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Some things new, some things old: the March releases
Mommy (Canada, 2014)
Quebec media darling Xavier Dolan racked up a whack of prizes here and in France for this, his fifth feature film, which once again explores a mother-son relationship and, unusually, frames it in a square aspect ratio à la Instagram – very hip or very annoying, depending on your taste. The film world's top professional honour, a nomination at the Oscars for best foreign-language film, eluded Dolan on this one, but his next movie will be in English and is about Hollywood, so maybe then the Academy will finally recognize this ambitious young man and give him an award. For now, he has the pleasure of knowing his Mommy dearest continues to do huge box-office (over 3 million tickets sold) and that, after Mommy's homegrown triple threat of Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier-Pilon and Suzanne Clément, he now has the pleasure of working with an A-team of American acting talent on his new picture: Jessica Chastain, Kathy Bates and Susan Sarandon. On Blu-ray and DVD from Montreal distributor Seville Films, Mommy comes with an audio commentary by Dolan, Dorval and crew (in French only), deleted scenes, a video of Dolan accepting the jury prize at Cannes, and optional French and English subtitles. If you're just getting to know the man and the phenomenon, you might also want to dip into Dolan's back catalogue (four other films in as many years), starting with his debut as writer/actor/director, J'ai tué ma mère. K-Films Amérique did the DVD; it doesn't have English subtitles but the Montreal distributor did hire a cameraman to follow Dolan around for his first official Cannes film festival appearance (partly edited by the director, the short lasts 18 minutes), and there are also a few deleted scenes in low-def, a trailer, and a PDF of the script; no subtitles, however. Seville Films has the rest of the catalogue, all with optional subtitles: the love triangle movie Les amours imaginaires is on DVD; the transgender drama Laurence Anyways is on a dual Blu-ray/DVD edition with French-language audio commentary and deleted scenes with optional English subs; and the twisted Hitchcockian thriller Tom à la ferme is on DVD with Dolan on the commentary track and a montage of 30 photos from the set. Seville also has a movie Dolan acted in but didn't direct, Podz's 2014 drama Miraculum (on Blu-ray or DVD); in that one, Dolan is cast as a young but chronically ill leader of a Quebec congregation of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Still in theatres and not yet released on home video is Elephant Song, Dolan's English-language acting debut; it's a psychological whodunnit directed by Charles Binamé; Dolan plays a sociopath caught in a cat-and-mouse game with his shrink (Bruce Greenwood).
The Sound of Music (U.S., 1965)
You know the story, you love the songs, so should you be excited about this new Blu-ray release of The Sound of Music? Well, only sort of. It's been five years since the movie debuted on Blu, and unfortunately all Fox has to offer that's new is a 50-minute video in which Julie Andrews returns to Salzburg, revisits places where the film was shot and tours some hangouts of the real-life Von Trapp family. A separate collector's edition BD has the same extras plus a (previously available) CD soundtrack.
Les combattants (France, 2014)
A big hit in France, this youth movie about a couple of teenagers in the Landes region who join the army one summer to learn survival skills has a lot of style, a lot of heart, and a cast that really gets under your skin. Adèle Haenel (an actress who's a thinking man's Adèle Exarchopoulos) plays a taciturn tomboy preparing for Armageddon and Kevin Azaïs (younger brother of actor Vincent Rottiers) is the tag-along who ultimately becomes her protector. There are optional English subtitles on the K-Films Amérique DVD, but I would have liked French ones, too, to learn some of that new rapid-fire French lingo. No extras, but there are trailers for this and four other new French and Québécois films in K-Film's catalogue.
La peau douce (France, 1964)
François Truffaut's first commercial flop turned out to have legs, and I don't just mean the lovely ones of its star, Françoise Dorléac (sister of Catherine Deneuve). She plays a young stewardess who has a disasterous affair with a dull old literary editor played by Jean Desailly. It's all so sad but rings so true, and there's added poignancy in knowing Dorléac died three years after the film's release, in a car crash. The Criterion Blu-ray (also on DVD) looks gorgeous, a digital restoration that's a big leap up from the Mk2 / Alliance DVD of 2002. There are new English subtitles, an audio commentary, a short interview with Truffaut from 1965, a short video essay, and a half-hour documentary from 1999 on Truffaut and his mentor, Alfred Hitchcock. Missing, alas, is a lovely little five-minute doc on Dorléac that was on the old DVD; in it, she dances to yéyé music, is interviewed walking around Cannes and gets tenderly eulogized by Truffaut after her death.
Into the Woods (U.S., 2014)
The same team behind the late '80s Broadway hit – James Lapine, screenplay; Stephen Sondheim, lyrics and score – get some help from the folks at Disney and the steady hand of director Rob Marshall to bring this fairy-tale compendium to life again. Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp star. Extras on the Blu-ray (also available on DVD) include a new song sung by Streep that went unused in the film, as well a multi-part making-of, a karaoke singalong, and a director's commentary track.
Diplomatie (France/Germany, 2014)
Oscar-winner Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum) masterfully adapts a stage play based on a true story of the Second World War. Raoul Nordling (played by André Dussollier) was the Swedish consul who, in Nazi-occupied Paris on the eve of liberation in 1944, convinced German general Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) not to carry out Hitler's order to dynamite the City of Light to the ground. Fine acting, staging that's never stagey, 84 tension-filled minutes and a twist at the end – it all adds up to riveting viewing. The Métropole DVD comes with optional English subtitles for the French and German dialogue and French subs for the German dialogue, but there's nothing in the way of extras, not even a timeline.
Les croix de bois (France, 1932)
Raymond Bernard took Roland Dorgelès' novel about the Great War and turned into a visually spectacular epic of a French regiment and its bloody flight in the trenches against les Boches. An early talkie, the movie remains a true classic of anti-war cinema, on a par with Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, John Ford's Four Sons, and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Wooden Crosses was issued for the North American DVD market in 2007 on Criterion's Eclipse label (along with Bernard's superb Les miserábles), but that boxset was rough-looking and barebones. This new dual-format edition (Blu/DVD), on the Masters of Cinema imprint of British distributor Eureka!, advances tremendously: a new restoration by Pathé; archival interviews and new interviews; documentaries on the movie, its poster art and the war; and a 36-page booklet. The disc is code-locked for European players, however; you'll need one of those or an all-region player to see it.
Notable releases in February
Force majeure (Sweden/France/Norway, 2014)
A Swedish yuppie family on a ski vacation in the French Alps nearly comes undone after surviving an avalanche scare. Writer-director Ruben Östlund probes the male psyche through the character of the father (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), who briefly abandons his brood to save himself first, is too blind to admit his failure, then eventually faces up to the truth with a protracted "man cry" – amusingly replicated by Östlund himself on YouTube when his picture failed to be nominated for an Oscar. The DVD (also on Blu-ray) from Magnolia Pictures has an interview with director and star, plus a short promo video.
Birdman (U.S., 2014)
This year's pick for best picture at the Oscars, Birdman is a bleak but also funny look at life backstage at a major New York City theatre. Michael Keaton stars as a has-been Hollywood action-movie hero looking for new legitimacy as a Broadway director, opening a production based on Raymond Carver's short stories. He's stymied by a manipulative leading man (Edward Norton), a daughter barely out of rehab (Emma Stone), a powerful theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) and his own manic depression, getting worse by the hour. The Fox Blu-ray (also on DVD) comes with a half-hour making-of, an interview with Keaton and writer-director Alejandro Iñárritu, and a photo gallery. Be aware, too, that thanks to the Oscars the movie is getting a second life on the big screen, so go see it soon.
The Theory of Everything (Britain, 2014)
Freckle-faced Eddie Redmayne won best actor at this year's Oscars for his transformative portrayal of the great cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Based on the memoir of Hawking's ex-wife, Jane, the movie follows Hawking from his promising start as a brilliant graduate student at Cambridge through his affliction with a debilitating neurological disease and eventual triumph (with the saintly help of his wife, played by Felicity Jones) over adversity despite needing a wheelchair to stay mobile and a computer to speak. The Universal/eOne DVD (also on Blu-ray) has eight deleted scenes (with optional audio commentary by director James Marsh), a short making-of that focuses on Hawking and his wife, and a full-length commentary track by Marsh.
Dear White People (U.S., 2014)
Crowdfunded, shot digitally and a hit at Sundance, this indie film by Texas writer-director Justin Simien satirizes the sorry state of race relations on U.S. university campuses, where white fraternities throw "blackface" parties and face the ire of black-power student groups. Think of this as a hipper-than-usual take on campus life, similar in some ways to Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress but with more attitude and visual punch. Extras on the eOne DVD (also on Blu-ray) include deleted scenes and outtakes, two audio commentaries, a making-of, a music video and several parody sketches that'll make you laugh.
Life Itself (U.S./Canada, 2014)
Roger Ebert was America's most-loved film critic, a superstar with a syndicated column in the Chicago Sun-Times, a TV show (At the Movies, with the late Gene Siskel, where the expression "Two Thumbs Up" was born), many books and, at the end of his life after he'd lost his voice to thyroid cancer, a blog. Based on his autobiography, this documentary by Steve James (whose basketball movie, Hoop Dreams, Ebert championed) gets to the essence of what made Ebert's reputation, and while generally sympathetic, doesn't shy from criticism itself of the flawed man behind the legend. Extras on the Blu-ray (also on DVD) include 15 deleted scenes, 10 minutes with the director, a tribute video from Sundance, a short video promo, and a bunch of trailers for this and other Magnolia Pictures releases.
The Jewel in the Crown (Britain, 1984)
The Jewel in the Crown was must-viewing back in the days of 13-inch TV sets. That would be the early 1980s, and it seems odd today that such an epic look at the British Raj would be confined to the small screen. Yet somehow it worked. Despite being shot on 16-mm film with mono sound, the locations were real enough (India, in all its glory), the acting superb (especially Tim Piggott-Smith as Merrick, the sneering colonial police superintendant), and the script simply perfect (adapted from Paul Scott's Raj Quartet). Now, 30 years after they first ran on TV, all 14 episodes have been remastered by the BBC and issued in a five-DVD set here by PBS, complete with (optional) Masterpiece Theatre introductions by Alistair Cooke and commentary tracks. Superb.
Five more from Twilight Time
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (U.S., 1967)
Another favourite from the late-night TV of my youth. I must have been drawn in by the violence, à la Bonnie and Clyde. Roger Corman directs, Jason Robards stars (miscast, some say, as mob boss Al Capone), and the shoot-'em-up massacre itself (in 1929) made Chicago infamous and in reenacted here in inglorious detail. As extras on the Blu-ray, which updates the Fox DVD from 2006, you get some vintage newsreel clips, a brief video reminiscence by the director, a trailer and the score as an optional track.
Stormy Weather (U.S., 1943)
Lena Horne heads up an all-black cast in this WWII-era musical that also features jazz legends Cab Calloway and Fats Waller (who performs Ain't Misbehavin'). Besides the option of an isolated score – essential, in this case – the only extra is the same as was on the Fox DVD from 2006: a commentary track by California scholar Todd Boyd.
Love and Death (U.S./France, 1975)
Woody Allen spoofs Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and even Bergman in this madcap epic set during the Napoleonic Wars. He plays a cowardly knave named Boris, Diane Keaton is his ditzy wife, Sonja, and the whole thing was shot in Hungary and France by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (Tess, Au hasard Balthazar). As usual with Allen's movies on home video, the Blu-ray has no extras besides a trailer (and the score, of course).
To Sir, with Love (Britain, 1967)
Sidney Poitier stars in this true story of a black immigrant in inner-city London who gets a job as a teacher in an inner-city London school and wins over his classroom of rebellious white students to the better values in life: respect, hard work, and ultimately, love. Scottish lass Lulu sings the title song. Plenty of extras on the Blu-ray. To rediscover.
Lenny (U.S., 1974)
Dustin Hoffman was a good choice to portray the acerbic stand-up comic Lenny Bruce. Directed by Bob Fosse (on the heels of his hit musical, Cabaret) and shot in black-and-white, the movie is told in flashbacks and paints Bruce as not only a pioneer for free speech but as a sordid character who revels in shocking the public (and the police) with his obscenity-laced rants about sex. The Blu-ray has a new commentary track, isolated score and trailer.
Four animated classics from Disney & Studio Ghibli, all new to Blu-ray
101 Dalmatians (U.S., 1961)
For me, this Disney tale about a couple of Dalmatian dogs and the adventures they get up to with their brood of puppies in England is a touchstone (I even still have the original 45-rpm audio recording and storybook). For Disney, however, this was simply a low-budget effort to make a classic – and it was a hit at the box-office. The new "Diamond Edition" (BD and DVD) marks an upgrade from the two-DVD "Platinum Edition" that Disney released in 2008, porting over most of the extras and adding four new ones. Definitely worth the upgrade for fans.
Pom Poko (Japan, 1994)
A bit of a departure for Studio Ghibli, this is an oddly political story about a band of raccoon dogs who fight back against the suburban sprawl that's destroying their forest habitat – and use their genitalia as equipment and weaponry. Strange but compelling. Besides trailers, the only extra is the complete film illustrated by the original storyboards.
Porco Rosso (Japan, 1992)
Disney is issuing more and more of Japan's famed Studio Ghibli animations on Blu-ray, and that's a good thing. This one will delight children and adults alike with the twists and turns of an amusing tale inspired by the days of early aviation. Porco (voiced by Michael Keaton on the English-language track) is a pig-faced pilot who battles a band of pirates in the sky and fights for the hand of the lovely Gina back on the ground. On the discs (BD & DVD), the best bonus is the entire film in the original Japanese storyboards, plus a peek at the dubbing process.
Tales from Earthsea (Japan, 2006)
Adapted from Ursula Le Guin's children's fantasy books, this dark tale of dragons and sorcerers was directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of Ghibli co-founder (and legendary artist) Hayao Miyazaki. The discs have two hours of storyboards, an hour-long making-of (mostly about the film's sound design), a short promo video, a trailer and some TV spots.
Two more for your consideration in January
Love is Strange (U.S., 2014)
Strange, indeed. Here's another wonderful "little picture" that was shut out of this year's Oscars. Maybe it was because of the gay theme, though it's so incidental to the story, and so maturely handled, I don't see how it could have hurt. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are an old couple who get married, sell their apartment and go live with friends – a real ordeal. The DVD and Blu-ray have an hour of extras plus a commentary track.
Downton Abbey, Season 5 (Britain, 2014)
It's 1924, and the highborn Crawleys and their dedicated staff must cope with the many changes around them, starting with that newfangled contraption, the wireless radio. On the PBS DVD set, you get nearly nine hours of Downton spread across three discs, with over 40 minutes of behind-the-scene footage as a bonus – simply ideal for a couple of sick days at home in bed. Now if only you could figure out how to use that damn universal remote.
Twilight Time kicks off 2015 with four new releases
La mariée était en noir (France/Italy, 1968)
It's rare that bonus features are more valuable than the film, but that's the case with this two-disc set. On Blu-ray, you get Jeanne Moreau playing a vengeful murderess in François Truffaut's homage to Hitchcock, The Bride Wore Black. It's a bit of a bore, actually, and the English subtitles are non-removeable, which is a deal-breaker for me (the English dub is likewise not an attractive option). On the bonus CD, however, there's a real treat: 79 minutes of audio conversation with Hitchcock's favourite film composer, Bernard Herrmann, who scored the picture. Taped in Los Angeles in 1970, the interview was previously released on CD in 2006 by the LA Film Music Society, and can be bought separately for $15 on their website – a good option.
Breaking Away (U.S., 1979)
I remember seeing this movie on TV at the end of high school and identifying with its teenager hero, Dave, an Italian-spewing "mad" cycling enthusiast in whitebread Indiana, so completely that I wished I had his life. By the time the credits rolled, I was so pumped I went outside, got on my bike and went on a long ride, returning home only at sunset and feeling somehow forever transformed. I only stopped short of shaving my legs for speed like Dave did. Breaking Away was a hit with audiences that year (1979), and Steve Tesich, who wrote the screenplay, got a well-deserved Oscar. It all holds up well today, and the Blu-ray is the best the film's ever looked. There's a new commentary track, too, by star Dennis Christopher, plus a couple of TV teasers, an isolated score track, and a booklet. Avanti!
Bandit Queen (India/Britain, 1994)
In the early 1980s, Phoolan Devi was known in India as the Bandit Queen, a notorious gang leader who turned to mass murder as retribution for rape. Charged but never tried, she later became an MP, but was gunned down in 2001. This film dramatizes her life. Another problematic Twilight Time release, the Blu-ray has burned-in English subtitles, which is a drag if you understand Hindi (and millions do). There are few extras, either, besides a previously available commentary track by the director, Shekhar Kapur, a booklet and isolated score. If your player can handle foreign discs, it might be best to wait for a Blu-ray to be released by the British distributor Film4, which licensed this to Twilight Time for North America; it might at least have removable subs.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (U.S., 1985)
One of my favourite films from Woody Allen's sentimental "middle period" of the 1980s, this one is set during the Great Depression and stars Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels. Just as The Artist would two decades later for a new generation of filmgoers, Purple Rose of Cairo sends up the era of the early talkies when silver-screen illusions were made all the more real – and could be dashed – by the arrival of sound. Farrow plays a poor waitress who falls in love with the man of her dreams (Daniels), a movie star who walks off the screen and into her life. Is he real, or is he a figment of her imagination? (In his old age, Allen would return to the theme in Midnight in Paris, very successfully so.) Extras on the Blu-ray include a trailer and the option of isolating the superb score (by Dick Hyman) as a separate track.
And here's a fifth ... but it's already sold out.
Fright Night (U.S., 1985)
Low-budget kitsch and cheap thrills? No question. A cult favourite of mock-horror fans? Ditto. Transylvania comes to the American suburbs and fearless vampire killer Roddy McDowall (playing a Dracula movie expert) is brought in to nip the problem in the neck. You'll laugh 'til you bleed. When Twilight Time first issued this on Blu-ray in 2011, the disc came with almost no bonus features, just a couple of trailers and an isolated score. For this 30th anniversary edition, though the master source remains the same, the extras runneth over. Besides the trailers and score, there are two audio commentaries featuring writer-director Tom Holland, an hour-long reunion of cast and crew taped in 2008, over an hour and a half of vintage EPK with behind-the-scenes footage, a half-hour interview with Holland and, finally, a gallery of photos and memorabilia from the director's archives.
An international potpourri, starting at home
Tu dors Nicole (Canada, 2014)
There's a beautiful languor to this sleeper hit from Quebec writer/director Stéphane Lafleur, his follow-up to 2011's En terrains connus. Shot in black and white, it got some great reviews after screening last year at the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes, and it's easy to see why. The naturalistic acting, quiet pacing, symmetrical framing, use of long shots and live music, and its focus on young adults bring to mind some of the deadpan serio-comedies of Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom), Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha) and Aki Kaurismäki (Le Havre). Julianne Côté (as Nicole) and Catherine St-Laurent are best friends in suburban Montreal who spend their time during a summer heat wave working menial jobs, hanging about the house, lounging around the swimming pool, planning a trip to Iceland and flirting with the new drummer in the rock band Nicole's brother has put together. They also have to endure the weird come-ons of a pipsqueak teen (Godefroy Reding) whose voice has broken way too soon (dubbed, he sounds twice his age) and whose bravado is as annoying as it is unsettling. At night, Nicole can't sleep and wanders around her neighbourhood, peering into houses where others lead similar lives of quiet desperation, wondering how to shake off her torpor. Even with a fine script, it could all be a bit boring and inconsequential if it wasn't so compelling visually. If the film has one fault it's that it relies too much on our sympathy for the title character, which gets stretched thin sometimes, as thin as Nicole's tenuous hold on meaningful life. All in all, though, this moody tone poem nails suburban ennui to a T. Give it a spin. Extras on the DVD or Blu-ray from E1's Christal Films are brief: just a couple of deleted scenes that don't add anything to our understanding of the film. English subtitles are optional; there are also French ones, but only for the foreign-language bits of dialogue (i.e. Icelandic).
La Ciénaga (Argentina/France/Spain, 2001)
I can't say I like La Ciénaga much, but I do find it, well, interesting. It's certainly not easy to watch. Cruelty and neglect, indifference and abuse, where almost every character, young or old, is deeply flawed, even grotesque, can be a tough slog in life, let alone at the cinema. But you know, there's also something creepily fascinating about seeing how a family – or on this case, two – get overwhelmed by their environment and are slowly eaten away by envy, avarice and crass exploitation. The story – a series of loosely connected vignettes – takes place in Argentina during a heat wave, and begins memorably at a swampy rural swimming pool where a drunken matron has a bloody fall on the tile deck. There follow scenes of kids careening through the woods armed with rifles, a cow struggling to free itself from a muddy creek, and a teenage girl who's achingly in love with her family's Indian maid. To better appreciate the film and the esteemed place it holds in the New Argentine Cinema that emerged in the late 1990s, the Criterion disc (Blu-ray or DVD) offers a few special features: a new video interview with director Lucrecia Martel (19 minutes), an appreciation by Argentinian indie film festival organizer Andres di Tella (24 minutes), and an illustrated leaflet with an essay by another Argentine film expert, David Oubitia. Missing, however, is an early, award-winning short by Martel called Rey Muerto, which was on the DVD of La Ciénaga that Home Vision Entertainment released a decade ago (it's still available online).
The Palm Beach Story (U.S., 1942)
Screwball comedy was silly-putty in the hands of American writer-director Preston Sturges, and this movie is one his best – zany, intelligent, highly entertaining. Claudette Colbert stars as a society gal who decides to divorce her struggling architect of a husband (Joel McCrae) and move to Florida, where she gets into all kids of scrapes, sexual and otherwise, in her quest to get rich and stay rich. Extras on the Criterion disc (either Blu-ray or DVD) include a half-hour radio adaptation from 1943 in which Colbert reprises her role; a 12-minute propaganda short Sturges made for the war effort in 1941; and interviews with two fans of Sturges and his work: a film historian (James Harvey) and a comedian (Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader). A nice package overall, but if it's just the film you want, and you've got a taste for more whip-smart screwball, I recommend getting the nice-looking boxset of seven Sturges films, including this one and his classic, Sullivan's Travels, that Universal issued on DVD in 2006. It retails online for about $50, versus $27 for the single Criterion DVD.
Metropolis (Germany, 1927)
Metropolis was a "silent" movie augmented not by speech but by a majestic score (by Gottfried Huppertz), and Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi spectacle doesn't cease to impress, in whatever way you want to you see and hear it. The latest is a double Blu-ray set from the British indie label Eureka Entertainment, another gem in its Masters of Cinema series of classic films. Limited to 4,000 copies in golden "steelbook" (aka tin] packaging, the set contains the definitive 2010 version of the film that was reconstructed and restored from by Germany's Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung to its full 148 minutes. It's the same that audiences would have seen back in 1927, including 25 minutes of footage that had disappeared and was thought lost until an original print of the whole film was found in the archives of a museum in Argentina and used for the restoration. Masters of Cinema already released this version on Blu-ray in 2010, as did the American distributor Kino, but this edition goes a lot further in the extras department, as well as offering the chance in each package to win a 180-gram gold bar engraved with the Metropolis logo and valued at $8,000. One advantage of the British edition over the Kino is that the British have kept the original German title cards that show narration and dialogue between or during scenes with optional subtitles in English, whereas the Americans have substituted English-language cards instead, something that's simpler to read but loses a lot of the foreign flavour and authenticity of the original; also, the Kino doesn't let you remove English subtitles that translate things like German signage and the text of letters – an annoyance for anyone who's already familar with German. The new British Blu-ray edition repeats all the major extras of the 2010 Blu-ray, namely an hour-long documentary on the film, a full-length audio commentary track, and a 56-page illustrated booklet. But here's the bonus: There's a separate version of Metropolis (controversially re-scored by Italian Giorgio Moroder in 1984 with a pop soundtrack), plus two additional documentaries, one long (on the restoration), one short (on Moroder's version). Be warned, however: The discs are digitally locked for European players and won't play on standard North American players; you'll need an all-region Blu-ray machine to be able to watch them. One more suggestion, this time for the curators: Next time, include as an optional audio track the score that the French-Argentinian composer Martin Matalon made for the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1995. Scored for an electro-acoustic chamber orchestra of 16 instruments, it's music that Montreal audiences were able to hear, back in 2007, in a concert at McGill University's Pollack Hall given by McGill's Contemporary Music Ensemble under Denys Bouliane. A memorable event, one worth re-living on home video.
Two for the Road (Britain, 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 other car trips they took together in the past that were far more loving. How did this couple wind up so miserable? Come along for the ride with director/producer Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain, Funny Face) and his stars, and discover how the ties that bind inevitably loosen over time. Shot in Panavision in the Alpes Maritimes and the Côte d'Azur and scored by Henry Mancini, the film is lovely to look at and nice to listen to, but I must say, after a while the dialogue does tend to grate, in a self-absorbed late-'60s kind of way. Chacun son goût. As for the experience on home video, this British Blu-ray edition, another in the Masters of Cinema series from Eureka Entertainment, improves on the North American DVD that Fox issued in its Studio Classics line back in 2005. Extras include the already available director's audio commentary track, plus a half-hour archival video interview with screenwriter Frederic Raphael, a trailer, and a 32-page illustrated booklet. Note to North American viewers: The disc is locked to Region B (Europe) and can only be played if you have an all-region machine.
Boyhood (U.S., 2014)
Writer-director Richard Linklater was denied an Oscar, and though he should be lauded for his film's concept and execution (a 12-year shoot), I agree that it was hardly the best picture of the year. Despite the hype, the mise-en-scène is pedestrian, the themes are hackneyed and the script barely rises above banal. Main problem: The boy at the centre of the story just isn't all that interesting.
The Pleasures of Being Out of Step (U.S., 2013)
Nat Hentoff has been writing about jazz music and jazz musicians since the early 1950s. For many in the '50s and '60s, he was the journalistic voice of a movement that saw the ascendency of greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, as well as early folkies like Bob Dylan. Hentoff was a white Jewish reporter at ease among black musicians and artists, and his quiet perception and utter lack of racial prejudice made him a rarity in his time. His voice is still treasured today, though tempered by disappointment from his former allies on the left that in his old age (he's now 89) he has come to espouse causes at odds with theirs: he's civil libertarian, anti-abortion, and pro-war (in Iraq). This complex man is now the subject of a feature-length (86-minute) documentary by New York journalist and filmmaker David L. Lewis. Largely based on interviews with Hentoff , it is augmented by testimonials from friends, admirers and a few foes. Rich in archival footage, the film not only looks at Hentoff the music writer but also Hentoff the crusader for free speech. In an age when Americans' understanding of patriotism has been corrupted by partisan politics, Hentoff comes across as one-of-a-kind: a freethinking patriot, with heart. The DVD from First Run Features has a few extras: seven minutes of deleted interviews with Hentoff, plus six trailers for other intriguing First Run docs on DVD, on subjects ranging from jazz pianist Erroll Garner to Esquire magazine in the '60s to horror moviemaker George Romero.
6 Blu-rays via Twilight Time
Heaven & Earth (U.S./France, 1993)
In his usual hammer-over-the-head style, Oliver Stone adapts a memoir by a Vietnamese war bride and delivers an over-long (140 minutes) blend of politics, war, sex and melodrama that'll have you reaching for a hankie, if not the remote. Hiep Thi Le stars as the peasant heroine, Le Ly Hayslip, whose hardscrabble life in the scarred countryside and gritty Saigonis changed forever when she meets a lonely American marine (Tommy Lee Jones) and emigrates to California. Extras include two commentary tracks by Stone (on the feature and on several deleted scenes); an alternate opening, with score; and a trailer.
Inherit the Wind (U.S., 1960)
Here's something appropriate for our Charlie Hebdo times: a courtroom drama about religion and freedom of speech. Spencer Tracy defends the teaching of evolution in schools, Fredric March propounds creationism, Stanley Kramer directs and produces. Based on the famous Scopes "Monkey" Trial of 1925, this is classic Hollywood cinema in black-and-white. The sole extras on the Blu-ray, unfortunately, are a) the option of playing the music and effects as an isolated track, and b) a trailer. No historical background whatsoever.
Funny Lady (U.S., 1975)
It's a Barbra Steisand double-bill this month. First up is Funny Lady. In this follow-up to Funny Girl (1968), Streisand returns as Fanny Brice, the real-life entertainer and chanteuse who moves between men with aplomb. First it was Omar Sharif, now it's James Caan, playing impresario and songwriter Billy Rose. Stormy weather? You bet. And that's to say nothing of the film's troubled production history. Extras on the disc include three vintage featurettes aboutthe production that total about 17 minutes, and two trailers. Strangely, for a musical, there's no option of playing the music alone as a separate track.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (U.K./U.S., 1969)
The great British actress Maggie Smith has reached a whole new audience with her role as the Crawley family matriarch in Downton Abbey. Many probably have no idea how young and attractive she once was – like here, in this adaptation of Muriel Sparks' novel. Smith won an Oscar as Jean Brodie, an energetic Scottish schoolteacher in the 1930s whose girls are "the crème de la crème," and whom she incites to admire Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. Special features include an audio commentary by director Ronald Neame and actress Pamela Franklin; an isolated music and effects track; and a trailer.
The Fortune (U.S., 1975)
Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty ham it up in this Mike Nichols comedy about a couple of 1920s con-men who concoct a rather silly plot to fleece a crazy heiress (Stockard Channing, in her screen debut). A lot more '70s talent went into the making of this now-neglected romp: the screenwriter from Five Easy Pieces (Carole Eastman, aka Adrien Joyce), the cinematographer from Chinatown (John A. Alonzo), and many others. The Blu-ray itself looks and sounds fine, but has only one stingy extra: yup, ye olde "isolated music and effects track."
Yentl (U.S./U.K., 1983)
Streisand's labour-of-love was this Jewish musical, which she co-wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in, playing a religious girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her Talmudic studies. Based on the Isacc Bashevis Singer short story, the movie is set in the early 20th century and was partly shot in England and Prague (that's the Charles Bridge, in the trailer). The Blu-ray has both versions of the film – the theatrical release and the director's cut, which is three minutes longer – as well as all the extras of the 2009 DVD: deleted scenes, commentary , featurettes, still galleries and more.
More from around the world
Les misérables (France, 1934)
This is the sixth screen adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les misérables I've seen on DVD or Blu-ray. It's also the earliest and, I'd say, the best – and so, too, is its rendition in a digital medium. The other films were fine in their own way. Two were American versions (1935, starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton, and 1952, with Michael Rennie); one was French (1958, with Jean Gabin and Bourvil); and two were British (1988, with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush, and 2012, the Oscar-winning musical starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway). But what makes this one special is how true it is to the novel, how it manages in its exceptional running time (300 minutes, in three sections) to explore every nuance possible of the timeless story of ex-con Jean Valjean (played here by Harry Baur) and his nemesis, Inspector Javert (Charles Vanel). The director was Raymond Bernard, a filmmaker whose fame has long faded but who deserves rediscovery. His Les misérables was released on DVD in the U.S. by Criterion in 2007 (in a three-disc set with his 1932 war movie Les croix de bois), but besides some liner notes that edition had nothing in the way of extras. This new edition from Britain by Eureka's Masters of Cinema imprint – either two Blu-rays or two DVDs, your choice – is positively swimming in extras, and the film itself, restored in 2012 by Pathé, is a joy to screen. Besides a 28-page booklet, supplements include a wealth of archival material ranging from screen tests and newsreels to deleted scenes and an interview with Bernard in his old age; we also get to see an early screen depiction of Jean Valjean in a 1905 silent short called Le chemineau, as well as new interviews with historians and film scholars. And in case you were wondering, yes, everything has optional English subtitles. En somme, c'est magnifique! Well, OK, one caveat: The set isn't region-free; it'll only work in a player that accepts discs made in Europe; if you have a standard North American one, tant pis.
The Night Porter (Italy, 1974)
What a tease this has been on home video. A Holocaust movie starring Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling that's always been controversial because of its S&M theme, The Night Porter first came out on DVD in 2000 from Criterion but didn't look very good and had no extras, so I passed up buying it. Then came the first Blu-ray edition, from England in 2012 – but again, no extras, and it was Region B-locked, so I waited. Now Criterion is back with a spanking new edition on Blu that finally offers more for the money: a new interview with Italian director Liliana Cavani (9 minutes) and, the real clincher for me, her 1965 documentary Women of the Resistance (50 minutes), a look at anti-fascist partisans who survived the Nazi occupation. Oddly, for a printed insert Criterion has eschewed the usual booklet for a foldout sheet that amounts to 16 pages – some economizing here? As for the main feature, well, the plot is still equal parts come-hither and gross-out: Bogarde plays a former SS officer who, more than a decade after the end of the war, has washed up in Vienna and is working as a porter at a hotel, where he's discovered by the woman (Rampling) who used to be his lover back at the concentration camp. The inmate and the torturer strike up their abusive relationship anew, and that spooks the SS officer's local band of unreformed Nazi cronies, who fear prosecution for their war crimes. Gripping, but not for the faint-hearted.
The Killers (U.S., 1946)
In this quintessential film noir adapted by John Huston from Ernest Hemingway's short story and told in flashbacks, 23-year-old Burt Lancaster debuts as a Chicago boxer who takes the fall for a thieving dame (Ava Gardner), spends three years in the slammer, gets out, joins a gang to do a big armed robbery, absconds with the loot and the dame, gets doublecrossed and is eventually hunted down by two hit-men and killed. Grim? You bet. But oh, it's so lovely to look at. Criterion, the premium New York distributor, put this classic out a decade ago in a fine double DVD set (along with Don Siegel's 1964 version, Tarkovsky's 1956 student film version, and a whacks of extras), and it's still in print. The new Blu-ray – locked to Region B – by Britain's Arrow Films has different specs and special features, including an isolated score (by Miklós Rózsa), two video essays totalling 86 minutes (with clips from all three versions of The Killers), three archive radio pieces (including a Jack Benny spoof), trailers, a reversible jacket and a collector's booklet. Watch the opening scene (above) and you'll be hooked, guaranteed.
Intolerance (U.S., 1916)
What, another Blu-ray edition of Intolerance, the D.W. Griffith monumental silent epic from 1916? Well, actually, it's the same transfer as the one Cohen Media put out in the U.S. a year ago, and has the same ample extras. This one's from England, courtesy of the Eureka's Masters of Cinema. It's cheaper to buy but is code-locked for Europe (you'll need an all-region or Region B player to play it). What's improved is the packaging: With this edition you get a 56-page booklet, done in MoC's usual attractive and exhaustive style. Just like the Cohen edition, the two big extras (on a separate disc) are Griffith's companion films for Intolerance, re-edits of the some of the same footage called The Fall of Babylon (100 minutes) and The Mother and the Law (62 minutes); there's also a short documentary (20 minutes) made last year in which historian Kevin Brownlow talks about Intolerance. Sound-wise, Carl Davis is back with his score for the main feature, while the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra do the honours for the two re-edits. Everything is in high-def, of course. The story? Forgot to mention: Over the nearly three-hour running time, there are are four, starting in ancient Babylon and Judea through to medieval France and early 20th century urban America. Lillian Gish, Constance Talmadge and Miriam Cooper star with a huge cast and 3,000 extras. Like I said, monumental.