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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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Turner Classic Film Fest: A history of violence

I know, pretty dark headline for  a post about a really fun, glamor heavy film fest. All the more so because, at least for me, TCM  Fest is the kind of event that  can put you in a kind of steel bubble which the daily news can barely pierce. If another Cuban Missile Crisis happened during Comic-Con, what would happen? Maybe if it ended differently this time.

Indeed, even a momentous event  like the death of Osama Bin Laden could just barely penetrate TCM’s  mix of Hollywood fantasy and scholarship. For me, the news first came as I overheard another filmgoer during an intermission of “West Side Story,” which I had popped in on just to see how good the 70mm print was, say to another. “No, he’s really dead.” I figured it was another classic film star gone forever. George Chakiris, who played Sharks leader Bernardo, had introduced the screening, but how were Jets Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn doing?

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This one’s for you, Mr. Hefner

Hey, it’s not everyday someone gives $900,000 of their own money to save a local landmark, but that’s what the founder of Playboy did for Los Angeles today as he donated a large sum to save the iconic sign in the Hollywood Hills that has become symbolic of a lot more than an actually fairly random place name. Anyhow, I’m turning this one over, in a way, to Hugh Hefner. I think the two clips below are fairly self-explanatory.

Since the individual scenes have been apparently all been disabled for embedding (why?), we’ll give you the trailer instead.

Bullz-eye/Premium Hollywood boss man Gerardo Orlando recently interviewed the ultimate girly mag’s honcho emeritus about a fortnight back. Check it out.

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Monday night at the movies, the post TCM Fest edition.

I’m recovering from the fest and doing other stuff as well, so I’m going to try and keep things fairly short tonight.

* The non-extra initial Blu-Ray/DVD release of “Avatar” has, guess what, done very, very well.

* Thanks, Hef! He saves the world for heavily retouched naked women, pays writers more than just about anybody, and now he ponies up the missing funds to save the Hollywood sign.

* One item I don’t actually have to link to report on is that the TCM Classic Film Festival is going to be back next year, with the idea of being an annual event. I can do that because I was present at last night’s big screening of “Metropolis” where none other than Robert Osborne announced it to the assembled multitudes at the more beautiful than ever Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

What was interesting about the way this festival was marketed is that people who live in Los Angeles were clearly not the primary target. Individual ticket prices were roughly double what film geeks like myself are used to paying to see similar presentations — actually more than double when you consider that most repertory programs are actually double bills. With the exception of fellow press and a USC film student who had picked up one of thirty free tickets that has been donated, everyone I spoke to was from elsewhere, and usually a place where the opportunity to see such frequently revived cinematic warhorses as “Casablanca” and “Some Like it Hot” on the big screen are nevertheless beyond rare.

IMAG0094

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Mission to TCM

If I may delve into hardcore cinephilia for one post, Turner Classic Movies is doing a very funny thing this month, they’re letting a movie blogger — along with a better known film critic — mess with their nightly schedule.

To be specific, the wondrous Self Styled Siren, who recently emerged as one Farran Smith Nehme of New York City, is co-curating with Lou Lumenick of the New York Post, Shadows of Russia. It’s a series of classic and rarities dealing with the former Soviet Union and it’s complex relationship with the United States and the West. Tonight’s centerpiece, showing at 10:00 Eastern/7:00 Pacific, is “Mission to Moscow,” one of a few pieces of World War II-era wartime propaganda requested by the U.S. government in order to create a better image of our wartime ally to the East. Despite the fact they had basically been made to please the U.S. government and assist the war effort, these films later came under suspicion from the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as the Cold War heated up again almost immediately after the end of the war.

I’ve never seen “Mission” but it’s apparently a faux-factual, completely absurd whitewash of the very real evil of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. Making it a lot more interesting is the fact that this was no cheapy, but a glossy A-picture directed by Michael Curtiz and written by Howard Koch, both of whom had extremely illustrious careers on their own and whose most famous effort together was arguably the best American propaganda film of all time, “Casablanca.” No one thinks it’s a great movie or even a particularly good one in any normal sense of the word, but apparently its sheer wrongness makes it a really interesting movie experience. If you even one bit interested in mid-century history, this is one you won’t to miss.

The Siren and Lou Lumenick have more on “Mission to Moscow,” another interesting sounding tale called “The North Star” which you’ll have to be very quick on the trigger tonight if you want to see it (it’s 5:00 Pacific/8:00 Eastern) and some other possible goodies showing later on, including “The Kremlin Letter,” a hard-to-find 1970 spy thriller directed by John Huston I’ll have a hard time resisting.

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Inglourious movie moments #2

Another clip inspired by “Inglourious Basterds.” This brief sequence from “Casablanca” is one of my favorite scenes from any movie. Here is World War II in microcosm as the Paul Henreid’s heroic Victor Laszlo and the employees and customers of Rick’s Cafe Americain take on Conrad Veidt’s Nazi Colonel Strasse and Claude Rains’ Vichy-regime opportunist, Captain Renault, the only way they can.

One thing to consider about just why this scene remains so powerful is that very many of the actors here, including the German-born Veidt, whose first wife was Jewish, were themselves refugees from World War II-era persecution.

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Casablanca: Ultimate Collector’s Edition

“Hey, wait a minute,” you might be saying. “Didn’t Warner Bros. release a special edition of ‘Casablanca’ just five years ago, in celebration of the movie’s 60th birthday?”

The answer is yes, yes they did — but five years after “Casablanca” turned 60, wouldn’t you know it, Warner Bros. has turned 85, and since this is not only one of the studio’s finest films but one of the greatest movies ever made, it stands to reason that a silly old two-disc special edition is no longer enough. Now the true movie buff needs to get his hands on the brand new, three-DVD Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

Casablanca

Much as it might look like it, this isn’t simply a case of a studio soaking its customers with endless slightly different “deluxe” configurations of a film. For all intents and purposes, the latest version of “Casablanca” is the same as the Special Edition: Two of the three DVDs — the important ones, featuring the film and the special features — are holdovers from the 2003 release, and everything else that’s been added is nifty enough, but probably lacks the cool factor that’ll send “Casablanca” fans marching into their local Best Buys, red-faced with shame and anger.

The third DVD consists of “Jack Warner: The Last Mogul,” an hourlong documentary directed in 1993 by Warner’s grandson, Gregory Orr. It’s interesting enough, but relates to “Casablanca” only tangentially, as it covers Warner’s life and times more or less completely (albeit without a lot of depth, which is to be expected, given its abbreviated length). The rest of the Ultimate special features aren’t on the DVDs — they’re assorted bits of swag that have been bundled into the box, including a “Casablanca” passport and luggage tag, a 48-page book with tons of photos and an essay, seven replica posters, and a handful of studio letters and memos pertaining to the film. They’re all nicely made, and owning them will doubtless be appealing to hardcore fans of the movie, but they aren’t the sort of crucial, revelatory added content that would render the Special Edition irrelevant.

Of course, if you love “Casablanca” and don’t already own the Special Edition, this will be the version you want to buy; it looks damn handsome on the shelf, and the 2003 transfer and bonus features (which include everything from featurettes, deleted scenes and bloopers to the animated short “Carrotblanca”) are befitting of a legendary movie like this one. Best of all, it’s currently on sale at Amazon for just under $40, which probably isn’t much more than you paid for that Special Edition copy of “The Incredible Hulk” that’s being used as a coaster in your living room.

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