servillo). There are a lot of passionate people in this drama (Alba Rohrwacher as the Senator’s religious daughter, Isabelle Huppert as the mother of another girl in coma), but they are as angry, desperate, damaged and/or self-servingly pious as they are committed to the cause. Bellocchio doesn’t pass judgment when Rohrwacher abandons her protest group for a fling with a charming guy she meets in the protest crowds—if anything, he lets us see this from her POV, meeting a possible soulmate and giving in to overwhelming desire with a swoony rush—but he puts it all into perspective. Everyone is so focused on the sleeping dead that they forget about the living. The contradictions in these characters aren’t complex but they are moving and Bellocchio invests them with the weight of faith and honest emotion.

In Italian with English subtitles. Also available to stream on Netflix.

Eurocrime

Cinema Epoch

Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s (Cinema Epoch) – Even among film buffs, the Italian “poliziotteschi” is a pretty specialized taste, given plenty of love by Quentin Tarantino (The Italian Connection was a significant inspiration for Pulp Fiction, and he quotes a lot of the music in his films) and almost single-handedly resurrected for American home video by Raro. This documentary, directed by Mike Malloy (an American fan turned genre historian), runs a bit long as such documentaries go (over two hours) s, but in the case of such an obscure genre, that is as much a strength as a weakness. Malloy fills the film with interviews with Americans who made a memorable splash in Italian crime films (John Saxon, Henry Silva, Fred Williamson, Joe Dallesandro, Chris Mitchum, Richard Harrison, and Michael Forest, who also was a dubbing specialist) and Italian from the genre: Franco Nero, Antonia Sabato, filmmakers Enzo G. Castellari, Claudio Fragaso, Mario Caiano, stuntman Ottaviano Dell’Acqua. Malloy provides the history lesson (complete with a checklist of inspirations, copies, and blatant rip-offs of American crime movies) but the personal stories and anecdotes are what make the film fun. A little too enamored of his own low-budget flourishes and of dubious value to anyone not already intrigued by the genre, but if you’re a fan, this is an informative (if a bit pedantic) overview with plenty of clips and some great tales.

The DVD quality is strictly low fidelity, and it features bonus interviews and other supplements.

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Nov 03 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Point Blank’

Warner

When documentary filmmaker John Boorman made the leap to feature filmmaking with Catch Us If You Can (aka Having a Wild Weekend, 1965), a low-budget rock-n-roll vehicle for the Dave Clark Five, he transformed the quickie into a surprisingly biting satire of popular culture set to a bouncy soundtrack, displaying a remarkable sophistication and creativity unexpected from such a project. It was enough to land him his first American film, Point Blank (Warner) where he revealed an even greater ambition and talent.

Based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (a pen name for Donald Westlake), Point Blank shuffles the lean, straight-forward story of a gunman named Walker (Lee Marvin), who is double crossed by his partner in crime and returns (seemingly from the dead) for revenge, into a surreal, abstracted crime drama. The plot is faithful to original novel, a hard-boiled piece of crime fiction reimagined for the underworld culture of the sixties, but Boorman and Marvin, who requested the young director and supported his unconventional vision for the film, refract it through a modern lens. Walker’s odyssey from Alcatraz in San Francisco to the underworld of Los Angeles is splintered with short, sharp shards of memory that cut through his story, as if reflecting Walker’s attempts to put the pieces of cause and effect together in his mind.

Boorman views L.A. through an alienated lens and edits it more like a European art film than an American crime thriller, but fills it with offbeat, ultra-stylized scenes of violence.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Nov 01 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Ravenous’

Shout Factory

Ravenous (Scream Factory) channels the story reminiscent of the Donner Party disaster and the legend of Alferd Packer (the only American ever convicted of cannibalism) into a gruesome survival thriller with a crimson-hued streak of black humor and an elemental hint of the supernatural. The resulting film takes top honors as the definitive frontier cannibal movie. Not that there’s a long list to choose from, mind you, but this earns its position with honors, thanks to a gleefully weird and savagely bloodthirsty sensibility.

Guy Pearce is Captain John Boyd, whose battle cowardice during the Mexican-American war inadvertently results in making him an accidental hero. The ordeal of playing dead under the bleeding corpses of his fellow officers also puts him off meat, as the opening scenes so vividly illustrate. Director Antonia Bird cuts straight to the heart of the situation as she intercuts soldiers devouring bleeding-rare steaks at a military luncheon with the bloody casualties of battle stacked like cordwood: meat is meat, at least as far as this film is concerned. Boyd’s commanding officer (John Spencer of The West Wing), who knows that his valor is a fraud, ships him out to the fringes of military reach: a fort in a California mountain pass, which runs with a minimal compliment during the impassable winter months. “This place thrives on tedium,” smiles fort commander Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), who takes everything with a bemused indulgence. How else to survive a company made up of a useless drunk second-in-command (Stephen Spinella), a giggling weed-head idiot (David Arquette), a twitchy, mumbling chaplain (Jeremy Davies), and a macho soldier boy (Neal McDonough) who holds the rest of the company in utter contempt?

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Oct 30 2014

Videophiled Classic: Halloween Disc Pick – ‘Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut’

NightbreedNightbreed: The Director’s Cut: Special Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut: 3-Disc Limited Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)

Clive Barker’s 1990 film Nightbreed, adapted from his novel Cabal, was taken from Barker’s hands, cut down drastically from his 142-minute rough cut (which made the bootleg rounds in a version called “The Cabal Cut” taken from a video workprint), and released in a form that Barker was never happy with. The release of Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut: Special Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) features a new cut of the film overseen by Barker and restored by Mark Allan Miller, who hunted down the original footage discarded from the rough cut. This is the version that Barker claims as his director’s cut, as he was not given the opportunity for his own final cut before the studio stepped in.

That brief history comes from Barker and Miller themselves in a new video introduction to Scream Factory’s release and it’s clear they are both proud of this release. Morgan Creek, the producing studio, wanted something along the lines of his low-budget Hellraiser. Barker had something else in mind, a celebration of misfits and monsters in a weird story of fear and prejudice filled with Biblical references and mythic resonance. The real monsters of Nightbreed are the humans, especially a psycho psychiatrist named Dr. Philip K. Decker played by filmmaker David Cronenberg with a flat delivery and deadened voice that makes him all the more unnerving. This doc is a real piece of work, drawing his kills from the nightmares of his patients and then framing them for the crimes, but Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is not a normal patient and his visions of a place called Midian aren’t nightmares. They are anticipations of his legacy: he belongs to an ancient race of misfit outsiders considered monsters and banished to an underworld away from humanity.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Oct 28 2014

Videophiled: Hola ‘Companeros’!

Compañeros (Blue Underground, Blu-ray) is an ironic title, but then as a spaghetti western—a genre steeped in mercenaries and con men and double crosses—it would have to be. Swedish gun runner Yodlaf (Franco Nero), in Mexico in the heat of the revolution to sell his weapons to the highest bidder, and hot-headed Mexican peasant turned revolutionary officer Vasco (Tomas Milian in a beret that evokes Che Guevara) are certainly not compañeros by any stretch of the definition. It’s only good timing that prevents Vasco from killing the blue-eyed stranger, and orders from his gun-shy but glory-hungry General that sends him along on a quest to free the idealistic revolutionary leader Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey) from American captivity at Fort Yuma. They make a great screen team, verbally jabbing and prodding one another along the way even when they are forced to rescue one another (left to their druthers, they’d go on alone). Nero plays the witty, worldly cosmopolitan (and, blue eyes and lightly bleached hair aside, the most Mediterranean Swede in the cinema) and Milian the wily survivor, acting on impulse and lobbing insults to his Swedish partner between paeans to his twinkling blue eyes.

Sergio Corbucci is one of the three great Sergios of the spaghetti western (along with Leone and Sollima) and the director of two of the genre’s classics, Django (1966), which made a star of Franco Nero, and the Great Silence (1968). Compañeros (1970) leans into the political arena that Sollima specialized in, using the political chaos and opportunism of the revolution as a volatile cultural backdrop filled with warring factions and freelance mercenaries, while driving the film with capers and cons and capture and escapes. They cross the border, break a prisoner out of an American Fort, and tangle with a dope smoking bounty hunter with a wooden hand and a loyal falcon named Marsha. Jack Palance plays the laconic mercenary John, puffing on joints and smiling a crooked grin as he lazily springs traps and puts his prisoners to sadistic tortures, and his stoner delivery sends the film into a whole realm of weirdness.

Complicating things even more are the (not always clear) conflicts within the revolution, with the grandstanding General Mongo only in it for personal gain and the idealistic Xantos playing the Gandhi of the Mexican Revolution, a pacifist who preaches non-violence while everyone is trying to kill him. That includes the opportunist Mongo, who needs Xantos for his payday but also finds him a threat to his agenda. Sort of. The details are murky, but that’s hardly a problem for a genre all about betrayals and greed. And yet Corbucci, who helped define the the amoral tone of the genre in Django, develops a streak of idealism that builds through the film until it blossoms as a defining theme without any sense of irony or insincerity. While he may not embrace the pacifism of his inspiration Professor, Corbucci certainly respects his integrity, a virtue not always seen in the genre, and presents it without cynicism. And that is quite a feat in a film with a body-count and a mercenary cast of this magnitude. It’s a wily good time with a rousing finish.

Fernando Rey, Karin Schubert and Tomas Milian

The Blu-ray debut features both the American version and the disc debut of the longer Italian cut (with four minutes of additional footage). Both editions, which have been newly mastered from the original negative, offer the choice of English and Italian language soundtracks (the restored scenes to the Italian cut are only in Italian with English subtitles, making them easy to spot). Image quality is great and the DTS-HD Mono soundtracks have that distinctive spaghetti western sound of studio-recorded dialogue and post-synched library sound effects. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack sounds great.

Carried over from the previous DVD release is commentary by film journalists C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke and the 17-minute 2001 interview featurette “In the Company of Companeros” with interviews with stars Franco Nero and Tomas Milian and composer Ennio Morricone.

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