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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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21 Jan, 2013

New on Disc: 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' and more …

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Criterion, Thriller, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, Nova Pilbeam.
No, it’s not James Stewart, Doris Day, 1956, VistaVision, Technicolor, a strained marriage, edgy wife, Bernard Herrmann scoring or the Oscar-winning song “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera),” which ended up going No. 2 on Billboard for Doris. Instead, this is the same-titled Hitchcock forerunner (and, in fact, the only movie he ever remade), which runs 75 minutes to the subsequent version’s 120 and is, thus, more streamlined. I myself much prefer the ’56 version, but it’s all a legitimate matter of taste — especially now that Man ’34’s recent restoration turns it into the first rendition of the movie in decades in which it doesn’t look as if it’s spent decades at the bottom of the Thames.

Arriving during what was a kind of downside in Hitchcock’s early career, Man ’34 was a stylistic and strikingly modern watershed for the filmmaker — if somewhat less so than the Hitch all-timer that would immediately follow: The 39 Steps. Brandishing elements of screwball comedy in its opening scenes, Man (even at its brief length) takes a while to get out of the gate, though its last two-thirds get fairly wild and crazy until it climaxes with the only elaborate shoot-out I can ever remember in a Hitchcock picture. As in the remake, the story involves a parent stumbling onto information about a planned assassination and getting the family’s only child kidnapped as a result. Leslie Banks and Edna Best are not Stewart and Day by a long shot, though the still pre-Hollywood Peter Lorre is a delicious villain with colorful scar makeup.

Extras: This typically harmonious Criterion package (film historian Philip Kemp does the commentary) also contains a primer on the restoration, plus the Man ’34-portion audio track from the legendary Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews from 1962. In addition to an interview with the late NYU film professor William K. Everson, there’s a second one with Hitchcock (also from 1972) with Ingrid Bergman daughter Pia Lindstrom. It’s a chuckle to hear the director, consummate self-promoter that he was, striving to swing the conversation around to Frenzy (which he was promoting at the time) as much as he can.
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Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
The least significant of the three men in this whistle-wetting “anniversary” documentary is, of course, the pesky gnat who still outlives JFK and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the two who literally held the fate of the world in their hands during those fateful two weeks in October 1962. But Cuba’s Fidel Castro deserves co-billing because he was, until the end, a key player in the showdown (whose yard was it, anyway?). Covering many of the same events dramatized in director Roger Donaldson’s underrated Kevin Costner starrer Thirteen Days (2000), Crisis is enough of an insider’s account to add a little juice to a well-chronicled story. Employed are a 2010 interview with Kennedy adviser and speechwriter Ted Sorenson not long before his death; also one with Khrushchev’s son (a doctor); and others with KGB and CIA operatives and the pilot who photographed the actual sites that broke the news to Washington. We also get priceless reel-to-reel audio tracks of a JFK Cabinet roundtable that included a lot of pro-nuke, damn-the-consequences hawks who fortunately didn’t capture the president’s ear. During the 13 days, there were a few remarkable sub-cliffhangers brought on by the faulty communications of the day (no World Wide Web to facilitate, just some lonely courier to transport a cable) and by an American pilot who had the misfortune to make a faulty turn at the worst possible spot on the 1962 globe. Not to trivialize it — but for those seeking timeline perspective, the crisis began the very day the Yankees beat the Giants 1-0 in a memorable seventh game of the World Series. It was and is regarded as a classic nailbiter — but absolutely nothing compared to what was about to transpire.
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14 Jan, 2013

New on Disc: 'The Invisible War' and more …

The Invisible War

New Video, Documentary, B.O. $0.06 million, $29.95 DVD, NR.
I was such an enthusiast for documentarian Kirby Dick’s predecessor Outrage (about the deep-sixing of pro-gay legislation by allegedly gay conservatives in Congress) that it self-amazes to concede that it took me this long to see his follow-up, which is one of the better documentaries of the past year. The subject is rape in the military (obviously not just of female soldiers) and how the system is rigged to put the blame or burden of proof on the victim. There are simply too many tragic stories here related by too many people willing to give their names and be photographed for posterity on screen to doubt the veracity of the filmmaker’s raked muck, which includes a coda that lets us know the significant number of assailants who not only weren’t prosecuted but ended up receiving military promotions. It took Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta a little more than a blink to take serious action after his staff got him to see this winner of the Sundance Audience Award. And it was action that included, unless there was an amazing coincidence in timing, a further shakeup of the DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) — even though its onetime civilian head (Dr. Kay Whitley) had been replaced by a female Air Force general who, like Whitley, is interviewed in the film. Some of War’s most astonishing moments are its even hardball interview of Dr. Whitley, who comes off as the kind of zoned-out individual who would have a tough time ascertaining which direction is “up.” Dick could have called this one Outrage as well, though the poignant moments rival the fury-inducing ones, especially when we take into consideration not just the toll that unpunished rapes have taken on those assaulted but on their parents and mates as well.
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Guys and Dolls (Blu-ray)

Warner, Musical, $34.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine.
To launch its acquisition of the Samuel Goldwyn (Sr.) library for Blu-ray release, Warner has gone for musically pedigreed name value via two Frank Loesser scores, starting with this stage-to-screen makeover of the Damon Runyon bookie-gambler perennial, which on stage represented the composer’s career high. The iffy but sometimes fascinating MGM-distributed extravaganza managed to pair an actor who loathed multiple takes (Frank Sinatra) with one who liked and flourished in method-y fashion with them (Marlon Brando in that period when he played a biker, Napoleon and a Japanese scamp just to prove he could). The ensuing tension would provide director Joseph L. Mankiewicz with one of the biggest logistical migraines a filmmaker could ever imagine.
I loved the big-screen Guys and Dolls as a kid, though its staginess drives me up the wall today. But the Brando-Sinatra dynamics intrigue, Jean Simmons is inspired casting as missionary Sgt. Sarah Brown, and there are privileged moments that include stage originator Stubby Kaye’s rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” and Frankie-Boy’s almost chilling beaut of “Adelaide,” one of the new tunes Loesser composed for the movie version. This was the kind of trade-off adapters of stage musicals made in those days: Scuttled were some good tunes from the Broadway version (“Marry the Man Today” and “More I Cannot Wish You”) for add-ins “Adelaide” and “A Woman in Love.”
As a presentation, the Blu-ray is as much of a beaut as “Adelaide,” which is especially noteworthy in that there were aspect ratio and color issues with G&D releases on standard DVD. The other Loesser-Goldwyn musical in this Warner entertainment double whammy is the Moss Hart-scripted Hans Christian Andersen (1952, $34.99 BD), which was a monster box office hit when lead Danny Kaye was close to his peak of popularity.
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7 Jan, 2013

New on Disc: 'The Iron Petticoat' and more …

The Iron Petticoat

Available via TCM.com
TCM, Comedy, $29.99 BD/DVD combo, NR.
Stars Bob Hope, Katharine Hepburn.
Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn? Pause here for your eyes to bug out like a Tex Avery cartoon character over the mere existence of this obscurity — especially in light of the fact that until recent weeks via Turner Classic Movies airings, this half-heartedly released Technicolor comedy had never even been televised due to the fact that Hope (who secured rights) basically sat on it for decades. Very much in the mode of Ninotchka, Comrade X and the arguably underrated Jet Pilot, it casts the stars as rival American and Soviet military pilots amid the latter’s gradual transformation into a capitalist of sorts who comes to appreciate sexier garb. Hepburn’s athletic frame still looks terrific in a role that followed two consecutive Oscar-nominated performances (in 1955’s Summertime and then The Rainmaker, which had just opened as well). Otherwise, this may be her worst performance; her accent isn’t that far from Bela Lugosi’s in Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda? With the slightly straighter The Seven Little Foys, That Certain Feeling and the subsequent Beau James, Hope himself was venturing into new territory at the time — and this modest departure, directed by Ralph Thomas of the then popular Doctor in the House, feels much more like a standard British outing that just happens to have the leads it does. (They have slightly more on-camera rapport than they reportedly had off, but it’s only a matter of degree.) MGM originally distributed a shorter version than this more official British cut — which, like several Brit pics but only a few non-Paramount Hollywood releases, was shot in the incomparable VistaVision. Thus, this rendering looks like a trillion dollars — every bit as stupendous as the Blu-rays I’ve seen of a couple other British films from the ’50s: Genevieve and (in VistaVision as well) The Battle of the River Plate. The result is well worth a look if you treat it strictly as a lab specimen, as opposed to a comedy that actually involves you.
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Beloved Infidel

Available via www.ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gregory Peck, Deborah Kerr, Eddie Albert.
Adapted from a Sheila Graham bestseller of the day that every adult female relative of mine seemed to own in paperback, Infidel relates how the eventual Hollywood gossip columnist (Deborah Kerr) got mentored by the older F. Scott Fitzgerald (Gregory Peck) during the writer’s alcoholic waning days when — as we see in one of this soaper’s better scenes — even The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night were out of print. Frequent Peck collaborator Henry King was among the most indifferent of all major directors, but his credits do include my two favorite Peck films: Twelve O’Clock High and The Gunfighter. In this case, he obviously couldn’t gear the story to Peck’s great screen strength, which was projecting authority that sometimes extended all the way to repressed (and, occasionally, even unrepressed) rage. As a Graham more refined than the real one likely was, Kerr is more on point and looking mighty regal on the beach (watch that redhead’s skin tones, Deb). Given his haircut here and also from the humorous short subjects we see him filming on a soundstage, I assume that Eddie Albert’s fictitious “Bob Carter” character is (in the kind of subterfuge that always sinks old Hollywood biopics) supposed to be humorist Robert Benchley. What makes the movie watchable (kind of) is the fact that we are, after all, witnessing a screen drama about the great FSF — and also, of course, the expected pro job Twilight Time gives to the Blu-ray (including the alternate-channel isolation of Franz Waxman’s score).
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17 Dec, 2012

New on Disc: 'Purple Noon' and more …

Purple Noon

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet.
Every time a copy of it shows up in a fresh rendering, I like to check out René Clément’s resonant psychological thriller about opportunism in one of screen history’s most physically handsome manifestations. Noon is again the kind of movie that makes a guy want to get out on the Mediterranean, brandish snappy clothes and romance continental beauties. It does not, though, make you want to get murdered, which is also part of the narrative package. The film is, of course, based on Patricia Highsmith’s same The Talented Mr. Ripley novel that Anthony Minghella turned into another very good night at the movies in 1999 — an interpretation significantly different in terms of emphasis on supporting characters and the ending. But I wouldn’t trade Noon’s wrap-up for anything. There’s major spoiler potential if one gets too far into the plot of what became lead Alain Delon’s star-maker. So suffice it to say that it involves a rich father who employs an impoverished on-the-make type (the kind who trades on his looks) to retrieve a playboy son (Maurice Ronet) who is perhaps enjoying too much of the same said water, pricey duds and femmes. It doesn’t take long for this hired hand to start taking to these fringe benefits perhaps a little too much himself — but without the sociopathic byproducts that ensue in a story that ends up bisecting itself at roughly midpoint. After Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Clément’s earlier Ripley take is probably the one that battles it out with Minghella’s version or maybe Wim Wenders’ The American Friend as the most durable movie made from the author’s work.
Extras: The disc includes an early-1960s interview with Delon in which he is very forthcoming about work, his favored directors (Clément was among them) and how he stumbled into acting after four years of army service.
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Francis Ford Coppola 5-Film Collection

Lionsgate, Drama, $39.99 Blu-ray.
Stars Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Vincent Gallo, Harrison Ford, Gene Hackman, Frederic Forrest, Raul Julia, Cindy Williams, John Cazale, Nastassja Kinski, Teri Garr.
As the definitive cross in the road regarding Francis Ford Coppola’s strange career, 1982’s One From the Heart had the makings of a cult movie even before it cemented that status by bringing in $389,249 over its opening weekend on an estimated then-whopping $27 million budget. All this for a 1982 movie shot in 1.33:1 and no marquee busters in its cast. There obviously are other titles in this reasonably priced collection, and some super ones at that: Oscar-nominated The Conversation; both versions of Apocalypse Now (I’m one of those who prefers the later reworking); plus 2009’s Tetro, which is something of a visual marvel and, alas, the only one of the director’s recent pictures that I like even a little. All, however, have previously been available on Blu-ray, which means that Heart (which finally got a belated DVD release in 2011) is likely this assemblage’s chief selling point. The story’s setting is some of the more neon-ish parts of Las Vegas, which means that this is a case where artifice meets artifice. Sometimes the wrong casting mix keeps you from even getting out of the gate. And here’s a story about a bickering longtime couple testing waters with other potential mates, where the principals end up being played by … Apocalypse Now’s Frederic Forrest, Teri Garr, Raul Julia and Nastassja Kinski, with subsidiary parts going to Lainie Kazan and Harry Dean Stanton. Heart is such a one-of-a-kind (with fine-for-its-day sound mixing) that one has to give it some points, though the visual rendering here is less than ideal when what this oddball really deserves is some Criterion TLC.
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10 Dec, 2012

New on Disc: 'The Voice of the Turtle' and more …

The Voice of the Turtle

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Eleanor Parker, Ronald Reagan, Eve Arden.
Following World War II, many of the roles home studio Warner Bros. gave Ronald Reagan were of the caliber to turn a reasonably high-profile performer (neither a major star nor, at least yet, a ‘B’-movie headliner) into president of the Screen Actors Guild. One of the later-career exceptions was Reagan’s agreeably unpretentious lead in this movie of John Van Druten’s play — one with a title of such a “what-was-that-again?” variety that for decades TV played Turtle as “One for the Books,” which was not much of an improvement as an audience magnet. And yet the play had been a smash that ran for years, even if its late 1944 setting now meant that Warner had to mount its story as a flashback vehicle when the movie version finally came to the screen. The story of an aspiring stage actress and a furloughed soldier who ends up sharing her New York apartment for much of a wintry weekend, it made for potentially controversial screen material because you look at these two chance meet-ups (Eleanor Parker plays the actress opposite Reagan) and think that they just have to be sleeping with each other after a few wine-and-dine preliminaries at the well-mounted eatery next door, especially in a wartime situation. Production Code enforcer Joseph Breen slammed it as “a story of illicit sex without compensating moral values.” In the play, there were only three characters, but the movie is opened up to get the story out of the apartment and to toss in some subsidiary support. Director Irving Rapper keeps the narrative moving without displaying much attitude toward the material. Turtle makes for a pleasant, if dated, hour and 43, no question — though the advent of the Pill would eventually turn stories such as these into antiques, which is how you have to approach them today to appreciate what they have to offer.
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Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Sony Pictures, Adventure, $20.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Victor Mature, Janet Leigh, John Justin, Roland Culver.
Safari offers racially motivated political intrigue, Victor Mature in Jungle Jim khaki as Ken and chorus girl Janet Leigh overdressed in the jungle (except for when she’s undressed and skinny-dipping in a scene fairly stimulating for its day) as Linda. One does wonder how a movie this gorgeous to look at (Technicolor and originally 2.55:1) took this long to make it to market. This is no world-beater but one of the best-looking DVDs of a vintage title I’ve seen in a while. Kenya’s anti-colonial Mau Maus slaughter white plantation owners, and worse, the victim is Ken’s male youngster in a scene eerily reminiscent (we’re talking content, not emotional power) to the initial killings in John Ford’s The Searchers, which had opened only about three weeks before Safari’s U.S. premiere. Equally dreadful is the killer’s identity: a Mau Mau general who’d posed as a houseboy and had been considered a friend of the family. The official British law is made up of effete pipe smokers, so when they tell Ken to let authorities handle any retaliation, he is not exactly listening. But he makes his living as a Great White Hunter, and a snob with a trophy wife is in need of one — which is how he gets hired on with Linda’s husband and eventually joins her (chastely) in the same bathing pool. Overall, it’s fairly routine, but Mau Maus and their uprising were big in the day; just a year later, MGM and Richard Brooks would mount a major black-and-white production with Rock Hudson, Sidney Poitier, Wendy Hiller and Dana Winter of Robert Ruark’s novel Something of Value, which dealt with similar material. So did 1956’s Beyond Mombasa (Cornel Wilde, Donna Reed).
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3 Dec, 2012

New on Disc: 'Ramrod'


Olive, Western, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Don DeFore, Preston Foster.
It has been noted that mild-mannered Joel McCrea didn’t cater to co-star Veronica Lake’s sometimes holier-than-thou persona when she was off-camera, though the two were eventually reteamed here in a movie not called Sullivan’s Travels when her career was on the wane. Ramrod was directed by the still underrated cult filmmaker Andre de Toth when he and Lake were married in real life. Lake manages one or two fiery scenes here, even if her role peters out somewhat near the end.
De Toth doesn’t punch up the melodrama in obvious ways — though there are definitely some twisted goings-on in this adaptation of a novel by famed Western writer Luke Short, who was then in a lucrative screen era for his literary output, thanks also to Blood on the Moon and Station West, both from 1948.
McCrea, a widower, is something of an unusual protagonist here: a reforming alcoholic who also has to recover from a serious bullet wound when he all but passively gets involved in the machinations of almost everyone surrounding him.
The first film produced by Enterprise Productions (also of the dually superb Caught and Force of Evil), Ramrod is a typical Olive release in that it looks as no-frills good as its source material will permit. There are occasional specs in the image, but the presentation is generally solid. The cinematography is by Russell Harlan — about a year before he shot Red River and 15 years before he earned Oscar nominations for To Kill a Mockingbird and Hatari!
Actor buffs will enjoy seeing Lloyd Bridges getting beaten up in an early saloon scene. And Don DeFore, usually a comical figure in TV’s “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Hazel,” puts a tad more edge than expected on a subsidiary role as a ne’er-do-well McCrea friend, who precipitates some of the movie’s rampant brutality.
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26 Nov, 2012

New on Disc: 'Sunset Blvd.' and more …

Sunset Blvd. (Blu-ray)

Paramount, Drama, $26.99 Blu-ray.
Stars Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim.
Billy Wilder’s final collaboration with his then producer/co-writer Charles Brackett already was regarded as a legend a mere handful of years after its release — a film then spoken of in the reverent tones reserved for classic silents that were famous but almost impossible to see outside of New York (if then). Sunset Blvd. may be the greatest movie about Hollywood ever made, but it is also film noir (a potent combo of cross-genres if there ever was one). And a new Blu-ray where the print that has just enjoyed some serious “work” (which plot-central Norma Desmond likely would have had as well) is beyond welcome. The cinematographer was Paramount’s great John F. Seitz, who also shot Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend for Wilder and one who must have been the on-demand choice of significant Paramount money-maker Alan Ladd, who later employed Seitz on the films the by-then fading DP later did at Warner Bros. But it is, of course, the movie’s originality, audacity and imaginative casting that still makes it work. First of all, Brackett-Wilder’s cheeky achievement is still a brutally honest portrait of Hollywood. Then, we get the gonzo casting gifts that Wilder always had: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Nancy Olson, Buster Keaton and (my favorite) Erich von Stroheim and Jack Webb — to say nothing of Cecil B. DeMille playing himself. Plus, an Oscar-winning score by Franz Waxman. Despite giving Swanson the role of a lifetime (notwithstanding her many silent triumphs), the long-term legacy of Sunset Blvd. was to rescue Holden from a litany of indifferent roles at Paramount and Columbia post-World War II and launching him into superstardom.
Extras: This lovely release imports a ton of extras from a previous deluxe standard Blvd. DVD, adding a musical number about studios and producers of the day that Wilder excised and replaced because it was too inside-baseball for the general audiences who did make the picture a hit — not a monster one but definitely a box office success from a time when general audiences (there was only a barely specialized “niche” demographic) were a lot sharper than they are today.
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The Secret Six

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $18.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, John Mack Brown.
Clark Gable only gets seventh billing in this MGM bootlegging melodrama with an enticingly curious cast and equally no-slouch background credits — a movie that headlines Wallace Beery as a double-crossed lug who becomes a Prohibition powerhouse in town (for a while). Gable wasn’t yet a star but could have lived like one had the studio been paying him by the hour. Gable quickly got a rep as one who wouldn’t kowtow on screen to high-strung women (Now see here, Scarlett) and might even push them around. But here, he’s simply a big-city reporter in a friendly rivalry with a competitor for the affections of a “friend of the gang” played by Jean Harlow — who was coming off Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels and about five days away from making a second splash with James Cagney in The Public Enemy. Produced by William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, Six was not exactly shy about promoting vigilantism. And by the way, the vigilante Six are a hoot to see in the movie — vigilantes in eye masks that wouldn’t disguise anybody very much if someone had to identify them during a trial. Six was a major league production — one that also employs the amusing casting of Lewis Stone as a low-key mob lawyer who’s a brain of the outfit.
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19 Nov, 2012

New on Disc: 'The Rains of Ranchipur' and more …

The Rains of Ranchipur

Available via www.ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Lana Turner, Richard Burton, Fred MacMurray, Michael Rennie.
Even in a turban (or, if you wish, possibly because of it), Richard Burton makes such a formidably attractive co-star with Lana Turner here that one wishes that 1955 screens could have been a bit looser and that this Fox DeLuxe Color remake could have taken place somewhere a bit closer to an ‘NC-17’ Raunch-iper. Even so, the studio’s second go at novelist Louis Bromfield’s The Rains Came was suggestive and thus popular enough in its day (Turner’s “Lady Edwina” character has “been around,” as they used to say) to justify its year-end holiday release. Taking over roles from Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power in the 1939 Rains original, Turner and Burton are, respectively, a gossip-columnist delight and dedicated physician in India. The latter is not educated in “the ways of women” — having been adopted as the protégé of a practically palace-dwelling person of influence (Eugenie Leontovich) after being sired by “untouchables.” Michael Rennie plays Turner’s perpetually cuckolded husband (he at least gets to wear evening clothes a lot), and there’s a second romance (definitely a subplot) that slows down the narrative thrust. It’s between Fred MacMurray as a financially well-heeled juicehead who’s turned sour on the world and Joan Caulfield (by now “playing younger”) as a recent Iowa college grad who struggles to get him on track. Here, as in ’39, the rains are coming, and the dramatic payoff is still the huge earthquake and dam-bursting scene that creates a life-altering situation for all. The sequence earned a special effects Oscar nomination, and it’s still fairly impressive on Twilight Time’s CinemaScope rendering. Ranchipur was directed by Jean Negulesco, who (along with its cinematographer, Milton Krasner) had just been responsible for one of Fox’s Big Ones of the era: Three Coins in the Fountain.
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Woody Herman: Blue Flame — Portrait of a Jazz Legend

Jazzed Media, Documentary, $18.99 DVD, NR.
I never made a study of it, but it seems to me that there was never a time when Woody Herman’s brass failed to cook — from 1939’s At the Woodchopper’s Ball album, through the end-of-war Columbia Records period when “Caldonia” and the ballad “Laura” made Herman a Billboard chart factor, through the be-bop flirtation, ’50s TV appearances (which were many) and the ’70s period when he employed a lot of really young musicians while embracing rock. It extended beyond that, too, right through the end — when a deathless zeal to be on the road and probably financial necessity kept Herman active in buses and airports. This new Herman portrait (which runs about an hour and 50 minutes) follows a template using a functionally shot deep array of interviews with former colleagues and jazz experts, punctuated by an array of clips (the ones here are extended and very, very good). Fringe benefits from these latter include the ability to chart the changes in Herman’s ultimately receding hairlines throughout the years. Another is to see how the production values improved on Ed Sullivan’s show starting in 1949 (when it would have been “Toast of the Town”) through the era when his Sunday night neo-vaudevillian fest went to color. Included in the Ed array is “Caldonia” as performed in 1963. By most or all accounts, Herman was a player’s leader with, in fact, the manner of a coach. The list of players and arrangers who wailed through his various incarnations was a long one, indeed. The documentary also makes a strong case for Herman as a vocalist. Like Johnny Mercer and Eric Clapton, he likely could have made it purely as a singer had he not had other talents that were formidably overriding.
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12 Nov, 2012

New on Disc: 'The Queen of Versailles' and more …

The Queen of Versailles

Street 11/13
Magnolia, Documentary, B.O. $2.38 million, $26.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray, ‘PG’ for thematic elements and language.
In most ways other than nutritional or those involving overall taste and judgment, the likely-to-remain-indelible protagonists of director Lauren Greenfield’s access-heavy documentary don’t really come off as the predictable folks we love to hate when their actions (possibly oblivious) tell the world to eat cake during the worst economic years since the Great Depression. Jackie Siegel is a somewhat surprisingly down-to-earth trophy wife (and generous to friends in need). Husband David starts to look increasingly beaten to hell as his company (Westgate Resorts — billed as the country’s largest time-share concern) falls prey to the era’s economic meltdown just as he’s building the largest private home in the country, one where a clothes closet can be mistakenly taken for a bedroom.
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The Tall T

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Sony Pictures, Western, $20.95 DVD-R, NR.
Stars Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Henry Silva.
Because Randolph Scott was among the most agreeably stalwart constants in the history of movies, the famed Scott-Budd Boetticher Westerns mostly rise or fall on the quality of their villains. Often, Scott and his designated nemesis find they have one or two things in common. This makes for a superb degree of cinematic tension on a meager budget, especially when the villain is portrayed by an actor as interesting as Richard Boone in The Tall T. Here, he’s in a kind of cat-and-mouse game with Scott — courtesy of a Burt Kennedy script that just barely led to the first movie adapted from an Elmore Leonard story.
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5 Nov, 2012

New on Disc: 'Rosemary's Baby' and more …

Rosemary’s Baby

Criterion, Horror,  $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer.
Critical hits that blast commercial four-baggers out of the park still happen very occasionally, but Roman Polanski’s instant classic of Ira Levin’s everyone-read-it novel was and is about as good as commercial filmmaking gets — not that the picture was any marketing natural in those days before The Exorcist, The Omen and all that Polanski’s first Hollywood career wave-maker sparked. Ruth Gordon got the year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Rosemary’s batty apartment neighbor and Satan partisan — and Sidney Blackmer is good as her husband, who helps the younger woman’s husband achieve professional success as an actor (Yamaha commercials and more) making a literal deal with the devil. But then, the picture is a kind of casting director’s delight for veteran character actors of the day, including Ralph Bellamy, Maurice Evans and Patsy Kelly. The movie hasn’t lost a beat, especially in Criterion’s rendering.
Extras: It’s surprising to hear producer Robert Evans (featured on an excellent 45-minute Criterion look-back with Polanski and title lead Mia Farrow) talk of how it was such a tough picture to sell. We learn in the documentary that while in bed with then-spouse Farrow, Frank Sinatra read the script and said that he couldn’t see her in the part — which added to the actress’ insecurities regarding the role. We also hear the famous the story about how Sinatra, chagrined that the Baby shooting schedule made it impossible for her to appear with him in 1968’s The Detective, served her with divorce papers on the set (though they remained good friends until Sinatra’s death). Another full-length documentary focuses on composer Krzystof Komeda, who died not long after the film premiered.
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Neil Young Journeys

Sony Pictures, Music, B.O. $0.22 million, $30.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG’ for language, including some drug references and brief, thematic material.
The two (male) rock troubadours truest to themselves are probably Bob Dylan and Neil Young, so there’s a kind of beauteous symmetry to the fact that Martin Scorsese has chronicled one on screen and Jonathan Demme the other, given that the latter duo are the two filmmakers of note (both Oscar winners, in fact) who are the closest to be walking versions of the Rock and Hall of Fame. Journeys is, in fact, the third screen outing that Demme has undertaken with Young, following 2006’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold and 2009’s Neil Young Trunk Show. Of the three, Journeys has to be the one most fashioned toward the hardcore, in that it is a diminutive and certainly intimate portrait of the singer-songwriter at home in Canada, wrapping up a worldwide tour in Toronto, to which he journeys from hometown Omemee in a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria (none of this limo, or even chauffeur, stuff with him). Lack of pretension, of course, has always been a key component of Young’s appeal — complete with his take-it-or-leave-it vocal stylings and wardrobe choices that pretty well come down to which pair of grungy jeans we’re going to wear tonight. One gets a complete sense here of the roots-engendered stability that has kept Young from veering off the track in ways that have turned so many rock stars into a train wreck. Cruising through Omemee, Young takes us past the school that was named for his community-prominent father, and we also meet his brother. The concert portions’ stripped-down sets are taken to great extent from Young’s 2010 Le Noise album, though some of the highlights here come from deep catalog — as when he revives 1970’s “Ohio,” a salute to the four victims of that year’s Kent State killings. These are predominantly tight close-ups of a professional doing his job, which means this is a screen endeavor for the devoted.
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