"... spring is like a perhaps ..." - e.e. cummings
The best of the May releases
I Could Go On Singing (U.K./U.S., 1963)
A famous American singer revisits an old flame in early '60s London and gets to know the teenage son she abandoned to him years before. This British musical melodrama directed by Ronald Neame (Tunes of Glory, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) was Judy Garland's last picture, and it cuts close to the bone; Garland was an emotional mess when she made it, and that insecurity comes through in spades in the character she plays. The back story is the real story; in his 1978 memoir, Snakes and Ladders, co-star Dirk Bogarde described making the movie as "a brakeless roller coaster ... exploding us all into smithereens at the end," and goes on at length about all the ups and downs, including Garland's suicide attempt early in the shoot. The "moment of truth," a scene set in a police station and which Garland and Bogarde wrote themselves, is worth the price of admission alone. On the Twilight Time Blu-ray, you can listen to two audio commentaries that go into all the details, one by producer Lawrence Turman in the company of two film historians, and the second by two other film historians. There's also a TV spot, trailers and the option of listening to the score (with some effects) as an isolated track.
5 from around the world
Stuff and Dough (Romania, 2001)
A road movie reminiscent of something out of the French New Wave (though not nearly as cheeky), this low-budget debut by director Cristi Puiu is said to have launched the Romanian New Wave. I also like it for its original title, Marfa şi banii, which reminds me of Marfa, a town in West Texas I once got to know (George Stevens shot Giant there). Stuff and Dough is about two teenagers in Bucharest (Alexandru Papadopol and Dragoş Bucur) who get in their minivan and go cross-country to deliver some illicit drugs for a shady underworld figure (Răzvan Vasilescu). One of the boys' girlfriends comes along for the ride (the beautifully named Ioana Flora), and before you know it, the ill-fated trio are beset by hoodlums from a rival gang and have to go off-road and find a safer route to their destination. Let the infighting begin. Jim Jarmusch did this kind of thing in Down by Law, and so did the Czech director Jan Svĕrák in Jizda (The Ride). In Puiu's hands, the story becomes a subtle indictment of the materialism of Romania's post-Communist years and also a sympathetic portrait of ordinary opportunists doing their best to struggle with the new reality. On DVD, the 90-minute film comes with a 13-minute, Jarmusch-like short called Cigarettes and Coffee (in Romanian, A Carton of Kents and a Packet of Coffee), as well as a 25-minute interview with the director and a 12-page booklet with an essay by critic Carmen Gray. Oh, and the DVD (by British indie distributor Second Run) is all-region, so it'll play on your standard North American player.
Mustang (France/Germany/Turkey/Qatar, 2015)
One long hot summer in rural Turkey, five orphaned teenage sisters from a middle-class home are subjected to house arrest, "virginity tests," and arranged marriages after they're seen "shamefully" cavorting with boys after school. Nominated for a foreign-language-film Oscar, this movie is alternately frightening, playful and unbelievable. Beautifully shot, too, although the ogling of young flesh gets a bit Bilitis at times. The Métropole Blu-ray (also on DVD) comes with an optional French dub and optional English subtitles.
In a Lonely Place (U.S., 1950)
In post-WWII Hollywood, screenwriter Dixon Steele (played by Humphrey Bogart, who also produced) gets mixed up in a murder and also with Laurel Gray, the dame who moves in next door (played by Gloria Grahame, unhappily married to director Nicholas Ray at the time). "Dix" has anger-management issues, Laurel is a frustrated actress with trust issues; what could go wrong? On Blu-ray (also available on DVD), the Criterion 2K transfer looks great and the mono audio sounds crisp and clear. Extras abound: a 1975 documentary profile of Ray (cut to 41 mins. from the original hour), a new interview with Grahame biographer Vincent Curcio (17 mins.), a 2002 look at the movie by L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson (21 mins.), an hour-long 1948 radio adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes' novel, a new commentary track by U.S. film scholar Dana Polan, and a 12-page foldout leaflet.
Where to Invade Next (U.S., 2015)
Documentary icon Michael Moore goes looking for all that's positive about foreign places – free education in Slovenia, no death penalty in Portugal, access to abortion in Tunisia, fat-free meals at day schools in France, and such – and declares them do-able in America. Not only that, it turns out many of these ideas actually originated in America, yet somehow got lost along the way to rampant consumerism, conservative politics and Christian fanaticism. Fun, as usual. The Métropole Blu-ray (or DVD) has optional French subtitles.
The Last Command (U.S., 1928)
Another Hollywood-of-yesteryear tale: this time, it's Josef von Sternberg's silent classic set the Russian emigré subculture of 1920s Tinseltown. Emil Jannings plays an ex-Imperial Army general who washes up in Hollywood as a lowly extra, only to be returned to his former glory (on screen, anyway) playing a version of his former self in a war movie. And who casts him? Why, it's his former Red Army adversary (William Powell), now an A-list Hollywood director. When art imitates life, it can get confusing, and the poor general soon battles his old demons, confusing fiction with fact. It's a tragedy, and a very watchable one. Released on DVD in a three-film Sternberg set by Criterion in 2010, The Last Command now gets its first Blu-ray release courtesy of Britain's Eureka! Masters of Cinema. There's an hour of new extras, too (film-scholar interview, video essay), the original score, and a 32-page booklet.
The best of the April releases
A Blu-ray from Second Run
Mysterious Object at Noon (Thailand/Netherlands, 2000)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul may be a hard name to get your tongue around if you're not Thai, but just say it phonetically ("Api-SHAT-pong Weer-A-sayta-cool") and you'll be fine. In the West – especially in France, where he has the remarkable habit of picking up major festival prizes, including the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2010 – Apichatpong's friends and fans just call him Joe. The filmmaker made his feature debut in 2000 with an experimental documentary called Mysterious Object at Noon. It's essentially a spoken-word travelogue, with the director and his film crew going across Thailand and asking villagers to develop a story with them, one word or phrase at a time, just like the Surrealists did in France in the 1920s. Back then, the exercise was a party game called Le cadavre exquis; when they played it, André Breton and company famously came up with the phrase "Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau" (The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine). In Apichatpong's hands, the game becomes a fantastical narrative of rural life, as ordinary people build a story about a teacher, her handicapped student and a boy with magical powers, and then have their contributions linked together and acted out for the camera by non-professional actors. It's an unusual and surprisingly entertaining approach, and the 85-minute film spools out (in 16-millimetre black and white) faster than you'd think. Apichatpong would go on to acclaim for his follow-up films: the all-colour fiction features Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (the Palme d'Or winner), and Cemetery of Splendour (2015). The region-free Blu-ray of Mysterious Object at Noon marks a departure for British boutique distributor Second Run. It normally only puts out DVDs but has now begun to move into 1080p territory with this and other world-cinema titles – bravo to that. Restored from a 35-mm dupe negative by Martin Scorsese's World Film Foundation and the Austrian Film Museum, Apichatpong's debut looks pretty good for a low-budget movie; the English subtitles are burned-in, but there was no way around that, since the original 16-mm film was lost. For extras, the disc includes a half-hour interview with the director (in English); a short film of his from 2007 called Meteorites (16 minutes), seven minutes showing the film's restoration, and a 16-page booklet with an essay by British film historian Tony Rayns, who describes being the first critic to see a rough cut of the film.
2 from the Criterion Collection
Phoenix (Germany/Poland, 2014)
German writer-director Christian Petzold once again casts his muse, Nina Hoss (Barbara; Homeland) in this cool post-WWII tale of conjugal revenge. Hoss plays a disfigured Holocaust survivor who returns to Berlin and tries to get her no-good ex-husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) to fall in love with her again. Before the war, she was a cabaret singer and he was her accompanist. Now she's had facial surgery and he doesn't recognize her. He drafts her into a dangerous ploy to impersonate his ex-wife in order to claim her inheritance. As the audience, we're in on the subterfuge to the very end. Will the truth out? Wait and see. Extras on the Blu-ray (also on DVD) include a 20-minute making-of and half an hour of interviews with director and star and cinematographer Hans Fromm, plus a trailer and a foldout leaflet.
Barcelona (U.S., 1994)
"You think wedding vows are going to change everything? God, your naiveté is astounding! Didn't you see The Graduate?" That's Chris Eigeman's character talking, and to me, the middle sentence is pure Whit Stillman. A whole undergraduate scriptwriting thesis could be written on it. In 1990s Barcelona, two dissimilar cousins (played by Stillman regulars Eigeman and Taylor Nichols) try to figure out America's place in the Cold War of the Old World – and how to get laid. The Blu-ray (or DVD) has a lot of extras: a new 20-minute video essay, an audio commentary from 2002 (previously available on Warner's now out-of-print DVD), interviews with Dick Cavett and Charlie Rose, and more. Also released in a new boxset (BD or DVD) with Stillman's first and third movies, Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco.
3 from Eureka! Masters of Cinema
Man with a Movie Camera (Soviet Union, 1929)
Finally, they got it right. Three Blu-ray releases of Man with a Movie Camera – the iconic silent-era Soviet kaleidoscope of city life (Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, Kharkiv) by Dziga Vertov that Sight & Sound magazine in Britain ranks the greatest documentary ever – have appeared in the past year. The latest is clearly the best. The newest addition to the British Eureka! label's Masters of Cinema series is a four-disc set (two BDs, two DVDs) that not only offers a pristine version of the main feature that's lovely to watch, it also includes a full disc of four other Vertov films: Kinoglaz (aka Kino-Eye) (1924; 78 mins.), Kino-Pravda No. 21 (1925; 29 mins.), Symphony of the Donbass (1931; 67 mins.) and Three Songs of Lenin (1934; 59 mins.). The region-free U.S. BD by Flicker Alley has all that, and in almost as good a rendition, but MoC go the extra mile with their extras: an extensive new interview with scholar Ian Christie (46 minutes), a 20-minute video essay by Scottish filmmaker David Cairns, a new audio commentary by Australian film scholar Adrian Martin, and a 100-page (!) book that's a thing of beauty on its own. Oh, and the scores: the main one is by the Boston-based Alloy Orchestra and follows Vertov's original annotations (it's easier on the ears than Michael Nyman's modern score, available on the visually inferior British BD from BFI); L.A.-based Robert Israel did the one for Kino-Pravda. All in all, the MoC is the definitive edition. One major caution if you're in North America: the discs are code-locked to play only on Region B (essentially, European) Blu-ray players. Not a problem if you're already equipped for all-region play.
Novecento (Italy/France/Germany, 1976)
I never quite know how to listen to this movie: in English, in Italian, or in French? It's a problem, because the cast in Bernardo Bertolucci five-hour epic of 20th-century Italian class warfare is international (Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Alida Valli, Stefania Sandrelli) and the various dubs of their famous voices can sound rather surreal. Oh, well. The new British Blu-ray (code-locked for Europe) drops the French dub available on Olive Films BD from 2012, along with that edition's hour-long documentary (on DVD) from 2002 that looked at the director's career. But it bests it in other departments: proper widescreen aspect ratio (1.85:1 vs 1.78:1), better image and sound, and a different set of extras – two 14-minute making-ofs from 2006, previously available on DVD, and an on-set documentary from 1976 that last about an hour.
Three Days of the Condor (U.S., 1975)
In New York City, a junior analyst with the CIA (Robert Redford) steps out for lunch one day and, when he returns, find his co-workers have all been shot dead. He then goes on the run. Whodunnit? Sydney Pollack's conspiracy thriller positively pulses with paranoia. Paramount released the movie on all-region Blu-ray in 2009 sans extras; the new British BD (code-locked for Europe) makes up for that. There's an hour-long retrospective of Pollack's career from 2001 and a new 22-minute interview with British film historian Sheldon Hall, plus a trailer and a 32-page booklet. (Also on the market is a dual-region (North America/Europe) Studio Canal BD that's visually inferior but has several exclusive extras: an hour-long French documentary from 2001 on the "secret wars" the CIA fought from 1947 to 1977, a commentary track by Pollack and an hour-long doc on the director.)
Maggie Smith's latest
The Lady in the Van (U.K., 2015)
Dame Maggie Smith, best known to contemporary audiences as the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey, takes on a considerably less high-tone role in her latest movie, The Lady in the Van. Reprising the homeless lady she portrayed in Alan Bennett's West End play of the same name in 1999, she incarnates Mary Shepherd, the real-life London squatter who lived in a delivery van in Bennett's driveway for 15 years. Shot onsite on a small budget by director Nicholas Hynter (who also did the play), the film co-stars Alex Jennings (as Bennett), Jim Broadbent and Frances de la Tour; actor-turned-CBS-talk-show-host James Corden also puts in an appearance. It was a great shoot, Hynter told author Michael Coveney in his new biography of the 81-year-old actress: "She brings all Miss Shepherd's vast and crazy energy to the set." More power to her! Extras on the Sony Blu-ray (also available on DVD) include a director's commentary track, a 14-minute making-of (interviewing Bennett himself), eight minutes on the film's visual effects, and exclusive to the BD, three deleted scenes and six minutes with Maggie and cast and crew discussing her role.
4 from Twilight Time
Julia (U.S., 1977)
Jane Fonda plays American leftist playwright Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes) in this drama directed by Fred Zinnemann (The Day of the Jackal). On the eve of the Second World War, Hellman goes to Berlin to meet Julia, a childhood friend (Vanessa Redgrave) from back in the States who left her tony upbringing behind to join the anti-Nazi resistance and fight fascism. Redgrave and co-star Jason Robards (as Hellman's lover Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) got Oscars for their supporting roles in the film, which also marked the screen debut of Meryl Streep. Nice upgrade visually on Blu-ray (much crisper than the Fox DVD of a decade ago) and there's a new commentary track by Fonda herself (with film historian Nick Redman). You can also listen to Georges Delerue's score as an isolated track.
A Prayer for the Dying (U.K, 1987)
An interesting failure of a movie. Mickey Rourke stars as Martin Fallon, an Irish Republican Army killer who seeks redemption after a priest (Bob Hoskins) witnesses his latest murder. Alan Bates and Liam Neeson co-star. Adapted from the Jack Higgins novel, the film was disowned by its director, Mike Hodges, after the studio, Samuel Goldwyn, re-edited it. On the new Blu-ray, Hodges is interviewed about the movie's troubled history for 30 minutes, and for another 12 we get his genial cameraman, Mike Garath. Bill Conti's score is also available as an isolated track, and there's an original trailer.
In the French Style (U.S./France, 1963)
You probably know Jean Seberg for her iconic role as Patricia, the free-spirited, newspaper-hawking American student in Godard's À bout de souffle (opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo). But did you ever see in that other Paris film, In the French Style, shot two years later? Me neither. Well, now you can. Seberg is a student again, and she's still pursing the journalistic angle (her love interest is a journalist played by Stanley Baker). If the film has a bit of a Jean Renoir feel to it, it's no coincidence: it was shot by Michel Kelber (French Cancan) and scored by Joseph Kosma (La grande illusion). Extras on the Blu-ray include a new commentary track by Twilight Time regulars Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs, as well as the option of Kosma's score as an isolated track. Plus the original theatrical trailer, of course.
Cutter's Way (U.S., 1981)
A slice of disaffected America of the early '80s, Cutter's Way is a California buddy movie that riffs on the Vietnam War, wealth, conspiracy , murder and, obliquely, Hamlet and Moby Dick. John Heard plays Alex Cutter, a double-amputee war vet whose best friend (Jeff Bridges) leads him to believe that a millionaire oil baron (Stephen Elliot) killed a local cheerleader. Do they have the right guy? Doesn't matter – it's pay-the-piper time for Big Business in Santa Barbara. Ivan Passer (Intimate Lighting) directs. The Blu-ray has Jack Nitzsche's score as an isolated track, plus a commentary.