Blu-ray: The silent south seas of ‘Moana’ and ‘Tabu’ restored with sound

MoanaMoana with Sound (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After creating what (in retrospect) is generally considered the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in the snows of northern Canada, filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to the South Seas island of Savai’i to create a similar production around the Polynesian natives. Like Nanook, Moana (1926) is not a true documentary record but a recreation of a long lost culture for the cameras created in collaboration with locals, who draw from their own historical memory. And it was the film that inspired the term “documentary,” which film critic (and later documentary producer) John Grierson coined while reviewing the film.

Moana is a poetic portrait of Polynesian life as an South Seas paradise, the opposite of Nanook, where the Inuit people fight to survive the harshness of the elements. The pace of life is easy and gentle in the Pacific sun, food plentiful in the sea and growing all around them, just waiting for anyone—even a child—to pluck the coconuts off the trees. Hunting and gathering is akin to play in this culture that was, again as in Nanook, long lost by the time Flaherty put his camera on these people. His filmmaking reflects the theme, each scene taking its time to play out, not to record every detail of finding fresh water in a branch, climbing a palm tree with a simple woven band wrapped around the ankles, or hunting a wild boar (the only real threat to human life on the island), but to appreciate the grace with which these activities are accomplished. The gentleness of the filmmaking—which was as painstakingly created for the camera as any Hollywood drama—creates a lovely, luscious film, a great leap forward in Flaherty’s cinematic talent.

The film was of course silent but Robert and Frances Flaherty (his wife was very much a partner on the project despite her lack of credit) wanted to accompany the film with the music and songs (especially “the singing,” as Frances remarked back in 1926) of the people. So in 1975, their daughter Monica traveled back to Savai’i with documentary legend Richard Leacock to record a soundtrack, not just music but sound effects and dialogue in the regional dialect, for a rerelease of the film. (Lip readers helped determine what was being said and a script created from that.) The sound was added to a copy of the film and Moana With Soundreleased in 1980, but the version of the film available to Monica Flaherty at the time was not accurate to the release version and featured worn imagery generations away from the original negative. This new restoration, produced by Bruce Posner and Sami van Ingen, restores the film from the best existing elements and marries the soundtrack (also cleaned up with new digital tools) to the superb imagery of the restoration. Some damage and wear can be seen in brief sequences but for the most part the film looks amazing.

Blu-ray and DVD with the new 40-minute featurette “Moana With Sound: A Short History” with Bruce Posner (who produced this restoration) and the shorter “About the Restoration” (also with Posner), two very informative productions debuting with this release, and filmed commentaries by historians Enrico Camporesi and Bruce Posner. Archival extras include Flaherty’s 1925 short film Twenty-Four-Dollar Islands, the 1960 interview with Frances Flaherty “Flaherty and Film: Moana,” and Flaherty home movies.

TabuTabu (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) was begun by Robert Flaherty in collaboration with German émigré F.W. Murnau, who wanted to revisit the culture of Moana as a backdrop for his own dramatic ideas. Sensibilities clashed and Flaherty left the film, leaving Murnau to create his own vision of Paradise Lost in the story of young lovers (Mathai and Reri) threatened by tribal law. Murnau uses the clash of cultures to contrast an Eden-like innocence with the corruption of modern society (one seemingly sensitive white soul is more opportunist than romantic). The mythic undertones are more European than Pacific Rim and Murnau’s portrayal of the young lovers as Peter Pan-like children of nature is paternalistic at best and downright condescending in parts. But Tabu is also astoundingly beautiful, like a B&W rendering of Paul Gauguin’s visions of Tahiti through an expressionist sensibility. This is classic Murnau, a powerful, poetic story of the doomed struggle against fate, and his final film. He was killed in a car accident just a week before the film premiered.

Shot as a silent film, it was released with a synchronized soundtrack with a score (called a “musical setting” in the credits) by Hugo Riesenfeld, preserved for this restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung.

Blu-ray and DVD with the short documentary “The Language of Shadows,” a German language featurette on the making of the film and this new restoration that the institute produced, and the featurettes “Tabu: Takes and Outtakes” and “Tabu: A Work in Progress,” which present some of the unused footage shot by Murnau for the film with narration in German with English subtitles. Also includes Hunt in the South Seas (1940), an ethnographic short film created from unused footage from Tabu.

TV on disc: ‘Better Call Saul,’ ‘Peaky Blinders,’ the end of ‘Hannibal,’ the beginning of ‘Game of Thrones,’ and more TV on disc

BetterCallSaulS1Better Call Saul: Season One (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – Bob Odenkirk is Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer trying to get both respect and clients in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in this prequel series to the award-winning Breaking Bad. He was Saul Goodman in that show, the shady lawyer who helped Walter White hide his drug money, but Saul was once Jimmy, a conman (he earned the nickname Slippery Jimmy) who cleaned up his act, got a law degree from a dubious school, and set out his own shingle in a utility closet in the back of a strip mall beauty shop.

Better Call Saul takes a different tone from Breaking Bad, playing it is a dark comedy and character piece that shows Jimmy’s struggles. He’s the younger brother of a once successful and respected lawyer (Michael McKean), who is now holed up with a phobia for electrical signals, trying to prove himself to his brother while chasing clients with more bravado than confidence and watching schemes backfire. The series also feature Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the ex-cop who will become Saul’s reliable field man and fixer. Odenkirk is a mix of salesmanship and desperation as Jimmy, who isn’t taken seriously by clients or other lawyers, and he lets us see the person under the pose. For all his schemes, he wants to play it straight and prove himself. It’s the beginning of an odyssey that will eventually turn him into the morally untethered Saul Goodman. The series was nominated for seven Emmy Awards and Odenkirk’s performance earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with uncensored versions of three episodes, cast and crew commentary tracks on each episode, and the featurettes “Better Call Saul: Day One” and “Creating the First Season.”

Exclusive to the Blu-ray are bonus featurettes “In Conversation: Bob Odenkirk & Michael McKean,” “Good Cop, Bad Cop: Becoming Mike,” and “In the Studio,” the montage featurettes “Jimmy in the Courtroom” and “Jimmy Kaleidoscope, a table read for the pilot episode, deleted scenes, and a bonus commentary track in character by Craig and Betsy Kettleman.

PeakyBlindersPeaky Blinders: Season One (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD), set in North England industrial city of Birmingham in the years after World War I, ” is a British TV gangster drama starring Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, who applies the lessons of warfare to turn a crime family into a major criminal enterprise, and Sam Neill as his nemesis, an Inspector from Belfast brought in to clean up the corrupt and ineffectual police and stop the IRA presence in Birmingham. The battle becomes personal when Grace (Annabelle Wallis), an undercover agent who takes a position a barmaid in Shelby gang saloon, refuses the Inspector’s romantic overtures and falls for Thomas. The series title comes from the name of Shelby’s gang, so called because they sew razor blades into the peaks of their caps.

Created and written by Steven Knight, the writer of Eastern Promises and writer/director of the acclaimed Locke, it’s a sharp, smart, gritty show and a vividly realized period piece set in a volatile culture where the IRA and the communist union organizers are both targeted as terrorists, the Italians and Gypsies fight to keep their piece of the underworld as Thomas schemes to expand the Shelby family business, and the cops are as thuggish as the crooks. The shadow of the war hangs over it: the friends and family lost, the women who ran things while the men fought and aren’t so quick to hand things back over, the victims of shell shock reliving the war with every loud noise, and the disillusioned working class men who fought for their country and came back to poverty and hard times. Though set close to hundred years ago, the soundtrack is filled with energetic modern rock songs from The White Stripes, Nick Cave, and others. The series went straight to Netflix in the U.S.

The first season of six episodes debuts on Blu-ray and DVD, with a featurette. It’s a very handsome show and the Blu-ray gives you a better opportunity to appreciate the terrific textures of the production.

HomeFiresMasterpiece: Home Fires (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is another period piece from British TV, this one set in a rural village 1940, just as Britain was sending off its young (and sometimes not so young) men to fight in World War II. Home Fires is about life on the homefront and it focuses on the women, from wives and mothers looking to fill their lonely days by contributing something to the war effort to community leaders taking charge of the transformation to a wartime society.

Samantha Bond takes the lead here as Frances, who challenges Joyce (Francesca Annis), the elitist, upper-class leader of the Women’s Institute, and transforms it from an exclusive social club to an open communal society devoted to supporting the war effort in every way they can, from sending letters the boys on the front to increasing food production to creating a communal air raid shelter. Inspired by the book “Jambusters” by Julie Summers, the show presents a large canvas of characters and issues, some of that follow a familiar formula (a young woman working in the war office has an affair with a married officer), some less predictable, and along with the expected portrait of chauvinism is the issue of class played out through the snooty aristocrat Joyce sabotaging the efforts of Frances at every turn.

There’s no surprise that the six-episode series, which takes in a year or so in their lives, emphasizes how the communal effort overcomes conflict to foster acceptance, understanding, and mutual respect. It’s more uplifting and affirming than challenging or surprising, and it is handsomely made with convincing period detail and a fine cast delivering top notch performances. It played in the US on the PBS showcase “Masterpiece” and a second series of the drama has been announced.

Six episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.

CodeS1The six-part Australian mini-series The Code (Acorn, DVD) is a political thriller about a government conspiracy uncovered by web reporter Ned Banks (Dan Spielman) and investigated with the help of Ned’s younger brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), a genius, borderline autistic hacker on parole for cybercrimes. It opens on a car accident in the outback that leaves two Aboriginal students critically injured and a video recorded by one of the students that their teacher (Lucy Lawless in a small role) sends to Ned. His investigation leads to a biotech company and secret illegal activities and he and Jesse are attacked and intimidated into dropping the story.

It only makes them more determined to uncover the truth, which reveals connections to the government and a cover-up ordered by Minister David Wenham. The series, created by Shelley Birse (who also wrote episodes of the hit Aussie series “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”), combines a drama of corporate corruption and government complicity in covering up illegal behavior that it secretly sanctioned with a journalistic investigation in the internet age, and the web-based communications and cyber-hacking is incorporated into the storytelling by bringing the text into the images. It’s nothing new but it is effective and helps make the digital elements part of the physical drama. The series goes back and forth between the city, the halls of Australian government, and the dusty, empty outback, which makes it something different for American audiences, but it’s also well written and effectively directed, and the six-hour format brings it to a satisfying conclusion.

Six episodes on two discs on DVD, no supplements.

HannibalS3Hannibal: Season Three (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), the final season (at least as of this writing) of the unlikely NBC take on the Thomas Harris novels, moves from series developer and show-runner Bryan Fuller’s original stories inspired by the books and characters to incorporate story elements from the novel Hannibal and adapt Red Dragon directly over the course of the final six episodes (making it the third screen version of the novel). Mads Mikkelson is Hannibal Lecter and Hugh Dancy is Will Graham, two men locked in a perverse kind of battle of wills as Lecter treats Graham as a test subject in a perverse psychological experiment, as if tempting him to give into the dark side. The season opens with Lecter in Europe with his psychiatrist (Gillian Anderson) posing as his wife, somewhere between prisoner and reluctant conspirator in his continued murder-as-fine-art spectacles, clues that draw Graham and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to follow. This is a unique kind of show, a work of visual beauty in service to stories of gruesome violence and mad murderers, more European art movie than American crime procedural. Fans cursed NBC for cancelling the series, an international production shot in and around Toronto, but it’s amazing than an American network supported a show this strange and surreal and aesthetically unique as long as it did.

13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on ten episodes by Bryan Fuller and various members of cast and crew and the two-hour documentary “Getting the Old Scent Again: reimagining Red Dragon” leading the substantial menu of supplements. There are also two short featurettes, all of the “Post Mortem with Scott Thompson” webisodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the entire season (SD for the DVD release).

InsideAmyS3Inside Amy Schumer: Season 3 (Paramount) is the season where Amy Schumer’s acclaimed Comedy Central series leapt from cable hit to cultural phenomenon thanks to acclaimed skits that went viral on YouTube. This is the season that satirized sexual double standards with guest stars Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrating that latter’s “last f***able day” and parodied sexualized music videos with the song “Milk Milk Lemonade.” The episode “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” parodied the famous movie, this time with an all-male jury (including Jeff Goldblum, John Hawkes, Vincent Kartheiser, and Paul Giamatti) passing judgment on Schumer’s sex appeal and physical appearance. In another skit, she’s the perfect undercover cop because she is so plain that no one every notices her. In much of the show, Schumer presents herself as a hard-drinking, sexually reckless woman, but her humor cuts both ways as she takes on body shaming, pay inequities, birth control, sexual assault, and other issues through often provocative skits.

10 episodes on two discs on DVD, with uncensored versions of the episodes, a bonus unaired sketch, a collection of unaired interviews, and outtakes.

Gift IdeasGameThronesS1Steel

Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)

HBO’s sprawling, muscular adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic is arguably the pay cabler’s biggest success since The Sopranos became the water-cooler show of its day. It’s also been one of the best-selling TV shows on disc. So it’s not surprising to see a Blu-ray upgrade of the first two seasons.

Sean Bean is the ostensible hero of Season One as Eddard Stark, ruler of the northern kingdom and the Hand of the King (Mark Addy), a once fearsome warrior married to a ruthlessly ambitious queen (Lena Headey) who plots to put her clan on the throne and eliminate Stark. But that’s just the broadest strokes of a very complicated story with where family dynasties plot their way to power through marriages, war, and political gamesmanship, and an exiled princess (Emilia Clarke) unites the barbarian hordes of a land across the water to take back her family legacy. And it doesn’t begin to trace the equally compelling story of Tyrion Lannister, the debauched “black sheep” of the ruling family played by Peter Dinklage (who won an Emmy for his performance). Like a medieval answer to I, Claudius, he’s a dwarf with a sharp mind and a fierce understanding of the ways of power that he hides under his court jester antics. It’s a form of protection as well as escape; he’s not perceived as a threat.

GameThronesS2SteelSeason Two uses the foundation of that season to build an increasingly complex narrative with characters that become more interesting with every challenge. And the biggest challenge: a free-for-all civil war after the sniveling little prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is elevated to the throne by his cold-blooded mother (Lena Headey) and the scheming Lannister family, and their struggle to keep him in power as the boy turns every tantrum into a brutal display of his rule and multiple claimants to the throne make their play for the crown as the balance of power shifts with every alliance and betrayal.

The fantasy elements are still merely grace notes in a fictional historical epic that otherwise plays like a fanciful take on Europe of the Dark Ages, and the scale of the production – in particular battle of King’s Landing, which takes up the entire penultimate episode of the season – suggests feature film values. The series is shot in Ireland, Morocco, Malta, Croatia, and Iceland, with striking, dynamic landscapes defining each fictional land represented in the show. But it wouldn’t mean much without the strong writing, vivid characters, and superb cast. Show creators/producers David Benioff and D.B Weiss know how to keep the show focused on story and character. Storytelling matters, and this is a fiercely-told story.

Each season is ten episodes on five discs. The video master appears to be the same but new to disc is a theater-quality Dolby Amos soundtrack for high-end systems. The supplements are the same: seven commentary tracks on the first season, twelve on the second (there’s some doubling up), featuring a mix of participants including developers / show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (on the series premiere) and most of the stars and major creative collaborators at point or another, numerous production and interview featurettes, interactive guide modes with offer background material and “In-Episode Guides,” a viewing mode with pop-up factoids and guides running through the episodes. These are well-produced extras and worth the visit for fans of the show.

 

The steelbook case is small and sturdy—it’ll fit neatly on the shelf with your other volumes—and the discs are stacked on short spindles inside: three discs on one side, two on the other. I’m not fond of spindles and it can scratch the disc it any grit gets caught between them, which can be an issue in a family household, but if you’re a careful collector it should be fine.

And each features a sigil magnet with the crest of the Starks (First Season) and the Lannisters (Second Season).

GreatAmericanThe Great American Dream Machine (S’more, DVD), produced for PBS in the early 1970s with an unconventional format that mixed comedy skits with documentary segments, animated interludes, and satirical shorts, was an early victim of political pressure on public television. It seems that Congress didn’t like public funds spent on political or social satire. But for two years, this unusual, almost forgotten mix of variety show and offbeat TV newsmagazine presented clever comedy bits by Albert Brooks (his “Famous School for Comedians” anticipates the shorts he made for Saturday Night Live), Chevy Chase (one of the musical faces that opens the show), Charles Grodin, and Marshall Efron between profiles of fringe figures (from Evel Knievel to roller derby athlete Ann Calvello to custom car innovator Big Daddy Roth) and byways of American culture (visits to both “Honeymoon Hotel” and “McDonalds University”).

Dick Cavett recites Carl Sandburg and Mark Twain, Andy Rooney offer his wry kvetching opinions years before it became a staple of 60 Minutes, and Studs Turkel discusses the issues of the day with Chicago citizens. There are short documentaries and musical performances and animated interludes and interviews with folks on the street, adults and children alike, but no host and no studio audience. Compared to modern shows this takes its time—even the animated opening credits are unusually long—but it is a TV landmark and a fascinating time capsule of American culture in the early 1970s and its offbeat approach is still interesting. The programs presented on this four-disc box set appear to be taken from “best of” revival episodes and there are no broadcast dates or episode numbers on the cases or in the booklet, but the collection presents thirteen hours of original segments, most remastered from videotape.

On four discs on DVD, each in a separate case with a menu of segments (it does not, however, separate the episodes from one another) filled with typographical errors and an accompanying booklet with an essay by David Bianculli, all in a paperboard slipsleeve.

The Whole Story

McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, DVD), a service sitcom about a misfit PT boat crew in the South Pacific during World War II, is notable mostly for its ensemble. Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine is the fun-loving, big-hearted McHale, a former tramp steamer skipper commissioned as a Lt. Commander with his own ship and crew because of his knowledge of the islands and seaways, Tim Conway is his lovable but incompetent executive officer, and the great Joe Flynn the eternally exasperated Captain who hates the way McHale flaunts rules and discipline despite his superb record fighting the Japanese. Carl Ballantine is the top grifter in the crew and Gavin MacLeod co-stars. In the fourth season the entire cast is relocated to a small Italian village to patrol the waters of the Mediterranean with the liberation of Italy.

McHaleBeauty

Most of the episodes are variations on the same theme: McHale’s crew hatches some scheme or gets caught up in some activity that breaks navy rules and then they have to cover it up before the Captain can catch them in the act. There’s nothing original here but the ensemble timing is superb. The series was moderately popular and a syndication staple through the 1970s, giving it some nostalgia appeal, and it launched Conway’s career.

In addition to the complete four seasons, this box set features the two big screen movies featuring the original cast, both directed by series producer Edward Montagne and released when the show was still on the air. McHale’s Navy (1964), which doesn’t bother even bother coming up with a variation on the series name, is like a feature-length episode revolving around a horse racing scheme. Borgnine is absent from McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965), which slips Conway in the lead when Parker gets mistaken for a pilot and assigned to duties in the Air Force.

JusticeLeagueUnJustice League Unlimited: The Complete Series (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – The signature superhero series of the Cartoon Network was developed by Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series) in the early 2000s for the Cartoon Network as a more mature take on the all-star superhero team that counts Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as charter members. This is no happy-go-lucky group of seventies-era “Super Friends” saving the world with a smile and a chummy sense of togetherness. Choppy relationships, clashing personalities (the grim Green Lantern, lighthearted jester The Flash, grim, haunted Martian Manhunter and, of course, Batman, who explains himself with the line: “I’m not really a people person”), and lots of suspicion make these teammates an often contentious and always interesting group.

It was simply called Justice League for the for two seasons of the series who but it became Justice League Unlimited in 2004, adding new charter members (among them Green Arrow, Supergirl, and Black Canary) and shifting from multi-episode stories to more self-contained episodes, though a long-running battle with Lex Luthor, the super-villain who turns the government against the supergroup and creates a powerful nemesis, Cadmus, to take down the heroes, runs through the first half of this collection.

39 episodes on three discs, with commentary on episodes “This Little Piggy” and “The Return” with producer Bruce Timm and others and three featurettes: “”And Justice For All,” on the revamping of the show with its new characters and a new direction; “Cadmus Exposed,” with Timm, Mark Hamill and others discussing the entire Cadmus storyline; and “Justice League Chronicles, with series writers, producers, and directors discussing their favorite moments among final-season episodes.

Also new and notableFearWalkS1

Outlander: Season One – The Ultimate Collection (Sony, Blu-ray) collects the episodes previously available in two separate releases. Adapted from the bestselling historical romances by Diane Gabron, it’s the first Starz original series to be both a bonifide critical and popular hit. It’s intelligent and interesting, full of historical and cultural detail, and builds on a situation that calls upon magic yet remains grounded in a very real world where the threat of violence and death are ever present. And it’s all told from the perspective of a smart, observant, modern (circa 1945) British woman magically transported back to 18th century Scotland who is doing all she can to stay alive long enough to escape back into her world. 16 episodes plus supplements.

Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD), the prequel series to AMC’s hit zombie apocalypse drama, begins at ground zero, or at least time zero, with the first outbreaks of the undead virus in Los Angeles. It launched with a six-episode season that centers on an extended family around Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis and ends with the city collapsing into chaos. With two featurettes.

Marco Polo: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) of the Netflix original series features 10 episodes plus featurettes, deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, and galleries of art and stills.

LegendsMystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV (Shout! Factory, DVD) presents four more episodes never before released on disc: The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957) and The Undead (1957) directed by Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon’s War of the Colossal Beast (1958), and The She-Creature (1956), all produced by American International Pictures. The four-disc set includes new introductions by Frank Conniff, the original documentary It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine: The American International Pictures Story (2015), and four mini-posters.

From the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives comes the debut seasons of three recent shows: the ABC comedy Cristela: The Complete Season 1 with Cristela Alonzo (22 episodes); Legends: The Complete Season 1, the TNT deep cover thriller with Sean Bean, Ali Larter, and Morris Chestnut (10 episodes); and Kingdom: The Complete Season 1, the DirecTV boxing drama with Frank Grillo and Matt Lauria (10 episodes).

And the entire run of a couple of shows that didn’t make it past a first season: the behind-the-scenes showbiz comedy The Comedians: The Complete Series with Billy Crystal and Josh Gad (13 episodes) and the sitcom Weird Loners: The Complete Series with a mere six episodes. These are all DVD-R releases.

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD

OutlanderComplete

Blu-ray / DVD: Get small with ‘Ant-Man’ or go ‘Blind’

AntmanAnt-Man (Marvel, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) takes a slightly different approach for a movie in the Marvel superhero universe. It’s more playful and comic, with a reluctant hero who has a motley crew of buddies and a mentor with a sly sense of humor as well as justice, and while the stakes a big (stopping a tech giant from weaponizing experimental technology and it to the bad guys), it’s not the world-shaking battleground of The Avengers or Thor or Iron Man movies. It’s a movie that wants to have a little more fun with the genre, and it succeeds, even if it never really veers far from an increasingly familiar conventions of the superhero movie.

Paul Rudd, an actor with a guy-next-door quality and easygoing amiability, takes the lead as Scott Lang, a self-described cat burglar as a whistle-blowing Robin Hood who steps out of prison with nothing more on his mind than to go straight and become a part of his little girl’s life. Then he’s drafted by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a scientist and former tech tycoon, to inherit his unique shrinking suit, which also enables him to communicate with ants. Hank was a covert hero for decades, we discover, and he uses subterfuge like a con game to reel in Scott as his successor, a decision that his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) isn’t too keen on, but she helps him train nonetheless. Corey Stoll is the calculating CEO and former protégé who bounced Hank out of the company he founded and wants to use his tech for next-generation weapons. Their plan to stop him is part comic book fantasy, part elaborate heist, featuring an oddball gang of conspirators (Michael Peña, T.I. and David Dastmalchian) and a small army of ants, who prove to be team players and quite personable once you get up close and personal.

And that’s where the film is most fun. All the Marvel movies revel in spectacle but Ant-Man shifts the perspective when Scott goes all incredible shrinking man. The film was developed by filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), who left the film over disagreements with Marvel, and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), with additional contributions from Adam McKay and Rudd. Director Peyton Reed, who takes a more whimsical attitude than the usual superhero flick, straddles the line between cartoon comedy and underdog wonder in those colorful forays into the world underfoot. It gives the adventure a whole new perspective, and the energy and invention of the climactic battle, as hero and villain (and other objects) shrink and sprout at will, is a refreshingly different take on the obligatory showdown set piece. It’s a minor film but that’s part of the charm, the lack of bombast and epic scale in a genre that keeps trying to top itself. Rudd is an everyman as hero, Douglas is clearly having fun as the mentor with a sense of humor, and Lilly mostly bides her time. Marvel is better than DC in sharing the screen with women heroes but it’s still mostly a boys club. According to the post-credits clip, that club will get just slightly more estrogen in the next installment.

I assume the Blu-ray looks and sound superb—I received a digital copy to stream via DisneyMoviesAnywhere rather than a physical disc, which looks fine—as Disney has gone all with great transfers for their previous Marvel movies. The digital copy does, however, have most the Blu-ray supplements. I watched the two featurettes “Making of an Ant-Sized Heist: A How-To Guide” (14 minutes) and “Let’s Go to the Macroverse” (8 minutes), which are light and fun with lots of terrific production and special effects footage, and the “WHIH NewsFront” clips of the fake newscasts, but it only features one deleted scene (the Blu-ray lists eight deleted scenes) and no commentary (the Blu-ray has director Peyton Reed and actor Paul Rudd, who I imagine would be entertaining).

blindBlind (Icarus, DVD), the story of a woman (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) who has recently lost her sight, is a refreshingly inventive and perceptive take on genre that rarely explores the experience from a subjective perspective. Neither uplifting tale of triumph nor blind-woman-in-peril thriller, it is a playful, intimate story of a person who keeps unseen world alive in her mind’s eye. It’s the directorial debut of screenwriter Eskil Vogt, who co-wrote the films Reprise (2006), Oslo, August 31st (2011) and Louder Than Bombs (2015) with friend and fellow filmmaker Joachim Trier, and it has a similar sensibility.

Ingrid (Petersen) is adjusting to her new life after becoming blind. She prefers to remain in the apartment she shares with her husband (Henrik Rafaelsen), an architect, learning to process sounds and learn to do daily tasks without sight. While she can no longer see, she continues to exercise her ability to visualize, and Vogt shapes the film around her perspective. Not just her visualization of what she hears, but her imagination as she turns author and tells the story of a single mother (Vera Vitali) and a porn-obsessed shut-in (Marius Kolbenstvedt) whose fictional odyssey starts to overlap with Ingrid’s real life. Vogt’s play with perspective extends to the creative, as she rewrites and the image transforms with it. It’s a film that demands close attention and rewards it with playful storytelling and inventive associations that reverberate between the real and the imagined.

In Norwegian with English subtitles. The DVD also features an interview with filmmaker Eskil Vogt from the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

MinionsAlso new and notable:

Minions (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) gives the goofy little yellow pill-bug henchmen of the Despicable Me movies their own animated feature as they search for a new villain to serve. Features three new animated mini-movies and a featurette.

Jellyfish Eyes (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from visual artist Takashi Murakami, is a fantasy of childhood innocence and fantastical creatures come to life as playmates in a post-Fukushima world. Criterion offers a filmmaker interview and two featurettes on the film’s stateside disc debut. Full review later.

Blu-ray: Dick Powell noir ‘Murder My Sweet’ and ‘Pitfall’

MurderMySweet
Warner Archive

Murder My Sweet (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) is not just the most faithful screen version of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero Philip Marlowe from the classic era of film noir, it’s also one of the best. Dick Powell, the 1930s crooner and boy next door romantic lead of dozens of musical comedies, changed his career trajectory overnight when he took the lead in the Edward Dmytryk-directed adaptation of “Farewell, My Lovely” (the title was changed for the movie just to let audiences know that this was a darker side of Powell).

The cynical, smart talking private eye gets hired in short order by, first, a dim ex-con (pug nosed Mike Mazurki) to find his girl Velma, and then by the prissy stooge of a blackmail victim to babysit him during a handoff. The meeting ends with the stooge’s death and Marlowe is immediately engaged by the owner of the jewels, the wily Mrs. Grayle (Claire Trevor), to recover them. As Marlowe navigates the dark, dangerous world of wartime LA, splitting his search between high society haunts and the cheap smoky bars and flophouses of the inner city, he turns up one too many stones, winds up on the wrong end of a fist, and wakes up to a drug induced nightmare that Dmytryk delivers with a mixture of surreal symbolism and sinister expressionism. Powell delivers screenwriter John Paxton’s snappy lines and droll asides with hard boiled cynicism, like someone not quite as tough as he talks, but it’s Powell’s innate vulnerability that makes this reluctant saint of the city so compelling. Dmytryk’s shadowy style creates a visual equivalent to the web of intrigue Marlowe navigates, an almost perpetual world of night.

It is one of the first great film noirs and an often overlooked detective movie classic, and it has been beautifully mastered for its Blu-ray debut. Also features commentary by film noir expert Alain Silver (carried over from the original DVD release) and the original trailer.

Pitfall
Kino Classics

Dick Powell found the genre, which at the time were simply crime thrillers or crime dramas, a good fit for his dry delivery and understated style so after starring in Cornered (1945), Johnny O’Clock (1947), and To the Ends of the Earth (1948), he turned producer (though without screen credit) and developed his own project. The first of his independent efforts, the 1948 Pitfall (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of the greatest—and most adult—film noirs that even many film buffs have never heard of.

Powell is middle-class insurance man John Forbes, a white collar husband and father living in suburbia and on the verge of burn-out, or at least disillusionment with the rat race. His deadpan patter is ignored by his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) and bounces over the head of his oblivious son (Jimmy Hunt), and his sardonic attitude is carried into the job, where he deals with a seedy private detective (Raymond Burr at his sleaziest) who tracks down stolen property insured by his firm. That’s how he meets Mona (Lizabeth Scott), a smoky-voiced model who was showered with gifts from an embezzling banker. She’s not the gold-digger that John expects, however, and he ends up in an affair that isn’t exactly an affair, at least not how it’s presented to steer clear of production code dos and don’ts. There are afternoon meetings in smoky bars and scraps with the PI who goes all stalker on Mona, and the shadows of his city sins follow him home to suburbia.

Those narrative gymnastics are part of what make the film so interesting. It’s not sex that jams up John, it’s the fantasy of a secret life outside of his routine, and it’s just as much a betrayal. Sue may appear obliviously sunny and content but she’s perceptive and self-aware, thanks both to mature screenwriting and a strong performance by Wyatt, who is far more central to the drama than her screen time might suggest. And while the violence erupts in the dark of night, with slashes of light picking the players out of the shadows like any great noir, the rest of the film plays out in the light of day in familiar settings: home, office, the busy streets of Los Angeles (not a studio backlot but real location shots that give the film a presence in the real lives of real people). Director Andre de Toth, whose legacy of hard-edged dramas in all genres is still too-often overlooked, keeps the film in a recognizable world and focuses on consequences and responsibility more than the spectacle of violence. This isn’t the story of outlaws but a straight arrow guy who drifts into a little secret excitement and finds his shadowy actions exposed for all to see with the dawn, and the film ends with the family facing the fallout with a decision to make: how do you move forward from something like this?

The film came out on VHS and laserdisc decades ago but, as it was independently made and thus not protected by a studio, it fell through the cracks of preservation. The Film Noir Foundation financed a restoration from the best available elements, which was undertaken by the UCLA Film Archive. It’s not pristine, mind you, and there are scenes with major wear, but the focus was on getting the best image and this has good contrasts and clarity behind the wear, and in the best scenes it is clear and clean.

The Blu-ray and DVD release also features commentary by film noir historian and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller, who provides both a detailed history of the production and observations on the style and sensibility of the film.

Powell teamed up with (uncredited) screenwriter William Bowers for a second film, Cry Danger (1951), a couple of years later, another smart, sharp little picture that was also restored by The Film Noir Foundation and UCLA and released on Blu-ray and DVD by Olive last year. If you like Pitfall, track down Cry Danger and get the full Powell experience. (Reviewed on Cinephiled here.)

‘Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies’ and the Quay Brothers on Blu-ray

Chaplinessenay
Flicker Alley

Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – In 1914 Charlie Chaplin, the most famous comic performer in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, was lured away by Essanay Studios with a huge increase in salary and the promise of creative freedom. Chaplin made the most of it and you can watch his evolution over the course of the 14 official shorts (and one unofficial short) of this collection, all produced in 1915. This is the American Blu-ray debut of the films from newly remastered editions, a project undertaken in collaboration with Lobster Films, David Shepard and Blackhawk Films, and the Cineteca Bologna.

Chaplin stars with Ben Turpin in His New Job, set at a movie studio, and A Night Out, where they play a pair of sloppy drunks raising havoc at a posh eatery. Edna Purviance, who co-stars in all subsequent Essanay shorts, joins Chaplin with The Champion, where a hidden horseshoe in a boxing glove promotes the tramp from sparring partner (“This gink wants his face kalsomined,” reads one particularly rich title) to challenger to the boxing title. In the Park, a shapeless gag fest where the tramp crosses paths with a pickpocket (identified as “a biter” in the titles) and a pair of lovers, concludes the tape. This is primitive Chaplin, still very much steeped in the Keystone slapstick tradition of pratfalls and well placed kicks to the rear end. The Tramp an aggressively mischievous character who smokes incessantly, striking matches on the neck of poor bystanders and flicking ashes in everything from tipped hats to open mouths. The Chaplin magic comes through in the timing and the grace.

A Jitney Elopement is straight slapstick, an often inspired but otherwise familiar tale of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements ending in a Keystone-like car chase. The Tramp, however, features his most fully formed story to date and injects an element of pathos that will become central to Chaplin’s later films. The Tramp saves a girl from three ruffians and is rewarded with a job from her father (he proceeds to wreak havoc on their family farm), but stays only because he’s fallen in love. By contrast By the Sea feels thrown together, and likely was as Chaplin and company shot the loosely connected series of beachside gags in one day. Work finds Chaplin back in form: a force of pure chaos as a paperhanger’s assistant who turns a cozy home into a glue-spattered disaster area. You can see Chaplin’s story sense improve with The Tramp and Work while his persona becomes less aggressive and more hapless, oblivious to the destruction he’s causing all around.

Chaplin doffed his duds and his ubiquitous mustache for the first time since leaving Keystone and the last time in the silent era for A Woman, a hilarious short in which he disguises himself as an elegant society lady. As he flutters his eyelids and flirts with two leering men, including his sweetheart’s married father, she watches in tickled amusement. In The Bank, one of his best Essanay shorts, he waddles up the bank vault only to pull out a bucket, a mop and a smock. Chaplin smoothly combines pathos and slapstick in this story of a dreamy, lovesick janitor, the first of his Essanay films to approach the level of his later Mutual classics. Shanghaied is classic silent situational comedy involving a boat, a stowaway, a dastardly plot to sink the ship, and a plenty of seaborn humor. Chaplin’s gags flow smoothly through a cohesive narrative, building to an organic climax (as opposed to often arbitrary conclusions of his first Essanay efforts), while his talents as a physical comedian are in full display as he balances a dinner tray on a stormy sea and dances a spontaneous jig.

Chaplin is at the top of his form in the his final three films for Essanay. He takes two roles in A Night at the Show, the drunk dandy that was his music hall specialty and a working class rube with a droopy mustache, to wreak havoc at a vaudeville show. Producer David Shepard’s reconstruction of Chaplin’s original two reel version of Burlesque of Carmen, which was expanded by Essanay to four reels with outtakes and new footage, brings the sprawling parody back down to the concentrated, cohesive, and very funny comedy Chaplin originally created. Police is classic Chaplin, the misadventures of the Tramp who leaves prison for a world of rampant poverty and crime, portrayed with a cynical, satiric eye yet heartened with hope. The edition featured here is newly restored. It’s also his final film for Essanay. Mutual Studios gave Chaplin an offer and Chaplin left in 1916 for complete creative control and an unprecedented contract that made him the highest paid person in the world. Building from his evolution at Essanay, he went on to create a dozen comedy classics that remain, in the eyes of many fans, the most concentrated examples of the Chaplin genius.

The rest of the films are presented as supplements. Triple Trouble was constructed by Essanay in 1918 from an unfinished feature called Life and outtakes from Police and Work. While it lacks the narrative cohesion that Chaplin brought to his late Essanay films, it nonetheless features some excellent comic moments. And the set also features the debut of the newly restored Charlie Butts, a one-reel short assembled from alternate takes from A Night Out and released in 1920.

The set features all of these in both Blu-ray and DVD editions and includes a booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance and notes on the films and the restorations.

QuayBrosThe Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films (Zeitgeist, Blu-ray) – Collaborators and identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay have garnered a cult following for their strange animated shorts, surreal films created in a collision of 19th and 20th century styles and sensibilities. Their figures—mechanical contraptions of thread and wire, springs and coils, aged machine parts and simple tools—quiver and stutter, as if restless with nervous energy, through abstract dramas in doll house abodes in dreamscape worlds.

Directed in a highly stylized manner, with a shallow plain of focus that purposely keeps objects out of focus and a camera that moves with conspicuous mechanical precision (long before it became common practice in stop-motion photography), their works have a dream-like quality about them. This is directly alluded to in the subtitle of one of their most handsome films, The Comb (From the Museum of Sleep) (1990) where scenes of a lattice-work of ladders shooting through an angular construction is intercut with a sleeping woman. Street of Crocodiles (1986), their most famous short work, references turn-of-the-century cinema as a man peers through a Kinetoscope to watch the nightmare-tinged fantasy of a figure overwhelmed by mysterious forces on the deserted streets of city after dark. These are the longest and most accomplished short films in this collection of 16 short films spanning 30 years of filmmaking, but there are other spellbinding works: the early The Cabinet of Jan Svanmajer (1984) a tribute to the great Czech animator and the Quays’ spiritual godfather; the inventive art history documentary De Artificiali Persepctiva, or Animorphosis (1990); the four short works in the Stille Nacht series. These films, along with Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1987) and The Phantom Museum (2003), showcase a vision of quivering objects and surreal narratives in a shadowy, self-contained dream world.

Three recent works make their disc debut in this collection: Maska (2010), Through the Weeping Glass (2011), and Unmistaken Hands (2013), all of which recently toured the U.S. in a program of Quay films curated by Christopher Nolan, a fan of the filmmakers. He contributes an original documentary, the eight-minute appreciation Quay (2015), a profile of the filmmakers at work and in conversation discussing their inspirations. Also features commentaries for six shorts recorded by the Quay Brothers for a previous disc release and a booklet with an introduction by Nolan, a Quay Brothers dictionary, and an essay by Michael Atkinson.

The complete line-up is featured below:

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984)
This Unnameable Little Broom (or, The Epic of Gilgamesh) (1985)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
Stille Nacht I (Dramolet) (1988)
The Comb (1990)
Anamorphosis (1991)
Stille Nacht II (Are We Still Married?) (1992)
Stille Nacht III (Tales From Vienna Woods) (1993)
Stille Nacht IV (Can’t Go Wrong Without You) (1994)
In Absentia (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2003)
Nocturna Artificialia (1979)
plus
Maska (2010)
Through the Weeping Glass (2011)
Unmistaken Hands (2013)
Quay (dir: Christopher Nolan)

The Quay Brothers’ ‘Street of Crocodiles’ (1986)

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Mississippi Grind’ – an American original, plus ‘American Ultra’ and ‘Goodnight Mommy’

MissGrind
Lionsgate

Mississippi Grind (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) plays like a seventies character drama, a meandering road movie through the byways of American characters who populate the card rooms and dice tables and racetracks, and an oddball buddy movie built on a chance encounter and an instant kinship between two losers gambling their lives away. Ryan Reynolds is Curtis, a good looking guy who has all the outward suggestions of a charming hustler, and Ben Mendelsohn is the self-destructive Gerry, killing his nights and his income at cards and sports bookies, betting everything on the fantasy of instant success on a single good night.

These guys are buddies by chance—they meet over a hand of cards and bond over top-shelf whiskey—and travelling companions by impulse when Gerry decides to follow Curtis to a big tournament in New Orleans. Curtis is generous and trusting to a fault, or maybe to a need, and a storyteller whose tales may or may not be in the orbit of reality. He runs in gambling circles for the charge of the action, not just the cards but the byplay, the people, that cardroom culture of oddball personalities. Gerry is a gambling addict and a pathological liar whose past is a wrecking yard of ruined relationships and failed promises and impulsive long shots and whose future is already in hawk to a loan shark (Alfre Woodard in a single scene-stealing appearance).

It could be the darker, bleaker answer to Robert Altman’s California Split, or a card-playing variation on The Color of Money without the calculation or mentorship of a veteran gambler running the show. Filmmaking team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have a knack for finding the patter of dialogue, rhythms of body language, and the expressiveness of silences between the words that communicate what the words can’t, and they offer a great tour of the back hand of the American dream, folks spending their time and money making bets in hopes of making their fortune, but really just hooked on the games and playing until the money is gone.

Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Two of a Kind: On the Road with Mississippi Grind” plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD).

AmericaUltra
Lionsgate

American Ultra (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) reworks The Bourne Identity as a stoner comedy with killer punchline. Jesse Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a sweet, underachieving stoner prone to panic attacks. He’s getting by as a convenience store clerk in a dead-end West Virginia town with a supportive girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who is almost impossibly understanding when it comes to his crippling psychological handicaps, and trying to find the right moment to propose—he can’t believe that she’s still sticking with him and doesn’t want to lose the best thing in his life. And then he’s attacked by two thugs in a parking lot and kills one of them with a plastic spoon.

Clearly we’re in the realm of bloody black comedy, where extreme violence is played for tongue-in-cheek humor (except when it isn’t) and our resourceful sleeper assassin has an inventive ingenuity when it comes to turning random objects into deadly weapons. Mike is the sole survivor of a modern super soldier experiment and some snotty CIA middle-management guy (Topher Grace) with a little too much power decides that Mike, whose memories (but not his killer instincts) have been wiped, is a liability and a threat to his own clockwork killer program, which he puts into the field after another agent (Connie Britton) activates him in hopes of saving his life. The collateral damage is comparable to that of a category 3 hurricane.

Smart-mouthed one-liners and creative killing aside, there’s nothing particularly clever in this take on the spy movie trope, but it does have momentum, a modicum of flair, and some flashy effects that, if not particularly effective, at least energize the project. Still, it’s the terrific, lived-in chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart (who also starred together in the superb Adventureland) that sustains the enterprise and they are up for anything the film throws at them. The cascade of cruelly creative carnage gets a little numbing after a while and the filmmakers—director Nima Nourizadeh and screenwriter Max Landis—aren’t committed enough to believe their own cynicism, but Eisenberg and Stewart make this one true romance I believe in.

Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, two featurettes, and a gag reel, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD). Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On-Demand.

GoodnightMom
Anchor Bay

Goodnight Mommy (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is an unsettling horror film built on scars (physical and psychological) that upset the connection between a mother (Susanne Wuest) and her sons, adolescent twins named Lukas and Elias played by real-life twin brothers Lukas Schwarz and Elias Schwarz. That fraternal connection is apparent in every scene, not just affection but the easy physical and emotional relationship between them, a sharp contrast to the void between them and their mother, who returns home from the hospital with her head covered in bandages from unspecified surgery.

Mom returns a changed woman, or so we gather from the brothers, who find her cold, aloof, demanding in a way she never was before. She locks them in their room like a fairytale wicked stepmother and even refuses to make dinner for Lukas, the quiet one who drives the suspicion that this woman is an imposter. Yet every time the suspicion tips to conspiracy or possession, filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz tilt the scales in the other direction, offering a glimpse into mom’s troubles. She’s recently separated from her husband and this hospitalization (what is it? Cosmetic surgery, or something more serious?) only adds to her trauma, while the boys get lost deeper into their own private world.

There’s an element of unreality to the situation—why have the boys been left alone while mom was in the hospital, and if she needs such isolation and rest for recovery, why no nurse for her or nanny to watch over the kids, or at least a friend to drop over for comfort or a helping hand—but that isolation is also essential to the anxious atmosphere. Apart from a delivery man with a cache of frozen food and a couple of shuffling Red Cross volunteers seeking donations, they are cut off from the outside world and the filmmakers make the house increasingly alien and eerie. The psychological turns physical, all the more terrifying because it is so direct and intimate, a chamber drama of suspicion and desperation built on fear. Where is mama indeed.

On Blu-ray and DVD, in German with English subtitles, with the featurette “A Conversation with Filmmakers.” Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On Demand.

Blu-ray / DVD: Satyajit Ray’s ‘The Apu Trology’

ApuTrilogyThe Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali / Aparajito / Apur Sansar (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – In 1955 Satyajit Ray, a young graphic artist in the advertising industry, released his debut feature, a labor of love made independently over the course of two and a half years. Pather Panchali (aka Song of the Little Road, 1955), a portrait of life in a small, impoverished village in rural India, has texture and grace of a painting. Seen through the eyes of young Apu, it’s really about three generations of women in his home: elder Auntie, protective Mother, and bright-eyed older sister Durga. It was India’s answer to Italy’s neo-realism, in part out of inspiration but also because it was made under similar conditions: little money, non-professional actors, a first-time director trying to capture a world that hadn’t been seen on screens.

Its portrait of rural poverty was something western audiences could relate to more than India’s distinctive urban culture and the customs, clothes, and score—Ravi Shankar on the sitar—suitably exotic color to a story that critics liked to call universal. That in part explains why this film was embraced internationally while other films from India failed to break through. Maybe it helped that it affirmed western perceptions of a country and culture that was little understood. But Pather Panchali is also an astounding debut of great power and poetry that is undiminished today. Ray put his passion into the film and created a nuanced and delicate film. Ray brings their environment alive in breathtaking scenes, especially Apu’s magical encounter with a train, billowing smoke in its wake like a mythical creature driving through his forest home. And he creates full, complex characters. While we see them through the wide-eyes of Apu, we do not get a simplified or reductive portrait.

It was followed by Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1957), which takes the now teenage Apu and his parents to the city of Benares, and, after a break making two unrelated films (including the magnificent The Music Room), Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), a powerful story of love and tragedy that follows the adult Apu’s loss and rebirth. Over the course of the three films (adapted from two novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay) we see Ray evolve as a filmmaker. As Apu grows (he’s played by a different actor in each film) his perspective becomes more complex and he endures hardships until he faces a loss that upends the optimism that kept him going, and Ray introduces us to the bustle of city life (where poverty is just as prevalent but has a different face). The screenwriting offers more naturalistic dialogue with more subtle revelations of character and his scenes unfold with a naturalism that allows us to forget the careful compositions. The trains that promise a better life in the modern world elsewhere in Pather Panchali are no longer the majestic creatures of promise in Apur Sansar but ghosts that whistle outside the windows, unseen but intrusive reminders of the past and of the poverty on his apartment by the tracks. And in the midst of all this, Ray offers one of the great love stories in the cinema in Apur Sansar, an impulsive marriage that blossoms into a beautiful relationship. Together, they heralded the arrival of one of the great humanist directors of modern cinema, and for decades these films represented classic East Indian cinema in retrospectives and campus programs.

The original negatives of these film, which were shipped to London for restoration and a rerelease of his key films, were damaged beyond repair in a fire twenty years ago. These new restorations, which premiered at Cannes in May, were a collaboration between Criterion, Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna and in part created from the negative elements that survived the fire. Somewhere around half of Pather Panchali and Aparajito were salvaged, though the elements were brittle and terribly fragile, and Apur Sansar was too damaged to salvage. Duplicate negatives and fine-grain 35mm masters were used where the original negative was missing or unusable and extensive digital restoration followed the physical repairs and 4K digital mastering. An extensive accounting of the process is included in the booklet. The upshot is that these are beautiful editions that preserve the delicate imagery and textures of Ray’s original film.

The three-disc set present each film on a separate disc and an individual paperboard case collected in a sturdy slipsleeve with a booklet. Newly produced for the edition are video interviews with actors Soumitra Chatterjee, Shampa Srivastava, and Sharmila Tagore, camera assistant Soumendu Roy, and film writer Ujjal Chakraborty, a video essay by Ray biographer Andrew Robinson on the trilogy’s evolution and production, and the featurette “The Apu Trilogy: A Closer Look” from filmmaker, producer, and teacher Mamoun Hassan, plus a short featurette on the restorations by filmmaker :: kogonada. Archival supplements include the 2003 documentary “The Song of the Little Road” featuring composer Ravi Shankar; the 1967 half-hour documentary “The Creative Person: Satyajit Ray” featuring interviews with Ray, several of his actors, and members of his creative team; and footage of Ray receiving an honorary Oscar in 1992.

The booklet also features original essays by film critics and scholars Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu and reproductions of Ray’s original storyboards for Pather Panchali.

Copyright © 2015 by Sean Axmaker

‘Pather Panchali’

Blu-ray: F.W. Murnau’s ‘Faust’

Faust (Kino Classics, Blu-ray+DVD), the final German production by director F.W. Murnau before he left for Hollywood, remains one of the most visually magnificent films of the silent era. The new Blu-ray reminds us just how beautiful, adventurous, and powerful it is after all these years.

Adapted from Goethe’s classic play by Carl Mayer (with uncredited rewrites by Thea von Harbou), it reimagines the modern myth of the idealistic scientist who signs a pact with the devil as a holy battle between good and evil. Faust (Gösta Ekman) becomes a kind of modern day Job tempted by Mephisto (Emil Jannings) in a wager with the Archangel (Werner Fuetterer, looking like a heavenly Siegfried with feathery wings), who is apparently unconcerned over the torment the victims are soon to endure just to win a bet with the Devil.

Faust has had a rocky reputation over the years. Murnau suffers from a pair of romantic leads (Ekman and Camilla Horn as Gretchen, Murnau’s answer to Lillian Gish) with no chemistry and little screen dynamism. Emil Jannings looks born to dress up as a demonic beast with leathery wings that could (and do) swallow a small village whole, but Murnau has a tendency to let him off the leash for comic relief; his actorly overindulgence gets awfully distracting.

Yet it’s the most breathtakingly beautiful of Murnau’s German films, a tragedy drawn in epic images like paintings in light and shadow on a scale that spans the world. The imagery of Mephisto and the Archangel is operatic and grandiose, yet delicately textured and intricately lit. Lucifer takes Faust on a magic carpet ride around the world, looking down on jagged mountainscapes and fairy-tale kingdoms of opulence and decadence in a spectacle of expressionistically exaggerated miniatures and trick photography. An innocent staked to a pyre to burn for her sins becomes a scene of transcendence, at once harrowing and spiritual. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Gretchen, abandoned by her lover and rejected by the pious townspeople for her sins, crawls pathetically through the snow while clutching her infant, gripped in a hallucination of sanctuary in the storm with tragic consequences. The townsfolk may not be big on charity, but they are very quick to capture and punish the wicked. The Devil couldn’t have orchestrated her torture better… and in fact, the Devil did.

The film ostensibly takes the position of man’s essential goodness in the face of temptation in the debate between the Archangel and Mephisto, but as the drama plays out, Murnau seems to favor the Devil’s position. When the death and doom of the plague first descends on Faust’s village, the citizens slip into a bacchanal and turns their little town into a Sodom. The so-called Christians pass judgment on Faust and Gretchen with such intolerance and lack of compassion that they close their doors and their charity on the victimized Gretchen as she suffers and starves with a dying infant. How easy it is for Mephisto to tap into the greed and lust of man, Murnau seems to be saying, to dig beneath pious poses of religious morality and reveal a vicious vindictiveness. A final act of sacrifice may save the souls of our tortured sinners (and what a stunning scene it is), but it seems to me that Faust lost his wager only because they never took into account the actions of the rest of humanity, only this one seduced soul.

Murnau shot separate negatives for different territories: seven distinct versions are known to exist, each composed of different takes (some barely noticeable, others marked by different framing and editing choices, still others put together with outtakes and otherwise discarded takes). According to historian Luciano Berriatua, who also supervised this restoration, this was a rare instance where the American cut was actually Murnau’s definitive version. Murnau saw his future in Hollywood (where he would make his next film, Sunrise) and, after editing his German version, took the negatives to the U.S. to personally prepare the American version of the film. That German cut was re-edited in his absence and subsequently lost. Kino previously released a version from the Ufa vaults that was prepared in 1930 from the Danish masters. This newly remastered version is a reconstruction of his original German cut using the materials from the American version (with supplementary footage from other negatives and surviving prints where necessary) and the intertitle cards that Murnau had originally prepared for the German version (but were subsequently discarded by producer Hand Neumann). The hand-painted cards feature text over an abstract background of bold black strokes on a white background that suggests a stormy struggle between the forces of dark and light.

The quality is astounding, a beautiful print with rich tones and clear images and the finest the film has ever looked (at least in the past seventy years or so). The new restoration also features two scores—a compilation score of “historic photoplay music” by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (recorded in 5.1 Stereo Surround) and a piano score adapted from the original 1926 orchestral arrangement—and the 53-minute documentary The Language of Shadows: Faust by Luciano Berriatua (which compares many of the different versions and reveals many of the outtakes used in alternate negatives), lost screen test footage of Lubitsch’s abandoned 1923 production “Marguerite and Faust” and galleries of set designs and stills.

Also features a bonus DVD with the previously released 1930 Ufa version of the film, produced for DVD by David Shepard and featuring a moody orchestral score by Timothy Brock performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra.

Camilla Horn as Gretchen

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘The Man for U.N.C.L.E.’ revived and ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” extended

ManFromUncleThe Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD), Guy Ritchie’s big screen revival of the sixties secret agent series, is an origin story of sorts—think “When Napoleon met Illya”—with the two agents in a wary partnership. Otherwise it doesn’t bother much with backstories or motivations beyond setting the scene, which in this case is Europe in the cold war culture of the 1960s, from the ominous night behind the Iron Curtain to the sunny playground of the Mediterranean

Henry Cavill, who was a stiff as Superman, is quite charming in a cocky, calculating way as Napoleon Solo, a former thief pressed into service as America’s best dressed agent. His mission is to get Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), an East German mechanic whose uncle happens to be a literal rocket scientist, over the wall to help stop some vague master criminal plot to unleash a nuclear bomb. Armie Hammer, dressed in funky proletariat chic so retro it’s cool, is stony Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin, who is after the same girl. So the rival nations decide to pair up their favorite cold warriors to stop the new international criminal threat, leading to a picture-postcard globe-hopping tour and a funky fashion show of sixties style. Oh yes, there’s also Hugh Grant getting in on the fun with his bemused dry wit. It won’t take fans of the TV show long to figure out his place in the scheme of things.

The plot is disposable at best —there’s an elegant mastermind (Elizabeth Debicki) who lives in the decadence of sleek sixties modernism with plans to destabilize the world for fun and profit—but Ritchie goes all out in reviving the Cold War sixties spy movie style and attitude, recalling Connery’s Bond movie with tongue firmly in cheek. The rival agents keep up their macho competitiveness and Vikander’s Gaby rolls her eyes at their juvenile antics, but in between we get elaborate set-pieces: foot chases and car races and physical stunts with real humans and physical objects rather than the manipulated pixels of CGI. Ritchie directs with an affection for sixties gimmickry both in terms of spy technology and filmmaking flourishes, splashing the film with multi-panel split screens (done digitally but evoking optical effects), zooms and whip pans, and the kind of splashy color that reminds us it’s all a fantasy.

It wasn’t particularly well-reviewed upon release and was not a summer hit—don’t expect a franchise to follow—but I found it refreshing and fun. Especially for a film where our two heroes are revealed to be borderline psychotics who have found their true calling in national service.

Blu-ray and DVD, with the supplements on the Blu-ray only: with five short featurettes and one collection of micro-featurettes, fun but a little slim for such a big production. The longest of the supplements—”Spy Vision: Recreating 60’s Cool” on designing the film and “A Higher Class of Hero” on creating the action sequences—are under 10 minutes apiece and the rest under five minutes each: a piece on the creator of the motorcycles in the film and portraits of the two stars and the director. “U.N.C.L.E.: On-Set Spy” collects four little pieces that run just over a minute apiece. Also includes bonus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.

HobbitBattleThe Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies – Extended Edition (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD), the final chapter in Peter Jackson’s epically-expanded adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s adventure fantasy, once again offer a longer version of his theatrical film for the home video experience. Opening with the death of Smaug the dragon and concluding with a battle that takes up about half of the film’s running time, this is the darkest of the films. It turns on the transformation of dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) under the spell of the treasure and delivers The Battle of the Five Armies, an event only sketched out by Tolkien in the novel. Jackson turns the battle into the biggest set piece he’s ever made, showing off his flair for spectacle on a mammoth scale and his gift for creating clarity in sprawling action scenes with multiple stories and central characters to keep track of.

I’m still not thrilled with the ret-con job on the classic story but this chapter is the best of the three, more focused on a central narrative spine to build the spectacle upon and featuring a solid foundation of character and conflict. It also benefits from the extended edition, which adds 20 minutes to the running time, most of it extended conversations and character scenes.

As with his previous five Tolkien films, Jackson saved his grand menu of supplements for the “Extended Edition,” a deluxe three-disc set on Blu-ray and five-disc set for the Blu-ray 3D and DVD editions. There’s commentary by filmmaker Peter Jackson and co-writer/co-producer Philippa Boyens and “New Zealand: Home to Middle-Earth Part 3” on disc one, and nearly ten hours of documentaries on the bonus discs. “The Gathering Storm: The Chronicles of the Hobbit Part 3” is a making-of documentary that runs just short of five hours and “Here at Journey’s End” (aka “The Appendices Part 12”) goes into detail on aspects of the production and pulls out to see the film in the context of the entire Tolkien story told in the six films. If you’ve seen any of the previous “Appendices” you know the kind of access and depth these productions have. A couple of bonus supplements fills out the final disc.

Blu-ray Debuts: Two by Rohmer, ‘Tenderness of the Wolves,’ and Ford’s ‘Hurricane’

MarquiseThe Marquise of O (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD) – After Eric Rohmer completed his “Six Moral Tales,” and before launching into the “Comedies and Proverbs,” he tackled two projects very different than anything else in career. The first of these, The Marquise of O (1976), based on the novel by Heinrich von Kleist, leaves the young intellectuals of Paris for Italy of the late 18th century Napoleonic wars. During the Russian invasion the beautiful young Marquise (Edith Clever) is saved from certain assault the handsome and dashing Count (Bruno Ganz). She spends the night guarded by her chivalrous savior, who returns months later to rather insistently court her. Only when he leaves does she discover that she is, unaccountably, pregnant. Rohmer’s style is both more lush (shot in rich colors by Nestor Almendros) and less intimate than his previous romantic comedies, directed in painterly compositions from a removed distance. Unlike the self-obsessed young adults of his modern films, the Count and the Marquise act out of moral duty and social responsibility, and their actions reverberate through family and community.

Yet this is still a Rohmer film, filled with carefully tooled dialogue (spoken in German) and informed by irony. The story of innocence and corruption, and the shades that lay within even the best of men, ends on a note of delicate forgiveness and understanding. Rohmer followed this with an even more unexpected stylistic experiment, the beautiful and beguiling Perceval, which I hope is in consideration by Film Movement.

With archival interviews with director Eric Rohmer and star Bruno Ganz and a new essay by David Thomson.

FullMoonFull Moon in Paris (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD), the fourth of Rohmer’s six “Comedies and Proverbs,” stars Pascale Ogier as Louise, a restless designer bored with sleepy suburban life outside of Paris, lives with her lover Remy (Tcheky Karyo), a stable architect happy with a calm home life and a long-term relationship. The independent minded Louise decides to move back into her old Paris apartment during the week, losing herself in the bustle of dinner parties and nightclubs and single men, while spending her weekends back with Remy. Like an inversion of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” Louise becomes briefly entangled with another man, a spontaneous musician who is the opposite of Remy, but in a neat twist on the formula Remy himself drifts to another – at the suggestion of Louise herself.

This is the most ironic and, in many ways, judgmental of Rohmer’s films. Willowy Ogier’s kittenish sexuality and zest for life are wrapped in a self-absorbed determination that borders on indifference, but for the most part this is another wryly witty look at modern love from the master of the sophisticated romantic comedy. Fabrice Luchini plays Louise’s best friend and conniving confidante Octave and Laszlo Szabo appears as a café patron who pontificates on the magical effects of the full moon. Ogier, who died shortly after the film’s release, designed many of the handsome sets.

With an archival interview with actress Pascale Ogier and a new essay by David Thomson.

TendernessTenderness of the Wolves (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), based on the same true story that inspired Fritz Lang’s M, is a stylish and visually striking but narratively confusing and unpleasantly explicit thriller starring Kurt Raab as murderer, black marketeer and police informant Fritz Haarman, a pedophile who used his position to sweep the train stations and pick up young runaway boys.

Living well in the depression of post-World War I Germany, Haarman lured the boys to his attic apartment with the promise of a warm meal and bed, only to emerge alone the next morning with second hand clothes and black market “pork.” Director Ulli Lommel melds images from M and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu with the elegant camerawork, evocative sets and tableaux-style direction associated with the films of New German cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who produced the film and appears in a small role. Screenwriter/star Kurt Raab suggests Peter Lorre by way of the vampire Nosferatu with his shaved head, child-like smile and hunched walk, an insidiously beguiling boy-man who turns feral to strangle and feast on the blood of his innocent young victims. Fassbinder’s inspiration is all over the elegant camerawork, handsome design, and tableaux-style direction and the film is well performed by cast made up of Fassbinder’s regular troupe. But it gets muddled in the middle, tangling the many threads before finally winding them together in a bold, baroque climax. Though lacking in the rich irony of Fassbinder’s works, it’s a striking, often startling film dominated by Raab’s unsettling performance.

In German with English subtitles. Newly restored and remastered by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, the Blu-ray debut (the release is a Blu-ray+DVD Combo) features commentary by director Ulli Lommel with moderator Uwe Huber, an introduction by Lommel, new video interviews with Lommel, director of photography Jurgen Jurges, and actor Rainer Will, and an appreciation by European horror expert Stephen Thrower, plus a booklet with art and essays.

HurricaneThe Hurricane (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is frankly speaking one of John Ford’s weaker films. Based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (authors of “Mutiny on the Bounty”) and directed for high-rolling independent producer Samuel Goldwyn in 1937, it’s a drama of western civilization colliding with native culture in the South Seas, the same theme as Murnau’s Tabu but with more focus on the European characters and without the poetry or the power.

Jon Hall is the young Polynesian hero Terangi, a Tahiti native with a foot in both worlds, beloved by the islanders and the respected first mate of an American ship, and Dorothy Lamour his innocent Tahitian bride. They get top billing and it is ostensibly their story but the film spends a lot of time with the Caucasian characters in paradise debating culture, morality, and justice: the alcoholic doctor with a philosophical take on Tahitian life (Thomas Mitchell), the priest devoted to the islanders (C. Aubrey Smith), and the new island Governor (Raymond Massey), a strict, stiff martinet whose devotion to the letter of the Napoleonic code makes no room for justice or compassion, let alone the moral code of the local culture. Mary Astor is both his wife and his conscience, and he refuses to listen to either when he sentences Terangi to six months hard labor for punching a racist white man, and then extends his sentence by years for his failed escape attempts. This is paradise invaded by civilization, which casts judgement and punishes accordingly.

It’s clear that Ford’s heart isn’t in this one. Ever the professional, he delivers a handsome drama, but this kind of exotic romanticism is a poor fit for America’s film poet. The characters of the script (written by Dudley Nichols) are more debate positions than developed personalities, the natives are holy innocents, and the film is shot largely in the studio, which does no service to the tropical setting. Ford signed on because of the opportunity to shoot on location in the South Pacific and apparently lost interest when the production was relocated to the studio, with Catalina Island standing in for Tahiti in the film’s few outdoor scenes.

The title of the film arrives in the final act, whipping up a deadly storm while Terangi struggles to get home, and it’s quite the spectacle even if it was created in the studio, but it is also a confused metaphor for a film that sets up Terangi as a kind of Christ figure and the storm as the wrath of God. If this is Old Testament punishment, it’s taking it out on the wrong folks: the hurricane destroys the church and kills the innocent islanders (who are no better than extras in the drama) while sparing the westerner interlopers. If this is all just a lesson in compassion and multicultural respect for the Governor, there’s a lot of collateral damage. Still, it was a big commercial hit for Ford and Goldwyn. It was also the last film Ford made for Goldwyn.

It looks great, a good quality transfer with no evidence of damage. No supplements.

DevilsDIn The Devil’s Disciple (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play of the American Revolution, friends and frequent co-stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas teamed up for the third time. It’s an odd kind of American-British co-production: produced by Lancaster’s production company and directed by British filmmaker Guy Hamilton (who replaced Alexander Mackendrick, director of Lancaster’s “Sweet Smell of Success”), it is written by Brits, set in revolutionary America, and shot on England.

Lancaster is the idealistic, soft-spoken parish priest whose faith mother England is destroyed by the cruelty of British soldiers and Douglas is wanted criminal turned rabble rouser and revolutionary guerilla Richard Dudgeon, a nemesis who becomes a compatriot in a complicated triangle that involves the priest’s younger wife. Kirk is rather old for the role but a good match for the rebellious nature of the character and Lancaster is still and subdued as the priest, at least until the final act. Both are shown up by Laurence Olivier, the very model of cool, calm authority as a savvy British officer surrounded by thickheaded underlings.

What could have been turned into a swashbuckling revolutionary war adventure with witty characters remains largely stagebound. It’s shot largely on studio sets from a script that remains grounded in conversations and debates. The witty dialogue and energetic performances keep the film moving along but it never seems to break out of its constraints. There is also a creative and clever use of cut-out figures and 3D stop-motion animation to stand in for expensive battle scenes.

Strong image, crisp focus, excellent source material. No supplements.

Film Detective is a new company releasing public domain films on Blu-ray. It’s an idea that has been done right by Kino Classics, which partnered with George Eastman House, Library of Congress, and UCLA Film Archive to find the best quality materials from which to master their editions, and has been done wrong by companies like HD Cinema Classics, which tried to overcome damaged and inferior source prints with the digital scrubbing of digital noise reduction (DNR), which removes the blemishes and smoothes over the image. Film Detective looks to be following Kino’s model in two of its first releases, though it doesn’t quite meet the bar set by Kino.

BeatDevi;Beat the Devil (Film Detective, Blu-ray) is a cult film with an incredible pedigree. Directed by John Huston from a screenplay written on the fly by Truman Capote and starring Huston’s buddy Humphrey Bogart with Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, and Peter Lorre, it’s something of an anti-“The Maltese Falcon” with Bogart as a down-on-his-luck businessman fronting a group of swindlers attempting to take control of a uranium mind in Africa. Heavy with irony and black humor, the shaggy dog tale was a flop with audiences but it found admirers years later for the games of lies and flirtations played by the stars and the dry wit of the script and wry attitude injected by Huston’s direction. It feels much more modern than many films of its era, but because it fell into the public domain it has been victim to poor home video editions since the days of VHS.

The image on the Film Detective release is a little soft but it’s clean and detailed and in the proper aspect ratio and does not appear to be scrubbed with DNR tools. It’s an acceptable Blu-ray and superior to other public domain labels. No supplements.

SaltEarthSalt of the Earth (Film Detective, Blu-ray), the only American film ever to be blacklisted in the U.S., is an independently produced 1954 drama inspired by a real life strike in New Mexico by Mexican-American mineworkers. The cast is comprised largely of non-professionals (many of them participants in the real strike) and the film was financed by the mineworkers union and produced by socially-motivated artists that had been blacklisted from Hollywood, including producer Paul Jarrico, director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson, and actor Will Geer (who plays the cruel sheriff that protects the strikebreakers).

It takes on issues of racial prejudice, social injustice, and economic inequity, often with a didactic approach, and delivers a message of collective action to improve working conditions and receive a fair wage. Remarkably it is built on the ordeal of the Mexican-American characters and there is no white movie star to save the day. But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the film was the recognition of the participation and strength of the women, who rise to positions of leadership in the community and demand the same respect from their tradition-bound husbands and fathers that the men have been demanding from their bosses. This was all at the height of the Red Scare and the film was branded communist propaganda. It’s a remarkable portrait for its time, a landmark production that is still a powerful film. It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992.

The Blu-ray debut comes from a worn print and looks pretty scuffed up, but the transfer also presents a reasonably sharp image. A restoration is called for but until then this is an acceptable substitute. No supplements.

Blu-ray / DVD: The raunch of ‘Trainwreck’ and the melancholy of ‘Mr. Holmes’

TrainwreckTrainwreck (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – I don’t think I laughed as hard at any movie comedy this year as I did with Amy Schumer’s big screen debut feature as writer / star. Abetted by the direction of Judd Apatow, who has been moving from male-centric comedies to more inclusive stories, she brings her raunchy style of social commentary and self-effacing humor to the big screen in film that plays with familiar conventions while Apatow gives it that loose, easy-going quality that brings the chemistry.

Schumer plays a version of her stand-up persona so no surprise she keeps her name. Amy is a commitment-phobic magazine editor and writer with a policy of one-night stands and a habit of binge-drinking. Her philosophy of dating—pretty much her entire life, in fact—is the unfortunate product of a misanthropic, irresponsible father (Colin Quinn), who had her and sister chant his motto “Monogamy isn’t realistic” from an impressionable age. Thanks dad. Her sister (Brie Larson in an underwritten role) apparently overcame the conditioning but Amy is living the dream, looking out for her own pleasure and cutting off any possibility of messy emotional complications by sneaking out once she’s sated her sexual needs.

She’s assigned to profile of sports surgeon Bill Hader, a sweetly nerdish guy who asks her out despite all the red flags her unfiltered interview sends out. They make a strangely cute couple, which creates a crisis for Amy, who has managed to keep commitment and emotional entanglement out of her life. Commitment is scary and that calls for another drink.

You could say Schumer upends the expectations of the traditional sex comedy, taking the role usually reserved for the crude, sex-obsessed guy whose cruel wit and pose of brutal honesty is just an excuse for self-absorbed insensitivity, but that undervalues her work. It’s not simply a matter of showing us that women can be just as glib and shallow and raunchy as men. She’s confident and brazen, a power professional with an unapologetic sexual appetite and an arrested emotional development, perhaps not an original but certainly someone we haven’t seen quite like this on the screen.

Schumer is the center of it all but she’s generous with the laughs, spreading it around the entire cast, and Apatow brings the chemistry out of the cast, from the guy talks between Hader’s doc and friend and former patient LeBron James to the strained date between Amy and boy toy John Cena, a personal trainer who fails hilariously when asked to talk dirty during sex and manages to make trash talk threats sound weirdly homoerotic. I credit Apatow and Schumer for making Cena authentically funny. It’s a little too generous at times, by which I mean overlong, a common issue with Apatow’s films, but on home video that’s less of an issue. And Schumer also makes the film’s one serious tearjerker of a scene completely authentic, a nakedly honest display of unconditional love for someone who never earned it. Mostly though it’s funny, a mix of filthy and sweet that makes it all work.

The film was released in an R-rated version to the theaters but there’s also a longer unrated version (about four minutes longer) for home video. Both versions are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with commentary by Apatow and Schumer with associate producer Kim Caramele, the usual collection of deleted scenes, a gage reel, and the Apatow disc staple “Line-O-Rama,” which offers montages of improvisations from select scenes.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a “Behind the scenes” collection of a dozen short featurettes, the featurette “Directing Athletes: A Blood Sport” featuring the athletes who appear in the film, all the clips from the unbearably pretentious fake film within the film “The Dogwalker,” video and audio clips from the film’s promotional tour, extended scenes, and more deleted scenes, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of film.

MrHolmesMr. Holmes (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Behind a beak of a nose and a face dotted with liver spots, Ian McKellen doesn’t just look old. His 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes quavers with tremors, his face droops like melted wax, and at times the glint in his eyes glazes over like he’s momentarily checked out, dull and absent. As he forgets even the names of his closest companions, the worst fears of a man defined by his mental acuity are realized.

Directed by Bill Condon (who first collaborated with McKellan on Gods and Monsters), this post-Doyle Holmes mystery is ostensibly the secret of the forgotten last case that prompted the great detective’s retirement, but it’s really about all those human experiences Holmes is least equipped to confront: friendship, compassion, human connection, the reasons to continue living as his sharp intellect loses its edge. It’s fitting that his best friend is a spirited and curious schoolboy (Milo Parker), the son of his widowed housekeeper (Laura Linney, whose light Scottish lilt comes and goes), and he’s most alive while they’re up to mischief.

McKellan is touching as Holmes at 93, a man losing his memories and at times his ability to focus, and his frustration with his own fragility is all too real. He also plays the middle-aged Holmes in flashbacks, piecing together a case that he doesn’t recognize from Watson’s description and tries to reconstruct from clues found in an old cabinet. It’s all very low key and understated, refreshing after Condon’s time in the Twilight universe, and rooted in the complications of character and the culture of post-war England (an field growing green over the fading wreckage of a downed war plane and a visit to the ashen hillside of Hiroshima are reminders of both how close and how far away the war is in 1947). And it rather neatly plays with the idea of Holmes as both a real person and a fictional creation adored by readers of the stories, with the real Holmes bemusedly ticking off the fictional flourishes that Watson provided.

It’s all a bit tidy for a film that challenges Holmes’s belief that explanations are solutions with the unpredictable messiness of real life, but I guess even Holmes deserves a happy ending.

Blu-ray and DVD with two featurettes and bonus Ultraviolet Digital copies of the film.

Blu-ray: William Gillette is the original ‘Sherlock Holmes’

Sherlock1916
Flicker Alley

Sherlock Holmes (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – The 1916 Sherlock Holmes was not the first film based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective but it is by all accounts the first Holmes feature and in many ways it remains the most important Holmes film ever made. It’s an adaptation of the popular stage play written and produced by William Gillette, who drew his script from a collection of Holmes tales with the blessing of Doyle. Gillette toured England and the U.S. in the title role for years before hanging it up but revived the play one final time 1915. It was a smash on Broadway and Gillette took it on tour, ending up in Chicago where the Essanay Film Company struck a deal to bring the stage play to the big screen and bring Gillette’s signature performance before the cameras in a cast featuring both his roadshow actors and members of the Essanay stock company.

We’re not talking resurrected masterpiece here, mind you, but it is a fine piece of filmmaking and an entertaining feature from an era when features were still finding their form. More importantly, it is the sole film performance of William Gillette, a stage legend in his own right and the first definitive Sherlock Holmes, as conferred upon him by both audiences and the author Doyle himself. His interpretation not only informed the performances that followed but the screen mythology itself. Gillette elevated Moriarty (played in the film by French actor and Essanay company regular Ernest Maupain) from minor Doyle character to defining nemesis (and in some ways anticipated Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), gave Holmes his signature curved pipe, and added the term “elementary” to his repertoire. In other ways his version is unlike the Holmes of the page or later screen versions. He’s a cultivated patrician in elegant evening clothes and dressing robes before donning the signature deerstalker cap and familiar tools of the trade, he falls in love, and he even marries (with Doyle’s blessing).

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