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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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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.

 


22 Feb, 2010

New on DVD: 'The Informant,' 'Make Way for Tomorrow' and more …


Brothers

Prebook 2/24; Street 3/23
Lionsgate, Drama, B.O. $28.5 million, $29.95 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language and some disturbing violent content.
Stars Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Shepard, Clifton Collins Jr., Mare Winningham.
2009.
This remake of 2004’s Brodre (from Denmark) has the ability to gnaw at you around the edges if not always straight down the middle. It delivers on a casting coup that must have occurred to everyone at one time or another — Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal suggest one another so much that it’s almost surprising that the industry found room enough for both.
Extras: Commentary by director Jim Sheridan and two behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Read the Full Review

The Informant!

Street 2/23
Warner, Comedy, B.O. $33.3 million, $28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language.
Stars Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey.
2009.
Matt Damon got a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, but the 2009 performance for which he’ll be more remembered came in the first Steven Soderbergh movie in an age not composed of aren’t-we-cute smirkiness (all three “Ocean’s” capers) or designed for instant oblivion in theatrical auditoriums holding 150 seats (Che, et al.).
Extras: Commentary with Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns.
Read the Full Review

The Damned United

Street 2/23
Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $0.4 million, $28.96 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language.
Stars Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Jim Broadbent.
2009.
Unusual sports biopic about the late soccer coach Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) is made by its all-star lineup of some of the screen’s most recognizable character actors.
Extras: In addition to commentary by Sheen, director Tom Hooper and producer Andy Harries, the extras look at the real Clough and soccer in the 1970s.
Read the Full Review

Make Way for Tomorrow

Street 2/23
Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Fay Bainter, Thomas Mitchell.
1937.
There won’t be a dozen movies out this year as great as Leo McCarey’s classic about elderly parents who lose their home and none of their five grown children can make it right.
Extras: Great interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and Gary Giddins discussing McCarey, and a booklet with adoring essays by biographer/historian Tag Gallagher. 
Read the Full Review

Dragnet

Available Now via Amazon.com CreateSpace
Universal, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Jack Webb, Ben Alexander, Richard Boone, Ann Robinson.
1954.
Whatever else this classic police drama is or isn’t, this medium-sized box office hit is a supreme artifact of its age.
Read the Full Review


15 Feb, 2010

New on DVD: ‘Good Hair,’ ‘Hunger,’ ‘Contempt’ and more …


Last week, in talking about the new-to-DVD 1966 TV version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, I alluded to the 1933 oddball movie version of Alice in Wonderland. Now, it turns out that Universal is releasing it Mar 2 to cash in on the new Tim Burton Alice. The movie has a rep as a misfire, and I haven’t seen it since the early 1960s. But my curiosity is up due to the supporting cast: Cary Grant (Mock Turtle), Gary Cooper (White Knight) and W.C. Fields (Humpty Dumpty).

Now on to this week’s picks:

 

Good Hair

Street 2/16
Lionsgate, Documentary, B.O. $4.2 million, $27.98 DVD, ‘PG-13’ for some language including sex and drug references, and brief partial nudity.
Stars Chris Rock.
2009.
Comic Chris Rock tries to do for African-American cosmetology what Bill Maher did for God in Religulous — embarking on an odyssey to educate himself on the big-business aspect of hair and all the sub-categories this entails.
Extras: Commentary by Rock and producer Nelson George.
Read the Full Review

Hunger

Street 2/16
Criterion, Drama, B.O. $0.2 million, $39.95 DVD or Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham.
2008.
Brit video artist Steve McQueen’s justly acclaimed political prison drama focuses on the 1981 Maze Prison hunger strike masterminded by real-life Irish Republican Army prisoner Bobby Sands (Fassbender) amid his weakened final days.
Extras: McQueen recalls how the strike, which he says was vastly underreported by the Brit press, affected him during his youth; interviews with the cast and writer Enda Walsh and others; the BBC’s 1981 look at the strike; and an essay by critic Chris Darke.
Read the Full Review

Contempt (Le Mepris)

Street 2/16
Lionsgate, Drama, $39.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang.
1963.
Studio Canal appears to be challenging industry-standard Criterion to a game of HORSE when it comes to making arthouse classics look like opening night. Contempt is among the most gorgeous-looking European films of the era.
Extras: Jammed: an intro by film professor/historian Colin MacCabe, which packs an amazing amount of historical info into five minutes; and scads of look-backs clocking in at various length — some done at the time, some more recent.
Read the Full Review

The Music Man

Warner, Musical, $28.99 Blu-ray, ‘G.’
Stars Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddie Hackett, Ron Howard.
1962.
Warner Home Entertainment didn’t pull many muscles serving up the paltry extras on its Blu-ray of The Music Man, but this best picture Oscar nominee was shot in pristine Technirama, which means that, visually speaking, even lesser renderings invariably start a few gallops out of the gate.
Read the Full Review

The Perfect Furlough

Available Now via Amazon.com CreateSpace
Universal, Genre, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Tony Curtis, Linda Cristal, Janet Leigh.
1958.
The art of director Blake Edwards ceases to exist without letterboxing. Even fluff such as The Perfect Furlough needs the widescreen treatment. Tony Curtis plays a corporal given a Paris furlough with an Argentine actress (Linda Cristal) to boost the morale of his unit. Once the story gets out of confined spaces, and Edwards gets to the countryside, the movie is a pleasant diversion.
Read the Full Review

Bad Girls of Film Noir Vol. 2

Sony Pictures, Drama, $24.96 DVD, NR.
Stars Janis Carter, Cleo Moore, Ida Lupino
1946-56. Vol. 1’s companion amounts to a Cleo Moore film festival, though the one movie here the late buxom blonde isn’t in is best of the bunch. The set includes, in order of preference, Night Editor (1946), Over-Exposed (1956), Women's Prison (1955) and One Girl's Confession (1953).
Read the Full Review

 

 


8 Feb, 2010

New on DVD: ‘A Serious Man,’ ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ and more …


A Serious Man

Street 2/9
Universal, Comedy, B.O. $9.2 million, $29.98 DVD, $36.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.
Stars Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Richard Kind, Aaron Wolff.
2009.
You know those days when you wish you could go back to bed and start over? Substitute “life” for days and you get the closest thing to a flawless movie the Coen Brothers have made since 1996’s Fargo — if not ever.
Extras: Three featurettes.
Read the Full Review
 

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Street 2/9
Infinity, Musical, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Judi Rolin, Jack Palance, Agnes Moorehead, Nanette Fabray.
1966.
With curiosity high about Tim Burton’s March 5 take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, it makes sense to revive the NBC-TV musical version of Carroll’s Glass sequel. You can’t get too snarky over an oddity for the ages that casts Jimmy Durante as Humpty Dumpty.
Extras: Two entertaining short segments with co-producer Bob Wynn, who spins anecdotes about showbiz in general and this specific show — including worries about hiring Jack Palance because their Jabberwocky had previously decked a couple directors.
Read the Full Review
 

Twelve Angry Men

Street 2/9
E1, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Robert Cummings, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold.
1954.
Three years before the famed theatrical feature, Reginald Rose’s Emmy-winning teleplay was performed live on CBS’s “Westinghouse Studio One.” This solo DVD release is the marketing standout of a superb 2008 boxed set ($59.98) that anthologized the series. Also included on this DVD is another Rose teleplay (for 1954’s An Almanac of Liberty), which was included on the same boxed set.
Extras: A cool 16-page booklet with lots of backgrounders.
Read the Full Review
 

Bad Girls of Film Noir Vol. 1

Street 2/9
Sony Pictures, Drama, $29.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Lizabeth Scott, Evelyn Keyes, Gloria Grahame.
1950-53.
Echoing Sony’s “Martini Movies” line, the lineup shrewdly combines film history with a luridly commercial hook, and deep-sea diving into the archives is always to be encouraged. In order of preference, the set includes The Glass Wall (1953), The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), Bad for Each Other (1953) and Two of a Kind (1951).
Extras: Two of a Kind’s Terry Moore interviewed today, plus a 1956 Blake Edwards teleplay called The Payoff.
Read the Full Review
 

Welcome to Nollywood

IndiePix, Documentary, $19.95 DVD, NR.
2007.
Considering that the Nigerian film industry didn’t exist until 1990, it’s remarkable that it was the world’s third largest at the time this rather raucous documentary was made. The interviewed filmmakers, like their peers, bankroll the movies out of their own pockets, which has dire lifestyle consequences if the result doesn’t meet public favor.
Extras: Commentary by writer/director Jamie Meltzer.
Read the Full Review

 


1 Feb, 2010

New on DVD: ‘More Than a Game,’ ‘As It Is in Heaven’ and more …


Elvis

Prebook 2/2; Street 3/2
Shout! Factory, Drama, $19.97 DVD, NR.
Stars Kurt Russell, Shelley Winters, Season Hubley, Bing Russell.

1979.
Boilerplate biopic, albeit very high-end, spanning 1952-69 (when Presley made his Las Vegas debut). John Carpenter directed the eventual Golden Globe nominee for ABC. Kurt Russell’s performance is exceptionally studied (if your subject is Elvis, it had better be), and his nailing of the singer’s mannerisms and speech patterns (uh-huh, uh-huh) still leaves me all shook up.
Extras: Commentary by Ronnie McDowell (who re-creates Elvis’ “voice” in the movie — and very well) and Presley cousin Edie Hand; minor featurettes. 
Read the Full Review


More Than a Game

Street 2/2
Lionsgate, Documentary, B.O. $1 million, $27.98 DVD; ‘PG’ for brief mild
language and incidental smoking.
2009.
Remarkable access again distinguishes a basketball documentary. This time, it’s championship high-school team St. Vincent-St. Mary, out of Akron, Ohio, in the early 2000s – whose standout player just happened to be current Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James.
Read the Full Review


As It Is in Heaven

Street 2/2
Kino, Drama, $29.95 DVD, NR. In Swedish with English subtitles.
Stars Michael Nyqvist, Frida Hallgren, Helen Sjoholm.
2004.
Seeking inner peace, a renowned symphony conductor (Michael Nyqvist) returns to the Swedish village where childhood bullies once pummeled him — only to be cajoled into leading a church choir of oddballs and upsetting a closed community’s rhythm. Enjoyable — though at times, this foreign-language Oscar nominee seems like another of those humanistic feel-good imports that Oscar frequently nominates for foreign-language feature in its sleep.
Read the Full Review


Leonard Bernstein: Omnibus

E1, Music, $49.98 four-DVD set, NR.
1954-58.
Here’s Lenny in the just-plain-folks mode that some inevitably found off-putting — but he still has charm to burn explaining Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, jazz, conducting, American musical comedy, “modern music,” Bach and opera. Remarkably restored and remastered from kinescopes by the Archive of American Television.
Extras: A CBS broadcast of Handel’s Messiah from Christmas Day 1955. Note, also, young Carol Burnett’s appearance on the musical comedy program.
Read the Full Review


Ruggles of Red Gap

Available Now via Amazon.com CreateSpace
Universal, Comedy, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Charles Laughton, Zasu Pitts, Charles Ruggles, Mary Boland.
1935.
This is director Leo McCarey’s gentle jewel, epochs overdue on DVD. For lead Charles Laughton, it kicked off one of the greatest single years any actor has ever enjoyed. The recent availability of this best picture Oscar nominee is a nice lead-in to Criterion’s much-awaited Feb. 23 release of McCarey’s never-more-topical 1937 tearjerker Make Way for Tomorrow.
Read the Full Review
 

TCM Greatest Classic Films: Sci-fi Adventures

Street 2/2
Warner, Sci-Fi, $27.92 two-DVD set, NR.
Stars Kenneth Tobey, James Whitmore, Hugh Marlowe, Lois Maxwell.
1953-56.
Another keenly packaged Turner Classic Movies four-pack offers The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, World Without End and Satellite in the Sky. My, what large scales or pincers you have.
Read the Full Review


25 Jan, 2010

New on DVD: 'This Is It,' 'Whip It' and more …


Before writing a quarter-century’s worth of consecutive Friday home viewing columns for USA Today, I programmed about 5,000 movies at Washington, D.C’s American Film Institute Theater for eight years.

Before that, I went through a kind of screening-regimen boot camp (though this one was more for wimps) at New York University’s Graduate School of Cinema. And before that, I worked at a CBS affiliate in one of the country’s largest feature film libraries.

In other words, I have seen them come and go.

Starting this week, I hope to bring some of the colorful fallout from all this (plus my admitted junkie-dom for sports, politics and all things pop) to a Home Media Magazine feature devoted to the viewing room releases that push my buttons.

I didn’t want to begin until there was an especially meaty week of choices at hand. So here we are: for anyone whose taste runs to the eclectic, Jan. 26’s street date comes close to being the full haunch.

Michael Jackson’s This Is It

Street 1/26
Sony Pictures, Music, B.O. $72.1 million, $28.96 DVD; $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG’ for some suggestive choreography and scary images.
2009.
Jackson is in full command as he rehearses for the concert that never was. Some of the performance footage here needs no qualification: “The Way You Make Me Feel” performance, for example, made me feel pretty spry.
Extras: Several behind-the-scenes documentaries, and the Blu-ray adds lots more, including interactive features.
Read the Full Review
 

Whip It

Street 1/26
Fox, Comedy, B.O. $13 million, $29.98 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13’ for sexual content including crude dialogue, language and drug material.
Stars Ellen Page, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern.
2009.
Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut benefits from plucky Ellen Page really diving into roller derby mayhem. The story’s sisterly camaraderie (Lewis and Barrymore play partners in contusions) is not without appeal, and it’s fun to see the beer enthusiast dad played by Daniel Stern.
Extras: Expendable deleted scenes — though there’s one funny harangue by the team’s coach (Andrew Wilson).
Read the Full Review


Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy

Street 1/26
Criterion, Drama, $79.95 three-DVD set, NR.
1945-48.
Director Rossellini made history by filming World War II’s aftermath as it happened with Rome Open City (1945); Paisan (1946-48) and Germany Year Zero (1948-49). The still-searing City, about Italy’s anti-Fascist resistance, put future Oscar-winning actress Anna Magnani on the international map. The six-part Paisan remains an uncommonly consistent anthology film.
Extras: Archival Rossellini intros, extensive documentaries, essays, the Taviani Brothers (great Italian filmmakers themselves) paying homage, and more.
Read the Full Review


The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours Later

Street 1/26
A&E, Documentary, $19.95 DVD, NR.
2009.
As one historian notes, few days left America more vulnerable than the events of Nov. 22, 1963. This account replicates the feel of William Manchester’s 1967 essential read The Death of a President — possibly because the author himself compiled documents in 1964-65  that were sealed until last year. Most amazing revelation: a power scuffle over JFK’s body between government and local authorities in the hospital, during which someone actually pulled a gun.
Read the Full Review
 

Bright Star

Street 1/26
Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $4.4 million, $27.96 DVD, ‘PG’ for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking.
Stars Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider.
2009.
The story is of John Keats at 23 as an aspiring Romantic poet. Writer-director Jane Campion got super reviews for her take on the romance between Keats (Whishaw) and neighbor Fannie Brawne (Cornish). The movie looks gorgeous, too — so where’s the Blu-ray?
Extras: Three minor Campion featurettes, over in a blink.
Read the Full Review


Country’s Greatest Stars Live: Vol. 1 and 2 (DVD Review)

Street 1/26
Shout! Factory, Music, $26.99 each two-DVD set, NR.
1978.
Telecast over a five-month period during the Jimmy Carter years, this seven-hour tribute to 50 years of a bedrock music form showcases more than 60 artists performing the expected evergreens. But this is what you want in a comprehensive overview, which is far more often moving than not despite an overabundance of saccharine strings.
Read the Full Review