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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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26 Apr, 2010

New on Disc: 'It's Complicated' and more …


It’s Complicated

Street 4/27
Universal, Comedy, B.O. $112.7 million, $29.98 DVD, $36.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for some drug content and sexuality.
Stars Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Lake Bell, Mary Kay Place, Rita Wilson, Alexandra Wentworth.
2009.
The stars largely bail out the material, and Nancy Meyers’ film boasts a contender for last year’s single funniest movie scene.
Extras: Includes one of those no doubt sincere but nonetheless irritating featurettes where the co-stars praise their fellow actors. The non-actor personnel who accompany Meyers on the commentary include cinematographer John Toll.
Read the Full Review

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Street 4/27
New Video, Documentary, B.O. $0.05 million, $29.95 DVD, NR.
2009.
This documentary about prominent 1960s and ’70s attorney William Kunstler (of Chicago 8 fame) was co-directed by his daughters.
Extras: Superb stuff, such as gritty footage from Attica, home movies, a college commencement speech in Buffalo Kunstler made just four months before his 1995 death, and a funny comedy club appearance he made less than a month before he died.
Read the Full Review

The Fugitive Kind

Street 4/27
Criterion, Drama, $39.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Maureen Stapleton.
1959.
Certain things in life are basically a slam-dunk to elicit a risible reaction. One of them is seeing Marlon Brando in snakeskin, slinging a guitar and going by the name of “Valentine Xavier.”
Extras: A fine recent interview with director Sidney Lumet, an essay, a filmed portrait of playwright Tennessee Williams and a kinescope of 1958’s Lumet-directed Three Plays by Tennessee Williams, which aired on NBC’s “Kraft Television Theatre.”
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Andy Kaufman: World Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion

Street 4/27
Infinity, Comedy, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Andy Kaufman.
2010.
When Andy Kaufman challenged the women of the world to pin him in the wrestling ring, the most original comic of his day proved beyond a doubt that there were no limits to his imagination.
Extras: On-screen Kaufman bio text, an “Andy Wrestles the Ladies!” featurette and home movies of Andy wrestling women at an L.A. comedy club.
Read the Full Review

The Landlord

Available now via Amazon.com CreateSpace
MGM, Comedy, $19.98 DVD, ‘PG’ for.
Stars Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey.
1970.
Hal Ashby’s directorial debut gave Beau Bridges perhaps his best big-screen showcase, as a rich kid who spruces up a run-down tenement to befriend its tenants.
Read the Full Review


19 Apr, 2010

New on disc: 'Crazy Heart,' 'Tales From the Script' and more …


Crazy Heart

Street 4/20
Fox, Drama, B.O. $38.8 million, $29.98 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language and brief sexuality.
Stars Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell.
2009.
As broken-down singer “Bad” Blake, Oscar winner Jeff Bridges looks as if his halitosis has halitosis — though the moniker he carries in writer-director Scott Cooper’s script (adapted from Thomas Cobb’s novel) is effective in its hard-consonant directness and simplicity.
Extras: The actors talk about their attraction to the project on the Blu-ray, which also has a couple alternate cuts of tunes that the regular DVD doesn’t have. Both versions contain deleted scenes.
Read the Full Review

Minority Report (Blu-ray)

Street 4/20
Paramount, Sci-Fi, $29.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13’ for violence, brief language, some sexuality and drug content.
Stars Tom Cruise, Samantha Morton, Max von Sydow, Colin Farrell, Neal McDonough, Steve Harris.
2002.
Director Steven Spielberg’s kinetic, futuristic take on the police procedural is still a dandy that shows how good an actor Tom Cruise can be.
Extras: Includes a newly edited mix of vintage and fresher material, plus an interview with Spielberg shot just as the movie was opening theatrically.
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Tales From the Script

Street 4/20
First Run, Documentary, B.O. $0.008 million, $24.95 DVD, NR.
2010.
“Talking heads documentary” can be a pejorative term, but when the subject is screenwriters discussing their craft and, too often, their heartbreak, the talk is likely to be on a very high level. Tales is the most telling screen portrait on its subject that we’re likely to have.
Extras: Whatever you do, don’t skip the DVD’s bonus section. The supplemental interviews have some of the juiciest anecdotes.
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Vivre sa vie

Street 4/20
Criterion, Drama, $39.95 DVD or Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Anna Karina, Sady Rebbot.
1962.
The movie is constructed as a dozen tableaux scenes chronicling a woman’s descent from a record store employee who can’t pay her rent into a prostitute. Like a lot of Jean-Luc Godard films, it eschews narrative fat for the so-called high points.
Extras: The DVD/Blu-ray transfers jump off the screen, and one of the many Criterion supplements is a vintage article describing how the natural sound recording here was very advanced for its time.
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Arizona Dream

Available now via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, ‘R.’
Stars Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis, Lili Taylor.
1993.
Johnny Depp and Jerry Lewis play car salesmen. For collectors of the peculiar, this may be your day.
Read the Full Review
 


12 Apr, 2010

New on Disc: 'Pirate Radio' and more …


Pirate Radio

Street 4/13
Universal, Comedy, B.O. $8 million, $29.98 DVD; $36.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language, and some sexual content including brief nudity.
Stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh.
2009.
Writer-director Richard Curtis’ fictional extrapolation of British pop history never quite mines potential that could have been the foundation for a classic. And yet, if you love rock and roll, there’s no way you should fail to check out this rendering of how official BBC blue-noses tried to pretend the Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Who didn’t exist. There are at least three reasons to give it a look:  Philip Seymour Hoffman as an imported American DJ; Kenneth Branagh, the film’s biggest laugh-getter, as a pasty BBC prig; and a brief appearance by “Mad Men” lovely January Jones.
Extras: Commentary and deleted scenes, and the Blu-ray adds six featurettes to the mix.
Read the Full Review

The Natural (Blu-ray)

Sony Pictures, Drama, $24.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey.
1984.
With the passage of time, one appreciates even more the bang-up cast director Barry Levinson assembled and how much of an iconographic role that aging slugger Roy Hobbs now seems in the career of lead Robert Redford. But why in the world would Sony not release the superior 2007 director’s cut?
Extras: Several featurettes from the 2007 DVD. But missing is the wonderful 44-minute featurette from the very first DVD of The Natural (it wasn’t on the two-disc 2007 edition, either) in which Cal Ripken Jr. discussed his affection for the film.
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The Essential Games of the Detroit Tigers

A&E, Sports, $29.95 four-DVD set, NR.
1968-2006.
Game 5 of the 1968 World Series is the jewel that kicks off this set, which also contains the 1984 World Series Game 5 clincher in which Kirk Gibson hit two home runs, the 1999 final game at old Tiger Stadium, and Game 4 of the 2006 ALCS.
Extras: Per always with these A&E baseball boxed sets, extras are bountiful.
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The Bombing of Germany (American Experience)

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Narrated by Joe Morton.
2010.
Historians debate the bombing or at least present it in skeptical grays. But what’s missing is a real sense of the devastation’s horror and scope. 
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The Best Man

Available via Amazon.com CreateSpace.
MGM, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Lee Tracy, Edie Adams.
1964.
The movie of Gore Vidal’s Tony-nominated play is too smart and un-dated in certain regards to be called a museum piece, but for those used to seeing elections determined by the primary process, here is perhaps a revelatory window into how the political game was once played.
Read the Full Review
 


5 Apr, 2010

New on Disc: 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,' 'The Abbott and Costello Show: The Complete Series' and More …


Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Street 4/6
First Look, Drama, B.O. $1.7 million, $28.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for drug use and language throughout, some violence and sexuality.
Stars Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, Xzibit, Jennifer Coolidge.
2009.
Director Werner Herzog’s loose remake of 1992’s Bad Lieutenant had me from the get-go. What makes the movie increasingly funny (and intentionally so, make no mistake) is that the further we go, the more we see we’re on the way to a tidy and even happy resolution.
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The Abbott and Costello Show: The Complete Series — Collector’s Edition

Street 4/6
E1, Comedy, $59.98 nine-DVD set, NR.
Stars Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Sid Fields, Hillary Brooke, Gordon Jones.
1951-53.
The 52 syndicated episodes of the famed comedy duo’s half-hour television series — which Jerry Seinfeld has cited as an inspiration for his own show — have been remastered and restored from 35mm materials to look and sound outstanding for their day.
Extras: The set comes with a 44-page book, a 1978 TV documentary on the team, interviews with daughters Chris and Paddy Costello, a restored 1948 short on Lou’s philanthropic work, rare home movies and more. 
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Jesse James’ Hidden Treasure

A&E, Documentary, $19.95 DVD, NR.
2009.
Now, here’s a wild one that sometimes plays like the product of an overactive imagination, as controversial historian Ron Pastore treks through strange caves in Kansas in search of a rumored $1.5 million of buried J.J. booty. As a story of personal obsession, it separated my upper jaw from my lower for at least some of its length.
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Masters of American Music: Count Basie — Swingin’ the Blues

Euroarts, Music, $19.99 DVD, NR.
1992.
Buoyed by archival footage and then fresh interviews with the likes of Joe Williams, Jay McShann and Harry “Sweets” Edison, this portrait makes the points that even though Count Basie always swung, he was always doing some variation on the blues; that he went for a relaxed atmosphere and was just about the only big band leader who didn’t change with success; and that he got more music out of the sparest piano playing than anyone else. 
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Too Much, Too Soon

Available now via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Dorothy Malone, Errol Flynn, Ray Danton, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
1958.
Alcohol figures prominently in this biopic about Diana Barrymore (John’s daughter and half-sister of actor John Drew Barrymore — Drew’s dad) and her famous family, which is what makes this very spotty film worth a look. It’s based on Diana’s tell-all book released in 1957. She died in 1960.
Read the Full Review


 


29 Mar, 2010

New on Disc: 'An Education,' 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel' and more …


An Education

Street 3/30
Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $12.5 million, $28.96 DVD, $38.96 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13’ for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking.
Stars Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike.
2009.
The core story is a good one, about  a 16-year-old (most deserving Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan) being swept off her feet by a thirtysomething man of mystery (Peter Sarsgaard), who is not what he seems.
Extras: The bonus featurettes are the usual back-patting boilerplate, though I liked getting the chance to see screenwriter Nick Hornby. The deleted scenes, which include what appears to be an alternate ending, are well above average.
Read the Full Review

Mad Men: Season Three

Lionsgate, Drama, $49.98 four-DVD set, $49.99 three-disc Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery.
2009.
Along with “The Colgate Comedy Hour” in the 1950s and “Later With Bob Costas” in the 1980s, “Mad Men” is my favorite TV show of all time. This season of the 1960s ad agency drama puts into motion plot points that were subtly seeded in previous years.
Extras: In addition to some period documentaries (including one on civil rights figure Medgar Evers and another on cigarette advertising), every episode offers group commentary by cast or crew members.
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Collateral (Blu-ray)

Street 3/30
Paramount, Thriller, $29.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for violence and language.
Stars Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo.
2004.
It now seems this underrated drama of a professional hit man and a hostage L.A. cabbie trekking him to nocturnal “appointments” represents some kind of recent peak for both Tom Cruise and director Michael Mann. Collateral was shot in high-def video, then kind of a novelty, and its rough, occasionally grainy look transfers effectively to Blu-ray as one of the best movies I know to convey “night.”
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Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

Street 3/30
Fox, Comedy, B.O. $218.7 million, $29.98 DVD, $34.98 two-DVD set, $39.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG’ for some mild rude humor.
Stars Jason Lee, David Cross, Zachary Levi, Wendie Malick. Voices of Justin Long, Christina Applegate, Jesse McCartney, Amy Poehler, Anna Faris.
2009.
This isn’t exactly a conventional “pick,” but it does provide an opportunity to reflect on just how amazingly long the Chipmunks have been with us.
Extras: The costlier DVD/Blu-ray Squeak-Along editions predictably milk it some with added featurettes.
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Wyatt Earp (American Experience)

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
2009.
At 60 minutes, it’s short for an “American Experience,” but a lot is packed in. You can’t make this kind of stuff up, even though a lot of Hollywood movies based on the Old West lawman concocted material that wasn’t this interesting.
Read the Full Review


22 Mar, 2010

New on Disc: 'The African Queen,' 'The T.A.M.I. Show' and more …


The African Queen

Street 3/23
Paramount, Adventure, $25.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $50.99 DVD Boxed Set, $57.99 Blu-ray Boxed set, NR.
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley.
1951.
The easy verdict is that director John Huston’s adaptation of C.S. Forester’s novel has never looked anything close to as great as it looks now (especially on Blu-ray).
Extras: The hour-long documentary is outstanding. The pricier boxed sets include a reprint of Hepburn’s popular memoir The Making of the African Queen, as well as a 1951 Lux Radio
Theatre broadcast of Forester’s yarn.
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The T.A.M.I. Show: Collector’s Edition

Street 3/23
Shout! Factory, Music, $19.93 DVD, NR.
Featuring The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, James Brown.
1964.
Serving up two hours of sheer exuberance, The T.A.M.I. Show is among my favorite movies ever. It captures so many performers at their peak and certainly in their youth.
Extras: The commentary by director Steve Binder and music historian Don Waller is packed with info. Filmmaker John Landis, in an enthusiastic voiceover with the movie’s original trailer, informs us that he was at the actual concert as a teenager.
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Days of Heaven

Street 3/23
Criterion, Drama, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, Brooke Adams.
1978.
Seeing director Terrence Malick’s pastoral masterpiece on Blu-ray is the same kind of event it’ll presumably be when the recent restoration of The Red Shoes makes it to home release.
Extras: The Blu-ray basically replicates Criterion’s 2007 standard DVD, though adds a DTS-HD master audio soundtrack to make it even more visceral — the word cast member Sam Shepard uses to describe the movie in the first place on one of several outstanding extras.
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Bigger Than Life

Street 3/23
Criterion, Drama, $39.95 DVD or Blu-ray, NR.
Stars James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau.
1956.
The first movie I know to deal with a prescription drug nightmare in the suburbs.
Extras:  Typically savvy for Criterion, with commentary by critic Geoff Andrew, a 1977 interview with director Nicholas Ray, a new interview with the director’s widow and more retrospectives.
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Super Bowl XLIV Champions: New Orleans Saints

Warner, Sports, $24.98 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, NR.
2010.
These overviews are generally as interesting as the season was. Novelist Anne Rice even appears early on.
Extras: The Super Bowl halftime show featuring The Who.
Read the Full Review

 


15 Mar, 2010

New on Disc: 'Broken Embraces' and more ...


Broken Embraces

Street 3/16
Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $4.7 million, $28.96 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for sexual content, language and some drug material.
Stars Penélope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Bianca Portillo.
2009.
Taken as a brief for the rarified view that cinema is life’s highest calling, here’s one of the stronger arguments, given what happens to its blinded filmmaker protagonist, for the sanctity of the “director’s cut.” Simply calling it a reasonably good time falls a tad short because the portions that Penélope Cruz dominates are pretty potent.
Extras: A Variety Q&A with Cruz, a short film by director Pedro Almodóvar, deleted scenes and some red carpet material from last fall’s New York Film Festival.
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The Brothers Warner

Warner, Documentary, $19.98 DVD, NR.
2008.
To paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, the business of this documentary is business, which is why the limited utilization of classic Warner Bros. scenes isn’t a problem here. This one is about blood kin. And, at least figuratively speaking, blood.
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Paris

MPI, Drama, $19.98 DVD; $29.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language and some sexual references. In French with English subtitles.
Stars Juliette Binoche, Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini.
2009.
The story undeniably takes place in one of the world’s photographic cities, and the DVD had a richer sound mix than I expected (which can pull you into the action in subliminal ways). Oscar winner Juliette Binoche is merely the best-known name in a large cast, deglamorized to play a no-frills social worker and single mom whose dancer brother (Romain Duris) needs a heart transplant.
Extras: Minor making-of and background featurettes.
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Building Alaska

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, Unrated
2009.
Putting politics aside, you can’t find a more apt keyword for this 87-minute documentary to have in its title than “building.” So much of it deals with primitive highways, railroads, bridges and trestles — all constructed over land that tends to buckle some due to seasonal weather change.
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Gambit

Available Now via Amazon.com CreateSpace
Universal, Comedy, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Herbert Lom.
1966.
Gambit was never more than agreeable fluff, but agreeable easily trumps disagreeable, right? The plot hinges on the physical resemblance of a Eurasian nightclub entertainer (Shirley MacLaine) to the dead wife of an Arab multimillionaire played by (longtime Inspector Clouseau nemesis) Herbert Lom. The Amazon print is a little grainier than I’d like, but I think this is due less to it being an on-demand DVD-R than the fact that Gambit was shot in cost-cutting Techniscope, whose inherent grain was better suited to Sergio Leone Westerns than escapist comedies. But this is still a handsome couple hours of entertainment, having earned Oscar nominations for costumes and art/set decoration and sound.
Read the Full Review
 


8 Mar, 2010

New on disc: 'Up in the Air,' 'Precious' and more …


Up in the Air

Street 3/9
Paramount, Drama, B.O. $82.1 million, $19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language and some sexual content.
Stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman.
2009.
An instant milestone in the career of George Clooney dealing with the recently laid-off economic underclass, Jason Reitman’s adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel is topical to eerie extremes — yet also funny at times and always psychologically deft.
Extras: Commentary, a featurette, a music video, and deleted scenes that deliver more entertainment than most major studio releases from last year.
Read the Full Review

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

Street 3/9
Lionsgate, Drama, B.O. $47.1 million, $29.95 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language.
Stars Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz.
2009.
Despite the inevitable high-test squalor of any story about a 450-pound Harlem teenager being twice impregnated by her own father and left HIV-positive, director Lee Daniels takes some chances with fantasy sequences, occasionally even eliciting an intended chuckle or two. Somehow, it all works and even becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Extras: Commentary with Daniels, Gabourey Sidibe’s audition, a deleted scene and several featurettes full of the usual back-patting, which, in this case, seems earned.
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Capitalism: A Love Story

Street 3/9
Anchor Bay, Documentary, B.O. $14.4 million, $29.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for some language.
2009.
The swath cut here is wide, even for Michael Moore, and when he’s denouncing capitalism wholesale, one senses that the subject is likely beyond the scope of the kind of movies he usually makes.
Extras: As per usual for a Moore documentary, the DVD and Blu-ray versions come with a lot of extra featurettes.
Read the Full Review

We Live in Public

IndiePix, Documentary, B.O. $0.04 million, $24.95 DVD, NR.
2009.
Though his accomplishments never matched his own inflated view of them, Internet pioneer Josh Harris’ warped mindset can’t be totally discounted, which is what gives this hard-to-shake yarn its tension.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes backgrounders, with director Ondi Timoner relating her own interesting story.
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The List of Adrian Messenger

Available Now via Amazon.com CreateSpace
Universal, Mystery, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars George C. Scott, Kirk Douglas, Dana Wynter.
1963.
Sprinkled throughout John Huston’s mystery movie are brief appearances by well-known actors with faces buried under mounds of makeup (starting with Kirk Douglas), and at least part of the mystery has to do with our guessing who they are.
Read the Full Review

 


1 Mar, 2010

New on DVD: 'Ponyo,' 'The September Issue' and more …


The September Issue

Lionsgate, Documentary, B.O. $3.8 million, $29.98 DVD, ‘PG-13’ for brief strong language.
2009.
This is the story of how the September 2007 issue of Vogue came to be, which was financially huge even by seasonal standards. Actress Sienna Miller is one of the issue’s major photographic subjects — the cover personality, in fact. Even she’s reduced to someone who is all but punching a time clock in a chronicle that in several ways gives a Devil her due.
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Alice in Wonderland

Street 3/2
Universal, Fantasy, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Charlotte Henry, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields.
1933.
A strange movie even by “Alice” standards, it would be a stretch to call this version engaging a la Disney’s animated 1951 version. But it is carried to some extent by its innate weirdness and some captivating décor. This is very good print and a nice mastering job, by the way.
Read the Full Review

Kitten With a Whip

Available Now via Amazon.com CreateSpace
Universal, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Ann-Margret, John Forsythe, Peter Brown, Richard Anderson.
1964.
Some movies were just born from the get-go to attain followings – though, of course, this time, the title helps. Ann-Margret’s performance is so extreme that it ventures into camp-ville, yet the twisted star-power she brings to it is the one reason the movie has a trash-lover’s cult appeal.
Read the Full Review


Ponyo

Street 3/2
Disney, Animated, B.O. $15.1 million, $29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, ‘G.’
Voices of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Lily Tomlin, Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Frankie Jonas.

2009. The latest from revered Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) doesn’t bludgeon us with its environmental message, yet there’s one there in almost every frame — many jammed with enough artfully cluttered visual detail to drop socks all the way down to your beach clogs. While they’re being entertained — and they will be — kids will get the beneficial message that creeps who use the ocean as their private litter box deserve to be, say, booted into the same pit of wolves who munched out on Ernest Borgnine in The Vikings.

This story, however, has a much gentler tone. Sosuke is a 5-year-old boy who lives with his mom (cute when she’s angry and with the voice of Tina Fey) on a seaside cliff where the water licks the shore in arresting fashion that never fails to engage the imagination. Ponyo is a female goldfish, who, after the lad saves her from death, licks his cut finger in gratitude, tastes human blood for the first time and is thus somehow transformed into something close to a real girl.

This doesn’t set too well with her father (voice of Liam Neeson), a driven if generally agreeable one-man ecological police force who patrols the big drink in what looks like old Peter Max duds. He acts as if he has a lot of abrasive sand you-know-where when it comes to polluting humans, which creates significant tension when Sosuke (voice of kiddie Jonas Brother Frankie) and Ponyo (Mylie Cyrus’s younger sister Noah) start to become as much of an item as children this young can be.

A Cyrus connection here? The Jonas Brothers? Yes: the corporate benefactor of each — Disney — has taken Miyazaki’s original work and given it a borderline Goofy touch that simply adds to the movie’s strangeness (in generally a good way).  For this hand-drawn 2D venture, Mr. Pixar himself  — the great John Lasseter — signed on as executive producer. And the credited producers are Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy (the 'A'-list continues), who like Lasseter, give forth with a few words on the disc’s meager extras.

By strangeness — some may rightly prefer to call it surreality — we mean the casting of American voices. Here, for instance, are the pipes of Betty White coming out of a resident’s mouth at the old folk’s home where Sosuke’s mother works — though, truth to tell, it’s probably no more weird than seeing Betty White get tackled on a football field in the now famous Snickers commercial from Super Bowl XLIV. But having Sosuke’s father being a “Koichi” who has Matt Damon’s very recognizable voice — well, you don’t get this everyday.
 


The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Street 3/2
Screen Media, Drama, B.O. $0.3 million, $27.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for sexual content, brief nudity, some drug material and language.
Stars Robin Wright, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively, Maria Bello, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Julianne Moore, Monica Bellucci.
2009. I can’t call this late-year limited release a normal “pick” because it’s the kind of maddening navel-gazer about miserable people that can sometimes give independent films a bad name. But occasionally, a project features enough well-known actors (see Alice in Wonderland above) to qualify as a curiosity. This one certainly goes a long way to consolidate the Screen Actor’s Guild directory: Watching it is like getting one of those annual Christmas letters that friends send out, jamming a year’s experiences onto a page.

Robin Wright, her Pippa character’s story told in flashback, is a wayward teen who married a much older literary figure (Alan Arkin) before even beginning to figure out what made herself tick. As we eventually see in the movie’s one real shocker scene, this necessitated Arkin ridding himself of an inconvenient wife played by Monica Belluci — and if you want to jettison someone with Belluci’s looks, you need to establish that the woman has a shortcoming or two in other departments. Whatever else writer/director Rebecca Miller does or doesn’t do, this one she pulls off.

Wright herself has gone from pure looker (The Princess Bride) to accomplished actress, and even when Miller’s script persists in spelling out every thought on her mind via maddening voiceover narration, you can’t fault her performance. The actress’s later scenes with Arkin — now aged but unable to face it that twilight is here even after he moves to a stagnant retirement home — are credible enough. But only when she crosses paths in a few scenes with another resident’s son (Keanu Reeves, if you can imagine him selling cigarettes in a convenience store) is there anything resembling narrative tension. By the way, if you think you’ve seen chest tattoos, the one Reeves sports here is practically in Imax.

Maria Bello plays Pippa’s speed-freak mother when Pippa is a child — a good idea given that the actress’s physical resemblance to Wright is well within the bounds of credibility, and we all know that Bello can do “harried.” "Gossip Girl" star Blake Lively plays Pippa as a young woman — which is not a good idea because the actresses don’t look enough alike for us to make the leap and because it’s harder to accept that Arkin’s character would have fallen for her as portrayed (not a problem in Wright's parts of the picture).

So who else? Julianne Moore shows up for a blink as a lesbian buddy of Pippa’s aunt; Winona Ryder is a perpetual dinner guest who takes a novel approach to suicide attempts; Steve Binder is one of Arkin’s writers; the recently ubiquitous Zoe Kazan is Pippa’s grown daughter; and Shirley Knight is Reeves’ in all way retro mother, whose character name is “Dot” and at one point actually says, “None of my beeswax.”

Lives has been praised in some circles for its literary qualities, but those who want to travel this road with an emotionally fraught inter-personal story would be better off looking or re-looking at 2006’s Little Children — perhaps the most horribly marketed (in theaters) great movie of the last quarter-century. But Wright is the real deal here, and the movie did get a 68% Rotten Tomatoes rating, which just goes to show how misleading even a must-read Web site can be.


28 Feb, 2010

Picking the Oscars: 2010 Edition

With the single exception of missing Around the World in 80 Days’ best picture win for 1956 — this is what you get for mouthing off to your fourth-grade teacher and being forbidden by your parents to watch the show — I have seen every Academy Awards presentation since the 1954 gala.

And what a gala it was: Marlon Brando, Grace Kelly, Walt Disney, Elia Kazan, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Dorothy Dandridge, emcee Bob Hope trading insults with Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis introducing Dean Martin to sing winning song “Three Coins in the Fountain,” William Holden and (in a filmed segment from Europe) Audrey Hepburn.

Over-analysis by every pundit and his cousin’s brother-in-law — plus the frigid precision of prognostication in the 2000s — has made the evening almost immeasurably less interesting than it used to be, though I suppose one can’t have lived through more than a half-century’s worth of these affairs without having a few opinions about what’s to come at this year’s ceremony, which takes place March 7.  So here are a few:

Best Picture

Am I the only one who thinks Avatar sags some and gets redundant in the middle? I like it well enough, but it and The Abyss are the only James Cameron movies I haven’t been able to go all the way with since before The Terminator (yes, I love True Lies). If Avatar wins, it’ll be among the less distinguished honorees in a while (special effects breakthroughs obviously excepted) — and this from a filmmaker whose manner likely puts off a lot of voters. On the other hand — and adjusting for inflated dollars — The Hurt Locker would be a contender for the most atypical Oscar winner ever and with the least box office. So could Inglourious Basterds (the year’s most self-conscious movie) sneak in there with an upset? Someone advanced this theory the other day, and I’m intrigued. For the record, my favorite 2009 movies were A Serious Man and Up in the Air, both best picture nominees.

Best Actor

Just as Sterling Hayden appeared in more great and certainly durable movies than Clark Gable, Jeff Bridges has starred in more black-belt cult movies than anyone: Fat City, Bad Company, The Last American Hero, The Iceman Cometh, Rancho Deluxe, Hearts of the West, Stay Hungry, Cutter’s Way, Tron, Nadine, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Fisher King, American Dream, Fearless, The Big Lebowski (which, by now, may have transcended cult status) and The Door in the Floor. Plus three more — along with Lebowski — I personally don’t care for: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Winter Kills and Starman. Plus The Last Picture Show and Iron Man, which are definitely more than cult movies. All this is a way of saying that if Bridges is going to get an Oscar, it can’t help but make me (and so many others) happy for him. I’m just sorry it’s for Crazy Heart, which wouldn’t be much of anything if the actor didn’t elevate it about 500 notches. (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s nomination is a real stretch.) I’d prefer George Clooney for Up in the Air because old-school star power is such a lost art — though had Shutter Island been released in 2009 as originally intended, I might be going for Leonardo DiCaprio because he has the toughest lead actor role in recent memory: taking it right up to the top but stopping at the brim.

Best Actress

Of the 10 best-picture nominees, The Blind Side is the only one that can’t at be all be justified, given that it is, at best, only on the moderately high side of exactly what you expect while perpetually playing to the third balcony. I’ve liked Sandra Bullock since she played the waitress in 1993’s woefully underrated Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, but — as with Bridges and Crazy Heart — I’m in the “anti-Cliff Robertson/Charly” school that thinks a cited performance ought to serve a movie of at least minor distinction.

Though I love Carey Mulligan in An Education (damned good movie, too), I’d prefer to see her in something else before taking the plunge. I’d probably give the award to Meryl Streep — who, interestingly, has become a box office figure in middle age when she wasn’t earlier in her career. Like Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer, Streep was giving great performance after great performance two decades ago while the broad demographic that prefers to shell out for the likes of The Blind Side was staying away.

Best Supporting Actor

The biggest shaft of the entire 2009 run goes to un-nominated Christian McKay, who (as Orson) should be getting the Oscar for Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (a movie that sent the dean of American film critics, Andrew Sarris, spinning into ecstasy). Though favorite Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) is basically his equal, there have been a lot of memorably oily Nazis in movie history, but few characterizations of McKay’s caliber when it comes to playing a bigger-than-life figure (no pun intended — and besides, this is the relatively thinner 1930s Welles) we all know.

Best Supporting Actress

My top picks for 2009 were Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick for Up in the Air, who are both nominated. Assuming a vote split, this probably clears the path for Mo’Nique in Precious, which would be a fine choice — her character the ironic African-American equivalent of the white racist mother-from-hell harridan Shelley Winters played in A Patch of Blue. And Winters won the 1965 supporting Oscar.

Best Director

Here’s a legitimate set-up for The Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow to become the first woman to win a directorial Oscar — so if it doesn’t happen, it’ll be the story of the night. But she will win.

Passing thought: Though the Coen Brothers got a most deserved original screenplay nomination, it’s worth noting that A Serious Man is as directed-to-the-hilt as The Hurt Locker. In fact, I can’t fault the movie on any level.