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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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11 Jul, 2011

New on Disc: 'Damnation Alley' and more …


Damnation Alley

Street 7/12
Shout! Factory, Sci-Fi, $19.93 DVD, $26.97 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard, Paul Winfield, Dominique Sanda.
1977.
The story deals with the ramifications of Earth having been tilted on its axis and the resulting precipitous population dip. The few remaining survivors include three U.S. Air Force cronies who managed to be in a Mojave bomb shelter: Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard and Paul Winfield. If the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” crew had been allowed access to major studio releases, Alley (adapted from a Roger Zelazny novel) would have been a natural. But even without snarky commentary, the movie and Jack Smight’s direction are so outlandishly ham-handed that Peppard and this D-team always will have an honored place on my DVD shelf.
Extras: In one of the featurettes, co-producer Jerome Zeitman basically says he was in over his head and the filmmakers did the best they could with the available technology. Screenwriter Alan Sharp is the focus of another featurette.
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The Best of The Dean Martin Variety Show: Collector’s Edition

Time Life, Comedy, $59.95 six-DVD set, NR.
1965-72.
The show was a watered-down variation on Dean Martin’s booze-‘n’-broads Vegas nightclub act. The show worked for eight seasons, though it got a little shaky toward the end. Credit infectiously good on-the-set tidings, Martin’s ability to play off almost any guest and his utter lack of pretension (who else began his show by sliding down a fire pole in a tux?). Unlike the old mail-order DVDs that utilized a kind of “snippet” format to present the Martin shows, this six-disc set (smaller and cheaper variations are available as well) consists of 20 individual programs with certain segments and a lot of Martin solos from each edited out. The purist in me balks at this, and I am among the online chorus who would have preferred complete programs. But beyond allowing disc space for a larger show sampling, it’s possible some of the edits were judicious: The shows move speedily, and even some of the obscure guest stand-up comics (who would have been potentially removable) remain and are funnier than expected. In any case, the set makes it clear that Martin was a — and maybe the — transitional figure for changing television times.
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Frontline: Football High

PBS, Documentary, $24.99, NR.
2011.
Broadly speaking, director Rachel Dretzin’s reportage deals with the ways in which successful high school football programs now resemble those of their college counterparts. High school players take more hits than college players while their brains are still developing, and doctors are starting to see brain injuries and memory loss identified with NFL retirees in youngsters. This is a very powerful documentary in the low-key “Frontline” style that simply asks that football programs and the public at large keep pace with the current medical knowledge.
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Tortilla Flat

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, John Garfield, Frank Morgan.
1942.
Director Victor Fleming’s moderately weighted but still slightly overlong movie of John Steinbeck’s first bestseller illustrates a lot of what was both slick and snapless — and yet in other ways wonderful — about MGM during the Louis B. Mayer years. The picture casts Irish Spencer Tracy, Viennese Hedy Lamarr, Jewish John Garfield and The Wizard of Oz’s Frank Morgan as Northern California Hispanics — or paisanos — who live, loaf, imbibe wine and pack a lot of fish at the area canneries.
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4 Jul, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Making of the President: The 1960s' and more …


The Making of the President: The 1960s

Street 7/5
Acorn/Athena, Documentary, $59.99 three-DVD set, NR.
1963-69.
If the three TV documentaries respectively spun off from Theodore H. White’s political bestsellers about the 1960, 1964 and 1968 elections didn’t fully achieve the same degree of landmark status on their own moving-image turf, they were still galvanizing at the time and permanently valuable. It’s the time capsule aspect that really makes this boxed set cook. This is because footage of on-the-stump politicians — eating rubber chicken at fundraisers or captured in their hotel rooms — no longer is the novelty it once was. Every political junkie can take something special out of each of these roughly 80-minute moving snapshots.
Extras: Spicing up the package is a 16-page backgrounder booklet that even elucidates the elections’ respective party platforms — plus two bonus documentaries that include the JFK remembrance from the ’64 Democratic Convention.
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The Breaking Point

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars John Garfield, Patricia Neal, Phyllis Thaxter, Juano Hernandez.
1950.
The second Warner screen version of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not shrewdly avoids any attempts to beat the earlier picture at its own game — showing what the life of fishing boat captain Harry Morgan (John Garfield) might have been like (this time postwar) if his Newport Beach, Calif., business was lousy, he had a wife and daughters he loved and was forced by circumstances to get mixed up with some shady characters. The result is one of director Michael Curtiz’s best movies. The script has some tangy dialogue, and the story doesn’t get bogged down in the melodrama that dominates the final quarter, as some movies that shift their focus near the end frequently do. There’s also no cop-out at the end, and the final shot is a killer — its emphasis quite unlike any other I can recall from the era.
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Report to the Commissioner

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Fox/MGM, Drama, $19.98 DVD, ‘R.’
Stars Michael Moriarty, Yaphet Kotto, Susan Blakely, Hector Elizondo.
1975.
With the exception of Susan Blakely (which is, in a way, a key plot point), even the cast needs a serious dose of urban renewal in the relentlessly grimy screen version of James Mills’ NYPD bestseller. Yaphet Kotto plays a cop — and for that matter, so does Blakely. In fact, just about every principal in the movie is on the force, except for Bob Balaban as a street person, Richard Gere (his big-screen debut) as a dandy-in-his-own-eyes pimp and William Devane, who shows up at the end in one of those assistant DA roles he and his arching eyebrows were born to play. Speaking strictly chronologically, Commissioner arrived around the middle of the great cycle of NYPD dramas that spanned Madigan (1968) to Prince of the City (1981) — but in reality most of the really good ones had come earlier.
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Woman Obsessed

Available at www.screenarchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Susan Hayward, Stephen Boyd, Barbara Nichols, Theodore Bikel.
1959.
A recent Canadian Rockies widowed mother weds a widowed guy (Stephen Boyd). As with almost every movie that top-billed her following her Oscar win, this is purely a Susan Hayward vehicle: She emotes, sports professionally sculpted hair and wears some decent nightwear.
Extras: The disc comes with detailed Julie Kirgo liner notes and an isolated music track.
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27 Jun, 2011

New on Disc: 'Kiss Me Deadly' and more …


Kiss Me Deadly

Criterion, Mystery, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Cloris Leachman, Maxine Cooper.
1955.
Kiss Me Deadly turned out to be a bedrock masterpiece of American cinema, one with a far more illustrious international reputation than any book or movie with which Mickey Spillane’s name was ever associated. Director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides took the author’s politically reactionary thug/cretin of a detective, Mike Hammer, and used him to personify most of what they thought was wrong with America in 1955. What’s more, it totally ignored or upended the novel’s plot in the process. This will likely end up being one of Criterion’s top releases this year.
Extras: The set includes a revealing 40-minute documentary about Spillane, a predictably pro-job commentary by top-drawer noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini, a couldn’t-be-better Criterion essay by Jim Hoberman, plus instructive supplements about Bezzerides (who, judging from the footage here, must have fallen on hard times) and about the mostly vanished Los Angeles locales Aldrich used for this definitive L.A. movie (even if the original novel did take place in New York state).
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Bad Blood: A Cautionary Tale

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
2011.
The lines of personal and clinical filmmaking intersect to maximum power in a landmark story of how the hemophiliac community got contaminated by a drug designed to help them. Some documentaries on PBS run only an hour, but I don’t think that would have been long enough to construct the kind of history director Marilyn Ness has assembled over 82 minutes. Ness was a lifelong friend of one of the central hemophiliacs interviewed here and originally intended for her film to be more limited in its context. Then the friend — health activist Mathew Kleiner — died of hepatitis and an HIV infection contracted from a blood transfusion received years earlier, and Ness was left with the footage and practically a mandate to expand the scope of her film. All in all, about 10,000 hemophiliacs contracted AIDS and 15,000 got hepatitis — the worst medical disaster in U.S. history.
Extras: This is one of those cases where it is crucially instructional to view the filmmaker interview included as a DVD bonus, which in this case turns about 15 minutes. For one thing, you get a real sense of Ness’ compassion and struggle to get the story right.
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Hearts of the West

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, ‘PG.’
Stars Jeff Bridges, Andy Griffith, Alan Arkin, Blythe Danner.
1975.
Set in 1933 Hollywood, Hearts of the West tells the story of an aspiring writer (Jeff Bridges) who becomes a stuntman. The movie probably never had much of a box office chance and still exists almost in the exclusive domain of movie cultists — which doesn’t mean that anyone coerced into seeing it won’t have a mellow good time, without necessarily feeling the need to write home about it.
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Burn, Witch, Burn!

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Fox/MGM, Horror, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Janet Blair, Patrick Wyngarde.
1962.
For anyone who finally gets around to seeing this unfussy horror sleeper, one of its treats pops up in the opening credits: “Twilight Zone” veterans Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont share a writing credit for this adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s source novel Conjure Wife. The film provides a novel twist on the backbiting rivalries that always have existed in academia, where faculty spouses act on their jealousies despite the phony smiles they throw each other during supposedly collegial bridge games.
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20 Jun, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Makioka Sisters' and 'Orgasm Inc.'


The Makioka Sisters

Criterion, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Keiko Kishi, Yoshiko Sakuma, Sayuri Yoshinaga, Yuko Kotegawa.
1983.
Director Kon Ichikawa’s splendid sprawler, adapted and modified from Junichiro Tanizaki’s popular novel, takes place in 1938 Osaka and Ashiya but only tangentially addresses Japan’s escalating state of war in that decade. Whenever there are fleeting references to the army during the course of 140 event-packed minutes, they usually have to do with how the military economy is contributing to tougher times and other concerns involving money, a subject never far from the minds of the movie’s title quartet. Sibling rivalry knows no geographic storytelling boundaries, and it would take a pretty dour type (or maybe the least-enlightened red-meat macho man) not to get caught up in the roller coaster emotions of older sisters Tsuruko and Sacahiko, who both “married down” — though one wouldn’t say unhappily — after their merchant parents died, or to those of younger Yukiko and Taeko, whose attempts to land husbands from something less than an ‘A’-list of contenders constitute much of the narrative.
Extras: Uncommonly short on bonus features for a Criterion release, Sisters does have a lovely new transfer befitting its classiness and a solid essay by Audie Bock, still one of the first scholars you think of when it comes to any knowledgeable discussion of Japanese cinema.
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Orgasm Inc.

Street 6/21
First Run, Documentary, B.O. $0.05 million, $27.95 DVD, NR.
2011.
If the title sounds a bit on the flip side, it turns out to be a dead-on precise one to serve subject matter that could have befitted a Robert Altman comedy. Documentary filmmaker Liz Canner casts a wary eye on scientific attempts to develop a kind of equal-opportunity Viagra: a pill to enable women to have more and better orgasms. Perhaps a little of this public servicing has been for altruistic reasons: the pleasing kind involving patient blood flow. Much more of it is for the cash flow of pharmaceutical companies. Before very long, the tone relaxes some, and Orgasm Inc. simply elects to mine the rich material at hand. Eventually, it even turns footage of FDA testimony into a mild nail-biter.
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The Prize

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson, Elke Sommer, Diane Baker.
1963.
As part of a movie designed to remind us of Hitchcock all the way down to Hitch regular Leo G. Carroll’s subordinate role, this glossy adaptation of Irving Wallace’s same-name novel has a script by Ernest Lehman, who wrote the brilliant original screenplay for North by Northwest as well. Sometimes, it’s harder to go back to the drawing board than it is to go back to the well. For all its handsome Panavision clunkiness partly redeemed by a mostly snappy on-demand Warner Archive print, there’s more than a smidgen of amusement in seeing Newman involved in Cold War intrigue much lighter in tone than anything in the actor’s “official” Hitchcock movie: 1966’s Torn Curtain.
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Park Row

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Fox/MGM, Genre, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Gene Evans, Mary Welch, Bela Kovacs.
1952.
Even by Sam Fuller standards, this affectionate (and affection-engendering) labor of love by the distinctive writer-director is undeniably on the broad side — not that the world of cutthroat New York City journalism in the mid-1880s would be portrayed very accurately with a dainty approach.
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13 Jun, 2011

New on Disc: 'Another Year' and more …


Another Year

Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $3.2 million, $38.96 Blu-ray/DVD combo, ‘PG-13 for some language.
Stars Lesley Manville, Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Imelda Staunton.
2010.
Among its many grown-up virtues, Mike Leigh’s Another Year offers testimony to the life advantage of finding the right soulmate — as dramatized by the perfectly synchronized relationship of married Londoners Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geographical engineer with a flair for shared yard work, and Gerri, (Ruth Sheen) a psychologist who deals with unhappy people as a daily diet. Gerri’s toughest test case is co-worker Mary, played both intensely and unforgettably by another Leigh regular, Lesley Manville. The plasticity of Manville’s face is something to see: In half a beat, she can go from warmly approachable to withered and party-killing. Year isn’t exactly the kind of production Blu-ray was designed to enhance for home audiences, but the format’s capabilities do add some punch to the searing quality of the actors’ faces.
Extras: The disc includes commentary with Leigh and Manville and the featurettes “The Making of Another Year” and “The Mike Leigh Method.”
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Public Speaking

HBO, Documentary, $19.98 DVD, NR.
2010.
You can tell that Martin Scorsese is having a grand time of it with his documentary on comic essayist Fran Lebowitz (Metropolitan Life; Social Studies) when he cuts from a discussion of her owning and driving a Checker cab in New York City (where no one has a car) to a shot that pays homage to Travis Bickle in the director’s own Taxi Driver. You even get the Bernard Herrmann scoring. With this kind of documentary, Scorsese can only shoot the material conventionally, but somehow his “conventionally” always seems to have a zestier pace than other filmmakers.
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When It Was a Game: The Complete Collection (Blu-ray)

HBO, Documentary, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
1991-2000.
After 20 years (the first “When It Was a Game” aired in 1991), we have never quite re-seen the likes of this HBO series, which was culled from 8mm and 16mm (mostly) color home movies — with a little aspect ratio tinkering to render them as widescreen presentations. Originally aired over a decade as three separate hour-long documentaries, the shows are packed with shots of Ebbets Field, Crosley Field, the Polo Grounds plus players from the same bygone eras those bygone stadiums represent. You can watch these films over and over and spot something new, but perhaps their greatest beauty is that occasional shot you’ll never forget. For me, it’s a bare-chested Billy Martin tossing a beach ball at someone’s pool party. The other one is an in-the-stands shot of Roy Rogers sitting next to Gabby Hayes, both in sartorial splendor. I’m pretty sure it’s from a World Series — though it would be even more surreal were it a Boston Braves-Phillies game with 852 people in the stands, counting the concession guys.
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Those Lips, Those Eyes

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Fox/MGM, Comedy, $19.98 DVD, ‘R.’
Stars Frank Langella, Tom Hulce, Glynnis O’Connor, Jerry Stiller.
1980.
Despite a rather marked absence here of “Cleveland verisimilitude,” Those Lips, Those Eyes is somewhat of an underseen sleeper/charmer that has just been made available in Fox’s new on-demand package of predominantly United Artists titles. It gets a huge boost from lead Frank Langella as an aging theatrical performer who takes a youthful stagehand (Tom Hulce) under his wing. The major reward of a likably minor movie comes from savoring the svelte flamboyance Langella brings to a role that possibly no other actor at the time could have played this well.
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6 Jun, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Comancheros' Blu-ray, 'Night Flight' and more …


The Comancheros (Blu-ray)

Fox, Western, $34.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars John Wayne, Stuart Whitman, Ina Balin, Lee Marvin.
1961.
John Wayne’s second notably relaxed outing in as many years for 20th Century Fox placed him early in the final chapter of his Western career — the one where he got a lot of fun out of intimidating a tenderfoot. Fox has given this easy-to-take escapism more than a half-hearted Blu-ray treatment, but there are times when it looks a little on the muddy side. But make no mistake: Fox deserves credit for taking the high road by issuing The Comancheros in high-def.
Extras: The single best thing Fox has done with this release is to revive the great pieced-together commentary with co-star Stuart Whitman, Wayne’s actor son Patrick (who takes an Indian arrow in the back here) and two actors who play heavies: Nehemiah Persoff and Michael Ansara. Originally assembled for the 1994 laserdisc release, it was left off the standard Comancheros DVD. Other bonuses include, but are not limited to, a historical backgrounder about the title traders to Indians (who apparently weren’t always as reprehensible as the bad breed of merchants here) and one on Wayne’s two tenures at the studio, separated by about 30 years.
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Night Flight

Street 6/7
Warner, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy.
1933.
The movie isn’t very distinguished but is somewhat more fun to watch than I recalled — which proves again that you can never underestimate what a good print can bring to the table. I like Barrymore’s performance as a boss man who’s so demanding that he fines pilots for being a few minutes late in arriving despite flying over mountains in rain storms without even cover in the cockpit. Playing a pilot who runs into perilous weather is Clark Gable, and he gets a lot more out of next to no dialogue than poor Helen Hayes does as his wife. The movie is obviously a strong curiosity but nothing much more than that.
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Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

Flicker Alley, Documentary, $39.95 DVD, NR.
2010.
We live in an era when nearly every film classic of note comes equipped with a “look-back” featurette or more in its DVD or Blu-ray bonus section. Yet every once in a while a documentary about the movie industry qualifies as a standout, though usually they’re about movies that actually got made. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno is definitely special for sure with its almost foolproof central hook: the story of an important filmmaker who, from all indications, underwent some kind of mysterious crack-up while working on what might have ended up being either a cinematic fiasco of major proportions or the movie of his career.
Extras: Affable co-director Serge Bromberg spins an incredible anecdote involving Clouzot’s widow that illustrates how close this documentary came to not being made.
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Fate Is the Hunter

Available from www.screenarchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Glenn Ford, Rod Taylor, Nancy Kwan, Suzanne Pleshette.
1964.
Fate’s barebones story has to do with an investigator (Glenn Ford) determining what caused a passenger plane to crash when there didn’t seem to be any reasons for it to do so — other than perhaps a guy at the controls (Rod Taylor) who was known to have a taste for revelry. The transfer is very good on Twilight Time’s latest trek into the 20th Century Fox library.
Extras: Program notes by Julie Kirgo and an isolated audio track for Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score.
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30 May, 2011

New on Disc: 'American Graffiti' on Blu-ray and more …


American Graffiti: Special Edition

Street 5/31
Universal, Comedy, $19.98 DVD, $26.98 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Suzanne Somers.
1973.
American Graffiti was the definitive nostalgia piece of its day, and Blu-ray serves the movie’s sensual subtleties well: bright colors coming through the nighttime grain of early morning shooting and a Walter Murch sound design that took the place of a musical score the picture couldn’t afford once George Lucas & Co. shelled out for the oldies soundtrack that plays wall-to-wall. With occasional halo-ing that reflects how I recall it looking in theaters plus an old-school 2.0 soundtrack, I love Universal’s new Blu-ray edition. Director Lucas was going for a documentary feel, and shooting in Techniscope was a good start. That widescreen process used less film and, thus, created more grain — one step up from 16mm, as is noted in this release’s outstanding making-of documentary carried over from the earlier DVD edition.
Extras: Beyond a picture-in-picture feature where Lucas comments on the action, Laurent Bouzereau’s 78-minute documentary is one of the best behind-the-scenes looks ever.
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Pale Flower

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
In Japanese with English subtitles.
Stars Ryu Okebe, Mariko Kaga.
1964.
Director Masahiro Shinoda’s yakuza/gambling toughie is one enigmatically hip movie that keeps lingering in the mind. Flower has one of those endings that makes you reconsider everything that’s come before, which makes one want to find the time to take a second look.
Extras: In one of the bonus extras, an amazingly youthful-looking Shinoda (he turned 80 in March) says Toru Takemitsu’s feverish score was probably the most avant-garde music around anywhere at the time. Film scholar and Takemitsu expert Peter Grilli does a partial commentary for one of the other extras, and I like the accompanying essay by Chuck Stephens.
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Bhutto

First Run, Documentary, B.O. $0.1 million, $27.95 DVD, NR.
2010.
Several reviewers have noted that this documentary about assassinated two-time Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was as much a history of her country since its 1947 partition as it was her personal story. Using a flood of old clips dating back to the regime of her father (Prime Minister and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto), this portrait leaves little doubt about the degree to which trouble has followed Pakistan around in most of our lifetimes. If Bhutto doesn’t quite feel rounded, it is compelling all the way — and it would be even without the recent Pakistani intrigue in Osama Bin Laden’s dispatching.
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Marlowe

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Mystery, $19.95 DVD, ‘PG.’
Stars James Garner, Gayle Hunnicutt, Carroll O’Connor, Sharon Farrell, Bruce Lee.
1969.
An obvious reason to catch this rather pedestrian L.A. mystery is that it is what it is: the only screen adaptation ever made out of Raymond Chandler’s 1949 novel The Little Sister. There are two fabulous altercations — one in an office, one outside of a skyscraper restaurant — between Marlowe (James Garner) and a whacked-out Asian, played by Bruce Lee, who works for one of the movie’s heavies. I don’t know which is more fun: to have seen these scenes cold at the time or to see them in full context, knowing what Lee’s career became.
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23 May, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Manchurian Candidate' Blu-ray and more …


The Manchurian Candidate (Blu-ray)

Fox/MGM, Thriller, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey, James Gregory.
1962.
The JFK assassination changed how everyone looked at everything political, and Candidate eventually came to seem so far ahead of its time that Hollywood did the obligatory lame remake in 2004. It had brainwashing for real; Frank Sinatra in a rare role with real dimension; an eventually Oscar-nominated Angela Lansbury; Leslie Parrish in that sexy Halloween outfit; and the nail-biting finale in which one party’s presidential nominee is targeted for sniper’s fire in Madison Square Garden. Even the original Candidate’s strange mix of tragedy and ticklish satire seems positively modern. It looks better on Blu-ray than it has before without looking particularly distinguished, but it must do something right because I noticed more than ever how much Sinatra, a career-best Laurence Harvey and so many of the male principals sweat.
Extras: Candidate has been issued for the home market many times, and its premiere on Blu-ray not unwelcomely recycles its interviews with director John Frankenheimer, screenwriter George Axelrod and Sinatra, all of whom are long gone.
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Such Good Friends

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Dyan Cannon, James Coco, Jennifer O’Neill, Ken Howard.
1971.
This adaptation of Lois Gould’s novel about a woman’s interior thoughts brought on by her husband’s coma is arguably the one later movie Otto Preminger directed that had significant merit. Friends’ black-comic premise starts with Julie’s (Dyan Cannon) art-director husband (Laurence Luckinbill) becoming a hugely successful children’s author committing adultery with everyone in sight (itself a not-bad gag). He then becomes one of those people too many of us have known: the person who goes into the hospital for a relatively benign procedure — and never comes out. This allows the script to get in some funny observational zingers about how the couple’s well-heeled Manhattan family and friends remain oblivious to what’s really important. As a satire of conspicuous consumption and what later became Yuppie-dom, the movie was ahead of its time.
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The Sign of the Cross

Universal, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton, Elissa Landi.
1932.
The Sign of the Cross is a prototypical Cecil B. DeMille religious spectacular set in ancient Rome. It previously was available in Universal’s five-title DeMille boxed set and now is available individually. It is very much worth seeing for the cast, the décor, Karl Struss’s shimmering Oscar-nominated photography and — most of all — its still incredibly bloodthirsty arena sequence, which doesn’t get lazy with that same old lions-eating-Christians stuff.
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Get Yourself a College Girl

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Mary Ann Mobley, Chad Everett, Joan O’Brien, Nancy Sinatra, Chris Noel.
1964.
We begin with a student played by onetime Miss America Mary Ann Mobley, who does her part for coming sexual liberation here by almost getting bounced from something called Wyndham College for composing a randy tune on the subject. The Dave Clark Five and The Animals appear in what had been a big year for both groups but don’t sing any of their hits. Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto do perform their biggest — “The Girl from Ipanema” — but the staging is bereft of imagination. If it’s all getting too complicated, this Warner burn-on-demand title simply is what it is — which means that male lead Chad Everett is going to be characteristically unctuous, in a Midwest country club kind of way.
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16 May, 2011

New on Disc: 'Something Wild' and more …


Something Wild

Criterion, Comedy, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta.
1986.
Assuming a certain degree of competence in terms of execution, some movies get a blistering shot out of the gate from their premise alone — E. Max Frye’s original screenplay for one of director Jonathan Demme’s most characteristic achievements easily among them. The screenplay by Frye is first-rate, but the movie is quintessential Demme. It loves and respects minorities; has dead-on casting instincts down to the smallest roles (including bits by directors John Sayles and John Waters); wallows positively in the byways of America; employs sizzling color schemes; and has a zesty rock soundtrack — among the tops of the decade — that embraces David Byrne, UB40, Oingo Boingo, Fine Young Cannibals and more. Criterion yet again delivers a print that precisely replicates how a movie looked at the time it was born. In fact, you can use the indoor shot of Melanie Griffith’s apartment — or the color upholstery design from her character’s first of many illegally procured cars — to calibrate your big-screen monitor.
Extras: Demme mentions in the Criterion interview — without naming names — just how much the experience of making 1984’s Swing Shift pained him and how Wild became the project that made him want to resume directing again. The set also includes a Frye interview and a booklet with a new essay by critic David Thompson.
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Shoeshine

Street 5/17
eOne, Drama, $29.98 DVD, NR.
In Italian with English subtitles.
Stars Franco Interlenghi, Rinaldo Smordoni.
1946.
Historically notable as winner of the first foreign-language Oscar when the category wasn’t yet competitive but simply a one-shot honorary citation, director Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist landmark is also the film that Orson Welles pronounced the greatest he’d ever seen (while critic-of-the-day James Agee wasn’t far behind in praise). Today, some might argue that time has eroded some of the edge off its fastball — but only in comparison to other neorealist classics, including one or two De Sica made himself. Visually, this is a very striking release.
Extras: The new commentary by scholar Bert Cardullo is also a model of its kind — pointing out things we’ve missed that are right in front of us but trapped in our subconscious.
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Hurry Sundown

Street 5/17
Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Robert Reed, Robert Hooks, Michael Caine, John Phillip Law, Jim Backus, Jane Fonda, George Kennedy, Faye Dunaway, Diahann Carroll, Burgess Meredith.
1967.
This nearly 2½-hour Otto Preminger Southern opus may have been the most critically panned high-profile Hollywood movie of the entire 1960s. Still, a lush Olive print and the film’s fine production design make this a reasonably diverting sit-through, especially whenever Burgess Meredith is on the screen.
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The Prizefighter and the Lady

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Myrna Loy, Max Baer, Primo Carnera, Jack Dempsey, Walter Huston, Otto Kruger.
1933.
On the heels of hitting paydirt with swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, MGM next cast boxer Max Baer in this boxing-backdropped romance. Before Baer ended up annihilating Primo Carnera for real the following June, the latter got cast as the reigning champ that challenger Baer must beat in the movie’s climax.
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9 May, 2011

New on Disc: 'Blow Out' and more …


Blow Out

Criterion, Thriller, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars John Travolta, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, John Lithgow.
1981.
Though I’ve never been too wild in the past about this thriller that remains revered by many, Criterion gives Brian De Palma’s Hitchcockian homage to Antonioni’s Blow-Up by far the fairest shake it’s gotten in my previous experience with it. This is a movie that’s about sound: John Travolta plays a soundman regularly working on movies so trashy that De Palma himself could have made them. The new Blu-ray’s soundtrack sounds as if it has been pumping some iron, and visually, this is just one more example of how Criterion can make a movie of 30 years’ vintage look great.
Extras: Thanks to Criterion, I now appreciate Blow Out’s technical virtuosity more than I ever have — though hardly enough to curtsy to one of Pauline Kael’s most famously unbridled reviews (the kind that made so many revere Andrew Sarris). Reprinted in the Criterion booklet along with critic Michael Sragow’s less breathy brief, it terms the film “great” and puts De Palma’s direction on a level with Robert Altman’s for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The set also includes several new interviews with the filmmakers.
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Hail the Conquering Hero

Street 5/10
Universal, Comedy, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, William Demarest, Raymond Walburn.
1944.
Hail the Conquering Hero is the definitive 4-F movie. Eddie Bracken plays the son of fallen World War I Marine “Hinky Dinky” Truesmith — he has been mustered out of the Corps with chronic hay fever and is hiding out in a San Diego shipyard because he’s ashamed to face his mother, former girlfriend (Ella Raines) and the rest of his small town. This may be my favorite Preston Sturges movie due to the power of Bracken’s performance; its expert skewering of slippery politicians (a Sturges specialty); the best-ever showcase for William Demarest’s brand of gruffness this side of Sturges’ preceding The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; and, for the time, some incredible satirizing of wartime hero worship (though not of the Marines).
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Violent Saturday

Available at ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Victor Mature, Richard Egan, Virginia Leith, Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine.
1955.
There’s something about seeing Lee Marvin use a nose inhaler in early CinemaScope that’s guaranteed to stay in the memory. The bank robber he plays joins J. Carrol Naish and the ever-malevolent Stephen McNally in a small-town heist, which is a pretext for exposing a whole slew of small-town peccadilloes that movies began to expose around the middle of that decade. Tight (91 minutes), slight and a decent time at the movies, Saturday is the second 20th Century Fox deep library title to be limited-released under the once-a-month banner of a new enterprise called Twilight Time. The movie lovers who run it are invading the Fox vaults, and their launch release The Kremlin Letter (John Huston, 1970) got a crisp transfer last month. The one here has excellent color values but isn’t anamorphically enhanced, apparently because the right elements weren’t available.
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I Love Melvin

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Musical, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Una Merkel, Richard
Anderson, Allyn Joslin.
1953.
Singin’ in the Rain opened on April 11, 1952, and just one month later MGM had this most unpretentious Technicolor spin-off in production, showcasing two of that all-timer’s stars: Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. He plays a Look magazine photographer, and she is a show biz hopeful who, in one Broadway gig, literally gets tossed around like a football in a pigskin-motifed musical number — a fairly amazing scene.
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