Blu-ray/DVD: Son of Saul

SonofSaulSon of Saul (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) drops the viewer into the horror of the Holocaust with its first images. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Sonderkommando, chosen from the prisoners of a concentration camp to work in the gas chambers, and we are plunged into his crushing routine: moving the prisoners through the dressing rooms, sifting and sorting the belongings after they are locked in the gas chamber, then dragging the bodies out and clearing way for the next group. Serving as a Sonderkommando didn’t save the men from death, it only postponed it, and Saul knows he hasn’t long.

But Son of Saul doesn’t linger on the horror. Rather Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes shoots it entirely in close-up, with a handheld camera uncomfortably close and constantly in motion as it follows Saul through the grind of his routine. We remain locked on Saul throughout the film. Nemes shoots in a squarish format, similar to the pre-widescreen era of movies, with a short lens that keeps only Saul’s face and his immediate orbit in focus. Everything else is blurred and indistinct if not completely out of frame, suggested more than seen. It’s not just to keep us from seeing it clearly, but it suggests his own state of mind: detached out necessity, numb and exhausted, going through the motions of living, focused only on the activity.

Then Saul sees a young boy—perhaps his son, perhaps a boy the same age—who somehow survived the gas chamber. Barely alive, he is smothered by a doctor. Saul’s detachment is broken. It’s the first stranger he has let into his consciousness, that he even really sees, and it becomes his entire world. He is driven to give this boy a proper burial.

Röhrig is not an actor by training—he’s a poet, a filmmaker, and a theologian—and he carries an almost impenetrable expression throughout the film. We can’t know what’s going through his mind, we can only observe his actions, and this new quest changes his bearing. He now moves with purpose, his momentum focused on a goal that risks the success of a planned revolt within the camp. There’s no logic to it, but then reason has no place in such a nightmare.

Son of Saul is an overwhelming, numbing, confusing experience by design. The unmeasurable evil of the Holocaust is beyond explication so Nemes (with screenwriting partner Clara Royer and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély) tries to express a sense of uncertainty and disconnection, an existence where the horrors are a silent scream driven to the margins of consciousness out of pure will (the dense, layered soundtrack hints at what he can’t see) and time dissolves. It is a haunting and devastating attempt to confront an ordeal beyond our ability to truly comprehend.

It won the Academy Award for Foreign Language Feature, Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes, and numerous critics’ awards for Best Foreign Film and Best First Feature.

Blu-ray and DVD, in Hungarian with English subtitles, with commentary by director László Nemes, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, and actor Géza Röhrig.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a Q&A at the Museum of Tolerance with Nemes, Erdély, and Röhrig, and an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.
Son of Saul [DVD]
Son of Saul [Blu-ray]

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray/DVD: The Revenant

RevenantThe Revenant (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K, Digital HD) has been called a revenge movie, which is true enough. Leonardo DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a real-life 19th century mountain man and guide whose story inspired legends, books, and at least one previous film (Man in the Wilderness with Richard Harris). Left for dead by a particularly mercenary member (Tom Hardy) of the hunting party he guides through the mountain wilds, against all odds he literally rises from his grave to pull himself from certain death and claws his way back to what passes for civilization for revenge against the man who murdered his son and buried him alive. Vengeance makes for a primal motivation but The Revenant is really a tale of survival: the settling of America as an odyssey of mythic dimensions in an untamed wilderness determined to kill all who fail to respect it.

It’s 1823 in the still unexplored (by white men at least) frontier and an expedition of fur trappers are on the run after being attacked by a local Indian tribe searching for a maiden abducted by white explorers. The assault is swift and brutal and filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu sends his camera gliding through it in a rush of fluid long takes, a mix of mesmerized observer and panicked victim. Losing their canoes and most of their supplies in their escape, the few survivors have to hike out through the frozen mountains, where Glass is attacked by a mother grizzly bear protecting her cubs. It’s one of the few digital effects in a film that prides itself on its physical realism but it feels disturbingly authentic thanks to DiCaprio’s intense performance and the naturalism of the CGI bear, clearly based on behavioral observations of wild creatures. It’s like a natural history study let loose in a wilderness drama.

Iñárritu is working again with longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki—they both won Oscars for their previous collaboration, Birdman—and their use of graceful unbroken shots in the most grueling and violent scenes combines hyper-realism with a kind of cinematic poetry that is, at its best, at once brutal and sublime. They had to travel to remote locations in Canada and Argentina to find dramatic landscapes and winter snows to match the primal vision and Lubezki shot it almost entirely in natural light. Whether it makes the film more or less realistic is up for discussion, but it does give it a distinctive texture, and Iñárritu makes the case that the physical demands of the production added to the intensity of the performances. It certainly demanded a commitment that comes through in the DiCaprio’s performance.

'The Revenant'

‘The Revenant’

This is the unforgiving, cruel world that Iñárritu has explored all through his career and The Revenant is the most elemental portrait yet, but it also slips into Terrence Malick-like visions of magical realism; one scene ends with the camera following the embers of a campfire into the night sky, where they seem become the stars themselves, while the dead appear as benign visions in the snowy world to push him on. It’s grueling and bloody and majestic and immersive, a film transport theater audiences back hundreds of years. Home video may not have the same power to transport, what with smaller screens and modern-day distractions in your home viewing setting, but the imagery and performances are impressive under any conditions.

Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his Academy Award for Best Actor, Iñárritu won his second directing Oscar in row, and Lubezki won this third Oscar in three years for cinematography.

For all the physical effects and practical locations and insistence on natural light, Iñárritu and Lubezki shot the film on digital cameras. It gives the film a crispness that comes through in the digital HD master.

Blu-ray and DVD with the documentary “A World Unseen,” a 44-minute production that was originally released on YouTube in early 2016 (you can view it below) and a still gallery.
The Revenant [DVD]
The Revenant [Blu-ray]

Also on Cable and Video On Demand and Digital HD purchase.

More new releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Blu-ray/DVD: Only Angels Have Wings

OnlyAngelsBDOnly Angels Have Wings (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – If you love movies, I mean really love the glory of Hollywood moviemaking and star power and the joys of wondrous stories, then you love Howard Hawks. And if you love Howard Hawks, then you must love Only Angels Have Wings (1939), the quintessential Hawks adventure of male bonding and tough love in a world where there may be no tomorrow. If you haven’t fallen for it yet, it may be that you simply have yet to discover it.

Cary Grant is Geoff Carter, the charismatic, uncompromising leader of a fledgling air mail service in a South American port town, a business run on rickety planes and the nerves of its pilots. They call him Papa. He lives out of a bar, never lays in a supply of anything, and never sends a man on a job he wouldn’t do himself. Jean Arthur is Bonnie, the spunky American showgirl with a “specialty act” who gets a crash course in flyboy philosophy when a pair of pilots (Allyn Joslyn and Noah Beery Jr.) swoop in as she steps off a ship docking for supplies. Her first contact with Geoff creates sparks, the kind you get when a runaway car scrapes the wall of an alley. He’s all arrogance and lust when he sends Beery off on a mail run and moves in on Bonnie with a smile like a fox finding a hole in the henhouse. She’s outraged and appalled. Of course they are meant for each other, which is news to Geoff, who’s only interested in the moment and has no use for romantic commitment.

You could substitute any number of professions to make the same point—and Hawks did in other films—but there’s something romantic about these men who love flying so much they take a job at the end of the world just to pit their skill against a treacherous mountain pass in a night fog. And there’s something inviting in the way these men banter and argue and spin tales between jobs yet are ready to spring into action at the first hint of a pilot in trouble. It’s Hawks’ idea of a romantic world, which frankly sidelines women who aren’t actively involved in the team effort, but it welcomes all who embrace the philosophy that professionalism is the greatest measure of character.

Hawks’s adventures were love stories between men and Bonnie’s affable rival for Geoff’s affections is his best friend Kid (Thomas Mitchell), an aging flier with bad eyes who Geoff has to ground. Adding to the tensions is the new pilot (Richard Barthelmess), snubbed by everyone for a past cowardice that got a colleague killer, and his glamorous wife (Rita Hayworth, drop-dead sexy in her first major role), who has history with Geoff. Movies are built on such small world coincidences. The magic of Hawks is the way he turns contrivance into community and plot twists into tests of character.

Community is the key. Hawks had always been a master at male friendship in all its camaraderie, competition, loyalty, and sacrifice, and at romance that blossoms from conflict and clashing wills. Here he creates a society with its own rules and in Jean Arthur’s Bonnie, he offers a woman who is accepted into the brotherhood on both their terms and hers. He’s served by a marvelous screenplay by Jules Furthman (Hawks reportedly penned the story himself, based on things he’d seen and pilots he’d known), a piece of pulp fiction poetry and adventure story mythologizing filled with figures who are both dramatic points and beautifully sculpted characters. The dialogue is alive with wit and wiles and truths hidden in banter and metaphors, and the cast delivers it in volleys that collide and overlap.

It may seem crazy that this tropical adventure tale of independent flyboys in a South American port hauling the mail over the Andes is shot entirely in Hollywood (a few aerial scenes to the contrary). Even the exteriors are basically wrapped in muslin, which gives the film a strangely claustrophobic quality even when it isn’t smothered in fog. Even the Andes pass, where a lone radioman reports on the mercurial weather conditions, is more of an illustration from a Gothic German fairy tale (or the most lavish Guy Maddin set ever) than any realistic location. Yet the Hollywood-constructed fantasy of an American outpost and makeshift airfield chopped out of the jungle makes a fabulous backdrop, a fantasy yes, but also an insular, rarified world where life is lived minute to minute, men are good enough, and the highest compliment one can receive is “professional.” Welcome, professional!

The film has been on DVD and Blu-ray before. Criterion’s edition is mastered from a 4K digital transfer from the original 35mm negative. You might think that such clarity would lay bare the seams of the Hollywood artifice but the opposite is true: the rich detail of the sets and settings are a sight to behold in the cleanest, clearest, sharpest presentation I have ever seen.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions both feature a new interview with film critic David Thomson, who offers a crash course introduction to the art and themes of Hawks (it runs about 17 minutes), the new 20-minute program “Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies” with film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, and excerpts from Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 interviews with Howard Hawks (audio only, about 19 minutes), plus the 1939 “Lux radio Theatre” adaptation of the film with stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess, and Thomas Mitchell all reprising their roles, and the trailer. The fold-out insert features an essay by Michael Sragow.

Blu-ray/DVD: Kathleen Collins’ ‘Losing Ground’ rediscovered and restored

LosingGroundLosing Ground (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) – If you’ve never heard of American playwright and filmmaker Kathleen Collins, don’t feel bad. At least not for yourself. Collins succumbed to cancer in 1988 at the age of 46 after completing just one feature. The independently-made Losing Ground (1982) was produced before the American Indie film culture established itself with the successes of Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Wang, the Coen Bros. and others. It played a few screenings but never received any real distribution or a theatrical run and remained unknown outside of scholarly circles for decades. You can feel bad that the film never received the recognition it deserved in Collins’ lifetime but better to celebrate its revival and rediscovery.

Losing Ground is one of the first features directed by an African-American woman. That alone makes it worthy of attention but Collins proves to be an intelligent, insightful, and nuanced filmmaker. She tells the story of Sara Rogers (Seret Scott), a professor of philosophy at a New York City college, and her husband Victor (Bill Gunn, director of Ganja & Hess), a painter who is suddenly compelled to reconnect with his art on a more immediate, passionate level. When he decides to move out of the city to get in touch with his muse with a summer sublet of a gorgeous rural home, Sara’s objections mean little. She has no say in the matter, a sign that things are not well in their marriage. So while he searches for his ecstasy (and finds it in a young Latina he finds dancing in the streets), she decides to find hers by acting in a student film.

Ecstasy is the operative term here. Sara is writing a scholarly study on the origins of ecstasy in religion and art but there is precious little of it in her own well-ordered existence, a life of ideas and scholarship and intellectual pursuits, while Victor is all about aesthetics and expression. Victor’s journey is authentic and his drive to find his voice authentic—Collins communicates his passion beautifully and the color seems to explode on the screen as we see his new world through his artist’s eye. He just fails (or perhaps refuses) to take into account his wife’s journey. After all, art is more pure than knowledge in his self-centered odyssey, an attitude that begins driving her away.

The racial and sexual politics are present—even Sara’s philosophy students think of her in terms of her relationship to her husband—but more importantly this is a portrait of committed professionals facing the limits of defining oneself through what you do instead of who you are. And as Sara begins that discovery in front of a student film camera, acting out a fantasia of life as a vaudeville dancer with a flirtatious and charming actor (Duane Jones of the original Night of the Living Dead), Victor isn’t prepared for her self-discovery. It’s a film of conversation and argument, of relationships and self-knowledge, and its sexual politics are as sophisticated as its personal odysseys.

The film was shot in 16mm by Ronald K. Gray, a filmmaker in his own right and Collins’ co-producer, and Milestone’s restoration shows the rough, textured grain of the small-gauge format, as well as the saturated colors and documentary immediacy; the textures suggest news reportage and experimental cinema as well as indie moviemaking of the seventies and eighties. Milestone presents the home video debut of the film with a generous collection of supplements to provide context.

The 50-minute The Crux Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), directed by Collins and produced by Ronald Gray (mastered for disc in HD), and Gray’s 1976 student film Transmagnifican Dambamuality are presented on the second disc of the two-disc set, along with an archival interview with Collins conducted in 1982 and new (and very substantial) video interviews with Gray, actress Serena Scott, and Collins’ daughter Nina Lorez Collins, who supervised the restoration. The film itself features commentary by professor Lamonda Horton Stallings and Terri Francis.

More new releases at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

StarWarsForceStar Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – J.J. Abrams takes over the reins of the Star Wars franchise with what is technically a sequel (“Chapter VII: The Force Awakens”) but is just as much a course correction, a reboot, and a return to the source. It’s been called a shameless remake of the original Star Wars and refreshing return to the innocence and energy and pulpy fun that first entranced a generation of fans. I lean toward the latter, but even for those who find it rehash, I would point out that The Force Awakens is not aimed at the adult fans who grew up on the original trilogy all those decades ago. I’m one of those who saw the film on its first run and was thrilled by it. I think that Abrams is trying to recreate that experience for a whole new generation eager to be captured by the charge and action and exotic Amazing Stories covers come to life in a fairy tale space fantasy that takes place long ago and a galaxy far, far away…

To that end, this installment (set 30 years after Return of the Jedi) picks up with another scrappy kid from a desert planet who finds a runaway robot with secret plans and escapes from the resurgence of the Republic with a hunk of junk ship that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon, teams up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are still smuggling and scamming through way through the galaxy well past retirement age, and joins the resistance under the command of Leia (Carrie Fisher). This time, however, the kid with the essence of the force within is a spunky, inventive young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her running buddy is a former Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) who goes AWOL after his first mission, which turns into a pitiless massacre of innocents.

The echoes with the original Star Wars are unmistakable to any fan; there’s a bar filled with mercenary alien types (which Abrams creates largely with old-school make-up and masks), an even bigger and badder Death Star, a masked Darth Vader acolyte (Adam Driver as Kylo Ren) who leads the new Imperial army with the help of the dark side of the force, and yes, those plans reveal the weakness in the new planet-killing weapon. Abrams is clearly devoted to recapturing not just the mythology and style of Lucas’ original trilogy but the innocence and energy and fun. After trying to steer the Star Trek prequels into the Star Wars universe, he’s found the right vehicle for his instincts. But while he honors the original, he adds (with the help of co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan, who scripted Empire and Return of the Jedi for Lucas, and Michael Arndt, who scripted Toy Story 3) some terrific touches and colors of his own.

The cast is far more inclusive than Lucas’ films, starting with our next generation heroes Rey, a capable and fearless young woman, and Finn, a young black man whose conscience pushes him to find courage he didn’t know he had. Oscar Isaac charges in as smart-talking flyboy and charismatic rebel hero Poe Dameron and leaves you wanting more (we’re sure to see more of him in future films). The roly-poly BB-8 is a delightful creation that rethinks the robot paradigm with both practical innovation and creative playfulness. And all those fabulous planetary landscapes and alien skies recall the wonder of Lucas’ visions without simply rehashing them.

So yes, there is a familiarity to it. This isn’t a rethinking of the space opera and Abrams doesn’t try to take the Star Wars universe into a more mature direction. But perhaps that is as it should be. We’ve already got comic book movies trying to rework the superhero mythos for adult audiences. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is aimed at the child within us all.

On Blu-ray and DVD with a superb transfer. The three-disc Blu-ray edition features the 69-minute “Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey,” which chronicles the production from the development of the story through filming, and a collection of shorter featurettes, all under ten minutes apiece. “Crafting Creatures,” “Building BB-8,” “Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight,” and “ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force” are production pieces that take the viewers into the creation of key scenes and special effects. “John Williams: The Seventh Symphony” looks at the composer who defined the music of the series from the first film. “The Story Awakens: The Table Read” features only brief excerpts from the first table read with the entire cast in a four-minute piece and there are six deleted scenes.

Also includes bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens [Blu-ray]
Star Wars: The Force Awakens [DVD]
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Plus Bonus Features) [Digital HD]

Blu-ray Classics: John Huston’s WWII documentaries, ‘The Vikings,’ ‘Passage to Marseilles’

LetThereBeLightLet There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.

You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.

Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.

All four films were shot on 16mm and were not well preserved so there is evident damage and wear. The Blu-ray and DVD editions also feature a 26-minute documentary, raw footage from San Pietro, and Shades of Gray (1948), a remake of Let There Be Light with actors recreating scenes from the documentary and the dark corners of Huston’s film replaced with a sunnier portrait of the returning soldier.

These are important pieces of World War II history and the most radical documentaries produced during the war.

VikingsThe timing is good for the Blu-ray debut of the 1958 The Vikings (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD), the splashy Hollywood adventure that launched a wave of Viking movies through the 1960s, with the History Channel series Vikings a cable hit and the BBC America The Last Kingdom reaching back to the history of the Norsemen.

Set in the middle ages, when the Vikings pillaged the English coast, The Vikings is barbarian fantasy, with Kirk Douglas playing the lusty Viking Prince Einar, the “only son in wedlock” of King Ragnar (a cackling, wild-eyed Ernest Borgnine) and Tony Curtis as his defiant slave Eric, who is in reality the long-lost heir to the British throne. Douglas is too old for the boy prince role and Curtis is unconvincing as an action hero but makes the prettiest slave boy in the movies, and their combined star power overcomes their miscasting. With jagged scars down his face and a milky white blind eye that almost glows in his skull, Douglas has a rowdy time as he kidnaps a Welsh Princess (Janet Leigh) betrothed to the King of England and battles the defiant Eric who rescues her from the Viking clutches and sneaks her back to England with the help of a primitive compass.

It’s pure Hollywood hokum, with the Vikings reduced to pagan cartoon barbarians who make sport of terrorizing women and take pride in the torture and murder—the fact that Janet Leigh’s character lives in constant threat of sexual assault makes for uneasy viewing when the film plays it as some kind of “Taming of a Shrew” situation—but it is spectacular hokum. The great cinematographer Jack Cardiff turns his Norway locations into a lush Valhalla on Earth and journeyman director Richard Fleischer, faced with an absurd story, goes for the gusto in brawling Viking parties, furious sieges, and clanging broadsword battles. The sexual politics are barbaric to say the least, and borderline jawdropping as the film walks a fine line between playing the sexual threat for lusty humor and making it a genuine danger, but it is colorful, energetic, and hearty, with star power to burn. It was enormous hit and it spawned a huge wave of Viking movies, some perhaps smarter but none as much fun, and has become a cult movie in its own right.

PassageMarseillesThe 1944 wartime drama Passage to Marseilles (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) reunites Humphrey Bogart with his Casablanca director Michael Curtiz and co-stars Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre in a production that packs a lot of genres into a single film. Opening on an air force squadron of Free French fighters hidden in the countryside, it segues into a sea drama, a prison escape thriller, a war film, and during a brief deck brawl something approaching a pirate film, all nestled into the storyline through flashbacks and plot twists. Bogart’s story takes us to pre-war Marseilles, where his crusading newspaper publisher takes on the rise of Fascism and is framed for murder by his enemies, and to Devil’s Island where he meets his fellow patriots.

This is shameless wartime propaganda, a rousing call to arms to free Europe from the Nazis and the turncoat collaborators (all of whom are presented as martinets with Fascist sympathies from the beginning), but is also enormously entertaining and action-packed. And for fans of Hollywood storytelling tricks, this films features the rare treat of a flashback within a flashback nestled within yet another flashback. Curtiz and cinematographer James Wong Howe create the world of the film, from Devil’s Island to a cargo freighter on the high seas, entirely in the studio. Howe’s cinematography is gorgeous, creating a sense of shadowy menace in the flashbacks, and it looks superb in the film’s Blu-ray debut.

Includes the supplements featured on the earlier DVD release, including the Oscar-nominated short Jammin’ the Blues featuring Lester Young and other jazz greats of the forties, a collection featuring a newsreel, short subject, cartoon, and trailers from 1944, and a Warner Bros. studio blooper reel.

More Blu-ray classics at Cinephiled

Blu-ray / DVD: Oscar winner ‘The Big Short’ and Guy Maddin’s ‘Forbidden Room’

Big ShortThe Big Short (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Adam McKay is not necessarily the guy you look to for dramatic outrage at the greed and failure behind the economic collapse of the last decade. He is, after all, the director who guided Will Ferrell through such comedies as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys. Yet here he is, adapting Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book on the reasons behind the financial collapse and coming away with a hit movie, five Academy Award nominations, and an Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Charles Randolph).

The Big Short is serious and angry. It’s also very funny, which is its secret weapon. What’s a subprime mortgage? Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it to you. Need to explain what a CBO is without driving audiences away? How about Selena Gomez at a casino?

In the hands of McKay and his co-conspirators, the financial fraud of the 2000s is nothing short of a criminal farce with dire consequences. For us, that is, not the folks who perpetrated the crisis out of greed, criminal neglect, and reckless abandon. In this company of thieves and accomplices, the heroes of this story are a few men who saw through the façade and proceeded to bet against the house. They are, of course, outliers with idiosyncrasies.

Christian Bale is Dr. Michael Burry, a genius on the autism spectrum who doesn’t get sarcasm and fights anxiety with death metal. Steve Carell is Mark Baum, the outraged, angry head of a small investment team whose social skills are only slightly better than Burry’s. Brad Pitt is Ben Rickert, a disillusioned trader intrigued by the findings of two young guys (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) with a private investment fund. These guys, independently of one another, figured out that the so-called Triple AAA mortgage bonds were built on a foundation of ready to collapse at the first tremor of panic.

Ryan Gosling is the junior Gordon Gekko who narrates the story and provides color commentary with a cynical wit. A slick suit with a feral bloodlust for money, he’s not like these outsiders who, to some degree or another, are appalled at the degree of corruption and lack of accountability they discover in their respective campaigns of due diligence. He’s just a man who smells profit and signs up for his share, but it also makes him an effective master of ceremonies. He’s got no illusions to be shattered, which makes his incredulity all the more effective.

BigShort

Let’s be clear: the characters of The Big Short are constructs with no dimension beyond their surface quirks and McKay, who has the chops for ensemble comedy and visual humor, hasn’t any idea how to stage or shoot a dramatic scene. This isn’t a film so much as an illustrated screenplay sustained by screen personalities and directorial momentum.

Given that, The Big Short is the film that we needed at this time. Its star power alone brings in folks who wouldn’t think of watching a documentary, and the jumpy pace and steady laughs are just the thing to pull viewers through the arcane details of the investment business to understand how it fell apart. At least in its broad strokes. You may not remember all the economic details once the film is over but you should come away with a sense of outrage, a checklist of those responsible, and a realization that the marketplace is not some pure self-correcting financial ecosystem but a free-for-all built on greed, faith, blind obedience, ignorance, and a disturbing lack of accountability. That the film has you laughing instead of crying is bonus.

The Blu-ray edition includes five featurettes and bonus copies of the film on DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD.

ForbiddenRoomThe Forbidden Room (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, Netflix) – Canadian iconoclast Guy Maddin has been making strange, surreal films that evoke the images and storytelling traditions of silent movies for decades. The Forbidden Room (2015), which he co-directed with his former student Evan Johnson, is like a compendium of his obsessions and cinematic fetishes. It opens on a mock-instructional film on “How to Take a Bath,” shifts to a submarine trapped at the bottom of the sea where a lumberjack (Roy Dupuis) inexplicably appears, shifts to his story of a feral forest adventure and a damsel in distress, who finds herself transported to an exotic nightclub out of an old Hollywood movie, and so on.

The film arose from a project called “Séances,” a museum installation at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris where he “remade” lost films and unfinished projects from the silent and early sound era. The Forbidden Room, partly shot concurrently with that project, is a collection of scenes and movie clichés reworked with campy exaggeration and absurd, cartoonish twists. Shot on a minimal budget, with a production design that favors ingenuity and creativity and a cast that includes such major European actors as Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, and recent Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling (some of them in multiple roles), it has a whimsical, absurdist sense of humor. The actors engage in the exaggerated performance style of silent movie melodramas and comedies and Maddin digitally “ages” his films with scuffs and scratches and cracks and even distorted frames as if they were from decaying nitrate prints from the 1920s. Those distortions are given a life of their own with his digital tools and even become cinematic devices of their own, morphing from one image to another as if released by the ghosts of early cinema.

The result is something that defies explanation, let alone description. Maddin make no effort to make sense of any of it, or even worry about any kind of dramatic closure. It’s all about the texture, the weirdness, the quality of the cinematic moment. This is not for audiences who demand story and character and narrative logic. But if you can put expectations aside and lose yourself in the ravishing dreamscapes and absurd situations that Maddin creates on his tiny stages with his mad collaborators, you’ll discover a cinematic experience like no other.

Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, two featurettes, and a bonus short, plus a booklet.

More new release at Cinephiled

Blu-ray Noir: ‘Gilda,’ ‘Sidewalk,’ and an encore for ‘The Big Heat’

BigHeat_BD_EncoreThe Big Heat (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.

Directed by Fritz Lang on a modest budget, the 1953 crime drama stars Glenn Ford as the workaday family-man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil. The lean narrative drive builds a real head of steam as the private vendetta of revenge turns Ford into a real bastard only brought back to Earth by the kindness and courage of others touched by the same evil.

Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. Even the back gate of a wrecking yard looks more like a theatre piece than a slice of down-and-out life. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.

Twilight Time originally released the film a couple of years back in a limited edition of 3000 copies and it had been out of print for some time. This is one of the few titles to get an “Encore Edition,” with 3000 more copies, and this edition includes additional supplements: new commentary by Twilight Time’s house team of film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, plus video introductions by Martin Scorsese (6 minutes, carried over from the “Columbia Film Noir Classics” DVD box set) and Michael Mann (11 minutes).

It features the superb high-definition master from the original Blu-ray release—the image is sharp and rich, with deep blacks and textured shadows, a reminder of just how beautiful black-and-white can be on a well-mastered, well-produced Blu-ray—and the isolated score, attributed to Columbia’s musical director Mischa Bakaleinikof but including musical cues from the studio’s music library, plus a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Also note the new cover, a reference to a key moment in the film that will draw knowing nods from anyone who has ever seen it.

GildaBDRita Hayworth is at her most iconic as the forties sex-bomb in Gilda (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), a 1946 film noir classic co-starring Glenn Ford as Johnny Farrell, an American tough guy in Buenos Aires, and George Macready as Ballin Mundson, the owner of a nightclub and illegal casino who hires Johnny as his club manager. Just as in Casablanca, another Hollywood melodrama of an American tough guy abroad during the war, the gambling room is hidden in the back room of the nightclub and is pretty much an open secret. “Gambling and woman don’t mix,” is the owner’s motto, which is just fine with Johnny, who makes himself Mundson’s right hand man. Then Mundson breaks the pact when he returns from a trip with a glamorous wife.

Rita Hayworth’s entrance is pure Hollywood starcraft: a perfectly lit close-up as she whips her head into frame, her hair lashing back and revealing her bright face and wide, mischievous grin. It turns out that Johnny and Gilda have history and Gilda makes a point of flaunting her indiscretions in front of Johnny, who does his best to keep them hidden from Mundsen. There’s a criminal plot involving a monopoly on Tungsten and German investors who may be Nazi criminals in hiding (apart from a headline reading “German Surrenders,” there’s no mention of the war) but the drama revolves around the sexual tension and vicious punishments they inflict on one another. Hayworth plays the prowling sex kitten, slinking around the dance floor, laughing with a new pretty boy on her arm, even performing a symbolic striptease on the nightclub floor while singing “Put the Blame on Mame,” and Ford is younger and leaner and meaner than we’re used to, which makes him a little unpredictable.

The sexual indiscretions are suggested rather than shown but director Charles Vidor is quite forthright in his suggestions, and they they are ultimately denied in contrived happy ending that contradicts everything leading up to it. Which is not uncommon for Hollywood films of the era, which often turned on a dime to placate the production code. This is one of the most suggestive films of the era—not just for Gilda’s seductive taunts and frequent (offscreen) trysts but for the way Johnny competes with Gilda for Johnny’s favor—and the emotional violence between Johnny and Gilda still draws symbolic blood.

Previously released on DVD by Sony, it makes its Criterion debut is a gorgeous transfer with a new interview with film noir historian and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller and an archival 1964 made-for-TV documentary “Hollywood and the Stars: The Odyssey of Rita Hayworth,” plus (carried over from the earlier DVD) observant commentary by film critic and historian Richard Schickel and a video introduction by Martin Scorsese and Baz Lurhmann. The booklet features an essay by Sheila O’Malley.

WhereSidewalkTTOtto Preminger’s Where The Sidewalk Ends (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) reunites the stars from his breakthrough film Laura (1944), the most elegant of early film noirs, for a more streetwise cop drama with a bare-knuckle attitude. Dana Andrews is Det. Mark Dixon, an angrier version of his Laura character (also a police detective named Mark) who takes out his resentment for his criminal father on the hoodlums, thieves, and gangsters he sweeps off the streets. When he accidentally kills a suspect—a former war hero who has already been framed for murder by smarmy crime boss Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill)—and covers up the crime, Mark’s unstable moral high ground gives way. Gene Tierney is the wife of Mark’s victim, a clothing model who has separated from the sleazy guy and moved in with her dad (Tom Tully), and guilt starts eating Mark alive when his actions throw suspicion on Tierney’s protective father.

Andrews was one of Preminger’s favorite actors for that ability to walk the tightrope between American forthrightness and over-the-edge darkness. That chiseled face made him convincing as both a working class cop and a master of industry and paired nicely with Tierney’s sculptured features: scar tissue and smooth glamour brought together by violence. The script, written by Ben Hecht, plays with the idea that it takes the overly-passionate (and borderline psychotic?) cops like Mark to take on Scalise. His new boss, a by-the-book commander played by Karl Malden, is committed but lacks imagination and insight and Merrill’s Scalise is certainly imaginative, or at the very least opportunistic. Standing out in the supporting cast is Craig Stevens, a decade away from Peter Gunn, sweating cheap, desperate charm as Tierney’s heel of a husband and veteran character actress Ruth Donnelly as a diner matron with a sharp tongue and a warm heart. Her affection of Mark helps us see the better angels of his nature.

Preminger shoots largely on studio sets, the better to sculpt his version of night in the city, and sets the climax in a parking garage with a car elevator that he uses to superb effect. All that heavy machinery becomes something akin to weaponry under noir conditions.

It’s previously been on DVD from Fox Video. Twilight Time’s edition offers a superb Blu-ray debut, with a sharp image and rich contrasts. Film noir historian Eddie Muller’s commentary, originally recorded for the DVD, is carried over for this edition, and as with all Twilight Time releases, it features an isolated score and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo, and is limited to 3000 copies.

Blu-ray / DVD: Jacques Rivette’s ‘Paris Belongs to Us’

ParisBelongsParis Belongs to Us (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Jacques Rivette’s 1961 debut feature, makes its U.S. home video debut in a Criterion edition, which is fitting for a founding brother of the French nouvelle vague and frankly about time for Criterion. It’s their first Rivette release and comes after Blu-ray releases of Le Pont du Nord (1981) and both versions of Out 1 (1971) from Kino Lorber. I call that a good start for the least appreciated filmmaker of that loose band of brothers (and one sister, Agnes Varda).

Familiar Rivette themes and fascinations are present from this very first feature. Anne (Betty Schneider), a small town girl in Paris for school, gets involved in a theater group led by the passionate but broke Gérard (Giani Esposito), whose rehearsals for “Pericles” have to keep finding new spaces as cast members drop out, and is introduced to vague, vast, international conspiracy by American-in-exile Philip (Daniel Crohem), a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist fleeing the blacklist and sliding into paranoia, alcoholism, and self-pity. He’s not just paranoid, he’s given up, content to lob cynical comments at pretentious parties with fellow writers and artists and then take refuge in his hovel of a room with the willing blonde Danish model next door. It’s as if he’s escaped McCarthyism convinced that it’s part of a global master plan. Anne’s older brother Pierre (François Maistre) has some connection to this group of artists, and perhaps the conspiracy itself, while Terry (Françoise Prévost), a glamorous American who lived with a Spanish composer and political activist named Juan who committed suicide before the film began, has since attached herself to Gérard and hovers around it all. The film hopscotches around Paris (some of the rehearsal spaces are marvelous little pockets hidden in the city) and the story kind of spirals in around itself.

There’s an intent seriousness to Paris Belongs to Us (and his sophomore feature, The Nun) that Rivette largely leaves behind with his subsequent features, which incorporate puzzles and a sense of play in his engagement with his conspiracies taht are less paranoid fears than literary themes escaped into the real world. Paris Belongs to Us, in contrast, is graver and a sense of despair takes over the artists and intellectuals who gather at parties to mourn the latest suicide of a colleague. The title itself is sourly ironic given the paranoia, the disappointment, the conspiracies, even the theatrical endeavor that, after struggling to find any stability, is smothered by its acceptance into the “legitimate” theater. Even the atmosphere (at least outside of the theater rehearsals, where a spirit of creativity remains) seems to breed disillusionment, with gray, overcast skies and chilly days. Paris does not belong to them at all. It belongs to the powerful, not the dreamers, and they powerful crush the spirits of the artists and idealists. Rivette’s attitudes evolved into something more hopeful even in the face of death in his later films.

Perhaps that’s why Rivette changed the way he made films later in the decade. Paris Belongs to Us is tightly scripted and directed. Out 1 and Celine and Julie Go Boating also engage in theater, conspiracies, obsessions, and playing detective to unravel a mystery, but they were launched with outlines rather than scripts, written along the way with the actors shaping the characters and suggesting the direction of the story. Films are collaborative efforts under any circumstances but Rivette clearly found his inspiration in greater collaboration, and the creative abandon of his later films have a more playful spirit and optimistic approach.

Yet for all the disillusionment of Paris Belongs to Us, there is a spirit of creativity and an existential sense of mystery. Why are the cops chasing Philip? Why has the tape of Juan’s guitar music gone missing, and what’s on it? What is Pierre’s part in all this? What exactly is this vast conspiracy? Schneider brings a spirit of curiosity and innocence to this little society that, for all its intellectual and artistic bonafides, is stuck in self-observation, and her detective work gives the film momentum. It’s a shame she did not continue on as an actress.

It should have been one of the first feature from the group of critics-turned-filmmakers—it was shot in 1958—but wasn’t released until 1961 for various reasons. By then the nouvelle vague had become defined by the fresh, spirited lyrical realism of Truffaut and the genre-busting and narrative experimentation of Godard and Rivette’s film, in many ways a reflection on the end of the fifties, looked decidedly conventional. Which is most certainly is not. It’s an accomplished, engaging, fascinating portrait of Paris at the end of the 1950s as the arts seem mired in tradition and political and social energy is suppressed at all levels. It’s interesting to see Rivette at the beginning, of course, but it is also engaging to see a different kind of cinematic rebellion, one that indicts the culture itself for its conservatism and fear of new ideas and innovation, the very thing that the nouvelle vague brought with a vengeance. Rivette captures the culture that the nouvelle vague rebelled against.

It’s also fun to go cameo spotting. Among the guests in the opening party scene are Claude Chabrol and Rivette himself, Jean-Luc Godard is a man at a sidewalk café interviewed by Anne, and Jacques Demy is also supposed be in the film (though I did not spot him myself).

Betty Schneider and Jean-Luc Godard in 'Paris Belongs to Us'
Betty Schneider and Jean-Luc Godard in ‘Paris Belongs to Us’

Criterion presents the US home video debut of the film in a new 2K digital restoration mastered from the original camera negative. Presented in the old Academy ratio of 1.37:1, it’s like a throwback to classic movies with a modern sensibility. It looks lovely, capturing the often shadowy, overcast atmosphere of his Paris, but you may also notice grit and artifacts in some shots, elements that disappear at the next cut. Just as the new restoration of Rivette’s Out 1 (released stateside by Kino earlier this year), the folks behind this version remain true to the restorer’s job, which is to come as close to possible returning the film to the same state as its day one premiere. These imperfections reflect the realities of its production and whether or not Rivette would have removed them had he the technology at the time, it’s not up to the engineers and restoration producers to second guess him. Curiously, it’s the only part of the production that shows its low-budget, independent origins. The images are lovely, clearly carefully composed and beautifully shot by Charles L. Bitsch (who went on to become an assistant director for Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean-Pierre Melville).

The Blu-ray and DVD feature Rivette’s 1956 short Le coup du berger, which stars Jean-Claude Brialy and features appearances by his fellow film critics (and future nouvelle vague filmmakers) Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut, and an interview with critic and historian Richard Neupert.

TV on Disc: ‘Show Me a Hero,’ ‘Mr. Robot,’ ’12 Monkeys,’ and the rest of the best of recent TV on disc

Show Me a Hero (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD), a six-hour HBO miniseries developed by David Simon (The Wire) and William F. Zorzi from the non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin and directed by Paul Haggis (with a subtlety and nuance I didn’t know he had in him), stars Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko, a city councilman who became the mayor of Yonkers in 1988 with an anti-public housing campaign at a time when resentment to the court-ordered low income housing was so fierce it bordered on hysteria.

A drama on public housing policy and city politics may not sound like the makings of compelling drama but Show Me a Hero showcases what Simon does best: exploring real-life events and issues through a dramatic lens that puts politics, economics, and social justice in personal terms.

Wasicsko runs an underdog campaign against a five-term incumbent by riding the wave of anger over the city’s “capitulation” to the court (after delaying for years through failed appeals). When the last of the appeals is rejected, Wasicsko resigns himself to the inevitable but the middle- and working-class white population that elected him sees it as a betrayal of their support and he suddenly finds himself in the impossible position of negotiating a deal that will pass the city council and meet the legal obligation, or face crippling contempt fines that could bankrupt the city in a month. He does the right thing for the city and is punished for it, destroyed by the very anger he stoked to get elected. The politics of denial drives the city elections and the city council meetings for years to come.

Sound like any political culture we know?

While Wasicsko is at the center of the story, he is only one character in an expansive canvas that encompasses not just the politicians but the white homeowners resisting change (Catherine Keener, whose bedrock civility gets carried away by the mob passions) and the folks struggling to make a life for themselves in the crime-ridden projects, from a health-care worker going blind from diabetes (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) to a single mother from the Dominican Republic whose best option is leave her children back in the DR while she supports them from Yonkers. The superb cast also includes Bob Balaban, Jim Belushi, Jon Bernthal, Alfred Molina, Peter Riegert, and Winona Ryder.

The tragedy evoked in the show’s title (the complete quote by F. Scot Fitzgerald is “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”) is Wasicsko’s obsessive quest to get back into elected office. While others are able to accept change and evolve their understanding, Wasicsko becomes a political junkie who needs the affirmation of election and he betrays friends and former colleagues along the way.

Simply put, this is one of the best TV productions of 2015 and a startlingly relevant portrait of the politics of anger and opposition at all costs.

And don’t skip the end credits: pictures of the real-life people are shown side-by-side with the actors, a reminder that this fiction comes from real life.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions include the featurette “Making Show Me a Hero,” somewhat misleadingly described as “an extended look at the series’ production” but is, at just over six minutes, more promotional short than documentary.

MrRobotS1Mr. Robot: Season One (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) – “There’s a powerful group of people out there who are secretly running the world.”

Rami Malek, who has given impressive performances in small roles for years, takes the lead in this cerebral conspiracy drama as Elliot, an intense, socially awkward hacker who works for a computer security outfit by day and metes out justice by night. It may make him sound like a superhero but Elliot is emotionally troubled and unstable, self-medicating to keep his equilibrium and spying on everyone in his life to discover their secrets. He’s recruited by a cabal of revolutionary hackers called fsociety, led by an enigmatic anarchist known as “Mr. Robot” (played by Christian Slater) to hack a powerful corporation known as Evil Corp and erase the debts of millions of citizens. Portia Doubleday is his professional colleague and best friend, bonded by a shared tragedy, Carly Chaikin a fellow hacker whose true identity is revealed in one of the show’s great twists, and Gloria Reuben (E.R.) his concerned therapist, one of the few people that Elliot genuinely cares about (which he expresses in his own destructive way).

It has an element of science fiction but it’s more of a conspiracy thriller viewed from the perspective of a schizophrenic hero, whose dryly witty narration reveals his tormented mind. He’s paranoid and has hallucinations and the series keeps us locked in his perspective, slowly sorting out what’s real from what’s in his head. The series, created by relative newcomer Sam Esmail, borrows from Fight Club and V for Vendetta(among other films and pop-culture artifacts) but takes the portrait of corporate power, cyber-crime, and grass-roots activists as anarchist hackers into unexpected directions. It earned rave reviews during its summer season debut and won two Golden Globes. A second series is scheduled for summer 2016 on USA.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a featurette and deleted scenes.

12MonkeysThe SyFy original series 12 Monkeys: Season One(Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) takes the premise of the 1995 Terry Gilliam time travel film of the same name (which was, in turn, inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 experimental shortLa Jetée) and springs off into a sprawling story that ricochets through a timeline that gets rewritten along the way.

In the movie, Bruce Willis is a time-traveler from a post-apocalyptic future trying to stop a plague that will kill most of humanity. In the series, Aaron Stanford (Pyro in the X-Menmovies) takes over the Willis role as time-travelling agent James Cole and Amanda Schull is Dr. Cassandra Railly, a virologist who overcomes her skepticism and becomes his partner in 2015. The series opens much like the film does, with Cole tracking the brief clues and landing in an asylum to find the meaning of the mysterious “Army of the 12 Monkeys,” then expands beyond the film with a complicated conspiracy involving black ops labs, biological weapons, an ancient plague, and a mysterious assassin known as “The Witness” (played by Tom Noonan) determined to unleash a killer virus upon the world.

This Cole enters as a seemingly unstable character but soon loses his schizophrenic edges (he ostensibly gets used to the physical and mental shock of time travel) and becomes a focused, committed professional. Taking over the madness duties is Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines, the daughter of a calculating corporate conspirator (Zeljko Ivanek, playing another of his icy villains) who dumps her in an asylum. Kirk Acevedo (a veteran of Fringe, another series with shifting realities) is Cole’s best friend turned nemesis (which is one of the show’s least convincing twists) and German actress Barbara Sukowa (a veteran of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s company) is the scientific genius keeping the machine working in the future.

It’s a part of the new wave of ambitious SyFy original shows and it has fun playing with the shifting timelines (each jump opens by identifying the year) and conundrums and filling out the bleak future (left largely unexplored in the film) where marauding gangs prey upon survivors and sabotage the scientists trying to save the past and create a new future. In terms of ambition and creativity, it falls somewhere betweenContinuum, another high-concept SyFy series built around time travel, and the superior Fringe.

12 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with deleted scenes, auditions, webisodes, and a gag reel. The second season begins on SyFy in April.

UnrealS1UnREAL: Season One (Lifetime, DVD), an acidic satire of reality TV created for the Lifetime Network, is set behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like show (here called Everlasting). Constance Zimmer is Quinn King, the manipulative producer who engineers conflict to manufacture the kind of showy drama that gets ratings, and Shiri Appleby is production assistant Rachel Goldberg, Quinn’s star protégé. Nobody is better at that kind of mind games and psychological manipulation than Rachel and it makes her miserable.

That pretty much sets the stage for everything that happens behind the scenes of the contrived dating show, in which a dozen or so contestants compete for a handsome young British bachelor (Freddie Stroma), the show’s shallow, self-involved Prince Charming and heir to a hotel fortune. But while there is a catty competitiveness between the women, the real drama is behind the camera where Quinn and her team conspire to bring out the worst behavior in the contestants. Created by Marti Noxon (a veteran writer-producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, andGlee) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (a war-scarred veteran of the real The Bachelor), it’s less a parody of reality TV than a savvy, scathing satire of the culture that feeds the genre. It also takes on issues of sexism and the position of women professionals in the entertainment industry, all with the same black humor and lively clash of personalities. It was voted one of the 10 best shows of 2015 by the AFI. A second season is slated for summer 2016.

10 episodes on two discs on DVD.

downton6Downton Abbey: Season 6 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is the final run for the BBC series that revived the Upstairs Downstairs melodrama of the families living on inherited wealth and the servants who work for them as a portrait of a culture going extinct in the 1920s. It became a phenomenon in both Britain and the U.S., where it became the most popular show on PBS, and won multiple Emmy Awards and Golden Globes over its first five seasons. It’s an odd kind of social commentary filled with a nostalgia for that kind of class system, at least as practiced by patriarch Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and his family, notably his more modern-thinking (but still class-conscious) daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), and supported by the servants raised in this way of life, notably head butler Carson (Jim Carter).

The sixth and final season of the series delivers happy endings all around, as if rewarding viewers for their devotion to the lives of the wealthy and the service classes alike. Tom (Allan Leach), the working class mechanic who married into the family, returns to the manor. There are marriages (both among the aristocrats and the servants) and opportunities for the characters to grow and learn as the series observes the passing of an era (one family is forced to sell their manor and the Crawleys open their home to visitors as a fundraiser). Cousin Rose (Lily James) comes back for the finale and, of course, Maggie Smith offers her hilariously withering commentary throughout at Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess.

The show has a passionate following and the final season brings it all to a satisfying, audience-pleasing end that never dares question the privileges of inherited wealth and title. And, of course, there is no violence, foul language, or nudity, though there are the occasional breaches of etiquette.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions present 8 hour-long episodes plus the two-hour series finale (listed as “Christmas Special”) and 30 minutes of featurettes.

TrueDetS2True Detective: The Complete Second Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) of the crime anthology series created and written for HBO by crime novelist Nic Pizzolatto takes on an entirely new mystery, complete with a new setting and cast of characters. This one comes out of the tradition of L.A. crime fiction, the kind that James Ellroy loved to fill with political corruption and compromised cops, and creates an elaborate web of criminal cover-ups, gangsters, and graft.

Colin Farrell plays an unstable detective with anger issues who is in the pocket of gangsters, Rachel McAdams is a rising detective whose reckless personal life impedes her career, and Vince Vaughn is a smooth career criminal trying to go legit as a developer on the ground floor of a major new redevelopment scheme. His ambitions are short-circuited when a city manager is murdered and his seed money stolen, a crime that launches the tangled storyline of the season and lands Vaughn in trouble with his mobbed-up partners. Farrell and McAdams, joined by a motorcycle officer (Taylor Kitsch) who would rather be back on patrol, are assigned to the murder, an investigation that isn’t supposed to go anywhere but ends up sending them into a conspiracy involving the rich and powerful of this (fictional) economically depressed California town, an industrial town in the grip of recession.

After the (perhaps overenthusiastic) acclaim for the Southern Gothic first season, audiences were disappointed that the show left pulp weirdness for more familiar urban crime drama and critics lambasted the show for its more familiar character types and plot twists (not to mention its sometimes arch dialogue). But it’s a well-written show with a vivid atmosphere of seediness and desperation, characters and relationships that get more interesting along the way, and excellent actors delivering solid performances.

8 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on two episodes by the creator and cast members and three featurettes, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the season.

LastKingThe Last Kingdom (BBC, DVD), based on the first two novels in Bernard Cornwell’s “The Saxon Stories” series of historical novels, retells the story of King Alfred the Great, the ninth century Saxon King of Wessex, through the eyes of Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon).

Born a Saxon but captured and raised by a Danish warrior, Uhtred is a man between two worlds. Blamed for the massacre of his Danish family (who are murdered by another Danish clan) and cheated out of his rightful Saxon heritage by his uncle, he pledges his loyalty to Alfred (David Dawson) to defend Britain against the invading Danish forces and seals his pledge with a marriage to a Christian woman, Mildrith (Amy Wren). A mix of historical and fictional characters, The Last Kingdom presents the birth of Britain as an uneasy alliance between the Christian Alfred, the sickly but learned and wise youngest son of King Aethelwulf, and the pagan peoples who identify themselves as neither Dane nor Saxon but simply Britons. It features a contemporary perspective on faith and religion, which imposes its own intolerance on the kingdom (and especially on Uhtred, a steadfast pagan who refuses to observe Christian rites), but it also allows for complex characters who see beyond religion, including Alfred, whose anemia is cured and dying infant son saved by a pagan “sorceress” and healer (Charlie Murphy).

The BBC series (which played on BBC America in 2015) is a handsome period production that tells a busy story of betrayal, vengeance, romance, conspiracy, loyalty, and a nascent sense of patriotism to the British kingdom represented by Alfred, and presents a realistic portrait of life in the dark ages and lavish battles that illustrate the tactics of medieval warfare. Matthew Macfadyen and Rutger Hauer co-star in the first episode as honorable Saxon and Danish elders, respectively. A second series has been announced for 2016.

8 hour-long episodes on two DVDs, no supplements.

Blu-ray / DVD: Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Crimson Peak’ brings back the Gothic

CrimsonPeakGuillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) has been described, incorrectly, as Gothic horror. This is Gothic romance with notes of horror, bathed in the unreal and magical colors of a giallo and brought to life by Guillermo Del Toro’s beating heart of compassion in the face of evil.

As lush and atmospheric a film as the American cinema has created in years, Crimson Peak stars Mia Wasikowska (whose wide eyes and open face evokes the gothic heroine incarnate) as a smart, passionate American heiress, the daughter of a self-made man (Jim Beaver as the model of paternal affection and American responsibility) and a writer with a romantic streak and an unsullied innocence, and Tom Hiddleston as the dashing suitor from overseas, a handsome aristocrat with a haunted soul whose mystery captures the American’s heart. His calculating sister (Jessica Chastain), however, who dresses in blood red and death black gowns that give her the spiky presence of a predatory insect, has all the warmth of vampire. Suddenly orphaned and swept away to the desolate hinterlands of rural England, she moves into the most haunted manor you’ve ever seen in the movies, a rotting mansion that lets the snow and rain and bitter cold in through the collapsed spire of the roof and literally bleeds red through the floorboards and down the walls. That it is explained away as a geological phenomenon, the churning red clay of hill seeping into the house as it sinks into the hill, doesn’t make it any less ominous. It’s the seeping of that same clay into the winter snows that gives the hill its name.

Though it draws inspiration from Rebecca, Notorious, and Jane Eyre, the sensibility is pure Del Toro. Not the American action movie maker but the creator of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, Spanish horror films of dark fantasy where the supernatural and the otherwordly are beautiful and horrible and terrifying but largely benign. Ghosts are not malevolent monsters or vindictive demons but tormented, tortured beings lost in grief that keeps them stuck on earth, pinned like an insect to the location of their death. It is humans who bring evil into the world

This is old school gothic melodrama with modern movie magic. It’s not subtle, and that’s the point. It is grand and glorious and emotionally outsized, elegantly and delicately florid and Gothic. The ghosts are corpses of blood-red bone and rotted flesh with the markers of their past human lives evaporating around them like gossamer silk dissolving in the air. It didn’t find favor with audiences weaned on more malevolent horrors but I loved it, from its creeping, old-world pace to its deliciously realized metaphors to its steadfast belief in the power of the love to transform the most wretched soul.

Beautifully mastered on DVD and Blu-ray, which preserve the intricate textures and vivid, defining colors of the film, with commentary by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (whose pride in his work shows through), the featurettes “Beware of Crimson Peak” (a seven-minute guided tour through the manor) and “The Light and Dark of Crimson Peak” (about the set designs and color schemes), and five deleted scenes.

The Blu-ray also includes the four-part “I Remember Crimson Peak,” which looks at four key locations with short featurettes of about five minutes apiece, plus “A Primer on Gothic Romance,” “Hand Tailored Gothic” (on the film’s costumes), “A Living Thing” (the longest of the featurettes, examining the creation of the mansion), and “Crimson Phantoms” (on creating the ghosts), plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

Also on Cable and Video On Demand from Amazon Video and other VOD services.

Also new and notable:Spectre

Spectre (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), the 24th James Bond film and the fourth starring Daniel Craig, continues to explore the origins of 007 and his connection to a supervillain nemesis (played by Christoph Waltz) whose “secret” identity should be obvious to any fan of the series. The opening scene, set in Mexico City in the midst of the Day of the Dead celebrations, is one of the best in the series. But do we really need to humanize Bond? On Blu-ray and DVD with the usual collection of supplements.

99homes99 Homes (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), Ramin Bahrani’s drama set in the ruthless culture of mortgage repossessions in the wake of the financial meltdown, has earned plenty of accolades for star Michael Shannon, the devil making a killing on evicting delinquent homeowners who gives one victim (Andrew Garfield) a chance to keep his home by becoming his hatchet man. Shannon won awards from the L.A. and San Francisco film critics and earned numerous nominations pretty much everyone but the Academy Awards. The Blu-ray edition is, at this point, available exclusively from Best Buy. Features filmmaker commentary and a deleted scene.

Paulette (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is a French film of genre you probably didn’t see coming: a senior citizen dope comedy, with Bernadette Lafont as a retiree who starts selling cannabis to supplement her pension. In French with English subtitles, with deleted scenes.

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Snow White: The Signature Collection’

SnowWhiteSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Walt Disney Signature Collection (Disney, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)

It’s hard to grasp today how revolutionary Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was in 1937. The beautiful (and at times a little dark and scary) Grimm Brothers fairy tale of a pathologically narcissistic queen, a beautiful princess, and a lovable troupe of little men who protect her was a grand gamble, an expensive animated feature in Technicolor made a time when animated features were practically nonexistent and Technicolor was Hollywood’s expensive new toy. It was dubbed “Disney’s Folly” by the industry, until it became a massive success. Though technically not the first animated feature, the elaborately painted images and graceful execution of the Technicolor feature redefined the idea of what animation could do, pushed the possibility of color cinema into a new realm, convinced the audiences that animation could tell a story for adults and kids alike and launched the Disney legacy. Delicately shaded and delightfully old fashioned, like a fairy tale come to life from a 19th century illustration, it remains to this day one of the most beautiful animated features ever made and my favorite Disney film of all time.

It was first released on Blu-ray in 2009, a “Diamond Edition” release that has been out of print for years and commanding high prices on the collector’s market. This edition features the same HD restoration and transfer from that release, which preserves the distinctive texture of the painted cels and the thirties-era colors beautifully.

The difference is in the supplements. New to this disc is the four-minute “In Walt’s Words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” an audio-only interview with Walt Disney discussing the film set to an image track, the seven-minute featurette “Iconography” that explores the film’s influences on popular culture, art, and fashion, “@DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess” with four contemporary animators discussing the design of Snow White, and an “Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White,” plus the breezy promo-style pieces “The Fairest Facts of Them All: 7 Facts You May Now Know About Snow White” with Disney Channel star Sofia Carson and the rap retelling “Snow White in Seventy Seconds.”

Also new to this is the Digital HD copy, which you can redeem at Disney Movies Anywhere.

“Disney’s First Feature: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is an expanded version of the featurette “The One That Started It All” from the 2009 “Diamond Edition” release, running just over half an hour, while “Hyperion Studios Tour” is a condensed (30-minute) version of the virtual tour from the 2009 edition.

Carried over from the earlier disc: commentary by Roy E. Disney and animation historian John Cannemaker, two deleted scenes (in pencil animation, sketches and finished soundtrack), sketches and story notes from an unmade sequel “Snow White Returns,” audio of story meetings, “Animation Voice Talent” (on Snow White voice actress Adriana Caselotti), and “Decoding the Exposure Sheet” (on animation innovations from the film). Gone are the interaction activities and set-top games, some of the galleries and featurettes from “Hyperion Studios Tour.”

Which means what really? It’s not so much an upgrade from the 2009 release as an alternate version aimed at new buyers. Which may frustrate collectors (and for good reason—why not carry over all the previous supplements and make the new disc definitive?) but won’t matter to most casual fans. Basically, if you don’t already have the film, you can now own it without dipping into the collector’s market.

Josh Spiegel writes about why the Disney Vault (which keeps films out of circulation on disc for seven years between releases) is no longer relevant in the 21st century at Movie Mezzanine.