Sep 29 2014

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The Unknown Known’

The title of Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known, a profile of the life and career of former Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, is a direct reference to Rumsfeld’s most famous TV appearance. Discussing the evidence (or rather, the glaring lack of evidence) linking Iraq with weapons of mass destruction provided to terrorist groups, which was the stated reason for invading Iraq, Rumsfeld told reporters: “there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” It was a cagey piece of analysis, both a true assessment of the nature of intelligence and an obfuscation of the administration’s intelligence failure, in line with another sophisticated excuse offered up to the press: “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” A decade later, the evidence is still absent and Rumsfeld is still refusing to admit that the United States invaded Iraq without provocation or justification, merely suspicions ungrounded in any firm evidence.

It is not exactly a companion piece to The Fog of War, Morris’ documentary on former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara who oversaw the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. Like that 2003 documentary, Morris engages with a former Secretary of Defense, discussing a foreign war that was launched and (mis)managed under his watch and the indefensible misconduct and scandals involving American soldiers and officer.

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Sep 27 2014

Videophiled Classic: Blake Edwards’ ‘The Party’ on Blu-ray

The Party (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) reunited Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers after a falling out during the second Pink Panther movie for a difference kind of comedy: a modern sound version of a silent movie comedy. They don’t pretend it’s a silent film, mind you, but rather build a series of visual gags on a basic premise—Peter Sellers as an accident-prone East Indian actor accidentally invited to dinner party by an A-list Hollywood producer—and then let the comedy bits sequences evolve, build on one another, and guide the story, like a feature version of a Chaplin short.

It opens with Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi, an imported actor wreaking havoc on the set of an American adventure picture (the phony “Son of Gunga Din”), and then watches him slowly bring chaos to a party in a magnificent modern Hollywood home. This place is complete with indoor ponds and an electronic control panel that operates retractable bars and floors throughout the home, like a modern version of Keaton’s The Electric House. Though Edwards started with a script, he largely gave the film over to improvisation, developing gags into sequences and letting them escalate and evolve with a skewed kind of logic.

This is an era when Caucasians still routinely played ethnic roles but despite the “brownface” make-up and accent, Sellers is less an ethnic caricature than a benevolent, well-meaning outsides to American culture in general and the Hollywood business world specifically. Almost upstaging Sellers is Steve Franken as a waiter who keeps knocking back drinks he’s supposed to be passing out guests and ends up stumbling through the party in a drunken daze. Claudine Longet co-stars as a sweet-natured young actress who sings a song at the party and connects with Sellers and Gavin McLeod stands out as a crude Hollywood producer. This isn’t as fall-down-funny as the best Pink Panther movies but it has a kind of purity and comic grace to it all, like an elaborately choreographed dance of physical comedy, and Edwards executes it with colorful design and sets it to superb Henri Mancini music. It’s the closest American answer to a Jacques Tati film I’ve seen.

It debuts on Blu-ray and gets a new DVD release from an excellent new HD transfer. The film has dynamic set design and a bright color scheme and the colors pop in this edition. Both discs carry over the featurettes and interviews from the earlier 2004 DVD release. The 24-minute “Inside The Party” covers the inspiration and production of the film and the 16-minute “The Party Revolution” looks as the pioneering video playback technology that Edwards used for the film and both feature interviews with Edwards, producer Walter Mirisch, associate producer and actor Ken Wales (who are also interviewed in separate profile pieces), and some of the supporting actors.

More from Kino Lorber Studio Classics at Cinephiled

Sep 25 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘Hangmen Also Die’ restored on Blu-ray and DVD

Hangmen Also Die (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is Fritz Lang’s fictionalized take on a real-life historical event: the only successful assassination of a major Nazi commander by the underground resistance in occupied Europe. Reinhard Heydrich, who earned the nickname “The Hangman” for his brutality as Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, was attacked in 1942 and died of his injuries, an action that was met with terrible reprisals against the population.

For the film version, Brian Donlevy (one of the stiffest of Hollywood stars) is the assassin, a doctor working in the resistance who is forced to hide out with a Czech family when his getaway driver (Lionel Stander) is arrested and he is forced to find his own escape. The actual assassination takes place offscreen in the opening moments, which keeps the focus on the plight of the citizens under the boot of Nazi tyranny, and the message of the film follows in every scene: never inform, no matter how many die in reprisals. It’s a hard lesson for Nasha (Anna Lee), who misdirects the Gestapo soldiers during his escape and hides him when the area is cordoned off at curfew, then chooses to turn him in when her father (Walter Brennan), a scholar who clearly knows more about the resistance than he voices, is arrested as a hostage. Her very intention to go to Gestapo headquarters brings the boot down on her family and she watches one innocent after another sacrifice their own lives to protect the assassin’s identity. The lesson is clear: the only victory is in denying the Nazis any form of victory.

Lang fled Germany after equating a criminal mastermind and his organization of thugs with Hitler and the Nazis in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). When America went to war and Hollywood was given the word to twist its message to war propaganda, Lang sunk his teeth into the assignment with a conviction matched only by fellow European exiles. Hangmen Also Die was the second of Lang’s wartime trilogy of anti-Fascist—making a nice companion piece to Lang’s earlier Man Hunt (1941), released a couple of months ago in a beautiful Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, and later Ministry of Fear (1944), which Criterion put out on a terrific Blu-ray edition last year and the most overtly political—and the most politically driven. Lang wrote the original script with Bertold Brecht (though John Wexley, who translated the script and rewrote the English version with Lang’s input, took screenwriting credit on the film) and pretty much took over shaping the film to his own desires once shooting began, which infuriated Brecht and led to his break with Lang.

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Anna Lee

Hangmen Also Die is, frankly, the least dramatically compelling of the three. It’s a sprawling story that leans heavily into the propaganda. The stolid Donlevy is a flat and uninspiring hero who barely changes expression and Anna Lee seems always on the verge of unraveling in panic. Where it’s most effective is when it plays the up to the heroism of everyday citizens, driven less by altruism than hatred for the enemy, and in the telling little touches strewn through the film, like the carefully sharpened pencils lined up like soldiers on the desk of a Gestapo officer, or the crates of beer from the collaborator’s brewery stacked up at Gestapo HQ. The mixture of patriotic drama, detective story and espionage thriller knits together in the second half and pays off in a climactic bit of poetic justice that is a fantasy, a kind of con caper played on the Gestapo, yet is oddly satisfying despite the terrific cost in innocent lives.

Though it’s been on disc before, this edition is mastered from a 2013 restoration, which uses numerous sources (including the original negative) to create a mostly beautiful and fully complete version of the film. There are a couple of rough patches from sequences taken from lesser source material but for the most part it is clean and clear, with sharp images and fine black and white contrasts.

Film historian Richard Pena provides the informed commentary and there is a 30-minute featurette with historian Robert Gerwath on the real life history of Reinhardt Heydrich and the differences between reality and the film’s portrait of events. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Peter Ellenbruch on the production of the film and the falling out between Lang and Brecht.

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

Sep 24 2014

Blu-ray: ‘The Big Red One’

Director, writer, pulp fiction author, raconteur and all-around maverick character Samuel Fuller was as proud of his military service as any of his artistic accomplishments. Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, he enlisted in the armed services after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. He joined the infantry and, as a rifleman in the First United States Infantry Division (aka “the Big Red One”), he participated in the Allied assault on North Africa in 1942, fought his way through Sicily, landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, took part in the liberation of France and Belgium, and marched into Germany, where his squad helped liberate the Falkenau Concentration Camp. “I began a journal in North Africa,” he shared in his autobiography, A Third Face. “If I survived, I was going to write about my war experiences.” His experiences informed The Steel Helmet and numerous other war films but it was forty years before he put his own story down, first in the novel The Big Red One, published in 1980, and then in the film that came out the same year, in a compromised form that was partially restored in 2004.

The Big Red One is Fuller’s most autobiographical film, at once an old-fashioned war thriller and a portrait of the insanity and senseless destruction of combat, and the most expensive and ambitious production of his career. It charts the journey of his own real life unit (1st Infantry, 1st Platoon) through the experiences of four riflemen. Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward play the “four horsemen,” as their tough, taciturn Sergeant (Lee Marvin) names them, the eternal figures in a rifle squad filled out by a couple of hundred replacements whose names they finally give up trying to learn over the four years of combat. The rest are simply “dead men with temporary use of their arms and legs,” explains one of the riflemen, and in Fuller’s clear-eyed portrait of combat, the only glory in war is survival.

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Sep 22 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Caught’

The American films of German-born filmmaker Max Ophuls have never been as celebrated as his more overtly stylized and seductively romantic French films. That attitude is fed by a sense of ill-treatment by the studios. He dropped the “h” to become Max Opuls in the credits of his Hollywood movies, which can either be seen as an insult to his heritage or simply part of the American assimilation that his fellow immigrants also went through. More defining is Ophuls’ miserable experience on his first American project, Vendetta (1947), a production micromanaged by Howard Hughes, who ultimately fired Ophuls. That experience colored Ophuls’ entire American period to the point that he himself dismissed the films he made as compromised. I disagree with that assessment. His films haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of social barriers and fickle lovers. Yet his greatest films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. There is a great dignity in his best American movies, but where his European films present obstacles in the form of social “rules” versus emotion and desire, his American films frame the same issues in terms of economics, opportunity, and the lack of social and legal power to break out of circumstances.

Olive previously gave us the Blu-ray and DVD debut of Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), the most continental of his American movies, a romantic tragedy set in an idealized past with a decadent, self-absorbed high society man and a dreamy poor girl briefly swept into his world. Caught shares the same elegant camerawork, evocative production design, and the meeting of high culture and working class society but imports it into contemporary (circa 1940s) United States. It’s the first truly “American” film of his American era and, for all the film’s over-enunciated social commentary, it is a powerful drama rooted in the dreams and anxieties and realities of American filmgoers.

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Sep 21 2014

‘Focus’ on TCM

The feature film debut of celebrated photographer and commercial director Neal Slavin, the 2001 drama Focus is based on Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel about a meek, quietly conformist personnel manager at a New York company whose life is transformed after he gets a new pair of glasses. “They make you look Jewish,” his mother complains, and sure enough longtime neighbors and co-workers start looking askance at him. William H. Macy plays Lawrence Newman, a Presbyterian who traces his American ancestry back to the 18th century and a life-long single man who cares for a wheelchair-ridden mother. When he falls under suspicion of Hebrew ancestry, his middle class Brooklyn neighborhood puts him on “the list” and the anti-Semitic harassment begins, as it does with the Jewish news agent on the corner (played by David Paymer). Laura Dern co-stars as Gertrude, a New York girl who is herself mistaken for Jewish when she interviews for a job at Lawrence’s company, which has a strict hiring policy: Christian only.

Focus is based on the sole novel by playwright Arthur Miller, which was written while World War II was still being fought and published in 1945. “It was probably the first novel about anti-Semitism ever published in this country,” said Miller in a 2001 interview, and it made some publishers nervous at the time.

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Shows on TCM on Tuesday, September 23

Sep 18 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’

“In heaven, everything is fine,” but in Eraserhead (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) nothing is fine. It’s grim, disturbed, mutated, claustrophobic, a world that appears to be unraveling—or, more accurately, decaying—before our eyes.

Eraserhead

Jack Nance stars as the doughy, dim factory worker who is suddenly thrust into marriage and parenthood and escapes his grimy, droning life by watching the icky mutant cabaret that plays under his radiator. That’s as clear a description of the plot you’re bound to get. This is an existence where dinner squirms to get away as it’s being carved up and the newborn offspring of a dumbstruck couple is a freaky chicken baby that mewls and cries until it drives the maternal impulses right out of its horrified mother.

Lynch shot the film over the course of a year with a loyal cast and crew that, at times, lived with Lynch on the very set of the film. There was nothing like it when it emerged in 1977 and became the quintessential midnight movie experience. Seen today, it is pure, primordial Lynch: a nightmare world of industrial slums and alienated folk, set to a soundtrack of grinding noise that gets under your skin and your skull.

Always the maverick, Lynch personally supervised the remastering of his earliest films on DVD and released them on his own private label, so no surprise that he was intimately involved preparing the film for its Blu-ray debut on Criterion. Lynch supervised and signed off on the 4K digital transfer from the original negative and it looks beautiful. As does the film. Lynch creates beauty out of what others would find ugly and this master preserves the quality of film grain and sculpted light of Frederick Elmes’ cinematography. The stereo soundtrack was created by Lynch and sound editor Alan Splet in 1994 and it is as evocative as the imagery. The film is immersive and short of a theatrical screening of a new 35mm print, this is as rich a presentation as you will likely ever find.

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Sep 18 2014

‘Aaron Loves Angela’ on TCM

Like his father, celebrated “Life” magazine photo-journalist turned novelist and filmmaker Gordon Parks, Gordon Parks, Jr. made the jump from still photography to filmmaking. And also like his father, he had his greatest success in the so-called “Blaxploitation” genre, the low-budget action and crime films with African-American stars and generally urban settings that became successful in the 1970s. Where Parks Sr. had his first box-office hit with Shaft (1971), Parks Jr. made his directorial debut with Super Fly (1972), starring Ron O’Neal as a flamboyant drug dealer trying to make one last big score.

For his fourth and final feature, Parks Jr. took on a more intimate and personal story. Aaron Loves Angela (1975) is a tough and tender coming of age drama set in Harlem.

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Plays on TCM on Thursday, September 19

Sep 17 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Countess Dracula’

Hammer Studios struggled to remain relevant in the seventies as their lurid Gothic style was upstaged by the transgressive horrors in films like Night of Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Witchfinder General, which pushed the boundaries of movie conventions, screen violence, and subject matter. Their answer was to simply push their natural tendencies in R-rated territory. In other words, more explicit blood and boobs. Their most notorious examples were a series of erotic vampire films with female predators who use their bodies and their wiles to seduce their prey.

Title aside, Countess Dracula (Synapse) is not a vampire at all. The screenplay is inspired by the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Hungarian countess who murdered hundreds of girls in the late 16th century, ostensibly to bathe in the blood of virgins to keep her youth, or so the legend goes. This isn’t a faithful retelling, however, but an original take on the legend with a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dimension to it. Polish-born actress Ingrid Pitt, fresh from playing the bloodsucker Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers (1970), made her second Hammer appearance as the Countess Elisabeth Nádasdy, though you wouldn’t recognize her when she enters the film under ridges of prosthetic wrinkles and old age make-up. She’s an aging widow burying her husband (how many Hammer films have so set the atmosphere by opening with a funeral?) and bitter over how he has split the inheritance between her and their daughter Ilona (a very young and innocent-looking Lesley-Anne Down), who had been sent to Vienna years before. There is no mention of why she was sent away–it was ostensibly for her education in the cultural center of Europe–but Elisabeth’s disdain for human life (she doesn’t flinch when her carriage cripples a peasant in a horse-drawn hit-and-run) and the controlled fury of greed and envy she shows at the reading of the will suggests it may have been for the girl’s own protection, just one of the unspoken suggestions woven through the film.

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Sep 17 2014

Why ‘Goldfinger’ at 50 remains the definitive James Bond movie

Goldfinger was the third Bond feature but the first Bond blockbuster, an instant smash hit that turned the series into a phenomenon. Fifty years after its Sept. 17, 1964 London premiere, which was overrun by fans fighting to get into the theater, it remains the definitive big-screen incarnation of the world’s most famous secret agent.

Sean Connery and Shirley Eaton in 1964's 'Goldfinger'

“Of all the Bonds, Goldfinger is the best, and can stand as a surrogate for the others,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1999. “If it is not a great film, it is a great entertainment, and contains all the elements of the Bond formula that would work again and again.”

The first two Bond films — Dr. No and From Russia With Love — were both unabashedly sexy and brutishly sexist, cartoons of glib machismo with martini wit and international flair. Sean Connery brought his Bondness to life with a mix of charm, arrogance, elegance and rough-and-tumble toughness.

Today you can see them as time capsules of Mad Men fantasies of masculinity with comic-book action. Goldfinger not only ups the ante on every level, it adds a few new elements that made the series.

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Sep 17 2014

DVD: ‘Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide’

The term “video nasty” isn’t exactly a common phrase in the U.S. but in Britain it defines an era of nanny state censorship. The British Board of Film Censorship, or BBFC, determined what could be shown in British theaters and often forced cuts to content or outright banned films, but home video did not exist when the law was written. When the video rental business took off in the 1980s, films that were either banned or censored in theaters were available uncut on tape. The fears of kids being emotionally scarred or corrupted by these tapes were fanned from an ember to a conflagration of controversy thanks to a campaign led by social conservative reactionary activist and self-appointed moral watchdog Mary Whitehead. Members of Parliament, riding the wave of public hysteria, passed the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which forced all videotape releases to be passed by the BBFC before they could be rented or sold in the UK. It imposed an even stricter content code on commercial videotapes than on theatrical releases and, though standards have eased in the decades since implementation, the act is still in effect.

Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide is a three disc set anchored by the Jake West’s 2010 documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, a comprehensive history of the social hysteria and media coverage surrounding the call for censorship, the Parliamentary response, and the reverberations of the act.

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Sep 17 2014

Videophiled: ‘Burning Bush’ is fiery history

BurningBush

Burning Bush (Kino Lorber, DVD), Agnieszka Holland’s almost four-hour political thriller, tackles one of the most harrowing events of Czech social history: On January 6, 1969, college student Jan Palach doused himself in gasoline and lit himself afire in downtown Prague to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Originally created as a three-part cable film for HBO Europe, it played festivals and some theaters in the U.S. but never made it to stateside HB, so disc and streaming is the only way most of us will have a chance to see it. And it is well worth seeing, a return to form for Holland, whose great films of the eighties and nineties (Angry Harvest, 1985, Europa Europa, 1990) combined the political, social and personal with a fiery volatility. Holland directed episodes of American cable dramas The Wire, The Killing, and Treme, and the expansive, multi-character storytelling seems to have inspired a new approach to her political work. She uses the experiences of numerous characters in the orbit of Jan and his act in the aftermath to give us a portrait of life and the political / social atmosphere in Prague in the year after the Soviet Invasion.

Holland’s film begins with Palach’s immolation and follows the long court case of libel against a Soviet-collaborator politician who told an audience that he had evidence that proved Jan was tricked into the action by a right-wing conspiracy. Why libel? Because that’s pretty much the sole legal action the family of the boy can take in Soviet-occupied Prague. The emotional, social, and political fallout of the ordeal—it all takes place in the space of nine months and every chapter (it was shown in three parts) opens with the date and the time elapsed since the death of Jan Palach—is woven into a rich (and at times tragic) portrait of resistance and complicity and the high cost of one family’s fight for the truth in the face of Soviet oppression.

Three parts adding up to four hours spread across two discs, in Czech with English subtitles. Supplements limited to stills and a trailer.

It is also available to stream from Fandor, a service that specializes in independent and foreign films.

More new releases on disc and digital platforms at Cinephiled

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