Category Archives: DVD

Blu-ray: Two takes on Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’

killersBD

Criterion

The Killers (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an ingenious double feature: Two crime classics inspired by the Ernest Hemingway short story. Criterion originally released a DVD double feature over a decade ago. Both films have been remastered in HD for the set’s Blu-ray debut and a new DVD edition.

The first 15 minutes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) remains the most the most faithful Hemingway adaptation ever put on screen. Two gunmen from the city (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) take over a small town diner to wait for their target. When he doesn’t show, they take the hit to him, and he just waits, broken and hopeless, for them to come and finish him off. Burt Lancaster made his film debut in the role of Swede Anderson and his entrance—a close-up of a haunted face doused in shadow with slashes of light catching his wounded expression as he lay back down on his bed, awaiting his execution with doomed resignation—is one of the greatest screen debuts any performer has received.

Hemingway’s story ends there for all intents and purposes but it’s only the beginning of the film, which as Hollywood invention from then on. An insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) wonders why Swede never tried to run and tracks his story back to a life as a former boxer turned petty criminal, a not-too-bright kid who fell in love with a calculating golddigger (Ava Gardner, shedding her ingénue image to play a slinky sexpot with a heart of ice) and fell in with a crew that pulled off a big payroll heist. The money was never recovered. The story is pieced together in flashbacks provided by witnesses and partners in crime, including the heist itself, a remarkably understated piece of filmmaking presented in a single shot. the steady, dispassionate narration of the witness provides counterpoint to the crack timing and brutal efficiency of the job. But the web of deceit and double crosses of the story and expertly-constructed screenplay by Anthony Veiller (with uncredited assist by John Huston) works thanks to the atmosphere of doom and duplicity created by Siodmak and his crew, and to the defining presence of Lancaster and Gardner.

To be honest, their inexperience shows. Lancaster, who doesn’t carry the weight of experience, is rather callow, a perfect patsy but less tragic than merely dumb. Gardner is a kitten playing a viper, a pretty face and slinky body without that strength in her voice to carry her malevolence. They offer neither depth nor complexity but the camera loves them, every curve of their bodies, every shadow on their faces. Siodmak turns their images into icons: the wounded romantic with a beefcake build, and the temptress pulling the heartstrings of innocents merely by staring up from under those long lashes in a calculated nonchalance. Surrounded by seasoned pros (Sam Levene, Albert Dekker, Vince Barnett, Jack Lambert, and Jeff Corey) and lit with the light and shadow of a noir master, the films takes the spark they carry—Lancaster’s brooding ambition and wounded innocence, Gardner’s smoldering sensuality and crafty flirting—and lights a bonfire with them.

Burt Lancaster turns on his crew in 'The Killers'

Burt Lancaster turns on his crew in ‘The Killers’ 1946

Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964) is less remake than re-imagined tribute, with John Cassavetes in the Lancaster role (this time he’s a reckless race-car driver), Angie Dickinson as the seductive femme fatale, and Ronald Reagan as the crime boss pulling their strings, but this time the focus is on the killers themselves. It opens and ends on hitmen Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager, who bully their way into a school for the blind to kill their target (Cassavetes), and the rest is their investigation into why their victim is so willing to die and why they were paid so much for what they’ve been told a simple grudge hit. Note that the opening moments are set to recycled music cues from Henry Mancini’s Touch of Evil score. The sassy opening is a remarkably effective introduction to Marvin beating up a blind secretary while his partner can barely be bothered to notice, and sets the lurid tone that suggests tremendous brutality through intimidation and threat.

It was originally produced as a TV movie but was deemed too violent for the small screen and released to the theaters. Those origins are very evident, and not simply in the classic academy ratio. It has a cheap, cut-rate look to every set and location shot, weak rear-projection sequences, bad studio backdrops, and scenes simply shot against blank neutral colors. Clearly the producers were counting on the broadcast standards of sixties TV to hide their cut corners, and it creates a weird visual atmosphere for the film, a cynical, cruel story playing out against a banal, unreal backdrop. As scripted by Gene L. Coon (a longtime TV vet who wrote over a dozen Star Trek shows), however, the dialogue is hard-boiled redux. Marvin cuts every conversation directly to the point: no wasted words, no colorful flourishes, not even complete sentences, just key words driven home by the threat in his voice. And even in a feature-film setting, the sight of Ronald Reagan slapping Angie Dickinson is startling if not shocking. His subsequent political life just gives it all a little extra spice.

Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager in the 1964 film

This edition includes most the supplements over from the earlier DVD and adds a new one: an audio-only excerpt from Don Siegel’s autobiography read by Hampton Fancher. Carried over from the previous release is yet another version of Hemingway’s short story, this one Andrei Tarkovsky’s faithful student film Ubijtsi (1956), an audio interview with writer Stuart M. Kaminsky (author of “Don Siegel: Director”) and a video interview with Clu Gulager both recorded in 2002, the 1949 “Screen Director’s Playhouse” radio adaptation of the original film with Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters (audio only), Stacy Keach reading Hemingway’s original short story (audio only), and fold-out inserts with essays by Jonathan Lethem and Geoffrey O’Brien.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: Jack Hill’s ‘Spider Baby’ and ‘Pit Stop’

Spiderbaby

Arrow

Spider Baby (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD) is one of the greatest blasts of creative B-movie inspiration to hit American drive-ins and grindhouses. It was the solo directorial debut of Jack Hill (whose Coffy and Foxy Brown both recently hit Blu-ray from Olive), a low-budget film that was financed by real estate developers who wanted to get into the movie business and got stuck in limbo for years when the producers went bankrupt. Shot in 1964, it was finally released in 1967, by which time black-and-white films were no longer considered for first-run bookings. It was sold as a second feature and then fell into the public domain, where it became a cult movie a generation later, thanks to cheap videotape copies. Hill never made a dime on it, but he did belatedly get some attention for it. For all of its technical shortcomings and budget-related compromises, I still think it’s his most inspired film.

The final descendants of the Merrye family live in an isolated manor, hiding their curse from society in an old family home that could have been built as a vacation home by the architect of the Bates hilltop home. They suffer from Merrye’s Syndrome, a (fictional) malady causes all members of the family to regress mentally and emotionally with the onset of puberty. “The unfortunate result of… inbreeding,” explains Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr. in a warm, paternal performance), the chauffeur and guardian of the afflicted children of his old master. Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn in adolescent pigtails) and Virginia (Jill Banner), the spider baby of the title, are typical sisters playing (and tattling on one another) in schoolgirl frocks. Gangly Sid Haig as the bald, infantile Ralph, an older brother slipping into back into a pre-verbal state. Things are fine as long as no one comes around (pity the poor postman) but when distant cousins Peter and Emily Howe (Quinn Redeker and Carol Ohmart) arrive with a lawyer (Karl Schanzer) to contest the will, things get interesting.

It’s kinky and cruel and oddly sweet all at the same time, and it sneaks by thanks to the performances (not necessarily sophisticated but all committed to the characters and perfectly pitched to the tone of the film), grindhouse elements and the offbeat humor and black comedy woven through the piece. Hill peppers the script with Wolf Man references, from a conversation between Peter and Anne (the lawyer’s secretary) discussing horror movies to Lon Chaney’s Bruno ominously observing “There’s going to be a full moon tonight.”

Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn

Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn

Washburn and Banner are a terrific sister act, one moment sniping at each other, the next conspiring, and they reveal a childlike innocence to their actions: murder as a form of play and curiosity, without any real understanding of the consequences. Sid Haig is absolutely perfect as Ralph, sweet and curious, a well-meaning giant infant in an adult body. He dresses for dinner in a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit that looks like it shrunk down three sizes since he donned it. Quinn Redecker plays Uncle Peter like he’s the B-movie Robert Cummings role and he does a great job of it. He’s affable, likeable, kind, and instinctively affectionate toward the children. “Aw, he’s just a big kid!” he exclaims when Ralphie crawls over to check him out, like a puppy unsure of this odd new smell. Chaney cited this as one of his favorite roles and it shows in the emotion he puts into it. His final scene (which I won’t give away) is truly touching, a last sacrifice to protect the children the only way he knows how.

Hill clearly draws from Psycho, but with an innocence to the psychos of the story, with the lighthearted attitude of a William Castle film, but Hill’s strange brew end up being more Lord of the Flies by way of Freaks and Freud, with a provocative commentary on adolescence and the primal drives of the human animal through the lens of a genre movie. Think about it: as these adults regress to children, they revert to primitive stages: deadly games, cannibalism, death and murder as acceptable forms of protest, and adolescent sexuality. I really don’t understand what Carole Ohmart is doing in skimpy lingerie parading in front of the mirror (and for the camera). It’s adult content for what is more properly a drive-in movie, a mix of horror and parody and surreal weirdness, a weird detour that displays her kinky side, but it also rouses feeling in Ralphie, who spies on her through the window and carries her off like an infantile Frankenstein’s monster driven on curiosity and inexplicable instincts. Put this next to Virginia’s teasing little game of spider with Uncle Peter and you’ve got something both inspired and unsettling. While he’s tied to a chair, she climbs into his lap and says how much likes him, suggesting a nascent (or lingering) sexual desire behind the mental and emotional regression, either leftover from their “older” selves or a rather Freudian portrait of childhood sexuality complicated by the collision of a child’s emotional state with an adult body.

This is far more daring than Peter Brook’s famous take, and it was all but ignored by critics, largely due to its exploitation origins. Because of the film’s long delay from completion to release, it was dumped onto the second half of double bills. Decades later it was revived and reevaluated, thanks to public domain video copies and TV showings, and it’s been on DVD in numerous editions. Arrow presents it Blu-ray debut in a superb “Director Approved” Blu-ray+DVD Combo set, with a lovingly restored image (few public domain movies have received the kind of love that this film has gotten in the last decade or so), and it also has a companion piece of sorts in another Jack Hill Blu-ray debut.

PitStop

Arrow

Spider Baby stars Sid Haig and Beverly Washburn reunited with Hill for his edgy, tight 1967 racing picture Pit Stop (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD), one of Hill’s best efforts and a little seen gem. Dick Davalos (James Dean’s brother in East of Eden) is a curt, quiet street racer lured to the dangerous, short-lived sport of Figure 8 racing (a hair raising collision of stock car and demolition derby) by conniving promoter Brian Donlevy. He just wants a grudge match with his quick-tempered, strutting champion (Haig), but cool customer Davalos has bigger ambitions: he wants to use the crowd-pleasing track as a catapult to the pro circuit and he’ll run down anyone in his path.

It’s a surprisingly handsome picture considering, shot quickly and cheaply in B&W to make use of fast film stock for the high energy nighttime race track scenes. The careening track scenes are so dynamic they overshadow the climactic professional race but Hill makes that work for him in a chilly coda. The real story is how Davalos turns from cool competitor to ruthless rival and his icy stare and surly attitude is perfect. Haig’s explosive turn as the preening champ is both wild and wounded but the best turn belongs to the understated Ellen Burstyn (under the name McRae) in her first major role as the mechanically minded wife of a racing champ.

Both of these films have been mastered from new HD transfers supervised by Jack Hill, and both feature a substantial collection of supplements.

Spider-Baby features commentary by Jack Hill and actor Sid Haig, recorded for the 2007 Dark Sky DVD release, and three featurettes originally produced for that disc: “The Hatching of Spider Baby,” an excellent comprehensive retrospective featuring interviews with (among others) director Jack Hill, DP Alfred Taylor ASC, and actors Quinn Redeker, Sid Haig, Beverly Washburne, Mary Mitchell, and Karl Schanzer, plus the ten-minute “Spider Stravinsky” (an appreciation of composer Ronald Stein) and seven-minute “The Merrye House Revisited,” with Hill back on location with director Elijah Drenner more than 40 years later.

New to this edition is the “Cast and Crew Panel Discussion” with director Jack Hill and actors Quinn Redeker and Beverly Washburn from a screening at the 2012 Film-to-Film Festival at Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. There’s also an extended scenes and alternative opening title sequence (which have been included other earlier disc releases) and Jack Hill’s 1960 student film “The Host,” which is also the film debut of Sid Haig.

Pit Stop features new commentary by Jack Hill moderated by Hill biographer Calum Waddell and archival interviews with director Jack Hill, actor Sig Haig, and producer Roger Corman, plus a restoration demonstrating with technical supervisor James White.

Both sets feature booklets with new essays and archival articles, and two-sided covers with reversible artwork.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

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

Dog Soldiers

Scream Factory

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

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

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

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

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

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

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

Criterion

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

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

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

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

The boys of ‘The Bridge’

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

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

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

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

Basic training

Videophiled: ‘Killer Cop’

KillerCop

Raro Video

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

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

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

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

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

More cool and cult releases at Cinephiled

Videophiled: ‘Wild Tales’ from Argentina

WildTales

Sony

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

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

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

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinemaphiled

Videophiled: Politics on ice in ‘Red Army’

Red Army

Sony

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

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

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

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

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

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled: Celebrating Orson Welles in ‘Magician’

Magician

Cohen

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

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

Magician-2

Orson Welles

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

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

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Videophiled: ‘Man, Pride and Vengeance’

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Blue Underground

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

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

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

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

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

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Videophiled: Chaplin’s ‘Limelight’

Limelight

Criterion

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

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

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Videophiled: ‘Day of the Outlaw’

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Timeless

Day of the Outlaw (Timeless, DVD), a 1959 western set in a snowbound mountain town on the high frontier, is one of the toughest, most tension-filled pictures from Andre de Toth, a studio filmmaker who could be counted on to bring a savage edge to his assignments. The town is already coiled like a spring thanks to the tensions between imperious ranch baron Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and a farmer (Alan Marshal) stringing barbed wire across the range—Blaise has come to town to either intimidate the proud farmer into back down or killing him to stop the wire—when an outlaw gang bursts in and essentially takes the town hostage. They’re on the run from the cavalry and their leader (Burl Ives) is bleeding out from a bullet wound, barely keeping his cutthroat gang in check.

The isolation of the town, a few building poking out of the muddy streets and surrounded by mountain ranges in the distance, feels even more adrift in the white blanket of snow cover and the wind howls through most every scene, enhancing the sense of desolation. It’s a spare visual design and de Toth leaves the dramatic compositions lean and simple and uncrowded. Ryan’s wound up stillness makes a great contrast to the increasingly jittery gang members, who pace and fiddle and keep moving toward the women. They look like they are about to fly apart like a bomb and start looting and raping, and the still intensity of Ives, who holds his gaze and his ground has he gives orders and watches over it all, is all that keeps it from combusting. A terrific, underappreciated western, it’s been on disc before in an edition now out of print. Timeless brings it back in a solid DVD edition at a bargain price. No supplements.

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Videophiled: Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’

AmericanSniper

Waner Home Video

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

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

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

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

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

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinefiled