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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Your post-Good Friday movie news dump

A few remaining items worth mentioning this late evening/early morn…

* RIP John Forsythe. The watchably stolid actor with a nice touch at both melodrama and low-key comedy and a memorable voice passed away at 92 late Thursday. He worked a great deal on stage and in kept his hand in at the movies, but he’s did most of his work in multiple television series and, ironically, is probably best known today as the disembodied voice of Charlie from “Charlie’s Angels.” Still, he was a strong presence in a number of notable movies, including playing opposite a very young and very adorable Shirley Maclaine in Alfred Hitchcock‘s black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry” and as a vicious judge taunting a youngish but far less adorable Al Pacino in Norman Jewison’s “And Justice for All…” He also dealt with a murderous Robert Blake in “In Cold Blood” and fended off a nasty, nasty Ann Margaret in, yes, “Kitten with a Whip.”

* Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg — the Jewish-American twosome who struck a blow for the depiction of Asian-Americans as actual human beings, albeit hilariously stoned ones, by creating “Harold and Kumar” — are set to reboot the “American Pie” franchise with a film that is also a sequel. Also, the third go-round with ‘Roldy and Kumar is in motion, even if Kal Penn is currently employed outside of Hollywood. I mean, good roles for Asian American males should not so rare that they are all forced to go to work at the White House.

* The lovely and talented Emily Blunt will not be romancing “Captain America,” according to the Playlist’s Edward Davis. I’m not sure why he’s so convinced it won’t be a very good movie except for the fact that, of course, most movies aren’t very good and the bigger the budget, the more often that turns out to be true. But even so, I don’t quite get it.

On the other hand, I completely agree with the premise of another post by Davis: Yes, the thought of Tom Cruise uglying himself up in a major way to play Phil Spector really does have some demented genius to it. I’m not Cruise’s biggest fan but, well cast, he can be brilliant and playing lunatics seems to work for him. I have no idea why that might be the case.

And, yes, I like a third Davis post about a long-delayed movie being labored over by Cameron Crowe about the equally great and equally demented Marvin Gaye. Re: casting, I’m rooting for Jesse L. Martin of “Law & Order” — a terrific actor and the physical resemblance is pretty eerie.

* Another comic book adaptation for Ryan Reynolds.

* Don’cha just hate it when a star and director team up, get plenty of compliments, and then just repeat themselves? Well, fresh off their mostly good reviews and general decent business on “Greenberg,” about the personal travails of a bitter forty-something musician-cum-carpenter,  the two are simply rehashing the same basic premise with “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” Oh, wait…

* From a couple of days back, Anne Thompson nicely summarizes the spreading conventional movie-geek wisdom on the making and consumption of 3-D films. Shorter version: really, not every movie should be in it, it’s worth a little extra to see movies actually shot in 3-D in 3-D, but the conversions from 2-D to 3-D are pretty much best ignored and may even end up ruining the fun.

* Sharon Waxman writes that a mystery bidder has entered the fray to purchase the studio original named for the Weinsteins’s parents, Mira and Max. Could it be Harvey and Bob W.’s long lost older brother, Mogul X, who fled in shame after his first producing effort sold exactly three tickets at Sundance, and vowed only to return only after he had become the world’s greatest movie executive? It’s a thought.

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