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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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3 Sep, 2012

New on Disc: 'Bye Bye Birdie' on Blu-ray and more …

Bye Bye Birdie (Blu-ray)

Available via www.ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Musical, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Janet Leigh, Dick Van Dyke, Ann-Margret, Bobby Rydell.
According to Julie Kirgo’s typically ace liner notes, smitten director George Sidney spent $40,000 out of his own pocket to film the famous opening where Ann-Margret (against a seriously true-blue backdrop) more or less comes out of a dream to belt a title tune that was not in the Broadway original. Ann-Margaret’s seminal role cast her as a storybook teen in Central Ohio selected from thousands to receive a ceremonial last kiss from an Elvis-parody of a rock star (Jesse Pearson as Conrad Birdie) just before his own drafting. And, this smooch is set to take place on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (with Ed, by the way, having what looks to be a grand old time playing himself here). Birdie may be the liveliest of Sidney’s stage-hit bunch — and may be the best musical of his very up-and-down career next to Judy Garland’s The Harvey Girls. For this, we can credit a good score with at least one standard (“A Lot of Livin’ To Do”), spirited casting (including Birdie stage vet Dick Van Dyke in his big-screen debut) and the bang-bang combo of Onna White choreography with brassy Johnny Green scoring.
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Cinema Libre, Documentary, $19.95 DVD, NR.
As documentaries on despots go, Saul Landaus’s Fidel isn’t up to the gold standard of General Idi Amin Dada, the 1974 Barbet Schroeder portrait that did, after all, provide shots of the former Ugandan president’s uncountable children by uncountable wives, hungry crocodiles observing peaceful river cruises from the sidelines and the hilarious scene where Amin cheats in a swim race (very much in the Sacha Baron Cohen mode). Still, Landau’s achievement does make a rather fascinating view and deserves more praise than what it merits for simply existing. I can’t imagine any political junkie who wouldn’t want to see it. Landau and his crew spent a week in 1968 with Cuban president Fidel Castro in the kind of great outdoors that is likely akin to where he lived and plotted his Cuban revolution — all as the dictator turned on charm that, at least superficially, seems a lot more natural than what we see from a lot of American politicians. We even see Castro in a pickup baseball game that’s worth the price of admission. There’s even a section on political dissidents, some of whom have been imprisoned and some who are seen preparing a move to Miami. This release, which includes a 23-minute featurette (“Cuba and Fidel”) and lots of illuminating newsreel footage in the main event, is still a remarkable surprise.
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Young Cassidy

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $17.95 DVD-R, NR.
Stars Rod Taylor, Maggie Smith, Julie Christie, Michael Redgrave.
John Ford directing Julie Christie sounds like one of those couldn’t-be miracles of ’60s cinema, but, in fact, it did happen. Though billed as “A John Ford Production,” MGM’s biopic of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey (called John Cassidy here) was an unfortunately timed project for Ford. Alcoholic Ford only managed to direct about 10 minutes of Young Cassidy’s 110 before leaving the picture for health reasons. But these include the early and (for Ford) quite sexy scene between lead Rod Taylor and euphemistically termed showgirl played by Christie. The Ford replacement who got solo on-screen credit was Jack Cardiff, an absolute contender to be called the greatest cinematographer ever.
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27 Aug, 2012

New on Disc: 'Johnny Guitar' and more …

Johnny Guitar

Olive, Western, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Scott Brady, Mercedes McCambridge.
If you’re a fan of middle-aged Joan Crawford, a cultist for director Nicholas Ray, a feminist of either sex, gay, a student of anti-
McCarthy allegories, or love Victor Young, Peggy Lee and the kind of expressionistic color that drives Martin Scorsese crazy in the good way, you may understand why few movies ever have given me the degree of sustained pleasure as this one. Crawford plays a gambling saloon owner who squares off against a local land baron for the rights to New Mexico real estate that may increase in value by a railroad expansion. 
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High Time (Blu-ray)

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Comedy, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Bing Crosby, Fabian, Tuesday Weld, Nicole Maurey, Richard Beymer.
On paper any day of the week, I’ll take the concept of Blake Edwards directing Bing Crosby and Fabian (now, there’s a battle of the bands) as college roomies — even without Tuesday Weld hanging around the dorm and frat house in and with an array of costumes and men.
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They Made Me a Fugitive (Blu-ray)

Kino Lorber, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Sally Gray, Trevor Howard, Griffith Jones.
Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, this is a very tough movie for its day. Amid the noir glisten (the restoration has snap), the narrative keeps renewing itself, all the way to an ending that is not sugar-coated.
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20 Aug, 2012

New on Disc: 'A Separation' and more …

A Separation

Street 8/21/12
Sony Pictures, Drama, B.O. $7.1 million, $30.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13’ for mature thematic material.
In Persian with English subtitles.
Stars Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini.
Given its Oscar, 99% RottenTomatoes.com rating (yeah, there’s always some out there person who …) and best foreign-language-release citations from London critics, the Cesar folks and virtually every U.S. voting band — pause here for a huff-puff — Iran’s brilliantly constructed domestic drama doesn’t need any piling on in the good way from me. But it revs me up to do it, so I will. For me last year, A Separation was in the pantheon with Hugo, The Tree of Life, Margaret and Alex Gibney’s ESPN documentary Catching Hell. And it comes closer to perfection than a couple of those.

Repeat again: domestic drama. That it takes place in an Islamic Republic absolutely informs and affects what happens on screen, but this is an achievement more casual moviegoers can’t get away with sloughing off because he or she doesn’t want to deal with a “heavy” political drama. Ultimately, we’re in divorce court, and what could be more American than that? Even as the story opens, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) have hit the wall, martially speaking. She has steadfastly elected to go live in the West with their pre-adolescent daughter sooner than her husband would like, due to the Alzheimer’s incapacitation of his father. The fate of the child (played by the real-life daughter of the film’s writer/director Asghar Farhadi) is in the fate of a judge who’d probably rather be doing just about anything else than rendering the decision. The set-up, to make a somewhat gonzo Hollywood comparison, makes me think a little of Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray in the tragicomic Garson Kanin/Ruth Gordon/George Cukor The Marrying Kind, where both participants invite sympathy. The treatment here is obviously more solemn, which suits the material.

Still, we do understand the motivations of both parties in Farhadi’s remarkably even-keeled treatment — an attitude that still prevails when the story kicks into second gear once Nader is forced to hire a caretaker on the sly (or at least her sly) to care for dad when everyone (and Simin now permanently) is away from the premises for work or school. This is perhaps the closest the movie comes to dramatizing a culture whose twain can’t be expected to meet for some international audiences. Complicating matters for Western eyes isn’t the influence of an oppressive government but basic religion. At least some of the awful things that end up prevailing might have been averted if the hired hand (her woes already endless) didn’t have to conceal from her husband that she is laboring exclusively in male company (their young daughter’s being along doesn’t count). Just as before, Farhadi is sympathetic to all parties even including the domestic’s hothead husband (though his tendency to toss fire on the flames definitely presses it). As a result of this precise story construction, the film’s running time is a tad over two hours, but we never feel it. The proof here is that the screenplay got a lot of year-end acclaim, just by itself.

Extras: Sony’s release includes a 30-minute Q&A on stage with Farhadi, an interviewer and a translator. Interestingly, he seems to understand fully the interviewer’s questions but answers in his own language, leaving it to the translator to make certain the fine print gets over to the audience. There’s also a short featurette about Farhadi’s background that features clips from previous works that look interesting, though slightly (from what we see) lighter in tone. And yet, A Separation is about as accessible as movies get — and really makes me wonder about a typical Internet goon whose comment I was reading several months ago that was along the lines of: “How can such tripe be earning critical praise? These people are trying to kill us.” Not the poor schmo in divorce court, buddy, though there really are a lot of Americans spouting off on the Web who’d be comfortable in an oppressive political regime themselves.


Olive, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for strong sexuality, violence and language. Unrated version also included.
Stars Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon, Joe Pantoliano, John P. Ryan, Christopher Meloni.
In this jumpstart revitalization of the familiar double-cross/caper genre, the Wachowskis’ screen debut, a glorified dim-bulb who launders money for the mob (the greatest big-screen Joe Pantoliano ever) is slow to figure that his apartment mate of five years (Jennifer Tilly) has gay hots for the plumber/handywoman (Gina Gershon) who has just moved in upstairs. Together, the two women plot to “lift” the nearly $2 million that’s hanging like laundry in the Pantoliano/Tilly apartment. The movie, now and then, is a little like what the Coen Brothers did with their own debut launch, Blood Simple. Both films are kind of a case of, “give us a few actors, a little money and a worn but bedrock genre — and we’ll supply all the attitude you’ll need.”
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The Hanging Tree

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $17.95 DVD-R, NR.
Stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott.
The Hanging Tree has its share of angry characters, starting with the alternately warm and dictatorial physician Gary Cooper plays — one with a mysterious past. Based on a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, who also wrote a short story that eventually led to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the yarn deals with this mining camp newcomer/doc and an attractive Swiss immigrant (Maria Schell) whom he nurses back to health after she is injured in a stagecoach robbery. George C. Scott makes his screen debut as a disapproving preacher. It’s good to see this Technicolor release in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
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13 Aug, 2012

New on Disc: 'Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines' and more …

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (Blu-ray)

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Comedy, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox, Terry-Thomas.
Director-co-writer Ken Annakin’s real-life love for aviation permeates every frame of Machines, and the movie is beautiful to look at. Though not the ultimate in star power, Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles and James Fox are easy to take as the three points of a love triangle.
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Rio Grande

Olive, Western, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson.
Overall, Rio Grande is the loosey-goosiest of director John Ford’s famed Cavalry trilogy, which began with Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  Olive’s is a solid Blu-ray job, threading the needle between too much grain and not enough.
Extras: The Leonard Maltin making-of featurette carries over from the old DVD version.
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There’s No Business Like Show Business (Blu-ray)

Fox, Musical, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ethel Merman, Donald O’Connor, Marilyn Monroe, Dan Dailey.
Marilyn Monroe is kind of an appendage here to a showbiz family that manages to keep performing with humongous production budgets even after vaudeville dies. Yet her “Heat Wave” number was such a conversation piece at the time that you can see why Fox Entertainment has also included Business on its new $99.98 Forever Marilyn Blu-ray box of seven Monroe features.
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6 Aug, 2012

New on Disc: 'Force of Evil' and more …

Force of Evil

Olive, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars John Garfield, Beatrice Pearson, Thomas Gomez, Marie Windsor.
Though it’s something you can effortlessly intuit all by yourself, Martin Scorsese has long acknowledged the profound influence of this superlative film noir toughie on Mean Streets, Goodfellas and (in its treatment of moral responsibility between cantankerous brothers) Raging Bull. And the director does so here as well in a short intro carried over from a long-ago Republic VHS release, though this snappy new transfer has nothing remotely “VHS” about it. Like Olive’s concurrent release of Body and Soul, Force of Evil is a model of how urban-oriented black-and-white ought to look. Launched by a most effective voiceover by lead John Garfield, the subject is the numbers racket. Garfield plays a shady New York attorney whose associates are planning to rig it so that the back-store “banks” that have taken the wagers will go bankrupt, and the string-pulling vultures will come in for the plucking and an immediate takeover. But the blueprint doesn’t quite work as constructed. In addition to featuring one of the definitive John Garfield performances, Evil was the first of only two movies to feature the ethereal Beatrice Pearson (the other is the following year’s Lost Boundaries).
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Mean Streets

Warner, Drama, $19.98 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus.
Martin Scorsese’s career-maker set in New York City’s Little Italy section is a movie with a look that has always been a partial product of its low budget and a preponderance of darkly-lit sequences that take place in a neighborhood bar. Anyone who was paying attention just knew that when the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” hit the Mean Streets soundtrack just after the Warner logo, a good musical ride was in store. It may be hard for younger viewers to appreciate just how exciting and unpredictable Robert De Niro was in the early days. I can’t recall a more chilling mix of goofiness and tinderbox sociopathic behavior than his portrayal of Streets’ Johnny Boy, a notorious neighborhood deadbeat and welcher of (sometimes high-interest) debts.
Extras: There’s been some disappointment voiced that Warner didn’t follow the lead of France’s Region-B Mean Streets Blu-ray release by loading up this edition with extras beyond carrying over the DVD’s commentary and a promotional featurette.
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Margaret (Extended Cut)

Fox, Drama, $39.99 BD/DVD combo, NR.
Stars Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Jean Reno, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s cause célèbre must be the most written-about and least seen contemporary movie of the modern age, but the inclusion of its significantly superior “long version” as part of Fox’s Blu-ray/DVD combo will likely give the rolling ball an extra kick. In the old days, it could take decades for an ignored movie to pick up a cult rep, but there are simply too many venues for criticism these says for anything to languish in obscurity for very long. Especially since audiences crawl on their hands and knees across the desert each year like Gibson Gowland at the end of Stroheim’s Greed, looking for grown-up entertainment with actors they’ve heard of for the first 46 weeks of every year. And especially since you now cannot conceivably construct a list of greatest movies devoted to late-adolescent angst without including Lonergan’s one-of-a-kind.

The playwright made his screen debut with 2000’s You Can Count on Me, an almost perfect “little” movie that got Oscar nominations for his script and for lead Laura Linney (though amazingly, not for Mark Ruffalo, who at least got put on the map by the film). Even in its short 150-minute version, Margaret is not little; it’s one of the few full-scale screen epics I know about New York City apartment living, which is definitely “cramped” subject matter to anyone not living outside of such a provincial existence. Though Margaret barely got even a token release late last year (and got dumped for its sole local engagement at one dinky auditorium in my city just this past May), it was filmed in 2005 before becoming embroiled into such an extended legal imbroglio over its final cut that even Martin Scorsese came in to help with the editing. Thus, the movie has a disorienting 9/11 sensibility whose added power would have been something to experience with a proper release date.

Right off the bat, before the tragic incident that propels the rest, we see in a classroom political argument stemming in part from 9/11 that Anna Paquin’s “Lisa” (not a Margaret; the movie’s title comes from a poem) is not only tightly wired but tightly wired and smart. This is a combination that, if not all-out deadly, can be a real pain in the behind, and there are a few times in this movie when you want to take the James Cagney grapefruit and let her have it. But soon, there’s the horrific incident that to a great degree Lisa unintentionally perpetrates, and Lonergan wallows in its gore because we have to see how it informs almost everything Lisa does for the rest of the movie.

The longer 186-minute version, which this combo release includes on standard DVD only, has such a different sound mix from what played theatrically; at first, I thought my theater’s speakers simply had not been up to the task a couple months earlier. This long version’s track is far more aggressive and changes the entire movie’s emphasis, allowing us to overhear conversations of neighbors and restaurant patrons. The emphasis is to re-enforce what an unlikable character played brilliantly by Jeannie Berlin eventually tells Lisa in white-hot anger: that the latter can be depended upon to make everything that happens about her. It’s now great to be able to say that Berlin (Oscar-nominated for her all-timer in 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid) is no longer a one-movie-wonder.

Margaret is many things, including a mother-daughter drama in which (real-life Lonergan spouse) J. Smith-Cameron plays an actress and single mom striving to raise two children (troubled daughter included), while simultaneously delivering upon the first huge break of her professional career. The long version’s added 36 minutes strengthen the subplot about mom’s unlikely courtship by a computer software maven (Jean Reno). But the big difference comes late when we learn definitively that a second traumatic experience for Lisa (yeah, she really needed another one) really did happen — and that a mere reference to it in the shorter version wasn’t just a showboating assertion to make an impression on one of her teachers (Matt Damon). By the way, the classroom scenes here are very pointed — taking place in a fairly permissive high school for upscale Jews (as opposed to, say, one of those authoritarian joints as in How Green Was My Valley where the schoolmaster whacks on the wrists with a flogging cane). It is unusual to see this type of learning venue portrayed on screen — though most of us, alas, have had a by-the-book teacher like the one Matthew Broderick plays with pinpoint precision.

In a just society, the long version of Margaret will eventually become the standard version (paging Criterion, paging Criterion), but you never know; Barry Levinson’s eventual DVD re-edit of The Natural was incomparably superior to what played theaters in 1984, but when Sony put out the Blu-ray, it was of the original rush job the studio had to have because the picture was going to launch Tri-Star. Of course, in a just society, Lonergan’s unwieldy flirtation with greatness would have seen the light at some point a lot closer to 2005 (when it was filmed) than the barely peek-a-boo spotting it rated late last year. As it stands now, Paquin’s is probably the greatest unseen performance of the past quarter century, and I have to believe that with a normal release somewhere along the way, the critics’ organizations would have given her achievement some serious love in year-end voting. To me, it could and should have (which is different than “would have”) been the Oscar pick — and an easy one at that — in a lot of modern-era best actress contests.



30 Jul, 2012

New on Disc: 'Body and Soul' and more …

Body and Soul

Street 7/31
Olive, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars John Garfield, Lilli Palmer, Hazel Brookes, William Conrad, Anne Revere, Canada Lee.
The new Blu-ray of Hollywood’s first truly grown-up boxing movie is so pristine that the images suggest moving versions of what we might see in a glossy coffee table book devoted to the great cinematographers.
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Singin’ in the Rain: 60th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition

Warner, Musical, $14.96 two-DVD set, $19.98 Blu-ray, $84.99 BD/DVD boxed set, NR.
Stars Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen.
Warner Home Entertainment has given this MGM release the full deluxe treatment, with sterling sound recording (taking the film’s 60 years into consideration) and a visual presentation that isn’t many notches down from the best vintage Technicolor treatments we’ve seen on Blu-ray. 
Extras: Even the bargain $20 Blu-ray includes a new 50-minute tribute documentary. The combo collector’s edition offers a few unique features: a 48-page booklet, miniaturized lobby art from the day and an umbrella.
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The Last Days of Disco (Blu-ray)

Criterion, Comedy, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for some elements involving sexuality and drugs.
Stars Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale.
A clean and colorful Blu-ray upgrade of what I now think is one of the most engaging movies of its year, with commentary and extras carried over from the DVD.
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23 Jul, 2012

New on Disc: 'High Noon' and more …

High Noon

Olive, Western, #19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado.
Hollywood made a gazillion Westerns of all stripes in the 1950s, but if we’re talking about 1.33 black-and-white, I suspect that this landmark from producer Stanley Kramer, writer Carl Foreman and director Fred Zinnemann was the movie most responsible for the fact that by 1959, something like 35% of network TV programming was devoted to black-and-white Westerns. Just about every generation since the film’s release has been able to grow up with High Noon: It was one of the few really big-name movies of the ‘50s released to television before the decade was even completed. Several of Noon’s characters — particularly the Quaker wife played by Grace Kelly, the morally shaky deputy played by Lloyd Bridges and the community girl friend played by Katy Jurado — are very well drawn in limited screen time. This was a big, big deal at the time because the film had won four Oscars: for Gary Cooper — and also for Elmo Williams’ editing, Dimitri Tiomkin’s world-famous score and the title tune (“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”).
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Cover Girl

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Phil Silvers, Eve Arden.
Cover Girl is to Rita Hayworth in Technicolor what Gilda is to the black-and-white dimension of her drop-you-dead screen persona, in that these are the movies even the semi-educated automatically think of when the subject of Golden Age Columbia’s biggest star comes to mind. Of course, Gilda doesn’t have a Jerome Kern-Ira Gershwin score that produced a standard — “Long Ago and Far Away.” Unlike some musicals of the era (though not to put too fine a point on this) the Virginia Van Upp screenplay here has a few chops. In my experience, the movie’s dark elements have generally gone underreported, though it features a wealthy New York editor who’s been lovesick for 40 years (the ever-malleable Otto Kruger); a head case of a male protagonist (Gene Kelly); and a singing/dancing heroine named Rusty (Hayworth) who, when she finally makes it to Broadway, starts drinking and shedding weight due to personal stress. The production numbers here are good, and a couple of them are even better than that, but the melancholy subtext enables it to get a few more miles to the gallon in terms of lingering effect. This is definitely one of the best musicals in the 1940-60 span not made by MGM. Maybe the best.
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For the First Time

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $17.95 DVD-R, NR.
Stars Mario Lanza, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Johanna von Koczian.
Had Mario Lanza not died of a heart attack at 38 two months after the release of what then became his swan song, I wouldn’t be giving it space here. But he did, and the nature of this very influential tenor’s premature death informs the picture. Lanza looks mighty puffy here, with makeup working overtime to soothe his appearance — though, on the other hand, he is in very good voice, which is why his fans rate this picture near the top of his admittedly small big-screen pool. Lanza’s “Tonio Costa” character meets a young deaf woman (Johanna von Koczian) who eventually has one of those operations termed as experimental and unlikely to work – though in movies like this, they always do. Along for the ride is Zsa Zsa Gabor as a contessa who wears a lot of jewels she’s probably obtained in barter for her own treasures.
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16 Jul, 2012

New on Disc: 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' and more …

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Street 7/17/12
Olive, Sci-Fi, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones.
It must seem to a lot of people that this first screen adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel was a word-of-mouth classic from the get-go, but here’s a movie whose household-name status (“pod people” terminology and all that) was a result of television showings that commenced within four or five years after the film’s relatively unheralded theatrical engagements. It was and is a grabber, no matter how many times one takes the plunge — and Olive’s frill-less but visually sturdy Blu-ray has just given me perhaps my 10th or 12th viewing but the first in many years. For its sustained pleasures, we can thank the novel premise; the allegorical subtext (anti-Communist or anti-Red Scare; who knows for sure?); Don Siegel’s kinetic and even powerful direction (man, does he ever know when to go for a close-up, especially in the great greenhouse sequence); Carmen Dragon’s insistent score (which reminds me of The Night of the Hunter’s); a better-than-expected cast (lead Kevin McCarthy’s Oscar nomination five years earlier for the Fredric March screen version of Death of a Salesman had been no lie); and a Daniel Mainwaring script that lets adults act like adults. All in a pressure-packed 80 minutes.
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Flame Over India

VCI, Adventure, $14.99 DVD, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Lauren Bacall, Kenneth More, Herbert Lom, I.S. Johar.
Director J. Lee Thompson’s kid-centered rouser is among the screen’s better vintage renderings that cheer-lead the days when Britannia ruled and busted chops when dealing with “the usual” Hindu-Muslim mischief. It’s one of those movies that everyone who’s seen it seems to like. The movie is hardly modest, clocking in at about 130 minutes in its original British cut (which this is) when it was released as North West Frontier the year before Fox picked it up. Lauren Bacall (not your everyday action hero) is top-billed, though a by-necessity sweaty Kenneth More delivers one of his typically charming performances as a Brit captain who, happily, is never forthcoming with the kind of Kipling-bred racial slurs we sometimes get in this kind of picture. Geoffrey Unsworth, later of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Cabaret, was the cinematographer, so we’re not talking about anyone’s ‘B’-team. He shot it in Eastman Color (or “Colour”), which has built-in problems, so the result is more like what you’d call a “pro job” than a rendering that knocks off not just your socks but feet.
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A Southern Yankee

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $17.95 DVD-R, NR.
Stars Red Skelton, Brian Donlevy, Arlene Dahl.
This agreeable Civil War farce finds Red Skelton as a St. Louis bellhop mistaken to be a Confederate spy. Almost inevitably, the situation gets Skelton involved with a beautiful Southern spy played by Arlene Dahl. There is almost no one I know who doesn’t rate Yankee as one of Skelton’s best vehicles, a movie where star persona, subject matter and co-stars blend quite harmoniously during 90 minutes that don’t wear out their welcome. Some of the gags are said to have been dreamed up by Buster Keaton, whose name appears nowhere in the credits, but there are a few sequences where one wouldn’t exactly be struck dead to hear specifically that Keaton had done them. One of my favorites is the one in which Skelton carries a two-sided flag down a path in the middle of opposing armies. Then the wind changes.
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9 Jul, 2012

New on Disc: 'The 39 Steps' and more …

The 39 Steps

Criterion, Thriller, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll.
This landmark is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most emblematic and purely entertaining movies — an on-the-lam drama that toyed delightfully with some of the director’s later trademarks. These include the falsely accused protagonist (Robert Donat); a demure blonde for all seasons (Madeleine Carroll); a wild-goose-chase galore — including the early employment of Hitchcock’s famed “McGuffin” (or red herring plot point); and leaps in who-really-cares logic (as in the way Donat traverses an amazing amount of Scottish geography in remarkable little time while ankle-ing it away from a London murder charge).
Extras: This Criterion upgrade, which adds a new essay by Scottish critic David Cairns that tipped me off to these geographical leaps, is a very clean rendering of a now-elderly release whose negative has had to have spent its life being run through the printing ringer. Also carried over here from the standard DVD are an audio essay by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane; a 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation with Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino; and a short documentary on British Hitchcock films. There are also original production design drawings, a pertinent excerpt from the famous 1962 Francois Truffaut Hitchcock interview and (a special treat) chunky excerpts from broadcaster Mike Scott’s hugely entertaining TV interview in 1966 (probably to promote Torn Curtain), by which time Hitchcock was starting to get used to belated artistic respect and even adulation.
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Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies

Cinema Libre, Documentary, $19.95 DVD.
Narrated by Michael York.
Perpetual groundbreaker Mary Pickford was the first industry-created star to get her name on a movie marquee, and (even though it came for one of her weakest performances) the second actress to win an Oscar and the first for a talkie: the almost congenitally creaky Coquette. The bountiful audio-track interviews of Pickford partly make up for this documentary’s “authorized” aura and rah-rah narration professionally read by Michael York that leans toward the “Here Was a Woman” school. But despite the fact that Pickford at one time actually entertained the unthinkable thought of buying all the rights to her old pictures so that she could destroy them, this portrait is jammed with so many illustrative clips because, in fact, she did have this trove available for Muse director Nicholas Eliopoulos.
Extras: Included is footage from a festival Q&A in which director Eliopoulos (being either disingenuous or a diplomat) claims he couldn’t find any first-hand accounts to legitimize including Pickford’s descent into alcoholism.
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The Journey

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $17.95 DVD-R, NR.
Stars Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner, Jason Robards Jr., E.G. Marshall.
This February 1959 politically tinged drama features Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner back together again only three years after The King and I. In this case, the dynamics are a little different: Kerr is a British “Lady Diana Ashmore” who is divorcing her mucky-muck husband to be with a Hungarian national (Jason Robards in his screen debut) disguised as a Brit trying to escape the 1956 political uprising by traveling to Vienna. Brynner is the occupying Soviet major who detains their bus and acts on his suspicions that something is fishy while also wondering whether to act on his attraction to Lady Diana.
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2 Jul, 2012

New on Disc: 'Night of the Grizzly' and more …

The Night of the Grizzly

Olive Films, Western, $24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘G.’
Stars Clint Walker, Martha Hyer, Jack Elam, Leo Gordon.
A visually vibrant view and more fun than expected (which by all but the most relaxed standards isn’t necessarily synonymous with “good”), the Techniscope outdoor drama has horses, rural general stores and hooched-up young hotheads doing their best to disrupt the local dance, which the grizzly, at least, has the upbringing not to interrupt. The creature does, however, start clawing up horses and other livestock after former lawman Clint and his clan (including the missus, played by Martha Hyer) inherit and move onto Wyoming property coveted by the town’s vindictive powerbroker (Keenan Wynn). The filmmaker entrusted to all this was Joseph Pevney, who at this point, in consecutive career years, had to direct Martin and Lewis in the second-most contentious shoot of their screen history (3 Ring Circus) and then Joan Crawford in Female on the Beach. So cut him a break, even though Grizzly is a movie less directed than patched.
Extras: The film is easy enough to take in — which is even more true of the nearly half-hour interview of Walker (who recently turned 85) that’s part of this release. A former lawman (in Las Vegas, no less), he still exudes an “I-don’t-know-how-the-hell-I-got-into-this-business-but-am-glad-I-did” manner that is most appealing.
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Star of Midnight

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Mystery, $17.95 DVD-R, NR.
Stars William Powell, Ginger Rogers, Paul Kelly.
Before MGM could even get its first Thin Man sequel into production, RKO borrowed lead William Powell to play another sleuth who liked to drink during the day. And so as not to pound the rip-off point home too much, the character here is not precisely a detective but a lawyer who enjoys dabbling with crimesolving. Nor is this guy married like the “Thin Man” series’ Nick Charles, but he does have a good-natured girlfriend (rich, too) around for aid and wisecracks. She’s played by Ginger Rogers — a performer, who like Powell, had a knack for making her co-stars look good. Working out of a cool ‘30s New York apartment where a male lounges around in a tux that he probably also wears to the deli, the two try to sleuth why the girlfriend of a Powell friend disappeared a year or so earlier in Chicago — and why they can’t even go see a New York play without having the lead actress (whose style is to wear a mask on stage) disappear as well during the performance. 
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Springtime in the Sierras

Film Chest, Western, $11.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Roy Rogers, Jane Frazee, Andy Devine.
Some spiffer-upper at the lab controls, working with a decent 16mm print, has come up with a credible rendering of Republic Pictures’ Trucolor — which means that what we’re seeing here is supposed to look like a blend of turquoise and various burnt shades of reds and brown (or close). This said, whenever the Springtime cast can momentarily bring itself to cool it on the constant singing for a citizenry that includes gravel-voiced Andy Devine (per usual, playing a character who has to be wondering what having sex, the fights aren’t bad).
Extras: Roy and Dale Evans used to sub a lot for Dinah Shore on her Sunday night NBC “Chevy Show,” and the April 2, 1961, Easter presentation — included here as an unexpected supplement — is much more fun than expected.
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