Plus a new edition of the 1951 'A Christmas Carol,' the documentary 'Great Directors" and more
Humphrey Bogart dons the collar in "The Left Hand of God" (Twilight Time), a 1955 drama set in 1947 China. He enters the film riding a mule to a remote Catholic missionary caught between the local warlord and the brewing revolution and proceeds to win the hearts and minds of the villagers with his savvy understanding of their culture and his ability to switch from English sermon to Chinese conversation. There's more than meets the eye to Father O'Shea, as is clear in his queries about the local trade caravans and the handgun he keeps handy, but I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Father O'Shea had another, quite worldly life before putting on the collar and trekking into rural China, as did nurse Anne 'Scotty' Scott (Gene Tierney), who apparently arrived in the middle of nowhere with a wardrobe worthy of a New York socialite.
Edward Dmytryk directs this mix of Asian exotica, Catholic piety and Hollywood style with anonymous professionalism, his specialty since he returned from his blacklist exile, named names and took his place in the studio machine. The cast carries the supermarket bestseller story -- E.G. Marshall as the anxious and outspoken American doctor, Agnes Moorehead as his frank wife and steely partner in missionary life, Lee J. Cobb as the Chinese warlord with the manner of a New York mob boss, and especially Bogart as the weather-beaten realist in vestments. We're in the same territory as as the original "Magnificent Obsession" and "The Keys of the Kingdom" a decade later, in the wake of a world war and the cold war, but Dmytryk is just going through the motions of moral conflict and hard decisions, unwilling to commit to Bogart's trials and unable to understand Tierney's torment as she falls for a man of God while waiting for her missing-and-presumed-dead husband. It's a handsome widescreen film with solid performances (extra credit goes to Moorehead's mix of moral commitment and practical realism) and compelling performers, but it never rises above the reductive melodrama of the plot.
Like all of the Twilight Time releases, it features an isolated audio track with Victor Young's score and a leaflet with notes by Julie Kirgo.
The 1951 "A Christmas Carol," starring Alistair Sims as Scrooge, is considered by many to be the definitive film version of the Charles Dickens classic, with Sim as the greatest of the Scrooges: "For everyone who has seen the crisply-made black-and-white production, he is the definitive Scrooge," writes film critic James Berardinelli. "At a reasonably short 85 minutes, this is nevertheless a complete experience, and the strength and depth of its drama makes it the most memorable of any adaptation of the tale. "A Christmas Carol: 60th Anniversary Diamond Edition" (VCI) is yet another new edition of the classic film, remastered for both DVD and 1080p HD for Blu-ray and featuring all-new supplements, including interviews with British film historian Sir Christopher Frayling and original U.S. Distributor Richard Gordon, a featurette on director Brian Desmond Hurst and clips from the 1922 versions of "A Christmas Carol" and "Bleak House." The Blu-ray edition also features a bonus DVD with a 1939 radio adaptation narrated by Orson Welles and starring Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge.
"Great Directors" (Kino Lorber) presents conversations with ten of the world's great directors (from Bernardo Bertolucci and Catherine Breillat to John Sayles and Agnès Varda) by director Angela Ismailos. "Despite the title, Ismailos' documentary is not a study of what constitutes great direction," complains San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle. "Rather it's a nicely arranged film in which a variety of filmmakers Ismailos likes discuss their inspirations and influences." The DVD features a bonus disc with four hours of additional interview footage with the directors.
"Produce Your Own Damn Movie!" (Troma) is the third collection of DIY filmmaking tips from exploitation auteur Lloyd Kaufman and friends, from David Cronenberg to Roger Corman to The Duplass Brothers. The two-disc set features over five hours of material, organized by theme, everything from raising money to developing a business plan. It's a practical guide with real-world examples, and Kaufman gets a lot of folks to share their experiences.
Luigi Comencini's 1974 "Delitto D'Amore" (Raro Video) (aka "Crime of Love"), a romantic melodrama with a streak of social commentary stars Giuliano Gemma and Stefania Sandrelli as two factory workers in Northern Italy who fall in love and marry, only to fall victim to the pollution caused by the factory. Features an interview with film historian Adrian Apra and a booklet featuring interviews with director Luigi Comencini and film notes.
The horror, the horror:
The 1976 "Survive!" (VCI) was the first film to dramatize the true story of the 1972 airline crash in the Andes and the survivors who resorted to eating the dead to survive. This film, a low-budget Mexican production produced and directed by Rene Cardona (whose resume includes plenty of Santo films), takes a decidedly exploitative approach to the material ("What they did to stay alive is the most shocking episode in the history of human survival," reads the poster). It was released in the U.S. in a dubbed version at 86 minutes. This DVD features the American cut as well as the original, uncut Mexican version, which runs close to two hours.
"Thankskilling" (MVD) offers Troma-style horror comedy with buckets of gore and a high-concept premise: a homicidal turkey takes revenge over Thanksgiving break. And it cost on $3,500. The DVD features commentary and a blooper reel.
"House of the Damned: 15th Anniversary Edition" (MVD) and "Lust for Vengeance: 15th Anniversary Explicit Version" (MVD) revisits two microbudget horror films from Sean Weathers.
The insidious masterpiece celebrates its 25th Anniversary with a Blu debut
David Lynch looks behind the smiling faces and stucco houses of small town America and finds a shadow world of pure evil in "Blue Velvet" (MGM), making its Blu-ray debut this week.
From the opening shots Lynch turns the Technicolor picture postcard images of middle class homes and tree lined lanes into a dreamy vision on the edge of nightmare. College boy hero Kyle MacLachlan and Nancy Drew high school innocent Laura Dern delve into a mysterious case revolving around a severed human ear, and MacLachlan moves from boy scout to voyeur to participant, plunging into a nightmare of sex and sadism he’s alternately repulsed and obsessed by.
25 years later, it's just as effective, unsettling and unnerving. Lynch’s eerily mundane sets and locations, real world settings stripped to a ghostly austerity, make his odyssey all the more insidious, and composer Angelo Badalamenti adds to the texture with the smooth, spooky strains of his lush score. Dennis Hopper’s manic, obscenity shouting performance as sadistic drug dealer and blackmailer Frank Booth became his Hollywood comeback and, by most accounts, earned him an Oscar nomination (that it happened to be for another film is beside the point; Academy voters couldn’t exactly nominate him for such a ferocious, disturbed, psychically damaging creation, now, could they?). Isabella Rosselini is terrifyingly desperate as Hopper’s sexual slave (and later MacLachlan’s illicit lover) and Dean Stockwell purrs through his role as Hopper’s oh-so-suave buddy. Candy colored clown, baby!
To mark the 25th Anniversary of the film, the Blu-ray debut features a new and exciting supplement: a collection of over 50 minutes of deleted scenes, edited into a phantom feature of stories around the edges of the film. I explore the deleted scenes (the supplement of the year so far) at Videodrone here, where you can see an exclusive deleted clip featuring Dennis Hopper and Kyle MacLachlan.
Also includes a very short set of outtakes and the supplements from the previous DVD release, which includes the excellent 70 minute documentary "Mysteries of Love," featuring interviews with almost everyone involved in the production from the stars to composer Angelo Badalamenti (whose first collaboration with Lynch this was). Everyone but Lynch, of course, who appears only via an archival interview from 1987. The new interviews are, of course, shot against a blue velvet curtain. There is also a 10 minute featurette showcasing deleted scenes reconstructed from production stills (according to the introduction, those scenes no longer exist in any other form), along with stills, posters, and a trailer.
Plus 'Mr. Magoo,' 'CD Highway' and 'A Child's Garden of Poetry'
Just days after its stateside debut on "Masterpiece Contemporary" comes "Page Eight" (PBS), David Hare's low-key political thriller with Bill Nighy as a career intelligence analyst for MI-5 in the middle of a political realignment. Videodrone's review is here.
"Doctor Who: Series Six, Part Two" (BBC) completes the strange and amazing story of River Song and brings the Doctor back to the shocking event that opened the season: the death of the Doctor. Videodrone's review is here. And on the first installment of the Videodrone Gift Guide spotlights "Band of Brothers/The Pacific Special Edition Gift Set" (HBO), which pairs up the two acclaimed HBO World War II mini-series on DVD and Blu-ray. More on Videodrone here.
Jason Isaacs stars as Jackson Brodie, a former soldier and policeman turned Edinburgh-based private detective, in "Case Histories" (Acorn), the new British mystery series based on the novels by Kate Atkinson. That description makes out Jackson to sound like a real tough guy but in fact this doting divorced Dad is a real softy, looking out for his neighbors and taking cases for missing pets as often is missing persons. Don't get me wrong, he can handle himself on the streets, but Isaacs gives Jackson a likable, easygoing, very human quality: no driven warrior or troubled genius here, just a guy trying to do good and keep the memories of past deeds at bay. The show debuted in the U.S. on "Masterpiece Mystery!" in October. The six episodes of the first series on a two-disc set which also includes a short behind-the-scenes featurette.
"Mr. Magoo: The Television Collection" (Shout! Factory) – Oh Magoo, you've done it again. Originally created for a series of theatrical cartoon, Mr. Magoo, the nearsighted eccentric voiced by Jim Backus, made the jump to the small screen in 1961 with "The Mr. Magoo Show." This 11-disc box set collects all 26 episodes of that show along with the entire runs of the 1964-1965 "The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo" (which casts Magoo in new versions of old classics, fairy tales and historical reenactments) and the 1977 "What's New Mr. Magoo" and the 1970 TV special "Uncle Sam Magoo." That's over 30 hours of animated shows, plus commentary on select episodes, a retrospective featurette and a still gallery, and a substantial booklet with an essay and episode guide.
"CD Highway: The Complete First and Second Seasons" (SRO) features 39 half-hour episodes of the public television music series that showcases new acts and classic bands and performers in conjunction with new CD releases. Acts in this collection include Rita Coolidge, Billy Ray Cyrus, Three Dog Night, Blondie, Pat Benatar, Freddie Fender, Lou Rawls, Jethro Tull and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Six discs in a standard case with hinged trays.
"A Child's Garden of Poetry" (HBO) presents classic poems for a young audience, read by a wide array of performers (including Claire Danes, Carrie Fisher, Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, Natalie Merchant, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dave Matthews and Jeffrey Wright) and set to animation.
"How the States Got Their Shapes: Season One" (History) is exactly what it sounds like: the often strange and complicated stories behind how the borders of the American States were drawn. 10 episodes on three discs, plus the original History Channel special "How the States Got Their Shapes."
"The Wild Thornberries: Season 2 Part 1" (Shout! Factory) presents 13 episodes of the animated series on two discs.
'Doctor Who: Series Six, Part Two' completes the season's long, strange trip
"Doctor Who: Series Six, Part Two" (BBC) completes the strange and amazing story of River Song (Alex Kingston), whose identity and past is finally revealed at the close of "Series Six, Part One," and brings the Doctor back to the shocking event that opened the season: the death of the Doctor. In the American desert, no less.
The series has been, episodic hiccups aside, uniformly good ever since the reboot with Christopher Eccleston in 2005, but it has been especially clever and playfully plotted since Steven Moffat took over as producer and the Doctor was reborn in the form of Matt Smith and his cartoonish presence in Season Five. The second half of the sixth season opens with The Doctor and his companions, Amy and Rory (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill), colliding with Hitler. It's not quite as epic as the opening episodes, though they have their role to play in this storyline, and it delivers the usual mix of monsters, aliens and time-travel complications.
And it gets a little serious too, not something we're used to with Smith's rubbery Doctor, a guy who bounces all over the screen and the scripts with childlike enthusiasm. Because even the Doctor can't outrun his destiny. But that doesn't mean he hasn't got something up his sleeve. Oh yeah, there's a wedding too, and you'll never guess whose.
Features the final six episode of the sixth season on DVD and Blu-ray, plus two "Monster Files" featurettes. Note that the complete "Series Six" collection is slated for DVD and Blu-ray in two weeks, with exclusive supplements.
America goes to war in these two superb mini-series, repackaged for the season
In lieu of a traditional gift guide this season, I'll be spotlighting deluxe editions and special releases as they roll out through the holiday gift season. We begin with...
After "Saving Private Ryan" in a single mission, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks teamed up to produce a chronicle of the European theater of WWII from a soldier’s eye view on a vast canvas. The resulting ten-hour 2001 mini-series "Band of Brothers" won six Emmy Awards (out of 19 nominations) and is, simply put, one of the most powerful and entrancing portraits of men in war ever put on screen. Shot in same khaki and gray tones and combat staccato flicker of "Ryan," as if viewed through the adrenaline-enhanced fear and hyper-alert eyes of a soldier under fire, it captures the texture of battle, the dynamics of platoon life, the wear of fatigue and experience, and the sudden bursts that break a lull, like a lightning attack or a deadly volley of bombs.
This is not a pretty WWII film: violence and blood is both more and less than you might expect, and the finality of death is disturbing whether it’s enemy or fellow soldier. Damian Lewis is the beating heart of the film as the drawling professional who slowly rises in rank due to his calm sense of the big picture, and Ron Livingston his best friend, fellow officer, and closet alcoholic who hides his liquor in Lewis’ footlocker. Donnie Wahlberg and Neil McDonough are just two of the subordinate character to make vivid impressions, but it’s the sprawling cast and the interplay that builds through the course of the war that gives meaning to the title: bonding under fire is no cliché here, but a simple matter of survival.
"The Pacific," the epic portrait of the war on the other side of the world from Europe, was made almost ten years later and shown in 2010. The handsome ten-hour production arrived as a companion piece to that series and a contrast to the warfare that faced American servicemen. Presented with an epic sweep and an intimate focus, it brings the viewer through all aspects of the Pacific theater by telling the stories of the men under fire. But it also has a different feel and tone from "Band of Brothers," partly from the chemistry of this cast but mostly from the markedly different nature of warfare in Pacific. It won eight Emmy Awards (including Outstanding Miniseries).
The 13-disc DVD and Blu-ray sets features the same editions previously released in individual sets, with all the documentaries and featurettes and the "Enhanced Viewing" mode on the Blu-ray editions, plus an exclusive bonus disc featuring the documentary "He Has Seen War," in hefty bookleaf case with cardboard sleeves, all packed away in a handsome case with a magnetic clasp.
Plus Shrugging off 'Atlas' and a Remake called '13'
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2" (Warner) brings the saga to a close with grand spectacle as well as a greater sense of urgency and mortal stakes than "Part 1." While not quite transcendent, it is respectful, engaged and quite satisfying. There's not much extra on the DVD but the Blu-ray is packed with supplements. Note that this arrives on Friday, November 11. Videodrone's review is here.
Foreign films this week include Catherine Breillat's "Sleeping Beauty" (Strand) from France, Erin Riklis' "The Human Resources Manager" (Film Movement), a low-key piece of comic drama and cultural negotiation from Israel, and a Korean remake of John Woo's "A Better Tomorrow (2010)" (Well Go). Those films and more covered on Videodrone here.
Swinging bachelor Ryan Reynolds and family man Jason Bateman swap bodies in "The Change-Up" (Universal), a comedy promoted as "from the director of "Wedding Crashers" and the writers of "The Hangover"," so you know what you're getting.
"The idea's old as the hills -- wisdom won by literally walking in someone else's shoes -- and often the gross-out humor in "The Change-Up" seems designed specifically for adolescents," confesses MSN film critic Kat Murphy. "But for the love of Peter Pan, stifle your inner censor and give this half-smart, deliciously transgressive mess of a movie a chance." And if I may, I love the way Ms. Murphy explains how the film "turns toilet training into the perfect metaphor for growing up."
The DVD features commentary by director David Dobkin, the featurettes "Time For a Change" (your basic behind the scenes piece) and "Family Matter" (on infant FX and building a better poop gag), a deleted scene and the obligatory gag reel. The Blu-ray offers an unrated edition of the film (its about five minutes longer) includes the usual BD Live applications and something I have not seen before: uHEAR. If you miss a line of dialogue, you just skip back a few seconds and play the scene again with subtitles. It's not quite perfected -- the subtitles stayed on for quite a few seconds after the sequence in question -- but it's a pretty good start.
After twenty years of frustrated efforts by producer John Aglialoro (following decades of false starts and aborted attempts), "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1" (Fox), the first part of a proposed film trilogy based on Ayn Rand's epically overrated and absurdly revered novel, was released as an independent production with low-watt TV cast and a first time director (Paul Johansson) with more passion than talent. It received some of the worst reviews of the year. Allow me to sample a few: "Speechy and preachy and just a teeny-weeny bit naughty" (Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer); "as stilted, didactic and simplistic as Rand's free-market fable" (Mark Jenkins, Washington Post); "crushingly ordinary in every way, which with Rand I wouldn't have thought possible" (Michael Philips, Chicago Tribune); "I suspect only someone very familiar with Rand’s 1957 novel could understand the film at all, and I doubt they will be happy with it" (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times). The film, needless to say, was a flop and it is still an open question whether the rest of the trilogy will even get made. The answer to the question "Who is John Galt?" turned out to be a resounding "Who cares?"
The DVD and Blu-ray features commentary by producer/screenwriter John Aglialoro, co-producer Harmon Kaslow and co-screenwriter Brian Patrick O'Toole, plus two featurettes and a slide show of stills.
Georgian-born director Gela Babluani made a terrific splash with his feature debut "13," a wrenching, stripped down thriller that is all the more effective the less you know going in. For his English-language debut, he remade his own film with a impressive cast but "13 (2010)" (Anchor Bay), despite the involvement of Sam Riley, Ray Winstone, Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham, Michael Shannon, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and Alexander Skarsgard, it flopped. Writes Variety film critic Dennis Harvey: "A starry cast and glossier production values simply work against the black-and-white original's strengths in this stillborn thriller about a deadly game of chance." On DVD and Blu-ray.
"Life in a Day" (Virgil), a portrait of a single day across the world as seen by citizen filmmakers armed with video cameras and phones who shared their video through YouTube (who co-produced the film with National Geographic), is also scheduled for release today, but I did not receive a copy for review in time for the column.
And the rest:
"Alleged" (Image) looks at the infamous Scopes "Monkey Trial" through the eyes of an ambitious young reporter (Nathan West). Fred Dalton Thompson and Brian Dennehy play adversaries William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow and Colm Meaney is newspaperman H. L. Mencken.
Zach Gilford, Amber Heard and William Heard star in "The River Why" (Image), a drama of self-discovery and fly-fishing based on the novel by John Jay Osborn Jr. Keven Zegers, Jason Ritter and Taryn Manning star in the rock and roll rebirth drama "The Perfect Age of Rock 'n' Roll" (eOne), which co-stars Peter Fonda.
Barbara Barrie, Mamie Gummer and Karen Young star in the indie drama "Twelve Thirty" (Virgil). Mena Suvari and C. Thomas Howell star in the revenge thriller "Restitution" (Monterey). More action thrillers arriving direct to DVD: "One in the Gun" (MTI) and "Boy Wonder" (Inception).
David Hare in John Le Carre-land
"Page Eight" (PBS), David Hare's low-key political thriller, arrives on DVD and Blu-ray just days after its stateside debut on "Masterpiece Contemporary."
Hare's first original screenplay in over a decade takes us into John Le Carre territory by way of David Mamet, the world of intelligence agents as civil servants in a jungle of bureaucratic gamesmanship. It's not the spy game here, it's a matter of accountability, but information is power and career MI-5 intelligence analyst Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) is handed some pretty combustible intelligence by his boss and best friend (Michael Gambon), a sort of parting gift from a man who knows he's not long for the service.
It's not the mystery -- which has something to do with "the special relationship" and the disadvantages on the British side of it -- that matters, it's the characters and the gamesmanship. In place of Le Carre's sprawling networks of alliances and betrayals and long histories of double agent dealing, Hare gives is a miniature, stripped down and scripted with underplayed precision. Bill Nighy, a master of dry wit and the uncanny ability to see every situation with a hint of bemusement, plays Johnny as the very model of "mild mannered," but it is a manner. He's smart, crafty and naturally suspicious, and the combination has cost him a couple of marriages and very nearly his estranged daughter (Felicity Jones).
The superb cast also includes Rachel Weisz as his attractive next door neighbor (whose sudden interest in him raises flags of suspicion), Judy Davis as his very competitive colleague and Ralph Fiennes as the Prime Minister, plus Saskia Reeves, Ewen Bremner and Marthe Keller. Quite a lot of stature here and they bring the understated (and somewhat glib) plot to life.
David Wiegand at the San Francisco Chronicle describes it as "a kind of spy story, but a lot of the spy stuff is only partially credible. What we do buy into are the film's exquisite characters and their complex interrelationships, on both the personal and professional levels."
On DVD and Blu-ray, no supplements.
Plus 'Human Resources' from Israel and a Korean remake of 'A Better Tomorrow'
Catherine Breillat's "Sleeping Beauty" (Strand) from France is the second in a proposed trilogy of films revisiting the classic fairy tales from a feminine perspective. Combining elements of "The Snow Queen" with "Sleeping Beauty," it opens as an old world fairy tale -- a newborn is cursed by the crone of a midwife and nymphs ease the death sentence by turning it into a deep 100 year sleep -- and then follows the life of the girl and her sexual awakening into the contemporary world. "Breillat reimagines the slumbering heroine as a gender insurrectionist, freeing her from her most retrograde and enduring cultural representation: Disney's passive damsel," writes Melissa Anderson at The Village Voice. "Breillat’s clarity stands out even more when compared with the half-thought-out, post-feminist notions in Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty"." In French with English subtitles.
"The Human Resources Manager" (Film Movement), a low-key piece of comic drama and cultural negotiation from director Erin Riklis ("Lemon Tree"), sends the hapless HR manager of a Jerusalem bakery on a road trip to Romania, accompanying the body of a foreign worker killed in a suicide bombing. Kenneth Turan praises the film at The Los Angeles Times: "More than anything, this is an intelligent audience picture, a solid and engrossing piece of old-school filmmaking, both humane and character driven, in which the various protagonists learn something - not too much and not too easily - about the nature of their lives." It won five Israeli Film Academy Awards, including Best Film and Best Director. In Hebrew, Romanian and English with subtitles. Also features a short film from Hungary: "Tell Your Children."
"A Better Tomorrow (2010)" (Well Go) is the South Korean remake of John Woo's Hong Kong gangster classic. Woo gets executive producer credit here but unlikely had much to do with the adaptation, which Time Out Hong Kong critic Edmund Lee finds disappointing: "In the hands of director Song Hae-sung, this slick retelling of Woo’s romantic take on codes of honour has captured none of the Sam Peckinpah-esque excess that made the earlier film so damn satisfying." In Korean with English subtitles. Blu-ray+DVD Combo includes a featurette and video interviews with Woo, director Song Hae-Sung and the cast.
Two from the most recent Global Lens Film Initiative series: "Leo's Room" (Global Lens Collection), a Uruguay production set in Montevido, Spain, and "Ocean of an Old Man" (Global Lens Collection) from India, which Village Voice film critic Andrew Schenker cited as the series highlight: "an elliptical, meditative film that uses an accumulation of images and sounds to suggest a sense of loss, desolation, and the possibility of renewal." It includes the featurette "Ocean of an Old Man" and both discs include a film discussion guide.