“In the midst of winter, I find within me the invisible summer.” – Tolstoy

03.2017

2 from the Swinging '60s

Blow-Up (U.K./Italy/U.S., 1966)

In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni left Italy for London to make an English-language movie, his first, and it was a hit. David Hemmings stars as a fashion photographer who witnesses a murder in a city park, only realizing it after he develops the roll of film he shot there that morning. Veronica Redgrave plays the mysterious woman involved in the crime, and Jane Birkin and Sarah Miles co-star. The Criterion Blu-ray (also on DVD) marks a long-awaited upgrade over the old snapper-case DVD that Warner issued in 2004. Yes, the choice of 1.85:1 aspect ratio is questionable (it was originally 1.66:1) and unlike the Warner there is no commentary track nor audio-only track (to better enjoy Herbie Hancock's score and music of The Yardbirds and The Lovin' Spoonful). But Antonioni fans will love the abundant extras: a new hour-long documentary on Blow-Up; a lengthy new interview with Redgrave; vintage interviews with Antonioni, Hemmings and Birkin; two new appreciations of the photography and art in the film; a clip of Antonioni receiving the Palme d'or at Cannes; plus a teaser and trailer. The booklet includes the 1959 Julio Cortázar short story on which the film is loosely based. 

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (U.S., 1967)

For this brightly coloured musical comedy about getting ahead in the New York City business world, Robert Morse (you know him from TV's Mad Men, as the boss with the bowtie) teamed up with Rudy Vallee (ask your grandmother) to reprise their roles from the Broadway hit of 1961. Morse plays a window cleaner who, thanks to a self-help book and some duplicitous pluck, snags a job in the mailroom at the World-Wide Wicket Company, is promoted to VP of advertising and eventually becomes chairman of the board. Vallee is the philandering company president whose secret isn't safe with his ambitious underling. David Swift directs; Bob Fosse did the staging. The Twilight Time Blu-ray (limited to 3,000 copies) is a big improvement over the now ancient DVD that MGM released in 2001, without extras. Here, you not only get the movie in high-def visuals and sound, there's also a nice little choice of special features: an optional audio track of just the music (with some effects); a couple of vintage interviews (Morse on his character, J. Pierpont "Ponty" Finch, and Michele Lee as his love interest, staff secretary Rosemary Pilkington); and the film's original theatrical trailer. There's also a booklet.

2 from the start of the '60s

Our Man in Havana (U.K./U.S., 1959)

Alec Guinness goes to Cuba in this Cold War spy satire adapted from the Graham Greene novel and directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man). Guinness plays a Brit in Havana who sells vacuums for a living but also makes some money on the side selling false intelligence to MI6. Filmed on location just after the communist revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, and released in 1960, the movie offers a comical take on dictatorship and the West's dirty tricks. Extras on the limited-edition Twilight Time Blu-ray are slim: a trailer and isolated music-and-effects track as an audio option, a step up from the lacklustre, barebones DVD that Sony released in 2009. There's background on the film in the booklet's liner notes, as well.

Two Rode Together (U.S., 1961)

The legendary John Ford steals his intro from My Darling Clementine (1946) and reprises the rescue-of-whites-from-the-Indians theme of The Searchers (1956) in this, one of his last Westerns, starring James Stewart and Richard Widmark, the "two" of the title. The Blu-ray comes from England and is part of Eureka!'s Masters of Cinema series (as usual, code-locked for European players). Besting the American disc that Twilight Time released in 2014, which had an isolated score track and a trailer, this BD adds a 13-minute video essay by Ford scholar Tad Gallagher that explores the director's style and the film's dark themes, especially the racism. There's also a DVD of the film and extras in this dual-format edition, plus a booklet.

1 from Second Run

My 20th Century (Hungary/West Germany/Cuba, 1989)

I admire his talent but don't have much patience for the films of my fellow Canadian, Guy Maddin. I do, on the other hand, have a lot of love for the early films of the Czech New Wave auteure Vera Chytilová, whom critics also adore. I kept being reminded of both as I watched My 20th Century, the debut film of another Central European female director, Hungary's Ildiko Enyedi. Like Maddin did in films like My Winnipeg and The Saddest Music in the World, My 20th Century offers an inventive, whimsical and often surreal take on a time in the not-so-distant past (in this case, the birth of the 20th century in Hungary and America) that involves a central female character (in this case, actually, a pair of twins who are separated in youth, one becoming a sexy striver, the other a mousy anarchist, both played by the same actress, Dorota Segda), all shot in vintage-style, full-frame black-and-white. I was reminded of Chytilovà, too, of the magic of Daisies and Fruit of Paradise, minus some of the deadpan funny avant-garde flourishes that make the Czech director's movies so unique in style and sensibility. My 20th Century, though visually and narratively inventive, is perhaps too self-aware for its own good, too meandering in its plot and too imprecise about what makes its central characters tick, as if their humanity were merely put to the service of an idea, the idea of progress in the 20th century and its discontents. Wondering if I'd missed something, I read the liner notes that came with the Blu-ray supplied by British indie distributor Second Run, then went on IMDb to read more. One review in particular, in the Washington Post in early 1991, had faint praise for My 20th Century, calling it an "ultimately empty artistic exercise." That's kind of how I feel about it, too, at least on first viewing: underwhelmed. Since her debut, which won the Camera d'or (best first feature) at Cannes, Enyedi has gone on to more renown and critical praise, winning the Golden Bear (best film) this year at Berlin for the dream fantasy On Body and Soul. Worth a re-evaluation, I suppose. Now, the Blu-ray: Restored in 2009 in 2K high-definition, My 20th Century looks pretty nice for a late-Communist-era movie shot on inferior Kodak monochrome film, and the sound, although mono, is uncompressed and without issues. There's one extra – a new half-hour interview with the director in English – and, to round out the package, a 20-page booklet with an academic-style essay on Enyedi and her career. The disc is all-region and there are optional English subtitles.

The Murderers Are Among Us (Germany, 1946)

Hildegard Knef stars in the first movie to be made in Germany after World War Two. A cross between The Third Man and Rome, Open City, and told from an obvious pro-Soviet perspective, it's an indictment of the many Nazi criminals (the "murderers" of the title) who had blended back into post-war German society, unrepentant and unpunished. Knef plays Susanne, a concentration-camp survivor who returns to Berlin and finds a stranger (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert) squatting, miserable and lonely and drunk, in her apartment. He was a doctor, an officer during the war who saw some terrible things in occupied Poland, including the slaughter of innocent civilians. One day in Berlin, he runs into his former commander and is aghast: the man who was a mass-murderer in the war is now a respectable factory owner. The doctor vows to expose him, maybe even kill the man himself, but Susanne holds him back. Will justice be denied? The new DVD is a big improvement visually over the one First Run Features released in 2002, and includes newsreels of the film's making and premiere, as well as amazing colour footage (7 mins.) of the rubble-strewn streets of liberated Berlin in 1945; there are also several PDF files of essays and background material.

The Russians Are Coming (East Germany, 1968/87)

Apprehension (East Germany, 1981)

Here's an interesting curio: a low--budget, full-frame, black-and-white feminist movie from the early '80s in East Germany that was an unexpected hit at the box office. It's a poignant drama, still highly watchable and topical today, about a 30-something Berlin divorcee (Christine Schorn) whose career as a psychologist is thrown into turmoil when she learns she may have a malignant lump on her breast. Afraid of what the diagnosis will be, she spends the next 24 hours re-evaluating her life and relationships, including her affair with a married man (Hermann Beyer). Directed by Lothar Warneke and shot by documentary cinematographer Thomas Plenert, the movie is semi-autobiographical (from a treatment by Helga Schubert) and the opening alone, before the movie flashes back to before the diagnosis, carries a real punch. The extras on the DVD are all text-based PDFs you can read off your computer. There's an essay on the film in the context of the East German medical system and how it dealt with cancer and women generally; a 2005 discussion between Warneke and his dramaturg, Erika Richter; a 1982 production essay by Richter on the process of treatment-to-script-to-screen; and biographies and filmographies of principal cast and crew. The film comes with removable English subtitles.

Career (East Germany, 1970)

If the title seems familiar, you're probably thinking of the  Cold War comedy about a Soviet "invasion" of the U.S. that starred Alan Arkin. This East German movie from 1968 is something completely different. It's a black-and-white Cinemascope drama about a Hitler Youth draftee (Gert Krause-Melzer) who winds up captured and accused of killing a Soviet forced labourer. Since the hero was a Nazi follower, the communist censors didn't allow the movie to be completed; only in 1987 was it reconstructed (using footage from a 1945 Nazi propaganda film, Kolberg) and released, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The DEFA Film Library packages the film, newly restored, as a double feature; the second DVD is another widescreen B&W movie by director Heiner Carow called Career (1970), an interesting bit of agitprop docu-fiction that's set in West Germany at the end of the '60s and uses a half hour of footage from the banned film as flashbacks in the life of the same central character, now grown up. Besides a short discussion with Krause-Melzer from the 2016 Berlinale, the rest of the extras on the Russians disc are a series of PDFs detailing its background and production history; they were inaccessible on the buggy DVD-R that I received, however. Both films come with optional English subtitles.

3 from Indicator UK

The Front (U.S., 1976)

The Front is an unusual feature film for two reasons: It was the first to tackle the taboo subject of the McCarthy-era blacklisting of suspected Communist sympathizers in the American entertainment industry, and it was the first to star Woody Allen in a straight role, and moreover, in a film he didn't direct. Allen was between Love and Death and Annie Hall when the offer came from director Martin Ritt (Hud; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) to portray Howard Prince, a New York City restaurant cashier and part-time bookie who gets dragooned into being a "front" for his blacklisted screenwriter pal Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy). Passing himself off as the author of Miller's TV scripts, and then of other leftie screenwriters in Miller's entourage, Prince becomes a big name in the industry and captures the heart of TV network staffer Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci) before finally being exposed as a fraud. Zero Mostel co-stars as an aging comic who gets canned from his weekly TV show for flirting with the Communists and tries to pry himself out of unemployment by spying on Prince, before meeting an untimely end. On Blu-ray, The Front was released in early 2014 by U.S. boutique distributor Twilight Time; now comes a dual BD/DVD edition from the U.K. by a new distributor, Powerhouse Films, on its region-free Indicator label. Both editions have the same hi-def transfer, commentary track (by Marcovicci and film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman) and original theatrical trailer, but the Indicator adds a 6-minute interview from 2004 with the movie's director of photography, Michael Chapman, and an image gallery of on-set and promotional photos; you can also listen to Dave Grusin's score as an isolated track. Rounding out the package is a 36-page colour booklet. 

The Big Heat (U.S., 1953)

America brought out even more of the dark side in Fritz Lang. Famous for his silent features M and Metropolis, after emigrating in 1934 the German director became a master of film noir in his adopted country with hits like Scarlet Street, Secret Beyond the Door and House by the River. Lang's reputation as a cruel task master both on and off the set hit a new high in 1953 withThe Big Heat, a classic police detective yarn starring Glenn Ford (as a tough cop trying to break a crime syndicate), Gloria Grahame (as a mobster's moll), Jocelyn Brando (Marvin's older sister), and Lee Marvin (who, in the film's most famous scene, throws a scalding pot of coffee in her face). Already released by Twilight Time in a special edition in early 2016, the all-region Blu-ray on Britain's new Indicator label ports over the same extras (an isolated score; an audio commentary with film historians Lem Hobbs, Nick Redman and Julie Virgo; interviews with directors Michael Mann and Marin Scorsese; and a trailer) and adds several others. There's a 33-minute appreciation by film historian Tony Rayns, an image gallery of on-set and promotional photographs, and a 36-page illustrated booklet with an essay by critic Glenn Kenny. Lastly, there's a region-free DVD with the film and everything else on it.

Fat City (U.S., 1972)

Boxing fans have long held this movie in high regard. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his novel of the same name, it's directed by the great John Huston (The Misfits), shot by Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood), and set in down-and-out Stockton, California. Stacy Keach stars as a has-been boxer and Jeff Bridges is an amateur on his way up; Susan Tyrell (Andy Warhol's Bad) and Candy Clark (American Graffiti) co-star. Another improvement on the U.S. Twilight Time edition (from 2015), the Indicator Blu-ray includes the same isolated score, trailer and audio commentary (by Lem Dodds, hosted by Nick Redman) but again goes the extra distance with an array of extras: a new hour-long retrospective called Sucker Punch Blues (unfortunately truncated to 37 minutes, due to an authoring error, in the first pressing), two lengthy audio pieces (88 minutes of Huston interviewed onstage in London in 1972; 22 minutes of Gardner from 2015), 6 minutes of Huston interviewed on French TV in 1972, an image gallery, and the film's music (by the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Dusty Springfield, and Bread) as an optional isolated track. There's also a 28-page colour booklet and an accompanying DVD (where Sucker Punch Blues is restored to its full hour). 

02.2017

The best picture that almost wasn't

Moonlight (U.S., 2016)

My favourite film of 2016, Moonlight went up against La La Land at the 2017 Academy Awards, won two Oscars (best adapted screenplay for director Barry Jenkins and co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney); best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali, pictured above), was robbed of best picture and then famously got it back, catapulted from victim to hero in the now-famous "scandal" of the wrong envelope. Hollywood intrigue aside, Moonlight is an exceptional picture, very much a labour of love for Jenkins and McCraney, two African-Americans who grew up poor and gay in the same part of Miami but never met until they made the movie. Adapted from an unproduced play McCraney wrote, the film is told in three acts, three ages in the life of a shy boy named Chiron who a) is bullied in elementary school for being "different" and is mentored by a local drug dealer (Ali), b) is bullied again in high school and is betrayed by a friend he's having a secret affair with, and c) reconnects with that friend as a an adult and finds a kind of redemption. Chiron's hard life can be difficult to watch unfold, but there's a understated strength to the way the story is handled and a poetic beauty in the way it's shot (by cinematographer James Laxton) that's simply sublime. Jenkins has acknowledged his (Florida State University) film school influences, especially Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wei, and they do show if you know where to look; check out a side-by-side scene comparison on YouTube to see the full extent of the "homage". For the Blu-ray and DVD, Canadian distributor Elevation Pictures has ported the Lionsgate U.S. edition. Released two days after the Oscars, it has an audio commentary by Jenkins, a 22-minute making-of, a 10-minute look at Nicholas Britell's musical score, and six minutes of Jenkins talking about what it was like to shoot in Miami. There's also an optional French dub and Spanish (but no French) subtitles, and a slipcover (mine came affixed with a pre-Oscars gold sticker touting Moonlight's eight nominations ). An insert card gives you a code to go online and download a free digital copy of the film. My advice: Don't watch a trailer before you see the film, and try to see it in the theatre first. Witness the hush that comes over a crowd when people are deeply moved, and trust that you will be, too.

2 films about making contact

Arrival (U.S.,2016)

Stylistically and thematically, Denis Villeneuve's invasion-by-aliens blockbuster is a bit of a directorial pastiche; you're reminded of Speilberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Mallick (The Tree of Life), Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Ridley Scott (Alien). But in trying too hard to emulate the masters, Villeneuve fails to find his own voice, and the convoluted end result echoes false. Amy Adams stars as a university linguist who's drafted to decode the strange communications of creatures from outer space after their spaceship lands in rural Montana (with repeat performances around the globe). Jeremy Renner is the theoretical physicist who helps her. The veneer of intellectual endeavour soon wears thin, and for a movie about language there sure are a lot of clichés (right through to the laugh-out-loud bit of dialogue near the end between the two principals). Nominated for eight Oscars (including best picture), Arrival walked away with only one (for best sound editing, by Montrealer Sylvain Bellemare). For the home video release, Paramount offers two high-def editions – 4K Ultra HD or regular Blu-ray – with a DVD and digital-HD voucher thrown in. For extras, there are five featurettes totalling about 80 minutes that cover various aspects of the story and production: linguistics, sound, score, editing, science.

Cameraperson (U.S., 2016)

Kirsten Johnson was born in Seattle in 1965, went to Brown University and became a documentary cinematographer of the intellectual and internationalist left. With her camera she helped expose inequality and injustice around the world (genocide in Sudan, the women's peace movement in Liberia, U.S. military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay, the tribulations of Edward Snowden) for directors like Laura Poitras and Michael Moore. As a journalism professor of "visual thinking" at New York University, Johnson has now found time to empty her thoughts and impressions into a feature-length documentary of her own. Eschewing any narration, music or even a storyline, Cameraperson is a kind of reporter's notebook on film, a series of outtakes from shoots in faraway places like Bosnia, NIgeria and Afghanistan as well as ones closer to home (including an intimate look at Johnson's mother, who has Alzheimer's). Stick with it, and you'll be rewarded. Extras on the Criterion Blu-ray (also on DVD) include a couple of 40-minute making-ofs (one on editing, the other a discussion with Johnson's producer and sound recordists), excerpts from two film festival talks (including one with Moore), and a 9-minute short from 2015 by Johnson called The Above. There's also trailer and a 22-page booklet. English subtitles are burned-in.

2 from Twilight Time

Kiss of Death (U.S., 1947)

Famous for its scene where a sneering Richard Widmark (in his remarkable film debut) pushes an old lady downstairs in her wheelchair, Kiss of Death is classic film noir, shot in New York City. Victor Mature (My Darling Clementine) plays a hoodlum whose attempt to go straight runs afoul of Widmark's murderous character, Tommy Udo. Besides Twilight's usual option of listening to the score as an isolated track, the Blu-ray comes with audio commentaries by two film-historian duos: your choice of Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman or James Ursini and Alain Silver. There's also a trailer.

Interiors (U.S., 1978)

Between Annie Hall and Manhattan, Woody Allen got serious. He made Interiors, a Bergmanesque family drama about three daughters (Diane Keaton, Mary Neth Hurt, Kristen Griffith) who are coping with the break-up of their long-married parents (Geraldine Page and E.G. Marshall). When a free-spirited mistress (Maureen Stapleton) comes into the picture, the family's staid Long Island existence is really put to the test. No extras on the Blu-ray save for a trailer, which is usually the case with Allen's back-catalogue titles. There is a small illustrated booklet, however, with liner notes by Julie Kirgo.

3 from Eureka!

A Man for All Seasons (U.K., 1966)

In 16th-century England, Sir Thomas More (played by sad-eyed Paul Scofield) stubbornly opposes King Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn – and pays for it with his life. Robert Bolt adapted his own play, Fred Zinnemann (The Day of the Jackal) directed, and the remarkable cast includes Orson Welles (as the king), Vanessa Redgrave (as Anne) Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Susannah York and John Hurt. Everyone went on to have a merry time at the Academy Awards (six Oscars, including best picture). New to Blu-ray in British distributor Eureka!'s Masters of Cinema collection, the movie has darker and crisper visuals that show much more in the frame than Columbia's original DVD flipper disc did in 1999. The disc retains the one extra found on Sony's re-issue in 2007 – an 18-minute featurette on More's life – and also comes with that edition's 5.1 surround sound, as well as the movie's original mono sound as an option for purists. And like the Blu-ray that U.S. distributor Twilight Time released in 2015, this one includes a new audio commentary (by Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs), an isolated score track, a trailer and a booklet, with the added bonus of a half-hour interview with British film historian Neil Sinyard. There's also a second disc, a DVD, with all the same bonus features. One caveat for North American viewers: the discs are region B-locked, so won't be playable on standard players here.

Cover Girl (U.S., 1944)

Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly star in Columbia Pictures' first Technicolor musical. It's a classic showbiz tale of a Brooklyn nightclub dancer (Hayworth) who wins a "Cover Girl" magazine contest, makes it big on Broadway and dumps her boyfriend (Kelly, as the club's owner) – or does she? The new Masters of Cinema's dual-format edition (Blu-ray & DVD) is transferred from a new 4K restoration, is code-locked for Europe, and comes with one previously available extra: five minutes of Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann talking about how glamorous Hayworth was and how much he likes Cover Girl. There's also the option of listening to the score (songs by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin) and special effects as an isolated track (on the Blu-ray only). That optiongives this edition some added value versus the American Blu-ray that Twilight Time released in 2012 (and that is now out-of-print).

Finding Forrester (U.S., 2000)

Sean Connery co-produced and starred in this promising but ultimately disappointing drama set in the Bronx and directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting). Connery plays a reclusive novelist who secretly coaches a bookish young African-American (Rob Brown) towards success at an exclusive new prep school, where he also leads the basketball team. Think Educating Rita, minus the humour, or indeed Good Will Hunting, minus the energy. F. Murray Abraham reprises his Salieri role from Amadeus, this time as a pompous professor of literature jealous of his new student's brilliance. Anna Paquin and Michael Pitt co-star as disaffected classmates. The Blu-ray (along with the accompanying DVD, both locked for European players) offer two quarter-hour vintage featurettes: a making-of and a look at how Brown, an unknown, was cast). There's also eight minutes of deleted scenes and a trailer.

01.2017

2 movies about being black and female

The Watermelon Woman (U.S., 1996)

"Do I look like I'm a student? I'm a filmmaker," says Cheryl Dunye in her semi-autobiographical debut feature, and to an extent, she's right. But there's something self-aware and amateurish (in a good sense) about this movie that smacks of a graduate film project. It's an episodic foray into the state of mind of a lesbian African-American video-store clerk (Dunye) as she embarks on a new relationship (with a white woman) and a new film project (to probe the life of a long-forgotten black actress and singer from the 1930s known simply as "Watermelon Woman"). The DVD from First Run Features comes with Black is Blue, a short narrative (16 minutes) from 2014 done partly in "Dunyementary" (faux-documentary) style; it looks at a young transgender black woman who has  gotten into bodybuilding.

La noire de ...  (Senegal/France, 1966)

In this classic African film, set in Antibes on France's Côte d'Azur in the mid-1960s, a young Senegalese maid (M'Bissine Thérèse Diop) grows unhappy with her job and dreams of home. Besides director Ousmane Sembène's 1963 debut short Borom sarat, the new Criterion Blu-ray comes with a raft of extras to set the films and their celebrated maker in much-needed context: A one-hour documentary on Sembène from 1994, new interviews with film scholars Manthia Diawara and Samba Gadjigo (20 minutes each), a short clip of Sembène on French TV in 1966, a 12-minute appreciation of Borom sarat, 12 minutes with Diop (a new interview), an unused colour sequence (one minute), a trailer and a 12-page foldout pamphlet. The English subtitles are optional. Criterion also offers the film on DVD, in a separate edition. 

2 by Abel Gance

Napoléon (France, 1927)

A classic of the silent film era, French director Abel Gance's Napoléon has gone through many permutations since its blockbuster release in 1927. Originally nine hours (!) long, the sprawling biopic of the early years of the great Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was distributed worldwide in a number of cuts ranging from seven hours to two. It now clocks in at 5.5 in a tremendous restoration by film historian Kevin Brownlow and the British Film Institute National Archive. The BFI Blu-ray package is exhaustive: three discs in a foldout case with a 60-page book (now reduced to 32 in the second edition), and extras including an hour-long documentary on Napoléon that Brownlow made in 1968, 45 minutes with composer Carl Davis, whose score is here remixed in 7.1 stereo, a restoration featurette and a stills gallery, and individual screen presentations of Gance's famous triptych montage that ends the picture. Worth mentioning: This is not an all-region Blu-ray set, so it won't play on regular North American players; the discs are code Region B for Europe (an all-region player is your best bet, if you don't already have one).

J'accuse (France, 1938)

In 1919, after the carnage of World War I, Abel Gance made an anti-war film called J'accuse. In 1938, on the eve of World War II, he made J'accuse again – and then some. He reprised his original silent film for the first third, brought the story into the present in the second third, and brought it to the brink of apocalypse in the last third, a warning of the conflagration to come. Mixing in some vintage WWI footage with battle scene recreations, and even employing some disfigured combat veterans as extras in the final "living dead" sequence, Gance again centres the story on an idealistic French poet-soldier named Jean Diaz (Victor Francen). Back home as a civilian, Diaz invents a kind of unbreakable glass that he hopes will make armour impenetrable and hence war obsolete; of course it does quite the opposite (his financier is keen to use it in the war that's brewing with Nazi Germany). Gance re-cut the ending after the end of WWII, and it's his "new" version we get on this Blu-ray from Olive Films. No extras, but at least the transfer (from a new restoration by Gaumont) is good and the English subtitles (in yellow) can be removed. 

2 German silents from Eureka! Masters of Cinema

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany, 1920)

The grand-daddy of horror films, Robert Wiene's Expressionist vision of hypnotism and murder is a classic of German silent cinema. It also inspired a famous film-studies book, Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler, which sees the movie as a prescient template for the rise of Nazism. Werner Krauss plays the madman Caligari who hypnotizes a sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) into terrorizing a small town by stabbing people to death in their sleep. Scary stuff, even today. The new Blu-ray steelbook edition from the U.K. is part of the Masters of Cinema series distributed by Eureka! Entertainment, and updates its 2014 Blu-ray edition with some big extras, There are  two documentaries on Caligari  (two hours long and one hour, on a second disc) and a 44-page booklet, as well as a new, 15-minute video appreciation by Scottish film critic David Cairns and three short featurettes on Caligari's restoration. The discs are code-locked to Europe; English subtitles for the German intertitles are optional.

Varieté (Germany, 1925)

This murder-under-the-big-top melodrama – a big international hit on its release at the height of the Weimar Republic – was directed by E.A. Dupont and stars Emil Jannings and Warwick Ward as trapeze artists thrown for a romantic loop by a beautiful emigre dancer (Lya De Puti). Transferred from a 2K digital restoration done in 2015 by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Stifung, the new Masters of Cinema edition offers both the European and (shorter, bowdlerized and peach-tinted) American versions of the film. The Blu-ray is code-locked for Europe and so is the accompanying DVD of both film versions. On the European one, there's a choice of three scores: one piano (played by Stephen Horne), another piano  (Johannes Contag) and a third, decidely odd score  that has caused controversy in Germany; it's played and sung, in English, by a U.K. "Brechtian punk" band called The Tiger Lillies. The German intertitles come with optional English subtitles. There's also a booklet with new writing on the film and archival images.

2 animated classics about artificial beings

Pinocchio (U.S., 1940)

"A boy who won't be good might just as well be made of wood."

Metropolis (Japan, 2001)

"The superhuman you created is saying it doesn't need us anymore."

2 road movies

Two for the Road (U.K., 1967)

Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn are Mark and Joanna Wallace, just a typical married British couple on holiday in the south of France. In other words, they're a bickering, spiteful, desperately unhappy pair. They weren't always so, however, as we see in a series of flashbacks of previous, more harmonious car trips they took together. Shot in Panavision in the Alpes Maritimes and the Côte d'Azur and scored by Henry Mancini, the film is directed by Stanley Donen (Funny Face). On Blu-ray, the new Twilight Time  edition offers some different supplements than the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray that British distributor Eureka! released in 2015. Besides the already available director's audio commentary track, there's a new one with Twilight's Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, plus a vintage newsreel, a trailer, an optional track of the score, and a booklet.

La Bamba (U.S., 1987)

Teenage singing sensation Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) tours his Latino-laced repertoire of late -'50s rock-'n'-roll ("La Bamba," "Donna") until a plane crash ends his brief career. For its new home-video iteration, Eureka betters Twilight Time's 2014 Blu-ray. The British edition is dual-format (one Blu-ray, one DVD), has the same two commentary tracks  as Twilight's (one by cast and crew, the other by the producers), and adds Los Lobos' music video of "La Bamba," Howard Huntsberry's music video of "Lonely Teardrops," and a trailer. There's also a 21-minute featurette called "Remembering Ritchie." No option of listening to the film's music as an isolated track, however (featured performers include the great  Marshall Crenshaw, who plays Buddy Holly). And the disc is region-B locked for European players, which may be a deal-breaker for some.

Rounding up the best of 2016

In late December I contributed to DVDBeaver.com's annual poll of favourite Blu-ray and DVD releases. Click on the banner above and scroll down to the middle of the pack of 25 balloteers. You'll find my 10 picks for best Blu-ray and 10 runners-up, my 10 top DVDs, a list of raves and rants, and my wishlist for 2017.

12.2016

Sully (U.S, 2016)

Blame Canada – or rather, our geese. When a V formation of Canadian geese flew into the path of US Airways Flight 1549 near New York's LaGuardia Airport on the afternoon of  Jan. 15, 2009, it could have spelled disaster. The Airbus 320 lost power in both engines, one even started to burn, and pilot Chesley Sullenberger faced a life-and-death task: finding a safe place to land. The closest airports were now too far away, so Sullenberger – an ex-Air Force captain from Texas known to his friends as Sully – decided to ditch the plane down below on the Hudson River. It was a big risk; he had 150 passengers on board and five crew, and the plane could break up on impact with the water. In the end, Sully successfully landed the plane, all were rescued, and the 57-year-old pilot was on his way to becoming America's new national hero. Well, not entirely; there was questions afterwards whether Sullenberger showed error in judgment by not trying to return to LaGuardia to land the plane (he was soon exonerated), and Sullenberger, suffering from PTSD, became vocal about U.S. airlines that drastically cut salaries and pensions to staff like him and hired too many new pilots with little flight experience. All this is detailed in Clint Eastwood's new movie, Sully, with Tom Hanks (perfectly cast) in the lead role. Based on the pilot's memoir, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, the film takes liberties with the truth (the National Transportation Safety Board is cast in a particularly bad light) but succeeds in telling one man's story with verve and conviction. On Blu-ray and DVD in a dual edition from Warner, the film comes out with flying colours, augmented by special features that include a 20-minute making-of, another 20 minutes of interviews with Sullenberger and his family, and a 15-minute insiders' account of Flight 1549. No trailer, however.

The Asphalt Jungle (U.S., 1950)

In 1950, Marilyn Monroe was only 23 and still a bit player when she took a small role in John Huston's seminal film noir, The Asphalt Jungle. It was one of six films she appeared in that year, the only other notable one being  Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve, another instant classic. Monroe was on screen all of five minutes in Huston's film, playing the mistress of a criminal financier (Louis Calhern), but oh, what a five minutes; check out the clip to get an idea of the ambitious young actress's promise of even better things to come. The Asphalt Jungle is a heist movie, set in the American Midwest, about an aging mastermind (Sam Jaffe) who enlists a gang of  accomplices (Calhern, Sterling Hayden, James Whitmore and Anthony Caruso) to commit a million-dollar robbery of a jewellery store. All goes according to plan, until the alarms are tripped. Then things get really interesting. The Criterion Blu-ray (also available on two-disc DVD) improves on the DVD that Warner put out way back in 2004 in a boxset of five film noirs whose only extras were commentary tracks. Here, besides a 2K digital restoration and the original commentary by film historian Drew Casper (with archival recordings of Whitmore), you get a two-hour German-made documentary on Hayden from 1983 (in English), new interviews with film noir historian Eddie Muller (24 minutes) and cinematographer John Bailey (20 minutes), and three items featuring Huston: an episode of City Lights, a Toronto TV talk show, from 1979 (50 minutes); audio excerpts of more interviews with the director (six minutes); and archival footage of him discussing the film (just under a minute). There's also a trailer and a 12-page foldout booklet with an essay by Geoffrey O'Brien, editor-in-chief of the Library of America.

2 from Twilight Time

Stardust Memories (U.S., 1980)

This is one of my favourite black-and-white movies by Woody Allen, right up there with Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose and Shadows and Fog.  Stardust Memories pays homage to Federico Fellini (8½) while also ripping a headline from Allen's own press: As a director, he used to make us laugh; now he just leaves us depressed. Allen plays Sandy Bates, a famous filmmaker going through a creative and romantic crisis. Should he still make comedies to please his fans, or finally get serious? And who should he commit to: intellectual Daisy (Jessica Harper), maternal Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault), or neurotic ex-girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling)? Try watching the movie as a silent film: Twilight Time gives the option of listening to the score alone while the movie plays, highlighted by vintage tunes performed by Sidney Bechet, Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. 

The Barefoot Contessa (U.S./Italy, 1954)

Here's another picture about movies, fame, love and women – or rather, one woman. The Barefoot Contessa stars Ava Gardner as Maria Vargas, a Spanish dancer who's discovered by a trio of Hollywood types looking for their next hit. There's veteran writer-director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), producer Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens) and publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien). The story is told in flashbacks and from several points of view, a hallmark of scriptwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who got an Oscar nomination for this one; O'Brien won best-supporting actor). The great Jack Cardiff did the widescreen cinematography (in 1.85:1 ratio, not 1.78.1 as the Blu-ray notes claim). Extras include a new, in-house audio commentary track (by Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle); an isolated score track (music by Mario Nascimbene); and a photo gallery of over 50 stills and behind-the-scenes shots.

Fright Night (U.S., 1985)

Boo! Ha-ha.