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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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A roundtable chat with screenwriter Lewis John Carlino of “The Mechanic,” (2011 and 1971)

If there’s a picture of Lewis John Carlino anywhere on the Internet, I haven’t been able to find it. Does it matter?

Unlike other notables, writers are still allowed to be a little mysterious. Indeed, other than the fact that he wrote several widely acclaimed movies, an episode of the legendary television series “Route 66,” some plays, and directed a few movies, very little information is available online about Lewis John Carlino.

The Great SantiniCarlino is probably best known as the director and writer of 1979′s “The Great Santini,” a beloved sleeper about a military family based on a novel by Pat Conroy and featuring one of Robert Duvall’s greatest and most bombastic performances. “Santini” is, however, one of the more conventional films in the Carlino cannon.

In 1966, he adapted a novel by David Ely into John Frankenheimer’s famously eccentric paranoid science-fiction thriller starring Rock Hudson, “Seconds.” Less well remembered are his non-”Santini” directorial efforts. “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea,” a bizarre and intense 1976 drama based on a book by Yukio Mishima, and “Class,” a 1983 comedy in which Jacqueline Bisset has an affair with brat-packer Andrew McCarthy, the best friend of her son (Rob Lowe). In between, Carlino also wrote the acclaimed fantasy drama, “Resurrection” starring Ellen Burstyn. After 1983, Carlino stopped directing movies entirely and his credited writing work declined dramatically.

Now a soft-spoken seventy-something intellectual, Carlino met with a group of writers to discuss a remake of one of his best known films, “The Mechanic.” The 1971 original starred Charles Bronson as a troubled but ultra-stoic hit-man who tries to end his isolation by taking on a protegee (Jan-Michael Vincent), even though his last hit was on the young man’s father (Keenan Wynn). Despite its action film trappings — including a nicely accomplished quarter-hour dialogue-free opening set-piece — it’s an often chilling look at men who have embraced death and cruelty. Bronson’s character does have a “code,” but it’s not a moral one. His aim is to embody an amoral version of existentialism that might be familiar to readers of Albert Camus’s “The Stranger.”

The new version, which stars Jason Statham and Ben Foster as the cool-blooded killer and his more hot-headed mentee, keeps enough of the original story and dialogue that Carlino is a credited screenwriter on the film. This time, around, however, Statham’s character is less vicious and the movie hits a number of more familiar action-flick beats. Viewers looking for traces of Camus will have to go elsewhere.

THE MECHANIC

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Fat Tuesday at the movies

Do the bon temps actually roulez in Hollywood? It’s more like they just kind of unspool.

* My good friend, Zayne Reeves, was kind enough to make sure I didn’t miss this rather extraordinary Esquire piece by Chris Jones on Roger Ebert’s current life. I’ve been spending my share of time around illness myself over the last several weeks and I can’t think of a more quietly, beautifully sane way of dealing with the strange cards life can deal us. Though I’m just one among very, very many he’s shared kind words with, I’ve always felt lucky for the very brief e-mail correspondences I’ve had with Roger over the years, Now I feel luckier.

* Reviews of the fourth Martin Scorsese film to star Leonardo DiCaprio, “Shutter Island,” are starting to trickle out. Glenn Kenny has a good one. “Good” both as in “positive” and also as in “worth your time reading.”

shutter-island-2010-wallpaper

* Doug Liman will be directing a film about the 1971 Attica prison riot/revolt/uprising, now best remembered by film lovers as the chant from “Dog Day Afternoon.” It’s a story he has a personal connection with through his late father, attorney Arthur Liman. Nevertheless, the director of “Go,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “The Bourne Identity” seems to be moving in a sort of John Frankenheimer-esque direction overall, too.

* Speaking of the man who yelled “Attica! Attica!,” Al Pacino has stepped into a part recently vacated by Robert De Niro. You just can’t seem to keep those two guys apart for very long.

* Nikki Finke is having a very fat Tuesday indeed. Earlier today she reported on Carl Icahn trying to snap up Lionsgate for himself and a deal between Warner Brothers and video kiosk powerhouse Redbox, not to mention the news that the Oscars this year may not be including the original artists in the Best Song category.

There’s still more; a 3-D movie based on Erector Sets. Sure, why not. Next up: “Slinky 3-D,” I’m sure. Now, if they really want to get a rise out of the family audience, they might consider adopting Mickey Spillane’s novel, The Erection Set. From the description I just linked to, it would really be something in three-dimensions.

* Writer-director Paul Feig is reteaming with his old “Freaks and Geeks” colleague, Judd Apatow, for a film starring and cowritten by Dave Medsker’s-ultra-fave, Kristen Wiig writes Borys Kit. Let’s hope it’s better than a typical SNL skit these days.

* I started with Roger Ebert and I’ll end with an item via his must-read Twitter-feed: the Film Preservation Blogathon being organized by my old Chicago-based cinephile blogging mate, Marilyn Ferdinand. If you care about movies, this is the place. It’s also a fundraiser (a first for a blogathon, as far as I can remember) so if the idea of losing a film — any film — forever bugs you as it should, considering donating. You can do worse than starting with this post by Ferdy’s partner in good works, the Self-Styled Siren aka Farran Nehme. And, courtesy of another cinephile colleague from the days when I had time to blog about old movies all the live-long day, Greg Ferrera, we conclude with….a commercial.

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Unclean! Unclean!

As if the whole Michael Jackson thing wasn’t already starting to make me feel vaguely icky in a Robert Altmanesque kind of a way, we have something that takes the Hollywood squirm factor to a possible new height. Via a particularly lively “Today in Film Bloggery” post by Christopher Campbell comes word of a New York Post report that Michael Bay is supposed to have admitted to have had “Transformers” star Megan Fox audition — or perhaps “audition”– by allowing him to tape her washing his Ferrari. (What, he couldn’t afford the handwash on Santa Monica and La Brea?)

Now, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical here, but I was already getting a good hate on the noxious and apparently proud-to-be-dickish director from stories like this. And, even before that, based on his work and press interviews, I steadfastly refuse to believe Bay’s claim (reportedly refuted by DNA testing, which Bay disputes) that he is the illegitimate son of director John Frankenheimer. The director of the best political thriller ever made, 1962′s “The Manchurian Candidate,” as well as numerous other films including “The Train” and “Ronin,” Frankenheimer was mightily skilled at combining character and thought with brilliantly coherent action sequences that could actually be understood. He was a model of integrity as a filmmaker and, as far as I can tell, as a man. Could Bay really have lost the genetic lottery so badly?

On a related note, Christopher Campbell’s previous film blog round-up deals with the controversy set-up by the trailer for Megan Fox’s next film, a horror comedy written by screenwriter Diablo Cody of “Juno” fame, one of the more celebrated and despised scribes to come around the film world in some time. The red band trailer below (a sexually specific F word, a bit of light gore, plenty of innuendo and plenty of Ms. Fox being much more sexy and interesting than I’ve seen here elsewhere) should give you some idea of what the shouting is about. All I know for sure is that I’ll think it’s a classic compared to “Transformers.”

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RIP Karl Malden (updated)

Like all character actors, Karl Malden never got quite the same level of attention as costars like Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Steve McQueen, Anthony Perkins, Montgomery Clift, Michael Caine, and George C. Scott. Even the seventies TV series he starred in, “The Streets of San Francisco” found him being overshadowed in the eyes of the teenybopper set by his young punk of a male ingenue costar, Michael Douglas. That was largely because Malden was the kind of performer who understood that acting is a team sport. His best scenes were like great duets with near perfect communication between him and his scene partners. The exception were American Express travelers’ checks; those, he wiped off the screen.

Karl Malden died today at age 97, having been more or less fully retired since appearing in a 2000 episode of “The West Wing.” While he was never precisely an A-lister, he was a go-to actor for secondary leads, president of the Motion Picture Academy, and as far as I can tell a universally respected figure among actors and everyone else associated with the movie industry. He was also married to the same woman for seventy years, a rare enough Holllywood achievement to merit it’s own special Oscar. Not a bad life.

Below the fold is a video tribute I found that, from the misspellings, I gather may come from Serbia. (Malden, whose real name was Mladen Sekulovich, was the son of a Serbian father and a Czechoslovak mother.) The image quality could be better and some of the clips are a little too brief, but it does give you an excellent overview of his truly diverse film career, which included work with some of the greatest Hollywood directors including Elia Kazan, John Frankenheimer, and Alfred Hitchcock. It also includes some interesting moments from two oddball spy films, “Murderer’s Row,” which I haven’t seen, and the underrated “Billion Dollar Brain,” which included some pretty amazing scenes between Malden and Michael Caine as his old spy buddy, Harry Palmer, as well as Françoise Dorléac as his treacherous spy girlfriend (though he’s pretty tricky himself).

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George Wallace

This review will appear on the very same day an African-American man will become President of the United States. While the media is constantly reminding us of the historic nature of that fact, what many younger readers may not realize is that only three and a half decades back, a man running on a more or less openly racist, and specifically anti-black, platform was a serious candidate for President — running in the very same Democratic party that would eventually nominate Barack Obama for the highest office on earth.

“George Wallace” is a savvy and darkly engrossing, if often slow and heavy handed, television biopic that takes a circuitous path in tracing the long career of the despised and beloved four-term Governor of Alabama and four-time Presidential candidate of various parties, George C. Wallace (Gary Sinise). We first meet Wallace in 1972 as the avid, middle-aged husband to a beautiful and very sexy young wife, Cornelia (Angelina Jolie). At the same time, a racist state trooper forces Archie (a “composite” character played by Clarence Williams III), a convicted killer and Wallace’s trusted African-America valet, to wear handcuffs at his mother’s funeral.

George Wallace

After his fateful encounter with four bullets that day, we meet Wallace again as the younger and far more liberal political protégé of anti-racist populist governor “Big Jim” Folsom (Joe Don Baker). Though Wallace is a skirt-chasing, semi-absentee father and husband to his steadfast wife, Lurleen (Mare Winningham), the real darkness only comes four year later when Wallace is defeated in his first gubernatorial bid by an opponent supported by the terrorist Ku Klux Klan. Seeing no alternative – losing an election is equivalent to losing his life – Wallace swears that he will “never be outn*ggered again.” He is true to his words and, within a matter of years he is the nation’s most notorious racist pol, blocking the doors of the University of Alabama rather than allowing a pair of black students to enter and “mix” with white students, and uttering his most quoted line: “…I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

“George Wallace” is a look at history from the side of a well-deserved loser, and for those portions of the picture where director John Frankenheimer takes a dispassionate, even satirical (though deadly serious) approach, it is strong stuff and very much in line with the liberal director’s professional and personal legacy. A genius at creating smart political thrillers, and a participant in history himself as the man who drove Robert Kennedy the Los Angeles hotel where he was assassinated, the director – never a grandstander – allows himself to directly reference his own past via recreating one of his signature shots.


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