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

WireBD

HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled: ‘Man, Pride and Vengeance’

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Blue Underground

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

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

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

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

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

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled: Chaplin’s ‘Limelight’

Limelight

Criterion

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

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

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinefiled

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.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinefiled

Videophiled: Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’

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Waner Home Video

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

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

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

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

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

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinefiled

Videophiled: Two by Roger Corman with Ray Milland

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Kino Lorber Studio Classics

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

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

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

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

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Kino Lorber Studio Classics

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

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

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

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled: ‘Zardoz’ on Twilight Time

Zardoz

Twilight Time

Zardoz (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the most fascinatingly misguided sci-fantasies of the seventies, a truly strange social satire with counterculture echoes: think of Brave New World by way of The Wizard of Oz (which is where the film gets its title). Sean Connery stars as Zed, a savage barbarian of the polluted plain who wears an animal skin kilt and a bandoleer and sneaks into the city of immortals courtesy of a giant flying stone head that disgorges weapons from its mouth. Zed thinks he’s headed to heaven or Valhalla but ends up in a decadent, decaying society of bored, senile, impotent aesthetes, and he’s kept around as a kind of pet.

It’s the kind of weird, pretentious, not uninteresting mess you get when ambitious directors create original sci-fi works, with not-so-subtle references to class warfare, social insularity, and big brother-like government manipulation. Religion is the opiate of the masses, war a form of population control, and reading and education is the key to salvation. You know, exactly what the radical revolutionaries of the sixties were telling us all along. But, coming from Boorman, it is gorgeous and strange, shot on the lush hills of Ireland (some of the same locations were used in Excalibur). Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestelman, John Alderton, and Sally Anne Newton co-star.

John Boorman recorded a commentary track for its DVD debut and it’s included in this Blu-ray debut. It’s a bit spotty, but he still has a fondness for the film (“I was trying all kinds of things. Perhaps too much.”) and is happy to reminisce. Among the tidbits: Connery’s part was written for Burt Reynolds, and the Communist paper gave the film a rave review only after Boorman signed a note swearing the giant head was not modeled on Lenin.

New to this disc is a commentary track by film historians Jeff Bond, Joe Fordham, and Nick Redman. Also includes radio spots and the original theatrical trailer.

It also features, like all Twilight Time releases, an isolated audio track featuring the musical score and an accompanying booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo.

Most Twilight Time releases are limited edition of 3,000 copies. Zardoz is an exception: it is a limited edition of 5,000 copes. Unless otherwise notes, every release reviewed here is limited to 3,000.

More Twilight Time releases at Cinephiled

Videophiled: ‘Still Alice’

Sony

Still Alice (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Julianne Moore won her first Academy Award (after four nominations since Boogie Nights in 1998) playing a renowned linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and starts to experience her identity, her sense of self, slipping away. It’s the kind of performance that doesn’t just support a film, it gives the film its breath of life.

Dr. Alice Howland is in the prime of life: happily married to a fellow academic (Alec Baldwin), the mother of three grown children, an expert in her field, and a professor at a respected university where she enjoys teaching. It comes on slowly: losing a word while giving a lecture, misplacing items, forgetting appointments, and finally getting lost on a routine jog across the campus that’s a second home to her. When the worst is confirmed by a neurologist, the denial is replaced with coping mechanisms, though even those are a temporary measure as the decline speeds up and that sharp intellect softens and falters, along with her own body. As she loses her identity along with her memories and her attention span, her eyes start to fog over and her body seems to collapse into itself, deflating like fragile old woman aging before her time. She becomes something of a ghost of her former self and it is heartbreaking, thanks to the depth and nuance with which Moore inhabits the mental and physical deterioration.

Adapted from a novel by Lisa Genova with compassion and sensitivity, this was clearly a labor of love from Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, partners in filmmaking and in life (they married in 2013). Glatzer co-directed while his body was breaking down from complications of ALS and died a few months after the film was released. It’s hard to imagine that Moore’s commitment to the role wasn’t in some way touched by his ordeal.

Kristen Stewart stands out from a fine cast as Alice’s youngest daughter, a free spirit who cuts through the denial to sustain whatever is left of her mother for as long as she can while her siblings seem to distance themselves, as if it were a communicable disease (it’s actually genetic, which means one of them may have inherited the condition—another prime arena for denial). So long dismissed for the Twilight films, Stewart is a smarter and more engaged actress than she’s often given credit for and she suggests a history behind this quietly resilient mother-daughter bond.

The rest of the film is admirable but never as nuanced or as rich as Moore’s performance. The cocoons of success, supportive family, and an academic and medical community that provides the best care available in New York can’t stop or even slow the ravages of the disease but it does provide a support net greater than any of us will know. Maybe that makes her inevitable decline even more affecting, but it does give us reassurance that even as she loses herself, her family will not forget her.

Blu-ray and DVD with the featurettes “Directing Alice” and “Finding Alice” and an interview with the composer. Also available on Cable On Demand and digital VOD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled TVD: ‘Mr Selfridge: Season 3’

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PBS

Mr Selfridge: Season 3 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD), British TV’s urban answer to Downton Abbey, continues with the story of Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven), an American department store entrepreneur and marketing pioneer in London whose populist approach is a refreshing change from British restraint and conservatism.

Opening with the end of World War I and the funeral of Harry’s wife (a victim of the 1918 influenza pandemic), this season focuses on his romance with an ambitious and philanthropic young businesswoman (Kelly Adams) trying to build homes affordable housing for returning war veterans. Meanwhile his daughters are recast as young twentysomething women and given the spotlight when one (Kara Tointon) marries a Russian Prince in exile and another (Hannah Tointon) becomes a wild child who flirts with the proprietor of a notorious nightclub, and his son and heir apparent (Greg Austin) secretly dates an employee at the store. The stories touch on the problems of returning veterans, the pressure on women to return to the home and give their jobs up to the men, and rising crime, but this is still more soap opera than social drama, with plenty of romances and complications among the store employees and the scheming Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle) back to try and sabotage Harry’s success out of pure spite, this time by buying his way onto a seat on the Board of Directors.

The series shows on the PBS showcase Masterpiece in the United States and a fourth season will follow next year. 10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a 30-minute featurette.

More TV on disc reviews at Cinephiled

Videophiled TVD: The future of tech in 1983 in ‘Halt and Catch Fire’

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Anchor Bay

Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – The same year that HBO launched its modern tech comedy Silicon Valley, AMC premiered this offbeat (and sometimes off-putting) drama about the early days of the home computing revolution.

Set in a small Texas tech company in the early eighties, the story centers on three characters: Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace of The Hobbit trilogy and Guardians of the Galaxy), a former golden boy salesman from IBM rising from the ashes of a crash with a dream of taking on his old company with a visionary personal computer; Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a computer engineer still licking his wounds from a failed attempt to launch his own machine; and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a rebellious young college student with a punk attitude and a genius for coding. Joe recruits these two underdogs to run the development team and sells the president of a small company on his grand vision with a lot of salesmanship. Then he turns to mindgames and corporate thievery. Their initial work is based on reverse engineering the foundation of a competitor’s operating system, but from there it’s all ingenuity and invention, from Gordon’s hardware designs to Cameron’s software ideas. Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), an engineer who works at Texas Instruments, is an uncredited fourth member of the team and the Clark family home life provides a contrast to the gamesmanship at work. As a trivia note, McNairy and Bishé previously played a married couple in the Oscar winning movie “Argo.”

The title of the show is a computer term for a command that engages every function to run at once and compete for dominance. That’s a fair description of the working relationship of these characters, a partnership that Joe constantly upends through manipulation, betrayal, and psychological warfare. He’s very much the focus of the show: enigmatic, unpredictable, driven by the ghost of some past crisis, and not above sabotaging his own team to steer the project in a new direction. The level of cutthroat tactics he uses on his own colleagues makes the show at times unpleasant, but it’s always interesting, and it has a terrific sense of time and place. The eighties never looked so drearily right.

The second season begins on AMC this summer. There is sexual content and adult themes but no explicit scenes and disc release features uncensored language. It’s for mature audiences. 10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with three featurettes and brief five-minute pieces on each episode.

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Videophiled TVD: ‘Masters of Sex: Season Two’

MastersSexS2

Sony

Masters of Sex: Season Two (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – Cable television, both pay and commercial varieties, has proven itself more fertile ground than the broadcast networks when it comes to nurturing period dramas that resonate with the present. Showtime’s drama about the pioneering work by Dr. William “Bill” Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Kaplan), partners in a landmark study of human sexuality, is one of the best. Like “Mad Men,” it uses its subject and setting to explore the lives of characters in that era and to reflect our own perceptions and preconceptions of sex, race, gender roles, and the complicated relations between men and women.

The first season set the scene—St. Louis in the 1950s, a prestigious teaching hospital, a leading gynecologist pursuing research that is controversial at best in the conservative culture with a partner who has no acknowledged credentials but shows a keen interest in and understanding of the topic and a way with putting the human subjects as ease—and introduced the complexity of the study, which was condemned when the initial findings were presented.

The second season enters the 1960s with Bill looking for a new hospital to sponsor his controversial study and Virginia, a single mother without a college or medical degree, struggling to support her kids while finding work that inspires and engages her. Meanwhile their private “sexual research” becomes a full-fledged affair without the excuse of the study as emotional cover and the physical intimacy leads to personal revelations that twine with the studies expansion into the psychological and emotional component of sexual activity, and into a more aggressive engagement with sexual dysfunction, which their own research finds to be more widespread than they ever imagined.

As Bill continues to remain emotionally and physically distant from his wife Libby (this may be the only show about a married couple in the late 1950s/early 1960s where single beds is an accurate reflection of their relationship), she gets a troubling education in her own bigotry and gets involved in the local chapter of a civil rights organization and its passionate organizer (Jocko Sims). Race becomes a major issue this season, both inside the study and out, and the show tackles it with characteristic intelligence and unexpected perspectives.

Masters of Sex is at its best when exploring the contradictions of its characters—Bill’s insistence on academic honesty while lying to his wife and making unilateral decisions about the study without consulting his partner, Virginia engaging in an affair with Bill while remaining a confidant of Libby—and the hypocrisies of society, and it does so with engaging personal stories. The third episode, set almost entirely in a hotel room in the aftermath of a coital engagement, plays like a chamber drama. Watching a prize fight on TV, Bill slowly reveals aspects of his childhood he’s to this point suppressed, opening the door to his conflicted ideas of masculinity that come to a head when his estranged brother tries to reconnect. The episode, directed by producer Michael Apted, is both revelatory and mysterious and is remarkably cinematic given its constraints.

Bill is correct that sex is one of the most powerful and least understand aspects of the human experience, but he’s still learning that there’s more to making a human connection than simple physical contact. There is plenty of nudity and scenes of sexuality but it is less explicit than many pay cable shows and it is all in service of the exploration of human sexuality: the boundaries of what we consider “normal” and acceptable, feelings of shame and fear, and the emotional complications that sex brings to a relationship. The third season begins on Showtime in July.

12 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with the 18-minute featurette “The History of Sex,” which surveys the historical backdrop of the era as featured in the show. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are two interview featurettes. “The Woman of Sex” (20 minutes) features interviews with Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Annaleigh Ashford, Betsy Brandt, Ann Dowd, Allison Janney, and other actresses on the show and “The Men of Sex” (26 minutes) is a roundtable discussion with Michael Sheen as moderator and participant with fellow actors Beau Bridges, Teddy Sears, Jocko Sims, and Kevin Christy. Also features an Ultraviolet HD digital copy of the season.

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Orson Welles: ‘The Trial’

“[I]t’s my own picture, unspoiled in the cutting or anything else…. The producers were heroic and got it made, and there isn’t anything I had to compromise—except no sets, and I was happy with the other solution, as it turned out, even though I was kind of in love with all the work I’d done. Still, I was happy enough to scuttle it, as I always am.”
–Orson Welles on The Trial, from This is Orson Welles

Anthony Perkins in ‘The Trial’

Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1959) is now celebrated as a masterpiece, but the version released in 1959 was not the film that Welles had intended and it was largely dismissed as a glorified B-movie. It had been for Welles one last attempt to make films inside the studio system and he brought the film in on time and on budget. Yet Universal thought that his labyrinthine nightmare of a crime movie was too dark and confusing for audiences and took the editing from his hands. Welles’ famous fifty-eight-page memo (which became the basis of a 1998 revision undertaken by producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch) was politic, polite and even supportive of some of the changes made by Universal’s editor as it made the case for editing refinements. Welles played by the rules right to the end, attempting to work with the producers rather than fight them, but it became clear that Hollywood simply did not want the kinds of films that Welles made and he left for Europe. Never again did he work with the budgets or the resources of a major studio production. That was his trade-off for creative control.

The Trial (1963) was not Welles’ first project after Touch of Evil—he started shooting Don Quixote in Mexico and Spain and made a series of documentaries for Spanish TV—but it was the first film he completed after leaving Hollywood.

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