Jul 19 2014

Blu-ray: ‘The Man From Laramie’

James Stewart roughed up his all-American nice guy image in five westerns he made with director Anthony Mann, the best of the seven films they made together in the 1950s, most of them for Universal Studios. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, was made for Columbia and it was the first film that Mann shot in the still novel CinemaScope anamorphic widescreen format, which debuted just a couple of years earlier. It was a natural for Mann’s kind of western filmmaking, where the landscape and environment is a defining part of the drama and an integral element of the film’s tone and sensibility. For The Man From Laramie, Mann shot in the high plains and the ribbons of ridges of New Mexico, stretched far across the widescreen canvas. It’s lovely but forbidding, a mix of inviting green and forbidding desert and rock, and it is far from any other settlement, right in the heart of Indian country.

Into this beautiful but isolated land rides Will Lockhart (Stewart) and the wagon train of his freight company. He also has personal business in the territory and it has something to do with the charred remains of a wagon train they pass along the way. Stewart eases up on the neurotic edge he brought to earlier Mann films Winchester 73 and The Naked Spur and is even quite charming when he first arrives in town and meets Barbara (Cathy Downs) with his wagonloads of freight. When she offers him tea, he smiles at the thought of so civilized a break from the trail and watches her bustle about with an appreciation for the feminine presence in his life, no matter how fleeting. But he’s a hard, driven man as the dark expression that passes over his face at the massacre graveyard communicates.

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Jul 18 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘Endeavour: Series 2’

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Endeavour: Series 2 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD), the Inspector Morse prequel set in 1960s Oxford, opens with the young Detective Inspector Endeavour Morse (played by Shaun Evans) recovering from a gunshot wound that almost killed him at the end of the previous series. His superior officer and mentor DI Thursday (Roger Allam) worries that Morse has lost the passion and commitment to police work that made him stand out in a department filled with compromised and corruptible officers, but in his first investigation back on the job, Morse discovers evidence that a suspected suicide is actually murder.

He tends to alienate the veteran officers with his intellect and his abrasive, argumentative attitude and Thursday protects him from the older commanding officers, though by the final mystery of this set Thursday is pressured to retire, which leaves Morse with little incentive to remain. More interesting than the personal conflicts of this series is the way that the four mysteries reveal an environment of intolerance and abuse and, in the final mysteries, a culture of corruption that goes back decades and reaches to the most powerful people in Oxford. And on a lighter note (because it can’t all be gloomy and dire), Endeavour starts dating a nurse in his apartment building. This series forges its own identity unique from the beloved “Inspector Morse” series and the second series develops the show into one of the best British mysteries running today. Four feature-length mysteries on two discs on Blu-ray and DVD. The discs offer the complete British versions of the shows, which are longer than the versions broadcast on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS.

More TV on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Jul 17 2014

Videophiled TVD: ‘Orphan Black’ is Back

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Orphan Black: Season Two (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD) confirms what I suspected back when I binge-watched the first season on disc last year: this BBC America original series (which is, of course, produced in Canada by a Canadian creative crew) soars almost entirely on the wings of its star Tatiana Maslany, who not only plays the five clones at the center of the conspiracy drama but a few others who have drifted in and out of the show in its initial two seasons. It’s more than simply an impressive performance, or rather collection of performances, as each character has a distinct and different personality. Maslany brings the show to life with the intensity of each of the characters and the evolution of their relationships to one another, often acting against herself through digital trickery. The characters are far more engaging than the conspiracy storyline, which runs through familiar cycles of shadowy corporations and treacherous agents working for their own devious ends.

The second season opens with Sarah (the streetwise orphan) searching for her kidnapped daughter and Cosima (the scientist) working with the shadowy group run by Rachel (the cold, manipulative one) to find a cure for the illness that is beginning to appear in the clones. Maslany also plays an alcoholic suburban mom and a crazy assassin who is only slowly learning to trust her sisters, and amazingly she makes all five these characters riveting. The complications include a survivalist religious cult that wants to give birth to more clone offspring, a former boyfriend (Michel Huisman of “Game of Thrones”) who helps Sarah hide out from the research group, and the accidental murder of a manipulative scientist. The cover-up of this crime oddly enough helps repair a failing marriage, just one of the bits of dark humor that helps it overcome the otherwise familiar collection of mix-and-match tropes.

And it’s not just Maslany who energizes the show. Jordan Gavarish is quite winning in a splashy role as Sarah’s devoted foster brother and Maria Doyle Kennedy is wonderfully enigmatic and ferocious as Sarah’s shadowy foster mother, a member of a resistance group that she realizes is also untrustworthy. Like so many conspiracy thrillers, these folks learn that the only ones they can trust are family, however they define it. That’s what ultimately has made the show a cult favorite.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a “Cloneversation” interview hosted by Wil Wheaton, deleted scenes, and four behind-the-scenes featurettes among the supplements.

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Jul 16 2014

‘King & Country’ on TCM

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Joseph Losey was riding high on the international acclaim of The Servant (1963), the director’s first collaboration with screenwriter Harold Pinter and second film with actor Dirk Bogarde, when Bogarde presented him with the script of a small television play called Hamp. Set in World War I, it’s a war drama with no battle scenes, the story of the court-martial of a young, uneducated working class soldier who, after three years in the trenches of World War I, simply walked away from the front lines in a hopeless attempt to walk home. Bogarde was very much interested in the project. He had served in World War II and recalled the trauma his father suffered after his service in World War I. He sent Losey to the Imperial War Museum and gave him a copy of “Covenant of Death,” a book of photographs and paintings of World War I. Some of those photos found their way into the film, framing the story with images of death and devastation on the muddy battlefields.

Losey handed the script to Evan Jones, who had previously scripted Eva (1962) and These Are the Damned (1963) for the director. With Losey’s blessing, Jones jettisoned the teleplay and returned to the source, and at his request added a kind of Greek chorus of soldiers to provide an additional perspective to the ordeal of the trenches. Bogarde, an author in his own right, also contributed to the script, rewriting some of his scenes and providing the background of experience, all of it uncredited on the film but acknowledged by Losey in later interviews.

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Plays on TCM on Friday, July 18

Jul 15 2014

‘The Criminal Code’ on TCM

The Criminal Code (1931) refers to the unwritten law of prison: a convict never rats out a fellow convict. They have their own rules of justice behind bars. It’s both the title and the defining premise of a 1929 Broadway drama, a socially-relevant play that makes a case of prison reform, and it became an accepted convention for all subsequent prison films.

Harry Cohn bought the play for Columbia, a small studio that competed with the major Hollywood players with its relatively meager resources. Columbia didn’t have a stable of bankable stars under contract or the money for a big slate of expensive pictures but Cohn had big ambitions and he produced a couple of major pictures every year, usually with talent hired from other studios on a per-picture basis. He signed up-and-coming Howard Hawks for a picture and he offered him the project. “It had a great first two acts, then a bad third act,” explained Hawks to Peter Bogdanovich, and he brought in screenwriter Seton I. Miller (who had scripted the 1928 A Girl in Every Port and Hawks’ 1930 sound debut The Dawn Patrol) to rework the drafts penned by the original playwright, Martin Flavin. Hawks didn’t like sentiment in his films and had Miller play against the overtly sentimental scenes with brusque dialogue, a kind of tough-guy shorthand that acknowledges the emotion without making a show of it.

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Plays on TCM on Thursday, July 17

Jul 15 2014

Videophiled: Scarlett Johansson gets ‘Under the Skin’

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Under the Skin (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) isn’t a film that wants to make things easy for the viewer. The experience is not unlike that which I suppose its unnamed protagonist, an alien reborn in the body of a human host (Scarlett Johansson), goes through as it (she?) settles in to its new body and the emotions and impulses surging through it that collide with its mission. That mission has something to do with driving around Scotland and picking up men that it appears to devour in a pool of lightless liquid. That’s my best guess—there’s no exposition or explanation to clue you in to what it all means—but it’s all quite strange and beautiful and weird.

This is the first feature from Jonathan Glazer since Birth (a film that had its share of critics but has grown to almost cult stature in some circles since its 2004 release) in part because he did not want to compromise his vision. The film opens on abstracted sounds, like a human voice learning its sonic possibilities, and enigmatic imagery, and Glazer expects us to create our own meaning from the clues we take in along the odyssey. The defining color is black, the inky night of her nocturnal hunts and the deep, bottomless dark of her alien retreat. The characters seems to float untethered in these scenes, as if they’ve slipped into another reality.

Glazer is less interested in the what and the why than in the texture of the experience, the intensity of the imagery, the sense of adaptation and alienation as this alien starts to connect with her victims. Johansson delivers a performance like she’s never given, slipping between a focused, unreadable blankness and the easy charm of a young Scottish woman chatting up the men she picks up in her van, a part she keeps perfecting as she gets a feel for the culture of Glasgow at night. (Some of the scenes were shot with a hidden camera as civilians were picked up by Johansson in character, like a reality show in the Twilight Zone, and Johansson is not only game for the stunt, she’s quite adept at it.) This is a film of sensations best experienced in an immersive environment; watch this on the biggest screen you are able to, with the lights out and distractions kept to a minimum, to best fall under its spell.

On Blu-ray and DVD, with “The Making of Under the Skin,” a 42-minute collection of brief featurettes covering various aspects of production. The production is as unconventional as the film story and direction and these featurettes share some of the process. The Blu-ray also includes an UltraViolet digital copy. Also available on Cable On Demand.

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

Jul 15 2014

Barry Jenkins: Long Story Short

Barry Jenkins currently calls San Francisco home but he was born and raised in Florida and attended the filmmaking program at Florida State University, where he made his first films. Inspired by his friend and collaborator James Claxton, the director of photography on most of his films, he moved to San Francisco after graduation. That’s where he made his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, about a two young African Americans in San Francisco who wake up together after a one-night hook-up and spend the next twenty-four hours getting to know each other as they compare notes being a minority in the city and the effects of gentrification. The film picked up three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best First Feature and Someone to Watch For, and landed a distributor. Jenkins has been busy developing follow-up features in the years since, including one with Focus Features, but to date nothing has made it to production stage. In the meantime, he’s continued to make short films.

'Tall Enough'

“I like making things and every now and then an opportunity presents itself,” he explains. “The majority of these films, and I guess it’s how it always is with a filmmaker, is someone saying ‘Hey, I got a little bit of money, do you want to make something?’ and me going, ‘Sure, I’ll make something.’ I’m never going to turn down an opportunity to make something.”

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Jul 14 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Sleep My Love’

A romantic thriller in the Gaslight vein, Sleep, My Love (1948) is a shadowy melodrama with an atmosphere of Gothic thriller by way of high society film noir, and it grabs your attention immediately with a kicker of an opening: a train speeding through the night, Claudette Colbert waking up in a sleeping car with a scream, a panicked run through the passenger cars. Where is she, how did she get on a night train to Washing D.C., what is happening? Colbert is New York heiress Alison Courtland and, back in their Big Apple mansion, Don Ameche is her husband Richard, a man with a plan under his sensitive show of concern. As he patiently explains the police, this isn’t the first incident where she’s been disoriented or confused. And as the police prod him for details, he reluctantly reveals a gunshot wound on his left arm. Yes, he admits, she shot him, but she wasn’t in her right mind.

Richard seems too good to be true as the concerned, protective husband trying to cover for his wife’s mental slips, in part thanks to Ameche’s overly-earnest performance and theatrically soft-spoken response to every crisis. And he is, as we discover early in the drama. The train trip and public breakdown is part of an elaborate scheme, a piece of theater stage managed by the sinister-looking Charles Vernay (Orson Welles veteran George Coulouris). He’s a co-conspirator, pulling strings while Richard plays the nurturing husband, and he even endures the unwanted presence of Richard’s sexy mistress Daphne (Hazel Brooks), who lounges about Charles’s photography studio between romantic assignations.

Continuing the Gaslight comparison, with Colbert in the Bergman role of the heiress being driven crazy and Ameche as the husband playing the mind-games, Robert Cummings would be her Joseph Cotten, in this case incarnated as handsome bachelor Bruce Elcott.

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Jul 12 2014

Blu-ray: ‘The Nutty Professor’ 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition

Whether you believe Jerry Lewis is a comic genius, a braying clown, a shrewd show-biz pro who carefully cultivated a popular stage and screen persona, a hopeless egotist with a cringing need for attention, or simply a comic with a gift for manic physical humor that clicked with audiences in the fifties and sixties, most people agree that The Nutty Professor was his greatest film as a director and his most interesting variation on the child-man figure he had transformed into Hollywood gold.

Lewis’ fourth film as a director is a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde brought into the modern world by way of Lewis’ cartoonish take on the institutions and social cultures of contemporary life. His Jekyll is nebbish college professor and chemist Julius Kelp, the child-man of his previous films grown up from boy to adult, no more capable of the social world but clearly educated and perhaps even brilliant. His adenoidal juvenile voice has tempered into something oddly lived in and the spasmodic, childlike body has slowed and slumped into a walking shrug, acknowledging his inability to take on the world on its own terms. Julius is smitten with Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), a curvaceous co-ed who sits up front of every chemistry class and looks up wide-eyed at every lecture. It’s not clear if she likes him, respects him, or just feels bad for him, but there is something about this harmless social grotesque that makes her care for his plight. Attraction is another matter, however, so Kelp goes on a self-improvement kick at Vic Tanney’s gym (one of many glaring product placements in the film; Lewis was a pioneer in this aspect of production, a dubious achievement to be sure). When that fails to produce measurable results, he falls back on his specialty: better living through chemistry.

Where Stevenson’s good doctor is a humanitarian and moralist who unleashes the suppressed id within as an experiment and gets addicted to the rush, Kelp’s experiment is a bit more self-centered and pointedly directed. He concocts a formula specifically to transform him into his imagined ideal of what women want: the confident, popular, aggressive ladies’ man that the shy, stammering, socially awkward Julius can never be.

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Jul 12 2014

DVD: ‘The People vs. Paul Crump’

Paul Crump, an African American Chicago man convicted of murdering a security guard during the robbery of a meatpacking plant and sentenced to death in 1953, had faced 14 stays of execution when William Friedkin, a young television producer, took on his story. The People vs. Paul Crump became his directorial debut, a documentary that eschews any pretense of balance and instead makes Crump’s case directly to the viewers. This is documentary as advocacy, championing a cause with passionate and persuasive filmmaking, and the filmmaking is indeed provocative and compelling. The first shot of the film, an evocative shot of Crump leaning against the prison bars of his cell while another inmate blows a harmonica, comes right out of a social drama of injustice, immediately putting our sympathies with Crump.

It starts conventionally enough, with newspaper reporter John Justin Smith narrating in hardboiled newsman mode as he outlines Crump’s case with a mix of historical fact and personal connection. Smith introduces us the man behind the story in an interview that plays out like an old movie, with Smith hammering questions at Crump like a tough but committed investigative reporter grilling an indicted politician, skeptical but moved by the testimony and the compromised evidence against him. Crump comes off calm and measured in his responses and his confessions of other crimes and failings give the ring to truth to his account of events. Then Friedkin jumps from the static new newsreel interview style to a stylized recreation of the crime with actors playing out the robbery on the actual locations. Friedkin shoots it with a mobile handheld camera, a cinema verité style by way of a B-movie crime thriller or hard-hitting exploitation exposé.

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Jul 09 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Il Sorpasso’

Vittorio Gassman is a force of nature in Dino Risi’s 1962 road movie Il Soprasso, an odd couple odyssey that begins on a whim and drives off into one long detour from the staid, serious, self-repressed life of a bookish law student. Gassman’s Bruno roars into the film, screeching his Lancia Aurelia convertible through the all but deserted streets of Rome, which is practically shut down for the summer holiday, searching for cigarettes and a pay phone while Riz Ortolani’s jazzy score bounces through the background. It’s all high spirits and impulse behavior and this swinging bachelor seems destined to pull the shy, suspicious Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) from his apartment, where he’s cramming for finals, and out into the world. What begins as a quick drive to a bar for a drink turns into a road movie that carries them through a couple of days bouncing from one restaurant to another and finally landing at the shore for a sunny beach escape.

Director Dino Risi was a prolific and popular director and one of the masters of the commedia all’italiana, the witty, earthy comedies and social satires that were hugely popular in Italy but overshadowed internationally by the “serious” works of Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini and others. Il Sorpasso was his breakthrough film, a lively road movie and a deft character piece. The title Il Soprasso is an Italian term for passing cars on the road, a defining action in the film as speed demon Bruno constantly overtakes cars on the highway like it was a road race. It was released in the U.S. under the title The Easy Life, which works too, but the original title is about rushing to the next thing, to living in the fast lane and rushing past the crowd.

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Jul 08 2014

Videophiled: Imagining ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’

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Jodorowsky’s Dune (Sony, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, Cable VOD) is probably not “the greatest science film never made,” as the movie poster tagline insists, but this journey through the most improbable screen epic embarked upon in the seventies isn’t really about mourning what could have been. Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of the aggressively trippy cult classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, is a spellbinder of a storyteller and it’s not hard to get caught up in the vision he spins of his dream adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel, which he and his producer, Michel Seydoux, managed to option. With his artistic idealism and beaming smile (the man lights up with creative energy whenever he starts describing his vision of the film), Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm is intoxicating. It’s no wonder he attracted such a passionately loyal and dedicated team of collaborators—his “warriors,” as he called them—along the way, including artists Jean “Moebius” Girard, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, special effects designer Dan O’Bannon, and actors Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali.

If filmmaker Frank Pavich gets caught up in the dreams of the Jodorowsky and his warriors and the hyperbole of commentators like Richard Stanley and Nicolas Winding Refn, filmmakers who proclaim the project some kind of lost masterpiece so visionary that Hollywood was scared of the possibilities, he at least gives voice to the more measured response of the Hollywood studios via producer Gary Kurtz. Any practical look at the project finds a rickety foundation built on promises rather than contracts, a budget insufficient to meet the scope of Jodorowsky’s ideas, and elaborate special effects beyond anything Hollywood would accomplish for years to come. And that doesn’t even address Jodorowsky’s utter dismissal of studio concerns of his ability to create a commercial film for the millions of dollars he was asking for. He was ready to make a 12-hour epic if that’s what his muse demanded.

What’s most interesting is not that the project failed to get made but that it got as far as it did and Jodorowsky and Pavich let us revel in the conceptual art, costume and character designs, storyboards, musical concepts and other elements that Jodorowsky pulled together for his presentation. He gives us an art movie of a space opera with a spiritual message and a mad poetry to its execution. And rather than treat this as a wake for a stillborn film (as many of the interview subjects do), Jodorowsky celebrates the entire endeavor as a creative effort in its own right, which inspired ideas that he used in other projects. It’s unlikely that he could have brought to the screen anything resembling the grand vision he shares with us given his resources and the technology of the era, but it sure is exciting it imagine, and that imagination is what powers the film: the sense of artistic freedom, idealism, freewheeling creativity at work in the preparation, and the excitement he raised in his warriors, inspiring them to imagine beyond what had been done before. That is a work of art in its own right.

The Blu-ray+DVD Combo also includes 46 minutes of deleted scenes, or rather expanded sections that explore elements of the project in more detail than the finished film allows.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

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