Category: Reviews

Apr 22 2014

Videophiled: ‘Bettie Page Reveals All’

BettiePageBettie Page Reveals All (Music Box, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand) doesn’t quite live up to its title, at least not when it comes to delving into the darkest days of her turbulent life.

Bettie Page was the good girl and the bad girl all wrapped up in one package, the girl next door in a bikini and bangs who managed to look innocent and sweet in hundreds of 1950s bondage photos and film shorts, and a model who made nude shots look natural and innocent. She disappeared from the public eye in 1957 but became a celebrated icon and sex symbol when her image was rediscovered in the 1980s by artists and fashion designers. The title is a harmless double entendre that refers to her career baring all in both amateur camera club sessions and professional shoots with Bunny Yeager, which landed her a spot as a Playboy Playmate, and to the film’s most interesting dimension: it is narrated by Page herself through frank and forthcoming audio interviews conducted before her death in 2008. It is audio only for she would not let herself be filmed or photographed in the last decades of her life.

Director Mark Mori clearly loves his subject and seems to be protective of her, even after her death. She fearlessly discusses the dark episodes of her life – neglected by her mother, abused by father, sexually assaulted as a young woman in New York, bad marriages, and her struggles with depression and schizophrenia that resulted in 10 years of psychiatric care in mental institution late in her life – with the same matter-of-fact openness of discussing her happy times. “I never had any bad feelings about posing in the nude or semi-nude outfits. I found I could make more money in two hours than I made all week.” Mori, meanwhile, offers a familiar mix of biographical detail, adoring commentary by experts and witnesses, and illustrative photographs (both clothed and nude) and clips of super-8 fetish and bondage shorts and 16mm cheesecake films from her career as a model.

What the portrait misses is any depth in its exploration of her life. Her first-person narration offers a great glimpse into what kind of person she was but the commentators (who include Hugh Hefner, modern burlesque artist Dita von Teese, cult actress Mamie Van Doren and fifties stripper Tempest Storm) repeat the familiar line of her charm and sweetness and impact as an icon before her time and Mori reports on her life without really exploring it, never sifting through contradictions or even acknowledging them. Page reportedly yelled “Lies!” at a screening of The Notorious Bettie Page (the 2006 feature starring Gretchen Mol as Page) but the film doesn’t take it any further: what upset her, what did she think the film get so wrong, and does Mori agree with her. If anything, Bettie Page Reveals All keeps the real Bettie Page an enigma and leaves the viewer interested in learning more about this woman who inadvertently became an icon.

The DVD also includes bonus archival footage of Page, audio interviews with Page, and other supplements.

More New Releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Apr 17 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘Cry Danger’ Restored and ‘Used Cars’ Revived on Blu-ray

CryDanger

You can thank The Film Noir Foundation for the rediscovery of Cry Danger (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), the independently-produced 1951 film noir developed by star Dick Powell as a follow-up to Pitfall (1948). Like a lot of films made outside of the studio system, it fell through the cracks and was only recently restored by UCLA and The Film Noir Foundation, who searched for the best materials available and created a new negative and 35mm prints for screening. That restoration is the basis of this disc debut.

Dick Powell is in fine sardonic form as Rocky, a guy released from prison after serving five years for a bank heist he didn’t commit, thanks to a witness who verifies his alibi, and goes in search of the real criminal to spring his buddy, who is still serving time. Richard Erdman is the witness Delong, a Navy vet just off his last tour of duty, and he hitches himself to Rocky to see if he’ll find the loot. Rhonda Fleming is the buddy’s wife, but before that she was Rocky’s girl. Her affections are rekindled but there is more rapport between the low-key, unflappable Powell and Erdman, whose injured vet is a drunk and makes no bones about it. Erdman is even funnier and drier than Powell and has an inspired courtship with a blonde pickpocket in the trailer park, a young cutie who keeps robbing him as if theft was a form of flirtation.

Robert Parrish made his directorial debut with this film and it is terrific: efficient, tight, well-paced and full of attitude and dry humor. He shoots most of it on location in Los Angeles and the key location, a dumpy little trailer park on a hill that looks down upon the city, gives the film a great sense of character and location: they can see the dream below them as they mark time in their cramped trailers. There’s a dark heart under the snappy surface like the best low-budget noirs. William Conrad co-stars as the signature heavy, a gang leader by the name of Louis Castro that Rocky believes is the real mastermind behind the heist, and Regis Toomey is the tough cop with a wary respect for Rocky.

Olive doesn’t go in for supplements—they offer well-mastered discs at low prices—but this is one disc I’d love to see get the special edition treatment. Co-star Richard Erdman is still alive and well and sharp as a tack (he’s the world’s oldest college student in the TV sitcom Community) and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller has provided a lot of commentary tracks and interviews for other film noir releases on disc. A little background on the film and its production would have been very nice, but when it comes down to it, it is all about the film and the quality of presentation and this is top notch given the rescue job performed by UCLA.

UsedCars

Used Cars (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Robert Zemeckis made some of the most famous blasts of American pop culture cinema—Back to the Future and Forrest Gump among them—but none has his films root about the cynical underside of the American dream with the gleeful anarchic pleasure of this satirical cult classic from 1980. Kurt Russell is the epitome of the smiling mercenary selling lemons to suckers with dirty tricks and phony promises, aided ably by his superstitious buddy Gerrit Graham. The outrageous stunts (such as illegally jamming the Superbowl with a guerrilla commercial and hiring strippers to bump and grind on the cars like a Vegas sideshow) are more than simply high concept gags: Zemeckis and Bob Gale squeeze the limits of bad taste out of these lemons for a deliciously tart cinematic lemonade. The R rating is for foul mouthed tirades and nudity that would be at home in a risqué burlesque farce. Jack Warden has a field day playing twin brothers and Frank McRae is hilarious as the giant adrenaline-pumped mechanic. The crotch-grabbing Mexican junk car wholesaler is none other than Alfonso Arau, the ubiquitous character actor and director of Like Water for Chocolate.

The Blu-ray debut includes the commentary recorded for the earlier DVD release and the talk from director Zemeckis, co-writer and producer Bob Gale, and star Kurt Russell is almost as much fun as the film itself. “We wanted Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, except he’s totally corrupt,” is how Zemeckis explains the genesis of the story. Kurt Russell laughs back: “So you cast me!” These guys are having a blast laughing their way through their remembrances, but they manage to stay on track and keep the production stories coming. Also features four minutes of outtakes and along with Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score is a bonus score track with the unused score. Also includes an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Apr 15 2014

Videophiled: Ralph Fiennes is Charles Dickens in ‘The Invisible Woman’

invisiblewoman

The Invisible Woman (Sony, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, Digital, On Demand) is a refreshingly mature adult drama of love and passion and society in 1880s England from director / star Ralph Fiennes. He plays Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones is the young actress Nelly Ternan, who became his mistress in a long-term love affair played out in the margins between private and public life.

This isn’t melodramatic or flamboyant and it doesn’t lean on the scandal. It’s about the people and their lives and feelings, including the hurt and humiliation suffered by Dickens’ wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), a dowdy woman who bore him ten children but remains a bystander in his very public life. For his part, Fiennes shows Dickens as a lively social creature, thriving on public attention as both famous author and stage actor, but the story is really about Nelly, who was 18 years old when she first met Dickens but tells her story decades later. As a music teacher at a boy’s school, she’s emotionally protective and only reluctantly tells the story of her past, a turbulent life that left her emotionally knocked about and far more worldly than her husband (easily the weakest character in the film).

It’s a handsome film, to be sure, but Fiennes is more interested in the complexity of characters and relationships, the social world of the time, and the maturity with which all of these characters deal with adult relationships. The maturity, of course, doesn’t prevent people from getting hurt. Tom Hollander is Dickens’ friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins and Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent as Nelly’s mother, a worldly woman who gives her consent to the relationship. Not because she thinks it will advance anyone’s career, but because she sees how happy her daughter is with Dickens.

The Blu-ray+DVD Combo release features commentary by and an interview with director / actor Ralph Fiennes and actress Felicity Jones (the interview is from the “Screen Actors Guild Foundation Conversations” series and runs 26 minutes). Also includes the “Toronto International Film Festival Press Conference” (21 minutes) and “On the Red Carpet at the Toronto Premiere” (16 minutes).

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Apr 13 2014

MOD Movies: ‘The Big House,’ ‘5 Fingers,’ ‘Roadblock

BigHouseTripleThe Big House: Triple Feature (Warner Archive) is a special edition for the MOD (manufacture-on-demand) line.

The 1930 The Big House, directed by George Hill, is the original men-in-prison drama in terms of the way it established the conventions. There’s the pecking order of tough guys behind bars, the culture of loyalty, the sniveling snitches, the prison reform speech from the tough but committed warden (Lewis Stone, who is indeed tough), an inmate protest, a prison break and a riot. And through it all, Hill shows us the overcrowding, the regimentation of routine, and the numbing, soul-crushing oppression of the experience, from the processing of a newly-convicted prisoner (Robert Montgomery as a privileged kid completely unprepared to take care of himself here) to the predatory society within. Chester Morris is the leading man here as Morgan, a kind of underworld aristocracy thanks to his reputation as a criminal mastermind, and he comes off as a slightly darker, tougher, and more wooden Richard Barthelmess, the square guy rolling with tough breaks. Wallace Beery is the prison-yard bully Butch, who isn’t too bright but defers to Morgan, and Montgomery is nervous and sweaty as the wide-eyed fresh meat who ignores good advice and turns snitch, illustrating the warning given by the warden in the first scene: “Prison doesn’t make you yellow, but if you are already yellow, prison brings it out.” I guess we know his predilections.

The story is basically a roll call of what will become prison movie clichés but the presentation is striking. The mess hall scene presents mealtime in purgatory, with the inmates lined up in rows and columns with regimented precision, and the image is echoed at chapel, where the prisoners file in out of duty rather than faith. Meanwhile Hill contrasts the surface of resignation to the routine with the covert dealings below the table tops as inmates pass weapons and messages out of sight of the guards. The soundtrack keeps returning to the lock-step trudge of marching feet instead of music. And the warden responds to the occupation of a cell block by prisoners with overwhelming force: he calls in the tanks! It was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Wallace Beery) and won Oscars for the sound and France Marion’s screenplay.

Chester Morris and Wallace Beery in 'The Big House'

The Big House was previously released as a stand-alone movie on the Warner Archive line. The “special edition” of this release comes in the other two films of the triple feature: the French language version, directed by Paul Fejos and starring Charles Boyer as Morgan, and the Spanish language version. Both are shot on the same sets and utilize the same crowd shots, special effects, and even shot-lists and set-ups. The compositions are almost exactly the same, like an assembly line cranking out the alternate versions on a timetable, and the biggest difference is in the variations of characters brought by the actors and dramatic direction. Fejos seems constrained by the structure here—see his striking Hollywood work in the Lonesome disc set Criterion released last year (a triple feature in its own right) to see his eye for setting scenes and moving the camera—but he and Boyer turn Morgan into a much more charismatic figure, less hard-boiled, smoother and cooler, with a sense of authority that comes from confidence and ease. The Spanish version, from journeyman director Ward Wing (a sometime actor with a couple of shorts and documentaries to his credit as a filmmaker), hasn’t the same strength of character (Jose Crespo is a bland, unimpressive Morgan but Juan de Landa makes a strange mix of childlike clown and psychopathic bully as Butch) but the production value and the momentum keep it rolling along.

Three films on two discs. The print has seen wear and the contrast fluctuates a bit but it looks quite good considering the age and the era. The French and Spanish versions are not quite as well preserved but perfectly watchable and acceptable. The English subtitles are actually close captions and include notations on sound effects.

5Fingers

5 Fingers (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), a smart 1952 espionage thriller directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, features James Mason in a superb performance as the contemptuous valet to the British Ambassador to Turkey during World War II. A career servant, he decides to make his fortune selling British military secrets to the Germans and enlists a penniless French countess (Danielle Darrieux), a woman he once served and still desires, to help him hide his money and provide a safe house. Based on real events from World War II, the 1952 film reworks the story and the players to make the valet, who is given the code name Cicero, a bitter, resentful British man determined to break through the class barriers. Mason plays him with smooth arrogance and cynicism, beholden to nothing but money and power. While he’s nakedly obsessed with class and status, everyone else is simply more subtle about it—this almost invisible valet is never once suspected by either side of being the leak in the embassy—and the Germans are so afraid that he’s actually a double agent that they never act upon the intelligence. Even the agent sent from London to find the leak (Michael Rennie) discounts him from his investigations.

The direction is low key, with a focus on the culture of the city of Ankara during the war (Turkey did not choose sides and Allied and Axis powers both had a presence in the city), the script full of sharp wit and clever dialogue, and the story is filled with delicious ironies. Mankiewicz did not receive screenplay credit but some of the dialogue surely came from his pen, such as the Countess saying to a civil servant: “Please don’t look at me as if you had a source of income other than your salary.”

The Fox Archive release has not been mastered in HD and it looks only slightly better than laserdisc quality, but it’s a good source print and is perfectly watchable.

Roadblock

Roadblock (Warner Archive) opens with a set-up that promises a femme fatale siren thriller and a heist picture, and in its own way it defies both genres, or at least it takes a different twist. Charles McGraw is the hardcase of an insurance investigator, an incorruptible agent who earned the name “Honest Joe” but falls hard for a chiseling dame (Joan Dixon) looking to score a rich husband: “You’re a nice guy, honest Joe, but you’re not in the right league. I’m aiming for the World Series.” So he trades his integrity in for a crooked payday and ends up investigating the very robbery he masterminded while his partner (Louis Jean Heydt in soft-spoken conscience mode) starts to suspect him.

The 1951 picture is a film noir by definition, with its corrupted characters and mercenary femme fatale and atmosphere of a noose tightening around our anti-hero. Director Harold Daniels is no visual stylist and there’s a slackness to many of the scenes, but he comes to life in a nighttime murder scene that he transforms into a model of noir violence, an urban street fight in the dark of the empty city picked out in shards of light (credit likely goes to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, RKO’s crime movie vet), and the screenplay co-written by Steve Fisher has a bite of irony in its twists. And give the film credit for making a heist film work where we never see the heist; we’re checking in from McGraw’s honeymoon, which is also his alibi. The gravel-voiced McGraw carries the rest of the film with his working class integrity and moral judgments twisted into self-destructive panic when he becomes everything he despises just to impress a girl. Print quality is good.

More crooks, cops, and spies on MOD from Warner and Fox at Cinephiled

Apr 10 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘Broadchurch’

BroadchurchS1

Broadchurch: The Complete First Season (eOne, Blu-ray, DVD) follows the investigation of a single case – the murder of an 11-year-old boy, whose body is found at foot of a beachside cliff in a small (fictional) vacation on the Dorset coast – through eight episodes. David Tennant is Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, the new boss of the small Broadchurch detective squad who arrives with the shadow of scandal over him, and Olivia Colman is DS Ellie Miller, the local officer who was promised the promotion and arrives at the crime scene with a chip on her shoulder. That’s just the first complication: the victim was a neighbor and her son’s best friend and the suspects are all longtime members of the community.

Alec is brusque and professional in a town where everybody knows everyone else and he calls out Ellie for trying to be everyone’s friend when she should be pressing them for facts. It’s a cozy little community and she can’t fathom that any of them would be under suspicion, but as Alec reminds her, everyone that they interview would be capable of it. Why is another matter.

Broadchurch is a murder mystery in a small town and like other exemplars of the genre, secrets and lies are uncovered in the investigation, like insects hiding under rotting boards suddenly lifted and exposed to the light of day. But this isn’t one of those British mystery cozies of colorful suspects in a picaresque setting. The show, created and written by Chris Chibnall, creates a community of fully-realized characters with long histories and complicated lives. This story is about how the death and the revelations of hidden lives reverberate through the community, complicated by the often mercenary media coverage by reporters who, through the course of the story, have to face the damage of their actions as well. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in a town like Broadchurch, which just makes the ordeal harder to fathom, and easier for emotions to spiral out of control and suspicions to rush judgment.

The series was designed to be a stand-alone mini-series and the story does indeed come to a very satisfying end, which true to the show has plenty to work through after the arrest of the killer, but it was so popular when it ran in Britain that a second series was announced. (It played stateside on PBS over the summer.) Hard to imagine where it might go from here, as this eight-episode story is so beautifully self-contained. An American remake is also in the works.

Eight episodes on three discs, with the 27-minute featurette “Broadchurch: Behind the Scenes,” which doesn’t have much behind-the-scenes footage but lots of cast and creator interviews. It does reveal, however, that the actors weren’t told who the killer was when they began shooting.

More TV on Disc at Cinephiled

Apr 08 2014

Videophiled: ‘The Hobbit’ meets Smaug, Claire Denis’ ‘Bastards’ and ‘A Touch of Sin’

Hobbit2BDThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (New Line, Blu-ray 3D Combo, Blu-ray Combo, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand) – “What have we done?” asks hardy hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in the final seconds of the second film in the Hobbit trilogy. If by “we” he means Peter Jackson and company, then “we” have reimagined J.R.R. Tolkein’s storybook odyssey of a modest hobbit finding the courage and cleverness to help a band of dwarfs reclaim their kingdom from a usurper as a sweeping spectacle that transforms the delightful adventure fantasy into a blood and thunder epic. Suddenly it’s no longer a lively fantasy adventure but the prequel to Lord of the Rings with new stories and characters woven through it. The seeds of Sauron’s rise now sprout in the margins of the story, every battle seems to be a personal grudge match, and Bilbo is reduced to a supporting character in what is supposed his story. It’s a mistake as far as I’m concerned but at least it works better in this film than it did in the first chapter, ironically enough in part because of a new character who is nowhere to be found in any of Tolkein’s fictions: elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who brings some much-needed passion to a film filled with characters reduced to stock types.

The dragon Smaug, who makes his entrance late in the film, is a beautiful creation, slithering through his scenes both physically and verbally (thanks to silky voicing by Benedict Cumberbatch), but Jackson can’t resist turning the battle of wits between Bilbo and Smaug into yet another theme-park ride of a spectacle. To give credit where it is due, Jackson is very good at this sort of thing—the barrel-ride escape from the elves is really quite fun if utterly unnecessary—and there are audiences who want just that. I’d prefer Jackson simply tell a story.

It’s released in multiple formats. All of the disc editions feature the behind-the-scene documentary Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set, the featurettes “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2,” “Introduction to Pick-Ups Shooting,” “Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 1,” “Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 2? and “Music Scoring,” and “Live Event: In the Cutting Room,” a recording of the March 2013 Q&A and studio tour hosted by Jackson and streamed live in the web.

Bastards

Bastards (IFC, DVD, Digital HD) may be the bleakest drama yet from Claire Denis, a filmmaker with her share of dark portraits. Vincent Lindon is a cargo ship captain who returns home after decades for reasons that don’t become clear until much later. His sister is mess and his niece (her daughter) in the hospital, the victim of terrible sexual abuse. Their story comes together slowly in fractured flashbacks as we struggle to understand how everyone is connected, including the woman next door (Chiara Mastroianni), divorced from a powerful businessman with some shady business. What comes together most clearly is the rot in the family line and reason Kindon left it all behind. In some ways it’s like a warped version of Chinatown with an even more black-hearted backstory and insidious ending. This is a tough one, but it’s worth the investment. The score by Tindersticks adds a haunting atmosphere to the journey. French with English subtitles.

TouchSin

Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) takes four true stories of life in the modern China economy and weaves them into an unsettling portrait of the country, where the runaway growth takes its toll on the citizens racing to simply survive. Jia isn’t known for a sense of humor and this film, with its stories cleverly woven together in subtle ways, has a mercenary edge to it—there’s murder, predation, and bureaucratic indifference to the ordeals of citizens just trying to get by—but there’s a dark humor to its satire as well. Welcome to the modern economy where everything is for sale and human capital is just another commodity. Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles.

More New Releases at Cinephiled

Apr 07 2014

DVD: ‘I Am Divine’

Divine is, of course, the name of the most famous (or perhaps more accurately infamous) drag queen of the 1970s and 1980s, and the subtitle to Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine–”The True Story of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World”–comes right out of Divine’s stage show introduction. But the title is also a commentary on the appropriation of Divine, not as an identity but as a character created by Glenn Milstead, the overweight, gay Baltimore outsider who worked in a beauty shop and found his place with a group of self-described freaks (John Waters, Mink Stole, David Lochary and others) who reveled in ridiculing the culture around them. When Waters started making movies with his friends, Glenn put on a dress, caked his face with make-up, and delivered an outsized, campy performance that channeled Hollywood melodrama, vamping stage diva, and B-movie horror. Waters bestowed the name Divine on Glenn for the credits of their first film together, Roman Candles, and he embraced it with a mad, wild-eyed passion.

I Am Divine opens with the premiere of the original 1988 Hairspray, the film that brought Divine out of cult circles and into suburban theaters and mainstream culture. Glenn had spent years trying to break through as an actor apart from the Divine person and with glowing reviews of Hairspray, as well as a role in Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind (not as Divine but as Glenn Milstead, dressed in a suit and playing a mob boss) and an upcoming role on the TV sitcom Married… With Children, he was poised to finally do just that. He died of a heart attack, brought on by obesity and poor health, the night before his first day of shooting on the sitcom.

I Am Divine is the story of both Divine, the outrageous gargoyle of a glamour queen who both caricatured and embraced drag culture, and of Harris Glenn Milstead, the shy, generous man who was kicked out of the house by his parents when he came out of the closet to them.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Apr 06 2014

Blu-ray: Lon Chaney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

Lon Chaney was the most unlikely of Hollywood superstar actors. Talented and ambitious, he fearlessly took on roles of tortured victims, twisted villains, and misshapen outcasts, parts that he brought to life with a mix of elaborate make-up, physically demanding incarnations, and emotionally intense performances. In some ways, you could see him as the De Niro of the silent era, sinking himself into each role so deeply he loses himself in it, at least as far as the viewer in concerned. In an industry that celebrates physical beauty and charisma, Chaney won over audiences by playing characters that looked or acted like monster while communicating their inner drives and torments with his eyes and his face and his body language. The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 was his first major production, a lavish period drama based on a classic novel and created at a cost of over $1 million by Universal, at the time a second-tier studio with ambitions to compete with the majors in the blockbuster realm. It made him one of Hollywood’s biggest screen stars.

This adaptation largely hews to the narrative of Victor Hugo’s novel. Chaney plays Quasimodo, the horribly misshapen, deaf and half blind bell-ringer at Notre Dame, nominally raised by Don Claudio (Nigel De Brulier), the Archdeacon of Notre Dame.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Apr 05 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘The Best of Bogart’ Blu-ray Collection

The Best of Bogart Collection (Warner, Blu-ray)

Humphrey Bogart was the first Hollywood star I ever embraced. Watching him hold down the center of Casablanca with a pose of populist existentialism covering his wounded romanticism (“Where were you last night?” “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.” “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far ahead.”), I thought he was the coolest cat I’d ever seen on the screen. A few years ago, Warner Home Video boxed up 24 Bogie films for the impressive DVD set Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection. Now they collect four of the definitive Bogart films previously released on Blu-ray for a smaller HD box set: the definitive Hollywood romance Casablanca (1942) and three films directed by John Huston, The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951), which is a Sam Spiegel production and a Paramount release that Warner licensed for this set.

The Maltese Falcon, the directorial debut of stalwart screenwriter Huston and the film that made a star of Warner contract player Bogart, was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel classic but the first to capture the hardboiled toughness of the novel and the vivid vipers nest of double-dealing thugs and con artists on the trail of a treasure like junkies chasing the ultimate fix. One-time Hollywood nice girl Mary Astor goes blonde, brazen, and absolutely ruthless as hard-hearted treasure hunter Brigid O’Shaughnessy who lies as easily as most people breathe, Sydney Greenstreet is the garrulous Kasper Gutman, keeper of the Falcon’s lore, Peter Lorre is the weaselly Joel Cairo, and Elisha Cook Jr. became a cult figure as the rat-faced gunsel and small-time thug Wilmer Cook. But it’s all built on Bogart’s incarnation of Sam Spade as the great hardboiled private detective, a mercenary with a code of ethics just slightly less vicious than characters he keeps company with. Like the man says, this film is the stuff dreams are made of, and it is the Bogart that Hollywood embraced and that America still loves: insolent, individualistic, a romantic under his hard-boiled hide. He played this character, in varying degrees, throughout the rest of his career, epitomized in his defining role as the wounded cynic in Casablanca. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Hollywood and Bogart.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Apr 05 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1′

If you’re arriving late to class, here’s the recap: director / producer / modern B-movie legend Lloyd Kaufman directed the original Class of Nuke ‘Em High, a flamboyantly grotesque parody of high school movies and radioactive mutant horror, in 1986. The premise: a high school in Tromaville, the most toxic city in America, is located right next to a nuclear power plant and the students gets contaminated when a dealer sells drugs irradiated from the plant. It spawned two sequels (produced and co-written but not directed by Kaufman), the last one released in 1994. Twenty years later, Kaufman revives the franchise with a new micro-budget epic so sprawling that it was split into two parts (ostensibly upon the recommendation of Quentin Tarantino, a la Kill Bill). Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 was shown at film festivals and played limited runs and special midnight screenings across the country before landing on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital platforms, which is still the primary mode of distribution for Troma’s cult movies.

In Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1, the old nuclear plant and its giant cooling towers (which loomed over the old high school thanks to cheap optical effects) have been bulldozed under (that’s what passes for environmental clean-up in the Tromaverse) but a new business has sprung up in its place. As guest narrator Stan Lee explains over the opening montage of clips from the earlier trilogy, “Tromorganic Foodstuffs, Inc, was built right over the old Tromaville Nuclear Power Plant. What could go wrong?”

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Apr 03 2014

Videodrone Classic: ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time, Blu-Ray), Sam Peckinpah’s personal favorite of his films, opens on an idyllic river scene with a pregnant girl soaking her feet in the lazy current with a beatific smile on her face. In his great westerns, the river scenes are the brief escapes from violent lives in his character, reprieves in the middle of the drama before they march back out to meet their fates. This comes before the story even begins and once the spell is broken by the violence of a brutal father, a Mexican crime lord played by Peckinpah regular Emilio Fernández, and a $1 million bounty placed on the head of Alfredo Garcia, the father of the unborn child, there is little peace or paradise to be found.

Warren Oates stars as Benny, a grubby lounge pianist playing for tourists in a Mexican dive when a couple of American hitmen (Robert Webber and Gig Young) saunter in looking for information on “an old friend.” Benny thinks he’s hit the jackpot—a whopping $10,00 for giving them proof that Alfredo Garcia is dead (yes, they want his head)—but it costs him everything that matters and the tawdry treasure hunt turns into a revenge drama.

It plays like a pulp noir thriller by way of a road movie of the damned, marinated in mescal and left to rot in the desert sun. Benny’s not that smart or savvy but Peckinpah clearly loves this small-timer with his wrinkled white linen suit and clip-on tie and bad cantina sing-along songs. He may be a loser but he truly loves his philandering girl Elita (Isela Vega) and he develops more backbone with every stage of the odyssey. When he’s double crossed, he literally drags himself out of a shallow grave and returns with vengeance on his mind, fueled by rage, tequila, and a perverse loyalty to the rotting head he’s come to talk to like a father confessor. The film opened to scathing, outraged reviews (one notable exception was Roger Ebert, who called it “some kind of bizarre masterpiece”) but has since been embraced as a perverse masterpiece, the ultimate cult film in the career of a defiantly confrontational director.

Twilight Time gives the Blu-ray debut of this film more original supplements than any previous release from the label. The 55-minute documentary Passion & Poetry: Sam’s Favorite Film is a new production from German filmmaker and Peckinpah fan Mike Siegel featuring a wealth of interviews with Peckinpah actors and collaborators. A new commentary track by Peckinpah historian and Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman with Alfred Garcia co-writer and executive producer Gordon T. Dawson is paired with a track by Peckinpah scholars Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Redman previously recorded for the film’s DVD debut. There’s a new 25-minute video interview with Peckinpah biographer Garner Simmons, who was on the set of Alfredo Garcia, and a gallery of stills and promotional art, plus Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More cult and classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Apr 02 2014

Videophiled Essential: Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’

The greatest leap in home video technology since Criterion released its first DVDs 15 years ago or so is the amazing improvement in mastering technology. With the digital revolution making digital prints the standard for cinema projection, the combination of elevates standards for film-to-digital quality and the HD standard of Blu-ray has brought near-cinema quality to home theater.

Persona (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is the most recent of Criterion’s world classics mastered from 2K digital, this one a 2011 digital restoration by Svensk Filmindustri. And like the greatest restorations, this disc brings the best of film texture and digital clarity together for a stunning image. Persona is a film dominated by light and white, with stark figures against neutral backgrounds, warm sunlight, and the bright glare of a film projector, and those values are the kinds of things that get muddied in poor prints and digital masters. This disc looks like a 35mm fresh from the lab has been projected directly on my flatscreen.

Liv Ullman is revered stage actress Elisabeth Vogler, who is suddenly stricken speechless, and Bibi Andersson is the adoring young nurse Alma, who watches over her at a quiet seaside retreat, doing all the talking for both of them while she lays her soul bare to the actress. When Alma discovers the insensitive and condescending words about her in a letter Elisabeth has written, the roles of their relationship begins to shift and the intensity of feeling builds to point that, quite literally, stops the film dead. For a brief moment, Bergman reaches back to the origins of cinema, as if to recreate the artform in brief, abstracted images and rebuild the film around the two women.

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