Mar 08 2015

Milestones: Shirley Clarke’s ‘The Connection’

Connection

Milestone

The Connection (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from Shirley Clarke, turns a stage play originally produced by New York’s revolutionary Living Theater as a play within a play into an innovative work of cinema. Clarke was a pioneering American independent filmmaker before that label was even invented and this is Volume One of Milestone films’ Project Shirley, their program to restore and rerelease (in theaters and on home video) the works of Clarke. It’s actually their third disc release—the documentaries Portrait of Jason (1967), a landmark of queer cinema, and Ornette: Made in America (1985), were ready for disc before The Connection—but it really is ground zero for the project and her career.

In this adaptation, a filmmaker and his cameraman (William Redfield and a largely off-screen but present Roscoe Lee Brown in his film debut) film a group of junkies in a New York loft as they await to score heroine (paid for by the filmmakers) from their drug dealer, a flamboyant character named Cowboy (Carl Lee). While they wait, the men trade-off delivering soliloquies to the camera, a jazz quartet (which includes composer Freddie Redd on piano and brilliant sax solos by Jackie McLean, both reprising their roles from the stage play) periodically launches into impromptu jams, and the director spouts off about film theory and authenticity without having any idea about the world he’s trying to capture. They alternately provoke the filmmaker, who has never so much as a taken a puff of marijuana, and perform for the prowling handheld cameras, and then slip off to the bathroom to discretely shoot up.

It’s experimental theater meets cinéma verité with a self-aware sensibility: a drama in documentary form. The cameras never leave the derelict loft yet the film is constantly in motion, whether it’s the restless movements of the actors or the handheld camerawork, constantly picking out characters and details, and Clarke’s editing gives the film a rhythm that rises and falls like a sustained piece of music.

‘The Connection’

It wasn’t the first American film to take a serious look at drug use but it was the rawest to date and it faced censorship battles due to language that today is tame. Most of the cast member reprise their stage roles and bring a theatricality to their performances, which Clarke emphasizes. The film is as much about performance (as actors, as characters, as junkies doing what they need to do for a fix) as it is about addiction and the culture of these down-and-out men. Like her later film Portrait of Jason, it collapses the space between personality and performance. It’s also a pioneering “found footage” film, presented as if it’s simply a rough assembly of raw footage shot by the filmmakers on 16mm, though the strong images are very much sculpted in light and preserved on 35mm. The film is actually quite handsome.

Milestone Films restored the film to near pristine condition (a few minutes show minor wear) and includes illuminating supplements on Blu-ray and DVD. There’s a slideshow gallery of behind the scenes still set to music from the film, home movies shot on the set during the last day of filming, interviews with art director Albert Brenner and actor / musician Freddie Redd. Note that the 1959 radio interview listed on the case was left off the disc, apparently due to poor audio quality.

More restorations on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Mar 07 2015

Love Stinks: ‘Life’s a Bitch’

‘Life’s a Bitch’

“‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
—Alfred Lord Tennyson.

“Love isn’t there to make us happy. I believe it exists to show us how much we can endure.”
—Hermann Hesse.

“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
—William Shakespeare.

Oh screw it. In the immortal words of Peter Wolf and the J. Geils Band, “Love stinks.”

Life’s a Bitch, the rapid-fire short by Montreal filmmaker François Jaros, could easily have been called Love’s a Bastard, but his title (Toutes des connes in its original French) is telling in a different way. For Phil (Guillaume Lambert, who is also the screenwriter), love defines life, both in its bloom and its absence. Life’s a Bitch is all about the anguish of its absence.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Mar 04 2015

Videophiled: ‘Outlander: Season 1, Volume 1′

Outlander S1V1

Sony

Outlander: Season 1, Volume 1 (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD), a mix of historical drama, romantic melodrama, and time-travel tale based on the novels of Diane Gabron, shows that Starz is starting to figure out this original cable series thing. That’s not to say they haven’t had their successes—Spartacus did just fine for them, thank you very much—but Outlander manages to combine serialized storytelling, budget-minded historical spectacle, and pay-cable nudity in a compelling story that never feels contrived or exploitative. It’s intelligent and interesting, full of historical and cultural detail, and build 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 doing all she can to stay alive long enough to escape back into her world.

Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, who spent World War II as a combat nurse and, with war’s end, is finally reunited with her husband (Tobias Menzies) for a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands. That’s where (and when), after witnessing a ceremony at an ancient Druid shrine, she’s cast back 200 years, landing in the midst of war between the occupying British army and the rogue Highland clans who are considered savages by the British. Both sides believe she’s a spy (especially a cold-blooded British officer who happens to be her husband’s ancestor and is played by the same actor) but she is slowly accepted into the MacKenzie clan and married to the handsome young Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), cousin to the clan laird and a man with a price on his head. It’s her protection from the British soldiers, if only in legal terms. But this sympathetic Brit in a Scottish land is still an outsider, much more than even they realize, and she keeps her wits about her in the hopes of returning to the shrine and hopefully getting back to her world and her husband. Her first husband. Needless to say, it gets complicated, and not just the timelines. She starts to fall for the romantic young Scot and it seems that Dougal (Graham McTavish), the clan laird, is falling for her.

Ronald D. Moore, the Star Trek TV veteran who rebooted Battlestar Galactica for SyFy, developed the show for Starz and scripts the key episodes of the first eight episodes, which ran on Starz in 2014 to strong ratings and reviews. Balfe gives Claire a courage and strength of character that makes her drama matter to us. No wonder everyone in this world is so fascinated with this woman who speaks her mind and has the courage of her convictions.

Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “An Epic Adaptation” and “The Dresses and Kilts of Outlander.” The Blu-ray also includes three additional featurettes, 21 deleted scenes, and a bonus Ultraviolent HD copy of all eight episodes. The second half of the first season begins in April and a second season is already in production.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Mar 03 2015

Videophiled: ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I’

HUngerGamesMock

Lionsgate

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), the number one box office hit of 2015, follows the lead of the Harry Potter and Twilight series by splitting the final book into two film installments, making this the third of four films. For anyone who has read the books that might seem like quite a stretch, drawing out the first half of an already short novel to feature film length while including enough drama to entice viewers to return for the finale. Maybe my expectations were duly lowered but director Francis Lawrence, who took over the series from filmmaker Gary Ross and raised the bar, and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong turn out a surprisingly engaging film about rebellion, propaganda, media, and the emotional and psychological scars of war, all seen from the point of view of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who becomes a symbol of resistance simply by surviving with courage, dignity, and compassion.

By this time in the saga, Katniss (Lawrence) has been rescued from the Games and the totalitarian “President” Snow (Donald Sutherland) by the rebellion, which is building its forces in underground bunkers beneath District 13, which everyone thought was bombed to cinders decades ago. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), however, did not escape and Snow and his propaganda team is using him in a propaganda campaign designed to attack the image of Katniss as the symbol of resistance. Julianne Moore joins the series as President Alma Coin, leader of the revolution and a savvy military mind who doesn’t quite understand the power of Katniss for the hearts and minds of Panem. She’s committed but also cagey and cold as a commander, wary about her own authority as Katniss becomes the face of the revolution in a series of pointed propaganda pieces that, curiously enough, work due to the earnest, guileless authenticity of Katniss in the face of the Capitol’s cruelty. Philip Seymour Hoffman (who died before production was completed on the film) and Jeffrey Wright provide the brain trust behind Snow’s leadership and their scenes help give the film added gravity.

Extending the final book across two films is a commercial decision rather than an artistic choice and it shows. The film takes us into strategy sessions and explores the efforts to shape Katniss into a packaged symbol with telling detail that, while interesting, slows the momentum of the story, even with battle scenes and action set pieces spaced through the film. It’s not enough to smother the fire of the film but it does douse Hutchinson (who plays a brainwashing victim with the empty sincerity of a sleepwalker) and Chris Hemsworth, who gets lost in the massive cast and busy script.

Lawrence, however, burns in the role of the reluctant Joan of Arc of the rebellion. She makes us feel that anxious turmoil of a teenage girl thrown into a battle she didn’t choose, both in her heartfelt response to the brutal repression and reprisals of the Capitol and in the private horror of the psychological warfare waged by President Snow to break her spirit and resolve. As the film keeps reminding us, she’s used by both sides and she knows it. But she also understands the stakes of the war. That’s a lot for one person, let alone a teenage girl, and Lawrence doesn’t let us forget it. And her haunting rendition of the song “The Hanging Tree” will linger in your mind long after the film is over.

Jennifer Lawrence as The Mockingjay

Like the disc releases of previous Hunger Games installments and all the Harry Potter films, this disc has taken a Friday release to set it apart from the rest of the week’s releases. So on Friday, March 6, the number one box office hit of 2015 arrives on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, and a sneak peek at the second chapter of the other Lionsgate young adult action / rebellion franchise: The Divergent Series: Insurgent. The Blu-ray Combo Pack also features the eight-part documentary “The Mockingjay Lives: The Making of Mockingjay: Part 1,” an in-depth, feature-length piece, and the featurettes “Straight from the Heart: A Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman” and “Songs of Rebellion: Lorde on Curating the Soundtrack,” plus bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 28 2015

Videophiled: ‘The Wild Angels’ and ‘Psych-Out’

WildAngels

Olive

Before Easy Rider there was The Wild Angels (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Roger Corman and starring Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a California chapter of Hell’s Angles. This is a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.

The 1966 film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.

They are truly rebels without a cause but Corman takes their outlaw culture into nervy, nihilistic territory. They’re not a club, they’re a tribe and they devolve into primitive savagery after the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill. “We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded!”

The empty eulogy becomes an epigraph for a defiant anti-establishment rebellion fallen into decadence and anarchy and Heavenly Blues proceeds to preside over the desecration of a church and the systematic trampling of every boundary of decency that Corman could push past censors in 1966. The Wild Angels became a portrait of emptiness and hostility, a social revolution spiraling into narcissism and self-destruction. The film was released before the ratings system was in effect but later given an R-rating for drug use and the HD master looks very good, especially considering its production history. Corman shot quick and dirty when necessary and a few shots stick out as soft or out-of-focus, quite likely a matter Corman making due and moving on to the next set-up.

PsychOut

Olive

Psych-Out (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) from 1968 belongs to another genre of youth exploitation cinema, one that put hippies and flower-power and counterculture imagery on the screen with a cautionary warning about the dangers of drugs and the hedonistic rock and roll lifestyle. This one, however, came from music mogul Dick Clark, and for all the drug culture stereotypes and free love displays, it’s at least more open to the positive aspects of San Francisco hippie culture than most counterculture portraits. Part of that is surely due to director Richard Rush, who explored counterculture protest movement with greater insight and intelligence in the underrated Getting Straight and direct the Oscar-nominated The Stunt Man, as well as a cast of ambitious youth movie veterans, many of them on the cusp of becoming major stars.

Jenny Davis (Susan Strasberg) is a deaf girl who arrives in San Francisco from a straight suburban home in search of her brother (Bruce Dern), an artist who tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. Jack Nicholson is Stoney, the callous hippie leader of a jam band who helps her dodge the cops and invites her to stay in his communal home (where there’s always a party going on) and his bed, and Dean Stockwell is band drop-out turned self-styled guru Dave, who lends his connections to her search and his patience to her pain.

This is the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power scene of hippie communes, free love, bad trips (future filmmaker Henry Jaglom sees dead people), and rock happenings, and while it tends to confirm the clichés of the era it’s more critical of the mainstream culture that dismisses and even persecutes the hippies. I’m not really sure why there’s a blue collar gang of tough guys out to get Jenny’s blissed-out, freaked-out brother, who lives in the city dump and is known as “the Seeker”—is there some Jesus allegory that got lost in the rewrites?—but it sure paints the straights as an intolerant, bigoted bunch. And Rush appreciates the energy and the idealism of the culture at its best while acknowledging contradictions in the individuals within. Nicholson’s Stoney can be a groovy guy but he’s also a little self-absorbed and certainly ambitious, trying to get his band out of the one-night-stands and into big venues and a recording contract. There’s something calculating about his embrace of the culture and insincere in his relationship with Jenny, who is more of a curiosity than a commitment. When he’s bored of the novelty his attentions wander to the blond groupie turned band tambourine player (Linda Gaye Scott) and Jenny loses her moorings in the unfamiliar party scene.

Susan Strasberg and Jack Nicholson

The music from Nicholson’s band is shamelessly derivative (their signature tune is reversal of a familiar Hendrix riff) but the film also features The Strawberry Alarm Clock performing their hit “Incense and Peppermint” in front of the liquid lightshow and Sky Saxon (of The Seeds) leading a funky funeral march. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (who went on to shoot Easy Rider) brings a vivid, psychedelic look to the film that are nicely preserved on this disc. And watch for future TV producer and film director Garry Marshall as a plainclothes cop searching for Jenny in the first scene, sticking out of the coffeehouse scene like he’s Sgt. Joe Friday at a peace rally. Unfortunately this disc does not include the featurette from the DVD release.

More Blu-ray and DVD releases from Olive at Cinephiled

Feb 26 2015

Film Review: ‘Focus’

Will Smith

A good con-artist movie isn’t that much different from a good con. It’s all about distraction and sleight of hand, creating a false narrative to draw the viewer’s attention away from the real plot playing out behind the feint, and leaving behind a story that the mark can hang on to.

In Focus, Will Smith is all arrogant confidence as Nicky, the veteran pro who runs his jobs like a coach fielding a champion team. He’s not interested in one big score, but in racking up points in a rapid-fire succession of plays throughout the game.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Feb 24 2015

Videophiled: Oscar winners ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Big Hero 6′ on disc and VOD

Two freshly-anointed Oscar winners arrive on home video this week: Whiplash, which won awards for Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons and for editing, and sound mixing, and Big Hero 6, this year’s Best Animated Feature, debut on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

Sony

In Whiplash (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), music competition is a bloodsport and J.K. Simmons’ instructor is as feared as he is respected. His Fletcher is the drill sergeant of Full Metal Jacket in a simple black t-shirt and slacks and head shaved to a hard sheen and his boot camp is the school’s competition stage band: the best of the best. He bullies his students into total obedience and fear and they are desperate to win his approval while he browbeats, humiliates, and even physically assaults them, none more so than the intense and driven Buddy Rich disciple Andrew (Miles Teller). Teller is as fearless as Simmons, giving us an obsessive who is intense, driven, and at times insufferably arrogant and self-absorbed. He’s not very likable, at least not when he puts his drumming ahead of everything else, but he is compelling, taking the sports ethos of pushing past the pain to reach perfection. He literally bleeds for his art. Fletcher demands more through his hyena smile. He may actually believe that such tactics make better musicians (that which doesn’t kill only makes you a stronger player?) but he clearly enjoys the mind-games and emotional warfare. Simmons gives him life by playing it with cagey calculation, as if the very act of teaching is a competitive event.

This is as much psychological thriller as musical drama and it turns on the increasingly toxic chemistry between two clearly damaged people, to the exclusion of pretty much anyone else in the film. The other members of the band fade away as bystanders, object lessons, or seat-fillers and Andrew’s fleeting attempts at romance are all about how Fletcher’s influence infects him with the same emotional brutality. We never really get to know girl left wounded by his insensitivity. Such oversights allow the film to slip out of the real world and into a stylized arena of musical warfare but it works in the scheme of things. Writer / director Damien Chazelle has basically created a two-hander and that collision of ruthless ambition and ferocious control is riveting. The jazz band pieces, especially the title song “Whiplash,” give the film a brittle edge; these tunes aren’t played to express musical joy, they are designed to showcase musical precision, and the percussion-heavy element puts the film on edge as successfully as the drum solos in Birdman define the nervous tension of that film.

Blu-ray and DVD both feature commentary by filmmaker Damien Chazelle and co-star J.K. Simmons and a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival screening with Chazelle, Simmons, and Miles Teller. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the original short film Chazelle shot with Simmons to help fund the film (Simmons’ son plays the role that Teller essays in the feature), the 40-minute drumming documentary “Timekeepers,” and a deleted scene, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also on Digital HD and cable and web VOD.

Disney

Big Hero 6 (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is an adaptation of a Marvel Comics title but the filmmakers thoroughly transform it into a Disney feature, complete with issues of loss and family at the center of the creation of a student superhero team, with the spark of Pixar in its visual invention and knowing wit. The comic book was set in Tokyo but this plays out in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo, where adolescent robotics prodigy Hiro discovers that his science fair invention has been turned into a weapon and then transforms his engineer brother’s plush medical bot, Baymax, into the cuddliest, sweetest, most protective crimefighter the world has ever seen. Together with his brother’s best friends and fellow engineering students, they form a team of what you might call science heroes, turning their inventions into superhero accessories.

In a stronger year Big Hero 6 might not have won the Oscar—it doesn’t have the timelessness or universality of the best Pixar movies or the elemental fairy tale resonance of Disney’s best—but there is no denying the art and heart of the film. Scott Adsit (of 30 Rock) voices the robot Baymax as a gentle nanny turned inflatable transformer, like a giant plush doll with the instinct of a caregiver and the mind of an overprotective child, a little slow on the uptake but utterly benevolent. That level of compassion is comforting amidst the flashy chaos of a superhero spectacle.

This disc actually offers two Oscar winners: Best Animated Short Feast, which played in front of the film in theaters, is included as a supplement. It also offers two featurettes—”The Origin Story of Big Hero 6: Hiro’s Journey,” which follows the process of adaptation process from comic book to animate feature, and “Big Animator 6: The Characters Behind the Characters,” with the animators discussing the evolution of the characters on the screen—deleted scenes (in rough form, as they were removed in early stages of production; you can see one of them at the end of the post), and Easter Eggs for the kids to hunt for. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Feb 20 2015

Film Review: McFarland, USA

Carlos Pratts and Kevin Costner

Disney has really carved out a genre for itself: the underdog sports story as cultural melting pot, complete with the Middle American white coach/scout/father figure whose preconceptions are overturned by scrappy kids who overcome every hurdle with heart and hard work. That guy was Jon Hamm in Million Dollar Arm and Josh Lucas in Glory Road. In McFarland, USA, also inspired by a true story, he’s a high-school football coach whose temper has landed him at an underfunded school in a largely Mexican-American town in the California desert. “Are we in Mexico?,” his daughter asks, as they drive past sad little homes of cracked stucco and sun-parched dirt yards. It gets a laugh, but makes a point: This is a Third World neighborhood within our borders. For that I give the film some credit. It gives a big-screen face to an American culture generally relegated to the margins of mainstream movies. Too bad it belabors as many stereotypes as it challenges.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Feb 20 2015

Videophiled: Twilight Time’s bloody ‘Valentine’

StValentines

Twilight Time

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) gave Roger Corman the biggest budget of his career to date. After more than 40 films, most of them for the budget-challenged AIP, he was hired by 20th Century Fox and given the resources of their studio, casting department, and backlot for his recreation of 1929 Chicago and the most famous gangland slaying in American history.

Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as the stocky Al Capone—he was originally cast as rival mob boss “Bugs” Moran but Corman’s first choice for Capone, Orson Welles, was nixed by the studio as being “too difficult” and Robards simply promoted to the leading role—but he certainly captures the savagery, the emotional explosiveness, and the media-savvy persona that Capone puts on when talking to reporters. His tit-for-tat battles with Northside gangster Moran (Ralph Meeker) turn into a full-scale war when Chicago’s Mafia Don (and Capone’s boss) is knocked off in a power play. Corman directs from a script by Howard Browne, who was a reporter in Chicago when the real event occurred, that takes in the big picture and charts the stories and trajectories of over a dozen characters tangled in the plot to kill Moran. George Segal gets the biggest role as Peter Gusenberg, a ruthless Moran gunman in a tempestuous affair with a showgirl (Jean Hale), and Clint Ritchie is Capone’s favored lieutenant Jack McGurn, a young, ambitious guy with matinee idol looks and an initiative that earns him the job of planning and executing the Moran hit. The whole thing is structured with documentary-like narration by Paul Frees (which also echoes the TV series The Untouchables) that identifies the players and keeps the timeline of the complicated plan straight.

Corman gets a good cast of venerable characters, among them Frank Silvera, Joseph Campanella, Richard Bakalyan, Harold J. Stone, Joe Turkel, John Agar, Reed Hadley, Alex Rocco, and Leo Gordon, and adds in a few of his favorites, including Bruce Dern in a sympathetic role as an earnest mechanic just trying to support his family and unbilled appearances by Dick Miller and Jack Nicholson. Corman is adept at creating human moments between the plot points, reminding us of the little guys caught up in the war and the human cost of the violence, while the narration provides the death dates of each character in their respective introductions. Nobody gets out of this life alive. Some just survive it a little longer.

It’s a superb-looking transfer of the CinemaScope production and shows Corman’s talent for repurposing standing sets and stretching resources to make a low-budget look far more expensive. The colors are bright and vibrant and the image is so sharp and detailed that you can just make out the tips of California palm trees behind the Chicago backlot set in one scene. The new interview featurette “Roger Corman Remembers” is brief, barely three minutes, but Corman is always a good interview and he packs in a lot of information (all of it also found in earlier interviews and Corman bios), and the archival Fox Movietone News section includes clips from three newsreel reports on Capone, including a raid on one of his distilleries.

More Twilight Time Blu-rays at Cinephiled

Feb 19 2015

Videophiled: ‘The Tale of The Princess Kaguya’

Universal

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), nominated in the Animated Feature Film category, is probably not considered a “major” nominee by the mainstream press but this production by Studio Ghibli co-founder and “Grave of the Fireflies” filmmaker Isao Takahata takes an artisanal approach to animation. It’s a 10th-century fairy tale of a magical princess who is born of a bamboo stalk and, raised by a modest old woodcutter and his wife, sprouts to adulthood just as fast as one. As the bamboo grove gives forth with fine clothes and the riches of a royal, her adoptive father takes her from her natural paradise to a palace in the city where she grudgingly masters the arts and social graces of titled society.

Takahata embraces the sketchy, impressionistic, painterly qualities of animation being displaced by CGI. His hand-drawn imagery evokes both the watercolor and ink artworks of ancient Japanese parchment and the charcoal and pastel quality of storybook illustrations and Joe Hisashi’s score has a lyrical simplicity to match. Takahata takes time to play out his ancient fairy tale, getting sidetracked in entertaining yet ultimately inconsequential tales of royal suitors attempting to win the princess. It’s strongest when he celebrates the simple pleasures of her life, working in a modest garden set off from the palace, running through the forest, entranced by the cherry blossoms of the young spring. And the final act is heartbreakingly lovely, a magical spectacle that whisks us through the air with a thrilling rush. With Studio Ghibli ceasing operations as an active producer of animated features (it will continue to license properties and handle the catalog), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is their final gift, a handmade storybook of a film from a filmmaker who is as entranced with the texture of a brushstroke as with character and story.

kaguya_1.0

A princess is born

 

Blu-ray and DVD, with original Japanese language and English dub versions (Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, and Lucy Liu are among the voice performers of the English language cast) and the feature-length documentary Isao Takahata and His Tale of The Princess Kaguya, plus a news clip of the announcement of the completion of the film and Japanese and U.S. trailers. Also available via cable VOD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 17 2015

Videophiled: Tommy Lee Jones is ‘The Homesman’

Homesman

Lionsgate

The Homesman (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), one of my favorite films of the year, was overlooked by critics in the rush to praise more conventional and less resonant films. It deserves a second look. Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes, and stars in the film as George Briggs, a drifter saved from a lynching by Mary Bee (Hilary Swank), a tough, capable settler who has tamed her harsh Nebraska homestead and now sets out on an odyssey. She trades his life for help in transporting three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) driven mad by life on the frontier to a town hundreds of miles away, where they have been offered care and sanctuary. It’s a western, sure, but certainly not in any traditional way. Adapted from the novel by Glendon Swarthout (who also wrote, among others, “The Shootist”), this story presents the West as a hard place that creates hard people and destroys the rest.

Jones is marvelous as the no-account whose word is secured through his greed but also rises to the occasion when necessary, but Hilary Swank dominates the film as Mary. She has carved out a successful spread but remains single and terribly lonely; she’s “too bossy,” says one of the few bachelors available on this vast sea of grass, scrub, and rolling hills. Her performance as a tough, driven, commanding woman cuts through the film like a knife. She was robbed of an Oscar nomination.

The film offers a landscape to match the emotional isolation; this land is as empty and lonely and unforgiving as it is lovely. There have been a lot of films about the costs and hardships faced by the first American settlers of the West, but they’ve all focused on the physical—violence, weather, shelter, food, the hardships of carving a home out of the wilderness. The Homesman looks at the toll on the heart and the soul and the psyche in a homestead miles from the nearest neighbor. It is a powerful film of elemental emotions and instincts, filled with eccentric and unusual episodes that straddle the fine line between humor and tragedy.

Blu-ray and DVD with three behind-the-scenes featurettes. The Blu-ray also features a bonus UltraViolet digital copy of the film. Also available on cable and digital VOD (through iTunes, Amazon, Xbox and others).

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 16 2015

The ‘Alt’ Oscars: The Silent Years

The Academy Awards were born in 1927, the brainchild of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, a studio head whose original idea for an organization to negotiate labor disputes and industry conflicts evolved into the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The awards themselves were an afterthought and initially more public relations gimmick than egalitarian celebration of the arts. Every member of the Academy (then as now an exclusive organization where membership is by invitation only) was involved in nominations but a committee of five judges picked the winners and Mayer, of course, oversaw it all. If he didn’t actually handpick the winners, be surely put his thumb on the scales. By 1929, Academy members were voting on the final ballots themselves and in 1934 the ceremony moved from November to March. Additional categories were added and other refinements made over the years (Foreign Language Film got its own statue in 1957) but otherwise the Academy Awards as we know them today were born: a glitzy event that brought the stars out and handed out trophies.

That leaves practically the entire silent movie era out of Oscar history. Hollywood had reached a zenith in terms of craftsmanship, glamor and ambition when The Jazz Singer was released before the first awards were handed out. It was. By its second year, sound films dominated the awards.

‘Metropolis’

Let’s imagine an alternate history where the Academy Awards had been born earlier and (as long as we’re dreaming) with a more egalitarian purpose from the outset. What kind of winners might you have in an era when movies were more international and there was no such thing as a “foreign language film” when credits and intertitles were easily replaced for each region? What landmarks leading up to that first ceremony, where the twin peaks of populist blockbuster and artistic triumph—Wings and Sunrise—represented the Best of Hollywood, might have been chosen in the golden age of twenties cinema, or the birth of the feature film in the teens, or even the wild days of experimentation and rapid evolution in the decades previous?

Here are my picks for a few key awards in the imaginary Oscar history.

1928: Metropolis
Best Picture, Cinematography, Production Design
Released in January of 1927 in Germany and two months later in the U.S., this landmark was just too early for consideration in the inaugural awards (handed out in May, 1929). So I’m giving this early 1927 release a clear playing field with its own Oscar year: Academy Awards Year Zero. Sure, science fiction isn’t a big player with the Academy, but otherwise it has all the hallmarks of an Oscar favorite: epic canvas, astounding sets, visionary visual design and the timely theme of man struggling to find his place in the rapid spread of technology and machinery, all under the firm control of filmmaker Fritz Lang. Hollywood had never seen anything like it before. The film was soon edited down for and the original cut was lost for decades. The 2010 restoration restores scenes, characters and story lines unseen since opening night and confirms just how grand Lang’s vision was.

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