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Mike Clark has been writing about film for more than 20 years, starting with a weekly column in USA Today in 1985. He also served as program planner and director of the American Film Institute Theater.

Mike's Picks
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15 Apr, 2013

New on Disc: 'Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read' and more …

Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read

First Run, Documentary, $24.95 DVD, NR.
I’ve always counted Fats Domino and Thelonious Monk as the two pianists most fun simply to watch play, but Erroll Garner belongs on the list as well, in that “happy” (and better, infectious happiness) is probably the word most used to describe his relationship with the keyboard. That and the fact that his playing was full of flourishes — and with no hint at all of what was coming from his lead-ins. One interviewee in Atticus Brady’s long-gestating documentary notes that he once witnessed a group of audience members standing up during one of Garner’s performances just so they could get a look at exactly what his hands were doing. Self-trained apparently from age 3, according to an interviewed sister, the native of unheralded jazz-mecca Pittsburgh couldn’t explain his technique and referred to it as a gift, which it apparently was. Prolific in his concerts, albums and TV appearances on all the big variety and talk shows before his 1977 death, he was often less than a critics’ darling, not as influential as some and (this is one of Read’s main themes) unjustly forgotten today. Because so much Garner footage does exist (in which, more often than not, he is perspiring), Brady’s portrait is rich in fruits from the archival vaults, and his on-camera admirers here include Woody Allen (briefly), Dick Hyman (exceptionally good here), George Avakian and an engagingly spry Steve Allen, whose 2000 death points up just how long this documentary was in production. Jazz lover Allen, who was a musical collaborator with Garner, calls him his favorite jazz pianist ever and had him on his variety shows countless times. Brady gets a lot into a compact running time, even snagging an interview with a daughter that his never-wed subject fathered. Garner, it is noted, was quite a ladies man, which might be one reason his playing was so happy.
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The Atomic Kid

Olive, Comedy, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Mickey Rooney, Robert Strauss, Elaine Davis, Bill Goodwin.
“Do you think Mickey even remembers making The Atomic Kid?” It’s a question recently posed by my best friend who, as I did, watched this cluelessly irresponsible farce on TV as a kid. Given that more than one public Rooney utterance from the last 20 to 30 years has been kind of “out there,” it’s not an illogical question, though, actually, this is a tough movie to forget. And in Rooney’s case, he had a production credit, and the movie’s stunner of a leading lady was his then-wife Elaine Davis, who is actually listed as “Mrs. Mickey Rooney” in the opening credits.
The young Blake Edwards (a year before he started directing) has a story credit — and there’s one bit where Rooney walks through a kitchen door and experiences some sort of horrific violence we hear but don’t see, which sounds like Edwards. Of course, it’s only a few minutes of screen time after this that Rooney survives a nuclear blast — the desert house with the kitchen being one of those atomic testing sites full of crash-test dummies and real TVs and food to simulate real-life conditions. Instead of being obliterated in this nearly direct hit, Rooney merely turns radioactive in a cool kind of way — as demonstrated by the scene I’ve always remembered where he walks past casino slot machines that immediately begin spewing coins. Looking back, John Hersey’s Hiroshima had been published eight years earlier, so it isn’t as if detailed reportage about nuclear explosions and their effects even on survivors was uncharted territory. Everything here is a lark, which is part of the movie’s demented fascination. Rooney’s co-star was Robert Strauss, who was briefly hot at the time, having just come off an Oscar nomination for his unforgettable performance in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. A good team, the two do more for the dialogue here than it does for them, and it also helps to have once-familiar faces such as Bill Goodwin and Hal March in smaller roles.
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8 Apr, 2013

New on Disc: 'The Girl' and more …

The Girl

Manufactured on demand via Warner Archive
HBO, Drama, $17.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Toby Jones, Sienna Miller, Imelda Staunton.
Tawdry, to be sure, this 90-minute HBO biopic is a kind of lawyer’s brief for the prosecution — one that may or may not be embellished when dramatizing what exactly transpired to Tippi Hedren (played by Sienna Miller) when collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie in the early 1960s. This was after Hitchcock had moved his production unit over to Universal Pictures at a time when that artistically struggling studio really needed the kind of class and clout he could provide — despite what we realize now was a permanent period of slippage from the astounding 1958-60 “triple” of Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. Not that anyone can sustain the impossible.
The stigma against Hedren is that she was no Grace Kelly (who was by then long retired) — and that she never amounted to anything on screen after the Hitchcock duo (though the claim is that the director stymied her career by having her under contract, preventing her from blooming under anyone else). Toby Jones’ portrayal of the director is pretty sinister and humorless; you do not get any sense of the shrewdly conceived self-parody that was the mainstay of his weekly CBS appearances on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Hitchcock is presented as sexually desperate, hitting haphazardly on his latest so-called creation in ways that mortify her.
I just don’t know how much to believe here, though on its own terms, the picture has its moments, especially in the making-of portions devoted to The Birds’ massive technical challenges. As wife and collaborator Alma Hitchcock, a superbly cast Imelda Staunton is much more on point than Hitchcock’s Helen Mirren, who is too good-looking for the same role and bogged down in an ill-conceived romantic subplot. As Hedren, Miller does convey the star’s alleged ordeal while coming off, in terms of screen magnetism, as “just another blond” — which kind of goes with the rap on Hedren in the first place.
Extras: The DVD contains a supplemental interview with Hedren — too brief to make much of an impression, though she does concede that the experience wasn’t completely bad.
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5 Against the House

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Sony Pictures, Drama, $20.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore, Kerwin Mathews.
Not counting her presto show-up in Howard Hughes’ mind-bludgeoning 1955 Son of Sinbad, this was Kim Novak’s third screen appearance after well-positioned “launch” roles at home studio Columbia Pictures in Pushover and the Judy Holliday-Jack Lemmon comedy Phffft. You can practically hear studio chief Harry Cohn ordering more full-body profile shots of Kim from director Phil Karlson. Kiddie-oriented TV cowboy Guy Madison was the lead. House anticipated Ocean’s 11 by five years, even if its casino heist takes place in Reno and not the Rat Pack’s Las Vegas. Combat war vets led by Madison are getting a belated college education at “Midwestern” University, and one of them (Ray Harryhausen’s future Sinbad and Gulliver Kerwin Mathews in his screen debut) has come up with a logistical scheme to knock off a supposedly impenetrable money fortress. Rounding out the title “5” are crew-cutted Alvy Moore (later immortalized on TV’s “Green Acres”) and Novak as a local chanteuse at a townie nightspot. Madison is less lock-jawed than he sometimes was, and he has a scene here and there that might even be called authoritative. With Picnic and The Man With the Golden Arm following later in the year, House was the last movie Novak made before becoming a full-fledged star.
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1 Apr, 2013

New on Disc: 'Samson & Delilah' and more …

Samson & Delilah

Paramount, Drama, $19.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Hedy Lamarr, Victor Mature, George Sanders, Angela Lansbury.
Beyond imploring us to be very careful in our choice of hairstylists, the moral of C.B. DeMille’s penultimate Biblical spectacular would seem to be: Steer clear of Philistine chicks. Even the sister who doesn’t end up with Samson (a memorably blond Angela Lansbury as snooty Semadar) ends up being dispatched in one of the most memorable exits DeMille ever staged. As for the family’s other vixen … well, it’s actually Hedy Lamarr who gets top-billed here, which perhaps gives some indication of just how much blood ends up on Delilah’s eventually repenting hands. Still, Victor Mature was a slightly bigger star at this stage of the game, and it is Samson, of course, who adds a new dimension to the term “bringing down the house.” Mature probably provides some ammo here for detractors who said he was no actor, an assessment with which he concurred. But I always thought that despite a flair for self-parody that almost attained Dean Martin levels, Vic could read impossible beefcake dialogue with fairly impressive conviction — even if the stuffed lion he hugs here (while an obvious stunt double handles the tough stuff) isn’t much of a brief for the defense.

Lansbury and especially George Sanders (as “the Saran of Gaza”) give legitimately rich performances, though this is one of those spectaculars you watch to a great degree for the décor; the movie won Oscars for art/set decoration and costumes, while one of its three additional nominations went to George Barnes’ Technicolor cinematography. S&D is so good-looking that even my old laserdisc looks surprisingly OK — though it is, of course, nothing compared with the spiff-up it’s gotten here, which is Technicolor the way it ought to be. Running nearly 2¼ hours with its Victor Young overture, S&D feels longer than the 90-minutes-longer The Ten Commandments. But it is a still a movie for which many of a certain age still harbor affection — and not just those who saw it at the time.
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Rust and Bone

Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $2.06 million, $30.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts.
This four-Cesar winner from France offers an absorbing love story that compels on multiple levels. In a movie not likely to be double-billed with Orca, the heavily employed Marion Cotillard plays a trainer of “entertainment” whales at one of those Marineland kind of places who keeps her head on straighter than Captain Ahab did following a work-related catastrophe. Coping with the loss of both legs, she refuses to lose her resolve, and there’s a great bit here midway in where an insensitive guy in a bar takes pity on her state when none has been solicited (to put it mildly). And speaking of insensitivity, this is where co-star Matthias Schoenaerts fits in — playing someone with the kind of Jake LaMotta tunnel vision you probably have to have to be one of those practitioners of extreme boxing. In contrast to Cotillard, his character is not physically but emotionally handicapped. Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated A Prophet is several movies in one — and top-of-the-line when it’s viewed as a story of two people who’d have never gotten together in the first place were it not for a fluke tragedy. But it’s also a decent father-son story and an even better strained-sibling story. It is also, as you’ll see, a magnificent special-effects movie in depicting the Cotillard character’s loss of limbs. Though the actress won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in La vie en rose, I’m not at all sure she’ll deserve to be remembered any more for that memorable turn than this one, a standout in a good 2012 movie year.
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25 Mar, 2013

New on Disc: 'All Together' and more …

All Together

Kino Lorber, Comedy, B.O. $0.04 million, $29.95 DVD, NR.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Guy Bedos, Daniel Bruhl, Geraldine Chaplin, Jane Fonda.

2012. Jane Fonda and Geraldine Chaplin play part of a five-person group of longtime pals who elect to reside in a spacious and not-quite rural home. You could probably term this movie as the anti-Amour because its mind is more on sex. On balance, Together plays a teensy bit better than expected because good nature counts for something, even on screen. Followers of Fonda will get the most out of the picture.
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She Devil

Olive, Sci-Fi, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Mari Blanchard, Jack Kelly, Albert Dekker.
A biochemist mentor (Albert Dekker) and his younger protégé (Jack Kelly) get hauled before an ethics board after their miracle serum turns a terminal patient (Mari Blanchard) into the homicidal she-devil of the title. Purely on its own, this cheapie halfway gets by as a ludicrous diversion, which was filmed at the beginning of a rough big-screen period for miracle cures and desperate women.
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Third Girl From the Left

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, Michael Brandon.
Kim Novak, Tony Curtis and producer Hugh Hefner found themselves involved in an ABC TV movie that must have been a big deal at the time. Whatever its other shortcomings, this is a major curio.
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18 Mar, 2013

New on Disc: 'The Blob' and more …

The Blob (Blu-ray)

Criterion, Horror, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe.
The arrival of Steve McQueen’s frugally budgeted black sheep of a career-maker on a Criterion Blu-ray falls into the wonders-never-cease realm. We’re only looking at an upgrade from the 2000 Criterion DVD, but I never expected the pigments to look this striking; the Blob itself ends up looking remarkable. And the movie’s visuals prove striking from the very first scene, when The Blob (whose No. 33 Billboard title tune by then-novices Burt Bacharach and Mack David cracked the top 10 in the L.A. market) charts its course as one of the few creature features in history to open with a make-out scene shot in close-up. When the couple’s then unknown male turns around, and it’s McQueen, we witness a star being born.
Extras: Carried over from the DVD, this Blu-ray edition has two excellent commentaries: one with producer Jack H. Harris and encyclopedic film historian Bruce Eder, the other with the late director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. and featured actor Robert Fields.
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The Red Menace

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Robert Rockwell, Hannelore
Axman, Barbara Fuller.
Republic Pictures wasn’t the first studio to exploit the Red Scare, but this not totally flairless cheapie was in the early class of movies that did. Its lead actor is Robert Rockwell, who spent all those CBS Sunday nights on TV tip-toeing around Eve Arden’s romantic plotting on TV’s “Our Miss Brooks.” Featured player Barbara Fuller plays a lapsed Catholic who seduces vulnerable ex-G.I. Rockwell into supporting the Red cause after he gets all chapped over a shady real estate concern that’s bilking war vets.
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11 Mar, 2013

New on Disc: 'Ministry of Fear' and more …

Ministry of Fear

Street 3/12/13
Criterion, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Dan Duryea.
As unlikely as it seems, there was a compressed period in the mid-1940s when director Fritz Lang was in a commercially successful groove, a harmonious streak that apparently came to an end with early 1948’s money-hemorrhaging Secret Beyond the Door, which Olive Films put out on Blu-ray not too long ago. This was the Woman in the Window/Scarlet Street era when Lang almost seemed to be casting Dan Duryea as a kind of sleazy good luck charm. Duryea also shows up in this predictably expressionistic wartime Paramount release to cause disproportionate mischief despite only a handful of scenes. A Nazi-centered espionage thriller, the movie’s initial plotting mechanism turns on a weight-guessing contest involving a cake at a charity fair in a provincial English community. Thanks in part to a deep dark secret that nonetheless made the papers, Ray Milland’s character, Stephen, is nothing if not paranoid here. Winning the cake hardly improves matters and indeed almost gets Stephen killed, justifying his state of what critic Glenn Kenny refers to in Criterion’s liner notes as “nervous suavity” throughout the picture, which is the best description of Milland’s entire career (arguably The Lost Weekend aside) that I have ever read.
Source novelist Graham Greene was no fan of the movie — nor, says Kenny, was Lang himself, who may have preferred the script have been more of an overtly anti-Nazi tract. But until a jarringly abrupt tack-on at the end that feels half-hearted, the movie is better than good. Neither Kenny nor Lang scholar Joe McElhaney (interviewed on screen in a supplement) address what is, for me, the movie’s biggest problem: the lack of heat between Milland and love interest Marjorie Reynolds.
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That Cold Day in the Park

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Sandy Dennis, Michael Burns, Susanne Benton, John Garfield Jr.
Robert Altman’s great fortune in being selected to direct 1970’s MASH brings to mind Seth McFarlane’s crack during the infamous recent Oscarcast that the Oscar gig only came his way after (dumpy porn star) Ron Jeremy turned it down — which is about where Altman found himself in the pecking order of studio preferences when he got the nod to helm his career-making service comedy. MASH is usually regarded as the “first” Altman feature, but the immediately preceding Cold Day (June 1969 vs. January 1970) looks like a contender itself — or at least more so than warm-ups such as The Delinquents, The James Dean Story or Countdown.
A young Laszlo Kovacs (same year as his work on Easy Rider) gave Cold Day a lot of that patented Uncle Bob widescreen haze — and it isn’t too much of a stretch to characterize the story’s going-bonkers protagonist (Sandy Dennis) as some kind of soulmate with Susannah York’s character in Altman’s subsequent Images (photographed by Kovacs’ own Hungarian soulmate Vilmos Zsigmond). Attractively shot here, the tough-to-cast Dennis (three years post-Virginia Woolf Oscar) plays a wealthy spinsterish type who takes in an unsheltered youth she spots on a park bench during a rainstorm (he’s played by future real-life college history professor Michael Burns). Her subsequent attraction to him is slightly mysterious because the kid has a lifelong prankish habit of remaining mute for long stretches.
That Cold Day in the Park is fairly peg-able as an Altman picture for its look, its early appearance by director regular Michael Murphy and for its feminine concerns. The result feels unfinished, but you can see why Cold Day has a cult to temper its critical brick-batting at the time. The print Olive has utilized here is very good and should permanently relegate the old pan-and-scan VHS to the place where all washed-out video atrocities go.
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4 Mar, 2013

New on Disc: 'Laura' and more …

Laura (Blu-ray)

Fox, Drama, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price.
For a movie to advance past the whodunit threshold to become something or even a lot more, it needs additional components (beyond even Gene Tierney, though this is possibly arguable) to keep enthusiasts tuning in again over the years. For a durable time capsule that even Otto Preminger detractors concede was prime of its type, Laura offers supreme casting that goes beyond its luminous lead; Oscar-winning cinematography by Joseph LaShelle; and, of course, composer David Raksin’s magnificent title tune. Almost all of the major 20th Century Fox noirs — from Nightmare Alley to Road House to Preminger’s own Tierney-Dana Andrews reunion picture Where the Sidewalk Ends — are movies a lot of savvy cineastes would savor seeing on Blu-ray, but Laura is special. Photographically, it’s lavish in its interiors yet hard-boiled when it has to be. Plot-wise, it turns into a different movie at the halfway point with a twist that really does rattle you when you see it for the first time. The cast of characters is full of sick puppies almost straight down the line — starting with a career-enhancing role for Clifton Webb that turned him into an equally major and improbable star for the next 15 years. It occurred to me while watching it that Tierney was the centerpiece of two movies that got the cinematography Oscar in successive years: Laura in black-and-white and Leave Her to Heaven (coming to Blu-ray May 14) in Technicolor. That tells you just about everything you need to know about what a photographic subject she was.
Extras: Handsomely upgrading the previous DVD edition, the Blu-ray carries over two commentaries, A&E Biography segments on both Tierney and co-star Vincent Price, and further adds a new retrospective featurette on why the film endures. The Tierney bio, which snared the participation of first husband Oleg Cassini, is predictably powerful, given the personal tragedies that afflicted the actress and shortened her career.
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Tip on a Dead Jockey

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Robert Taylor, Dorothy Malone, Gia Scala, Jack Lord.
One of the last assignments to fulfill Robert Taylor’s MGM contract was this title-has-little-to-do-with-it take on an Irwin Shaw story — the Richard Thorpe-directed movie that did not feature a pop titan as its lead. That’s right: Thorpe sandwiched this one in between Dean Martin’s notorious boo-boo Ten Thousand Bedrooms and that iconographic Elvis classic Jailhouse Rock. Segueing from this mostly Spain-based smuggling drama to Jailhouse Rock was a typical challenge facing a mediocre house director at MGM — though parts of Jockey still stay with me for boasting CinemaScope group shots that include two femme stunners who did a lot for me at a time when my fifth-grade eyes were anticipating adolescence: Dorothy Malone and Gia Scala. Malone was heavily into her blonde period and had just won the supporting Oscar for Written on the Wind, which the Jockey coming attraction (included on this manufactured-on-demand release) naturally touts.
Like other serviceable male heartthrobs, the slightly underrated Taylor got more interesting on screen after he accrued a few lines on his face. Here, he’s playing a pilot who has lost his nerve and is hiding out from life — and a wife. Malone is the latter, unable to secure a divorce, though in this case, the characters get along and even share a piano duet together in a scene of modest charm. Also around are Jack Lord and Marcel Dalio, the latter in a fairly large featured role in a career that includes both Grand Illusion and Donovan’s Reef.
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25 Feb, 2013

New on Disc: 'Peter Pan: Diamond Edition' and more …

Peter Pan: Diamond Edition

Disney, Animated, $39.99 BD/DVD, $44.99 BD/DVD/digital, ‘G.’
The 1953 Disney version of Peter Pan was probably the studio’s first animated feature to hit baby boomers right between the eyes. Somewhat underrated at the time, Pan has weathered the years rather well and remains tight at 77 minutes.
Extras: New Blu-ray features, as opposed to those carried over from DVD predecessors, include a mild 41-minute documentary that interviews children of the famed “Nine Old Men” of Disney animators. In addition to storyboards of unrealized scenes (including an alternate finale), there’s also recognition of two proposed tunes that were deleted from the final print.
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American Experience: Henry Ford

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Though Henry Ford was a mass of contradictions, this portrait of the automaker is admiring of him in many ways, though it in no way flinches from dealing with the old man’s dark side, which embraced active anti-Semitism. 
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Who Was That Lady?

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Sony Pictures, Comedy, $20.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Tony Curtis, Dean Martin, Janet Leigh, James Whitmore.
The other Janet Leigh movie of 1960 came out in the spring before Psycho, but it’s predominantly a boys-will-be-boys farce about a chemistry professor (Tony Curtis) whose TV-writer pal (Dean Martin) gets him out of a scrape.
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18 Feb, 2013

New on Disc: 'It's in the Bag!' and more …

It’s in the Bag!

Olive, Comedy, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Don Ameche, Robert Benchley, Binnie Barnes, William Bendix.
This very loose take on the source Russian novel that also inspired Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs messily detonates the fourth wall as part of its uncommonly modern-for-the-time approach to screen comedy. In what is arguably, by default, his signature movie role, onetime radio titan and future “What’s My Line?” panelist Fred Allen plays Fred, a flea circus proprietor who quickly dumps the chairs a murdered rich relative has bequeathed him. Then, almost immediately, he learns that one of them contains $300,000 — which, among many other things, will allow his daughter to wed the son of a secret wage slave (Robert Benchley, in one of a slew of films he made shortly before his death seven months after Bag! was released), who puts on airs. Bag! is too much of a kitchen-sink enterprise to rise above a certain level. I like the way Allen insults virtually everyone on the movie’s production staff while caustically reciting their names during the opening credits — also his mid-movie encounter with archrival Jack Benny (a mock feud from their radio days) when Fred discovers that the comic has come into possession of one of the chairs. When Fred goes to Benny’s apartment closet to hang up his coat, he’s greeted by a hat-check girl (and her fee). An independent production filmed on the cheap, Bag! doesn’t necessarily seem like a natural for Blu-ray treatment — though it’s a clean enough job. 

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Docurama, Documentary, B.O. $0.38 million, $29.95 DVD, NR.
It’s easy to imagine a documentary filmmaker fashioning a conventional lament filled full of talking-head economists and sociologists discussing Detroit’s tragedy — and, to be sure, we’d learn about Motown nuts and bolts that led to what one visiting foreign tourist here refers to as its “decay.” But the team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have elected to make what at least one reviewer called a “tone poem” on the subject, and we do come out of it with a limited sense (vintage auto-industry promotional films help) of what was then and what is now. The Detroit we see here is understandably short on the likes of that posh, downtown, highest-tech office building we’re bizarrely treated to in Summit Entertainment’s recent home release of Alex Cross. Detropia does indeed convey decay — though in an unpredictably haunting manner by sometimes managing to turn the visuals into a thing of beauty. Emotionally dominated by older-folk interviewees who still remember when Detroit was an industry-driven city where someone without a formal education could land comfortably in the middle class — but also prominently featuring a female blogger barely into her third decade who couldn’t possibly have witnessed those glory days — this is a saga without many answers.
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Angels in the Outfield

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Paul Douglas, Janet Leigh, Keenan Wynn, Lewis Stone, Spring Byington, Marvin Kaplan, Ellen Corby, Donna Corcoran, Bruce Bennett.
Paul Douglas was superbly cast as Pirates manager “Guffy McGovern” — who was, in umpire terms, “toss-prone.” In this yarn, he is ultimately assisted by heavenly intervention the Pirates needed both on and off the screen. Later refashioned as an adequate 1994 kids pic for Disney, this earlier version has stronger casting.
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11 Feb, 2013

New on Disc: 'Wild River' and more …

Wild River

Fox, Drama, $14.98 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet.
The least seen of Elia Kazan’s great films had never, until its inclusion on a Fox-Kazan boxed set in 2010, received a home-market release. Wild River was and is special due to its subject matter (not just the Depression-TVA but also its overriding theme about the cruel trade-offs that sometimes come with technological progress); a Montgomery Clift performance both intelligent and appealing that just keeps getting better with the years; a Lee Remick performance that is probably her career high (I believe she referred to this as the favorite of her films); and a Jo Van Fleet performance that, to my mind, should have had the supporting actress Oscar that went to Shirley Jones for Elmer Gantry. Incredibly, Van Fleet didn’t even get a nomination — though she had, of course, taken the same award five years earlier for absolutely nailing a small role as James Dean’s brothel-madam mother in Kazan’s East of Eden (which, like River, also had a most satisfying script by Paul Osborn).

Clift’s mission for the Tennessee Valley Authority is to get Van Fleet’s 80-year-old matriarch (the actress was 45 when she took the role) to cease being the only holdout to selling her family land so that the area can be flooded to make way for a TVA dam that will bring electricity to the region. Gradually helping her face reality is widowed-at-19 granddaughter Remick, whose minimal formal education can’t camouflage her innate emotional intelligence — a virtue that gets a workout when she has to convince this sometimes guarded Northern male that she would make a good wife to him.

Ellsworth Fredericks’ lovely Scope location photography gets the expected Blu-ray boost over the DVD version, and yes, that’s Bruce Dern as a gas station hooligan (one of many in the town) — his first screen appearance. Critic Richard Schickel is an obvious choice for the commentary here, having written extensively on Kazan in the past. This release definitely fills a crater, in that Wild River was one of the greatest U.S. releases never given its home format due.
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Murder Is My Beat

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Paul Langton, Barbara Payton, Robert Shayne.
Having previously immortalized bad-boy actor Tom Neal on screen in the skuzziest ‘B’-movie ever to have (deservedly) been added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry — 1945’s Detour — it was certainly not unpoetic that cult director Edgar G. Ulmer’s legacy can also claim the final movie to feature bad-girl Barbara Payton, whose volatile real-life romance with Neal didn’t even constitute the final-word tabloid chapters that eventually saw a) Neal imprisoned for the murder of his wife; and b) Payton descending into prostitution in a severely downward life trajectory.

Beat’s male lead is Paul Langton — later of TV’s “Peyton Place” — as a cop in pursuit of chanteuse Payton (though we never hear her sing) for a rather grisly homicide — until her demeanor (or more likely, platinum blond hair) so convinces him she might be innocent that the lawman jeopardizes his career by going on the run with her.

Payton, not that terrible an actress despite once having the title role in Bride of the Gorilla, really does exude “end of the line” here, though this quickie’s tawdry real-deal has to be actress Tracy Roberts as her trashier roommate. Roberts, who looks good in a saloon dive, never really made it in the movies, but she did become a respected acting teacher, though how many pointers she picked up from this one is a matter of conjecture.
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