Blu-ray: Criterion’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ and ‘Honeymoon Killers’ and ‘A Dog Day’ anniversary


Moonrise Kingdom (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Wes Anderson has made a career exploring the childhood neuroses that keep adult characters in an arrested state of adolescence and stasis. It’s been a lively career with creatively energetic high points like Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums but an approach with diminishing returns. Until Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film that refracted his portraits of dysfunctional families and modern anxieties through a storybook world.

In Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Anderson finally builds a film around the troubled kids themselves. Kara Hayward’s Suzy, a book-loving loner with anger issues, and Jared Gilman’s Sam, an eccentric orphan out of step with his fellow Khaki Scouts, are two misfit adolescents who instantly recognize the other as a kindred soul and run away together into the wilds of a small New England island. Which, admittedly, makes escape a little difficult, what with a small army of Khaki scout trackers and a storm on the way.

It’s funny, it’s playful, it’s full of nostalgic blasts and period trappings, but most of all it is loving: accepting of the headstrong kids determined to find their place in the world, forgiving of the oblivious adults around them, affectionate in its storybook imagery and narrative playfulness.

There’s a great cast around the kids—Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as distracted yet protective parents, Edward Norton as a nerdy but sincere scoutmaster, Harvey Keitel as a genially despotic scout commander, Tilda Swinton as the coldly officious Social Services, and especially Bruce Willis as a sad, lonely island lawman who gets a second chance—but the film belongs to the two kids. For all their issues, they are healthier than the adults of Anderson’s previous films, and their commitment inspires these adults to take stock of their failings and make an effort to become better, more honest people.

Like all of Anderson’s previous films, the sixties-set Moonrise Kingdom is filled with the period music and fashion and the offbeat textures he loves so much, but there’s more restraint this time. The delightful details are merely that, grace notes to the culture around our characters. And while Anderson plays with the conventions of young love, runaway adventure, and family comic-drama with a knowing, modern sensibility, he never makes fun of it. The sincerity is genuine, and it makes the film glow.

It’s been on Blu-ray and DVD before in simple but handsome editions but Anderson apparently saved up his goodies for the Criterion edition. He supervised the 2K digital transfer and is joined on the commentary track by Criterion President Peter Becker and child actor Jake Ryan, and they call up co-writer Roman Coppola and supporting actors Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Jason Schwartzman to elicit comments from them. “The Making of Moonrise Kingdom” consists of an 18-minute featurette shot on the set of the film plus four storyboard animatics and narrator tests, five minutes of screen tests of the child actors, and a short piece on the miniatures used in the flood sequence. Edward Norton’s home movies from the set (shot on iPhone) run about 20 minutes and are introduced by Norton.

The rest of the supplements are bite-sized pieces: “Welcome to New Penzance” features footage of the locations, “Set Tour with Bill Murray” is a quick 3 minutes, Bob Balaban introduces short segments of actress Kara Hayward (Suzy) reading excerpts from the (fictional) books featured in the film, and “Cousin Ben” features additional footage of Jason Schwartzman as Cousin Ben. The 20-page booklet an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien, short pieces by young writers on the film, and art from the film, and there’s a small collection of additional ephemera including a map of New Penzance.


The Honeymoon Killers (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Leonard Kastle’s alienating B&W story of a dim Latin gigolo (Tony Lo Bianco) and a frumpy, unfulfilled overweight ex-nurse (Shirley Stoler) who team-up to romance and murder a series of lonely women is based on a true story, but his jarring docu-style, with its mix of black humor and blood chilling horror, is anything but a realistic portrait.

Alternately ferocious and tender, mundane and terrifying, it’s the most perverse of love stories and Kastle directs the toxic tale as if off the pages of “True Detective” and accompanied by the startling flashbulb-bright photography by Weegee. Kastle was an opera composer by profession and had never directed a film when he took over from the initial director, Martin Scorsese (he was fired after a week). Kastle never made another, but based on the strength of this unsettling early American indie he should have. His direction of Stoler and Lo Bianco is strong (despite yourself, you can’t help but be moved by their devotion to one another) and his use of claustrophobic close-ups is wonderfully unnerving, especially as he hones in on the helpless, terrified face of a victim awaiting her execution while the conversations of the killers and the scrapes of the murder weapon can be heard out of frame.

Previously released on DVD by Criterion, it has been digitally remastered in 4K from a recent restoration for its Blu-ray debut (it looks stunning: B&W looks so good on a well-mastered Blu-ray) and features two new supplements: the 25-minute interview featurette “Love Letters” with actors Tony Lo Bianco and Marilyn Chris and editor Stan Warnow and produced by Robert Fischer, and the video essay “Dear Martha…” by Scott Christianson, which looks at the real Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez and their trial and incarceration with rare photos and documents.

Carried over from its earlier release is a 2003 video interview with director Leonard Kastle and the essay “Broken Promises” by Gary Giddins featured in the 10-page foldout insert.

Warner Home Video

Dog Day Afternoon: 40th Anniversary (Warner, Blu-ray, Digital HD) – After making Serpico together, Al Pacino and director Sidney Lumet reunited for this gritty, funny, electric drama about a failed New York bank robbery turned gripping hostage situation turned energetic media circus. Based on a real incident, it’s shot by Lumet on the streets with a documentary-like immediacy and a dramatic intensity that builds on complications both surprising and startlingly real. The rising temperatures don’t necessarily bring out the worst in these characters, they just bring them out with more intensity: Sonny (Pacino) charged up in front of the cameras, crowds cheering him on with chants of “Attica! Attica!,” the cops simply trying to keep everyone alive in the midst of an outlandish media circus. Don’t you love summer in the Big Apple?

John Cazale (who played Pacino’s brother in the Godfather films) plays his accomplice here, Charles Durning is the police detective trying to keep the situation under control as crowds start cheering for the robbers, and Chris Sarandon earned an Academy Award nomination in a small but memorable role as Pacino’s lover. Nominated for 6 Academy Awards, it won for Frank Pierson’s screenplay. James Broderick co-stars as the FBI agent and Carol Kane, Lance Henriksen and Dominic Chianese co-star.

The Blu-ray includes commentary by director Sidney Lumet, a four-part documentary on the making of the film, and the featurette “Lumet: Film Maker,” all carried over from the previous Blu-ray release.

The bonus disc presents the 40-minute documentary I Knew it was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, a lovely tribute to the actor who only appeared in five features—each of them an Oscar nominee for Best Picture—and never received a single Oscar nomination. Richard Shepard profiles this actor’s actor, a New York stage veteran who worked with and earned the respect of some of the greatest actors of his generation, among them Gene Hackman, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino (who said Cazale that him more about acting than any other actor). The disc also includes commentary by director Shepard, extended interviews with Al Pacino (which overflows with love and friendship) and playwright Israel Horowitz, and two short films Cazale made in the sixties: The America Way (1962) and The Box (1969).

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

Blu-ray: ‘The Pawnbroker’

The first few minutes of The Pawnbroker, the 1964 screen version of Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel about a concentration camp survivor in New York City, takes us from an idealized memory of a family picnic in pre-World War II Europe (a soft-focus dream about to tip into nightmare) to an anonymous Long Island suburb to the slums of Harlem, where Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) runs a cluttered pawnshop. It’s a series of whiplash culture shocks that doesn’t exactly tell us what we need to know about Sol’s journey but sets the stage for his dislocation. Once he lived his life. Now he simply endures it.

His young, energetic assistant Jesus (Jaime Sánchez of The Wild Bunch) talks a mile a minute and many of the shop’s walk-ins, a stream of addicts, hookers, thieves, and a few lonely souls more desperate for contact than cash, try to engage Sol in the most rudimentary of conversations. But Sol is an impenetrable wall of business. He’s not rude or dismissive, even when slurs are spit his way, simply terse and direct and unyielding. “I have escaped my emotions,” is how he explains it to Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell), the widow of his once-closest friend. To an insistent social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who keeps gently pressing him to talk, he’s more forthright about his dispassion and disinterest in his customers or anyone else. “Black, white, or yellow, they are all equally scum. Rejects.” After losing his wife, his children, and his parents to the Nazis and the concentration camps, Sol has lost faith in God and humanity alike.

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“Network” – The state of things to come

Network” (Warner)

“Paddy Chayefsky’s Network,” reads the opening credits of the 1976 drama, an almost unheard of possessive for an original screenplay and in this quite appropriate. The elder statesman of live TV drama pours all of his bile over the dirty little business of television into this incredibly entertaining screed. Yet the scathing satire of TV news as just another three-ring circus played for ratings by bottom-line corporate overlords is so caricatured that it likely would have sunk into self-parody but for the direction of Sidney Lumet, perhaps the perfect director for such material.

Faye Dunaway gets star billing as the ruthlessly ambitious programming executive inspired by the on-air breakdown of news anchorman Finch to fold news into the entertainment programming umbrella and William Holden plays the old-school news executive as appalled by the changes as he is fascinated with the ferocious Dunaway, who doesn’t differentiate between shop talk and pillow talk.

Lumet watches the news turn into a prime-time variety show like a documentarian with the story of a lifetime. Its a veritable sideshow with fortune tellers, scandal-mongers and the ringmaster anchorman (Peter Finch) as the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves playing for applause from his live audience. But behind the scenes, Lumet plays out the business dealings as a more realist (if flamboyant) piece of corporate theater, viewing the bitter farce through the lens of modern America and in the process saves Chayefsky from sinking under his own pretentions. Well mostly. The rarified dialogue is more theater than seventies cinema, too precious and pointed to give any human dimension to the corporate gamesmanship and ethical collisions. Dunaway’s insistence on discussing relationships as if it were a scripted serial makes its point the first time around. By the third go-round, it’s simply tired.

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The Fugitive and the Devil: Two Portraits of the South revived by Criterion

Ride With The Devil (Director’s Cut) (Criterion) is Ang Lee and James Schamus’ reconstruction of their preferred cut of their 1999 Civil War drama, which they cut to under two hours and fifteen minutes to meet their contractually obligated running time for its theatrical release. This newly-prepared cut runs about 14 minutes longer. I hadn’t seen the film since its theatrical release so I can’t pass judgment on a preferred version (let alone explicate the differences), but I was gripped by the film in this reviewing in ways I did not expect. Based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell and adapted by longtime Lee collaborator and producer James Schamus, the film is set in the divided state of Missouri, where neighbor really did fight neighbor and sides were chosen more out of social identity than political allegiance. Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) consider themselves Southern men and, when the “war of Northern aggression” hits the Jack Bull farm and becomes personal, they join the Bushwhackers and joins a brutal guerilla war between private militias conducting a war of terrorism, a fight that, in this film, culminates with the Lawrence Massacre, one of the great atrocities of the Civil War.

Riding with Jewel and Skeet Ulrich

Bucolic scenes of men at rest in beautiful wild landscapes and families gathered over meals in manors and homesteads are shattered by battles fought with a brutality driven by something close to vengeance: it becomes personal to every man with a family touched by the war. There’s no romanticizing the fight or the values on the line here, and even those men who proclaim that it’s not about slavery but states rights aren’t about to let those damned abolitionists tell them that they can’t have slaves. But behind the rallying cries is a portrait of young men in war facing the reality of battle and seeing the brutality of their kind of war, fought outside the bounds of the army and driven by various levels of anger, vengeance or (in the case of the sneering son of the South played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) pure sadism. At the risk of sounding as if I’m reducing the complex portrait to a cliché, it is a coming of age film of sorts, but for Jake it’s not just becoming a man, a husband and a father. It’s about bonding with freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) and, trusting him with his life in ways he could never have predicted, seeing him as a human being with everything at stake in the war. That Daniel fights on the side of the South is one of the great contradictions that complicates and enriches the portrait. Identity and loyalty are ultimately defined by personal connections rather than social assumptions, political belief or even national status, and personal experience is the forge that shapes the evolution of Jake’s identity through the war.

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Serpico on TCM

It’s the annual “31 Days of Oscar” at Turner Classic Movies this month, with Oscar winners and nominees screening in the days leading up to the 2010 Academy Awards. On Friday, February 26, it’s Serpico and I wrote a feature on the film for the TCM website.

Al Pacino as Frank Serpico: a counter culture character in a conformist world
Al Pacino as Frank Serpico: a counter-culture character in a conformist world

The real-life Frank Serpico made headlines as the scandals broke and, as an independent commission delved into the scope of the corruption, he was almost killed on the job under suspicious circumstances. Peter Maas put his story into a non-fiction bestseller, which Martin Bregman optioned as his first feature as a producer. Previous films about police corruption tended to frame the issue in terms of bad apples in an otherwise healthy barrel. This was very different, yet Bregman was more interested in the man and his experience than a story of corruption and investigation, and the episodic script follows Serpico as he is bounced from one precinct to another and becomes more alienated, frustrated and desperate. He found a collaborator on the same wavelength in Sidney Lumet, a TV-trained director with a reputation for strong performances, literary adaptations and, in films like The Pawnbroker (1964), creating a sense of street realism. The New York-born Lumet shot most of Serpico on the streets and in standing buildings rather than sets wherever possible, and he brought a distinctive sense of place with his choice of locations and his documentary-style approach to shooting. While that became a hallmark of seventies police dramas and crime thrillers to follow, it was still quite new at the time. Along with The French Connection (1971), Serpico was one of the films that brought this new realism to the screen portrait of American cops with its realistic portraits of procedure and systemic failure and flawed, human characters behind the badges.

See the complete feature here.

DVD of the Week – ‘Juno’ – April 15

Juno was the indie success story of 2007. In most years, that would make it an underdog hit, the Little Miss Sunshine in the company of Hollywood muscle. This year, it made it the biggest box-office success in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that Juno was in any way snubbed at the Oscars. It was the featherweight favorite in a heavyweight competition and picked up an Award for Diablo Cody’s original screenplay, a playfully clever creation filled with askew dialogue, a fantasy of youth slang gone wild that borders on precious and contrived. It’s also a delightful, alive little film, where the quirks are built on a bedrock of characters filled with heart and soul.

Ellen Page is impetuous and funny as the smart-mouthed high school goofball who finds herself pregnant after the experimental seduction of her hopelessly smitten best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), then finds an adoptive yuppie couple for her baby in the Penny Saver: tightly wound professional Jennifer Garner and easygoing musician Jason Bateman. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney co-star as her sardonic but unconditionally supportive pop and stepmom, potential caricatures that the performers fill with warmth and protectiveness behind resigned exasperation, and Olivia Thirlby is a discovery as Juno’s spirited best friend.

The DVD features commentary by director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, 11 deleted scenes with optional commentary, gag reel, and 22 minutes of screen test among its supplements. The “Two Disc Special Edition” also includes a collection of featurettes.

It’s the lead feature in the New Releases section of my MSN DVD column. You can find the complete DVD review here, and my theatrical review at the Seattle P-I here.

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