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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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6 May, 2013

New on Disc: 'Howdy, Kids!! A Saturday Afternoon Western Roundup' and more …


Howdy, Kids!! A Saturday Afternoon Western Roundup

Shout! Factory, Western, $24.97 3-DVD set, NR.
Stars Roy Rogers, Chuck Connors, Gail Davis, Jock Mahoney.
1950-58.
Roy Rogers is plenty hacked off, and we can tell it from the intensity in his punch-outs of two rent-a-villains hired to bilk an old lady out of some property. These are highlights of this 24-episode companion to Shout! Factory’s 2008 Hiya, Kids!! A ’50s Saturday Morning. Rogers’ theatrical features got increasingly violent in the post-World War II era, a trait that carried over to NBC’s “The Roy Rogers Show” — which, like the other half-hour TV series represented here, was one of the zillion TV offerings that went 98% of the way toward killing off the theatrical ‘B’ Western by the mid-1950s. It was normal for even small kids to sit around the set and salivate over Roy’s 1-2 pugilistic combos or Trigger stomping a bad guy in a low-angle upward shot (the affected rib cage or nose cartilage would be off-camera) or Roy’s tooth-baring and all but rabid “wonder dog” Bullet ripping out the chimes (at least in our childhood imaginations) of the same assailant.
Roundup’s other selections are more benign, and almost none originally aired on Saturday afternoons — not that the target demographic here (almost exclusively nostalgia junkies and pop anthropologists) will care about that particular letter of the law any more than the villains here do about letters of the law in general. “Fury” and “Sky King,” both represented here, did air on Saturday mornings, with the former pointing up how important horses were to the boilerplate TV Western genre in general. “The Adventures of Champion,” “Annie Oakley” (Gail Davis as a riding-shooting girls’ role model of the day), “The Range Rider” and “Buffalo Bill Jr.” were all from Gene Autry’s Flying A Productions, which came close enough to cornering the market for Autry get rich enough to bankroll first baseman Ted Kluszewski’s famed sleeveless muscle-jerseys after the cowboy-turned-team-owner bought the new Los Angeles Angels Major League Baseball team in 1961.
Other selections include “The Lone Ranger,” “The Cisco Kid,” “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” “The Adventures of Kit Carson” and “The Adventures of Rick O’Shay.” There’s also an episode of “The Rifleman,” which, however welcome, seems miscast for this predominantly daytime-oriented set.
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Panic in the Streets (Blu-ray)

Fox, Thriller, $24.99  Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Walter Jack Palance.
1950.
As a transitional Elia Kazan movie, also an Oscar winner for best story (Edna and Edward Anhalt), as the screen debut of Jack Palance and Zero Mostel (not counting one long previous bit part for the latter) and as a key vehicle in the dramatic modification of lead Richard Widmark’s screen persona, this nifty “disease” thriller is probably a little less known than it ought to be, though its reputation has always been solid.  A poker game has gone sour, and one of the participants has met a conventional death by bullets, though it quickly turns out that the guy already had a serious problem before the first cards were cut. His sickly appearance came courtesy of the pneumonic plague, which meant old age wasn’t on his agenda anyway. So what might have been a routine murder investigation becomes a race against time, as a U.S. Public Health Service doc (Widmark) and a police captain (Paul Douglas) hustle to locate the victim’s assailant (Palance). Both pursuers have differing approaches and agendas, and both have an innate ability to get steamed on occasion.
Extras: Film noir is made for Blu-ray, and noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini (their commentary carried over from the DVD) do a good job of describing some of Kazan’s staging of physical action.
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Django Unchained

Anchor Bay, Western, B.O. $162.8 million, $29.98 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.
Stars Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson.

2012. Whatever else you want to say about Quentin Tarantino, he’s never come close to making a bad feature, which puts in him in a writer/directorial club that has fewer members than your run-of-the-mill Ivy League secret society. Whatever charm this professionally cheeky writer-director exudes when he’s a broadcast guest of Charlie Rose, Tarantino has exasperated even certain of his fans with a narrowness of vision, be it his exclusively genre-driven choice of material or his unwarranted slamming of John Ford, whose half-century breadth of expression was beyond extraordinary (in other words, the day even your second-tier filmography includes both a Pilgrimage and a Donovan’s Reef, come back and open your mouth). Tarantino isn’t yet the end all/be all filmic deity a lot of under-30s have made him out to be, yet a solid track record one is forced to acknowledge pretty well speaks for itself, which isn’t to say you can’t chip at his legacy-to-date a little bit.

And I really was tickled by Django, which on paper sounded like the world’s biggest crapshoot: an attempt to get down-and-dirty with America’s Original Sin (slavery) in the context of a spaghetti Western, not exactly a genre today’s multiplex masses were clamoring to revive. Interestingly, my two twentysomething sons — who initially rated Django as far and away the year-end release they were most ravenous to see — professed fairly intense disappointment over the result because, at 165 minutes, the unbridled running time (which translated into a redundancy of point-making) simply wore them out. And speaking of points, they have one: at 99 minutes, QT directorial debut Reservoir Dogs (1992) seems as compact and economical as a modest Woody Allen movie from the mid-1980s. (Though for me, it was the length of Inglourious Basterds that elicited clamors for mercy.)

Still. Keenly juggling a cast of both white and African-American performers, Django deals with a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) in search of the wife (Kerry Washington) who, in common practice, was taken from him and finding the perfect associate to help him do it. The last is a shady German bounty hunter (are there any other kind?) played by Christoph Waltz, who took the most recent supporting actor Oscar against a remarkable field of previous winners, himself included. You have to think that he will be forever indebted to the cadences of his colleague’s dialogue, thereby entering another club (co-member Dianne Wiest comes to mind) who’ve won double Oscars under the same writer-director (in her case, it was Woody himself). There’s also the sight of Leonardo DiCaprio, cast as a Mississippi plantation owner and paragon of bad taste, having a loose, grand old time on screen. How often do we get to see this happen? Well, probably not in this month’s take on The Great Gatsby, to be sure. And there is also what for me was last year’s funniest movie scene — the one where the eye holes don’t align properly on the racist posse members’ hooded sheets (or is it sheeted hoods?). This is one of those scenes like the pork-and-beans flatulence bit in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, in that the situation must have arisen many times in history, but no filmmaker ever had the imagination to portray it.

This home release is nice because the extras concentrate on an aspect of Tarantino’s filmmaking that is almost never emphasized: production design, costume design and (in this atypical case) horse stunts. I have to admit that I previously hadn’t stopped to think how much the first two got me “into” the picture, but here it’s clear that Tarantino took a lot of care with what (for him) were fairly subtle components to his movie’s overall success. The shocker is hearing about J. Michael Riva’s painstaking production design and then learning that Riva died last June from complications of a stroke. (It is also a shock, albeit a lesser one, to learn that he was the daughter of actress/writer Maria Riva, which made him the grandson of Marlene Dietrich.) The horse material is interesting, too, in that the veteran personnel employed here went back to the John Wayne era, a contrast in colleague sensibilities there, lemme tell you. Tarantino says you can get horses to do amazing things without injury if you just put in the prep time. In Django, the four-leggers do just that — yet Tarantino was still able to give prominent credit up-front at the end that no animals were harmed in the movie. Which is a lot more than you can say for many of the characters here once the story plays out.


29 Apr, 2013

New on Disc: 'Gate of Hell' and more …


Gate of Hell

Criterion, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
In Japanese with English subtitles.
Stars Kazuo Hasegawa, Machiko Kyô, Isao Yamagata.
1953.
A lively 12th-century rouser even without the lush pigments, Gate of Hell took the foreign-language Oscar, its New York Film Critics Circle counterpart, plus the Grand Prix at Cannes for director Teinosuke Kinugasa. Set against a foiled palace coup against the reigning lord, this tight 89-minute epic deals with a samurai (Kazuo Hasegawa) who really pushes it when the surviving ruler asks him what kind of official thank-you he’d like for having broken with his own brother to support the established order. He asks for the hand of a woman who is already married to another samurai. Confused and possibly a tad flattered by all this, the wife (Machiko Kyo) remains faithful, though we sense almost instantly that no good can come of this situation.
Kohei Sugiyama’s cinematography is routinely mentioned as one of the wave-makers in worldwide color cinematography of the ’40s and ’50s. His work didn’t rate an Oscar nomination, but the costumes by Sanzo Wada did take the top award.
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Hello, Dolly! (Blu-ray)

Fox, Musical, $24.99 Blu-ray, ‘G.’
Stars Barbra Streisand, Walter
Matthau, Michael Crawford.
1969.
The Blu-ray of 20th Century Fox’s one-time studio-buster is resplendent enough to rate a “don’t-miss-this” nudge if you’re prejudiced toward the material, which did, after all, serve one of the most successful stage musicals of all time. 
Extras: Director Gene Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, is the centerpiece of a featurette built around remembrances of her husband’s labors on the project.
Read the Full Review
 


22 Apr, 2013

New on Disc: 'China Gate' and more …


China Gate

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gene Barry, Angie Dickinson, Nat King Cole, Lee Van Cleef.
1957.
Casting Angie Dickinson as a Eurasian saloon keeper named Lucky Legs — and then directing her to sit in semi-recline amid a CinemaScope frame — was inspired even by Samuel Fuller standards. Filmed during a kind of heyday for Fuller when the producer-director-writer found 20th Century Fox to be a harmonious playground, China Gate will pass as the first Hollywood movie about what became the Vietnam quagmire until someone can name me an earlier title of equal weight. At this point, America was simply advising the French, though the protagonists here are a ragtag collection directly from the soldiers-of-fortune playbook, even if the casting of Nat King Cole as one of them — and make that a singing Nat King Cole — threatens on paper to make the picture go a little gonzo.
In addition to having delivered booze to the Commies and, thus, developing a sense of local geography, Ms. Legs is additionally a good choice to have been recruited for the mission because the North Vietnamese major whose fortress the band is trying to crack has a yen for her. So does the Gene Barry character, but here it gets complicated. The two have a little history (read: a 5-year-old son), though dad bailed out because the kid looks Asian and not like, say, Bat Masterson — the TV cowboy Barry would soon be playing on TV.
Gate probably wouldn’t have the cult rep it has today had it come out 10 years later in the Duke Wayne/Green Berets ’60s, but as a product of the auteurist ’50s, I suspect it has always spurred a “Let Sam Be Sam” attitude among those not sharing Fuller’s politics (not that they’ve ever been easy to pigeonhole). Olive’s print shows some wear in certain reels but exhibits visual depth most of the time. The major league music credit is unusual — Victor Young and Max Steiner — because Young, who was working himself to death in the mid-1950s, died at 57 during production — less than a month after his greatest triumph (Around the World in 80 Days) opened in New York before the composer could see the degree to which the Decca soundtrack LP caught on with the public.
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Key to the City

Manufactured on demand via Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Clark Gable, Loretta Young, Frank Morgan, Raymond Burr.
1950.
Known to fanciers of low-end trivia questions as the 1950 George Sidney movie that wasn’t the year’s biggest box office attraction (which was Annie Get Your Gun), this is one of those projects more interesting for the history and dynamics that occurred off screen than on it. A romantic farce that isn’t farcical enough, it casts Clark Gable and Loretta Young as, respectively, East and West Coast mayors who meet at a mayoral convention — with reserved Young falling for her counterpart’s masculine ways (former longshoreman that he is).
What makes this movie a little interesting around the edges is, first, the fact that third-billed Frank Morgan — Oz himself — died at 59 of a heart attack right after filming; according to the very first volume of Daniel Blum’s Screen World from 1949, it was two days. Though looking unambiguously elderly in his role as Gable’s fire chief, Morgan doesn’t seem at all infirm and, in fact, delivers a broad performance. The second point is even more intriguing: Gable and Young had conceived a child during the filming of 1935’s screen version of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, a daughter whose real identity was somewhere between a secret and open secret after she was “adopted” from the Catholic orphanage in which Young had initially placed her. The late Judy Lewis’ memoir about her upbringing, Uncommon Knowledge, is one of the best show biz biographies I’ve ever read.
There must have been some compelling dynamics on the City set — more compelling, to be sure, than what this inoffensively mild comedy has to offer. As for Gable, he was from that era when guys in their late 40s often looked old, but for the day, and as much as one can discern through his shirt, the dude looks pretty ripped.
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15 Apr, 2013

New on Disc: 'Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read' and more …


Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read

First Run, Documentary, $24.95 DVD, NR.
2012.
I’ve always counted Fats Domino and Thelonious Monk as the two pianists most fun simply to watch play, but Erroll Garner belongs on the list as well, in that “happy” (and better, infectious happiness) is probably the word most used to describe his relationship with the keyboard. That and the fact that his playing was full of flourishes — and with no hint at all of what was coming from his lead-ins. One interviewee in Atticus Brady’s long-gestating documentary notes that he once witnessed a group of audience members standing up during one of Garner’s performances just so they could get a look at exactly what his hands were doing. Self-trained apparently from age 3, according to an interviewed sister, the native of unheralded jazz-mecca Pittsburgh couldn’t explain his technique and referred to it as a gift, which it apparently was. Prolific in his concerts, albums and TV appearances on all the big variety and talk shows before his 1977 death, he was often less than a critics’ darling, not as influential as some and (this is one of Read’s main themes) unjustly forgotten today. Because so much Garner footage does exist (in which, more often than not, he is perspiring), Brady’s portrait is rich in fruits from the archival vaults, and his on-camera admirers here include Woody Allen (briefly), Dick Hyman (exceptionally good here), George Avakian and an engagingly spry Steve Allen, whose 2000 death points up just how long this documentary was in production. Jazz lover Allen, who was a musical collaborator with Garner, calls him his favorite jazz pianist ever and had him on his variety shows countless times. Brady gets a lot into a compact running time, even snagging an interview with a daughter that his never-wed subject fathered. Garner, it is noted, was quite a ladies man, which might be one reason his playing was so happy.
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The Atomic Kid

Olive, Comedy, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Mickey Rooney, Robert Strauss, Elaine Davis, Bill Goodwin.
1954.
“Do you think Mickey even remembers making The Atomic Kid?” It’s a question recently posed by my best friend who, as I did, watched this cluelessly irresponsible farce on TV as a kid. Given that more than one public Rooney utterance from the last 20 to 30 years has been kind of “out there,” it’s not an illogical question, though, actually, this is a tough movie to forget. And in Rooney’s case, he had a production credit, and the movie’s stunner of a leading lady was his then-wife Elaine Davis, who is actually listed as “Mrs. Mickey Rooney” in the opening credits.
The young Blake Edwards (a year before he started directing) has a story credit — and there’s one bit where Rooney walks through a kitchen door and experiences some sort of horrific violence we hear but don’t see, which sounds like Edwards. Of course, it’s only a few minutes of screen time after this that Rooney survives a nuclear blast — the desert house with the kitchen being one of those atomic testing sites full of crash-test dummies and real TVs and food to simulate real-life conditions. Instead of being obliterated in this nearly direct hit, Rooney merely turns radioactive in a cool kind of way — as demonstrated by the scene I’ve always remembered where he walks past casino slot machines that immediately begin spewing coins. Looking back, John Hersey’s Hiroshima had been published eight years earlier, so it isn’t as if detailed reportage about nuclear explosions and their effects even on survivors was uncharted territory. Everything here is a lark, which is part of the movie’s demented fascination. Rooney’s co-star was Robert Strauss, who was briefly hot at the time, having just come off an Oscar nomination for his unforgettable performance in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. A good team, the two do more for the dialogue here than it does for them, and it also helps to have once-familiar faces such as Bill Goodwin and Hal March in smaller roles.
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8 Apr, 2013

New on Disc: 'The Girl' and more …


The Girl

Manufactured on demand via Warner Archive
HBO, Drama, $17.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Toby Jones, Sienna Miller, Imelda Staunton.
2012.
Tawdry, to be sure, this 90-minute HBO biopic is a kind of lawyer’s brief for the prosecution — one that may or may not be embellished when dramatizing what exactly transpired to Tippi Hedren (played by Sienna Miller) when collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie in the early 1960s. This was after Hitchcock had moved his production unit over to Universal Pictures at a time when that artistically struggling studio really needed the kind of class and clout he could provide — despite what we realize now was a permanent period of slippage from the astounding 1958-60 “triple” of Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. Not that anyone can sustain the impossible.
The stigma against Hedren is that she was no Grace Kelly (who was by then long retired) — and that she never amounted to anything on screen after the Hitchcock duo (though the claim is that the director stymied her career by having her under contract, preventing her from blooming under anyone else). Toby Jones’ portrayal of the director is pretty sinister and humorless; you do not get any sense of the shrewdly conceived self-parody that was the mainstay of his weekly CBS appearances on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Hitchcock is presented as sexually desperate, hitting haphazardly on his latest so-called creation in ways that mortify her.
I just don’t know how much to believe here, though on its own terms, the picture has its moments, especially in the making-of portions devoted to The Birds’ massive technical challenges. As wife and collaborator Alma Hitchcock, a superbly cast Imelda Staunton is much more on point than Hitchcock’s Helen Mirren, who is too good-looking for the same role and bogged down in an ill-conceived romantic subplot. As Hedren, Miller does convey the star’s alleged ordeal while coming off, in terms of screen magnetism, as “just another blond” — which kind of goes with the rap on Hedren in the first place.
Extras: The DVD contains a supplemental interview with Hedren — too brief to make much of an impression, though she does concede that the experience wasn’t completely bad.
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5 Against the House

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Sony Pictures, Drama, $20.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore, Kerwin Mathews.
1955.
Not counting her presto show-up in Howard Hughes’ mind-bludgeoning 1955 Son of Sinbad, this was Kim Novak’s third screen appearance after well-positioned “launch” roles at home studio Columbia Pictures in Pushover and the Judy Holliday-Jack Lemmon comedy Phffft. You can practically hear studio chief Harry Cohn ordering more full-body profile shots of Kim from director Phil Karlson. Kiddie-oriented TV cowboy Guy Madison was the lead. House anticipated Ocean’s 11 by five years, even if its casino heist takes place in Reno and not the Rat Pack’s Las Vegas. Combat war vets led by Madison are getting a belated college education at “Midwestern” University, and one of them (Ray Harryhausen’s future Sinbad and Gulliver Kerwin Mathews in his screen debut) has come up with a logistical scheme to knock off a supposedly impenetrable money fortress. Rounding out the title “5” are crew-cutted Alvy Moore (later immortalized on TV’s “Green Acres”) and Novak as a local chanteuse at a townie nightspot. Madison is less lock-jawed than he sometimes was, and he has a scene here and there that might even be called authoritative. With Picnic and The Man With the Golden Arm following later in the year, House was the last movie Novak made before becoming a full-fledged star.
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1 Apr, 2013

New on Disc: 'Samson & Delilah' and more …


Samson & Delilah

Paramount, Drama, $19.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Hedy Lamarr, Victor Mature, George Sanders, Angela Lansbury.
1949.
Beyond imploring us to be very careful in our choice of hairstylists, the moral of C.B. DeMille’s penultimate Biblical spectacular would seem to be: Steer clear of Philistine chicks. Even the sister who doesn’t end up with Samson (a memorably blond Angela Lansbury as snooty Semadar) ends up being dispatched in one of the most memorable exits DeMille ever staged. As for the family’s other vixen … well, it’s actually Hedy Lamarr who gets top-billed here, which perhaps gives some indication of just how much blood ends up on Delilah’s eventually repenting hands. Still, Victor Mature was a slightly bigger star at this stage of the game, and it is Samson, of course, who adds a new dimension to the term “bringing down the house.” Mature probably provides some ammo here for detractors who said he was no actor, an assessment with which he concurred. But I always thought that despite a flair for self-parody that almost attained Dean Martin levels, Vic could read impossible beefcake dialogue with fairly impressive conviction — even if the stuffed lion he hugs here (while an obvious stunt double handles the tough stuff) isn’t much of a brief for the defense.

Lansbury and especially George Sanders (as “the Saran of Gaza”) give legitimately rich performances, though this is one of those spectaculars you watch to a great degree for the décor; the movie won Oscars for art/set decoration and costumes, while one of its three additional nominations went to George Barnes’ Technicolor cinematography. S&D is so good-looking that even my old laserdisc looks surprisingly OK — though it is, of course, nothing compared with the spiff-up it’s gotten here, which is Technicolor the way it ought to be. Running nearly 2¼ hours with its Victor Young overture, S&D feels longer than the 90-minutes-longer The Ten Commandments. But it is a still a movie for which many of a certain age still harbor affection — and not just those who saw it at the time.
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Rust and Bone

Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $2.06 million, $30.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts.
2012.
This four-Cesar winner from France offers an absorbing love story that compels on multiple levels. In a movie not likely to be double-billed with Orca, the heavily employed Marion Cotillard plays a trainer of “entertainment” whales at one of those Marineland kind of places who keeps her head on straighter than Captain Ahab did following a work-related catastrophe. Coping with the loss of both legs, she refuses to lose her resolve, and there’s a great bit here midway in where an insensitive guy in a bar takes pity on her state when none has been solicited (to put it mildly). And speaking of insensitivity, this is where co-star Matthias Schoenaerts fits in — playing someone with the kind of Jake LaMotta tunnel vision you probably have to have to be one of those practitioners of extreme boxing. In contrast to Cotillard, his character is not physically but emotionally handicapped. Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated A Prophet is several movies in one — and top-of-the-line when it’s viewed as a story of two people who’d have never gotten together in the first place were it not for a fluke tragedy. But it’s also a decent father-son story and an even better strained-sibling story. It is also, as you’ll see, a magnificent special-effects movie in depicting the Cotillard character’s loss of limbs. Though the actress won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in La vie en rose, I’m not at all sure she’ll deserve to be remembered any more for that memorable turn than this one, a standout in a good 2012 movie year.
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25 Mar, 2013

New on Disc: 'All Together' and more …


All Together

Kino Lorber, Comedy, B.O. $0.04 million, $29.95 DVD, NR.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Guy Bedos, Daniel Bruhl, Geraldine Chaplin, Jane Fonda.

2012. Jane Fonda and Geraldine Chaplin play part of a five-person group of longtime pals who elect to reside in a spacious and not-quite rural home. You could probably term this movie as the anti-Amour because its mind is more on sex. On balance, Together plays a teensy bit better than expected because good nature counts for something, even on screen. Followers of Fonda will get the most out of the picture.
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She Devil

Olive, Sci-Fi, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Mari Blanchard, Jack Kelly, Albert Dekker.
1957.
A biochemist mentor (Albert Dekker) and his younger protégé (Jack Kelly) get hauled before an ethics board after their miracle serum turns a terminal patient (Mari Blanchard) into the homicidal she-devil of the title. Purely on its own, this cheapie halfway gets by as a ludicrous diversion, which was filmed at the beginning of a rough big-screen period for miracle cures and desperate women.
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Third Girl From the Left

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, Michael Brandon.
1973.
Kim Novak, Tony Curtis and producer Hugh Hefner found themselves involved in an ABC TV movie that must have been a big deal at the time. Whatever its other shortcomings, this is a major curio.
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18 Mar, 2013

New on Disc: 'The Blob' and more …


The Blob (Blu-ray)

Criterion, Horror, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe.
1958.
The arrival of Steve McQueen’s frugally budgeted black sheep of a career-maker on a Criterion Blu-ray falls into the wonders-never-cease realm. We’re only looking at an upgrade from the 2000 Criterion DVD, but I never expected the pigments to look this striking; the Blob itself ends up looking remarkable. And the movie’s visuals prove striking from the very first scene, when The Blob (whose No. 33 Billboard title tune by then-novices Burt Bacharach and Mack David cracked the top 10 in the L.A. market) charts its course as one of the few creature features in history to open with a make-out scene shot in close-up. When the couple’s then unknown male turns around, and it’s McQueen, we witness a star being born.
Extras: Carried over from the DVD, this Blu-ray edition has two excellent commentaries: one with producer Jack H. Harris and encyclopedic film historian Bruce Eder, the other with the late director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. and featured actor Robert Fields.
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The Red Menace

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Robert Rockwell, Hannelore
Axman, Barbara Fuller.
1949.
Republic Pictures wasn’t the first studio to exploit the Red Scare, but this not totally flairless cheapie was in the early class of movies that did. Its lead actor is Robert Rockwell, who spent all those CBS Sunday nights on TV tip-toeing around Eve Arden’s romantic plotting on TV’s “Our Miss Brooks.” Featured player Barbara Fuller plays a lapsed Catholic who seduces vulnerable ex-G.I. Rockwell into supporting the Red cause after he gets all chapped over a shady real estate concern that’s bilking war vets.
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11 Mar, 2013

New on Disc: 'Ministry of Fear' and more …


Ministry of Fear

Street 3/12/13
Criterion, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, Dan Duryea.
1944.
As unlikely as it seems, there was a compressed period in the mid-1940s when director Fritz Lang was in a commercially successful groove, a harmonious streak that apparently came to an end with early 1948’s money-hemorrhaging Secret Beyond the Door, which Olive Films put out on Blu-ray not too long ago. This was the Woman in the Window/Scarlet Street era when Lang almost seemed to be casting Dan Duryea as a kind of sleazy good luck charm. Duryea also shows up in this predictably expressionistic wartime Paramount release to cause disproportionate mischief despite only a handful of scenes. A Nazi-centered espionage thriller, the movie’s initial plotting mechanism turns on a weight-guessing contest involving a cake at a charity fair in a provincial English community. Thanks in part to a deep dark secret that nonetheless made the papers, Ray Milland’s character, Stephen, is nothing if not paranoid here. Winning the cake hardly improves matters and indeed almost gets Stephen killed, justifying his state of what critic Glenn Kenny refers to in Criterion’s liner notes as “nervous suavity” throughout the picture, which is the best description of Milland’s entire career (arguably The Lost Weekend aside) that I have ever read.
Source novelist Graham Greene was no fan of the movie — nor, says Kenny, was Lang himself, who may have preferred the script have been more of an overtly anti-Nazi tract. But until a jarringly abrupt tack-on at the end that feels half-hearted, the movie is better than good. Neither Kenny nor Lang scholar Joe McElhaney (interviewed on screen in a supplement) address what is, for me, the movie’s biggest problem: the lack of heat between Milland and love interest Marjorie Reynolds.
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That Cold Day in the Park

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Sandy Dennis, Michael Burns, Susanne Benton, John Garfield Jr.
1969.
Robert Altman’s great fortune in being selected to direct 1970’s MASH brings to mind Seth McFarlane’s crack during the infamous recent Oscarcast that the Oscar gig only came his way after (dumpy porn star) Ron Jeremy turned it down — which is about where Altman found himself in the pecking order of studio preferences when he got the nod to helm his career-making service comedy. MASH is usually regarded as the “first” Altman feature, but the immediately preceding Cold Day (June 1969 vs. January 1970) looks like a contender itself — or at least more so than warm-ups such as The Delinquents, The James Dean Story or Countdown.
A young Laszlo Kovacs (same year as his work on Easy Rider) gave Cold Day a lot of that patented Uncle Bob widescreen haze — and it isn’t too much of a stretch to characterize the story’s going-bonkers protagonist (Sandy Dennis) as some kind of soulmate with Susannah York’s character in Altman’s subsequent Images (photographed by Kovacs’ own Hungarian soulmate Vilmos Zsigmond). Attractively shot here, the tough-to-cast Dennis (three years post-Virginia Woolf Oscar) plays a wealthy spinsterish type who takes in an unsheltered youth she spots on a park bench during a rainstorm (he’s played by future real-life college history professor Michael Burns). Her subsequent attraction to him is slightly mysterious because the kid has a lifelong prankish habit of remaining mute for long stretches.
That Cold Day in the Park is fairly peg-able as an Altman picture for its look, its early appearance by director regular Michael Murphy and for its feminine concerns. The result feels unfinished, but you can see why Cold Day has a cult to temper its critical brick-batting at the time. The print Olive has utilized here is very good and should permanently relegate the old pan-and-scan VHS to the place where all washed-out video atrocities go.
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4 Mar, 2013

New on Disc: 'Laura' and more …


Laura (Blu-ray)

Fox, Drama, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price.
1944.
For a movie to advance past the whodunit threshold to become something or even a lot more, it needs additional components (beyond even Gene Tierney, though this is possibly arguable) to keep enthusiasts tuning in again over the years. For a durable time capsule that even Otto Preminger detractors concede was prime of its type, Laura offers supreme casting that goes beyond its luminous lead; Oscar-winning cinematography by Joseph LaShelle; and, of course, composer David Raksin’s magnificent title tune. Almost all of the major 20th Century Fox noirs — from Nightmare Alley to Road House to Preminger’s own Tierney-Dana Andrews reunion picture Where the Sidewalk Ends — are movies a lot of savvy cineastes would savor seeing on Blu-ray, but Laura is special. Photographically, it’s lavish in its interiors yet hard-boiled when it has to be. Plot-wise, it turns into a different movie at the halfway point with a twist that really does rattle you when you see it for the first time. The cast of characters is full of sick puppies almost straight down the line — starting with a career-enhancing role for Clifton Webb that turned him into an equally major and improbable star for the next 15 years. It occurred to me while watching it that Tierney was the centerpiece of two movies that got the cinematography Oscar in successive years: Laura in black-and-white and Leave Her to Heaven (coming to Blu-ray May 14) in Technicolor. That tells you just about everything you need to know about what a photographic subject she was.
Extras: Handsomely upgrading the previous DVD edition, the Blu-ray carries over two commentaries, A&E Biography segments on both Tierney and co-star Vincent Price, and further adds a new retrospective featurette on why the film endures. The Tierney bio, which snared the participation of first husband Oleg Cassini, is predictably powerful, given the personal tragedies that afflicted the actress and shortened her career.
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Tip on a Dead Jockey

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Robert Taylor, Dorothy Malone, Gia Scala, Jack Lord.
1957.
One of the last assignments to fulfill Robert Taylor’s MGM contract was this title-has-little-to-do-with-it take on an Irwin Shaw story — the Richard Thorpe-directed movie that did not feature a pop titan as its lead. That’s right: Thorpe sandwiched this one in between Dean Martin’s notorious boo-boo Ten Thousand Bedrooms and that iconographic Elvis classic Jailhouse Rock. Segueing from this mostly Spain-based smuggling drama to Jailhouse Rock was a typical challenge facing a mediocre house director at MGM — though parts of Jockey still stay with me for boasting CinemaScope group shots that include two femme stunners who did a lot for me at a time when my fifth-grade eyes were anticipating adolescence: Dorothy Malone and Gia Scala. Malone was heavily into her blonde period and had just won the supporting Oscar for Written on the Wind, which the Jockey coming attraction (included on this manufactured-on-demand release) naturally touts.
Like other serviceable male heartthrobs, the slightly underrated Taylor got more interesting on screen after he accrued a few lines on his face. Here, he’s playing a pilot who has lost his nerve and is hiding out from life — and a wife. Malone is the latter, unable to secure a divorce, though in this case, the characters get along and even share a piano duet together in a scene of modest charm. Also around are Jack Lord and Marcel Dalio, the latter in a fairly large featured role in a career that includes both Grand Illusion and Donovan’s Reef.
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