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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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23 May, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Manchurian Candidate' Blu-ray and more …

The Manchurian Candidate (Blu-ray)

Fox/MGM, Thriller, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey, James Gregory.
The JFK assassination changed how everyone looked at everything political, and Candidate eventually came to seem so far ahead of its time that Hollywood did the obligatory lame remake in 2004. It had brainwashing for real; Frank Sinatra in a rare role with real dimension; an eventually Oscar-nominated Angela Lansbury; Leslie Parrish in that sexy Halloween outfit; and the nail-biting finale in which one party’s presidential nominee is targeted for sniper’s fire in Madison Square Garden. Even the original Candidate’s strange mix of tragedy and ticklish satire seems positively modern. It looks better on Blu-ray than it has before without looking particularly distinguished, but it must do something right because I noticed more than ever how much Sinatra, a career-best Laurence Harvey and so many of the male principals sweat.
Extras: Candidate has been issued for the home market many times, and its premiere on Blu-ray not unwelcomely recycles its interviews with director John Frankenheimer, screenwriter George Axelrod and Sinatra, all of whom are long gone.
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Such Good Friends

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Dyan Cannon, James Coco, Jennifer O’Neill, Ken Howard.
This adaptation of Lois Gould’s novel about a woman’s interior thoughts brought on by her husband’s coma is arguably the one later movie Otto Preminger directed that had significant merit. Friends’ black-comic premise starts with Julie’s (Dyan Cannon) art-director husband (Laurence Luckinbill) becoming a hugely successful children’s author committing adultery with everyone in sight (itself a not-bad gag). He then becomes one of those people too many of us have known: the person who goes into the hospital for a relatively benign procedure — and never comes out. This allows the script to get in some funny observational zingers about how the couple’s well-heeled Manhattan family and friends remain oblivious to what’s really important. As a satire of conspicuous consumption and what later became Yuppie-dom, the movie was ahead of its time.
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The Sign of the Cross

Universal, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton, Elissa Landi.
The Sign of the Cross is a prototypical Cecil B. DeMille religious spectacular set in ancient Rome. It previously was available in Universal’s five-title DeMille boxed set and now is available individually. It is very much worth seeing for the cast, the décor, Karl Struss’s shimmering Oscar-nominated photography and — most of all — its still incredibly bloodthirsty arena sequence, which doesn’t get lazy with that same old lions-eating-Christians stuff.
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Get Yourself a College Girl

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Mary Ann Mobley, Chad Everett, Joan O’Brien, Nancy Sinatra, Chris Noel.
We begin with a student played by onetime Miss America Mary Ann Mobley, who does her part for coming sexual liberation here by almost getting bounced from something called Wyndham College for composing a randy tune on the subject. The Dave Clark Five and The Animals appear in what had been a big year for both groups but don’t sing any of their hits. Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto do perform their biggest — “The Girl from Ipanema” — but the staging is bereft of imagination. If it’s all getting too complicated, this Warner burn-on-demand title simply is what it is — which means that male lead Chad Everett is going to be characteristically unctuous, in a Midwest country club kind of way.
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16 May, 2011

New on Disc: 'Something Wild' and more …

Something Wild

Criterion, Comedy, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta.
Assuming a certain degree of competence in terms of execution, some movies get a blistering shot out of the gate from their premise alone — E. Max Frye’s original screenplay for one of director Jonathan Demme’s most characteristic achievements easily among them. The screenplay by Frye is first-rate, but the movie is quintessential Demme. It loves and respects minorities; has dead-on casting instincts down to the smallest roles (including bits by directors John Sayles and John Waters); wallows positively in the byways of America; employs sizzling color schemes; and has a zesty rock soundtrack — among the tops of the decade — that embraces David Byrne, UB40, Oingo Boingo, Fine Young Cannibals and more. Criterion yet again delivers a print that precisely replicates how a movie looked at the time it was born. In fact, you can use the indoor shot of Melanie Griffith’s apartment — or the color upholstery design from her character’s first of many illegally procured cars — to calibrate your big-screen monitor.
Extras: Demme mentions in the Criterion interview — without naming names — just how much the experience of making 1984’s Swing Shift pained him and how Wild became the project that made him want to resume directing again. The set also includes a Frye interview and a booklet with a new essay by critic David Thompson.
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Street 5/17
eOne, Drama, $29.98 DVD, NR.
In Italian with English subtitles.
Stars Franco Interlenghi, Rinaldo Smordoni.
Historically notable as winner of the first foreign-language Oscar when the category wasn’t yet competitive but simply a one-shot honorary citation, director Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist landmark is also the film that Orson Welles pronounced the greatest he’d ever seen (while critic-of-the-day James Agee wasn’t far behind in praise). Today, some might argue that time has eroded some of the edge off its fastball — but only in comparison to other neorealist classics, including one or two De Sica made himself. Visually, this is a very striking release.
Extras: The new commentary by scholar Bert Cardullo is also a model of its kind — pointing out things we’ve missed that are right in front of us but trapped in our subconscious.
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Hurry Sundown

Street 5/17
Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Robert Reed, Robert Hooks, Michael Caine, John Phillip Law, Jim Backus, Jane Fonda, George Kennedy, Faye Dunaway, Diahann Carroll, Burgess Meredith.
This nearly 2½-hour Otto Preminger Southern opus may have been the most critically panned high-profile Hollywood movie of the entire 1960s. Still, a lush Olive print and the film’s fine production design make this a reasonably diverting sit-through, especially whenever Burgess Meredith is on the screen.
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The Prizefighter and the Lady

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Myrna Loy, Max Baer, Primo Carnera, Jack Dempsey, Walter Huston, Otto Kruger.
On the heels of hitting paydirt with swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, MGM next cast boxer Max Baer in this boxing-backdropped romance. Before Baer ended up annihilating Primo Carnera for real the following June, the latter got cast as the reigning champ that challenger Baer must beat in the movie’s climax.
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9 May, 2011

New on Disc: 'Blow Out' and more …

Blow Out

Criterion, Thriller, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars John Travolta, Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz, John Lithgow.
Though I’ve never been too wild in the past about this thriller that remains revered by many, Criterion gives Brian De Palma’s Hitchcockian homage to Antonioni’s Blow-Up by far the fairest shake it’s gotten in my previous experience with it. This is a movie that’s about sound: John Travolta plays a soundman regularly working on movies so trashy that De Palma himself could have made them. The new Blu-ray’s soundtrack sounds as if it has been pumping some iron, and visually, this is just one more example of how Criterion can make a movie of 30 years’ vintage look great.
Extras: Thanks to Criterion, I now appreciate Blow Out’s technical virtuosity more than I ever have — though hardly enough to curtsy to one of Pauline Kael’s most famously unbridled reviews (the kind that made so many revere Andrew Sarris). Reprinted in the Criterion booklet along with critic Michael Sragow’s less breathy brief, it terms the film “great” and puts De Palma’s direction on a level with Robert Altman’s for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The set also includes several new interviews with the filmmakers.
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Hail the Conquering Hero

Street 5/10
Universal, Comedy, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, William Demarest, Raymond Walburn.
Hail the Conquering Hero is the definitive 4-F movie. Eddie Bracken plays the son of fallen World War I Marine “Hinky Dinky” Truesmith — he has been mustered out of the Corps with chronic hay fever and is hiding out in a San Diego shipyard because he’s ashamed to face his mother, former girlfriend (Ella Raines) and the rest of his small town. This may be my favorite Preston Sturges movie due to the power of Bracken’s performance; its expert skewering of slippery politicians (a Sturges specialty); the best-ever showcase for William Demarest’s brand of gruffness this side of Sturges’ preceding The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; and, for the time, some incredible satirizing of wartime hero worship (though not of the Marines).
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Violent Saturday

Available at ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Victor Mature, Richard Egan, Virginia Leith, Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine.
There’s something about seeing Lee Marvin use a nose inhaler in early CinemaScope that’s guaranteed to stay in the memory. The bank robber he plays joins J. Carrol Naish and the ever-malevolent Stephen McNally in a small-town heist, which is a pretext for exposing a whole slew of small-town peccadilloes that movies began to expose around the middle of that decade. Tight (91 minutes), slight and a decent time at the movies, Saturday is the second 20th Century Fox deep library title to be limited-released under the once-a-month banner of a new enterprise called Twilight Time. The movie lovers who run it are invading the Fox vaults, and their launch release The Kremlin Letter (John Huston, 1970) got a crisp transfer last month. The one here has excellent color values but isn’t anamorphically enhanced, apparently because the right elements weren’t available.
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I Love Melvin

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Musical, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Una Merkel, Richard
Anderson, Allyn Joslin.
Singin’ in the Rain opened on April 11, 1952, and just one month later MGM had this most unpretentious Technicolor spin-off in production, showcasing two of that all-timer’s stars: Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. He plays a Look magazine photographer, and she is a show biz hopeful who, in one Broadway gig, literally gets tossed around like a football in a pigskin-motifed musical number — a fairly amazing scene.
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2 May, 2011

New on Disc: 'Kes' and more …


Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13’ for language, nudity and some teen smoking.
Stars David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Lynne Perrie, Colin Welland.
A pre-release festival favorite whose subsequent niche popularity even astonished its makers, director Ken Loach’s critical breakthrough (with longtime producer Tony Garnett) is, in trivial shorthand, a boy-and-his-falcon movie. This is among the few of its ilk with a social conscience. As story-central Billy, young David Bradley had a youthful face with no shortage of adult character lines. Finding a kestrel and nurturing it is Billy’s respite from a no-future future that’s been in store for him since birth by a rigged system fostered by bureaucrats and tough-guy teacher/administrators who’ve carved out their own fiefdoms.
Extras: David Bradley is interviewed here in his late 50s as part of an excellent 45-minute look-back that also features Loach and Garnett. The making-of documentary has a lot of interesting material on how Bradley and the crew worked with the falcons. Other extras include 1966’s Cathy Come Home, a Garnett-Loach TV film about homelessness that made major waves in England at the time; and a 1993 “South Bank” show on Loach.
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The Night of the Generals

Sony Pictures, Drama, $14.94 DVD, NR.
Stars Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Tom Courtenay, Joanna Pettit.
Part hefty epic, part camp and part showcase for an over-the-top lead performance that’s in keeping with the rest, Sam Spiegel’s typically un-frugal production was less popular with reviewers and audiences of the time than it is with at least some of today’s fanciers of World War II extravaganzas. Peter O’Toole gives a performance straight from the Nazi-sadist playbook as a general who likes to murder loose women. Investigating the 1942 death of a prostitute in occupied Warsaw is a major in German Intelligence (Omar Sharif), who’s obsessed by a case in which it’s established that the kinky perpetrator had to be one of three highest-ranking honchos (the other generals had alibis). The brass’s feathers get ruffled, but Sharif keeps pursuing matters. Though Generals really isn’t a very successful movie, it is one that can keep you going for an evening if it catches you in the right mood.
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A Thousand Clowns

Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
MGM, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam, Barry Gordon.
Stagebound and patched together with the cinematic equivalent of chewing gum, the low-budget screen version of Herb Gardner’s play breaks most of the rules for constituting a movie that grabbed me from the duration, but sometimes a single performance can be infatuating. However, the performance in question is not Oscared Martin Balsam’s — which gets remarkably little screen time — but Jason Robards’ re-creation of his role from the stage original: as TV kids’-show writer Murray Burns.
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The Unfinished Dance

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Margaret O’Brien, Cyd Charisse, Danny Thomas, Karin Booth.
Here’s some vivid color photography back-dropping the story of a ballet company where Swan Lake is part of the repertoire. But if the hook sounds familiar, we’re not talking Black Swan. Captured at the time when she was no longer tiny but not yet an adolescent, Margaret O’Brien plays a lonely child ballerina in a kids’ troupe packed with pre-pubescent hopefuls.
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25 Apr, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Ernie Kovacs Collection' and more …

The Ernie Kovacs Collection

Shout! Factory, Comedy, $69.97 six-DVD set, NR.
The line from Ernie Kovacs to “Laugh-In” (which is one reason why that show’s producer George Schlatter appears on this boxed set’s extras) to Monty Python to “Saturday Night Live” to David Letterman to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and right up to today is not exactly a crooked one. This is an uncommonly comprehensive view, basically unfiltered. We see Kovacs on local TV, on morning network shows, summer replacement shows and on the classic but not particularly highly rated ABC specials that he did at the end — just before his untimely 1962 death in an auto mishap.
Extras: The set includes superbly knowing and loving essays by David Kronke and Jonathan Lethem, a thorough episode annotation by curator Ben Model, recollections from friends and plenty of vintage videos.
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American Experience: Stonewall Uprising

Street 4/26
PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Though the folkloric reaction to 1969’s famed NYPD’s Stonewall Inn bust has often been termed the Stonewall Riots, this 83-minute remembrance includes a lesson in semantics. As someone notes here, what happened on June 28 — and for an apparently indeterminate number of nights after — was, indeed, closer to an uprising. It was then that the modern-day gay movement launched — once gay customers in a Greenwich Village hole of a bar refused to disburse when the cops ordered them to do so. One disadvantage this documentary has is scant existence of any on-the-spot news footage of the event itself. As a result, some of the events by necessity have to be re-enacted. What the documentary does have is lots of interviewees, who include incident patrons, two on-the-scene Village Voice reporters (the paper was nearby) and even a participating cop who gets in this chronicle’s final words (strong ones they are, too).
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Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm — Portrait of a Jazz Legend

JazzedMedia.com, Documentary, $14.99 DVD, NR.
Not surprisingly and perhaps unavoidably, this is predominantly a talking-heads treatment. We see significant musical clips that span the ages. Interviewed are a couple ex-wives, though the marital chronology isn’t easy to follow. The fact that one former wife committed suicide and a son once got into hot water in an incident involving a rattlesnake and a mailbox — well, it’s indicative of a rather turbulent life. What you will not get here is any discussion of daughter Leslie Kenton’s recent book about the incest she suffered at the hands of a father she loved, though there are allusions in the documentary to his drinking, which eventually got out of hand. Appropriately, the focus here is on Kenton’s prolific output, and the best of it still gives great pleasure: Cuban Fire, Adventures in Jazz and a standout West Side Story album (of many) to name three.
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Not as a Stranger

Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
MGM, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Grahame.
The high-profile adaptation of Morton Thompson’s novel remains, whatever else it is or isn’t, a conversation piece on several levels. It was the movie version of the previous year’s best-selling piece of fiction, published after the author’s 1953 death; it marked the first time that famed producer Stanley Kramer ever directed; it put Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra and Lee Marvin in the same med-school class of heavy smokers — and at jarringly advanced ages; and it boasted five Oscar-winning actors in its line-up — some of them in unsuitable roles.
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18 Apr, 2011

New on Disc: 'Rabbit Hole' and more …

Rabbit Hole

Street 4/19
Lionsgate, Drama, B.O. $2.2 million, $29.95 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13’ for mature thematic material, some drug use and language.
Stars Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard, Miles Teller, Giancarlo Esposito, Sandra Oh.
Just as this past December was wrapping up, two of the best movies in years about marriages in trouble opened 10 days apart: Blue Valentine and this adaptation of the David Lindsay-Abaire play that won a 2007 Tony. Each got its lead actress (respectively, Michelle Williams and Nicole Kidman) merited Oscar nominations. Rabbit Hole is a strong ensemble work with an especially good role for Kidman, who’s had a tough go of it recent years after a spate of indifferent, or at least indifferently received, pictures. The couple that Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play recently have lost their son, who ran into the street chasing his dog and got hit by teen who wasn’t driving recklessly. In a tight 90-minute rendering that never gives much indication that it was ever a play, we see how both parties (friends and relatives, too) react to the situation. Dianne Wiest plays Kidman’s mother, who keeps on trying to equate the loss of her own 30-year-old son to heroin with a little boy who was chasing a pet. The script (which Lindsay-Abaire wrote) never wavers too far without injecting some humor, which is something viewers should know if they’re thinking of rejecting this subject matter out of hand.
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The Explosive Generation

Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
MGM, Drama, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars William Shatner, Patty McCormack, Lee Kinsolving, Billy Gray.
“Bud” is bothered — or at least confused — by hormones. An almost grown-up Patty McCormack has graduated from The Bad Seed to the kind that, at least potentially, can leave you “with child” (as it used to be termed in Pearl Buck novels). And the high-school teacher who protects student rights when it comes to talking about sex is played by … Bill Shatner? Not to oversell the result, but in truth a drama that sounds as if it’s going to be pure exploitation along the lines of Teenage Doll or The Cool and the Crazy has to rank among the more prescient movies of its decade, or at least the early part of it. When the usual array of uptight parents try to put the clamps down on free expression here, their children organize a protest — just as this exact same generation would just a few years down the road. Generation goes a little soft at the end when the parents do the same, but the movie is fundamentally concerned about free speech. The school is full of familiar faces, even beyond McCormack’s. Billy Gray, who had recently wrapped up six seasons playing Bud on “Father Knows Best” is the car dealer’s son; wouldn’t it have been great seeing him ask TV dad Robert Young on that fabulous series for advice on the best brand of condoms?
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While the City Sleeps

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Vincent Price, John Barrymore Jr.
Shrewdly marketed as the screen pursuit of a punk serial killer who’ll terrorize the entire Naked City if the New York Sentinel can trumpet his deeds enough, director Fritz Lang’s penultimate Hollywood feature actually is a sexually frank (for its day) look at old-school metropolitan journalism, especially in the after-hours. Take one look at Rhonda Fleming in a two-piece doing twist-and-turn exercises around the house in front of clueless husband Vincent Price (ill-coordinated shirt and shorts with dark socks). Even a 9-year-old would suspect that she’s getting naked in the city with someone else — and she is. Despite the large cast and keen use of widescreen throughout, this was a low-budget affair just as RKO and Lang’s Hollywood career were winding down in the same year — though Lang’s swan song (also with Andrews) would follow in three months. That was Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which also is just out as a Warner on-demand release.
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Dogtooth (Blu-ray)

Kino Lorber, Drama, B.O. $0.1 million, $34.95 Blu-ray, NR.
In Greek with English subtitles.
Stars Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Hristos Passalis, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Christine Anna Kalaitzidou.

2010. When Greece’s recent foreign-language Oscar nominee also turns out to be something John Waters calls (on the box) “by far the most original film I’ve seen in a long time,” you’ve got my attention.

Judging solely from personal experience, cinematic works this twisted and “out there” tend to be products of Spanish-speaking countries, and IMDb.com, at least, claims that Dogtooth is a remake of a 1973 obscurity from Mexico called Castle of Purity that would be interesting to see for contrast. The original likely doesn’t have director/co-writer Giorgos Lanthimos’ disorienting framing of actors — not always but sometimes — that had me wondering at first if the aspect ratio setting on either my TV or Blu-ray player was out of whack. It’s disorienting because oftentimes the composition is clean and even formally pristine — which goes along with the story’s physically spic-and-span home (well-tended grass and a pool as well) that houses a father, mother, two growing-up daughters, one growing-up son … and another son who’s imaginary and supposedly dwells over the backyard wall.

No one except for dad has much grasp on reality, and dad is no open-and-shut case himself. Not unlike the punks in A Clockwork Orange, the family speaks its own language — though in this case, they misapply words known to all instead of making them up whole cloth the way they did in the Anthony Burgess novel and classic Stanley Kubrick film version. Dad keeps everyone in a household prison (though mom seems to be a conspirator), but he himself goes to work at a factory he either owns or manages. His one family concession to the outside world comes courtesy of a female security guard at the plant. He regularly blindfolds her (no fair knowing where we live) and takes her home to provide sexual release for the son. The real one, that is.

If the movie is trying to say anything (and here, all bets are off), it seems to be that if a fissure or two starts to appear in the supremely rigid existence you’ve established for yourself, the symbolic result is likely to be something akin to the climax to the World War II drama The Dam Busters when those initial cracks in the targeted dam’s cement gives way to massive flooding of the Ruhr Valley. The imported outsider starts communicating with the sisters, even partaking in mutual licking regimens — but that’s another story. Soon, the siblings (and these are kid who are not “all right”) are have grown more rebellious than dad would like.

This is one of those movies where you either go with the flow or incessantly ask, “How soon will it be over?” Dad has engendered a familial fear of cats, teaching his offspring to bark like dogs. In one scene, the son graphically kills a housecat with a pair of garden shears, a passage guaranteed to jettison the PETA moviegoer demographic in about one second. There’s also a scene where dad plays an LP of "Fly Me to the Moon," complete with the familiar Count Basie/Quincy Jones arrangement. He tells everyone the featured singer (who isn’t Frank Sinatra but someone doing a fairly good imitation) is grandfather calling — which almost makes you wonder if there’ll be follow-ups from Uncle Dean, Uncle Joey and Uncle Sammy. But the movie has set up such weird ground rules that one is never sure whether we’re getting a bogus Frank because someone didn’t want to pay the music rights — or because filmmaker Lanthimos is trying to make some arcane point.

It takes a certain mindset to accept these hijinks, which evolve into something lower when the story takes some genuinely disturbing turns. As a result, it wasn’t too difficult to toss Dogtooth onto my mind’s “reject” pile — until the next day, when I found myself thinking about it more than expected. In other words, it’s one of those naggers. To me, the most interesting thing about it is the fact that same Oscar voters who could award best picture to a movie as conventional as The King’s Speech could also find a way to even consider this one for the foreign-language designation. This has to be the final nail in the supposition that the academy votes in a homogenized mindset.

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11 Apr, 2011

New on Disc: 'Mesrine,' 'Behind the Burly Q' and more …

Mesrine — Part 1: Killer Instinct, Part 2: Public Enemy #1

Music Box, Drama, B.O. Part 1 $0.6 million, B.O. Part 2 $0.3 million, $29.95 each DVD, $34.95 each Blu-ray, Part 1 ‘R’ for strong brutal violence, some sexual content and language, Part 2 ‘R’ for bloody brutal violence, a scene of sexuality, nudity and pervasive language.
Stars Vincent Cassel, Gerard Depardieu, Cecile De France, Ludivine Sagnier.
The home release of France’s four-hour crime gangster saga has likely caught a bigger break than its subject gave many of his victims. In the interim between Mesrine’s two-part theatrical release and recent two-part launch (a month apart) on DVD and Blu-ray, lead Vincent Cassel got a lot of ink and exposure to mainstream moviegoers by appearing as the ballet maestro in Black Swan. Directed by Jean-Francois Richet, who did the not-bad 2005 remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, this is a tough movie to gauge artistically, and I understand why reactions were somewhat polarized. Given a protagonist who at times expanded his operation into the United States and Canada as well — and broke out of jail several times and once broke back in to spring pals — it is inevitably episodic. On the other hand, it is no everyday achievement to fashion a movie of uncommon length that has very few lulls or at least no lulls of consequence. A lot of this is due to Cesar winner Cassel’s constant charisma.
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Behind the Burly Q

Street 4/12
First Run, Documentary, B.O. $0.02 million, $27.95 DVD, NR.
On balance, the mostly aged former burlesque strippers that filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis interviews for this talking-heads remembrance claim to have had a jolly good time of it and speak of the now quaint old profession with fondness. A major high point is hearing Alan Alda reminisce about his long-ago backstage time as a “child of burlesque” because father Robert spent his early career working in the burly-q trade.
Extras: The DVD extras include a tribute to several performers who died during the documentary’s long production process. The extras also include a reunion party of many of the featured principals.
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The Mountain

Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Spencer Tracy, Robert Wagner, Claire Trevor, Anna Kashfi.
One time, it actually happened: Paramount Pictures made a movie set in the Swiss Alps in which the mountain that figures so prominently in its plot (and, of course, title) looked nearly identical to the studio’s famous logo minus the surrounding stars. And they shot it in resplendent VistaVision for images that still are almost beyond belief. In truth, there are a lot of Blu-rays, especially of current movies, that aren’t up to the visual wonders that this standard DVD from Olive Films routinely boasts in every frame. But this is a movie that’s significantly more fun to talk about than sit through, not that the latter is any particular chore. But this was one very weird project. The story, fairly simple, has to do with an airliner crashing in the mountain as winter’s coming on and the difficulty of assembling a party to rescue the mail on board.
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Yolanda and the Thief

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Musical, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Fred Astaire, Lucille Bremer, Frank Morgan, Mildred
Natwick, Mary Nash, Leon Ames.
Yolanda is mostly exasperating to sit through, but you can’t dislodge its abject dreaminess from your brain. The Fred Astaire/Lucille Bremer “Coffee Time” number is one of my 20 favorite movie scenes ever.
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4 Apr, 2011

New on Disc: 'Topsy-Turvy' and more …


Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for a scene of risque nudity.
Stars Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Timothy Spall.
You can’t exactly say that writer-director Mike Leigh’s masterpiece — and yes, on a certain level, it probably is futile limiting that accolade honor to a single movie — was as underrated as his most recent achievement: December’s Another Year. Leigh’s film takes about 35 minutes to establish the frustrated ambitions but also the social affability of composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) before it even introduces the far more intimidating and even prickly librettist W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent, accordingly given almost all the laugh lines). And unlike most backstage biographies, Topsy-Turvy opens and continues on with the team at mid-career point — when their comic-opera soufflés are becoming redundant, the critical huzzahs are falling off and Sullivan wants to go it alone composing more-serious works. In my view, there’s never been anything quite like Topsy-Turvy, despite the hundred of backstage movies that Hollywood and other countries have made.
Extras: There are the usual Criterion goodies: a Leigh commentary, a 1992 Broadbent-directed short that kind of planted the Topsy-Turvy seed, terrific deleted scenes and Leigh’s conversation with musical director Gary Vershon — because, yes, this also is a musical and a great one. As critic Amy Taubin notes in a wonderful accompanying essay, the movie (despite the oddity in Leigh’s filmography that it seems to be) is exacting in its delineation of a rehearsal process that is not very different from Leigh’s own.
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Rope of Sand

Street 4/5
Olive, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Corinne Calvet, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre.
The Rains-Henreid-Lorre Casablanca connection doesn’t exactly hurt this Hal Wallis action potboiler set in the opposite end of Africa, which essentially is a movie about the revenge Burt Lancaster’s character exacts for past beatings and even a flogging. And the latter is among the more memorable ones in a non-seafaring movie. Sand is the first salvo that Casablanca producer Wallis launched with shapely Corinne Calvet after signing her to a contract. Shot in glamour-conscious black-and-white by Charles Lang, the yarn has slick Rains (manager of the Colonial Diamond Co.) hiring Calvet to use her wiles on former game hunter Lancaster — a couple years after the latter discovered a secret cache of jewels. Straight-arrow Lancaster would have probably divulged the gems’ whereabouts, even without asking, had not sadistic police commandant Henreid gotten tough about it. Sand’s underrated director William Dieterle was a compatible match for Wallis during this period, and the Wallis Paramounts were an entertaining bunch in the late ‘40s before the producer’s output got too slick and formulaic in subsequent decades.
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A Cold Wind in August

MGM, Drama, $24.99 DVD, NR.
Stars Lola Albright, Scott Marlowe, Herschel Bernardi, Joe De Santis.
If the movie version of Burton Wohl’s eponymous novel had been a product of the modern screen era, someone (its distributor or the actress herself) would have mounted a publicity campaign to get Lola Albright’s lead performance the Oscar nomination it deserved. A lot has been made of the fact that co-star Scott Marlowe was 29 playing 17 to Albright’s real-life 36, which takes some of the edge off this tawdry-for-its time romance between an apartment manager’s handsome teenaged son and a thrice-divorced tenant with aging banzai looks who isn’t advertising the fact that she’s a stripper. But even though Marlowe’s character is more emotionally ill-developed than he needs to be (this kid is always debating whether to enjoy rapturous sack-time or a ballgame with the guys), Marlowe gets the role’s psychology right, and the two generally make a convincing pair.
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The Windmill Movie

Zeitgeist, Documentary, B.O. $0.03 million, $29.99 DVD, NR.
There are probably more than instances than not of self-referential cinema becoming off-putting, but in this case it’s a third party who is doing the referring — sort of. And it’s the “sort of” that makes this odd duck rather interesting, starting with the multiple levels on which this melancholy portrait can be appreciated. One of them is that mainstay of documentaries from recent years: the dysfunctional family that belies its outward social appearance.

The late Richard P. Rogers was a documentary filmmaker and film professor at his own alma mater Harvard — one who also, in the project that consumed his life, recorded substantial chunks of his daily existence long before it became a routine thing to do by teen partiers with cell-phones. In his case, the project wasn’t frivolous — though there were probably many times when even he had to wonder. What’s more, Rogers had a huge early-start advantage in terms of early footage because his well-heeled father got in early when it came to shooting home movies, which was probably once regarded as an exotic concept.

Rogers’ idea was to assemble this material into a film about his life and own perceived shortcomings, as in the self-alleged failure to have made more of himself despite all the advantages that a well-heeled life on Long Island and a lot of Hamptons beach time would signify. If there’s some whininess potential in all this (Rogers lamented that he wasn’t the filmic force Steven Spielberg is), there’s a certain disarming quality to this portrait: here, after all, is Rogers standing in front of the camera and telling us he knows he’s whining. And besides, not very before he ended up dying fairly young, Rogers suffered through an astonishing freak accident that constitutes this documentary’s No. 1 shock when we gaze at the aftermath in a hospital scene. So give him bonus points.

When Rogers died in 2001 artistically unfulfilled, his friend and onetime student Alexander Olch worked with Rogers’ widow (photographer Susan Meiselas) to assemble 200 hours of film and video into a completed work — that is, the one Rogers couldn’t crack himself. If the result inevitably has the tone of a stunt, it’s a heartfelt one. Named for the windmill that his grandfather had transported to the East Hamptons’ Georgica Pond for a constant visual motif, this backdoor tribute (complete with contributions by longtime Rogers friend Wallace Shawn) kind of creeps up on you.

For one thing, the summer scenes of young women bicycling and sunning themselves on the beach are irresistible and allow Rogers’ narration to make the point that if summer is a kind of dessert for having lived through the winter, it is summer that provides the substantial (and certainly formative) experiences in any kind of vital life. (You don’t have to agree with this, but I, for one, do.) For another, you have to take Windmill’s oft-stated references to mental illness that ran through the Rogers family and factor them into the equation — unless you simply shrug and think, “I would just taken the lifestyle and run.” But when we actually see the subject’s mother in the backyard being interviewed — wearing a mink coat in a windy June and making abrasive remarks — it’s obvious that there’s a lot to this story. And this is even before we’re told she once tossed Rogers and Maiselas out of her home one July 4 weekend after making anti-Semitic remarks about the latter during some sort of fracas over the defrosting of an icebox.

Maiselas, turns out, was one of … well, at least a few. Rogers had a wandering eye and wasn’t reticent to act on his impulses, though Maiselas lasted for the long haul and finally married him when it became clear that time was running out and that Rogers wasn’t going to beat cancer. At some point in the planned documentary’s production process, Rogers ceased writing narration — and his health deteriorated to the point where one wonders if he could have continued, anyhow. In the later portions, Olch takes over with his own voice and own written narration as Rogers — to a point where I forgot I was no longer listening to Rogers himself. If this is a compliment, there’s also something a little queasy about it — but maybe not that much more than having writers complete unfinished novels by deceased author-friends from notes, which is not that infrequent an occurrence. It’s just that film or video, by its very nature, ups the emotional ante.

So, yes, this is a picture about the mucky-muck good life (with all the outdoor drinking that entails); fear of romantic commitment and fatherhood (Rogers didn’t want to pass along iffy genes); the family unit (gone to hell); and self-worth. But it is also about obsession (all 200 of those boxes), which turns out to be the overriding theme — one that has served a lot of good movies. One can’t help but notice, though, that for someone so obsessed with creating … well, whatever it was going to be … that Rogers had the kind of personality that attracted a lot of friends. You wonder if maybe they shouldn’t have been more important than those boxes.

Extras: Two Rogers shorts and an essay by Film Comment’s Scott Foundas.



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28 Mar, 2011

New on Disc: 'The Times of Harvey Milk,' 'Anything Goes' and more …

The Times of Harvey Milk

Criterion, Documentary, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
There’s never been any doubt in my day-by-day, everyday mind that Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary is one of the great films of the ‘80s. So it comes as something of a surprise on Criterion’s extras-jammed release to hear it asserted that the timing turned out to be just right in 2008 for the release of director Gus Van Sant’s Milk because so many had forgotten about Epstein’s earlier achievement.
Extras: Close to the top of many typically fine Criterion bonuses here is an interview with Jon Else, a teacher of documentary filmmaking at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism who is very forceful and direct in opining why Times is such a stellar achievement, starting with how immediately its maker gets us into the story. One of the other Criterion extras talks some about the filming of Milk, an endeavor with which Epstein elected to cooperate. For his part, Van Sant (who appears on camera here, as does featured performer James Franco) gave acting roles to some of the surviving interviewees from the documentary.
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Anything Goes

Street 3/29
eOne, Musical, $29.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr, Sheree North.
The “Colgate Comedy Hour” presentation of Cole Porter’s perennial had to be trimmed to a buzz-cut degree to fit its TV time slot. And this despite the fact that Porter standards not featured in the stage version got added here. So what we have in this most welcome release isn’t an Anything Goes for purists, but it ought to delight just about any non-grouch you know who has a taste for classic musicals. This “Colgate” show’s standout is the Merman-Sinatra duet of “You’re the Top” at almost exactly the midway point — one of the most infectious sequences in all of ‘50s TV.
Extras: Within the limitations of kinescopes, the copy utilized for this authorized “Archive of American Television” release is superb — as good a kinescope as I’ve ever seen (the commercials are missing). And it ought to be: It’s taken from Merman’s personal 16mm copy, an acquisition described with great charm by Stephen Cole, who provides super liner notes about the show’s history (but especially this rendering).
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Wild Rovers

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Western, $19.95 DVD, ‘PG.’
Stars William Holden, Ryan O’Neal, Karl Malden, Tom Skerritt.
Director Blake Edwards’ troubled Western was envisioned as a three-hour roadshow exhibition, so it’s possible that even this welcome director’s cut (which first surfaced during the laserdisc era and isn’t much improved upon in this somewhat muddy on-demand release) doesn’t have everything that once existed. William Holden’s performance remains authentic and makes this movie (in terms of personal achievement) one of the high points of his later career.
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The Black Sleep

Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
MGM, Horror, $19.98 DVD, NR.
Stars Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi.
This standout curiosity from MGM/Fox’s new on-demand lineup has a cast of the ages and some irresistible elements. For one thing, it deals with something close to grave robbery perpetrated by a megalomaniacal surgeon (Basil Rathbone) —who’s desperate to experiment on real human beings in his efforts to bring a young wife out of a tumor-induced coma. It’s also the final film Bela Lugosi, as a mute servant, knew he would appear in, since he never knew footage taken a few days before his death would end up in Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space.
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21 Mar, 2011

New on Disc: 'Inside Job' and more …

Inside Job

Sony Pictures, Documentary, B.O. $4.2 million, $28.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray, ‘PG-13’ for some drug and sex-related material.
Narrated by Matt Damon.

2010. Before going on to win the recent Oscar for Best Documentary, director Charles Ferguson knew he wanted to have a specific Peter Gabriel song in the opening credits. He and co-producer Audrey Marrs were willing to spend 5% of the film’s budget in what became a cliffhanger to clear the rights. All this, of course, is tangential to Inside Job’s narrative power in chronicling the 2008 global meltdown of the economy and the seeds of the mess we’re still in today. As much as any movie can, it crystallizes difficult subjects — brain pulverizers such as credit default swaps and CDOs — in a way lay folk can comprehend.
Extras: The bonus material is almost like a secondary extra movie, and the Blu-ray has something like an hour of extra material that the standard DVD doesn’t have. One of these BD segments is a significant highlight: a low-key, blow-by-blow account of the afternoon Lehman Brothers started to melt, delivered by Lehman’s premier bankruptcy attorney Harvey Miller. As we can hear from his outstanding commentary with producer Marrs (a good foil), Ferguson is soft-spoken himself, which makes his relentlessly probing questions on screen to occasionally discomforted subjects very effective.
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Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Kino Lorber, Documentary, B.O. $0.2 million, $29.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray, NR.
The only drawback to this consistent grabber on a mesmerizing subject is the title. It’s likely that no one will ever get to the “inner” of the still-revered Canadian concert pianist and brilliant Bach interpreter, even though (as we see in plenty of archival evidence) he was thoroughly outgoing in interviews and blessed with a sense of humor, even about himself. Co-directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, Genius avoids a pitfall that afflicts many historical documentaries: the lack of archival material. Here, there seems to be plenty, and the filmmakers have dug it out the way those wizard sleuths who put together the bonus sections on Criterion releases do. We learn of Gould’s upbringing as an only child, his aversion to touring and a musical prowess that lasted until his death at age 50 in 1982.
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Excalibur (Blu-ray)

Warner, Fantasy, $19.98 Blu-ray, ‘PG.’
Stars Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson.
It sounds a bit flip to call director John Boorman’s aptly intense Arthurian epic a greatest hits package, but the film’s preponderance of action involving a long list of already familiar 5th/6th-century characters is a major part of its appeal. Along, of course, with the sex. Excalibur’s good looks are of the hazy sort and even a Blu-ray of it will never be of “demonstration” quality, though it does replicate my memories of what the movie looked like on screen in 1981, which was dreamy. Star spotters also will have fun watching Gabriel Byrne in a crucial role early in the story — as well as Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart.
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Primrose Path

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Drama, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrea, Marjorie Rambeau.
Director Gregory La Cava’s movie of a once-semi-notorious property is adapted from a long-running play which in turn had been based on the Victoria Lincoln novel February Hill. Ginger Rogers is the closest thing to a well-adjusted adult in a family of no-counts (mom Marjorie Rambeau is a prostitute). She marries a hamburger joint counter-hop played by Joel McCrea — for genuine love on her part but also, one senses, to escape her family. They’re obviously in love, but too many people are poisoning the well.
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