It's summer. Some people go out and play, some stay in and watch. You can always do both.
The best of the August releases
2 from the British Film Institute
Les yeux sans visage (France/Italy, 1960)
Georges Franju directed this haunting horror story about a mad scientist (Pierre Brasseur) who, through plastic surgery, secretly tries to restore the face of his daughter (Edith Scob), who was disfigured in a car accident. His assistant (Alida Valli) helps procure the necessary live flesh from unwitting young victims. Among the extras on its DVD and Blu-ray editions, the U.S. distributor Criterion had a graphic documentary Franju made about animal slaughter called Le sang des bêtes, but this new edition by the BFI (coded for Region B, i.e. viewable only in Britain and Europe or on multi-region players) offers two different shorts as well as a 46-minute overview of the director's career and a new interview with Scob; there's also a DVD and a 34-page booklet.
Vivre sa vie (France, 1962)
Jean-Luc Godard hit a new peak in his young career with this, his fourth feature. It's a character study of a young Parisian woman (played by his muse, Anna Karina) who aspires to be an actress but, destitute and in an unhappy marriage, winds up a prostitute instead. Again, Criterion have their own edition with several extras, but the BFI go several better on their disc (code-locked for Region B). There's not only the original French release, but also the film's UK theatrical release with English inter-titles, a rarely seen British archival interview with Karina in 1973, and three Godard shorts from the late 1950s, one co-directed by François Truffaut and another written by Eric Rohmer. The 22-page booklet has an essay by David Thompson.
5 from Twilight Time
Summer Lovers (U.S., 1982)
Not much of a movie unless you're a sexual voyeur, Summer Lovers nevertheless features some stunning natural settings in sunny Greece (the island of Santorini, in particular), where a young American couple (Peter Gallagher and Daryl Hannah) take up with a French woman (Valérie Quennessen) and have a ménage à trois until one of them (guess who?) loses interest. Extras on this fine-looking Blu-ray include a director's commentary track, an isolated music-and-sound-effects track, original screen tests (watch Patrick Swayze audition for Gallagher's part), a 12-minute production featurette and, at 48 minutes, a 1997 documentary on Emmy-winning composer Basil Poledouris, who wrote the score. There's also a six-page booklet.
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (U.S., 1982)
More sex in the summer, this time minus any real sex – hey, it's another comedy by Woody Allen. He and Mary Steenburgen play an unhappily married couple a century ago who invite two other couples (José Ferrer & Mia Farrow, Tony Roberts & Julie Hagerty) to spend a leisurely weekend in the country, during which they get up to all kinds of shenanigans à la Shakespeare's play (plus making time for badminton). As usual with most of Allen's film's on video, there are no extras on the Blu-ray except for a trailer, but there is the option of listening to the score as an isolated track. There's a full-colour booklet, too.
House of Bamboo (U.S., 1955)
Samuel Fuller wrote and directed this film noir about a trio of American gangsters in post-WWII Japan. Shot on location in Tokyo and Yokohama, it stars Robert Ryan as a cruel underworld boss who hires a new recruit (Robert Stack) against the objections of his right-hand man (Cameron Mitchell). Fuller would later say the movie was really about a homosexual love triangle, but who knew? The Blu-ray is a huge step up visually from the faded picture found on the DVD Fox issued in 2005. For extras, it adds to that edition's two vintage newsreels, audio commentary and trailer with a new commentary track, isolated score and booklet.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (U.S., 1967)
Stanley Kramer's race drama might seem a little dated. Who would now object to a white woman (Katharine Houghton) bringing home her new black boyfriend (Sidney Poitier) – a doctor, no less – and introducing him to her parents (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn)? But America still isn't free of prejudice, and this film still packs a punch. Extras on the crisp Blu-ray mostly replicate the 2008 DVD: four short introductions; a little over an hour of lookbacks at the film, at Tracy & Hepburn, and at Kramer; and two trailers. There's also an audio commentary by three film historians, and a booklet.
The Little House (Japan, 2014)
Another Japanese-themed movie with 'house' in the title. The 82nd (!) film by homegrown director Yoji Yamada is set in Tokyo in the 1930s and 40s and tells a tale of infidelity: A wealthy married woman (Takako Matsu) has an affair with a young artist colleague of her husband's (Hidetaka Yoshioka), all the while observed by a young maid (Haru Kuroki), who recalls the story years later in a personal memoir. Almost all the scenes take place inside the family house, giving the drama a claustrophobic quality that's heightened by the illicit goings-on. No extras on the Blu-ray except an isolated score and trailers.
2 from Criterion
La nuit américaine (France/Italy, 1973)
Known in English as Day for Night, François Truffaut's movie about making a movie won the Oscar for best foreign film. No wonder: It's a wry appreciation of how the best-laid plans can go awry on a movie set, where egos and unexpected setbacks get in the way of getting the job done. Truffaut himself stars as the frazzled director of a melodrama called Meet Pamela whose British star (Jacqueline Bisset) has an affair with her leading man (Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Léaud) and whose remaining cast goes off in all directions. The Blu-ray sports a new high-def transfer that restores natural skin tones and sharpness. Extras new and old run the gamut: a video essay, vintage on-set footage, interviews with everyone from the director and stars to the editors and cinematographer, plus a booklet.
The French Lieutenant's Woman (U.K., 1981)
Like the Truffaut film, this drama directed by Karel Reisz is about filmmaking and is a story within a story. Scripted by Harold Pinter from the novel by John Fowles, it stars Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons as actors having an affair both off-set and on. In the period picture they're making, Streep is a Victorian-era Englishwoman shamed by her liaison with a French army officer and Irons is the gentleman she moves on to attract – at his peril. Haunting stuff, beautifully filmed by Freddie Francis. The Blu-ray looks great and has plenty of extras, new and vintage: an hour of retrospective interviews with the two stars and the film's editor, as well as with Carl Davis, who composed the score. Reisz, Fowles and Pinter are seen in an hour-long British TV talk show from 1981, and there's a trailer and booklet.
2 from Eureka! Masters of Cinema
Cruel Story of Youth (Japan, 1960)
Early French New Wave meets Japanese youth-gone-wild melodrama in this story of a Tokyo Bonnie and Clyde that ends as badly as it began, in violence. The film's director, Nagisa Oshima would go on to fame with international hits like Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and In the Realm of the Senses, but this, his second feature, has a message of disaffection to impart and stylistic verve to spare. Besides a trailer, the only extra on the region-B-locked Blu-ray is an hour-long interview with the loquacious British film critic and East Asia expert Tony Rayns, who tells us what he knows about the movie, its director, and the history of the Japanese film industry.
Medium Cool (U.S., 1969)
Medium Cool was the debut feature that acclaimed American cinematographer Haskell Wexler got to make after lensing a trio of critical and box-office successes: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, In the Heat of the Night, and The Thomas Crown Affair. Shot documentary-style, it's a fiction about a TV cameraman (Robert Forster) who gets caught up in the riots and radicalism of the late 1960s in Chicago. Paramount delayed its release, but the film is now considered classic '60s agitprop. Criterion released it on Blu-ray in 2013; this Blu-ray has most of the same extras and a bigger booklet but is region-B-locked, so you'll need the right player to play it.
The best of the rest
Miss Julie (Norway/U.K./Canada et al, 2014)
Downton Abbey for the Fifty Shades crowd. In this 19th-century drama adapted from the Strindberg play, an Irish lady (Jessica Chastain) orders her servant (Colin Farrell) to kiss her boot, and he grudgingly complies. The domination is mostly psychological, and under the direction of Swedish film icon Liv Ullmann things are kept fairly tasteful, accompanied all the while by Schubert chamber music, though one senses the stars could have used more consistent direction (Farrell is too angry, right from the get-go, and Chastain's English accent is uneven). The Quebec DVD from TVA Films offers an optional French dub but no extras; the American DVD from Lionsgate has two 10-minute interviews: Ullmann and Chastain together, and the leading lady alone.
Suite Française (U.K./France/Canada et al, 2014)
A wealthy mother and daughter (Kristen Scott Thomas and Michelle Williams) cope with the arrival of the Germans in their small town during the occupation of France in WWII, and in an unlikely twist, win the heart of a sensitive Nazi officer (Matthias Schoenaerts). Extras on the Canadian DVD from Entertainment One include a look at the posthumously published novel by Irène Némirovsky, deported and murdered at Auschwitz. The DVD has a very good French dub, so if you can understand it, I'd watch the movie that way; it's set in France, after all. Unfortunately, the subtitles are English-only and in any case they don't activate automatically on the French dub when German is spoken (and that's quite often); you have to switch them on to read them, and switch them off when the French resumes. If you're French or a francophile, quelle insulte!
Our Man in Tehran (Canada, 2013)
Ben Affleck's Argo won the Oscar for best picture but took great liberties with the truth about the Iran hostage crisis of 1978-79. It cast the CIA as the heroes of the day, and relegated the true heroes – Canadian diplomats led by ambassador Ken Taylor – to a mere caretaker role. Well, in this feature documentary produced in Toronto, released a year after Argo, Taylor and the others get their turn to set the record straight, interviewed at length along with most of the other major players, including the freed hostages themselves. Extras on DVD by New York indie distributor First Run Features include a discussion with co-directors Drew Taylor (no relation) and Larry Weinstein, a Q&A at TIFF, and a playable soundtrack of 12 instrumental numbers from the score by Asher Lenz and Stephen Skratt.
Around the World with Orson Welles (U.K.,1955)
In 1955, Orson Welles took on a rather plum assignment from British TV: Travel the world, interview people and comment on camera on what you see and hear and think. The result was a series of half-hour broadcasts – only six, before Welles bailed and the show was cancelled. Watch him talk about education in the Basque country, chocolate cake in Vienna, art in Paris, bullfighting in Madrid, pensioners in London, and more. Splendid. The dual DVD/Blu-ray set from B2MP adds an hour-long doc that shows Welles reporting on a murder in France. The series is also out on Blu-ray in the U.K. (from the British Film Institute), with one more extra – a half-hour TV interview Welles gave in 1967 with journalist Bernard Levin – but that edition is region-B-locked.
A Little Chaos (U.K., 2014)
German heartthrob Matthias Schoenaerts dons costume for another English-language romantic drama made by Brits but set in France. It's a period picture (what British productions aren't, these days?) about the late-17th-century royal gardens of Louis XIV (played by Alan Rickman, who also directs). A landscaper there (Schoenaerts) hires a young woman (Kate Winslet) to design and build a fountain, and they fall in love; he leaves his wife, she buries the memory of her late adulterous husband, and all's well that ends well at the court of Versailles. Reviews of this overwatered flowerbed of a movie, which could have benefited from a much greener thumb than Rickman's, have been decidedly mixed, if not downright negative. Maybe that explains why Universal put out their Blu-ray with no bonus material at all, not even a trailer.
Lambert & Stamp (U.S, 2014)
London, 1964. When budding filmmakers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert took over managing a little-known British rock group called The Who, they couldn't have predicted how their lives would change. Led by guitarist Pete Townshend and singer Roger Daltry, The Who would soon break through to international stardom, selling tens of millions of records worldwide and making "My Generation" an anthem of disaffected '60s youth. The band's early success can largely be credited to the encouragement they got from Lambert and Stamp, and now there's a feature documentary to chronicle the duo's unheralded role. Extras on the Sony Blu-ray include B&W footage of The Who on tour in Finland, a promotional short (minus any concert audio), and a commentary and a Q&A with director James D. Cooper.
10 of the July releases
5 from Twilight Time
A Month in the Country (U.K., 1987)
A slight tale of surprising emotional resonance, this adaptation of the J.L. Carr novel stars three young English actors at the start of their film careers: Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and the late Natasha Richardson. It's the summer of 1919 and two soldiers have returned from the carnage of the First World War and found work at a small Yorkshire village church. One is hired to restore a mural dating from the Middle Ages (and falls for the priggish vicar's pretty wife) and the other hopes to unearth an ancient grave nearby (and come to terms with his homosexuality). The clip above gives an idea of the movie's slow pace and that particularly English skill of saying a lot without actually saying it; the film is powerful that way, and has a sublime pace. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray's image is unusually waxy and video-like, not at all what you'd expect from the format, though it is blemish-free. For extras, there's a new audio commentary by Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo (who also writes the essay for the booklet), a trailer and the option of listening to the score (by Howard Blake) as an isolated track.
The Best of Everything (U.S., 1959)
Secretaries struggle not to get fired, their bosses act like shameless cads, and both want desperately to get ahead – does that sound like a subplot of just about any episode of Mad Men? This late '50s melodrama is the real thing, set in the secretarial pool of a Manhattan publishing house. The legendary Joan Crawford stars with up-and-comers Hope Lange, Stephen Boyd and Suzy Parker; Robert Evans and Louis Jordan have an eye for the young ladies; the short video review (above) goes into some of the details. Nice crisp picture and sound on the Blu-ray, but besides an optional isolated score, all the extras have been seen before: an audio commentary, a trailer, and vintage newsreel minute shot at the movie's premiere.
The Fabulous Baker Boys (U.S., 1989)
When you've been performing in the same piano duo for 31 years, it just might be time to shake off the cobwebs. That's what the Baker brothers of Seattle (real-life bros Jeff and Beau Bridges) do when they hire a new jazz singer, Suzie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer, in an Oscar-nominated role), to spice up their lounge act. Will their professional love triangle survive success? In the short video above, listen to the Bridges Boys (doesn't quite have the same ring to it, does it?) reminisce about what it was like to work together on the film, which was one of the Hollywood hits of the late '80s. The Q&A is not on the (un-restored) Blu-ray, but you will find a bunch of extras: two audio commentaries (one old, one new, the latter with director Steve Kioves), 21 minutes of deleted scenes, a trailer, an eight-page booklet, and, as an isolated track, the fabulous score complete with all the songs to sing.
The World of Henry Orient (U.S., 1964)
Peter Sellers had a gift for comic impersonation; here he takes on the mantle of a celebrity concert pianist from Europe who's pursued around Manhattan by a pair of infatuated pre-teen fans (Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth). We learn more about them than we do about him, and so the movie is as much about coming of age as it is about the world of showbiz, which gives the picture both balance and depth. Angela Lansbury, as one of the girl's mothers, is rather mean, and that's fun to watch; George Roy Hill (The Sting) directs; click on the short video review (above) to get another critic's take. Much improved over the washed-out 2002 DVD, the new Blu-ray has a new audio commentary, a trailer and an optional isolated score.
Places in the Heart (U.S., 1984)
Several movies I like are set in the Great Depression: The Grapes of Wrath, of course; Paper Moon; The Purple Rose of Cairo. Places in the Heart was off my radar entirely but could easily make the list. Sally Field plays a young widow in rural Texas who must fight to keep the family farm from foreclosure, with a little help from her friends. Field was simply made for this kind of underdog role, and the supporting cast is first-rate (John Malkovich, Ed Harris, Danny Glover, Lindsay Crouse, Amy Madigan). The picture, lensed by Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven) is lovely to look at, too. Gene Siskel enjoyed the movie's politics and the performances; Roger Ebert thought there were too many unnecessary storylines; now you can be the judge. The Blu-ray has an audio commentary with Field and film scholar Nick Redman, as well as a trailer, isolated score and a nice little illustrated booklet.
2 from Eureka! Masters of Cinema
Listen Up Philip (U.S., 2014)
When the main character is a depressive schmuck and his foil is a pathetically manipulative egoist, you wouldn't think you're in for a lighthearted movie. Yet there is something about Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip that makes you just want to laugh. Can people in the literary world really be this mean to one another? Apparently so. Jason Schwartzman plays a young novelist stuck between the unexpected success of his first book and the impending release of his second. Distancing himself from both his publisher and his long-suffering girlfriend (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss), he takes up the invitation of his mentor (Jonathan Pryce, with a beard), who wrote his best books in the '70s, to flee the city and stay at his house upstate. Familiarity breeds contempt, however, and idols were made to be smashed; gentlemen, let the character assassinations begin! The dual format Blu-ray/DVD is another stacked release from Britain distributor Eureka!'s Masters of Cinema series, and has extras as long as the film: interviews, a making-of, deleted scenes and such, as well as a commentary track by the director and a 44-page booklet. Take note, though: The disc is locked to region B (Europe) so you'll need something other your standard North American machine to get it to play.
Stalag 17 (U.S., 1953)
Just as Ernst Lubitsch did with To Be or Not to Be, and Charlie Chaplin did with The Great Dictator, Billy Wilder managed to make audiences laugh through their tears at the tragedy of Germany's occupation of Europe during the Second World War. Based on a hit Broadway play, Stalag 17 is set in a German prisoner-of-war camp where Allied officers yearn to escape but are thwarted at every attempt by the treachery of a spy in their midst. Can they figure out who it is before more of their own die in reprisals? William Holden is Sefton, the wisecracking gambler of Barracks 4 who thinks he's got all the odds covered; Gil Stratton is his right-hand man (and narrates the film); and Otto Preminger is Von Scherbach, the camp's fearsome commandant. Darker than the TV show Hogan's Heroes, less of a thriller than The Great Escape, the movie has soul and wit. It came out on Blu-ray here in North America two years ago with previously available extras: an audio commentary, a making-of and background doc of about 25 minutes each, and a trailer. This new British edition has all that plus a new 25-minute interview with a film scholar and a 36-page booklet. Again, though, for copyright reasons the disc is code-locked for Europe; so if that's not something your player can handle, beware.
3 from Criterion
Hiroshima mon amour (France/Japan, 1959)
Set in postwar Hiroshima, this classic of the French New Wave by Alain Resnais tells the story of a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) who falls in love with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) and flashes back on an illicit and doomed affair she had during the war with a German soldier. The screenplay by Marguerite Duras was nominated for an Oscar. Criterion issued the film on DVD back in 2003 with a host of extras: archival interviews with Resnais and Riva, an audio commentary, an isolated music and effects track, two scholarly essays and eight minutes of excerpts from Duras' annotations to the screenplay that were read over clips from the film. The movie was restored in 4K resolution in 2013 and this is what we get in the new Blu-ray: more image on all four sides of the frame, improved contrast and lossless mono sound, and instead of the excerpts and isolated score, two new interviews totalling about half an hour on Resnais and on the score, plus an 11-minute French video on the restoration. As before, the booklet has an essay and translated excerpts from a 1959 Cahiers du Cinéma roundtable discussion on the film.
My Beautiful Laundrette (U.K., 1985)
Stephen Frears' drama about the improbable relationship between a gay skinhead thug (Daniel Day-Lewis) and a young Pakistani entrepreneur (Gordon Warnake) is set in rough-and-tumble south London in the time of Margaret Thatcher, and is a kind of time capsule of the preoccupations of the era. It's about a lot of things – immigration, loyalty, family, secrecy – but most of all it's about the enduring power of friendship. The old MGM DVD from 2003 only had a trailer and didn't look so hot. The new Criterion Blu-ray does its best with the limitations of the film's grainy 16mm origins and adds a bunch of extras: a half-hour conversation between Frears and producer Colin MacCabe; an hour of new interviews with Oscar-nominated screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, as well as with two other producers and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (who'd work with Frears again on such films as The Grifters); and finally a trailer.
The Black Stallion (U.S., 1979)
In the 1940s, a freckle-faced boy (Kelly Reno) is shipwrecked and marooned on a desert island with a wild horse; they're rescued and, back in America, the kid rides the horse to victory at the track, with help from a wily trainer (Mickey Rooney). Walter Farley's classic children's story came vividly to life on screen in this late '70s adaptation by Carroll Ballard, and it still enthralls today. MGM released the movie on Blu-ray in early 2014, devoid of extras. The new Criterion goes the distance, with a higher bitrate and substantial extras. Ballard introduces five short documentaries he made before Stallion (totalling just under two hours) and converses with film critic Scott Foundas at home for a little under an hour. There's also a 20-minute interview with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, a short discussion with the movie's stills photographer talking about shooting in Sardinia and suburban Toronto, and a trailer and booklet.