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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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21 Oct, 2013

New on Disc: 'Fantastic Voyage' and more …


Fantastic Voyage (Blu-ray)

Fox, Sci-Fi, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Arthur Kennedy, Edmond O’Brien.
1966.
A dual Oscar winner for art/set decoration and special effects in a far more primitive technological era, Fox’s hit howler about a journey through a human body is a prime example of a mostly terrible movie being sometimes mistaken for a better one simply because it is what it is (i.e. something any movie lover would covet, at least on paper). A world-renowned scientist with unique knowledge barely survives an assassination attempt, and to save him, a small crew of experts must be miniaturized along with their submarine and injected into the victim’s bloodstream. But there’s a hitch — if the participants, who include Raquel Welch in her first major role, can’t accomplish the feat in an hour, they begin reverting to normal size. You just have to go with it because it was a remarkable achievement for the day, and at least Leonard Rosenman’s score remains effective. Fox’s Blu-ray is a notable leap over the old DVD version. 
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Plunder Road

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gene Raymond, Wayne Morris, Jeanne Cooper, Elisha Cook Jr.
1957.
This is hardly a film to be oversold, but it easily fills the bill if you like your ‘50s cinema grimy and kind of gamey. It deals with a motley assemblage of not-quite-hoods who rob a train of government gold and split the stash into the back of large highway-bound trucks. Director Hubert Cornfield shot this fairly taut little toughie in about two weeks, and indeed, it’s mostly minimalist aside from the visual excitement cinematographer Ernest Haller brings to the imposing trucks that dominate his Regalscope framing. 
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7 Oct, 2013

New on Disc: 'From Here to Eternity' and more …


From Here to Eternity (Blu-ray)

Sony Pictures, Drama, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed.
1953.
The film’s five principal actors represent one of the ultimate historical examples of white-heat star power, having earned merited Oscar nominations (with wins for Frank Sinatra and Donny Reed), before we even get to the fact that the story’s standout heavy is played by Ernest Borgnine. Daniel Taradash’s script remains a model of how to telescope a sprawling literary source into a two-hour movie. Eternity got the Oscar for Burnett Guffey’s black-and-white cinematography, and the Blu-ray has significant grain but doesn’t overdo it and is especially effective in some of the close-ups.
Extras: The Blu-ray includes a super-nifty new picture-in-picture feature in which on-the-ball younger historians guide us through the entire production. There’s also a carried-over making-of featurette and a vintage short about director Fred Zinnemann.
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A Letter to Three Wives (Blu-ray)

Fox, Drama, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas.
1949.
Delivering on what is essentially a plotting gimmick, the movie traces the Saturday afternoon gut-punches three suburban wives receive when they get a joint letter from a so-called friend informing them that she has run off with one of their unnamed husbands — setting off a trio of flashbacks to explain how any one of the men might credibly be the unfaithful party. The Blu-ray essentially upgrades the standard Fox DVD, and it gets a nice, if not staggering, boost in the superior format.
Extras: Includes the “Biography” episode devoted to Linda Darnell.
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16 Sep, 2013

New on Disc: 'Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie' and more …


Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (Blu-ray)

Shout! Factory, Comedy, $29.93
Blu-ray/DVD, ‘PG-13’ for some sexual humor.
1996.
This is the first home release I can recall that takes considerable pains to rectify the historical damage the movie it showcases perpetrated when playing (however briefly) theatrically, in this case 17 years ago. But to momentarily go the other way, let’s not put too fine a point on any mea culpa aspects here because the target of the snarky MST3K commentators in this case — Universal-International’s This Island Earth from 1955 — is, on certain levels, undeniable cheese. At only 74 minutes, MST3K is a spotty affair, but what makes the disc interesting are a couple supplements. The filmmakers are surprisingly frank about how studio suits watered down the hipness that made the TV show so great and persistently failed to get the wisecracking cultural references.
The other key extra devotes 36 minutes to director Joe Dante and several more to defend the ’55 Earth and lambast what MST3K did to it.
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Me and My Gal

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Fox, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Marion Burns.
1932.
For a cop-in-love comedy filmed before the repeal of Prohibition, which is easy to forget during its rapidly paced unreeling, this cult Raoul Walsh jewel is immersed in suds. Walsh and enough screenwriters to fill a saloon take an anything-goes approach to the narrative, which casts Spencer Tracy as a lovably lunkish Irish New York cop, and the result has a marvelous loosey-goosey feel that is the antithesis of MGM during the period.
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9 Sep, 2013

New on Disc: 'The Big City' and more …


The Big City

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
In Bengali with English subtitles.
Stars Anil Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Jaya Bhaduri.
1963.
City is one of a half-dozen or so titles from Satyajit Ray, India’s greatest director, that got restored in the 1990s. Set in Calcutta during a time of social upheaval fostered by Indian Prime Minister Nehru (he of the jacket), this 2¼-hour domestic drama with compelling sojourns outdoors deals with a crowded household indebted to the wife (Madhabi Mukherjee) who makes things happen. 
Extras: On one of the bonus features, titled “Satyajit Ray and the Modern Woman,” scholar Saranjan Ganguly discusses City, 1964’s Charulata and 1965’s The Coward in terms of feminist cinema. The Coward is included as a bonus movie in its entirety.
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Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye

Olive, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars James Cagney, Barbara Payton, Helena Carter, Ward Bond.
1950.
Based on a novel by Horace McCoy, this is an extremely zippy chunk of nastiness from James Cagney’s production company, though it’s about as preposterous as even melodramas come. The actor, who was 50 and showing it, plays a chain-gang escapee with the ability to make comely young things fall for him in a minute or so — to say nothing of a knack for pretty well taking over the corrupt wing of a town almost immediately after blowing in. Ward Bond’s performance as a crooked professional servant is very impressive and nuanced, and it reinforces what a good actor he was. Olive’s print is typically no frills but looks pretty decent.
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2 Sep, 2013

New on Disc: 'Sexy Beast' and more …


Sexy Beast (Blu-ray)

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for pervasive language, strong violence and some sexuality.
Stars Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian MacShane, Amanda Redman.
2000.
Firmly and almost immediately ensconced as one of the great British gangster movies of all time, director Jonathan Glazer’s feature debut got super reviews at the time and a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Ben Kingsley. Yet, if anything, it seems to have mellowed into an even more kinetic slice of nastiness today. Sun-baked for ideal Blu-ray presentation until the narrative takes us underwater for its climax, a constant payoff never outstays its welcome at just 89 minutes. In a way, the movie reflects the professionalism of lead Ray Winstone’s safecracker by getting in, doing its job and getting out so we (and he) can all go home. Glazer directs a smart Louis Mellis-David Scinto screenplay to the hilt, and this is a movie that gets maximum punch out of every bit of dialogue or reaction shot the way many of today’s best pay-cable series do. Twilight Time’s presentation, robust soundtrack included, is among its best.
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Niagara (Blu-ray)

Fox, Drama, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten, Jean Peters, Casey Adams.
1953.
Niagara definitely has most of the preferred noir elements: premeditated murderous intentions, a bombshell wife who’s fooling around and a noirish kind of backdrop song (“Kiss”). Niagara came out first in the year of 20th Century Fox’s big push for Marilyn Monroe in headlining marquee roles. You could easily get two more movies about the courtship rituals of the yarn’s plot-central couples. The movie is shrewdly full of what used to be called “scenic values.”
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19 Aug, 2013

New on Disc: 'Seconds' and more …


Seconds

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, John Randolph, Murray Hamilton.
1966.
Playing something like a “Twilight Zone” episode that would have been too unhinged for CBS to air, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, adapted from a David Ely novel by screenwriter Lewis John Carlino, has to be one of the most uncompromised major studio releases before the 1970s.
Extras: The disc includes new and archive interviews, Frankenheimer audio commentary, a good Criterion essay, a 1965 promotional short with Rock Hudson and a visual essay.
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Nova: Manhunt — Boston Bombers

Street 8/20
PBS, Documentary, $19.99 DVD, NR.
2013.
Future documentaries will, of course, warn of surveillance-spurred privacy abuses or chronicle those that have already occurred. But for now, this Boston-bombing springboard exists as a much more positive head-shaker in the manner it shows us the degree of technological wizardry governments already have at their disposal for tracking down criminals, including (as here) some unequivocal human slugs. Make no mistake: there’s plenty of on-the-scene footage on prominent display, including what you’d expect to see here from the April 15 explosion during the city’s Marathon and the immediate street aftermath of a tragedy that killed three people and injured more than 250 others. There is, in addition, some tape of the April 18 Watertown, Mass., police shootout with the two suspects, plus helicopter shots of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (or at least his outline) when he was hiding in an ordinary citizen’s backyard boat. But more of this documentary is devoted to how the technology works.
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12 Aug, 2013

New on Disc: 'Shane' and more …


Shane (Blu-ray)

Street 8/13
Warner/Paramount, Western, $19.98 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon de Wilde, Jack Palance.
1953.
Shane is probably the most gorgeous Technicolor movie Paramount ever made before it got into VistaVision, and even acknowledging its Oscar win for cinematography doesn’t do full justice to its stunning Grand Teton purple mountain’s majesty. This high-def rendering of director George Stevens’ perennial doesn’t have to work very hard to knock off a full warehouse of socks. For a movie with a folkloric hero, Shane has a kind of folkloric history. It has the signature role of underrated lead Alan Ladd’s career — a performance of stoic perfection. Had it not been for From Here to Eternity, this probably would have been the year’s Oscar picture.
Extras: The commentary by Stevens Jr. and Shane’s late associate producer Ivan Moffat (carried over from the standard DVD) is top of the line.
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Love Me Tender (Blu-ray)

Fox, Musical, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Richard Egan, Debra Paget, Elvis Presley. Mildred Dunnock.
1956.
Elvis’ screen debut has a disproportionately lousy reputation yet has its share of fascinations as long as you don’t need one of them to be compelling storytelling. All four of its songs are decent or better, including a title tune that was a monster year-end hit at the time, to say nothing of a future concert staple. And by virtue of its rock ‘n’ roll gyrating couched in an immediate post-Civil War setting, the movie is one of a kind. There’s something transforming about seeing Elvis wiggle on stage to screaming girls in widescreen, especially when it’s at an 1865 county fair.
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5 Aug, 2013

New on Disc: 'Ishtar' and more …


Ishtar: Director’s Cut

Street 8/6
Sony Pictures, Comedy, $19.99
Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Adjani, Charles Grodin.
1987.
This movie is, of course, best known for prodigious cost overruns partially sparked by Elaine May’s directorial indecision that led this Road to Morocco for the 1980s to be termed “The Road to Ruin” by one or more industry wags. Accordingly, easy-to-pronounce Ishtar has become, for a quarter century now, convenient shorthand to convey a bomb for all seasons immersed in a tsunami of red ink. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play singer-songwriters so desperate for any gig they take a bargain-basement engagement in a desert burg mired in international intrigue involving a threatened Emir and his CIA cronies. I suppose some will carp that there are no bonus extras here, but can you see going to Beatty or Hoffman or Isabelle Adjani or May and asking them to do a commentary?
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Blood and Sand (Blu-ray)

Fox, Drama, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth, Anthony Quinn.
1941.
There’s Technicolor beauty to burn in director Rouben Mamoulian’s remake of the Vicente Blasco Ibanez bullfighting warhorse. Tyrone Power plays an illiterate who finds his financial success as a matador compromised by the usual leeches and hangers-on who become part of the package. To a Blu-ray degree I’d never fathomed in previous viewings, here’s one of the absolute hallmarks of Hollywood Golden Age pigmentation. The Oscar it got for color cinematography is no lie, and the scenic design, which could serve as the final in someone’s geometry class, really gets a Blu-ray boost here.
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22 Jul, 2013

New on Disc: 'The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes' and more…


The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes

Street 7/23
Shout! Factory, Comedy, $29.93 three-DVD set, NR.
1956-64.
Having already done well by Ernie Kovacs, Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor in recent times with lavish boxed sets, Shout! Factory now offers 18 restored “Jack Benny” episodes from UCLA’s Film & Television Archive. You eventually will be rewarded with the unimaginable sight of Gary Cooper, backed by Benny’s in-house group The Sportsmen, performing a 1958 cover of the Everly Brothers’ Cadence hit of the day — “Bird Dog.” John Wayne shows up as well — coming out of his seat in the audience to promote The Alamo by (in a skit) enjoying a café date with singer Jaye P. Morgan (later of “The Gong Show” notoriety). This is an indication of just how big Benny’s CBS Sunday nights were for so long.
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Bert Stern: Original Mad Man

First Run, Documentary, B.O. $0.03 million, $27.95 DVD, NR.
2013.
After a year-and-a-half of hopping around from festival to festival, writer-director Shannah Laumeister’s documentary on a true photographic genius (and her longtime lover to boot) got a brief theatrical run this past April, not quite three months before its subject died on June 25. Bert Stern was known for a lot of things — most prominently, I would guess, the series of those semi-nude Marilyn Monroe photos that were shot weeks before the actress’s death. Throughout the documentary and in the DVD extras, we see examples of Stern’s work, and the recognition factor is almost enough to make one gasp if he or she is of a certain age. There’s a great bit where we see what Madison Avenue ads looked like before Stern came on the scene and changed the playing field.
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15 Jul, 2013

New on Disc: 'Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick' and more …


Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick

Kino Lorber, Documentary, $19.95 DVD, NR.
1995.
Though William A. Wellman directed his share of clunkers for a filmmaker occasionally and, well, erroneously mentioned in the same breath with titans John Ford or Howard Hawks, you have to credit him for surviving four active decades in the business. Directed by son William Jr., this documentary hasn’t been seen enough. Because Wellman worked for so many years and didn’t get tied down at any one studio (partly because he perpetually defied authority), it almost seems as if he worked with everybody. One doesn’t expect the director of Wings to have also worked with Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier, James Garner, Tab Hunter and Tom Laughlin, but he did — also Gregory Peck, Nancy Reagan, Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum, and all nine are interviewed on camera along with many others Wellman directed over the long haul. Even Robert Redford is here (and extremely affecting) because he was a baseball buddy of Bill Jr. and thus a friend of the family. John Wayne and James Cagney also show up via kinescope.
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Jupiter’s Darling

Available through online retailers via Warner Archive
Warner, Musical, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Esther Williams, Howard Keel, Marge Champion, George Sanders, Richard Haydn, William Demarest.
1955.
Adapted from the play Road to Rome by Robert E. Sherwood, this has been described as the movie that ended the MGM musical — which isn’t precisely true but close enough. It is the last movie in which Esther Williams swam. It purports to tell what happens when invading Carthaginian Hannibal clashes geographically and romantically with Rome’s Fabius Maximus.
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