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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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17 Feb, 2014

New on Disc: 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World' and more …


It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Blu-ray)

Criterion, Comedy, $49.95 Blu-ray/DVD combo, NR.
Stars  Spencer Tracy, Jonathan Winters, Ethel Merman, Milton Berle, Dorothy Provine, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Terry-Thomas, Edie Adams, Dick Shawn, Jim Backus, Peter Falk, Jimmy Durante, Buster Keaton.
1963.
Criterion’s release is the second attempt to piece together what remains of scrapped footage into something resembling the original road-show cut. Overall, I prefer the more-common shorter version (which also is included), but it’s still a treat to see what was cut.

Criterion has gone all out with this one: three standard DVDs for both versions of the film and copious extras plus two Blu-rays that replicate the same material.

To go along with its A-team cast, Criterion has assembled a gang of bonus-section backgrounder personnel. Lou Lumenick nails it when he says that “part of the genius” of the movie “is that while each of the main stars is given plenty of room to do his or her own thing, they also come together brilliantly as a team.”
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Wadjda

Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $1.35 million, $40.99 Blu-ray/DVD combo, ‘PG’ for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking.
In Arabic with English subtitles.
Stars Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah.
2013.
The irrepressible 10-year-old Saudi Arabian sass-giver here longs to own a bicycle. So she rebels against everyone who says that bikes are only for boys — something akin, perhaps, to what writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour must have done as well because this is the first feature film made by a Saudi female. This is another of those releases where the production’s backstory rivals what’s on screen.
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10 Feb, 2014

New on Disc: 'The Armstrong Lie' and more …


The Armstrong Lie

Street 2/11
Sony Pictures, Documentary, B.O. $0.38 million, $30.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language.
2013.
This portrait of a charismatic sociopath whose charisma is fully captured here is the next thing to a twofer home release in its DVD/Blu-ray incarnations. First, there’s the material we see on screen, which differs substantially from the portrait of Lance Armstrong that director Alex Gibney set out to make and initially did — that is, before the cyclist finally affirmed doping accusations. Then, for those who take the time to listen to the filmmaker’s essential bonus-section commentary, watching Lie (a title choice that finally estranged Gibney from his subject) becomes a different experience. This is because Gibney has to share with us the dilemma he faced once Armstrong’s admission pulled the rug out from under the filmmaker’s completed but now unreleaseable documentary about Armstrong’s comeback attempt to win his eighth Tour de France. Gibney offers a pressure-packed commentary on all aspects of this definitive portrait.
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In the Heat of the Night (Blu-ray)

Fox/MGM, Drama, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant.
1967.
I have a warm spot for Night’s place in history, and for the fact that it teamed Sidney Poitier and director Norman Jewison. As mysteries go, the movie really isn’t much, but the characterizations and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography carry the day. The Blu-ray gives a good rendering of how the movie looked in ’67, getting the most of grimy settings shot in artistically limited United Artists DeLuxe Color of the day, which was never much.
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3 Feb, 2014

New on Disc: 'Tequila Sunrise' and more …


Tequila Sunrise (Blu-ray)

Warner, Drama, $19.98 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell, Raul Julia.
1988.
The Mel Gibson-Michelle Pfeiffer romantic angle works well enough, but what I really like about writer-director Robert Towne’s half-lush/half-noirish take on the drug caper genre is the tension here between Kurt Russell’s just-promoted local narc and the Drug Enforcement Administration clod who has taken over Russell’s character’s office — he played by its screen era’s foremost Mr. Dyspepsia: J.T. Walsh.

The film takes a familiar movie premise almost in mothballs and throws in some surprises, not the least of which finds — though it has nothing to do with plot-twisting — the great Western filmmaker Budd Boetticher cast in a cameo as a prominent old judge who pulls some strings for one of the story’s three principals. And these are: Gibson as a reformed drug dealer trying to stay out of his old trade; cop Russell, who maintains a kind of dangerous Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday relationship with the former; and Michelle Pfeiffer as the upscale California restaurateur who gets caught in the middle — and literally so when she, who is otherwise fairly up-and-up, gets romantically involved with both.

Three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall gives it his all with the solar shots here, though this is one of those lower-priced Warner Blu-rays that isn’t totally on a par with the more ambitious renderings Warner has done (but, yes, it’s an inarguable improvement on the DVD version).
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Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
2013.
I would watch just about any PBS documentary on 20th-century American history, and this one especially piqued my interest because it concerns the event that inspired Woody Guthrie’s indelible “1913 Massacre.”

The centerpiece of the story and inspiration for the song was what is known as the “Italian Hall Disaster.” The setting was Calumet, Mich., which is way, way up there in the Upper Peninsula. At the time, metal mining was the most dangerous type of mining in America for its predominantly immigrant practitioners — the copper sub-category being the most dangerous of them all because the statistic was that one out of every 200 who did it would die.
With Calumet and Hecia Mining Company office managers working to control everything in an industry where profit margins were very small, the corporation was ripe for a strike.

The documentary is stylistically functional at best, but the content is strong — and it is interesting to see shots of the town today that don’t exactly convey bustle (the last of the mines were pretty well gone by the ’60s, but the industry started to go downhill in the Midwest long before that). The headline story here is the Italian Hall Disaster itself, in which a Christmas Eve party of miners — the summer strike had stretched into winter — became tragically aborted when some unknown person yelled “Fire!” The vast majority of the 73 who were trampled to death on some narrow stairs were miners’ children.

The company pledged $5,000 for a relief fund, covering its behind, and the strike was soon settled (or broken). At which point those whose jobs survived kissed the behinds of management in a written proclamation that still exists and is shown here. This part of the story is not the stuff of Woody Guthrie balladeering.
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27 Jan, 2014

New on Disc: 'Serpico' and more …


Serpico (Blu-ray)

Warner/Paramount, Drama, $19.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for.
Stars Al Pacino.
1973.
The more pronounced Al Pacino’s hair, including the facial kind, becomes over a 130-minute running time, the more his Frank Serpico retreats into himself as the kind of maverick loner who just won’t “go along.” It’s the kind of visual correlative the older Sidney Lumet movies didn’t always have but would in the better works from his later career — a period which to me pretty well began with this still popular screen version of Peter Maas’ bestseller about undercover sleuthing against New York City police corruption. With actors, Lumet had few peers, and you can see it with Pacino right here. I seem to recall the theatrical rendering of Serpico looking somewhat washed-out or muddy, but matters have improved with tweaking in the home entertainment era, and this is the best I can recall the movie ever looking.
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The Black Swan (Blu-ray)

Fox, Adventure, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Laird Cregar.
1942.
The story has nothing to do with Natalie Portman’s plain old Black Swan, but instead deals with the pillaging of Jamaican villages roundabout 1674. The great Laird Cregar plays the real-life English Capt. Henry Morgan, who in this rendering has just been made the new Jamaican governor. Tyrone Power plays a pirate who gets into a testy relationship with the daughter of the former governor, played by Maureen O’Hara. The color is really the thing here, and the movie wouldn’t be much without it. Carried over from the DVD is the joint commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer and Ms. O’Hara herself, who talks of dining with Cregar just before his death.
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20 Jan, 2014

New on Disc: 'The Ghost and Mrs. Muir' and more …


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Blu-ray)

Fox, Fantasy, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, George Sanders.
1947.
Lovely, and that’s really the word for it, Ghost was one of the handful of movies directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz that he didn’t script, though the screenwriter, Philip Dunne, was first-rate (he of How Green Was My Valley and Kiss of Death). But this very affecting movie is pretty well made by Bernard Herrmann’s score, which is one of his best. Rex Harrison plays a deceased sea captain who is rumored to be hanging around as a spirit in the seaside cottage he formerly owned. This is indeed true, as the widow who rents the place (Gene Tierney) is soon to learn. A subsidiary character (very small role) is Tierney’s character’s daughter played by Natalie Wood, whose breakthrough child role in Miracle on 34th Street hit screens the very same month.
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Our Nixon

Docurama, Documentary, B.O. $0.02 million, $29.95 DVD, NR.
2013.
Documentarian Penny Lane’s political-junkie catnip, which offers an irresistible look at Richard Nixon’s presidency up to April 30, 1973, couldn’t even exist without a couple miracles (or at least highly unusual occurrences). First of all, there are the famous Nixon White House tapes, which provide a significant amount of the audio. As for the visuals here, they only exist because White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and fellow senior officials John Erlichman and Dwight Chapin were home-movie addicts in the pre-video days. After Haldeman and domestic affairs chief Erlichman resigned on April 30, the home movies (and thus this documentary) stop, but there are moments just in what’s captured that qualify as privileged. Nixon has often been called the gift that keeps on giving, and so are Nixon documentaries.
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13 Jan, 2014

New on Disc: 'Carmen Jones' and more …


Carmen Jones (Blu-ray)

Fox, Musical, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll.
1954.
Carmen Jones was something else: color, CinemaScope (at almost exactly the one-year anniversary of the form’s introduction), Bizet melodies, Oscar Hammerstein lyrics and a sexy cast headed by a tragic actress who might have been as big a star as anyone had she come along a decade or two later. Carmen was director Otto Preminger’s first widescreen movie, and he displayed a natural affinity with the form. Visually (including lead Dorothy Dandridge’s costuming) the movie rocks. The story’s early and then later sections are a showcase for some of the more ubiquitous African-American character actors of the period.
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Jumbo (Blu-ray)

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Musical, $19.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Doris Day, Stephen Boyd, Jimmy Durante, Martha Raye.
1962.
MGM’s Christmas release from half-a-century ago paired Doris Day at the end-side peak of her career opposite a score of Rodgers and Hart standards. Instead, it only cornered the limited market for Stephen Boyd musicals — though, truth to tell, one of the least dynamic movie leads of the era is passably OK here and not really the problem with a costly miss that has enough compensations to make me welcome its Blu-ray release. These would be the tunes (which include perennial heart-melters “My Romance” and “Little Girl Blue”), the chance to see co-stars Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye cavorting in something pretty close to career twilight and, of course, Day herself. As it stands, this was Day’s last musical, and hearing her sing a couple of the perennials is worth it.
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6 Jan, 2014

New on Disc: 'North to Alaska' and more …


North to Alaska (Blu-ray)

Fox, Comedy, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Ernie Kovacs, Fabian, Capucine.
1960.
A transitional movie in John Wayne’s career, this Henry Hathaway Western farce is broad even by Donovan’s Reef standards, though you probably haven’t lived until you’ve seen Ernie Kovacs (the heavy of the piece) completely covered in mud after a free-for-all. As the great Johnny Horton title song explains, Wayne’s “Big Sam” is prospecting gold with partner George (Stewart Granger) and brother Billy (1950s pop idol Fabian), at least when George isn’t pining for a French babe he met in Seattle. It’s all kind of poignant in a handsome Blu-ray that looks better than any theatrical print I’ve seen.
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Good Ol’ Freda

Magnolia, Documentary, B.O. $0.14 million, $26.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray, ‘PG’ for some thematic material and smoking.
2013.
Freda Kelly was a teenager plucked from a typing pool  to become an indispensable aide and even friend to the Beatles — a union extending a little beyond the time when the Liverpool lads finally broke up. For all this, Kelly has remained unassuming and unpretentious for 50 years — finally, just this once, agreeing to tell her story for benefit of any grandchildren who may come to think she was just some old woman who had never accomplished much in life. She doesn’t tell all she knows here — in fact, she won’t even say if she ever dated any of her employers — but this is quite a story just the same. Basically a talking heads documentary augmented by good music and some largely unseen Beatles photos that will likely short-circuit the brains of fans, Freda shows how watchable a purely functional narrative can be if the material is there.
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16 Dec, 2013

New on Disc: 'Oliver!' and more …


Oliver! (Blu-ray)

Available at www.ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Musical, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ron Moody, Mark Lester, Shani Wallis, Jack Wild, Oliver Reed.
1968.
Still a feel-great musical despite always being mindful of the Dickensian squalor at its source, Carol Reed’s brief comeback blockbuster has been aggressively back-bitten over the years for winning the Best Picture Oscar the year Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey came out (though 2001 wasn’t even nominated in the category). Running 153 minutes without even a hint of any pacing lags, Oliver! looks terrific on Blu-ray in a Sony/Twilight Time rendering, despite the fact that much of it takes place in something less than House Beautiful indoor settings with limited light (two expansive set-piece numbers are exceptions). Blu-ray is an ideal format for this kind of movie, in which colors tend to bleed when seen in a lesser home format.
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Turn Back the Clock

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Lee Tracy, Mae Clarke, Otto Kruger.
1933.
You can’t watch this Depression-influenced sleeper without thinking of It’s a Wonderful Life, though the premise here could have served as well for, say, a “Twilight Zone” episode — long enough, that is, to sustain the story’s march through economic and political history predating World War I.
Lee Tracy plays a cigar-store owner who is projected back to his youth where he can court an old squeeze, enabling her well-heeled father to jumpstart his career in finance, all with knowledge of future events at his disposal. There’s almost no way you can like time travel movies in general and fail to enjoy this one at least to some extent, especially once things begin falling apart catastrophically for a protagonist who thinks he’s been blessed with a second chance.
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9 Dec, 2013

New on Disc: 'Jane Eyre' and more …


Jane Eyre (Blu-ray)

Available at www.ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Peggy Ann Garner, Margaret O’Brien.
1944.
Just by itself, Bernard Herrmann’s score goes a long way toward at least suggesting that this fairly renowned Charlotte Bronte adaptation might be an unofficial Orson Welles film from his early 1940s directorial heyday — as opposed to the Robert Stevenson achievement it is. Welles as the tormented Rochester dominates even Joan Fontaine as the tough-luck servant Jane. This has to be the closest Welles ever came to cutting a dashing figure on screen. Meanwhile, an incredibly unbilled Elizabeth Taylor gets everything there is to get from a handful of scenes.
Extras: Includes Julie Kirgo’s peppy liner notes and two commentaries. Herrmann’s score can be enjoyed as an isolated experience on a separate track.
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Fearless (Blu-ray)

Available via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language and airplane crash realism.
Stars Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Rosie Perez.
1993.
Based on a novel by Rafael Yglesias, who also wrote the screenplay, this is an eerie, under-your-skin story of survivor trauma: specifically, an airplane mishap but a situation easily as applicable to combat or a mass killing where one is spared when others are not. A plane crashes in a cornfield — a setpiece staged expertly by director Peter Weir. A survivor played by Jeff Bridges begins thinking he’s indestructible. There’s some compelling support-group material involving an airline psychiatrist, and it’s instructive to witness the different ways in which the survivors react to the experience.
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2 Dec, 2013

New on Disc: 'All the President's Men' and more …


All the President’s Men: Two-Disc Special Edition

Warner, Drama, $19.98 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards.
1976.
The brand new Blu-ray of a benchmark of newspaper-pic royalty includes the automatically essential All the President’s Men Revisited documentary, which aired earlier this year on the Discovery Channel. Revisited’s standout “wow factor” is the reunion we get between Men leads Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman plus another one with Redford, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, plus former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, the bullet-biter Jason Robards won an Oscar for portraying. Everyone I knew spent a minimum of 90 minutes every day reading the Post Watergate coverage, and the movie brings it all back with an immediacy that still touches anyone who was there.
Extras: The documentary extras from the previous Men Blu-ray are carried over.
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Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room

Milestone, Documentary, $24.95 DVD, NR.
2012.
Vera Iwerebor’s main-event documentary chronicles the story of Diana Serra Cary — stage name Baby Peggy — a child star who, unlike so many, didn’t let the downward spiral of her career destroy her life. Cary, who is still alive at 95, was born a couple weeks before the World War I armistice and became one of the biggest movie stars of the early 1920s. The elephant part of the title refers to Peggy’s vanished stardom and its effect on the rest of her family — a subject that was apparently and incredibly never discussed at the dinner table or anywhere else.
Extras: The bonuses include three shorts and the 1924 feature Captain January.
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