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Mike Clark has been writing about film for more than 20 years, starting with a weekly column in USA Today in 1985. He also served as program planner and director of the American Film Institute Theater.


Mike's Picks
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19 Aug, 2013

New on Disc: 'Seconds' and more …


Seconds

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

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

New on Disc: 'Shane' and more …


Shane (Blu-ray)

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

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

New on Disc: 'Ishtar' and more …


Ishtar: Director’s Cut

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

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

New on Disc: 'Babette's Feast' and more …


Babette’s Feast

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
In Swedish, Danish and French with English subtitles.
Stars Stephane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel, Jarl Kulle.
1987.
The feast portrayed in this hugely deserving Oscar winner ends up getting rave reviews from its participants — but not until its rigidly religious Dane invitees get loosened up a little by spirits of multiple kind. Writer-director Gabriel Axel, adapting the Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) literary source, pokes a little gentle fun at the guests’ provincialism; yet for the most part, he treats them with affection because this is one affectionate movie.
Extras: The Blu-ray includes the original short story; a 1995 documentary on Blixen/Dinesen; new interviews with Axel and star Stephane Audran; a visual essay by Michael Almereyda; a good written essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu; and a new 2K digital restoration.
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Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (Blu-ray)

Available at ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95
Blu-ray, NR.
Stars William Holden, Jennifer Jones.
1955.
Here’s a prime example of how a pop tune contributed to a movie’s success, and yes, a Best Original Song Oscar win was forthcoming. This adaptation of Han Suyin’s semi-autobiographical novel deals almost exclusively with a Eurasian physician’s Hong Kong-set love affair with a married male news correspondent to the typical snobbish social ostracism, set in 1949 against a backdrop of Chinese communism and then the Korean War.
Extras: In typical Twilight Time fashion, the disc includes Julie Kirgo liner notes and an isolated track of Alfred Newman’s Oscar-winning musical score.
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22 Jul, 2013

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


The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes

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

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

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


Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick

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

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