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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Red Carpet Chatter: Mike Nichols Gets His AFI Lifetime Achievement Award

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Born in 1931 in what was very soon to become Hitler’s Germany, young Michael Peschkowsky was living in Manhattan by 1939. It was great luck both for the future Mike Nichols and for the country that accepted him.

Nichols is, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and for good reason. He’s the original, craftsmanlike, and emotionally astute directorial voice responsible for such sixties and seventies classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,”  “Carnal Knowledge” and, of course, “The Graduate” (the source of his only directorial Oscar so far) as well as such eighties, nineties, and oughts successes as “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” and “Closer.” Even if some of the later films are not on the same level of quality as his earlier films — and several, especially his 1988 box office hit, “Working Girl,” stray into mediocrity — it’s still one of the most impressive and diverse careers of any living director in Hollywood.

That’s just on the big screen. On television, Nichols has rebounded in the eyes of many critics, directing two of the most acclaimed television productions of the last decade, 2001’s “Wit” with Emma Thompson, and the outstanding 2005 miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s brilliant and mammoth epic play, “Angels in America.” With his 80th birthday just a year and a half away, he’s still working hard with two thrillers movies planned, including an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” currently being rewritten by the decidedly counter-intuitive choice of Chris Rock.

Before he directed his first foot of film, Mike Nichols was a noted theater director. That in itself is not so unusual a root for directors to travel. What is different is that, before he was a noted theater director, he was half of one of the most influential comedy teams in show business history, Nichols and May. (His comedy partner, Elaine May, went on to become an important, if less commercially successful, writer and director in her own right.)

Still, from the moment he directed his first major play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols mostly abandoned performing. Today, his highly regarded early work is mostly known only to fairly hardcore comedy aficionados.

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Monday movie news

The movie side of the show biz world might not have anything of the magnitude of the big news from Team Coco to talk about today, but there’s plenty of interesting borderline-almost-news to mention in an ironic way…

* I don’t know whether there’s some sort of game of managing expectations going on or if interest really is limited to younger males and no one else, but I’m starting to hear rumblings that “Kick-Ass” is not expected to kick ass do hugely well at the box office this Friday. If so, then Matthew Vaughn has got to be one of the least lucky talented mainstream directors ever after generating so much excitement with his film, at least in the fanboy realms.

Kick-Ass

My main rumbling comes via this Playlist piece which alleges that nothing has been done to expand the interest in the film beyond those who’ve never heard of the comic book.  Literally speaking, that’s not true because I’d never heard of the comic book before hearing about Vaughn’s film of it, though I am certainly a member of the Geek American community. The main thrust of the piece itself is actually on the possibly stronger hopes for “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” which, as a commenter offers, does seem to have more cross-gender appeal. It also has a well known star and the comic genius Edgar Wright going for it. We’ll see.

In any case, Vaughn appears to be doing what all prudent directors do before their next big film comes out, lining up the next gig just in case the current film really does tank. This story is a glorified rumor, but it does look possible that Vaughn’s next gig might involve a gangster/science fiction vampire comic book written by, of all people, controversial English talk show host and film geek, Jonathan Ross who is leaving the BBC because of a scandal caused, I kid you not, by tasteless prank phone calls. Here, he’d get a promotion. In any case, I’ll always remember him for “The Incredibly Strange Film Show.”

* Never fear, however, “Iron Man 2” will be here in 26 days. Of course it’ll do ridiculously well, but I remember some naysayers just before the first movie came out. Seems all those good reviews were a bit worrisome and even smart people like Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott, if memory serves, were worried the movie was a little too good to make monster bucks.

Myrna Loy* The biggest news in my personal movie world is word via the Los Angeles Times of the resurrection of the statue that classic-era superstar Myrna Loy (“The Thin Man,” “The Best Years of Our Lives”) posed for when she was just a young student and which graced the front of my alma mater for decades. As the News Editor of the Venice High Oarsman (“Rowing, Not Drifting”) back in the pre-pre-pre-pre MySpace era, I was on the Myrna-vandalism beat. This gladdens my heart. A picture, however, would have been nice. Maybe I’ll get to work on that a bit later.

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Happy 100th, Kurosawa-san

Tonight’s quickie movie news notes have been called off in commemoration of the fact that this is Akira Kurosawa‘s 100th birthday.

What follows, then, is a fairly random assortment of trailers and scenes from key films, some personal favorites, and a couple of lesser known films by the Emperor. If you’re not familiar with the great Japanese director, one of the movies’ strongest storytellers and masters of imagery who was also the first Asian director to become widely known in the west, you might start with that Wikipedia entry I linked to above. Or, simply take a look at what follows. Pay just a little attention and I think you may be intrigued.

We’ll start with the worldwide art-house hit that made first made Mr. Kurosawa’s name outside of Japan way back in 1950.

Several more videos after the jump.

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