The snow came after Christmas. Then the deep freeze, then the rain, then the snow again. Typical.
The best of the March releases
2 rediscoveries of cult films
Eureka (U.K./U.S., 1983)
"I never earned a nickel from another man's sweat." So says Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), a Klondike gold prospector who strikes it rich, moves to the Caribbean and gets in with the wrong crowd of chisellers. Based on the real-life story of murdered multi-millionaire Sir Harry Oakes, this mid-career film by the great Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now, Walkabout) never quite got its due. Roeg's then-wife, Theresa Russell, plays McCann's sexy daughter, and Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci and Rutger Hauer co-star. The Blu-ray/DVD combo set from British distributor Eureka! is part of its Masters of Cinema series, is code-locked for European players (if yours is multi-region you're OK), and, unlike MGM's barebones DVD from 2003, has over two hours of interviews: one with Roeg (audio only, as a backdrop to the first 100 minutes of the film) and, new in video, three of his producer (Jeremy Thomas), writer (Paul Mayersberg) and editor (Tony Lawson). There's also an isolated music & effects track and a booklet with an excerpt from Roeg's autobiography and the Robert W. Service poem "The Spell of the Yukon".
A Brighter Summer Day (Taiwan, 1991)
A bit of an event in the DVD world, this release marks the first time that the late Taiwanese director Edward Tang's widely acclaimed fourth feature has been made available on home video in North America. A youth crime drama set in Taipei in the early 1960s, it's long (four hours) and, to be honest, can be rather tedious on first viewing. Patience, however, will be rewarded in the end (the ripped-from-the-headlines climax really packs an emotional punch). Restored in 4K in Bologna thanks to Martin Scorsese's World Film Foundation, the movie looks great in the Criterion Collection's new two-disc Blu-ray set (also available as a 3-DVD set). It comes with a two-hour Taiwanese documentary on the film from 2002, a brief new interview with its star, Chang Chen, a new audio commentary with critic Tony Rayns, a 45-minute video (very poor quality, with near-indecipherable subtitles) of Yang's 1992 stage play Likely Consequence, and a 12-page illustrated leaflet. If you like this movie, you should also check out Criterion's 2011 Blu-ray of Tang's final film, the epic family drama Yi Yi (2000).
An Italian masterpiece
Rocco and His Brothers (Italy, 1960)
Neo-realism meets melodrama in Luchino Visconti's post-WWII portrait of a family of peasants from southern Italy (a widow and her five sons) who move north to industrial Milan in search of a better life. The tale is told as a series of interconnected portraits of the sons, specifically two of them (played by Renato Salvatori and French actor Alain Delon) who try to make it in the boxing world but are eventually consumed by jealousy and sibling rivalry. Violence, homosexuality, rape – all are explored in this three-hour, black-and-white, widescreen movie that was an obvious inspiration for Scorsese's Raging Bull. The Blu-ray is a very nice upgrade of the Masters of Cinema DVD from 2008. It sports a superb new 4K restoration (largely from the original negative, with parts of a dupe positive where the original was damaged), the seamless re-inclusion of two brief segments ordered excised by Italian censors before release in 1960, an optional French dub (not on the earlier DVD), all the extras from 2008 (interviews, documentaries, trailer), and a 40-page illustrated booklet. Plus English subtitles for everything, of course. Bravissimo!
2 proletarian dramas banned by communist East Germany
Berlin Around the Corner (East Germany, 1966)
Spring Takes Time (East Germany, 1965)
The DEFA Film Library of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst continues its dissemination of films that were banned in the former German Democratic Republic with two new titles released theatrically only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Both movies were contemporary (mid-1960s) dramas that took a critical stand on the inefficiencies, dissatisfaction and corruption in the centrally planned workplace. Tame by our standards today, they stood out in the repressive environment of East Germany for their gall to not only show authority in a bad light but also to take stylistic risks considered too “individualistic” at the time.
First up: Berlin Around the Corner. Focusing on the generation gap between metal labourers at a Berlin factory, the movie follows 20-somethings Olaf and Horst (Dieter Mann and Kaspar Eichel) at work battling their elders who perceive them as lazy and rebellious and at play riding their motorbikes and squiring the ladies. This was the fourth Berlin movie that director Gerhard Klein and scriptwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase made together, and a follow-up to the similarly titled Berlin-Schönhauser Corner made in 1957. Shot but banned before it could be released, it was later reconstructed for release at the 1990 Berliniale Film Festival. In his three-page rejection letter (included as a PDF on the DVD, along with 25 other pages of essays and other material), the official censor took issue with Berlin Around the Corner's failings: "Stupidity and arrogance, especially in representatives of the older generation, capitalist immorality, individualism, a lack of collective relations, superficiality of feelings, anarchism in work, the incompetence of those responsible, egoism ... greed, dishonesty, fraud, duplicity, and similar 'human characteristics' dominate in this movie, which claims to be a reflection of our socialist reality. All this is pegged as being 'natural' and 'legitimate.' Therein lies the mendacious and anti-socialist message of this movie." Makes you want to see it, eh? The disc has an 11-minute interview with Kohlhaase from 2001 on his run-in with the authorities.
Next up: Spring Takes Time. Made in 1965 by writer-director Günther Stahnke, it’s less free-wheeling than Berlin Around the Corner and I’d say is the less enjoyable of the two, except perhaps as a historical artifact. It concerns a cover-up of an industrial accident: a natural-gas pipeline ruptures in mid-winter and the engineer in charge (Eberhard Mellies) is made to defend himself against the incompetence of his party-member superiors who could have prevented it. The back-and-forth of blame gets rather complicated and difficult to follow, let alone care about, and the spare style of the film with its deliberate use of minimalist studio sets is strictly take-it or leave-it (some compared the look at the time to an Antonioni film, but that’s a big stretch). Audiences in 1990 actually preferred the short film it was paired with, Monolog for a Taxi Driver, by the same director. Included as an extra on the DVD, it’s a half-hour TV drama made for broadcast at Christmas 1962 but banned for its experimental nature and its unflattering portrait of East Germany's working poor. Over an upbeat jazzy score, a misanthropic Berlin taxi driver carries on a scathing interior monologue about everyone he meets on his last shift on Christmas Eve, bookended by a visit to a hospital where a teenage passenger goes to give birth. Among other things, the censor took umbrage with the film's unflattering documentary footage of rundown apartment buildings, endless road repairs and military convoys running through the city. The print used for the DVD isn't bad, but the omnipresent logo of the German Broadcasting Archive in the bottom corner is distracting.
Like the entire DEFA Film Library DVD collection, these films can only be ordered directly from the institution itself. They cost $29.95 U.S. each. For an overview of DEFA and other DVDs in the collection, you can also check out my write-up from early 2015.
3 snubs at the 2016 Oscars
Brooklyn (U.K./Canada/Ireland, 2015)
I ask you, was there a more perfect picture of 2015 that didn't get honoured by an Oscar? OK, I'm biased: Brooklyn was mostly filmed here in Montreal, it premiered at a fancy dress event at the Outremont Theatre, co-star Jessica Paré (Mad Men) showed up to promote it (though in English only, a no-no in Quebec), and, well, wasn't Saoirse Ronan simply "lorvely" in it – why, she even went on TV with a talk-show tutorial on how to pronounce Irish names (hers is "Sir-sha, like inertia"). The story of a young Irish immigrant torn between her Jewish lover and her family back home is warm, funny, heartfelt and touching, thanks to a fine script by Nick Hornby, solid direction by John Crowley and of course Ronan herself. Still, three top Oscar nominations (best picture, best actress, best adapted screenplay) but no award – for shame. On Blu-ray (also on DVD) from Mongrel/Métropole, the movie comes with all the extras of the U.S. edition by Fox: a director's commentary track; 10 minutes of deleted scenes, also commented by Crowley; six promotional featurettes consisting of some rather repetitive and uninformative interview clips and scenes from the movie, totalling 22 minutes; a photo gallery and a trailer. There's a slipcase, too.
Carol (U.K./U.S., 2015)
Lovely to look at, but terribly tightly wound, Todd Haynes's melodrama probes the relationship of two lonely New York women (played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) who start a lesbian affair on a road trip to Iowa in the early 1950s. Critically lauded, the movie was denied an Oscar this year in six major categories. The Blu-ray (also on DVD) from Séville Films includes more than an hour of short interviews with cast and crew members.
Macbeth (U.K./France/U.S., 2015)
Certainly not my favourite Macbeth movie (that would be Polanski's), this suitably moody and bloody adaptation shot in Scotland by Justin Kurzel stars Michael Fassbender in the title role. Marion Cotillard, French accent and all, plays his wicked wife. No Oscar nod for this one, either – not even a nomination. Extras on the Séville Films Blu-ray (also on DVD) include a 20-minute interview with Fassbender and eight minutes with cast and crew.
4 from Twilight Time
10 Rillington Place (U.K., 1971)
Actor/director Richard Attenborough didn't hurt his future chances of a knighthood by portraying postwar Britain's most notorious serial killer, John Reginald Christie. The movie's a creepy gem. Sony released this on DVD in the UK in 2004, with an introduction and career-restropective interview with Attenborough that's worth the price of admission alone. The new, visually improved Blu-ray drops those but keeps an audio commentary track by Hurt and adds a new one by Geeson. There's also Twilight's usual option of an optional isolated score track, as well as trailers and an eight-page booklet.
Anastasia (U.S., 1956)
Ingrid Bergman and Helen Hayes made career comebacks (opposite Yul Brynner) in this tale of Russian royal intrigue set in Paris in the 1920s. The Blu-ray isn't perfect, but audio problems with Alfred Newman's score on Fox's otherwise fine 2003 DVD have been fixed (there's also the option of listening to it as an isolated track, as a short audio song demo by Newman himself). Missing, however, is the old A&E feature documentary on the real Anastasia that was on the old DVD.
Exodus (U.S., 1960)
Leon Uris's bestselling novel about the founding of the state of Israel gets the big-time Hollywood treatment in Otto Preminger's propagandistic blockbuster. Paul Newman, Eva Maria Saint and Ralph Richardson star; newly un-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay adaptation. At 208 minutes (two hours; intermission; then another hour and more), the movie requires the patience of Job and a blind eye to Arab suffering to sit through. No extras on the Blu-ray (besides a trailer), but you can listen to Ernest Gold's score separately as an isolated track while you watch the film.
Lilies of the Field (U.S., 1963)
Sidney Poitier won an Oscar for best actor (a first for an African-American) for his turn as a poor handyman who helps a small community of German-speaking nuns build a chapel in the Arizona desert. A gentle and heartwarming story, the black-and-white movie was shot on location outside Tucson and looks great on Blu-ray. Twilight Time improves on MGM's 2001 DVD with a new commentary track and the option of Jerry Goldsmith's score as an isolated track).
A Quebec family drama
Les êtres chers (Canada, 2015)
Maxim Gaudette gives a restrained performance as a puppeteer haunted by his father's suicide in a small Lower St. Lawrence community. Anne Émond's second feature starts in the late 1970s and telescopes the next three decades as a study in one man's melancholia and what it does to a loving family whose secrets are sometimes too hard to bear. Karelle Tremblay gives a fine performance as the artist'srebellious daughter. No extras on the Séville Films DVD, which comes with French and English subtitles.
The best of the February releases
2 by Věra Chytilová of the Czech New Wave
Something Different (Czechoslovakia, 1963)
A Bagful of Fleas (Czechoslovakia, 1962)
One of the highlights of my DVD reviewing over the past year has been to see the illuminating and highly entertaining explorations of young womanhood put on screen in the 1960s by Czech New Wave pioneer Věra Chytilová (1929-2014), best known for her 1966 feature film Daisies. Since her death, Chytilová's exposure outside her homeland has grown thanks to the efforts of Second Run, a British boutique label whose DVDs are coded all-region, are low-priced, boast new transfers and come with updated subtitles and informative booklets, all the better to help anglophone audiences appreciate the works of foreign filmmakers, particularly those of central and eastern Europe. Chytilová was one of those, and Second Run has been assiduously releasing her back catalogue in curated editions that do justice to this avant-garde filmmaker. Two DVDs came out last spring: one with Chytilová's late-career feminist revenge fantasy Traps (1998), the other with the Garden of Eden parable Fruit of Paradise (1969) and Ceiling (1961), Chytilová's very first film; I especially enjoyed the latter, a semi-autobiographical short (41 minutes) about a young fashion model that Chytilová, who was already in her early 30s, made as her graduation film at Prague's famous FAMU film school. Now, on a new DVD, comes another double feature of early black-and-white movies by Chytilová that blend fiction with cinéma-verité-style documentary. A Bagful of Fleas (1962; 43 mins.) follows a group of rowdy young women at a small-town textile factory who dream of better things; Something Different (1963; 81 minutes) contrasts the daily lives of two women who are similarly disaffected, real-life Olympic gymnast Eva Bosáková and a fictional young housewife named Věra (played by Věra Ucelacová). Bosáková is having motivational problems while training for her next event, while Věra, caught between her obstreperous young boy and an unresponsive husband, starts a clandestine affair with a younger man. It's unfortunate that the lesser of the two films, A Bagful of Fleas, gets preferential treatment by Second Run: a new 2K restoration for its first-ever appearance on DVD. Something Different is a more fully realized and unusual project, yet the new transfer shows the age of the unrestored original elements. The accompanying 16-page illustrated book has an essay on Chytilová and the films by British scholar Peter Hames, editor of a book of essays called The Cinema of Central Europe (2004). [As a Czech film buff, I know what I'm looking forward to next, should it ever make it to DVD: Chytilová versus Forman: Consciousness of Continuity. The 1981 Belgian TV documentary sees Chytilová visit the Shepperton Studios set of her expat confrère Milos Forman as he shoots Ragtime. All I've seen so far are clips in a Czech news report.]
A new HBO mini-series
Show Me a Hero (U.S., 2015)
Well, The Wire, it ain't. Too bad. I expected more from Show Me a Hero. The HBO mini-series was co-written by David Simon, the man behind The Wire, the hit HBO series that ran from 2002 to 2008 and was revived last year when it was (controversially) reframed to widescreen for Blu-ray release. First aired last fall, Show Me a Hero boasts a strong cast (Oscar Isaac, in the lead role, with Alfred Molina, Jim Belushi, Winona Ryder and Catherine Keener), has a famous Hollywood director (Paul Gaggis, the Canadian who did Crash), is set in a recent past (the end of the 1980s and start of the '90s) its core audience of over-50s remembers well, and, like The Wire, deals with the thorny issues of race and city politics. Plus, it's all based on a true story. So why doesn't Show Me a Hero work as a mini-series? Well, maybe the problem is there's simply too much tell and not enough show. Overly talky, plodding and oh so earnest, the story is based on the book of the same name by New York Times journalist Lisa Belkin. Isaac plays Nick Wasicsko, a young lawyer who in 1987 became mayor of Yonkers, N.Y. The big issue at the time was whether the city should obey a court order to build low-income housing for black and Latino tenants in a mostly white and middle-class neighbourhood. Wasicsko decided to conform, and the issue exploded in his face; in the end, he was voted out of office and, several years later, victim of a whisper campaign by his opponents about possible corruption, committed suicide. Enough material for a decent movie of the week, you say? No doubt, but strung out over six hour-long episodes, Show Me a Hero is simply too long, relying too much on talking heads, bellowing citizens, soap-opera intrigues and laborious explanations of civil procedure to sustain interest over more than a couple episodes. I liked the period décor (electric typewriters, Ford Pintos), was annoyed by the over-obvious soundtrack (Springsteen, seemingly all the time), was surprised by Ryder's acting chops, enjoyed Molina's grandstanding politician (visions of Trump) and disliked the implausibly feel-good reconciliation at the end of Keener's white housewife with her new minority neighbours. Isaac, as usual, was excellent; his portrayal earned him a Golden Globe for best actor, the show's only award. Most American critics raved about this mini-series, but as a Canadian I have to say it was a missed opportunity to say something original – and most of all, entertaining – about the confluence of race and the kind of municipal politics practised in the democracy to our south. The sole extra on the two-disc Blu-ray – a brief six minutes of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew – does nothing to fill in the blanks.
4 from E1 / Séville Pictures
Remember (Canada/Germany, 2015)
Christopher Plummer stars as an amateur Nazi hunter who takes the law into own hands in this "geriatric thriller" by Canadian director Atom Egoyan. Plummer heads a fine cast of other screen veterans – Bruno Ganz, Jürgen Prochnow, Martin Landau – who lend weight to this unusual revenge fantasy. Egoyan presented the film last October at Montreal's Festival du nouveau cinema; I must say I had no expectations going in and left thoroughly satisfied, although some critics found the story highly implausible. Extras on the Blu-ray (also available on DVD) include an optional audio commentary track with Egoyan and producers Robert Lantos and Benjamin August, interviews with cast and crew, and red-carpet footage from the movie's premiere at TIFF.
Spotlight (U.S., 2015)
Many critics' choice for best picture in the 2016 Oscars race, Spotlight is not only a fine, torn-from-the-headlines drama, it also provokes a certain nostalgia for the good ol' days of newspaper journalism. It's set in 2001, before the Web and multi-platforming and social media completely transformed the jobs of reporters and editors (and proprietors). Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d'Arcy James star as three news diggers with the Boston Globe's investigative news team called "Spotlight". Led by a determined editor (Michael Keaton) and publisher (Liev Schreiber) they uncover the city's biggest scandal ever: the systematic sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests, and its cover-up by the Church. The Blu-ray (also on DVD) comes with three featurettes: one on the movie, another on the scandal and the other on journalism itself.
Follow the trials and tribulations of famous Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, Exodus, Spartacus), who was jailed and blacklisted in the 1950s for his Communist activities. In this dramatization by writer John McNamara and director Jay Roach (The Campaign), Bryan Cranston plays the hero, Diane Lane plays his long-suffering but loving wife, and Helen Mirren is the wicked gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Only mildly entertaining, the movie is an overly simplistic and (ironically) poorly written puff piece for the Hollywood left, short on nuance, long on exposition and absent of any character backgrounding. On Blu-ray and DVD the extras are slim: just a couple of promotional featurettes on Trumbo and Cranston.
Truth (U.S./Australia, 2015)
Journalists work hard but sometimes they don't check their facts enough and get things wrong. That's what happened in 2004 when, two months before the U.S. presidential election, CBS News got its hands on some vintage memos that cast doubt on George W. Bush's '70s military service – specifically, that he got bailed out of trouble after disobeying orders while in the National Guard. The allegations aired on Dan Rather's show 60 Minutes, and when the documents turned out to be forgeries, the show's producer, Mary Mapes, was fired and Rather resigned. Now, based on Mapes's memoirs, it's been dramatized for the big screen, with Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mapes. The DVD has a commentary track, a Q&A, two featurettes (one with the real Rather and Mapes) and some deleted scenes.
3 classics from Criterion
The Kid (U.S., 1921)
"A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear." So reads the opening title card of The Kid, Charlie Chaplin's first full-length feature as star and director, and the picture lives up to the billing. Chaplin returns as The Tramp, this time with a pint-sized co-star, 5-year-old Jackie Coogan, who plays his sidekick, an orphan boy he takes in off the street. When he conceived his picture, Chaplin was grieving over the death of his newborn son, and his emotion is right up there on screen to see and feel, along with Coogan's remarkably true and instinctive performance. The new 4K restoration of the film is a marvel: clean, crisp, detailed. The Blu-ray is stacked with new extras (an audio commentary track by Chaplin scholar Charles Maland; a half-hour video program with silent-film expert Ben Model; a 20-minute look at Coogan and his career; a video essay by Chaplin scholar Lisa Haven), as well as vintage material (interviews with Coogan, Chaplin's ex-wife Lita Grey, and distributor Mo Rothman; an audio interview with cinematographer Roland "Rollie" Toteroh; archival footage, a newsreel, a Chaplin/Coogan short), and more. The illustrated booklet has an essay by film historian Tom Gunning.
The Emigrants (Sweden, 1971)
The New Land (Sweden, 1972)
Six-and-a-half hours watching the ups and downs of 19th-century Swedish immigrants might not be everybody's idea of a good time, but be patient: The Emigrants and its sequel The New Land add up to an epic saga that more than earns its keep. Based on two novels by Vilhelm Moberg and directed by Jan Troell, they star two icons of Swedish cinema, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, as a dirt-poor farming couple named Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson. The Emigrants starts in 1844 and depicts their struggle to survive in the hardscrabble, repressive land of their birth; with their children they eventually decide to pick up stakes and sail for America, accompanied by Karl Oskar's teenage brother, Robert (Eddie Axberg) and others from their village. After the perilous journey over the Atlantic and then overland by cart and rail, the Swedes settle in rural Minnesota. In The New Land, the immigrants work their land, raise their children, build bigger homes and try best to keep their distance from the dispossessed Sioux around them, until starvation drives the "savages" to revolt. Some, like young Robert, give up and strike out west to California in search of gold they may never find. In the end, Karl Oskar survives his wife by three decades and by 1890 more Swedes arrive to settle the land anew. Both films have been restored in high-def and the transfers on the Criterion set (two Blu-rays in one case) are up to the label's usual high standard. Extras include new interviews with Ullman and Troell, a new video introduction by critic John Simon, and an hour-long Swedish documentary from 2005 called To Paint With Pictures that looks at the making of both movies. There's a foldout leaflet, too, with an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty.
A Disney classic in a new edition
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (U.S., 1937)
Back in the day, the pundits were skeptical: no regular audience, they said, would want to sit through a full-length animated movie, least of all a fairy tale. Well, Walt Disney proved them wrong, and his adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would do better box-office than any other movie of 1937. This is the second time the Disney corporation has released the movie on Blu-ray, and if you already have the three-disc "Diamond Edition" from 2009, you'll probably want to skip this one. Image and audio are the same, many of the extras have been dropped or modified, and the new extras only add up to about half an hour. The "Signature Edition" has two discs: one Blu-ray and one DVD; there's also a voucher to download a digital copy of the film.
Two political thrillers set in post-war Germany
Bridge of Spies (U.S./Germany/India, 2015)
Steven Spielberg's latest movie is a Cold War thriller based on real events and co-written by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. Tom Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, the real-life New York lawyer who in 1962 negotiated a famous spy swap in divided Berlin: Soviet KGB officer Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel), who'd been jailed in a U.S. federal prison, was exchanged for American CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers, who'd been shot down over Russia and captured; an American student also got thrown into the mix. The Blu-ray/DVD set is available in Canada (via Disney) seven weeks ahead of its release (by Fox) in the U.S. The trilingual set (English, French, Spanish) comes with a digital-copy voucher and several video extras that explore the characters, history and politics, and the making of the movie (including a cameo by the pilot's son).
Labyrinth of Lies (Germany, 2014)
In Frankfurt in 1958, a handsome young German prosecutor (Alexander Fehling) finds his calling as a Nazi hunter when a crusading journalist twigs him to the taboo subject of Auschwitz. Extras on the Sony Blu-ray include an English-language commentary with Fehling and director Giulio Ricciarelli, a Q&A with them from the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival that runs 43 minutes, and seven deleted scenes of more or less a minute each. A good companion film to this is the 1993 documentary Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial,1963-1965. Licensed from the DEFA Film Library of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it was released on DVD in 2007 by New York distributor First Run Features; that edition is out-of-print but you can buy an improved, two-disc edition from the Library itself.
2 Pasolinis from Eureka! Masters of Cinema
Hawks and Sparrows (Italy, 1966)
Pigsty (Italy/France 1969)
A road movie about a father and son and a talking crow and a revolutionary diptych about Nazism and cannibalism – Pier Paolo Pasolini covered a lot of ground in Hawks and Sparrows and Pigsty. In the former, he cast Italian comic legend Totò and got Ennio Morricone to do the score. In the latter, he hired two stars of the French New Wave (Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anne Wiazemsky, wife of Jean-Luc Godard). British distributor Eureka! has put both films on one Blu-ray for this limited edition (1,500 copies), a big upgrade from its Masters of Cinema 2012 DVD edition (which only had Pigsty). The sole video extras are trailers for both movies; there's also an illustrated booklet that's full of essays and interviews and vintage materials about Pasolini and the films.
2 vintage noirs, from Twilight Time
Where the Sidewalk Ends (U.S., 1950)
The Big Heat (U.S. 1953)
Legendary director Fritz Lang (Metropolis) was in a post-WWII slump in Hollywood when Columbia Pictures hired him to make the police thrillerThe Big Heat. It stars Quebec-born Glenn Ford as a vigilante cop opposite Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin. It's brutal stuff, top-notch noir, one of the best movies of Lang's long career. The Blu-ray is Twilight Time's second go-round with this title. The distributor improves on its barebones 2012 Blu-ray by adding a new audio commentary and two featurettes ported over from Sony's 2009 DVD: five minutes with Martin Scorsese and 10 minutes with Michael Mann; there's also the usual trailer, isolated score and Julie Kirgo's liner notes. For a more lavish Blu-ray package, get Wild Side Video's edition from France: http://goo.gl/1Bhbjx. It has a 208-page illustrated book and the two featurettes; the discs (BD and DVD) are playable in all regions, and the French subtitles are removable.
The best of the January releases
Downton Abbey: Season 6
Spoiler alert (not really): All's well that ends well. After six seasons and 52 episodes, the hit British TV series Downton Abbey finally wound to a close on Dec. 25, and with it, the storylines of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, their two daughters Mary and Edith, the Dowager Countess and all the other Crawleys and extended family and loyal servants came to a predictably happy end. Series creator and writer Julian Fellowes had started the plots rolling in 1912 in Season 1, and now, by 1925, had left his characters to fend for themselves in an England slowly changing with the times. There's feminism, movies, fast cars, bankrupt estates, servants looking for other work, but always, a spirit of hope prevails that things will get better for most, not worse. Audiences never seemed to lose their fascination with this upstairs, downstairs world; as usual with most every episode, about 10 million people tuned in to watch all 98 minutes of Downton's Season 6 Christmas finale on ITV. Here in North America, there's been the usual delay: the season opened on PBS on Jan. 3 and concludes March 6. You can get a jump on the proceedings by buying Season 6 on Blu-ray or DVD; the three-disc sets went on sale on this side of the Atlantic on Jan. 26. (Unilingual French audiences in my native Quebec aren't as lucky; they'll have to wait until next fall to watch the French dub of Season 6 on Radio-Canada, and they're only at Season 4 on DVD.) The sets from PBS have all nine episodes, are widescreen (1.78:1 ratio), have stereo DTS sound and three featurettes as extras: seven minutes with cast and crew inside Highclere Castle where the series was shot; 11 minutes with cast and crew again, this time looking at the vintage cars used in the production; and 14 minutes of "Changing Times at Downtown," a look at how the characters changed over the course of the season. As the Earl would say: "Splendid job! Sherry all 'round!"
3 from Criterion
The American Friend (West Germany / France, 1977)
For his breakthrough film, Wim Wenders merged a couple of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley thrillers and cast Hollywood star Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) in the lead opposite Swiss-German stage actor Bruno Ganz (Downfall). It was an odd pairing, but somehow it works, as does the seaside German setting. Hopper plays an American crook in Hamburg who specializes in bringing forged artwork to auction for big bucks. Ganz is a local art expert who leads a quiet life making picture frames in his workshop. Their two worlds collide when a French gangster (Gérard Blain) learns the art framer is dying of cancer and offers to provide for his wife (Lisa Kreuzer) and young son after his death if he agrees to murder a couple of rival mobsters, first in Paris, then on a train through Germany. It's all rather far-fetched, and it's hard to tell whether Wenders meant to satirize or pay homage to classic film noir – maybe both. Interestingly for film buffs, each of the mobsters is played by an influential indie film director: besides Blain, there's Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Jean Eustache, Daniel Schmid and others. Shot by Wenders' lensman Robby Müller, with some innovative use of florescent coloured lights, the film is beautiful to look, not your typical shoot-'em-up crime drama. In a new, highly entertaining interview (38 mins.) included as an extra on the Criterion Blu-ray (also available on two-disc DVD), Wenders candidly relates how Hopper and Ganz got into fisticuffs over how they played their roles, eventually becoming friends after an all-night bender. In a separate half-hour interview, Ganz also alludes to his resentment over Hopper getting all the director's attention (in the course of shooting, the working title of the film was changed from Framed, with its focus on Ganz, to The American Friend, with its focus on Hopper). There are also 35 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes, with an optional commentary by Wenders; unfortunately there's no footage of the the two stars' fistfight, though Wenders says he still has it somewhere. Rounding out the package are an audio commentary of the entire film recorded by Wenders and Hopper back in 2002, and a 12-page foldout leaflet.
Gilda (U.S., 1946)
"Gilda, are you decent?" She certainly was. But there was someone else behind the screen persona of the femme fatale: the real Rita Hayworth, aka Margarita Carmen Cansino. "She had become such a figure of lust, and she just wanted to be a housewife," Orson Welles said of his ex, talking of the time they made The Lady from Shanghai together in 1947. A year earlier, she was Gilda, just as lovely and just as insecure. Paired with Glenn Ford in Charles Vidor's film noir, Hayworth radiated a rare kind of sexual energy as a married woman thrown into infidelity down Argentina way when an old flame (Ford) comes through town. It was Hayworth's first big dramatic role, shooting her into super-sex-symbol heaven, and she still captivates on screen today – even more so, in high-definition. First released on Blu-ray by Sony in Europe in the spring of 2014, the film has been spruced up even more for its North American by Criterion: higher resolution, better sound and an additional full hour of extras including a new look at Gilda's gay subtext and a vintage profile of Hayworth, plus a leaflet that folds out into a B&W pin-up photo. Pretty decent, indeed.
Bitter Rice (Italy, 1949)
Another movie with sex appeal, only of an entirely less glamorous variety: This one's about, ahem, female rice paddy workers in northern Italy and stars busty beauty Silvana Mangano working the fields in tight shorts and torn stockings; Hollywood import Doris Dowling is no shrinking violet herself, cast as the girlfriend of a petty thief (Vittorio Gassman) who's on the run from the law. Mangano, especially, was the main reason that male audiences flocked to see the movie back in the day, but despite its provocative allure, Bitter Rice is more than just pulp fiction on screen; it's considered a gem of the Italian neo-realist movement, a dark tale of labour strife and criminal violence in a seldom-seen agricultural community of the Po Valley. New to Blu-ray, the film is one Criterion's bargain-line titles; its black-and-white images are smooth and not overly contrasted – warm, almost, with plenty of grey tones – while the original mono sound is uncompressed and authentic. Besides a leaflet that folds out into a pin-up painting of Mangano that bares a lot of leg, the disc includes a hour-long documentary from 2008 on the director, Giuseppe De Santis.
Warsaw, à la Woody Allen
Escape from the 'Liberty' Cinema (Poland,1990)
Take the concept of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (an actor walks off the screen and into the life of his biggest fan), set the action in Poland, and turn the American story on its head by making the "fan" a government censor who's had it with his job and "escapes" into the screen to join the rebellious cast. That's what writer-director Wojciech Marczewski did in 1990 with Escape from the 'Liberty' Cinema, a pivotal picture in the evolution of Polish cinema after the fall of Communism. Lifting Allen's concept and also actual footage from Cairo (free of charge, with Allen's blessing), Marczewski wrote the disaffected censor part for Janusz Gajos, who was fresh off Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog 4 when he took the role. He co-stars here with Zbigniew Zamachowski, and if you recognize the two it's probably because you remember them from Kieslowski's Three Colours: White, released in 1994 as a revenge comedy with Julie Delpy. If I mention all this, it's because filmmaking – and the freedom to make films, and to project them – is what Escape is all about. As political satire, it's rather more languorous than Western audiences might like. Yet I'd say it's all the more potent in its exposure of one-party state control of cultural expression because of its humanity. It embraces the censor as a human being; flawed and unforgiveable though he may be for the damage he's wrought over the years to many a career, the censor nevertheless acknowledges the need for change. For this home-video release on all-region DVD, the film has been restored with Marczewski's approval in high-definition and looks great. The one extra, a 25-minute interview from 2013 with the director, sets all this in context, as does the 20-page illustrated booklet packaged with the disc.
2 by Hal Ashby, from Twilight Time
The Last Detail (U.S., 1973)
Bound for Glory (U.S., 1976)
The rebel had a cause, and his name was Woody Guthrie. The Depression-era folk singer from Texas stirred the downtrodden with songs like "This Land is Your Land" and "Do Re Mi." In Hal Ashby's biopic, set in the years leading up to Guthrie's breakthrough on the radio in 1940, he's portrayed by David Carradine, fresh off his three-year run as a Chinese action hero in the hit TV series Kung Fu. It's a typically soulful performance, and the innovative Steadicam cinematography of Haskell Wexler makes him – and his surroundings, and his era – look all the more authentic. The new Blu-ray has barely any extras (just a trailer and an isolated score) but its visuals and sound (both now in high-def) area big step up from the awful DVD that MGM issued back in 2001. That one didn't have any extras, either; maybe some future edition could tack on a documentary about Guthrie, some vintage making-of material or even a separate CD of his songs. For now, this'll do.
The best of the December releases
2 from Sony
The Walk (U.S., 2015)
In the summer of 1974 in New York City, a French high-wire artist named Philippe Petit pulled off his most amazing feat yet. He rigged a steel cable between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and walked back and forth along it, end to end, again and again. He was soon arrested, of course, but his fame was secure. A thrilling documentary was made about Petit's walk in 2008 called Man on Wire. Now comes the Hollywood dramatization. Shot digitally – mostly in Montreal, as well as Paris and New York – and with an American (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the lead role whose French accent sounds put-on, the film is surprisingly pedestrian, with all roads leading to the big payoff in the sky at the end. Extras on the Sony Blu-ray are meagre: three short featurettes and barely two minutes of deleted scenes. You can also get this on Blu-ray in 3D, which is how it was screened theatrically – even more vertiginous.
You Can't Take It With You (U.S., 1938)
On the rebound from the commercial fiasco of 1937's Lost Horizon, director Frank Capra did something safe and predictable: he made a comedy. Adapted from a Pulitzer-Prize-winning Broadway play and made on a strict budget (Capra reportedly rushed through the shooting to save money), it won best picture at the Academy Awards and garnered Capra the Oscar for best director. It was also notable for casting James Stewart, who'd go on to win an Oscar as best actor the following year in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Here, Stewart plays a rich kid who marries into a family of loveable eccentrics; Jean Arthur plays his stenographer bride. Good, light fun. Now restored in 4K, the film arrives in Blu-ray from Sony in a handsome digibook: 26 pages of text and illustrations. Extras are the same as the previous DVD: an audio commentary and half-hour look-back at the movie and the manby Capra's son, Frank Capra. Jr.
A silent classic from Criterion
Speedy (U.S., 1928)
Harold Lloyd's last silent feature, Speedy is a comedy about progress and the price we pay for it. Directed by Ted Wilde, it's a fast-paced story of a jobless young New Yorker (Lloyd) who helps his girlfriend's father save his horse-drawn streetcar enterprise – the last in the city – from going out of business. Along the way, he also happens to give a ride to one of America's real-life icons: Yankees slugger Babe Ruth. Though not exclusively shot in New York (Los Angeles was the other locale), Speedy does show off the city in all its glory, including some memorable sequences on Coney Island. The 4K restoration on the Criterion Blu-ray (also available on DVD) gives the film depth and stability; same goes for the Carl Davis score from 1992, which is also restored. The audio commentary by film experts Bruce Goldstein and Scott McGee is informative and entertaining (they even take a dig at Donald Trump's father, Fred, who in the mid-1960s demolished one of the Coney Island amusement parks featured in the film). Extras include a new half-hour tour of Speedy's locations; a new 41-minute look at Babe Ruth and his appearance in the movie; five minutes of deleted scenes; 18 minutes of Lloyd's home movies from the time Speedy was made (presented by Lloyd's adoring granddaughter, Suzanne); Bumping into Broadway, a 26-minute short that Lloyd made in 1919 and that's now been restored; and a 12-page foldout leaflet illustrated with with black-and-white stills from the main feature.
3 from Twilight Time
Mysterious Island (U.K/U.S.,1961)
The special effects may look hokey today, but the artistry is undeniable: classic stop-motion model animation at its finest. American genius Ray Harryhausen ("Mr. Dynamation") was the wizard, British cinematographer Wilkie Cooper (Green for Danger) tricked the eye with his cameras, and once-blacklisted U.S. leftie Cy Enfield (Zulu) directed the action on location in Spain and at England's Shepperton Studios. The original story was by Jules Verne, of course, but the filmmakers took liberties. The film follows a group of Union soldiers in the American Civil War who escape a Confederate prison camp in a hot-air balloon, drift all the way out over the Pacific Ocean and land on an island populated by giant animals. They later meet the man who breeds these creatures, Captain Nemo (played by Herbert Lom), and together they engineer the castaways' return to civilization. Twilight Time issued a barebones Blu-ray of the film in 2011. For this new edition, it has included the original mono audio track as an option (in DTS-HD), along with several important extras. There's a new audio commentary by three American film historians, Bernard Herrmann's score as an optional isolated track, 12 vintage minutes of Harryhausen talking about the movie, a documentary short about real-life "islands of mystery," three TV spots, an assortment of theatrical trailers, and an eight-page booklet. Like all Twilight Time releases, the Blu-ray is available exclusively at www.screenarchives.com and is a limited edition of 3,000 units; when they're gone, they're gone.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (U.K., 1984)
In this digital age of omnipresent surveillance, those of us still attached to physical media should be pleased with this Blu-ray release of the best screen version of George Orwell's dystopian novel. It means we can watch the movie in blissful anonymity, our consumption unwatched and unrecorded by Netflix and the many other nefarious "streaming" sites that keep tabs on us à la Big Brother. John Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton are the doomed lovers in director Michael Radford's adaptation, opposite Richard Burton, in his last screen role, as the villainous apparatchik O'Brien. The film's desaturated look is courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Oscar-nominated this year for Denis Villeneuve's Sicario). There are no extras on the Twilight Time Blu-ray besides a trailer and isolated track of the score by the Britpop group The Eurythmics. The score was a late-hour choice that the backers, Virgin Films, imposed on Radford, who detested it; luckily the Blu-ray also offers the original orchestral score by Dominic Muldowney; you can't isolate it, though.
Born Free (U.K./U.S., 1966)
If you grew up in the 1960s, there was no escaping the song on the radio: "Born Free," composed by John Barry with lyrics by Don Black. Andy Williams sang it; pop pianist Roger Williams took it up the charts; even Frank Sinatra gave it a try. But the original was crooned by British singer Matt Monro in the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, itself based on the bestselling memoir of the same name by Czech-born naturalist "Joy" Adamson. The song, a last-minute addition to the movie's closing credits, won as Oscar for best original song in 1966. No such honours went to the movie as a whole, however, despite its seemingly winning pedigree and formula: a topical theme (wildlife preservation in Africa), beautiful wildlife (especially Elsa, the orphaned lion cub at the centre of the story, who's raised to adulthood and then released) and a sympathetic heroine, Adamson (played by Virginia McKenna, alongside Bill Travers as Adamson's gamekeeper husband). The Blu-ray has the score as an isolated track, plus a new audio commentary and trailers.
3 from Eureka! Masters of Cinema
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (U.S., 1973)
An eerily calm crime thriller set in and around Boston and directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt, Breaking Away), The Friends of Eddie Coyle stars Hollywood screen icon Robert Mitchum as the titular anti-hero, an aging crook who tries to make good with the cops in order to avoid being sent back to jail. He helps them nail a gun runner who's been supplying some of his bankrobber friends, and when that works out, offers to stool on the bankrobbers, too. He winds up being set up for a fall, and his end is most ignoble. A creeping sense of doom pervades this picture, adapted from the George V. Higgins novel; it was a well-deserved hit at the box office and with the critics, too. Criterion re-released the film on Blu-ray last spring; like its 2009 DVD, the Blu-ray has an audio commentary by Yates, a stills gallery and a thick booklet, but no video extras. Eureka's Masters of Cinema package does: there's a new appreciation by American film critic Glenn Kenny (22 mins.) and a 1996 on-stage interview with Yates talking about his career (77 mins., unfortunately hobbled by poor audio); there's also a 44-page booklet. The dual-format edition (Blu-ray/DVD) is digitally code-locked for European players.
A New Leaf (U.S., 1971)
Walter Matthau strikes just the right tone of manic world-weariness as Henry, a suddenly penniless playboy who needs to find a wealthy wife, fast. Along comes Henrietta, a botany professor and goofy heiress played by comedienne Elaine May. May also wrote and directed the picture and, incidentally, brought it in wildly over budget and over length, which forced producer Robert Evans to cut it, but that's another story. As situation comedy, A New Leaf is rather dated. As an artifact of late '60s, early '70s satire, it's precious. Chicago distributor Olive Films had this on barebones Blu-ray in late 2012; the British dual edition (Blu-ray/DVD), sourced from the same master, ups the ante: there's a new video essay by critic David Cairns (17 mins.) plus a 32-page illustrated booklet. The discs are still code-locked for Europe, however.
Day of the Outlaw (U.S., 1959)
Fans of Quentin Tarantino's new movie The Hateful Eight (and that doesn't include the Oscar voters, apparently) might do a double-take when they see this late '50s Western: It's set in the depths of winter and features a tense household of mistrustful people worried about dying a violent death. The difference is that Day of the Outlaw, directed by Andre de Toth, is actually a hostage drama, not a smart-talking bloodbath. Robert Ryan is the lone plainsman who comes between a landowner and his wife (Tina Louise, of Gilligan's Island fame) but winds up defending them and the townsfolk from a band of outlaws (led by Burl Ives). Shot in black-and-white in harsh weather and on a tiny budget, the movie was a model for the upstart filmmakers of the French New Wave. Bertrand Tavernier offers his appreciation on the new dual-format edition.
A winner at Cannes in 2015
La tierra y la sombra (Land and Shade) (Colombia/France/Netherlands/Chile/Brazil, 2015)
Finally, just a quick word to say that this family drama about sugarcane workers in rural Colombia is, indeed, a beautiful movie (it won the Caméra d'or at Cannes). It's just too bad the video transfer by Montreal distributor K-Films Amérique is such a stinker: French subtitles are burned into the main feature; the two featurettes total barely 10 minutes, are in Spanish and have no subtitles at all (the crew describes shooting the final scene and then their trip to Cannes); there are spelling mistakes in the copyright warnings (apparently it's "illigal" to copy the DVD); there are only four (4!) chapter stops for the 97-minute movie; the image resolution is low-def and fuzzy, probably a poor PAL transfer; you name it. But hey, we should feel lucky to see the film at all, right?