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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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24 Jan, 2011

New on Disc: 'Animal Kingdom,' 'Piranha 3D' and more …


Animal Kingdom

Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $1 million, $28.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for violence, drug content and pervasive language.
Stars James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Ben Mendelsohn, Jacki Weaver.
2010.
The Melbourne milieu here is on the scuzzy side, starting right off with an opening scene where central character Josh (James Frecheville) watches TV with his mother, who has died from a heroin overdose. Josh heads to his grandmother’s house, where he finds a bunch of thug uncles brandishing various levels of psychoses — a clan that Melbourne’s Armed Robbery Squad would like to bust for good reason. Jacki Weaver as the grandmother has exactly the right look for the part: If eyes are the windows to one’s soul, Weaver’s initially beckon one to bask in the glow of their perceived warmth — before a second look reveals the decay behind them.
Extras: In the 75-minute making-of documentary that’s included as a bonus, writer-director David Michod tells of his obvious worries that any young actor chosen for the Josh role might go on a growth spurt during the extended period between the film’s conception and shooting schedule, but he came to realize hiring an older teen would have its own advantages.
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Piranha 3D

Sony Pictures, Horror, B.O. $25 million, $28.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray, $39.95 3D Blu-ray, ‘R’ for sequences of strong bloody horror violence and gore, graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use.
Stars Elisabeth Shue, Adam Scott, Jerry O’Connell, Ving Rhames, Steven R. McQueen, Jessica Szohr, Kelly Brook.
2010.
If you’re in the market for a movie where topless bimbos on spring break gyrate with such zest that their exposed breasts make discomfortingly obvious piranha targets, this one is on the higher end of crowd pleasers for that specialty demographic. The movie has a little of everything, as you can see by reading the specifics of its ‘R’-rating designation, which are longer than some novellas.
Extras: On the copiously detailed DVD/Blu-ray extras, director Alexandre Aja, a Frenchman, notes that the zeal he brought to the project was at least partly due to the fact that spring break is a concept alien to Europeans and, thus, was to him (my word, not his) exotic.
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Which Way Home

Street 1/25
Docurama, Documentary, $29.95 DVD, NR.
In Spanish with English subtitles.
2009.
Putting aside the politics of illegal immigration, a viewer might have to travel as long as some of the perilous train journeys in this Oscar-nominated documentary to find many more inherently dramatic subjects. Which Way Home deals with the arduous trek youngsters have to make even before they reach the U.S.-Mexico border — on their way (sometimes, but not always) to link up with a relative who is somewhere in the States. A product of HBO’s documentary arm, Which Way Home won an Emmy, in addition to its Oscar nomination (Outstanding Informational Programming — Long Form).
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Girl of the Night

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Anne Francis, Lloyd Nolan, John Kerr, Kay Medford.
1961.
The late Anne Francis stars in this melodrama of prostitution adapted from a landmark psychoanalytical book called The Call Girl by Dr. Harold Greenwald. If not for Francis, it would be just a respectable curiosity, but she makes it a little more than that.
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17 Jan, 2011

New on Disc: 'Howl' and more …


Howl

Oscilloscope, Drama, B.O. $0.06 million, $29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray/DVD combo, NR.
Stars James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban.
2010.
Though the idea behind it was never going to be inherently filmable, this barely released slice of anti-nostalgia can’t help but seduce, within severe screen limitations, as a cheeky screen concept for grown-ups. Here’s James Franco playing Allen Ginsberg a couple years after the poet had penned the sexually frank Howl, which ended up spurring a famous 1957 San Francisco anti-obscenity trial against poet/publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The rendering of the legal fracas is split into halves: the Ferlinghetti trial, which Ginsberg did not attend, plus life/autobiographic ruminations taken strictly from Ginsberg’s writings.
Extras: Along with the standard environmentally friendly Oscilloscope packaging that threatens to crumble in your hands, the release has lots of extras that include a Franco/filmmakers commentary and some cool backgrounders on how the production designer and costumers managed to do a lot with what had to have been a limited budget.
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Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Criterion, Sci-Fi, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West.
1964.
This Blu-ray is worth noting and even savoring for a couple standout reasons. It’s gorgeous — a prime example of how brilliant Paramount’s designers and labs could make Technicolor look in the early 1960s, even with a release shot in the economizing Techniscope process, whose trade-off was to make movies look grainier than anyone wanted (though not in this case). It’s actually a pretty solid movie about making do with isolation and one that’s still a dream to gaze upon, despite the primitive special effects of the day. According to the production principals, no one really wanted to retain a moniker, for public consumption, that was basically just a working title — though it does describe the movie, in which a U.S. astronaut (Paul Mantee) crash-lands you know where.
Extras: Criterion long ago issued a laserdisc of this sleeper and has basically replicated the initial release (and the standard DVD that followed years later), and did a wonderful job with the commentary track, covering the movie from all angles. There’s also a featurette by a space historian, a music video and a booklet of essays and factoids.
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Phffft!

Sony Pictures, Comedy, $14.94 DVD, NR.
Stars Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, Jack Carson, Kim Novak.
1954.
Its historical distinction as the second big-screen feature of both Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak is, by itself, enough to make screenwriter George Axelrod’s marital comedy a conversation piece. But chalk up another footnote as well, given the title’s unofficial status as the box office employee’s No. 1 headache of the era. Lemmon is a lawyer and Judy Holliday a writer for NBC who’ve tired of their marriage but quickly become wary of the dating scene. Last fall, Sony brought out a box of Columbia Lemmon comedies that included Phffft!
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Good-bye, My Lady

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Walter Brennan, Phil Harris, Brandon de Wilde, Sidney Poitier.
1956.
Good-bye, My Lady is never as good as one would like it to be, though it has an appealing story and a most interesting cast. It’s a little pokey, takes a while to get rolling, overdoes its harmonica backing and is obviously shot on a set — yet the basenji dog who’s its centerpiece is extraordinarily lovable, and the cast is never less than intriguing. Warner’s DVD-R version is letterboxed (which even the old laserdisc wasn’t) and has been remastered — though here and there, the print shows some minor wear.
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10 Jan, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Films of Rita Hayworth' and more …


The Films of Rita Hayworth

Sony Pictures, $59.95 five-DVD set, NR.
Stars Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Glenn Ford, Stewart Granger.
1944-53.
As a World War II pinup icon, Betty Grable was undeniably a cutie, but it’s tough to imagine the heads of servicemen doing 360-degree spins the way they did for Rita Hayworth during her too-abbreviated prime. This five-title box, with newly spiffed-up prints from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, contains three new-to-DVD titles and a pair that were previously released. Better prints are better prints, but be aware going in that the two retreads (color Cover Girl and black-and-white Gilda) are the collection’s high points. Cover Girl (1944) did as much for the career of Gene Kelly as it did for his co-star. For the most part, it’s Hayworth’s picture, if one has to choose, but there is one spectacular Kelly solo in which he dances with “himself” (or his character’s alter ego) that may be even more of a special effects marvel than the dance Kelly would do with animated Jerry Mouse. Tonight and Every Night (1945) is just about Girl’s Technicolor equal, dealing with a London theater that continues performances throughout wartime bombing. Gilda (1946) exploits Hayworth’s signature role for some signature film noir. To enjoy Salome (1953), you have to have a taste for religious epics, though Hayworth still looks fabulous enough to convince as a Biblical figure who probably didn’t have to bankroll her own veils. Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) fared better as previous vehicles for Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford, but Hayworth has one standout scene: her once-notorious “The Heat Is On” number.
Extras: The presentations include intros by Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrman and redheaded soul sister Patricia Clarkson.
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Frontline: The Spill

Street 1/11
PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
2010.
You can’t buy the caliber of publicity BP got from its Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and this typically taut “Frontline” documentary, which aired on PBS this past October, adds to the negative ballyhoo. It’s one of those chronicles that shows how a major disaster was far from an isolated occurrence in terms of a corporate culture — the kind of look-back that recalls dreadful previous incidents from the past you may have half-forgotten, unless you lived in the geographical area affected. One such incident involves the Texas City, Texas, refinery BP acquired from Amoco in 1999 that already had been regarded as “troubled”: It was built in 1934, there was lots of corrosion and it suffered about a fire a week. The culmination was the biggest industrial accident in decades: an explosion on March 23, 2005, that killed 15 workers and injured 170 others — the result being then-record fines for safety violations numbering into the hundreds and $1 billion paid out to families as long as they signed an agreement to remain silent. The Spill runs an hour with nary a dull moment, though someday, after more perspective, one can imagine its subject getting the full-scale treatment that, say, Spike Lee gave Hurricane Katrina in When the Levees Broke. Certainly, anyone who works for an arrogant employer will empathize with what they see.
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Just Tell Me What You Want

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, ‘R.’
Stars Ali MacGraw, Alan King, Peter Weller, Myrna Loy.
1980.
This brittle romantic comedy has a scene that just about everyone remembers if they know the movie — even if they blank on its title. I’m talking about the set piece where Ali MacGraw attacks Alan King inside and out front of Bergdorf Goodman’s in New York City. By just squeaking in as an ‘80s release, Just Tell Me enabled the great Myrna Loy — who is spottable on screen at least back to films from the mid-1920s — to have been a movie presence in seven different decades. She’s wonderful here in her final big-screen feature, so if your taste doesn’t run to department store slugfests, Loy is a reason to see it as well.
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3 Jan, 2011

New on Disc: 1960 World Series Game 7 and more …


Baseball’s Greatest Games: 1960 World Series Game 7

A&E, Sports, $29.95 two-DVD set, NR.
1960.
Yogi Berra always says it isn’t over ’til its over, but guess what? This time it was over when Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski led off the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series with a home run, bringing to an instant end one of the more improbable World Series in baseball history with a victory over the New York Yankees. As with the DVD of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series that MLB/A&E released in a 2009 Yankees boxed set, watching this is game is almost a supernatural experience. I’ve probably read at least 30 books that deal with it on some level but certainly never thought I’d get a chance to see it, given how few games exist on tape (or the earlier and more primitive kinescope) from before the early 1970s. Nearly 50 years after the fact, all but unimaginably, the Bing Crosby family’s archivist found a kinescope of it in the wine cellar of the singer, who was a co-owner of the Pirates.
Extras: The set includes the official 1960 World Series film (with the familiar faded color) along with theatrical newsreels that chronicled the series, interviews with some of the players and two broadcast tracks.
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True Grit (Blu-ray)

Paramount, Western, $24.99 Blu-ray, ‘G.’
Stars John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall.
1969.
Just because the Coens’ fresh take makes for a better movie than John Wayne’s Oscar showcase of four decades’ past, it doesn’t mean the original is without merit or fails to retain some of the charm that made it so popular at the time. Wayne doesn’t show up until about 13 minutes into True Grit, and it’s a fairly grim time of it waiting for the movie to get in gear outside of Elmer Bernstein’s music and the postcard perfection of the great Lucien Ballard’s cinematography. The Blu-ray does look exactly as the movie did in 1969, when I saw it five times in its first-run engagement.
Extras: The bonus extras, carried over from the 2007 DVD, are short but venture in directions both desirously expected and surprising. One Western historian has a lot of fun talking about how one of the keys to being a successful outlaw was to carry the right moniker.
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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

MPI/IFC, Documentary, B.O. $2.9 million, $27.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language and sexual humor.
2010.
Like Joan Rivers herself, this well-received documentary by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg isn’t afraid to go in some discomforting or even icky directions, and, as such, it ranks as one of the more honest portrayals of … well, if not the show biz underbelly, at least its unforgiving nature. There’s nothing like reaching 75 and having to worry about what is or isn’t a good career move. It appears that the filmmakers got handed a documentarian’s dream in that their saga begins with Rivers’ career on the downside before her ultimate first-place selection on “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
Extras: The DVD and Blu-ray both feature outtakes that are, indeed, weaker than the release print, plus a decent Q&A that took place at a Sundance Festival showing.
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Susan Slept Here

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Francis.
1954.
The great Dick Powell’s final movie as an actor is one of the first movies I can ever recall that was regarded as “racy.” I still like the idea of seeing Powell at about 47 playing a 35-year-old screenwriter who marries Debbie Reynolds (then 21 but cast as a 17-year-old). It keeps the blood flowing.
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20 Dec, 2010

New on Disc: Frank Sinatra Concerts, Elia Kazan and more …


Frank Sinatra: Concert for the Americas

Shout! Factory/Vivendi, Music, $19.98 DVD, NR.
1982.
Recorded at the Altos de Chavón Amphitheater in La Romana, Dominican Republic, Americas represents a DVD premiere (in this country at least) — though Shout! Factory also included it in its seven-disc Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection, which came out Nov. 2 for a $79.95 list price. Except for one relative musical stiff (“Searching”) he wastes time on just after 64-year-old drummer Buddy Rich pounds and sweats up a storm during Sinatra’s intermission, Americas’ 18-tune playlist is all but exclusively made up of familiar benchmarks from the singer’s relatively later Capitol and Reprise eras. This said, he does perform 1945’s Columbia-era “The House I Live In,” a warmly patriotic tune from an eponymous short subject that won him a special Academy Award at the time. Even against a lot of contenders, Americas has to be counted as a high point in the concert box set, which includes several TV specials previously released by Warner and material also fresh to DVD. Another personal favorite is 1973’s Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, which represented Sinatra’s so-called showbiz comeback after a hiatus in recording.
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The Elia Kazan Collection

Fox, Drama, $199.98 18-DVD set, NR.
Stars Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick.
1945-63.
Its 16 titles include five DVD premieres plus a new documentary from a filmmaker of equal stature. The 10 titles released before include Boomerang!; the badly dated Gentleman’s Agreement and Pinky; the crisp on-location New Orleans melodrama Panic in the Streets; the revolutionary screen acting showcase A Streetcar Named Desire; the even more revolutionary On the Waterfront and East of Eden; the ticklishly lascivious Baby Doll; the prescient A Face in the Crowd; and Splendor in the Grass (easily the most durable and moving of all high-school sex sagas). Of the premieres, one is a cluttered mess (Man on a Tightrope), one is quite good (Viva Zapata!) and three are splendid (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Wild River and America, America). Just on the level of this set’s crop of talent, Elia Kazan was the greatest director of actors ever.
Extras: Martin Scorsese’s recent A Letter to Elia (co-filmed with Kent Jones and previously run as an “American Masters” entry on PBS) is obviously one of this boxed-treasure-with-booklet’s selling points — a 60-minute documentary that more than one observer thought was Scorsese’s most personal work in years. Though I’m moved to see it give A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Wild River the major love that is only their due, Letter’s hour-long limitations force it to ignore other titles such as Viva Zapata! and Baby Doll. Mostly it’s about Scorsese’s formative obsession with Waterfront and especially East of Eden.
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The Outfit

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, ‘PG.’
Stars Robert Duvall, Joe Don Baker, Karen Black, Robert Ryan.
1973.
Adapting a Donald E. Westlake novel six years after Westlake’s The Hunter had given MGM 1.5 of its finest hours of the 1960s with its screen version (Point Blank), writer-director John Flynn fashioned a very mean movie — can this really be a ‘PG’ film? — in which someone gets shot in the hand and another is threatened with even worse (try one toe at a time). The premise operates on a rude surprise: that the Midwest bank you and your brother knocked off was the personal play-pretty of the local mob. Stick-up perpetrator Robert Duvall, just out of the cooler, is in a foul mood because “the boys” have just exacted revenge on his brother, gunning him down in the backyard. In short order, he recruits Joe Don Baker from a roadside eatery to be his aide; bloodies-up a high-stakes poker game that includes the perennially watchable character actor Timothy Carey (he of the wounded hand); and, in what is probably the movie’s best scene, has one whale of a time at a farmhouse (killer dog included) trying to get a good deal on a car that won’t be linked to him. The result is no world-beater, but it never tries to be more than it is, and the casting hits keep coming.
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13 Dec, 2010

New on Disc: the 2010 World Series film, 'Restrepo' and more …


2010 World Series Champions: San Francisco Giants

Shout! Factory/Vivendi, Sports, $19.93 DVD, $29.93 Blu-ray, NR.
2010.
Though five-game series must be the bane of DVD marketers’ existence, there are nifty infield plays and keen dugout reaction shots here (from both teams) to what their opponents were doing. The Giants’ win over the Texas Rangers was the franchise’s first Series win since they were in New York and broke the backs of the 1954 Cleveland Indians in a four-game sweep — permanently traumatizing several of my best childhood Ohio friends and causing them severe emotional problems as adults. Not counting bonus extras, this overview documentary runs about 85 minutes, even though it was a short match-up in which the Rangers won only game 3 (their first after returning to home turf in Arlington). Thus, much of the drama is on the periphery. My key gripe with this release — which is otherwise enjoyable, and no more so than in the final victory parade — is the musical soundtrack. The canned music Major League Baseball Productions uses is generically terrible in the first place, but here it frequently drowns out the narration and game action.
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Restrepo

Virgil, Documentary, B.O. $1.3 million, $19.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language throughout including some descriptions of violence.
2010.
Way up on the list of the year’s “and you think you have it tough” screen achievements is this narrowly but searingly focused Afghanistan war documentary that’s on the short list of 15 for the feature award to be presented on the next Oscarcast. While admiring the brave men here and being ever-thankful not to be among them, it’s also important to remember that it also took an unseen crew to follow and photograph them in one of the globe’s most desolate hot spots. Named for Juan Restrepo, a beloved medic, sage and impromptu guitar instructor who was just 20 when he was killed, Restrepo chronicles 15 months with members of the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade — whose survivors are interviewed in stark close-ups (in Italy, after the fact).
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Trouble in Mind

Street 12/14
Shout! Factory/Vivendi, Drama, $19.97 DVD, ‘R.’
Stars Kris Kristofferson, Keith Carradine, Lori Singer, Genevieve Bujold.
1985.
Filmed in Seattle and set in a compatibly fictional metropolis called Rain City, writer-director Alan Rudolph’s flaky noir conceit was at the time among my favored movies of 1985. The movie has an elusive “something” going for it, which is mostly potent chemistry between its romantic principals plus some ticklish gonzo casting — also a Mark Isham score that gets under your skin. Rudolph was a protégé of Robert Altman’s, and the movie plays like one of the latter’s more “winging it” projects (which is mostly what Altman himself was doing in the 1980s).
Extras: The look-back features all five surviving leads (it’s obvious that they all enjoyed the experience) plus a sit-down between Rudolph and Isham to discuss the music.
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Madam Satan

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny, Roland Young.
1930.
This movie from Cecil B. DeMille is a heavily qualified must if you’ve never seen it, but it’s also often an exasperating grind. It’s one of the definitive “it is what it is” movies — one where cinematic competence matters less than the fact that these two hours of film exist at all. DVD, of course, makes it an easier chore to watch the picture in increments, which is the only way you’ll ever get through the first half.
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6 Dec, 2010

New on Disc: 'Waking Sleeping Beauty' and more …


Waking Sleeping Beauty

Disney, Documentary, B.O. $0.08 million, $29.99 DVD, ‘PG’ for some thematic elements and brief mild language.
2010.
It would take a miniseries to sort out the conflicting personalities of Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney and their late peacemaker Frank Wells — who, in varied ways, rejuvenated corporate Disney starting in the mid-1980s. And for a documentary that deals specifically with the de-slumbering of Disney animation after years of toxic-apple ingesting, you’ll note that this short list of studio execs doesn’t even include the scads of animators and composers who helped make the Disney visuals sing. All of this is to say that Waking Sleeping Beauty director Don Hahn has bitten off a big chew when trying to tell this great story in just under 90 minutes. His documentary is one of those that leaves you wanting more, but let it also be said that there isn’t a fidgety minute to be had.
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Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Street 12/7
Phase 4, Documentary, B.O. $0.01 million, $29.99 DVD, ‘R’ for graphic nudity and sexual content.
2010.
Hugh Hefner is, if anything, regarded as quaint these days — which is probably why the director of an Oscar-winning documentary (Brigitte Berman of 1985’s Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got) lent her services to remind us of a few things that bear remembering. One is that in addition to jazz, Hefner is a longtime friend to civil rights, also to legal protections for married couples (not all that long ago, they could go to jail in all 50 states for breaking arcane sodomy laws) and even to film preservation. On hand to fortify the last point is George Lucas, who will do for an advocate in that field. The serious limitation here is a lack of real perspective: We’re never going to get a tough and reasoned screen debate about what the Playboy empire meant (mostly past tense — but what a run) until someone else other than its dominant player isn’t the key on-screen host. A corollary to this is this documentary’s déjà vu aspect. I know I’m not hallucinating about the existence of the startlingly similar Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time, Hugh Hefner: American Playboy and (to a lesser extent) The Bunny Years.
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The Bob Hope Collection

Street 12/7
Shout! Factory/Vivendi, Comedy, $34.93 three-DVD set, NR.
Stars Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour.
1947-55.
Some of this set’s five titles have been released in so many versions that it would be easy to blink and miss what this box has to offer, which is: much improved renderings with only one significant technical boo-boo to make the knowledgeable scratch their heads. The set includes Road to Rio (1947), Road to Bali (1952), The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), My Favorite Brunette (1947) and The Seven Little Foys (1955). The latter is simultaneously one of Hope’s beloved movies and this collection’s one misstep. The Technicolor values are adequate, but the one here has a 1.33:1 aspect ratio when it ought to be 1.85:1 and simply looks “off,” though not fatally so.
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Your Cheatin’ Heart

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars George Hamilton, Susan Oliver, Red Buttons, Arthur O’Connell.
1964.
Sam Katzman’s biopic about Hank Williams is probably the most respectable movie he ever made. George Hamilton plays Williams in a likably adequate manner. Just beginning his career, Hank Jr. sings the incredible catalog (“Cold, Cold Heart” and so on) that Hamilton lip-syncs — hardly an unthinkable touch though somewhat of a questionable one considering that rights to the originals were controlled by MGM Records and this was an MGM film.
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29 Nov, 2010

New on Disc: 'The Night of the Hunter' and more …


The Night of the Hunter

Criterion, Drama, $39.95 two-DVD set, $49.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish.
1955.
Even for a movie budgeted in the $600,000 range with a short 36-day shooting schedule, Charles Laughton’s directorial masterpiece from Davis Grubb’s novel was a serious box office failure that by all accounts broke Laughton’s heart. Today, of course, it is routinely included on lists of the greatest movies ever made in any country.
Extras: There’s a trove of background information on this release, but the centerpiece is the 2 hour, 40 minute documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter — assembled, with the help of Nancy Mysel, by Robert Gitt (retired, though still freelancing, from the UCLA Film & Television Archive). The other extras include a group commentary by Gitt, critic F.X. Sweeney (getting to be a welcome presence on DVDs), Preston Neal Jones (author of a book on both the novel and film) and director Terry Sanders, the second-unit director who shot the Ohio River material. There’s also a remembrance by actor/writer Simon Callow (who penned an excellent Laughton bio many years ago), ‘A’-list critical essays, Grubb’s sketches and Leonard Maltin’s interview of Gitt before the documentary begins.
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The Bing Crosby Collection

Universal, Musical, $49.98 three-DVD set, NR.
Stars Bing Crosby, Fred MacMurray, Carole Lombard.
1933-47.
This six-title set, which goes a long way toward filling some missing-on-DVD Bing Crosby gaps, is almost all 1930s — another way of saying that you’re not going to find many unsung classics, though it is packed with movies hitherto tough to see in recent years. The most historically significant is 1935’s Mississippi, which boasts Bing with W.C. Fields and with Rodgers and Hart (all in good form). The rest of the set includes College Humor (1933), We’re Not Dressing (1934), Here Is My Heart (1934), Sing You Sinners (1938) and Welcome Stranger (1947).
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Trapped in an Elevator

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Narrated by John Lithgow
2010.
Elevators serve 325 million passengers daily. Next to cars, they are the most common method of transportation — and yet, because we can’t see them, everyone takes them for granted. Many of the concerns in this well-organized “Nova” documentary are serious, including an interview with a guy who was riding a World Trade Center elevator during one of the 9/11 attacks, reaching the floor and just getting out of the building before it started to collapse. But the dominant story, which the film keeps returning to like a weekly movie serial, deals with a worker in New York’s McGraw-Hill building (several years back; he didn’t have a cell phone) who went out for a cigarette break on a Friday night and didn’t even get noticed for 41 hours. From here, it’s on to an overview: the history of the technology, and how elevators of the future may dispense with cables — which have limitations in terms of a building’s height — in favor of powerful magnets.
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You’re a Big Boy Now

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Peter Kastner, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Elizabeth Hartman.
1967.
Just by themselves, a Lovin’ Spoonful soundtrack and eccentric casting would be enough to make this artifact of an era one juicy curio. One of Warner Archive’s most provocative current releases was Francis Ford Coppola’s first major studio outing. Whenever Elizabeth Hartman is on screen, the comedy ratchets up several levels, though you can feel the movie breathing like someone running the 440 to generate mirth.
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22 Nov, 2010

New on Disc: 'LennonNYC,' and more …


LennonNYC

Street 12/7
A&E, Documentary, $24.95 DVD, NR.
2010.
Concurrently running on PBS as part of the incessantly invaluable “American Masters” series, the story of LennonNYC begins in 1971 when Lennon and wife Yoko Ono discovered they could live peacefully in Greenwich Village without being subjected to all the Beatlemaniacs who prevented them from taking casual strolls on London streets. Cooperating Ono is ubiquitous, seen in recent interviews that must have been painful even 30 years after Lennon was shot by Mark David Chapman. Musician colleagues and critics share recollections, not all of them pretty. Generally, the tone is more benign with a slightly melancholy tinge, making an extremely persuasive case that Lennon came to be far more comfortable at home with his wife and young son than he was with celebrity. Director Michael Epstein mines what is obviously a substantial archive of still photos and audio tracks from recording sessions.
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Mutiny on the Bounty (Blu-ray)

Warner, Adventure, $34.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone.
1935.
The Oscar-winning first and better version of MGM’s Bounty extravaganzas is the only movie for which its three top-billed stars all received lead actor Oscar nominations — and now it’s the first black-and-white release from deep in the MGM archives that Warner Home Video has issued on Blu-ray. In general, I’ve always thought that vintage Warner Bros. titles have a visual snap that their MGM counterparts never had, so the result is slightly subordinate to Warner’s Blu-ray releases of, say, its own Casablanca or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But make no mistake: Watching Bounty here is like watching it for the very first time. Aside from an infrequently grainy shot here and there (a product, I’m sure, of the source material, not some slip-up), it really looks super on screen, and the soundtrack has more heft than I ever would have expected.
Extras: Bounty comes packaged in the same cardboard booklet that Warner reserves for its most important catalog releases, though the bonus extras are fairly paltry.
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Monte Walsh

Paramount/CBS, Western, $19.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Lee Marvin, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Palance, Mitch Ryan, Jim Davis, Michael Conrad.
1970.
The first screen version of Shane author Jack Schaefer’s source novel (there was also a 2003 Tom Selleck TV movie) is quite a throw-up-your-hands jumble. And yet, now as then, the movie sparks rooting interest that’s only fitfully rewarded despite some appealing elements here and there — especially to those who’ll watch an ‘A’-budget Western at the drop of a cowboy hat. The movie’s best reviews justifiably went to the remarkably restrained Jack Palance for what must have been the least threatening or prickly performance in his career. Certainly, it’s an interesting counterpoint to Shane, which contains Palance’s most famously malevolent work.
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Moonfleet

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Stewart Granger, George Sanders, Joan Greenwood, Alan Napier, Viveca Lindfors, Jon Whiteley.
1955.
As one of the few color and even fewer widescreen movies that Fritz Lang directed in his 41-year career, this undeservedly obscure (in America) yarn about a lad who falls in with 18th-century pirates points up the disconnect in critical sensibilities from country to country. As a child’s-eye-view of British coastal cutthroats, exotic women, saloon living, underground hideouts and personal loneliness, the result is naggingly affecting thanks in part to Miklos Rozsa’s score and an apposite turn by child co-lead Jon Whiteley.
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15 Nov, 2010

New on Disc: 'White Christmas' and more …


White Christmas (Blu-ray)

Paramount, Musical, $26.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen.
1954.
As a non-anamorphic alternative to such wider-screen rivals as CinemaScope, Cinerama and the coming TODD-AO, films shot in VistaVision ran through the camera horizontally instead of vertically, and for depth of field and color vibrancy I think it is still the best photographic process ever. Hollywood phased out three-strip Technicolor in the summer of 1955, and VistaVision didn’t launch until late ’54. Thus, the number of films that can boast both are very few, and this is one of them. Just one look at the “Mandy” number with its dramatic reds and blacks should answer any questions about how super this Blu-ray looks.
Extras: The transfer and fairly comprehensive backgrounder extras replicate what were on last year’s standard DVD.
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Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?

Kino Lorber, Documentary, B.O. $0.03 million, $29.95 DVD, NR.
2010.
Several talkin’ heads here make reference to a still-underrated singer/songwriter’s intolerance of fools and his ability to be an occasional S.O.B. John Scheinfeld’s lovely documentary oozes major affection from everyone interviewed, all of whom (including record producer Richard Perry; ex-Monkee Micky Dolenz; songwriter Jimmy Webb, to name just three) come off as people you might want to have as next-door neighbors. Scheinfeld previously did The U.S. vs. John Lennon, the documentary that proved that the former Beatle and the Nixon Administration did not have instant karma.
Extras: Talkin’ runs just less than two hours but moves at a motor-mouthed pace, with an added 90 minutes of supplementary materials (Nilsson’s widow and now grown children are outstanding) that engage as much as the main body.
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Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker Collection

Available at TCM.com
Universal, Drama, $49.99 four-DVD set, Individual films $24.99 each, NR.
Stars Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Rush.
1951-58.
You didn’t get a whole lot of respect from 1950s tastemakers for directing so-called “women’s pictures,” melodramas or Westerns, which means that Hamburg-born (of Danish parentage) Douglas Sirk had to laugh all the way to the bank during his now revered heyday during that decade at Universal-International. But the film he regarded as his best — 1957’s The Tarnished Angels, which is the standout of a long-savored set Turner Classic Movies is offering as an exclusive — was a box office failure. The set also includes 1951’s Thunder on the Hill, 1954’s Taza, Son of Cochise and 1955’s Captain Lightfoot.
Extras: You expect TCM Robert Osborne’s introductions to be first-rate here — and they are. But I was taken also by the extra care given to the written histories of each film, which are also in the on-screen bonus section. Every movie of merit or even interest should be blessed with this kind of bang-up treatment.
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Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold

Available at WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Action, $19.95 DVD, ‘R.’
Stars Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Tanny, Norman Fell.
1975.
Though it’s not exactly high scholarship whichever side of the debate you’re on, I’m of the school that prefers this sequel to 1973’s Cleopatra Jones — both of which provided a less buxom alternative to the Blaxploitation era’s Pam Grier action pics. This time, Stella Stevens (in lieu of the first film’s Shelly Winters) plays the obligatory lesbian nemesis. Despite the DVD-R stigma of being an “on-demand” release, Casino looks very, very good in its Panavision aspect ratio. Cinematographer Alan Hume later graduated to a couple James Bond pictures and (for a real resumé gooser) Return of the Jedi — a movie in which lipstick lesbians were few and far between.
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