The leaves have turned, the forest has thrown down its crazy quilt of colours, and winter is coming.
September through November: The best of the autumn releases
Two boxsets from The Criterion Collection
The Apu Trilogy (India, 1955-59)
In the early 20th century in India, a Bengali boy named Apu goes through three seasons of his life as a child, young student and young man. Tenderly depicted in this trilogy of films by director Satyajit Ray, the stories remain absolute must-sees today: not just classics of Indian cinema but of world cinema, period. I owned this collection – Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), Apur Sansar (1959) – in the British DVD edition that Artificial Eye put out in 2003, and while excellent at the time, it's no match for the 4K edition released now on Blu-ray by Criterion. The original negatives burned in a fire in London in 1993, but this restoration from a variety of sources is near-seamless – black-and-white like it was shot only yesterday. Special features are abundant, too, though a 12-minute BBC interview/making-of with Ray and some storyboards are missing from the old set. Most of the extras are new, including the English subtitles. There are new interviews with three actors, a camera assistant and a film writer; three new video appreciations; two vintage documentaries about Ray and his trilogy (from 1967 and 2003); audio recordings of Ray from 1958; and footage of Ray getting an honorary Oscar in 1992. The 46-page booklet has 11 storyboards Ray did for Pather Panchali, as well as essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Girish Shambu.
Julien Duvivier in the Thirties (France, 1930-37)
If you've ever seen a movie by French director Julien Duvivier, it was probably a moody black-and-white affair with Jean Gabin: Pépé le Moko, say, or La Bandera, or Voici le temps de assassins. Then again, it might have been one of those irreverent Don Camillo comedies with the great Fernandel. None of the four films in this new DVD boxset from Criterion's Eclipse label has either Gabin or Fernandel in it, but the pictures do star another icon of le vieux cinéma: Harry Baur. The burly Frenchman was Jean Valjean in Raymond Bernard's 1934 version of Les Misérables (another Eclipse title). That same decade, he had major roles in the films collected here: as the titular Jewish businessman in David Golder (1930), the indifferent father in Poil de Carotte (1932), Inspector Maigret in the Georges Simenon murder mystery La tête d'une homme (1933), and, opposite the great Louis Jouvet, the lover-turned-priest Père Dominique in Un carnet de bal (1937). All but the third film are available on DVD in France, and Poil de Carotte got a U.S. release from Arte/Facets in 2009 with three short extras. The ones on the Eclipse set, licensed from TFO and Gaumont, look and sound good for their age and have optional English subtitles. As usual with Eclipse releases, there's an essay on the back of each slimcase DVD cover, but no video extras.
An old favourite, restored
My Fair Lady (U.S., 1964)
If all you want is a room somewhere where you can watch My Fair Lady in all its original 65mm glory, well, look no further than your own living room, where you can now enjoy this classic Hollywood musical on – finally – a proper Blu-ray. Unlike the inferior BD that Paramount rushed out in 2011, this 50th anniversary edition has been done right. Much like the transformation that Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) wrought with the poor London flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), polishing her rough edges and turning an ugly duckling into a high-society swan, the film has become an object of real beauty for TV viewers: remastered in ultra-high definition (4K, from an 8K scan), with slightly more image in the frame and a superior soundtrack (96k Dolby TrueHD 7.1, for the technically inclined). On a second Blu-ray disc are almost all the previously available extras, most now in high-def; the only omission is a decade-old audio commentary track. There's also a DVD copy of the film in the set, and the mirrored-plastic foldout packaging with magnetic clip is slim and classy. Simply loverly! Now go and get accustomed to the new face of My Fair Lady.
5 from Eureka!
Shane (U.S., 1953)
Wyoming, the 1860s. Alan Ladd is Shane, a gunslinger who gets caught up in a land dispute between homesteaders and a greedy cattle rancher. Director George Stevens (Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank) shot the movie in panoramic Technicolor, and it's still one of the great Westerns. Paramount released the movie on Blu-ray in North America in mid-2013 and although it looked fine, it only came with a trailer and one old extra: a commentary track by the director's son, George Stevens Jr. (with Ivan Moffat). Now, from Britain, comes a spiffy new limited edition (2,000 units, two Blu-rays each) that's part of Eureka!'s curated Masters of Cinema series. It's a beauty. You can choose to watch the movie in three aspect ratios: the intended 1.37:1, the 1.66:1 original theatrical presentation, and an alternate 1.66:1 framing supervised by Stevens Jr. His commentary is back, again, and there's also a video interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard, a Lux Radio Theater adaptation and a trailer. The 36-page booklet includes an unpublished interview with the director, a treatment for an unfilmed prologue, an essay on the different ratios, and vintage photos.
The Quiet Man (U.S., 1952)
John Ford, director of such classic Westerns as Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine, returned to Ireland, birthplace of his immigrant parents, to shoot this uncharacteristic romantic comedy, and got an Oscar for his efforts. Set in the 1920s and shot in Technicolor in County Mayo and County Galway, it stars John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, two years after their pairing in the Ford Western Rio Grande. Wayne plays an American who has come to reclaim his childhood farm, and O'Hara is the fiery lass he woos and marries against the objections of her brother (Victor McLaglen). Extras on the Blu-ray edition include a new 15-minute video appreciation of Ford's films by biographer Tag Gallagher (with clips showing some of the director's favourite motifs, such as the giving of flowers). There's also a previously available making-of (in 4:3 ratio, old TV style) that's narrated by critic Leonard Maltin and lasts about 30 minutes. To complete the package, you can flip through a 44-page illustrated booklet. Do note that the disc is code-locked for European players, so if yours can play all regions, all the better.
The Naked Prey (South Africa/U.S.,1965)
Hungarian-born Hollywood actor Cornel Wilde (real name Kornél Lajos Weisz) produced, directed and starred in this manhunt drama about a safari guide in Africa who has to run for his life from native warriors out for revenge. Whether you admire its allegory of colonial hubris or condemn its racism (white man good, black men savages), the mostly dialogue-free movie – shot in Rhodesia – still grabs and holds one's attention as a cinematic oddity. The Masters of Cinema edition (code-locked for Region-B, Britain and Europe, only) is the first it's been on Blu-ray, and besides a half-hour appreciation by a film historian there's a separate DVD of the film. The booklet has an (already available) interview Wilde gave in 1970, plus an account of the original early-19th-century manhunt (of the explorer John Colter by Blackfoot Indians in Montana) on which the film was based.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (U.S., 1964)
Daniel Defoe's adventure hero Robinson Crusoe got updated for the space age – well, the start of it, anyway, in the 1960s – by director Byron Haskin (Treasure Island, War of the Worlds). Here, the hero is an American astronaut (Paul Mantee) who learns to adapt and survive in space after his ship crashes on Mars. Shot in Techniscope, this independent production is revered by science-fiction fans for being among the first films to take a more realistic approach to the genre, making the science plausible and paying attention to technical details. Criterion released the movie on Blu-ray in North America in early 2011, and it came with liner notes and several video extras. This new Blu-ray/DVD edition by Eureka! Entertainment (released as part of its regular Classics series, not itsMasters of Cinema collection) has a new commentary track by special-effects expert Robert Skotak and the movie's original trailer, plus a 28-page booklet featuring a new essay by author Paul McAuley and colour stills from the movie. The discs are also region-free – that is, unusually, not code-locked for Europe but actually playable anywhere.
The Shôhei Imamura Masterpiece Collection
The late Japanese auteur Shôhei Imamura (1926-2006) brought the louche dealings of his country's underclass to world attention after the defeat of World War Two, and this new collection of his life's work brings it all into evidence. Also available separately on Blu-ray and DVD, the eight films here span Imamura's long career from first to close-to-last: Stolen Desire (1958), The Insect Woman (along with Nishi-Ginza Station), Pigs and Battleships, A Man Vanishes (DVD only), Profound Desires of the Gods, Vengeance is Mine, and The Ballad of Narayama, the last of which won the Palme d'or at Cannes in 1983. The 11 discs in the Masters of Cinema boxset are coded for British and European players, but if that's not an obstacle, take the plunge (about $70 on amazon.co.uk). A 12th disc – a CD this time– has PDFs of the extensive booklets for all the films; you can print them off yourself.
A treasure of the Czech New Wave, from Second Run
All My Good Countrymen (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Before he emigrated to Austria and West Germany and then New York after the Soviet invasion of 1968, Czech director Vojtěch Jasný had already made his name on the international film scene with two films: The Cassandra Cat, awarded the third-place Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963; and All My Good Countrymen, released briefly in 1968, then banned after the Warsaw Pact tanks rolled in, then smuggled out and awarded a best direction prize at Cannes in 1969. Countrymen tells the bittersweet tale of a disparate group of Moravian villagers and how their destinies are mapped out from the end of the Second World War in 1945 through the increasingly divisive years of communism from 1948 to 1957 (with an epilogue during the Prague Spring of 1968). The film's attitude of insouciance and its dips into fantasy are what makes it profoundly Czech, and to this day the picture remains Jasný's masterpiece and a hallmark of the Czech New Wave. The DVD from British distributor Second Run is all-region, so it'll play on whatever player you use. Image and sound have been restored in 4K high-definition by the Czech National Film Archive (the green vegetation in particular really pops, maybe even too much so). The one extra is a 15-minute film by Jasný that was released then banned in 1969; titled Bohemian Rhapsody; it's a pastoral pastiche that features some of the same mummers who appear in Countrymen. There's also a 12-page booklet. Unfortunately there's no sign of the interviews that are on other editions of the film: the region-free Czech DVD and Blu-ray and the region-free American DVD (now out-of-print).
3 from Disney
Inside Out (U.S., 2015)
Joy. Sadness. Anger. Fear. Disgust. It took the people at Pixar a long time to narrow down five emotions that define people as human, but they finally did it – and made a mega-hit movie (approaching $900 million in revenues – yes, it's that mega). Turning each emotion into a distinct animated character was smart, and so, happily, is the story. An 11-year-old Minnesota girl named Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is uprooted from her home and her hockey team when her parents move the family to rough-and-tumble San Francisco; soon, her negative feelings about the move get the better of her and she decides to run away. From the "headquarters" inside her brain, Joy (Amy Poehler) tries to get Riley back on track but runs up against the interference of Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). The adventures that ensue are comically poignant, and as viewers we are rooting – in good Disney fashion – for the young heroine to come out unscathed and maybe also a little wiser. Directed and co-written by Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.), Inside Out is a clever mind trip that's worth the ride, and the home video editions (Blu-ray & DVD with or without an extra Blu-ray in 3D) expand on the story and the Pixar process with a variety of special features. Besides the usual outtakes, deleted scenes and trailers, there's an hour of production featurettes on scriptwriting, casting, sound effects, editing and more, as well as an animated short called Lava and another called Riley's First Date? (The fantasy boyfriend is Canadian, which makes him perfect).
Aladdin (U.S., 1992)
It's poignant now to hear Robin Williams narrate and voice the Genie in this Disney mashup of Persian storytelling, but that's not the least of its delights. Music and humour ride the magic carpet, too, which at the Oscars that year turned bright red (the movie won for best score and song). Extras on this dual format (Blu-ray/DVD) edition are, as usual with the Disney classics, rather exhaustive: two audio commentaries, nine minutes of outtakes, a 20-minute featurette on the movie's Broadway adaptation and, in standard definition, all the special features of previous DVDs of the film, including a 70-minute making-of.
Tomorrowland (U.S./Spain, 2015)
Curious to see its star George Clooney, I watched this on a flight back from Europe as a kind of silent movie, on my seatmate's monitor. I wasn't impressed; just another CGI fantasy movie for kids, it seemed. Now I have seen it on Blu-ray at home and ... haven't much changed my opinion. Clooney plays an inventor on the run who teams up with a space-obsessed teen (Britt Robertson) in the future to save Earth from destruction. Flash, bang, ho-hum. The technical specs on Disney's Blu-ray/DVD combo set are impeccable. There's also a half hour of various extras (some with director Brad Bird) and six deleted scenes.
2 more from Criterion
Un giornata particolare (Italy/Canada, 1977)
The '"special day" in Italian director Ettore Scola's film is May 6, 1938: Hitler has come to Rome to greet his ally Mussolini and lay the groundwork for the Fascist future of Europe. Everyone has come out into the streets to witness the visit, but in their working-class apartment block on the outskirts of the capital, neighbours Antonietta Sophia Loren) and Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni) have stayed behind. He's a blacklisted radio broadcaster, she's the wife of a fascist officer. Opposites attract and through force of circumstance the pair spend the day together away from the madding crowd. Both are frustrated by different things, and have secrets: she is hurt by her husband's infidelity and Gabriele, she is surprised to learn, is gay. Will they find common ground – and maybe evensomething more intimate – despite their differences? Criterion's edition (available on Blu-ray and DVD) is based on a new 4K restoration supervised by Scola himself. The sepia-like image is clear and impressive, and so are the extras: two new interviews with Scola and Loren; two vintage episodes of The Dick Cavett Show with Loren and Mastroianni, and a short film called Human Voice starring Loren and directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti. There's also a 12-page leaflet.
A Room with a View (U.K., 1985)
On vacation in Florence, Edwardian society girl Lucy (Helena Bonham-Carter) meets handsome young iconoclast George (Julian Sands) and now thinks twice about marrying Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis), the bookish boy who's courting her back home. This adaptation of the E.M.Forster novel was probably the most approachable of those made by director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, and it won a slew of Oscars, BAFTAs and other awards. Criterion's Blu-ray (also available on DVD) features a restored 4K transfer of the film supervised by Ivory and his director of photography Tony Pierce-Roberts, with DTS high-def stereo sound. Besides a five-minute clip from NBC Nightly News in 1987 about Merchant Ivory Productions, the extras are all new: namely, in two segments, an hour of interviews with cast and crew (minus Day-Lewis, unfortunately). Hang on to the BBC's 2007 Blu-ray if you have it (or the distributor's 2004 two-disc DVD special edition); its extras aren't on the Criterion release, and they are many: an audio commentary, a half-hour doc on Forster, a couple of short featurettes on the Merchant Ivory team and its success in America, a photo gallery, short interviews with Callow and Day-Lewis, and a photo gallery.
6 from Twilight Time
Shadows and Fog (U.S., 1991)
Woody Allen and his cinematographer Carlo di Palma channel the Weimar-era Expressionists in this black-and-white seriocomedy set in a an eerie city populated by prostitutes and circus performers and terrorized by a killer called The Strangler. A who's-who of A-listers fill out the cast: Allen himself, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich, Kathy Bates, Jody Foster, Lili Tomlin, John Cusack, Donald Pleasence. Curiously, the blurb on the back cover names this "impressive array of stars" but doesn't mention Madonna, whose photo is right underneath (in a clinch with Malkovich); I guess she's just another pretty face. There are no extras on the Blu-ray except for a trailer and the option of watching the movie with no dialogue, only the score (by Danny Elfman).
Fatherland (UK/W. Germany/France, 1986)
Twilight Time follows up its Blu-ray release of director Ken Loach's Riff Raff (1991) and Raining Stones (1993) with this mid-1980s story of a dissident East German singer-songwriter (Gerulf Pannach) who moves to the West. The promised land (West Berlin, then Cambridge, in England) falls short of his ideals and he winds up feeling used as a capitalist symbol of resistance to communism. Leftie dramatist Trevor Griffiths co-wrote the screenplay. The Blu-ray has no extras besides the option of an isolated music-and-effects track.
Sense and Sensibility (U.S./U.K., 1995)
Sandwiched between two mini-series that brought Jane Austen's classic novel of riches to rags to TV in 1981 and 2008, this film version was adapted for the screen by Emma Thompson, who also stars (as Elinor, one of the destitute Dashwood sisters), under the direction of Ang Lee. Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Gemma Jones, Hugh Laurie and Alan Rickman co-star. Applauded by critics when released (Thompson won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay), the movie comes with numerous extras on Blu-ray (some previously available only in the UK): an audio commentary by Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran, another commentary with Lee and co-producer James Schamus, featurettes (on costumes, etc.), deleted scenes and more.
Devil in a Blue Dress (U.S., 1995)
Denzel Washington and a young Don Cheadle star in this violent, atmospheric crime thriller set in post-WWII Los Angeles, where racism still rules, cops and politicians are corrupt, and gangsters spare no mercy towards wronged women who dare to get in the way. Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) is that woman, Washington is the amateur detective hired by the mob to find her, and Cheadle is his trigger-happy sidekick. Director Carl Franklin adapted the story from a Robert Mosley mystery novel. Extras on the Blu-ray include Cheadle's screen test.
At Close Range (U.S., 1986)
"Is this the gun you used on everyone? On me? Is this the family gun, dad?" For some reason, that expression, the family gun, spoken in anguish by a backwater Pennsylvania punk (Sean Penn) as he confronts his creepy hoodlum father (Christopher Walken) at the climax of James Foley's crime drama At Close Range, has stayed with me for years. I think I remember first watching the movie at the old Loews theatre in Montreal. Now this MGM title is finally available on Blu-ray via Twilight Time, one of the limited editions (3,000 copies) in its line of classics (cult and otherwise) licensed from the vaults of the big studios. Though the film has not been restored, the transfer is mostly excellent; there's an audio commentary by Foley hosted by Twilight's Nick Redman, plus the label's customary isolated score track and an original trailer.
Angel (Ireland/U.K., 1982)
Delighted to see Stephen Rea in a Neil Jordan film again! Angel – or Danny Boy, as it was renamed for the U.S. and Canadian markets – was the Irish director's debut, made 10 years before he cast Rea again in his hit thriller The Crying Game. Here, Rea plays Danny, a saxophonist who's made a name for himself playing smalltown dance halls and is so good he's billed as "The Stan Getz of South Armagh." Very quickly, disaster strikes: Danny is witness to a double murder in one of the clubs he frequents but escapes unseen. He spends the rest of the picture trying to track down the paramilitary thugs who did it and wreak his revenge, one by one. The transfer from Channel Four Films' 35-mm print looks great, the high-def stereo sounds great, but this time Twilight offers nothing in the way of extras except an isolated music and effects track.
4 more, from various distributors
Christine (U.S., 1983)
Journal d'une femme de chambre (France, 2015)
Love & Mercy (U.S., 2014)
Citizenfour (U.S./Germany/U/K., 2014)