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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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15 Jul, 2013

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


Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick

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

Available through online retailers via Warner Archive
Warner, Musical, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Esther Williams, Howard Keel, Marge Champion, George Sanders, Richard Haydn, William Demarest.
1955.
Adapted from the play Road to Rome by Robert E. Sherwood, this has been described as the movie that ended the MGM musical — which isn’t precisely true but close enough. It is the last movie in which Esther Williams swam. It purports to tell what happens when invading Carthaginian Hannibal clashes geographically and romantically with Rome’s Fabius Maximus.
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8 Jul, 2013

New on Disc: 'Shark!' and more …


Shark!

Olive, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95
Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Burt Reynolds, Arthur Kennedy, Barry Sullivan, Silvia Pinal.
1969.
Shark! features a pre-Deliverance/Cosmopolitan centerfold Burt Reynolds under the tutelage of a stylistically shaky Samuel Fuller, who certainly made no claims for the result. The picture is hardly any lost treasure (which, as a matter of fact, is what motivates the characters). Instead, it’s the kind of provocatively cast action junk to see to keep your hand in. For a cheapie likely not shot on the greatest film stock ever invented, the Olive Blu-ray captures a surprising amount of detail if you like sweaty or even grimy faces in close-up. In addition to bookending shark sequences that don’t look fake, there are a couple amusing scenes where Reynolds (or his stuntman) more or less bench-presses plural bad guys over his head and gives them the big heave.
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Front Page Woman

Available through online retailers via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Bette Davis, George Brent, Roscoe Karns.
1935.
Launched by a catchy title that hasn’t lost any marquee allure (at least for journalists) over nearly eight decades, this Warner Bros. newshound melodrama offers one of the more twisted views of how events of the day get conveyed to a junk-ravenous public. In Front Page Woman, in which its implied feminist angle is exploited all the way, co-smitten Bette Davis and George Brent do get flirty on occasion, yet mostly exist to stab each other in the back while competing on stories for rival publications. The bandying here has farcical components, and we’re asked to swallow a story that is played at least marginally straight — and thus seems all the more bizarre.
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1 Jul, 2013

New on Disc: 'Help!' Blu-ray and more


Help! (Blu-ray)

Universal Music, Comedy, $29.98 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars The Beatles, Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron.
1965.
There definitely is a nostalgic kick to seeing the Beatles in color (even Eastman Color) after the black-and-white of A Hard Day’s Night — and watching them perform several very strong tunes staged with director Richard Lester’s standard ingenuity. In contrast to Night’s quasi-documentary structure, Help! brandishes a fairly loony concept about a despotic religious sect leader (Leo McKern) who covets one of Ringo’s rings. This is the kind of movie where smiles are constant without the guffaws to stoke them, but the numbers are something else again. The restoration crew claimed in 2007 that the DVD looked as good, and probably better, than 1965 prints. Blu-ray ups this ante, and the sound is imposing for its day.
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The Only Game in Town

Available via www.ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty.
1970.
This predominantly two-person indoor romance is actually a fairly enjoyable little movie that has mellowed some over the decades. Beatty plays a compulsive gambler and cocktail pianist who keeps blowing the nest egg that’s supposed to get him to New York, forcing him to become an unlikely roommate with a woman who has finally gotten a bit wary of waiting around for her more moneyed suitor to divorce his wife. Though there’s some grain here that’s probably representative of its 1970 appearance, occasional scenes brandish old-school Hollywood glamour, including a pleasing final shot shared by two performers who apparently brought full conviction to the project.
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24 Jun, 2013

New on Disc: 'Dark Command' and more …


Dark Command

Olive, Western, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Walter Pidgeon, Roy Rogers.

1940. Given a W.R. Burnett novel as its source plus direction by action specialist Raoul Walsh just before he began spending the next dozen years at Warner Bros., modest Republic Pictures probably felt justified shelling out $750,000 for its biggest production in a long time — though it always helps when there’s some financial return, which did materialize in this case. Though the casting headlines were John Wayne and his Stagecoach co-star Claire Trevor, there are some unexpected bonuses. One standout is the opportunity this epic affords to see Roy Rogers playing what used to be called a “young hothead.” And yet, the picture is finally stolen by Walter Pidgeon. For a Republic release that began showing up on TV when Eisenhower was still president, Olive’s is, visually speaking, a pleasing enough no-frills rendering that remains tightly spun over 94 minutes.
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A Life of Her Own

Available through online retailers via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Lana Turner, Ray Milland, Louis Calhern, Tom Ewell.
1950.
Nobody seems to be, or to have been, very crazy about this polished MGM soaper with Lana Turner cast as a fashion model — and this would include director George Cukor, who not for the last time would have the censors and studio suits on his tail over one of his movie’s content. If Life does fade some after act one, the Cukor hustling-bustling “business” in the model agency offices, nightspots and a horribly depressing women’s hotel is more than adequately kinetic to watch.
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17 Jun, 2013

New on Disc: 'Life Is Sweet' and more …


Life Is Sweet

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for language and a scene of sensuality.
Stars Alison Steadman, Jim
Broadbent, Claire Skinner, Jane Horrocks.
1990.
The Mike Leigh trademarks of superbly well-rounded characters and on-point ensemble acting were the ones Life Is Sweet set in motion for, comparably speaking, more of a mass audience than before. Though, truth to tell, Leigh had been slogging away in this basic milieu for years. Proof of this is in the supplements of this Criterion release, which I can almost swear gives Life a more vivid color palate than what I saw in theaters more than two decades ago. Future Oscar winner Jim Broadbent and the year’s National Society Best Actress winner Alison Steadman (married in real life to Leigh at the time) play a financially humble couple in the north-of-London suburbs whose struggles include a get-rich-slowly scheme involving the sale of food out of a trailer.
Extras: The Criterion supplements include an essay by critic David Sterritt, a newly recorded Leigh commentary, a 1991 Leigh interview and five short films.
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The File on Thelma Jordon 

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell
Corey, Paul Kelly, Joan Tetzel.
1950.
There was never even a Thelma VHS, so this one’s way overdue in getting a home release. Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman who warns the police of a possible future intruder who may be casing the house of an elderly aunt who’s loaded with jewels. Once we get the sense it’s all a smokescreen for a heist she herself plans to carry out, she pulls an assistant D.A. into her web.
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10 Jun, 2013

New on Disc: 'Leave Her to Heaven' and more …


Leave Her to Heaven

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price.
1945.
That 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck personally produced it and music department chieftain Alfred Newman scored it qualified this three-strip feast of underlyingly nasty Technicolor noir as a preconceived blockbuster of its day — though, if anything, the movie version of novelist Ben Ames Williams’ bestseller may have a better critical reputation now than it did going on 70 years ago. Gene Tierney plays a woman who is possessive to sociopathic extremes after feeling shortchanged by her beloved father’s death. But she knows what she wants: a broken engagement to politically ambitious Russell (Vincent Price) and marriage to Richard (Cornel Wilde) within days of meeting the latter on a train. Heaven is one of the most beautiful-looking movies ever made.
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Sincerely Yours

Manufactured on demand through online retailers via WBshop.com
Warner, Drama, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Liberace, Joanne Dru, Dorothy Malone, William Demarest.
1955.
Notorious merely for existing but also as one of Warner’s biggest money losers of its decade, Liberace’s only starring
vehicle divides into somewhat unequal thirds as a concert film, a medical drama and a sexual skirmish for ultimate possession of Lee’s loins between co-stars Joanne Dru (patiently loyal secretary) and Dorothy Malone (sweet soul of a society girl on what turns out to be a romantic whim). This is one weird 115-minute package. Whether all this automatically translates into absolutely one of the worst movies ever is a possible subject of debate.
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3 Jun, 2013

New on Disc: 'Jubal' and more …


Jubal

Criterion, Western, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Taylor, Valerie French.
1956.
Even on a handsome spread, it can be lonely for a straying wife way out there on the range when her romantic choices are husband Ernest Borgnine and the otherwise bunkhouse-designated Rod Steiger. This is the motivating plot point of an underrated Delmer Daves Western that, aside from the missing racial angle, has more than a little bit of Othello thrown in, just so that Borgnine lovers can get some culture. At the very least, Steiger performs heavy-duty Iago labors, though as Daves expert Kent Jones notes in his Criterion liner notes, the heavy Steiger plays also has a lot of similarities with his even lonelier-guy “Jud” in the screen version of Oklahoma!, which had hit theaters just a few months earlier. No singing duets this time, however.
Based on a novel by Paul I. Wellman, whose writings were the source of several Westerns that included Apache and The Comancheros, Jubal is a well-paced CinemaScope/Technicolor tale of frisky knickers and what happens when a more eligible male, Jubal (Glenn Ford), is discovered in a state of outdoor exhaustion by Borgnine, who offers a job and human kindness at his spread. Cast as Borgnine’s wife is Valerie French, who is quite good at conveying the frustrations of a French-Canadian looker who thought she had a ticket to the promised land but instead has to endure a well-meaning husband. 
Steiger’s innate hamminess is even less bridled than usual here, but it kind of works opposite Ford’s more repressed brand of intensity. Borgnine, who was just coming off his Marty Oscar win, is again all “good guy.”
The Technicolor here doesn’t quite melt in your mouth, but at least Columbia Pictures was still utilizing the process in ’56, so it is still within hailing distance of striking. The casting rewards extend to Charles Bronson in a sympathetic role as a Jubal defender (and he’ll need it) and Jack Elam as a neighbor ranch hand who isn’t given much to do but comes off as less than pleasant in the scenes that he has.
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Duffy of San Quentin

Manufactured on demand through online retailers via Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Paul Kelly, Louis Hayward, Joanne Dru, Maureen O’Sullivan.
1954.
This fact-inspired prison picture about Warden Clinton T. Duffy has been something of a lost film, ever since it failed to be included in the 1961 package of post-1949 holdings Warner sold to TV. The irony of lead Paul Kelly playing Duffy after he himself served time for manslaughter simply gives the movie too much of a curiosity factor. As it turns out, Kelly (a good actor who was especially memorable in Crossfire and The High and the Mighty) is just right in the role, and Duffy himself was a remarkable prison reformer.
Given the job because the prison board can’t agree on anyone else, Kelly’s Duffy immediately puts his stamp on what is initially intended to be a 30-day interim assignment. The focus here is on a railroaded prisoner (Louis Hayward), which kind of loads the narrative deck. A somewhat provocative inclusion is a pretty cigarette-prone nurse of 29 (Joanne Dru), who chums it up with the cons and is attracted enough to Hayward to call him “Romeo.” Through it all, Duffy goes home to dinner amid a warmer environment provided by his wife (Maureen O’Sullivan).
The movie is just off-center enough to reward “curio time.” There’s even a little visual distinction here, and it’s no surprise: The cinematographer was John Alton, who was the King of Noir — at least in so far as cameramen were concerned.
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27 May, 2013

New on Disc: 'Champion' and more …


Champion

Olive, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Kirk Douglas, Arthur Kennedy, Ruth Roman, Marilyn Maxwell.
1949.
Kirk Douglas’ breakthrough performance in this boxing-pic landmark is still dynamic. It jump-started his superstardom and earned him his first Oscar nomination — one of six the film received, including a win for Harry Gerstad’s editing. On his way to the top in what is persuasively portrayed as a crummy racket where self-protection is a must, Douglas’ Midge Kelly goes fatally over the brink by stabbing so many backs that his physically handicapped brother (Arthur Kennedy) wonders when it’s going to be his turn. The no-frills Blu-ray is a keen rendering of Frank (aka Franz) Planer’s Oscar-nominated cinematography.
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Sons and Lovers

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Fox, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Trevor Howard, Dean Stockwell, Wendy Hiller, Mary Ure, Heather Sears.
1960.
This Jerry Wald production tied with The Apartment for the year’s top honors in New York Film Critics Circle voting; got seven Oscar nominations, including one for best picture and a win for Freddie Francis’ black-and-white cinematography; was chosen year’s best by the National Board of Review; earned a Best Director nod to Jack Cardiff from the Golden Globes; and so on. Telescoping a long novel into 103 minutes that only at the end feel arguably rushed, the basic conflict is laid out in a matter of minutes. We’re dealing with the plight of an artistically bent youth born into a working class household defined by grunt work — where mom is the protector and dad feels discomfort with anything above his station.
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20 May, 2013

New on Disc: 'Mel Brooks: Make a Noise' and more …


Mel Brooks: Make A Noise

Street 5/21/13
Shout! Factory/PBS, Documentary, $19.97 DVD, NR.
2013.
Mel Brooks, soon to be 87, is not only with us but spry, at least in this sassy contribution to the “American Masters” catalog. It presents the subject himself sitting in a mostly empty soundstage to talk about a career that included writing for the great Sid Caesar before launching a big-screen career with the original movie version of The Producers, which got Brooks a screenwriting Oscar presented by no less than Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles. The presentation is clip-heavy in terms of Brooks-directed features, which is probably what everyone involved calculated consumers would most enjoy. Those interviewed include the subject’s longtime partner and friend Carl Reiner, from the Caesar and “2000-Year-Old Man” days, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick from The Producers (musical version), and the great Gene Wilder from the key early films.
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The Men

Olive, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95
Blu-ray, NR.
Marlon Brando, Teresa Wright, Everett Sloane, Jack Webb.

1950. To deal with the challenges of credibly playing a therapy-bound paraplegic in his screen debut, Marlon Brando spent two weeks living in a ward at Birmingham Army Hospital in Van Nuys, Calif. It’s one of The Men’s joys (and despite the honestly treated subject matter, there are some) that frequent on-screen reactionary Jack Webb gets to play a paraplegic cynic who, for a while, even sports a beard. The Olive print is nothing special, and I suspect the Blu-ray version brings little to the experience. But the movie still kind of is special, both for history and for subject matter.
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13 May, 2013

New on Disc: 'Major Dundee' on Blu-ray and more …


Major Dundee (Blu-ray)

Available via www.ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Western, $34.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton, Senta Berger.
1965.
Stigmatized for decades as the lost cause that launched (excluding earlier minor skirmishes) Sam Peckinpah’s first all-out war with a producer and/or studio, this partially restored Western epic still remains several rungs down from his greatest achievements, which to my mind number maybe a half-dozen from the director’s frustratingly limited career pool. But with the 14 minutes that Sony’s Grover Crisp and his archival colleagues unearthed and reinstated in 2005, the result comes tantalizingly close to being “good” (and, in certain scenes, better than that), thanks to a strengthened narrative that, even in its improved state, relies more than is cinematically healthy on a voiceover narration. What’s more, these additions flesh out Charlton Heston’s lead performance, which now seems like one of his sturdiest.
If there are elements here of the standard jaw-clenched Heston hero, the actor is nonetheless cast as something of a maverick (Union Army variety) whose past behavior has gotten him relegated to a barren Cavalry post that at times makes the one in John Ford’s Fort Apache look like a bed-and-breakfast. With what appears to be less-than-ironclad orders to do so, Heston/Dundee then takes off on a not-quite-madman’s trek into Mexico to capture a skedaddled Apache adversary whose men have slaughtered several Cavalry colleagues in more brutal fashion than I usually associate with 1965 screens. Because his troops have been so decimated, Dundee is forced to employ some less-than-enthusiastic Confederate prisoners on his mission, one of them a sometimes friendly (and sometimes not) partner in back-and-forth bickering. He’s played by Richard Harris.
The beauty of Twilight Time’s release is its most welcome academic inclusion of both versions, even if the choppy but originally released 122-minute cut (liked by almost no one) is additionally undercut by a Daniele Amfitheatrof score so reviled by Peckinpah and nearly everyone else that even purists didn’t complain all that much when the 2005 revamp commissioned a new and improved replacement by Christopher Caliendo. Blu-ray also does what it can to make presentable “Eastman Color by Pathe” — but oh, what a brown-ish blight that dribbly process was on Columbia product of the mid-1960s.
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The Key

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Sony Pictures, Drama, $20.95 DVD, NR.
Stars William Holden, Sophia Loren, Trevor Howard.
1958.
With some dusty release charts and a little historical perspective, one can get a revelatory sense of the pre-release anticipation that must have greeted even movies that are now semi-forgotten. In this case, William Holden, writer Carl Foreman, composer Malcolm Arnold and releasing Columbia Pictures were merely coming off The Bridge on the River Kwai, while director Carol Reed still had remaining (if waning) glory in which to bask, courtesy of The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. Based on a Jan de Hartog novel (Stella) from 1951, The Key is a curiosity with an unusual backdrop: the plight of tugboat captains and crews who lugged Britain’s injured warships back to safety from German bombers in the early days of World War II. The problem with The Key is that the seafaring scenes are arguably more compelling than the main story, though Holden with Sophia Loren would seem to be interesting casting. The Key is worth seeing, but it marks the point where Holden’s career stature started to wane.
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