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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.

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25 Apr, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Ernie Kovacs Collection' and more …

The Ernie Kovacs Collection

Shout! Factory, Comedy, $69.97 six-DVD set, NR.
The line from Ernie Kovacs to “Laugh-In” (which is one reason why that show’s producer George Schlatter appears on this boxed set’s extras) to Monty Python to “Saturday Night Live” to David Letterman to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and right up to today is not exactly a crooked one. This is an uncommonly comprehensive view, basically unfiltered. We see Kovacs on local TV, on morning network shows, summer replacement shows and on the classic but not particularly highly rated ABC specials that he did at the end — just before his untimely 1962 death in an auto mishap.
Extras: The set includes superbly knowing and loving essays by David Kronke and Jonathan Lethem, a thorough episode annotation by curator Ben Model, recollections from friends and plenty of vintage videos.
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American Experience: Stonewall Uprising

Street 4/26
PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Though the folkloric reaction to 1969’s famed NYPD’s Stonewall Inn bust has often been termed the Stonewall Riots, this 83-minute remembrance includes a lesson in semantics. As someone notes here, what happened on June 28 — and for an apparently indeterminate number of nights after — was, indeed, closer to an uprising. It was then that the modern-day gay movement launched — once gay customers in a Greenwich Village hole of a bar refused to disburse when the cops ordered them to do so. One disadvantage this documentary has is scant existence of any on-the-spot news footage of the event itself. As a result, some of the events by necessity have to be re-enacted. What the documentary does have is lots of interviewees, who include incident patrons, two on-the-scene Village Voice reporters (the paper was nearby) and even a participating cop who gets in this chronicle’s final words (strong ones they are, too).
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Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm — Portrait of a Jazz Legend

JazzedMedia.com, Documentary, $14.99 DVD, NR.
Not surprisingly and perhaps unavoidably, this is predominantly a talking-heads treatment. We see significant musical clips that span the ages. Interviewed are a couple ex-wives, though the marital chronology isn’t easy to follow. The fact that one former wife committed suicide and a son once got into hot water in an incident involving a rattlesnake and a mailbox — well, it’s indicative of a rather turbulent life. What you will not get here is any discussion of daughter Leslie Kenton’s recent book about the incest she suffered at the hands of a father she loved, though there are allusions in the documentary to his drinking, which eventually got out of hand. Appropriately, the focus here is on Kenton’s prolific output, and the best of it still gives great pleasure: Cuban Fire, Adventures in Jazz and a standout West Side Story album (of many) to name three.
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Not as a Stranger

Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
MGM, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Grahame.
The high-profile adaptation of Morton Thompson’s novel remains, whatever else it is or isn’t, a conversation piece on several levels. It was the movie version of the previous year’s best-selling piece of fiction, published after the author’s 1953 death; it marked the first time that famed producer Stanley Kramer ever directed; it put Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra and Lee Marvin in the same med-school class of heavy smokers — and at jarringly advanced ages; and it boasted five Oscar-winning actors in its line-up — some of them in unsuitable roles.
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18 Apr, 2011

New on Disc: 'Rabbit Hole' and more …

Rabbit Hole

Street 4/19
Lionsgate, Drama, B.O. $2.2 million, $29.95 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13’ for mature thematic material, some drug use and language.
Stars Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard, Miles Teller, Giancarlo Esposito, Sandra Oh.
Just as this past December was wrapping up, two of the best movies in years about marriages in trouble opened 10 days apart: Blue Valentine and this adaptation of the David Lindsay-Abaire play that won a 2007 Tony. Each got its lead actress (respectively, Michelle Williams and Nicole Kidman) merited Oscar nominations. Rabbit Hole is a strong ensemble work with an especially good role for Kidman, who’s had a tough go of it recent years after a spate of indifferent, or at least indifferently received, pictures. The couple that Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play recently have lost their son, who ran into the street chasing his dog and got hit by teen who wasn’t driving recklessly. In a tight 90-minute rendering that never gives much indication that it was ever a play, we see how both parties (friends and relatives, too) react to the situation. Dianne Wiest plays Kidman’s mother, who keeps on trying to equate the loss of her own 30-year-old son to heroin with a little boy who was chasing a pet. The script (which Lindsay-Abaire wrote) never wavers too far without injecting some humor, which is something viewers should know if they’re thinking of rejecting this subject matter out of hand.
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The Explosive Generation

Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
MGM, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars William Shatner, Patty McCormack, Lee Kinsolving, Billy Gray.
“Bud” is bothered — or at least confused — by hormones. An almost grown-up Patty McCormack has graduated from The Bad Seed to the kind that, at least potentially, can leave you “with child” (as it used to be termed in Pearl Buck novels). And the high-school teacher who protects student rights when it comes to talking about sex is played by … Bill Shatner? Not to oversell the result, but in truth a drama that sounds as if it’s going to be pure exploitation along the lines of Teenage Doll or The Cool and the Crazy has to rank among the more prescient movies of its decade, or at least the early part of it. When the usual array of uptight parents try to put the clamps down on free expression here, their children organize a protest — just as this exact same generation would just a few years down the road. Generation goes a little soft at the end when the parents do the same, but the movie is fundamentally concerned about free speech. The school is full of familiar faces, even beyond McCormack’s. Billy Gray, who had recently wrapped up six seasons playing Bud on “Father Knows Best” is the car dealer’s son; wouldn’t it have been great seeing him ask TV dad Robert Young on that fabulous series for advice on the best brand of condoms?
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While the City Sleeps

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Vincent Price, John Barrymore Jr.
Shrewdly marketed as the screen pursuit of a punk serial killer who’ll terrorize the entire Naked City if the New York Sentinel can trumpet his deeds enough, director Fritz Lang’s penultimate Hollywood feature actually is a sexually frank (for its day) look at old-school metropolitan journalism, especially in the after-hours. Take one look at Rhonda Fleming in a two-piece doing twist-and-turn exercises around the house in front of clueless husband Vincent Price (ill-coordinated shirt and shorts with dark socks). Even a 9-year-old would suspect that she’s getting naked in the city with someone else — and she is. Despite the large cast and keen use of widescreen throughout, this was a low-budget affair just as RKO and Lang’s Hollywood career were winding down in the same year — though Lang’s swan song (also with Andrews) would follow in three months. That was Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which also is just out as a Warner on-demand release.
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Dogtooth (Blu-ray)

Kino Lorber, Drama, B.O. $0.1 million, $34.95 Blu-ray, NR.
In Greek with English subtitles.
Stars Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Hristos Passalis, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Christine Anna Kalaitzidou.

2010. When Greece’s recent foreign-language Oscar nominee also turns out to be something John Waters calls (on the box) “by far the most original film I’ve seen in a long time,” you’ve got my attention.

Judging solely from personal experience, cinematic works this twisted and “out there” tend to be products of Spanish-speaking countries, and IMDb.com, at least, claims that Dogtooth is a remake of a 1973 obscurity from Mexico called Castle of Purity that would be interesting to see for contrast. The original likely doesn’t have director/co-writer Giorgos Lanthimos’ disorienting framing of actors — not always but sometimes — that had me wondering at first if the aspect ratio setting on either my TV or Blu-ray player was out of whack. It’s disorienting because oftentimes the composition is clean and even formally pristine — which goes along with the story’s physically spic-and-span home (well-tended grass and a pool as well) that houses a father, mother, two growing-up daughters, one growing-up son … and another son who’s imaginary and supposedly dwells over the backyard wall.

No one except for dad has much grasp on reality, and dad is no open-and-shut case himself. Not unlike the punks in A Clockwork Orange, the family speaks its own language — though in this case, they misapply words known to all instead of making them up whole cloth the way they did in the Anthony Burgess novel and classic Stanley Kubrick film version. Dad keeps everyone in a household prison (though mom seems to be a conspirator), but he himself goes to work at a factory he either owns or manages. His one family concession to the outside world comes courtesy of a female security guard at the plant. He regularly blindfolds her (no fair knowing where we live) and takes her home to provide sexual release for the son. The real one, that is.

If the movie is trying to say anything (and here, all bets are off), it seems to be that if a fissure or two starts to appear in the supremely rigid existence you’ve established for yourself, the symbolic result is likely to be something akin to the climax to the World War II drama The Dam Busters when those initial cracks in the targeted dam’s cement gives way to massive flooding of the Ruhr Valley. The imported outsider starts communicating with the sisters, even partaking in mutual licking regimens — but that’s another story. Soon, the siblings (and these are kid who are not “all right”) are have grown more rebellious than dad would like.

This is one of those movies where you either go with the flow or incessantly ask, “How soon will it be over?” Dad has engendered a familial fear of cats, teaching his offspring to bark like dogs. In one scene, the son graphically kills a housecat with a pair of garden shears, a passage guaranteed to jettison the PETA moviegoer demographic in about one second. There’s also a scene where dad plays an LP of "Fly Me to the Moon," complete with the familiar Count Basie/Quincy Jones arrangement. He tells everyone the featured singer (who isn’t Frank Sinatra but someone doing a fairly good imitation) is grandfather calling — which almost makes you wonder if there’ll be follow-ups from Uncle Dean, Uncle Joey and Uncle Sammy. But the movie has set up such weird ground rules that one is never sure whether we’re getting a bogus Frank because someone didn’t want to pay the music rights — or because filmmaker Lanthimos is trying to make some arcane point.

It takes a certain mindset to accept these hijinks, which evolve into something lower when the story takes some genuinely disturbing turns. As a result, it wasn’t too difficult to toss Dogtooth onto my mind’s “reject” pile — until the next day, when I found myself thinking about it more than expected. In other words, it’s one of those naggers. To me, the most interesting thing about it is the fact that same Oscar voters who could award best picture to a movie as conventional as The King’s Speech could also find a way to even consider this one for the foreign-language designation. This has to be the final nail in the supposition that the academy votes in a homogenized mindset.

11 Apr, 2011

New on Disc: 'Mesrine,' 'Behind the Burly Q' and more …

Mesrine — Part 1: Killer Instinct, Part 2: Public Enemy #1

Music Box, Drama, B.O. Part 1 $0.6 million, B.O. Part 2 $0.3 million, $29.95 each DVD, $34.95 each Blu-ray, Part 1 ‘R’ for strong brutal violence, some sexual content and language, Part 2 ‘R’ for bloody brutal violence, a scene of sexuality, nudity and pervasive language.
Stars Vincent Cassel, Gerard Depardieu, Cecile De France, Ludivine Sagnier.
The home release of France’s four-hour crime gangster saga has likely caught a bigger break than its subject gave many of his victims. In the interim between Mesrine’s two-part theatrical release and recent two-part launch (a month apart) on DVD and Blu-ray, lead Vincent Cassel got a lot of ink and exposure to mainstream moviegoers by appearing as the ballet maestro in Black Swan. Directed by Jean-Francois Richet, who did the not-bad 2005 remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, this is a tough movie to gauge artistically, and I understand why reactions were somewhat polarized. Given a protagonist who at times expanded his operation into the United States and Canada as well — and broke out of jail several times and once broke back in to spring pals — it is inevitably episodic. On the other hand, it is no everyday achievement to fashion a movie of uncommon length that has very few lulls or at least no lulls of consequence. A lot of this is due to Cesar winner Cassel’s constant charisma.
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Behind the Burly Q

Street 4/12
First Run, Documentary, B.O. $0.02 million, $27.95 DVD, NR.
On balance, the mostly aged former burlesque strippers that filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis interviews for this talking-heads remembrance claim to have had a jolly good time of it and speak of the now quaint old profession with fondness. A major high point is hearing Alan Alda reminisce about his long-ago backstage time as a “child of burlesque” because father Robert spent his early career working in the burly-q trade.
Extras: The DVD extras include a tribute to several performers who died during the documentary’s long production process. The extras also include a reunion party of many of the featured principals.
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The Mountain

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner, Claire Trevor, Anna Kashfi.
One time, it actually happened: Paramount Pictures made a movie set in the Swiss Alps in which the mountain that figures so prominently in its plot (and, of course, title) looked nearly identical to the studio’s famous logo minus the surrounding stars. And they shot it in resplendent VistaVision for images that still are almost beyond belief. In truth, there are a lot of Blu-rays, especially of current movies, that aren’t up to the visual wonders that this standard DVD from Olive Films routinely boasts in every frame. But this is a movie that’s significantly more fun to talk about than sit through, not that the latter is any particular chore. But this was one very weird project. The story, fairly simple, has to do with an airliner crashing in the mountain as winter’s coming on and the difficulty of assembling a party to rescue the mail on board.
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Yolanda and the Thief

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Musical, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Fred Astaire, Lucille Bremer, Frank Morgan, Mildred
Natwick, Mary Nash, Leon Ames.
Yolanda is mostly exasperating to sit through, but you can’t dislodge its abject dreaminess from your brain. The Fred Astaire/Lucille Bremer “Coffee Time” number is one of my 20 favorite movie scenes ever.
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4 Apr, 2011

New on Disc: 'Topsy-Turvy' and more …


Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for a scene of risque nudity.
Stars Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Timothy Spall.
You can’t exactly say that writer-director Mike Leigh’s masterpiece — and yes, on a certain level, it probably is futile limiting that accolade honor to a single movie — was as underrated as his most recent achievement: December’s Another Year. Leigh’s film takes about 35 minutes to establish the frustrated ambitions but also the social affability of composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) before it even introduces the far more intimidating and even prickly librettist W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent, accordingly given almost all the laugh lines). And unlike most backstage biographies, Topsy-Turvy opens and continues on with the team at mid-career point — when their comic-opera soufflés are becoming redundant, the critical huzzahs are falling off and Sullivan wants to go it alone composing more-serious works. In my view, there’s never been anything quite like Topsy-Turvy, despite the hundred of backstage movies that Hollywood and other countries have made.
Extras: There are the usual Criterion goodies: a Leigh commentary, a 1992 Broadbent-directed short that kind of planted the Topsy-Turvy seed, terrific deleted scenes and Leigh’s conversation with musical director Gary Vershon — because, yes, this also is a musical and a great one. As critic Amy Taubin notes in a wonderful accompanying essay, the movie (despite the oddity in Leigh’s filmography that it seems to be) is exacting in its delineation of a rehearsal process that is not very different from Leigh’s own.
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Rope of Sand

Street 4/5
Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Corinne Calvet, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre.
The Rains-Henreid-Lorre Casablanca connection doesn’t exactly hurt this Hal Wallis action potboiler set in the opposite end of Africa, which essentially is a movie about the revenge Burt Lancaster’s character exacts for past beatings and even a flogging. And the latter is among the more memorable ones in a non-seafaring movie. Sand is the first salvo that Casablanca producer Wallis launched with shapely Corinne Calvet after signing her to a contract. Shot in glamour-conscious black-and-white by Charles Lang, the yarn has slick Rains (manager of the Colonial Diamond Co.) hiring Calvet to use her wiles on former game hunter Lancaster — a couple years after the latter discovered a secret cache of jewels. Straight-arrow Lancaster would have probably divulged the gems’ whereabouts, even without asking, had not sadistic police commandant Henreid gotten tough about it. Sand’s underrated director William Dieterle was a compatible match for Wallis during this period, and the Wallis Paramounts were an entertaining bunch in the late ‘40s before the producer’s output got too slick and formulaic in subsequent decades.
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A Cold Wind in August

MGM, Drama, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Lola Albright, Scott Marlowe, Herschel Bernardi, Joe De Santis.
If the movie version of Burton Wohl’s eponymous novel had been a product of the modern screen era, someone (its distributor or the actress herself) would have mounted a publicity campaign to get Lola Albright’s lead performance the Oscar nomination it deserved. A lot has been made of the fact that co-star Scott Marlowe was 29 playing 17 to Albright’s real-life 36, which takes some of the edge off this tawdry-for-its time romance between an apartment manager’s handsome teenaged son and a thrice-divorced tenant with aging banzai looks who isn’t advertising the fact that she’s a stripper. But even though Marlowe’s character is more emotionally ill-developed than he needs to be (this kid is always debating whether to enjoy rapturous sack-time or a ballgame with the guys), Marlowe gets the role’s psychology right, and the two generally make a convincing pair.
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The Windmill Movie

Zeitgeist, Documentary, B.O. $0.03 million, $29.99 DVD, NR.
There are probably more than instances than not of self-referential cinema becoming off-putting, but in this case it’s a third party who is doing the referring — sort of. And it’s the “sort of” that makes this odd duck rather interesting, starting with the multiple levels on which this melancholy portrait can be appreciated. One of them is that mainstay of documentaries from recent years: the dysfunctional family that belies its outward social appearance.

The late Richard P. Rogers was a documentary filmmaker and film professor at his own alma mater Harvard — one who also, in the project that consumed his life, recorded substantial chunks of his daily existence long before it became a routine thing to do by teen partiers with cell-phones. In his case, the project wasn’t frivolous — though there were probably many times when even he had to wonder. What’s more, Rogers had a huge early-start advantage in terms of early footage because his well-heeled father got in early when it came to shooting home movies, which was probably once regarded as an exotic concept.

Rogers’ idea was to assemble this material into a film about his life and own perceived shortcomings, as in the self-alleged failure to have made more of himself despite all the advantages that a well-heeled life on Long Island and a lot of Hamptons beach time would signify. If there’s some whininess potential in all this (Rogers lamented that he wasn’t the filmic force Steven Spielberg is), there’s a certain disarming quality to this portrait: here, after all, is Rogers standing in front of the camera and telling us he knows he’s whining. And besides, not very before he ended up dying fairly young, Rogers suffered through an astonishing freak accident that constitutes this documentary’s No. 1 shock when we gaze at the aftermath in a hospital scene. So give him bonus points.

When Rogers died in 2001 artistically unfulfilled, his friend and onetime student Alexander Olch worked with Rogers’ widow (photographer Susan Meiselas) to assemble 200 hours of film and video into a completed work — that is, the one Rogers couldn’t crack himself. If the result inevitably has the tone of a stunt, it’s a heartfelt one. Named for the windmill that his grandfather had transported to the East Hamptons’ Georgica Pond for a constant visual motif, this backdoor tribute (complete with contributions by longtime Rogers friend Wallace Shawn) kind of creeps up on you.

For one thing, the summer scenes of young women bicycling and sunning themselves on the beach are irresistible and allow Rogers’ narration to make the point that if summer is a kind of dessert for having lived through the winter, it is summer that provides the substantial (and certainly formative) experiences in any kind of vital life. (You don’t have to agree with this, but I, for one, do.) For another, you have to take Windmill’s oft-stated references to mental illness that ran through the Rogers family and factor them into the equation — unless you simply shrug and think, “I would just taken the lifestyle and run.” But when we actually see the subject’s mother in the backyard being interviewed — wearing a mink coat in a windy June and making abrasive remarks — it’s obvious that there’s a lot to this story. And this is even before we’re told she once tossed Rogers and Maiselas out of her home one July 4 weekend after making anti-Semitic remarks about the latter during some sort of fracas over the defrosting of an icebox.

Maiselas, turns out, was one of … well, at least a few. Rogers had a wandering eye and wasn’t reticent to act on his impulses, though Maiselas lasted for the long haul and finally married him when it became clear that time was running out and that Rogers wasn’t going to beat cancer. At some point in the planned documentary’s production process, Rogers ceased writing narration — and his health deteriorated to the point where one wonders if he could have continued, anyhow. In the later portions, Olch takes over with his own voice and own written narration as Rogers — to a point where I forgot I was no longer listening to Rogers himself. If this is a compliment, there’s also something a little queasy about it — but maybe not that much more than having writers complete unfinished novels by deceased author-friends from notes, which is not that infrequent an occurrence. It’s just that film or video, by its very nature, ups the emotional ante.

So, yes, this is a picture about the mucky-muck good life (with all the outdoor drinking that entails); fear of romantic commitment and fatherhood (Rogers didn’t want to pass along iffy genes); the family unit (gone to hell); and self-worth. But it is also about obsession (all 200 of those boxes), which turns out to be the overriding theme — one that has served a lot of good movies. One can’t help but notice, though, that for someone so obsessed with creating … well, whatever it was going to be … that Rogers had the kind of personality that attracted a lot of friends. You wonder if maybe they shouldn’t have been more important than those boxes.

Extras: Two Rogers shorts and an essay by Film Comment’s Scott Foundas.



28 Mar, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Times of Harvey Milk,' 'Anything Goes' and more …

The Times of Harvey Milk

Criterion, Documentary, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
There’s never been any doubt in my day-by-day, everyday mind that Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary is one of the great films of the ‘80s. So it comes as something of a surprise on Criterion’s extras-jammed release to hear it asserted that the timing turned out to be just right in 2008 for the release of director Gus Van Sant’s Milk because so many had forgotten about Epstein’s earlier achievement.
Extras: Close to the top of many typically fine Criterion bonuses here is an interview with Jon Else, a teacher of documentary filmmaking at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism who is very forceful and direct in opining why Times is such a stellar achievement, starting with how immediately its maker gets us into the story. One of the other Criterion extras talks some about the filming of Milk, an endeavor with which Epstein elected to cooperate. For his part, Van Sant (who appears on camera here, as does featured performer James Franco) gave acting roles to some of the surviving interviewees from the documentary.
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Anything Goes

Street 3/29
eOne, Musical, $29.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr, Sheree North.
The “Colgate Comedy Hour” presentation of Cole Porter’s perennial had to be trimmed to a buzz-cut degree to fit its TV time slot. And this despite the fact that Porter standards not featured in the stage version got added here. So what we have in this most welcome release isn’t an Anything Goes for purists, but it ought to delight just about any non-grouch you know who has a taste for classic musicals. This “Colgate” show’s standout is the Merman-Sinatra duet of “You’re the Top” at almost exactly the midway point — one of the most infectious sequences in all of ‘50s TV.
Extras: Within the limitations of kinescopes, the copy utilized for this authorized “Archive of American Television” release is superb — as good a kinescope as I’ve ever seen (the commercials are missing). And it ought to be: It’s taken from Merman’s personal 16mm copy, an acquisition described with great charm by Stephen Cole, who provides super liner notes about the show’s history (but especially this rendering).
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Wild Rovers

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $19.95 DVD, ‘PG.’
Stars William Holden, Ryan O’Neal, Karl Malden, Tom Skerritt.
Director Blake Edwards’ troubled Western was envisioned as a three-hour roadshow exhibition, so it’s possible that even this welcome director’s cut (which first surfaced during the laserdisc era and isn’t much improved upon in this somewhat muddy on-demand release) doesn’t have everything that once existed. William Holden’s performance remains authentic and makes this movie (in terms of personal achievement) one of the high points of his later career.
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The Black Sleep

Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
MGM, Horror, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi.
This standout curiosity from MGM/Fox’s new on-demand lineup has a cast of the ages and some irresistible elements. For one thing, it deals with something close to grave robbery perpetrated by a megalomaniacal surgeon (Basil Rathbone) —who’s desperate to experiment on real human beings in his efforts to bring a young wife out of a tumor-induced coma. It’s also the final film Bela Lugosi, as a mute servant, knew he would appear in, since he never knew footage taken a few days before his death would end up in Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space.
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21 Mar, 2011

New on Disc: 'Inside Job' and more …

Inside Job

Sony Pictures, Documentary, B.O. $4.2 million, $28.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13’ for some drug and sex-related material.
Narrated by Matt Damon.

2010. Before going on to win the recent Oscar for Best Documentary, director Charles Ferguson knew he wanted to have a specific Peter Gabriel song in the opening credits. He and co-producer Audrey Marrs were willing to spend 5% of the film’s budget in what became a cliffhanger to clear the rights. All this, of course, is tangential to Inside Job’s narrative power in chronicling the 2008 global meltdown of the economy and the seeds of the mess we’re still in today. As much as any movie can, it crystallizes difficult subjects — brain pulverizers such as credit default swaps and CDOs — in a way lay folk can comprehend.
Extras: The bonus material is almost like a secondary extra movie, and the Blu-ray has something like an hour of extra material that the standard DVD doesn’t have. One of these BD segments is a significant highlight: a low-key, blow-by-blow account of the afternoon Lehman Brothers started to melt, delivered by Lehman’s premier bankruptcy attorney Harvey Miller. As we can hear from his outstanding commentary with producer Marrs (a good foil), Ferguson is soft-spoken himself, which makes his relentlessly probing questions on screen to occasionally discomforted subjects very effective.
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Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Kino Lorber, Documentary, B.O. $0.2 million, $29.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray, NR.
The only drawback to this consistent grabber on a mesmerizing subject is the title. It’s likely that no one will ever get to the “inner” of the still-revered Canadian concert pianist and brilliant Bach interpreter, even though (as we see in plenty of archival evidence) he was thoroughly outgoing in interviews and blessed with a sense of humor, even about himself. Co-directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, Genius avoids a pitfall that afflicts many historical documentaries: the lack of archival material. Here, there seems to be plenty, and the filmmakers have dug it out the way those wizard sleuths who put together the bonus sections on Criterion releases do. We learn of Gould’s upbringing as an only child, his aversion to touring and a musical prowess that lasted until his death at age 50 in 1982.
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Excalibur (Blu-ray)

Warner, Fantasy, $19.98 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson.
It sounds a bit flip to call director John Boorman’s aptly intense Arthurian epic a greatest hits package, but the film’s preponderance of action involving a long list of already familiar 5th/6th-century characters is a major part of its appeal. Along, of course, with the sex. Excalibur’s good looks are of the hazy sort and even a Blu-ray of it will never be of “demonstration” quality, though it does replicate my memories of what the movie looked like on screen in 1981, which was dreamy. Star spotters also will have fun watching Gabriel Byrne in a crucial role early in the story — as well as Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart.
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Primrose Path

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrea, Marjorie Rambeau.
Director Gregory La Cava’s movie of a once-semi-notorious property is adapted from a long-running play which in turn had been based on the Victoria Lincoln novel February Hill. Ginger Rogers is the closest thing to a well-adjusted adult in a family of no-counts (mom Marjorie Rambeau is a prostitute). She marries a hamburger joint counter-hop played by Joel McCrea — for genuine love on her part but also, one senses, to escape her family. They’re obviously in love, but too many people are poisoning the well.
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14 Mar, 2011

New on Disc: 'Au Revoir Les Enfants' Blu-ray and more

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Street 3/15
Criterion, Drama, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejto, Francine Racette.
Especially wounded by a brutal review of one of his films in the 1980s, director Louis Malle returned to homeland France and undertook a long-gestating semi-autobiographical project. The result was Au Revoir Les Enfants, one of the writer/director’s greatest achievements and a worthy companion piece to what Malle regarded as his greatest work: 1974’s Lacombe, Lucien. Au Revoir is specifically based on a life-altering event the filmmaker witnessed in his youth, when his prestigious Catholic boarding school hid in plain sight a handful of Jewish youngsters. You can walk into this movie not knowing anything about the particulars and almost immediately sense that it’s authentic. Every scene is invested with details that don’t in any sense feel contrived. Au Revoir on Blu-ray nails the muted-color look and soundtrack (Malle was a stickler for sound) of the theatrical presentation.
Extras: Video interviews with biographer Pierre Billard and Malle’s widow, Candice Bergen; “Joseph: A Character Study,” a profile of the central character; Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 film The Immigrant, which is featured in Au Revoir; audio excerpts from a 1988 AFI interview with Malle; and a booklet with essays by film critic Philip Kemp and historian Francis J. Murphy.
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Two in the Wave

Kino Lorber, Documentary, B.O. $0.03 million, $29.95 DVD, NR.
With Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut as its stars, their dual collaborator Jean-Pierre Leaud as a featured player, historical tide changing (cinematic and political) plus film clips galore, there’s no way this biographical documentary about the French New Wave can fail to be interesting, unless you’re adverse to “inside baseball” in any context. Their story unspools here in an unusual but not necessarily inappropriate fashion — via a series of old scrapbooks we watch being leafed through by Isild Le Besco, a contemporary French actress whose films haven’t gotten wide distribution here.
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Off Limits

Olive, Comedy, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, Marilyn Maxwell, Eddie Mayehoff.
What Vietnam didn’t do to kill the service comedy, cessation of the draft did. Which means that even if Bob Hope weren’t a looking-it 49 here and playing an M.P., there’d still be a kind of out-of-this-universe feel to one of the last really characteristic movies he made at Paramount. Hope, who boxed early in his pre-stardom Cleveland days, plays a fight trainer here — one about to hit the big-time with a champ who is suddenly drafted. To keep the story moving, the script contrives to have Hope enlist as well — only to have his meal ticket (Stanley Clements) rejected for service. So Hope is stuck, as is fellow inductee Mickey Rooney, who by coincidence yearns to be a fighter.
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Sunday in New York

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Rod Taylor, Jane Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Robert Culp.
Sporting too much makeup in her sixth feature but otherwise a stunner for the ages, Jane Fonda gave her most appealing screen performance since her 1960 Tall Story debut as the Albany kid sis who pays a surprise visit to brother Cliff Robertson, a TWA pilot who’s trying to shack up with his flashy girlfriend (Jo Morrow) between emergency flight assignments that seem to materialize about every five minutes or so. This adaptation of playwright Norman Krasna’s once mildly risqué sex farce is very much a product of its time.
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7 Mar, 2011

New on Disc: 'Senso' on Blu-ray and more


Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Christian Marquand.
Though establishing works Ossessione and La Terra Trema are hallmarks of Italian neo-realism (with operatic flavoring), most audiences probably think of Luchino Visconti in terms of his opulent color period pieces. But the first of these was this 19th-century war/romance “bad-luck project,” which by no stretch was the last one Visconti would have in his career. Until a recent and costly restoration (the negative had shrunk, for openers), Senso’s photographic rep was mostly based on memory. In a loving first-hand essay included in Criterion’s package, writer-filmmaker Mark Rappaport notes that he thought it was the most beautiful movie ever. Here are the visuals Visconti intended. Every shot is a painting, as you’ve heard said of other movies in a common refrain, but as Rappaport says, you don’t want to hang the images on the wall; you want to live in them.
Extras: Included are a Senso excerpt from Farley Granger’s autobiography and an unrestored version of the shorter, inferior but tantalizingly rare alternate English-language version. There’s a making-of documentary with lots of still-living production heavyweights, a visual essay by the great Peter Cowie, a 1966 BBC portrait of Visconti and a super featurette that deals Visconti’s theatrical work and the film’s impact.
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Michael Jordan to the Max (Blu-ray)

Lionsgate, Sports, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
The intention of Imax presentations, at least when they’re chronicling a real-life event, is to put us in the arena. To this end, the Jordan Imax movie was a success. The selling point (even on home screens, modest or large) is supremely pristine game footage. Fortunately, this portrait captures a great moment in time: the Chicago Bulls’ final NBA Championship before the team started to break up.
Extras: A 20-minute bonus featurette explains the arduous filmmaking process and notes the intimidating shutter speeds of the Imax cameras. From what one can discern here, filming the on-court (but non-game) sequences with Jordan must have involved as much photographic blue smoke and mirrors as it took for him to interact with the Warner animation stable in 1996’s Space Jam.
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On the Double

Street 3/8
Olive, Comedy, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Danny Kaye, Dana Wynter, Wilfred Hyde-White.
There’s something kind of end-of-the-road-ish about this last “pure” Danny Kaye vehicle, given that before too long after its release, you didn’t see too many comical Nazis (at least in World War II settings) on screen. Even at its occasional best, On the Double is very old school. Kaye is an American private first class with a gift for mimicry. Facing court martial for having previously impersonated an officer and stolen a jeep, Kaye agrees to impersonate a British colonel targeted for assassination by Germans.
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The Public Eye

Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
Universal, Drama, $19.98 DVD, ‘R.’
Stars Joe Pesci, Barbara Hershey, Jared Harris.
Though this apparent labor of love dropped out of sight about two seconds after it got to theaters, I suspect there’s still the remnants of a moviegoer demographic who conceivably might have a good time with the screen project that gave Joe Pesci his shot at becoming a leading man. Set early in World War II during the onset of gas rationing, the film was transparently inspired by the career of Arthur “Weegie” Fellig, the New York photojournalist who specialized in capturing crime scenes and the everyday life of the predominantly downtrodden in the most urban of all settings.
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28 Feb, 2011

New on Disc: 'Sweet Smell of Success' and more …

Sweet Smell of Success

Criterion, Drama, $39.95 two-DVD set, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner.
Though it was a box office and critical flop in its day, Sweet Smell of Success is now considered a classic, and this new Criterion release makes the movie seem more vivid and immediate than ever — even though the trenchant Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman script deals with a long-ago era and a central character based on the now rather amazingly forgotten gossip columnist Walter Winchell.
Extras: You’ll have to go a long way this year to find a DVD/Blu-ray with more dead-on extras. The great Gary Giddins opens with a bookleted essay, followed by a remembrance from Lehman (who initiated the project before Odets took over his script). There’s also a Scottish TV featurette about the strange career of director Alexander Mackendrick that explains how an American-born Scot became a star of British cinema before returning to the United States to direct one of this most definitively American of all movies. Relatively inferior to everything else is a short, color-faded filmed portrait of cinematographer James Wong Howe. But it’s a supreme capping treat to see Winchell biographer Neal Gabler giving us a half hour on the differences between his own true-life subject and the latter’s morally worthless screen counterpart.
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Thelma & Louise: 20th Anniversary Edition

Fox/MGM, Drama, $19.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for strong language, and for some violence and sensuality.
Stars Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Brad Pitt.
This most atypical Ridley Scott movie looks exactly as I recall it looking from its theatrical release 20 years ago. For a movie whose Oscar-winning screenplay is so renowned, this prototypical buddy movie for women has a spectacular visual component that got cinematographer Adrian Biddle a nomination as well. In fact, scripter Callie Khouri says on the hour-long documentary (carried over from the old deluxe DVD release) that she thought about and envisioned the production design every step of the way.
Extras: The other extras are carried over from the DVD as well, and one of the two commentaries is co-delivered by Scott.
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The Last Play at Shea

Lionsgate, Documentary, $14.98 DVD, NR.
Features Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Tom Seaver.
The movie Shea (as the real Shea was) is about a lot of disparate things, from Mets baseball to Billy Joel. On the one hand, this is to the disadvantage of Paul Crowder’s sparsely distributed documentary/concert film from last year, which tells the story behind the last in a long line of musical performances at the Queens-based stadium before its 2008 demolition. But if there are enough raw materials here for three or four more fleshed-out movies, it’s almost impossible for the result to be anything less than engrossing, to say nothing of endearing, which is probably the real point.
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Intruder in the Dust

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars David Brian, Claude Jarman Jr., Juano Hernandez, Porter Hall, Elizabeth Patterson, Charles Kemper, Will Geer.
This now semi-obscure adaptation of William Faulkner’s same-name 1948 novel tells the story about a proud black man who is saved from murder conviction and probably even worse by both black and white intervening teens, and was filmed in the author’s hometown of Oxford, Miss. You can’t put a price on the location footage — from a time when studios still wanted to do everything on the backlot. There’s some bad speckling in the first few seconds of this “on-demand” print’s opening credits, but the images otherwise look fine.
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21 Feb, 2011

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

All the President’s Men (Blu-ray)

Warner, Drama, $34.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander.
The classic Woodward-Bernstein saga on Blu-ray basically recycles 2006’s standard DVD, but a couple of things have changed in recent years to the release’s benefit. One is Blu-ray itself — a format ideal for handling the nuances of Gordon Willis’s photography, whose nocturnal subtleties and shadows are typified by one of Willis’s most famous works. The other is the collapse of the newspaper industry, which makes the very idea of everyday citizens having spent two hours each day reading Watergate hard copy (and they did; I was there) seem something close to otherworldly. The film is a Blu-ray must and hasn’t lost a thing over the years, remaining one of the “Big Three” newspaper dramas along with Citizen Kane and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.
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A Private Function

Image, Comedy, $14.98 DVD, $17.98 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Maggie Smith, Michael Palin, Denholm Elliott, Liz Smith.
Against a cast of British stiff upper lips immersed in post-World War II culture clashing, we add jumbo doses of doo-doo. And not just any old brand of doo-doo but pig doo-doo whose aroma the story’s two central characters try to pass off as having come from live-in grandma. The pig debacle is something the script (directed by Malcolm Mowbray) comes by honestly. The year is 1947, and England is in the midst of severe pork rationing. Despite the subject matter, Function’s bright color schemes are easy on the eye — something I remembered being surprised by during the movie’s theatrical release and which is masterfully replicated on the Blu-ray. Produced by George Harrison’s onetime Handmade Films, the movie is as funny as I recalled, with superb supporting performances straight down the line.
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Classic Educational Shorts Vol. 4: The Celluloid Salesman

Kino Lorber, Special Interest, $19.95 DVD, NR.
The majority of the 15 shorts here (totaling just under four hours) did advance ideas or instructions of one kind or another — mostly to sales forces or women’s clubs who watched them via 16mm projection. Some are nuts and bolts in nature, as in explaining the inner mechanics of garbage disposals (this would be in “Goodbye to Garbage”), blenders, bread-baking and Xerox machines (this one even explains that magic word: “toner”). If it sounds dubious as screen entertainment, it’s still far more compelling to learn how blenders turn chopped carrots into baby food at a fraction of retail cost than some of the current films making it to retail. Besides, you have to love (plural) portrayals of wifely kitchen labors where the wives in question are shown wearing pearls even before June Cleaver did the same.
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Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Lawrence Tierney, Priscilla Lane.
Robert Altman’s opening Hollywood salvo was a shared “story” credit with George W. George for this 62-minute RKO melodrama, another of the fleeting postwar attempts to make Lawrence Tierney a star. Keeping Bodyguard moving, which is the salvation here, is director Richard Fleischer. This is a speedy, efficient melodrama — just like countless others designed for the bottom half of a double bill and nothing more lofty. Yet as things worked out, it did capture some careers at interesting junctures. Altman and Fleischer had splashy futures, Priscilla Lane immediately got out of the business to continue being an air force wife and Tierney was on the fast track downhill until Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in 1992.
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