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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Midweek movie news

No promises we’ll have a Friday news dump this week, so you’d better enjoy this edition…

* Well, the big news tonight is most definitely the reorganization going over at the Warner Brothers megastudio. As far as I’m able to suss out, what this amounts to is a consolidation of power for CEO Jeff Bewkes. Reading Nikki Finke‘s current summary of the situation is a bit like reading a Television Without Pity post for a very complicated soap opera you’ve never seen, but Anne Thompson keeps it much, much simpler. On his way out exec Alan Horn is a good guy who Thompson believes was simply superfluous. Another case of a nice guy finishing last?

Warner-Bros

However, Nikki Finke does allude to a very crucial part of the Warners empire, and that’s DC Comics now being headed by the Warners minded and Finke approved Diane Nelson. As it happens, my deep, deep connections in the comics biz were e-mailing me news earlier today — which I was somewhat aware of but failed to properly cover earlier in the week — of an onging reorganization going on over there which certainly ties into the ongoing attempts at Warners to become more aggressive regarding comics adaptations along the lines of what Marvel Entertainment has been doing for some time — and also to try and avoid more flops like “Jonah Hex.”

There was even talk some talk of DC becoming entirely a West Coast operation, but that would be a major breach of publishing industry tradition with some actual problems involved and, in any case, thanks to FedEx and the ‘net, freelancers can live where they want now. Heidi MacDonald’s great comics blog The Beat has been covering this end of the story and you read about some of what’s going on here.

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Thursday night movie news dump

I usually do this on Friday, but the interesting film related stories have been coming fairly hot and heavy all week and it’s time to play catch up. I’m telling you right now, as long as this post is, whatever the most important and interesting story from this eventful week turns out to be, it’ll be the one I skip.

* When I first heard about the project a week or so back, I was taken by the prospect of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black segueing from a biopic about the first openly gay U.S. politician in “Milk” to one about by far the most powerful closeted gay man in American history, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was the first director of the FBI starting in 1935 and, in a real blow to our democracy, intimidated several presidents into keeping him in the position until his death in 1972, a shocking 37 years later.

An already interesting project got even more interesting, however, a couple of days back when word got out that none other than Clint Eastwood, who will be joining the very smal club of octogenerian directors this May, might choose to helm it. (The Playlist broke the news on the 10th that Eastwood was “set” to direct; yesterday Borys Kit of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that he was merely “eying” the project.).

Taken together with “Invictus,” this would be the second time the right leaning but independent-minded Republican would be taking on subject matter that deals obliquely with a significant moral failure of American conservatism. Nearly all well-known conservatives tacitly supported both the racist and fascist pre-Mandela South African regime and Hoover’s uninterrupted reign.

In the case of “Invictus,” the idea of him doing it turned out to be more interesting than the film. However, for the man who embodied “get tough” law enforcement concepts as Dirty Harry to take on a law enforcement figure who enjoyed getting tough with anyone who dared to espouse politics he deemed radical — but not the mafia — that’s a horse of a potentially very different color. One to watch.

Clint Eastwood will take your question later

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Monday night and Tuesday morning at the movies

* The Playlist informs us that Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass have pitched a way to keep the “Bourne” options as open as possible. Personally, I think the idea sounds far weaker than I’d expect from either of them. On the other hand, “The Bourne Open Option” sounds like as good a title as any for the proposed reboot.

* A Disney-style title change for Zack Snyder’s upcoming animated family film. Some stories just don’t have good titles.

* After the fiscal success and critical bashing of “Cop Out” and the Southwest Airlines mishegas, Kevin Smith shows his sensitive side to Steven  Zeitchik. But is he really trying to tell us he did a big studio movie to make less money? Really, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a filmmaker making a “one for them” movie for career or fiscal reasons. Many a great movie or book have basically been made for quick cash — though never only for that — and I think he perceived more of a dig from the A.O. Scott review than was really meant, accuracy aside.

* Bill Murray goes on Letterman and spills a little cold ectoplasm over “Ghostbusters 3.”

* Writer Dustin Lance Black took on the first openly gay politician to make his mark with “Milk,” and now he’s apparently about to do a film about without a doubt the most powerful closeted gay man in American political history, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. Pajiba has the scoop. The Playlist has some good background, but I didn’t find the humor in Harry Shearer and Tom Leopold’s radio-musical, “J. Edgar” all that “cheap,” well, maybe in a good way.

On an unrelated note, I’m  still trying to figure out a way to claim that I somehow imparted the Westal-bump to Black’s career with this interview back in 2003, but, nah.

* It’s just days until the Oscars, and here’s a look back at one broadcast that didn’t go so well.

* I’ve had more than one person ask me if, as a Jew — and a quite learned one for a Hebrew school drop-out — I had any special clues into just what the Coens had in mind with A Serious Man. I really don’t, not in a literal way, anyhow, though I loved the film. Writer Michael Tolkin, a far more observant and knowledgeable member of the Tribe than I, has an interesting theory about just what’s going on that turns my relatively realist reading of it completely tuchas backward, via Anne Thompson.

  

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