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

6 Aug, 2012 By: Mike Clark

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.



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