It’s your pre-Father’s Day Blu-Ray/DVD Round-Up

The DVDs and Blu-Rays have been piling up. So, it’s time to go through a bunch of them, with a bit of extra attention paid to movies that might appeal to dads, though I suppose moms might like some of these as well.

* Playwright George Kaufmann famously defined satire as “what closes on Saturday night” and these days you might as well define political thrillers as “what doesn’t get greenlit unless a bunch of big stars really want to do it, and then bombs.”  “The Manchurian Candidate” is both political thriller and a satire and it didn’t fail at the box office, though it was kept out of circulation for nearly twenty years after its initial release for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to this day.

I’m hardly alone in feeling this is probably the best political thriller ever made and possibly the second best political satire after “Dr. Strangelove.” Long after the end of the Cold War which spawned it, it’s continues to resonate with our political culture and it’s title still gives peoples the willies. Just ask John McCain.

Directed by John Frankenheimer and based on a novel by the mordantly comic suspense novelist Richard Condon of “Prizzi’s Honor” and “Winter Kills,”, you might know that it’s the story of what happens when a Soviet/Red Chinese brainwashing unit gets its hands on a group of captured soldiers, including Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, who makes aloof bitterness very cool), the highly estranged step-son of a Joe McCarthy-like senator. Frank Sinatra does maybe his best acting work as a traumatized fellow soldier who realizes something might be up because of some very strange and very bad dreams he’s having — and the fact that he keeps calling the unpleasant Shaw “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

It’s a brave blend of politics, off-the-wall black comedy (what was called “sick humor” back then), suspense, and borderline Jacobean classical tragedy. Frankenheimer had a knack for making political material work dramatically, and also for drawing out strong performances. Janet Leigh (“Psycho“) was perfect as the female love interest, who was written so oddly by Richard Condon and screenwriter/playwright George Axelrod that many have theorized she’s actually an operative of some sort — an idea capitalized on in Jonathan Demmes’ disappointingly morose 2004 remake. The greatest casting coup here, however, is Angela Lansbury’s absolutely chilling turn as Raymond Shaw’s hated extremist Washington-hostess mother. She wasn’t the only less-than-pleasant character Lansbury ever played, but there’s something about what happens when actors who make a career largely playing nice people play extremely not-nice people that can be electrifying.

I also can’t resist mentioning the fight scene between Sinatra and Henry Silva as a North Korean spy, which Frankenheimer was often proud to mention was the first use of martial arts fighting styles in an American film. Seeing it again, it’s not only more brutally effective than I remembered as Sinatra and Silva all but destroy Laurence Harvey’s Washington apartment, but — especially in the initial moments when Sinatra instinctively begins fighting the Silva character without even knowing who he is — it’s pretty obvious to me now that it had to be one of the main inspirations for the terrific first fight scene in “Kill Bill, Volume I,” in which Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox lay waste to a Pasadena living room.

The Blu-Ray is, by the way, not a deluxe restoration, but it includes all of the excellent features that earlier DVDs have included and the print has been kept in excellent enough shape that a new restoration isn’t really necessary. It looks great. Super highly recommended, though pricey.

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RIP Dino De Laurentiis

Another link to cinema’s past has left us with the passing of the legendary Italian and eventually American producer at age 91. A truly old school style movie mogul with all the good and bad that went with that, creatively speaking, Dino De Laurentiis was instrumental in launching the worldwide vogue for European cinema, particularly in his partnership with fellow powerhouse producer Carlo Ponti and ultimate Italian auteur Federico Fellini.

During a period I personally consider Fellini’s creative prime, De Laurentiis co-produced two of the director’s most powerful films, the classic tearjerker “La Strada” with Anthony Quinn and the great Giulietta Masina, and “Nights of Cabiria” also with Masina, a great tragicomedy and a huge personal favorite of mine. He also produced two now somewhat obscure adaptations, a version of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” with Audrey Hepburn and “Ulysses.” Fortunately, the latter was not an adaptation of the James Joyce stream-of-consciousness meganovel, but Homer’s “The Odyssey,” and starred Kirk Douglas in the heroic title role.

No snob, De Laurentiis had a gift for commingling arthouse fare, quality middlebrow entertainment, and complete schlock — some of it fun, some it merely schlocky. Geeks cried foul when he eschewed stop-motion for an unworkable animatronic monstrosity and, mostly, Rick Baker in a monkey suit for his silly mega-blockbuster remake attempt, “King Kong,” but that movie was a classic when compared to something like the hugely regrettable killer-whale flick “Orca.”

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Essential Art House Vol. II

The second collection of past Criterion releases – stripped of their DVD extras (and more than half their cost) – presents an even better, more accessible collection of films from the cinephile-sanctified vaults of legendary distributor Janus Films than the prior volume. This boxed set (the titles are also sold separately) is highlighted by three of the most entertaining and emotionally open films by three of the mid-20th century’s most revered filmmaking powerhouses: François Truffaut’s innovative 1959 coming-of-age drama, “The 400 Blows”, starring a 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, set the pattern for the genre worldwide, while also launching France’s iconoclastic New Wave of the 1960s; Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 “Ikiru” is a deeply moving and gently humorous film about a milquetoast bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura, the fish-faced badass leader of “The Seven Samurai”) facing certain death from stomach cancer without benefit of a billionaire buddy or bucket list; and 1954’s “La Strada” is a wondrous surefire tearjerker by the great Federico Fellini and starring his wife, the even greater Giulietta Masina, as a Chaplinesque waif, and America’s own Anthony Quinn as a very mean muscleman. England’s 1944 “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” starring Roger Livesay and Anton Walbrook – two great actors, too little remembered – and featuring an astonishing film debut by gorgeous 24-year-old A-lister-to-be, Deborah Kerr, is from the still-not-legendary-enough team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It’s one of the most enjoyable comedy-dramas ever made, as well as an eye-opening, Technicolor, quasi-wartime propaganda epic, and my current unofficial “all-time favorite movie,” if you really want me to name one.

Definitely worthwhile, but not anyway near the same category, is another British entry, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Co-directed by star Leslie Howard (“Gone with the Wind”) and stage-to-screen specialist Anthony Asquith, and with Wendy Hiller as the definitive Eliza Doolittle, it’s a solid but sometimes slow adaptation of the Shaw play, which you may know as “My Fair Lady,” but without the music or sentiment, or “Pretty Woman,” but without hookers and with actual wit. Finally, we have 1959’s “Black Orpheus”, Marcel Camus’ retelling of the myth of Orpheus, samba style. It’s a beautiful but slow ride that has millions of fans – just not me. All in all, there’s no faulting this collection. However, the absence of DVD extras makes a strong case for curious viewers to simply join Netflix and rent the original Criterion releases, great bonus features and all.

Click to buy “Essential Art House Vol. II”

  

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