Spring's last gasp: the June releases

2 from Studio Ghibli

Spirited Away (Japan, 2001)

A 10-year-old girl named Chihiro does battle in the spirit world to rescue her parents from a cruel fate: they've been turned into pigs. Winner of an Oscar for best animated feature, this Japanese fantasy by Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki finally gets its North American debut on Blu-ray, and it's been worth the wait. The high-def image and sound (including optional English and French dubs) are leaps ahead of Disney's 2003 DVD, and the extras have been preserved, including storyboards, a look at the art in the movie, and most notably a 42-minute making-of produced for Japanese TV. There's also a DVD for those who haven't yet gone BD.

The Cat Returns (Japan, 2002)

Walking home from school one day, young Haru rescues a cat from being run over by a truck, and soon learns the cat is very special, indeed. It's royalty, in fact, and the cat's father – the Cat King – "rewards" her by bringing Haru into the family fold, against her will. The directorial debut of Studio Ghibli's Hiroyuki Morita, the movie is now out on Blu-ray from Disney with all the extras of the 2005 DVD: storyboards, interviews with the English voice actors who did the (optional) dub, a making-of, and original trailers and TV spots. Francophones also have the choice of a French dub or subtitles. And once again, there's a DVD included in the package.

3 from Sony Pictures Classics

Red Army (U.S./Russia, 2014)

This is how this remarkable movie came into being: A Ukrainian Jewish couple emigrated from the Soviet Union, settled in Chicago and raised a son; the son grew up, went into the movie business, produced a couple of well-received documentaries, then went solo with this, a doc of his own; it then premiered at the Moscow International Film Festival. Written and directed by Gabe Polsky (whose voice we first hear in the chillingly funny introduction), Red Army is about the travails and eventual defections and emigration of Russia's national hockey players under the former Soviet Union's communist system. Entertaining, informative, absorbing, exciting and funny, the film will appeal not only to sports fans but also anyone interested in exploring the history of the Cold War from a fresh angle. Canadian viewers will be disappointed, however, that the film ignores the great Canada-USSR series that kept us glued to the TV in this country in the 1970s. Sony has issued the movie now in two different formats. The DVD has a commentary track with Polsky and documentary legend Werner Herzog, who co-executive produced, as well as video of a 15-minute Q&A that Polsky gave after the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Blu-ray edition has those extras and more: eight deleted scenes, an hour-long audio Q&A with Polsky and former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and finally some Canadian content in the form of 15 minutes of interview footage with retired National Hockey League coach Scotty Bowman. A Montrealer, Bowman coached the Canadiens to five Stanley Cups in the 1970s and was behind the bench for two Canada Cups, in 1976 (beating the Czechs in the final) and 1981 (losing to the Soviets). In the 1990s he hired some of those same Russians to play for his Detroit Red Wings.

Leviathan (Russia, 2014)

In a lonely coastal town on northwest Russia's Barents Sea, a mechanic named Kolya  (Aleksei Serebryakov) hires a lawyer friend to fight  expropriation by a corrupt mayor who's in cahoots with a local Orthodox priest looking for land to build a new church. Things heat up when the lawyer has an affair with the mechanic's wife. Winner of a Golden Globe for best foreign film, on Blu-ray the movie comes with an audio commentary by director Andrey Zvyaginstev (The Return) and producer Alexander Rodnyansky. There's also a half-hour making-of, 22 minutes of deleted scenes and video of the director introducing the film at the Toronto International Film Festival and doing a Q&A afterward (Serebryakov, who now calls the city home, also makes a brief appearance here).

Wild Tales (Argentina/Spain, 2014)

The cover blurb describes Wild Tales as "a fresco of rage, fury, deception and revenge," and for once the hyperbole is not far from the truth. Argentinian writer-director Damián Szifron delivers six short films on the theme of things that drive people to do crazy things.  Three involve cars (getting towed for a parking violation, dangerous driving on the highway, covering up for a hit-and-run), one sees a waitress confront a mafioso, and the whole is bookended by a disaster aboard an aircraft and a wedding wrecked by a wronged bride. Co-produced by the Almódovar brothers (Pedro and Agustin) of Spain and nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film, on Blu-ray the movie has three extras: a 25-minute making-of, a short Q&A the director gave at TIFF, and a trailer.

Some May releases of note

A Year in Champagne (France/U.S., 2014)

Champagne's untold story is that its vineyards are the most artificial in France; chemical spraying helps the grapes thrive but leaves the soil practically dead. That's not exactly the glamorous image Champagne likes to project, and in this cheery documentary Anglo-American filmmaker David Kennard skirts the subject with euphemism and bombast (pesticides are called "tools" of the trade and spraying is accompanied by triumphant classical music on the soundtrack). Following his A Year in Burgundy (2013) and John Cleese's Wine for the Confused (2004), Kennard introduces us to owners and growers who make champagne, chronicling their challenges and successes over the four seasons of 2012, a terribly cold and rainy year. Extras on the First Run DVD include four segments of outtakes totalling six minutes, some text bios and, tellingly, an official Champagne growers' association brochure. Unfortunately for francophiles, all the spoken French has non-removable English subtitles.

 American Sniper (U.S., 2014)

It's hard to see why Clint Eastwood's latest is the high-grossing war movie ever – or maybe not so hard, given the militarized times we live in. It revels in the exploits of a star U.S. sniper in Iraq who thinks of his targets as "savages," and asks us to sympathize when he returns home to Texas traumatized by his ordeal and, at the end, dies by another haunted veteran's bullet. Taking liberties with an already self-aggrandizing memoir by real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, Eastwood made a war movie that's big on American self-regard but not self-criticism, at least not of its foreign policy. It's shot well (in Morocco and California), acted well (Bradley Cooper plays Kyle; Sienna Miller is his wife) and paced to appeal to action buffs who don't also mind a good cry. The Blu-ray/DVD edition from Warner has high-def visuals, seven-channel Dolby sound and, as extras, two 30-minute making-ofs. Warner says it's donating "up to" $1 million of the movie's home-video revenues to the Wounded Warrior Project, a vets' charity that's based in Florida.

2 from Twilight Time

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 also 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, the movie now 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 keeps the 5.1 surround sound of the re-issue. Twilight Time adds a new audio commentary, an isolated score track, a trailer and an eight-page booklet. 

Mississippi Burning (U.S., 1988)

When three civil-rights workers go missing in Mississippi in 1964, two FBI detectives (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) are dispatched to investigate. The partners don't exactly see eye-to-eye (Hackman's character is a brute, while Dafoe's is by-the-book) but the injustice they uncover in a part of the country crawling with the Ku Klux Klan is something they both acknowledge and vow to root out. The investigation ramps into high gear after the missing men turn out to have been murdered. Frances McDormand co-stars as the local deputy sheriff's wife who tips the detectives to the grisly truth but gets a beating for it. Peter Biziou won an Academy Award for his cinematography and the movie was nominated for several other Oscars, including best picture and best director (Alan Parker). The Blu-ray has an audio commentary by Parker and a trailer (both previously available on DVD), plus an isolated score track and a booklet.

2 from Criterion

 Limelight (U.S., 1952)

Criterion has two releases this month that are significant upgrades from DVDs of other distributors dating back a decade or more. First up: Charlie's Chaplin's late-career classic, Limelight. This was the comedy genius's sad swansong, the last picture he made in Hollywood. It's a tragicomic ode to his beginnings in vaudeville that dramatizes what it's like to fall from the graces of an adoring public at the end of one's career. Chaplin plays a washed-up music-hall performer named Calvero who, in London on the eve of the First World War, puts a bit of faith in an unhappy young ballerina played by Claire Bloom and makes both their spirits soar a little. Buster Keaton – that other megastar of the screen's silent age –  puts in an extended cameo. One big irritant: Calvero talks in epigrams ("Time is the best author; it always writes the perfect ending." "The heart and the mind, what an enigma.") – it gets tiresome. Compared to the DVD that Warner issued in 2003, a flawed port of the French Mk2 transfer, the new Blu-ray improves in all areas: image (4K), sound (lossless mono) and extras. Kept are a couple of documentary shorts, audio of Chaplin reading the novella he wrote for the film, and a silent short he left unfinished in 1919. Biographer David Robinson returns with a new video introduction that runs 21 minutes, there are new interviews with Bloom and actor Norman Lloyd,  a new score accompanies a restored 25-minute short Chaplin made in 1915, and there's a Limelight outtake, two trailers and a 40-page booklet.  

L'aveu (France/Italy, 1970)

Next up: French director Costa-Gavras' political-prison drama L'aveu (The Confession). Yves Montand stars as war veteran Gérard, a high-ranking official in communist Czechoslovakia who for no apparent reason runs afoul of the regime and for close to a year is interrogated and psychologically tortured into confessing crimes of subversion that he didn't commit. Based on the memoirs of real-life Czech "traitor" Artur London, one of the few communists that his government's Soviet-kowtowing Stalinists purged in the early 1950s but spared execution, the movie gets into the mind of an unjustly accused man but appropriately leaves his persecutors unknowable ciphers. Italian actor Gabriele Ferzetti plays the cerebral interrogator Kohoutek, while Simone Signoret co-stars as the accused's wife (she and Montand were spouses famous for their leftist politics as much as their marriage). The new Blu-ray was supervised by Costa-Gavras and is a far cry from the now decade-old DVD marketed by Christal Films in Quebec, which is slightly cropped and has no extras or subtitles. Criterion has restored the film and mastered it in 2K, the soundtrack is uncompressed mono and extras abound. There's a half-hour making-of from 1970 by set photographer (and famous indie filmmaker) Chris Marker and archival interviews with Costa-Gavras, Montand and even London himself, as well as with the film's editor and a film scholar. The liner notes are a foldout sheet, not an actual booklet; it smells strongly of ink.

2 from Eureka! Masters of Cinema

Life of Riley (France, 2014)

French director Alain Resnais (Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Mélo) made one last film before he died last year at age 92, and it was this one. Set in Yorkshire, it's a French-language adaptation of Life of Riley, a 2010 comedy by famous British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. In it, a fellow named George Riley (talked about but never seen) is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Hoping to raise his spirits, his close friends get him to act in an amateur production of a favourite old play, Relatively Speaking (written by Ayckbourn himself, back in 1965). Rehearsals stir up old love affairs and feuds, George miraculously recovers from his illness entirely, and the good intentions of his friends are thrown into disarray. As he did with the wonderful Mélo, Renais maintains the theatricality of the play (simple studio sets, entrances and exits through curtains, obvious props). Then he adds a touch of the surreal by employing cartoon interludes and backdrops and vibrant colours, all intended to highlight the childish and the absurd in the friends' behaviour. The cast brings back several Resnais favourites – Sabine Azema (his ex-wife), André Dussolier, Hippolyte Girardot – and also features the versatile Sadrine Kiberlain; all are excellent. They're interviewed in the extras on this new dual-format edition (Blu-ray and DVD), and so is critic Geoffrey O'Brien; there's also a trailer and a 36-page booklet. The discs won't play on standard North American players, however; they're code-locked to Europe.

Paper Moon (U.S., 1973)

I was 10 when this American road movie was released, and I remember wishing that its star, Tatum O'Neal, who was about my age, could be my sister. She just seemed like a lot of fun. In her Oscar-winning screen debut, O'Neal plays Addie Loggins, a precocious tomboy in the Depression-era Midwest who goes door-to-door with a two-faced grifter of a man who might be her father (real-life dad Ryan O'Neal). They sell Bibles, con poor folks out of a bit of their savings and rob a bootlegger out of his stockpile of liquor. Of course, since every criminal meets his match, they go too far with that last swindle and get their comeuppance. John Hillerman (Higgins on TV's Magnum, P.I.) is the corrupt sheriff's deputy who hunts them down, Madeline Kahn is a pretentious gold-digger named Trixie Delight and young Randy Quaid plays a menacing dimwit called Leroy. Adapted from a novel and directed by Peter Bogdanovich, Paper Moon is a black-and-white widescreen movie, just like the director's other must-see, his 1971 breakthrough The Last Picture Show. The new British home-video release looks a whole lot better than the movie's previous incarnation, Paramount's 2003 DVD, but has the same extras – a Bogdanovich commentary track and three vintage featurettes with the director totalling 34 minutes – plus a new 36-page booklet. Again, the two discs (Blu-ray and DVD) are digitally coded for European players and won't play on regular North American ones.  

Some April releases of note

The River (France/India/U.S., 1951)

This adaptation of Rumer Godden's 1946 coming-of-age-in-India novel was Jean Renoir's first colour film. Co-written with the author and shot on location along the Ganges by Renoir's nephew, Claude, it's a fine piece of ethnocultural storytelling that has the characteristic "human touch" that made the director of Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game so justly famous. It's about three young women – Harriet (Patricia Walters), the story's teenage English narrator; Valerie (Adrienne Corri), her attractive best friend; and Melanie (the actress Radha), a half-English, half-Indian woman in her early 20s – each of whom, for reasons of her own, gets involved with a handsome new arrival, John (Thomas E. Breen) a British officer whose bonhomie masks a physical handicap (he lost a leg in the war). The movie is framed around Harriet's growing appreciation of Hinduism, which intensifies after her little brother, Bogey, is killed by a snake; in her grief, Harriet comes to understand that love unrequited and death unwelcome are but twin aspects of the human condition. There's a gentle spirituality to many of the scenes, especially those set during Diwali, the festival of lights, that make the film a real "teaching moment" for parents eager to show their children larger horizons in world cinema. The River is also a very beautiful picture, its painterly details of light and colour worthy of the Impressionist master Auguste Renoir, Jean's father. Criterion's new Blu-ray keeps most of the extras of the distributor's 2005 DVD: a vintage introduction by Jean Renoir; a video interview with the film's modern-day champion, director Martin Scorsese; and an audio interview with producer Ken McEldowney. Gone is a significant extra: an hour-long BBC-TV  documentary from 1995 that followed Rumer Godden back to her childhood home in India. In its place is an hour-long French doc from 2008 on the making of The River, plus a new visual essay on the film that lasts 15 minutes. The old booklet of the DVD has been duplicated, but now it folds out instead of being stapled; cheaper, maybe, but rather cumbersome to read (and that's a practice Criterion seems intent on continuing).

2 from Twilight Time

2 from Métropole Films

The Remains of the Day (U.K./U.S., 1993)

In this fine Merchant/Ivory drama (adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro), Anthony Hopkins incarnates the ever-so-proper Stevens, butler to an English lord (James Fox) of unfortunate fascist tendancies on the eve of the Second World War. Emma Thompson is the new housekeeper Stevens is attracted to but can't quite bring himself to love. Christopher Reeve and Hugh Grant co-star. There's a Blu-ray in Britain that's much cheaper than this one, and it's region-free, too; it doesn't have an audio commentary, but if you own the DVD special edition from 2001 you already have that. The other extras are the same: several deleted scenes, trailers, and three featurettes that total 73 minutes. Twilight Time adds their usual isolated score track as an option.

Richard III (U.K./U.S., 1995)

Ian McKellan did the part of Richard III so amazingly at Britain's National Theatre in 1990, they brought him back to do it on the big screen – again, to superb result. He co-wrote the script, updating Shakespeare's tragedy to the 1930s and playing the villainous pretender to the throne as a cold-blooded crypto-fascist who'll stop at nothing to unseat his brother and be king. Chilling stuff. The Anglo-American cast includes Maggie Smith, Kristen Scott Thomas, Robert Downey Jr. Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent and Jim Carter (Carson on Downton Abbey). Apart from adding the option of listening to the music and sound effects on a separate audio track, Twilight Time don't offer any special features – no commentary, no history lesson, no interviews.

Deux jours, une nuit (Belgium/France/Italy, 2014)

Unusually, Belgium's famous indie filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne cast a well-known actress, Marion Cotillard (La vie en rose, Midnight in Paris) in this, their latest film. I was a little afraid her star power would undermine the scrupulous attention to working-class verité that the cinéaste brothers usually bring to their work (Rosetta, Lorna's Silence). And to some extent that did happen; there is a kind of contrived unbelievability in the telling of this story of a factory worker fighting to keep her job. Cotillard plays Anna, a young mother recovering from depression who has 48 hours to convince her co-workers to save her from being laid off; to do so, they must give up their annual bonus, but of course most are reluctant or just plain refuse. Proving the point that, like the old Jean Renoir adage, chacun a ses raisons, the Dardennes have crafted a fine, if imperfect, ode to worker solidarity. The Métropole DVD doesn't provide any extras; for those (25 minutes of interviews with the Dardennes and Cotillard) viewers with an all-region player can get the cheaply priced Artificial Eye Blu-ray from Britain.

Winter Sleep (Turkey/France/Germany, 2014)

I was curious to watch this again after seeing it on the big screen. The first time, I was a little underwhelmed, and was surprised by that. The second time, at home, I came away feeling what I'd felt for Nuri Bilge Ceylan's previous film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: exhilarated and, after more than three hours of viewing, just a little numb, all at once. Strange, but true. Winner of the Palme d'or last year at Cannes, Winter Sleep is set in an upscale but mostly empty little hotel in central Anatolia where a former actor (Haluk Bilgener) is trying to write a book on the the history of Turkish theatre while fending off his unhappy young wife, his divorced sister and a rebellious and possibly murderous  tenant. The Métropole Blu-ray and DVD (ported from the U.S. edition by Adopt Films) come with a choice of English or French subtitles. For extras, your only option is the British edition from New Wave Films, which has one of the longest making-ofs I've ever seen: 140 minutes. The disc is code-locked for Europe, however, so won't play on your standard North American player, unless it's been hacked to allow all-region play.

Also noteworthy

Imitation of Life (U.S., 1934 / 1959)

Good timing, Universal. With all the news these days about the breakdown in what used to be called "race relations" in America, the Hollywood studio has dipped into its back catalogue to produce a double-bill on Blu-ray that's not only timely but timeless. Imitation of Life was a bestselling novel by Fannie Hurst back in 1933 that got its first big-screen treatment a year later and its second a quarter-century later. The story is one of friendship between two widows – one white, one black – and how the black woman's daughter, who's light-skinned, desperately wants to "pass" for white. The earlier film, in black-and-white, stars Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, and has aged well; the later one, in colour, stars Lana Turner and Juanita Moore, is directed by Douglas Sirk, and is a melodrama that to me seems dated now. No matter. What's interesting is not only the contrast in styles but also the daring of these two films, which took on the issue of race before the civil rights movement came along and blew everything into the open. Universal last issued these as a double-disc DVD set in 2008. Now contained on a single Blu-ray, restored and remastered in high-def, the movies retain the very informative commentary tracks by film scholars Avery Clayton (on the first) and Foster Hirsch (on the second), two trailers and a half-hour retrospective documentary that really gets you thinking about the issues.

The Offence (U.K./U.S., 1972)

Sean Connery ditches his James Bond toupée to play someone far more frightening and realistic: a sadistic detective-sargeant in the British police who beats a suspect to death in custody. Ian Bannen (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) co-stars as the suspect, hauled in for the brutal murder of a schoolgirl, while the screen veteran Trevor Howard (The Third Man) is the wily lieutenant who interviews the killer cop. Sidney Lumet (Serpico) directs. Gripping stuff. On Blu-ray, the film has had two releases in less than six months: the American one by Kino Lorber has no extras except a trailer, but the British one, by Eureka! Masters of Cinema, has that and four new interviews with senior crew members totalling about half an hour, plus a 36-page booklet; the disc is code-locked for Europe, however, so you're out of luck if you don't already have a region-free player. 

 Fruit of Paradise (Czechoslovakia, 1969)

Czech director Věra Chytilová was a true original: a woman who made her mark in the man's world of the Czech New Wave and who ran afoul of the communist authorities for her independence of mind and free spirit. Best-known today for her 1966 film Daisies, she make another experimental film three years later called Fruit of Paradise, based on the story of Adam and Eve. Her visual inventiveness is on colourful display right from the get-go (see the clip above, which shows the film's  opening scene).The sole extra on the Second Run DVD from Britain is a wonderful, cinema-verité style film called Strop (Ceiling) that Chytilová made in 1961 as her graduation project at FAMU, the famous Czech film school. Shot in black-and-white and lasting 42 minutes, it's a portrait of a beautiful but world-weary Czech fashion model (Marta Kanovská), with cameos by actor-directors Milos Forman and Jirí Menzel before they went on to international fame. The disc is all-region, so no problem for your standard North American player. There's also a 20-page illustrated booklet.

 Cries and Whispers (Sweden, 1972)

One of Ingmar Bergman's most harrowing films, Cries and Whispers is about three sisters and a servant and how they deal with death. At the family's country estate late in the 19th century, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) lies ravaged with cancer, tended to by Maria (Liv Ullmann), Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and the angelic maid Anna (Kari Sylwan). Death has a way of concentrating the mind, and as we learn through flashbacks there are many ghosts in the sisters' pasts to haunt them. For this Blu-ray (released March 31), Criterion upgraded its DVD from 2001, restoring the film in high-def, keeping an optional English dub and an hour-long doc on Bergman, and adding a half-hour of behind-the-scenes footage, a new interview with Andersson, a new video appreciation, and an introduction by Bergman himself from 2001.

 Pictures of the Old World (Czechoslovakia, 1972)

Another all-region DVD from Second Run, released in late February, this black-and-white documentary by Slovak director Dušan Hanák was censored and then banned for many years. It's a series of portraits of country folk who stand out as individuals and eccentrics in a society where conformity was the official ethos of the time. The portraits are based on a cycle of photographs taken by Slovak "poet of light" Martin Martinček; the subjects of those still pictures come alive in this moving picture (or are portrayed by people who resemble them). Watching the film, I was reminded of the British folk doc The Moon and the Sledgehammer, which also chronicled a vanishing way of rural life in all its earthy and colourful humanity. Pictures of the Old World was finally released in 1988, a year before the Prague Spring ushered in democracy and, ironically, led to more rapid and life-changing growth than was ever seen under the communists. For extras, the DVD has two shorts by the director from 1966 and 1967, running about 12 minutes each, plus a 16-page booklet.