Blu-ray International: ‘L’Inhumaine’ from France, two Fritz Lang silent classics, three from the Taviani Brothers

LinhumaineThe 1923 French feature L’Inhumaine (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray), which translates to The Inhuman Woman, is not exactly about a femme fatale, though singer and social diva Claire Lescot (played by real-life opera star Georgette Leblanc) does enjoy the power she wields over the rich and famous men who attend her exclusive salons. They compete for her attentions and affections, which she withholds with a twisted smile. Leblanc doesn’t quite convince us of her overpowering charms—she’s confident and even commanding on the screen playing the arrogant superstar but she radiates little sex appeal—but then the melodrama itself is a conventional construct used to show off director Marcel L’Herbier’s ambitions. There’s a suicide, a scandal, a romance, and a resurrection, plus jealousy and vengeance, and forgiveness rolled through the two hour drama.

Jaque Catelain plays the young engineer and scientist Einar Norsen, a figure of youthful idealism and emotional impulsiveness who proves to be much more formidable and visionary than his initial impressions suggest. His angular face could be carved from stone and he cuts a striking figure in both his tuxedo and his laboratory coveralls, which look more like a space suit than a jumpsuit. His amazing laboratory all but wins the heart of Claire, who proves less inhuman than simply arrogant and haughty. But she also has a stalker or two among her spurned suitors and they plot their revenge against her, one of them in a plot that he could have stolen from Fantomas.

L’Herbier, the director of The Late Mathias Pascal (1924) (released on Blu-ray and DVD by Flicker Alley in 2012), was a modernist and an innovator in the lively culture of French cinema in the twenties. L’Inhumaine is, as the credits read, “A fantasia by Marcel L’Herbier,” and he gathered an impressive collection of collaborators. The modern mansions (seen from the outside as delightful miniatures, complete with toy cars crawling past to park) are designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens with the interiors given expressionist grandeur by future filmmakers Alberto Cavalcanti and Claude Autant-Lara and a magnificent fantasy of a modern laboratory, more spectacular than functional with its moving parts and electrical arcs zapping across the screen, designed and constructed by painter Fernand Léger, who also designed the animated credits. The next year he made his own directorial debut with the avant-garde classic Ballet Mécanique (1924). These elements are marvelous but it’s L’Herbier who brings it all together with cinematic brio and dazzling visual intensity.

The film has been tinted as originally conceived by L’Herbier, using archival notes. Features French intertitles with English subtitles, choice of two excellent musical scores (both newly composed for this release), and two featurettes, plus a booklet with notes on the director and the film.

SpiesLangFritz Lang’s sprightly, adrenaline-driven Spies (1928) (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) harkens back to the cliffhanger thrills of early twenties adventure serials against an exotic backdrop of international espionage. A super spy and financial mastermind with the ominous name of Haghi runs an international espionage network literally under the cover of a bank: his secret headquarters is located under the foundation of his public bank. A master of disguise (in the tradition of Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas) who controls a vast surveillance and communications network (just like Lang’s own Mabuse), which he uses to steal state secrets. In fact, Rudolph Klein-Rogge played Dr. Mabuse and the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis, making him the greatest supervillain of his day. There’s a beautiful cold-blooded super-spy named Sonia (Gerda Maurus), henchmen (Fritz Rasp), a femme fatale (Lien Dreyers), and the heroic Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), the “good” spy who falls in love with Sonia on his mission to stop Haghi.

Murnau was a master at this kind of serial-style pulp fiction. He began by writing the exotic cliffhanger thriller The Indian Tomb (1921), which was directed by Joe May, and writing and directing Spiders (1919) and the popular two-part Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), both focused on a criminal empire headed by a mysterious, diabolical mastermind. Spies is a return to his roots, but he comes back with the technical virtuosity and exacting perfectionism he had developed in the intervening years, including Metropolis, which earned tremendous critical acclaim but lost money for the studio.

Spies was his answer to a sure-fire hit with his own obsessions stirred through. Lang creates a fluid, fast-paced, visually inventive film that weaves enough intrigue, double dealing, secret identities and criminal conspiracies in the underworld of pre-Nazi Germany for an entire serial into one whizzing feature. This was quite high-tech for its day, with science fiction buttonhole cameras along with the classic invisible ink messages, periscopes, peepholes, assassinations, seductions, drugged victims, and a spectacular train wreck woven through the machinations of the competing spies. In many ways it’s his most exciting silent movie, and arguably his most purely entertaining.

Like Metropolis, surviving prints of Spies were severely edited and the original cut was unavailable for decades until, in 2004, the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation restored the film with over 50 minutes of missing footage, reconstructed from surviving film materials from archives all over the world.

WomanMoonWoman in the Moon (1929) (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), Lang’s final silent film, practically plays as two separate film stitched together at the middle. The first part plays like sequel to Spies, a conspiracy of industrialists and scientists where experimental rocket plans are stolen back and forth until the ringleader (Fritz Rasp) secures a seat on the inaugural moon flight. The second part is science fiction, romantic melodrama, and a lunar Greed rolled into one. It is madcap and thrilling and pure pulp fun, with a tremendous visualization of space travel and rocketry for its day. The unveiling of the rocket is an awesome sight and the rocket science and flight details (right down to the countdown) are startlingly prescient. The story isn’t quite sturdy enough to support the epic production, but Lang’s masterful direction and magnificent sense of design and scale makes this pulp adventure in an epic shell an often thrilling and always impressive feat.

Both discs present the Blu-ray debut of the respective 2K digital restorations by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.

Spies features a piano score by Neil Brand, the very informative feature-length documentary “Spies: A Small Film with Lots of Action,” and the original German trailer.

Woman in the Moon features a piano score by Javier Perez de Azpeitia and the featurette “Woman in the Moon: The First Scientific Science Fiction Film.”

TavianiBrosCollectionThe Taviani Brothers Collection: Padre Padrone / The Night of the Shooting Stars / Kaos (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) – Italian filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Tavianni have been collaborating on films for over 50 years, drawing from the cinematic traditions of neorealism, literary magic realism and fantasy, and their own journalistic interests in politics and society. This collection presents three of their most acclaimed films.

Padre Padrone (1977) adapted from autobiographical novel by Italian scholar Gavino Ledda, recounts the life of a young boy in Sardinia who is pulled out of school by his tyrannical father and forced to live the almost solitary life of a shepherd while he struggles to educated himself. I won the Palme d’Or at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. Night of the Shooting Stars (1982), their delicate and delirious story of war and survival as seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl, is an epic filled with a sense of wonder and absurdity amidst the acceptance of brutality and death. The Italian villagers are caught between the vindictive actions of the Nazis and Italian fascist soldiers and the advancing Americans in 1944 and the climactic battle in the wheat field between the partisans and the blackshirts is a chaotic and messy farce without a punchline. It won the Grand Prix at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. They followed up with a Kaos (1984), an anthology film of four tales of life in old Sicily based on the short stories of Luigi Pirandello, with an epilogue starring Tavianni favorite Omero Antonutti as Pirandello himself. Filled with scenes of rural beauty and magic realism, it runs over three hours and won two David di Donatello Awards, the Italian equivalent to the Oscars.

All three are Italian classics. All three films have been newly restored from the original elements for DVD and Blu-ray. In Italian with English subtitles, with a two-hour interview with the filmmakers.

PaulineBeachPauline at the Beach (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After completing his “Six Moral Tales” (plus a pair of terrific literary period pieces), French filmmaker Eric Rohmer embarked on “Comedies and Proverbs,” a series of female-driven romantic comedies with headstrong characters, mis-matched couples, and the criss-crossing plots of a Shakespearean farce.

Where many of Rohmer’s films could be described as intellectual sex comedies without the sex, Pauline at the Beach (1983) embraces the earthy passion of sexual play as seen from the perspective of 15-year-old Pauline (Amanda Langlet). She gets an eye-opening lesson in the games grown-ups play on a two week summer vacation with her recently divorced older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle, every inch the vivacious blonde goddess). Smitten Pascal Greggory turns aggressive with jealousy when the smooth, seductive, happily shallow writer Feodor Atkine wins the fancy of the “perfect” Marion while continuing to fool around on the side. The tangled affairs, mistaken identities, and white lies are the stuff of sex farce, but Rohmer, true to form, doesn’t judge. He is more interested in the folly of love and the impulsive, illogical workings of human nature and his generosity of character rounds out everyone caught up in the tangled affairs and mistaken identities. Rohmer deftly crafts a gentle and sexy little human comedy that ends with Pauline learning perhaps the right lessons after all.

In French with English subtitles. The Blu-ray and DVD release is a significant upgrade from the earlier (long out of print) DVD and includes an archival interview with Rohmer from 1996.

Blu-ray Noir: ‘Gilda,’ ‘Sidewalk,’ and an encore for ‘The Big Heat’

Twilight Time’s Encore Edition of ‘The Big Heat’

The Big Heat (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.

Directed by Fritz Lang on a modest budget, the 1953 crime drama stars Glenn Ford as the workaday family-man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil. The lean narrative drive builds a real head of steam as the private vendetta of revenge turns Ford into a real bastard only brought back to Earth by the kindness and courage of others touched by the same evil.

Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. Even the back gate of a wrecking yard looks more like a theatre piece than a slice of down-and-out life. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.

Twilight Time originally released the film a couple of years back in a limited edition of 3000 copies and it had been out of print for some time. This is one of the few titles to get an “Encore Edition,” with 3000 more copies, and this edition includes additional supplements: new commentary by Twilight Time’s house team of film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, plus video introductions by Martin Scorsese (6 minutes, carried over from the “Columbia Film Noir Classics” DVD box set) and Michael Mann (11 minutes).

It features the superb high-definition master from the original Blu-ray release—the image is sharp and rich, with deep blacks and textured shadows, a reminder of just how beautiful black-and-white can be on a well-mastered, well-produced Blu-ray—and the isolated score, attributed to Columbia’s musical director Mischa Bakaleinikof but including musical cues from the studio’s music library, plus a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Also note the new cover, a reference to a key moment in the film that will draw knowing nods from anyone who has ever seen it.

Reviews of Gilda and Where the Sidewalk Ends at Cinephiled.

The Unmaking of: Stories of the Greatest Films Never Made

Production artwork for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-filmed ‘Dune’

The “making of” documentary has become a lively subgenre of nonfiction filmmaking, thanks in large part to the explosion of home video and the proliferation of cable channels in the past few decades. Once a purely promotional creation to run in theaters or on entertainment TV shows, the mix of behind-the-scene peeks, production footage, and cast and crew interviews have become standard items on DVDs and Blu-rays purchased by fans eager to devour every last detail behind their beloved films. From the five-minute puff piece to the epic three-and-a-half-hour Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, it’s become part of the immersive cinema experience.

Far less common but often more interesting is a relatively recent phenomenon of documentaries on films that were never made, an “unmaking of,” if you will. Whether shut down in the heat of production due to outside forces or abandoned before even coming before cameras, these documentaries look at the creative energy that goes into the planning of a film and hint at what might have been. They also remind us just how complex making a motion picture can be, especially when passionate creators are engaged in a labor of love in the face of studio resistance, production setbacks, or financial troubles.

Here are the stories of a few films that might have been.

The Epic That Never Was (1965)

Made for British television, The Epic That Never Was looks at the ill-fated attempt by producer and aspiring British film mogul Alexander Korda to turn Robert Graves’s novel I, Claudius into a lavish historical drama.

Continue reading at Independent Lens

Blu-ray / DVD: Jacques Rivette’s ‘Paris Belongs to Us’

ParisBelongsParis Belongs to Us (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Jacques Rivette’s 1961 debut feature, makes its U.S. home video debut in a Criterion edition, which is fitting for a founding brother of the French nouvelle vague and frankly about time for Criterion. It’s their first Rivette release and comes after Blu-ray releases of Le Pont du Nord (1981) and both versions of Out 1 (1971) from Kino Lorber. I call that a good start for the least appreciated filmmaker of that loose band of brothers (and one sister, Agnes Varda).

Familiar Rivette themes and fascinations are present from this very first feature. Anne (Betty Schneider), a small town girl in Paris for school, gets involved in a theater group led by the passionate but broke Gérard (Giani Esposito), whose rehearsals for “Pericles” have to keep finding new spaces as cast members drop out, and is introduced to vague, vast, international conspiracy by American-in-exile Philip (Daniel Crohem), a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist fleeing the blacklist and sliding into paranoia, alcoholism, and self-pity. He’s not just paranoid, he’s given up, content to lob cynical comments at pretentious parties with fellow writers and artists and then take refuge in his hovel of a room with the willing blonde Danish model next door. It’s as if he’s escaped McCarthyism convinced that it’s part of a global master plan. Anne’s older brother Pierre (François Maistre) has some connection to this group of artists, and perhaps the conspiracy itself, while Terry (Françoise Prévost), a glamorous American who lived with a Spanish composer and political activist named Juan who committed suicide before the film began, has since attached herself to Gérard and hovers around it all. The film hopscotches around Paris (some of the rehearsal spaces are marvelous little pockets hidden in the city) and the story kind of spirals in around itself.

There’s an intent seriousness to Paris Belongs to Us (and his sophomore feature, The Nun) that Rivette largely leaves behind with his subsequent features, which incorporate puzzles and a sense of play in his engagement with his conspiracies taht are less paranoid fears than literary themes escaped into the real world. Paris Belongs to Us, in contrast, is graver and a sense of despair takes over the artists and intellectuals who gather at parties to mourn the latest suicide of a colleague. The title itself is sourly ironic given the paranoia, the disappointment, the conspiracies, even the theatrical endeavor that, after struggling to find any stability, is smothered by its acceptance into the “legitimate” theater. Even the atmosphere (at least outside of the theater rehearsals, where a spirit of creativity remains) seems to breed disillusionment, with gray, overcast skies and chilly days. Paris does not belong to them at all. It belongs to the powerful, not the dreamers, and they powerful crush the spirits of the artists and idealists. Rivette’s attitudes evolved into something more hopeful even in the face of death in his later films.

Perhaps that’s why Rivette changed the way he made films later in the decade. Paris Belongs to Us is tightly scripted and directed. Out 1 and Celine and Julie Go Boating also engage in theater, conspiracies, obsessions, and playing detective to unravel a mystery, but they were launched with outlines rather than scripts, written along the way with the actors shaping the characters and suggesting the direction of the story. Films are collaborative efforts under any circumstances but Rivette clearly found his inspiration in greater collaboration, and the creative abandon of his later films have a more playful spirit and optimistic approach.

Yet for all the disillusionment of Paris Belongs to Us, there is a spirit of creativity and an existential sense of mystery. Why are the cops chasing Philip? Why has the tape of Juan’s guitar music gone missing, and what’s on it? What is Pierre’s part in all this? What exactly is this vast conspiracy? Schneider brings a spirit of curiosity and innocence to this little society that, for all its intellectual and artistic bonafides, is stuck in self-observation, and her detective work gives the film momentum. It’s a shame she did not continue on as an actress.

It should have been one of the first feature from the group of critics-turned-filmmakers—it was shot in 1958—but wasn’t released until 1961 for various reasons. By then the nouvelle vague had become defined by the fresh, spirited lyrical realism of Truffaut and the genre-busting and narrative experimentation of Godard and Rivette’s film, in many ways a reflection on the end of the fifties, looked decidedly conventional. Which is most certainly is not. It’s an accomplished, engaging, fascinating portrait of Paris at the end of the 1950s as the arts seem mired in tradition and political and social energy is suppressed at all levels. It’s interesting to see Rivette at the beginning, of course, but it is also engaging to see a different kind of cinematic rebellion, one that indicts the culture itself for its conservatism and fear of new ideas and innovation, the very thing that the nouvelle vague brought with a vengeance. Rivette captures the culture that the nouvelle vague rebelled against.

It’s also fun to go cameo spotting. Among the guests in the opening party scene are Claude Chabrol and Rivette himself, Jean-Luc Godard is a man at a sidewalk café interviewed by Anne, and Jacques Demy is also supposed be in the film (though I did not spot him myself).

Betty Schneider and Jean-Luc Godard in 'Paris Belongs to Us'
Betty Schneider and Jean-Luc Godard in ‘Paris Belongs to Us’

Criterion presents the US home video debut of the film in a new 2K digital restoration mastered from the original camera negative. Presented in the old Academy ratio of 1.37:1, it’s like a throwback to classic movies with a modern sensibility. It looks lovely, capturing the often shadowy, overcast atmosphere of his Paris, but you may also notice grit and artifacts in some shots, elements that disappear at the next cut. Just as the new restoration of Rivette’s Out 1 (released stateside by Kino earlier this year), the folks behind this version remain true to the restorer’s job, which is to come as close to possible returning the film to the same state as its day one premiere. These imperfections reflect the realities of its production and whether or not Rivette would have removed them had he the technology at the time, it’s not up to the engineers and restoration producers to second guess him. Curiously, it’s the only part of the production that shows its low-budget, independent origins. The images are lovely, clearly carefully composed and beautifully shot by Charles L. Bitsch (who went on to become an assistant director for Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean-Pierre Melville).

The Blu-ray and DVD feature Rivette’s 1956 short Le coup du berger, which stars Jean-Claude Brialy and features appearances by his fellow film critics (and future nouvelle vague filmmakers) Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut, and an interview with critic and historian Richard Neupert.

The Heart of Guy Maddin

‘The Heart of the World’

The Heart of the World, one of a half-dozen shorts he made between his dreamily surreal pastoral fantasy Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) and his ballet-as-expressionist horror meditation Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2003), is the essence of Guy Maddin condensed into a brilliant, breathless, breakneck science fiction thriller. How marvelous that Maddin’s first major film of the 21st century looks like a mad masterpiece from the fevered mind of a silent moviemaker from 1925, discovered in the buried time-capsule vault of an asylum for insane artists. It just may be the greatest six-minute film ever made.

Maddin described his silent movie fantasia, produced for the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of TIFF, as “world’s first subliminal melodrama.” There are two brothers, Nikolai the youthful mortician who seems just a little too passionate about his work, and Osip, an actor playing Christ in a passion play who takes lives the role outside of the play. They are both in love with Anna, a scientist who turns a vast telescope inward to the center of the earth to study the heart of the world: a literal beating heart, of course, and in danger of a world-shaking heart attack.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Robert Flaherty: The First Poet of American Documentary

‘Moana’

In 1926, film critic and future filmmaker John Grierson wrote in The Sun (under the pseudonym “The Moviegoer”) that Robert J. Flaherty‘s “Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value.” Whether or not it is the first use of the term to describe nonfiction filmmaking, it was the first to appear in the public discourse and it stuck, making Robert Flaherty, in a sense, the first documentary filmmaker.

But the next line in Grierson’s review is at least as important in defining the work of Flaherty: “But that, I believe, is secondary to its value as a soft breath from a sunlit island, washed by a marvelous seas, as warm as the balmy air. Moana is first of all beautiful as nature is beautiful…”

Flaherty was by no means the first nonfiction filmmaker of the cinema…. But it is Robert Flaherty that we celebrate as the father of documentary filmmaking and his debut film, Nanook of the North (1922), the first great nonfiction feature.

Continue reading at Keyframe

TV on Disc: ‘Show Me a Hero,’ ‘Mr. Robot,’ ’12 Monkeys,’ and the rest of the best of recent TV on disc

Show Me a Hero (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD), a six-hour HBO miniseries developed by David Simon (The Wire) and William F. Zorzi from the non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin and directed by Paul Haggis (with a subtlety and nuance I didn’t know he had in him), stars Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko, a city councilman who became the mayor of Yonkers in 1988 with an anti-public housing campaign at a time when resentment to the court-ordered low income housing was so fierce it bordered on hysteria.

A drama on public housing policy and city politics may not sound like the makings of compelling drama but Show Me a Hero showcases what Simon does best: exploring real-life events and issues through a dramatic lens that puts politics, economics, and social justice in personal terms.

Wasicsko runs an underdog campaign against a five-term incumbent by riding the wave of anger over the city’s “capitulation” to the court (after delaying for years through failed appeals). When the last of the appeals is rejected, Wasicsko resigns himself to the inevitable but the middle- and working-class white population that elected him sees it as a betrayal of their support and he suddenly finds himself in the impossible position of negotiating a deal that will pass the city council and meet the legal obligation, or face crippling contempt fines that could bankrupt the city in a month. He does the right thing for the city and is punished for it, destroyed by the very anger he stoked to get elected. The politics of denial drives the city elections and the city council meetings for years to come.

Sound like any political culture we know?

While Wasicsko is at the center of the story, he is only one character in an expansive canvas that encompasses not just the politicians but the white homeowners resisting change (Catherine Keener, whose bedrock civility gets carried away by the mob passions) and the folks struggling to make a life for themselves in the crime-ridden projects, from a health-care worker going blind from diabetes (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) to a single mother from the Dominican Republic whose best option is leave her children back in the DR while she supports them from Yonkers. The superb cast also includes Bob Balaban, Jim Belushi, Jon Bernthal, Alfred Molina, Peter Riegert, and Winona Ryder.

The tragedy evoked in the show’s title (the complete quote by F. Scot Fitzgerald is “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”) is Wasicsko’s obsessive quest to get back into elected office. While others are able to accept change and evolve their understanding, Wasicsko becomes a political junkie who needs the affirmation of election and he betrays friends and former colleagues along the way.

Simply put, this is one of the best TV productions of 2015 and a startlingly relevant portrait of the politics of anger and opposition at all costs.

And don’t skip the end credits: pictures of the real-life people are shown side-by-side with the actors, a reminder that this fiction comes from real life.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions include the featurette “Making Show Me a Hero,” somewhat misleadingly described as “an extended look at the series’ production” but is, at just over six minutes, more promotional short than documentary.

MrRobotS1Mr. Robot: Season One (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) – “There’s a powerful group of people out there who are secretly running the world.”

Rami Malek, who has given impressive performances in small roles for years, takes the lead in this cerebral conspiracy drama as Elliot, an intense, socially awkward hacker who works for a computer security outfit by day and metes out justice by night. It may make him sound like a superhero but Elliot is emotionally troubled and unstable, self-medicating to keep his equilibrium and spying on everyone in his life to discover their secrets. He’s recruited by a cabal of revolutionary hackers called fsociety, led by an enigmatic anarchist known as “Mr. Robot” (played by Christian Slater) to hack a powerful corporation known as Evil Corp and erase the debts of millions of citizens. Portia Doubleday is his professional colleague and best friend, bonded by a shared tragedy, Carly Chaikin a fellow hacker whose true identity is revealed in one of the show’s great twists, and Gloria Reuben (E.R.) his concerned therapist, one of the few people that Elliot genuinely cares about (which he expresses in his own destructive way).

It has an element of science fiction but it’s more of a conspiracy thriller viewed from the perspective of a schizophrenic hero, whose dryly witty narration reveals his tormented mind. He’s paranoid and has hallucinations and the series keeps us locked in his perspective, slowly sorting out what’s real from what’s in his head. The series, created by relative newcomer Sam Esmail, borrows from Fight Club and V for Vendetta(among other films and pop-culture artifacts) but takes the portrait of corporate power, cyber-crime, and grass-roots activists as anarchist hackers into unexpected directions. It earned rave reviews during its summer season debut and won two Golden Globes. A second series is scheduled for summer 2016 on USA.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a featurette and deleted scenes.

12MonkeysThe SyFy original series 12 Monkeys: Season One(Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) takes the premise of the 1995 Terry Gilliam time travel film of the same name (which was, in turn, inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 experimental shortLa Jetée) and springs off into a sprawling story that ricochets through a timeline that gets rewritten along the way.

In the movie, Bruce Willis is a time-traveler from a post-apocalyptic future trying to stop a plague that will kill most of humanity. In the series, Aaron Stanford (Pyro in the X-Menmovies) takes over the Willis role as time-travelling agent James Cole and Amanda Schull is Dr. Cassandra Railly, a virologist who overcomes her skepticism and becomes his partner in 2015. The series opens much like the film does, with Cole tracking the brief clues and landing in an asylum to find the meaning of the mysterious “Army of the 12 Monkeys,” then expands beyond the film with a complicated conspiracy involving black ops labs, biological weapons, an ancient plague, and a mysterious assassin known as “The Witness” (played by Tom Noonan) determined to unleash a killer virus upon the world.

This Cole enters as a seemingly unstable character but soon loses his schizophrenic edges (he ostensibly gets used to the physical and mental shock of time travel) and becomes a focused, committed professional. Taking over the madness duties is Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines, the daughter of a calculating corporate conspirator (Zeljko Ivanek, playing another of his icy villains) who dumps her in an asylum. Kirk Acevedo (a veteran of Fringe, another series with shifting realities) is Cole’s best friend turned nemesis (which is one of the show’s least convincing twists) and German actress Barbara Sukowa (a veteran of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s company) is the scientific genius keeping the machine working in the future.

It’s a part of the new wave of ambitious SyFy original shows and it has fun playing with the shifting timelines (each jump opens by identifying the year) and conundrums and filling out the bleak future (left largely unexplored in the film) where marauding gangs prey upon survivors and sabotage the scientists trying to save the past and create a new future. In terms of ambition and creativity, it falls somewhere betweenContinuum, another high-concept SyFy series built around time travel, and the superior Fringe.

12 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with deleted scenes, auditions, webisodes, and a gag reel. The second season begins on SyFy in April.

UnrealS1UnREAL: Season One (Lifetime, DVD), an acidic satire of reality TV created for the Lifetime Network, is set behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like show (here called Everlasting). Constance Zimmer is Quinn King, the manipulative producer who engineers conflict to manufacture the kind of showy drama that gets ratings, and Shiri Appleby is production assistant Rachel Goldberg, Quinn’s star protégé. Nobody is better at that kind of mind games and psychological manipulation than Rachel and it makes her miserable.

That pretty much sets the stage for everything that happens behind the scenes of the contrived dating show, in which a dozen or so contestants compete for a handsome young British bachelor (Freddie Stroma), the show’s shallow, self-involved Prince Charming and heir to a hotel fortune. But while there is a catty competitiveness between the women, the real drama is behind the camera where Quinn and her team conspire to bring out the worst behavior in the contestants. Created by Marti Noxon (a veteran writer-producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, andGlee) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (a war-scarred veteran of the real The Bachelor), it’s less a parody of reality TV than a savvy, scathing satire of the culture that feeds the genre. It also takes on issues of sexism and the position of women professionals in the entertainment industry, all with the same black humor and lively clash of personalities. It was voted one of the 10 best shows of 2015 by the AFI. A second season is slated for summer 2016.

10 episodes on two discs on DVD.

downton6Downton Abbey: Season 6 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is the final run for the BBC series that revived the Upstairs Downstairs melodrama of the families living on inherited wealth and the servants who work for them as a portrait of a culture going extinct in the 1920s. It became a phenomenon in both Britain and the U.S., where it became the most popular show on PBS, and won multiple Emmy Awards and Golden Globes over its first five seasons. It’s an odd kind of social commentary filled with a nostalgia for that kind of class system, at least as practiced by patriarch Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and his family, notably his more modern-thinking (but still class-conscious) daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), and supported by the servants raised in this way of life, notably head butler Carson (Jim Carter).

The sixth and final season of the series delivers happy endings all around, as if rewarding viewers for their devotion to the lives of the wealthy and the service classes alike. Tom (Allan Leach), the working class mechanic who married into the family, returns to the manor. There are marriages (both among the aristocrats and the servants) and opportunities for the characters to grow and learn as the series observes the passing of an era (one family is forced to sell their manor and the Crawleys open their home to visitors as a fundraiser). Cousin Rose (Lily James) comes back for the finale and, of course, Maggie Smith offers her hilariously withering commentary throughout at Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess.

The show has a passionate following and the final season brings it all to a satisfying, audience-pleasing end that never dares question the privileges of inherited wealth and title. And, of course, there is no violence, foul language, or nudity, though there are the occasional breaches of etiquette.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions present 8 hour-long episodes plus the two-hour series finale (listed as “Christmas Special”) and 30 minutes of featurettes.

TrueDetS2True Detective: The Complete Second Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) of the crime anthology series created and written for HBO by crime novelist Nic Pizzolatto takes on an entirely new mystery, complete with a new setting and cast of characters. This one comes out of the tradition of L.A. crime fiction, the kind that James Ellroy loved to fill with political corruption and compromised cops, and creates an elaborate web of criminal cover-ups, gangsters, and graft.

Colin Farrell plays an unstable detective with anger issues who is in the pocket of gangsters, Rachel McAdams is a rising detective whose reckless personal life impedes her career, and Vince Vaughn is a smooth career criminal trying to go legit as a developer on the ground floor of a major new redevelopment scheme. His ambitions are short-circuited when a city manager is murdered and his seed money stolen, a crime that launches the tangled storyline of the season and lands Vaughn in trouble with his mobbed-up partners. Farrell and McAdams, joined by a motorcycle officer (Taylor Kitsch) who would rather be back on patrol, are assigned to the murder, an investigation that isn’t supposed to go anywhere but ends up sending them into a conspiracy involving the rich and powerful of this (fictional) economically depressed California town, an industrial town in the grip of recession.

After the (perhaps overenthusiastic) acclaim for the Southern Gothic first season, audiences were disappointed that the show left pulp weirdness for more familiar urban crime drama and critics lambasted the show for its more familiar character types and plot twists (not to mention its sometimes arch dialogue). But it’s a well-written show with a vivid atmosphere of seediness and desperation, characters and relationships that get more interesting along the way, and excellent actors delivering solid performances.

8 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on two episodes by the creator and cast members and three featurettes, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the season.

LastKingThe Last Kingdom (BBC, DVD), based on the first two novels in Bernard Cornwell’s “The Saxon Stories” series of historical novels, retells the story of King Alfred the Great, the ninth century Saxon King of Wessex, through the eyes of Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon).

Born a Saxon but captured and raised by a Danish warrior, Uhtred is a man between two worlds. Blamed for the massacre of his Danish family (who are murdered by another Danish clan) and cheated out of his rightful Saxon heritage by his uncle, he pledges his loyalty to Alfred (David Dawson) to defend Britain against the invading Danish forces and seals his pledge with a marriage to a Christian woman, Mildrith (Amy Wren). A mix of historical and fictional characters, The Last Kingdom presents the birth of Britain as an uneasy alliance between the Christian Alfred, the sickly but learned and wise youngest son of King Aethelwulf, and the pagan peoples who identify themselves as neither Dane nor Saxon but simply Britons. It features a contemporary perspective on faith and religion, which imposes its own intolerance on the kingdom (and especially on Uhtred, a steadfast pagan who refuses to observe Christian rites), but it also allows for complex characters who see beyond religion, including Alfred, whose anemia is cured and dying infant son saved by a pagan “sorceress” and healer (Charlie Murphy).

The BBC series (which played on BBC America in 2015) is a handsome period production that tells a busy story of betrayal, vengeance, romance, conspiracy, loyalty, and a nascent sense of patriotism to the British kingdom represented by Alfred, and presents a realistic portrait of life in the dark ages and lavish battles that illustrate the tactics of medieval warfare. Matthew Macfadyen and Rutger Hauer co-star in the first episode as honorable Saxon and Danish elders, respectively. A second series has been announced for 2016.

8 hour-long episodes on two DVDs, no supplements.

Blu-ray / DVD: Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Crimson Peak’ brings back the Gothic

CrimsonPeakGuillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) has been described, incorrectly, as Gothic horror. This is Gothic romance with notes of horror, bathed in the unreal and magical colors of a giallo and brought to life by Guillermo Del Toro’s beating heart of compassion in the face of evil.

As lush and atmospheric a film as the American cinema has created in years, Crimson Peak stars Mia Wasikowska (whose wide eyes and open face evokes the gothic heroine incarnate) as a smart, passionate American heiress, the daughter of a self-made man (Jim Beaver as the model of paternal affection and American responsibility) and a writer with a romantic streak and an unsullied innocence, and Tom Hiddleston as the dashing suitor from overseas, a handsome aristocrat with a haunted soul whose mystery captures the American’s heart. His calculating sister (Jessica Chastain), however, who dresses in blood red and death black gowns that give her the spiky presence of a predatory insect, has all the warmth of vampire. Suddenly orphaned and swept away to the desolate hinterlands of rural England, she moves into the most haunted manor you’ve ever seen in the movies, a rotting mansion that lets the snow and rain and bitter cold in through the collapsed spire of the roof and literally bleeds red through the floorboards and down the walls. That it is explained away as a geological phenomenon, the churning red clay of hill seeping into the house as it sinks into the hill, doesn’t make it any less ominous. It’s the seeping of that same clay into the winter snows that gives the hill its name.

Though it draws inspiration from Rebecca, Notorious, and Jane Eyre, the sensibility is pure Del Toro. Not the American action movie maker but the creator of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, Spanish horror films of dark fantasy where the supernatural and the otherwordly are beautiful and horrible and terrifying but largely benign. Ghosts are not malevolent monsters or vindictive demons but tormented, tortured beings lost in grief that keeps them stuck on earth, pinned like an insect to the location of their death. It is humans who bring evil into the world

This is old school gothic melodrama with modern movie magic. It’s not subtle, and that’s the point. It is grand and glorious and emotionally outsized, elegantly and delicately florid and Gothic. The ghosts are corpses of blood-red bone and rotted flesh with the markers of their past human lives evaporating around them like gossamer silk dissolving in the air. It didn’t find favor with audiences weaned on more malevolent horrors but I loved it, from its creeping, old-world pace to its deliciously realized metaphors to its steadfast belief in the power of the love to transform the most wretched soul.

Beautifully mastered on DVD and Blu-ray, which preserve the intricate textures and vivid, defining colors of the film, with commentary by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (whose pride in his work shows through), the featurettes “Beware of Crimson Peak” (a seven-minute guided tour through the manor) and “The Light and Dark of Crimson Peak” (about the set designs and color schemes), and five deleted scenes.

The Blu-ray also includes the four-part “I Remember Crimson Peak,” which looks at four key locations with short featurettes of about five minutes apiece, plus “A Primer on Gothic Romance,” “Hand Tailored Gothic” (on the film’s costumes), “A Living Thing” (the longest of the featurettes, examining the creation of the mansion), and “Crimson Phantoms” (on creating the ghosts), plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

Also on Cable and Video On Demand from Amazon Video and other VOD services.

Also new and notable:Spectre

Spectre (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), the 24th James Bond film and the fourth starring Daniel Craig, continues to explore the origins of 007 and his connection to a supervillain nemesis (played by Christoph Waltz) whose “secret” identity should be obvious to any fan of the series. The opening scene, set in Mexico City in the midst of the Day of the Dead celebrations, is one of the best in the series. But do we really need to humanize Bond? On Blu-ray and DVD with the usual collection of supplements.

99homes99 Homes (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), Ramin Bahrani’s drama set in the ruthless culture of mortgage repossessions in the wake of the financial meltdown, has earned plenty of accolades for star Michael Shannon, the devil making a killing on evicting delinquent homeowners who gives one victim (Andrew Garfield) a chance to keep his home by becoming his hatchet man. Shannon won awards from the L.A. and San Francisco film critics and earned numerous nominations pretty much everyone but the Academy Awards. The Blu-ray edition is, at this point, available exclusively from Best Buy. Features filmmaker commentary and a deleted scene.

Paulette (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is a French film of genre you probably didn’t see coming: a senior citizen dope comedy, with Bernadette Lafont as a retiree who starts selling cannabis to supplement her pension. In French with English subtitles, with deleted scenes.

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Snow White: The Signature Collection’

SnowWhiteSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Walt Disney Signature Collection (Disney, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)

It’s hard to grasp today how revolutionary Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was in 1937. The beautiful (and at times a little dark and scary) Grimm Brothers fairy tale of a pathologically narcissistic queen, a beautiful princess, and a lovable troupe of little men who protect her was a grand gamble, an expensive animated feature in Technicolor made a time when animated features were practically nonexistent and Technicolor was Hollywood’s expensive new toy. It was dubbed “Disney’s Folly” by the industry, until it became a massive success. Though technically not the first animated feature, the elaborately painted images and graceful execution of the Technicolor feature redefined the idea of what animation could do, pushed the possibility of color cinema into a new realm, convinced the audiences that animation could tell a story for adults and kids alike and launched the Disney legacy. Delicately shaded and delightfully old fashioned, like a fairy tale come to life from a 19th century illustration, it remains to this day one of the most beautiful animated features ever made and my favorite Disney film of all time.

It was first released on Blu-ray in 2009, a “Diamond Edition” release that has been out of print for years and commanding high prices on the collector’s market. This edition features the same HD restoration and transfer from that release, which preserves the distinctive texture of the painted cels and the thirties-era colors beautifully.

The difference is in the supplements. New to this disc is the four-minute “In Walt’s Words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” an audio-only interview with Walt Disney discussing the film set to an image track, the seven-minute featurette “Iconography” that explores the film’s influences on popular culture, art, and fashion, “@DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess” with four contemporary animators discussing the design of Snow White, and an “Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White,” plus the breezy promo-style pieces “The Fairest Facts of Them All: 7 Facts You May Now Know About Snow White” with Disney Channel star Sofia Carson and the rap retelling “Snow White in Seventy Seconds.”

Also new to this is the Digital HD copy, which you can redeem at Disney Movies Anywhere.

“Disney’s First Feature: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is an expanded version of the featurette “The One That Started It All” from the 2009 “Diamond Edition” release, running just over half an hour, while “Hyperion Studios Tour” is a condensed (30-minute) version of the virtual tour from the 2009 edition.

Carried over from the earlier disc: commentary by Roy E. Disney and animation historian John Cannemaker, two deleted scenes (in pencil animation, sketches and finished soundtrack), sketches and story notes from an unmade sequel “Snow White Returns,” audio of story meetings, “Animation Voice Talent” (on Snow White voice actress Adriana Caselotti), and “Decoding the Exposure Sheet” (on animation innovations from the film). Gone are the interaction activities and set-top games, some of the galleries and featurettes from “Hyperion Studios Tour.”

Which means what really? It’s not so much an upgrade from the 2009 release as an alternate version aimed at new buyers. Which may frustrate collectors (and for good reason—why not carry over all the previous supplements and make the new disc definitive?) but won’t matter to most casual fans. Basically, if you don’t already have the film, you can now own it without dipping into the collector’s market.

Josh Spiegel writes about why the Disney Vault (which keeps films out of circulation on disc for seven years between releases) is no longer relevant in the 21st century at Movie Mezzanine.

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Bridge of Spies,’ ‘Our Brand is Crisis,’ ‘Suffragette’

BridgeSpiesBridge of Spies (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), Steven Spielberg’s cold war drama, stars Tom Hanks as insurance attorney James B. Donovan, an American idealist asked to represent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy captured by the CIA in 1957 and given a public trial. He’s prize casting in a legal pageant that he’s supposed to lose but Donovan takes his oath—and the American values that the government and the CIA agents are quick to discard in the heat of the Cold War—seriously and defends his client to the best of abilities, ultimately taking the case to the Supreme Court. It makes him suspect in the anti-communist fervor of the late 1950s, but that commitment makes him the perfect emissary for back-channel negotiations for a prisoner swap for Gary Powers, the captured pilot of a U-2 spy plane shot down over Soviet airspace. It also makes him, at least in this take on history, the only hope for Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student on the wrong side of the border when the East German troops put up the wall.

The film features a period-perfect recreation of late-1950s America and a gloomily oppressive portrait of East Berlin after the construction of the Berlin Wall, a sharp screenplay co-written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, and the directorial signatures that remind us again that Spielberg is one of the great directors. But it’s all a little too neat, more nostalgic than thrilling, without a palpable sense of urgency or danger, and lacking the nuance of Lincoln. Thomas Newman’s score hits the uplifting, string-heavy Americana hard and even the brilliant filmmaking of the opening scene, with a camera weaving through the border between East and West Berlin and cutting through the panic and chaos of a political upheaval in action, is so controlled it feels more like a showcase than a dramatic experience.

It’s Hanks who carries the film as a kind of Cold War Atticus Finch, a husband and father and an American idealist who refuses to betray his client simply because he’s a Soviet spy, and he portrays Donovan’s essential integrity and loyalty without sentiment. Hanks makes it look so effortless it’s easy to take that accomplishment for granted and Mark Rylance—one of the great actors of the British stage making a rare big screen appearance—is equally good as Abel, betraying almost no emotion behind his tired, resigned expression yet expressing both trust in and admiration for Donovan, who never abandons him. The most powerful moment of the prisoner swap—on a snowy Berlin checkpoint in the dead of winter—is neither the anxious wait nor the tension of distrust between the sides but the trust and friendship between the two men, enemies by nationality but friends by chance, in their last meeting.

Bridge of Spies is nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Rylance.

On Blu-ray and DVD with four featurettes: “A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies,” “U-2 Spy Plane,” “Berlin 1961: Re-creating the Divide,” and “Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act.” The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

Also on VOD through most cable systems, Amazon Video, Vudu, DirecTV, and other services.

OurBrandOur Brand is Crisis (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), inspired by the 2005 documentary of the same name, is a political satire with an engaging cast but a dull bite. Set in the 2002, it stars Sandra Bullock as Jane, an American political consultant lured out of retirement to work on a campaign to re-elect a former Bolivian President (Joaquim de Almeida) who is unliked by the public (and for good reason). She’s a reluctant player until she finds her nemesis (Billy Bob Thornton) working for the charismatic frontrunner and declares war. There’s no commitment to a candidate or political ideals here, only the sense of politics as a game she’s determined to win.

Director David Gordon Green plays it for comedy, a multi-national satire that frames its cynicism within slapstick antics and tit-for-tat gags, and Bullock and Thornton are marvelous together, pros who treat competition as flirtation. The Americans are little better than mercenaries in a foreign war, this one waged at the ballot box, and the lightweight tone can’t support the serious issues of globalization, exploitation, and corruption of the election process behind the snappy humor and Bullock’s marvelous mess of a character. Still, it is admirable that it even bothered to carry a real message behind the character comedy

On Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Sandra Bullock: A Role Like No Other.” The Blu-ray also features an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

Also on VOD through most cable systems, iTunes, Amazon Video, DirecTV, and other services.

SuffrageteSuffragette (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), starring Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, dramatizes the often violent struggle for women’s voting rights in Britain in the early 20th century. It’s interesting history— they became radicalized, turning to vandalism and acts of civil disobedience after 50 years of peaceful activism, and were treated like a terrorist organization by the government, which unleashed a campaign of intimidation and violence that recalls the American Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s—but filmmaker Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan fail to make compelling drama from the history lesson. Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, and Anne-Marie Duff co-star, Brendan Gleeson is quietly commanding as a police inspector sent to put down the movement with similar tactics used against the IRA, and Meryl Streep gets prime billing for a few minutes of screen time as the firebrand movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

On Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary and three featurettes. The Blu-ray also features an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

Also on VOD through most cable systems, iTunes, Amazon Video, DirecTV, and other services.

Also new and notable:batmanbad

Batman: Bad Blood (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD), the latest DC Universe Animated Original Movie, is a sequel to Son of Batman. Based on the comics written by Grank Morrison, it’s a real Bat-team up, with Batwoman, Robin, Nightwing, and Batwoman uniting after Batman goes missing. With featurettes and bonus cartoons.

Rock the Kasbah (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD), starring Bill Murray as a once-famous rock and roll manager who finds teenage Pashtu girl (Leem Lubany) with a great voice in Kabul and sets out to make her a star, is inspired by a true story. Barry Levinson directs and Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, and Bruce Willis co-star. Blu-ray and DVD with featurettes, deleted scenes, and bonus digital copy.

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), adapts the revered book as an animated feature. Salma Hayek produced and stars in a voice cast that includes Liam Neeson, John Krasinski, Frank Langella, and Quvenzhane Wallis, and Roger Allers directs.

The Beauty Inside (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) is a Korean romantic drama that about a man wakes up every day in a different body. Korean with English subtitles.

Blu-ray: Richard Lester’s ‘The Knack’ and more

KnackWhy isn’t Richard Lester more celebrated? An American who made his home in England, Lester earned an Oscar nomination for The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a lark he made with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and others, made his reputation as a fresh, innovative filmmaker with Beatles rock and roll romp A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and proved his versatility with the acidic drama Petulia (1968), the comic swashbucklers The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), and the melancholy Robin and Marian (1976).

Kino Lorber has just released three of Lester’s British film on Blu-ray for the first time on their Studio Classics label, including one of his best.

Fresh from the playfully exuberant A Hard Day’s Night, which set the bar for rock and roll cinema and inspired the modern music video, Richard Lester continued the same acrobatic, tongue-in-cheek style in The Knack… and How to Get It (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), his adaptation of Ann Jelico’s lightweight play “The Knack,” creating a delightfully frivolous take on swinging London and the sexual revolution.

Michael Crawford is grade school teacher Colin, the meek landlord of a flat where lives Tolen (Ray Brooks), who has “a certain success with the ladies” (which Lester exaggerates in a simultaneously poetically delicate and outrageously dreamy image of identically clad young women lining up the staircase and out the door into the streets for their turn with Tolen). When Tolen agrees to teach Colin a few tricks he decides he needs a bigger bed. Meanwhile Nancy (Rita Tushingham) arrives in London. While Colin and his new border Tom (Donal Donally) push Colin’s new brass bed home through the streets of London (which Lester shoots with a “candid camera” technique to elicit surprised reactions from unsuspecting onlookers) they “pick-up” Nancy, but Tolen moves in for the make while Colin chokes on small talk. Crawford’s underdog desperation and mix of innocence and desire makes for an appealingly nerdish hero but it’s Tushingham’s kooky charm and deft comic delivery that steals the film. Lester’s offbeat sense of humor and zippy pace drive this goofy romance and compendium of sight gags and non-sequiters, while John Barry’s lovely score balances the energy and invention with a tender romanticism.

HowIWonJohn Lennon gets second billing in How I Won the War (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), Lester’s farce of confused priorities and skewed war stories in World War II but is no more than simply another member of the ensemble of confused, distracted and goofing soldiers under the command of Michael Crawford’s eager but incompetent Lt. Goodbody, a cheery upper class twit promoted to officer by virtue of class rather than any talent, intelligence or aptitude for leadership.

Lester had directed Crawford in the The Knack and Lennon in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, which are all better movies than this well-meaning misfire of a black-humored satire as anti-war statement. The absurd mission movie (to build a cricket pitch in the North African desert in advance of the invasion) is an awkward mix of British music hall lampoon, “Goon Show” whimsy and absurdity, gallows humor and gruesome scenes of death (actual battle footage is edited into the comic chaos), sometimes inspired, sometimes mugging shamelessly in overworked performances and bizarre antics. Lennon’s impish goofing around the edges can be endearing, but the slapstick often falls flat and the collision of comedy and cruelty gets confused. The cult of John Lennon has made this an essential film for completists, but it’s little more than an oddity for everyone else.

BedSittingThe Bed Sitting Room (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), adapted from the play by Spike Milligan (of “The Goon Show”), is another anti-war satire, this one a series of comic sketches about a post-nuclear London with a girl who is 17 months pregnant, a father who turns into a parrot, and others who become a chest of drawers and a bed sitting room.

All three have been previously available on DVD or DVD-R and are remastered for their respective Blu-ray debuts, and all three include the “Trailers From Hell” shorts on The Knack (with Allan Arkush) and The Bed Sitting Room (with John Landis) and a Lester trailer gallery.

Two years the label released Lester’s superb (and far too often overlooked) 1974 picture Juggernaut (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD), a kind of caper thriller about a terrorist who plants seven bombs on a luxury ocean liner. Richard Harris and David Hemmings are the disposal experts parachuted in to defuse the bombs and Omar Shariff is the captain who neglects his wife (Shirley Knight) under the pressure of the situation. It’s not a comedy by any definition—in fact, it’s a terrific thriller with as much personality as tension—but Lester weaves some terrific character humor through the picture, notably Roy Kinnear as the hapless Social Director, trying his best to keep spirits through the ordeal. Lester rewards the actor and his character with a lovely little moment of human tenderness amidst the chaos. This has never been on disc before and it is a welcome arrival as well as a good-looking disc. It’s not stellar but it’s mastered from a good source and has a strong image and color. No supplements.

More new Kino Lorber Studio Classics at Cinephiled

Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: Hou Hsiou-Hsien’s ‘The Assassin’

AssassinThe Assassin (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) is a martial arts drama as cinematic poem. Chinese filmmaker Hou Hsiou-Hsien, who won the Best Director Award at Cannes for his direction, reimagines the genre from a spectacle of action and choreography and acrobatic skill to a vision of stillness and tension. Asian superstar Shu Qi stars as Nie Yinniang, who was kidnapped as a child and trained by a cold-blooded nun (Sheu Fang-yi) to become an assassin for the Emperor, and Chen Chang (of John Woo’sRed Cliff) as Lord Tian Ji’an, her new target. He also happens to be her cousin and the man to whom she was once betrothed. Needless to say, it stirs emotional complications, which she hides behind her mask of an expression but betrays in her actions.

Hou doesn’t shoot the martial arts scenes in the conventional manner, showcasing the prowess of the performers or appreciating the dance-like spectacle of the choreography. (As far as that goes, he doesn’t shoot any of it in a conventional manner; the film is presented in the squarish Academy ratio of pre-widescreen movies.) The action comes in pulses, sudden bursts of movement let loose in the serenity of the flow of the picture, and are brief, and the images of individuals racing through tall grass or running through the underbrush are given as much weight as the clash of swordsman (and swordswomen) and the whoosh of blades slicing through the air.

It’s hard to follow, narratively speaking, as Hou abstracts the story into a flow of gentle, beautiful moments punctuated by bursts of violence. But it is lovely and graceful and beautiful to watch in action—Hou and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping shot on film rather than digital video and they create rapturous images, which look amazing on the Blu-ray—and the soundtrack is equally astonishing and enveloping. Not for its flourishes but its dense, layered backdrop of natural sounds running through the film—the birds in the distance, the wind through the trees, the crackle of fires, the chatter of voices in the distance, the soft crunch or wooden clop of footsteps of characters moving through the world—setting the political machinations of the humans within a physical, tactile world.

If you are looking for a classic display of flying bodies and clashing swords and acrobatic prowess showcased as action spectacle, you will be gravely disappointed. For that matter, you shouldn’t go in expecting a grandly melodramatic historical drama of moves and countermoves. But if you want to be transported into a world you’ve experienced before, The Assassin is not like any wuxia you’ve ever seen.

The Blu-ray edition includes four brief behind-the-scenes featurettes and offers English, French, and Chinese subtitles.
The Assassin [Blu-ray]
The Assassin [DVD]

Also on Cable and Video On Demand